Authors: Barbara O'Neal
It would come to her.
“That would be impossible,” Elena replied, “because that title belongs to me.”
He turned, his mouth lifting on one side.
She said, “I’ll see you Friday.”
It startled him, but he covered with a nod, tossing his shirt over his shoulder as he headed out.
Elena stayed where she was.
Trouble, trouble, trouble.
Something cold walked down her spine, and she looked for her ghosts, but none were there, or at least, they did not show themselves. Shaking it off, she took a breath and turned off the light. “I need to cook,” she said in case they were listening. “Let’s go see the grocery stores.”
And then Isobel was there, wandering in from another room. “I wanted to see where he went from here,” she said. Her teenager hair was as glossy as fingernail polish. “That one is broken, I think. Be careful.”
“You need to call Mama,” Isobel said, putting a hand on the counter, admiring the space. “Dolores is sick.”
The usual thread of resistance spun itself around her spine. “I will. Later. Come on. Let’s go check out the stores.”
Kitchens were often the only safe place in Elena’s world, and when she needed to think or rest or feel centered, she headed right for the stove. This afternoon, she wanted to find out what kind of ingredients she could buy off the shelves here, what would have to be ordered.
As she headed toward the grocery store she’d found on MapQuest before leaving the apartment, she heard her sister’s nudge again, “Call Mama,” and knew she needed to do it. Mama, who was Maria Elena, was technically Elena’s grandmother. Technically, because her real mother had abandoned her, so Mama took the role.
Elena’s father, Roberto Alvarez, had gone into the Army during Vietnam. The second son of the family, all proud, poor farmers in New Mexico, descended from the Spanish conquistadores who settled the area in the 1700s, Roberto had been born with wanderlust. When a recruiter showed up at his high school one day, Roberto joined the Army on the spot. He did his basic training in El Paso, where he met Donna DeWalle at a 7-Eleven store. Donna was fifteen, ripe as a peach. Roberto, lonely so far from home, fell in love with her in three seconds flat.
Donna, fast and busty and blonde, was the daughter of a bartender at a roadhouse that did a brisk business serving soldiers. She, predictably, got pregnant—and this being before legal abortions, they got married at a justice of the peace just before Roberto shipped out and got himself killed six months later. Before he left, he made Donna promise to name his child either after him if it was a boy, or after his mother, Maria Elena, if it was a girl.
Elena, the little girl born on a windy moonless night, was left a lot to her own devices. Donna was a party girl who left Elena with her own mother, Iris. All three lived in a little apartment nearby the roadhouse where Iris worked, and Elena had her own bedroom overlooking the river. Mexico was there on the other side, looking much the same as America. But it was different. Everyone said so.
She went to school with migrant workers and played jacks with the children of soldiers and learned that she was very smart. Every year, she was the smartest girl in the class, and there was one reason why—they lived right around the corner from a library.
Elena’s grandmother Iris loved reading, especially big sagas by the likes of Sidney Sheldon, and historicals and gothics by the thousands—Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart and Norah Lofts. It was her escape. She didn’t drink and she didn’t like people very much and thought television was idiotic, so she would sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes and read novels. To this day, when Elena heard someone cough in that rattly, heavy-smoker way, she had a flash of Iris reading, her breasts spilling over her ribs and down her sides beneath a housedress, a light shining over her shoulder, smoke rising in a blue cloud around her.
The pair of them went to the library every week to check out books. By the time she was seven, Elena could read chapter books, and she read them by the zillions.
Nobody cooked in
world, not at home. Breakfast was Cheerios or Life cereal. For lunch on weekends, she had grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of chili. Supper was whatever the roadhouse was serving as the special of the day—open-faced turkey sandwiches with gravy on squishy slices of white bread; refried bean burritos; tacos fried crisp; beef stew; or posole. Sometimes, the old cook, a man with a grizzling of white on his chin, would let Elena help with something—tearing lettuce, or peeling ears of corn, or putting sliced pickles in a dish for the counter.
While her grandmother served beer and rum and Cokes, Elena curled up in a warm corner of the kitchen, like Cinderella, and read her books. It was safe and cozy and there was always a friendly adult around to get her a drink of water, or soda if she begged. She felt protected there.
When Elena was eight, Iris got cancer and died. For a while, Donna tried to do the right thing, but she was mixed up with a man who didn’t want anything to do with children. He wanted to move to Dallas and Donna wasn’t about to miss her chance, so she put Elena in the car and drove to Espanola and the Alvarez family home.
Donna pretended that she’d just brought Elena to visit, counting on their grief and love of their lost son to get them to let the little girl into their world a little bit, even if she did have the bad luck to be born as white-looking as her mother, all blue eyes and pale hair.
But Roberto’s mother, Maria Elena, for whom Elena was named, insisted they make her welcome. She was tucked into the couch with blankets and pillows, in a place that smelled strange and felt strange, and she cried, missing her grandmother.
In the morning, Donna was gone. Gone like a wisp of smoke. The Alvarezes adjusted, shifting a little to make room—there were already twelve children in that house, including two cousins, what was one more? Elena was right between Isobel and Margaret, technically her aunties, one six months younger, one a year older. They all shared a room with a sister two years older, Dorothy, who hated Elena and never did warm up.
All she had with her were the clothes she’d worn, a pair of extra underwear, and a Victoria Holt book her grandmother had been reading when she died,
The Mistress of Mellyn,
which Elena was ashamed to have stolen from the library. She had never lived anywhere but the little apartment near the restaurant.
That was the beginning of Elena’s betweenness. Between the world of white and Spanish, as they said in those days, not Mexican, which meant something else. Spanish, to differentiate from Indian, which is what some white people wanted to be elsewhere, but not in New Mexico, where Spanish ruled. Spanish the language. Spanish the colors. Spanish the food. Spanish the music and the dances at the VFW. Spanish the customs. Spanish the everything.
Every night, Elena curled around the book and buried her face in a blanket and cried silently. It was like she had a hole in her heart, or maybe even worse, like there was a hole in her chest where everything she loved had been cut out. She couldn’t breathe with it.
There were two points of light. One was Isobel, so close to Elena in age that they were nearly twins, their birthdays exactly six months to the day apart. Isobel, the youngest girl, made room for Elena, pushing her socks and underwear to one side in a drawer so Elena could put in her meager belongings, shoving chairs around at the dinner table so Elena could sit beside her.
Elena was smitten with Isobel and her shiny hair and her curvy mouth and her big teeth, coming in with their little ragged edges. She had a big, loud belly laugh and she liked blue fingernails and she was always getting in trouble for something. They slept in the same bed, were in the same class at school, wore each other’s clothes. At night, when Elena wept in homesickness, Isobel just curled up next to her and smoothed her hair, murmuring Spanish words of comfort:
Sleep, little child. You’re safe now.
Words Elena didn’t understand at the time.
The other joy was Mama, Maria Elena, who wrapped her namesake in worn thin cotton aprons and stood the little girl on a chair next to her while she cooked for the multitudes. She told Elena to call her Mama. She showed her how to measure flour and pat out tortillas and stir a pot of stew. And there, again, Elena was safe.
What else could she have done with her life but cook?
At the supermarket in Aspen, Elena simply walked the perimeter at first, to check out the layout. It was predictably big and bright and clean, with all the accoutrements of a high-end grocery—a stunning bakery, acres of deli offerings, and a produce aisle with piles of the very freshest arugula and purple fingerling potatoes and grapes the size of her palm.
But to her surprise, she also found an aisle bursting with a plentiful display of Mexican ingredients—dried red chiles of many varieties, big and small; canned and pickled green chiles; masa and corn husks and spices and almost any other staple a person would need. It seemed bizarre that such a wealth enclave should have such good Mexican supplies, until she spied a short dark man in a plaid shirt and jeans weighing a plump package of chicken.
Of course. Such a heavy tourist market would require huge crews of construction workers, cleaners, cooks, gardeners, labor that would be supplied by Latin American immigrants in all their forms—legal, green-card, and not.
Standing there in that shiny aisle, with rock classics playing over the speakers, she realized she was going to live closer to home than she had in almost twenty years. The snake of history on her back burned for one long minute, as if it were uncoiling into a live being, a whip of white and orange light. Standing there in the brightly lit grocery store with a vastness of homey foods to choose from, Elena felt suddenly hollow, terrified, and she wondered if this was a mistake, to come too close to home.
“Just cook, Elena,” said Isobel, standing by the chiles, her arms slim and young. “Just make the soup.”
“I have to cook for Julian tomorrow night.” Elena looked over her shoulder. There was no one in the aisle. “I don’t know what to make.”
“He wants your favorites.” Isobel ran her hands over the bags of posole, the yellow cartons of Mexican hot chocolate. “Be yourself.”
Elena plucked a bag of dried posole from the rack and settled it next to the bag of masa. Cook. Just cook. Forget about the critics who, like ravens with black shiny eyes, would be secretly hoping for her to fail. Forget Dmitri and failure and the fact that Julian Liswood was maybe one of the most—
There was no other choice. The Aspen restaurant was the chance she’d been working toward for two decades. For that, she would cook. For that, she would start again in a new place, building a new home.
And she would begin by cooking.
2 cups dried posole (dried whole hominy)
2–3 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 onion, chopped
cup mild fresh green chiles, reserving a handful of thin strips for garnish
1–2 peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes (about 1 cup)
cup chopped fresh cilantro
Salt to taste
Rinse posole in cold water until water runs clear. Soak overnight.
To cook pork, put it in a heavy pan on the stove with a little water, salt and pepper, and let it cook real slow until it’s falling to pieces, about 2–3 hours. Remove the pork, leaving the fat in the pan, and brown the onions and garlic, then put the meat back in the pan, add the posole and enough water to cover it all, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, till posole pops, about 1 hour. Meanwhile roast the chile peppers (if fresh) in a paper bag in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes, remove, cool, peel (skin slips off easily), and chop. Add the chiles to the pot after the posole has popped. Simmer, covered, 4 more hours. Taste for seasoning, add salt to taste. Simmer, covered, 1 more hour. Garnish with cilantro and thin coils of pepper and finely chopped tomatoes.
ulian sat in a big chair, his legs crossed, a lamp shining over his shoulder. In the background played Billie Holiday, singing “Good Morning Heartache,” the old jazz sounds a ghostly memory of a time long gone, the best music he knew to write horror. Or anything really.
On a tablet in his lap, he was trying to block out a new screenplay, and had been all summer. It shouldn’t have taken so long. He’d done sixteen films in the twenty-two years of his career, and he understood what audiences and the studio wanted of him. This one should have been a piece of cake, the third in a trilogy that had been vastly popular, but it wasn’t coming. He loved horror, everything about the genre, but he’d had enough of the type that was selling just now—buckets of blood and nubile girls screaming in terror as they tried to outwit yet another crazed serial killer. It was fun, in its place. It had made him piles of money, his studio piles of money. More money than he could spend, honestly.
He wasn’t in the mood for it right now. Not that he knew what he
in the mood for. He’d done a lot of kinds of horror flicks, from ghosts to slashers to an upmarket historical vampire flick that was still one of the top DVD rentals on every list a decade after it had been made.
The past few weeks, there was a taste in his mouth, a hint of something that he couldn’t quite catch, a whisper or promise. Thus the pad of paper, no electronics between himself and his imagination, just an open legal pad with crisp white paper and a fountain pen with strong black ink. It made him feel like a bard to write with a fountain pen.
On the paper, he doodled. Music rose in a cloud to the exposed rafters of the cathedral ceiling. What
it that kept sweeping through him? On the page he wrote,
yearning, redemption, sorrow, catharsis, hunger.
He drew a circle around each word and sketched bubbles going out from each one. Horror was always about catharsis, about letting go of pent-up emotions, recognizing that life as it
was not so bad.
It was also about redemption—monsters and ghosts and zombies put in their place. He had a flash of a graveyard, an open grave, and a sense of cold loss. With quick, sure strokes, he captured the wisp in a sketch.
Each kind of horror had a particular function, fulfilled a particular longing or fantasy on the part of the audience—and the filmmaker, of course. What fantasy was he yearning to fulfill?
For a long moment he sat still, his pen unmoving, then he pulled a sheaf of papers from the back of the notebook. Photocopies of old newspaper clippings, from the autumn of 1988, most of them reiterating the same information. The top story was taken from the
November 1988. A photo showed the marks on a tree trunk and a hill with crosses standing against a twilight sky.
AP Espanola—Four teens were killed instantly and another critically injured in a high-speed crash on State Highway 76 Thursday night when the driver lost control and slammed into a tree. The teens were all students at Espanola Valley High School. Three were from one family—the driver, Isobel Alvarez, 18, a senior; her younger brother Albert, 14, and the lone survivor, Elena Alvarez, 17, who sustained catastrophic injuries and has not regained consciousness. She was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital and is listed in critical condition. The other victims were Edwin Valdez, 18, the survivor’s boyfriend, and Penelope Madrid, also 17, a cousin to the Alvarez family. Alcohol was not a factor in the incident.
Julian flipped the edge of the paper with his thumb. An ordinary story in ways, both utterly banal and absolutely devastating. It happened every day—cars trying to beat an oncoming train, drag-racing up lonely farm highways, navigating bad roads in the dark; drinking and driving in any fashion at all.
It still left a pit in his belly, a hollowness. Three children ripped from a family in a single swath, two siblings and a cousin dead, and a fourth so badly mangled that it appeared it had taken more than a year for her to leave the hospital.
He fingered the silky goatee beneath his lip. An ordinary horror. Like a murder, a woman being snatched out of a grocery store parking lot and murdered, her body dumped in a field. How many times each year did it happen? Once a week? Once a day?
How did those families survive the loss? He couldn’t even bear to
of the loss of his daughter, for fear that it would bring it closer. Even he, who thought of dark things for a living, skittered away, whispered preventive prayers to angels he didn’t believe in—
never, never, please, not ever that.
The darkness on the other side of such a thought was unbearable.
He’d found the article when he ran a Google search on his new chef. He ran checks on anyone he planned to hire in a leadership position, just to make sure nothing untoward showed up. The Vancouver newspaper article had hinted that Elena Alvarez had experienced a loss in her youth, but had not elaborated.
Catastrophic injuries. What did that mean? How long, he wondered, had she lain in a coma, unaware that her siblings and friend and cousin were dead?
In the quiet room, Ella Fitzgerald started to sing in her haunting way, “Summertime,” a song that always sent a knife through his heart. When he’d found the article, he’d wanted to throw it away, forget it, let it go.
And he’d known, equally clearly, that he would not. It was a story he had not explored, another angle on the endless question of his movies—how did people grapple with darkness? His creative curiosity had been snared, even as he was a little shamed by it. Was it prurient or the natural curiosity of a storyteller?
Once the door was flung open, there was no closing it. His muses, skinny and pockmarked, stalked the alleyways of dark events, taking notes on events that made others look away. What, he wondered, were the statistics on people who survived such catastrophic events? Did they tend to thrive or self-destruct? What issues did they face?
From the black granite and cherry table at his elbow, he lifted his notebook computer, rubbed the mouse square with the edge of his thumb and brought up Google. He tucked his pen between his teeth to free his hands and typed,
survivors catastrophic car accidents.
A slim figure emerged from the shadows of the hallway. “Whatcha doing?”
Julian shut down the search, feeling weirdly guilty. “Nothing, kiddo. What’s up?”
His daughter Portia flung herself into an easy chair. “I’m bored.”
“School starts in a few days, and it will get better.”
“Oh, like I love school so much.” She twisted a strand of extra-shiny blonde hair around a finger. Her outstretched foot wiggled. “I miss home.”
“I know. You’ll make new friends here.”
“I liked my old friends.”
Julian nodded. “But they were not particularly good for you.”
“How do you know people here will be better for me? Maybe I’ll find even
He inclined his head, mentally flipping through the parental handbook to see if there was a proper answer to a veiled threat. She had been in serious trouble in LA, running with a crowd of kids whose parents had too much money and not enough time. Left to their own devices, with far too many resources, they drugged and drank in great quantities.
“I’m sure you can if you try,” he said after a minute. “There must be some stoner snowboarders around. Probably some speed freaks, too, and hey—if you try, I bet you can find some abusive alcoholic boyfriend to punish me with.”
She pursed her sullen lips, unpainted and sweet as a Kewpie doll’s. Just now, she was still slightly blurry, a soft-edged version of the woman she would be in a few years, but one day she would be a tremendous beauty—a gift that would be more burden than blessing if he didn’t figure out how to help her develop the right tools to manage it. If the movies had taught him anything, it was that Beauty often self-destructed.
“I hate my life.” Portia blinked back tears. “How’m I supposed to know what to do?”
“Maybe you could listen to your dad, huh? You’re only fourteen. You’re not supposed to have all the answers.”
“What I’d like to see you do here is make a fresh start. Make friends with kids who have goals and dreams, who want to do something with their lives.”
“Oh, like jocks and cheerleaders?”
“Since you’re a natural athlete, I would like to see you mix it up with some jocks, actually. But maybe spend time figuring out what you love and find other people who love those things, too. Just find friends who want to believe in life instead of making fun of it.”
A little of the tension eased away from her body. “I guess.”
Julian mentally wiped sweat from his parental brow. Whew. Right answer. For once.
Flinging herself forward to perch elbows on her knees, she said, “I have an interview with somebody for community service tomorrow. What do you think it will be? My friend Aida is working at a museum. That would be so boring I’d want to kill myself.”
Aida was one of the friends Portia had gotten in trouble with, the anorexic daughter of a pop star. “It’s hard to imagine her in a museum. What is she doing?”
“She says she’s giving tours, but I think she’s cleaning bathrooms.” Portia made a face. “Gross. Will I have to do something like that?”
He knew a lot of people who’d had to spend time in community service, mostly for drinking-and-driving offenses. Portia had a lot of hours to work off. “It seems like there are a lot of jobs out there, kiddo. My suggestion is to think of something you wouldn’t mind doing as a volunteer, then see if they have anything like that.”
“Like what? They probably don’t have anything to do with fashion.”
“Probably not.” He thought a minute. “Something with animals? Maybe skiing? God knows there’s plenty of skiing here.”
“Get off the skiing, Dad. I’m not going to ski. It makes your thighs fat.”
“Muscular,” he corrected, but raised a hand to stop the argument before it continued. He’d chosen Aspen in particular because he believed she could not live here when the slopes were open and continue to resist the lure. “Okay. Animals, then.”
“I’ll think about it. Can I get on the Internet?”
He grinned and passed the laptop over to her. She was only allowed access to the Internet through this laptop, and only in his company. She probably did go to Internet cafés, but that was limited access, too, so he looked the other way. “All you had to do was ask.”
“This is stupid, too, you know,” she said, flipping open the laptop.
“Probably.” He doodled circles on his page. In one, he wrote,
“You don’t have time for this, to monitor my every move. You have movies to make. People to see.”
He grinned without looking up from the page, and drew a line between two circles.
he wrote into the second circle.
“Are you working on a new movie now?”
“Sort of. It’s not going that well.”
She tapped something into the keyboard and waited, her poreless skin bathed with blue-white light. “You want my opinion, slasher pics are overdone.”
“That would be my opinion, too, kid, but that’s what they want.”
“Life is short, Dad. Maybe you should make the movie you want to make.”
He grunted, thinking of the mountains of responsibilities that surrounded him, not the least of which was this child. Slasher flicks seemed to satisfy something in the public right now. Maybe a reaction to the war, and he couldn’t completely ignore that.
As he gazed at his daughter, however, he realized where his resistance lay. He didn’t want to make a movie about fresh young women being preyed upon by twisted bad guys.
“What?” she asked him.
He shook his head. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll think about it.”
“Werewolves,” she said without looking away from the screen. “I like werewolves.”
He chuckled. “Of course you do.”
On Thursday, Elena set out her
mise en place
for the meal she would prepare for her new boss. She had to move a stack of cookbooks off the counter to the floor—big, heavy books she’d checked out of the library for brainstorming purposes—and set out the pork and onions, the cutting board and her exquisitely sharp and expensive knives, carrots and celery and herbs for a vegetable stock.
Light fell through the window, a round pale spill like a moon on the counter. Elena tied back her hair. Into the CD player went Norah Jones, soft and smoky and easy to sing along with, and she rolled up her sleeves to start cooking. There was something about this kitchen that made her think of home ec classes in junior high.
Chopping carrots into perfect rounds, she let her mind drift there. Back to school, which had bored her to death for the most part. The chalky sameness, the too-easy sums and the dense questions asked by students over and over again. Whenever the priests spoke of original sin and all the evil that had come into the world because of Eve, Elena thought of school.