All Marcela knows, really, is cooking. She cooks to feed her seven children, to make extra money for her family, to eat and relieve tension. She cooks because the food sits in the icebox threatening to grow stale, and no one else in her family knows how to cook for nine, though her oldest daughter, María, whose quinceñera was last May, has begun to show an interest since she began taking home economics classes at school and going to dances on the weekends. Marcela cooks because it is her religion, because she dreams and prays food. As a little girl in Agua Prieta, she stood beside her mother and grandmother next to the wood stove that burned like a desert brushfire and day after day rolled tortillas onto the steaming surface of the ancient cast-iron comál the women of the family had used for four generations. As a young woman in Nogales and Sierra Vista, she had sculpted tamales and chile relleno and boiled menudo in the kitchens of well-to-do families who she worked under for fifteen years, scrubbing the pots and pans, alphabetizing the herbs and spices, checking and rechecking the temperatures of the ovens, timing the items on the stove. And now, thirty-six years old and with seven kids of her own and a husband to look after, she is in El Paso. Cooking.
She grabs a pinch of cumin and sprinkles it into the crock-pot bubbling with a pot roast. Her husband lightly kisses her on the cheek, sighing as he grabs the lunch she prepared for him this morning while he was in the shower and the sun was only beginning to lift over the mountains. She hears him inhale the smell of her neck, a lingering habit from their early days as a couple, and Arturo, with his smell of Brüt aftershave, makes his way out the front door. Marcela watches out the window as her husband gets into the truck, checks his slicked back hair in the side mirror, pumps the gas a few times, turns over the engine, and backs out of the driveway, out of sight. The kisses have become the extent of Marcela and Arturo’s intimacy, and her signal to begin her daily routine. She lets out the breath she has been holding in, the remnants of Arturo’s morning scent, and walks down the hall to the girls’ room where her five daughters toss and turn and slobber and smack their lips to their dreams about boys and flowers and dances. She flicks the light switch and clears her throat. It is all she needs to do to wake the oldest two girls, who will then wake the remaining girls with their fighting over the bathroom and the brush and the costume jewelry that they sneak to school in their book bags and put on while riding the bus to the Santa Rita school compound which houses grades K through 12.
Marcela turns her back on the stirring girls and heads to the boys’ room. She tiptoes to each boy’s bed, gently shaking them awake and humming a song that her grandmother always hummed while she stood next to her in the kitchen. De Colores. The boys rub their eyes, clicking their tongues to get their saliva flowing. She tells them to be washed and ready for breakfast in ten minutes, then she walks back to the kitchen tightening her apron and ignoring the racket of seven kids preparing for school.
As Marcela stirs the pot roast once more and piles slim portions of chorizo con huevos and a tortilla onto seven saucers, she gazes out the kitchen window and into the front yard of her next door neighbor. His name is Brock Miller. She knows this because every so often, when a new mailman takes over the route, Brock’s mail inevitably ends up in her mailbox. Some days she wonders when there will be a new mailman. Brock is a tall, handsome man with a strong, even tan, a fiery red flattop, and a new wife named Yvette. Every morning Marcela watches Brock lounge on his back porch in his boxer shorts, reading the Wall Street Journal while he sips a mug of what she presumes to be coffee. She watches his muscles ripple as he turns pages and sips, turns pages and sips. Sometimes he looks away from the paper and up toward the sky, as if calculating the risk of some new stock or the ramifications of the latest corporate merger on his portfolio. Then Marcela turns to inspect her seven children as they file up to the table to eat their breakfast. She goes from tallest to shortest.
“You didn’t wash behind your ears,” she scolds Alí, then quickly moves on to Lupita who is wearing her little sister’s tank top. “That’s too small for you,” Marcela points to the hand-me-down that is strangling her daughter’s newly blossoming breasts. “Go change out of that or you are not going to leave this house.” Lupita is fourteen and getting excited about the celebration she will receive on her next birthday, which is only six weeks away. Marcela sees more careless preparation by the other children and reprimands them individually, sending them back to their rooms to regroup and follow her orders. The kitchen is quiet again and Marcela turns toward the kitchen window and Brock. He sits there now, his wife next to him holding his hand. They look calm and confident together, and Marcela looks away. Her children have returned and are sitting at the table awaiting their breakfast.
“Yolanda,” she says to her six-year-old daughter as she carries the plates of food over to the table and places them in front of the children, “come straight home after school today. I have a special job for you.” She winks at her daughter to give her the illusion of secrecy required to keep a child interested in a chore. She walks behind her daughter’s chair and tightens the fat yarn bow Lupita had wrapped around her sister’s dark and thick ponytail.
Yolanda smiles at her mother, despite the fact that her face feels stretched to its limits at the tightness of her ponytail. “Okay, Mamá,” she says, grabbing bits of chorizo with her fingers and marching them across the plate onto the waiting tortilla.
Marcela considers telling her two oldest daughters about the makeup-stained washcloths she has been finding in the dirty laundry, then decides there are worse things her daughters could be doing. She sits down to eat breakfast with them, looking at each child and reassessing which one has her characteristics or Arturo’s. Her girls all have the same corn silk hair as their mother, but the similarities end there. Only her two youngest have her nose, while Yolanda looks exactly like Arturo’s sister. And the boys, they look so much like their father that people often point out to Marcela that her role in their creation must have had little more than being the vessel that carried them for nine months. A packing crate for babies.
The school bus honks at the end of their cul-de-sac. Her children rush past her, each one pecking her on the cheek as they grab their bags hanging by the door and run toward the bus, leaving her sitting at the table surrounded by half-eaten breakfasts and hurried glasses of milk. She walks to the cupboard to get out a Tupperware bowl and scrapes the leftover chorizo from each plate to be reheated for her lunch later. It’s odd, she thinks, how quiet this house is capable of being. How lonely. How unnoticeable. Although Marcela knows she has plenty of cleaning to do, plenty of cooking for tonight’s meal, she cannot help feeling a little restless. She wants to rush out every day too, with a purpose, a place to go, people who are expecting her. Instead, she turns to the dirty table, calculating the amount of time it will take to wash the morning’s dishes. In her solitude, she schedules the events of the day, the cleaning that must be done, thinking perhaps she will have time to plant some flowers in the window boxes today, now that spring has come and ended the funereal grayness of winter. A hot bath, the main luxury she allows herself, must come first. So she goes to the bathroom and turns on the tub faucet, the steam reminding her to brew a cup of hot tea to sip while she soaks for fifteen minutes, a washcloth on her face and a slight breeze coming through the bathroom window.
When Marcela steps out of the hot bath, her wrinkled brown feet turned slightly red by the temperature of the water, she gazes in the mirror at her foggy reflection. Thinking it is probably better to look at herself in the fog but knowing that she wants more detail, she wipes the glass with her towel and peers closely at her streaked reflection. She looks young still, she thinks, but motherhood has had its way with her. Her breasts sag further than she likes, the byproduct of breastfeeding seven children. She wonders if she should look lower, and does, only to find that the mirror allows her to see no further down than her belly button. She is actually relieved to not see down past it, since she already knows she doesn’t want to see her legs and butt stretched out by the many children she has borne. The wormy stretch mark scars make her angry. But her skin looks healthy and brown, and her eyes are still alert and sharp, though she could do without the dark brown circles beneath them. She could look worse.
With her towel wrapped around her, Marcela walks to her bedroom and looks into her closet, pretending to have a much wider selection than she actually does. Really, she only has a few light sundresses and two dressier outfits for special occasions, but in her head she has all the latest styles she sees on the covers of People and US while she waits in line to unload her massive cart of groceries amidst the moans and grimaces of shoppers behind her in line. Today she chooses one of the dresses for special occasions. It is a thick cotton dress, red, conservatively cut to the middle of her calves, with a black, fake leather belt included. She steps into it, zips the back up, ignoring the pain in her shoulder from the awkward position she must get into to close the zipper completely. She pulls out her long black hair from the collar of her dress and walks over to the mirror. She imagines the dress is a flowing gown, with gloves pulled up to her elbows, a beautiful gold cross pinned to the front. But she knows it’s not.
Marcela wonders if Brock has left for work yet and what he is wearing today.
In her daughters’ room, Marcela lifts the lid of the ballerina music box where the girls keep their barrettes and picks out two gold butterflies. She sits down at their vanity mirror and pulls her hair back into a tight ponytail, the way she wore it when she was younger. She combs through her hair, feeling the tangles ripping, pulling tighter and tighter until she feels the skin of her face become taut. Quickly, before any of the tension on her scalp is lost, Marcela wraps a hair tie around her ponytail. There are a few stray hairs, so she sprays some of her daughters’ hairspray onto her head and smoothes her hand over her scalp. It looks good. That and a little bit of red lipstick from her Avon bag and Marcela feels ready to go out into the world.
Instead, she walks into her kitchen to do the dishes.
The silence of her home makes her feel as though she hardly exists, so she places an Ana Gabriel record on the phonograph, her thoughts succumbing to the woman’s voice singing about lovers leaving and first kisses and memories of happier days.
In the living room she begins to dust the knickknacks she has accumulated over the years. Plaster molds of her children’s hands, the bible lying open on its stand atop the television, art projects her children made in classrooms, the statue of la Virgén sitting in the corner on a table surrounded by candles. She crosses herself when she is finished dusting the statue and moves to the mantle where the photographs of her family sit. The largest photograph, taken on the morning of her wedding, she lifts and takes over to the couch where she sits down to dust the carved wooden frame. She looks at her and Arturo, so many years ago, both of them standing proud with their arms around each other, and remembers when they first met at a dance during her sixteenth year. He had a thin boyish mustache and an intense look of passion. It makes her happy remembering how he approached her and held his hand out, offering her a dance, and the blush that came to her cheeks as she stood and walked with him onto the dance floor, neither of them speaking. He held her softly, gently leading her to the sound of violins and trumpets and an old man singing, begging his lover to lie next to me, don’t leave, don’t say a word, just hold me one last time so I can remember you like this for the rest of my life. Todo mí vida. Para Siempre. And they moved in circles around the room while she kept her eyes focused over his shoulder, smelling his aftershave and the starch on his pressed shirt. She saw the sweat on his brow from concentrating on the dance and thought it was handsome, romantic that he was trying to please her so.
She remembers Arturo serenading her after he came home from the rice fields every afternoon while she sat on the porch removing husks from the ears of corn to dry them out and wrap tamales in them and sell them door to door for her mother. He brought his guitar to work, even though the others laughed at him, so he could go straight to her house when he got off and sing to her how his heart was empty without her, how she was his queen, his heart, his true love for life. You have stolen a piece of my soul, he sang, and she flushed with embarrassment and knew she would grow to love this man.
She remembers the day he came to her home bearing roses and had asked her father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. How proud he looked when her father consented and Arturo came out onto the porch where she sat removing cornhusks and, on his knees, handed her the roses with a tear of pride on his cheek and said that if she would have him he would consider it a blessing to be her husband until the day he died. Marcela said yes, yes, and leapt up to embrace him as he knelt on his knees and hugged his head to her breast.
And now, seven kids later, Marcela sits holding the photo of her and the young Arturo, the Arturo with dreams and passion and song, and she wonders where it all went. She wonders exactly when he stopped whispering poems to her in bed at night when the lights were out and the warm Texas breeze blew across their naked bodies. How he sang my love is stronger and longer, mí morena, than the mighty river to the south. The Rio Grande. She wonders when he first stopped looking into her eyes and saying how lucky he was to have met her, how it was only chance that he came to the dance that night, having been forced by his cousins to get out of his room and quit writing poetry in solitude. How he had never asked a girl to dance before and didn’t even know a single dance step. How he had watched the other dancers for an hour so he could approach her and take her on to the dance floor where he mimicked the moves that he had been so closely studying all night. She wonders.
But there is laundry to do.
She listens to the record playing its sad songs and ponders what it would be like to be famous like Ana Gabriel, to be noticed by everyone. To be known.
What if she walked down the street and people whispered to each other, dios mío, it’s Marcela Muñoz walking down the same street as us, can you believe it? What if when she dies everyone mourns and weeps and stays home from work and school because they cannot believe she could leave them, just like that. What if she created such beautiful music that people played it while making love, while proposing marriage, while rocking their children to sleep? How would it feel if someone knew who she was here in this vast desert, in this city where cowboys and caballeros live side by side? Where both businessmen and immigrants work just a few hundred yards from each other, some starving, some well stuffed with food. In this place that could be so hot in the day and so cold at night. She wonders if little girls would weep over her passing, smearing their eye makeup in movie theaters as they watch the documentary of her life. She wonders if boys would feel a terrible loss inside, though they don’t quite understand it, because they never had the chance to meet her, hear her sing, ask her to dance or kiss her soft pinkbrown lips. She wonders; but Marcela knows she cannot sing and she cannot dance. She can only cook. That is all she knows.
But she wants to know more. She wants to be known outside of her tiny world. Her world of children and church and shopping at the store for groceries. And her kitchen.
Marcela returns to the kitchen to stir the pot roast for tonight’s dinner. She places a pot of water on the stove to boil and carries a bowl over to the kitchen sink to pick the rocks out of the pinto beans and rinse them off. Brock and Yvette both left long ago, and Marcela sees that their house sits silent and dark, locked tightly against the heat and anything else that may try to get in. The swamp cooler on their roof churns lazily, pushing cool air into their newlywed home. Marcela looks at her kitchen clock and sees that it is nearly time for the children to come home from school and remembers what she had planned for today. She wants to give Brock all she has. She wants to cook for him.
Marcela stands in the kitchen, the afternoon sun warming her face, and listens to her music while she prepares mantecados for Brock. Inside her, her heart feels like a rain-soaked sheet hanging on a clothesline after a storm. Lonely. Full. Sad. She pats the batter into tiny piles, little sweet mounds that will swell only a little while they bake and then she will top them with dyed green sugar. She handles each mantecado with great care, like a newborn baby, like an old person’s hand, like an egg yolk. This is all she knows, and she remembers being taught this recipe by her grandmother who told her that mantecados are a sign of love, to be eaten and appreciated by people who love you and have kindness in their hearts, to be eaten by people you care about. She whispers a poem into each one as she places them on a greased cookie sheet. She thinks, this is my poem, this is my song, this is my beauty, and she slides the sheet of mantecados into the oven to bake. She has done her best.
Marcela sits at the table and waits, picking at reheated chorizo and looking at the clouds blowing through the sky outside her kitchen window.
It is almost time for the children to come home. Marcela goes into the girls’ room and picks out Yolanda’s best dress, her first communion dress, and lays it flat on her daughter’s bottom bunk bed. She returns to the ballerina music box and chooses two white satin ribbons and two white lace bows. She reaches into the closet and removes the shoebox that holds the first communion memorabilia of her five daughters. She sifts through the rosaries, the gold crosses, the gloves, and finds the pair Yolanda wore seven months ago. All these items she places carefully on the bed beside her daughter’s dress, positioning each article where it would end up once it was placed on her daughter. She hears the door open and her children walking through the kitchen.
“Yolanda,” Marcela calls, and her little daughter appears in the door of her room.
“Yes, Mamá,” she says in her tiny voice, curiously looking at her mother lying on the bed beside the white communion dress and accessories.
“Are you ready to do something special for me?”
“Yes, Mamá. But why are all those things out?”
“Because I want you to look your best when you take a gift next door for our new neighbors.”
“Okay,” says Yolanda, whose eyes are wide with interest and excitement over being able to dress up on a school day.
Marcela takes her daughter into the bathroom and runs a warm bath for her. She drops two lavender bath beads into the water and tells her daughter to soak in the water until she comes back. Yolanda removes her clothes and climbs into the bathtub. She looks at her mom and lies down in the water, pleased to be treated like a queen with a scented bath and a full tub. She has never been bathed like this before.
Marcela goes back to the kitchen to check on the pot roast, the beans, and the mantecados. She knows the sweet bread is almost ready. She can tell by the smell. Her children have smelled the bread too, but they don’t ask if they can have any, if it’s for them. They seem to already know. She gives them celery with peanut butter on it and tells them they can eat in the living room in front of the television, if they want.
When she is through bathing her daughter, Marcela chooses her thickest towel and dries her daughter off slowly, carefully. She sits down on the toilet lid with her daughter standing between her legs facing away from her and parts her hair down the middle for two braids. Weaving the silk ribbons into her daughter’s hair, she ties each one of at the end with a white lacy bow. Yolanda is silent, as if she knows that this means a lot to her mother and does not want to interrupt her serious mood. Marcela pulls the white communion dress over her daughter’s head and buttons it along the back. By the time she has finished buttoning, Yolanda has already gotten both gloves pulled up to her elbows and is straightening them out and pushing her fingers tightly into the five tiny lace tubes. After spraying Yolanda with a small mist of her favorite flowery perfume, Marcela takes her daughter by the hand and walks her to the kitchen where she pulls the mantecados out of the oven and allows them to cool. The smell is overwhelming. The sweet baked bread makes everyone’s mouth water, but no one dares to ask for a single treat.
“Yolanda,” her mother says as she gently folds the mantecados into a peach colored cloth napkin and places them in a basket, “I want you to take these next door to the Millers. Be sure you tell them that they are from me, Marcela Muñoz. Tell them I made these especially for them, today, with my own hands. Can you remember that?”
Her daughter nods and the rest of the children pretend not to watch from the living room.
“Now go ahead, míja. But, don’t forget to tell them I made them with my bare hands.” She tells her mother yes, yes, giving her a look of understanding and assurance that makes Marcela smile. She slowly walks to the door, the eyes of the other children watching her. “You look beautiful, míja.”
Her daughter walks out the front door and onto the sidewalk, slowly, like the leader of a wedding procession. With tiny determined steps and a grip on the basket of mantecados that sends splinters into her palms, Yolanda looks back at her mother and turns onto the sidewalk toward the Miller’s walkway.
Marcela closes the door and hurries to the kitchen, aware that her children are watching her, but hoping that they don’t realize her intensity, her desperation. She reaches the sink and opens the tap, allowing the water to run and hoping that the children will think that she is disinterestedly doing the dishes. Except there are no dishes to wash.
Watching out the window, she sees her daughter disappear up the front steps of her neighbor’s home. Marcela wonders what it would be like to be on that side of the fence. Would she bother to look around, to know her neighbors? Would she gaze over the fence, the way she gazes out the window now to see Brock’s reaction, and look into the kitchen window at the woman standing over a sink, pots boiling and steaming beside her and a living room full of children eating food with brown hands and faces? She wonders if she would or not.
Her daughter is coming back now, empty-handed, and Marcela can feel her body become nervous. She closes the curtains to the kitchen window, leaving a crack big enough to peer through. Her hands begin to sweat so she plunges them into the cold dishwater. On the back porch, Brock sits with his afternoon paper and his mail. Yvette emerges from their back door with the basket of mantecados and a smile on her face, but Marcela is not yet satisfied. She wants to see Brock’s smile. She wants him to know that she made those for him by hand. She wants him to think of nothing but her and her cooking when he is hungry. She wants him to taste the care she took while preparing his treat for him.
Brock looks up toward the basket his wife holds between him and his newspaper. Her lips say something and he reaches into the basket, his hand emerging with one of her mantecados. Marcela’s heart is a storm. Her stomach is a swelling ocean. She sees Brock bite into the mantecado and begin chewing. For a moment he hesitates and Marcela believes he has swallowed it. She starts to smile until she sees that Brock’s wife is holding the basket under his chin and he is spitting the doughy mixture of a half chewed mantecado back into the basket. On top of the other mantecados. He has spoiled the whole bunch.
Marcela is frozen. She does not know how to react. Has she seen correctly, she wonders. Did she make a mistake with the recipe? Impossible. She learned to make mantecados when she was Yolanda’s age. She had mixed and tasted the batter, the same recipe that has been in her family for four generations, guarded by her grandmother and great-grandmother. No, she is not capable of ruining the recipe that she loved most. The beautiful rising sweet bread, so full of her pride, puffed out and golden brown and beautiful. Marcela does not notice the water running over her hands had gotten hotter. She does not notice her tears turning the couple on their back porch into a hazy mixture of water and color and light. She does not notice her six-year-old daughter, Yolanda, coming up to her and pulling on the hem of her dress. She only hears her daughter saying to her over and over, with a proud smile on her face, “Mamá, I told them just like you said. I told them you made those treats with your hands. My mamá, Marcela Muñoz. Just like you said.”
Aaron Michael Morales is a graduate of Purdue University’s MFA Program and an Associate Professor of English & Gender Studies at Indiana State University, where he teaches creative writing, contemporary American literature, contemporary Latino literature, and masculinity studies. His first novel, Drowning Tucson (Coffee House Press, 2010), was named a “Top Five Fiction Debut” by Poets & Writers, and Latina Magazine named it “One of the Best Five Books of 2010.” Esquire described Drowning Tucson as “the bleakly human debut of the new Bukowski.” Morales is also the author of a chapbook of short fiction, titled From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert, as well as a textbook, American Mashup: A Popular Culture. He is currently at work on his third novel, Latrinalia, and recently completed his second, titled Eat Your Children.