Bread lessens sorrows. -Mexican Proverb
When she last made chiles rellenos, Victor had been alive.
He had started coming over to their house when her son Manuel was in junior high, afterschool and on weekends at first, then birthdays and holidays when his mother got stuck working late shifts at the diner. He helped Manuel with homework because he loved math and was good at it, and because Manuel was his only friend. In high school Victor earned a little money tutoring, and she had tried to pay him, knowing that those wingtip shoes he wanted were not cheap. He always refused, saying that she, Mrs. Gonzales, had already done so much for him. She had made chiles rellenos en nogadas, the kind with walnut sauce, and one week later, a Sunday morning in late October 1963, he was found dead among the cattails in the marshy ditch of a nearby lake.
She put cinnamon pieces in the molcajete, pounded them with the pestle, the porous rock warm and smooth in her hands. She added a few cloves and peppercorns, pounded again, scraped stone against stone. Manuel came in gave her a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. Looking around at all the pots, pans, and bowls covering every kitchen surface, he asked, “What’s all this?”
The bright yellow lemon-shaped clock read three-fifteen. She had not expected him so soon. There was still so much to do before she could stuff and fry the poblanos. She looked at her son, his dark hair stiff with pomade, shirt and slacks still clean and crisp after a full day of school (he insisted on extra starch in the laundry). “Chiles rellenos,” she answered.
“I know, but why--is someone coming over?”
It was true that, while rellenos were Manuel’s favorite, she saved them for guests or special occasions because they took time. She had been planning this meal for days. Her employer, Mrs. Cohagen, agreed to let her leave work early because she would be taking her own children to a symphony matinee and could do without a nanny for the afternoon. She, Mrs. Gonzales, had roasted pork the night before and had made rice this morning, getting up half an hour earlier, moving about the kitchen in a quick but quiet way, careful not to slam the cabinet doors or knock pots against each other.
She did not tell Manuel that his math teacher had called last week, concerned about missing homework and low test scores, failing grades and summer school. She told Mr. McKenzie that summer school was out of the question. They would be up north, Michigan or Wisconsin, following the cherries, blackberries and apricots. Then peaches. On the way back down: cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash. How could Manuel, only fifteen years old, stay in San Antonio by himself?
She had planned to sit down with her son and talk to him about why he must try harder, do better at math because he might fail the class, and they could not afford to miss the busiest picking season of the year for summer school. Good food, she hoped, would make it easier. “It’s just us,” she said, smiling as if to say there needn’t be a reason to cook his favorite food.
Manuel shrugged, went to change out to change out of his school clothes.
She moved to the white porcelain stove and stirred the onions until they became translucent ghosts of themselves. If it were spring, she would go to the vacant lot next door to collect purslane or quintoniles for a fresh salad. But in February the lot could only offer dry, brown grass, a dead insect wing fluttering on a spiderweb, and the matted leaves of mesquite trees. The only green would be the clumps of chili de espino, which Mrs. Cohagen called mistletoe, and which Manuel’s elementary teacher said was poisonous. Even though the last three generations of Gonzales had eaten the reddish-white fruits without dying, she supposed the teacher knew best, and no longer brought it in the house, instead using the plastic sprigs bought at Woolworth’s after Christmas. Now that he was in high school, Manuel only talked about his teachers if she asked.
Manuel returned wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, which she would not let him wear to school, even if some of the other kids, still wanting to look like James Dean, wore them. He plopped a heavy textbook on the table and took a seat.
She slid the cutting board underneath the bowl of peppers, cleared away the jars of whole cloves and cinnamon sticks to give him more space to work. “No basketball today?” she asked, scooping up onion peels with her hands.
“No,” he said. “Gotta catch up on some homework.” He took out a fresh sheet of paper, copied the first problem neatly on his page. Wrote a few numbers, erased, re-read the examples, tried again.
She scraped the spices into a pan, mixed in the pork, and added almonds, raisins, and acitrón. Manuel turned to the back of his book to check his answer. Erased again. She opened a can of stewed tomatoes, and tilted the contents into the molcajete, the peeled red spheres staring at her like monstrous eyeballs. Manuel tapped his pencil rhythmically on the table. Rubbed his eyes. Sighed. “What are you working on?” she asked.
“Theorems,” he replied, voice heavy with the dread of the work that lay before him. She squashed the tomatoes against the stone, worried that they would squirt juice across the table, splatter his homework in red. She rocked the tejolote in small, quick circular movements. “Theorems,” she repeated in a low voice, testing out the sound of this new word and feeling ignorant. Although she could arrange shapes into elaborate symmetrical patterns on a quilt and calculate sums in her head, this type of math was beyond her understanding.
“Victor was good at proofs,” he said without meeting her eye, focusing instead on the large green Tupperware bowl on the table. “The best.” Manuel closed his eyes and pinched the space between his brows, as if he had a headache.
She sliced open the long poblano pepper, extracting the seed pods with a paring knife, It felt like she was cutting into her son’s heart, into her own heart, because of the painful stabbing of sorrow in her chest, which she knew Manuel must be feeling as well.
“I wish,” Manuel began.
She held a poblano gently in the palm of hand like a delicate bird, a dove perhaps, and spooned the relleno into it.
“I wish he had just told me,” Manuel continued. “I would’ve taken care of it.”
She knew Manuel had “taken care of things” for Victor before. Victor had told Manuel about this neighbor who had been calling him faggot, who threw rocks and empty cans at him. Manuel had warned that S.O.B. to leave Victor alone. Then one afternoon, the boy said that word—joto—right in front of Manuel, and said it like Victor was the worst kind of person, less than trash. Victor said neighbor was nothing but a big mouth and maybe they should let it go. But Manuel let the osicone have it. He took that hate, crumbled it up in his fist like a piece of paper, and gave it right back to that kid, along with a bloody nose.
She didn’t like him fighting but had said nothing when Manuel came home that day asking if blood would stain his shirt and telling her what had happened. She felt proud that her son had stood up for his friend, who, it was true, was one of los otros, those other type of men. So what if he did not like girls? People were how the Lord made them, and we were all sinners besides.
“If I ever find out who they were…” Manuel said, pounding his fist on the table so hard the empty bowls rattled. She wiped her hands on her apron, and reached across the small round table, taking his hands into her own.
“Now you listen to me,” she said, looking him straight in the eye. “I don’t want you going up to Woodlawn anymore. You know how they are.” Woodlawn Lake, the scene of the crime, was within walking distance of their home on the westside of town, but it was on the other side of a large boulevard that delineated the white neighborhood of Jefferson Heights. Mexicanos could go shopping at the Winn’s Five and Dime or Fabric World during the day, but at night, people called the cops.
Victor pulled his hands away, as if burned. “That’s not why they….”
“No,” she said, sighing. They had not beaten Victor because his skin was brown (though maybe that was part of it), but for being who he was. Beat him for liking other boys. Beat him and dumped him in the lake to drown.
The news of Victor’s death was overshadowed by Cuban missile crisis in the papers. At school, on the bus, at home, the possibility of nuclear war was all anyone could talk about. She knew now that she should have paid more attention, should have talked to him about it, should talk to him about it. She went back to the egg batter, tried to think of what she could say. For a moment there was nothing but swishing sound of gears gliding past each other as she turned the crank of the beater.
“Why did he have to go without me? I would have…,” Manuel said, eyes filling with tears. “I could have…”
On that night last fall, Manuel had played in a basketball game that ran into overtime. Would those men (or boys?) have jumped Victor if Manuel had been there? If they had seen the gleam of his knife in the streetlight? (He thought she didn’t know about the switchblade hidden in the back of his sock drawer next to his savings). She sat down again but did not reach for his hands. “Mi’jo,” she began. “I want you to listen to me very carefully. You didn’t go with Victor that night because you weren’t meant to. Your game-- do you think that was an accident?” She reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. “I believe, from the very bottom of my heart, that Our Lord in Heaven has spared you.”
“Me, but not Victor?” He looked at her, dark eyes ablaze, face twisted in a knot of anger, sorrow and guilt. She did not have an answer to his question. Why God called some and not others was a mystery she had pondered often, too much, before she saw the futility in trying to understand His ways. Her father, two of her babies, her husband—all taken from this life too soon. She had been seventeen when her father died, not much older than Manuel, but it seemed that her son was much too young to bear the weight of his friend’s death alone.
“This is hopeless,” Manuel said, throwing down his pencil. He closed his textbook with a sharp clap, pushed away from the table, the legs of his chair squeaking against the linoleum floor. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Manuel,” she said to his receding figure. “Wait. We should ask Father John.” She heard the sharp crack of the screen door slamming in response. Manuel’s homework page fluttered to ground. It was spotted with the grey smudges of erasing. She smoothed it and placed it under his math book. He would have to try again later. Or tomorrow or the day after. It was a problem they would have figure out together.
She picked up a poblano by the stem, dipped it in the egg batter, dropped it into the sizzling oil. After a minute, she grabbed the stem and turned it over in a quick, gentle motion. It burned a little, her fingertips had been toughened by years of turning tortillas on a hot comal, by the borax in the laundry, by the inevitable pin pricks that came with sewing.
She dipped one more in the batter, set it to fry, watched the batter expand and turn golden brown. She wished that she could encase her son in something like the protective pod of this chile, with its tough outer skin and inner membranes imbued with fire. But she could only wrap him in her arms and offer him love, even if that shield proved to be as fragile and delicate as a batter made of egg whites and flour.
In this story, a mother gives her son long-overdue attention by making him his favorite dinner of chiles rellenos, a traditional Mexican dish that is time-consuming and demanding of the cook’s attention up to the very end of the preparation. On a broader scale, “Chiles Rellenos” is about how our attention can be shifted away from the personal to larger geo-political events, and the potential consequences of that shift.