My mother wouldn't understand
if I mailed her these cactus spines
smeared with blood,
My neighbor doesn't understand
when I bring her a cup of sugar
she hasn't asked for.
I say this as if I do understand,
but I don't.
I only know I want to give.
I want to offer up . . .
like a key on a kite string.
We buried my grandmother
with her keys.
A gentle joke at her expense:
she lived with iron bars
over her windows and doors
but worried she'd lose her keys
and die in a fire,
the house struck by lightning perhaps,
because we kids were heathens
who didn't go to church.
We pinned the keyring to her lapel
before we closed the coffin.
Now I think
that might have been a mistake.
If she wakes up,
she might come back home.
Where I grew up
you didn't borrow sugar from the neighbors.
You did learn how to unlock
a screen door from the outside
and the interior door with a bobbypin.
At least, I did.
But that was only for when I got locked out
of my own house,
I was told.
That was before I thought to ask
("but how did you learn, Tía Ofelia?"),
before picket fences turned to chain link
and screen doors to iron gates.
The only thing that stayed the same:
the cactus stubborn as
the iron curlicues
guarding our doors and windows.
Prickly Pear, Stabby Sustenance:
nopales as second line
of home defense.
We are a stubborn lot,
brigands and bootleggers and burglars,
One generation of lowlife after another
though Mother managed to hide
our white-lightning past
til I was a teen.
We yelled a lot
happy or mad
at the table or across the house
and we all liked to be right.
"Ya ves?" we'd demand
when our omens came to pass,
the words rammed into one another.
Once we went legit
(in our eyes, at least)
we kept yelling but stopped
holding each other hostage
"Llaves? Keys!" we'd tease.
"Yes, yes," we'd agree
to keep the peace, secretly chagrined
to be wrong, about anything.
Blue collar rather than black market
but stubborn burros still.
I was buried with my keys
but now lie under oleander
my children put on my grave.
I could go home, but
why disturb the roots?
I have always loved plants
more than people.
Why go back
to those ungrateful brats?
Home was always Grandma's house,
even when it wasn't.
Once we rented a concrete house
with casement windows
and mats of Baby Sun Rose, not cactus,
flourishing beneath the crank-open glass
that often got stuck.
Iron bars didn't block our views,
only mosquito netting, because
this was still Texas:
Wasps and scorpions and tarantulas, oh my.
I loved the Baby Sun Rose.
Succulent but not spiny:
no good for nopales rellenos, but
maybe in a salad,
not that we ate salads.
Juicy, pink-flowered groundcover
so easy to take care of:
impervious to drought, indestructible.
It burst like blisters beneath our feet—
before storms we trampled it,
running around the house slamming
stuck windows shut—
but it always grew back.
It grew back as I watched two handymen
weld metal bars into the concrete windowsills.
None of us had proper visors
or even glasses, goggles, whatever.
I couldn't see the men's faces
through the afterburn on my retinas
but I sensed the pity in their gentle gestures,
the careful bubble of space
between them and me.
It grew back as Mother explained how to use
the stun gun
(I never asked where it came from)
though the cops had insisted
lightning wouldn't strike twice.
It grew back as I huddled in my room at night,
feeling watched, despite the curtains,
exposed, despite new iron screens.
I'd grip the black gun stock
and squeeze the trigger for 300 kilo-volts
of crackling reassurance.
White fire filled the spark gap,
brightened my concrete bunker,
burned a Jacob's Ladder into my eyes.
I'd have lived in that box of lightning forever
if I could have.
But . . . the batteries.
So I'd let go and, in the dark once more,
I held my breath, waiting
And outside the house that wasn't home,
the Baby Sun Rose grew back.
Burying Mom with her keys
was the last thing we all agreed on.
Over the fresh-turned soil,
Ofelia suggested oleander.
"You know how big those bushes get?" I said.
"So we'll have to trim them," she shot back.
"Yeah," Alma butted in. "At least that way
you'll pay your respects more than once a year,
Quietly, Evelyn said, "It's poisonous."
"Then it's a perfect match," snapped Hugo.
"What are you bitching about?" I said to him.
"You're not the one she whipped with a belt."
"No," he said, "I'm the one
who wiped her ass the last year."
We seethed in silence times five.
Six if you counted Mom.
"So," Ofelia finally said. "Oleander?"
I'm . . . flummoxed . . .
yes, that's the word,
when my sister Evelyn sends
mi sobrina nieta,
to my kitchen.
"Tío Reynaldo," Abigail says,
and girl looks so white, it's always a surprise
to hear the soft, quick T,
the well-rolled R.
But a good surprise, always.
"Evil Abuela told me
you'd help with this school project.
That'd you'd have recipes from Tatarabuela."
"Well, your great-grandma was kind of a half-a—"
I catch myself, but Abby grins.
"Haphazard cook," I amend.
"Must be where Mami gets it," Abby says,
and I pity my niece Iliana.
Evelyn, aka Evil Abuela,
should've sent that girl to me, too.
"Your great-grandma didn't write down recipes,"
I explain. "She really didn't have to,
made refried beans every day. . ."
I trail off, remembering soupy bland messes.
But we can't subject
Abby's classmates to that,
bad enough we had it breakfast, lunch,
and dinner. "But I do remember watching once
when she made nopales. . ."
"Cactus?" Abby shrieks.
"This isn't going to be like that weird salad, is it?"
"¡Cállate!" I say. Fucking Baby Sun Rose.
They will never let me live that down.
"Just trust me," I say. "Vas a ver."
A quick trip to la bodega—
the nearest one;
there are more in our neighborhood now
than when I grew up; as my husband says,
"Thank you, gentrification?"—
and we're set, not for nopales con huevo,
the slimy dish Mom made,
but a cheesy cheat better suited to Abby's palate:
I'm unwrapping the newspaper-swaddled paddles
when a spine pierces my thumb;
the bodega clerk must've missed one.
It's a sharp key, stabbing into memory.
I suck my thumb to stop
Spanish curses from spurting out
but nothing can stem the flood of Mom
in my head, in my kitchen.
"We called them huaraches," I tell Rey
as he and la niña place the paddles
in water dancing with onion, garlic and salt.
"¿No te acuerdas?
And there's no need to boil
if you buy the smaller ones."
He pretends not to hear,
but I know better, see his shoulders
pinched up around his ears.
When the paddles are tender,
he lets them cool, then shows her how
to butterfly them. "If you'd gotten nopalitos,"
I say, "that poor girl wouldn't have to handle a knife.
You could just sandwich the cheese
between two paddles with some toothpicks."
"This from the woman who used a machete
to slice everything
from onions to apples to raw beef,
without washing it in between!"
"Now she's calling me 'hijo ingrato',"
I tell Abby, who doesn't need me to translate,
thanks to her cousins,
Ofelia's wretched grandkids.
She rolls her eyes though, not quite sure
whether to believe me, as she hands over
the Oaxacan string cheese.
"You have three kinds of cheese
in your refrigerator," I repeat
for Abby's dubious benefit.
"You really had to go out and buy this?
And yes, I did. It's more authentic,"
I tell Mom and Abby.
And now Mom rolls her eyes. "Authentic?
Authentic's using what you already have."
She also has Opinions about
our dredging technique:
"You're wasting flour.
The batter will stick without it.
Three eggs is plenty."
But I spare Abby that.
When water drops shimmy and pop
atop the oil in the cast-iron skillet,
I let Abby lower the first huarache
and we both beam at the sizzle,
the crackle like benevolent lightning
in a pan. I think even Mom
is awed into silence by the beautiful browning
her great-granddaughter has achieved.
Then Mom mutters, "Don't let it burn, cabrón."
¡Y qué milagro! No se quema.
I knew it—boy's queer.
When Abby takes that first bite
of cactus spun to gold,
crema and red salsa commingling on her tongue,
her eyes close and my mouth unlocks
our family's mantra:
"Ya ves? Llaves? Keys?"
"Sí, sí, I see."
It sounds silly,
like a nursery song
or a jump-rope rhyme
but I don't care.
There's magic on my tongue,
new tastebuds rising
to the challenge,
completing unexpected circuits:
I open my eyes
and Tío's grinning like a mad scientist.
Behind him, a woman stands
with a slighter smile, like a door
just cracked open.
Pink petals in her steel-gray hair
and white light zigzagging
from the keys pinned to her lapel.
I wipe my mouth and rise to greet her.
It sounds like another song.
"Gracias, querida," she whispers.
And Tío gasps as we await
the next verse.