A pile of leaves blew into the street. An elderly lady stepped off the curb and swept them into another pile. A car passed, swerving towards the center of the road, so as not to hit her. She continued sweeping. It bothered her that people did not respect her neighborhood. Candy wrappers danced around with the leaves while her broom chased them into an orderly display along the curb. Her toes peaked out from the front of her slippers, somehow remaining free from the dust that she stirred into the air. She glanced across the street. A young boy stared out his window at her. To him and his family, she was strange and scary. He had learned in school that strangers were supposed to be scary, but this lady was a different type of scary. He and his younger brother saw her every day, watering flowers, picking up trash. Whenever their mother would lock them out of the house, he and his brother would see her shuffling around, up and down the street. On one occasion, she caught them trying to pick some of her flowers for their mother. She had shooed them away and called them names in Spanish. They had been afraid to go near her yard ever since. His brother came and looked out the window with him. They each knew what the other was thinking. They wished they could sit on the old lady’s porch swing and rock back and forth the way she did.
Sarita looked back at the little boys. She couldn’t tell which two they were. There were so many; she could not tell any of them apart. She wished that she could get into that yard. She would pick up all those toys that were scattered everywhere. She would sweep that porch. She would get out the mangera and spray the sides of the house till the siding resembled the color it had been painted years ago, rather than the color of the dirt that covered the yard . “No tienen verguenza,” she thought. Her neighbors had no shame. But what could she do? For now, she would just try not to think about it. It was almost time to watch her novelas. She would much rather worry about that instead. She could not wait to find out if Vicente would finally ask Maria to marry him.
Sarita shuffled back towards her own sidewalk, back into her yard. Red, blue, and green clay pots adorned her porch. The colors blended into an array of mosaic designs complemented by mirrored tiles that reflected the sun. Large rosebushes fanned their spindly arms along the fence, creating a barrier between her world and the chaos outside. Her lawn looked like green carpeting, too pristine to touch the withered disgrace of the yard next door. A long bed of geraniums and other plants nobody else knew the names of huddled neatly in the shade along the fence that separated the neighbor’s house from hers.
She placed the broom by the door. Then she turned, took a washcloth from her apron pocket, and dusted her chair before she sat down. Her morning routine was getting to be too much for her. She sat in her porch rocker and gazed once again at that house across the street. Pobrecitos, she thought. That family has more kids than they know what to do with. And right on cue, a herd of kids burst through the front door.
“Andale! Pa’ fuera!” The mother ordered them outside. She had gotten fed up with trying to put her baby to sleep while her other kids made so much noise.
The older kids took off running down the street, while the two younger ones stayed behind. Ruben and Tito (short for Robertito) were the youngest of the Salgado clan. They were also the closest. Lucky for their teachers they weren’t twins, thought Sarita. Ay Dios Mio! she could not even fathom the commotion they could cause together in one classroom.
The boys chased each other around the yard, taking turns yelling, “Bang! Bang!”
Sarita watched as they got bored with one game and moved on to the next. At around noon, a whimsical melody floated through the breeze. The boys looked at each other. Then they ran to the fence and looked down each end of the street. They screamed, “Mama! Hay viene el paletero! Mama! Ice-cream!”
But their mother didn’t answer. They ran to the house and tried to go inside, but the door was locked to keep them from running in and out while they played. The mother yelled to the boys to be quiet. “Callanse!” she ordered. She had just put the newborn down for his nap.
The boys frowned and slouched over. They wished she would come running outside to the ice-cream truck with them.
Sarita had never had any kids. She had not been as blessed (or maybe as cursed) as her neighbors. So through the years, she had grown used to the serenity that filled her own home. Still, she could not help but cast a longing glance at the family across the street.
She thought for a moment. Then she rose from her chair and walked over to the fence. She could see the ice-cream truck getting nearer and nearer.
“Shhht… ninos…” she called out to the boys. “Ven!”
The boys looked up. They hesitated for a moment. The only encounters they had ever had with older people had not been good ones. Usually, they were getting in trouble—just like the time they had gotten in trouble with Sarita for trying to take her flowers. Now they wondered whether it would be safe to go near her again.
Sarita motioned to them once again to come across the street. The boys finally did as they were told. Sarita pulled two dollars from her apron pocket.
“Mira,” she said. “Si ustedes me ayudan levantar la basura tirado por aqui, yo les doy dinero para comprar ice-crean,” the final consonant demonstrating her limited English. She was offering them money to buy ice-cream in exchange for help picking up the trash thrown along the street.
“Si?” she prompted their agreement.
“Si!” they both exclaimed.
She handed them the money, and they took off running towards the ice-cream truck. Minutes later, they sat on her front porch crunching the ice from their strawberry raspas, syrup trickling down their fingers.
Sarita began a conversation with her new guests. “Cuantos anos tienen?” she asked.
“Seis y siete,” Tito indicated by pointing to himself first, and then his brother, to show that he was six, and Ruben was seven years old.
“Quedanse, aqui,” she said. And she shuffled her way into her house, only to emerge a couple minutes later with a damp washcloth for each of them to wipe their faces when they were done.
“Limpiense los manos y la cara,” she told them.
They did as they were told, but neither of them thanked her. Sarita realized it would become her mission to eventually teach these boys some manners.
“Estan listos para trabajar?” she asked. She motioned for them to follow her. She handed each of them a plastic bag and told them only to pick up paper and plastic. “No tocan las botellas de vidrio,” she ordered. She did not want them cutting themselves on broken glass bottles.
The boys walked along the street picking up candy wrappers and other papers that polluted their neighborhood. Sarita trailed along behind. When they were done, she guided them back to her yard and instructed them to place their filled bags in the big garbage can on the side of the house. Once again, she disappeared into the house and emerged with a bar of soap. She pointed to the water hose. “Trae la mangera,” she told Ruben.
He brought her the water hose, and then went back to the side of the house to turn on the water. She held the hose while they used the soap to wash their hands. Once the boys were cleaned up, they were ready to go home for supper. Sarita had been so busy that she had missed her afternoon novela. Now she would not know if Vicente and Maria had discovered their love for each other. Why had she wasted so much time on those kids? Sarita tried not to feel resentful, but she almost couldn’t help herself.
The rest of the summer continued in the same manner. Sarita would awaken early and begin her morning routine, only to be joined later by her two new helpers. If she could not give them money for ice-cream, she would have snacks ready for them: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers with cheese, sometimes even ice-cream from a large box she bought at the grocery store. And as soon as they were done with their snack, Sarita would put them right to work.
That summer the boys learned to say please and thank you, and they also learned to tend to plants the way she did. She gave them each a spot in her yard so that they could grow their own flowers. Every day they would come by to water them and see whose was growing the fastest. Sarita even introduced them to Maria and Vicente. Everyday, while they ate their snacks after school, they would all sit together in front of the tele and watch Sarita’s favorite show—a novela about two lovers named Vicente and Maria.
After a couple of months, when it was time for them to start school, Sarita began spending the mornings alone again. But as soon as school let out, she would listen for the voices of the children running through the neighborhood, and she would watch for Ruben and Tito to come running up the sidewalk to her front gate.
“Sarita! Sarita!” they would both exclaim. “Mira!” and they would hold up products from their art class that day. After a couple of weeks, Sarita noticed that Tito had begun to develop a wheezing pant whenever he tried to race against his older brother.
By the time October came around, she had several of their drawings on her refrigerator, as well as creations made from unusual artifacts such as dried leaves or grains of rice displayed wherever she could find room.
One day, as she watched the boys playing outside, she noticed Ruben taunting his younger brother. Tito needed to take a break in order to catch his breath, but Ruben kept pushing him to keep racing him around the yard. Finally, Tito began crying. Sarita felt sympathy for Tito, and she felt disappointed in Ruben. She called out to the two boys. “No handen peleando!” She did not like to see them fighting. She walked over to them so they could hear her better. As she got near, she could not help but raise her hand as if to spank Ruben on his bottom, but she caught herself just in time. She had to remind herself that these were not her children, and things were no longer the way they used to be when she grew up. She put her hand down, and then she noticed that Tito was having difficulty catching his breath. Sarita saw him struggling to breathe, and realized something needed to be done.
“Anda llamale a tu mama!” she told Ruben as she headed across the street behind him so that they could both call the mother outside.
Mrs. Salgado emerged from the house, only she did not seem alarmed.
“No tiene nada, senora! Es puro papelero. Dejelo,” she did not believe that anything was wrong with her son. She told Sarita that Tito was just putting on an act and needed to be left alone.
Tito continued wheezing and coughing. Mrs. Salgado went back inside. Having twelve kids had desensitized her ability to sympathize with her children whenever they were suffering.
Sarita placed her hands on Tito’s forehead. She could tell he had a high fever.
“Madre desgraciada…” she mumbled, cursing the young mother for not caring for her own son. “Ven, mijo,” she put her arms around Tito’s shoulders and led him over to her own home.Sarita pulled some herbs from the garden on her windowsill. Then she grabbed an egg from her refrigerator. She placed the herbs in a pot of water and put them on the stove to boil. She took the egg over to Tito and began rubbing it over his face as she whispered a prayer. She glided the egg across his arms and legs and torso, all the while reciting prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary to heal him of the evil spirits causing his illness. She knew the egg would absorb the fever and reveal the cause of his suffering. She left Tito resting on her couch while she went to the kitchen to crack the egg into a shallow bowl. The bowl would have to be placed underneath where he slept. Sarita placed the bowl under the couch, then poured Tito a cup of the herbal tea. She sat next to him as he drank it. Then she told him to lie down and rest for a while. She covered him with one of her handmade embroidered quilts and left him to rest while she went back across the street.
She knocked on the door of the Salgado home.
“Senora…” she called.
Mrs. Salgado came to the door.
Sarita explained to her that Tito had stayed asleep at her house and that she was just going to let him rest a while.
“No, no… no se preocupa…” Mrs. Salgado did not want Sarita to worry about disturbing her son while he slept. She wanted Sarita to wake him up and send him home.
But Sarita was insistent. “El no me molesta,” she said. “Dejalo que se quede.” She told Mrs. Salgado to let him stay at her home and rest. Ruben peered out from behind the door, and Sarita waved at him as she left.
The following morning Tito awakened to a knocking on the door. He saw Sarita walk by him and was reminded of where he was. He watched her open the door, and his mother came in. Through his grogginess he heard a bit of what Sarita and his mother were discussing. Mrs. Salgado told Sarita that she needed to mind her own business. His mother told him to wake up, and they both went home. Later she would tell him that she no longer wanted them going over to her house every day.
The winter months got colder and Sarita did not sit on her porch as much as she did in the summer. Her aching bones could not stand the harsh temperatures. She could not sweep the streets or pick up the trash by the curb any more. Ruben and Tito were still forced outside by their mom. But they no longer saw Sarita waiting for them outside after school. Instead they would knock on her door to see if she would invite them in to watch novelas or maybe play a game of loteria. They loved how she had sayings to go with the different characters on the cards. Sometimes Sarita would let them go inside for a brief while; she didn’t care if the mother gave her a hard time about it later or not. She did, however, worry about the boys.
One Saturday morning Tito told Ruben that maybe they could go knock on Sarita’s door and say hi. Ruben wanted to go but he was afraid to get in trouble. So he stayed behind while Tito crossed the street. As he opened the gate, he could see the flowers that he and his brother had planted months before. They were withering in the cold wind. He walked quickly up the steps and knocked on the door. There was no answer.
“Sarita!” he cried. “Sarita!” He waited. She still did not come to the door.
He walked off the porch and ventured along the side of the house, towards her back yard. He passed the beautiful flowers that had been neglected for several weeks. It was not like Sarita to forget to water her plants. Tito walked up to the back door and peered in through the kitchen window. Everything in her house looked still.
“Sarita!” he called.
He squinted to see beyond the doorway of the kitchen. He could see all the way into the living room. He could see the sofa. He could even see the edge of the front door. He saw the window where Sarita would look outside on days like this. And then he saw Sarita resting peacefully wrapped in the same blanket she had placed on him the night he was sick.
He banged on the window. But she did not wake up.
Tito realized she must be really tired. So, he went around to the front of the house, got out the mangera, and began watering all her plants. When the afternoon soon warmed things up, the flowers began to look alive again. Tito returned to knock on the door once again. There was no answer. He went around the house to peer through the kitchen window, and when he did he could see Sarita still resting in her chair, the way she did on evenings she liked to watch her novelas. Maybe she doesn’t feel well, he thought.
He ran home and grabbed an egg out of the refrigerator. Then he went back to Sarita’s house and laid the egg on her front porch along with some herbs from her garden. He silently mumbled a prayer as he placed everything neatly by her door. He grabbed the broom from the corner of the porch and swept off all the leaves that had accumulated over the last few days. Then he ran home, leaving Sarita to watch her novelas all alone.