So he did it, I say and watch Mamá take a bite of her enfrijoladas.
Yes, but he didn’t die that time.
He died? I cut up bits of tortilla topped with beans and onions and sour cream.
You’re not listening, Ernesto.
I heard your story, I say, then blow on my steaming food.
Mamá drops her fork and wipes the corners of her mouth with a napkin. Did I tell you I was done? she says and smiles. Her hands are folded neatly in her lap.
So I shut my big fucking mouth.
Mamá picks up her fork again and cuts through her food, into the porcelain. He was always doing crazy stuff, she says. We were always telling him te vas a morir así.
Which of your cousins is this? I ask.
Don’t matter, says Mamá.
If it doesn’t matter, then why are you telling me this story?
Mamá smacks her lips together, furrows her brows. Do you want to hear it or not?
I stare at the glass Mamá placed in front of me earlier. She buys these jars of mole, cooks the mole, then cleans the jars out to use as drinking glasses. I take a sip of my orange juice like I’m five, not a grown ass thirty-year-old man. I breathe deep, remind myself: Mamá gets her talk in with me once a week. I get to shut the fuck up and eat her food.
Mamá continues her story. She tells me her cousin’s family was always worried about him, always checking in. Then he moved out of Mexico and landed in Los Angeles, and they started checking in on him more and more.
Well, says Mamá. One day he is diagnosed with schizophrenia and his family flies to Los Angeles to take him home.
Damn, I say. That’s awful.
Sí, says Mamá. Lo sé.
The schizophrenia part, I clarify.
But he doesn’t want to go home, says Mamá. He wants to keep living in Los Angeles. So his family puts him in one of those homes where they take care of you when you’re sick.
You mean a group home? I say.
Sí, she says. Something like that.
Mamá saves a bit of tortilla for last and scoops the leftover beans on top. She says her cousin had a hard time in the home, had a hard time with schizophrenia. He had spent so much time living life on the edge. No one had prepared him for a life so uncertain and with so many limitations.
Who could ever prepare for something like that? I say and put my fork down, my appetite suddenly poor.
Well, says Mamá, his family had a hard time with all of it.
I study the beans on my plate and their little brown eyes stare back.
Then one morning, she says. Last week actually--
Mamá, I say, have I met this uncle before?
—he runs out into the road and a truck hits him like…
She claps both of her hands together.
DAMN Mamá, I say. That’s brutal.
Ay que horrible, she says. I didn’t know what to say when I heard.
You said you were sorry, right?
Claro, she says.
Then that’s all you can say.
Mamá stands up from the table and carries her dirty plate to the sink. She starts washing it by hand right then and there.
Ernesto, she says, bring me my glass. I forgot it.
I lift her empty glass and hold it up to the dim kitchen light. Her lipstick marks the rim in red, darker in places. I hand the glass to her.
Mamá has been telling me stories like this since birth, teaching me God knows what—how Mexicans survive? How we die? I don’t think she even knows why she tells them.
It starts with a bowl of carne en su jugo, a plate of tacos de nopal, a cup of chocolate caliente. One moment I’m sitting with Mamá, eating, drinking, minding my own business, barely making eye contact—the next Mamá is telling me, You know what happens to a man who thinks he’s better than somebody? A man who lets his anger get out of control? A man who doesn’t think about nobody but himself? You ever hear about mi Tio Nacho and all the drinking? Or the boy from your high school con las drogas? You hear what he’s doing now. That’s right. He’s not doing one thing, Ernesto. You hear about the man on the news? His family died in the desert after coming here. You know that happens, no? You listen when I tell you it happens, Ernesto. He had to leave them behind. You hear about that?
Every week, Mamá and I sit down for dinner and she tells me who has gone missing, who has managed to make a big life for themselves in this country, who has died trying. She tells me a boy disappeared from a neighborhood ten miles away from her house. He was five years old, she says and pushes away her plate of tamales, leaving them untouched. The next week, she tells me the father has gone missing. Soon it’s the wife.
You think that’s a coincidence? says Mamá, pointing her fork in my face. You know what is happening, no?
Eventually only the daughter is left.
Who will look after her? says Mamá and turns away from me, looking, instead, at the Sycamore tree shading the whole of the backyard. Who will remember her?
Someone will, I say, but she doesn’t look away from the Sycamore.
The next week, another Mexican dies. Mamá tells me how it happens. His body is bloated, found floating down a river on the east coast.
The week after, a Mexican gets stabbed outside a bank in the city.
Mamá tells me:
Another Mexican works to death, bleeds out sweat and dirt.
Another Mexican dies by eating so much American sugar his blood turns to acid.
Come on, Mamá! I say. Now you’re just messing with me.
It’s true, she says. Sad but true.
That’s not even possible, I say.
Claro que sí, she says, and that is how it happened. American sugar. Can you believe it?
Another Mexican becomes desert meat. His body is eaten by crows. His face is scorched by the sun. It’ll be okay, though. Mexicans can follow the sun gods to the afterlife, then come back to Earth to haunt you.
At least that’s the way Mamá tells it.
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH