Monday, August 17, 2020

Bumper, fiction by M.E. Purfield

 Miki humps the rear driver side of the car. Oh, is the poor baby okay? she moans. Will it live? I am surprised she does not slap it like a horse. Maybe she does not want to upset the driver more.

I cannot help but laugh and flap my hands. This is ridiculous. Since moving to Jersey City she has to park on the street. The house she bought came with no driveway despite being a three-level Victorian. Also, finding a paid parking spot led to a lot of dead ends. But changing the car to different sides of the street for the sweeper so that she does not get a ticket is not the problem. The problem is the dangers of parallel parking.

Miki and I had just gotten back from Newport Mall and found a perfect spot for her black Taurus. Just a few houses away from ours. Two cars sandwich either side, but that has never been an issue. Miki excels at parallel parking. I cannot imagine doing it when I am up for my license. If I am allowed to get one. Miki slipped in easily but accidentally tapped the silver Jaguar in front of us. Something that happens all the time when you park like that.

Hey, hey! the hefty Asian man shouted from the sidewalk. He wears suit pants and a baggy white shirt and red tie. We have seen him before. He always walks his tiny dog up and down the street and lives in the apartment building across from us. His wife or girlfriend was standing there too. A few feet away. Looking down. Kind of submissive. Pretty. Much skinnier than her partner. She wears a light summer dress and flats. Maybe they are on their way to a party.

You hit my car, the Asian man said and jerked his arms. He moved into the street and inspected the damage. What damage? It was a tap. Also, the Taurus bumper is so chipped and scratched how could he tell if we had damage. Nonetheless, the man took out his cell phone, and I guess, took pictures or recorded video.

Give me a break, Miki said and shook her head. This guy has to be a dream.

The man finished his inspection, and the couple entered the car. We must not have had damaged it since he did not say anything else. The woman with her head still down blushed. Was she embarrassed or mad? I imagined the man doing this a lot. Maybe she is embarrassed? If she is mad, she would say something mean to us, right?

Maybe we should call an ambulance, Miki shouts as she caresses the Jaguars rear. Call 911. She then kisses it and pats it like a burping baby.

I glance around to see if anyone else finds this funny. We are the only ones around. But I’m sure others would not find it funny.

The car starts up, and Miki steps onto the cracked sidewalk. The Jaguar carefully and perfectly pulls out of the spot as if giving Miki a driving lesson and drives off.

What a jerk, Miki says, and heads for the house.

I stomp my foot and point to our car.

She stops and tightens her eyes.

Oh, right, she says. The bags.

She must have been having too much fun that she forgot we bought stuff at the mall.


School does not start up for another week. I will start my freshman year at Nair High School. It is one of the few in Jersey City that takes autistic kids. I miss my old school the Gertrude Stein School in New York. And my friends, even though I chat with them all the time online. Mostly I spend my days in the house while Miki handles the renovations and updates the pipes and wiring with Julian. I cannot concentrate on my favorite movies. Not even the Argento movies. PS4 games bore me lately. Nothing seems to help the intense anxiety and over-thinking that haunts my head. Scenarios of how the teachers and kids will hate me keep me up at night and distract me during the day. I know that the kids are autistic too, and the teachers will have some kind of understanding, but my brain does not work that way. It always focuses on the negative when big change slaps me like a tsunami.

Prudence, Miki says at the door to my room. Paint stains her t-shirt. Not house paint. She has been working on a new series of paintings despite the house’s total chaos the last month. What are you doing?

It should be obvious. I am lying on my bed in the air conditioning and looking up at the freshly painted ceiling. I sit up and shrug and shake my head.

Why don’t you go outside and walk around? Miki says. Explore the neighborhood. Just be home for dinner. Miki has gotten better at making dinner. Not that the meals are fancier but more plane for my palette.

I nod again and slide off the bed.

Miki rubs my back as I pass her and asks if I have my phone. She bought me one with a speaking app so I can type in what I want to say, and the app shouts it out to neuro-typicals. I hardly use it. Then again, I have few people to talk to around here.

I step onto the paint chipped porch that wraps around to the side of the house. Despite being outside and suffering the abuse of weather and time, it is still in good condition and with no termites. At least that is what Julian says. So far, he has been fixing the house up nice, so he must know what he is talking about.

The air is too humid and hot. And quiet. It must be too ugly for people to hang outside. I walk down the broken concrete path to the metal mesh gate. I stand on the sidewalk for a moment and wonder how old a tree has to be to break through and reveal its roots.

Coming down the street I see the Asian man walking his little dog. I want to know what kind it is, but I always forget to look on the internet. Not that I want one. I am not a dog person. Then again, I never had a pet, so I do not know what kind of person I am.

I could ask the man what kind of dog it is.

No. He glances at me and then crosses the street. He must be avoiding us. He never did that before. The man enters his brick apartment building, and I am the only one on the street again.

With a few hours to kill, I walk up Palisade to Riverview Park where the action seems to be. From one of the benches under a tree, I watch little kids run around on the grass and mommies, or nannies push strollers and dogs walk people. After an hour, I grow bored and decide to go home but not without buying Italian ice from the cart on the corner.

Excuse me, miss, someone says from behind.

About to walk through the gate of the house, I turn around to see the Asian woman who lives across the street. I smile and stare at her chin. She smiles back but not as confident. Her meekness upsets me, and I do not know why. I am hardly a threat. No reason to be scared of my slight frame and pretty face.

Do you remember me? she asks.

I nod and point to her building.

Right, she says. You can’t talk. Correct.

I nod again and shrug.

That’s okay, her monotone voice says. I have something to say.

A sour feeling swirls in my stomach. Will she yell at me for Miki humping her car? Slap me? Push me down and kick me? Call me a freak? I better finish my ice fast. I do not want anyone to confuse it for my blood if I should bleed on the sidewalk.

I want to apologize for the other day, she says.

I raise my brows.

Phil is really a nice person, but he has been going through a hard time. I hope you won’t hold it against us. We do enjoy living here and do not want to make enemies.

I nod and then shake my head. I will not hold it against them.

She must understand what I mean and lightly laughs.

Oh good, she says. My name is Lele, by the way.

She holds out her hand. I eye it for a second. I know I am supposed to shake it, but what if it feels sweaty and squishy? Like I am holding a snail. It is so hot today that I do not even want to touch my own hands.

Lele takes her hand back and says That’s okay. I don’t like formality either. She waves and says, Have a nice evening, and thank you for listening.


I ran into Jodie today, Miki says.

Jodie Walker lives up the street with his parents in the blue house. He and Miki grew up together. So far, he seems nice and fills us in on neighborhood gossip. Miki says I can trust him. I often wonder if there had been anything serious between them before Miki moved away at fifteen to New York.

I flash her eye contact while I eat my chicken nuggets and corn. No sauce, please. Miki picks at her breaded chicken cutlets and corn and sauteed potatoes.

Taking my signal that I am listening, she says, So I asked him about that couple with the Jaguar. He says that Phil and Lele are okay. At least they have always been nice to him. When I told him about what happened, he said that he wasn’t surprised. Last month Phil had the rear window of the car smashed. Cops never found out who did it. No surprise there.

No wonder Phil is so sensitive about his car. Or is it? Based on that one incident, he seemed to treat the car better than his girlfriend. He totally ignored Lele, and when he did acknowledge her, he bossed her into the car.

Another thing I found out was that Phil is really a woman, she says. Or born that way, I mean.

I flinch.

No shit, Miki says. A transexual. I’m so used to seeing men to women, not the other way around. Fooled me good. Good for him.

I nod. Fooled me too. I assume Lele was born a girl. Now I am going to have to study her to be sure. But if she really is a girl, what does that make her? A lesbian or straight? Interesting. I will have to ask her one day.

But he’s still an asshole, Miki says.

I screw my mouth to the side and shake my head.

Well, he is, she says. It’s just a car. He’s not the only asshole in the world like that. You see these big brawny guys go all apeshit with roid rage about being tapped. Tapped. It’s like they’re connected by the nerves to them. Their heart is probably made of metal too.

I flip my palms out. Maybe. But if Phil has a woman’s heart, then would he be doing it for the same reasons as those brawny guys.


The next morning I sit at the kitchen table and eat a bowl of honey nut oats with no milk when the doorbell rings. I am surprised I could hear it with Julian working in the basement. All morning he has been sawing and banging.

I shove a whopping spoonful in my mouth and leave to answer the door. Miki is already in the hall and opening it when I arrive. A cop stands outside. He is crazy enough to wear long sleeves even though it feels hotter than yesterday. He seems short for a cop. Skinny too. He takes off his cap and has a shaved head like most cops have and tucks it under his arm.

Ms. Michelina Radicci? he asks.

Depends, she says. Who wants to know?

The cop frowns and sighs. Maybe his day has not been going well.

My name is Officer Reyes, and I’m investigating damage to a car on your street.

My car? she asks.

No, Mr. Phillip Fong’s car. A 1985 silver Jaguar.

Oh my God, Miki moans.

I come up behind her. I can not believe Phil called the police on us. Just after Lele apologized. Maybe he does not see the same way she does. And we are supposed to take her word that he is a nice guy.

Reyes pulls out a notepad and pen. So, you are Ms. Radicci?

Unfortunately, she says.

Where were you between the hours of 8 PM last night and 7 AM this morning? he asks.

Here, Miki says. And this is total bullshit.

He writes in the pad and asks, Is there anyone who can swear to that?

I was with my sister, she says, pointing.

I give a little wave and smile. He nods and returns to his notes.

And you are? he asks.

Her name is Prudence. Same last name, Miki says. She has nothing to do with it. She’s only fifteen. No license.

I feel the cop eye me.

Your sister has been in your sight during those hours, he asks.

I nod.

Yes or no?

She can’t speak, Miki says.

The cop tilts his head to the side. In doubt. Maybe.

Do you two sleep in the same room? he asks.

No, Miki says. We have separate rooms.

I was asking her.

I shake my head. Miki and I watched TV in the living room until 11 PM, and then we separated to our own rooms for bed. I bet if I say just that, he will think Miki snuck out between 11 and 7.

She has nothing to do with it, Miki says.

I understand that, the cop says. Reyes looks back at Miki. So you admit that you damaged Fong’s Jaguar?

There is no damage and I can prove it, Miki says. He took pictures right before he drove off. If I damaged the car while parking, then why didn’t he call the cops right then? I mean, why wait three days to call the cops on someone?

Reyes frowns. I think you should come with me outside.


Holy crap, Miki whispers.

My eyes widen.

Someone spray-painted on one side of the Jaguar: FUCKING QUEER SCUMBAG HUMAN WASTE. The rest of the car seems fine as far as damages.

Phil and Lele stand on the other side of the street by the police car. Phil steps back and forth like he wants to run over to us. Attack us or make the cop do it. No, he cannot be so uncivilized. Both are dressed nice for work. Maybe office jobs. Anger. No. Rage covers Phils face. Lele seems worried. Maybe she will have to reign Phil in. Maybe again.

So you admit to damaging the car? Officer Reyes asks.

No fucking way, Miki says and shakes her head. She points to the writing on the car. I had nothing to do with this. This. This is from a sick and angry mind.

I blurt a laugh and quickly cover it when Miki glares at me to shut up.

She’s lying, Phil shouted. She’s crazy. She had sex with my car.

As tense as the situation felt, I could not help but laugh again. I turn around and show them my back until I can control myself.

Reyes asks Miki, You have something to say about that? The fornication with the Jaguar?

Now you make it sound like bestiality, Miki says. They didn’t tell you what happened the other day.

I would like to hear your version, he says and prepares his pad.

Miki tells him what happened coming back from the mall that day. Reyes shakes his head and holds a straight face as he takes notes. I am impressed by his control.

I have no reason to do that to their car, Miki says. If you knew me, you would agree. Shit, I don’t even use spray paint. Hard to control.

Uh-huh, Reyes says. He probably has no idea my sister is a world-known artist.

I wave my hand to get the cop’s attention and point to my eyes then to Miki and then to the car.

Did anyone see your sister? Reyes asks.

I nod.

No. I have no witnesses yet.

There has to be something on camera somewhere, Miki says. Seems like if the city doesn’t have one capturing it, then the houses do.

We noticed that a lot of neighbors had them aimed at their porch since thieves like to take dropped off packages by mail carriers.

I’ll be checking it out, he says.

Reyes says we can go and will be in touch for follow up questions.

As he crosses the street, Phil shouts: You are letting her go. She vandalized my car. That’s a crime.

Lele glances at me and frowns as if in apology. I am not sure, but I think she believes that we did not do it. She appears embarrassed by Phil. Maybe his anger about situations is getting to her.

How am I going to drive that to the body shop? Phil asks. Everyone will stare at me. You think my life isn’t hard enough that I have to sit behind those words for the world to see?

Reyes holds his hands up to placate Phil and speaks so softly that I cannot hear him.

C’mon, Miki says and taps my arm.


Yeah, man, Jodie says. People are talking about it. But don’t let it get to you. They’re always talking. You should see them on the Jersey City Height Facebook page. Walla-walla and judgment all the time. And that’s just for the stupid stuff.

He sits in our living room and sort of watches a movie with us. Since we started it, all we have been doing is talking. Jodie shares the couch with Miki while I sit on the floor in front of them. They both have one leg on the cushion and face each other. He wears cargo shorts and a Joy Division t-shirt. I catch him checking out Miki’s body dressed in sweat pants and a Sonic Youth tee.

It’s insane, Miki says. I didn’t do it, and now you’re telling me that my neighbors have already made a judgment about Prudence and me. I bet the cop isn’t going to find any proof it was me.

Think someone is setting you up.

I don’t see how. I don’t know anyone in the neighborhood except for you and your mom.

Didn’t piss off someone before you left?

At fifteen, she asks. Who didn’t I piss off?

Pissed me off.

Jodie smiles and wiggles his brows.

So maybe it was you.

Maybe Prudy did it? She’s of that age. She probably drives you crazy all day.

Shut up, Miki mutters. Prudence is my best side. If she wasn’t there, I would have done more than hump the car. And I don’t mean spray painting his car.

I make a dirty face at him and stick out my tongue.

See, he says and points. Trouble.


For the next few days, it seems like Phil has not brought his car in to remove the paint. He covers it with a weather tarp made for the Jaguar. A big shiny silver blob. But he moves it for the sweeper. One time while walking around, I saw it parked a block away. He must be doing it at night when no one sees. Poor guy. I hear it is impossible to find parking in the AM hours.

Officer Reyes so far has not contacted us for follow up questions. Fed up Miki calls and speaks to him on the phone.

The incident is still under investigation, he says.

Did you check cameras on the street? she asks.

The incident is still under investigation.

She hangs up the phone and calls him a jerk.


To break up the monotony of my day, I hang out on the porch instead of taking a walk. School starts next week, and my anxiety has not lessened any. I am sure having my sister accused of gay-bashing a car adds to it. To pass the time, I work on a tiny Rubix cube.

Lele stands on the other side of the gate. Again she appears meek. As I walk closer to her, I notice that her eyes are purple with bags. Not that kind of purple. She probably has not been sleeping.

I am sorry to bother you, Lele says and glances at her apartment building behind her.

Will she get in trouble for speaking to me? Could speaking to me mess up the investigation? Or maybe she would suffer Phil’s anger? We are his enemy.

I wanted to have a small word with you.

I nod and focus on the Rubix.

The police still don’t know who vandalized the car, she says. So far, they checked the city cameras and a few of the house cameras that look out to the street. I assume they didn’t find your sister, so she is in the clear. I don’t know much more. Officer Reyes speaks to Phil instead of me since the car is in his name and Phil hardly talks to me lately. He gets like that when he bottles up his anger.

I nod and give her the thumbs up.

Lele yawns and apologizes.

With work and Phil going crazy, I haven’t been able to sleep, she says. I spend most of my time looking at the street through our window to see if anyone is coming to damage the car again. At first, Phil had been staying up all night. It make him angrier so I told him I would do half of the night for him so he could get some sleep.

I shake my head and frown. I feel sorry for them. This vandal has total control of their life. Maybe that is the crazy person wants.

I just thought you should know about the police investigation, she says. I do not want your sister to think that she’s to blame. Phil will come around once they catch the person. If you can, please tell her. Er, I mean, write to her. Is that what you do?

I nod.

Thank you, she says and turns to cross the street. At the corner, she suddenly twists around and holds up her finger. Oh, I also meant to say that your sister should be careful and stay away from our car if she can. Not that I think she is guilty, but Phil has a gun now.


Even though I do not like it, I use my voice app on my phone and relay Leles message about the investigation and Phil’s gun. I will probably be using it in school a lot, so I should get used to it.

Insane, Miki says. Total insanity. Well, he can count on me staying away from his car. Last thing I need is to be caught on camera by it. Cops will probably drag my ass into jail. I hate those tiny interview rooms they shove you in. That’s another thing. Interview room. Who are they kidding? Am I interviewing for a jail cell?

The holiday weekend arrives, and the neighborhood grows quieter. People are probably at the beaches or outside events, which there are a lot of in Jersey City — feasts and street concerts and markets selling homemade wares and art. Phil and Lele might be doing that since they do not see them around too. Yet I see his car parked on the street. They rented a car, maybe. Either way, I hope they are having a good time and not stressing.

Still not able to fall asleep, I decided to hang at my window. It looks out to the street, and I have a good view of the covered Jaguar two houses up. A branch from a tree that grows out of the sidewalk blocks the front of the car, and the street lights barely illuminate, but it is better than nothing.

Saturday night drops into failure. I wake up the next morning in my desk chair with a drool stain on my Hello Kitty t-shirt. To gear up for the following night, I nap through the afternoon. Miki does not notice since she is wrapped up in her studio on the third floor. I make an effort to show up at major meals, so she does not catch on to what I am doing. Sleep is important to me. It is one of the aspects that keep me from a meltdown. And we both do not want that to happen.

Sunday night, I sneak up a thermos of coffee. I hate coffee. Even with almond milk and sugar. The last time I had a few cups, I felt fragile and nauseous. But I am determined not to fall asleep until the sun shows up.

Once school starts I won’t be able to do this. It sucks. Miki will definitely put my butt in a sling as she likes to threaten. I will have to think up something else. Maybe get a web camera that looks out to the car.

Nothing happens on Sunday night despite staying awake. I spend Monday morning in siesta. Miki and I have no plans for the holiday. I do not like the beach because the way the sand makes me feel and the ocean’s sound drowns out my head. Crowds are out of the question too. Since Miki is not a people person and would rather work, it balances out.

Before bedtime, we watch a double-feature of Zombie and Day of the Dead.

I don’t understand why you prefer Day over Dawn, Miki says.

It’s the better movie, I say through the app.

But Dawn is the legend. The greatest zombie movie ever.

They were both made by Romero, so I do not see why they cannot be equal I type. Day has more of a plot to me than greedy people hoarding and fighting to defend their greed.

Miki flinches and says, Are you sure you’re fifteen?

I stick my tongue out at her and open the bag of popcorn.

Reluctantly we finish the movies by midnight, and I go up to my room. I check the street from my window before I pull the chair over. The car parked in the same spot all weekend seems untouched. The cover still on it.

At least I did not miss anything.

I adjust myself in a comfortable position on the chair and prepare for a long night. Sighing, I wonder when I will be able to sneak down for a thermos of coffee.


Men laughing outside wakes me up.

I curse myself for falling asleep and rub my eyes. At least I did not drool on my shirt.

Laughing again.

I lift the window screen and stick out my head. Two dark figures stand by the Jaguar. I run out of my room and down the stairs to the front door. Still wearing my sneakers, my feet pound the old wood. On the porch, I carefully step to the edge and crane my neck. The car is two houses down. One of the figures yanks the weather cover off and tosses it over the other person. The second figure complains and fights under it as if attacked by a squid. More laughter, and cursing. They seem fearless for people about to commit their third crime on the same car. Then again, I might be the only one around.

Prudence, she says behind my back. What are you doing?

My speeding heart stops for a second and pushes up my throat. I shove Miki wearing her pajama bottoms and tank and shake my head.

Sorry, she said. I didn’t mean to scare you but you are freaking me out by being out here.

I point to the car and the figures.

Miki cranes her neck and sighs: Oh, shit!

I pull her with me to the edge of the porch, towards the gate.

No way, she whispers. We are not going out there. We’ll call the cops.

Miki yanks from my grip and steps back.

Glass breaks.

I jump down the steps and to the gate. Miki harshly whispers my name. As I run down the sidewalk, she calls out: Get back here! Of course, I ignore her, and I know how stupid I am being. Those jerks could have a gun. Or I could get hurt in other ways, but maybe I can scare them off before that happens.

When I reach the car, the two figures are gone, but they left a broken side window and the tarp on the sidewalk. I have no idea where they ran off to so fast. Both corners up and down the street are a good distance away. I should see them just about to disappear.

Miki stops at my side and catches her breath. Let’s go, Prudence.

I point to the air and shrug my shoulders.

I don’t know where they are, she says, and I don’t care. Now let’s go and call the cops.

She is right. I can still be useful by telling the cops what I saw and heard. Maybe. At the very least, I try to take comfort that I scared them away.

I caught you.

Phil crosses the street and aims a small revolver at us. He wears shorts and a tank. Lele dressed in a pajama set follows him. Their skin glistens with sweat. Probably from running out of their apartment.

Miki and I raise our hands and move closer together towards the house behind us. Phil stands between us and the car. A smile across his maniacal face and the gun pointed at us. Lele, like me, bounces from foot to foot and wrings her hands at the front of the car. Although the gun is not pointed at me, it still scares me that Miki could get shot.

Don’t move, Phil says. I called the cops.

I didn’t do anything, Miki says, not at all bothered by the gun. Like it was just some non-threatening toy. Prudence heard the assholes and we came out here before the window was smashed.

Yeah. Sure. You can explain it all to them.

Miki sighs in aggravation and tightens her fists in the air.

I got you, he says. I finally got you. I can’t believe it.

I glance at Lele, hoping she can see the truth in my face. This has gotten so out of hand.

Phil put the gun down, she says. Please.

Not until the cops get here, he says. Finally, going to end this. Going to put her in jail where the rest of her psycho homophobic friends waste their lives away.

I am not homophobic, Miki says and almost throws her hands down. And I didn’t damage your car.

So sick of you people, Phil says. We came to this city because we thought people would be more accepting. Tolerant. But no. We moved onto a street of animals that are obsessed with our private lives and want to punish us for it.

Lele positions between us and the bullets’ possible path and holds up her palms to him. Please, she says with a shaky voice. Put the gun down. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.

Phil’s face tightens. He moves the gun away from Lele but still does not have a clear shot at Miki. It seems like he hates that as he tightens his lips.

Baby, please get out of the way, he says through a grim mouth.

Not until you put the gun away and calm down. They won’t run away. Right.

Um sure, Miki says. I won’t run away. I mean, you know where I live, and I don’t want a bullet in my ass.

Phil pants. His eyes shift around.

Prudence is only a kid, Lele says. You don’t want her to get hurt. I know you. You would never want to hurt a child.

Phil shivers as if a struggle is ramming the sides of his body. Oh, Lele. I hope you’re right. The gun lowers.

A man wearing a black ski mask pops out of the broken car window and grabs Phil’s shoulder. Surprise and confusion on his face as he screams out and falls back into him. The gun goes off. Lele with a yipe jolts to the side as if someone punched her in the shoulder. She falls to the ground after Miki and I do.

Lele! Phil screams with intense panic in his voice. His eyes wide and face flushed red.

The man holds Phil’s back to the car and reaches for the gun in his hand. From the other side of the Jaguar, a second man in a ski mask comes around.

I crawl over to Lele, who lays on her side and moans and bleeds onto the sidewalk. I feel weird, she says.

The second man stops in front of Phil and punches him in the stomach.

Faggot scumbag, he shouts.

Phil takes the punch and keeps holding onto the gun, pointing up the street.

Miki rams her side into the second man. They fall against the front of the car and bend over it. She punches him square in the face, then the groin. The second man falls moaning to the ground and nurses his privates.

Lele! Phil screams again in hysteria. His voice sounds like it is on its last cord. The first man has his arm around Phil’s neck. His other arm holds his wrist and shifts Phil’s arm around to try to loosen the grip.

Miki plows her fist into the man’s masked face. A crack from under the mask. He grunts but holds Phil tight. She then grabs Phil’s gun hand and shouts, Let go!

He does. Miki takes the revolver and steps back and points it at them.

Let him go, she says.

They both stop struggling. Phil’s eyes lock on Lele. Panting. The man in the car releases Phil. He falls to his knees at Lele’s side. He lies her head onto his lap and weeps.

Oh, Lele. I’m so sorry. Please don’t die.

Out of the car and down on the ground, Miki says.

Okay, okay, the man says as he opens the door.

No, Miki says. Crawl out the window.

The window with shards of glass lining it. The man growls in aggravation and follows the order. He moves out, head first with his hands on the street. While his lower half is still in the car, Miki kicks him in the stomach. He falls out the rest of the way and lands on his side.

Douche bags trying to set me up, she says.

When both men are face down with their hands behind their heads, she pulls off their ski mask to reveal their white and sweaty face.

Jesus, I don’t even know who you are, Miki says. Do you know them? she asks Phil.

He brings his wet face up and glances at the two men and shakes his head.

Please, he says. Call an ambulance.

She’ll be okay, Miki says as she takes out her phone. I saw the bullet come out of her shoulder.

A police car brakes next to the Jaguar, and two officers pour out with their weapons drawn. Panic rushes my heart. Images of them shooting Miki fill my brain. Miki drops the gun and places her hands behind her head before they can tell her.

She’s crazy, one of the men on the ground says. She tried to kill us. We’re just minding our own business.

An officer slams Miki into the car and spreads her legs and roughly frisks her. I keep still with my hands up even though I am kneeling in the victims circle next to Phil and Lele. I grunt out and try to tell them that the bad guys are on the sidewalk.

No, Phil says. She saved us. They’re the ones who damaged my car and attacked us.

The second officer calls for an ambulance and then cuffs the two men with plastic bands. They push Miki down next to them and tell them not to move or speak. She does not make a sound even with her face pressed to the concrete. Probably knowing that the cops would not listen anyway.

The ambulance arrives, and the street fills with noises and lights and people. Sensory overload creeps up. I stim to contempt my brain. I have no worries about Miki. Sure they will bring her in for questioning, but I am confident with Phil’s and Lele’s version of events she will be home to help me on my first day of school.

Phil, as if reading my mind, nods his head at me in assurance.

M.E. Purfield is the #actuallyautistic author of the long running and highly rated Miki Radicci series and the sci-noir Blunt Force Kharma series. He has had short stories in Broken Pencil, Unwinnable Magazine, and Norwegian American Weekly. He lives in Jersey City, NJ but you can always find him at

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.