Grease hisses and pops beneath the staccato drums bleeding from the speaker above my brother Angel’s head. The song fades beneath the clank of metal and the sound of his voice calling orders across the kitchen.
ADOBADA. MOLE VERDE. GUISO DE FLOR. GORDITAS ZACATECANAS.
Glass bowls full of garlic and cilantro and guajillos slide across the counter, crashing against the faded Spanish labels pressed to jars of canela, anise, and comino.
Sang, the only person who’s been at the restaurant almost as long as my brother and I, grazes the glass jar of cumin with his elbow. It tumbles, exploding against the concrete floor like a flash of orange gunpowder.
The impact ignites a thousand memories. My father’s pipe speaking in tobacco apparitions. Charred meat bleeding over mesquite. The shrill clank of steel knives, the knock and twist of the molcajete, the slap of my mother’s bare feet on the kitchen floor. Volver Volver low and stretched like dough as my father hums it over the sound of the radio. I taste flames and clay and citrus. I feel ancient and safe and new.
“Comin’ in hot!” Angel slams a slab of meat down on the cutting board.
One of the platers, Lucas, draws two serrated knives. “I need somebody on the clock.” The sharp points are poised over the grill lines but he needs an audience.
Sang shakes out his cumin-filled dishtowel over the trash. He wipes his brow. “Clock starts in three, two, one…” Sang slaps the cowbell above the doorway to the kitchen. He’s the only one who can reach it.
Lucas is a human battery, charged by every face pointed in his direction as he begins to shred. He’s also the restaurant’s resident bookie, not just collecting the bets but designing the events and (usually) starring in them too. He’s currently the reigning Churro Throwing champ three years in a row.
“I need runners!” Angel slaps the counter, summoning the waiters, sweaty and trying to remember to smile.
But that’s hard to do when you’re slammed and short staffed. Not to mention the fact that the number of free meals my father’s been doling out has nearly doubled, which means no tips but twice the work. We lost two waitresses just last week—they thought they could make more money in thedelivery business. Until those deliveries were intercepted by the police. But who did they call at two AM to post bail? Not their own fathers but mine.
Glass shatters and I rush into the dining room. Gabby, the new girl I spent six hours training this week, is on all fours. When she sees me she cowers. I don’t just forget to smile. When I’m at the restaurant my face is physically incapable.
She scrambles to scrape up the broken plate and slices her hand. She sucks in air but I’m not sure if the tears are from the pain or my proximity.
My other half, Chloe, abandons the hostess stand and steps between us. “Try using a broom next time.” She helps Gabby get to her feet before trading her hand for the broom.
Then she drags me to the front of house before I can tell Gabby that next time she better not drop the plate in the first place.
“It was an accident,” Chloe says, reminding me that these kinds of things do indeed happen and also that I should defer to her in these moments requiring human compassion since she is much better equipped for them than I am. Which also reminds me why she’s my best friend. “Besides, half the people in here are so drunk they didn’t even notice.”
Chloe’s right. We’d reached that point in the night where we were slinging more drinks than tacos, the Frankenstein monsters on our menu I’d created specifically for the inebriated or post-inebriated flooding the line.
She pushes up her glasses, using her shirt to dry the bridge of her nose. Then she heaves a stack of menus into my arms. “Patio. I already had one of the waiters push two tables together.”
It’s an order, but because she’s the only person who can give me orders, I know she really must be swamped.
I seat a bachelorette party. Our second tonight. They hang on each other, giggling. When they reach their chairs, they fall over the backs, flailing like tethered balloons.
The bride straightens her plastic tiara, batting her eyelashes. They look like they’re about to fall off and I wonder how many free drinks they’ve already helped her get tonight. “Do you have some kind of bachelorette party discount?”
I count the necessary five seconds before the alcohol she’s already consumed wipes the question from her memory.
Her second in command is a little less drunk but just as cheap. “What about birthday discounts?”
“Show me an ID and you can get free chips & salsa.”
Our chips and salsa are always free but since I’m not really their waitress and therefore I care more about the actual food than customer service I don’t tell them that.
A few of the girls fiddle with their wallets but the truth is, it is no one’s birthday and they finally settle for ordering more alcohol. I bring back a round of margaritas—six frozen, three on the rocks, six with salted rims, two without, one salted on only half the rim, four with an extra shot of tequila, and five with extra limes. They order our signature queso, freshguacamole, a plate of nachos, and one of every dessert.
I pawn off my table on Gabby—give her a chance to redeem herself—and head back to the heat of the kitchen.
On my way I’m stopped by one of our neighbors, Mr. Cantu. His baseball cap is covered in paint and that’s when I notice the spray cans in each hand.
“Pen, is your father here?”
“He’ll be back in the morning. Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Cantu?”
He deflates. “I’m here to paint the sidewalk. He said he’d pay me fifty bucks.”
I look from him to the crowd outside the entrance. The sidewalk’s full of people. “Tonight?”
“Well, tomorrow morning. But it’s just that I could really use the money now.” He motions to the parking lot. “My wife’s right outside. She had the stencils made and everything. We can get started right away.”
Mrs. Cantu can draw almost anything—caricatures, animals, flowers. She turns her sketches into stencils and her husband paints them into custom house numbers. Last week they painted Mighty Mouse—my father’s favorite childhood cartoon—on the corners of our driveway.
I didn’t know my father had commissioned them to paint the sidewalk outside the restaurant but it doesn’t surprise me. There’s someone doing odd jobs around here almost every day, not because we need the help but because they do.
“We’re really busy tonight, Mr. Cantu. I’m sure my father asked you to do it in the morning so you’d actually have room to work.”
“I can set up cones. I can work around the crowd. Just give him a call,” he pleads.
I lead him back toward the entrance. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cantu, but he’ll meet you in the morning. Like he promised.”
He stops. “Then an advance. You pay me now and I’ll get to work as soon as the sun comes up.” He’s got a death grip on both paint cans, his eyes red like he hasn’t slept in days. “Please, I have to have the money tonight.”
I lower my voice. “Or what?”
He lowers his too, glancing at the faces nearby. “Or he’ll take something else.”
The look in Mr. Cantu’s eyes spurs my pulse, then my feet. I make my way to the bar, knocking on the counter where Java, one of the bartenders, is flirting with two of the girls from the bachelorette party.
“Excuse me, ladies.” He winks. “Duty calls.”
They giggle and I roll my eyes.
“I need fifty from the cash register.”
He furrows his brow, considering asking what for.
I motion towards Mr. Cantu. “Another side job.”
“What about when I come up short tonight?”
I sigh, taking the cash. “I’ll figure it out.”
He nods, relieved. Because I always do.
I find Mr. Cantu and hand over the money. “And you’ll be here first thing in the morning.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He shakes. “Thank you, Pen. Tell your father thank you.”
“You can tell him yourself when you show up tomorrow.”
After I get rid of Mr. Cantu I bolt back to the kitchen before someone else can stop me. In the heat, the steam slows my steps, the burn in my knees finally registering. Somehow my five-hour shift has stretched into seven.
I see Lucas clocking out and I strip him of his apron, tying it around my waist.
“Uh, Pen…?” He’s a good two feet away from me—the appropriate distance when I’m running a shift and we’re this slammed.
“Yeah, spit it out.”
“You’ve got me on for a double tomorrow, right?”
“You’re on the schedule. What’s that, your third one this week?”
He looks down. “Rent’s due. They cut my mom’s hours.”
Lucas’ mom works at a hair salon a few blocks away. They used to stay open until eight, then six, then two. Now their doors are closed more than they’re open. I want to ask Lucas if it’s him—the same person threatening Mr. Cantu. But I already know the answer. Lucas saying it out loud would only make it scarier and that’s something I don’t allow myself to feel when I’m at the restaurant.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says before I can respond.
I take his place plating, my thoughts silenced the moment my desserts start coming up the line. I adorn them with mint leaves and powdered sugar, cinnamon and drizzled cajeta. I suck the Mexican caramel from my thumb, cheeks aching.
Someone knocks into me from behind, my chest smearing the coconut icing on the piece of cake I just plated. The cake I spend three hours every day baking fresh.
I can hear Struggles, resident dish boy, wheezing behind me, his shoes squeaking as he tries to tiptoe back to the dish pit. I spin, my ponytail whipping him in the face as he raises his hands, waiting for me to strike.
“I’m s-sorry…I was just—”
I grab him by the shirt collar, waiting for everyone else to turn and look. Like Lucas, I prefer an audience when I bite someone’s head off. Not because I like the attention but because I like the insurance. The scarier I am on the outside the less likely they are to see what’s underneath.
“Bring me another piece.” Struggles takes a step and I yank him back. “If you so much as breathe on it I will know and I will hurt you.”
He scampers away just as another crash ignites from the dining room. I scan the floor for Gabby. Instead, two guys are wrestling by the bar, their bodies knocking drinks off the countertop.
As I wind back through the dining tables, one of the bartenders, Solana, claws at the arm of one of the drunkards until it’s twisted behind his back. Java ducks behind the bar, groaning as he searches the shelves. I find what he’s looking for before he does, the air horn poised between the two brutes. Then I squeeze. They hold their ears, rolling like insects until Solana and a few of our regulars drag them outside.
I call out to Java, “Disaster Tax, stat!”
It’s his cue to bump up the price of alcohol for the rest of the night. It’s almost one AM, which means that everyone left in the bar will be too drunk to care. We’ll make back what’s currently stuck to the floor and then some.
Chloe already has a mop in hand and I whistle for Struggles to roll out the bucket. He lathers the floor. Gabby grabs a tray of food. She takes one step into the soapsuds and busts.
I find Angel through the order window. He rakes a hand down his face, calculations racing behind his eyes of every broken glass and plate; every spoiled piece of food.
By closing time I reek of tequila and onions. My shirt still has cake icing on it, the stains accompanied by dried salsa, grease, and a few other liquids I don’t recognize. But I can’t peel it off yet. Angel, the other closers, and I sweep the dining room before wiping down the kitchen. We have five hours before my father and the morning crew gets breakfast started.
But I know he’s already awake. His headlights creep up the mural on the back wall of the restaurant, settling over the guitar-playing skeletons as he puts his truck in park.
Java strips off his shirt on his way out the back door. “Sol, you’re still covering my shift tomorrow, right?”
She looks back at Angel. “I can’t pour drinks and plate at the same time.”
“New guy’s starting tomorrow so we won’t need you in the kitchen.”
“But we just got Gabby,” I say.
“Yeah, and we all know how that worked out,” Solana huffs.
“What’s with all the new hires?” Java asks.
I want to ask the same question, and more specifically, why our father hasn’t said anything about it to me.
“Struggles…” Angel slaps the dumpster out back. Struggles is half-way inside. “What the hell are you doing?”
Struggles climbs back out holding a crate of canned tomatoes. When he notices our looks of disgust he says, “They’re still good.”
“You mean they expired three days ago.” Angel tries to yank the crate from his grasp.
I step between them. “Which means they’re still good enough for Struggles.” I push the crate back in his arms and he races down the steps to his ride.
We wait for everyone to pull out of the parking lot and then we walk back around to our father’s truck. Angel pulls the door open, sighing as he slumps into the seat.
My back hurts, my legs burn, sweat painting my neck. I scrape my hair out of my face and find pieces of lettuce and dried enchilada sauce. Angel is just as filthy, the hours stuck to us in layers of grease while time has burrowed even deeper in my father’s skin.
He’s been waking up at three AM every morning for the past fifteen years. Cooking migas and tamales and pozole and carne asada. Cleaning up broken glass and spilled drinks and half-eaten food. Hiring cooks and bartenders and dish boys, firing them too. Wondering if people are going to show up that day, if they’re going to like the food, if they’re going to pay what it’s worth. And going to bed every night hoping that it was enough. To pay the bills. To raise four kids. To open the doors another day.
I can see those worries on his face, and even covered in filth, in food my father used to love, in sweat I can’t wait to wash off, there’s nothing I want more than to wear the same worry he does, to wake up with the same freedom.
“You smell like shit,” my father says.
“You mean I smell like money,” Angel corrects him.
My father almost laughs but then his eyes track to the rearview mirror. To the shadows lined up across the street. He backs out slow, the glow of the neon sign stamped against the hood of the truck. NACHO’S TACOS stretches to the curb, bleeding into the streetlights. The one across from us is just about to burn out, gasps of white drawing my eye.
“Just stare straight ahead,” my father says.
“How long have they been out there?” Angel asks.
Our father is quiet and I know it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been out there. All that matters is who they’re looking for.
One drop falls on the strawberries, another trying to fold itself into the whipping cream. I’m not sure where I heard that getting blood in the pancake batter is bad luck but I know it’s an omen the moment I see it.
I reach for the dishrag hanging over the sink, still soapy. Then I toss out the batter, starting from scratch with my one good hand.
“I’m hungry…” Lola has her head in her hands, one of her pigtails dipping into her glass of orange juice. She’s six so she doesn’t notice.
But Hugo isn’t six. He’s nine and he notices everything. “Did you cut yourself?” He comes to stand next to me, tugging on the towel.
“It’s just a scratch,” I say, pulling away.
He grabs my elbow instead and that’s when I realize the loud thumping sound isn’t my pulse but the whisk against the side of the bowl.
“Are you okay?” He cocks an eyebrow the way our father does, nose wrinkled as if he’s trying to sniff out the truth.
But I don’t tell the truth these days so I just shrug and say, “Fine.”
“Pen, can’t we just have Fruit Loops? Please?” Lola’s hair has escaped the rim of her glass and is now trailing juice across the kitchen table.
I lean over to scrub up her mess. “I’m sorry, but did you just say you’d rather have Fruit Loops?”
She whines, still clutching her chubby cheeks. “Everything you make takes too long.”
I move back to flip the cakes on the griddle. “Maybe because what I make isreal food and not from a box. Perfection takes time.”
“But I don’t want that.” Her bare feet slap the legs of her chair. “I just want Fruit Loops.”
I grip the sides of the counter, boiling, before I take a few deep breaths. Then I wave over my shoulder. “Fine. Do whatever you want.”
The room goes quiet, the only sound the sizzle of the batter as I pour the rest onto the griddle.
“Did you just say what I think you said?” Hugo asks.
“What?” I glance back at them. “Yeah. She can have whatever she wants.”
Lola jumps down from her chair and rushes over to the pantry, keeping one eye on me as she reaches for the box of cereal. She hugs it to her chest, taking slow steps around the kitchen as she grabs the milk and a bowl. She’s still staring at me as she begins to pour, slowly at first, testing me. When I don’t say a word she pours the entire box into her bowl and smiles.
I lean over her again. “And you better eat every last bite.”
When the pancakes are finished I wrap them up and carry them over to Sang’s mother, Mrs. Nguyen. She lives next door to us and watches Lola and Hugo on Saturday mornings when both of my parents are at the restaurant. And I’m supposed to be down the street at the community college.
I’ve been watching them for the past few weeks but now that winter break is over it’s time for things to go back to normal, which as far as my parents are concerned means that I’ll be attending labs every Saturday morning—something they believe I’ve been doing since the start of the fall semester.
But today’s a new day. A fresh start.
Who knows? Maybe this time I’ll actually be able to make it inside the building.
“Pen, what have you got for me today?” Mrs. Nguyen is already sitting on her porch, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand.
“The ones with chocolate and strawberries?” she asks.
I nod and she takes them, already peeling back the foil so she can tear off a bite.
“I just love these.” She pats my hand. “Have you convinced your father to start selling them at the restaurant yet?”
“Thanks. And not yet.”
Compliments usually make me uncomfortable—I’d rather watch the way my food makes people feel—but Mrs. Nguyen has been my official taste-tester since I was in middle school. In fact, she was my first customer, spending twenty bucks on pralines every time I opened up a lemonade stand.
At eighteen years old I’ve finally come to accept her enthusiasm. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm hasn’t quite rubbed off on my father. He’s let me tweak the menu at the restaurant but when it comes to my desire to take over the place, or even to open up one of my own, he hasn’t exactly been supportive.
“You tell him he’s losing a fortune,” she says.
I shrug my backpack onto the opposite shoulder, letting the weight of all those unopened textbooks drag me to the car. “Thank you for watching Lola and Hugo today. I better get going, you know…to class.”
“Oh yes, yes, Em. Have a nice day.”
The parking lot hasn’t changed; the science building looks the same as that first day of school five months ago. But as I sit in my car, watching girls I met during orientation skip up the steps, hugging their bags, excited to play nurse, I try to convince myself that something inside me has. That today I’ll actually be able to go inside. That today I will stop lying and be the person they want me to be.
Class starts in approximately seven minutes—the class I should have taken and passed last semester, moving me one step closer to a degree in nursing.
I sit in the parking lot, watching the clock tick down. The car is in park but I can’t bring myself to turn off the engine.
I turn off the car, reminding myself how much I’ve already wasted on tuition and books.
You can do this. You can.
I reach for my bag.
Get. Out. Of. The. Car.
And then I can’t breathe.
My mother’s shoes.
All I can think about are my mother’s shoes.
How they’ve sat in the same spot by the door for almost twenty years. Scuffed and cracked, the shadow of her foot pressed to the leather even when the laces are loose. I imagine every hallway they’ve ever walked down, every door they’ve propped open, every mess they’ve ever stepped in, every second they’ve held her up when all she wanted was to collapse. Because one of her patients couldn’t remember her face or their daughter’s name or how to speak.
When she lost one I’d wake to the knock of the rolling pin and the smell of dough warming on the hot plate. Sometimes I’d try to take the pin from her but there was something about the force, about the rhythm that reminded her how to breathe. We’d work in silence and three-dozen tortillas later she’d wrap them in foil and drive them to the family. The family that only visited once a month. That would accept my mother’s food without acknowledging that she was more family to the deceased than they were.
And then the next day she would go back to work.
For almost twenty years. She went back.
And if I step out of this car, if I walk up those steps, if I sit at that desk and pretend…how long will I be sitting there before I realize I’m trapped?
I take a deep breath, the scent of a thousand shifts at the restaurant tucked into the fabric of the front seat. Mango and cilantro and epazote, tomatillosand roasted pepitas and tortillas. I can’t sleep without those smells tangled in my hair, without those flavors still on my tongue.
So I have to decide what’s scarier: living a life that doesn’t belong to me or losing the one I love. If the truth breaks my father’s heart, I know he’ll take it from me. But if it doesn’t, if he understands, if I can make him understand, I can be free.
I weigh each option, simmering in the anxiety they provoke, in the hope. Because I have to do what scares me. It’s the only way to ward off the helplessness. To stay in control. I always have to be in control.
Which means that today is not the day I go inside.
My stomach drops, my hand reaching to put the car in drive again.
Today is the day I tell them the truth.
The campus is only fifteen minutes from the restaurant but the drive takes longer. I could blame it on traffic or I could blame it on the detour I take past the park where I sort of get distracted by the people feeding the ducks and then the next thing I know I’m out of the car and walking along the waterline, my shoes sticking in the mud.
I spot Kal’s food truck, which I try to convince myself is just a lucky coincidence even though Kal’s truck is always parked here on Saturdays. The line is short and I tell myself that I’ll just walk by, downwind so that I can smell the balushahi batter. But then the smell drags me forward.
“Hey, Pen. Day off?” Kal’s cheeks are flecked with powdered sugar.
“Just the morning. We’ve got another new hire tonight so I’ll be there to train him.”
Kal raises an eyebrow. “Another one? What happened to the regular crew?”
Kal’s family has known my father since the restaurant opened. His parents used to own an Indian grocery store down the street where we’d buy cardamom and rosewater for the restaurant and boxes of rasmalai for me.
When I was six and Kal was fifteen he ran away from home. I remember my father being out all night, my brother and I perched in the window as we counted the revolving headlights searching the neighborhood. My father was the one to find him. We knew he would—me, Angel, my mother, even Kal’s parents.
My father finds everyone. And then he hires them at the restaurant, which is why Angel and I have trained almost twenty new employees in the past six months. Less than half managed to stick around. They couldn’t take the late nights or the manual labor or the necessity of being sober. But I know the second any of them comes back and asks for another chance he’ll give it to them.
“Most of them are still there,” I say. “Nando is the only one who got into a school out of state and Priti moved back to Gujurat with her family.”
“And the new hires are all from the neighborhood?”
Kal shifts away from the window, letting one of his employees take the next order. He meets me at the bottom of the truck steps, arms braced against the doorway. “What’s going on over there, Pen?”
Kal moved out of our neighborhood a long time ago. He still visits his parents a couple of times a month but every time the conversation devolves back to questions about medical school he disappears again.
The irony that the same cultural traditions he once found suffocating are the same traditions that have set him free isn’t lost on anyone, especially Kal. And yet, his mother still can’t watch her son make a living from her recipes without feeling shame. The distance he’s placed between him and our childhood neighborhood as a result means that he can’t see the changes up close.
Sometimes I’m not sure if I can really see them either or if I’m just imagining things. The slow crunch of tires past our house. The faint crack of things breaking.
“Something…” I glance back at the people walking along the lake, afraid of speaking the danger into existence. “He won’t say. Not yet. But the new hires seem…more afraid than usual.”
“And not just of you?” He can’t quite crack a smile. “How’s he finding them?”
“Sometimes Officer Solis brings them in. Others come on their own.”
Kal sighs, crosses his arms. “I’m guessing not everyone’s happy about that.”
My voice drops. “And he’s taking it out on the neighborhood.”
“When hasn’t he…?” He stops. He doesn’t want to speak the danger into existence either.
We’re both quiet, finally noticing how long the line has grown. Kal lifts a finger, signaling me to wait as he disappears inside the truck. He comes back with a small box of balushahi. I reach for my wallet and he waves a hand.
“Don’t worry about it. Just be careful, Pen.”
I sit in my car for another fifteen minutes. If there was anything that could have possibly cheered me up in that moment it would have been one of Kal’s balushahi.
Except it doesn’t.
Because even after I finish the entire box I can still taste the lie. The one I’ve been telling for five months. To my parents. To Angel. And I can taste the truth. The truth I’m about to tell whether my family likes it or not.
But telling them where I’ve been will be the easy part. Telling my father why will be almost impossible. I already know what he’ll say. That I’m supposed to be the one. Not Angel. Not him or my mother. I’m supposed to be the one untethered. Free. Because that’s what he’s always wanted. For himself—and when it didn’t happen—for me.
* * *
My shift at the restaurant doesn’t start until five but I know my parents will both be in the back having their monthly expenses meeting. Probably not the best time to disturb them but it’s rare for them to be in the same place at the same time. My dad is always at the restaurant and my mom works nights at the nursing home.
When I walk inside the place is just starting to pick up, slow enough that I can hear the grills sizzling in the back but full enough that every seat at the bar is already taken. The patio is starting to fill up too, tables topped with textbooks and mugs of Mexican coffee. After a long night of partying it drags the college students in in droves.
Two years ago I created quite the PowerPoint presentation, which helped my dad realize he could double his profit if he marketed “discounted drinks” to anyone with a student ID. Now Nacho’s Tacos is the place every community college student spends their Thursday nights getting drunk and then the rest of the week nursing their hangover—both academic and alcohol induced.
On Thursdays they come here for the best palomas in town thanks to my substitution of Jamaican tangelos and blood limes for the traditional grapefruit and on Fridays they come for half-priced pork carnitas, legendary thanks to my addition of sweetened condensed milk, which caramelizes the meat with a sweet coating.
After working in my father’s restaurant for almost my entire life, slowly but surely, I’ve tweaked every item on the menu. And maybe that’s why I’m always here. Because it makes me feel like myself. Because it makes me feel like my father’s daughter.
That could also be the reason I’m pinned to the doorway, the muggy summer draft not enough of an adversary to push me inside. I don’t want to think about what might happen after I tell them the truth; of the possibility that this could be the last time I walk through these doors. That this could be the last time I come home.
And what if, untethered from the one thing that matters most to me, I start to spiral again? What if I can’t stop it this time?
You belong here. Deep down, he knows that.
“Pen!” Chloe’s long blonde ponytail whips around the corner. “Are you okay? I thought your shift didn’t start until five.”
“Oh.” I blink, the room coming into focus again. “Yeah. It doesn’t…”
I scan the restaurant looking for my parents or Angel. My father just made him manager despite the fact that he’s a total flake. Despite the fact that I wanted the job and I could have done it better.
“Well, what are you doing here?”
“Have you seen my parents?”
Chloe freezes. “Is this about…?” She lowers her voice, pulling me out of the breezeway. “Are you actually going to tell them?”
A long breath stutters out. “It’s time.”
“Pen…” She shakes her head. “What if you try again tomorrow? Double up on classes in the summer to make up for all that lost time. You can do this.”
“I won’t.” Being firm with Chloe is my first test. Because I haven’t just decided to stop lying to my parents, I’ve decided to stop lying to myself too.
“Have you thought about this? I mean really thought it through?”
“What do you mean?” She’s making me nervous. “Of course I’ve thought it through. Dad’s always said that I’m the smart one, the responsible one. But then last week he suddenly decides to give Angel the manager’s position just because I’m the one in school.”
“But you’re not in school.”
“Exactly. Which is why I should be manager.”
“Or why you shouldn’t.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Chloe’s voice softens. “It means you were the responsible one. Past tense. Once they find out you’ve been lying do you really think they’re going to reward you with an official title and a raise?”
“It’s not about that anymore.”
“Okay.” She crosses her arms. “Now I’m confused.”
“I just want them to take me seriously. To see that I really want this and only this. That school just isn’t for me.”
“They’re not going to like that.”
“I know but I can’t keep lying to them. It’s making me sick.”
Chloe puts a hand on my shoulder, the same way she did that first day in middle school. I still remember spotting her glasses from across the cafeteria, her Homestar Runner lunchbox the only thing unassuming enough in that entire place for me to actually sit next to. But isn’t that how all the best friendships start? Two strangers clinging to each other in a sea of conformity.
“Fine. Here…” She traces my bottom lip with a napkin. “It was smudged.”
I find my parents sitting around the plastic card table that my father has shoved in one of the storage closets that has now become a makeshift office. They’re thumbing through receipts, my mom’s hair in a frizzy mess on top of her head and my father’s reading glasses slipping on the perspiration painting his nose. They look stressed.
I linger in the doorway, almost taking their ignorance as a sign that I should leave. That maybe the universe is giving me a second chance and I have approximately five seconds of invisibility left to run out of the restaurant and back to my car.
But then my mom says, “Pen, you’re here early,” and my heart starts to race. She looks up at me. “Is everything okay? Are Lola and Hugo—?”
“They’re fine. I dropped them off at Mrs. Nguyen’s.”
“Did they have breakfast?”
Her nose wrinkles.
“Shouldn’t you be in class right now?” My father doesn’t even look up from the receipt he’s holding.
“Class. Right.” My hands are slick and I stuff them into the back pockets of my jeans. “Well, I…”
“Was it cancelled?”
More like indefinitely.
“Or maybe Pen’s playing a little hooky.” Angel squeezes into the doorway next to me, bright yellow ear buds hanging over his shoulder, the faint sound of an electric guitar floating in the air like a gnat.
He looks exactly like our mother, every inch of him stretched and pressed. He’s six inches taller than me but somehow we’re the same weight.
“You’re the only delinquent in this family,” my mother teases him. “So Pen, did you need something?”
I swallow. “I just wanted to talk to you about something.”
“About what?” My mother blows a strand of hair out of her face, still examining the receipts on the table in front of her.
I wait for her to look at me, for both of them to look at me. For them to use their parental super powers to see the lie all over my face so I don’t have to say it.
Like that time in fifth grade when they caught me stealing change out of their pockets when it was my turn to do the laundry. I found forty dollars that summer and they made me spend every cent of it on toilet paper. My mother walked me into the supermarket and then she made me walk out alone, the shopping cart full of Charmin Ultra. It was a Sunday and everyone saw me. I almost died of embarrassment.
Suddenly, I can hear everybody in the kitchen behind me: the scuff of shoes, knives on cutting boards, laughter bubbling beneath the overhead vents and I dread what sort of maniacal punishment my parents will inflict right here, right now.
Except this time I haven’t just stolen forty dollars. This time I’ve been lying about going to school for five whole months. And not just lying but reallylying. I picked out a fake major, displayed fake textbooks on the desk in my bedroom. I bought a school shirt and stuck a thirty dollar parking sticker on the front windshield of my car that was not only useless but a lie.
They were all lies.
“Pen.” My mom waves a hand.
The doorway shrinks another inch, Angel eyeing me.
“You wanted to talk,” my mother says, nodding.
“I…I did. I…”
Angel nudges me. “Spit it out, Pen.”
I shoot him a look. I mean it to be snarling and terrifying but I can see by his reaction that it’s more pathetic and panicked. I brace myself for what’s coming next and so does he.
“I wanted to talk to you and dad about school.”
“Is that why you missed class today?” she asks.
“Sort of.” Stop lying. “No. I mean…” Deep breath. “I didn’t just miss class today.”
My father finally looks up. His eyes settle on my face, unblinking and impatient.
“What do you mean you didn’t just miss class today?” my mother asks.
“I’ve missed a few,” I say, voice quaking. You’re doing it again. “No. Mom, dad, I’ve missed more than a few. The truth is I haven’t been going to school. At all. And—”
“No.” My father’s voice is low and drawn and knocks the air from my lungs.
He crumples the receipt in his fist as if forcing down a yell. But my father doesn’t yell. Instead, he guts you with all of the things he doesn’t say, with sighs and silence. With shaking his head and kneading his hands and making you stew there in your own fear.
My father takes off his reading glasses. I stew.
“Since when?” he finally says.
“But last semester…” My mother shakes her head, confused.
“I didn’t go.”
“But you said—”
My father looks at my mother. “She lied.” Then he looks at me. “You lied.”
“I did. But…I’m…”
He stands, pushing past my brother and I before heading for a shelf across the kitchen. He carries back an apron, handing it to me without looking. “There’s a rush.”
“No!” He slams his hands down on the card table, the metal legs squealing. “Tonight’s your last night.”
“What?” I absorb his rage, shaking. “But, no you can’t do that.”
“Pen…” Angel tries to pull me from the doorway.
“Dad, please. Mom…”
She bites her lip, staring down at her hands.
“Please, Dad. I’m sorry.” Don’t unravel. You’re in control. Be in control.“Please. Just let me ex—”
My father lifts a hand. “Take your sister.”
But Angel doesn’t reach for me. He doesn’t have to. I tuck the apron under my arm, deflated and on fire, and then I march through the kitchen for the last time.
“Pen, are you okay…?”
I brush past my brother and find Chloe by the hostess stand, assigning sections and rolling silverware. When she sees me, the fork she’s holding clamors to the table.
I stop. Numb.
She spins me so that we’re shielded by a wall, sensing my tears before I do.
I bite them back.
If I open my mouth I’ll break. I try to breathe instead. In and out. But all I want is to crawl into the corner. To walk straight into traffic. To stop this feeling even if it stops me.
Stop. Stop. Stop.
You’re in control.
I can’t let them see the cracks. Widening. Splintering into a million pieces. I can’t let them see me in pieces.
“Pen, you’re scaring me.”
Not as much as I’m scaring myself. I want to tell her but she doesn’t know this Pen. No one does.
I steady my voice until it’s strong enough to fool both of us. “He said tonight’s my last night.”
Chloe slumps down in a chair. “Did he even let you explain? What did you say? What did your mom say?”
“My mom said absolutely nothing.” I collapse in the chair across from her. “Big surprise there.”
“I didn’t get a chance to say much at all. He wouldn’t even let me try.”
“Maybe he just needs to cool down. Maybe later you might catch him in a good mood and…”
I shake my head. “My dad’s not like that. He’s not fickle and he’s never in a good mood.”
“He’ll change his mind.”
She grips my shoulders, cheeks red too. “He will.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
The squeak of rubber soles pulls my gaze. “Hey, Pen…” Struggles.
Chloe crinkles her eyes into her get-the-fuck-away-from-me stare and says, “She’s a little busy.”
“Sorry, Pen.” He shudders. “I just thought you’d want to know that the new guy’s supposed to start tonight and we can’t find any more Tacos t-shirts in the back.”
I bury my face in my hands. “He can have mine.”
His eyes widen. “Whoa, you’re quitting?”
“No.” Chloe pushes out of her chair. “Pen is not quitting and you better not say anything to anyone, you got it?”
“Pen is still your boss.”
He nods again, taking a slow step back.
“Who’s your boss?”
She stares down at him.
“And you,” he adds.
“Good. Now run along.”
He kneads his hands. “But the t-shirts…?”
“Check in the freezer,” I say. “Second shelf to the right.”
Struggles runs for the kitchen.
“The freezer?” Chloe asks.
“Two summers ago the air conditioning went out. We put the shirts in the freezer and then slipped them on in the afternoons to stay cool.”
“Let me guess, Angel’s idea?” Chloe rolls her eyes but there’s just a hint of admiration in her voice. She’s been in love with my older brother since we were thirteen and he was a sophomore.
“Who else?” I force myself to stand, zipping on my signature scowl before word of my firing makes it around to the other employees. “How’s my face?”
She pinches both of my cheeks. “You’ve got a nice blush. Don’t worry, looks very natural. Although, you might want to touch up the lip.”
“Again?” I reach for my tube of Scotch on the Rocks.
“Hey, you’re the one who keeps chewing on them.”
I purse my lips, checking my reflection in one of the windows until the girl staring back is more bitch than breakable. Then I tie my hair into a high ponytail behind a bandana as any trace of my almost-tears evaporates.
Chloe winks. “Very Rosie The Riveter.”
“That’s usually what I’m going for.”
Chloe leads the way back through the kitchen, waving me forward when she sees that the office is empty. My parents’ car isn’t parked out back anymore and I’m relieved. Unfortunately, that doesn’t save me from being interrogated.
“What the hell was that about?” Angel ties on his apron, fingers fumbling over the strings as he refuses to look down at them and away from my face.
I don’t answer him, just turn on my heel and head in the opposite direction.
“Hey.” He grabs me by the wrist, pulling me back into the office/storage closet before slamming the door closed. Then he paces. Well, as much as you possibly can in a five-foot by five-foot space. He takes two steps to the left, two to the right. Then he stops. “Pen.” He says my name slow, careful. “What’s going on?”
“I told you. I’m not going to school.”
“Yeah, but why the hell not?”
“You know the answer to that.”
And he does. My brother and I aren’t like other siblings. We actually…talk. Sometimes. About real stuff. Like about how I want to extend the restaurant and create my own bakery and how he wants to join the army. And how he parked his car on the train tracks by our house for an entire night when our father said no. And how I used to draw things on my arms until it hurt. He knows things and I know things that other people don’t. That they never will.
“But why did you lie about it?” he says.
I know he really wants to say, to me. Why did you lie about it to me?
“I don’t know.”
“That’s not good enough, Pen.”
He’s past being confused and has run through angry straight to hurt.
“They wanted it for me. They wanted it for me so much.”
“So I lied. I didn’t want to hurt them.” I look up at him. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“And now?” My brother searches my eyes, earnest, almost afraid. “You didn’t want to hurt anyone…but now?”
“I guess I couldn’t take it anymore.”
The expression drudges up memories like shards of glass. That’s how I remember the last time it happened—in fragments. I know Angel remembers it too, the shades drawn, my closed bedroom door, the invisible bruises left behind by their voices and the bed sheets and the sun. Back when everything used to hurt. Breathing. Being.
But I’ve been on medication for almost two years now, the darkness barely lapping at me, waves always receding just in time. Until today. But I don’t let Angel see that I’m breaking, with every breath, with every word. He wants me to be fine and as he searches my eyes, I let him find what he needs, his fear evaporating.
He looks down, eyes settling on his new name-tag instead. “You couldn’t take it anymore…because he made me manager.” He crumples an abandoned receipt. “And not you.”
My cheeks burn.
“Shit, Pen.” He exhales, gripping his scalp. “What am I going to do around here without you? Huh? Why did you have to get yourself fired? From our father’s restaurant.”
“I think you know that’s the last thing I wanted to do.”
I love my father’s restaurant. Even though beneath his owner’s smile I can see that he hates it. And even more that he hates me being here, following in his footsteps. But I can’t help it. I love the cracked parking lot and my father’s name on the sign. I love the torn green booths and the orange tiled floors. The murals on the wall that my grandfather painted before he died. I love being swaddled in the scents of my childhood. I love the scars and callouses and burn marks. My friends. My home. That’s what it is to me. Everything.
“Maybe…” I sigh, eyes pleading. “Maybe you could talk to him.”
“Me.” His voice is sharp, almost amused. “Yeah, right.”
“Think about it. Inventory’s coming up. Payroll. Another audit from the IRS. Dad made you manager but we both know who really keeps everything together when he’s not here.”
He rolls his eyes. “Oh, come on. You think I can’t take care of things?”
I cross my arms. “Can you?”
He chews on the inside of his cheek. “Fine, I’ll talk to him.”
The mouthwash sloshes between my cheeks until my eyes burn. I spit it out, flecks of blood swirling near the bottom of the sink. I’ve been grinding my teeth in my sleep for weeks, tearing open old wounds that’ll probably never heal.
I cup a handful of freezing water and splash it on my face. It trickles down, tracing the raised skin behind my left ear. It puckers near my hairline, the scar barely visible when I look straight ahead. Sometimes I forget it’s there and sometimes it throbs. Sometimes it whispers to me.
But this morning it wasn’t just a whisper. It was a shout, Jago’s voice yanking me out of sleep. I felt his hands pressing me to the pavement. Gravel grinding into my cheeks. The taste of dirt and oil making me choke while his fists pounded. Pounded. Pounded into me.
I thrashed at the blankets, gulping down air. Then I opened my eyes to streetlights flickering outside my bedroom window, the baseball cards tacked near the ceiling fluttering in the air conditioning.
You’re out. You’re out. You’re safe.
It’s a lie every time but it’s the only thing that lets me catch my breath.
I hear the squeak of the bottom stair and race down before my abuelo can attempt the second one.
“I’m coming.” I round the corner. “I’m right here.”
“Oh, good.” He stops to cough into his handkerchief. “I didn’t want you to be late.”
“It’s just down the street. Nacho’s. You remember.”
I lead him back to his armchair, pulling the coffee table with the remote and his glass of tea within reach.
“Nacho’s. I remember that boy, Ignacio. Used to run a real Mexican restaurant. But that was before…” He stops to cough again. “Before he turned it into a strip joint.”
I hand him the remote. “It’s not a strip joint, Abuelo. It’s a bar.”
“I’ve seen the way those girls dress going in there. Nothing but a few napkins and some dental floss.”
“They’re college students.”
He waves a hand. “No wonder you want to go so bad.”
“Have you eaten?” I ask, eyeing the tacos de papa still sitting at the kitchen table.
“It’s four in the afternoon. I wasn’t hungry.”
“I know but you will be later and I won’t be here.”
“For Christ’s sake. I’m not an invalid. I’ll fix myself a sandwich or something.”
“I’ll get out the—”
He shoos me away. “I can get the bread. Now you go. You don’t want to be late for your first day.”
I put the tacos in the fridge before pulling the bread down onto the counter. “Okay, you’ve got everything? Phone?”
“Yeah, yeah. Now leave me alone so I can watch my westerns.”
“Okay. I’ll be back late.”
He lifts a finger and I draw closer. Then he pats the top of my head. “You’ll do good.”
The keys jangle in my back pocket. I could have taken the car but the restaurant is only a few blocks away and I like the sun. It sizzles up from the sidewalk, heat waves flexing like snakes and reminding me of the way I used to chase their tails all the way to the marqueta. Back when I still lived with my mother in Puebla. When she used to make menudo every Sunday evening and I was the only one who could pick out the best meat. I’d sit at the kitchen table, picking the hair off the tripe while she started the broth. It would simmer all night and I’d wake up to the smell of onions and freshly sliced lemons.
One day when I was nine, I set out to finally catch a handful of the sun. I wanted to hold the glimmer in the palm of my hand. So I ran. Sand sucking at my shoes, sweat dripping down my back. I’d stopped to catch my breath even though I knew that stopping on the way to the marqueta was against the rules. It wasn’t safe. But I was tired, hands slumping to my knees before the rest of me fell down too. Up ahead, blurry behind the sun, I could see two men walking. They passed through the glimmer, unscathed, and then I couldn’t move.
That day I limped home with a bloody nose and my pockets empty. A week later my mother left and never came back. And even though it’s been almost ten years since she found another family, I’ll never stop wondering what would have happened if I’d made it to the marqueta that day.
Light reflects off the tinted windows of the restaurant, reminding me that I’m a thousand miles away. The parking lot is already full even though it’s just before five.
My interview was only ten minutes long, Mr. Prado claiming they were hiring for kitchen staff even though I knew he was only “hiring” because Officer Solis had asked him to be. Apparently, I wasn’t the only pity hire. I’d heard one of Jago’s girls, Gabby, just started as a waitress. Probably had to wait a couple of weeks between her fake interview and her first day so the swelling could go down on the shiner he’d left her as a parting gift.
When I step into the breezeway there’s already a line, people holding drinks and watching the big TV screens behind the bar while they wait for a table. Nacho’s is somewhere between a dive and a taqueria. One side of the restaurant is covered in a vintage Spanish mural, vaqueros on horseback and flamenco dancers leaning over the patrons as they eat. But on the other side, the wall lining the bar is covered in old photographs, posters of local bands, and vintage ticket stubs.
It’s become somewhat of an attraction for the college crowd lately but the people in my neighborhood have been tithing to the taco gods as long as I’ve lived here. You’ve got the flu? Order Nacho’s famous Caldo de Res. You need some money? Ask him if you can wash dishes. You’re missing home? Order his bread pudding. And if you’re trying to start over, to repent for your past, ask him for a job.
No one knows how he keeps the lights on with so many handouts but as that neon sign buzzes late into the night you can’t help but sense something supernatural about the place.
I sense it now, the smells of my childhood waking my lungs. When I finally manage to push my way toward the hostess stand I’m greeted by a girl with dirty blonde hair and thick hipster glasses.
“How many?” she asks.
“I don’t need a table. Tonight’s my first night.”
“Ahh…” She narrows her eyes. “New guy. Follow me.”
She abandons the line to a mild eruption of groans.
“Hold your horses,” she calls back. “He’s new.”
I follow her past the bar and beneath a faux-clay archway adorned with a sign that reads employees only. We pass a row of lockers, a few employees changing out of their shirts. The tile grows slick and a small lanky kid almost slips trying to push past me. I brace myself against the wall.
“Careful.” The girl in the glasses looks back. “You don’t want to trip on your first day.”
She stops in front of a tall guy with arms like licorice. He’s beating his tongs on the edge of his grill, bright yellow headphones tucked in his ears.
“Angel.” She clears her throat, nudging him. “Angel!”
He smiles, goofy and so wide that his headphones fall out. “New guy, right?”
“Yeah, “ I reach out a hand. “Alexander Amaro. Xander…”
“Xander…” He lets the first letter buzz against his teeth. “Hey! Everybody!” He beats against his grill until the kitchen is quiet. Then he hangs an arm around my shoulder. “Everyone, this is Xander. He’s the new guy.”
At least ten pairs of eyes are glued to my face. They blink, a few people cross their arms. And then they all erupt in laughter.
I turn to Angel. “What’d I do?”
He smiles. “Nothing yet.” He gives the girl with glasses a nod. “I can take it from here, Chloe.”
She calls back, “I sure hope so.”
Angel wriggles his eyebrows. “Let’s get you a shirt, shall we?”
I’ve never been good with first impressions. Mostly because I’ve never been good with small talk. Or any kind of talk. I’m usually the guy standing in the corner of the room, comfortable wearing a tough façade only because I can’t help it. No matter what I’m feeling my face is always empty, an inherent force field that isolates me in the best possible way.
I would rather listen anyway. To the things people don’t say or don’t mean to say. To the things you can only hear if you’re looking—at their face, at their eyes. I like listening. But flawlessly executing my ability to stay perfectly silent will get me nowhere my first day on the job. Well, it might get me fired. And I can’t get fired.
I follow Angel through the kitchen, people parting like a wave. The lanky kid who almost busted earlier licks his lips, braces sparkling. The girl with dreads next to him…growls. Or at least I’m pretty sure it’s a growl.
Angel bends down to dig in a box full of Nacho’s Tacos t-shirts before pulling one out and handing it to me. It’s frozen, the sleeves unfolding with a crack.
He cocks his head. “That’s odd.”
“Is there a bathroom?” I ask. “Somewhere I can change?”
“Aw, new guy’s a little shy…” I hear over my shoulder.
I know they’re just busting my balls. I’ve been through initiation before. But the word shy makes me bristle.
It’s what my mother’s friends used to call me when I’d choose to help them in the kitchen instead of wrestling with their sons over a busted soccer ball. It’s what my American teachers used to say about me when I wouldn’t speak, couldn’t because I was too busy chasing words like flies, trying to make sense of the voices buzzing around me. It’s what Jago and his crew had branded me when I showed no interest in sleeping with one of his leftovers or beating the shit out of someone just because they gave him a dirty look. First it was shy and then it was traitor.
He’d given me plenty of opportunities to prove I wasn’t. But because my actions had always spoken louder than anything else, I couldn’t quiet what a betrayal they were. And on my first day with a new pack of wolves, there’s no choice but to be loud and clear with them too.
In the midst of kissing sounds and baby voices, Angel trying to nudge me out of the flames, I plant myself. I strip out of my shirt, fists clenched while I let them count the scars. I picture them too, the shallow cuts like constellations, all winding around the jagged centerpiece where Jago tried to use the same heat that had chased away my mother to make me his.
The sounds evaporate, and for a second I wonder if the eyes have too, but then I hear something glass slip off the counter, cracking just as I yank the Nacho’s Tacos shirt down over my head.
I face Angel. “Now, about that bathroom.”
He points to a door up ahead.
It’s heavy and strangely narrow. I yank it open, hinges squealing, and suddenly my toes are hanging over nothing. I catch hold of the doorframe before I slip off the edge and fall head first into the dumpster. A hand grabs the collar of my shirt, yanking me back inside.
I spin. “What the hell?”
The girl with dreads yells, “I guess you won’t be needing that bathroom after all,” and everyone starts laughing again, this time doubled over, hands slapping knees.
I shake out my arms, using my infamous grimace to my advantage. The laughter stops.
“Sorry, man.” Angel lets go of my shirt. “But you know how this goes.” He grips my shoulders, turning me in the other direction. “And the real bathroom’s that way.”
I glance back the entire way. Even when I reach a door marked with the words EMPLOYEE BATHROOM, I kick it open with my foot first just to be sure.
When I see a sliver of the stalls I step inside but I’m not alone. A girl stands over the sink, long ponytail slipping over her shoulder, flyaways held back by a red bandana she’s folded into a headband.
“Sorry…” I reach for the door again.
She looks up, nose freckled and eyes wet. Lips as red as her bandana as she says, “You look like you almost died.”
For some reason my tongue is dry and three inches thicker. She presses a finger to the corner of her eye, mascara smearing. She sniffs.
“I…think I almost just did,” I finally manage to say.
“Did they try to get you to fall in the dumpster?”
“Don’t worry, the hazing doesn’t last long. Usually, just until the next new person starts.”
“When will that be?”
“Who knows?” She shrugs, chewing on her lip. “Actually, probably tomorrow.” She heads for the door.
Just as I’m washing my hands it pushes open again.
“Oh good,” Angel says. “We thought you’d escaped or something.”
A guy half Angel’s size follows in behind him, a tool belt slung over his hips that’s full of various utensils and plastic containers filled with different colored sauces.
“Xander, this is Lucas. You’re gonna hang with him today.”
He holds out a hand and I shake it, my own coming back sticky and smelling like peanut butter. Not a good mix with the stagnant toilet smell we’re already standing in.
“I’ll just leave you two to get acquainted.”
Lucas stands over the sink, setting his tongs down on the porcelain. He wets his hands under the faucet and runs his fingers through his thick black hair until it isn’t sticking to his fat cheeks anymore. He looks twelve, his five o’clock shadow slightly unsettling.
“What part of Mexico are you from?” he asks.
He nods. “My grandparents are from Chihuahua.”
“You ever been?”
“No. They moved the family to Texas, stopped speaking Spanish, and never looked back. Which is why my Spanish is total shit. I can understand all of Angel’s dirty jokes but that’s about it.” He checks his face in the mirror again. “I can speak a little Korean, though. Parting gift from my ex. She worked here for about six months.” He smirks, remembering something. “Things did not end well.”
The quiet pause is too long and I finally remember how a normal person would probably respond to what Lucas just said. “I’m...sorry.”
“No worries.” He continues making faces in the mirror, admiring something I just can’t see. “As I always say: hwa jang jal ba jut dah.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think it means something like…it is what it is. I don’t know. I heard Mimi’s mom tell her that a lot and it always seemed like good advice.”
I have a feeling that it doesn’t mean exactly what Lucas thinks it means but I humor him anyway. “Eso si que es.”
Lucas puffs out his chest. “What the hell did you just say to me?”
I almost smile. “It’s Spanish for ‘it is what it is.’”
His face brightens. “Eso si que es. I like that!” He finally heads for the door. “Listen, I like you. I think you’ve got a real future here and if you stick with me you’ll be just fine.” He leads me back towards the kitchen. “There’s just a few things you need to know first. Now…” he lowers his voice, “the big doof that introduced us…” he points with his tongs, a bit of meat still left in the grooves, “that’s the boss’s oldest son, AKA, our manager.”
“Manager?” I stop. “Seriously?”
Lucas rolls his eyes. “Yeah, don’t get me started on that one. The good thing is he doesn’t give you shit when you’re late.”
I wonder if there’s anything Angel does give a shit about. The fact that he’s still wearing that goofy smile while everyone else is stone-faced and scrambling doesn’t make it seem like much fazes him.
Lucas leads me around to the prepping stations. He points out two guys with the same black hair, same birthmark above their right eye, both chopping onions with the same methodical crunch and swipe.
“The Medranos. Completely identical except for Aarón’s…well, let’s just say he got electrocuted last year when he was still just a dish boy and he’s never been the same since. Idiot was trying to plug in the radio after scrubbing down a plate. Whole place lost power for about an hour.”
We move past the prep station to the washroom, a small alcove with four sinks, two of them already piled high with dishes. The scrawny kid with braces snaps on some gloves. He reaches for one of the plates and Lucas pulls me back behind the wall so he can’t see us. Then we both watch him pick off some old food and toss it in his mouth. My stomach turns.
“And how many times has he been electrocuted?” I ask.
Lucas sighs. “Who knows? That’s Struggles.”
My brow furrows. “Struggles?”
“Yeah, skinny fuck always looks like he’s struggling to live.”
Struggles takes another bite off the dirty plate.
Or struggling to die.
Lucas holds a finger to his lips and then he creeps up behind Struggles. “Hey, you gonna pay for that!”
Struggles screams, cowering and digging in his pockets. They’re empty.
“Shit, I was just messing with you,” Lucas laughs.
He waves me forward, Struggles leaning against the sink, red-faced and relieved.
“That’s Chelo.” Lucas points out the girl with dreads.
“I think she growled at me earlier.”
“Oh, don’t worry about her. She growls at everybody. Partly why she doesn’t work front of house anymore.”
“Partly?” I ask. “What’s the other part?”
Lucas looks me dead in the eye. “You don’t want to know.” Two pretty girls walk by, stealing Lucas’ focus. “Andrea and Mari,” he says, his voice low. “Both waitresses and both total bitches.”
I want to ask why but I know it’s probably just because they won’t sleep with him, which has bruised his outrageously inflated ego. I could tell Lucas was sort of a creep from the moment I met him and the side-eye he’s getting from Andrea and Mari only confirms my suspicions.
He slides over to them, gross smirk on his face. “Ladies, have you met my friend here? Uh…” he leans toward me, “what’s your name again?”
“Right. Xander. New guy.”
“Yeah,” Andrea says, unamused. “We saw him.”
There’s an awkward pause, the girls waiting for Lucas to say something worth their interest and Lucas probably waiting for me to do the same. I think about smiling but I don’t.
“Oh, well then…I guess we’ll catch you later…” Lucas pulls me around the corner. “Christ man, I thought a guy like you would have some kind of game.”
“A guy like me?”
“Yeah, you know…” he waves his hands, “pretty.” He shakes his head. “Forget it.” He starts towards the kitchen and then immediately throws himself back against the wall. “Oh shit.”
“What is it?”
“Pen.” He peers around the corner again. “Oh no and she’s got her Rosie The Retributioner face on.”
I remember the girl in the bathroom with her red bandana.
“Pen, also-known-as Penelope Prado, also-known-as Nacho’s oldest daughter, also-known-as Head Bitch In Charge.”
“I thought you said Angel was the manager.”
“Yeah and who do you think manages him?”
I remember the quake in her voice, the tears on her face. “Come on, she can’t be that scary.”
Lucas is still clutching the wall, fingernails digging into the grout as he watches Pen from across the room.
I nudge him. “Can she?”
“Sometimes she can be…almost pleasant,” he forces out. “But tonight’s her last night. The old man fired her this morning.”
“His own daughter?”
“Apparently, she lied to them about going to school. For an entire semester.” He averts his gaze. “Shit. Here she comes.”
Pen rounds the corner, those bright red lips leading the way. She purses them, eyeing Lucas and I, and it reminds me of the sweet seam along a cherry. Until she opens her mouth.
“For fuck’s sake, Lucas. We’ve got thirty new orders. Where the hell have you been?”
“Just showing the new guy around…” he takes one long step out of reach, “that’s all.”
“His shift started half an hour ago. I’m pretty sure you’ve covered it by now.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He throws up his hands. “We’re going.”
She crosses her arms in response, watching us the entire way back to Lucas’ station. Lucas turns to me, about to say something when a horn blares. I reach for my ears and see a guy with blonde hair gripping a foghorn.
“That’s Java,” Lucas yells.
“Let me guess,” I yell back. “Deaf?”
“Only in his right ear.”
The drumming of Angel’s tongs clashes with the horn and then everyone is yelling. Angel races around the kitchen in this strange half-gallop, half-dance, banging on equipment, slapping people on the back of the head.
“You know what that means, fuckers! We’ve got a rush!”
He finally makes it back to the grill, the rest of the room in a fury. People run back and forth from their stations, grabbing bowls and rags and spices. Angel switches on the stereo and in all the chaos I can hear the first riff of Black Betty by Ram Jam.
Suddenly, every instrument has a culinary utensil equivalent. Angel takes care of the drums while Chelo, who I hadn’t realized could manage more than a growl, takes care of vocals. She screams into her spoon, switching between the one in the refried beans and the one in the mole verde. Lucas plays some strange version of the xylophone on the condiments strapped to his waist and the guy with the foghorn does a power slide straight into Pen’s legs. I brace for an ass whooping but all she does is bite back a smirk before turning back to the dessert she’s doctoring.
“Ready for your crash course?” Lucas asks.
I strain over the music. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
Lucas winks and hands me a pair of tongs. “Angel grills, we plate. Basically, we’re two rungs above Struggles over there.”
Steaming meat slides in our direction, Lucas leading it onto a plate before glancing up at the ticket. He reaches for his belt, covering the meat in some orange sauce and then using his gloved hands to load it with toppings from the trays in front of us. There’s cilantro, onions, lime wedges, corn salsa, avocados, and chili peppers. Ten different kinds of salsa, all marked with different colored tape that read either PUSSIES, GAVACHOS, BAD ASS MOFOS, or LOCO. I assume they’re heat indexes and when Lucas tells me to fill some plastic cups with a few milds I reach for the salsas marked PUSSIES.
“Whoa, careful.” Lucas points to a bottle out of sight.
I pull it to the front and it reads NIÑOS.
“Pen…” Lucas taps the salsa I’d reached for first. “Took offense to the labels. Now PUSSIES is the hottest salsa we have.” He dares to glance at her.
She’s chucking a plate of enchiladas into the trash, something hateful being spewed in Angel’s direction.
“What did you mean by two rungs?” I ask.
Lucas nods around the kitchen. “Well, you’ve got your dish boys like Struggles at the bottom of the totem pole.” He gestures to the identical twins. “Then you’ve got veggie prep. Then you’ve got platers like us.” He points to the burners next to the grills, each one topped with a huge steaming pot. “Right there’s your special teams and then on the grills you’ve got your starting line-up. Fish, then pork, then poultry.” He points at three guys to the right of Angel, their heads shaved, tattoos bleeding out from their buzz cuts. “And Angel’s the quarterback. He takes care of the most important food group—the red meat.”
He smiles, stopping to wipe his nose on his sleeve.
I notice Pen breaking off some fresh cilantro into one of the pots on the stovetop.
“And what’s Pen do?” I ask.
“Everything. Almost the entire menu is from that big, bossy, beautiful head of hers.”
She shoves Angel to the side and checks the meat on his grill. She says something about an order coming back too well done and he just sighs, elbowing her out of the way.
“And they’re still firing her?”
“I give it two weeks. Tops,” Lucas says. “They’ll beg her to come back. Or maybe she’ll just sue her dad for, I don’t know, copyright infringement for all of her recipes and then they’ll have to close the place down and none of us will have to step foot in this god-forsaken dive ever again.”
“You don’t like working here?” I worry for a second about what exactly I’ve just gotten myself into.
“I don’t really like work in general.” He laughs.
“Then why do it?”
He nods to the stack of plates to my left and I reach for one.
“Got to. I’ve got three younger sisters and…well, my dad can’t exactly work,” his voice is suddenly flat, “since he’s sort of dead.”
Glass shatters, cutting through every sound in the entire kitchen. People stop what they’re doing, turning to stare, and I know that my show of confidence earlier in the night has officially been erased. This is who they’ll remember.
I kneel down, scooping the glass into the hem of my shirt. “I’m sorry.” I don’t know if I’m apologizing for the plate or for what Lucas just said. Maybe both.
A pair of bright red vans step into my field of vision. I look up and Pen is holding a broom. She hands me the dustpan.
“I got it. Thanks.” I scrape up the last chunk of glass and feel a sting.
“Shit,” Pen scans the room, “can somebody get a towel?”
Lucas hands her the rag hanging from his waist.
She rolls her eyes. “A clean one?”
Angel hands her a blue towel and some hydrogen peroxide. I dump the glass in the trash and try not to drip on the tile as Pen leads me back to the employee bathroom. She holds my hand over the sink and then she pours the peroxide over the wound.
My hand doesn’t even tremble but she still asks, “Sting?”
I shake my head and she pours some more, wound fizzing.
“Wait here,” she says, the door shutting behind her.
I try not to look at myself in the mirror but after a few seconds I have to. My heavy breaths smear the glass and I wait for Lucas’ words to rise up through the fog. A premonition. The answer to a question I used to be too afraid to ask. A question that has consumed me for the past six months, ever since I finally felt whole enough, angry enough to start looking again. For my father’s new life. For his body.
My mother wasn’t the only one who’d disappeared. He left us first when I was just barely old enough to remember. To miss him. Seeing my mother’s new family had cauterized those wounds. But the ones my father had left behind were still wide open. Burning. Festering.
No. I clench my fist until a steady stream paints the bottom of the sink. This isn’t you. Get scary. Now.
Pen pushes back through the door. “Here.” She presses a bandage over the cut, blood already showing dark through the padding. Pen puts the gauze between her teeth, ripping it, and then she leads it around my palm, twisting until it’s tight.
I don’t realize I’m not blinking until everything blurs, smearing her face and mouth, which is just inches from my skin, her breath brushing the tips of my fingers. She lets go of me and seems to pause too, her eyes somewhere between expectant and hesitant.
I want to say that I should get back to the kitchen, back to Lucas and his plates and his toppings bar. But I don’t want to go. And it isn’t just because once I do I’ll look like a total jackass.
“You should, I mean we should get back.” Pen throws the door open without looking at me and then she’s lost in the shuffle of the kitchen, her carefulness suddenly gone as she shoves one of the buzz cuts out of the way and tears the tongs out of his hand.
When Lucas sees me he wrinkles his nose. “What, did you shit yourself and Pen was helping you clean it up?”
I reach for the apron closest to me, tying it around my waist.
“The rush is finally dying down. We have some time to run through a few of these dishes a little slower if you want.”
Lucas pulls down a plate, loading it up with some refried beans and rice before showing me how much meat to load into each taco.
I try to pay attention, to memorize the measurements, the placement of the food. But I keep glancing over my shoulder. I keep looking for Pen. Because I’m still not sure which version is the real one—the girl in the bathroom who wrapped my wrist or the girl who makes the special teams shudder every time she walks by.
She orbits the room, checking orders, tasting the food, breathing down people’s necks; casting strange looks in my direction. I focus back on the plate in front of me.
“You got that?” Lucas eyes me, waiting.
He narrows his gaze over my shoulder. Pen is looking back. She scratches at her arm before heading out to the front.
Lucas faces me again. “Oh, no.”
I ignore him, fumbling with the taco I’m holding.
“Oh, hell no.”
“What?” I keep my voice low, hoping he’ll do the same.
“Don’t go there, man.”
“You know where. Trust me on this one. You do not want to mess with Pen.”
“I’m just…” I keep my voice cool, “making tacos.”
“Yeah,” he slams another into my hand, “and you keep making those tacos.”
By the end of the night I make one hundred and twenty six tacos, dunking the corn tortillas five at a time into the fryer, my fingertips blistered from the heat. And then I walk home on numb legs, every step on that empty street making my ears ring.
Halfway down the block, lights swell behind me. I spot the side of the cruiser, every muscle stunned. The window clicks, rolling down slowly.
“First day done.” Officer Solis smiles. “Need a ride home?”
It takes me a moment to shake off the fear.
He sees it too. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
I open the door, sliding inside. “It’s okay. I’m just exhausted.”
He laughs. “That’s what I like to hear. So tell me all about it. Was it what you expected?”
I look down at my food-stained clothes, sweat making the grime stick to my skin. “Uh, not exactly.”
“Let me guess.” He cocks his head. “Better?”
The stench and soreness registers first. Then I remember the cut on my hand, the wound making it stiff. Then I remember Pen.
“Definitely better,” I say.
“That’s good.” He turns down my street.
“Thank you…” I stare into the floorboard, “again.”
He pulls into the driveway. “Don’t mention it.”
There are a million things Officer Solis has told me not to mention. Like the time he pulled me out of a scuffle during gym class. Or the time he dropped a few dollars on the floor at the convenience store and pretended like they were mine. Then there was the month he drove my abuelo back and forth from his doctor’s appointments because his bronchitis was getting bad and I wasn’t old enough to drive. He used to buy me lunch in the hospital cafeteria while we waited.
It all started when Officer Solis used to work at the nearby high school. He knew I was undocumented and has kept a close eye on me ever since. His parents used to be undocumented too until he sponsored them and they became legal citizens. Because of some asinine rule—something called a derivative—my abuelo can’t do the same for me and I don’t exactly have any “immediate relative relationships” to speak of at the moment.
But Officer Solis has always treated me like family.
And then I ran away from him; from my abuelo.
I traded the only constants in my life for a death wish.
It was Officer Solis who rescued me from that too.
“You know, I really think this is going to be good for you, Xander. A fresh start. A chance to finally feel settled here.”
In return for all that he’s done for me, all Officer Solis has ever wanted was for me to feel like I belong. So much so that I’d be willing to make it official.
But I’ve been undocumented for so long, I don’t know how to be anything else. I don’t know how to be unafraid, to be out in the open, to be bold enough to reveal my status to anyone let alone the U.S. government. What if I apply for my citizenship and the next day I’m deported? People vanish all the time. Officer Solis should know that better than anyone. But he keeps pushing me. And I keep saying no.
He puts the car in park, dims the lights so they don’t wake up my abuelo. Then he pulls a business card from his shirt pocket. “Have you told him that you’re looking again?” He doesn’t hand it to me, waiting for an answer.
“But you will.”
I swallow, trying to imagine that conversation causing my abuelo anything but pain.
“It’s his son, Xander.”
“And he’s my father.”
Officer Solis exhales. “You’re right but their history’s much longer.” He nods to the front door. “And that man’s raised you like his own. You owe him the truth for that reason if nothing else.” He hands me the card. “Just…do this the right way.”
“Is there one?”
He looks at me. “Always.”
I finally open the door, stepping out of the car. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Xander…” He stops me before I can close the door. “You’ve got a good thing going at Nacho’s.”
I know he wants to say, so don’t screw it up.
“I know,” I say, closing the door before he can see the doubt.
The lights are off when I creep inside, my abuelo’s snoring so loud that it conceals my footsteps up the stairs. When I reach the door to my bedroom, the exhaustion hits me all at once. I look from the shower to the bed before flinging myself on the mattress, still in my Nacho’s Tacos t-shirt, the sleeves no longer frozen but limp and sopping wet. Just before my eyes close, I tuck the business card under my pillow, praying that the hope it carries will chase away the nightmares. Half awake and hanging onto the memory of my father’s face, it doesn’t occur to me that it might just summon new ones.
My mother is waiting for me in the kitchen when I wake up at noon. Just like I knew she’d be. My mother always holds her tongue when my father is doling out the punishment but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t say her piece eventually. And from the way her cup of coffee is still steaming in front of her I know she’s been up late deciding what exactly that piece will be.
My last shift at the restaurant ended at 2 AM but I stayed late, helping Angel get things ready for the morning. Something I would have saved for the next day if there were going to be a next day. But there isn’t. There won’t be.
I sit down across from my mother, still in my pajamas and smelling like tacos. She smells like gardenia and hairspray—the essence of practicality, which is exactly what my parents want me to be. They want me in a pair of scrubs, studying dental assisting or nursing, and they want me to smell like gardenias and hairspray. But I don’t want that. I want this. Sour garlic and all.
“How was work?” She takes a sip of her coffee.
In just those three words I know she’s angry. My mother is usually careful and considerate—mandatory in her line of work. But instead she asks me about the one place I’m never allowed to see again, proving that she’s so upset my feelings no longer matter. I no longer matter. Because now all that matters is the lie.
“Busy.” I try to keep the conversation neutral for as long as possible. Which is approximately five more seconds.
Then my mother grips her coffee cup, staring down into the steam as she says, “We need to talk about your room.”
“My room?” And then my stomach sinks, my throat clenched and throbbing.
“If you’re not…” she looks away. “If you’re not going to school…”
“What?” My lip trembles.
“Pen, you can’t stay here.”
I hear the scrape of chair legs. Suddenly I’m standing. “What are you talking about?”
“Pen…” She won’t look at me.
“You’re kicking me out?”
“No, Pen. It’s—”
“It’s what? Dad’s idea, right? He can’t stand the sight of me so he’s kicking out his own daughter.”
She finally looks back, eyes wet. “His eighteen-year-old daughter.”
“I didn’t realize I had an expiration date. I can find another job. I can come up with the money you and dad used to take out of my check for rent. I’ll—”
“It’s not about the money, Pen.”
I sit down again, leaning towards her. “Then don’t let him do this.” I can feel my pulse in my ears, in my lips, in my hands. I’m shaking with it. “Please. Mom, I’m not…” My voice catches and I feel like a child. I wish she’d see me that way one last time. “I’m not ready.”
“Oh Pen,” she frowns, “you’ve been ready since you were five years old.”
I pinch my eyes shut. Running away with a My Little Pony suitcase full of socks and donuts is not the same as being ready. Being bull-headed isn’t the same as being an adult. And I’m not. I have no fucking idea what I’m supposed to do next. And not just the next month or the next day but the next minute. I spend every second questioning every decision I’ve ever made. Didn’t she know that? Didn’t she know that I hadn’t meant to unravel my entire life? Didn’t she know that I was sorry?
My mother is supposed to be the easy one. The understanding one. The one who forgives you just so she can sleep, who can’t stand being angry because it makes her feel guilty. The one who can take my father’s hand and reverse the tornado inside him.
“No.” Her voice is strange and hard. “I’ve always been easy on you, Pen. But I was easy on you because I trusted you. Because I trusted that eventually you’d always do the right thing. But you lied to me, Pen. To me.”
She sounds like Angel. Not hurt by my decision but by the fact that I’d made it alone. That’s when I realize the real reason they’re making me leave. Not to punish me but to give me exactly what I asked for.
“Pen…” She lets out a breath. “What were you thinking?”
I feel the answer in my gut but I can’t tell her the truth. That it was her life I was running from.
I search for something stronger, less hollow, but there’s nothing to combat the emptiness. Between my chest. In her eyes. I’m so afraid of it swelling, filling me from the inside. And I can’t help but wonder why she’s not. Why she’s not as afraid of me relapsing as Angel was. But then I remember that this isn’t the first lie I’ve ever told her. The first—I’m okay. I’ve been saying it for years and on a day when it couldn’t be farther from the truth she finally decides to believe me.
“I know you’re sorry, Pen. So I’m going to let you decide. Are you going back to school…or not?”
I grit my teeth, that same sick feeling that kept me from getting out of the car keeping me from telling her what she wants to hear.
“You’ve been in this neighborhood, in that restaurant all your life, Pen. You know how hard it is, how people have to claw and climb for any kind of opportunity. And you’ve got one.” She shakes her head, anger turning to desperation. “You think your father and I work ourselves to death so you can grow up and do the same? You think I give up putting my own children to bed at night because I’m living my dream?” She quakes. “You are my dream, Pen. You going to school, getting out of this neighborhood, and making something of yourself. That’s my dream.”
For a few seconds I can’t breathe, the sight of my mother’s armor slipping off, piece by piece, making me fall apart just as fast. Because I can’t give her what she wants. Even if it is her dream.
My voice breaks as I say, “But it isn’t mine.”
She looks away, waiting for me to change my mind. I wait too, for the strength to keep pretending. But there’s nothing left.
She stands, face fallen. “Then I’m sorry too.” Then she carries her coffee into the bedroom and closes the door behind her.
I sit in the kitchen for a long time. Until the smell of the citrus cleaned countertops is replaced by the smell of cinnamon and green bell peppers and my father’s favorite rum.
I remember him dragging over the footstool so I could see above the counter while he taught me how to crack an egg. I remember my fingers sticky with brown sugar, cheeks full of pecans while my brother and I made pralines for the yearly yard sale. I remember my fourteenth birthday, my mother teaching me how to bake her famous Mexican wedding cookies, Angel standing across the room while I tried to toss walnuts into his mouth. I remember Christmas morning casseroles and Easter barbecues. I smell every laugh and every word, tasting every second I spent in this kitchen growing up. And even though I don’t want it to be over, even though I didn’t think it ever would be, I finally stand, walking out of my mother’s kitchen, through my father’s front door, and into the blistering afternoon sun.
* * *
I take the box from Chloe, the pots inside still sweating and warm. Every day my father sends someone from the restaurant to the church across the street with last night’s leftovers. They run a food pantry and soup kitchen that’s open to the public, people stopping by for canned goods or a hot meal. Today, Chloe volunteered, desperate for me to tag along so she could fill me in on every mistake and mishap that has taken place in the mere eight hours since I’ve been gone.
After Chloe runs through this week’s paychecks being misplaced and the toilet in the men’s room being clogged I finally tell her about the talk I had with my mother.
“You can stay with me.”
“Thanks. Maybe just while I look for a place.”
Chloe still lives at home too, although, since she’s actually going to school and doing something productive with her life, it’s perfectly acceptable. I know her mom will let me stay. It’s just the two of them, and for almost every Saturday since I was twelve, just the three of us.
Ms. Glover has always treated me like a daughter, taking me along when she went school shopping for Chloe or during the summer when they vacationed at Chloe’s grandparents’ cabin in Colorado. But forcing myself to leave the Glover’s will be just as hard as leaving my own home. I’m not sure I can handle doing both in the same lifetime let alone the same week.
We reach the side door that leads into the church’s dining hall, Chloe rapping against it with her foot. When it pushes open Mrs. Rodriguez is already in her hairnet, her apron covered in something red and gelatin-like.
“Oh good, you’re here.” She holds the door so we can carry the food inside. “The line’s already past the entrance.”
“The tortillas are still in my car.” Chloe places the box she’s carrying on the counter behind the serving window. “I’ll run out and get them.”
I unload the pots of refried beans and rice, setting them down on the burners that are already warm.
Mrs. Rodriguez hands me an apron. “You tell your father we really do appreciate this, Pen.”
“Sure thing.” I don’t feel like mentioning the fact that I don’t work for my father anymore so I just smile and tuck my hair into my baseball cap. “We wouldn’t want all of this food to go to waste.”
“I thank God every day for your father’s help.” She lowers her voice. “Our membership has nearly doubled. I know it’s been a couple of weeks since you worked the serving line but we’re feeding nearly a hundred people every day.”
“Wow, people like tacos that much?”
She doesn’t laugh and her words finally sink in.
I ask her the same question Kal asked me about all of our new hires. “Is it all people from the neighborhood?”
“Some are familiar faces. People I’ve seen at the grocery store or the bank but who’ve never been to a service. But there are lots of young people.” She sets out the plates, straightening them alongside the baskets of utensils. “Young mothers.”
“Here alone?” The women in our neighborhood are used to marrying ghosts. They come across the border with a baby in their bellies and not much else, their male companions helping them get an apartment and a job before disappearing again.
“Not to begin with,” Mrs. Rodriguez says.
She grimaces. “I’m not sure how they’re getting in. But the thing is, they’re not coming with strangers. They’re coming with husbands. With brothers and cousins. But once they get here, it’s the women who have an easier time looking for work. Most of the mothers who’ve been coming to church have jobs. But with the way things are, the way people see them, it’s harder for the men. People have stopped hiring them. Even people who used to live in this neighborhood.” She looks down. “And then El Cantil finds them. Gives them an outlet for their frustration. Gives them money. A family.”
“And then they leave the one they already have?”
“He can’t control them otherwise.”
The double doors leading into the dining hall finally open. As the crowd moves towards us I recognize some of the faces near the front, people from Sunday mornings or just from around the neighborhood. There are women with their kids, old men in sports coats and fedoras, teenagers clutching skateboards while others toss around a football. But Mrs. Rodriguez is right. The number of people waiting in line has grown since the last time I was here.
Farther back I can see strollers and screaming babies, their mothers red-faced and already dressed in their uniforms for work. They look clean and pressed compared to the children’s clothes. Some are stained, some pilling and almost thin enough to see through. Some wear nothing but a diaper, tears tracing dark lines down their bare bellies.
I wonder how many of them live at the shelter a couple of blocks away. One woman has a blue pin stuck to her uniform—a token of sobriety that the shelter gives out to tenants who’ve stuck to their ninety-day commitments. She has children too—a boy in a shirt that’s too small and a girl who’s holding onto one of her sandals, the clasp broken.
Chloe ties on an apron and comes to stand next to me. “Tacos set. What’d I miss?”
Just her proximity ignites a pang of guilt. I might not be able to go home but I have Chloe, which means I’ll still be able to sleep in a warm bed tonight. Worst case scenario I’d end up on Angel’s couch but even that would be safer than what most of these women and their children have to endure.
“Nothing. You’re just in time.” I nudge her in the direction of the growing line, people still spilling in from outside.
She faces away from Mrs. Rodriguez. “Do you think we have enough food?”
Goldie is first. He’s always first. But I usually attribute it to his thinness rather than his punctuality. He’s so spindly he could fit between a door and its hinges, despite the fact that he always comes back for thirds.
His eyes widen as the food hits his plate. “Don’t be stingy, now.”
“Oh, Francis, we’ve got to save enough for everyone,” Mrs. Rodriguez teases.
He stiffens at the mention of his real name. Even though ‘Goldie’ is just a reference to the way his gold crowns flash from his ice cream truck when he drives down the street, he still prefers it. Chloe and I used to chase him down, his own trap music mix tape playing over the speaker instead of the normal “Do Your Ears Hang Low” or “Pop Goes the Weasel”. He still remembers what we used to order.
I hand him a bowl of menudo. He sniffs it and sighs. “Mm-mm, thanks Miss Push-Pop.”
Chloe drops two tacos onto his plate.
“And Miss Sunday Crunch Bar. God bless you.”
Mr. Martín is next. He’s always next. I assume he has some kind of deal with Goldie because the two of them always manage to end up at the front of the line together. He tips his fedora at us, eyes wandering over to Mrs. Rodriguez. He’s always trying to get her to go out on a date with him. She’s been a widow for as long as I can remember.
“Lookin’ good today, Mrs. Rodriguez.”
She blushes. “Thank you Mr. Martín. How are you doing today?”
“Much better now. Nothing like starting your morning surrounded by three beautiful women.”
“And tacos,” Chloe reminds him.
He laughs, points a finger. “Nacho’s Tacos.” He turns to me. “When’s your father gonna send over some more of that capirotada?” He lets out something between a sigh and a whistle. “Reminded me of the bread pudding my mother used to make when I was a kid. I had dreams about it for a week.”
I smile. I’d been the one to add capirotada to the menu during Lent a few years ago. I liked that it had a history, a sense of tradition you could taste. My father liked that it kept us from throwing out so many expired ingredients.
“Or better yet,” Mr. Martín says, “I’ll just tell him myself.”
I turn just as the door slams shut. My father is carrying in a box of food Chloe must have left behind. He stops when he sees me but not long enough for me to read his face, to see how angry he still is. He greets Mrs. Rodriguez, stops to mention something to Chloe about paychecks, and then he leaves. Without saying a word to me. Without even looking in my direction.
Half an hour after we finish serving everyone I’m helping Chloe scrub down the last pan to carry back to the restaurant when Mrs. Rodriguez pulls me aside.
“Is everything alright, Pen?”
“Sure.” I search for something else that needs cleaning or packing. “Why not?”
“Well, that was just…odd earlier. Is everything okay between you and your father?”
“And the restaurant? Everything’s okay at the restaurant, isn’t it?”
I nod again, this time feigning more certainty, despite the fact that I don’t know, despite the fact that it isn’t my responsibility to know anymore. But I don’t want Mrs. Rodriguez to worry about the donations. “Everything at the restaurant’s fine,” I assure her. “We’re busier than ever.”
I throw in the we thinking it will help. But it just makes my throat ache and suddenly I’m outside hiding next to Chloe’s car. Chloe follows me out, dropping the last of the dishes by the trunk.
“It’s going to be okay.”
“You saw him. It’s not.”
She doesn’t argue. “Come on, I’ll run these inside the restaurant and then I’ll be off the clock.”
Chloe drives across the street and I wait for her in the parking lot while she runs inside to grab her check, mine too seeing as I am no longer allowed on the premises. I sink down in my seat, afraid someone will see me, and by the time Chloe comes out again I’m practically in the floor space.
“What are you doing?”
“Just um…” I flick an old French fry off my foot, “looking for loose change.”
“Stealing from me too, are you?” she laughs, referencing the infamous laundry heist.
I wait until she’s pulled out of the parking lot and then I sit back up in the seat, clicking the seatbelt closed. “Hey, I’m going to need all the help I can get.”
She rolls her eyes, handing me my last paycheck. “Come on, you’ve only been homeless for like a day. And you’re not even really homeless. It’s not like they threw all of your stuff out on the front lawn.”
“They might as well have.” I rest my elbow on the console. “Pretty soon I’ll be one of those bums digging cigarette butts out of a convenience store ashtray. Or worse.”
Chloe laughs. “What’s worse than that?”
She thinks I’m joking and I let her. I can’t tell her that I’m terrified because it’ll only make it true.
“I don’t know. Smoking them?” The sun glints off the church’s stained windows as we drive by and I remember every face that came through the line. The women dressed and ready for work, the children clinging to them. The little girl with the broken shoe. “I’m being an asshole, aren’t I?” I slump back in my seat. “After everyone we served this morning…”
“You’re not being an asshole,” she says. “A bit dramatic but not an asshole.” She nudges me. “Look, you’ll find a place. How much money do you have saved?”
My very first adult purchase was my Volkswagen Beetle. I spent my entire life’s savings on it for the purpose of driving myself to the community college and back. Instead, for the past five months it’s been to the restaurant about a thousand times and on one day-trip to the coast. There’s still sand stuck in the seats.
We pull up to a red light, Chloe trying to make eye contact. “You do have savings…”
“Of course I do.” I tear open the envelope containing my last check and read the amount. “I have exactly $764.97.”
Chloe chokes. “That’s it?”
I’m quiet, my mind racing through a million calculations. Gas. Rent. Food. Water. Clothes. Balushahi.
Someone behind us honks, Chloe realizing the light is green.
“My parents lent me three grand for my car. I just finished paying them back last month.” My head falls against the seat. “I’m doomed, aren’t I?”
“You’re not doomed.” She turns down the street to her house. “You’ll just have to find another job.”
I frown. “Like yesterday.”
“Mm…” Chloe tilts her head, “at least by the end of the week.”
I wave a hand. “Oh, yeah, no big deal. I just need to find a new job, a new place to live. You know, basically a whole new life by the end of the week. But it’s fine.”
Chloe pulls up to her house, puts the car in park. “It is fine.” She faces me. “If anyone can make it on their own, it’s you, Pen.”
I try to let her words sink in but the worries have already hardened into a toxic shell. What if I can’t find another job? What if I can’t find a decent place to live that I can actually afford?
What if I don’t want to?
We park but Chloe doesn’t move.
“You’re stronger than you think you are, Pen. You always have been.”
I search her voice for even an ounce of inauthenticity. There is none. She believes what she’s saying.
“And you don’t have to do it alone.” She takes my hand. “Promise me you won’t try to do it alone.”
She searches my voice for the same inauthenticity. When she finds none she finally exhales, stepping out of the car. But I’m still searching. For the truth or maybe another lie. Maybe the only difference is what I choose to believe. And I want to believe that I’m as strong as Chloe says, as strong as everyone at the restaurant believes me to be. I tell myself that if I just keep doing the things that scare me, I will be. And this is definitely the scariest of all.
Chloe’s mom pulls up beside us, trunk full of grocery bags. Chloe and I carry them in behind her, setting them down on the counter.
“Oh Pen, are you staying for dinner?” Mrs. Glover asks.
“Actually, she’s staying the night,” Chloe says.
“Fantastic.” Mrs. Glover hands me the bag she’s holding but not before pulling out the boxed wine. “We haven’t eaten a decent meal in weeks.”
I try to make sense of the random ingredients Mrs. Glover picked up at the store: carrots, gravy mix, chicken breasts, penne, chocolate pudding, minute rice, and fat free cream cheese. Luckily, I find some onions just on the verge of going soft in the fridge, along with some heavy cream and tomato sauce, and I settle on a pasta dish.
Mrs. Glover peers over my shoulder. I can smell the wine on her lips. “Smells great in here.” She stumbles against the counter.
Chloe grabs her arm, leading her to a chair in the living room. “Let me guess. The fireman didn’t call.”
“Fireman? What do you mean fireman?” Chloe’s mother gives an exaggerated eye roll, her entire body rolling with it until she’s almost falling out of the chair.
Chloe’s mother looks exactly like her in every way—same blonde hair, same hazel eyes—save for the fact that she’s the size of my finger. Which means that more than two glasses of anything and she’s on her ass, which I’ve seen more than a few times growing up.
“The fireman you spent all last week talking about,” Chloe reminds her. “The one who you met at the pharmacy. The one who said he would call.”
“Oh, that one.” Mrs. Glover downs the rest of her wine. “He called.”
“And then his wife called.”
“Jesus Christ.” Chloe snatches the glass away from her mother even though it’s empty. “I’m sorry, mom.”
“I’m not. You know what I am?” She snatches the glass back from Chloe. “Thirsty.” She saunters to the fridge, filling it up again.
This time Chloe just ignores her. “Mom, where’s the newspaper?”
Mrs. Glover lazily points to a stack of papers by the door and Chloe carries them over to the kitchen table.
“I already used all of the coupons,” Mrs. Glover says.
That explains the random grocery list.
“I’m not looking for coupons. Pen’s getting her own apartment.”
“Pen? Really? But why?”
“She just had a—”
“An epiphany,” I cut in. “Yeah, you know…” the spoon beats against the pot, mimicking my pulse again, “I just realized I need my space.”
“How’s your mother taking it?”
I shoot Chloe a look before continuing. “Oh, um, she’s…she’s fine.” I try to keep my voice light. “Almost like it was practically her idea.”
“Have you found anything yet? You know they just built some really nice apartments down on Jefferson. What’s your budget?”
“My budget? Um…I haven’t decided that yet.”
“Well, how much do you make a month at the restaurant?”
“Um…” I have to stop starting every answer with um.
Mrs. Glover’s cell phone rings. The screen lights up and then so do her eyes.
“Who’s that?” Chloe asks.
Chloe crosses her arms. “Not your doctor.”
Her mother shrugs, carrying the phone into the other room. “Not yet.”
I sink down in the chair next to Chloe, scanning the newspaper in front of her. “Anything?”
“This one doesn’t sound so bad.” Chloe points to an ad in one of the side columns.
SEEKING FEMALE ROOMATE. MUST LIKE CATS, FISH, BIRDS, AND PLANTS. ONLY FURNITURE MATCHING AN ARGYLE COLOR SCHEME IS ALLOWED. TEN O’CLOCK NOISE CURFEW.
“Are you kidding me?”
“What?” Chloe shrugs. “You like argyle.”
“Yeah, on my sweaters. Besides, I’m allergic to cats.”
She snaps the paper to the next page. “And maybe to people.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She ignores me. “What about this one?”
I skim the ad but the moment I read the word COS-PLAY I shake my head.
“I don’t do dress-up.”
“It doesn’t say you have to participate. Besides, what do you call your get-up for work every day?”
“That’s not a costume.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Isn’t it?”
“Okay, we’re supposed to be looking for apartments not examining my psyche.”
“Sorry.” She straightens her glasses. “Here, this one sounds normal.”
SEEKING ROOMATE. 555-7496.
I search for a line that says the ad continues on a different page. There isn’t one. “That’s it? Where’s the rest?”
“What do you mean the rest?”
“I don’t know, the part where they mention their torture room and stats from their latest killing spree. Seriously, who buys an ad just to list their phone number?”
“According to you, psychopaths.” She frowns. “I guess it is a little vague. What about the one underneath?”
The ad just below is five paragraphs long. I press my forehead to the table. It’s cold. Just like my prospects for finding a new home.
Chloe clears her throat. “I don’t think you can really afford to be picky right now.”
“I can’t afford to be anything right now.”
She pats my shoulder. “Let’s just ditch the whole roommate option.”
“Fine with me. Why don’t we look up those apartments your mom was talking about?”
“I think I can spare some data for that.” Chloe pulls out her cell phone and starts searching.
“What happened to the wifi?”
“The neighbors changed the password.” She turns the screen in my direction. “These actually look really nice.”
The buildings look like miniature cottages, walls covered in flint stone and all of the landscaping carved into these perfectly round balls. They look quaint and rustic and perfect.
“How much are they?”
Chloe grimaces. “Twelve hundred dollars a month…”
“How much were you paying your mom and dad?” she asks.
“Half that and then half it again.”
We both slump against the backs of our chairs.
“We’ll keep looking,” Chloe says.
“What’s the point?”
She reaches for my hand. “Don’t lose it. Not yet.”
“When you’re sleeping in a phone booth and using a stray dog as a pillow.”
I huff. “So tomorrow?”
The pasta sauce starts to boil and I get up to lower the heat. My phone rings from the table and Chloe puts it on speaker.
“Pen!” It’s Angel.
“Where are you right this second?”
“I’m at Chloe’s. Why?”
“Listen Pen, I need a huge favor.”
“Angel, it’s my first day off work in, I don’t know, two years. Don’t you think I’m trying to spend it doing something relaxing for once?”
“No. I think you’re moping and you probably offered to make Chloe and her mom dinner in an attempt to cook away your feelings.”
I stop stirring. “What do you want?”
“Do you remember the Johnson catering job?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“It’s sort of tonight.”
“Oh, well good luck.”
“Pen! Don’t hang up.”
“I won’t hang up if you get to the point.”
“You said get to the point.”
“Yeah, but not with just one word. I mean, cake? What am I supposed to do with—?” And then it hits me. “THE CAKE.” The white chocolate coconut cake. The one I was supposed to make before I finished my shift. The one that was supposed to cool in the fridge overnight. The one that the Johnsons ordered specifically for their anniversary party because it reminded them of the cake they ate at their wedding. I remember Mrs. Johnson showing me pictures and tearing up as she recalled her and Mr. Johnson, hands clasped as they cut the first slice.
The memory dissolves as Angel’s voice sifts in again. “No one knows how to make it but you.”
I try to push the panic down because, technically, this isn’t my responsibility anymore. “I was fired, Angel, remember?”
“But they specifically ordered your white chocolate coconut cake.”
I remember the way my father couldn’t even look at me this morning, and even though it was my fault for forgetting to bake the cakes in the first place, I don’t want the guilt. I don’t want to fix anything for him.
I finally muster the resolve to say, “That’s too bad. You and dad will just have to come up with something else.”
“Well, you see, dad sort of isn’t here and he sort of left the catering up to me and I’m sort of about to shit myself. Pen, this is my one chance to prove to him that I can really do this.” He lowers his voice, words muffled as if he’s covering his mouth. “You know no one around here takes me seriously. But if I could pull this off…”
I don’t mean to say it, to give in so easily. But it’s not just panic I hear in Angel’s voice. It’s dread. Dread of being a disappointment. And because for the first time I know what it feels like to be seen that way through our father’s eyes, because for the first time I know what it feels like to be Angel, I don’t want to let him figure this out alone. I can’t.
“What?” Angel asks, surprised.
“How many do you need?” I say.
I hear him fumbling with the ticket. “Four.”
I sigh and I know Angel only hears the sound of me giving in. “I’ll see what I can do.” What he doesn’t hear is the sound of my heart racing—and not just from the time crunch but from the truth. That he needs me.
* * *
Chloe and I drive around to the back door of the restaurant, rolling carefully over every crack and speed bump. We park in the alley and a moment later the door opens, Angel’s hands raised. He falls against the hood of the car and mouths the words thank you.
I step out and lead him to the trunk. “You owe me.”
“Fine, fine. What’ll it be this time?”
I cross my arms, thinking. “Half of the tip-share from the catering.”
His eyes widen. “Yeah, right. The others aren’t gonna go for that.”
“Good thing you’re the manager then.”
“Angel…” I lift an eyebrow. “These cakes were supposed to set over night. Do you know how much black magic I had to use to keep them from falling apart?”
“Shit. Fine. You get half. But this is the last time I ask you for help.”
I roll my eyes. “Can I get that in writing?”
He waves Struggles and Lucas over and then hands them the cakes to carry inside.
“Freezer,” I say. “Now.” Once they’re gone I can’t help but ask, “So, how’d it go today?”
He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Only a few minor disasters.”
“I heard.” I draw a line in the gravel with my shoe. “So…”
“I haven’t talked to him.”
“But you will.”
He stuffs his hands in his pockets.
“Angel, you said you’d talk to dad.”
“I know but just…” He kicks at a rock, misses. “This is a first for me too, okay? If I tell dad we need you back he’s going to think I can’t take care of things.”
“But you can’t.”
“Jesus, Pen, I’m not an idiot.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“No, I know what you meant.” He looks down. “You think I don’t know what everyone says about me? I hear them. Fucking loud and clear.” His voice drops. “Just give me some time, Pen. Let me prove that I can take care of this and then maybe I’ll actually be in a position where dad will listen to me.”
“I gotta get back inside.” He squeezes my shoulder. “Thanks for coming through tonight.”
I’m jerked awake by the heat. Another nightmare.
Only this time it wasn’t Jago’s hands holding me down. Pounding. Pounding. Pounding into me.
It was mine.
I tasted the cigarette smoke first. Puffs of it clinging to the inside of my chest. Storm clouds churning and ready to strike. Jago saw them swelling behind my eyes and for the first time he looked proud. But I wasn’t charged by rage like he hoped. Fists bloody, sweat pouring down my face, it was shame that burned me from the inside out.
I looked down at the mess I’d made. He still looked like a man but my reflection in his blood-shot eyes was something else. I took one last drag from Jago’s cigarette, wishing it was my last breath, and then I flicked the ashes to the ground.
In the dream those ashes only swelled, flecks of gold leaping onto my skin. The flames devoured me and then I opened my eyes and I was safe.
You’re safe. You’re out. You’re safe.
I peel myself from the comforter, my shoes still on, grease leaving a faint outline against the fabric. I grip the sides of the mattress, waiting for my heartbeat to slow. But luckily there’s no time to reel. I have to wash my Tacos shirt and hang it out to dry in the backyard before my next shift.
When I head for the door Abuelo is already sitting on the porch with our neighbor, Mr. Daly. He has an entire sleeve made up of Irish landscapes, the ink fading to an ironic green with age. As far as I know, he’s never been, but you can just make out the slightest accent when he’s drunk. Which is every day after three PM.
He’s also a massive hoarder and he and my abuelo play cards in the afternoon, betting on things that don’t even belong to them. Like the washer and dryer that’s been sitting in the McDermott’s yard for almost three months or the broken birdbath laying sideways in front of Ms. Maloney’s house. Or Mr. Martinez’s cattle trough turned above ground pool that you can just make out through the holes in the fence.
My grandfather coughs into his handkerchief, gesturing with the other hand. “I’ll bet you this old ashtray and raise you that lawn mower across the street.”
Mr. Daly straightens. “Oh yeah? Well, I’ll call your bluff and raise you that lawnmower and that little speedster in the driveway next to it.”
It’s pointless and whoever wins gets absolutely nothing except the satisfaction of pretending to steal the neighbors’ stuff.
“I’m heading to work, Abuelo. There’s sausage and eggs in the fridge if you get hungry.”
Mr. Daly removes his hat, forearm wiping the sweat from his brow. “Hold on there boy, where you workin’ at?”
“Nacho’s Tacos down the street.”
“Nacho’s? You mean that strip joint?”
My abuelo throws up his hands. “That’s what I said.”
“It’s not a strip club.”
Mr. Daly gestures for me to come closer. Then he tucks something in the pocket of my shirt and whispers, “Those aren’t even their real names, you know.”
I don’t glance down at Mr. Daly’s parting gift until I reach the mailbox, and there, glinting in gold foil, is an extra large, hypoallergenic condom.
I let it tumble out of my pocket before kicking it into the gutter. Then I open the mailbox, sifting through newspaper ads and flyers for cable television before my fingers graze an envelope with my name on it. I stuff it into the back pocket of my jeans before my abuelo sees and then I head to work.
When I reach the kitchen, Black Betty is already in full swing.
“Hey, you’re back!” Lucas slaps me on the shoulder. “Listen, we’re working a catering tonight with Angel. Some fortieth anniversary party or something. But it’s the biggest one of the year so we need all hands on deck.”
I follow him to the storage room, a harsh banging growing louder. When we reach the doorway, Struggles and Chelo are knocking pans against the concrete floor, trying to separate them. The metal cracks like thunder, their grunts almost primal. They look like they should be dressed in loincloths around a smoking fire.
“Shit, haven’t you guys been at this for half an hour?” Lucas says.
Struggles pulls at the seam between the pans, face red, voice straining. “Humidity sealed ‘em shut.”
“Goddamnit!” Lucas snatches the pans out of Struggle’s hands and tosses them against the wall. They stay stuck.
Struggles and Chelo slump to the floor, panting. I reach for one of the pans they’ve been fighting with. There’s an ounce of give and I pull. They snap free.
Chelo chucks her pan, glaring at me. Struggles hands me another one. After I free the rest of the pans I carry them out to the plating station where we load them with fajitas, refried beans and rice, and Mexican wedding cookies, the powdered sugar almost making me sneeze. I stack them three at a time before lugging a batch out to the truck.
When I push through the door I see Pen and Angel and immediately swing myself back inside, the door catching on my foot just before it slams shut. I can hear their voices through the seam. Arguing. Whispering. Then the door yanks open and Angel charges inside, for once without his signature goofy grin.
Lucas finds my eyes from across the kitchen but I shrug, pretending like I didn’t hear a thing. I follow the flickering lights above the alley to the back of the truck. There’s no breeze tonight, heat still radiating from the pavement even though it’s almost dark.
The hairs on my arms sense them before I do.
Past the mouth of the alley, past the parking lot, and Monte Vista Boulevard, shadows swell and wait. I can’t see their eyes but I know they can see mine—storm clouds and all. This time it is rage coaxing the flames at the pit of my stomach, the smoke I was choking on this morning trying to erupt in a scream. I want the sound to reach out and strangle him.
Leave me alone.
I just want him to leave me alone.
Jago’s watch glints, flashes like Morse code. I try to read them.
Gravel crunches and my fists clench. One of the buzz cuts on special teams comes around the side of the restaurant. For the first time I see his tattoos up close. A snake slithers behind his ear, forked tongue grazing the corner of his eye. The winding pattern in its scales looks just like the one that was burned off my calf. Just like Jago’s. El Cantil.
I stand taller, fingers inching towards the blade in my back pocket. He glances across the street and I wait for him to give Jago a nod, a signal.
He turns his back on him. “They’ll disappear eventually.” And then he reaches out a hand. “Name’s Veto.”
The breath I’d been holding stutters out. We shake.
“You did the right thing.”
He knows what I need to hear. I wonder who said the same to him.
“How long have you been out?” I ask.
Jago still lurks in my line of sight. I wait for him to leave like Veto says he will. I wait to forget.
“How long?” Veto turns the question on me but I know he doesn’t mean how long I’ve been out.
All I can say is, “a while.”
The back door to the restaurant slams against the exterior wall, Lucas leading out a line of wait staff with more trays and boxes. Veto slips back into the kitchen behind Java and I wonder how many of them know about his past. How many of them will find out about mine?
After we finish loading the truck Lucas and I cram into the front seat next to Angel. Aáron Medrano tries to squeeze in next to us. He’s wearing a lanyard and sunglasses, a fist full of business cards.
“Oh no.” Lucas shoves him back out. “You know you’re not allowed on caterings anymore.”
“But Angel said he’d think about it.” He looks to Angel.
“And…I did.” Angel nods, slow, obviously trying to think of a good enough excuse. He raises his hands, giving up. “You’re just always such a creep when you hand out your DJ card. It’s bad for business.”
Aáron just blinks.
“Jesus,” Angel shakes his head, “you can come. But no self-promotion. You got it?”
Aáron climbs in, Angel putting the truck in reverse.
Beneath the rumble of the engine I lean over to Lucas. “Aáron’s banned for bothering customers? Tonight’s the first time I’ve actually heard him speak.”
“That’s the creepy part,” Lucas says. “He literally just hands them a card. Blinks a couple of times while they wait for him to explain or introduce himself but he never does.”
“I talk when there’s something important to say.” Aáron stares straight ahead.
“Yeah,” Lucas shoots back, “or when someone talks shit about La Máquinawho totally sucks ass.”
Aáron glares at him behind his sunglasses. “La Máquina doesn’t make music for people without brains.”
“Well, you fried yours so how—?”
“Enough!” Angel slams on the brakes, throwing everyone forward. “I want everyone to shut the fuck up until we get to the venue, alright?”
Across the street, Jago and his crew have vanished, my anxiety masked by the already uncomfortable quiet. Angel doesn’t say a word, just hangs his arm over the window as we drive, and I can tell it’s more than Aáron and Lucas’ bickering that’s got him on edge. It makes me wonder what he and Pen had been talking about in the alley.
We pull up to the event and I can feel the bass from the music rattling under the truck. The parking lot is full, silhouettes already swaying near the windows even though we’re half an hour early.
Lucas kneads his hands. “Check it out.” He nods to one of the silhouettes writhing on the other side of the window. Long, thin, with big boobs. “Well, gentlemen, looks like I’ll be catching another ride home tonight.”
Angel rolls his eyes. “Not after she finds out you need one.”
“I just so happen to ride the bus because I’m environmentally friendly and it just so happens that girls find that sexy.”
“You know what else they find sexy?” Angel asks.
He hands him a tray of food. “Men with jobs.”
Lucas is the first to push through the back doors of the convention center. We follow the swirling lights into the main ballroom, the music pulsing, and then we stop, Angel almost losing his grip on the cakes.
Women with cotton candy hair and men in Velcro shoes wander in circles around the dance floor. There isn’t a person under fifty in the entire room.
Lucas frowns. “Fuck!”
We set up the food along the far wall, each of us manning three trays and serving the people who come by with plates.
An elderly woman with a strange blue tint to her hair points to the fried potatoes. “Are these real potatoes?”
She points to the corn salsa. “Is this real corn?”
I nod again.
Then she points to the chicken. “And is this real chicken?”
“Yes.” Lucas leans over the trays. “It’s all real, ma’am. The potatoes, the corn, the chicken. Everything but that ridiculous blue poodle on your head.” He mumbles that last part under his breath.
Java, one of the bartenders, laughs, his accent bold, maybe Slavic. “Damn, Lucas, what’s gotten into you? That’s no way to speak to a lady.” He nudges him. “So much for you getting laid tonight.”
Lucas bristles. “Fuck off.”
“Oh, I will. You’re the one who doesn’t have any plans.”
After an hour of standing around and watching the most obscene dance moves of the 1930s Lucas finally convinces Struggles to steal some of the wine coolers in the back and they each take turns crouching behind the serving station to chug them.
“You sure you’re good?” Lucas tries to offer me a swig.
“Yeah, actually I’m gonna find a bathroom. I’ll be back in a minute.”
I sidestep past banquet tables, following the strobe lights along the wall to the hallway. I find the bathroom, disappearing into the only stall and shutting the door behind me. I reach into my pocket, feeling the envelope but not able to pull it out. I graze the ink on the front as if I’m about to toss an old coin into a fountain. I don’t let myself make a wish.
My fingers finally slip into the corner where the adhesive hasn’t quite stuck, the faint tear so loud in the empty bathroom. My hand grows still. I lean against the side of the stall. Just fucking do it already. I rip it open in one swipe before plucking out the letter.
It’s short, typed, formal.
Dear Mr. Amaro,
Our records do not indicate the detainment or deportation of Victor Amaro within the last 60 days. Our department will be unable to fulfill your request and we suggest directing your inquiry to an immigration lawyer.
There’s no signature. Just another generic response. Another dead end. I’ve received five of these letters in the past year but every 60 days I keep checking and every time they tell me to hire a lawyer.
I tried that once. But three installments later the guy was $800 richer and I was still at square one. I went to his office one day to confront him only to discover that he’d disappeared. No gold plaque outside the door. No fake diploma from an Ivy League Law school on the wall. The room was empty.
And spinning. I sat in the center, sun streaming through the bare window and grazing my face. Trying to coax me to move, to stand. But I couldn’t.
The money I’d used to pay the lawyer had been my reward. Jago had known I was desperate and in exchange for…what I did…he gave me the fee. And then I gave it away. Every last cent. To a fucking crook.
I made myself sick, dry heaving until the cleaning woman who I’d passed in the hallway every time I came to make a payment finally found me there in the dark. She wrenched me up by the arm, yelling something about the mess.
“You knew,” I spat at her.
Her face didn’t change.
“You knew and you never tried to stop me.” I stood, shaking. “How many people came to see him? How many people gave him money?” I glared down at her. “How much did he give you to keep quiet?”
She ignored me, spraying the windows. When I reached the doorway she finally spoke. “There’s another one moving in at the end of the week. Bring him some clients and you can earn back the money you lost.”
I crumple the letter in my fist before dropping it in the toilet. I kick the lever, watching it spiral into nothing. Before heading back out to the party I linger over the sink, splashing water on my face until any trace of disappointment is gone.
The song pulsing on the other side of the door nears the drop, the electric sounds high pitched like a train coming down the tracks. I wait for it to loosen its grip or someone to change it back to Stayin’ Alive or the YMCA. But it only tightens into a scream.
Glass shatters and I can hear the scrape of chairs, the stomp of feet. When I burst through the bathroom door back into the ballroom, people are crouched behind tables, flames shuddering in the center of the dance floor. They crawl across the wood, bright and blue, until someone douses them with a fire extinguisher. Then I see the flecks of glass, plastic charred and falling apart in the center, the bottle label still partially intact. Jago’s favorite rum.
The rising smoke finally ushers people to their knees, Angel the only one brave enough to finally approach the window. But I don’t need a closer look. Taillights take their time rounding the corner, bass bumping beneath a staccato Spanish rhyme.
I try to remember headlights, too close in our review mirror on our way to the venue. Or maybe Jago knew where we were going before we even arrived. Maybe he always knows. Maybe there really is no escaping him.
Angel turns around, scanning the crowd until he finds my face. A moment later he’s backlit by swirling red lights. Boots crunch across the parking lot, badges catching the emergency lights as policemen canvas the area.
I look down at my Nacho’s shirt, not sure if in this neighborhood, it’ll serve as a disguise or a giant red flag. Maybe it doesn’t matter what I wear. Maybe they’ll know I’m undocumented the second they look into my eyes, the second I open my mouth.
As one of the officers approaches me, notepad in hand, I’m worried it’ll be my silence that gives it away. I can barely breathe, let alone speak. But as I look around, the other employees answering questions, unnerved by the danger that just passed rather than the possibility of what comes next, I know that the only way to survive is to pretend.
The next few minutes pass by in a blur, my brain so focused on the tone and inflection of my voice that I don’t have time to second-guess my decision to lie. But from the side-glances I keep getting from Angel, something tells me I’m not the only one.
“Where were you when it happened?”
I was in the bathroom.
“So you didn’t see it?”
“But you heard it…”
“When you came out of the bathroom what did you see?”
People screaming. Under tables. Someone getting a fire extinguisher. Then smoke.
“And outside? From where you were standing, you had a direct view of the parking lot.”
“Did you see the car? Do you remember the model? What color it was?”
“Anything you can remember about the driver of the vehicle?”
“What about passengers? Could you see—?”
“Did they say—?”
“Did you see—?”
* * *
Back at the restaurant the place is packed, the sound of the dining hall like a vortex. Waitresses run plates in and out, sweating. Solana is behind the bar, sliding drinks back and forth across the grain. Chloe’s at the hostess stand, perched on a chair and yelling over the crowd in the doorway. She even swats at a few of them with the menu gripped in her hand but they just laugh, getting even rowdier.
She spots Angel and jumps down from her post. “Where the hell have you been? We’ve been short-staffed all night. I thought the catering was supposed to be over at ten.”
“Hey, Andrea.” Angel stops her on her way to refill drinks. “Man the hostess stand for a second, will you?” Then he leads Chloe into the office/storage closet.
When they come out a few minutes later her face is pale. She doesn’t even snap at Struggles when he knocks into her, his legs still Jell-O from all those wine coolers. He’s the only one who didn’t sober up right after Jago tried to kill us.
Lucas hands me an apron, both of us frantically tying them around our waists. “What did you say to the cops?”
I’m quiet, trying to figure out a way to make my omissions to the police seem less like a betrayal. I don’t want him to think I was lying to protect Jago.
“You used to…work for him, right?” Lucas doesn’t make eye contact. For the first time he seems wary, maybe even afraid. When I don’t answer, he finally says, “I didn’t tell them anything.”
“Why not?” I ask.
He slides three plates over to the pick-up window. “Angel told me not to.”
I glance over at the grill. Angel already has his headphones in—no spastic dance moves or even a bob of his head; the tongs in his hand the only thing moving.
“Why would he do that?”
Lucas shrugs. “When Nacho got there, he bypassed the cops and went straight to Angel. They talked. Then Angel told me not to tell them what I saw.” Lucas pauses. “We were the ones closest to the window. Everyone else was too busy ducking under tables to see them drive off.”
Lucas tries to shove a few more plates onto the serving window.
Angel finally breaks out of his daze and slams his hand down over the order bell. “We need some runners over here!”
Lucas loads up another plate. “Sometimes he hangs around the hair salon where my mom works. He likes one of the girls there. I worry about her. I wish they’d fucking throw his ass in jail. But Nacho seems to think that’ll make him even more dangerous.”
“Do you agree with him?”
“I don’t know. But I trust him.”
Lucas’ unease evaporates as Angel pushes more meat in our direction. But I can’t stop looking at them. My first day on the job Lucas called this place a godforsaken dive and today he’s lying to the police for his manager who he implied wasn’t exactly competent. But then I remember why Lucas had to find a job in the first place and I realize that when Nacho gave him an opportunity to help his family, Nacho and Angel and Pen and all of the other people Nacho has rescued became his family too.
Chloe looks back from the hostess stand, calling over the restaurant and sending a few waitresses to run plates. Gabby and Mari wind through patrons like a mini-tornado. Mari balances six plates on her arms and dances them back across the restaurant. Gabby looks on before turning back to the piling orders, face scrunched and determined as she tries to do the same. She works her way up to four plates, wobbling a moment before finding her stride.
She slides between a guy and a girl breaking out of an embrace, barely missing the girl’s big sparkly handbag. There’s another close call with a biker making his way toward the bar, Gabby steadying herself against the bald head of a man who’s sitting in a booth against the wall.
“Oh shit,” Lucas holds his breath, “this is not going to be good.”
A few tortilla chips tumble to the floor, then a few grains of rice.
“No.” I shake my head. “Definitely not.”
The crowd by the door is ready to burst at the seams, a guy who is obviously already wasted trying to push through. Chloe holds her ground, swatting at him, but it’s like watching a reed in a hurricane. He finally pushes past her, Chloe chasing him into the dining area, and then he stops. Right in front of Gabby. And then she slams into him, all of the food she’s carrying crashing to the floor.
Lucas hangs his head. A moment later Angel is in the dining room, his manager tag askew. The drunk guy jams his finger into Angel’s chest. I don’t even see the first punch or who throws it but all of a sudden they’re tangled and falling into the table of six that Mari just served.
Solana jumps over the bar like some kind of animal, the air horn gripped in her fist. She raises it above the crowd, presses down hard, and the place is a zoo. People scatter like roaches, trying to squeeze through the front door in one rumbling stampede.
When it finally empties, the last of us stand in the middle of the restaurant, staring down at the mess of food and silverware and melting ice. It looks like some invisible hand has come down and spun the restaurant like a top. I try to read everyone’s faces, wondering if this is just a typical night or if Jago’s chaos followed us all the way from the convention center. If it followed me.
Chloe rushes to Angel’s side, kneeling next to him. She whispers something, her voice firm, but when he looks up I can’t tell if he’s reassured or terrified. But then the bell above the restaurant entrance chimes against the glass and his father steps inside. And there is no question. Angel is scared for his life.
So are the rest of us.
I wait for Mr. Prado to yell or to wrench Angel onto his feet and drag him outside. But he just looks around; one sweep of the restaurant all he takes before he raises a finger and Angel follows him into the parking lot.
Everyone runs for the windows, trying to peer out into the dark. I want to look too, to see if Jago is watching from across the street, relishing in the fear and despondence on my face as I stare back.
“Get the hell away from there!” Chloe summons everyone to the center of the room. “That is none of your business.” She proceeds to hand out brooms and dustpans and trash bags. “This mess is.”
There are a few groans, people kicking at chairs.
“Hey!” Chloe yells. “You want to get paid or not?”
She hands me a trash bag before pulling all the shades down and barring herself between us and the door. Then we have no choice, a barrage of moans and murmurs and various curse words filling the dining room as we all get back to work.
After we’ve been at it for about an hour, Chloe dismisses the staff in chunks, Gabby and Mari high-fiving when they’re the first to leave. Java and Solana are next, followed fifteen minutes later by Lucas and Struggles. Lucas makes a celebratory foul gesture on his way out the door, Chloe kicking him in the rear.
“You okay to stay a little longer?” Chloe asks me. “You’re the only one who hasn’t been bugging me to leave.”
“Great!” She heaves a tub of cleaning supplies into my arms. “Supply closet. Thanks.”
I make my way back to the supply closet but when I crack the door it isn’t empty. Pen’s examining one of the shelves, a few bottles already tucked into her bag. She presses a finger to her lips before pulling the door closed behind me.
I set down the tub of cleaning supplies.
“So I’m guessing you heard that I’m not exactly supposed to be here right now.” She fiddles with one of the ingredient bottles, puts it back on the shelf. “Or ever.”
I’m not sure what to say, still surprised by her presence, our proximity.
“I just needed a few things.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Things you can’t get at the supermarket?”
Pen shrugs, staring up at the ceiling. “I may have held onto my spare key. I just…I wanted to be here. That’s all.”
I nod. “I’m sorry about what happened. And about you and your dad.”
“Yeah well he’s…” She runs a hand through her hair. “He and I have always butted heads about everything.”
“Maybe you’re too much alike.”
She huffs. “You speaking from experience?”
I stuff my hands in my pockets. “No, not really.”
She latches onto the disappointment in my voice and I wish I hadn’t opened my mouth.
She examines me more closely as she says, “What’s your dad like?”
“He’s…” My throat’s dry and I swallow. “I don’t know…”
She realizes she’s staring too close, backs away. “I’m sorry.”
I lean against the wall. “It was a long time ago.”
The words feel like a lie. It’s been more than a decade since I watched him drive away but every time I think I’ve found some new information or I follow a new lead and it amounts to absolutely nothing that sting is brand new again.
Because time doesn’t heal wounds. It makes them evolve, more durable and more potent. The sting of being left never goes away, it just disguises itself, erupting in fights after school and bloody knuckles against my bedroom wall and empty shot glasses that are numbing one second and gasoline the next. It makes you constantly question your worth, seeking it out in places, in people, who are just as dangerous as the feeling you’re running from. In Jago I wasn’t just searching for purpose or a parent. I was searching for an escape. Now I’m desperate to escape him.
Pen doesn’t see the memories behind my eyes, the trauma I’m still reeling from. I can tell she doesn’t know about what happened tonight and I don’t have the strength to bring it up, shattering whatever this quiet moment is. Because I need the quiet, I need whatever feigned safety exists in this space between us.
She moves to the wall, slumping down at my feet. “What about your mom?”
It’s almost three in the morning. I’m exhausted, and not just from working overtime, but from barely surviving the day at all. But something compels me to join her on the floor.
I sink, arms resting on my knees. “She left too.”
The air trips over Pen’s lips. “After…? How could she do that?”
I shake my head. It feels strange that she’s angry, that she cares at all.
“That’s so shitty,” she says. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” I wait for an uncomfortable silence but Pen chases it away. “Some people just aren’t meant to be parents.”
“Yours seem pretty great.”
Pen’s shoulders slump. “They’re not so bad they’re just…” She hugs her knees. “Stubborn. My mom didn’t go to college until I was already in high school. It’s just such a big deal to them and I get that but it’s not for me. I tried it, I really did, but…”
“You would rather be here.”
“They groomed me for this whether they realize it or not. Even when I was just a kid my father would let me wrap the silverware and then it wasn’t long before he let me change the paint color on some of the walls. I helped him pick out a new sign for out front and I started tweaking the menu here and there. He knew I was like him. He knew that given the choice I would choose this. So he took it away.”
Pen stares at the walls like they’re closing in on us. “I could do it, you know. I could fix this. If he’d just let me try.”
“The restaurant?” I ask.
The lull I’ve been waiting for finally slips over us and I know it’s my turn to chase it away.
“What would you change?” I ask.
Pen looks up at me.
“If this was your restaurant what would you do?”
Her face is hard again, thinking. But then she smiles. “Can I show you?”
When I crack the door, I don’t hear any footsteps. The parking lot out front is finally empty—Mr. Prado’s truck gone—but I know Angel and Chloe are still here. Pen slips out first, waving me over to the back door. Through the window we can see Angel and Chloe sitting on the back steps, their shoulders touching.
Pen leads me to the kitchen before flipping on the lights. She circles the room. “First I’d knock out this entire wall.” She steps through to the dining area. “And then I’d put a long display case filled with pastries and candies. Maybe we could even open a drive-thru window leading out into the alley so people could take their food to go.” Pen makes her way to the window, tapping the glass. “I’d extend the patio area, maybe put in a big pergola with some of those hanging lights. We could rip out all of those weeds back there and have live music on the weekends.”
“So is that what you really want? Not your father’s restaurant but your own?”
Pen sinks down in one of the booths, scratching at her thumbnail. I sit down across from her.
“I…If I could do anything I’d own my own bakery.”
She looks around as if someone might overhear but it’s just the two of us and suddenly that fact is making my hands sweat. I duck them under the table, accidentally grazing her knee. But she doesn’t move.
“Pen, what the hell are you doing here? Are you out of your mind?” Angel’s spotted us, the terror returned to his face.
She stands, rolling her eyes. “I just needed a few things.”
He pokes at her overstuffed bag. “A few things. You’re stealing. After you were just fired!”
“I’m not stealing. I’m simply borrowing these until dad changes his mind and then I’ll bring them back.”
“Give her a break, Angel.” Chloe pushes Pen toward the entrance. “She’s going.”
“She better be.”
I try to catch Pen’s eye one last time but she and Chloe are whispering about something on their way out.
Angel hangs his head. “Jesus, being manager is going to kill me.” The almost-laugh catches in his throat as he realizes how accurate that statement actually was tonight. “Shit. Can you believe the fucking day we’ve had?”
I’m not sure what to say. Part of me wants to ask him why he lied to the police but I don’t want to remind him that just a few months ago I would’ve been in the backseat of Jago’s car, calling out when the coast was clear. I have to build a new identity here and that starts with making my manager believe I’m a decent human being.
“Are you okay?” I finally ask.
He grows still, thinking. Then he exhales. “I’m fine. Let’s lock up and get the hell out of here.”
Pen Prado has a passion for cooking. Specifically, cooking her father's food in her father's restaurant. It's the heart of their immigrant neighborhood, a place where everyone belongs, and second chances are always on the menu. Except for Pen. Despite the fact that there's something almost magic about her food, her father can't imagine anything worse than her following in his footsteps. And when Pen confesses to keeping a secret from her family, he fires her, ensuring she never will.
Xander Amaro is undocumented but that doesn't stop Ignacio Prado from offering him a job at his restaurant. For Xander, it's a chance to make amends and to sever his toxic relationship with the druglord, El Cantil--a man whose been like a father to him since his own disappeared. Soon after, his mother abandoned him too, leaving behind a void that not even his abuelo can fill. Until he meets Pen.
Both seeking a place where they feel like they truly belong, they end up finding each other, and in the face of tremendous fear and self-doubt, they end up finding themselves.