Emily Suazo



Emily Suazo is a Chicana writer and teacher currently earning her MFA at Columbia University. She lives with her cat in the greater NYC area, considers those McDonald’s chocolate chip cookies to be haute cuisine, and used quarantine to get into reading Old English. She can be found on twitter at @emilymiquela, usually looking at history memes. 

         The carnicero saves his fattest chickens for me. You’ll love this, he says, and hefts one up, slaps it proudly. Only he doesn’t say it like that. He says, Jewel love this. He sounds just like the customer who came into the bank this morning, the one who turned out to be my tocayo.

         My chicken is wrapped and bagged, I say gracias, and the walk home from the carnicería is short and brisk. The further from the city I go, the deeper into beige suburbia, the more muffled the world seems, like slipping underwater.

         Home, a warm and neat little brown duplex. I spread the bird out over its plastic bag at one end of the counter and get to work with the knife. I’m always reminded of Maritza when I get fresh chicken for dinner. My sister would do everything else, even weep over the onions, but she would never kill the chicken. And that drove Mamá insane, even though we only killed a few chickens a year, when money was tight. What about when I'm dead? She demanded that of Maritza all the time. Who's going to butcher the chicken when you’ve worked me to death? One day Mamá and Maritza were having that argument as I came inside. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I said that I would kill the chicken myself.

         That was when Mamá turned on me, her bulldog face all screwed up. Oh, and you know how to butcher a chicken now, do you, Sebastián? When did you learn? Because all you do is stay out with your friends at the 7-11 while me and your sister deal with all this. When she said “this” she gestured at the mess of the kitchen like it was my fault. Then she grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me out back, shouldering the screen door open, letting it bang shut.

         Mamá kept her chickens in the backyard in a tin coop. I stood there and acted like a big man with my legs spread wide, kicking at the dry grass. It was early autumn then, too. With no

fanfare, Mamá stuck two hands inside the coop and pulled out a hen. She murmured something to it with supreme gentility. Then she tucked it under her arm like a football and wrapped her fingers around its neck, and in one precise movement slapped it over her shoulder. There was a flurry of white feathers and a crack. The chicken hung from her hand by its neck, limp.

         I thought I would cry, and then made myself not do that. Mamá told me to get the knife and bucket from the kitchen twice and then smacked my arm on the third time before I did. The chicken's neck was stretched out and floppy. I thrust the bucket under it, and though my mind had settled, grown used to the sight, my body had its own business, and my hands trembled. She gave the jugular one clean nick and we waited for it to bleed out, standing shoulder to shoulder.

         “See?” Mamá said. Something tender in her voice. “You always make sure they don’t see it coming.” She pinched the tip of my ear with unprecedented fondness. “Now go pluck it.”

         The front door unlocks. I hear Ruth step out of her heels in the foyer and come into the kitchen on stocking feet. It takes me a minute to say hello to her in English.

         “Hey,” she says back. Her shoulders are sleepy inside her white blouse. Ruth is a real lawyer, but she looks like she just plays one on TV, with her slick ponytail and her toned, supple arms. She holds out one of those white plastic bags from a market downtown.

         “Oh, were you doing dinner tonight?” Ruth says. She huffs, exasperated with herself. Her hand dives into the bag and pulls out a live lobster, its claws held shut with stout strips of red tape. A second one wiggles around in the bag. The chosen one shines blackly. Its huge antennae meander around its head like it’s prepping to send intel back to the mothership. “I completely forgot.” She puts it back and starts banging around for a pot. Explaining: “I just don’t know how we’d keep the lobster unless we cook it now. We can freeze the chicken, though.”

         “It’s fine.” My hands have stilled with the knife in them. I only have half of the gizzards out, and I’m not sure if I should finish removing them or not. My contemplation from earlier feels interrupted and it leaves me somehow unmoored, like I’m trying to board a moving train.

         Ruth sets the water on to boil. Her lashes taper to pale tips, delicate spiderwebs. She still looks like she did when we first met at our university rec center's swimming pool, five years ago now. I had never known anyone like her in my life: so poised, but still funny. When she spoke she referenced writers, directors, artists I’d never heard of. And after she referenced them I looked them up, spent entire nights reading Wikipedia pages. There’s a whole labyrinth of names and clever thoughts in Ruth’s head.

         She crosses the kitchen, takes the knife from me easily and sets it in the sink. The moon- blue veins under her skin protrude and form a Nile delta at her knuckles. All the wealth in the world lived in cities at the tip of the Nile at one point.

         “I turned a guy down for a loan today.” Something about her nice hands makes me want to say it. Ruth’s silence is expectant while she washes the knife. I explain, “He was my tocayo.”

         She sets it on a towel to dry, comes back to me, leans her slim hip on the counter. “What’s that?”

         “It means we had the same name. So he was Sebastián Martínez, too.” His boots had been pale with concrete dust. His yellow vest bright as an egg yolk. Scuffed hard hat under one arm. “He was with his wife and kid. I think he was coming in just before work.”

         There was an abscess in his son’s jaw. The skin was distended and tight. The wife wore her hair in a thick braid down the back of her neck. My tocayo was talking quickly, but his wife just looked at me and didn’t say anything. I explained that I just needed ID, proof of income. He

said, can’t I bring it later, I don’t have it with me now... the conversation became circuitous. He said that when they took the kid to urgent care, the doctor recommended surgery. I knew from the boy’s glazed eyes he was on pain meds. I said, I really can’t do anything if you don’t have proof of residence. And I wanted to help, but I was afraid to Google advocates for undocumented families at the work computer.

         Finally my tocayo led his family out, cloaked in a hot silence. I imagined that when they got home the kid would go to his bedroom, where he would try to sleep. But he’d worry about what had been said at the bank while he’d been occupied thinking of other things like the pain in his mouth, the game of kickball he wasn’t playing. He would feel that he’d missed something, missed something vital, but no matter how hard he tried to summon the anxious bend of his father’s back, his mother’s unreal stillness, the bowl of root beer suckers on my desk — the words that had transpired between us — the memory was just always sliding away.

         “Yeah,” I say again. “Anyway, I couldn't make it work.”

         “Hey, it isn't your fault, okay?” She means it. Then the pot rattles to a boil and she goes and removes the lid.

         Looking at the pot, and then at the squirming plastic bag with our dinner in it, I realize something. “Hey, wait.”

         “Are you going to kill it like that?”
         Ruth’s pale brows furrow. She pauses. “Yeah? I’m just going to drop it in the pot.”

         “Can’t you do something else?”
         “Why? It was how my mom did it.”

         “Why don’t you stab it first?”
         Ruth is baffled. “It’ll bleed. Boiling always worked fine for us.”
         “It’s...” I don't know what I’m trying to say, only that there’s a tight panic building in my

chest, willing my limbs to move. I manage, “Doesn’t that seem wrong?”
         “Twice a month I come home to you carving a chicken that’s only been dead for a day,”

Ruth says. “How is that any different? Or do you want to go vegan now?”
         “Don’t be — I don’t know, it’s different. It’s not the right way to kill something. You

have to do it so it doesn’t feel it. So that it doesn’t even know what happened.”


         “It’s isn’t right.”
         “Sebastian, what is going on?” Suh-bas-chun.
         My mouth opens and closes, but my voice is arrested. I don’t know how to say it. I don’t

even know what the problem really is. But I know I can’t listen to the lobster be boiled alive.

         Her face goes tight. “You know, maybe the way my mom did things is fine sometimes,

too. Not everything has to be —“

         “Come on. Hey.”

         “You have weird superstitions.” Ruth shoves damp flyaways from her eyes. “I know how to make lobster, okay? It’ll be good, I’ll do a butter sauce.” One step and she grabs the animal. The water bubbles beneath it like hungry reaching hands. I do move then: I thrust out my arm. But Ruth’s fingers open. The lobster drops inside and she claps down the lid. A skitter, a burst of steam, a minor clang; and then nothing but the sound of my own body, the dull thump it makes when I fall back, stunned, against the hard edge of the counter. I was just too far away.

© The Acentos Review 2020