MORE than candy, ice cream, chocolate cake or cherry pie, the food I desired most as a child was broccoli. At night when my brother and I would sit cross-legged on the brown carpet in front of the T.V., I imagined the cheeseburger on the crunchy plastic wrapper before me was a steaming plate of bright green broccoli, and when I took a bite and happened to crunch down on one of the diced pickles sprinkled throughout the mustard and ketchup, my fantasy almost felt as if it had come true: I was biting down on the hard stem of one of those cute little trees, turning over its bushy top in my mouth, and sending it down my throat to drop delicately into my stomach.
This fantasy of eating something other than food wrapped like a Christmas gift held true for nearly all vegetables during my childhood. Veggies were elusive and magical. They were quiet to the touch unlike the food I was used to, which was always shrouded in a brown, grease-splotched bag. I would only see them—carrots splayed beside cobs of corn and blood red bell peppers, heads of lettuce sliced in two halves and dripping with moisture—on posters at school or billboards by the highway. Sometimes I saw them animated on T.V. and was entranced by their beauty and seeming deliciousness. My eyes grew wide. My mouth started to salivate. Simply to say their name made me smile. “Veggies!” I would scream, as if they could hear me. One night I even dreamt of building a throne of vegetables where I would sit: The Veggie Queen. But of all vegetables, broccoli, that member of the brassicaceae family, was my favorite. In my dreams it made up the majority of my royal seat. I had tried it once or twice before when I was very little, but couldn’t remember the taste. I loved broccoli for its beauty, green like a grassy field, a four-leafed clover, springtime.
OUR family lived in what intellectuals call a “food desert.” We called it home. My mother, working from six in the morning to ten at night all but one day a week, could only find (and afford, relying on stamps) food during those dark hours at one of the five fast food restaurants that stood on the outskirts of our block. After school, my brother Frankie and I would wait for our mom to come home, sharing the bag of hot cheetos she had given us money to buy that held us over until dinner. Our fingers stained red as if we’d just committed a gruesome murder, Frankie and I would take turns playing Mario Kart on our Gameboy and wait for Mom to call during her break.
“Hi, Babygirl. How was school?”
“Have you and Francisco done your homework?”
“Finish it, Mija. And help your little brother with his. Te quiero mucho. I’ll be home with food around 9:30. OK?”
“Mhm. Love you. I’ll help him.”
That night, because Frankie and I finished our homework before she came home, Mom got us a
special treat. We had Wendy’s burgers, the square ones, and frosties.
FRANKIE was fat. Circular shapes made up his innocent, brown face and his pudgy, wrinkled neck and small stature resembled that of a chubby pug. He was my cute, fat little brother. I would do anything for him. When his classmates made fun of him, I would protect him by drawing attention to their own fatness, which they seemed not to perceive. “Callate, Twinkies!” I’d yell, dismissing their bullying giggles with a wave of my hand and taking Frankie under my arm. Most of them were as fat, if not fatter, than him. Frankie was too young to notice contradictions.
One day at school they brought local doctors to perform check ups on us. Our teachers said the doctors were simply trying to make sure we were all okay and in good health, but I was afraid. I had only visited a doctor once before around the time I first tried broccoli. On this day, an assembly of seven of them were stationed in the cafeteria behind thin blue curtains. They wore white lab coats and rubber gloves. I wondered what they were trying to protect themselves from. Would there be blood? Were we biohazardous? I went first. Frankie stood behind me in a line of students. The doctor examined me with his eyes, turned me around, pricked my finger, gave me a bandaid, made me take a deep breath, say “Ah,” shined a light in my eyes and sent me off. It wasn’t so bad except that afterward I felt unhealthier than before. Frankie’s turn. The doctor took longer with him. I hung back, waiting for my brother, but when he still hadn’t emerged from behind the curtain after thirty minutes, I was forced to return to the classroom with the other students. That night, Mom got a call from Frankie’s teacher, Ms. Martinez. Frankie was showing signs of prediabetes and was at risk of becoming a full- fledged diabetic at the green age of eight, she said.
“Y qué es eso?” my mom asked, furrowing her drawn-on eyebrows and wrapping the telephone’s bungee cord around her long, manicured nails nervously.
Ms. Martinez said the doctor could meet with her tomorrow morning to explain. Mom called work to tell them she would be late and Frankie and I went to the meeting with her. Her English wasn’t perfect so sometimes she would ask me for help. When we arrived, we were ushered into the counselor’s office.
The doctor who examined Frankie was sitting behind the counselor’s desk. He said:
“Frankie is at risk of becoming diabetic. Also, and like many kids in this area, he is nearly obese. Your daughter, while healthier, isn’t in the clear either. Her blood pressure was high, likely due to substantial levels salt consumption and a nutrient deficient diet. Now, there are ways to combat these issues before they become serious problems. Namely, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. I wanted to meet with you today to emphasize the importance of feeding your children veggies and fruits during the important developmental stages of childhood. Of course, eating healthy is always recommended, but especially when it comes to children. They are growing and childhood eating habits often extend into adulthood. But it’s not too late to make a change. Exercise and natural foods will serve as a natural remedy to their ailments. Do these lifestyle changes sound reasonable?”
Mom asked what diabetes is and when the doctor explained she became distraught, starting to cry. She cursed god in Spanish and dabbed her eyes with a tissue the doctor had given her, smearing her make up. I was still caught on the word “veggies.” I tuned out after hearing it as images of polychromatic, dancing vegetables began to flood my mind, drowning out everything else. The rest of the transcription above is my best recollection of what the doctor said after uttering that marvelous word. But I remember the gravely concerned look on my mom’s face when I finally came to. She told the doctor that she would feed us better and encourage us to exercise more, but I could see reality weighing these promises down, a reality that required her to work virtually all hours of the day, to rely on food stamps to feed her children, to survive rather than thrive, which is what the doctor asked of her in lieu of the potential deterioration of her children—her family.
MOM picked up more hours. Now she was working seven days a week, the fruit of which was a few apples, bananas, frozen peas and baby carrots that would be consumed within a day or two, meaning the rest of the week we would eat like we used to; the way the doctor said we shouldn’t. Something more had to be done, I thought. But what? Our mom was trying and failing to save her children from the perils of cheap food, and we sat idly by waiting for her to complete mission impossible. There had to be some way I could secure better food for me and Frankie.
It was my turn on the Mario Kart and I was Princess Peach. We were waiting for Mom to come home with a brown bag of food. Losing to Bowser, detested Bowser, was the straw the broke the back of a camel called Complacency. I threw the Gameboy on the floor.
“We have to do something about the food, Frankie,” I said, almost yelling. “We need to help Mami.”
“What are we gonna do?” he said, tipping the remnants of a bag of salted pretzels into his mouth, Mom’s health-influenced alternative to hot cheetos.
“We’re gonna go get some veggies. Lots of them. And fruit, too. So Mom doesn’t have to worry and work so hard.”
“I’m not sure yet. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. Let’s go to sleep. Mami won’t be home till past midnight.”
The next day Frankie and I woke up to a crisp and cloudless blue sky, a perfect Saturday morning for hunting and gathering. Mom was already gone and I began to work out a plan. Frankie had an old, beaten up bike that Mom had given him on his sixth birthday. It had belonged to one of the neighbor kids who moved out when his father was sent to jail, putting the burden of monthly rent on his jobless mother. I hopped on the seat. Frankie climbed onto the handle bars. The nearest grocery store was four miles away. I decided it would be an excellent way to incorporate exercise into our strive for health, which until then had been neglected completely. Of course, Frankie simply sat there on the handlebars as I pushed us forward, but when he complained about pain in his abdomen and sweat began to drip down his brow, I knew he was experiencing some form of physical exertion. That made me smile.
By the time we got to the grocery store we were both drenched in sweat. It was a hot day, with the summer heat settling in and covering the valley in a blanket of suffocatingly hot air. I parked the bike in a bush near the store and we walked inside. I was in awe. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been inside a grocery store. The colors! They struck me first, and the tremendous amount food and light overwhelmed me. A pleasant but indiscernible song played lightly behind it all, and I was overcome by a flood of happiness that caused my eyes to water. There, to the left, I saw the vegetables. “Veggies!” I screamed, and ran to them, never taking my eyes off of their spectacular shapes and variations. Then I saw the broccoli, the veggie I loved most perched there on its shelf, waiting patiently to be cooked or crunched raw. It was everything the pictures had made it out to be and more, and as I admired the broccoli and the vegetables that surrounded it I noticed a black hose that ran across the top of the vegetable stand. It began to mist. With a hiss, a sparkling fog descended on the raw goods, creating crystal-like beads of water on their vibrant surfaces that reflected the spectacular fluorescence that lit the store. They dripped now, shimmering. Edible jewels. I was reminded of my throne.
Without thinking, I grabbed a bunch of asparagus. Then some bell peppers. I handed these to Frankie and grabbed more. Carrots, arugula, an ear of corn. The bundles of broccoli were so big I avoided them, choosing vegetables that would fit into my pockets instead. When I was carrying just enough to avoid seeming obvious, I motioned to Frankie to follow a white woman who was leaving the store after checking out. We stood close beside her, disguising ourselves as her children—more likely her step-children, on second thought. Nobody noticed us and before long we were riding home in victory. We had succeeded in securing vegetables that would slowly aid my brother in his fight against prediabetes and obesity, contribute to lowering my high blood pressure and ease the load of Mom’s seemingly endless toil, all while getting some much needed exercise. Yes, we stole. But this was no time for ethics.
AT FIRST I told Mom we asked some neighbors if they could spare any food and that the veggies were a gift from them. While embarrassed, Mom accepted this explanation, but when each night she came home to find a table full of vegetables and fruits she became suspicious. She questioned me. Interrogated is a better word. I didn’t know what to say, so I made up a fake charity service: Veggie Queen Collective, or, VQC. She bought it and stopped asking questions. She began to work less. Frankie and I were eating better, losing weight, and leading a better life. Our weekly raids kept us fit. For the first time in a long time we felt we could breath. We still struggled, of course, but the struggle was easier to endure and the happiness my brother and I derived from spending time with our mom made our weekly crimes well worth it. We were finally better than just OK. For an entire month our little family watched T.V. together and snuggled up on the couch until we fell asleep in the shape of a pyramid: Mom in the middle and me and Frankie on either side. I was proud of what I had done and what I would continue to do if it meant helping my mom and brother live healthy, happy lives. I was confident, too. I felt untouchable. Which is why, after weeks of successful veggie runs, I turned my focus to my beloved broccoli, which I had refrained from stealing because of its difficulty to conceal. One way or another, I promised myself, I would take my spring-green prize.
ON Broccoli Day, which I’d planned a week in advance, I wore my biggest jacket and left Frankie at home with Tom and Jerry. One hour later I was standing in front of those miniature, green trees, summoning the courage to stuff a few into my pockets and the abdomen of my coat. The mist began to rain down from the black hose above and I made my move. I grabbed three bundles of broccoli, concealed them and pressed them to my body. I began to move toward the exit, but as soon as I passed through the sliding doors I felt two massive hands grab me by my arms and hold me back. I was seized. I began to kick and scream, moving my body violently and trying to wriggle my way out of the powerful, merciless grip that was restraining me and cutting off blood flow to my hands. I began to cry. I cried like a baby, all the while kicking, fighting against whoever it was that was dragging me back into the store from behind.
“Let me go!” I screamed. But they wouldn’t. “Let me go! Help! Help me!”
They had seen me before and were waiting for my next attack. They stationed secret shoppers near the exits to grab me before I could escape, those bastards. I was still crying and laid in a fetal position on the tiled floor while they looked down on me with menacing eyes, hands on their hips. I hugged the broccoli that was inside my coat and heard it crack under the pressure.
The menacing men called the police. The officers asked me why I did what I did and told me that I knew better; that stealing was a crime. I didn’t answer any of their questions and pretended I didn’t know how to speak English. When they asked me where my mom and dad were, I would stare at them blankly in reply. I handled all of this with composure until my broccoli was confiscated. I screamed so much I think they simply wanted to get me off their hands, and after showing them where I had parked my bike, they told me never to steal again and let me go with a warning. I rode home feeling defeated, deflated, sad. My tears streamed back into my black hair, pushed by the force of the wind as I pedaled faster than ever before, returning to my castle empty-handed, without my coveted bounty.
FRANKIE was asleep on the couch when I got back, the Gameboy lying next to him as replays of his last race played over and over again on the tiny screen. It would be a few hours before Mom would get there, and I didn’t know how I would explain the sudden absence of vegetables. Maybe I would say VQC had gone out of business? I didn’t care anymore. I had failed myself and my family. Without our steady stream of vegetables, I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew it wasn’t out of the question that my brother could get sick and die. I felt that if this was his fate, it was because of my inability to take care of him, and that I should die too. I was so upset that I wanted to do nothing more than go to the room I shared with Frankie and cry until I fell asleep, which is precisely what I intended to do. But when I took off my jacket and threw it on the bed, I noticed a small lump near the right armpit. Feeling the spot, I noticed that something had fallen into a hole in the lining, but couldn’t tell what it was. I lifted the jacket and shook it and there, on the white sheets of my bed, fell a perfectly intact, bright green piece of broccoli. The stalk was smooth and thick. The head flowered symmetrically into a beautiful half dome. I stared at it with tired, unbelieving eyes. If my tear ducts hadn’t been expended on the ride home, I would have cried. I did cry. I dry cried. It was perfect. My very own tree of broccoli.
I bit down on it mightily, starting with the bushy top. It was utterly disgusting—not at all how I had remembered or imagined it—but I took a second bite with even more vigor than before. A laugh escaped me. I ate the broccoli feverishly. If anyone had seen me they would have thought I had been starving on a desert island for many years. Crying without tears I ate and ate. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Our little family would be make it, I thought, like we always had before. And as I chewed my mouth warped into a wistful smile. Me and my half-eaten broccoli. Frankie slept on the couch. Mom would be home soon.
By Matthew Zamudio