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 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.