The scorch is the first thing you look for on the drive home after the long flight across the country. It’s Thanksgiving break. It’s fire season in California. Phone calls and satellite images can never articulate the damage that’s been done. Last fall, a national newscaster described your neighborhood and the explosion of mustard scattered across the hills rolling behind it as fuel.
In the backseat of your father’s F-150, you lay your head on your mother’s shoulder. Dostoevsky and Faulkner are buried deep within your luggage. A composition book filled with poems and waspy reading glasses with plastic lenses are tucked within a blazer next to them. Somehow, your mother’s shoulder is bonier yet softer. You smell a cheap lavender detergent. The faded yellow huipil she’s insisted on wearing to every graduation ever since your fifth grade promotion is starchy as it rubs against the prickly whiskers sprouting from your chin. She wore it when you first flew away. She’s worn it every time you’ve promised you’d return home again.
No, I think it’s pronounced jacondra, your mother says to you on Thanksgiving Day. She is sitting across from you at the dinner table. The usual suspects are gathered round. Your father sits next to you and dives face first into a tower of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. He has a heart condition and his arm is in a sling, but he continues on with his third serving. It’s because he’s Mexican. He’s a man. Your father cooked the turkey. So he will eat the turkey. Your father prides himself upon being the second oldest roughneck at his drill site. He is incapable of doing the math.
You remain silent and your mother keeps rambling on. Behind you and your father, your grandmother marches around the dining room burning sage. Nobody asked her to burn sage. Nobody asked her to exorcise your soul with nothing but raw eggs bathed in holy water just a few days after you’d turned six. I am who I am is your grandmother’s catchphrase whenever she gets into trouble. She grew up an orphan on a Native American reservation. Almost died from starvation before a bruja adopted her and groomed her to be a curandera. Your two younger brothers were born in the suburbs with a mother and father. They grew up to bag deli meat at Vons. They slip your grandmother a watermelon flavored edible as they drunkenly stumble up to the table arguing with each other. Your father shoves more mashed potatoes into his mouth. He proclaims that your brothers sound like a bunch of cackling bitches. They tell him to shut the fuck up. Your grandmother seconds them. Your brothers carry on their debate. The question of the hour? What is funnier in Rush Hour 2? The dog meat joke? Or Jackie Chan being threatened with getting bitch slapped back to Bangkok? It is unclear at the table who should be proud of who.
Pues, that’s how I’ve always heard it, your mother continues. She says it again like she’s teasing you: jacondra. She is referencing your favorite summer tree. The grove sitting atop one of the hills overlooking town burned down two years ago. She’d take you to it as a child on your birthdays after school. The two of you would sit amongst the timber and share the french fries of the Happy Meal she’d bought you. With salt still on your lips, she’d later chase you around the grove, and pour handfuls of the trees’ fallen blue trumpets down your shirt. The oldest trees in the grove had been almost a hundred years old.
You tell your mother that it is pronounced jacaranda, not jacondra.
Your mother says she knows she’s wrong. But she’s also certain your way isn’t right.
You demand her to sound it out. You’re a kindergarten teacher, you tell her. You should be able to figure this out.
Your mother refuses. It’s just a word. It’s my word. My little word I get to say with my family and at home.
Everybody is watching now. And finally, you explode.
Ja-ca-ran-da. Ja-ca-ran-da. Mom, it’s not that it’s my way. Or your way. It’s just the right way. You know that’s how it goes.
Your mother knows how it goes. As a child, your mother walked into kindergarten on her first day of school, pigtailed with no backpack, and a blonde barbie in hand. Her skin was browner than yours. Her name was browner than yours. Her older sister didn’t tell her that the teachers would force her to change her own name. How her heart would still race twenty years later when she considered what name she’d use to introduce herself, seconds before interviewing to teach at the same school.
A few weeks later, your white classmates in the MFA are surprised when you write about this. You only have white classmates. California is on fire again. You wonder why you are here. Your mother has never left the state. Your mother has never felt snow. Even an hour into workshop, you are still wet and cold from the snow.
I don’t think that one would be too difficult to pronounce, one of your peers says.
Couldn’t you find one with more syllables?
Names that start with X often trip people up.
You wonder how these people imagine your mother. Not the fictional one. But the real one.
In a year, she will be the only brown woman sitting within a room of almost fifty people for your graduation. You wonder what they would assume if they saw her walk in wearing her yellow huipil. You wonder what they might think if they saw her brown skin and the silk top you bought her with stipend money instead.
At the end of the workshop, your professor asks you if you have any questions.
In an hour, you will call your mother. It will almost be midnight on the east coast. You will be alone in your apartment and she, already in bed. You will hear her heart crumble like a piece of mazapan as you tell her your story. Her story. You want to tuck your head within her huipil. To be with her, back at the grove.
You stare back at your professor. You shake your head no.
Vincent Chavez is a Chicano writer from Santa Paula, California. He has been living in Richmond, Virginia the past two years, where he is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation alumni and is currently at work on a linked story collection, which explores the lives of working class Mexican-American families in Ventura County, California. This is his first publication.