La Ballona Creek

A short story of erasure in my family [Trigger warning: mentions suicide].

Setting: 1955, Los Angeles

We moved to the projects in Los Angeles when I was about four years old. Me, my mother, my father, and my five siblings. We couldn’t afford to rent any other place. Since my father served in the Navy, the government let us live there for a really low cost.

My dad, Richard Lopez, was so handsome. He had dark, raven black hair and blue eyes that looked like the ocean during a storm. He was a very hard worker and tried to get many jobs, but a lot of places wouldn’t hire him because of his brown skin and last name, Lopez. They thought that since it was Lopez that he could not speak English. English was all he ever spoke. Even after serving his country, he couldn’t find work because he was Mexican. Eventually he did get a job painting houses for a contractor. The contractor kept most of the earnings and gave very little to my father even though he did most of the labor. Depression and drinking grasped every part of his being. It finally got the better of him.

I was seven and with my older brother, Danny, when we saw my father staggering down a steep concrete slant that went into a waterway. It was called La Ballona Creek. We watched him walk slowly down the center of the canal and then he stopped. He was carrying a shiny gun in his left hand. The sun flickered off of it as his hands shook. My brother and I just stared at him through the chain-link fence while the sun went down behind us. I gripped the fence so tightly that my sweaty hands became numb. My father was standing there, trying to keep his balance; at the same time, he was mumbling and slurring to himself. He slowly lifted the gun clumsily by the handle. He put it near his temple. He pulled the trigger.

The echo of the gunshot rang through my ears as it bounced and reverberated off the canal walls. He fell in the dirty water beneath him. A stream of blood joined the water and poured out on the concrete floor. I stood there in shock, along with my brother as a group of neighbors came running toward us wondering what the noise was. My mother joined them and when she got to the fence she fainted. The neighbors helped carry her back home and laid her on the couch.

About two months later, my mother was in court asking a judge for a legal name change from Lopez to Burton. She thought that if we had a white last name that we would have an easier time getting jobs when we got older. She told the judge about how our father was discriminated against because of his last name; Lopez. The court granted the erasure of our name, but with father gone, mother would have to take on the task of caring for all six of us on her own.

Mother had a job ironing men’s shirts at home and she would put ads on three by five cards and leave them in supermarkets and in the laundromat. She ironed and cleaned men’s shirts day and night, barely making enough to get by on. I would walk to school every day in my sister’s hand-me-downs while all of my friends had nice, new clothes and patent leather shoes with straps on them. I had to walk around in big, clunky, red shoes.

I hated my shoes and always dreamed of having the patent leather ones, just like all of the girls at my school had. Then, I came up with an idea. After school, on a Friday, I was walking home in my clunky, red shoes and stopped by La Ballona Creek before I went home. I sat on the edge of a bridge that went across the canal and dangled my feet in the air. Before I sat, I loosened the laces of one of my shoes, and while I was dangling my feet, that shoe just fell right off. It fell into the dirty water below that once flowed around my father’s lifeless body. The water swept up the red shoe and took it away to the Pacific Ocean and I could not see it anymore.

I ran home as quickly as I could. I ran unevenly. When I got home I told my mother what had happened and tried to hold back my excitement and fear. When my mother saw that I lost my shoe, she looked troubled. She headed out of the door, but before she left, she asked me what happened to it and I told her. I told her that it accidently fell off in La Ballona Creek.

While she was gone, I swelled with excitement. She knew what shoes I wanted. I talked about it nearly every day. I knew that she would come back with those patent leather shoes. She came back after what seemed like forever with a box in her hands. She handed it to me and scolded me, telling me to never sit on the bridge again. I could not listen to her. I just ran into the room that I shared with my three other sisters and plopped myself on the bed. I slowly lifted the cardboard covering to the box and set it down beside me. I then began to unwrap the tissue paper and suddenly, hot tears streamed down my face. In the box was a brand new pair of clunky, red shoes.

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