Monday, July 20, 2020

La Cocinera, fiction by Hector Acosta

Teresa stared at the food, wondering how much more of her spit she could include in the plate of rice, beans, and chimichangas.  Swirling the refried beans, she looked at the reddish-brown pool, a master painter studying their brushwork. The added layer of white cheese to the beans was a stroke of genius on her part, as they camouflaged the string of saliva she’d included to the order.

 “Ya apúrate con esa orden, mujer!” Juan shouted from the front of the restaurant, his voice barely audible over the music she had on.

If only she’d known who the order was for ahead of time, she thought. How easy would it have been to fill the contents of the chimichangas with anything she wanted before dunking them into the fryer! But no, she only realized who sat at the table when she came out to the kitchen to bring them the beer they ordered. The deep-fried burritos now laid neatly across the plate, sandwiched between the rice and beans, both of them packed with her special combination of spiced ground beef and chicken. The sides of the chimichangas bulged with the meat, like tumors on a golden body.

 “Dame un minuto!” she said, rushing to the back of the kitchen. Taking the sour cream out of the refrigerator, she started working on a glob of spit, pushing the saliva from one side of her mouth to the other.

“¿Que demonios haces?” Juan barreled into the kitchen, immediately turning off the music playing from the small radio she kept sitting on by the counter. “It’s a simple order,” he said in Spanish. “I don’t know what’s taking you so---” he stopped his rant mid-sentence, catching sight of Teresa standing in the middle of the kitchen, her cheeks puffed like those of a chipmunk and the lid of the sour cream container half off.

They stood in silence for a moment, then Juan’s brown eyes narrowed. “Chingado, Teresa,” he whispered. “Not this again.”

Teresa had three responses ready about why yes, this again, but answering Juan would mean swallowing the spit intended for the sour cream. Instead, she stared at Juan with bulging cheeks and furious eyes.

 “At least throw out the sour cream afterward,” Juan said before heading back to the front of the restaurant. Teresa heard him adopt the friendly, halting English he used for customers as he apologized for the delay, offering a free dessert for the inconvenience.

Depositing her hard work into the sour cream, she grabbed a spoon from the sink and swirled the cream around, making sure it retained a familiar-looking consistency. Once satisfied, she took a massive dollop and plopped it in the center of both chimichangas.  Taking a step back, she looked at the plate critically, grabbed a nearby towel, and did a last wipe around the dish. Just because the food was full of her DNA didn’t mean it couldn’t look nice.

Even if they were chimichangas.

Satisfied, she picked up the plate and walked out of the kitchen and into El Paseo Rico’s dining room.,

As always, the restaurant immediately assaulted her eyes with bright greens, reds, and whites. The colors were found on the paper streamers crossing the entire ceiling, on the tablecloths and napkins, and especially on the five-star piñata hanging by the large storefront window looking out into Concepción’s main street. Teresa walked the steaming plate of food right past the giant mural depicting a cartoon, brown-skinned man with a comically large sombrero and chanclas taking a nap beneath a cactus. Large Z’s floated above the man’s head.

Six months ago, when she interviewed for the cooking position, Juan told her how the mural had been created at the request of one of the other owners of the restaurant. Needing the job, she laughed away the painting, even saying how the sleeping Mexican looked a little bit like her abuelito, the one who’d shown young Teresa how to climb into the brick pig pens and what part of the animal’s throat to focus on as she ran the knife to end their squealing, soiled lives during her summer visits to his pueblito.

The first few months, she hardly even saw the painting. Sometimes she glanced at it when opening the restaurant alongside Juan early in the mornings, right before she put away her purse and brewed the coffee for the morning rush. At night, when they closed, she was usually too tired to see anything but the image of a beer and her bed. In between those moments, she was in the kitchen, slicing up jamon for tortas, grilling bits of pineapples to go atop the tacos al pastor, and mixing up some lengua with chorizo and chile chipotles while Juan manned the register and Maria served the tables.

Thinking of Maria caved in her chest and robbed her of breath. Her steps faltered, and she could feel the plate tilting in her hand. Then she saw him, sitting at the table closest to the window, and she regained her composure.

 “I figured you crossed back over to Mexico and got stuck trying to scale the wall back,” Calvin Brooks said, leaning against his chair and taking a sip of his Bud Light, a wrinkled, white shirt stretched over a belly built out of years of choosing deep-fried anything from lunch menus. A red stain rested on the left leg of his tan slacks, and Teresa couldn’t say if it were due to the bowl of salsa on the table or a previous lunch mishap. Gray hairs sprouted from the sides of his otherwise bald head, nose, and mustache.  His words lathered in a Texan accent Teresa had a hard time understanding sometimes.

 Calvin reached over for the bottle of Tapatío on the table, covering her cooking with a red layer of hot sauce. The sauce would make it harder for him to detect the extra ingredients Teresa added to his order, but she couldn’t help but chafe at the fact he didn’t even bother to taste her cooking before covering it in the stuff.

“You know, darling,” Calvin said, cutting into the chimichanga with his knife and fork, cheese and meat oozing out of the wound. “If I knew you were this good of a cook back when you were cleaning rooms for me, I might have never let you go.”
Dipping the cut piece into the sour cream, he brought it up to his mouth.

Teresa counted the number of times Calvin chewed the food, transfixed by the way his jaw quivered as it moved up and down, splotches of red marked all around his jowls, the victims of a rushed shave job. She tried not to smile as Calvin swallowed and went right back for a second piece of the chimichanga, scooping some of the refried beans along with it. If Teresa had her way, she would have stayed right where she was and watched him clean out the plate, but she reasoned doing so might make him suspicious.

Moving to a nearby empty table, Teresa pretended to busy herself by rearranging the hot sauce bottles and the salt and pepper shakers, every so often sneaking glances at Calvin, who noisily and blissfully continued to eat, breaking his focus only to take swigs from his beer bottle. Watching how more and more of the food disappeared off his plate filled her empty cavity with a warm, soothing sense of satisfaction. Even Juan’s disapproving gaze, thrown at her from his position at the cash register, couldn’t curdle this feeling.

If anything, Juan should have added a bit of himself to the dish, Teresa thought. After all, it was Calvin’s fault the restaurant was struggling now. There was a time, not too long ago, when the lunchtime crowd would have filled every table here, men and women driving in from the nearby farm and dining on plates of Teresa’s albondigas, or taking styrofoam containers full of her breaded milanesa back to work with them.  More came after their work shift, and the restaurant would fill with their laughter and clinking beers as they unwound from their workday, telling Teresa that not even their own madres cocinaban tan bien como ella.

And all it took was a single phone call para joder todo. A phone call and they came, packing the parking lot of the motel Calvin owned, knocking on doors and interrogating the guests who answered. They descended upon the farm, lining up the brown looking workers who plucked the lettuce and cilantro the entire state of Texas ate. In a couple of hours, the town on Concepción, Texas, three hours south of Houston and famous for nothing at all, lost more than one hundred residents, all taken out of town in gray buses.

“Hey, chica!” Calvin shouted, slamming his empty bottle on the table. He stretched
out the syllables in the Spanish words tumbling out of his mouth, setting Teresa’s teeth on edge. “I think your Jefé said something about a free dessert?”

“I got it,” Juan said, opening the cooler where the restaurant kept the beverages and desserts and walking to Calvin table with a pastel de tres leches encased inside a plastic container. “To take back to work,” he told him, setting the dessert and picking up Calvin’s plate, which, Teresa noted with immense satisfaction, had been licked clean (something she wouldn’t put past Calvin, el cochino).

In theory, no one knew who made the phone call. But ask anyone in town, and most would point to Calvin. Calvin with his red hat, currently resting next to him on an empty chair and who complained loudly and often about the farmworkers living in his motel. They, Calvin, would tell you, brought in crime, drugs, and prostitution to the fifty-room motel that stood on Interstate 45. Most galling to the motel owner, they always had more people in the room than what they paid for.

“If I didn’t know any better, Juan,” Calvin said, his eyes on the dessert placed in front of him. “I’d say you’re trying to rush me out.”

With a thin smile on his face, Juan said, “No, sir, no. I just know you’re busy.”

“Never too busy to visit two of my favorite people,” Calvin said, reaching for his wallet. “You guys are two of the good ones, have I told you that? Work hard. Keep your head down. Mind your business. Not like the ones staying at my motel. I swear they’re worse than the last batch.” Placing a twenty on the table, which covered the meal and drink, while leaving Teresa with a dollar for herself, he grabbed his red hat and added, “Though that said, Juan, I gotta tell you, I’m worried about my little investment here.”

“Just a little slow. It’ll get better. You’ll see.” The smile was etched in Juan’s face, betraying nothing.

Teresa hated this. Hated to see the way Juan groveled, apologized, and made excuses. Es tu culpa, cabrón, Teresa thought in Calvin’s direction, balling a napkin she’d been setting at one of the tables. Even knowing what Calvin carried in his belly wasn’t enough to quench the fury building in her throat.

“I really hope so,” Calvin picked up the dessert, the cake sliding inside the container. “When you came to me, you assured me this place would make me money. And to your credit, the first few months, you delivered. But last month,” he paused to open the lid of the container and dip his finger into the icing of the cake, “it wasn’t your best, was it?”

Teresa couldn’t track the entire conversation, her English not as good as Juan. But she didn’t need to understand to speak up.

“They still won’t come,” she said, stepping towards the two men. She hated the way her accent fractured the English words coming out of her mouth, how she had to consider each word, each phrase before speaking it aloud. “They know you own this.”
Calvin eyed her, then turned back to Juan. “The lease is coming up,” he told him, “and I would hate to have to pull back on our little venture.”

“Dile, Juan!” Teresa said. “Dile como nadie viene porque tienen miedo de el.”

“They’ll come,” Juan said, answering both of them at the same time. “They just have to hear about the place. Taste Teresa’s cooking.”

“We’ll see.” Adjusting the cap on his head, so the white font was clearly displayed, Calvin walked over to the exit and stopped, hand on the doorknob. “By the way, Teresa,” he asked, “Have you heard from Maria?”

Hearing him use Maria’s name filled Teresa’s ears with a loud drumming sound, the edges of her vision dimming as she stepped through the restaurant’s tables.
“It’s a shame we lost, her,” Calvin said with a head of a shake. “Had no idea she was an illegal. Her paperwork all looked good, but I guess they always do, right?” He paused to pick some a bit of grain from his teeth and continued, “I tell you Juan, you’d be surprised about the quality of the papers. They’ve even fooled my receptionist when they check-in.”

The knife from the table she’d been prepping was in her hand, the blade pressing against her skirt, the cool touch of it seeping past the thin fabric and kissing her skin. The world around her closed, and Teresa found herself in her abuelo’s pig pens, the old man straddling the wall above her, watching a young Teresa move towards the pig and smoking one of his thin, drooping cigarillos. The pig and its smell took up almost the entire enclosure, leaving Teresa with little room to maneuver. It stood blissfully unaware of its approaching death, its eyes staring at her. She heard her grandfather’s instructions, then and now—no pienses, soló hazlo, the grip on her blade tightening, then and now.

Her blade skimmed across the pig’s throat, the animal providing so little defense Teresa thought maybe she hadn’t done it right until she felt the warmth of the blood cascading down her entire hand. She remembered looking into the animal’s eyes and watching how they faded and grew smaller.

A low, guttural moan vibrated in Calvin’s throat, his blood spraying unto Teresa’s grease stained apron. He stumbled backwards, a wheezing noise escaping his lips as his back slammed against the door. A trembling right hand pressed against the wound on his throat, blood squeezing through his fat fingers and rolling down his wrist.

“Teresa!” Juan shouted, his arms around her waist. He lifted her off the floor and threw her back, the knife slipping out of her hand and sliding across the restaurant tile floor. Her head hit the edge of one of the tables when she landed, her vision doubling on itself.

 “¿Qué hiciestes, Teresa?” Juan asked, standing over Calvin’s body. “What did you
do?” he asked again.


Teresa kept the radio tuned to the local Spanish station.

The sounds of horns and accordions crammed into the small truck cabin alongside her, the instruments joined by a trio of baritone singers whose voices dipped and rose with each turn of the road.  Occasionally, the music was swallowed up by a crackling static spilling out of the one working speaker, like wasps coming out of their nests. During those moments, Teresa gritted her teeth, clutched the steering wheel harder, and resisted the urge to fiddle with the radio.

 “Esa fue ‘Mayores’, por Becky G y Bad Bunny,’ the DJ said, just as Teresa pulled into her parking spot in front of El Paseo Rico. Turning the volume up, she put the truck in park and listened to the DJ advertised his sponsors and brag about how quickly tickets were selling for an upcoming show in Dallas. Her heart pressed against her chest, and a tingling, nervous sensation bubbled up in her stomach.

Apúrate, she thought.

As if reading her mind, the DJ wrapped up his spiel on a car dealership guaranteeing no credit checks for the month of September and dropped his voice. The braying persona receded along with the background music. Teresa could almost picture the DJ leaning into his microphone to whisper, “Y porque todos quieren saber, no parece que nuestros queridos relativos nos visitan hoy.”

No relatives visiting today.

Unclenching her hands from the steering wheel, Teresa breathed through her nose and stared out at the restaurant’s storefront.  Tuvimos suerte, she thought. They’d been lucky. Luckily, there hadn’t been any people strolling past the restaurant that day, lucky how the opaque, tinted glass of the door obscured the splotches of blood she spent the rest of the day cleaning off, while Juan mopped the floor around them.
Afterward, Juan told Teresa to go home and stay there until she heard from him.
That’d been two weeks ago. Ever since then, she’d holed herself up in a small trailer in the outskirts of Concepción, keeping the shades drawn and her television on, sinking into the embrace of broadly acted telenovela, sitcom repeats, and cheap mota she bought from a neighbor kid months ago. She ate whatever leftovers she could scrounge up from her refrigerator. The only time she was tempted to disobey Juan was when she ran out of pepper and considered venturing across the Dollar Store across the street. At night, she laid awake in a bed which felt too big and thought of Maria. She would have approved of what she did, Teresa decided on the first night, after she had gotten home and taken, a long, lukewarm shower.

She slept peacefully ever since then.

Juan’s call came last night, just as she sniffed the heavy cream and wondered if it was still good to use. “Ven temprano mañana,” he told her, his voice cold, distant. Corre, a small and fearful voice, ordered her as she gripped her cheap cell phone and waited for Juan to say more. Run, run as far and fast away from here as possible. Squashing the voice down like she would squash a fly invading her kitchen, Teresa said she’d be there.

Besides, she had nowhere to go. What little money she and Maria have been saving was gone now, a portion of it first used to try to bring Maria back home, and then the rest sent to her via wire transfer, so she could at least make her way back to her hometown in Guatemala. And even if she had any money, she doubted she could get more than a couple miles out of Concepción before coming across one of the many checkpoints now loitering the roads of Texas, where men sweated inside of their neatly pressed uniforms, waiting to politely, but firmly, ask for proof of citizenship. Calvin—pinche mendigo podrido—might have been right about just how good a lot of the paperwork people used had become; however, if the recent raids were any indication, they still weren’t good enough to fool the United States government.
Unlocking the restaurant’s door, Teresa paused, her hand on the doorknob and her heart beating out of her chest. Pasa lo que pasa, she decided, turning the doorknob and stepping through.

The restaurant looked much like she remembered leaving it two weeks ago. Glancing down to the floor, she struggled to find any signs of Calvin on the tile. Flicking the lights on, she moved across the restaurant, setting the tables and slowly falling into a familiar rhythm consisting of smoothing out the tablecloths, refilling salt and pepper shakers, and topping up all the hot sauce bottles.  Reaching the front of the counter, she checked the beverage stock, making a mental note to remind Juan they needed to order more cans of Jumex. Plugging the coffee machine, she grounded some fresh beans and started a new batch of coffee to be ready when Juan arrived. She then made sure he had a new order pad by the register and walked over to her kitchen.
Teresa thought of the trail of blood Calvin’s body left behind as she and Juan dragged it towards the kitchen’s freezer. How heavy and unwilling the body had been, and the way Calvin’s head lagged from side to side, striking the edges of the counter. She spent the most time afterward in the kitchen, using every available rag to erase their hard work, and as she turned the kitchen lights on and slowly inspected her area, she felt she did an exceptional job.

She did such a good job wiping down the area, Teresa decided, running a hand through her grill, that Calvin would have been proud. Maybe even asked her to come back to work at the motel.

She laughed, too loud and for too long, her laughter frayed around the edges. For the last two weeks, she’d successfully managed to hold it together, surrounding herself with anything that reminded her of Maria. But now, far away from those items to buoyed her, waves of panic slammed against her.

 “¿De qué te ríes?”

The question stifled Teresa’s laughter. Turning around, she found an old woman staring at her, long wrinkled arms across a chest draped in a shawl. At first, Teresa thought she was una enana, the woman being that small, but no, she quickly realized the shawl hid the curvature of the woman’s spine. Black eyes, magnified by the wireframe glasses sitting atop a landmass of wrinkles, stared at Teresa, waiting for an answer.

“Who let you in?” Teresa asked, taking a step back and trying to think if the door was left unlocked.

 “I let myself in,” the woman said. Her Spanish was different than Juan and Teresa’s, every letter accented and strong. She pulled a cane from the depth of her shawl and pointed the long, bony thing towards the refrigerator. “That’s where he’s at?”
Teresa froze. She flashed back to the last night she was at the restaurant, how Juan and she each grabbed one of Calvin’s legs and dragged him into the kitchen’s walk-in freezer, setting him next to the ground beef.

The woman grinned, flashing Teresa two rows of perfectly white and lined teeth, like a wall that Teresa’s lies and excuses wouldn’t climb over.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said, the cane dropping to her side. Clearing her throat,
she then shouted, “¡Está aquí, cabrones!”

Before Teresa could react, two men stepped into the kitchen. Or tried to, the space so narrowed and tight that only one of them fit, the second one poking a shaved head through the door. They were both big men as if making up for the stature of the small woman. The one who stood in the kitchen with the old woman and Teresa, a man with bushy eyebrows and a forehead you could cook salcichas on carried a large duffel bag and scowled at Teresa. “Muévete.”


The order shoved her away from the kitchen and back to her knees at Calvin’s motel, the cold linoleum floor of the bathroom of whatever room she was cleaning pressing against her skin, sweat pooling around her armpits as she worked to clean the mold from between the tiles, all the while Calvin stood above her and every so often pointed out, “You missed a spot,” nudging her with his boot.

After one too many nudges of his boot, Teresa finally had stood up, thrown the rag at his face, and said she quit. Said it in English nice and slow to make sure he understood.
Reaching into the nearest kitchen drawer, Teresa grabbed the handle to a large wooden spoon and pulled it out. “Hazme,” she told the man, raising the spoon above her head.
The man’s eyebrows furrowed and drew close together like fuzzy caterpillars coming to mate, while behind him, the old woman barked out a laugh, gripping her cane with both hands as boney shoulders rose and fell with her laughter. “Juan was right. Estás loca, muchacha,” the old woman said after she finished laughing.

Teresa kept her stance, her shoulder muttering an ache she feared would grow louder the longer she remained standing. “You know Juan?”

Pushing one of the men aside, the old woman limped forward, her walk slow and deliberate, placing the cane ahead every time she took a step. “He’s my nephew.” Reaching Teresa, she poked her with the end of her cane and said, “has he never talked about me?”

Teresa shook her head. Despite working together every day for the last few months, she suddenly realized how little she knew of her coworker. Part of it was that even though they spent eight to ten hours in a restaurant, for most of those hours, they were portioned away from each other, with Teresa sequestered to the kitchen while Juan manned the register and was the face of the restaurant. Even when business took a dive, and there’d be hours between customers. Each of them stayed in their sections, Teresa organizing and reorganizing the kitchen while wondering what Maria was doing, and Juan usually on the phone, his voice low and fast as he spoke to what Teresa assumed were bill collectors.

“Tráeme a Juan,” the old woman told one of the two men, who nodded and disappeared

Juan’s here?

Relief should have poured over Teresa when she found this out, but her body remained tense, the start of a headache crawling to the back of her head. The hand holding the wooden spoon remained raised above her head, something the old woman noticed. “Put that down,” she said, staring at Teresa with those black eyes of hers.

“Aquí está, Doña Clara,” the man who’d left to retrieve Juan said, reentering the kitchen and dragging Juan alongside him. Juan stumbled and almost fell, but was kept upright by the man’s hand on the back of his neck. He wore a loose pair of sweats and a ratty old t-shirt, a far cry from the pressed pants and collared shirt Teresa usually saw him in. His face had a sheen of sweat, the fluorescent lights of the kitchen highlighted, and there was a big, dark bruise, the color of the skin of an avocado on his right eye.

“She,” Doña Clara said, prodding Teresa with her cane again, “says you never told her about me, is that true?” Slamming the cane on the ground, she started to make her way towards Juan, who remained frozen. “Never talked about how your tía raised you when your mother couldn’t, how I taught you how not to burn the rice in too much oil.” She stood in front of him now, much as she’d done with Teresa, and prodded him with his cane. “How I’m the one who gave you money for,” she stopped, waved her cane high and around the air, to the point the men all flinched and stepped back against the kitchen wall, “all this.”

“Lo siento,tía” Juan muttered, flinching any time the cane came close to his head.

Leaning against her cane, Aunt Clara said nothing. One of the men approached her, placing a giant, callused hand on her shoulder, only for Aunt Clara to brush it away.

“You said you’d make me money, Juan.”

“I was,” Juan muttered, rubbing the spots in his arm where her cane had struck him.

“We were doing really good for the last few months, you know that. I was sending Carlos more than the agreed amount.”

“And then the payment stops,” one of the big man, the same one who’d told Teresa to move, said.

“I already told you why. The raids really hurt us. Hurt the whole town. But things were getting better.”

“No, they weren’t,” Teresa said.  She could feel everyone’s eyes on her when she spoke, and a little voice in the back of her head told her cállate. But she was suddenly so tired, and just wanted to get to what was coming, whatever it might be. “People were still afraid. Some just wouldn’t come out of their houses, but others knew who owned this building. And knew what that man did to us.”

“Is that why you killed him?” Aunt Clara asked.

“No,” Teresa said and didn’t elaborate. Wouldn’t, not to Juan or his Aunt. What she did was between her, Calvin, and Maria, if she ever saw her again.

Sighing, Aunt Clara adjusted her shawl and looked to Carlos. “Can you believe these two? One,” she motioned with her head to Juan, “es tan tonto that he signs a lease with a man who destroys his business…”

“He gave me a good price,” Juan muttered and flinched when his Aunt glared at him.
“The other,” now it was Teresa’s turn to bear the brunt of Aunt Clara’s gaze, “decides to kill the man. Which maybe wouldn’t be such a bad thing if she didn’t choose to do it in the middle of my restaurant.”

Teresa didn’t think it would help if she mentioned it was more at the front of the restaurant than the actual middle.

“Dime sobrino, ¿Qué hago con ustedes?”

“Burn the place down,” Carlos said. “With those two and the body inside.”

Juan’s eyes grew wide at the suggestion, and he took a step towards, “Tiita,” he said, his voice shaking, “you wouldn’t do that, would you?”

Aunt Clara said nothing, only put her cane up between her and Juan.

 “I can fix this,” Teresa said.

Aunt Clara looked at her with a tilt of her head. “Can you?”

Teresa nodded,  mind racing, trying to think of something, anything she could say or do which would correct everything. Bring business back to El Paseo, make this woman and her men go away. Remove Juan’s black eye. Bring back Calvin. Bring back Maria. Bring back everyone taken.

There was a good chance she was going to die here, Teresa realized. The thought should have sent her spinning, but there was an odd calmness to the realization. Looking around the kitchen, her kitchen, she thought there would be worst places to die. At least she made this place her own, as much as she could anyway.

No puedes morir aqui, Maria whispered, her voice kissing the back of Teresa’s neck. “I still need to you see you again.”

Teresa thought of Maria. The way she’d spent so much time with Teresa in the kitchen, tasting everything she cooked and telling her when it needed salt, balancing multiple plates to take to the front of the restaurant, or leaning against the counter and watching Teresa cook, sometimes humming to herself.

“¿Qué es todo ese tarareo?” Teresa often asked Maria, rarely recognizing the tunes she heard her hum.

Maria’s answers always proved to be diverse and eclectic. It could be something her mother sang to her as a child, a song Maria heard playing from a car speaker as she walked to work, or a tune from a musical. Maria loved musicals, even though she’d never seen one in real life. Sometimes, as they laid in bed at night, Maria would talk about driving up to Houston to see one. Or, if they were really dreaming high, talked about booking a flight to New York City to see one there.

Theresa never understood her love for them, tried listening to a couple, and couldn’t get past all the singing. It felt so fake.

Now, standing in the kitchen, trying to think of a way to save everything around her,
musicals came back into her head, stories Maria told her about them, about how they could be about so much. About revenge, death, joy, and happiness. And Teresa remembered one in specific.


“You’re going to burn the rice,” Clara told Teresa for the third time.

Teresa ignored her and tilted the large pan on the stove, all the golden oil she poured into it sliding down to one side, while Teresa used a wooden spoon to keep the mountains of rice grains on the opposite side.

“I never make it this way,” Clara muttered, her attention on the small strips of pink meat sizzling on the grill.

“My way is better,” Teresa said, moving the spoon as she slow introduced portions of the rice into the scalding pool of oil, watching and turning them over, waiting for them to turn the same gold color as the oil.

Clara flipped the meat, smoke from the grill filling the kitchen. Without saying anything, Teresa grabbed the pepper shaker sitting on the counter and passed it to Clara, who accepted it without taking her eyes off the grill. One hand continued to flip the meat, while the other hand flipped some corn tortillas lined up next to the meat.

The old woman could still cook and cook fast. The latter part had become especially important in the last few days. More and more people filled El Paseo Rico’s tables, all wanting to try the new dishes Teresa (with some suggestions from Clara) created.

“I still can’t believe that’s supposed to be your husband,” Teresa said, setting the pan back down on the stove and reaching for the blender and its soupy red mixture.

“Asi es como lo recuerdo, siempre era flogo,” Clara said.

Pouring the chicken broth and tomato mixture into the pan, Teresa thought of the mural out in the front of the restaurant.  She wanted to ask Clara if having her husband up there was meant to be a sign of love or hate. Before she could ask, Flora stepped into the kitchen.

The new girl came from Oaxaca and still didn’t know a lot of English, but she was learning and hardworking.  Seeing her do Maria’s job, didn’t sit right with Teresa, but they needed the help, Juan barely able to move from the cash register nowadays.

“Una orden de tacos de sesos porfa,” Flora said, placing the written order down next to the others.

“Te toca,” Clara said.

“Yeah, I know it’s my turn. Can you please watch the rice? And don’t add any more cayenne. It’s perfect as it is.” Wiping her hands down on the apron, Teresa lowered
the heat and walked to the freezer.
It took them a full day and night to break down Calvin. At first, it’d been the men who’d gone into the freezer with saws, butcher knives, and later, even a small portable chainsaw. But Teresa soon stepped in, first to direct the job, and then went in and stripped the meat herself. It was the only way to ensure a quality job; the men more focused on separating the body parts than making them cookable.

It wasn’t too tricky, Teresa found. It wasn’t Calvin anymore, just a big lump of meat, like the dead pigs in the pens after her abuelo killed them. The meat was tough to cut and cook, but she experimented, boiling and tenderizing the meat, adding spices like cilantro and garlic, mixing the stuff with hatch chiles and spinach.

The stuff which still didn’t taste great they grounded into beef and used for burritos
and chimichangas. The thighs made good strips of fajita meat, and despite Juan saying otherwise, Teresa was pretty sure she could make of good menudo out of Calvin’s tripas. The weather just had to get cold enough.

Opening the freezer door, she walked past the newly labeled plastic containers to the back of the walk-in freezer. After moving some more containers around, she found for what she was looking for: Calvin stared at her from a freezer shelf, frost around his cheeks and eyes.

Grabbing the head, Teresa put her hand around the scalp and twisted. The top portion of Calvin’s head gave way quickly, like a container already jarred loose. Teresa scooped a handful of Calvin’s frosted, gray thoughts, which she would then braise and lay atop tortillas along with some cilantro and onions. Out of all the new recipes, this was her favorite to make, as she could imagine all of Calvin’s memories and thoughts being burned away as she good the portion of his brain.

Ya mero, she thought, walking out of the freezer and shutting the door behind her.

She planned to save enough money to leave Concepcíon. She’d already talked to Maria, and they’d made plans to move to Mexico City, maybe start a small taco place there.

But before that, she was planning a trip. Up to New York, to see a musical for the both of them.

Teresa smiled as she prepared the fryer. Sondheim played in the background.

Hector Acosta is an Edgar and Anthony nominated writer, as well as the author of the wrestling inspired novella Hardway. He's contributed to several anthologies and is an editor of Shotgun Honey.

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