Jorge's tongue stuck to the rook of his mouth, his saliva pasty, rancid like the land. The weight of his bag grew heavier, pinching into his lower back, a hot swelling of pain that grew numb with each step. He knocked on the dilapidated door of a 1988 Redman.
“Good day, my name is—”
“En espanol, por favor,” said a squat old woman. She was four feet tall with wrinkles that split into more wrinkles. Her wiry gray hair peeled away from her scalp.
“I don’t speak Spanish—no hablo espanol.”
It was his fifth Spanish-speaking home of the day.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes, wiping her hands on her flour-crusted apron, and then peered down at his nametag, bold black letters that read: JORGE CASADERO. Jorge’s clothing matched his nametag, an irregular black suit over a white collared shirt he had bought from the local consignment shop.
A young woman came from behind the door. Brown freckles traversed her face; her hair draped long around her shoulders. She was beautiful like his Maribel.
“We’re not interested,” the young woman said as she started to shut the door.
“I—I’m the local representative for the County’s Resources Management. My name is Jorge.” He pointed to his name.
“Not interested,” the woman said again.
“I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m your local representative. I’m here regarding your application. You must be Beatriz.” He shoved his right foot forward to prevent the door from closing.
He walked into the small home. Garlic and beans were frying in pork lard, and bacon fat permeated the air. Impossible, he thought. The scent of his abuelita’s burnt tortillas filled his nose.
“I would offer you something to drink, but our rations are low,” Beatriz said. Jorge didn’t think she was really sorry.
“Smells wonderful,” Jorge said. He heard sizzling and popping from the kitchen: chicken, perhaps—the crunchy exterior, tender meat underneath. Saliva gathered under his tongue. “Are you frying something?”
Beatriz looked to the old woman, who shrugged.
“No,” she said.
Hunger tore at his mind and resentment at his belly. He hadn’t eaten fried chicken since his cousin’s graduation; oils were far too expensive to use for any old reason, and chicken—how could anyone in this neighborhood afford meat?
“You could be more cooperative,” he said. “I can deny your request for a unit increase. Though your food supply doesn’t seem lacking.”
Anger and defeat spread across Beatriz’s face simultaneously. Maybe it was his imagination, Jorge thought. Or maybe his hunger? He had been out all day. He was at his last house of the shift. And the heat played games when the water was low.
“My granddaughter only needs a temporary libation increase for her wedding,” the old woman said in perfect English. “We filled out all the proper notices.”
Jorge had also applied for an increase of food and liquid units, for his engagement to Maribel. Request denied, of course.
“This is just a formality,” he said.
Pans clanked in the kitchen. He heard the stirring of spoons and the hiss of boiling water. Then there were the smells: Albondigas rolled with rice and mint leaves, psoele topped with cabbage and radishes and a twist of lemon, and mole—hen smothered in bittersweet chocolate sauce.
Jorge’s abuelita had been a wonderful cook in her time. Before she died, before the rations. She worked haphazardly, cooking the entree and the sides all at the same time, four stovetops full-flamed. The food didn’t lack love; there was plenty of love, but she had charge of four grandkids until dinner time, and bingo at Saint Mark’s started promptly at six. Abuelita would rush out at five-forty-five, daubers and mini troll dolls packed and dinner served.
Jorge sat on a tattered brown sofa, loosened springs poked through the fabric at his bottom, his clipboard in hand. “Name.”
“You know my name,” Beatriz said, her arms and legs folded.
“You have this information.” The old woman tapped his clipboard with her desiccated finger, splintered lines and blue veins stretched around her bony knuckles.
His stomach roiled. “Formalities, ladies. That’s all.” Sweet aromas filled the room—marranitos and biscochitos and tres leches. “Is that sopapilla?” He sprang from the sofa and charged into the kitchen.
Floral wallpaper covered the walls, yellowed and flaking around the edges. An antiquated olive green stove sat across the room, near a refrigerator that was littered with family photos and pictures of the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mother. Bits of burnt old tortillas remained crusted on a hotplate. On one of the burners was a cast-iron skillet with used oil in it; black and brown specks of aged food floated in the grease. Nopales sat on a plate on the counter next to the stove, the prickly pear smelling like roasted turkey.
“I don’t understand,” Jorge said. There was no food in sight. No asada or pollo, no menudo or sopes, no churros or flan—nothing. In the backyard, he saw nopal cactus growing against regulations. “You’re not allowed to have that.”
The old woman rushed to Jorge’s side. She wrapped her elderly hands firmly around his arm. “Please. Eat with us.”
“I can’t,” he said in mock protest. “It’s against procedures.” He sat at the table; his stomach grumbled furiously.
The old woman served him the cooked cactus from her own yard.
“No,” Beatriz said. “It is not for him.” Beatriz pushed the plate from him, guarding the plate with her hands.
“Don’t worry,” the old woman said. “He’ll forget.” She put the plate of food in front of Jorge again. “What is your favorite food?”
“Make him approve our water petition first,” Beatriz said. She placed the clipboard on the table.
The nopales smelled of pablanos stuffed with cheese and black beans. Now his stomach burned like the sun outside. He scribbled his signature onto the County form, approving all libations: water, sodas, wine. He pushed the clipboard back toward Beatriz and dug into his food, and he savored the taste of his favorite dish.
Outside of the 1988 Redman, the late afternoon sun bore down on Jorge’s head. His belly distended, he was full and forgetful. He yawned and stretched, satiated and sleepy. He shoved the County forms into his brown bag. Tomorrow he’d begin again, traveling to the homes of everyone who had requested an increase in rations, practicing the formalities and delivering his verdicts.