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Archive for January, 2014

Rosana – Chapter 29

Chapter 29

Rosana heaved the fifth and sixth bucket of water onto the porch.

I am not going to miss hauling water from the well,” she grinned up Norma. “Hopefully, this is all for today!”

When the Noon bell rang at the Convent, Norma had begun fussing about getting ready, and now, as the sun extended fingers of late afternoon heat through the makeshift shower curtain Rosana had rigged in the trees, both women were clean and scrubbed from top to toe.

Those buckets will fill the water bottles, mi corazon. How long will it take us to get there?”

Maybe an hour? I don’t know, but I do know we’re going to be all dirty again by the time we get there.”

Norma waved of her hand in dismissal. “At least we start clean,” she said.

The women dressed in the only nice clothes they had, Rosana in the silver dress and Norma in a purple muu-muu. Norma wore her sandals, but Rosana wrapped hers in the same plastic grocery bag and tied on her work shoes. So much for fashion, she thought ruefully. But even as the thoughts crossed her mind, a contentment stole over her. The dress had already served its purpose, how could this evening’s event have greater significance than the midnight meeting of the night before?

This time, though, she made no effort to hide.

The widows waved to the Sisters in the Convent garden who were cleaning and putting away their tools. At the bottom of the hill, a sharp whistle filled the evening air. Zoli appeared at the door of her house and waved.

My brothers like your dress,” she laughed. “See you there!”

Three times, cars, trucks, and vans filled to overflowing stopped to insist they could make room for two more. Norma always declined.

If they think we could fit in there, they must be locos!” she insisted. “Crazy!”

The fourth vehicle to stop pulled off the road in front of them. Rosana hesitated, noting with relief the other pedestrians on the road. If Jaime wanted to cause a problem, at least there would be witnesses. She moved forward, making a wide arc around the truck when the door swung wide, and a man in a crisply pressed jeans and a white shirt jumped down.

Cousin Barto!” exclaimed Norma.

He nodded curtly, eyes lingering on Rosana’s face as if he might read there an answer to a question.

Searching again, she thought. A chill of uneasiness swept over her.

They settled Norma into the cab.

Why are you angry?” she whispered, their heads together as they worked to close the chair.

I’m not angry.”

She stood to face him, eyebrow raised. “If you’re not angry, then what are you?”

He hoisted the wheelchair into the truck bed. “I’m trying to get some answers.”

To what questions?” she asked, blocking his way to the driver’s-side.

To questions about what some people are doing after dark.”

And who would those people be?” she asked tartly, irritation boiling just below her skin.

You, for one.” He moved to walk around her but she stepped back into his path.

Oh. I see. And who else?”

Get in the truck.”

No, I don’t think so! Who else’s after-dark business concerns you so closely? Although I wonder if it’s any of your business.”

Of course it’s my business what is happening at my tenants’ houses in the middle of the night, and you of all people should know that!”

Really? I know more about your nighttime policies than all of your tenants?”

I told you never to go out at night. Never to be alone. But you have ignored that requests since the first day you arrived. And now I find all sorts of things have been happening at your house at night.”

Like what?”

Like visitors. Male visitors. And I wonder what they were there for.”

Rosana tilted her head, squinting at him through calculating eyes. What male visitors had come to her house? And at night? Slowly it dawned on her what he meant. “Ohhh,” she said, trying to hold back the belly-laugh that threatened to spill into the growing dusk. “You mean Jaime, right?”

Barto didn’t answer, but his lips disappeared into a thin line, and he turned away, hands on his belt.

Rosana laughed long and hard. She rested her head on the side of the truck and laughed until Norma called out to see what was wrong.

I’m fine, Mama! Everything is fine!” She turned to Barto whose look of disapproval had settled into a chilly silence. “At least, it’s fine for me,” she whispered toward Barto, “I’m not jealous!” She giggled all the way to the passenger seat, and swung up, slamming the door before Barto, frowning, could close it for her.

*

Music poured from the open cargo door as the rays of the setting sun joined dancing couples, warm and spinning around the warehouse. Barto drove the truck over a small embankment and around to the back of the building where he found enough space to park the truck under a tree.

Thank you, Senor Santos,” said Rosana formally, her lips still twitching when he opened the door and offered his hand to help her down.

Why is he ‘Senor Santos’ now, Mija? Why don’t you call him ‘Barto?’”

Because right now, he thinks very poorly of me, Mama, and probably wants nothing to do with us.”

Is this true, Cousin?” asked Norma, turning to Barto, her eyes wide with concern.

You’ll be happy to know Jaime signed over the deed of the land to me this afternoon, and I will help you sell it as soon as possible,” replied Barto, lifting her out of the cab.

The women looked at each other and back at Barto.

Thank you, Senor Barto,” said Rosana, suddenly unsmiling, “you have been very kind to my mother and me. And thank you for the ride. Here, Mama. Stand here while I get your chair.”

What does this mean, Rosana?” Norma stood, holding onto the side of the truck looking like a lost child.

It means that Senor Barto, helped you get the land back and will help you sell it. That means we will have enough money to make it through the winter.”

And he will marry you? You said he wanted to marry you, Mija. Is this not true?” She looked from Barto to Rosana like a spectator at a tennis match.

Rosana lowered the tailgate and hauled the chair from the truck bed, ignoring Barto’s attempt to help. When Norma was settled, she released the brake and turned the chair toward the warehouse. She stopped to look up into Barto’s cold eyes. “No, Mama, I think it’s not true anymore.” She stooped and whispered in Norma’s ear. “We’ll talk soon. Not now.” And pushing hard, she guided the wheelchair over the uneven ground to the door where smiling faces and eager hands waited to help them inside.

Barto stood and watched them go.

*

From the office door, he watched her spin around the room in the arms of one man and then another. No sooner would one dance finish than she would be asked again, and so the evening progressed until he knew she must be tired.

The older ladies gathered around Norma, chatting together like the old friends they were. Norma ate little, Barto saw. Rosana ate nothing. He turned away.

I can’t help it!” he burst out to the empty office. “I have good reason to wonder what has been going on up there!” The worn but neat desk ignored him, and he began to open the drawers, one at a time, perusing their contents as if they would have meaning for him. The bottom drawer was empty, except for a plastic grocery bag, tied shut.

Curiously, he drew it out and untied it.

Inside was a shirt.

Rosana’s shirt. The shirt which had caught on his antenna as he pulled out of their yard so precipitously. The shirt he had never returned and which she probably needed badly.

There hasn’t been time to return it,” he told his pricking conscience. “It’s not like I could hand it to her in the field and have everyone wonder why I had her clothing in my truck.”

And she never asked for it, his conscience reminded him. She trusted you to bring it back as soon as you could.

And I will, he promised himself. Then he realized. The shirt in his office made it look like he had been at her house for the wrong reasons. Yet she had never pressed him for it, most importantly, she had never asked for it in front of other people. Jaime had been at her house and he had assumed the worst. But he had never asked her why he had been there, and she had never defended herself. She had just laughed like it was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard.

Maybe it was. He struck his fist on the desk and shoving back the chair, strode from the room, shirt in his hand.

*

His entrance was greeted with a cheer. He was a hero to these people, he knew, but right now, when he needed to find Angelo, the last thing he wanted was to stop and talk to people.

One of the foremen had a microphone and was waving for him to come to the food table at the front of the room, announcing his name. Barto sighed, tried to smile and went forward.

Thank you, everyone, for coming tonight, and for your work which made this harvest possible!” There were cheers from the crowd. Unconsciously, he scanned the room for the radiant hair and silver dress. There she was, by Norma, her face flushed but expressionless.

On your way home tonight, please take home two loaves of bread from the table by the door.” He pointed to the place where Angelo’s wife and three other women were glaring at the guests, ready to smack the hands of anyone who tried to get away with more. “It was made from the wheat we harvested this year, and is my gift to you.”

Polite applause followed.

I know it doesn’t seem like much, compared to years past, but I think you’ll appreciate it when you eat it.” He smiled to think of their faces when they found the money baked inside. Across the room, he saw Rosana kneeling by Norma’s chair, their heads together.

The foreman appeared to take the microphone from Barto, looking at him expectantly.

The dance?” the foreman whispered.

Barto looked at Rosana, who was releasing the brake on the wheelchair and wrapping a small shawl around Norma’s shoulders.

The band is ready, and it’s time for the final dance of the evening, so put down your food, get up your courage, and ask the person you’ve been wanting to dance with all night!”

They were headed for the door, accepting two loaves of bread from the women at the table. One lady was handing them a bag and whispering something in Norma’s ear. Barto looked down at the bag in his hand. They were leaving. Walking home in the dark by themselves. And he still had her shirt.

Rosana!” yelled Barto, pushing through the crowd. “Rosana!”

The crowd roared with appreciation. “Senor Barto has chosen his partner,” laughed the foreman at the microphone, “but will she have him?” The guests turned as one to look for her, but she was gone. “Better go bring her back, Senor Barto,” teased the foreman as the band began to play. “She’s getting away!”

He hardly saw the grinning faces or felt the good-natured slaps on the back. They were already gone, out in the darkness alone, and even among his employees, guests, and neighbors, he felt an emptiness he had never noticed before. Right near the place on his chest where she had rested her head.

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Rosana – Chapter 28

Chapter 28

Barto went home.

There was no sense going to the warehouse when the women were busy getting it ready for the party. He would be in the way, and Angelo’s wife would purse her lips and shoo him away with wide arms. Even behind the locked office door would be too close, since her ideas of decoration clashed mightily with his love of simplicity.

Instead, he stood on his patio looking east down the hill to Palmar, the sea sparkling to the south. Nena tugged at his pant leg, growling with mock-fury at his ankle.

Are you ready for some changes, Nena?” he asked, bending to scratch the top of the dog’s head affectionately. “Do you think they’ll like you? Huh? Huh?” They wrestled for a moment, man and dog, Nena vying for dominance with the fingers that seemed to be everywhere at once. Finally, she jumped up and scampered across the patio in search of a cockroach to harass.

She will like it here, Barto thought, mentally rearranging the patio furniture to accommodate her easel.He smoothed his mustache and watched a trail of dust springing up behind a car driving too fast along the coastal road. Probably Jaime. Jaime with the broken arms. Just how did you fall off that porch, anyway, Jaime?

For several moments he considered how it was possible to fall off the porch. Maybe the dark. Maybe Jaime had had too much to drink. But how did he know his way up there? He hadn’t been up since the casita’s had been built by his own admission. How did he know when visiting hours were over at the Convent? Exactly why was Jaime so familiar with everything in Planchado? Unless he went there more often than Barto knew. Unless he was a frequent visitor.

An ugly suspicion began to form in his imagination. All kinds of details raced to fill in the empty places in Jaime’s story. He thought of Rosana, and wondered if he knew all there was to know about her. If she had told him the truth.

What were you doing at their house after dark, Jaime? A surge of hot anger raced through him and fumbling for his phone, Barto flipped it open and dialed.

Diga,” replied the voice on the other end.

Angelo,” barked Barto, “where are you?”

Home – is everything okay?” Angelo sat up, swinging his legs down from the table.

It will be,” his boss growled. “Listen, are you going tonight?”

Angelo laughed a full-throated bellow. “Can you imagine what she’d say if I didn’t show up? I dropped her off this morning and came back here to wait while they do their thing. Can’t be in there with all those wom-”

Is Jaime coming?” Barto interrupted.

To the party? I dunno. He showed up last year in time for the pig roast. You want me to go get him?”

No. But if he comes, I want you to get some information from him.”

Rosana – Chapter 27

Chapter 27

Barto peered out the door of the warehouse office to look at the sun. The slant of the rays shining through the open cargo door told him faster than the clock that it was still too early. Jaime wouldn’t be up until at least ten. He glanced at the deed again. Sure enough, Eduardo had never transferred the property to Jaime, but there must have been a verbal agreement that Jaime could use it and take care of it.

It’s not a huge property, but the trees are well-established, and as long as there are no landslides, they should produce plenty of mangoes. Although they probably need a lot of pruning.” He shook his head, thinking about the likelihood that Jaime had kept the orchard in good repair. He certainly had never bothered to have the house torn down.

An image of Rosana, meeting him with a steely look filled his mind. It had been the morning he met her at that same broken-down house, when he told her Norma was in the truck. She, trying to find housing for Norma, had met Jaime instead. Jaime, who was technically a closer relative than Barto. Jaime, who therefore had the traditional responsibility to care for his brother’s widowed family.

But exactly how will he ‘care’ for them?” Barto muttered, remembering the wolfish look with which Jaime eyed the leggy redhead. He glanced out the office door again. Still too early.

*

It was nearly three in the afternoon when Jaime parked his truck along the main street of Palmar, and hiking his jeans as best he could with casts on both arms, crossed the road to the sports bar.

Pinky, the chunky man who drove the truck these days, followed at a discrete distance. Jaime in casts was still a force to be reckoned with.

Ace opened a beer and had it waiting when Jaime arrived at the open-air bar. He took it in the hand with the short cast and brought it clumsily to his mouth. Ace pretended not to notice. Jaime rested a boot on the stool nearest him and turned to watch highlights of an American baseball game on the fuzzy screen overhead.

Jaime.”

The voice came from his right, and turning to face the man, Jaime’s boot stuck in the rung of the stool. He fell, his bottle of beer flying into the air and narrowly missing Pinky who stood off to one side and had experience dodging his boss’ bottles.

Strong arms caught him before he hit the floor, but not before the jolting pain released a string of expletives from the flailing man.

Take it easy,” growled Barto, raising Jaime back to his feet. “And watch your mouth.”

You!” spat Jaime, trying to recover his balance and his dignity. “You are the reason I am like this!” He gestured vaguely with his immobile arms.

Why is that?” asked Barto, settling Jaime’s hat straight on his head.

Because you put the vixen and her mother in that house! If you had left them to me, I wouldn’t have ended up like this!” He raised his arms as far as them would go.

Ace intervened. “Wanna beer?” he asked Barto. Barto shook his head, his eyes never leaving Jaime’s contorted face.

What exactly happened, Jaime?” he asked in a voice so low that Pinky gestured for Ace to mute the TV.

Is that Barto? On the day of his famous party?” The bellow came from a rotund figure who rounded the corner and threw himself into a chair with the ease of a regular customer. “What’re you doing here? I thought your religion prevented you from enjoying the fruits of the vine!” The Mayor guffawed and slapped the table while Ace scurried to put a beer in each of the pudgy hands.

I’m here to talk to Jaime about a family responsibility,” Barto replied evenly, “but he was just about to tell us the story of how he broke his arms.” He looked at Jaime expectantly.

The Mayor guffawed, the first bottle half-way to his mouth. “Responsibility and Jaime in the same sentence!” He drank deeply and still chuckling, leaned back, balancing his bulk on the rear legs of the chair.

What responsibility?” asked Jaime, glancing wide-eyed from Barto to the Mayor and back.

What fall?” countered the Mayor.

You were just telling me it was my fault,” prompted Barto, gesturing to the casts.

Jaime glanced at the interested faces around him. Too interested, he thought. “We all know the American cha-cha has nothing – financially, that is,” he added, raising his eyebrows with a leer, looking around for an ally. Stony faces met him.

Watch your mouth,” said Barto.

They have nothing! Nothing!” He yelled, gesturing helplessly. “I drove up one evening to pay my respects at the Convent and drop off some – bread – for them.”

The Mayor chortled, dragging hard on the second bottle.

It’s true! But then this, this man -” here he indicated Barto, had built such a small porch that I fell off the side and broke a wrist and an elbow!” He turned to glare at the offender.

You couldn’t see where you were going?” asked Barto.

No, it was dark. And that’s another thing – there’s no light up there! How can it be safe for two broads with no light, eh?”

Watch your -”

Jaime brushed aside the warning and hurried on, turning to face the Mayor and half a dozen other men who had gathered to hear the story.

So it was dark, and I fell off the porch, and now I can’t even drive my own truck!” He looked around for pity and approval.

Why were you visiting the Convent after dark?” asked Barto.

Jaime laughed. “Well, when I got up there, I realized it was too late for visiting hours, so I was headed back down the hill when I thought about the ladies and thought I’d stop in and see how they were doing.”

And deliver the food you had for them,” Barto prompted.

Right,” nodded Jaime, turning to Ace for another beer.

It must have spilled when you fell,” said Barto.

It did,” said Jaime, drawing a circle in the air, “went all over.”

What did?”

The beans. Everywhere.” He tugged on the fresh bottle, nodding at Ace.

I thought it was bread,” laughed the Mayor. The crowd shuffled, smiles breaking out across some faces.

What did the ladies do when you fell?” probed Barto.

Nothing! Not a single thing! Those worthless broads sat in their house and did nothing while I crawled my way to the truck and -”

That’s enough,” snapped Barto. “Sit down, Jaime, and listen to me.” Barto pulled up a table and chair beside Jaime and glared until he lowered himself into it. “You need to make a decision.”

All eyes turned to Barto, who took a folded paper from his shirt pocket, and sat facing Jaime.

What’s that?” squeaked Jaime.

The deed to Eduardo Delacruz’s land and house.” Barto laid it meaningfully on the table between them.

So?”

Eduardo Delacruz’s survivors would like their family land back.”

I’m family,” snapped Jaime, grateful this conference was not going to cover any of several topics he would prefer to avoid. “And Eduardo entrusted the land to me when he left.”

And you’ve taken care of it while he was gone?”

Jaime could feel the flush creep up his neck. He shifted uncomfortably. The Mayor and twenty of the men looking on knew the state of the land. “There is a lot of earthquake damage. You know that. You’ve seen the house.”

The Mayor interrupted. “Who is the closest relative of the Delacruz widows?”

I am, naturally,” replied Jaime airily. “That’s why I have custody of the land.”

And what are you doing with the land?” inquired the Mayor, leaning forward until all four legs of the chair thumped onto the pavement.

Growing mangoes – there are beautiful mango trees up there.”

And what else?” asked Barto.

Nothing!” shouted Jaime. “Nothing, and it’s not your business anyway, because the land was left in my custody when Eduardo went away. He told me to use it.”

What else are you doing with the land?” asked the Mayor, scooting his chair forward. “I don’t recall seeing your name on the tax-rolls for the Delacruz land. No taxes have been paid on that property for twenty years, which would be nothing if the land weren’t in use, but, you are harvesting mangoes?”

No! No. I never pick the mangoes. They rot on the tree and fall all over the road. They have to be raked away from every building, they stink so bad!”

What buildings?” The Mayor’s revenue-sniffing nostrils twitched eagerly.

What buildings?” echoed Jaime, in a high voice, sweat trickling from under his toupee.

Jaime, my old friend,” the Mayor smiled, leaning back again, the front two legs of the chair rising into the air, “we need to meet together and have a talk. This town needs a new pier, and I think I might know where to find it!”

The land doesn’t belong to me, I don’t own it!” shot Jaime.

That’s what I’ve come to talk with you about,” said Barto, coolly. “The property does not belong to you and the Delacruz widows need it back. As you know they have nothing.”

Widows can’t inherit land,” said the Mayor. “Only sons.”

True,” said Barto, his eyes never waivering from Jaime’s damp face.

Or, without sons, the closest male relative has to inherit for a widow,” continued the Mayor, “and traditionally, he also marries the widow and raises children to inherit the land for their dead father. So he should be the closest single male relative.” He chuckled gleefully. “You gonna be a Daddy, Jaime?” He slammed the chair to the floor and rocked his arms, humming a tuneless melody in a loud, suggestive voice.

Jaime’s face turned grey. His eyes rolled around in their whites like marbles lost in a sea of milk. “Barto,” he choked, leaning forward as far across the table as his immobile arm would let him, “you do this. You’re single. You marry her.”

If I do that, I take the land, too.”

Jaime’s jaw worked up and down, his lips twitching. “Oh, fine!” he spat finally. “Take the land and the women, and you pay the taxes!” He brought his fist down on the table and then howled at the pain. The gallery laughed, except for Barto, who was already on his feet with a pen in his hand.

Sign it,” he said brusquely, ignoring the howls of pain. “Sign right here stating your intention to renounce next-of-kin rights to the widows, their descendants, and their land.”

Jaime closed his mouth mid-bellow, and sizing up the look in Barto’s eye, took the pen and signed the deed.

Satisfied?” he demanded.

No,” said Barto leaning close to Jaime’s face. “There’s one more thing. You have until Monday morning to have those bodegas empty. If I come with my crew tomorrow morning and find anything up there -” He left the threat hanging, but turned to look significantly at the Mayor.

What would you find up there? What bodegas?” The Mayor found himself addressing Barto’s back, so he turned his curiosity toward Jaime, nostrils twitching.

*

The sun poured in through the glass-less windows, drenching the little bedroom in golden light. Rosana yawned and rolled over.

Then she remembered.

Mama!” she sat bolt upright, the bars over the windows casting hash mark shadows across her face. “Mama! I’m marrying Barto! Oh my gosh!” She jumped to her feet and scurried out to the front porch where Norma sat in the afternoon sun, cleaning the wheat in a little basket the Sisters gave her.

Good morning, mi amor!” Norma reached out to hug and kiss her. “Afternoon, really. And we’ll see if you marry Barto. He has to see what Jaime says first, but we’ll hear soon. No doubt he will settle the matter today.”

Well, I’m sure not marrying Jaime!”

No, but Barto will get our land back, so marry you or not, we are provided for, and all because of you!” She began to cry.

Oh, Mama, don’t cry!” Rosana knelt next to the wheelchair and hugged Norma tightly. “This is a happy day!”

Is it, mi amor? Are you happy?”

Rosana nodded. “Yes. I am. I’m happy that you will have land to sell. I’m happy that there will be food and water, and that we won’t starve this winter. I’m happy that I’m here with you, and that no matter what happens, we will still be together! We have a lot to be happy about.”

But are you happy to marry again?”

Rosana sat, her legs dangling over the edge of the porch and looked down the hill toward the sea. After awhile she said, “This is Marcelo’s land, Mama. In a way, he brought me here, like he brought me to you. I think it’s right that I stay.” She stood suddenly and went inside, returning a moment later with a small canvas.

What is that, Mija?”

Rosana held out the unfinished portrait of Marcelo for Norma to see. Both women looked at it in silence.

The face was young. Much younger than Rosana remembered him. Somehow his memory had aged with her. He looked out of the portrait on the women he brought together and his native land with childlike, laughing eyes. Tears flowed freely from the widows. But not tears of sadness, Rosana realized. They were tears of release. Tears of moving forward. Tears of never forgetting.

Yes, Mama,” said Rosana, pressing the unfinished portrait to her heart. “I’m happy to marry again. But I will never forget.”

Neither will I, Mija.

Rosana – Chapter 26

Chapter 26

Eight, Rosana counted. Eight men that she could see were laying in various positions against the stacks of wheat bags. She avoided most of them by walking around the back of the reduced pile of loose wheat to the stack on which Barto lay.

Senor Barto?” she whispered, willing her voice to carry to the top of the stack.

There was no answer.

Barto?” she called again, a little louder. Someone stirred, knocking a shovel to the ground with a clang. Rosana hid her face in the blanket and froze against the stack. Several minutes of silence passed before she breathed with any regularity again.

Now what? Sweat beginning to prickle her back. She loosened the blanket and used it to fan herself gently. I guess I have to climb up there, she thought, looking down ruefully at her chic sandals and then up at the pile. For a moment, she considered dashing out of the warehouse to collect her work shoes from the tree where she had left them and running all the way home. But what good would that do us? She knew the answer, and untying the sandals, she gripped them by the ribbons with her teeth and hanging the blanket over her shoulders like a scarf, began to climb the stack of wheat bags.

*

Barto woke with a start. He lay still for a moment until his brain reminded him where he was. Of course. In the warehouse. On a stack of bagged wheat, because the harvest was over and the tiny pile that was left unbagged would be used during the party on Saturday. He sighed contentedly and rolled to his side, pulling the blanket around his shoulders and over his cold feet.

There was a change in the air. The blanket smelled distinctly feminine. Come to think of it, how did he get a blanket at all? He had no blanket when he climbed up here earlier. Around him, the warehouse was silent. Squinting, he could read the big clock by the door. Midnight.

Slowly, he rolled back, the sweet scent growing stronger. At that moment, his foot touched something that did not feel like a bag of wheat.

He jerked up to stare into the gloom at his feet. Something silver flashed at him, and leaning closer, he made an astonishing discovery. It was a woman! Curled into a ball, she lay asleep at his feet. And around her exquisite face, like a spill of exotic paint, hung ringlet curls in a heart-stopping red.

Rosana?” he rasped.

She woke slowly, her eyelids fluttering, and then flying wide with the sudden realization of where she was. She sat up with a start.

Senor Barto?” she asked, in a voice husky with sleep.

Rosana! What – where did – you’re beautiful,” he finished, lamely, staring.

Her hands flew to her hair, unconsciously smoothing imaginary imperfections. “Please,” she whispered, “please, I wasn’t trying to trespass, and I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, it’s just that -” she stumbled for words.

He leaned forward and caught her hand, peering into her eyes. “Just what?” he asked gently. “Just what?”

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she tightened her grip on his hand. “I needed to see you. We need more of your help,” she said simply.

Barto nodded, waiting. “Anything.”

A little smile played around the corners of her mouth and she looked away.

You may not say that when I’m done, but here is what I need. I – I need – someone. I – need – a husband -” Her voice faltered, but she coughed and tried again, gathering her courage to look straight into his eyes. “I need someone who will be able to help me and Norma, who can help us get Norma’s land back from Jaime, and I – we – hoped that since you are our closest relative – you might – you might be willing. To marry me.” She looked at him pleadingly, willing him to understand what she was asking.

Barto was silent a long time, his thumb caressing the back of her hand.

Rosana took a deep breath. “There’s something more – and it’s just because you should know, I mean – if you were making an informed decision you’d want to know – that besides being a foreigner, I can’t, you know, have kids.”

Still, Barto was silent, looking at her. He watched tears collect at the corners of her eyes, and the proud, trembling blink that held them back. Turning her hand over in his, he traced the lines of callouses and dirt that never fully wash out of a harvester’s hands. Somehow, the hands were still soft. Tough, but soft. Like her. Could he ever earn the love of this woman, dressed in silver with hair like a sunset falling around her in living waves?

I will speak to Jaime, if you like, but I can do that without marrying you. The whole town knows what you are doing for Dulcita – Norma – and everyone will understand why I want to help. No need to promise yourself to an old man who is likely to leave you a widow again.”

Senor Barto,” she whispered after a moment, forcing herself to look into his eyes, “is it that you don’t want – to marry me? I completely understand, of course – you’ve already done so much for us, and this is so huge – taking on a widow and a sick woman -” Color flooded her cheeks and she snatched her hand away. “I’m so embarrassed. And I’m sorry.” She scooted to the edge of the stack and jumped lightly down.

Rosana.” In a moment, he was beside her, one hand gripping her upper arm the other hand under her chin, forcing her to look up at him. “Did you come on your own? Are you asking me this of your own free will?” His peered at her intently, pulling her closer, waiting tensely for her answer.

Yes,” she replied simply.

He knit his brows together. “Are you sure? Are you certain?” He released her, hands hovering over the brilliant hair like a treasure he didn’t dare touch. He searched her eyes, incredulous at the beauty of face and figure standing before him. His hands settled on her shoulders and he waited for her reply.

For awhile,” she whispered, conscious of his openly admiring stare, “I wasn’t sure. We need to survive, and this was a way to get Norma’s land back, right?” She saw a look of disappointment cloud his eyes. “I want you to know the truth,” she said as he tucked his hands behind his back, leaning against the wheat. “And the truth is, I’ve never met anyone as kind, as caring as you are. I’ve never known anyone who loves people like you do, but I just – I just don’t want to have someone marry me out of pity, you know? I know you would help us this way just because you are so kind to everyone. But lately – ” Rosana stepped forward and pulled his arm until it came from behind him and picking up his hand, pressed it to her cheek. It came alive under the caress, sliding behind her neck and pulling her forward.

But lately, what?” he growled, arms encircling her.

Lately, when I look in your eyes, I don’t see pity there,” she smirked, laughing quietly.

No,” he paused to clear his throat several times, “you’re right. It’s not pity. It’s – it’s -” He passed a hand over his eyes as if in great weariness. “I told Norma I would look for someone to marry you, but inside,” he thumped his chest, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let someone else have your love. Oh, Rosana! For love of another you left your home, your family, your religion, your country, your easy life, and you don’t complain! Love is – is deeper than pity, or words, or attraction -” Barto sucked in his breath. “You love by giving yourself, and I can only hope – I can only pray – that you can love me the same way.”

I already do,” she whispered to his chest, which began to ache in a way he had never before experienced.

*

Her hair smells like coconut, he thought, inhaling deeply, savoring the sensation of her frail form leaning against him. Frail, but strong, judging by the work she did on one meal a day.

Stay here,” he whispered into her hair. He disappeared for a several minutes and returned with a two pieces of pizza and a bottle of soda.

She gulped them down ravenously, then looked up to smile her thanks.

Rosana, I -” he looked down at her uncertainly. “I want to make sure this is really what you want. Do you know that I am twenty years older than you? For me, this is nothing, but you could have any young man you wanted.”

She shook her head. “What young man do you know who would take a foreigner who cannot give him a family and who comes with a mother?”

I am not ‘taking’ you, Rosana,” he insisted, reaching to grasp her forearms. “I want you. I love you.” He let out his breath, surprised the words had come out of his mouth. “And I want you just the way you are, stranger, without children, with Norma. I just can’t understand why you would want an old man? This is even kinder than everything else you’ve done.”

Rosana smiled. It was a genuine smile that reached her eyes, and she stepped forward into his embrace, reveling the the forgotten sensation of resting safely in the arms of a man who loved her. Who would protect her.

How did you get to the warehouse?” he murmured into her hair, feeling her shoulders tense at the question.

You don’t want to know,” she countered, pulling away far enough to look into his eyes.

I thought so.” He shook his head. “And I can’t drive you back home – I promised to be here to guard the wheat tonight. Can you get back home again?”

She raised an eyebrow, scoffing. “Of course!”

Then get a couple of hours of sleep before you go. Here. Thank you for covering me.” He wrapped the blanket around her and motioned for her to wait while he took several bags from the stack and arranged them into a bed on the warehouse floor.

She smiled gratefully and lay down, her makeshift bed hidden from the view of anyone except Barto, who was climbing up to his stack-top resting place. He arranged himself so he could look down at her in the dim light, and was not surprised to see her eyes were already closed above the blanket, tucked under her chin.

For a long while, Bartolomeo Santos lay awake, staring down from his stack-top bed in awe at the bride God had sent him. It made him want to be a better man.

*

She awoke at 4:17. Or that was the time when she peeked around the end of the stack and peered through the early-morning gloom at the clock.

Glancing upward, she saw Barto’s hair on top of the stack. I won’t wake him, she thought, silently folding her blanket. But as she reached to neaten the bags which had served as her mattress, she heard a quiet whoosh. She glanced up in time to see him sliding down the stack to land lightly beside her.

Come,” he beckoned.

She followed him to the small pile of unbagged wheat in the center of the room, and when he pantomimed what she should do, Rosana opened the blanket and laid it on the floor.

Barto grasped a shovel standing upright in the grain and with a few quick motions, filled the center of the blanket with wheat.

Rosana tied the corners together and then gasped as she tried to lift it. There must be sixty pounds of wheat in it! God help me carry this, she prayed, especially in these shoes! Again, Barto beckoned, leading her to the door and out into the parking lot.

Can you carry it?”

She nodded, heaving the bundle on to her back with an effort.

I don’t want you to go back to Norma empty-handed,” he whispered, stroking his mustache. “And don’t worry about the property. I’ll speak with Jaime.”

Thank you,” she said simply, meaning it.

I will take care of you,” he replied, touching her cheek gently. It was a promise.

I will love you,” she replied, and they were both happy.

The predawn darkness was beginning to lose it’s grip over the land, and Rosana, her back already complaining, smiled and set off for the tree where her work shoes waited. She would have to walk quickly if she was to get home before the stream of morning workers saw her in this silver gown.

*

Heavens!” exclaimed Norma, backing her chair away from the door where she had been waiting for Rosana, peering down the hill into the brightening morning. “What is in that blanket?”

Rosana leaned against the porch and dropped the bundle onto the concrete. After a momentary pause during which she shook her arms to restore circulation, she took the work shoes from around her neck where they dangled by their tied-together laces and dropped them beside the bag.

Did you see him, mi amor? What did he say?”

Oh, Mama.” Rosana let her chin sag toward her chest. “I am so tired.” She rested for a moment and then dragged herself up the stairs and kissed her mother-in-law on the top of the head. “He said ‘yes.’ And he sent me home with all that wheat,” here she jabbed a vicious finger at the blanket, “for you.”

Rosana didn’t hear the rest of Norma’s response as she staggered into the bedroom and dropped onto the neatly-made mattress. In a matter of seconds, she was asleep.

Rosana – Chapter 25

Chapter 25

Did he give you back your shirt, mija?” asked Norma suddenly as they sat on the front porch sipping water and crunching small handfuls of wheat from the recycled jars where Norma had stored it after letting it dry for days in the sun.

Uh-Uh. It’s probably in his warehouse in a box of lost and found. One day, I’ll walk over there and get it, but not now.”

Norma laughed. “No, not now. I think even Barto stops working at sundown.”

Not tonight, actually,” said Rosana, picking bits of wheat from between her teeth. “They’re cleaning the chaff off the wheat tonight. Zoli says the ocean breezes are stronger at night – Mama, what are you doing?”

Norma had turned suddenly and grasped Rosana’s forearms, shaking them excitedly. “Tonight? They are cleaning and bagging the wheat tonight?”

That’s what Zoli said. Apparently, the whole harvest has to be cleaned and bagged before the party on Saturday, so that leaves tonight and tomorrow night. Why?”

Because it means -” Norma spun the chair around and beckoned Rosana to push her over the lintel into the house. “It means the men will be there late, and they will be eating and drinking.”

I don’t get it.”

Norma pointed to the bedroom, made smaller by the little tables Rosana had rigged to hold their clothes.

The men! Barto! This is the one of the few times a year he will drink alcohol! Where is your fancy dress?” The older woman began rummaging through the pile of clothes on the table, emerging at last with a ruffled silver dress that flashed in the light of the lamp. “Here! And what about your feet?”

In that dress?” choked Rosana. “I have a pair of strappy sandals. They’re in the duffle behind the table. What, am I supposed to go to a cocktail party?” The idea of dressing up in that outfit made her laugh. “I’m not sure I remember how to drink anything but water!”

No, no, mija. Mira! Look! Tonight, Barto will work until midnight throwing and bagging that wheat. He and the men will eat and drink while they do it – it’s more like a party than work. When they are done, they sleep it off in the warehouse and go home in the morning. The harvest is in, everyone is happy. Dress up in your best clothes, do your hair and make-up, and be there when the work is done!”

Just walk in on their work party dressed like that?” She waved at the shiny dress, wheat berries dropping from her grasp. She lurched to catch them.

Yes,” hissed Norma. “You will never catch him in a better, more relaxed mood! And then…” she gestured with her head, eyes wide with purpose.

Norma!” gasped Rosana, “What are you suggesting?”

Ask him to get our family land back! Ask him to protect you. He is our closest relative, and it’s his duty to marry you or find someone else to.”

Jaime is our closest relation, Mama, not Barto.” Rosana began pacing the width of the tiny house. “And I think I’ve cured him of wanting to marry me, although he might be willing to kill me!”

Exactly!” crowed Norma. “This is your opportunity! Barto probably doesn’t know how Jaime broke his wrist and elbow, but he does know that if Jaime got his hands on you, your life would be horrible.” And mine, she thought to herself. “Even if he won’t marry you, at least he could help us get the land back from Jaime. If we could get that and then sell the land…”

So I’m supposed to dress up, walk three miles at night in heels to the warehouse, walk in, and ask Barto to marry me?”

The smile faded from Norma’s face, replaced by the look a mother gives a naughty child.

Rosana. This is serious.”

I am serious, Mama! This is terrifying! What is he going to say when I show up with all his buddies watching? ‘Hi, it’s me, the beggar widow. Will you marry me? And if you won’t marry me, will you at least get our land back for us?’” she intoned in a sing-song voice. “What if he says no?”

Norma was silent for a long time, looking into the agitated eyes of her daughter-in-law. Then she wheeled forward and took the young woman’s work-roughened hand between her own. “Rosana. My own sweet girl. I would never, ever ask this of you, except that -” she gestured to the casita around them and then looked straight into Rosana’s eyes. “We cannot survive the winter,” she finished flatly.

*

It’s true, thought Rosana, an hour later as she walked down the hill in the dark. The ground was still giving back the heat it had collected during the day, and the evening was pleasant and warm with a full breeze. In spite of the warmth, Rosana wore a blanket wrapped around her like a cloak, covering the silver dress and the sandals she clutched in a plastic grocery bag.

Norma had arranged the long, red curls, which Rosana tied in a loose ponytail and covered with the top of the blanket. Now, the sweat trickled down her neck under the concealment.

He’ll be furious that I came alone! And at night, too!” she fretted as she turned on to the main road.

Stay on the road, but if a car comes, hide in the shadows beside it,” Norma had advised. But so far, no one came, and Rosana was half way there before the first car whizzed by her. She melted like a shadow between the trees. Near the turn Norma described, the one which led to the warehouse, Rosana detected the throbbing thud of a diesel engine and loud ranchero music behind her. Involuntarily, she hissed and threw herself to the ground in the ditch, heedless of her bare legs on the gravel. Hours seemed to pass while the engine drew nearer. It seemed to Rosana that it slowed down near her, the distinctive laughter of a woman carrying out of the truck and settling around her. Then, it was gone.

Rosana stood up, trembling. Quickly, she ran across the street, her work shoes making little noise on the dark asphalt. Wrapping the blanket tightly around her, she sped down the lane toward the brightly lit warehouse, where the voices and laughter of men wafted out of the open cargo doors. She found a dark place among the trees where she could see them working inside.

For a long time, they stood in a circle around the great pile of wheat, twenty or so men with shovels who dug their tools into the pile and tossed it high into the air, a shovelful at a time. The breeze was augmented by large fans, and the men seemed to enjoy the rhythmic work, the wheat falling around them like golden rain. Chaff flew through the air and out of the building like locusts, settling in soft layers on the ground all around the warehouse.

Every so often, men with brooms would push stray berries back toward the pile, and others would team up to fill burlap bags which they toted to a machine to be sewn closed. In this way, the great golden pile shrank while the stacks of bags grew.

To Rosana, it was like a great ballet, played out before her on the warehouse stage. The falling wheat and blowing chaff were mesmerizing, and she stared for nearly half an hour before a halt in the rhythm brought her to consciousness.

She could see Barto clearly. He was positioned on the far side of the wheat pile, his arms and head bare. “I’ve never seen him in a t-shirt before,” she thought, amazed at his open smile and the ease with which he tossed the wheat again and again in time with the work. It was he who called a pause to the action.

Eat!” he called, leaning his shovel against a stack of filled bags, two wide and twenty long. Cheers and clangs followed as others threw their shovels and brooms to the floor, collapsing against the stacks. The pile of wheat was now little more than the size of Norma’s wheelchair.

Next to Barto, Rosana recognized one of the men who had helped them the day she couldn’t make it up the hill. They came with huge trays of pizza and cases of beer bottles, already open, Rosana noted. Probably to keep down the trash on the warehouse floor.

Thank goodness I can’t smell it,” sighed Rosana, but the sight of an American feast made her belly rumble. She distracted herself by reaching down to untie her work shoes and wrap the sandal straps around her foot and ankle.

It’s been so long since I’ve dressed up,” she had said to Norma, “I don’t know how I’m going to get it done, let alone in the dark!” But Norma was right, she managed without problems, careful to keep the reflective fabric of her dress covered while she adjusted the sandals and took out the ponytail, arranging her hair so it hung in long ringlet curls all the way to he waist.

Then, she waited.

Some of the men went home soon after eating, their headlights raking the trees where Rosana hid. Others drank, sang, and fell asleep next to their shovels on the warehouse floor. Barto called a relaxed order, and the main overhead lights went out. A contented cheer faded quickly into silence, and Rosana, at the base of a tree, knew that food, alcohol, and a long day’s work were having their effect.

After what she judged to be about fifteen minutes, Rosana crept across the parking lot – really no more than a gravel-covered yard – and climbed the steps to the door.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim lights of the office shining down into the warehouse, she noticed Barto atop a stack of bags, taking an occasional swig from a bottle, swinging his feet slowly, surveying the wheat like a king pleased with his army’s conquest. When all was quiet, he set down the bottle and swung his feet up onto the pile. Rosana waited until he settled, hands behind his head and eyes closed before she stepped through the door.

Rosana – Chapter 24

Chapter 24

Bartolomeo Santos usually pushed through the warehouse door and hiked up the stairs to his office without even a glance around the vast space where the fruit of his fields was processed, loaded, and shipped away, but today he paused as he stepped inside.

Morning sun poured through the open loading dock door, and with the pallets of mango boxes all gone, there was nothing to distract the eye from the great pile of unprocessed wheat which dominated the lower level. In spite of himself, he smiled. A good harvest.

He wasn’t the only one who thought so. Angelo, with a clipboard of papers in one hand came from across the room to slap his boss on the back, a gesture he would never have ventured without the pleased-with-the-harvest look in Barto’s eye.

A good wheat harvest, eh?” asked Angelo, indicating with his lips the shining pile of grain glowing in the morning light.

A good harvest,” Barto agreed. Enough to pay for the chaff-blower he intended to buy. It would save them the cost of renting it from the Brazilian firm who always tried to overcharge him when the stiff ocean breeze wasn’t strong enough to blow the chaff by hand.

Any fields left?” asked Angelo, consulting his clipboard with a thick, work-worn finger.

We should finish up in the eastern mango orchards today. There was only a half-day’s work left yesterday.” Half a day. Then what would they do? I have got to find a husband for that girl, he berated himself, the good mood darting away. A week had gone by and he had done nothing. Of course, it had been busy finding buyers for all the wheat, but he was shirking his duty, and he knew it.

Angelo tapped the clipboard with finality. “Done, then! We’ll have the Party as soon as we get that pile winnowed, bagged, and shipped!”

Barto looked at him blankly.

Raising an eyebrow, Angelo took in the now clouded features of Bartolomeo Santos. Something was going on with this man. It used to be Barto was unflappable. Nothing broke through the calm, measured way he went about his business, but this whole harvest he had seemed – distracted. “You still planning on having the Harvest Party?” Angelo asked uncertainly.

Barto let out his breath. “Of course!” He summoned a hearty laugh. “Can we still count on your wife to put it together?”

Angelo almost thumped him on the shoulder again, thinking better of it at the last moment. “My wife and her cronies have been working on this Party since the day after the last one was over,” he crowed. “The only thing you gotta do is show up! And pay the bills, of course,” he added with a grin.

Barto laughed, but the joy didn’t reach his eyes. Bills. Who would pay their bills when the harvest was over? Where would Rosana work? I could stop charging rent, he pondered, but that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else paying to rent those houses.

Angelo,” said Barto suddenly, interrupting something the older man was saying, “who do you know that’s not married?”

Not married, Barto?” Concern and confusion flashed in Angelo’s eyes.

Yeah. Men.”

Men who are not married?” Angelo was wide-eyed.

Yes,” Barto replied impatiently. “Young men. In their late-twenties. And they have to have good morals and a good job. And probably handsome, too.”

Why are you asking me, Boss?” Angelo wondered aloud.

There’s someone I have to marry,” replied Barto, smoothing his mustache. He looked up suddenly and caught the shock on Angelo’s face. “Someone – someone – who I have to help get married,” he stammered. “Ay, caramba, Angelo! There’s a girl who needs a husband, and I’m supposed to help her find one,” he burst out angrily.

Ah,” said Angelo slowly, taking in Barto’s red face and the perspiration gathering on his forehead. “So you need to find a husband.”

Barto bit his lip. “For her,” he barked. “She needs a husband.”

Well, you know I have four daughters,” the man replied, nodding carefully. “And I need all the husbands I can get, too.”

For them,” clarified Barto.

For them,” Angelo replied, scratching his head the way his wife hated. “But I will try to remember anyone I know who has sons who could be your husband. That is, the one you want for this girl.”

Barto peered closely at him, not sure if the older man was teasing him.

Thank you, Angelo.” Barto said, finally. He turned to the stairs.

Anytime, Boss. And don’t forget the Party. It’s at your house.” He paused to see if there would be a reaction. Barto whirled around to see Angelo grin. “Just kidding. It’s here in the warehouse on Saturday, as soon as we get that pile of wheat out of the way!” He tapped the clipboard again, still laughing. “You gonna be here tonight to help?”

I’ll be there. And I’m bringing pizza and beer for anyone else who wants to help out,” he added, remembering he needed to send someone to pick up the food and beverage from the bakery. “Hopefully, the wind keeps up.” Barto reached into the pile of wheat and hefted a handful into the air. The ocean breeze acted like a wind tunnel through the open front cargo door of the warehouse and carried the light, golden chaff out through the back door. The hard, shiny wheat berries fell, scattering on the floor like edible grains of sand.

Angelo belted out his approval with shouting laughter. “By the time the sun goes down, the wind will pick up. Should go quickly!”

Barto nodded, his mind already on other things. He let out his breath heavily, and shouldering the responsibility, stalked upstairs to the office.

*

The last day of the harvest promised to be warm.

Rosana could smell the heat beginning to collect in the still air, waiting to show itself until the light of the morning sun arrived to stir it. She dressed quickly and made Norma comfortable.

I am certain Barto will be there at noon with a meal, and you must do everything you can for him,” she insisted, straightening Rosana’s hat and tucking a stray strand of hair behind the younger woman’s ear.”

I know. You’re right. I’ll see what I…”

Sit next to him. Right by the foot of his chair, if you can.”

Mama, I’ll do the best I can, but if he’s trying to find someone else to marry me, I’m not sure this is going to do any good.” Rosana took a deep breath, trying to banish the feeling that she was little more than a commodity, and that this was another evening with one of her mother’s clients.

Loca, my love. Crazy. The man simply thinks you wouldn’t want to marry him. He’s past forty and has never been married. You just have to encourage him. Make him think he has a chance!”

It never occurred to Norma that the chance was not a certainty. Rosana kissed her mother-in-law, and shouldering her worn duffle bag, set off down the hill, past the Convent where the recently-returned Sisters were lighting candles for Lauds.

Rosana waited for Zoli, as was their custom, and together they walked down the brightening road and across the orchard, now full of fruit-less trees and stubble.

The harvesters’ talk centered on the planting which would start with the next season, the quality of the harvest, and the party.

What party are they talking about?” Rosana asked Zoli as they began the morning work under the sharp gaze of the foreman. Zoli smiled.

When the wheat is bagged and shipped, all the harvest work is over for the year, Senor Barto gives a big party to celebrate.”

That doesn’t seem like his style,” grunted Rosana, scooting forward on her bottom, a position that kept her from having to stoop down all day as she gathered the wheat from the ground.

You are right, I think,” replied Zoli thoughtfully. She shrugged. “But he does it every year. Probably because all of us love it so much.” She indicated the band of harvesters with her chin.

You go every year?”

Zoli laughed. “Me and the whole town! It’s only supposed to be the people who have helped with the harvest, but everybody comes, and there’s always enough food for everybody. Then there’s dancing and bonuses. That’s the best part. Bonuses for all the workers.”

Money?” asked Rosana, stopping to look up at her friend.

Zoli shrugged. “Money, clothes, food. One year, it was chickens!”

Then what? What happens after that?”

More dancing and eating. No drinking, though. Senor Barto doesn’t want anyone getting drunk and making a mess in his warehouse.” Zoli giggled.

Rosana conjured the scene in her mind – a warehouse full of music and dancing with lots of food. She wondered if gleaners were invited, and if she could bring Norma. Zoli read her mind.

I’m sure he’ll want you to come,” she said, her eyes twinkling.

Free food? We might just show up anyway!” She was silent for awhile, moving steadily over the ground to keep up with the lead harvesters, concentrating on her work. “Zoli,” she asked suddenly, “what happens to all this wheat? How will they get it all out of the warehouse by the weekend?”

Zoli straightened her back and adjusted her bag before answering. “This wheat here goes into a big pile on the warehouse floor. You know how you clean your wheat by hand?” Rosana nodded. “Well, they open up the doors at sundown when the breeze off the ocean is strong and spend the whole night tossing the wheat into the air with shovels. The chaff blows out the door, and the wheat falls on the floor. Someone sweeps it into big bags and uses a machine to sew them closed. Then they pack it onto a truck and -” Here, she made a flying motion with her hand.

That sounds like medieval Europe,” breathed Rosana. Zoli shrugged. “It works. They’ve done it like that forever. But sometimes Senor Barto gets a machine if there’s no wind or something.”

Rosana worked on the ground all morning, but even so the heat descended into the very soil until she sought refuge by gleaning in the small circles of shade the leafy mango trees provided around their bases.

It wasn’t quite noon when the harvest was finished. Rosana was the last to set down her duffle and stand carefully to her feet, arching her back and stepping back into the tree shade for a moment’s rest. There was no sign of a truck or the portable tent that usually greeted them at noon, but everyone seemed content to settle into the shade of a tree and wait.

Rosana dozed. In her mind’s eye, she pictured a massive pile of wheat and men with shovels throwing it into the air in the middle of the night.

The throbbing of a diesel engine brought her back to the present, and she struggled to her feet as the white truck came to a stop near the foreman.

Gathering her courage about her, Rosana picked up her bag and stepped forward to greet the driver as he opened the door.

It wasn’t Barto.

Comida! Food!” said the foreman, pulling the tent from the back of the truck while the driver began collecting bags of wheat and good-naturedly ribbing the harvesters for such light loads.

The foreman served Rosana first. A gesture which reminded her of his Boss. A good Boss, if his employees knew he would want to serve the beggars first.

Listen!” The foreman was saying, “Saturday is the party. Come at four o’clock and bring your families!”

The harvesters laughed and chattered at good times remembered and anticipated. Rosana stared at the food with the sinking realization that this was the last meal. “For awhile,” she chided herself. “Just for awhile. Something will work out.”

Senora Delacruz,” said the truck driver, suddenly at her side. “Senor Barto says to tell the

American white lady that she is invited to the party, and should bring his Auntie.”

Cousin,” Rosana corrected automatically.

The driver shrugged.

Thank you,” she smiled. It was a broad smile that brought a sly grin to the face of the driver who looked around to make sure the other men had noticed the foreign beauty smile at him.

That afternoon, Norma ate the last meal with gusto. Rosana told her the story of the wheat pile and the party and lay down for an afternoon nap, wondering as she slept how she could convince a Dominican man to marry a barren foreign widow with a dependent.

Rosana – Chapter 23

Chapter 23

Rosana’s belly felt distended. It had been so long since she had eaten a second helping that she alternatively felt like laughing with delight and groaning with the pain of an overstretched stomach.

Oh, Mama. My only consolation is knowing the food will go bad unless we eat it!” She lay on the bed, gasping with laughter.

Norma sat contentedly in the waning evening light. “And he didn’t even notice what he did to the clothes line!” She had relaxed in the joy of a full meal, and was inclined to feel forgiving toward Barto.

I just hope he brings my shirt back,” Rosana giggled, “or I’ll have to ask him for it in front of all the harvesters, and then what would everyone think?” The thought brought on more paroxysms of laughter.

The sound of a diesel engine stilled their merriment.

Is that him again, mija? I can’t see down the road in this light.”

Rosana groaned and heaved herself to her feet, patting the mess that she knew her hair must be, and shuffling to join her mother-in-law on the front porch. The truck that pulled into the front yard was black, and neon lights showed through the tinted windows.

Oh, no. Mama, come inside, quick.” Rosana grabbed the handles of the chair and releasing the brake, tugged hard until the chair bumped backward over the lintel into the house. Rosana slammed the door hard, narrowly avoiding catching Norma’s foot in the door. As she turned the lock and stepped back into the darkness of the house, she tripped on the plastic water bucket, splashing the remaining half over the floor. Muttering, Rosana rubbed her toe and wished their lamp was not shining on the front porch where she had left it, a guilty finger pointing to their hurried retreat.

A wave of foreboding shivered over her neck and shoulders, and she urged Norma to be quiet, patting her gently on the shoulder for reassurance.

Hey! Hey! Rosana! It’s your loving relation, Jaime! Remember me?”

As if I could forget your piggish little eyes, you conniving letch!” she whispered. “Never mind, Mama,” she murmured to Norma’s fearful look.

C’mon, pretty baby! C’mon out and talk with Uncle Jaime!” There was a grunt and the sound of mild cursing.

I think he tripped on the steps,” she whispered. “He must be drunk if he fell with that lamp shining out there.” She reached out to unplug the cord which was attached to the outlet in the house, but paused. It would be better with the light on. She would be able to watch him through the bars of the darkened windows.

Jaime managed to climb the steps and lean into the front door, knocking with his head.

Are you in there, sexy Mama? Eh? I know you are! You and that old lady. Old la-a-a-d-y? Are you in there?”

Norma took a breath to make a retort, but Rosana quelled it with a quick shoulder squeeze.

Jaime knocked again on the door, his head making a hollow banging noise that echoed through the casita. “You like this place, Rosana-na-na? Eh? You like this little house next to the religious zealots? I hear you have no water, no toilet, no bath. True? Do you stink, baby?”

Rosana’s fingernails were embedded in the plastic handles of the wheelchair, and she raised her eyes toward the Convent in thanks she had moved fast enough to put a door between them and this drunken idiot. A dangerous idiot, said the thought, wafting through her mind.

You know, if you had come with me…” Rosana moved to the window and stood to the side, peering out at him on the front porch. He had turned and was resting his back against the wood. Soon, he slid to the cement porch and sat there, muttering.

If you had come with me, you bruja, you witch, I would have given you a real house -one of my bodegas – to live in!” He staggered to his feet and stared around at the casita like a dragon looking for a weakness in the castle wall. “But instead our dear Barto has given you a place to live, and so you exist like this! He just wants you for himself, but you are mine. Mine!” He slammed his fist on the door, roaring the final word with a vehemence that terrified the women.

Rosana flattened her back against the wall by the side of the window, grateful for the metal bars that covered the glass-less opening. She leaned cautiously forward to look at the raving drunk on their porch and then screamed as his face suddenly loomed in the window. He cackled gleefully.

I’ve found you! Yes! I have! You are inside, aren’t you, and it won’t be long before I am inside, too!” He rattled the bars with a strength that made Rosana pray the metal would hold.

I’m asking you this time, you little tart. Ooh-hoo-hoo! I can see what you are! What you really are underneath this pious act! You strut behind the old lady, pretending you aren’t like any of the other little chocolates in my bodegas, but I know!” He howled with an unearthly sound that made Rosana wish they had agreed to a dog. She dashed from the window to Norma’s side, pulling the chair back into the kitchen as far from the front door as possible.

Then, feeling along the wall she stumbled against the second bucket, the metal one, still mostly full of water. It clanged and set Jaime off into another tirade at the window. An idea began to grow in her mind, and she dug in her duffle bag for two items of pure luxury. Two items which had never seen use since she arrived in the Dominican Republic: A can of hairspray, and a lighter. She felt around in her painting duffle until she found the can of paint thinner La Madre had given her. She smiled in the dark and put the three items against the wall by the front door.

Rosana felt her way back to Norma and squeezed her hand comfortingly.

I’m going to help him find his way back down the hill,” she whispered.

No! No! ‘Sana! Don’t do it! He’ll kill you! He’ll do worse than kill you!”

He’ll have to catch me first,” she hissed. “The drunk slob!”

Norma sobbed. Her chest rising and falling in great heaves. Rosana left her there, and feeling her way back to the door, picked up the bucket and waited in front of the window.

She didn’t wait long. When he caught a glimpse of her face at the window, Jaime lunged again, thrusting his pudgy hands between the bars to grab at her. She took one step back, heaved the bucket into the air, and slammed it against the bars, emptying the contents into his face. Before he could retract his arms, Rosana whirled the empty bucket into the air and brought it crashing down on his arms. There was loud cracking sound, and Jaime, gasping for air around the lungful of water he had swallowed, now bellowed in agony.

She slipped to the outlet and unplugged the lamp on the front step. Jaime was suddenly in darkness, except for the lights of his truck shining out over their vegetable garden toward the outhouse. Rosana listened until the bellows became howls, and in a moment came the crash she had been waiting for. He had fallen off the porch.

The three-foot drop had done nothing to quiet him, and he lay, she saw as she silently slid back the bolt and opened the door, on his back in the dirt, booted heels in the air against the side of the concrete porch.

She stood looking down on him. It was a unique angle, she decided, and should definitely be used to her advantage. She sprayed his feet cautiously and thoroughly with hairspray. He moaned and swore, trying to kick at her, but was unable to move from his awkward position.

But Rosana moved quickly. It would not be long before he figured out how to roll over and get to his feet, in spite of the pain in his wrists and elbows. Uncapping the bottle of paint thinner, she poured it in a sparing line from the writhing Jaime to the hood of the truck. This she doused more liberally.

She opened the door and poured the remainder in the cab and tossed in the can for good measure. Mother Maria-Ileana would probably not approve, she decided.

Yelps of pain told her Jaime was not still. She ran up the steps and stood over him as he struggled to roll. She picked up the can of hairspray and the lighter from where she had dropped them on the porch and spraying a burst into the air, lit it with the lighter.

The loud pop and burst of flame had the desired effect. The curse froze in Jaime’s throat, and for the first time a look of fear darted across his face.

What are you doing you American witch?” he screamed.

Listen to me, Jaime,” she whispered, “and listen closely. I am about to light your boots on fire. When they are lit, they will spread fire every place you step, especially in the paint thinner I just poured on the ground and on your truck. You will have to move very, very fast to keep your clothes from catching on fire. With any luck, the hairspray will have burned off before you light the truck on fire, but just in case you try to hang around, I am going to stand by with my lighter, and we’ll see what happens.” She didn’t wait to hear his garbled anger. Reaching down to his upraised boots, Rosana flicked the lighter.

Jaime cursed and rolled as the hairspray on his boots sprang to hot, searing life. Fumbling to his feet he hopped around like a crazed rabbit trying to avoid the trail of paint thinner on the ground.

Rosana waited until he had the door of the cab open and was trying to hoist himself in with his injured arms. His angry, pain-filled protests came louder as the flames on his boots consumed the last of their short-lived fuel, hissed into the blackened leather, and went out. Rosana stood in front of the hood, arm outstretched, lighter flame shimmering in the breeze.

Jaime leaped upward and landed on his broken arms across the seat. He screamed and kicked in excruciating pain. With enormous effort, he struggled upright barely in time to remove his scorched toes from the slicing arc of the door as Rosana slammed it shut.

She pointed down the hill with the same disdainful expression she used with disobedient dogs and door-to-door salesmen.

Using his chin and shoulder, Rosana watched Jaime tug the truck into gear and pull a tight, unsteady ‘180’ out of their yard and down the hill, a distant crunching crash followed by the roar of an engine telling her he had momentarily left the pavement as he turned onto the main road. Rosana nodded, satisfied.

Suddenly, she was exhausted, and mindful of the spilled paint thinner, she snuffed the lighter and picked her way back indoors.

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