“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.