The Citrus Thief by Steve Carr

May 19, 2018

My story "The Citrus Thief" out now in Tessellate Magazine.

9:29 AM - 19 Feb 2018

The Citrus Thief by Steve Carr

Rain fell on the tin roof, sending metallic pings inside the garage where Rosa lived with her four year old son, Manuel.  She sat on a plastic lawn chair, and peeled a navel orange with her teeth, sucking on the exposed juicy pulp as she tore away each section of peeling. Juice dribbled down her chin, and dripped onto her floral patterned cotton shift; the juice was sweet, and with delight, Rosa closed her eyes while savoring the flavor.

She shuffled her right foot back and forth on the floor. Her left she barely moved; since birth, it was deformed with an outward turn from the ankle. She could walk, but preferred to sit, especially when in the garage, a one room shack she rented from Mr. Travers. He owned the trailer park where the garage was located.

There was one lamp that lit the entire room. It was late at night, and the lamp was on. Manuel was sound asleep on the twin bed with Rosa. They were underneath her quilt, which she sewn herself. Other than the sound of rain hitting the tin roof, there was silence.

*

Rosa was from Magdalena de Kino in Sonora, Mexico. Though work was plentiful in Magdalena de Kino, she couldn't find or keep a job because of her foot. As a result, she crossed into the United States illegally through Nogales, Arizona with her husband, Elias, who also couldn't find work in Mexico.

“We will have more opportunity in America,” he had told her.

At the time, she was pregnant with Manuel. They also had enough money for a bus ride to Florida, where Elias planned to pick oranges. Elias disappeared shortly after Manuel was born; Rosa was left alone in the emergency room at the local hospital. She had not heard from him since.

                                                                                                 *

Rosa wondered what effect the rainfall would have on the local citrus groves. Oranges and grapefruit shaken from the trees by the rain or wind would not lie on the ground for long. Migrant fruit-pickers would gather up harvest as soon as the rain stopped. On occasion, they will pick during the rainfall.

During her first attempts to find work as a fruit-picker, owners and managers of the groves stared at her foot, and denied her employment.

“A woman with a lame foot isn't what we're looking for,” they would say.  

Glistening in the lamp light, rain was sliding down the window panes. The collection of orange peels on Rosa’s lap fell onto the floor as Rosa quickly stood up. She rushed to the bed, pulling the quilt over Manuel's thin shoulders. She slipped into her sandals. At the door, she put on her poncho and straw hat, which were from her life in Mexico. She snached a burlap sack from a wall hook, and then grabbed the handle of a rusty Radio Flyer wagon. She looked around the room, and saw that everything was as it always was. She opened the door, and went out into the rain while pulling the wagon.

Stopping at the trailer where Mr. Travers lived, she knocked on the door, and waited under the small awning that momentarily shielded her from the rain. When he opened the door, he was in a terrycloth bathrobe that was accompanied by white knee-high sport socks.

“Rosa, what is it?”

“I'm so sorry to bother you, Mr. Travers, but I have to go out, and I wondered if you could keep an eye out on the garage, since Manuel is alone?” She asked. “He's asleep,” she added quickly.

“Yes I can do that, but Rosa, you need to find a regular babysitter.”

“I will try, Mr. Travers, but they will not do it for free. It's why I am going out again tonight. The more fruit I sell, the better I can take care of Manuel.”

“I understand,” he said. “I'll look after Manuel again tonight, but this is the last time.”

Rosa nodded in silence as she turned away to walk down the dirt road with her wagon. It had a shaky rear left wheel that squeaked with every turn. Despite the wheel’s squeak, and its lonesome bumping along the road, with the rain hitting metal, the trek was eerily quiet. The cloud cover hid the stars and moon. In this darkness, Rosa had difficulty seeing the fences and signs that let her know she had reached the familiar citrus groves. Like always, oranges on the right side of the road, and grapefruit on the left.

Rosa knew that she arrived at the right spot when she saw the large, bullet-feed no-trespassing sign. Nailed to a post, the sign stood alongside a fence that separated the road from the orange groves. She pulled her wagon up to the fence, and dropped the handle onto the ground. She then took off the poncho, throwing it over the barbed wire, and climbed over the fence while pulling her deformed foot over last. In the darkness, and still near the fence, she searched underneath the trees for any fallen oranges. With her straw hat drooping over head. and her clothes soaked from the rain, she filled the burlap bag with about a hundred oranges. She then reached over the fence, and dropped the bag into her wagon.

She already calculated that she could make about fifty dollars from the oranges; a portion of which would pay for someone to watch Manuel while she was selling the fruit, and another portion set aside to pay Mr. Travers the monthly rent of two hundred dollars. The earnings from grapefruits would be added to that of the earnings from oranges.

She crawled back over the fence, pulled her poncho from the wire, and was crossing the road when the beam of a flashlight shone in her face.

“It's that woman with the weird foot,” a man's voice said.

“What are you doing here?” Another man, the one with the flashlight, asked.

“Getting some fruit,” Rosa said, feeling less afraid than she should. The men's voices had the accents of men from her native country. She considered speaking to them in Spanish, but decided against it. “I sell the fruit to take care of my child.”

“Where is your man?” The man not holding the flashlight asked.

Rosa hesitated before answering. “I don't know,” she said at last.

“You could get shot out here stealing this fruit,” the man with the flashlight said. “The guards who patrol these groves carry guns. They shoot trespassers.”

“They wouldn't shoot a woman.” Rosa said.

“They shoot anyone,” he said. “Besides, when you steal from the owner of this land, you are stealing from us. This is where we come to get fruit.”

“There is plenty for everyone,” Rosa said defiantly.

The man not holding the flashlight whispered into the ear of the other, then said to Rosa, “You can continue to steal from here, but you will have to give us half of everything you pick up.”

“I need the money from the fruit I steal and sell to take care of my child,” Rosa said.

“You can always earn money spreading your legs for the migrant workers,” he said.

Rosa spat in his direction. “Vete a la mierda, cabrón.”

The two men laughed.

“You have a vulgar mouth for a woman out alone on a night like this one,” the man without a flashlight said.

Flashing the beam of light back and forth across Rosa's face, the man with the flashlight said, “Take what you have in the bag, but go home now, and don't come back to this place, or we will shoot you ourselves.” He directed the light to the handle of a pistol sticking up from the waistband of his pants.

Wordlessly, Rosa turned and pulled her wagon with the bag of oranges home. When she reached the garage, she opened the door, and was startled to see Mr. Travers sitting in the plastic chair with Manuel asleep on his lap.

“I heard him crying. I came over to see what was wrong,” Mr. Travers said. “He was crying for you.”

“I am here now,” she said, pulling the wagon into the garage, and throwing the straw hat onto a small table. She lifted Manuel from Mr. Travers' lap, and carried him to the bed. She laid him down on the quilt, and kissed her son on the forehead.

“It doesn't look like you did very well,” Mr. Travers said, looking at the wagon with just the sack in it.

“I will do better tomorrow night.”

As he went to the door, Mr. Travers followed with these last words, “Remember what I said, Rosa.” He paused, and the continued, “I'm not going to watch Manuel again. The boy needs his mother, or father, or another woman to look after him. Not an old widower like me.” He went out the door, closing it behind him.

Rosa removed her wet poncho, her wet shoes, and her wet clothes. They sat on nails that lined the garage wall. After getting dry, Rosa dressed herself with the only store bought robe she owned, one that Elias had gotten for her on their honeymoon. She laid down next to Manuel, draping her arm over his frail body, and went to sleep.  

                                                                                                 *

By noon, the sun turned the night’s rain into thick humidity. It was like being in a hothouse.  Rosa sat on a fruit crate resting along the sidewalk that was shaded by the large bank building. The oranges were neatly stacked into a pyramid inside the wagon. As Manuel sat on the concrete, he was tethered to Rosa by a thin rope, which she had tied around their waists. Sweat ran in rivulets down her back and between her cleavage, soaking the thin cotton material of her dress. She fanned her face with the straw hat as passersby hurriedly passed her. A few looked at her, others at the oranges. She gave Manuel one of the oranges. He rolled it back and forth on the sidewalk like a ball.

She knew this spot, and was waiting for bank employees to come out for lunch time. The ankle of her deformed foot ached as it had from birth; the last two Tylenol she took that morning did not dull the aching. She repositioned it several times, but nothing helped. She was rubbing her ankle, when a security guard, Paul, from the bank came out of the building, and walked up to her.

“Good morning, Rosa. It sure is a hot one today,” he said while taking off his hat, and running his hand over his graying black curly hair.

“Good morning, Paul,” She returned. “Yes, it is very hot. I have some juicy oranges here that might cool you off, if you would care to buy one.”

Paul shuffled about nervously, “That's why I'm out here, Rosa. You can't sell your fruit out in front of this building anymore. The management has gotten too many complaints.”

“I have been selling oranges and grapefruits from this spot for two years, and no one has complained before.”

“I know, Rosa, and believe me, I'm sorry, but it's the climate of things right now.”

“The climate of things? I do not understand.”

“The political climate. Illegal immigration and all that,” Paul said self-consciously in a near whisper. “The management doesn't want to be seen as supporting what you do.”

Rosa stood up, reaching down to pull Manuel to his feet. “They do not support me. I support myself.” She handed Paul an orange. “You have been very kind to me, Paul. I will not make trouble for you anymore.” She picked up the handle of the wagon. With it and Manuel in tow, she slowly walked home, her foot aching more with every step.

      *

At nightfall, Rosa put Manuel in the wagon, and left the garage. She pulled him up the very familiar road that lead to the groves. The moon was full, and the night sky was crowded with winking white stars. Near the no-trespassing sign, she pulled the wagon into the grass, and sat down on the edge of the wagon. Next to Manuel, she softly sang the lullaby, ma cochi pitentzin, as she laid him down in the wagon, covering him with the burlap sack. She ran her fingers through his hair, and over his cheeks. When two men suddenly appeared at the end of the road, and were coming her way, she knew it was the same two from last time. The one was still carrying a flashlight, and was waving it about. She stood up, and went out into the middle of the road.

“What are you doing back here?” The man without the flashlight asked as they stopped a few feet in front of her. The other man waved the light across her face.

Before she could answer, a shot rang out, and the man with the flashlight fell to his knees. Rosa was too stunned to react.

“Run!” Said the other man as he began to sprint down the road, leaving his friend on knees, bleeding in the dirt. Then another shot rang out, and the man who was running fell face first, onto the road.

Rosa ran to the wagon, and scooped Manuel up, who was still wrapped in the burlap sack. With him in her arms, she ran the same direction as the man lying on the road. Her foot dragged behind her.

“Stop, thief!” A man's voice yelled at her from down the road.

As Rosa turned, she shouted, “I am not stealing! This is my son!” She held her son up in the sack to be seen.

There was another shot. Rosa felt Manuel's blood trickle from the bag onto her fingers. She collapsed to her knees, and into in the dirt. She laid him on the road. Quickly pulling the burlap from his face, she lifted his shirt, and saw the entry point of the bullet in the middle of his chest. He was not breathing. She looked up at the man as he came up to her. He carried a rifle, while a badge was pinned to his shirt.

With despair and disbelief, Rosa said, “He was the fruit of my womb, not the fruit of your trees. And now, you have stolen him from me.”

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