We spent the greater part of the next three days day at the hospital. It was mostly boring—a hurry up and wait kinda thing—interspersed with lab work, more tests of every conceivable type, and endless consultations with doctors, nurses, and once, the director of the hospital.
We arrived Thursday morning before daybreak and spent a hopeful morning looking for some sort of resolution to our mounting anxiety. There weren't any more tests, at least not for me. But there were results, lots of them, and endless interpretation of same.
My butt was numb by lunchtime.
We went to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant with Dr. Epstein. It was the kind of place you can't find if you don't know it's there; the sign was painted right on the brick facade. It was faded and a lot of paint had peeled. The remaining letters read La..G...inas Tont..."
"Welcome to Tonto's," a dusky señorita greeted us as we entered. She wore a costume that I supposed was ethnic...a bright-colored pattern dress over what appeared to be a chemise.
When she saw Dr. Epstein she greeting him in Spanish.
"Bien venido a Las Gallinas Tontos." Welcome to 'the Stupid-Crazy Hens'.
She picked up six menus and led us past the ancient cash register, along a winding path through a dining room full of cramped booths, most of which were empty.
We passed to old men playing checkers and drinking Dos Equis. They smiled at me and my sister, but it was affectionate, not a leer.
Our table seated six, but just barely. They must have small plates, to serve us all on that tiny table. But it was near the restrooms and, if my nose could be trusted, the kitchen.
It all smelled so good, but I had no idea what to order. Mexican food isn't exactly ubiquitous in St. Louis.
We all squeezed into the booth, with me sitting opposite Dr. Epstein and on the outside, so we could talk to each other and order for everybody else.
"So, Dr. Epstein," I asked in Spanish after the waitress had gone. "Have the results of the DNA tests come back yet?"
"Not yet," he said and frowned. "No talking about medicine during lunch. This is social time."
"But we talked shop yesterday at lunch."
"That was different; besides," he gestured to Robbie on his right, "that table was so much bigger. I would have no place to set my results aside, except on your brother's plate. He'd have them eaten before you could stop him, and we'd have to do this all over again."
We laughed, but nobody else did; they didn't speak Spanish and were looking at us the way Americans always look at foreigners speaking a foreign language. To them, it was not cultural—only foreign.
"Okay," I replied, this time in English. "We'll talk food. Oh, and I love the name of this place."
He gave a little chuckle.
"Oh yes, 'the Hee-Haw Chicken Heads'."
I wouldn't have translated it like that, but it worked.
"So, Dr. Esptein, tell me about Mexican food."
"It is lovely," he admitted, dropping back into a sultry Spanish baritone, like a radio announcer. "But we're in Texas, so Tex-Mex will have to do."
"Food of the Americas—what immigrants from Mexico to Texas make with what ingredients they can find. They are similar, but not overly so."
"Ah, like how?"
"In Mexico, they do not use much yellow cheese. And your tortillas, they are often made of flour. Texans eat a lot more meat, and a lot fewer beans. And beef; mostly they eat pork or chicken in Mexico, a little lamb.
"There are vegetables and spices that are hard to find, even here in Dallas. I don't see annato or jamaica in the grocery stores. And I miss my mother's nopal."
"That's a cactus, right?"
"This is all very confusing," I confessed, looking at the menu. "So a taco is beans or rice, vegetables and maybe some meat on a tortilla. I know that one. And a burrito is beans and rice or and cheese on a tortilla.
"What's a chalupa?"
"It is beans or rice and cheese on an open tortilla fried crisp. It could also be called a tostada."
"And an enchilada? That means 'chilied'."
"Yes. It's meat or cheese rolled in a tortilla, and baked with a sauce. It could have fried onions or peppers. A lot of Mexican food is some variation of beans, rice, meat, vegetables, and cheese on a tortilla."
He thought about it for a second.
"Look, it's all beans and meat and vegetables on a tortilla."
I went back to the menu.
"Fideo con Pollo?" Chicken spaghetti?
"Fideo is different—one of my favorites." He rolled his eyes and took a deep breath. "It is thin spaghetti, often broken and browned in a big skillet—or a paella pan—with pork or chicken and vegetables. There are many variations, it depends on where the cook is from, but most of them are pretty good."
"That's what I'll have then."
The waitress came back with our drinks and chips and salsa, and we ordered. I had the fideo plate with black beans, an enchilada, and a tamale.
We munched on the chips in silence while we waited for our food. Only Dr. Epstein ate the salsa, though; he said it was full of 'fiery death'.
Our entrées came on hot plates the size of hubcaps. I'd never seen so much food on one plate. They barely fit; each person's plate touched all of his neighbors'.
The food was good, but I can't say I was ready for it. I liked the beans, and the tamale was delicious, but the fideo was hot.
"Why didn't you tell me this was so hot?" I was glad for the iced tea.
"I didn't know it was." He picked up a clean fork. "May I?"
He tried it and sighed. I took another drink and the pain subsided a bit more.
"That's not hot...a little bland, in fact."
"Really? What are you, a fire-eater?"
"No," he said sadly. "Not here."
I took another bite and tasted the pain. I whimpered a bit and took another drink. My glass was almost empty. I kept eating until it was all gone.
"Why did you keep eating," he asked me with a wry smile on his face, "if it was too hot for you?"
"Because it's so good."
The waitress came back and filled our tea glasses.
"Do you want dessert?" She pulled out a pad and pen. "We have sopapillas, flan, dulce de leche..."
"No thanks," I said, holding up my hand. "There is way more food than I can ever eat here. I'll just try the enchilada, and then you can take my plate."
"Of course," she said, tucking the pad back into her apron. "I'll be right back." She scampered off and bussed another table.
"How could you possibly eat dessert after a foundering meal like this?"
"Well, we take a siesta after lunch, in the old country."
"I don't know how you do it."
I took another drink of tea and dug into my enchilada.
It was fiery death. Visions of fire trucks and burning buildings played through my head.
I dropped my fork and drained about half of my glass.
He snickered again.
"I think my lungs are on fire," I managed to gasp. "I can barely breathe."
He picked up his fork.
"Are you going to finish that?" He pointed to the enchilada.
I shook my head and held up my glass, hoping our waitress would bring a fire extinguisher.
He cut a generous bit with his fork—way more than I'd dared—and shoved into his mouth. He chewed it slowly, and a smile borne of nostalgia formed on his lips as he swallowed.
"Now that," he said, cutting himself another bite, "is spicy."