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Rosana – Chapter 31

Chapter 31

Barto paused outside the door. While his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he scanned the parking lot. People and cars filled the gravel-covered yard, talking, smoking, laughing, and everywhere hailing Barto as he went.

Did Rosana Delacruz come this way?” he asked a group of guests, most of whom looked at him blankly until he said, ‘la Americana.’ Their faces lit up with smug grins and knowing glances as they pointed to the road.

Barto!”

He paused mid-stride and glanced back. If he waited, they would get further away, and the darkness would overtake them before he did. It was Angelo.

Look who we have!” Barto glanced at the road and then back at Angelo who stepped aside to reveal a weaving Jaime, supported by two of Angelo’s sons. “He’s drunk.”

I can see that,” snapped Barto, glancing again at the road. “What’d he say?”

About whaa, brother dear? I shaid nothing. Nothing.”

Barto took a step forward. “What happened to your arms, Jaime?”

Whaa arms?” giggled Jaime, rolling back on his heels and forcing Angelo’s sons to catch him and hold him upright. “Oh! Theesh arms!” he waved them in small circles. “I fell.” He looked confused and sad for a moment before his face curled into a snarl. “And she burned me, the witch! My boots! Gone!” The man actually began to cry.

Who burned you?” breathed Barto, stepping up to the drunken man’s face.

She did! That little tart who came here with the old lady. O-l-l-d la-a-a-d-y!” Jaime sang the title through his tears.

Poor Jaime,” said Angelo. “Burned up and boots gone. How did you fall, poor guy?”

Poor Jaime,” agreed Jaime, beckoning to Angelo. “She hit me. Umm hmm. Poor Jaime, hit with a bucket through the window. Broke ma – ma arms, the witch! And burned my boots! And my truck!” He leaned forward and stared blearily into Angelo’s eyes. “I’m gonna kill her.”

Barto shouldered his way between them. “How could she hit you with a bucket through the window? Those windows have bars. A bucket couldn’t fit between them.”

Jaime contemplated Barto for a long moment. “You wan’ her and I wan’ her, but when poor Jaime reaches in to take her – bang! Crash! A bucket on poor Jaime’s arms. He falls, he falls! And she burns boots.” He looked thoughtfully at the ground for a moment before glancing at Angelo’s sons. “Tha’ is why I’m gonna hurt her ba-a-ad.” He grinned angelically.

How you gonna do that, Jaime?” asked one of the brothers.

Catch!” said Jaime, grabbing the air between his two clumsy arms. “Squee-ze! Play! And release.” He sat down hard on the ground.

Angelo grabbed Barto by the collar, forcibly inserting himself between the kinsmen. “When you gonna do this, Jaime? When you gonna catch her?”

Jaime picked up a handful of gravel and let drop to the ground. “Up at the bodegas with the other chocolates. Where will they go? Where will we go on Monday when he comes? To Hatillo. We will go to Hatillo. You like Hatillo?” he looked innocently into Angelo’s eyes.

Who. Will. Help. You. Catch. Rosana? And when?” gargled Barto, his voice caught between his body’s urge to run after Rosana and the need for information.

Drink! Drink! Party! Poor Jaime is at the party! Not Jaime’s fault. Unn – Unh. Boys will do it. Boys on the road. Boys at the house. They know where to go. They see her. Tonight!”

It took nearly ten heart-stopping minutes for Angelo to lock the spluttering Jaime in the bathroom at the warehouse, much to the chagrin of the ladies who occupied it and preferred not to be rousted mid-gossip. Holding Barto by the arms, he commissioned twenty men who gathered around the uproar to clear the parking lot and organize a rescue.

In another ten minutes, they were tearing out of the parking lot, Barto grim and silent as he gunned the engine through a trackless corner of the orchard to reach the road first. He calculated mentally. A full-half hour had elapsed since he saw them leave. They would be more than halfway home. ‘Poor Jaime’ had blurted something about the bridge, and Barto cringed at the thought of what they widows would meet there.

I’m sorry, Rosana. I’m so sorry,” he muttered. Angelo, gripping the handle above the door, pretended not to hear.

The arrived at the bridge five minutes later, Barto’s high beams illuminating a man in the act of throwing his cigarette over the side.

That’s Pinky,” said Angelo, pointing with his lips. “Jaime’s driver.”

Instead of stopping, Barto gunned the engine and sped down the road until, just beyond the road to Planchado, he spotted a van off the side of the road. With a quick twist of his hands, his own truck blocked the road. In less than a minute, two more trucks came speeding from the direction of the warehouse and did the same. On the far side of the bridge, several more vehicles already stood blocking the way, shining their lights on Pinky, who stood with his hands raised timidly in the air.

Barto grabbed the heavy-duty flashlight he carried in the door pocket and leaped from the truck. Angelo followed as soon as he could find the door latch in the dark.

Where are they?” he growled, striding up to Pinky, the bright light trained on the thug’s face.

Who – where are who?” he shrugged innocently, lowering his hands slowly.

Four men surrounded Pinky and rifling through his pockets, produced a knife and a coil of cord.

Take him to the Mayor’s house and tell him to lock him up. We’ll get the police out here tomorrow.” Barto turned away, knowing what would be in Pinky’s truck, if he looked.

Bags, duct tape, and blanket. Plus this -” Angelo held up a plastic baggie with two filled syringes in it.

He didn’t catch them.”

Angelo shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it. Better send some one up to the house, though. If they went home another way, they may get a nasty surprise.” Barto nodded, and in a moment four trucks-full of ‘someones’ squealed off the main road and roared up the hill toward the casita.

They didn’t make it this far,” said Barto. “They’re somewhere along the way still.”

No one passed them coming here, and this tells me they didn’t get here yet.” He shook the baggie for Barto to see.

A shout interrupted them, and they ran to the embankment on the southern side of the road. Even before his flashlight reflected off the metal, Barto knew what the men had found. Near the road, something caught his eye.

Angelo.” He pointed. “Fresh blood. Look. It’s still wet.” She was hurt. He knew it, and it was his fault. Barto berated himself in English, French, and Spanish, with some Creole thrown in for diversity.

Not very much, though. It looks like someone’s got a bad cut, but there’s not enough to -” he stopped before finishing the thought.

They side-stepped down the embankment to the chair. In it was the bag the women gave Norma before they left. It smelled like roast pork.

Four flashlights and ten men moved cautiously down to the river, scattering trash and slipping on the piles of brush.

Well, they went up, down, or across. Take your pick,” shrugged a young man in his mid-twenties who had danced twice with Rosana that evening.

Barto glared at him and then down into the water. She had to be carrying Norma. Her first concern would be to get Norma someplace safe. If I wanted to get Norma to safety, where would I go? Down toward the ocean? Across back toward the warehouse? Upriver toward the onion fields?

That’s it. They went up river,” he announced, stepping into the current and wading under the bridge.

Prove it,” called the young man from the bank.

I will,” he muttered. She doesn’t know the land toward the ocean. The way back to the warehouse would have gained her nothing, since she thinks – he forced himself to finish the thought – she thinks I wouldn’t help her. She’s headed for the Sisters. She knows La Madre will help, even if I won’t. He cursed himself silently and thoroughly, ignoring the hails of the men trying to keep up with him.

*

I’ve got to put you down, Mama.” Rosana slid across the algae covered rocks to the western bank of the river where she lowered Norma to the sandy bank. Already the flashlights were in the river, no more than a few minutes behind, but her strength was waning, and they needed a hiding place.

How many people are trying to get us?” moaned Norma, “and why?”

Rosana’s voice came from the bushes above the bank, “who knows. But I’m – well, I’m not going to let them. Give me your hands.”

Norma reached up and found her wrists gripped and hauled upward in a failing effort to lift her up into the bushes. Scrambling back down to the edge of the river, Rosana pushed Norma from behind and managed to maneuver her scratched, traumatized mother-in-law into the bushes.

Anyone who looks at our tracks on that bank is going to know where we are, but maybe they’ll just walk by. Pray, Mama!” Rosana squeezed into the interior of a bush, hoping she would not disturb any slithering creatures who might already be occupying this place of refuge. Lifting aside the thorns, she pulled Norma in with her.

There was no extra room at all, and just before the flashlights came near enough to shine on the banks below them, Norma untied her scarf and spread it over their head so their eyes would not reflect any light.

They waited in silent terror as the first light strode by, it’s owner never pausing to examine the footprints in the sand or inspect the drag marks that pointed to the fugitives like a neon arrow. For a moment, Rosana wrestled with an overwhelming desire to call out and give herself up, but Norma’s trembling form strengthened her resolve, and they lay still while the lights of one group and then another moved by.

If it weren’t so cramped, I would fall asleep here, thought Rosana after what seemed like hours had passed. Would they come back? “Mama? You okay?” she whispered. Norma nodded. “We need to wait here until the morning. They aren’t going to try anything in broad daylight, and we can scoot up to the Sisters at first light, okay? Mama?”

Incredibly, Norma was asleep. Rosana stretched as much as she dared, and freeing only her nose from the protective scarf, dozed fitfully.

*

Tears of frustration threatened as Barto stood, staring at La Madre in disbelief.

They’re not here?”

No. Like I said, Barto, the only person at the house is that brute who is locked in our garden shed. And a good thing Sister Clara had to put away that trowel and happened to see his cigarette from the garden. Imagine if the widows had walked in on him! As it was, he barely made a sound when we dragged him up here.”

How did you catch him?” Barto asked slowly, not comprehending.

Poor Senor Barto is having trouble understanding,” she nodded to the Sisters at the door who nodded back in unison. “Sister Clara had the trowel. She came and got me, and a few of us went down and ‘pop!’” The Sisters broke into wide grins, particularly Clara, who beamed at him. “He’s cooling down in the shed, as I told you, and we’ll give him to the Mayor or the police, whoever gets here first.”

But you haven’t seen -”

La Madre sighed. “No, dear. She and her mother have not arrived yet, but it will be dawn soon, and she will bring Norma home when she sees it is safe. Look at you. You’re soaking wet and covered with briers like you walked up the river and then climbed the hill in the dark! Go get your truck and park it at the Convent. She won’t come home if she sees a strange vehicle in her yard. We will give you a blanket to use and you will sleep in your truck until she comes home. Then, when you see she’s safe, you will marry her, right?”

Yes, Madre.” Barto nodded like a schoolboy.

Good. Now, no more trouble. If that Jaime had listened to me when he was teenager and had thrown out all those disgusting magazines, we would not be here talking at this ridiculous hour, but some people have to learn the hard way. Well, at least no one got hurt. Are you still awake? Barto? Good. Go get your truck now. Good morning.”

The Sisters ushered Barto from the Convent where he staggered down the hill and found Angelo already asleep in the cab. He shoved him over and moved the truck in obedience to La Madre.

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Chapter 30

Some people stared or called a greeting as they crossed the parking lot, but Norma and Rosana passed generally unnoticed through the parking lot and onto the road. Rosana blessed the long t-shirt she brought for just this purpose. A few yards down the road she stopped to slip the shirt over the shimmering dress and change the sandals for work shoes. She accomplished the change quickly, pulling her hair into a quick bun and wiping back a tear. Kissing her mother-in-law on the head, she pushed quickly for home.

Would you like some bread, Mija?”

No, Mama, I’m fine.”

You didn’t eat anything all evening, I watched you.”

You always look out for me, sweet Mama. But you didn’t eat much either.”

But Maricia gave me a bag of leftovers to take home,” she shook it enticingly, “so we can eat when we get there.”

Rosana grunted and pushed on. Her joints hurt. Too much dancing. Oh well. She would sleep it off and in the morning try to figure out what to do. Maybe she could buy some paper and draw portraits of tourists at the beach. Maybe she could do some beach combing and make them into collectable things tourists would buy.

I think we should go to the beach tomorrow, Mama.”

If you would like, mi amor. But what for?”

I have some ideas about how to make some money I’d like to try. We can go to Mass at the Convent in the morning and the beach in the afternoon.” The more she planned, the easier it was to banish Barto from her thoughts.

Why doesn’t Barto want to marry you anymore?”

Rosana sighed, hanging her head and willing herself to be patient as they rolled along the road. “Maybe he’s heard things. Or maybe he just realized what I am. He’s a careful man.” She replayed the previous night, the way he had wrapped his arms around her, promising to protect her. It had been a promise. With an effort, she replaced the mental image with thoughts of their casita. “Halfway home, Mama.”

What is there to hear about you?”

I don’t know, Mama, but whatever it is, I can’t change it. So we will keep on going, and God will provide. He always does.” Rosana could tell by the shaking of her mother-in-law’s shoulders that the older woman was crying. She lifted her chin and pushed on, doing her best to think of other things.

Overloaded cars and trucks began to pass, waving and honking at the two widows making their way home by the light of the stars.

The party must be over,” Rosana muttered, suddenly aware that Norma was nodding in the chair. They were walking over the bridge now, passing the place Rosana had climbed out of the river bed to the road after her first day of gleaning. Between cars, the dark was nearly complete, although in the distance she could see the lights of the Convent on the hill, urging her home like a lighthouse on the shore.

Without warning, a cold chill stole up from the dark and settled heavily on Rosana. It was a feeling of evil, of malevolence lying in wait. She slowed her stride and glanced warily around. The road to Planchado was just ahead on the right, but instinctively, she turned and crossed the road to the left, pushing the chair down the embankment and behind a convenient clump of bushes where the metal of the wheelchair and the bottom of her dress, hanging below the t-shirt could not reflect the light. She crouched down beside Norma and waited.

What are we doing, ‘Sana?” cried Norma, suddenly coming awake. “Where -”

Shhh, Mama,” she hissed, a finger to her lips. She laid her hand on Norma’s wrist and counted five hundred heart beats under her fingertips before she carefully moved to the end of the bush and crawled on her belly up the embankment. A few yards ahead on the other side of the road, just beyond the turn to their house, Rosana spotted a red glow. She watched it carefully for several minutes. The glow moved up and down, brighter when it was up. She sniffed carefully. A cigarette.

Light splashed across the way as a car bounced by, leaving them in darkness again, but not before Rosana saw the man smoking the cigarette. He was leaning against a van looking annoyed as he surveyed the road in the direction from which they had come. Rosana crawled back to Norma, cutting her knee on a glass bottle in the process.

There’s a man over there,” she mouthed. “He’s waiting for someone.”

He’s waiting for you, Mija,” whispered Norma without emotion. “I knew this would happen, after what happened to Jaime. They will be waiting at the house, too.”

Rosana nodded. It made sense. She calculated quickly. They couldn’t stay here. Anyone with a flashlight could find them, and how long before the man started to search? They had to move. But the chair wouldn’t work off the road, not efficiently, anyway.

Mama, you’ve got to let me carry you. We’re going to go to the Convent. We’ll go the way I went to the onion field that first time. Get ready, and we’ll move when the next car comes.”

Without a word, Norma opened the bag of bread and dropped her water bottle into it, closing it with a knot. Then, tying the scarf around her head to shield her face, she held out her arms to Rosana, who crouched in front of the chair ready to hoist the older lady onto her back.

Several breaths later, a rumbling announced a car, and a sweep of lights illuminated for an instant the terrain between them and the river. In one motion she hoisted Norma and moved stealthily further down the embankment toward the river.

Twice, she stumbled over rocks and brush. A third time she froze when her toe connected with a can which clanged and banged as it bounced toward the water.

Cross! Cross!” Norma whispered in her ear when they reached the river. Rosana obeyed, trying to keep her balance on the wet stones at the bottom of the knee-deep torrent. On the other side, she sloshed to the bridge’s concrete support and leaned against it breathing heavily. At Norma’s tap on her shoulder, she looked up and saw the red glow on the bridge above them. The women sank back into the darkness.

In a moment, the red glow fell from the bridge and disappeared into the water.

A sudden roar followed by the squealing of hot brakes filled the air on the bridge above them. It was followed instantly by a flash of light that illuminated the road. The man on the bridge, standing in a spotlight, stood staring stupidly. Yelling and the sounds of running ensued, but Rosana had already hitched Norma higher on her back and darted away under the bridge, up the river into the darkness.

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.

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.”

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.

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