top of page

The Nerve

(by Natalie Hirt)

The knock on the door at 7a.m. was a surprise. Not a pleasant neighborly knock. More of a commanding knock. Perhaps even an angry knock. Impatient. Rap-rap-rap. Again and again.

“Look at me,” it said. “Answer me. I need. I want something.”

Who knocks like that so early in the morning? Or ever, for that matter? My first thought: a man.

Couldn’t be our father. Daddy worked the night shift, and he wasn’t home yet from the rock mine. My two younger brothers and I had been lounging on the couch and the floor watching cartoons while Amá made breakfast.

When I say my mother was making breakfast, I mean she was making breakfast. Materially, we didn’t have much. The house was a shack. We used a butterknife to get in the back door because there was no doorknob. Some of the windows were broken and had cardboard over them. Others had duct tape holding them together. That morning, by the smells coming from the kitchen, I knew we were having papas con chorizo, torta de huevo, and beans. The smell of charred tortilla heating on the comal wafted to my nose. We may not have had heat in the house, but we definitely had good food.


I looked to my brothers. Our eyes met. Without speaking, we communicated the same thing: Run! We scattered like a herd of gazelle toward the back of the house.

“Who is it?” Amá said as she came toward us wielding a spatula. She caught my arm. “Didn’t you look out the window?”

“No,” I said, my feet still trying to move. But I made my body still, me being the oldest one and the girl. I watched my brothers reach their room for safety.

“Don’t answer it,” I said. “He sounds mad.”

“Who sounds mad?” Amá peered out the window, unafraid. I could tell by the way she held her spatula that this wasn’t a morning to mess with her.

And the thing is, our house sat on the dividing line between two rival gangs in Southern California. Most nights, tires squealed with police in pursuit of stolen cars, helicopters overhead. It got to where I slept better with the blue-white glare of a helicopter spotlight because I knew the police were nearby trying to catch the bad guys.

Rap-rap-rap at the door, angry and demanding. My mother went to meet it, spatula in hand while I held my breath, hoping for the best, expecting the worst.

She opened the door. “Hello?”

I had guessed correctly. A man’s voice answered. “I smell breakfast.”

“Yes?” she said.

“Well, I’m hungry.”

My mother responded with cool silence.

Time ticked by, and even though I hid just behind the wall in the dining room, I heard his feet shifting on the front porch, deciding what to do next.

“I want breakfast,” he said, in the same impatient voice his knuckles made through our door.

“Join the club,” Amá said.

“Make me breakfast!” The man shouted, desperation creeping in.

Amá brought the metal spatula around and pointed it at him. “Who do you think you are?” She waited and repeated, “Coming here demanding me. Who do you think you are?”

She poked the spatula out the door, presumably at the stranger. “Listen, I am done being everybody’s maid. Mira que cabron, coming here demanding breakfast from me.” (Loose translation: Look at this asshole coming here).

Only once in a while Amá lost her temper, and from my experience, this man clearly didn’t know better. He was about to enter the find out phase. She had awakened with very few nerves left, and he had gotten on all of them.

The tirade thus began. “Now you. Here knocking on my door. Do you know I have a set of twins? Three kids I’m trying to get ready for school. You out here knocking on my door like I owe you something. Nobody has brushed their teeth or gotten dressed. I’m trying to feed these people. It smells like dog shit in the mudroom. I don’t know why, if the dog shit is in the house or if it’s stuck to somebody’s shoes. Useless dog. One of the toilets is plugged. You out here knocking. You going to fix my toilet? My husband is going to be here any minute, and he’s hungry too, you know.” She waved the spatula back and forth as if slapping the man’s face with it. “And you. Who are you to demand breakfast from me?”

“I’m hungry,” the man said. “I got off the bus and followed the smell.”

Amá slammed the door.

She went back to the stove. Banged lids on cast iron pans, alternately cussing in Spanish and then asking God for forgiveness in English. She used her spatula to lift a portion of perfectly crunchy caramelized papas con chorizo onto a large tortilla. Filled it with steaming refried beans, cheese, scrambled eggs with bell peppers, onions, jalapenos. Finally, salsa ladled over the top. She rolled it up, a tightly swaddled burrito in two seconds flat.

I stood before her ready to claim my prize. This must be meant for me. I didn’t run off to my bedroom like my scaredy-cat brothers did.

Amá waved me off. She walked back to the living room, me right behind.

“Amá, what are you doing?”

She moved to open the door.

“No, Amá, don’t let him in.”

“I’m not,” she said, flinging the door open.

The man hadn’t moved. He stood there, sad and blinking.

“Ma’am,” he began.

“No, don’t 'ma’am' me.” Amá thrust the heavy burrito out the door to him. “You need to learn some manners. Here is your breakfast.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Now, the homeless shelter is right down there.” She pointed to the end of the street. “Don’t come back here. You understand me? Don’t come back.”

We watched his back as he walked down the street eating his burrito, careful not to spill a single morsel of goodness.


Natalie Hirt is an essayist and fiction writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. She is an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship recipient and Tin House Fellow. She has written for such publications as The Rumpus, and can be found on Instagram and Substack.

Torta de Huevo

(In English, it means an egg omelet, but almost always turned into scrambled eggs for my harried mother.) 5 eggs 2 T. milk

olive oil 1 jalapeno, diced (seeds or no seeds, your preference) 1/2 small onion, diced 1 bell pepper, seeded and diced salt and pepper, to taste garlic powder olive oil Whisk eggs with milk. Heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a cast iron pan.

Add jalapeno, onion, and bell pepper to the pan.

Stir several minutes until translucent. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in eggs. Add sprinkle of garlic powder. Cook, stirring, until eggs reach desired level of firmness.

Feeds a family of 4, plus one stranger at the door.


bottom of page