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FIRST FIFT

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10,000 SOULS

 

by Annette Sandoval

Approximately 100,000 words

 

 

 

 

 

"10,000 people were buried near Mission Dolores Cemetery,

of whom 5,000 Indians are buried in unmarked graves.”

—Br. Guire Cleary, S.S.F

 

                                                      

"They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds."

—Mexican Proverb

PART ONE

 

Chapter 1

MR. ZAMORA HAS BREAST CANCER

Mission District, San Francisco, 1979

Mr. Hector Zamora decided to end his own life while watching a rerun of I Love Lucy. He had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer that morning and the prognosis was not good. He first felt a lump under his left nipple ten years ago. The doctor told him it was a calcium buildup, so he ignored it. He mentioned it to his new doctor, who ran some tests during his most recent routine checkup. Mr. Zamora was blindsided by the diagnosis. The doctor said that this type of cancer was rare in men, but it did occur.

Fighting the urge to finger the tumor was like trying not to touch a loose tooth with your tongue. Carmen, his wife, was his deterrent. She was sitting next to him on the plastic slip-covered couch. Their two teenage daughters were sprawled on the carpet, the backs of their heads shadowed by screen glow. One or the other would occasionally get up to adjust the reception by rotating the coat hanger antenna.

Now that the shock was wearing off, he was not sure what scared him more, the cancer itself or the thought of telling his family. If he told his girls he had less than three years to live, the terrible news would instantly age them. Roxy would start a countdown. Every day, he would see the calendar page turn in her eyes. But keeping the illness a secret for too long would be difficult as his health declined. No, death by his own hand was the best way to go.

With the decision made, he tuned back into the show. It was the episode where Lucy placed a bet with Ricky. She was going to keep from buying a hat for longer than he could keep from losing his temper. Mr. Zamora thought, why a hat? A box of Cohiba cigars I could understand, but a pinche hat?

As if picking up the vibrations of the unspoken question through her jaw, Mrs. Zamora nodded once. "I hate Lucy." Her tone was so full of loathing, Mr. Zamora had to resist the urge to gape at his wife. Their daughters knew better than to look back at their mother. In the wilderness they called home, eye contact was an act of aggression.

Mrs. Zamora spoke again. In his peripheral vision, she looked like a floral print sack of onions with a russet potato for a head. "Lucy is so spoiled. She can’t cook and never bothers to clean their apartment. She’s always spending her husband’s money and doing things she shouldn't be doing behind his back. Now what kind of a wife is that?"

Mr. Zamora was thinking how familiar that sounded when the potato spoke again. "And what kind of a name is Ricky Ricardo anyway? Did his parents really give him the same first and last name? You see! That’s what happens when los otros write about us. They always get it all wrong!"

Roxy cautiously spoke to the chancla dangling from her mother’s big toe, aware that she could wield the house sandal with the precision of a ninja throwing star. "Enrique. His name is Enrique Ricardo. Not Ricardo Ricardo."

"Oh." Annoyed by the correction, Mrs. Zamora folded her arms over her chest. She sank deeper into the cushions, causing the slipcovers to sigh. "Poor Ricky. If he had just married a good Mexican woman instead of that...he would have been much better off."

"He’s Cuban, mother," Roxy said through clenched teeth. She braced for the chancla.

"I know that," Mrs. Zamora said, offended. “He’s Catholic and he speaks Spanish. If that’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me."

“How do you know he’s Catholic?” Roxy said, pushing it.

“Because,” Mrs. Zamora said, the answer so obvious. “Everyone born speaking Spanish is Catholic.”

“In religion class, we learned that over a third of the people in Uruguay aren’t Catholic. It’s the most secular country in the Americas,” Roxy said, instantly regretting it.

“Well, Ricky isn’t a pagan from Uruguay, now is he?” Mrs. Zamora said, her voice heavy with sarcasm.

Mr. Zamora tuned his wife out while taking in his girls. Roxy, at seventeen, was the spitting image of the woman now threatening her with the chancla. When she was a baby, he had hoped that she would grow out of it. She never did. But God had blessed his firstborn with a greater gift than beauty, a sharp mind. Roxy could do math without the aid of a calculator and not just adding and subtracting, she could multiply, divide, and do fractions—all in her head.

Sixteen-year-old Leah favored him. Two skinny, brown whippets in the rain, only with curly hair. Unlike her extravert sister, Leah was painfully shy and shrank away from attention. Sometimes when he stared at her, she looked blurry at the edges. He thought she would vanish if he blinked. He worried that she felt things so deeply. He took comfort in knowing that her big sister would always be there to watch out for her in ways he never could do.

Mr. Zamora could not bring himself to think of how much his death would hurt his girls, so he focused his attention on making sure that they were well provided for. The first thing he would do is write a will. Second, get as much life insurance as he could. He remembered hearing something about it taking a year for the death benefits to kick in but was not sure. He would have to look into that.

As the show faded out, Enrique bent Lucy over his knee and started spanking her. Mrs. Zamora perked up. "Harder! Hit her harder!"

Mr. Zamora watched as his wife cheered on the domestic abuser. He wondered how many members of the audience were dead. The thought of escaping the sheer hell that this woman had put him through every single day of their married life, buoyed his spirits. Now how am I going to do it and when? It has to happen when the girls are in school. It has to look like an accident and not leave much of a mess.

Mr. Zamora became serene. I own a restaurant. Accidents are always happening there.

 

Chapter 2

MR. ZAMORA IS DEAD

Mr. Zamora's fatal freak accident occurred in the restaurant’s kitchen one year and one day after his terminal illness diagnosis. He was electrocuted while trying to unplug a faulty electric bean masher. It was actually an industrial electric potato masher, only they used it for beans. To this day, no one can explain why he was mashing the beans in the first place. That was Pedro’s job.

Tacos de Sesos Restaurante, or Sesos for short, had been open for business for over forty years. After Mr. Zamora's tragic death, some of the regular customers stopped patronizing the restaurant. Everyone felt bad for the Zamora women, now left without a husband or a father. The food was great, comida auténtica de Jalisco, but everyone knew that his widow was running the restaurant. And no one wanted to spend good money in bitter company.

The morning after the funeral, Mrs. Zamora buttoned the top button of the lightweight black suéter she wore over a black polyester blend dress. She sprayed a generous amount of Aqua Net Hairspray around a perm that was so tight it looked like she was wearing rollers. She paused to stare at herself in the mirror. Her lifelong fear of living without the security of a man, first her father and now her husband, had come true. Why women without the decency to shave their underarms demanded more liberation than they could use was beyond her. Sighing, she picked up her husband’s hefty ring of keys, having no idea what most of them unlocked.

In the kitchen, Chucha, the cook, conveyed his deepest sympathies. He was a slight, effeminate man with teased black hair and sad Indian eyes. He liked to think of his work aprons as wrap-around skirts. The one he was wearing was his mourning apron. He had embroidered it with flowers of the dead: chrysanthemum, Comstock, gladiolus, and marigolds. For centuries, the bright orange and yellow flowers have guided the souls of loved ones from their graves back to their family homes.

While selecting baked goods from the pink box that Chucha had brought from the panadería, Mrs. Zamora lamented the loss of her husband. “He was a great businessman, a proud father, and a devoted husband who truly, truly loved me…” she said, as she served herself a niño envuelto with tongs, then a second one. On the ceramic plate, the jelly roll slices looked like Princess Leia’s hair buns.

She lingered in the kitchen until she received condolences and hugs from her arriving staff. Pedro was six minutes late. His bowl haircut and small stature always reminded her of one of those little Amazonian tribesmen. The lunch staff listened in silence as she berated the busboy, who worked three jobs, on punctuality. No matter where the waitresses looked, their eyes were pulled back to the burnt floor tiles where their real boss had met God.

As she headed to her husband’s office, she thought how her first disciplinary act with an employee had gone well. If you can’t earn their respect, take it. She stopped fast. Her husband’s usually meticulous desk was covered with sloppy stacks of unopened invoices, restaurant catalogs, and scattered phone messages. A wall calendar filled with her husband’s cramped, cursive writing caught her attention. Two of the dates were lassoed in red ink. "Payroll," was written in both. The second payroll date was in four da

 

 

 

Chapter 3

COUNTDOWN TO PAYDAY

 

Mr. Zamora was laid to rest in Colma, a quiet necropolis city south of San Francisco, where the dead outnumber the living by one thousand to one. The closed casket funeral service was well attended and a blur for the sisters. Throughout the ceremony, Mrs. Zamora, heavily medicated on barbiturates purchased without a prescription in Chihuahua, leaned heavily on her daughters.

For days after the funeral, Roxy and Leah were in a grief fog so heavy and dense, that they had barely moved from the couch. The drawn curtains and half-mast blinds dimmed the living room to moody shades of gray. A game show was on the TV, but neither was watching. Leah was thinking about how different the house smelled without him. Less of dried berries and nutmeg, and more of stale bread.

Roxy was trying to remember the dreams she had been having since he died. Last night, all of her teeth fell out. A couple of nights ago, she was driving a car when the steering wheel and brakes suddenly stopped working. She was trying to remember the dream from the night before that, when the loud crash of the front door made them jump. Their mother trudged into the living room crying hoarse, wracking sobs. As she momentarily blocked Bob Barker on TV, the sisters exchanged nervous glances.

Mrs. Zamora warded off thoughts of working on payroll by retreating to her bedroom, where she escaped into television and food. She only got up to go to the bathroom or to switch channels back and forth between the novelas on UHF and the soap operas on ABC. Her employees brought her meals up on trays and then took the dirty dishes away. When she did not feel like real food, someone stopped by the Chinese restaurant on Market Street and picked up a number two combo for her.

***

On the morning of the dreaded payday, Mrs. Zamora hunkered down in the bathroom in their apartment. Still dressed in her yellow quilted house coat with purple flowers, she counted down the final minutes on her wristwatch. She wiped her sweaty face with the lacy guest towel no one was allowed to use, with the exception of visiting royalty. In the restaurant's kitchen, Chucha and Pedro prepared for the inevitable uprising by performing Last Rites on each other while splashing tap water.

The riot began at 10:08 a.m. Dressed in their puffy, off-the-shoulder uniforms inspired by the Mexican Revolution, the normally benign group of waitresses clamored for their paychecks. When La Jefa failed to show her "ugly face," they raided the walk-in refrigerator and freezer. They took part of their due earnings with meat and seafood wrapped in butcher’s paper, huge blocks of cheese, and butter.

Las Adelitas stormed the storeroom where they claimed the rest of their paychecks, unpaid sick days, and vacation time owed to them with cases of beer, liquor, and wine. Bottles of DeKuyper Schnapps were left in their wake. As they departed the restaurant, the new mothers snatched up the baby booster seats stacked near the kitchen door.

 

 

Chapter 4

MRS. ZAMORA SKIPS TOWN

 

Roxy and Leah decided to cut the rest of their bereavement leave short and return to the calm and predictable routine of school. They attended Saint Joan of Arc, an all-girls high school also known as Saint Juanita’s. As is the Latino propensity to turn feminine names masculine, most people called it Saint Juan’s. Mila and Dulce were waiting for them on the school steps. Throughout the day, their best friends had their backs, running interference whenever classmates approached trying to use condolences to learn juicy tidbits about their father’s bizarre death. 

The sisters returned home from school drained but relieved to have gotten the awkwardness of their first day back over with. They were taken by surprise to find their mother filling all four of the family’s suitcases without folding the clothes first. “Where are you going?” Roxy said, alarmed.

Mrs. Zamora’s head snapped up. She placed the palm of her hand on her chest to calm herself. “Oh, it’s just you.” She went back to her packing. “I’m going to go stay with your Tía Pachita in Salinas. She…fell and hurt her hip. Don’t just stand there, Roxana! Help me!”

Roxy hurried over to the bed. She tried to close an overstuffed suitcase by sitting on it. Her face pinched as questions tumbled out. "How long will you be gone? What about the restaurant?"

Leah felt seasick. Leaning on the door frame for support, she asked, “What about us?”

Mrs. Zamora burst into tears. To Roxy, she said, "The restaurant is closed. Nobody wants to work here…work for me!"

Roxy knew this was true and was not about to go there. “It’s okay, Amá. You just need to come back as soon as you can, so we can figure things out.”

“It’s not okay!” Mrs. Zamora roared. “Your dad’s life insurance claim was denied! They’re calling it a suspicious death and are starting an investigation! Oh, and did you know that he had cancer? Breast cancer of all things! Now everyone’s going to find out!”

The sisters drew in simultaneous breaths before going blank with shock. As their mother grumbled about the whispers that were already spreading, she rummaged through the drawer of her nightstand. Roxy mutely dragged a suitcase off the bed and onto the floor. She sat and bounced until the latches clicked shut. She pulled the second suitcase off of the bed and did the same.

***

After seeing their mother off at the downtown bus depot, the bewildered sisters returned to their sinking ship. The closed sign in the storefront’s window at this hour of day unsettled them both. From the sidewalk, they could see that a small rip under the awning had been repaired with duct tape. Someone named Güey had graffitied over the graffiti on the door. With some reluctance, they stepped back inside.

The restaurant was dark and had the musty smell of cigarette smoke and aged cotija cheese. As Roxy’s eyes adjusted, she walked into the middle of the dining room. She wondered when everything had gotten so old and tacky. The seams in the dark wood-paneled walls were showing. The horseshoe booths padded with oxblood-colored pleather were cracking. The deep red carpet was heavily stained and fraying along an edge.

Roxy’s eyes landed on Leah. She realized that she had stopped seeing her sister right after she was born. Leah's brown eyes were so swollen from crying she looked like a newborn puppy. The long, black spirals of hair coiling down her back brought virgins and volcanoes to mind. Roxy’s brow furrowed. "Why are you shaking like that? It’s over seventy degrees in here." Her concern came out more like a rebuke.

Roxy heard a low rumble. It was not an earthquake. The moaning sound coming from Leah erupted into a full-on Llorona wail. With a shock of alarm, Roxy instinctively pulled her little sister into a tight hug. "It’s okay, it’s okay! I’ve got you," she repeated until the terrible sounds softened to quiet sobs, then breathing.

Leah’s anguish wrenched Roxy out of her grief cocoon, plunging her into an icy panic. We’re about to lose everything! Our restaurant, our home, this building! No one is going to show up and pull us out of this mess!

Roxy had seen "Gone with the Wind" a bunch of times and thought back to the scene where Scarlett takes charge of Tara, also by default. She held up an imaginary fist to the burnt orange glow of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sky. As God as my witness, I will not be licked, and I will save Sesos!

***

Mrs. Zamora never phoned to say that she had arrived at Tía Pachita’s house. Roxy knew that there was nothing wrong with her great-aunt’s hip. Their mother had made up the excuse so she could escape her immediate responsibilities. She had never handled pressure well. Roxy also knew that their great-aunt would have welcomed her grieving niece with open, arthritic arms. But once unpacked and settled in, their mother’s mean-spirited mood swings would waste no time in souring the visit. She would soon wear out her welcome, but when she would return was anyone’s guess.

Roxy could not wait that long. She needed to take charge of the restaurant before it fell further apart. Seated at her father’s desk, she checked the business ledger. She double-checked the figures. "That’s all!" Her new reality was sinking in fast. Roxy was in charge of a restaurant with no waitstaff, no customers, and no food.

Retreating into autopilot mode, she pulled the Help Wanted signs and the folder of applications from the office filing cabinet. She was grabbing the promotional coffee mug filled with pens when it occurred to her that her grandfather had also died in the restaurant. A ruptured bladder was the cause of Papa Pío’s death. He had been hit with an old hickory wood baseball bat swung by a little girl when he stepped too close to a piñata at a birthday party. He returned to close the restaurant and sort of keeled over while counting chits.

Roxy hung the Help Wanted sign on the front window, then stood back and watched as people slowed to read it. The country was in a recession and when our country is in a recession, the poorer neighborhoods, like hers, get hit the hardest. Word that Sesos was hiring would soon spread through the Mission District like a cold through a commune.

While she waited for applicants to show up or call, she wiped down the tabletops with bleach and water-soaked towels. She noticed that some of the condiments were running low. She wondered why customers always steal the Sweet'N Low packets and never the Equal packets? Now that she was thinking about it, why does everyone hate the mixed fruit jelly packets? If you close your eyes, they all taste the same.

She checked the entrance before heading back to the janitor’s closet for the vacuum sweeper. It was the same kind they used in the movie theater for popcorn. As she pushed the sweeper around, she watched broken tortilla chips disappear, as if pulled under by a magnet. Roxy got into it. She picked up speed as she went from being a theater usher to Pac-Man maneuvering through the restaurant maze. She kept going until every last crumb had been gobbled up.

No one applied. Not even the undocumented workers.

***

When no one called or showed up the next day, Roxy panicked. She looked around the empty restaurant for Chucha to explain to her what was going on, then remembered that he had taken a job at a tourist trap in Tijuana. There was no way she was going to tell Leah about this unexpected development. She was still suspended in grief and was sleeping all the time. More bad news could put her in a catatonic state.

Roxy shrugged on her jacket, making sure the keys were in her pocket before leaving through the kitchen door. Her heart was pounding in her ears as she jog-weaved through the bustling sidewalk to the Mission District’s epicenter. Rollo’s News and Cigarettes Stand had been in the same spot since the late 1930s when the neighborhood was made up of mostly Polish, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants.

The construction of the Oakland Bay Bridge forced the Mexican community from their homes around Rincon Hill. Most of the displaced moved to his neighborhood. Noting the new arrivals, Rollo added Spanish newspapers and magazines to his newsstand. He started carrying the snacks he had seen Mexican children eating. His biggest seller was the Astro Pop, a rocket-shaped lollipop with a needle-fine point. Out of stupid, idle curiosity, he wanted to see a kid sucking on one trip, just to see what would happen.

"Have you heard anything about Sesos?" Roxy said, panting.

"It’s closed," Rollo said, without looking up from his crossword. He was the spitting image of Oliver Twist’s Fagin, minus the top hat and fingerless gloves.

"I know that!" Roxy said, perturbed.

Rollo tilted his head toward the stacks of newspapers. "Chronicle or Examiner?" His tone made it clear that the information would cost a quarter.

Roxy dug into her pocket. She slapped change and a bit of lint on the counter. She was reaching for a newspaper when Rollo’s ink-stained fingers slid a quarter and an extra dime toward himself. Someone behind Roxy said, "I heard your old lady never paid her workers. And she skipped town so she wouldn’t have to.”

Roxy’s jaw dropped. The man standing behind her was tall, husky, and impatient. He was wearing a leather jacket and jeans like Danny Zuko wore in Grease. The tattoo peeking out of his collar gave him a far more sinister appearance than John Travolta in the movie. “Two soft packs of Marlboro,” he said, over Roxy's head.

“That’s not true!” she said, scooting over to make room for him. "They robbed us blind!"

“Not the dinner staff,” he said, handing Rollo two dollars for the two packs of cigarettes. “My cousin’s friend’s brother worked there. You know Nacho, the busboy?” Roxy nodded dumbly as he peeled the cellophane from one of the packs. “When they showed up for dinner shift, the doors were locked. No phone call and no explanation. Your old lady didn’t even have the decency to leave a sign on the door.” He lit a cigarette.

Roxy chose not to mention that she was actually in charge of the restaurant. She thought back. Her mother had said that she would take care of it. Roxy’s head had been so crowded with misery, she had not doublechecked. “Sorry,” she said, mentally kicking herself.

He blew out smoke through his nose. “They’ve cut your old lady some slack because your old man died the way he did, but rent is due. If they don’t get paid, it’s gonna get real ugly, real fast for her…for all of you.”

Rollo leaned in close enough for Roxy to smell his breath, which was surprisingly pleasant. "A bad reputation is like cooking salmon in a cast iron skillet. The skin sticks and the smell never goes away.”

 

 

Chapter 5

MISS PIGGY

 

I don’t understand why she didn’t just tell me. I would’ve figured payroll out and we wouldn’t be in this mess! Roxy was thinking as she hurried back to the kitchen. The timecards from the last pay period were not on the rack. She scurried to her father’s office where she rifled through his cluttered desk. Nothing. She pawed through the trash can before giving up. She picked up the phone to call her mother and ask what she had done with the timecards, then hung up. What’s the point? she thought. She’ll just lie, then get defensive.

Her hands were shaking as she opened the business checkbook and cut checks to the dinner shift employees for the same amount as the last pay period. Their schedules rarely changed. She forged her father’s signature, then sat back, hard. That's all mom had to do! If she had given them a paycheck that might be a few dollars off, they would have understood.

Roxy scrambled around the Mission hand-delivering paychecks with heartfelt apologies. She begged each former employee to return to work, assuring them that her mother was gone. But they all knew Mrs. Zamora would be back. A waitress named Cándida, who paid more attention to male customers than female customers, said to Roxy, “I would rather stab myself in the eye with a fork than ever work for Miss Piggy again!”

Roxy was bone tired when she returned to the restaurant. She removed the Help Wanted sign from the window, then picked up the applications folder and the mug of pens. She walked zombie-like to her father’s office, where she collapsed onto his chair. A whiff of his Old Spice cologne reached her from the sweater hanging on the coat rack. She brought a sleeve to her nose and inhaled deeply. She put the sweater on and rocked back and forth, hugging herself. “I miss you so much, every part of me hurts. You should have said goodbye before you…left us.”

She dropped her crossed arms, then her head onto the desk, and began to sob. When the tears were gone, she raised her heavy head, "EUREKA! COMMERCIAL PROPERTY MANAGEMENT: THE RIGHT TENANTS, RIGHT NOW!" was staring her in the face. Pens flew as Roxy snatched up the mug. “That’s it!” she said to no one. “I’ll put the restaurant on layaway! I’ll lease the space until I’m old enough to run it!”

She dialed the phone number on the mug while clearing her throat. "Hello. I would like to lease my restaurant space."

"Hi there, and thank you so much for calling," A DJ-deep male voice said. "Who referred you to us?"

"Um. A coffee mug?” Roxy said, holding the mug up.

"What does the mug look like? Is it shaped like Coit Tower? A cable car? Carol Doda?"

"Oh, it looks like an astronaut helmet."

Roxy could hear the smile in his voice as he said, "That’s an oldie, but a goodie. You should hang on to that. So, tell me more about your property. Where is it located?"

"It’s on Mission Street in San Francisco."

"Oh." He suddenly sounded far away.

Roxy filled the silence with the restaurant's address, cross street, and square footage. She was boasting about the recently renovated kitchen and restrooms when he cut her off. "I’m sorry, but we are in a recession and the vacancy rate in your neighborhood is one of the highest in the city."

Roxy was about to disagree when she remembered all the vacant storefronts in the neighborhood. "Yes, but those vacancies are retail stores. I want to lease my restaurant space," she said, over-enunciating the last two words.

"Look,” he said, curtly, “location is everything. Most new restaurants in this city fail the first year. No one wants the extra risk of opening a business in a neighborhood that customers are afraid to set foot in after dark."

The receiver felt slippery and almost fell out of its cradle as Roxy hung up. Sesos would soon join the rest of the hollow-eyed ghost buildings on Mission Street. A crooked For Sale sign hanging on the grubby storefront window could just as well be a tilting tombstone. From their apartment upstairs, the Zamora sisters would watch helplessly as the homeless claimed squatter’s rights to the restaurant.

Roxy broke into a cold sweat. She was having trouble breathing. She thought she was having a heart attack, or a stroke, which made the anxiety attack much worse. In a blind panic, she fumbled for a doggy bag from the bottom drawer of the desk. She held the bag over her mouth and nose and watched the little wiener dog sketch inflate and flatten with each breath. She kept it up until the lightheadedness passed.

Groaning, she tucked the Help Wanted sign into the filing cabinet. Towards the back of the cabinet, a thick-three ring binder fell to its side. "Rejuvenation," was written on the cover in her father’s small, elegant handwriting. She placed the binder on the desk, then turned to the first page, which read more like a journal. For the past several years, he had been concerned about the decline in business. Customers were either dying off, moving out of the area, or had forgotten that the restaurant was here. His plan was to rebrand Sesos. A historical Alta California theme would stand out from the other restaurants on the street while holding its place as one of the oldest family businesses in the neighborhood.

The renovation was to be completed in phases: Kitchen, Restroom, Remodel, and Roof. Each section included an itemized budget for the construction crew, materials costs, hauling, and dumping fees, etc. An index and price quotes for furnishings and fixtures followed. Paperclipped onto the pages were business cards with the names of the salespeople. Some of their home phone numbers were scribbled on the backs.

The recently renovated kitchen and restroom had taken a huge chunk of their savings. She flipped to the Roof tab. The roof replacement was not scheduled for three years, which was good. She flipped back to the Remodel tab. The first page was an overhead blueprint of the dining room and cocktail lounge. Clean rows of small squares and crescent moons representing tables and chairs had replaced the bulky horseshoe booths. She had completely forgotten that her father had been studying architecture when his mother passed away. He took a leave of absence from college to spend time with his newly widowed father. He was about to return to school when his father unexpectedly died.

The next several pages were watercolor sketches of the restaurant’s interior from different angles that had been carefully scaled. The simple elegance lay in his decorating details, like the palms in rough terra-cotta pots used to break up the room and create pockets of intimacy. She pictured him sitting at this desk late at night, hunched over as he painted a palm frond. She swiped fresh tears.

Roxy carried the binder with the reverence of an old family bible as she stepped into the restaurant of her father’s unfulfilled dream. Slowly, she spun in a circle and watched the colored sketches come to life. Sesos was transported into an open-air Mexican courtyard from the era when Mission Dolores was built. Her eyes flitted back and forth between the binder pages and the walls. Overhead, dozens of tin star-shaped hanging lanterns with punched holes cast light onto the high ceiling, creating a starry sky. Beneath the moonless night, the rustic dining tables looked like faded wooden doors.

She turned the page. Her father had broken down the instructions into manageable steps. It was followed by a checklist. Oh, how Roxy loved checklists! With the restrooms, kitchen, and wiring finished, the rest was mostly cosmetic. She did a quick calculation in her head. As it stood, there was close to, but not quite enough saved to cover the rest of the renovation.

“Credit card!” she said, remembering with a rush, then pounded up the stairs. Her father was opposed to the use of credit cards. He said they made it too easy to get into crippling debt. Still, he kept one on hand for emergencies. At his desk, Roxy unlocked the black cashbox and lifted the tray. “Emergencies” was written on a sealed envelope. If this ain’t an emergency, she thought, I don’t know what is. Inside the envelope was the company credit card and some receipts. She scrutinized the front, then the back of the card, having no idea where to find the credit limit amount.

The restaurant could be up and running by the start of tourist season! Her relief was short-lived. If I go through with this, I’ll have to drop out of high school. I’ll miss everything, grad night, senior ditch day…my graduation. If I go through with this and fail, I will lose Sesos, our home, our savings, this building…plus I’ll be a high school dropout. The thoughts tumbled round and round in Roxy’s head, like clothes in a dryer building up speed. If I go through with this, I’ll have to drop out of high school…

***

It turns out that credit cards do have credit limits and this one was set low. But combined with the money in the business account, it was more than enough to get through the renovation. The first thing Roxy did was phone Chucha. He had taken a job at a tourist trap in Tijuana. She talked excitedly about the binder and how it had been a sign. When Chucha agreed to return to work, her entire being radiated with relief. She rattled off a list of restaurant supplies for him to pick up at Mexican prices while he was still down there.

Roxy hired her mother’s younger brother as the foreman. Tío Chúy had also been grieving heavily since his brother-in-law’s death. He was an unemployed construction worker who knew plenty of capable people ready to work. Her only concern about hiring him was that he had suffered a brain injury in Vietnam and had a metal plate in his head. Roxy reasoned that his crew would be aware of her uncle’s occasional outbursts. They would not be offended if he suddenly laughed, yelled at them, or cried at inappropriate times.

The construction crew, who were neither licensed nor bonded, got right to work purging the restaurant and the attic. Most of the promotional tequila and beer posters of busty blonde women in tiny bikinis ended up in some of their homes. The castoff tables and chairs left on the sidewalk were quickly scooped up by passing pedestrians. Everything else was taken to the dump or Sal’s and Will’s, Roxy’s nicknames for the Salvation Army and Goodwill.

By the end of the day, every stick of furniture was gone. The empty space felt like it had grown. She stared absentmindedly at the carpet crop circles left by the tables. Her eyes widened as she took in the full scope of the situation she was in. Roxy covered her open mouth with both hands. She slid down to the floor, her back against the wall. “What was I thinking?”

 

 

Chapter 6

FUNKY TOWN

 

Roxy and Leah were nudging one of three old ladders closer to the front windows of the restaurant as she gave her sister an update on the changes. "We’re definitely getting rid of the old uniforms. They are so sexist." Roxy would never admit that she liked the puffy peasant blouses and the black ruffled skirts the waitresses had worn. It was the sight of thick elastic bra straps harnessing honey-brown shoulders that annoyed her. Haven’t they ever heard of strapless bras? "The new uniforms are going to be the same for everyone. Black and whites with these cute bolo ties..."

Roxy’s head twisted as Mila and Dulce pushed through the swinging kitchen doors. Side by side, her friends were such a study in contrasts. Both were thin, but Mila was long-limbed with fair skin. Her light brown hair was swept into a red ‘we can do it’ bandana with matching high-top shoes. Roxy wondered how she could pull off the outfit and not look like a fat farmer or a toddler.

At under five feet tall, Dulce could not weigh more than ninety pounds after winning a tamale eating contest. She had feral brown eyes and skin the color of toasted almonds. Her long, thick hair had always reminded Roxy of a black-out curtain. The Oakland Raiders hooded sweatshirt she was wearing was a few sizes too big for her. The Dickies pants were more than likely bought at the boy’s department of Kmart. She claimed to shop there because they have the most durable socks.

"I cannot believe it’s already empty!” Mila said. “This place is huge!"

"I know, right?” Roxy beamed. “I can add four more tabletops, but I’m only adding two. I don’t want this to be the kind of place where the staff has to rub their butts on the backs of customers’ heads to get through."

Mila’s face tightened. "What if your mom comes home and sees all of this?"

"If she does, so what? What's she going to do? Send me to my room?” Roxy blew air out through her lips. “I’ve already bought most of the materials, so she couldn’t do anything about it anyway.”

Mila tentatively handed Roxy a canvas bag weighted down with textbooks. "I brought your schoolwork."

"Thanks, but you know I dropped out," Roxy said, gently placing the bag down.

"Missing class for a week isn’t the same as dropping out,” Mila said. “Mother Margaret put you on bereavement leave for the rest of the semester. If you complete your assignments and take the finals, you’ll graduate with us."

"I really appreciate it, but I barely have time to pee," Roxy said, rubbing the back of her neck.

Mila frowned. "But we graduate next month and some of our final projects are already in…”

"I got an idea," Dulce said, interrupting. "Copy my homework if you want to catch up or Mila’s if you want all A’s." Dulce could see the uncertainty in their faces. "If you drop out of high school, you’ll start smoking the marijuana cigarettes and end up on one of those after-school specials."

Not for the first time, Roxy wondered how someone who does not speak real Spanish could sound so much like Cheech Marin. "That’s not funny, Dulce," she said.

"So, what are we painting?" Mila said, needing to consider the ethics of cheating in this situation.

"Nothing. You’re scraping paint." Roxy pointed at the single row of window panels spanning above the restaurant’s wide storefront window.

"I’ve never noticed that before. Why would anyone have painted over that?" Mila said.

Roxy shrugged. "Way before my time." She handed out scrapers and cleaning rags.

Dulce moaned. "That’s gonna take all day. Get one of your mojados to do it. Pedro’s got something like five kids in diapers. He’ll work for Pampers."

“Because those windows are one hundred years old, that’s why!” Roxy said. “I don’t want to risk his little bear paws breaking them. Do you know how much it would cost to replace just one?”

Dulce checked out Roxy’s teal blue blouse with the butterfly collar, JC Penny dress pants, and low-heeled black shoes with big pilgrim buckles. "You gonna scrape paint in your church clothes?"

Roxy glanced at her watch. "I would, but I’ve got to go run some errands."

Dulce rolled her eyes, then her head towards Mila and Leah. “Told you we’re slave labor.” To Roxy, she said, “If you want me to stay, I’m gonna need my own large pizza with extra cheese, and extra sauce. And a big bottle of Mountain Dew."

"Fine,” Roxy said, “but we have soda here. And before you say anything, some people think generic sodas taste better." Roxy kicked a piece of debris on the carpet. "I’ve been praying that all the floorboards are in good shape and just need to be sanded and stained. Do you know how much it would cost to recarpet an area this big?"

"Who do you pray to for floorboards?" Dulce said while braiding her hair in one long plat.

Roxy stared at her for a few seconds. "Saint Joseph! Duh! He’s the patron saint of carpenters."

"Yeah, but carpenters and construction workers aren’t the same thing," Dulce said.

"Saint Joseph protects floors, walls, ceilings, roofs, attics, basements…and patios," Roxy said, with condescension. "That’s his celestial job."

"How 'bout linoleum floors and Formica counters? Are they part of his celestial job too?" Dulce said. Mila and Leah stifled laughter.

"Ha, ha! That’s so funny I forgot to laugh," Roxy said, mimicking Gilda Radner.

"Seriously," Dulce said. "Tell his Holiness not to replace that pinche pigeon-shit awning outside. You can’t even see the restaurant from the street most of the time. You need to paint anyway, so you may as well do it right. Paint the front in a bunch of Guanajuato colors to make it pop. You know, sapphire blue, naranja, red pink, and the trim in saffron yellow or something else. While you’re at it, add some window boxes."

“If I say I’ll think about it, will you get to work?” Roxy said.

“I’ll pick up the swatches tomorrow,” Dulce said, as though it was a done deal. Her long braid twitched between her shoulder blades as she quickly stepped up the ladder.

Mila’s ladder was unsteady and wobbled when she stepped on the first rung. Leah stared up at her ladder, unsure. Remembering her little sister’s fear of heights, Roxy stood behind her. “Here, I’ll hold it,” she said, bracing the ladder for support, which also blocked Leah’s potential escape routes.

Dulce wiped a cobweb, then studied the corner window. "The caulking is cracked," she said, tracing the window frame with her finger. “There’s gotta be water damage.”

Alarmed, and not really sure what caulking was, Roxy said, "Where?"

Using the corner of the scraper, Dulce gouged out a brittle piece. Roxy’s hands went up in front of her. "Don’t do that! You’ll hurt it! I mean, you’ll make it worse! Just leave it alone!”

"Okay,” Dulce said, with a hint of an ‘I warned you,’ inflection.

“I need to go,” Roxy said. “I think there’s a two-for-one pizza coupon in the office. I’ll leave it on the bar with the money."

***

Roxy returned a few hours later, to find her crew sitting cross-legged on the floor, drinking sodas out of margarita glasses and eating pizza. An industrial-sized container of chili flakes was next to the pizza boxes. Something was different. The feel of the room kept changing like it was breathing. The row of sparkling window glass caught her eye. "Oh my God! That looks so good! I can’t believe you're already done!"

"We sprayed the panels with warm water and dishwashing soap," Dulce said. "The old paint turned soggy. It was so thick it peeled off in big strips."

“Monkey girl cleaned the windows outside,” Mila said, nudging Dulce.

"We saved you some pizza," Leah said, lifting the lid of the box.

"Oh good! I haven’t eaten since breakfast." Roxy sat heavily on the floor.

"We were just talking,” Mila said, glancing at Leah and Dulce for support. “Have you thought about changing the restaurant’s name? Now would be a good time.”

Roxy was about to take a bite. For dramatic effect, she dropped the slice back into the pizza box. "I can’t do that! That would be so disrespectful to my father and my grandparents!"

"Tacos de Sesos Restaurante was a good name when Papa Pío opened the restaurant, but we stopped serving cow and goat brains a long time ago," Leah said.

Dulce scrunched up her nose. "That’s zombie food."

Roxy picked up the slice and took a big bite. She chewed a few times. "No one notices the name anymore. Just like no one listens to the Beatles and thinks of bugs."

Dulce snorted. “Yeah, and no one sees a nun and thinks of corporal punishment.”  She turned to Mila. “I was just wondering…how much do you think Catholic school costs? You know, for twelve years?”

Mila looked up at the flimsy non sequitur. She knew exactly what Dulce was doing. By raising the subject that Roxy had been avoiding as a mathematical equation, and posing the question to someone other than Roxy, she would bite. The math whiz could rationalize anything through numbers, sometimes even emotions.

“Let’s see,” Roxy said. Answering for Mila. She switched into calculator mode. “Adding up twelve years of tuition…which varied from year to year. Deducting the allowances made for siblings attending the same school…” she gaped. To Leah, she said, “Our dad spent close to a thousand dollars on each of our educations! That doesn’t even include the cost of books, uniforms, and those hideous shoes...”

Roxy took another bite. She glanced sideways at Mila. “I was just thinking about what you said about going on bereavement leave, so I can graduate.”

Mila had never cheated in her life. She had never imagined helping someone else cheat, not even Dulce. Needing to distance herself from the subterfuge, she said, “Actually, that was Dulce’s idea.”

“Don’t you be acting all modest,” Dulce said, grinning like the devil. “We all think you’re right. Roxy should copy your assignments and graduate with us.” Mila shot her a look.

“Well, I think you both had a good idea,” Roxy said, like she was King Solomon. “I mean, I’ve worked really hard to get good grades and my diploma.”

“Apá would never have wanted you to drop out,” Leah said. Her words quietly weighty.

They ate in silence as the sun sank behind the sidewalk of Ficus trees, clusters of light streamed into the restaurant through the emerald-green leaves. Dulce held out her arm. The drops of light glow looked like flames on her dark skin. They were gazing at the waterfall light when Funky Town came on the boombox. Roxy turned the volume up as far as it would go without speaker crackle as the others sprang to their feet.

Mila and Leah formed the world’s shortest Soul Train line. They clapped and swayed in rhythm as Dulce cholo danced up then back on the imaginary catwalk. She switched places with Roxy, who salsa danced, then turned around like a runway model. Roxy raised her elbows as high as they would go. The three friends howled with laughter as Roxy did the Funky Chicken in rhythm to Funky Town.

 

Chapter 7

THE MAN WITH THE FEDORA HAT

 

Dulce was itching to get started on painting the restaurant’s storefront, but Roxy was not completely sold on the idea of using so many colors. Dulce was determined. She kept stopping by the restaurant and getting underfoot. She had taken to pleading and jiggling like she needed to pee. They finally struck a deal. If Roxy hated the "hippie" paint job, Dulce would have to repaint the front in a single color of Roxy’s choosing. Plus, Dulce would have to pay for all of the paint. “And no window boxes!” Dulce eagerly agreed.

Dressed in layers of paint-speckled clothing and her black hair tied back with a bandana, Dulce got the storefront ready by scrubbing off the heavy city dirt and the oily exhaust fume residue that billowed from the busses. She had switched to scraping flaking paint when Cookie, a fellow local artist and muralist, stopped by.

A few years back, Kyle, aka, Cookie, had graduated from one of those Ivy League universities back east, with a double major degree in Art Illustration and Philosophy. As a graduation present to himself, he made the pilgrimage to San Francisco to visit the Grateful Dead’s former home on Ashbury Street. The day after he arrived in the Haight District, his backpack was stolen; the day after that, he was mugged; the day after that he was arrested for vagrancy when he could not provide ID to cops making the rounds. After being released from jail, he got a little lost and tried to cut through the Mission District to get back to the Haight. He was still there.

Some Latinos inherit long family names which are often shortened, i.e., Humberto, Roberto, Luisalberto, etc., are changed to Tito. Others are given ironic nicknames, i.e., Gordos are flacos and Flacos are gordos. Sometimes, nicknames are based on physical characteristics. Kyle looked a lot like the Pillsbury Doughboy: blank-faced, blue-eyed, and yeasty. He was given the fitting nickname of Cookie.

Cookie absentmindedly picked up a sand block and started sanding as he caught her up on local happenings, then the art world. “Have you heard that the Art of the Muppets exhibit is going to be touring the country? Man, I love that show! The Word Family’s my favorite.” He started bobbing his head to a silent rhythm. “You take an ‘s’ and an ‘h’ and you put it with ‘it,’ you put them all together and you’ve got ‘shit.’”

Dulce smiled, flashing white teeth. “Yeah, the vampire taught Mila to count in English. When we were kids, she had a Transylvanian accent when she counted to ten.”

Cookie’s head dipped approvingly. “I’m planning on taking peyote before I go.”

Dulce had seen Cookie on peyote. It was like watching a really bad horror film. You see it once and never want to see it again. “What day you going?”

“Opening day,” he said.

“Aw, man!” Dulce said, mock disappointed. “I can’t make it that day.”

Cookie stared at her. “I didn’t tell you the date.”

“Huh, I thought you did. When is the opening?” Dulce said.

“No idea. Sometime next year,” Cookie said.

Dulce took a swig of generic cola from a plastic cup that Roxy passed off as Pepsi. “Let me know when you find out.”

When the prep work was done, she rolled out her sketches of the finished storefront. Like a 3-D paint-by-numbers kit, she numbered the cans of paint with a thick Sharpie pen. She then wrote the corresponding numbers on the walls and frames. The first paint can was pried open with the enthusiasm of tapping a beer keg for a party. The blooming colors instantly drew volunteer artists yearning to escape into the cool abyss of thick paint. Some kids asked if they could help. Dulce handed out brushes and put them to work.

The activity sparked meaningful conversations throughout the community. Dulce’s innate talent for matching colors by contrasting colors created a crisp impact rarely seen outside of Latin American countries or the Castro District. Someone suggested a grand reopening sign. Someone else left and returned with an old 4’ by 8’ sheet of plywood, which they painted mural style. "SESOS IS BACK!" it announced. When they were done, each of the contributors signed the back. They all agreed that the sign was so beautiful Roxy would have to hang it inside.

A dapper man in a tie with his coat draped over the passenger seat was driving back to his office in the Chronicle building. He had cut it too close and was stuck in rush hour traffic. He was inching forward when a building in vibrant colors caught his attention. As he got closer, he recognized the place. The man tipped his brown felt Fedora hat back as he read the sign. It announced the family restaurant’s grand reopening, followed by the date and phone number. The man pulled out his pen and reporter’s notepad and jotted the information down.

 

 Chapter 8

CHA-KA

(FROM THE LAND OF THE LOST, NOT CHA-KA KHAN)

 

St. Joseph must not have been checking his messages, because Roxy’s prayers were going unanswered. Smart-aleck Dulce had been right about the water damage around the front window frame. The moisture had leaked into the walls, but fortunately, had not damaged the floor. Just this morning, the new plumbing backed up and flooded both restrooms and the hallway. Roxy felt like Greek mythology’s Sisyphus, condemned to push a boulder up a hill, and then watch it roll back down. Only for her, it was a great, big turd.

No longer able to sleep at night, Roxy wondered what she had been thinking. Where were all of the overbearing adults when she was making the biggest mistake of her young life? A mistake that could ruin her sister’s life. She pictured herself in some sort of Dickensian debtor’s prison, while Leah moved from one set of sadistic foster parents to the next. Their mother would be fine, she had already landed on someone else’s frail feet.

A grandes males, grandes remedios, Roxy thought as she cracked open the L’eggs nylons from a plastic egg. They were her mother’s pantyhose and much to her consternation, were a perfect fit. She dressed in her only nice pantsuit and low pump heels. To try to look more mature, she applied her mother’s makeup. The face powder that was a little pale on her mother, made Roxy look like she belonged in a coffin.

She dug through her mother’s junk jewelry box and selected a matching pearl jewelry set with an ugly brooch. To complete the look, she switched the absolutely necessary contents from her lumpy shoulder bag to her mother’s 1950s-style clutch purse. On her way out, she grabbed the file containing the application for a business loan with her mother’s forged signature.

***

Roxy was seething when she left the bank. Apparently, they have some stupid rule that applicants need to apply in person. Roxy vowed to close the account the minute she could afford to do so. She was stomping past the 24-hour laundromat when she spotted Cha-Ka working behind the dry-cleaning window, which doubled as his loan shark office. Cha-Ka was given the nickname when the Land of the Lost series aired several years back. Like the little ape boy on the kid’s show, he was short, hairy, had a huge forehead, and a thick brow ridge.

Roxy made a sharp right and went inside, where the heat from the dryers enveloped her like a warm Suavitel-scented hug. Their conversation went something like this:

Roxy: "I need a loan, Cha-Ka."

Cha-Ka: "Don’t call me that! I hate that stupid name!"

Roxy: “Sorry.”

 Cha-Ka: “How much do you need?"

Roxy named a figure.

Cha-Ka: "Dang! That’s a lot of money. ¿Qué tienes para colateral?"

Roxy: "Why do I need collateral? I’m going to pay you back right away."

Cha-Ka: "How about the restaurant?”

Roxy: "Technically, I don’t own the restaurant. I won’t inherit my share until I turn eighteen!"

Cha-Ka: "How old are you?"

Roxy: "I’m seventeen. I’ll be eighteen in two months and twenty-three days."

Cha-Ka: "Dang! I thought you were in your thirties. Who’s we?"

Roxy: "My sister, Leah."

Cha-Ka: "Oh, I remember her. How old is Bambi?"

Roxy: "Sixteen."

Cha-Ka: "That’s such a good age."

Silence.

Roxy: "Wait. Are you saying...? I can’t use Leah for collateral! She’s my baby sister!"

Cha-Ka: "She’ll never know. You are gonna pay me back on time, right?"

Silence.

Roxy: "I’ll think about it.’

 

 

Chapter 9

PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD

 

Nine days after Mr. Zamora’s death, a private Rosario was held for him at Sesos Restaurante after sunset. It was attended by Roxy, Leah, Tío Chúy, Mila, Dulce, and Mr. Zamora’s cook and oldest friend, José “Chucha” Ibarra. The air was fragrant with chiles and cumin as Mr. Zamora’s favorite dish of Chili Colorado simmered in a pot on the stovetop to be served following the ceremony. Homemade tortillas de maize wrapped in foil and a stack of ceramic bowls were being kept warm under the orange bulbs of the food heating lamps.

They respectfully kneeled around the singed tiles marking the place of Mr. Zamora’s passing. With rosaries dangling from folded hands, they bowed their heads in prayer. Roxy led the service. “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen…” she said, making the sign of the cross. Finding the Latin a bit theatrical, Chucha held back an eye roll as he crossed himself. He slid his hand to the first bead of the rosary as Roxy switched to English. “I believe in God, the Father almighty…”

The ceremony to honor their father had been the only way to draw Leah out of the safe harbor of her bed and into the place she had feared returning to. As Roxy recited the first decade of the rosary, Leah stared down at the burnt floor tiles. It looked like a rocket ship had been launched from there. In a way, she thought, it had. In a flash of insight, she realized that the kitchen was truly a sacred place. Not because he had died here, but because he had chosen to find peace here. The thought comforted her more than the prayers.

For Roxy, heartbreak was now mixed with unexpected relief at learning of their father’s terminal diagnosis. He had not left them. The cancer had taken him away. The heavy weight of guilt for somehow being responsible for his death would no longer weigh heavily on her heart. This simple and sad truth had brought him back to her. It was the final warm hug that she had been longing for.

As it grew dark outside, the flames from the one hundred red glass votive candles on the galvanized shelves and countertops, grew more intense. The ceremony was coming to an end when the pot on the stove began to bubble over. Chucha’s knee popped as he got up to stir it and lower the flame. His eyes apologized as he returned to kneeling. “And,” Roxy said, stretching out the word and glaring at Chucha. “May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”

“Amen,” they chorused.

Since Mr. Zamora had died in the high-traffic service area, erecting a shrine on the spot would not be possible. Tío Chúy carefully removed each of the singed tiles and gingerly placed them in a purple velvet-lined Cohiba cigar box the sisters had decorated with seashells and the fake pearls from her mother’s broach. The box would be taken upstairs and lovingly placed in their father’s shrine the sisters had set up in the pass-through serving hatch between their kitchen and dining room. Chucha replaced the old tiles with new tiles that did not quite match.

 

 

 

PART TWO

 

Chapter 1

AND SO IT BEGINS

 

As Roxy and Tío Chúy worked on the restaurant’s reconstruction, Chucha and Leah concentrated their efforts on expanding the menu. Though standard dishes were retained for traditionalists, they personalized the menu by adding dishes from the seven culinary regions of Mexico. Their selections were based not only on the distinctive cooking styles of the contrasting landscapes, but the ingredients, textures, and colors. Savory concoctions like queso flameado from the north, a dip of hot melted cheese and spicy chorizo;  pescado zarandeado, a five-hundred-year-old dish of grilled fish from the small oval-shaped Island in Nayarit; papadzules from the Yucatan, a dish that predates enchiladas; made with a sauce of pumpkin seeds and epazote.

In the front room, Roxy was getting ready for the day she had been losing sleep over for weeks: the open call for a restaurant staff. Her mother’s poisoning of the restaurant’s reputation as a good place to work had forced her to do something her father or grandfather had never had to do, place ads in the local newspapers. Interviews would only be held in person. She needed to make sure they were presentable. By presentable, she meant professional, friendly, tidy, and did not have a syringe dangling from an arm.

She was inspecting the nearly finished restrooms when she heard the ringing phone. She trotted toward the kitchen but just missed the call. "They’ll call back," Chucha said. He was making a platter of tortas de jamón.

"Why haven’t you answered it?" Roxy demanded.

Chucha shrugged. "I’m not expecting a phone call.”

Roxy huffed. "Why isn’t Leah answering the phone?"

"She’s in your apartment going over the new menu," Chucha said.

Roxy watched as he placed slices of ham on each open-faced bolillo roll. “Please tell me those aren’t for the applicants.”

Chucha fluttered his eyelashes. “The construction crew,” he said, kittenish.

Noticing that Chucha was wearing his nicest apron, the one with embroidered swimming dolphins, she leaned in, conspiratorially. “Which crew member, in particular?”

Chucha giggled. “Alfonso.”

Roxy thought for a second. “The one that looks like the Frito Bandito?”

He started singing the commercial jingle, the way Billie Holiday would have sung it. “Ay, ay, ay, ay. I am the Frito Bandito…”

The phone rang. Roxy picked it up mid-ring. "Good morning and thank you for calling Sesos Restaurante. How may I help you?" she chirped.

Behind Roxy’s back, Chucha rolled his eyes. Roxy’s mandatory phone greeting was exactly why he avoided answering the phone.

"The Chronicle?” Roxy said, shaking her head. "I’m sorry, but we are not conducting phone interviews…" Her brow furrowed. "Herb Caen wrote about us?" she said, incredulous. She remembered her father saying that the popular San Francisco columnist used to be a regular in the cocktail lounge. She had not really believed him. “No, I haven't read his column this morning." Chucha could not tell if she was smiling or baring her teeth, until she said, "Yes! We are taking reservations!”

As Roxy jotted down the reservation, Chucha went outside and grabbed the newspaper. He handed it to her as she was hanging up. Roxy frantically rifled through the pages until she found Herb Caen’s column. “Sesos is back!” she read aloud. “I’m relieved to hear that brains are back in Baghdad by the Bay. Tacos de Sesos Restaurante, or Sesos as the locals call it, is a family-owned Mexican restaurant in the Mission District that’s been around for forty years. I frequented the place back in the day. Had my first margarita there, then my second, my third… I vaguely remember something about them serving authentic Mexican food…” Roxy looked up, astonished. “Oh, my, God! Did you hear that?”

Chucha smiled brightly. “I even know who he is!”

“I’ve got to call Leah!” Roxy phoned the apartment. When Leah answered, she said. “Get down here, right now!” then hung up.

Roxy was rereading the article to Chucha when Leah rushed into the kitchen. Roxy could see fear and dread in her eyes. “It’s okay! It’s good news! Herb Caen wrote about us!” She handed Leah the newspaper, then pointed to his column. Changing her mind, Roxy snatched the paper back. “I’ll just read it to you.” As Roxy read, Leah’s expression shifted from apprehension to confusion, then to bewildered joy.

Roxy started jumping in place, singing, “Herb Caen wrote about us! Herb Caen wrote about us…” Chucha joined her. They each grabbed one of Leah’s hands and the three started hopping and circle dancing. “Herb Caen wrote about us…” 

* * *

Saint Joseph not only heard Roxy’s prayers; he sent Herb Caen! The mention of the restaurant on the same day that her classified ad for a waitstaff came out was truly a Godsend. Roxy was so inundated with applicants she had to call for backup. In the front of the house, Mila and Dulce were stationed at the hostess stand, where they kept order and took phone reservations. In the cocktail lounge, Roxy interviewed potential waitstaff. In the back of the house, Chucha and Leah interviewed applicants applying for kitchen positions.

Being a restaurant city, many of the waitstaff applicants had outstanding restaurant experience and were knowledgeable about food trends and wine. Roxy knew nothing about either, so that was a major plus. To her surprise, some of the old lunch staff also applied, including Cándida (no fork protruding from her eye). Roxy was courteous when she interviewed them and gave no indication that she was not about to hire them back. It wasn’t out of spite. Maybe a little. She would not hire them back because they were too set in their old ways and would resist the recent changes. That, and she would never set the restaurant up for a mutiny again. 

By Sunday evening, Roxy had a full staff and Sesos was booked solid for the opening week. Roxy was seated at her father’s desk, going over her to-do list when exhaustion pulled at her. She unclenched her muscles and felt her insides untwist and settle into their rightful places. She needed to rest her eyes for a second before phoning Cha-Ka. For the first time since her father’s death, Roxy plummeted into the deepest of dreamless sleeps.

 

 

Chapter 2

MRS. ZAMORA RETURNS

 

Mrs. Zamora read about Sesos’ grand reopening in the newspaper and decided to surprise Roxy by showing up during lunch rush on her eighteenth birthday. A taxicab dropped her off in the alleyway as an employee she did not recognize swung bags of garbage into the dumpster. “Take my luggage upstairs,” she said, without looking at him. “Wash your hands first.”

Lunch rush was in full swing as Mrs. Zamora swept through the bustling kitchen, leaving a trail of old lady cologne behind to linger for days. Chucha was at the grill when he spotted her. He did a perfect double take, then quickly looked around for Leah. He turned his eyes back to the new threat, as if staring at a potential drive-by shooter passing.

Mrs. Zamora slowed to a stop in the dining room. She was thinking she was in the wrong restaurant when she spotted Roxy seating customers. Roxy caught sight of her mother at the same time. Her hair was different. Her dark, tight curls had been frosted with big chunky blonde strips and looked, to Roxy, like a chessboard. But the clouded look of disapproval on her mother’s jowly face was the same.

"Amá! Why did you let us know you were coming home? I would have picked you up at the bus depot," she said, arms extended. When she hugged her mother, her mother did not hug back. Roxy felt hurt, then a little stupid.

“Why are you doing business with los otros?" her mother said, above the music.

Roxy smiled sourly. Her mother wasn’t really a racist; she was an unequal opportunist—she hated everyone regardless of race, class, gender, religion, or sexual orientation exactly the same. She was also highly skilled in the dark arts of pushing her daughters’ buttons. Roxy clenched her jaw. "Please keep your voice down." She grabbed her mother’s elbow and led her toward the servers’ galley. “I can’t believe you just said that!” She hissed.

"Oh, they don’t know what it means.” Mrs. Zamora said, dismissively. “They know ‘dos más por favor’ and think they’re bilingual. And, they only notice us when they want us to do something for them.”

“Well,” Roxy said, sarcastically, “this is a restaurant. Serving customers is pretty much what we do around here.”

“Just watch, they’re going to sue you when they get indigestion…if they don’t like the service...” her mother was on a roll. “They’ll even sue you if they get hit by a bus outside."

Roxy blinked once, the way a doll does, as her mother ran her eyes over her. “Why are you dressed like that?”

Roxy had always liked wearing a uniform at school–or rather, not having to figure out what she was going to wear every day. She was dressed in a similar black and white uniform as her waitstaff wore. Added was a maître di suit jacket that made her look more mature and gave her an air of authority. A boutonnière designed by a local florist (whose business cards were at the hostess stand) added the perfect feminine touch.

 She scrutinized Roxy’s attire. “You look like a penguin in a skirt! You should over salt their food and maybe they won’t come back…"

Roxy stared down at herself. She was self-consciously crossing her arms when something inside of her spontaneously combusted. After all of the pain and suffering we’ve gone through? When you left us, it almost killed Leah! I was terrified all of the time! I’m now having panic attacks! I saved us and our family legacy, not you! And all you see is a fucking penguin!

Roxy looked at the woman standing before her in new detached wonder. There was no humanity there. No signs of warmth, concern, or love in her eyes. What she saw was a hard, cold, live grenade with the ring just pulled. Roxy’s senses went on red alert. She had seconds to go before the restaurant’s new interior sunk in and her mother went ballistic. She needed to remove the threat from the dining room before she detonated.

“That’s an idea." A bad idea, Roxy thought. “Hey, maybe you should talk to Leah and Chucha about the whole salting thing. Why don’t you go say hello to your other daughter? Leah really missed you too. ¡Ándale pues!” Roxy said, while gently shoving her mother into the kitchen.

 

 

Chapter 3

THE LADY OF THE SHADOWS

 

Roxy pushed the swinging door with her shoulder and set a zigzag course through the kitchen chaos of dinner rush. She stopped a safe distance from the cook and the eight-burner stove, where oily sauces in pans burst into confetti flames. While she waited for Chucha to look up, she read the chalkboard used by the employees. Someone, probably Dulce, had started a list.

Customers’ Stupid Questions:

1. When is Cinco de Mayo?

2. Why’d Margarita’s parents name her after a cocktail?

3. Do you work here?

Roxy thought, definitely Dulce. To Chucha’s backside, she said, "I just heard that the dishwasher isn’t working. Which one? Óscar or the machine?"

Chucha dropped a handful of taquitos into a vat of heated oil. The rolled tortillas hissed, as if in protest. "Both," he said.

"Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?" Roxy demanded.

Chucha shrugged at the obvious. "Because it’s your birthday." Before Roxy could ask who was available on such short notice, Chucha switched to Spanish. "It’s all been taken care of. Pedro’s on his way. I called the number on the wall. They said a repairman will be here within the hour." He considered telling her when the hour would be up but thought better of it. If the repairman was running late, he did not want to be held accountable.

Chucha shifted to his right and flipped quesadillas on the griddle. “Tell your mother this isn’t a self-serve kitchen. She spilled ceviche on the floor and didn’t bother cleaning it up or telling anyone. Memo slipped and twisted his ankle."

 “Oh No!” Roxy said. “Is he okay? Can he work?”

 “He’s fine. Deja de trabajar!” Chucha said.

The thought of separating business and birthday had never occurred to her. "I’m not working,” she said, while absentmindedly stacking the oven mitts next to the tortilla steamer. “You’re coming to my party soon, right?"

Chucha nodded. "As soon as Memo gets back from his break."

Roxy caught sight of her reflection in the small hanging mirror that she usually avoided. Her round face looked just like a plate of food prepared in a hurry, with the portions all wrong. Her eyes were set too far apart and her lips tended to curve downward, just like the catch of the day. She frowned. The fish frowned back. Is that the way I look to other people? Because I don’t really look like that.

As she stepped into the full dining room, her inner critic quieted at the site of her father’s sketches come to life. Ambient acoustic guitar played softly throughout the restaurant, creating an atmosphere that welcomed dinner conversation. Could her father have known that the constellation of tin star lights on the ceiling would instantly change the customers’ moods? How the flattering golden glow from the stained-glass wall sconces practically guaranteed returned business. Roxy smiled to herself. We did it, Dad! We made it!

Now that she was eighteen years old, one-third of Sesos was finally, legally hers. As Roxy reached the party her jaw dropped. The reserved cocktail lounge, with a seating capacity of twenty-five, had nearly twice that number of people struggling to mingle. Roxy was calculating the fire code violation fine when she spotted her sister. Leah was sitting between two men Roxy did not recognize. They were smoking cigarettes and making wide gestures. Roxy could tell Leah was trapped by the way she was leaning far back in her chair. As if trying to break free from the full ashtray’s gravitational pull. Roxy took a sick pleasure in her sister’s discomfort; the way older siblings sometimes do.

Up close, she could see that Leah was wearing makeup for a change. Her little sister was breathtaking in the tealights. Her wide, almond-shaped eyes were outlined with a shimmery copper pencil. Her full lips, wet plums. Roxy thought, hard to believe we’re made from the same recipe and with the same ingredients. "Are Mila and Dulce here yet?" she said.

"I don’t know. Please sit down and stop working," Leah said.

"You want me to sit with you and ignore my guests?" Roxy said, making an ‘Are you crazy?’ face.

Roxy was pulled into a tight circle of elderly women wearing similar dresses over ginger root-shaped bodies. She was thanking her guests (two invitees and one party crasher) for coming when she spotted Mila and Dulce. Mila was wearing a powder blue sundress with spaghetti straps and a delicate chain around her neck. Dulce was sporting 501 jeans, a 49ers jersey cropped to reveal a stubby navel and the elastic band of plaid boxer shorts. Roxy’s eyes followed them through the cocktail crowd, losing them by the gift table.

Mila was making sure that the card was securely taped onto her present when Dulce said, in a low and level voice, "¡Híjole! Check out the cake." Mila glanced up. She froze.

The birthday cake was a three-tiered white wedding cake heavily decorated with clumps of bright red roses. Thickly piped neon green leaves clung to vines creeping over the cake.

"It looks like somebody ate a clown, then threw up all over that cake!" Dulce said. She poked a hard sugar flower, half-expecting it to honk and squirt water. "Somebody needs to pull that bakery’s license."

"It’s not from the bakery. It’s one of La señora qué hace los cakes scary creations," Mila half-whispered, in case the cake lady was around. They stared up at the plastic bride perched on top. No groom. "Oh, poor Roxy! She would never have ordered that cake." Mila said.

Both were well aware that Roxy was boy-crazy and had been since they were kids. Through the years, she had had hundreds of crushes and zero boyfriends. She had never even been pinched by a boy when she intentionally did not wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. The older she got, the more desperate she had become. During a recent bridal toss at a wedding reception, Roxy rushed the bride and intercepted the bouquet.

"I’m gonna flick La Novia off the cake," Dulce said, reaching up.

"Wait!" Mila caught her by the arm. "You can’t do that. It’s too late!"

"What do you mean it’s too late?" Dulce said, shrugging free.

"Because everyone's already seen La Novia. If she’s not up there, people will notice," Mila said.

"So,” Dulce said, squinting with interest. “You’re saying that if I flick La Novia off she’ll be more noticeable than if she stays up there, squatting on that ugly cake?"

"Something like that," Mila mumbled, not sure how to explain that the damage had already been done. Her eyes lingered on the bride. "Does she look pink to you?"

Dulce leaned in. "She’s been dipped in food coloring, just like an Easter egg. Why’d la señora go and dunk the doll like that?"

"To make her look less like a bride, I guess," Mila said.

Dulce grinned. A cluster of dimples appeared on her left cheek. “A blushing bride!" They both laughed like Elmer Fudd.

"There you are," Roxy said, elbowing her way through the crowd.

Catching the hint of irritation in her tone, Mila said, "Sorry we’re late. My dad couldn’t find parking. He dropped my mom and us off, then drove back home. He’s going to walk back."

"Why didn’t he just pray for a parking space?" Roxy said.

"You mean like, ‘Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini, please find a spot for my little Lamborghini?’” Mila said, grinning.

“Hey, hey,” Dulce said, shaking Mila’s arm. “How ‘bout, ‘Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost that’s gotta be found.’”

“No, you spazzes!” Roxy snapped. Rotating her hand, she recited, “‘Hail Mary full of grace, help me find a parking space.’ It works every time.” 

"You see, that’s why I don’t like that Jesus guy. His mom was a really nice old virgin lady and he put her to work parking cars after she died.” Dulce tisked. “She doesn’t even have a driver’s license."

Roxy was too busy watching the waitstaff carry in oblong trays of food to hear Dulce blaspheme. "Food’s here. Good, I’m starving," she said.

She took her place at the head of the table between her mother and her sister. Leah and Chucha had selected all of her favorite dishes. The first course was a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and avocado. The second course was sopa de flor de calabaza, a cheesy pumpkin blossom soup with a hint of sherry. While the warm flavors lingered on their palates, the empty bowls were exchanged with lime-marinated steak tacos. The strips of beef were "cooked" overnight in fresh lime juice with a spicy marinade before being quickly seared on the grill. The tacos were served with fried sweet plantains, roasted zucchini stuffed with queso fresco, cilantro rice, and drunken frijoles. Guacamole and an array of hot and cold salsas filled the empty spaces on the table.

After the final course, some of the men fought the urge to loosen their belts and nod off. Dulce, so full she could barely breathe, considered a drowsy Mila. With her creamy white skin, sulky eyes, and honey-brown wavy hair falling to her shoulders, she looked just like a young Lauren Bacall. Mila stared back at the dark fairy. Dulce’s small stature and pixie features were such a contrast to her whiskey voice. The permanent look of amusement on her face made some people feel uncomfortable. They were never really sure if they were in on her joke or the butt of it.

Mila dropped her voice. "Do you know when you're leaving, yet?”

Dulce shrugged. “Sometime in the next few days. I’m up next so it could be as soon as tomorrow night.”

“When are you going to tell Roxy?” Mila said.

Dulce took a sip of her melted margarita. “I was thinking of calling her from the airport.”

“That’s not funny, Dulce,” Mila said. “I don’t understand why you didn’t just tell her after you signed up for the course.”

Dulce made a scale with her hands. “Tell Roxy that I’m going to Japan, alone, for a workshop and wake up the batshitcrazy beast…” She raised her right palm about an inch. “or lay low, then go.” Dulce lifted her left palm over her head.

Mila crossed her arms and glared. “Fine,” Dulce said. “I’ll go tell the birthday girl right now.” She pushed her chair back.

Mila leaned forward, locking eyes with Dulce. “Don’t you dare,” she growled.

“How ‘bout I tell her tomorrow, before brunch,” Dulce said.

Mila nodded. “I’ll stay clear of the restaurant.” She thought a moment. "Why sandstone sculpture? I mean. there’s clay, wood, marble, bronze…and the one where you weld scrap metal and junk together to make art."

“Assemblages,” Dulce said. Her interest in sandstone as an art medium started when they were in seventh grade. They went on a field trip to the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park. Among the collections was an exhibit on sandstone art. She had snuck away from the class tour and started the exhibit counterclockwise. She began with the modern abstract sandstone sculptures and then went back in time. She passed through thousands of years of Indian and Southeast Asian art, then Mesoamerican deities and Olmec sculptures.

Back to the pre-Columbian crimson and orange stenciled hands from Argentina that reminded her of people trapped in a fire. For over nine thousand years, they have been slapping that same cave wall for help. Dulce’s tour ended at the beginning. The world’s oldest known drawing was of a wooly mammoth discovered in a cave in South Africa. It was created 73,000 years ago. Dulce was hooked.

She chose to keep her reply to Mila simple, "Because it’s a rock made from sand, I guess."

The overhead lights were dimmed as two busboys trundled in the wedding cake with lit candles on all three tears. Their faces serious with concentration. Dulce made a sizzling sound with her mouth. "Unless Roxy’s got a blow dryer back there, she ain’t gonna be able to put out that towering inferno with just one breath."

Roxy, lit up as if by footlights, looked as focused as a swimmer getting ready to compete. As her guests sang, "Happy Birthday," in a chorus of accents, someone sang Las Mañanitas off-key, the way someone always does. She was about to make the same three-fold wish for beauty, popularity, and a boyfriend that had never come true. As she drew in a deep breath, she replaced "boyfriend" with "husband." She blew a fine stream of air mere inches from the lower glinting flames. Her head banked back and easily blew past the second tier. She was blowing out the candles on the top tier when a dead candle, right smack in the middle of the cake, sputtered back to life. She stared in shock at the flame, like it had just spit at her.

Roxy closed her eyes. Impulsively, she said a fervent prayer she had no recollection of learning. Santa Muerte, I offer my prayer for love from my lonely heart to the altar of your ears. She blew a blast of hot air and spit mist on the final, mocking flame, plunging the room into total darkness. When the lights returned, Roxy was staring directly into the sloppy dot eyes of the jilted bride. She was struck cold by the irony of her wish, and then the magnitude of what she had just done. Oh my God! I just prayed for love to the Darth Vader of saints.

The thought of making a wish on someone else’s cake had never crossed Leah’s mind before. But when the flame flickered back to life, she had done just that. On the streets of San Francisco, she felt like a character in a Grimm’s fairy tale. Aggressive panhandlers zeroed in on her. Religious zealots followed her for blocks, misquoting scripture. Last week, a strange man tried to lure her into his car. Each time left her feeling more vulnerable and more afraid to go outside. When I’m out there I just want to be left alone. If no one noticed me, I would be okay. She closed her eyes. I wish I was invisible.

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