The Kitchen

The narrow kitchen at 12257 Behrens Avenue was maybe the busiest in the whole neighborhood. In addition to my eight older siblings and I constantly searching for something to eat, our home featured a reliable stream of hungry kids from the area availing themselves of my mamá’s cooking. These transients would straggle in just as the sun was setting and Three’s Company was coming on the TV. Mamá had a “Mi Casa es Su Casa” tile hanging above the dining table, and by all appearances, she meant it.

Shawn, with her short blonde hair and Vidal Sassoon jeans, would come from the southeast corner of the street, while Courtney in her pale blue ditto bell bottoms descended from the dead-end corner to the north. They would show up at least a few days a week in search of Mamá’s tacos. 

Gabriel and his little sister Maria would simply walk over from next door. Maria had been born with one hairy brown werewolf arm that was longer than the other, and problematic in that I couldn’t stop staring at it when she was around, causing me to lose my appetite. I would slide my plate over and watch as she and her brother devoured my enchiladas without saying a word. It was an effective strategy on their part. 

Little Sidney Wade from three houses down would also show up for a seat at the table. The Wades were transplants from Oklahoma. The family was about as big as ours, and poorer. Their house was always alive with hillbilly drama that would end with Little Sidney on the wrong end of a switch off the willow tree. Come dinnertime, he’d be standing barefoot in our kitchen, his tattered overalls several inches too short. He avoided eye contact with mamá as she handed him a plate. We imagined that his family survived on a diet of acorns and squirrels, so we felt sorry for him and pretended not to see when he’d stuff tortillas in his pockets before leaving.

My siblings and I didn’t care about random kids from the ‘hood eating our food. We were tired of beans and tortillas and didn’t see the novelty in Mamá’s culinary offerings the way they did. Besides, on occasion we were lucky enough to be at their houses when their moms made things like Top Ramen noodles – an elusive delicacy – or Hungry Man dinners from the oven, which didn’t taste so great but at least it wasn’t beans. My brothers would sometimes head to Durrell and Keisha’s house to swap pan dulce for cornbread and greens. In my opinion, bologna sandwiches with Fritos and cherry Kool-Aid from Patty’s mom were the best. 

The kitchen was my favorite place in the house because that’s where mamá could be found. She always said a woman’s job is to take care of everyone else, so she spent her days cooking and cleaning and looking after the kids and the husband and the nonstop visitors. Mamá kept a chair next to the sink for me to stand on when I washed the dishes, to help me reach the faucet. When I wanted one-on-one time with her, I would sit in that chair and watch as she maneuvered a massive ear of cactus, careful not to stick herself with the thorns, or peeled a boiled cow tongue, sorted beans, or rolled tamales in corn husks for the Christmas feast. When I had a stomachache in the middle of the night my poor tired mamá would bring me to the kitchen, heat water in a saucepan, and add dried manzanilla or yerba buena from the garden for a tea that would soothe both my belly and my spirits. If I had nightmares about flying snakes and spiders, mamá would give me something sweet to chase away the fear.

The kitchen had a window just above the sink with a view of the giant ficus tree in our front yard, which overlooked the northbound 605 freeway. Sometimes mamá would stand at the sink sorting and washing the beans, her gaze fixed on the horizon. Papá never let her learn how to drive, so she would spend hours watching the cars go by. Once, I asked her what she was doing.

“I’m counting the red cars, mija,” she said.

Later, I asked her again.

“I’m counting blue cars, mija,” she said.

Some days she would do this until the sun started to set, its orange light peeking through the sheer white curtains, illuminating the brown linoleum floor with golden specks. That was her cue to get back to serving everyone dinner.

Across from the sink was the refrigerator, a white 1960s electrocution hazard. The refrigerator was split, with a metal icebox on top that would grow two inches of frost around the inside perimeter. Mamá would defrost it using a butter knife to chop her way through the thick ice, putting herself in the hands of the Virgen de Guadalupe to protect her from electrical shock. On the bottom was the cooler with a door that must’ve weighed 100 pounds. That didn’t stop my siblings and I from opening it several dozen times a day, thinking somehow the contents of Coors and beans had changed in the few minutes since we last peeked inside. We took a gamble each time we pulled open that door, as we would sometimes get zapped by the steel handle. 

Will I get electrocuted this time? 


What about this time? 


This time? 


A vibration of current would shoot from my hand, up my arm to my shoulders, and to the top of my head as my legs wobbled like peach JELL-O.

On the weekends I would come home from my religious classes to fetch beers out of the fridge for my papá and his brothers – my tios – who would sit in lawn chairs in the backyard drinking for hours. I was in catechism at St. Peter Catholic School where I was working on my First Holy Communion. I wasn’t fully sold on the concept, but I was looking forward to drinking the wine, and I was dying to know what the flesh of Christ would taste like. I imagined it would be salty like the cookies mamá made that time she mistook the salt for sugar.

After class I would come home, kick off my uniform and head straight to the kitchen. Mamá, as usual, would be positioned before the stove, cooking something for the men outside. I’d run up from behind and throw my arms around her waist for a quick hug, open the fridge door  – BZZZZZT! – grab a few cans of beer, then run to the backyard to deliver the cold beverages to Papá with his brothers Juan, Jose, and Alberto. 

The men often took cover under the shade of the lemon tree. Other times they’d sit around the brick stove they built for frying pork skins or cooking up a cow’s worth of carne asada. I would hand them their beers and smile when they told me what a good girl I was. I’d linger under the peach trees, pretending to be playing in the dirt but listening to their conversation about so-and-so’s cousin’s wife running away with the pastor back on the rancho, or telling dirty jokes about a cowboy with a wooden leg. Hearing the clang of empty cans tossed into the pile, I would run back inside and repeat the routine, bringing the next round. This would play out for several hours as the day wore on. With every beer, my tios became loopier, the jokes raunchier, and the gossip so good I would trade it later with my siblings for Bazooka bubble gum or some watermelon Now and Laters. 

Next to the refrigerator was a small gas stove suffering from years of overuse. It had four burners, three of which were occupied by our family’s staples. For starters, there was the perpetual pot of beans which took up the prime front left burner. If Jesus made the history books by feeding everyone with a few fishes and loaves, mamá surely outdid him with a handful of beans. 

On the front right burner sat the aluminum coffee percolator. I loved to watch as the coffee came to a boil, the dark liquid tossing about in the see-through lid like waves in a tiny brown ocean. Everyone in the house drank coffee. I enjoyed mine with Carnation evaporated milk and heavy doses of sugar – more leche con café than café con leche.

The third burner at the back left corner housed the comal we used for cooking the tortillas. This comal had traveled thousands of miles with mamá when she married papá and left her town in Mexico. She made the comal out of the trumpet horn from an old Victrola, smashing it with a hammer to form a round, if not a little warped, metal plate. The tortillas would always burn in the same places because of the distinct series of bumps on the surface, leaving a charred pattern much like a crunchy, delicious fingerprint.

The last of the four burners was the back, right-hand corner spot. This was the wildcard that featured whatever the meal might be that day. Sometimes we’d have fideo, or turkey with molé (a neighborhood favorite), or pork carnitas, and if Papá and the boys had gone fishing, there’d be sizzling mackerel or catfish stew to go along with the cold beers. On the dreaded days when mamá took it upon herself to make liver and onions, the house would fill with a stench so bad my siblings and I would flee in all directions as far as possible, slamming the screen door in disapproval as we dispersed throughout the street to seek dinner elsewhere. 

One weekend out of nowhere, Papá brought home a rabbit. 

“For me, papa?” I asked.

“Yes, mija, please make him as fat as you possibly can,” he said with a smile as he took another swig of beer and looked at my tios who responded with roars of laughter. As the youngest of the siblings, I had always wanted a younger brother to play with and I figured this was as close as I would get. Elated, I ran inside to grab them another round.

I could not believe this turn of events and concluded that my years of bringing home gold stars on my quizzes were paying off. I named my new best friend el Tigre del Norte, or Tigger for short, because he was long with orange fur that had a white and brown pattern that looked like stripes. His two front teeth were uneven with one turned slightly inward. I didn’t care, I loved his face and his crooked teeth. Tigger and I would run around the backyard, and he would sit next to me on the grass as we watched the clouds wisp by, picking out those that looked like familiar shapes. Sometimes I sang Tigger songs about Puff the Magic Dragon or read him books like Charlotte’s Web and Ramona Quimby. I even stole my sister’s favorite purple hair pick to comb his fur and had to dodge a tennis ball she threw at my head when she found out. 

A month went by and I sat in my Saturday catechism class, learning about the different categories of sins. I discovered that no matter what we did, our slate would always be wiped clean by the Lord if we asked him to forgive us. I considered the game-changing implications of this. It seemed like an important sinner’s loophole, and I made sure to write this information down, confident that it would come in handy more than once. We wrapped up class with the usual punch and cookies, and I ran home. As I arrived, I could hear the familiar backyard sounds: my Tios tossing their empty cans in a pile, and waves of laughter. I ran to my room, shed my uniform, and skipped outside to look for Tigger. 

I first gave my saludos, hugging my tios who were likely on their third round, judging by the pile of empties. I searched for Tigger but he wasn’t near the nopal patch, nor was he under the peach trees. He wasn’t hiding behind Papá’s wooden shed either. I grew concerned because these were his favorite spots. As I walked toward the lemon tree, I noticed ropes hanging from the branches, with a puddle of blood in the dirt below. I looked from the ropes to my tios sitting in their lawn chairs as Papá stood across from them smoking a cigarette. There was blood on his pant legs.

My legs went wobbly at the sight of so much blood. I darted back through the garage and into the house to see if mamá might know where Tigger was. 

She wasn’t in her usual spot in the kitchen.

“Mamá! Mamá!” I called out. 

Not hearing a response, I stopped in front of the stove. 

On the fourth burner sat Mamá’s large caldo pot. I could hear the liquid inside boiling and observed white wavy curls of steam making their way towards the ceiling. I pulled the chair from the sink over to the edge of the stove. Grabbing the back of the chair as I had done so many times before to lift myself into a standing position, I leaned my face toward the pot. My nostrils were assaulted with the smell of something like boiling liver. I waved away the steam from my face, pulled my hair back and leaned in further to see what was bobbing around in the water. 

I could make out a small but meaty torso, and smallish thighs floating up and down, propelled by big, boiling bubbles. A chicken, maybe? Diced carrots and celery floated past, along with a large onion. Suddenly a small skull bobbed up to the surface and rolled over in the water. I could see two long teeth. Crooked. One shorter than the other.

I pulled away, my hand gripping the chair so tight I thought my fingers would rip through the vinyl. My brain screamed first before my body kicked in. 

I don’t know how long I stood screaming with my lungs on full blast. 

Then, my Tio walked in laughing to himself and holding something. I turned to him as he approached in slow motion, reaching out to me.

“Mija, this is for you,” he said.

My eyes traveled from his weathered face, down his plaid shirt to his outstretched hand. I felt the heat of all the garbage fires of Tijuana burning in my belly. 

My Tio was handing me a rabbit’s foot.

The fires burning in my pansa went cold, and I felt an ice cube travel up my spine. Everything came into hyperfocus, like the time I watched The Blob at the Alondra Six Theatre through a pair of 3D glasses. 

I could smell the beer seeping out of my Tio’s pores. I could see splatters of blood on his shoes. His smile made my face harden as I clenched my jaw. 

I jumped off the chair as far away from him as possible, landing hard on my hands and knees. My Tio stepped towards me, attempting to help me up as I crawled backwards away from him, not wanting him to touch me. I stood up and slapped my Tio’s hand so hard that the rabbit’s foot flew across the kitchen. I began kicking him as hard as I could with my scuffed but sturdy Buster Browns, as my years of kickball training took over.

A swift kick to the left shin!

Another kick to the right!

My Tio howled in pain which nourished my soul more than any of my catechism prayers ever did. I knew it was a sin to kick my Tio and enjoy it, but I also knew about the Lord’s forgiveness loophole which I planned to use later. I kicked him even harder as papá walked in.

“Que pasa?! Stop it!” he shouted at me. 

“Borrachos, you’re just a bunch of drunks!” I screamed before darting out the front door. In the corner of my eye, I caught mamá standing in her bedroom doorway. I stopped and turned to her. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she was clutching her hands together. I looked at her for a long moment. I thought about mamá taking care of everyone else, and how taking care of everyone else doesn’t mean they will take care of you. I made up my mind that I would never, ever fetch my Tios or anyone else another beer. I turned and ran out of the house, slamming the screen door as I left. I darted past the ficus tree and onto the street, heading north to Courtney’s house where I would spend the night, crying to her mom as they consoled me with Hungry Mans and cherry Kool-Aid. We ate fruit salad mixed with whipped cream, coconut, and mini-marshmallows for dessert.

That night as I tried to sleep, I pictured my tios and Papá fetching their own beers. They would have to make the long walk for themselves. One by one, I imagined them opening the refrigerator.

BZZZZZT! went Tio Juan.

BZZZZZT! went Tio Jose.

BZZZZT! went Tio Alberto.

BZZZZT! went Papá.

Each of the men’s shoulders would twitch as they reached for another round, a current of electricity jolting through their body.


  • Victoria Ballesteros is a writer based in Los Angeles, and currently enrolled in the creative writing certificate program at UCLA extension. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, the ¡Basta! Anthology, and ¡Pa'Lante!

  • Metaphor in various images and imaginings of the brain. As Michael Shermer writes in "Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us" (Scientific American, Oct 1, 2008), "The brain has been thought of as a hydraulic machine (18th century), a mechanical calculator (19th century), and an electronic computer (20th century). Scientists often use metaphors such as these as aids in understanding and explaining complex processes, but this practice necessarily oversimplifies the intricate and subtle realities of the physical world. As it turns out, the role of those blobs of color that we see in brain images is not as clear-cut as we have been led to believe."