Fall2017Fiction

When in Drought – Meiloni Erickson

Eduardo knew what was coming when he entered Rosario’s room and saw her leaning heavily on her brass-handled, wooden cane and staring out of the window. He had explained the situation to her at least twenty times in the four days since he’d started the job. Plus, she read about it in the paper regularly and watched news features about it on TV, which she turned up so loud that Eduardo could hear the reporters down the hall and through two closed doors, while he lies at night in the twin bed of the spare bedroom. But like his name, the drought was one of the bits of information that Rosario forgot each day.

“My grass is dying, young man” Rosario said, not taking her gaze from the brown and yellow remnants of her lawn. “Something must be done.”

The formality of her tone was a tell-tale clue of her state of mind. “I know, Rosie,” Eduardo said, “but I’m only with you for a few more days. When Yolanda gets back I’m sure you two will work something out.” There wasn’t anything that Rosario’s daughter, Yolanda, could do about the state sanctioned water restrictions, either, but in three more days it wouldn’t be Eduardo’s problem anymore.

“Yolanda isn’t in charge,” Rosario answered crossly. “This is my house.”

“Of course, it is,” Eduardo said with a smile, trying to lighten the mood, “but Yolanda’s my boss.” He picked up Rosario’s empty coffee cup and the small plate dusted with toast crumbs. “And I gotta keep the boss happy, right?” He paused by the door on his way out of the room. “Is there anything else I can get you?”

“No, I’m fine now. Going to read the newspaper.” She tapped the rumpled pages. “See what’s happening in the world.”

In the kitchen, which connected to the living room in an open floor plan, Eduardo washed Rosario’s dishes, then poured himself another cup of coffee and turned on the radio near the stove. Bass filled the quiet space, echoing off of the tile floors, and drowning out the ticking of the grandfather clock standing in the hallway. This was his third in-home gig this month. Paula from the Mental Health Center recommended him to a friend after the lay-off, and one job led to another until he’d found himself able to pay his car payment and insurance early instead of late. Most were only been a few nights, but he was digging this longer deal. Had finally stopped feeling like a guest. And the pay was great. He was even thinking about becoming a certified caregiver. He learned a lot as an orderly at the Center, but having the certificate would make the difference. He could get a permanent job with an agency, which paid even more, and with a secure check each week he could get his own apartment again and get out of his parents’ place. Finally be back in control of his life.

Until recently, things had been easy for Eduardo.  He went to community college after high school and got an Associate’s degree in general education, but he didn’t keep going because he didn’t know what to do. After that he happily drifted from job to job until his cousin got Eduardo on at the Center.  He started as a maintenance worker, which he knew was fancy for janitor, but he had done his job well and gotten along well with everyone, so when they needed an orderly for the morning shift, the supervisor didn’t even advertise. Just offered Eduardo the job. With the steady checks coming, Eduardo was able to get his own place and eventually buy a used car. After a few months, his girlfriend, Mari, moved in, and when her period was late, they’d stayed up all night talking. By the time the some rose, they had decided to get married.

The night Mari told him about the abortion was still blurry. Earlier that day, when he bought an engagement ring on credit and was planning to propose the right way, was clearer. But when he got home and looked in Mari’s eyes, he knew it was all over.  She didn’t look sad exactly, more like something between nervous and determined. She talked and he tried to listen, he really had. He heard her say things that made sense, like how she was young and had a lot of plans in her life. How she loved him, but she wasn’t ready to be second to anyone, even her own kid. But the whole time she talked, Eduardo was watching a movie in his mind. It was the flash version of a life that would never be lived. T-ball practice and tiny fingers. Gray hair and backyard BBQs.

They agreed that Mari would keep the apartment. It was closer to her job, and Eduardo wasn’t interested in staying in the haunted space. He moved into the garage at his parents’, started sleeping during the day and watching old episodes of Full House. When the Center finally let him go, they blamed budget cuts, but Eduardo knew the truth. He would’ve fired himself. But even though he could see what was happening, back then there was nothing he could do to stop it.

But that was all over now; he could feel things changing. Eduardo’s fingers began tapping to the melody as the groove picked up on the track. Rosario was real easy to manage. Basic needs and a simple schedule that she liked to follow. Yesterday was shower day. It had made him a little nervous at first, but she could do most things herself. Just needed someone in the room able to help in case of problems. And someone to talk to. His grandma died before he was born, but he worked with women at the Center, and he enjoyed the interactions. They often mothered him, and he enjoyed the caring.

Settling into the desk chair that faced a picture window, he turned on the computer to surf the web, maybe even look up the local cert programs to get going on that. While the system loaded, he sipped his coffee and watched the street. The sky was clear of even a whisper of clouds, and the yellowed grass melted into the blinding light. This was the same view Rosario had from her windows. Wasted grass. When Yolanda showed him around on his first day, she admitted that they originally ignored the state mandated reduction of water use. Everyone else on their block had “gone gold” at the urging of the Governor’s office, but their lawn stayed lush until they received a letter warning them that the water department could place a control valve on the pipes so that they would only be allowed 200 gallons a day to ensure their compliance. “If we get restricted, it won’t be enough for the trees,” Yolanda had said with a worried look. “I have to keep those trees alive.” It all made sense, but Eduardo wished there was something he could do to ease Rosario’s mind. There was something about that lady that made you want to please her.

 

“Hi, Rosario? I’m coming in,” Eduardo said, rapping the door with his knuckle before twisting the handle. People deserve privacy. Especially in their own home.

“Good afternoon,” Rosario waved from the bed where she was lying under a thick knit blanket.

“It started cooling off out there,” Eduardo said as he sat on the edge of Rosario’s mattress, “so I was thinking you might like to go sit outside in the back for a while? Admire your fruit trees?”  The grassy path with stepping stones would be challenging for the old woman, but seeing her trees thriving might lessen her anxiety about the grass.

“I don’t know. I haven’t been back there in quite some time. My walker doesn’t do well on the grass.”

“You need some off-roading tires.”

Rosario laughed. “Maybe I do. I’ll tell mija.”

“Well, what if I carry you over the grassy part to a chair?”

“Oh, no. That would be too much trouble.”

Eduardo refused to listen and instead helped get Rosario ready. She insisted he find her walking shoes, and he did, getting down on hands and knees, and eventually belly, to retrieve the left shoe from the recesses of the bed’s underbelly. He slipped the shoes on her tiny feet, her legs dangling a good six inches from the ground.

“My niece got me these in San Antonio.” Rosario said as she scooted to the edge of the bed.

“Oh, yeah? Is that where she lives?” Eduardo positioned Rosario’s walker against the side of the mattress.

“No, no. She travels a lot. A big executive lady, you know.”

They made their way to the kitchen slowly, Eduardo taking one step for every three of Rosario’s shuffles. At the back door, Rosario clicked the levers on each handle to lock the tires.

“OK. If you’re sure it won’t be too much trouble, I’m ready.”

Instead of answering Eduardo swept Rosario off her feet and settled her onto his chest. She gave a little gasp but otherwise handled the move gracefully, letting her hand rest on his shoulder.

“How’s that?” he asked.

“Just fine,” she said.

Eduardo stepped carefully through the crunchy lawn, and as he rounded the corner the whole yard came into view. In addition to the orange tree that sat near the path, there was blood orange, tangerine, lemon, fig, loquat, kumquats, plum, and avocado trees. Various chilé peppers lines the back wall of the house, reds, yellows, and oranges shining bright, even from a distance. Grape vines wrapped around aged arbors so thickly that the wood disappeared into the leaves.

Eduardo took a deep breath and let the scents of the garden fill his lungs. The evening light was that purple-blue color that made everything look magical. Eduardo shifted Rosario in his arms, then moved to the chairs and little table set up under the covered patio.

“It is cooling off,” Rosario said, smiling at Eduardo as she settled into one of the seats.

“I know, now if we could only get some rain,” Eduardo said.

“It never rains much around here. Not since I was a girl.”

“Yeah. SoCal is a wasteland.”

“Yes,” she said sadly, “but it used to be covered in fruit trees as far as you could see.”

“Was it like that when you were a girl?”

“Oh, yes. I was born on a ranchero,” Rosario said. “It was country everywhere. We moved here, to the city, when I was ten. There were no trees on 5th street then. It was where all the Latinos were allowed to buy houses, on this side of the tracks, and the streets and the yards were dirt.”

“Wow, it must have been so different,” Eduardo said.

“Yes,” Rosario answered. “We didn’t have anything then. My mother used to pull a wagon to the markets, picking through the trash for food.” She was quiet a moment. “We were so hungry, but mi mama found a way. She would make do.”

Eduardo couldn’t imagine how hard that must have been. Sometimes when he was on a job he would catch some nerves, realizing that he was responsible for another life. But that was only for a few days, not an entire childhood. “She sounds like a strong woman.”

Rosario tipped her head to the side and looked at Eduardo again “Si,” she said softly, “she was.” Rosario cleared her throat and straightened up in her chair. “When my husband bought me this house after we were married, it was brand new. No yard, only dirt.”

Eduardo looked around the backyard, thinking that if not for the trees and other plants, the backyard would be back to that state soon enough.

Mi mama came over on my first day here and brought an orange tree sapling in a bucket, wrapped in a moist rag.” Rosario’s eyes were trained on the orange tree that stood over twenty feet tall, but it was obvious by the tone in her voice that she was seeing something else. “She said ‘plant this, hija, and you will always have food.’”

Eduardo nodded, not wanting to break Rosario’s spell with words.

Modesto, my first husband, planted it right there that same day,” she continued. “So I could see it if I poked my head out the back door.” She fell quiet, still looking at the orange tree.

“And now you have all this.”

Rosario nodded and took in the rest of the yard. “Modesto planted it all that first year. The trees give, but it takes a lot of work to keep them. We had a few dry years when my Yolanda was a baby, and it was so hard to keep them watered.”

“It’s nice that the state allows watering the fruit trees this time.”

“This?” Rosario waved her arm around gesturing. “This is nothing. It rained last week.”

Eduardo shook his head. “I don’t think so. It’s been three months at least.”

“No, no. You’re making excuses for forgetting to water while Yolanda is gone.” Rosario’s tone gained an edge. “She’ll be angry you let the grass die.”

“I can’t water the grass,” Eduardo protested. “But I water the trees. Every night”

“It just needs a couple soakings, and it will come back.” Rosario put her thin hands on the arms of the chair and pushed herself up. “Get the hose, and I’ll show you how.”

Eduardo jumped from his chair. “Whoa, whoa. Easy. Sit back down, Rosario. Please.”

“Don’t tell me what to do in my own home,” she snapped. “I’m in charge. My grass needs water! What will the neighbors think?” Her voice rose, and although she was fragile, it was forceful.

“I’m not—please, sit.”

“I’m not listening to you! I don’t know you. Where’s my daughter?” Rosario looked around frantically. “Yolanda!” she called. “Yolanda, help!”

“It’s OK. It’s fine,” Eduardo said soothingly. Step one was to deflate the situation, and get Rosario to relax. “I’m sorry I was bossing—” Eduardo began.

“Miss Rosie? Everything OK?” a voice called from over the wooden fence that surrounded the yard.

“Harvey?” Rosario looked to where the voice came from.

“Yes, Miss Rosie. I heard you hollering and wanted to see if you was all right back here.”

Eduardo was unsure if this Harvey knew about his presence and didn’t want to startle him, so he called out, “Hello there. I’m staying with Rosario while Yolanda is away.”

“Oh, I know,” Harvey said, still on the outside of the fence. “Miss Yolanda tells me everything. Has since she was a girl.”

Eduardo heard the metallic clink from the gate and then saw an older black man approach slowly.

“She asked to me to watch out for you and Miss Rosie here. Make sure you two don’t get into any trouble.” The old man winked at Eduardo then turned to address Rosario. “Ah, Miss Rosie! Look at you out here enjoying the evening.”

“Oh, Harvey. My neighbor.” She reached out her hands and clasped the one he offered. “How are you doing? I haven’t seen you since Janie died.”

“Aw, it’s been sooner than then. Janie passed two summers ago, and I just saw you for your big birthday last month.”

Rosario’s head tilted to one side. “Right,” she answered, her hands slipping to her lap.

“Your trees are looking good. Gonna have some fine avocados for dip soon.”

“Yes, I’ll make sure Yolanda brings you some.”

“Fine, fine.” Harvey looked to Eduardo. “So who’s this young man? You find a new boyfriend, Miss Rosie?”

“Eduardo, sir,” he said, offering his hand.

Harvey took it and said, “Harvey. Been living next door to Miss Rosie here for the last forty odd years. Our babies grew up together.”

“We thought Yolanda and Damon would end up together…”

“But kids got their own ideas,” Harvey finished.

Rosario laughed.

Eduardo chuckled a little as well, eager to be in on a joke.

The two old friends chatted for a while, with Eduardo acting as the audience for their storytelling, until the first stars were out. When the conversation reached a natural pause, Harvey lifted himself out of the chair and said, “Well, I’ll let you two get back to your evening. Just thought I’d say hello.” He clasped hands with Rosario once more then turned to go.

“It was so nice to see you, Harvey. Please tell Janie I say hello.”

Harvey nodded without missing a beat. “Will do.” With a half wave he turned and walked back the way he had come.

Eduardo waited a moment after hearing the side gate clink then said, “Well he was nice.”

“Yes. A lovely man. His wife and I have been friends for years and years. Go to church together once a month.”

Eduardo ignored the reference to Janie and said, “Let’s get back inside, and I’ll fix you some dinner. I think your program is going to start soon.”

“Is it seven already?”

Eduardo wasn’t surprised. That’s how memory loss worked. She could forget her neighbor died two years before, but she knew what time her telenovelas started. “Almost.”

“OK, mijo.” Rosario looked around. “Where’s my walker?”

Mijo. Any lingering tension drained from his body. Eduardo flexed his muscles in a strong man pose. “You’re getting a ride on these bad boys.”

Rosario laughed again. “Well, whenever you’re ready, hot stuff.”

 

The next night, Eduardo sank into his temporary bed, grateful the day was coming to an end. Rosario hadn’t become agitated again, but whenever he went to check on her she would look out her window and make some comment or another about the state of the grass:

“—don’t forget the sprinkler.” Or,

“—I’ve never had my yard like this. Modesto would cry to see it.” Or,

“—Make sure to soak this side patch.”

Eduardo tried not to respond to these comments with more than a word or a nod. He considered calling Paula or one of his other old co-workers for advice on how to deal with someone who has an obsession but quickly dismissed the idea. He could handle this. He used to be so confident, so sure of himself. After the lay-off everything went upside down. He’d lost control. Moved back with his parents. Drained his savings.

No. Eduardo shook his head, dismissing the thoughts. No, that was before. Things were changing. He was going get certified. This would be his new career. He was about to turn the last corner. He was back in charge.

 

Eduardo wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled the hose behind him. Rosario was right. Maintaining a real yard was work. She’d been OK the last few days, but her obsession with the watering had gotten to the point that every one of their exchanges seemed centered on the drought. The techniques he knew, which were variations of being patient, reminding himself it’s the disease talking, checking the basic comfort levels of the individual, breaking the cycle/focus, etc., didn’t seem to be helping much, as when he would try to change the subject Rosario would find a way to bring it back to the yard. Who knew someone could care this much about grass?

A part of him wanted to give in and water the whole yard, to leave the water running day and night until Yolanda returned and could deal with her mother herself, but he didn’t want word getting back to Paula. This was his longest job yet, and he needed her reference for future work.

With only the grapes left, Eduardo laid the hose down in the bed and walked back to the faucet to lower the pressure. He’d have a cigarette while the water trickled, soaking the earth the way Rosario said to do the grass. He hadn’t bought a pack over three months, instead offering people a dollar for a single if he really needed a fix. But when he was at the corner store earlier getting Rosario some peanuts, the glittering packs of cigarettes seduced him into a whole pack for himself. He lit his smoke and was walking back the side path to the main yard when he heard a loud rap on the glass.

Eduardo looked up and saw Rosario illuminated in the window. One hand gripping her walker, the other gripped as if holding something, moving it back and forth in a slow oscillation.

“The grass.” Rosario mouthed, pointing to the sickly lawn beneath his feet.

Eduardo moved quickly past her window to where she couldn’t see him and inhaled the cigarette so fast that he lit a second directly from the first one. Exhaling deeply, he checked his watch.  Yolanda said she would be back at nine. Thirteen more hours. That was it. Let Rosario get weird and creep in the window. Thirteen hours until this job was behind him forever and he move on with his plans.

 

At around nine, Eduardo helped Rosario to bed for the last time. She looked like a small child tucked into her blankets, her gray hair spread on the pillow around her.

“Something in the way you stand, make me think of my son,” Rosario said.

“I didn’t know Yolanda had a brother,” Eduardo said. “Does he live out of town?”

“No, he’s gone. He died in the war.” Rosario’s hand rose to her chest, and she fingered a crucifix she wore hanging from a gold chain. “He was a good boy. Always brought me fresh fruits that didn’t grow in the yard: mangoes, melones, y bananas.” She looked up at Eduardo. “His chest and back were big, like you, but you’re taller.”

Eduardo smiled and took Rosario’s hand. “Maybe I’ll have to stop by next week with some mangoes and bananas.”

Rosario brought their clasped hands in and kissed the back of Eduardo’s hand. “You’re a good boy, too, mijo.”

Later, Eduardo’s eyes opened in the dark room. He heard nothing but the tick-tock of the grandfather clock and the hum of the air-conditioner. The display on his phone read 3:15.

Seven more hours.

Eduardo laid still, cell phone clutched in the fist that rested on his stomach. Something woke him. He kicked the sheets off and padded barefoot down the tiled hallway.

“Rosario?” he called, knocking on the door as he pushed it open.

The bed was empty.

Eduardo entered the room completely and flipped on the ceiling light. Rosario wasn’t there. He whirled around and rushed through the house calling her name.

“Rosario! Rosario? Ms. Pineda? It’s me, Eduardo.”

Finding nothing in the other rooms, Eduardo picked up the house phone on the desk near the computer and was beginning to dial 9-1-1 when he saw a figure silhouetted through the living room curtains.

No way.

Eduardo dropped the phone and hurried out the front door.

“Rosario? What’re you doing out here?” He tried to keep any anger out of his voice but didn’t succeed.

“Watering my dead lawn. Who the hell’s asking?” Rosario snapped, never taking her eyes from the grass. She wore a thin cotton nightgown patterned with bunches of rosemary tied with yellow ribbon, and her feet were bare. Moving the hose back and forth, she stepped around the area, re-wetting the spots she previously watered.

“You gotta soak it good after all this neglect. I don’t know why my daughter let this happen.”

Eduardo took a deep breath. The thick night air offered little relief. “Rosario, it’s me, Eduardo. Remember me?”

“Who?” she looked up and squinted in his direction. The water stream followed the turn of her head, aimed now directly at Eduardo.

He jumped out of the way, saying, “Eduardo. I’m staying here while Yolanda is in San Francisco. She’ll be back tomorrow. Remember?”

“Of course I remember!” Rosario said. She turned her attention back to the ground and began moving the hose again. “She’s at a wedding.”

Eduardo let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Yes. Exactly.”

“OK, so you’re Eduardo. What do you want?”

“I want you to come inside and lie back down. It’s late. I don’t think you should be out here like this.”

“I’ve been out here like this for years. When I was a girl I used to go picking with my father every summer and spring until he left us. We got up at three in the morning to avoid the heat. Imagine?”

“That must have been tough. But that was a long time ago. Now you can take it easy.”

“Oh, can I?” She grunted with disgust. “I will never, never let my lawn die like this. No matter.”

“Rosario, I understand. It’s important to keep things nice. But now isn’t the time to take care of this. It’s late. Please let me help you inside.”

“No. I need to finish then get to the back. Every day I see the grass from my window, getting yellow, then brown, now almost fading to nothing. I won’t have it.”

Eduardo didn’t know what to do. He was thinking it might be time to call Yolanda, but he really didn’t want to do that. This wouldn’t look good no matter how he spun it. Eduardo turned to the door, then turned back to look at Rosario. Her feet were halfway submerged in mud and dead grass remnants.

“OK, Rosario,” Eduardo said casually, “I see you have a lot of work to do. What do you say I go get you one of those cold vitamin milkshakes to keep your energy up?”

Rosario lowered the hose. “That would be nice.”

“OK. How about you have a seat on the porch while I run and get that?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I need to keep working. I’m old and can’t do much, but I can still do this.”

Eduardo hesitated. He needed to get her inside with him, and was about to push that idea but changed his mind. “OK, well you keep working then, and I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t forget the straw!” Rosario called after him as he raced in the house.

“Alright, pretty lady. Here is your evening cocktail.” Eduardo presented the drink with a flourish, hoping for a smile.

“Who are you?” Rosario stopped her movement and stared at Eduardo, her thin eyebrows were drawn tight in a line across her forehead.

Eduardo’s stomach plummeted. “Rosario, it’s me, Eduardo.”

“Who?” She shook her head slightly.

“Eduardo, I’m staying here with you until Yolanda gets back, remember?”

“Yolanda, my daughter? She doesn’t live here, she lives over the tracks, in Highland.” Rosario took a step and continued her watering, moving the hose from side to side, and completely soaking Eduardo’s leg in the process.

“Hey!” Eduardo said.

“Well watch it! What are you doing in my yard?” Rosario’s voice was rising. “You better get out of here before I call the police. Or even worse for you, my son.”

She was regressing farther and farther. “There’s no need for that,” Eduardo said soothingly, “I’m supposed to be here.”

“Why do I need someone to babysit me? I can take care of myself. Always have,” Rosario said as she straightened her back. Stood tall.

“No, I know, I’m here for back-up. To help.”

“Well, I don’t need any help, so you can go ahead and get out of here.”

“I can’t, Rosario. Not until tomorrow morning. Please let me help a little. Maybe I can finish watering for you?”

“No. You won’t do it right.”

Eduardo took a step forward, held out a hand like he would to a dog he was meeting for the first time.

“I said no!” Rosario shouted, turning the hose directly on Eduardo, wetting him from hair to heel.

“Rosario—Ms. Pineda!” Eduardo dropped the milkshake and tried to reach her but she aimed the stream directly in his face. Water was in his eyes and mouth, going up his nose as he breathed in. He stretched his hands out in front of him, feeling for something to grab onto. Finally he caught Rosario’s hand and jerked it down.

“Stop it! I’m here to help you!” The water was pouring over the both of them now as Rosario attempted to keep control of the hose.

“You stop! Get out of here. This is my home!”

“But I’m supposed to be here!” Eduardo didn’t know what to do. At the Center, he’d always been back up.

“Help! Help! This man won’t leave!” Rosario called into the dark night.

“Please, Rosario,” Eduardo pleaded. If she kept going on and on the neighbors were going to call the police or come and try to help. “Ms. Pineda, please calm down.”

“Help! —” she began again, but she was cut-off as Eduardo wrapped her in a forceful bear-hug, muffling her yells into his chest.

He let her struggle for a few moments, making sure not to hold her so tight as to hurt her. “Rosie,” he said gently after she lost a little steam, “please don’t fight me. I don’t want to hurt you, but you have to stop. If you keep watering, the city will cut your water off; you’ll end up killing your trees!”

Rosie let out a shudder of breath and stopped struggling. She lifted her face to meet Eduardo’s eyes and said, “Nothing makes sense anymore.”

Eduardo slid one arm under Rosario’s knees and lifted her into his arms. “I know,” he said as he stepped over the water hose and carried Rosario back into her house, “but all we can do is keep going.”

 


 

Author Bio: Meiloni C. Erickson is a California native who enjoys living in different parts of the country including Alaska, Louisiana, and currently Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans, where she served as Fiction Editor for Bayou Magazine. Her work has appeared in Green Briar Review, Natural Bridge, and others. She is currently working on a multi-generational novel that highlights poignant moments in Chicano history.

The author: zlis@iastate.edu