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An Empanada Break by Nancy Lili Gonzalez

When I’d finished showering off the glitter, Maria Theresa was still on the couch, asleep, legs spread eagle, drooling off her Frankenstein make up. Sunlight illuminated what a mess our apartment had become overnight: a failed game of Pin the Stem on the Pumpkin, stems pinned all over our wall; green goo on the barstool from Swamp Monster’s costume, where he sat all night, drunk, serenading us with mariachi classics; smoke still rising from the dry ice in our punch bowl. With everything that had been happening lately, Maria Theresa almost looked normal.
     “Mi amor, wake up.” I stood over her, nudged her nose with my fat, clean prune of a toe.
     She stirred. After more prodding, her eyes opened. She smacked away my toe and looked around as if gathering whether she was still home. I kissed her forehead and pulled her into a sitting position. She stretched, looked at the sunlight creeping towards her like a sneaky cockroach. I dressed in front of her, wiggling the panties up my thighs, hoping it might cheer her up. She only yawned.
     “I’ll pick us up some empanadas and coffee while you shower,” I said.
     “Did you watch the news yet? Is it secure to go out, Lorna?” Maria Theresa took my hand. Her green paint stuck to my fingerprints.
     “Nothing happened last night.”
     Maria Theresa didn’t let go.
     “No, really, Rumba’s Noticias said nothing happened. All that fuss about being ready for a Día de Los Muertos attack, but nothing. El Verde Cucaracha must have been scared by the new Lobo Mobile.”
     She released my hand and stared at me.
     “They say it runs on poison instead of gasoline, shoots fire from the muffler, and has lasers instead of headlights.” I towel-dried my hair. “El Verde Cucaracha’s army of cockroaches cannot beat a car like that. You should have seen the news clip. Hombre Lobo never looked so smug. Looks like he has a new furry cape, too.” I reached for a blouse. “The neighbors were singing this morning.”
     Maria Theresa steadied herself at the edge of the couch, then whooped and sang. “La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar, por que no tiene, por que le falta marijuana que fumar.” She wiggled her hips, moved her arms and legs in O’s. One of the plastic brown Frankenstein bolts glued to her neck popped off.
     I laughed as I crossed a scarf around my neck. “I am leaving for the empanadas. You shower, and I will return soon, si, mi amor?”
     “Bueno, bueno, Lorna,” she said as I reached for the doorknob, “Be safe.”
     As I closed the door behind me, I saw her wave from the couch and blow me a kiss. We had grown accustomed to the just-in-case smooch, but maybe this time, I thought, it was okay to depart without planting a juicy one on her.
     At Don Julio’s Empanada Shack, there was a commotion about El Verde Cucaracha’s absence. Newspapers claimed, Hombre Lobo Scared Off Cockroach For Good. Don Julio’s señora wobbled on the countertop proclaiming free cervezas for everyone. The fat on her arm waved like a flag in a parade. The poor cashier hardly heard my order over the celebration. Voices on the radio said soon we would be free again and strategized how to get rid of Hombre Lobo now that El Verde Cucaracha was gone: hijack his Lobo Mobile and sink it in the bay, infest his home with dynamites, create a civilian army.
     As I sat at the bar waiting for my order, Don Julio himself grabbed my arm. He sprinkled some spit on my face and slammed his cerveza down. “None of this will matter if you do not have someone to love. Go home and love with your every blood drop.” Almost as though on cue, his wife rolled up to him and began to share her tongue with his throat. I laughed, picked up my order, and scrammed.
     I was four blocks away from our apartment when everything turned green. The candy wrappers and confetti on the ground fluttered. All the cars stopped. It sounded like itching, the swarm of cockroaches approaching, like Maria Theresa rubbing her nails against her calves. It wasn’t until the army of roaches swarmed over the confetti that we all ran, looking for somewhere to hide, trying to crunch as many of the little monsters as we could. People abandoned their vehicles, keys still in the ignition, knowing El Verde Cucaracha couldn’t be far, knowing he liked to toss cars into buildings with his giant feelers for fun. The coffees fell from my grip as I ran with a group of older men into an alley, but the empanadas I clutched near my heart.
     “Maria, José, and Jesus Cristo,” said one of the men in a zoot suit, over and over again.
     I climbed on top of a crate to avoid the snipping feelers of the little roaches. Rumor has it the brown roaches could chomp off flesh and bone, and everyone knew the bite of a little green one felt like a quick deep slice from a butcher’s knife. I was pulling my socks up when I heard a loud crunch. I looked to Main Street and saw a green cockroach leg, the size of a school bus, flattening out a girl.
     “It’s El Verde Cucaracha,” said a man standing in a fire escape with a bag of groceries in his fist.
     A man holding his son said, “Why am I surprised?”
     Then I saw another leg, easily lifting an eighteen wheeler and dropping it onto the sidewalk. Windows shattered as a building’s foundation loosened with a slow creaking. Then there was the unmistakable sound of bodies splattering onto cement, like coins flopping into a fountain. Women everywhere screamed.
     “Papi, but I thought we were safe again,” said the little boy, cupping his hands over his ears.
     I closed my eyes and imagined Maria Theresa screaming in the shower, limp, struck somehow, lying naked, her hair spread over the tub, green paint mixing with the water, swirling over the drain. I prayed to La Virgen De Guadalupe.
     I opened my eyes as three younger men ran into our alley, telling each other to be quiet, to calm down. One of them, dressed like a basketball-playing werewolf, was missing half his face; it was bleeding and bubbling. He sobbed, clutched his side as though he couldn’t breathe. His friends tried lifting him to higher ground. Some of the men and I watched them struggle just to keep from looking at the massacre on Main Street, to keep from thinking of our beloveds. We knew he was dying.
     The praying man in the zoot suit pulled a rosary from his breast pocket, tossed it to the trio. The father yelped for his wife as though he were a kicked dog, running his fingers through his son’s hair. When I couldn’t watch this young werewolf anymore, when the friends raised their hands to their brows and heaved, I opened the bag of empanadas, touched the aluminum wrapping of one. It was warm. I held the bag close to my chest.
     An engine revved. Moments later, a furry black car flew through the air, sprouting blue lights and extinguishing everything beneath it with blue fires: the roaches, the civilians too. Though I couldn’t see it now, I’d seen it before. Hombre Lobo had come to assist us. His hairy elbow always casually bent out from his driver’s seat window, but he not once pulled a machine gun or grenade from there. His main tactic against El Verde Cucaracha was to wait to be struck before saving us, before retaliating. If El Verde Cucaracha ever popped the car with a feeler, Hombre Lobo would whoop, honk, bob back up with a vengeance, and then torpedo dynamites and fireworks in every direction. However, until El Verde Cucaracha made the first move, Hombre Lobo inadvertently harmed us. I knew from watching friends die that if you stared straight into the Lobo Mobile’s muffler, the carbon monoxide poisoning would get you within the hour.
     Smoke thickened into the alley.
     I thought of Maria Theresa—I couldn’t help it—thought what I would do if she had passed. I knew there was not anyone else who would keep me warm in bed or force me to eat my spinach. No one else could sing Aerosmith songs in their sleep like she could. Her empanada was cooling against my touch.
     Finally we heard the thud of El Verde Cucaracha’s antennae against the Lobo Mobile, and almost everything else went quiet, except for the whizzing of lasers and the breaking of glass. A long, high-pitched maniacal laugh echoed, the reverberations of which I felt in my knees. I saw the furry car zoom away, hiccupping from the blows. El Verde Cucaracha shrunk back into the sewer it knew as home. The green fog evaporated.
     Around me, the grown men kneeled. One gestured the holy cross over his chest, saying “Maria, José, and Jesus Cristo.” I coughed, coughed, and couldn’t stop coughing. The smell of singed hair was everywhere. Pulling my scarf over my nose, I climbed off the crate, toed my way to Main Street where Hombre Lobo’s Clean Squad had already arrived, each with a vacuum and a backpack, sucking the smoke out of the wounded of our town.
     Hombre Lobo’s Clean Squad littered the streets with mops and buckets of suds, dusters the size of baseball bats, and bulky metallic air-tight gloves to protect their digits from any lingering poisons. Thick debris covered all the cars and bodies, but Hombre Lobo’s Clean Squad did not hesitate or sigh in reluctance. Clusters of crying people squatted on the curb, holding lit candles. A group of frightened teenage girls, still dressed like sexy bunnies and mice, distributed Mexican candy skulls to the bereaved. Hombre Lobo’s Clean Squad worked around us living civilians, sensitive not to disturb, leaving us in dirty circles.
     A nun preached from the corner store’s porch to anyone who would listen. “Why did he have to retaliate, eh? He thinks he is a man, but Hombre Lobo is not a man.” She cursed the cleaning squad and pointed at a small corpse. “You think this makes him a man? You think revenge and flying makes him a superhero, no? God and I will tell you, a real man is not made from the stuff of cartoons.” Those who had strength to cheer cheered. She spat at the cement, and her spit melted a few inches of the debris.
     I was trying to make my way past all of them, but a man in a clean, starched, pepper red suit with a glossy head of hair had pulled me in front of a giant light, placed a purple microphone in my fist. He asked if I wasn’t a tourist, was I? He had teeth like Chiclets. When I said nothing, he nodded to the camera. “Welcome back to Rumba’s Noticias, this is Don Francisco Plátano with a distressed civilian at the site where, moments ago, Hombre Lobo defeated El Verde Cucaracha yet again. Tell me, girl, after so many attacks, do you believe El Verde Cucaracha is gone for good? Have you lost many loved ones? Tell me, how are you feeling this very second?”
     The camera’s lens inched closer. I looked into the light.
     I said into the microphone, “I do not have time for this shit.”
His smile tightened. I dropped my microphone onto the debris, fled with urgency to Maria Theresa. As I pushed through the crowd, I noticed the apartments across the street from ours were no longer there; in their place, a bonfire. Faces I recognized stared at the diminished pile of homes. Someone said when I passed, “It was like Hiroshima.” Hombre Lobo’s Clean Squad sprayed the site with water from their portable jets. I screamed for Maria Theresa as I ran up the stairs of our building.
The door to our apartment was open. All of our paintings had fallen. Everything was on the floor, our books, our curtains, our refrigerator. None of the lights were on. “Mi amor,” I maneuvered over the beer bottles and chocolate wrappers. Please be here, I thought. It was silent. “Mi amor, where are you?” The bag of empanadas shuddered.
     With a small creak, her figure, whole and unscathed, stepped out of the bedroom, illuminated by the blue light of her phone against her cheek. She fumbled towards me, losing her footing only once, her chest rising and falling. I reached for her, still green in her Frankenstein outfit. “I will call you later, papa. She is home. Yes. I love you, too.” She hung up, pushed her head beside my ear. I held her in my arms, thanked La Virgen De Guadalupe. She smelled like vanilla and sweat, like home.
     “My papa called to say he knew you were fine, saw you on the television, not behaving like a lady.” She laughed warm breath on my shoulder. “I was inconsolable, Lorna, worried you would not come home and that our last kiss was consumed by air.”
     “The empanadas wanted to meet you,” I said.
     She told me to be quiet. She pushed the greasy bag out of my hands.
Nancy Lili Gonzalez is primarily a poet, and has published in journals like Foxing Quarterly, Round Top Poetry Anthology, and Sorin Oak Review. She’s currently writing a collection of short stories about love, woes, and superheroes.