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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”