I was halfway through my meal when a baby crawled out from the Taco Bell kitchen and stopped at my feet. It tugged on my skirt hem. I picked up the babbling thing and brought it to the cashier.
“I found this,” I said. “Do you know if it has an owner?”
“Oh, that’s Baby Bell. She’s ours,” said the teenage boy behind the counter.
“You know how sometimes bodegas have a cat? Well, we have a baby.”
Baby Bell was trying her best to fit my whole head in her mouth. An inquisitive gurgle sounded in my wet ear. Baby was hungry, so I sat her on my table next to my regular order: cheesy fiesta potatoes and a chalupa shell. Just the shell. During my twenties, I’d gotten in touch with what really mattered. I learned to disentangle the things that I really loved from the things I was expected to love, and decided that when it was within my control, I’d get the most pleasure I could out of life. In order to fully enjoy the layers of softness and crunch of a chalupa shell, the fillings had to go. My receipt lay next to the plastic tray. NO beef, NO tomato, NO sour cream, NO cheese, NO lettuce.
I ripped off a bite-sized piece of the shell and let it sit on my tongue like the body of Christ. I handed Baby the next shred of chalupa bread, which she happily sucked at until it turned to pale mush.
“She likes you,” the cashier said.
I loved her.
On Baby Bell’s fifth birthday, we drank Baja Blast from champagne flutes and ate bottomless caramel apple empanadas. We munched away. Twenty or so people showed up to celebrate Baby.
Edgar, a skinny old man who always dressed up, stood next to me and covered his mouth as he chewed. Those empanadas refused to go down quietly, even in the hands of the daintiest eaters. Edgar and I were the only non-employees who’d attended every birthday party so far. I thought of him as Baby’s grandpa. He showed up almost every day and ordered two Gorditas with cinnamon twists. “Edgar, is this all you eat?” we’d ask. “No,” he’d reply. “A veces voy a Pizza Hut.” I hadn’t had a full conversation in Spanish since my last living grandparent died, and when I spoke with Edgar, I felt an automatic affection. His raspy voice reminded me of dominoes, homemade mango marmalade, and kitchens crowded with trinkets.
“Did you bring a present?” Edgar asked. He always brought Baby Bell mints from the lobby of his apartment building. I wondered whether the gift bag he held was full of them.
“A toy,” I said. It was a kit I found in Toys-R-Us that came with egg-shaped rocks and tiny tools to break them open. Inside, there were said to be dinosaurs.
Edgar lifted the gift bag and let me peek: a rainbow set of bows and hair ties, tucked into glitter-flecked tissue paper.
Baby was singing instead of speaking that day. She had caramel apple goo stuck to her face as she opened her presents. “I love this place and I love you,” she sang, holding her new hair ties aloft. She grabbed Edgar’s hands and hopped in place while he shuffled from side to side.
A teenager walked into the restaurant, stoned as hell. His pink eyes widened when he saw what he’d walked into. He ordered his lunch and the cashier explained the situation. “Bro, this is crazy, bro.” He stood in the middle of the crowd, laughing and laughing. “So is there a Wendy who lives at Wendy’s?” he wheezed. He scarfed down sixteen empanadas.
“The boy sure can eat,” Baby sang, in a startlingly good singing voice.
“Stop calling me Baby. I go by Bell, now,” Bell said. I thought that was fine. Lots of people go by their last names. She was eating my usual, but she sporked the fiesta potatoes into the chalupa shell and ate it like that. The crunchy half-moon disappeared bit by bit into her mouth. Edgar’s corner booth was empty, a fact I was still getting used to. I missed our old jokes. Bell sipped at her Mango Strawberry Frutista. She’d brought me my own, on the house. I didn’t say anything, though I’m a lemonade kind of lady.
“I got my schedule already,” Bell said. “I have all six periods with Mariana, but only one class with Jenny.” Bell sounded disappointed but I was glad to hear it. Jenny was ostensibly Bell’s best friend, but whenever Bell came home all sulky and contemplative, wondering whether she should part her hair differently or throw out her lo-top sneakers, Jenny was always at the bottom of it.
She took me to her corner of the break room. We sat on her cot while she pointed at a printout of her schedule taped up on the wall. Also taped to the wall in a chaotic teenage mosaic: movie ticket stubs, an eye-shadowed Kristen Stewart, a selfie of her and Edgar in his hospital room, a Morse code chart, an advertisement for cream cheese (“because it’s hilarious”).
We went on one of our walks down 49th street. It was miserably hot, but Bell wanted to walk the mile and a half to her new school so she could see it from the outside. I tugged at my damp blouse to create a breeze on my belly. We passed dozens of restaurants, auto shops, a quinces photography studio. The discount clothing stores had their big-butted mannequins displayed on the sidewalk and I feigned interest in a green dress just to feel the blast of AC from a store’s open door. In the smell of exhaust and oil, we chugged the liquid leftovers of our Frutistas while Baby Bell waited for summer to end.
Corporate bought Bell a car as an early graduation gift. It was a sedan, taxi yellow, like so much nacho cheese she’d eaten growing up. Her vanity plate gleamed in the Florida sun. BBY BLL.
She drove it everywhere, it seemed, except to school. After Bell received her college acceptance letter, she skipped every class except Culinary Arts. She’d enrolled in the class because the 300’s hall always smelled so good, and Bell, being a natural investigator, followed her nose one day to the source of the scent: a classroom full of students in white hats, white shirts, and black pants, eating creamy pasta from metal bowls. After that, she started experimenting at home. She created an off-menu item—the chalupadilla—especially for me. Two chapula shells flattened into discs, glued together with melted cheese and zesty sauce. “I know you mostly like the shell, but I think I’ve nailed the ratio here,” she said. I’ll never forget that first bite. It was exquisite. Sometimes it’s better to leave your fate in the hands of others.
Late summer, a week before she was supposed to leave, Bell made me a chalupadilla and said we needed to talk. She planned to drive from South Florida to New York in mid-August, but as her departure date inched closer, her excitement turned slowly into fear. She wanted someone to plan the route, book hotels, and make sure she never drove while sleepy. How could I say no?
A week later, under the raging sun, we stuffed suitcases into the trunk of her car. The entire morning staff met us in the parking lot to bring us bags full of road snacks—crunchwraps, mostly—and hug Bell goodbye. Bell asked me to drive the first leg of the trip so she could DJ.
We spent the first hour stuck in traffic on the Palmetto. Once our car came loose from that stretch of highway, we’d fly to our destination. We’d drop Bell off in that quaint town in upstate New York, and she’d start her new life. Maybe I’d take a bus into the city, stand on a busy street and eat a hot dog. If the food tasted good enough, maybe I’d stick around.
Nicky Gonzalez is a spooky lady from Hialeah, Florida. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart and The Massachusetts Review. She was the inaugural recipient of a Hickory Farms gift basket during the Summer of Sausage. She would like to dedicate “Baby Bell” to the Taco Bell on 49th Street and 12th Ave, and to the Denny’s on Red Road, which is now a Taco Bell.