Throughout my childhood, I woke up at odd hours of the night. There wasn't any confusion as to the cause of my volatile sleeping schedule: my mom would open my door, turn on all the lights, and whisper, “You're going to be late for school.” I'd rustle under the blankets and murmur a sleepy reply. When I finally managed to stumble out of bed and my vision focused, the clock on my night desk would often read three am, three thirty, four thirty, or six. I remember feeling rather indifferent to it all. Mom always got her way, and I wasn't the type of kid to waste my energy fighting her on the small stuff.
Besides, I knew I wasn't going to school that early. It was just code for one of our super-secret operations. In the living room, she would give me the low down on the next target. One particular night, it was a large tree bearing star-apples in someone's front lawn, and it was special, because, Mom explained, you could count the number of star-apple trees in Winfield, Kansas on one hand, if the hand had four fingers chopped off. And, even better, there was no gate around it, which Mom said created the perfect opportunity for a quick raid.
“Out the car, stuff the plastic bags, bolt back to car, then speed away! They won't even be able to react fast enough,” she said.
We had only been caught once. The man kicked his door open and wielded a big shotgun, pointing it right at us. He lifted it and shot at the sky, and Mom and I screamed and dropped the plastic bags. As we ran away, Mom utilized the few words she knew in English: “SORRY! SO SORRY!” As we drove away, I looked in the side mirror and saw the gun abandoned to the side and the man waving with one hand, using the other to eat an apple that had rolled out of the plastic bag.
We tended to hype up each mission as if they were like the ones Mom watched on cop shows, but there was very little risk involved on each fruit raid, since we were good at ignoring the Americans and escaping, without feeling any guilt. Even so, on each drive, my heart would pump a little harder and my eyes would be a little more alert than usual. Maybe those were all symptoms of a lack of sleep. Who knows. Mom was much more intense about the whole situation than I was, and her feelings were bound to rub off on me.
On that night, like normal, she sat straight up in the driver's seat and scanned the streets as if she were a cop on a stake out. The car came to a halt and out we went. We had to pick the fruits quickly, but Mom cared about quality as much as quantity. The first time we raided, she had inspected my bag and found two bruised, mushy apples. She shook her head and made me fill another bag with only perfectly firm and rounded apples. She explained that in America, we were allowed to be picky, since food was so bountiful.
“Once, my stomach flopped around in my body like a dying fish,” she said, on the drive home. “And the small amount of rice my parents offered for dinner wasn't enough, so I went out and ate the mangoes I had stolen from my neighbors. As I ate I noticed something tasted awful in my mouth, but I didn't care! I was so happy my stomach was finally feeling full. Then the next couple of days, my legs shook and diarrhea exploded out of me. I regretted every bite I took.”
“Gross,” I said, and pushed the bags of apples off my lap.
Star-apples are tricky, and look nothing like regular apples. The hide comes in purple, green, or red, and feels leathery to the touch. The insides taste sweet but have the texture of a slug. Mom had already filled two bags by the time I was done with half of one, so I gave each fruit a slight squeeze and judging from the resistance of the hide, I either plopped it into the bag or tossed it onto the ground.
Then the owners' house lights flipped on. And our bodies were illuminated–caught. Cursing erupted throughout the house. And Mom and I looked at each other. We recognized the sounds, the way they went high and hit hard like darts. The house owners were Vietnamese. They came at us in their pajamas and with their hands swinging everywhere. “Steal from somebody else!” they screamed, and all of a sudden the other lights in the neighborhood turned on.
I was ready to back away and divert any attention, but my mom stepped forward, and she didn't look scared at all. “You know you have the only star-apple tree here,” she said. I had never heard her so confident in her speech. She stuttered and muttered in front of Wal-mart cashiers and bank clerks and teachers, but here, confidence looked good on her. Even when the husband said, “We know. That's why you need to leave; steal from those others,” Mom stayed calm and pulled out her wallet. “Five dollars for these four bags,” she said.
The couple made a face at each other, and I expected them to threaten to call the police, but instead the wife shouted, “Five dollars?” and picked up a fruit and said, “This is quality right here! We want ten.”
“Ten?” Mom shook her head and said, “Six,” in a way that made it known she wouldn't budge from her words.
With whatever Vietnamese I still had in me, I jumped to support Mom. “If we don't buy, then you will have to eat all the fruits fast or let them spoil. It's a good trade.” Mom slapped my back and nodded firmly.
“My son here does well in school! He's smart. You should listen to him.”
While the couple whispered to each other, I blushed and told Mom this was a sign we should stop raiding. “No!” she said. “It's a sign we should raid more!”
She drove us home with the bags of star-apples in the trunk.
That same morning, Mom put a few star-apples on a plate and replaced the molding oranges on the ancestral altar with them. She then lit a few incense sticks, bowed and prayed.
We never ended up raiding that star-apple household again. But sometimes, we drove to the couple's home, and left plates of cooked chicken or roasted duck, and bags of fruits we had stolen from other homes on their porch, and Mom muttered, “Thank you,” under her breath. Then we drove off before they could open the door and greet us. We had to. Mom had found ungated lychee bushes near another house.