Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 470 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr,and LGBTQ: 33 Stories,and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. He is the founder of Sweetycat Press. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com /
THE CITRUS THIEF
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 of the orange was sweet and Rosa closed her eyes in delight savoring the flavor.
She shuffled the right foot back and forth on the floor. Her left foot she barely moved at all, it being turned outward at the ankle, a deformity since birth. She could walk, but preferred to sit, especially when in the garage, a one room shack she rented from Mr. Travers who 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 he shared with his mother under a quilt that Rosa had sewn together. Other than the sound of the 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 and 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.
She was pregnant with Manuel and they had enough money to get to Florida by bus where Elias planned to pick oranges. Elias disappeared shortly after Manuel was born in the emergency room at the local hospital and Rosa 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, being picked up by the migrant fruit pickers as soon as the rain stopped, or sometimes even as the rain fell.
When she first went to find work picking fruit as soon as the manager or owner of the groves saw her foot they wouldn’t hire her.
“A woman with a lame foot isn’t what we’re looking for,” they would say.
Rain was sliding down the pane of window glass and glistened in the lamp light. Rosa stood up dropping the orange peels that had fallen into her lap onto the floor and went to the bed and pulled the quilt up over Manuel’s thin shoulders and slipped her feet into her sandals. At the door she put on the poncho and a straw hat she had brought from Mexico, grabbed a burlap sack from a hook on the wall, then grabbed the handle of a rusty Radio Flyer wagon, then looked around the room and saw that everything was as it always was, then opened the door and went out into the rain pulling the wagon.
Stopping at the trailer where Mr. Travers lived, she knocked on the door and waited under the small awning momentarily shielded from the rain. When he opened the door he was in a terrycloth bathrobe and wearing knee high white sports socks.
“Rosa, what is it?” he said.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
“I understand also,” Rosa said as she turned and walked down the dirt road pulling the wagon behind her. The wagon had a shaky rear left wheel that squeaked with every turn. Other than the sound of the wheel squeaking and bumping along on the road and rain hitting its metal, it was eerily quiet. The cloud cover hid the stars and moon and in the darkness Rosa had difficulty seeing the fences and signs that let her know she had reached the citrus groves she usually got the oranges and grapefruits from; oranges on the right side of the road, grapefruit on the left.
It was the large no trespassing sign with the bullet holes in it that was nailed on a post alongside the fence separating the road from the orange groves that let her know she had arrived where she intended to be. She pulled the wagon up to the fence and let the handle drop onto the ground, then took off the poncho and threw it over the barbed wire, then climbed over the fence, pulling her deformed foot over last, and in the darkness searched the ground under the trees nearest the fence for any fallen oranges. With her straw hat drooping overhead and her clothes soaked from the rain, she filled the burlap bag with about a hundred oranges before carrying the bag back to the wagon and reaching over the fence and dropping the bag into the wagon. She had 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 two hundred dollars in rent that she paid monthly. The earnings from the grapefruits would be added to that of the earnings from the 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 mens voices had the accents of men from her native country and she considered speaking to them in Spanish, but decided against it. “I sell the fruit to take care of my child,” she said.
“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 and 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 one, 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 one 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 waist band 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 and 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 and laid him down on the quilt and kissed him 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,” Rosa said.
“Remember what I said, Rosa,” Mr. Travers said as he went to the door. “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 the wet poncho and her wet shoes and clothes and hung them on nails on the wall of the garage, then put on the only store-bought robe she owned, one that Elias had gotten for her on their honeymoon, and laid down next to Manuel, draping her arm over his frail body, and went to sleep.
By noon the sun had turned the rain from the night before into thick humidity that was like being in a hothouse. Rosa sat on a fruit crate on the sidewalk in the shade of the large bank building, the oranges neatly stacked into a pyramid inside the wagon. Manuel was sitting on the concrete tethered to her by a thin rope that she had tied around her waist and his. Sweat ran in rivulets down her back and between her cleavage, soaking the thin cotton material of her dress. She fanned her face with her straw hat as passersby hurriedly passed her, few looking at her or the oranges. She had given Manuel one of the oranges and he was rolling it back and forth on the sidewalk like a ball. She knew this spot, and was waiting for lunch time when bank employees would be coming out. The ankle of her deformed foot ached as it had from birth, and the last two Tylenol she had and taken 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,” he said. “It sure is a hot one today,” he said, taking his hat off and running his hand over his graying black curly hair.
“Good morning, Paul,” Rosa said. “Yes, it’s 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,” Rosa said.
“I know, Rosa and believe me I’m sorry, but it’s the climate of things right now,” he said.
“The climate of things? I do not understand,” Rosa said.
“The political climate. Illegal immigration and all that,” Paul said self-consciously in almost a whisper. “The management doesn’t want to be seen as supporting what you do.”
Rosa stood up, reaching down and pulling Manuel to his feet. “They do not support me,” Rosa said. “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 and with it and Manuel in tow she slowly walked home, her foot aching more with every step.
At nightfall she put Manuel in the wagon and left the garage and pulled him up the road leading to the groves where she always went. The moon was full and the night sky was crowded with winking white stars. Near the trespassing sign she pulled the wagon into the grass and sat down on the edge of the wagon next to Manuel softly singing the lullaby “ma cochi pitentzin” to him as she lay him down in the wagon and covered him with the burlap sack and sat running her fingers through his hair and over his cheeks. When two men appeared at the end of the road and coming her way, she knew it was the same two she had met the night before. The one was still carrying a flashlight and waving it about. She stood up and went out into the middle of the road.
“What are you doing back here?” The one without the flashlight asked as they stopped a few feet in front of her, the other one waving 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 at first too stunned to react.
“Run,” the other man said as he began to sprint down the road leaving his friend on his 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 wrapped in the burlap sack and with him in her arms ran the same direction as the man lying on the road, dragging her foot behind her.
“Stop, thief,” a man’s voice yelled at her from down the road.
Rosa turned, “I am not stealing,” Rosa shouted. “This is my son,” she said holding 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 in the dirt and laid him on the road. She quickly pulled the burlap from his face, lifted his shirt and saw the entry point of the bullet in the middle of his chest. He was not breathing. As the man came up to her and carrying a rifle and a badge pinned on his shirt, she looked up at him.
“He was the fruit of my womb, not the fruit of your trees,” she said, “and now you have stolen him from me.”