Unfortunately for Barto, gossip is a small town’s lifeblood, and he had no sooner than climbed out of his truck at the warehouse when news of Rosana destroyed his resolution.
“Senor Barto!” It was Angelo, the foreman on the Northern Section. “What’s this I hear about an American model getting beaten up? Eh? And you’re related to her?”
“Where’d you hear that nonsense?” Barto snapped.
“Whoa. Easy, Boss!” The older man chuckled nervously. “My wife was on the phone with Jose’s wife last night, and she said that he said he saw an American model that had gotten beaten up last night in one of the Haitian picker’s houses up by the Convent. I told my wife that couldn’t be right because those houses weren’t finished yet. The gossip that runs around this town! Eh?”
Barto saw the hopeful gleam in his eye.
“My cousin came home from the States. She is a widow and lost both her sons last month. Her son’s widow came with her and had some trouble yesterday. But she’s fine.”
“But, how -”
“Basta!” he snarled. “Do you have an update? Is the Northern Section ready to pick? I’ve got a truckload of crates and packing materials arriving this afternoon, and I want you to pre-stage half of it in your district. Do you understand?” He turned and strode toward the office on the first floor of the warehouse.
“Sure. Same as last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. I got it, Boss. But -”
Barto paused, his hand on the door, willing himself to be patient through gritted teeth. “But what?”
“I never seen you angry before. Is everything okay, Barto?”
The Boss passed a hand across his face, stopping to stroke his mustache. “Yeah. Thanks, Angelo. I’m sorry. I’ve got a lot on my mind with the mango harvest starting. I’ll see you and Reynaldo out at the Ranch around noon.” He flung open the door and disappeared into the wide interior of the warehouse.
Angelo dredged his cellphone out of a the pocket of his jeans and dialed Reynaldo’s number.
“Did you hear about the American woman getting stuck in the river? Does Barto know her? I hear she’s a beauty! Eh?”
“She’s a widow, and lives with Barto’s cousin who just came back from the States. But don’t say anything about it to Barto. He’s crazy today.”
“Crazy? Crazy how?”
“I don’t know. Angry. He yelled at me.”
“Somethings going on! It’s that Americana -”
“Yeah, well, whatever it is, just don’t mention her when you see him this afternoon, eh?”
“Thanks, my friend. I’ll see you out at the Ranch and then afterward I will make a trip up to see the Sisters at the Convent. It’s been a long time since I paid my respects.”
Barto was right. Rosana got up from the new bed he had installed for Norma the very next day. But he was wrong about her destination.
“Come on, Mama.” She whispered, shaking her mother-in-law gently. “Let’s get dressed and go into the town for some groceries before it gets too hot.” She really meant, ‘before the Sisters come to babysit us.’
She moved gingerly, dressing herself and Norma, grateful for the leftovers and the bucket of water which prevented her having to learn how to draw it from the well before her hands and back healed.
Just as the rays of the sun began to crest the mountains to the East and slide down into the valleys full of ripe mangoes, Rosana helped her mother-in-law down the steps and into the wheelchair. Then, with money hidden in her bra, a long broom skirt, and her hair tucked up under her sun hat, Rosana began pushing the wheelchair down the dirt track toward the main road to Palmar.
“How far, Mama?”
“To Palmar? Maybe two miles. You will be able to push so far? I’m so sorry to be such a trouble to you, I’m so so sor -”
“Stop, Mama. You’d do the same for me. We have to have food, and I don’t want to be mooching off the Nuns all the time.”
“Begging. Always asking.”
“They give because God says to give.”
“Maybe so, but I’d rather figure out a way to earn it myself.”
Rosana pulled backward on the chair as they descended the hill, her shoulders and back aching and throbbing. She set her jaw and turned her thoughts to other things. Like money. She would spend no more than the equivalent of twenty dollars today. Then next week, hopefully, she would have a job and could pay for groceries out of her salary.
At the bottom of the hill, they turned right onto the main road and for a few minutes enjoyed the smooth ride on the asphalt before it ended and became dirt.
Now, people were taking to the roads on their way to work and shopping. A bus zoomed by in a cloud of diesel fumes, passengers peeking out from behind heavily curtained windows at the sight of a tall white woman pushing a Dominican in a wheelchair.
Harvesters were easy to pick out, with their arms, legs, and heads wrapped in strips of cloth for protection against the sun and the flora and fauna they would encounter in the fields. Most carried a machete at their side.
Half a mile from the village, they began to pass houses, and Norma rattled off the names of the inhabitants, or at least the people who had lived there ten years ago.
Children, chickens, and the occasional dog began to shout and run out to meet the wheelchair, the children with their hands outstretched.
“Hi,” said Rosana, smiling at the bright-eyed youngsters.
“Me! Me!” they clamored, reaching to pluck at Rosana’s skirt.
“If you think I have something to give you, you’re wrong,” laughed Rosana, thinking of her poverty, compared to these children who appeared well-nourished, if under-dressed.
Still, they shrieked and tugged until Norma said some words in a firm voice whose tone was universal. The children stopped asking, but tagged along.
“Har? Har?” A little boy in cut-off shorts and a “West-Side Story” t-shirt pointed to his head.
“What about it? You want to see the color of my hair?” She laughed, and stopped the wheelchair. Then, untying the strings, took off the sunhat and loosed her braid.
The children were silent for a moment, their mothers wandering nonchalantly to get a closer look. Two of the boldest reached out to touch the red curls, stroking it curiously between thumb and forefinger, then rubbing their own.
After a moment, she wrapped it into a quick bun at the nape of her neck and tucked it back under the hat. “We have to go to the store. Mama, how do you say ‘store?’”
“La tienda. Nos vamos a la tienda.”
“Tienda. Who can show me where the tienda is?”
And so it was that a crowd escorted the women to a small convenience store on the main street. Not the kind of store Rosana was used to with a shopping cart and aisles of food to choose from. This looked like a Popsicle stand with the front window propped open by a stick. Norma pointed to items they needed, and a clerk, who seemed to know them, scurried to put their order into a used plastic bag.
Bread. Fruit. Rice. Plantain. Sausage. Rosana switched her weight from one foot to the other, popping her knees, taking in the dizzying variety of candies and soda. The children kept tugging at her sleeve, pointing to one candy and another, holding out their hands.
“Mama, is there any candy we can get? A bag with lots of pieces?”
“Tell them no, Mija. They are used to American missionaries who come into the village and give out clothes and food and shampoo and everything. They think every American is wealthy. No, ninos. No.”
“Oh, come on, Mama.” Rosana stepped up to the counter and pointed to a bag of little red candies. The clerk held it up. “Si,” said Rosana, smiling, as the children cheered. Then something else occurred to her.
“Mama, where do you buy chickens?”
“Chickens? Oh, Mija, yes! We need a rooster and two hens and some chicks. And some chicken feed. You will build a pen for them?”
Rosana shrugged willingly and turned to distribute the candies to the waiting hands, not all of whom were children, she noticed, but mothers and grandmothers, and a man or two, loafing around the edge of the crowd.
Norma paid for the groceries and carried on a rapid conversation with the clerk which resulted in a lot of gesturing. Directions, Rosana interpreted.
“Vamos,” ordered Norma, handing both bags to Rosana, who hung them from the handles of the wheelchair.
“Where?” But there was no need to ask. The crowd moved off, pushing them along like flotsam on floodwater. Several streets later, the group paused in front of a blue house with a broken gate and two banana trees towering over an unkempt garden. The unmistakeable sound of clucking came from within.
One boy must have been related, because he bounded up the steps onto the porch and shouldered his way in the front door. A moment later, a wary-looking old man peeked out, and pulled by the boy, came shyly into the street to speak to Norma. He stopped at the sight of Rosana and took her hand, smiling a toothless grin and patting her arm. The boy translated his ancient garble to Spanish, and Norma repeated it in English.
“He say you are a good girl. He say you help me, and blessings come at children who help parents.”
“Thank you,” replied Rosana, laying her hand over his dark, wrinkled one.
Turning back to Norma, he began to laugh and cackle like one of the hens. She cried and spoke so rapidly Rosana could catch no more than that they were old friends. When she pushed the wheelchair homeward an hour later, their load had been magnified by the factor of a box of peeping chicks and a hen, a small bag of feed, and a promise to send a rooster later in the season.
Before the women reached the dirt track toward their casita, loud ranchero music and the rumbling of a diesel engine overtook them. Rosana, back and legs aching, stopped and turned her face away to let the fumes pass by before gearing up for the long climb in front of them. But instead of driving on, the truck swerved to the roadside and parked, forcing Rosana to guide the wheelchair into the center of the road as she started walking again.
“I don’t like this,” she muttered, even as Norma turned to glance up at her, the older woman’s eyes wide with concern. “Don’t worry, Mama, we’ll just keep on walking.”
As they came even with the bed of the truck, engine barely audible above the racous music, Jaime threw open the door and stepped down into their path.
“Hello, ladies. Shopping? Get in! I give you a ride. Eh? A ride?” He spread his arms wide in a magnanimous gesture that must have been meant to imply graciousness. In the velor-lined cabin, neon lights flashed in time to the music.
Rosana ignored him and waiting for a car to pass, crossed to the other side of the road. She could not move quickly on the rutted road, and instantly, Jaime was in front of the wheelchair.
“You scare my chickens with that racket, Jaime! Go! Go!” Norma flapped her hand dismissively.
“Ohhh, you don’t want a help from Brother Jaime? Brother Jaime wants to welcome his beloved sister-in-law home,” he flashed a suggestive grin at Rosana who jabbed the wheelchair forward onto his foot. His expression turned dark, but he stepped aside, brushing dust from what Rosana was sure were very expensive cowboy boots. With an effort, he smiled again turning to face them as they moved forward.
“You look like an fox on the hunt, you disgusting old man,” she muttered, stalking on while Norma vented at him in a continuous rant. Twenty yards down the road, the women watched a little white car fly down the road toward Jaime, still standing in the road. A screech of brakes and spray of gravel culminated in a mighty crash. Rosana turned around to see the the open door of Jaime’s truck wrapped around the front end of the little white car. The man was literally hopping as he and the driver exchanged rounds of screaming epithets. Rosana smirked and turned onto the dirt track that led up to Planchado.
But Rosana’s smug grin disappeared as she struggled to push the wheelchair up the hill. Even without the groceries and box of chickens, forcing the chair and its occupant up any incline would have been difficult. Add sore muscles, weary feet, and the weight of the mid-day sun, and it was easy to see why Rosana needed to stop every few feet, arms and legs shaking, braced against the backward momentum of the chair which longed to break free and follow gravity’s temptation. She gritted her teeth and wiped sweat from her forehead where it threatened to run down into her eyes. The salt stung the cuts on her hands and she swore softly.
Norma looked at her, eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry, mija” she began, but Rosana just shook her head and leaned into the weight, back screaming for respite. I’m not gonna make it, she thought.
Vibrations in the ground warned her of an approaching vehicle, and she steered right, trying to position the wheelchair on the grass as the car passed. Instead, the front wheel stuck in a rut, the forward momentum carrying the back wheels into the air as Norma fell screaming forward, the box of chickens beneath her. Rosana, stumbling and scrambling to check the chair’s trajectory, landed in a heap on top of the pile, her back shrieking its disapproval.
This time, when the truck pulled off the road in front of them, Rosana could only feel relief that someone -anyone- would help them. She felt strong arms lifting her up and, clamping her lips to keep the pain from escaping between them, she found herself carried to the roadside and laid gently down.
By the time she righted herself, took off the blinding hat and wiped the escaping hair from her eyes, she saw Senor Barto and another man lifting the chair and helping Norma. A third collected the frantic chicks, loose on the hillside.
She gained her feet carefully and hurried to Norma. “Mama? Mama? Are you okay?” The older woman nodded, tears spilling down her face. Rosana found a tissue in Norma’s purse, still hanging from the handle of the chair, and wiped her mother-in-law’s face.
Then she turned to face Barto and the men, standing awkwardly, one with the crushed box in his hands. With a glance, Rosana could see that two chicks lay still. She took it from the man with a smile of thanks and placed it on Norma’s lap. “I’m sorry, Mama.”
Norma looked at the two little bodies and then up at her daughter-in-law. “I am okay, and you are okay? Then we will be fine and live to raise more chickens. Cousin Barto, perhaps you will take an old lady home? My Rosana is tired, and her back is very sore. She cannot push me no further.” She peered at Rosana and smiled. Rosana kissed her cheek.
“I would be happy to take you home, Cousin. Reyaldo, help me carry her to the truck.” Together, they picked Norma up out of her chair and brought her to the truck, depositing her in the front seat where she and Rosana had sat not more than two days before.
Rosana gingerly bent to retrieve the groceries, but when she started to stand, a flash of pain slapped her, and she hung her head, steadying herself on the ground unwilling to move lest she trigger it again.
“Te ayudo.” It was the other man who came with Barto, holding out his arm to help her. Rosana flashed a grateful smile and used his arm to push herself upright. She took a careful step.
“Gracias, Senor,” she whispered.
“Angelo,” he grinned back, walking her carefully to the truck.
“Gracias, Angelo. I can’t get up there.” She looked in dismay at the high step into the cab.
Barto interjected curtly. “I’ll help you. Angelo, la silla.” The chair. He gestured toward the bed of the truck. The older man stepped back, still smiling at Rosana. “Put your arm around my neck,” Barto instructed.
Hesitantly, Rosana did so, one arm at the nape of his neck along the broad shoulders. Under the wavy hair. And suddenly, he lifted her into his arms and placed her gently in the seat next to her mother-in-law. The change of positions was jarring and painful, but she smiled a tight-lipped thanks.
The men settled themselves in the bed of the truck with the wheelchair and the groceries, and Barto, sliding into the driver’s seat, lurched the truck back onto the track and over the rise to the casita.
Rosana sighed with relief.
The men reversed the process to help them out of the truck, Barto lifting her down with care and placing her on the top step while Angelo and Reynaldo unloaded the wheelchair and the groceries and with the help of the key around Rosana’s neck, carried everything, including Norma into the house.
Barto stood looking down at her, and his eyes held an unreadable expression. Is he mad at me? she wondered. She took of her hat and loosened the bun at the nape of her neck, curls cascading to her waist. She shook them out, allowing the sun to dry the sweat. Barto said nothing.
Rosana broke the silence. “Well, thanks yet again. I’m always saying that to you. Thanks for this, thanks for that, I think you’re going to get of sick us! The poor relations always in trouble.” She forced a laugh, but still he said nothing. Finally, he turned away, took off his hat and smoothed down the gray-streaked waves before replacing it on his head. Then he turned back to her.
“I told you not to go alone, and -”
“I took Norma!” She interrupted. “And you can hardly call it alone when half the village tagged along to see the show!”
“-and you went alone to the fields,” he continued. “I told you to stay in bed and rest, and you walk four miles pushing your mother-in-law, who you almost crushed because you are not strong enough to push -”
Rosana bristled, but he forged on. “You are not strong enough to face this place alone! You don’t know how to live here, and three times in as many days, you have put your lives in danger. Now listen to me.” He squatted down and looked up into her eyes, placing his hands on her upper arms as if to hold her in. “This is not the United States. There is no police force to call. There is no fire company, no ambulance that will arrive within the time you will need it. You must stay here until you are strong enough – and smart enough -” here he shook her slightly, “to care for Norma and make a living at the same time. Do you understand?”
“Uh, yeah, but the problem is, like, if I don’t make some money, we will starve, and Norma won’t get any meds. Not that she’ll need meds if she starves to death.” The pain goaded her to fight. She slid forward and eased her feet to the ground, ignoring his outstretched hand.
“Maybe for once in your spoiled life, you’ll have to obey other people.” He stood slowly. “Other people who know better than you.”
“Yeah, and people are always so helpful!” she flashed, bitter sarcasm dripping.
“What are you doing here, Rosana?” His voice was hard, but there was an undercurrent of something else in it. Something Rosana couldn’t identify.
She turned away and looked out toward the bay. What am I doing here? She wondered. Why didn’t I just stay at home like Olinda? Why didn’t I go back to DC and find a job doing something-or-other where I don’t have to kill myself trying to keep a sick old lady from starving?
She turned back to him, realizing he was tall enough to look down on her. “I’m here for Norma. She has no one left.”
He nodded. “I thought so. At least, I hoped so.” He paused, searching for words. “I have never seen such love before.”
“Love?” Rosana scoffed, raising an eyebrow.
“Love isn’t a feeling, Rosana. It’s what you do. I have given you a house to rent and a bucket. You have given my cousin your life.”
And then he looked so deeply and intently into her eyes that Rosana felt sure he was searching for something. It was more than she could do to return his gaze, and she looked away.
“Rosana.” His voice recalled her eyes. “The mango harvest starts this week. Tomorrow, maybe the next day. I will be in various orchards overseeing the harvest, and I will not be able to look in on – my cousins. I have already spoken with Madre Maria-Ileana, and she is willing to assist. Will you please let the Sisters help you?
The energy drained from Rosana like someone had tripped on the cord. She leaned back against the steps and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her battered hands. When she dropped them, she looked up at him.
“Sure,” she said.