Authors: Malín Alegría
t's really no big deal,” Fabiola Garza told herself. “Just grab it and go.”
She snatched the small package and headed straight for the front of the drugstore. She walked quickly, her hot-pink
slapping loudly against the linoleum floor. Despite the noise, Fabi tried to stroll through the store non-chalantly, careful not to make eye contact with any of the customers. Her heart was beating so hard it felt like it was going to burst out of her chest.
She stopped at the end of the aisle. There were three clerks ringing up customers. Down at the far end stood a new girl. Fabi rushed over to her line.
“In and out,” she repeated softly to herself like a mantra.
The new girl wasn't having a good day. Her eyes swept from Fabiola to the end of the line with a pained grin, then suddenly back to her register with alarm. She'd been written up twice that week, and had already made several careless mistakes today. The register beeped ERROR at her. The cashier huffed loudly and started to reenter the item code.
. “Darn it, not again!” the girl exclaimed. The customers in line in front of Fabi started to grumble and complain.
“Fabiola!” a familiar voice called out.
For a split second Fabi tried to ignore whoever was calling her. She did not want to bump into anyone she knew â especially now. But the person was persistent.
“Fabiola Garza, is that you?”
The woman behind her nudged Fabi and said in Spanish, “Excuse me, I think that man is talking to you,” as she pointed to one of the other cash registers.
Fabi turned and saw a thin man with no hair and a big, bushy mustache. Mr. Longoria, her old Sunday school teacher! He waved eagerly at her with a bright, toothy smile and a red sales rep vest. “I'm open, and you're next in line.” He motioned for her to come. “Bring your stuff over here.”
Fabi's cheeks burned hot. “Oh, it's okay. I can wait.”
Mr. Longoria made a face and waved off her explanation. “Don't be silly,” he said. Fabi looked for the nearest exit. Maybe she could still make a run for it, she thought â but her feet would not cooperate. She stood motionless, like a deer in headlights.
“Go ahead,” the woman behind her said. “You only have one thing.”
Fabi's sandals edged forward. Her mind went blank. How was she going to explain this? She had to make up something quick.
“My, have you grown!” Mr. Longoria said with amazement as she approached his cash register. “How's your mother? And your grandmother Trini? I haven't seen her in years.”
Maybe he won't notice
, she half hoped.
Maybe he won't care?
Fabi watched as Mr. Longoria's hairy hand slowly reached for her package. She stared at the big horseshoe ring on his middle finger. But she couldn't let go of the small pink box.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, concern growing on his face.
“No, I just have a little headache. Everything is fine,” Fabi said, shaking her fears loose. She threw the box down quickly and sought a conversation in hopes of distracting him. Leaning over the counter and holding on to his gaze, she blurted, “My grandma Trini just got back from Las Vegas â all expenses paid, you know.”
Mr. Longoria shook his head, smiling to himself. He grabbed her item without looking and passed it over the scanner. “Your grandma is the luckiest woman I â” He paused and frowned at the box. It hadn't scanned. “That's strange,” he said. He tried it again.
“You know what?” Fabi paused, and said a bit too loudly, “I changed my mind. I don't want it anymore.”
“Oh, it's no problem,” Mr. Longoria told her, picking up the phone. Fabi's heart started to race. “Petra,” he called out casually into the receiver. His voice echoed loudly throughout the store on the PA system. “I've got Fabiola Garza up here. You know, Trinidad Garza's granddaughter. I need a price check on the
Fresh Mountain Scented Gentle Glide Super Plus Tampons
Fabi shot out through the front door and into the parking lot. The stifling heat smacked her face, arms, and legs like fiery brands. She rushed, heart pounding, toward the black Ford truck that was idling by the entrance. Her cousin Santiago was sitting at the wheel, busily texting, as she climbed in.
“Did you get what you needed?” Santiago asked, smiling. A hint of mischief lurked in his honey-colored eyes. As usual. All the girls at school mooned over Santiago like he was Christmas Day. His dark black curls attracted women â young and old â like bees to sweet nectar. To Fabi he was just Santiago, her favorite cousin. And she knew him well enough to guess that he must have been texting some new girl.
“Just drive,” she said, urgently waving him forward. Fabi wanted to get as far away from this place as possible.
Suddenly, Mr. Longoria burst through the storefront doors. He called out to her, “Fabiola! Wait! Stop!” as he waved the box of tampons in the air for the whole world to see.
“Go!” Fabi shrieked again, hitting the dashboard with her palms. “Go right now!”
Santiago didn't ask any questions. He pressed down on the accelerator and quickly exited the parking lot, leaving a bewildered-looking Mr. Longoria behind in a cloud of dust and car fumes.
“Ooooh!” Santiago cried, laughing. “Did you just steal something? No, you held the place up. Damn, Fabi, you crazy. You are SO going to get it when your mom finds out.”
Fabi dug her fingernails into her fists. “It's nothing like that,” she said between clenched teeth.
“Then what was it?”
“Didn't look like nothing to me.”
Fabiola folded her arms in front of her chest and looked out onto the arid, flat landscape. She watched as they sped past the leafy, low-growing mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus plants scattered along the state highway. When she was younger, her grandpa Frank would take her out to see the migratory birds returning from the south. He knew every plant and animal in the Valley. Ten miles to the south was Mexico, and ten miles to the north was stark, rocky wilderness dotted with thirsty tasajillo brush, jackrabbits, and squawking mockingbirds.
But Fabi couldn't enjoy the calming landscape. She was so irritated she wanted to scream. This was exactly why she hated living in the Valley. You couldn't do
without running into someone you knew! Naively she'd thought she could be anonymous if she made Santiago drive her two towns over. But there was no such thing as “anonymous” along the Rio Grande.
Santiago flipped through the channels on the radio until he found a tune he knew would cheer her up.
“Ooooooh, baby,” he sang out, really loud and really off-key. “So let's go on and on and on.”
Fabi tried to stay mad. But Santiago was so horribly tone-deaf that she couldn't hold back her smile. “You are such a dork,” she mumbled.
He glanced at her sideways. “But I'm a cute dork, huh?” he said, nudging her playfully. “C'mon, sing with me.” Fabi tried to resist, but Santiago always found a way to make her forget her troubles. He raised the volume and she joined him. They both sang out, bobbing back and forth with the chorus.
Santiago parked in front of a green brick storefront in the middle of old downtown. A chipped, weather-beaten sign that said “Garza's” hung over the doorway. Cartoon depictions of their family restaurant's famous specialties were painted on the side of the wall: fajitas, enchiladas, cabrito, tacos, flautas, crispy chalupas. And of course there was also the painting of Grandma Alpha, holding a plate of her famous mouthwatering chili.
“You comin' in?” Fabi asked, opening the truck's passenger-side door.
Santiago made a face, as if he was thinking really hard about it. Then his thoughts shifted instantly as his phone beeped. He glanced quickly at it and smiled. “I'd love to, but I got this thing I have to do first.”
“What's this one's name?” Fabi said, feigning boredom. Her cousin had so many girlfriends she couldn't keep track of them. She shut the door but kept looking at him through the open window.
Santiago gave her his famous smile. “Maria Elena,” he said, overenunciating her name in a deep Spanish accent.
“She sounds dangerous,” Fabi joked.
“I hope so,” he yelled as he sped off.
Fabiola shook her head; her cousin was incorrigible. Then she just stood in front of the restaurant for a second, enjoying the relative calm of downtown Dos Rios in the noon sun. Abandoned mannequins stared down at her from the old JC Ramirez Fashion Boutique. Most of the stores were deserted. Only three hung on â a food stamp office, a storefront with the sign “AquÃ Es” that sold diet shakes, and the restaurant. Locals no longer came downtown to shop, preferring the big chains in McAllen for their daily needs.
Fabi took a deep breath before pushing open the glass door of her family's restaurant.
music sang out from the old jukebox. More paintings â murals by her uncle Neto â covered the walls with images of the Aztec empire, Pancho Villa riding a white stallion, and Cesar Chavez leading farmworkers in a protest march. On the wall behind the cash register there were old photographs of long-dead ancestors, mixed with recent pictures of other family members taken with celebrities, like Hulk Hogan, Selena, and Freddy Fender. Fabi breathed in the thick aroma of grilled steak, caramelized onions, and freshly cooked beans. Pots and pans clanged noisily in the kitchen over the boisterous chatter of regular customers seated at all the red tables and counter spaces. Fabi's mom, Magdalena (whom everyone called Magda), was talking to a couple of Winter Texans at the register counter when she noticed Fabi.
she called out. “Where've you been? Your dad has been looking for you. Lydia and Lorena called in sick. Pig flu, they say!
,” she said, giving the elderly man in a Hawaiian shirt his change with a broad smile. As the customers walked away, Magda leaned over the glass counter and whispered, “I know those two girls were dancing on tables at Long Horns last night. Everybody saw them acting all
.” The phone rang and her mom hurriedly shooed Fabi away, adding, “
, get your apron.”
Fabi walked to the opposite side of the counter with a small smile. She couldn't wait to hear about her coworkers' latest adventure. Her grandpa Frank sat on a stool drinking a cup of lukewarm coffee â just the way he liked it. She leaned over and gave him a big kiss on his saggy cheek.
“No sugar for your
?” grumbled Abuelita Alpha Omega from her table in the corner. Alpha wore her white hair tied back in a bun so tight it made her eyelids slant. In her arms, she rocked Fabi's two-year-old baby brother. His name was Rafael, although everyone called him Baby Oops.
“Ay, Abuelita,” Fabiola teased, “I was just about to come over.” As she moved toward her demanding-but-beloved grandmother, she grabbed an apron from behind the counter.
“Fabi!” her father's stern voice rang out from the kitchen. “Is that you?”
“You better go see what he wants,” her
warned. “He's been in a foul mood ever since he got back from the doctor.”
Fabiola pecked her grandmother on the cheek. Then, hands twisting quickly above her head, she tied her long black hair into a neat bun. “Coming, Dad!”
“Oh, so now you only kiss your mama's side of the family?” another familiar voice called out from the opposite end of the room. It was her dad's mom, Trinidad Garza. This
sat majestically next to a wall-high shrine to Fabi's late grandfather, Little Rafa “Los Dedos del Valle” TreviÃ±o Garza.
Fabi rushed over to her other grandmother, who smelled of hair spray and Jean NatÃ© perfume. It was especially important not to show any favoritism in their family since the Great Truce of 2008, when both grandmothers finally agreed to get along â as long as each stayed on her half of the restaurant.
“Sorry, Grandma,” said Fabi, rushing over to give her other grandmother a quick kiss, while being
careful not to ruin any makeup. “How's business?” Fabi asked her.
Grandma Trini was wearing a “Little Rafa” T-shirt. The shirt was a tad too small, emphasizing her large and rather perky chest. The table in front of her was filled with miniature replicas of the icon himself: Little Rafa, with his long cascading mullet, cheerfully playing his accordion. There were also T-shirts, buttons, key chains, and Grandma Trini's assortment of crocheted steering wheel covers, hats, and doilies.
“We had some tourists from Germany come in,” Grandma Trini told Fabi excitedly. “Came all the way out here just to pay their respects. He's real big in Strasburg, they said. They bought two shirts and a button and took pictures with me.” She pinned a button with Little Rafa's face onto Fabi's apron. “Can't sell what you don't show. Like it? I've got more. Maybe you can sell them at your school? Think your friends might like them?”
“Yeah, sure.” Fabi looked for an escape.
“Can I get some help back here?” her dad yelled from the kitchen, just in time.
Fabiola smiled at her grandmother. “I gotta go. My dad wants me.”
“Okay, honey. Don't you worry, I save some pins for you, okay?”
“Fabi, take the orders out,” her mother called.
“Fabiola!” her dad echoed.
“I'm coming!” Fabi yelled back. She hurried over to the kitchen and grabbed a hot plate of chicken fajitas and an order of enchiladas from the counter. Her dad, Leonardo, was expertly moving around, stirring a huge pot of whole pinto beans, slicing red bell peppers, and flipping fresh corn tortillas on the hot
Leonardo had started life as a migrant kid picking fruits and vegetables from South Texas to Minnesota. Owning a restaurant had been just a dream. He and Magda had put twenty years of sweat, tears, and sometimes blood into the business. All of Fabi's childhood memories revolved around this place. It was all she knew.