The Ultra Cutthroat Hand Pie Contest, Junior Edition

Pinterest Hidden Image

The Ultra Cutthroat Hand Pie Contest, Junior Edition

Short story

by Beth Sherman

Maya has memorized the rules: No published recipes, no talking, no crying, no mugging for the cameras. She surveys her ingredients with cautious optimism: pastry dough, cake mix, Oreo cookie pieces, chocolate chips, marshmallows, Nutella. Her Death by Chocolate empanada should be creative, but not showy. Brash, but not overpowering. Fun, but not too jokey. In a word, delisiosa.

Before the Journey, when they could scrape together enough money, she used to love making empanadas for everyone in her family. Now the hand pies frighten her. One misstep – if the filling is too hot or the crust falls apart – and everything ends for Papi, Mami, Javier and Nelsy.  If she wins, her entire family is awarded American citizenship. Losers are shipped back to wherever they came from, in her case, Venezuela, when they’ll either get locked up in La Pinta for life or if the quotas are filled, executed on the spot the moment they step foot on the tarmac.   

There are 11 other contestants, separated by tall metal dividers built to resemble the Wall along the border  – a 2,000 mile long, 30-foot-high grey steel monster with pointy spikes on top. She’d like to be able to look over the competition. Are they girls? Boys? Older than 11? She glances at the judges table – white lady; white, older man in a tux; white, younger man with a British accent. He’s the sarcastic one. She knows to watch out for him. 

She wonders what Nelsy is doing right now. Probably staring out the window of the Detention Center at the empty yard where the Punishment Tree is. All the cells face that tree. If Maya were there, she’d tell Nelsy to step away from the window and they could whisper make-believe stories to each other while Mami paces and Papi prays. Javier hasn’t said a word since that night in the Darien Gap.  

Bright toned, upbeat music plays. The show’s theme song. Maya understands some of the English words: fun, knife, crust, death. The lights are too bright. Maya wipes her upper lip with the sleeve of her white chef’s smock. If even one drop of perspiration lands on her prep area, she’s heard that a trap door will open beneath her station and she’ll tumble down and never see her family again. She stretches her gums over her teeth, forcing a smile. 

Just as suddenly as it began, the music stops. The judges introduce each contestant, talking quickly. Focus, Maya tells herself. Don’t blow this. She wills her hands not to shake as she pours, measures, mixes, chops. Maya’s hands don’t belong to her anymore. They’re stiff as claws, gripping the metal spoon awkwardly. Chocolate bits slide in and out of focus until she bites down hard on her lower lip and pain makes the pieces snap into place, stirring, stirring, pinching the dough over the filling the way her abuela used to pinch her cheeks before abuela was killed. 

Moving carefully, she puts her empanada on the middle shelf of her oven, a pink miniature toy stove. Sets the timer. Thirty minutes. That’s how long it will take to know whether she’s pulled it off. In the meantime, there are three more commercial breaks and the judges tell jokes, entertaining the studio audience. Maya lets herself remember floating in the Caribbean and counting clouds, clean sheets, the terrier she left behind, arepas stuffed with shredded beef, her grandfather’s mustache, books, mist curling off the mountains, hiding behind the shed when the gangs came around, her desk at school scarred with the names of kids that were taken, Mami boiling milk for Javier, the crowded marketplace where vendors sold cazon empanadas and hot dogs, Papi trying to find work, playing baseball in the streets, the tire swing hanging from the jacaranda tree next to their house, the time she saw a scarlet macaw and it didn’t flinch when she edged nearer, Papi coming home one day with a black eye and a mangled hand, listening to Los Chicos sing cuando vendras a casa, how each day bread cost more until they couldn’t afford to eat, the fires at night, bodies of young men tossed out of cars lying in the gutter because people were afraid to touch them, stealing bananas from a cart, the five of them in their one room house all together, safe, not safe. She stares into the camera until all she sees are yellow and red spots, like the soap bubbles she and Nelsy used to blow.  

The British judge is walking towards her. Could it? Is it possible she’s won? Her heart thumps crazily in her chest. Maya knows better than to meet his eyes. She looks him in the nose instead. Saved. She’s not going back. None of them are. But instead of  coming over to her station, the man enters the one on her left, and the studio audience erupts with pleasure, a volcano of cheers. It’s over. The lady judge says the name of the winner, but Maya isn’t listening anymore. She’s remembering how in Puerto Cabello she and Nelsy used to wade into the sea and pick starfish off the shallow seagrass beds, how once there was a red one, spiny, nearly fake, with hundreds of bumps and paths between the bumps, a whole world she never knew about, right in her hand.    

Empanadas Illustration 3
About the Author

Beth Sherman has an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her stories have been published in Portland Review, Blue Mountain Review, Tangled Locks Journal, 100 Word Story, Fictive Dream, Flash Boulevard, Sou’wester and elsewhere. Her prose will be featured in The Best Microfictions 2024 Anthology and she’s also a Pushcart and a multiple Best of the Net nominee.