Other Writings


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    A short audio essay that originally aired on NPR's "All Things Considered." The commentary was produced by Ellen Silva for the January 17, 2005 edition of ATC.
  • Outside the Toy Store (MP3)
    A recording of Bret reading "Outside the Toy Store". The reading was recorded and produced by Dianna Stirpe, and originally aired on WSUI, the NPR affiliate in Iowa City, IA.

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A short story from Ploughshares

A section of the newspaper, rolled into a tight cone and flaming at the top, stuck out of the cook's ear the first time I saw him. This was early June, in Corpus Christi, Texas, when I was sixteen and had been hired as the delivery driver for La Cocina Mexican Restaurant. The cook was sweating. He sat cross-legged on the stove in the kitchen, eyes and fists clenched, with two waitresses beside him. One of the women was dribbling salsa into plastic to-go cups. The other fanned the blue-black smoke away from the cook's face with a laminated menu.

The night before, I'd called about the ad in the paper and was told to show up the next morning for an interview. My father made me wear his pink tie, his only tie, though I'd just expected to fill out an application and learn that I lacked adequate experience. Aside from helping out at my father's pawnshop, I'd never held a job. But there'd been no paperwork at La Cocina, no discussion of previous employment. The owner asked if I had a valid driver's license, a reliable car, any moving violations or outstanding warrants. She asked if I was an honest person, and I said, “I try to be.” The answer seemed to surprise and please her, as if I'd solved a riddle that had stumped other drivers, then she told me to go into the kitchen and ask if there were any orders yet. She also told me to tell the cook that if another customer complained about the menudo tasting like beer, she'd call immigration.

When the waitress fanning the smoke saw me, she said, “Bathroom's down the hall.”

“I work here,” I said.

The cook's head was parallel to the floor, the smoke from the newspaper ribboning toward the grease-blotched ceiling. He wore a mustache and a V-neck t-shirt. A half-empty beer bottle sat next to him on the counter; he reached for it without opening his eyes and brought it into his lap. The kitchen smelled of cilantro and eggs and burning ink.

I said, “Mrs. Martinez just hired me.”

“You're white,” the other waitress said. Her eyebrows were penciled on. Both of the women looked tired to me, fierce and old. She said, “Ay dios mio. Affirmative action at La Cocina.”

The cook mumbled something no one understood. The flaming newspaper made me think of the downtown curio shops where old women rubbed oil on your palms to predict your future.

The cook said, “Am I being fired again?”

“Fired,” the waitress said, eyeing the burning newspaper. “Now he's a comedian. Now he's Cheech and Chong.”

“I'm the new delivery driver,” I said. “My name's Julian. Everyone calls me Jay.”

“Julian,” the cook said. “Julian, what kind of car do you drive?”

“A Cadillac,” I said. The waitresses glared at me. I saw that the one holding the menu was a lifetime younger than I'd originally thought. It occurred to me that she was the other woman's daughter. My father's tie suddenly felt tight around my neck. An hour earlier, he'd tied it on himself in the mirror, then loosened the knot and slipped it over my head. Now I wished I'd left it in the car. I said, “It's a convertible Fleetwood.”

“The King of the Cadillac line,” the cook said.


“Julian, when I own this restaurant — ”

“Ay dios mio,” the older waitress said and took her tray of salsa cups out of the kitchen. Her daughter rolled her eyes and started fanning the smoke again. Her hair hung in thick spirals, her nails were glittery vermilion. She said, “Carlos, Jay's worked here for two minutes and already you're starting with your fantasies.”

Carlos raised the beer to his lips and awkwardly tried to sip without disturbing the newspaper in his ear. I wanted to ask why it was there, but also wanted to act unfazed, like I encountered such things daily. When Carlos couldn't manage a drink, he extended his arm behind him and emptied the bottle into a pot of simmering menudo.

“Julian,” he said, “when I buy this restaurant, you'll deliver tacos by limousine.”

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