These days I can’t think of my husband’s eyes without the veil of blood over my own. Those days I straddled my sanity and the dead bodies of countless bastard children. All in a selfless act to free my husband, Pancho, of the need to cheat on me.
Those nights. The blood that would run down my cuticles almost matched the bright red embers burning under the pot. My nerves shook from the burned fuses of my mind, the thought of him fucking someone else.
Our dinner finally fell on the wooden table. Fresh blood filtered into the wood’s grain. A stain to remember the boy by. It took an hour or more of coaxing him inside the house but only a few minutes to kill.
I moved my butcher knife in a lightning bolt’s track through the meat. Elbow jerking out because this little guy’s meat was tougher than I thought. Least the bastard’s not breathing now. Least Pancho won’t have a bastard son to rot our 23 years together.
Eyes are the prize. Failed attempts again and again gouging out eyes of test-chickens, but I got the gist of what went wrong. The salt, pepper and spices on my windowsill stood attention until the slicing and searing are complete. Pots of boiling water rattle with applause on the uneven stovetop. This, I am sure, is his son. After many dinner preparations, I’m sure this is the one.
My tongue caressed my upper lip with each jagged pull of the knife until the five-foot body sat in 5-inch chunks. I separated the eyes out. I need them swallowed whole to follow him around town. Like a best friend, creeping around town to see what the husband is doing from the time he leaves work until he comes home three hours later.
As I toss the lumps into the boiling water, I hope this tubby boy is the right bastard child this time.
Feeling the weight of work fall on me, I heap my curves on to the stool and think back to what took me from chicken dinners to this.
That night, the food had been prepared for hours, but Pancho had taken to coming home late enough to eat his meal at room temperature. I had tied up the torn ends of my graying hair, because, dammit, I had been trying still. In the window, I glimpsed at my heavy eyes outlined in smeared black.
At 9 p.m. he had forced his swelled mass through the door. It clattered into place.
Pancho threw his smock over a rusted hook at the kitchen frame, rubbed palm to forehead. “Mi amor, sorry I’m late, this project is kicking my ass.”
He upturned his lips. Smiled without his teeth touching, “I know you’ll say it, too old to work like this.”
The severe wrinkles on his forehead eased a little and he narrowed his red-rimmed eyes.
Disrespect thumped in my heart as I laid out his place at the head of an empty table. A table that should’ve overflown with nietos, but we could never even make a nino.
“You smell delicious.” He pulled me into his large belly and my cheeks and nose fell into his breasts, larger than mine.
My shoulders slackened. “Here, eat, eat your gordo.”
Chicken legs the color of the sun beamed from beneath the clouds of potatoes and beans. Green beans the color of Pancho’s eyes released steam that engulfed his face before each sigh.
In the stew, potatoes gathered in bunches the way his large cheeks bubbled into the folds of his sagging neck. His massive figure made me feel the burden of living was shared.
He unbuttoned his shirt and I slid out of his arms. After sculpting clay all day, his underarms unleashed a stench as powerful as the soup. Dinners and his underarms had battled to reign king-scent of our home each night. His hair, slicked back and still ebony, fells in wisps like the rosemary pines wading in the broth.
He swiveled his chin back and forth, “Ahh,” looking up, a smile stretched out exposing the gap in his front teeth, “This is terrible, seriously horrible, Mary.”
A joke he played since we moved in together decades ago.
Does he play this with the other women, too? I grabbed my necklace nuzzled in breasts, turned to him, “Those chicken legs are the first legs you licked tonight Pancho.”
His spoon retreated to the bowl. His gaze fixed ahead and his smile faded. “Mari, it’s always been you. A million times, I tell you. My first priority. Always you.”
The chair legs screeched backward. Now his head loomed over mine. His starched palm and fingers tightened around the back of my neck and pushed my body towards the bedroom.
“Que- Wha-“ My feet aligned to the bed as he thrust forward, his palm and I fell like rubble.
“Pancho, que paso?” Why shut me up here? Why in the bed? My bun tumbled down as I whipped myself around to face him. His knees brought his mountainous body to the floor. One swoop and my skirt hem soared through the air and landed on my breasts.
“Panch—Ohhh.” His mouth is parted in a smile. The hairs on his chin scraped my bony knees as he kissed his way up. Moving closer to the start of the two-way street my legs formed. Once there, he talked in tongues of all the apologies he could muster. Said all that was necessary until my restraint exploded and my forgiveness gushed outward.
But now, sitting in the kitchen, stirring the pot of boiled bastard, my shoulders stung with the memory after that. After Pancho fell asleep, I went into the kitchen to clean. His smock hung tightly on the wall hook, pockets taut and ready to burst, weighed down from months of paperwork and things. Was happy to lighten his load, unburden him. The smock felt thin in my hands, smelled of sweat and clay. As it folded on my forearms, a thin yellowed paper fluttered to the tile floor.
A receipt. For flowers. Dated three weeks ago. Pancho surprised me with flowers on our first date. 23 years ago. That was the last time Pancho got me flowers.
So yes, now I sit with my onions, carrots and potatoes all waiting to lend me a hand in this dinner. Tonight, as he eats, I’ll press myself against his worn unbuttoned shirt. Hear it scratch against his thick chest hairs. Let the stench of a day’s work flood my nostrils. I’ll lean over and whisper, “Slow down. Enjoy it. It will be good for you.”
I am not a heart woman, but I am learning to be.
Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow’s potatoes will wither, sink down to the bottom of the bowl, I’m sure. But tomorrow I’ll know for sure if he’s been cheating, because tomorrow he’ll have to be upset that his bastard child is declared missing.
It’s been a week of boiled-bastard stew dinners. Seven. Woke up this morning with arm muscles so sore from carving. Could barely reach behind my neck to tie my braid. Once I secured the braid, clumps of gray and black hair stay intertwined in my fingers. Lying in bed, I get no sleep. Lying in bed next to Pancho, I see him breathing in and out, casual. Breathing like a free man, a man with choices.
I felt suffocated, my lungs grasped for air and my heart beat against the walls of my breasts. Can’t cut this umbilical cord that ties Pancho to me. He needs me. But he deceives me. I lean down to study him. Leaving is a privilege of youth. When you’re old you stay as if your body sinks. Enveloped in mud. Your body sinks down to its final resting place, one room-temperature dinner at a time.
Pancho seems like the only man in the town who doesn’t notice the news of each little child who goes missing. He hates the dinners, sure. But doesn’t he care about the children? One of them must be his. What kind of heartless monster sleeps next to me?
No pain spread on his face as the neighbor told us of the missing boy last night. Simple reasoning. That one mustn’t have been his boy.
This neighborhood is nice. Cast iron grows like ivy’s fingertips up the windows. Rows of apartments spread like whore’s legs down both sides of the street. Mounds of dirt sprout like a wannabe-virgin’s razor burn.
Ahead, one Moreno selling café con leche flickers his fingers towards me, “Senora, Senora, your eyes such heavy bags.” His elbow jerks towards his selection, “To wake up a bit before evening.”
The odor of Nestle café and water slithered through my senses and warmed my palms through the cup. The sounds of children shrieking in the yard drew me in now. Miniature bodies moved like waves, retreating and proceeding from side to side of the gate. Brown hair, brown hair, brown hair, black hair, ah yes. There he goes. The blonde boy. Funny how Pancho produced a blonde child, but the child, no mistaking, has Pancho’s green eyes.
How would our kids turned out? My teeth clench down on the inside of my cheek and I chew off a portion. Swallow it. Eyes follow the yellow hair running with arms wide across the yard.
His little limbs jump and wrap around a tall and full figure. The person scoops up the child and stands upright. A woman gives kisses to the young boy. Holds him. Her long legs tramp away from the yard. My heart rattles against its cage. I curl my fingers around the cup and puncture a hole. Coffee drips and winds around my wrist.
“MariLuz, how have you been cooking this stew? The meat is so rare. Think the Red Cross could use some of dis blood.” He swallows a large gulp. Gulps because he can’t chew this meat. I admit, it would be impossible. Like Jell-O.
I didn’t have time to cook it normal. The woman was more difficult to lure than I imagined. “Oh no I have errands, no no really, I can’t come for tea.” Larger to cut and sear than a child, too.
His legs shake up and down under the table, “Josephina says she hasn’t seen you by the market in weeks. Where you getting this meat? Go back to the market, not this new place. No good.”
Food almost comes back up his throat. Pancho’s crouched shoulders fall farther out than his stomach for the first time in decades.
“When did you start talking to Josephina?” I snap my neck towards him almost as quickly as the other neck snapped hours ago.
“Relax woman. I pass her each morning now that I’m doing a statue for the Mayor’s office.”
“And how are the models working out? Tramps who can’t find a man so must pose naked for someone else’s?”
“Mari, those tramps are the only reason we have this house. No one wants carvings of horses and conquistadors.” He waves his bare left hand in the air.
My eyelids rage backwards to my skull. “Where is your ring, Pancho?” My heartbeat quickens, “Bet those whores had you take it off.”
His foot slams down underneath the table, “Mari, the ring catches on skin. I’ve lost so much weight. All this bloody meat, can’t eat.” He swipes the bowl off the table. “Lose weight even in my hands. I’ve got to remove it for work now. I left the ring with the tools.”
I stare at the tomatoes, peppers and bits of mistress sprinkled on the drawers and floor.
“Listen Mari, cook my dinner better and I won’t need to take it off. No model, Mari. We’re too old for this. I’ve been nothing but loyal to you all these years.” Pancho shuffles over to the sink, sighs and plunges his bowl and attention into the murky water.
“You can’t give me time as an excuse. I know you’ve been around. I only care for you, for us. Think I’m invisible? I don’t feel? I don’t have a heart in this chest anymore?”
“You look damp, do you have a fever? Anyway, Mari, you can’t be full of hate. Don’t let hate take your heart like this.” He pulls the door shut to the backyard.
On this final night, my shoulders and hair hang loose. My kitchen is lit by candles and stovetop fire. From their hooded eyes, the hanging pots glare at me. Boiling water jumps out over the ledge of our largest pot. The fire pulses from underneath and tickles my breasts as I lean closer.
This morning I picked up fresh tomatoes. Detached the flesh and ground the inside to create the perfect paste.
Before I was never a heart woman. I didn’t care for Pancho as I do now. I had other things in my life that dispersed the passion. Then everything faded. There was only Pancho left.
He did not enjoy eating his bastards and his mistresses because they were not me. I plot out traffic lines on my chest and arms. No meat other than mine will do.
Tonight I will give myself to Pancho. He will have my heart.
I scoop up a handful of salt and pepper. Exfoliate the skin underneath the dark hairs on my arms and legs.
Last night, as Pancho dozed off in the backyard, I met the knife by the fire and we shaved it down to its sharpest body. Now, as I grasp the handle of the knife, I see my eyelids soft and creaseless. All is well.
The dagger points inches away from the spotted line at my heart.
Eeeek, ishhh, Eeek Ishhh. The screen door opens and shuts. Pancho stands in the doorway, hands steadied himself in the doorframe.
My chin lifts to him, “Pancho, I want you to know, before all this madness, I wanted to flesh out all our problems, flesh it all out since you already gutted me.”
“Mari- what, what is,” He reaches out his hands, but his body doesn’t move.
The dagger presses to my chest now, “You gutted me long ago, so I will finish the job. Take anything of mine you leave a mark on. Take the fingernails that parted your hair like ocean waves until you slept. Take both sets of lips you sparingly kissed. Gut out my intestines that may still have remnant of your bodily injection. Take the hips I knock around all day and night for you. Take whatever. Work your way down. The Achilles, since you spliced it long ago.”
Red pulses out from my fingers like the flick of flames. Blood sprints down and wraps like ivy around my wrists.
“Just leave me the soles of my feet for something to stand on. Leave me the soles of my feet to get tougher and stronger. To run away. Leave me the soles of my feet because maybe they’ll convince my other soul to come back in a way I couldn’t convince you to do each dinnertime.”
Jacqueline Draper’s poems and short stories are published in a handful of literary magazines and she has been editor-in-chief of Sabor, a Boston-based literary magazine, and on the editorial board of Laughing Medusa, an all-women’s literary magazine. Draper is a Shantyboat writer of Lynn Harlin. Draper works in education.