Each of the neatly arranged photos on the first pages is framed on a square of colored construction paper. There's 10-day-old me, no heavier than a bag of sugar, staring blankly into the near distance. There I am as a toddler, being held tenderly in my mother's arms; and at 2 with my dad, feeding goats at the Los Angeles Zoo—he was slim and dapper back then, with his quo vadis haircut and horn-rimmed glasses. A few pages in, artwork replaces the fading photos: a print of my tiny hand, my palm painted brown, each of my splayed fingers painted green, red, orange, or yellow to resemble turkey feathers. I inspect my preschool self-portrait, my first-grade report card. On the bottom of each page, in her neat teacher handwriting, my mother had written a brief narrative, a summary of my life so far: "Spokane, Washington, July 1968. Canada and Idaho. Natalie, 2 yrs, 1 month. Saw snow for the first time. Loves Cream of Wheat cereal, corn on the cob, pickles, and listening to Snow White on her record player. Is terrified of snails and balloons. Cries every time her bare feet touch grass."
I keep turning pages, pausing to examine the artifacts that have come loose where the glue no longer holds them in place, until I come to a piece of folded paper tucked into the crease. I open it and read what my mother had written. I look up and across the room at her as a lump swells like a sponge in my throat. "I'll be damned," I say. "I'll be damned."
I'd dreamed of becoming a journalist—a war correspondent like Sam Waterston's character in the movie The Killing Fields. But one day I had a conversation with my dad that caused me to shift focus. "What should I be when I'm older?" I asked him one Sunday after church. We'd driven down to Huntington Beach and were walking together slowly along the pier. "With your looks and personality, you should go into sales," he advised. "You should come to work for me." I didn't need much persuading. His approval meant everything to me, and the certainty in his tone made me think he had to be right. I guessed I'd be going into the family business.
I graduated from high school and went on to the University of California, Berkeley, starting out as a business major and then switching to economics. As hard as I tried, I couldn't make myself care about "guns and butter" or Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Each semester of those first two years, though, I treated myself to an English class as a reward for my suffering, and those hours were my happiest. I loved the English majors, how frumpy they all looked in their clogs and wrinkled khakis as they camped out in the hallways to discuss novels between classes. I spent long weekend days in the Bancroft Library reading Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, and Toni Morrison's Sula, breathing in the words of my literary foremothers and feeling the first stirrings of a desire to write stories of my own. I enrolled in a creative writing workshop, where each week students shared intimate tales of their struggles to figure out who they were. I'd found my tribe. I switched majors. At the end of the semester, our professor pulled me aside and whispered, "Keep writing."
He'd started out as a ketchup salesman for Hunt-Wesson Foods, then joined Kaiser Aluminum before starting his own business, Baszile Metals Service, in 1975, distributing aluminum sheet, plate, rod, and bar to the aerospace, defense, and aircraft industries.
My dad hired me as a sales associate. For the next seven years we worked side by side. Our offices were southeast of downtown L.A., near the sad trickle of the Los Angeles River and the crosshatch of rail yards, just down the street from the Farmer John slaughterhouse. On my way to work each morning, I passed trucks pulling long, reeking trailers packed with pigs, their snouts poking through the metal rails, their mud-smeared hindquarters pressing against the mesh. On hot days, the air was the color of sweet tea from all the smog and smelled like blood and death.
If asked, I could rattle off the tensile strength of 7075 versus 2024 or 6061. I knew all about B-1 bombers and which type of aluminum NASA used on the space shuttle. I told myself it was a good gig. I had job security and saw my parents every day, which most of the time I liked. But I hated aluminum. I didn't even like sales. I spent my days answering phone calls from hard-nosed, raspy-voiced purchasing agents looking for the cheapest prices and fastest delivery. Our inventory wasn't computerized for my first two years on the job, so when a customer called, I scribbled his query on a preprinted worksheet, put him on hold, and rushed to the metal cabinet against the wall, where I flipped through trays of yellowing handwritten index cards to confirm that we had the material in stock. And even when we did get computers, Dad didn't trust them, insisting that when I had an inventory question, I "check the tag." That meant going out to the warehouse—15,000 square feet of corrugated steel siding, oily concrete floors, and grimy louvered windows through which pigeons flew to nest in the rafters. I walked past the planer mill and the screeching saws whose blades threw off trails of orange sparks, down the cavernous rows, where aluminum plates as thick as king-size mattresses were stacked above my head.
What could be worse than checking tags? Cold calls. Which is what Dad wanted me to do when the phones weren't ringing. He dropped a phone book on my desk and told me to get busy. My heart sank as I leafed through the listings of machine shops; my stomach churned as I dialed. "This is Natalie, over at Baszile Metals," I'd say, feigning cheerfulness. "I'm calling to see if you need any quarter-inch I beams. Or how about some anodized 7075 tubing?"
I got lunch at a food truck that swung into the parking lot around 11 A.M. As it rolled through the gates, the driver punched the horn, and "La Cucaracha" blared through the speakers mounted on the truck's roof. I got in line and paid three bucks for a greasy egg sandwich and a shrink-wrapped apple pastry, which I gobbled down in the small lunchroom behind the office. Of course, what I really wanted to do was write, which I did every evening, often until midnight, in my little apartment on South Spring Street. I dreamed of writing full-time, of getting my stories published. But I was afraid of disappointing my dad. Every time we called on customers, he'd tell them how proud he was to have me on board, and they'd praise me for being a good daughter. I'd nod and agree that I was fortunate to have such a rare opportunity.
It will take me another four years to leave my job. By then I'll have risen to vice president of sales. On the day I finally give notice, I walk into my dad's office, announce my plans, and underscore that my decision is final.
I know that to stay any longer wouldn't be fair to either of us. One day my dad will want to retire, and he'd be counting on me to carry the torch. He has spent his life building this business. I couldn't live with myself if I were the one who let it crumble.
I stand at his desk, bracing for his reaction. For a time he is silent. Finally, he removes his glasses and pushes back his leather cap—the one he wears every day, because he says it keeps his head warm. He leans back in his big black chair and slowly exhales. For a few seconds, he just stares at me, and as I look back at him, I see how he's aged. He's 50 pounds heavier than the young man in the photo feeding the goats. Suddenly I feel sick, knowing that I'm rejecting his dream, the one he thought we shared. I also know that what he wants most of all is to protect me. The bottom is a long way down. He sighs heavily, but says nothing. He nods and waves me out the door.
Outside, the sky is brown. I get in my car and drive over the railroad tracks, past the same sad trickle of the Los Angeles River, past the reeking slaughterhouse.
It will be 15 years more before my novel is published; the final draft will be my 13th revision. Writing will turn out to be the most challenging thing I've ever done besides raising my children. I will experience pendulum swings of exhilaration and crushing self-doubt. But I don't know any of that yet. Bumping over the railroad tracks, all I know is that I've leaped off the cliff. I'm terrified, but I can't stop smiling.
Natalie Baszile's first novel, Queen Sugar (Pamela Dorman Books), was recently published.