Michael Apinyakul — What Happens Inside a Tortilla (a Chaos Theory)

My morning begins with a hooker biting the batteries out of a man’s phone and all I can think is that I haven’t had breakfast yet. The drama moves through my bus stop like a warm breeze, and in a blur of broken high heels and shouting, she dismantles the phone, tossing and spitting plastic to the ground. He picks them up like bread crumbs and follows her up the street.

The bus comes on time and I take my usual window seat. Five blocks into the ride I see the hooker and her John, still yelling, still gesturing into the air, still moving through the city like a two person parade.

Everyday I end up downtown early and the same man grins at me. He parks his truck in the loading zone of a government building. Just a little converted pickup, four cylinders, rear wheel drive. He meets my eye, leaning against the truck, looking for a customer. I work part time, shelving books at the Albuquerque Public Library which doesn’t afford me many luxuries. His feet shuffle as I approach.

He speaks very little English and waves me around to the back of the truck which has been converted with odd hinges and handles. He opens the rear latch like a briefcase in a heist movie. Rather than stacks of unmarked bills, he reveals at least one hundred burritos, wrapped in foil and meticulously stacked and categorized, glimmering like jewels. He runs me through the varieties and I listen for key words. I hear hatch chili, patatas y huevos, adovada, rojo y verde. I get as close to the burritos as I can without touching them, then order two without asking the price. It turns out they’re only $3.50 each.

When I was a kid and begged my Dad for a new toy, I would present him the object in question. He would take it from me, hold it in his open palm, then move his arm up and down, weighing it. Then he’d flick the toy with his finger, listening for density and metal content. As I walk to work I find myself holding the burritos in my open palm and moving my arm up and down. The price to weight ratio is off the charts.

I won’t eat them for another few hours but I feel them through my backpack to know they’re still hot. I get to the library and set my day in motion, shelving two nonfiction carts, a children’s cart, and I handle the book donations that pile up in the back hall. The donations never stop and the elderly volunteers in the basement can’t keep up. I fear they’re burying themselves down there. I only see quick glimpses of them through the ceiling-high stacks of books, like light flickering through a fence.

Today’s donations are boxes of immaculately bound Japanese books and photo albums. Most of the photos are of wedding dinners, where long tables are laid full of exotic foods. For every six people, there is a lobster stuffed with lesser shellfish and posed like a ballet dancer, claws in the air in perfect port de bras. Middle aged men litter every page, red faced and eternally thrusting their whiskey at someone else’s whiskey. They are outnumbered only by brooding, long legged kids. There is an entire album of photos of Japanese horse sketches. Each 6×9 is worn with thumbprints. Someone loved these facsimiles of facsimiles of horses.

Suddenly, a volunteer appears. A shrunken silver haired lady who informs me that once I leave the donations in the basement I am not to touch them again. Then she folds herself back into the musty stacks like a mist.

Lunch break. The burritos are strangely wrapped. Not in the traditional method of folding in the sides of the tortilla then rolling tightly and evenly up the middle; a life skill you improve upon over time, like sewing on a button, talking to women, or filing your W2’s. This man’s rolling technique leaves dimples at either end of the burrito, like little cleft chins. Instead of the doughy first bite, this revolutionary roll lets you immediately get into the filling. I hold in my hand the wheel, reinvented. I don’t dare unfold the tortilla to understand it, for the same reason you don’t unfold an origami crane. You’ll never get it back together correctly. Just enjoy the crane.

The Adovada is juicy and moves from spicy to sweet and then to a radiant heat, like coals dying in your cheeks. The tortillas are charred yet soft. And it’s that simple, just stewed meat in a tortilla that bites clean. A solid, working class number, inventively rolled and sold for a song.

I find the hooker and her John have made it to the library as I start shelving biographies. They’re sitting on the floor, between Charles and Marilyn Manson. They have reassembled the phone and have plugged it into an outlet to charge. They hold hands and smile. A slowly stewed, satisfying day for the two of them and another wrap job I don’t quite understand.