Outside the KFC


By Claudia Ward-de León 

        Memorial Day weekend. A pit stop along Route 5, Lizbet stares at the large bumper of the Ford pickup. The truck is beige with yellow trim. She digs through her purse for her last stick of frostymint gum: a hybrid of wintermint, spearmint, and peppermint. She visualizes the slender inch and a half yield when it makes contact with the roof of her mouth, but instead of letting the piece fold softly the way gum does in the commercials, she thinks of Solar and how he might want some, and instead breaks the stick in two, placing his half up on the dash. This is what love is: considering someone other than yourself. She thinks of her aunt, Tía Martita the one in Guatemala City, who sacrificed relationships, and even marriage, so she could take care of her blind sister. Lizbet thinks this is an intense act of love—religious, almost, in its devotion.
          She watches Solar hand the cashier his credit card inside the air-conditioned Minimart. Would he take care of her if she was blind? He probably would. He is a good man: honest, compassionate. One day, they’ll fly down to Guatemala and she will parade him from house to house introducing him to all the relatives she’s told stories about, feed him the foods whose smells she conjures when she utters their names: pepian, frijoles volteados, tamales de chipilin.  In Guatemala, Solar would be put-off by the sudden outages of power and water, the weak plumbing, the poverty. Although his grandparents came from Puerto Rico, there are only a few phrases Solar can say in Spanish: gracias, que lindo, te quiero.
          Solar walks out, drawing his sunglasses down the top of his meticulously shaved head, and over the bridge of his nose. She falls in love with him again in that moment. He is handsome, so handsome. When their eyes meet, Lizbet blows Solar a kiss and watches him lift the nozzle and unscrew the gas cap.
          The window is rolled down and she smells the unmistakable blend of dehydrated mashed potatoes and synthetic gravy coming from next door. She wouldn’t eat there, but the smell reminds her that she’s hungry. Her own mother Nancy came to the U.S. when she was in her early twenties. Lizbet was three the year they fled a civil war, and her brother barely a year old. Her mother did not allow fast food or microwave meals in their house. Fresh fruit juices: jugo de piña, jugo de sandia. Slow-cooked frijoles, arroz con pollo. This is what Lizbet’s childhood was made of. She was not sent to school with the foods she coveted most: grape-flavored fruit snacks, the cellophane-wrapped oatmeal cookies with the white icing that her classmates ate at the long tables in the cafeteria. Once in a while, if she and her brother were lucky, they’d get sent out the door with a chocolate-chip granola bar for breakfast.
          A man driving a Jeep Wrangler with big tires rambles into the gas station. He parks at the pump directly across and as the Jeep shudders off, he pulls a cell phone from his pocket and taps the screen. Lizbet notices a red fire extinguisher clipped to the roll bar and wonders what kind of driving the man does to merit its existence.
          The numbers on the pump click upwards in tenths of a cent. She and Solar are headed to her sister-in-law’s, just west of Dos Palos. They’ve traveled this route before, but this is the first time Lizbet has had a chance to really take it all in. This is the kind of town where you’d drive two miles to the KFC to get a meal when you didn’t feel like cooking. It doesn’t look like there’s much else here—farms, some houses, a gas station, a deli. Could Solar and she exist in a place like this?
          The owner of the Ford gets back in his pickup, lights up a cigarette and rumbles away, wheels crunching on bits of stray gravel as he makes the turn out of the gas station. Lizbet watches Solar hitch the pump back down into the holster. He presses the “No” button for a receipt.
          She hears noises—tires screeching, a thump, glass bursting—and there’s something strange and muted about it all, like it’s happening inside a dome next to her. Out on Route 5 there’s a shattered windshield and smoke snakes out of the Ford’s hood, an accordion made of beige steel. A panel truck turned at an odd angle, a hand dangling out of the driver’s side window. Not the hand attached to someone enjoying the sun on their arms, but the hand of a corpse, like the one she saw when she visited her uncle’s funeral home in the zona uno neighborhood of Guatemala City when she was first introduced to death, just a few days after she’d turned ten. Her uncle had reminded her of a dentist in a white lab coat and mask as he bent over to apply makeup to the deceased’s face as naturally as if he were a examining a patient’s mouth for cavities. She had wondered who the old man on the examination table was and whether his thick white hair had grown long as a result of improper hygiene during the last years of his life, or as a result of personal choice. That the dead man occupied physical space and looked like he was only sleeping is what Lizbet thinks of now as she jumps out of the car, hoping that it’s not too late for the man in the truck.
          The sun is glaring and strong on the asphalt, her thin leather sandals flap against the pavement as she runs. She follows Solar and the man in the Jeep Wrangler across the road. They hear hissing coming from one of the cars. She doesn’t know if the sound has been there all along or if it just started. As they get closer, they can see that the panel truck has crushed the Ford’s door. The man in the Ford has to slide down the bench seat and let himself out of the passenger’s side.
          “You all right, sir?” Solar shouts across the road.
          “Bump on my head," the man says, taking inventory of his injuries. “Some scratches.” His lower lip is cut and bleeding. Inside the panel truck, she sees a boy, maybe nineteen or twenty, scrambling to unlatch the door and when he swings it open, the metal hinges groan. The boy lands unsteadily on the ground like he’s drunk, but Lizbet knows it’s the shock of it all.
          “Hold on,” the Ford man says. “You might be concussed. Speak English?” The kid has no choice but to settle back down slowly, his butt smashing the long blades of field grass. His brown arms land on his knees as if it’s the best he can to do steady himself.
          “Habla ingles?” Ford asks.
          “The other guy is waking up,” the Jeep Wrangler man says. Lizbet is standing behind him and now they all peer into the window of the panel truck. The man inside is older. There is spittle on his mouth and his dark skin looks sallow, almost grey. His brown eyes are wide and glassy. The four of them help the man out of the truck’s cab.
          “Try not to move his neck,” Jeep Wrangler says. “Steady it. That’s it.” Together, they drag him close to where the boy is sitting in the grass, the field crickets and cicadas going like nothing’s happened.
          Greenfield Farms: Delivering Fresh to Your Door, the side of the truck says. Lizbet knows this is not their truck and that the man and the boy are working for the Greenfields, if there are actual Greenfields. What she can’t tell is if the man and the boy are related and whether they are here in this country legally. Probably not. The hissing from the truck gets louder.
          “Sounds like the radiator,” Solar says to Jeep Wrangler.
          “Yeah,” Jeep Wrangler says. “Be right back. We’re in the middle of this drought and you never know if there’s bad wiring, especially an old truck like this.”
          Lizbet can see the older man’s arm is twisted oddly and she is certain he’s broken the bone.
          “Shit,” she hears herself say.
          “You alright?” Ford says to the boy again. The boy says nothing. He’s wearing a black t-shirt with “Hilfiger New York” scrawled in cursive, blue jeans, a plain black baseball cap. She can smell the detergent on his clothes. So newly American in appearance—he looks like every middle-class boy Lizbet’s seen walking through the streets of Guatemala City—distinctly tidy in a way that shouts Latin American.
          Ford pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and uses it to wipe his lip. He stares down at the blood and then looks back at the boy. He folds the handkerchief in half, leaving his mouth slightly open as if putting his lips together hurts. Lizbet places the guy in his fifties. He’s wearing a pair of slouched navy blue Carhartts and a flannel shirt so faded it’s hard to tell what color it once was.
          “You hurt?” he tries again.
          “No,” the boy says. “I’m okay.”
          Jeep Wrangler comes back with the small extinguisher and rests it down on the grass. He hands a first aid box to Ford.
          Ford waves it away. “Nah,” he says. “I’ll just wait till I get home.”
          Jeep Wrangler pulls his cell phone from his back pocket. “Should I call the cops?”
          “It was my fault,” Ford says, “so why don’t we go ahead and see if we can settle something here?”
          “You have insurance?” Jeep Wrangler asks.
          “Hell yes I have insurance,” Ford says.
          “Then I’m calling the cops. This guy’s arm is broken and he looks to me like he’s out of it. Too out of it to shake it off and head home, anyway.”
          “Please don’t call them,” the boy says.
          The boy talks to the older man in Spanish. Lizbet follows his questions: Can he hear him? How’s he feeling?
          Dizzy, the man says.
          “Tienen papeles?” Lizbet asks them, crouching to a squat in the tall grass. The boy is sweating. She senses he is afraid to answer. “My parents,” she says in Spanish, “didn’t have papers for the first twenty years they were here.”
          The boy nods his head and then says they don’t have papers. Or licenses. They are dropping off a delivery of strawberries at the warehouse, something they do regularly for their employer. They get paid extra for it. Lizbet thinks back to the two years she was a waitress and remembers all the holidays she spent working. New Year's Eve, Memorial Day, Fourth of July—they are as meaningless to the old man and the boy as they once were to her, simply days to get showered and dressed and go work.
          “What are they saying?” Jeep Wrangler asks.
          “She’s asking if they’re okay,” Solar says. Solar has lost some of what they’ve said, but Lizbet is impressed by just how much he is able to understand.
          “Let’s hold off on calling the cops or doing anything else until we figure out what’s going on,” she says.
          Lizbet’s Spanish is not very good, never has been, and as she stumbles over her words, she is hoping she can calm the fear that is visible in the boy’s trembling legs. It’s times like these when she wishes she’d cared less about what the kids said to her at school, and she’d paid more attention to her mom who urged her to speak Spanish, even if just at home. “Se te va olvidar el Español si no lo practicas.
          The young boy stands up on shaky legs and helps the old man pull out his wallet from his back pocket and hands Lizbet a business card which has the name of their supervisor. A car drives past the scene and slows down, then keeps going. A few moments later, another car swooshes past, but this time, the driver pulls up off the road and stops to help.
          It’s a nurse, dressed in scrubs as though she just came off a shift. “He should be okay,” she says, holding the old man’s wrist. “Pulse is about one-forty, but that’s normal. Adrenaline. I strongly recommend he gets checked out. Can someone take him to the hospital?”
          But the old man won’t go. Lizbet asks him for a phone number.
          “Make sure you call this number here,” Lizbet tells Ford. “It’s their boss. Settle whatever financial things you need to with him.” In a blank section of her day planner for phone numbers, she writes Ford’s license plate number down just in case. “At Fault Driver in Ford F-150,” she adds next to it.
          She rips a page off with her phone number. “Me llaman por cual quier cosa,” she says to the boy, and remembering the birthday card she’s bought for Solar’s niece, she pulls it out of her purse, rips through the envelope and takes out the fifty-dollar bill that is tucked inside. She doesn’t give strangers money, not the guy with a homeless vet sign who stands on the street before the freeway on-ramp, or to the teenage runaways who like to hang around the outdoor mall playing their scratched guitars and smoking cigarettes. The fifty bucks won’t buy the old man and the boy much, but it is all the cash she has on her. She and Solar can stop by an ATM on their way over to his sister’s. They’re already running late to the party.

          They do not talk much about the crash at his niece’s party. It is an inappropriate time to talk about tragedy—esta tragedia. She walks into the backyard and spots the table covered in checkered oilcloth, colorfully wrapped presents stacked on one side, a Funfetti cake and paper plates on the other.
          She spends most of the afternoon helping Solar’s sister with the last-minute preparations: putting stacks of hotdog buns on a tray, adding an extra spoon of mayo to the potato salad—things like this, while Solar’s niece and her friends splash around in the pool.
          “I can’t believe you gave that kid money,” Solar says when they are getting ready for bed that night. It is the first time he brings it up since they left the crash scene.
          “You wouldn’t know what they go through,” Lizbet tells him. She sits on the edge of her bed applying lotion to her elbows.
          “Yeah, but they work, they have jobs,” Solar says. “You gave them fifty bucks. Just like that.”
          “That kid’s probably a thousand miles from home.”
          Solar fluffs up a pillow and stretches out on their bed. “I guess,” he yawns.
          “It made me feel better,” Lizbet says as she stares at the ivory-colored walls of their bedroom. But it didn’t really. She knows there are some problems you can’t throw enough money at.

          Among the articles that feature a local girl who was kidnapped and the President’s week-long visit to Japan, Lizbet continues to scour the paper and the Internet for news of what’s happened to the boy and the old man, but she finds nothing. It has been two weeks since the crash.
          She drinks a cup of coffee at the grated metal table she and Solar bought at the Home Depot for their patio. Her summer class will begin next week and she puts down the newspaper and looks at the Principles of Advanced Accounting syllabus her professor has emailed, but it is hard for her to concentrate. She wonders whether the old man is okay. Did he ever make it to the hospital? Lizbet remembers her father’s broken pinky and how he’d let it go without ever getting looked at, that it had remained crooked, like the twisted end of a branch. But that was different. The old man couldn’t let his entire arm end up crooked. Would he? She runs her bare feet on the crabgrass that sprouts up between the square flagstones. She wonders if Solar has bought the weed killer she asked him to weeks ago.
           Once we are married, Lizbet thinks, we can move. To a place with a better school system and a yard—a real yard. Not the small 10’x15’ lot that came with every condo in her building. When she and Solar have kids, they will be American. Because she is American and Solar is American. She stretches her arms above her head and the wind rustles through the bell-shaped flowers of the Manzanita tree. She walks back through the screen door, into their kitchen where she nukes her lunch— the box says bistro-style roasted chicken breast over linguine—and goes back to review her syllabus again.

          After the semester starts, Lizbet still thinks of the boy and the old man. Sometimes when Solar falls asleep on the couch while watching TV, she fires up her laptop and starts searching the news databases she can access through the university’s library. The Bakersfield Californian. The Fresno Bee. But she never finds anything and she’s never received a phone call with an unidentified number. She doesn’t know how Solar can do it, erase the memory like it’s an ex-girlfriend or a bad day at work that he’s trying to forget. Is she engaged to a cruel man? She’s never once doubted him, but his lack of reaction to the things that happened make her want to hide all the things her own mother and father went through. The monthly trips they made to the Western Union to wire money back to whichever family member needed it in Guatemala. The way she and her brother sometimes ate cereal for dinner when both of her parents got held up at work late. He’d never understand, she thinks, separating their laundry in the basement with unnecessary force.
          A few days after the accident, she calls her tía Martita in Guatemala, the one who never got married. It’s always the same conversation: she misses them, they miss her. So-and-so got married, so-and-so is having a kid. The rain looked like it was coming down in sheets this winter, there’s flooding and landslides. Have she and Solar gotten married yet?
          For the first time since it’s happened, Lizbet brings up the crash.
          “Los pobres,” Tía Martita says when she’s done telling her story. And then she hears her tía take a deep breath and say, “Pues fijate,” and tells her about the lady from her neighborhood who had her arm macheted off by robbers. They wanted the jewelry she was wearing, her aunt says, and then adds, “La gente aquí si estan pero  desesperados.” People are desperate.
          “I’m just so worried about them,” Lizbet says.
          “Ay mi muchachita, they’re probably okay. I’m sure no one turned them in,” Tía Martita says. “Vas a ver que por allí andan. Anyway, broken arm or car accident, they’re still better off. At least up there where you are, they can earn a little money.”
          Where you are. Lizbet looks around their condo, feeling suddenly displaced. She sees the clean granite counters and the toaster oven, the digital clock on the stove. She can’t help but think of her parents two time zones away. It is 1:15. Her parents are not home from work yet, but she can picture their empty kitchen. The counters are clean because her mom is fastidious. The blender, almost twenty years old, is protected with a cover sewn together from an old pillowcase. Next to it is the wooden cutting board drying in the dish rack and on the opposite wall, the washing machine that cannot be run at the same time that someone is in the shower. She would do anything to be there now, to escape the loneliness that is eating away at her. Her mom would invite the old man and the boy to eat with them, and just before she lifted the cover to the frijoles negroes and allowed the steam to escape, her father would look around the table and say, “Bueno,” in the quiet, reserved tone that is uniquely him. And Lizbet, the old man, and the boy would stop talking, close their eyes, and bow their heads to pray.


Claudia Ward-de León was born in the highlands of Guatemala. Her work has appeared in Postcard Shorts, Rumble Magazine and the anthologies Flash Fiction Funny (Blue Light Press) and Microchondria (Harvard Book Store Press). She teaches writing at Emerson College and Wheaton College, both in Massachusetts.