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"Enrique" is one of fourteen stories in Dandelion Crossing, my unpublished collection of linked short stories about characters at a brand-new suburban shopping mall in November 1983.

The story was published by Verdad in 2021. You can check it out here.

This gives you a flavor of what the book is like. If you're an agent, editor or publisher and want to learn more, please message me!


It was his second day on the job. The bus from the halfway house dropped Enrique off at the mall twenty minutes before the start of his shift at the restaurant. He had no complaints about this, because it gave him a chance to check out the place for the first time.

Although he was twenty-seven, Dandelion Crossing was the first indoor shopping mall Enrique had ever been inside. He had missed quite a bit while he was locked up – Jimmy Carter and disco, for instance – and malls were still a fairly recent thing, like leg warmers. They took some getting used to.

The building was shaped like a giant cross, with department stores at three ends, potted trees adorned with colored lights dotting the tile walkways, and a gathering spot in the middle where Santa Claus was stationed. Large skylights let in plenty of late November sunshine, and kids tossed pennies into fountains filled with the cleanest water he had ever seen. There was even a food court; Enrique was extremely curious about what kind of cuisine it offered. His mother had taught him how to cook and now he was an aspiring chef.

As he dodged Saturday shoppers buzzing with excitement at the official start of the Christmas season, he wasn’t quite sure what to think. Being behind bars had made him accustomed to things that were simple and plain, at least on the surface. Even the recipes he concocted were straightforward. Now, the world where people lived, worked and shopped was like a litter of overly enthusiastic puppies climbing all over him, barking and begging for attention – all to the sound of holiday Muzak blasting over the PA system.

The bookstore caught his eye because there was a display in the window promoting a new novel by Stephen King. A snarling cat on the cover with sharp teeth and long, curled whiskers promised more of the same from the author, who was one of the only writers Enrique recognized by name. He had seen the movie version of Carrie on a black and white TV in his cell one October night and still had bad dreams about hands shooting up from the rubble of crumbling buildings and dragging him down to hell. Enrique respected any creative soul who had the skills to create nightmares, or any other emotional reaction.

Glad to be drawn by something familiar, he stepped inside the bookstore and made his way toward the back. Finding a quiet area in the Fiction section, he let his eyes wander freely along the shelves. Enrique had dropped out of high school his sophomore year to care for his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer, so he wasn’t entirely confident in his reading skills. But the idea of a place where so many things were waiting to be discovered, if the reader was willing to invest some time and brain power into it, was exciting to him – much like trying a recipe for the first time.

“Hi. May I help you find something?”

He turned around and found a young woman with short auburn hair and thick eyeglasses, staring at him expectantly. She was around his age, maybe two or three years younger.

Enrique waited for the inevitable change in her expression. He had started to lose his hair in high school, and by the time he was locked up, he just asked the prison guards to shave it all off. His shiny bald head, coupled with his substantial biceps, made him look seriously intimidating. Many people he’d met since he’d been released from prison, from the manager at the restaurant to the caseworker at the halfway house who’d helped him secure the job interview, had pegged him as trouble even before they’d talked to him. He saw it in their eyes. On top of that, Enrique knew that people in this mostly white suburb weren’t used to seeing people that looked like him, even though he was wearing a spiffy new pair of khakis and looked presentable, all things considered.

But the woman’s face didn’t change. She actually looked curious, instead of scared. Her eyes were the color of the aquamarine mood ring that his little sister Dahlia had sent away for from the back of a comic book when they were kids. Her nametag read: JANE.

“I’m not much of a reader,” Enrique said. He didn’t want to reveal that he barely had five dollars in his pocket, and couldn’t afford more than a paperback, even if a title did catch his eye. “I just like being around books, I guess.”

“Come on, now. There has to be something here that will fit you,” Jane replied. She flashed him a wide smile, and he saw that one of her front teeth was missing. He wondered if she had tripped and hit her mouth on the kitchen counter. It was kind of charming, he decided, although he had to concentrate a little harder to understand what she was saying.

“I’m an ordinary guy,” he said. “The world seems so – what’s the word?”

“Chaotic?” Jane suggested.

“Right. I guess I like stories about regular people trying to survive.”

Jane considered this. “I think I have just the ticket,” she told him. “Follow me.”

She led him deeper into Fiction, until they reached the spot where all the C writers lived. “Here we go,” she proclaimed, then handed him a hardback book. The dust jacket looked like the plain white sails on a boat at first. But as he peered closer, he saw that it might be the top of a modern building, like an airport terminal. Cathedral, it read. Stories by Raymond Carver.

“I’ve never heard of him,” Enrique said. “Is he good?”

“He might help you make sense of it all,” Jane replied.

Enrique wasn’t used to people trusting him with important things. It felt brand new, like growing a moustache for the first time.

“What do you think?” Jane asked.

A voice in his head told him that he was at a crossroads. He wondered if he should tell Jane more about himself, or if it was too soon. There were plenty of things in his past that he was ashamed of. This woman – Jane – was trusting him right out of the box.

After he dropped out of high school, Enrique had worked full time to support his mother, whose insurance from her postal carrier job barely covered her cancer treatments. But he never told her that in addition to working as a supermarket clerk, he was pocketing money from the register on a regular basis. He gave every penny he earned (and stole) to his mother, but he kept his secret because he knew she’d never forgive him.

“I don’t have enough money with me,” he finally admitted. “And I don’t have a charge card because I just got out of prison six months ago.”

Jane considered this. She seemed undaunted, like she truly wanted to help. “Well,” she ventured. “It turns out we have an employee discount here. And since Christmas is coming, why don’t we consider this an early present?”

“But you don’t even know me,” he said, unable to conceal the complete surprise on his face.

“I don’t have to,” Jane replied. “You were honest with me, so that tells me you’re worth it.”

* * *

Enrique had served eight years out of a dime for driving the getaway car in a botched convenience store robbery. While he was locked up, he got a job in the prison kitchen and discovered he had a talent – and a love – for cooking. He even devised a few recipes that were moderate successes with both the kitchen staff and his fellow inmates. This caught the attention of the warden and helped secure his early release, as well as his brand-new job as expeditor and bus boy supervisor at Prairie Sunset, the restaurant in the mall.

The halfway house was in a bleak neighborhood just east of downtown, not too far from where Enrique grew up. He could look out his second-story bedroom window and see a corner of the skyline, which had one impressive new skyscraper that made a bold statement against the snowy winter night. His roommate told him that it was the headquarters of a large insurance company.

Mr. Thomas, the house director, had been a bit suspicious when Enrique showed him the book after he returned to the house that night, after his shift.

“I’ve never had a stranger buy me anything before,” the older man said, frowning. “But it’s a book, so I guess there’s no harm done.”

There was a common room downstairs where the guys could watch MTV or play dominoes on a card table. Enrique decided to spend the twenty minutes before lights out upstairs in his bedroom, instead. He opened the book and chose a story at random.

* * *

The next day was Sunday and he had to work the lunch shift, until four. During his fifteen-minute break, he trekked across the mall to the bookstore. Right before he went inside, he realized that he should’ve asked Jane what her work schedule was, to make sure she’d be there. But then he wondered if that might be too personal. It was a definite challenge figuring out how to interact with people again.

“Well, hi,” Jane said. She was at the magazine display, unloading a shipment of new ones from plastic cartons. “I forgot to ask – do you work here? I mean, here at the mall?”

“At Prairie Sunset. Sorry, I should’ve said that yesterday,” Enrique admitted, trying to ignore the curious glances of patrons who walked by. “I’m on my break now,” he added.

Jane slid the new copies of Vanity Fair into their spot. “That’s a long way to walk,” she said. “This mall is gigantic.”

Enrique noticed that she was appraising his body underneath his shirt and tie. He was used to girls from his old neighborhood checking him out, but this was something new. He decided to push the thought from his mind because he knew romance was forbidden until he earned enough money to move out of the halfway house and get his own place. Maybe the right thing to do was to try to connect over the gift she had given him.

“I read one of the stories last night,” he ventured.

Jane’s eyes brightened. He noticed how incredibly blue they were. A little jolt went through his body, like an electric shock. He felt nervous, but it was good, like the way he felt when he took a casserole out of the oven and checked to see if it was done.

“It was about a guy who had broken up with his wife and got his own place – a room at the top floor of a house. He was a drunk and couldn’t get sober.”

“Sure, I know that one,” Jane replied. “Ear wax.”

“Right. The whole story was about her trying to help him get rid of the wax in his ear, which had, like, paralyzed him. But it wasn’t just that. It stood for something more.”

Jane smiled. “A metaphor,” she said.

Enrique didn’t know what that meant, so he just nodded. “I wrote down this line,” he said. He took a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket and read it out loud. “‘Anyway, we need to try something. We’ll try this first. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. That’s life, isn’t it?’” He looked up at her, suddenly shy again.

“I think that’s a good rule,” Jane replied. “I hope you keep reading.”

“The guys at the halfway house just watch TV at night,” he said. “They’re hard to talk to. This book will really come in handy.” He paused as a woman asked Jane if they had any Jackie Collins novels.

“So that’s where you live?” Jane asked, as she turned back to him. “A halfway house?”

“It’s only temporary,” he explained quickly. “I need to get back to work,” he added. “The late lunch patrons will be coming in.”

Jane regarded him for a long moment. “You don’t have to answer this,” she said. “But why were you in prison?”

Enrique swallowed hard. “When I was nineteen, I drove the getaway car for a robbery,” he said. “I waited in the car while the other two guys went inside.”

“What happened?”

“The store owner ended up pulling a gun, so my friends ran out of there without getting nothing,” he said. “They jumped in the car and I drove for four blocks. But a cop car was already following us, so I pulled over.”

Jane gaped at him. “Wow,” she said. “That’s like a story you’d see on T.J. Hooker.”

Enrique felt himself blushing. “My two friends took off down the alley, but I stayed behind and gave myself up. One of them ended up getting shot in the back and killed on the spot. The other got busted. I don’t know where he’s at now, if he’s alive or dead.”

“Man,” she said. “That must be scary.”

“My mom really needed the money. That’s why I did it. But trust me, I left that life behind.”

“Do you think it was fair? I mean, going to prison for what you did?”

“It’s just the way of life, I guess. I’m not angry or resentful or nothing. And at least now I have a second chance,” Enrique replied. “I bet you’re sorry you bought me that book,” he added softly.

“I try not to make too many judgments about people,” Jane explained. “It’s like my number one rule. My motto, I guess you could say.”

Enrique had never heard anyone admit this out loud. On his way back to the restaurant, he realized that he’d again forgotten to ask her what day she worked next.

* * *

Mr. Thomas had taken him to the grocery store the week before, and Enrique persuaded him to buy the ingredients he needed to make Hungarian beef stew. One of his cellmates in prison had spent his childhood in that country and missed his mother’s cooking. Enrique had sat with the man and put together a good mental picture of what his favorite dish of hers was like. He then made it from scratch in the prison kitchen, and it was one of the recipes that helped score his early release. Enrique’s ethnic background was far from Hungarian, but he knew that as a chef, he had to be adaptable.

He made the stew for the residents of the halfway house that night, and they loved it. “This is some delicious shit,” his roommate, who was named Melvin, said. Another man called Parsnip agreed. He worked at the mall too, as a custodian. “Can I have seconds?” he asked, wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve.

Enrique decided to forgo a second portion for himself and to bring it to the bookstore to give to Jane. She had given him a gift, and he felt he should return the favor in the only way he knew how to express himself. So he found a large Tupperware container and kept it in the refrigerator until his shift the following day. He was so excited about his plan that he spent time with the guys after dinner and watched Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It left him feeling hopeful for the first time in a while.

The next day, the bus arrived early at the mall again, so he stopped in the bookstore to look for Jane. He wandered the aisles, growing more and more disappointed, until he finally asked an older man at the cash register where she was.

“Hmm,” he said, checking a clipboard. “She doesn’t work ‘til tomorrow. At three.” The man noticed the bag in Enrique’s hand. “Is that for her?”

Enrique thought about this. “Do you have a break room?” he asked. “With a refrigerator? I made her some food and I need to keep it cold.”

“Sure. I’ll take it back there right now.”

Enrique realized that he would miss seeing the spark of curiosity in Jane’s blue eyes when she looked in the bag, but sometimes you couldn’t have everything. In his case, more often than not, he thought. He surrendered the food.

The rest of the day passed in a rush. The restaurant manager sent him out to break up a fight in the entrance foyer between two teenagers who were arguing over the Defender machine. Once they took one look at Enrique’s massive arms, they left in a hurry. The other major news was that one of the bus boys came to work hung over, and the manager fired him on the spot.

This was a strong reminder to Enrique to keep walking the straight and narrow path. He decided that he would put away some money to buy a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. He was sure they’d have it at the bookstore. Along with Cathedral, those would be two books he’d be proud to have on his shelf. He hadn’t been able to wipe the first Carver story from his mind, how a story so simple could be so deep. It also gave him confidence that he could try reading other books.

The next day, he worked the lunch shift. When he jogged over to the bookstore on his break, Jane wasn’t there. He found the same older man working; this time he was putting out a display of 1984 wall calendars.

“Remember me from yesterday?” Enrique asked him. “I was looking for Jane.”

“She went home,” the man said. “Not sure why.”

Enrique’s heart sank. “Is she coming back?”

“Don’t know.”

Enrique stood there a moment, not sure what to do. Was she angry with him? Did she think his gesture was too much, too soon?

Somehow, he made it through the rest of his shift. The chef kept undercooking the steaks and the patrons kept sending them back. And later, a little boy knocked over the fake Christmas tree and got tangled up in the lights, laughing hysterically the whole time. It was hard for Enrique to keep his temper in check.

That night, he was lying on his bed, looking up at the ceiling, which was discolored by water stains. It seemed to lock in the cold night that crept under the window, making him shiver.

There was a knock at the door; it was Parsnip. He was dressed in a sweatshirt and pajama bottoms. “You got a phone call,” he said.

Puzzled, Enrique made his way downstairs to the phone that sat on the table in the living room. Melvin was there watching TV; an advertisement teased Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. He didn’t seem to want to give Enrique any privacy.

“Hello?” Enrique said, cupping one hand around the mouthpiece.

“This is Jane.”

Enrique felt himself smiling, but he still wasn’t sure if it was good news. “Are you okay?” he asked. “I was worried about you.”

“I ate your beef stew and got an allergic reaction,” she replied. “I threw up in the break room so I went home.”

“Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m allergic to caraway seeds,” she said. “You wouldn’t think something so small could cause so much trouble, but it does to me. I was just so excited to eat what you’d cooked that I didn’t stop to look what was in it.”

Enrique’s heart swelled. “Really?” he asked. “I thought you were angry with me.”

“Of course I’m not angry. How about next time, we eat lunch together? I still haven’t checked out the food court.”

“I’d like that,” he said, remembering the words he had written down from the story. We’ll try this first. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. That’s life, isn’t it?

This was his motto now.

"Enrique" from Dandelion Crossing
February 08, 2023