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.
“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.