Sunday Caldo

Sunday Caldo

Sunday Caldo 1080 1080 Rebecca Paredes

You can change a lot with a long-term lease, but D didn’t want to change anything. I didn’t, either. We’d spent so long looking for a home that I felt like an intruder when we first moved in. Like every corner was a mirage and if I looked too hard it’d disappear. We kept everything the same because it was good enough—the builder-beige walls, the fake wood cabinets with no handles, the brown speckled linoleum floor, the white stovetop with the broken back burner. The only speck of life, really, is the dying pothos on top of the microwave. Now my bank account has an expiration date, and when the house rejects me and Louie like a body rejecting a donor, it’ll look like we were never even here.

I shove my mom’s pot onto the stove and rub my fingertips together like I’m rubbing in some leftover magic, or maybe just dust and grease. It’s familiar and heavy-bottomed, with a stubby body made of ceramic-plated steel, all of it a loud green like a Crayola. Mom used to create miracles in the kitchen, stretching nothing into a week’s worth of food every Sunday. She’d fill the pot with whatever—a whole chicken, chunks of onions-carrots-potatoes, water from the tap, bring it all to a boil and stir sometimes, but mostly just look, taste, adjust. That was when my only idea of the future was whatever I saw on TV, cartoons with superheroes that never died or even changed. I’d wander into the kitchen when the smell was too good and Mom would heat up a tortilla for me instead. Not yet, mija. Not yet.

I want to fill the pot with odds and ends, to wrap my arms around it and feel that weight. This is a pot for family cooking, but the family is just me and Louie now. I know without looking in the fridge or pantry that we have nothing. No batches of beans, no rice, no leftover caldo, all because I haven’t cooked shit since D left, when food stopped tasting like food and just became a chore. I show up to work, show up at home, make whatever I can beep—frozen fish sticks, frozen chicken nuggets, refried beans from a can folded into a burrito that tastes okay but makes me feel like a failure—and Louie never complains because he’s grown enough to know that if he wants anything else, he needs to make it himself. Which explains the neon splats of boxed mac and cheese on the stovetop and the crinkly packages of beef Top Ramen on the counter.

But he needs more, doesn’t he? Chicken breast and steak and rice to build his muscles, help him swim faster, help him get on the record wall at his community college, help him look like a promising young prospect to the four-year schools that would pay his tuition one day. My boy wants to swim his way to the Olympics and he still doesn’t know how to eat.

“Mom, your pot is so ugly, it made the chicken cross the road,” I tell the air. I pick up the pot’s lid and put it back on the counter. Turn on a burner and turn it off. Not cooking, just moving the air in this stagnant kitchen, casting ripples across the stagnant water in the bowls in the sink, clumps of cold oatmeal and bloated cereal crumbs floating on the surface like lifeboats. I go to the pantry. A solitary onion and a bag of shriveled potatoes sit on the very bottom shelf, all alone like they were either forgotten or meant to be found. I don’t remember buying them, but the onion is fine and the potatoes have just a few eyes. It feels like something less than a miracle, and I start putting what looks good on the counter. An ancient container of oregano, salt, pepper. In the fridge, I find baby carrots and floppy celery sticks in snack packs, the kind they sell at Louie’s work and let him take home if they’re past the sell-by date, which was yesterday. The freezer doesn’t magically contain a whole chicken, but I find chicken breasts frozen into bricks in a value-sized bag, and that’ll do.

I haven’t told Louie the hotel let me go. There aren’t enough people coming to Alberhill, they said. Downsizing, they said. They really meant there’s one too many managers and I’m the one they don’t need. I took a bunch of mints when I left. A whole case. I may be out of work, but we won’t run out of fresh breath.

 

If I broke my mom’s heart when D and I eloped, and I know I did, she hid it with a steady stream of beans and rice and homemade tortillas. Mom said she didn’t care if we were technically married—she wanted no funny business between me and I under her roof, but I was reckless and maybe wanted D to stay with me forever-ever. When I told D I was pregnant, we were smushed together in my tiny twin bed, and I whispered the truth to him while Mom fell asleep to novelas in her room. D got up and gave me two crisp hundred dollar bills and said he’d love me either way, but I knew what he really wanted, because why would he give me the option in the first place? I should have known then, and maybe I did, but I shoved it down because I had a piece of D in my belly, a little tadpole of my own.

Louie was born while D was stationed in Okinawa, and Mom taught me how to be a mom while I was still just a kid myself. She pulled out that stubby green pot every Sunday and walked me through soaking pinto beans and then cooking them in onions-garlic-bay-leaf for the flavor, or making caldo out of anything, big batches of food every Sunday because she said it was good energy to start the week with abundance. Once a week, she and I would take Louie to McDonald’s, and our little family would sit out in the sun sharing $2 cheeseburgers and fries. Those were my favorite days. I’d lick my fingertips and taste salt, fat, familiarity. When was the last time I had a Big Mac?

 

The morning sun sneaks between the blinds and touches my face. I grab my favorite knife and an old wooden cutting board scored with lines on its surface from what feels like another lifetime, when I’d slice steak against the grain for D before serving. He preferred his meat pre-sliced, like a child, so he could see the doneness. I take the potatoes to the trash and tear out the eyes, roughly peel the skins, dice all the vegetables into the same-sized pieces so they cook evenly. The leaves of the pothos wave to me while I work, the only sounds the dull thud of my knife against the block, the scrape of the blade, the pebbly thump of potato chunks and carrots as they skitter away from me, running into the corners of the countertop and jumping onto the floor to roll around my feet. I switch on the burner and add a knob of butter to the pot. When it melts, and the air smells rich and buttery and I can hear the sizzle speaking to me, I add the veggies and salt them and stir with my favorite wooden spoon. The onions turn translucent and then beige and then brown, getting sweeter as they cook. Add more butter, oregano, pepper. The smell reaches up and touches my cheeks, coats my eyelashes so I feel the steam on my lips when I smile. I add water, scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pot, then nestle the frozen chicken breasts into the broth. Close the lid. It’ll take a while to boil, but peeking will make it take longer, so I listen to the bubbling instead like the pot is alive and chatty. The sun is bright and unfiltered now, streaming through the kitchen window and just barely touching the pothos. That must be how the thing has stayed alive so long—clinging onto that scrap of sunshine, getting just enough to get by. I nudge it into the sun a bit more. The leaves touch my skin like a thank you.

 

The truth was, cooking made me feel good. Like I could put the right ingredients together, follow the right steps, and everything would turn out fine. D would act like I spoiled him with all the Sunday shit, but I knew he expected it, even when I was worn out from work and taking care of Louie, even with my mom’s help. I never showed it. I didn’t mind. I cooked the milanesa and the calabacitas and the arroz con pollo because I loved him and that’s what I thought I should do, even when he started talking to the bitch who gave him what I didn’t. Maybe I should have paid more attention to Louie. Maybe I should have paid more attention to myself.

I hope she’s a shitty cook. I hope she makes him fucked-up milanesa.

After D left, he came back to pick up the last of his shit and Louie and I met him outside the house, arms all crossed over our chests like we could do something. D loaded his last box, an old cardboard thing from Home Depot labeled BATHROOM in Sharpie but that really contained his shoes, and turned back to look at us and the house like he had something to say, something big. It was Sunday, his favorite day. He wore his favorite pair of relaxed jeans, the ones he called Levi’s even though they weren’t. A new blue short-sleeve button down, slightly too big on him in the shoulders. And a white T-shirt peeking up from behind his collar, the soft cotton a memory on my fingertips from so many hours folding his laundry straight from the dryer so his shirts wouldn’t wrinkle.

Sunday is just one day. The rest of the week, he needed more.

“What are you cooking today?” he finally asked.

“Nothing. Go home.”

Louie said nothing. Just glared at the back of his dad’s head, his face—a man’s face now, all sharp lines and no baby boy softness. He looked just like D. Same bushy eyebrows, same wrinkle above his nose like an exclamation point.

Louie would pick up a job soon after. I didn’t ask him to help, but he did it, shoving in as many hours as he could between school and practice, even Sunday, the day that’s supposed to be his rest day. He’s a hard worker. He picked up at least one good thing from me, or maybe from my mom, or maybe it was all on his own, this boy who’s always wanted to swim in the Olympics, this boy becoming a man without a father, just me and what I can give him—if not a house, then my love, my food, my body, a home.

 

I check the pot. It’s boiling now, all the flavors coming together, the chicken cooking, the bay leaf and oregano perfuming the water with those familiar flavors, and when the time is right, I’ll take the chicken out and shred it up and put it back in the pot and give it another stir, and check the potatoes and add salt and pepper and then wait for it to come together into something better. I’ll heat up the tortillas for me and Louie and we’ll soak up the broth in our bowls, and maybe it won’t taste as fresh as it could—I can only do so much with snack pack veggies and water and frozen chicken breasts, okay—but it’s soup, and it’s Sunday, and I made it with my two hands, in my mom’s pot, and it has everything Louie needs.

I grab a spoon and blow on the broth so I can taste it. And like magic, it tastes good.

Header photograph © Bif Naked.

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