Don Crawford is a well-known author who usually writes about the theosophical society and spiritual aspects. He has written short stories and essays for many journals and magazines.
AN ONION FOR LUPITA
A Short Fiction Story
Lupita Ortiz was no longer the beauty she once was. After years of spousal abuse by a man who finally deserted her, and trying her best to raise two small children alone, without proper resources, her appearance showed the lack of personal care. Still, her long naturally wavy black hair curled around her delicate features displayed traces of the beauty that had been submerged by poverty.
Her two small children, Flavio, 5, and Rosita, 4, played in the dirty, dusty yard most every day, using rocks and sticks as toys. And, in spite of showing malnutrition and wearing unkempt clothes, they managed to still laugh and enjoy the simplest things around them. Lupita loved them dearly and thought them the very best children she could imagine.
The two-roomed adobe hut they called home had been built by the grandfather when the family had migrated north from Sonora State those many years ago. She was a small child then, and this remote and rural setting, some six miles north of the small Arizona town of Ajo, had been her home ever since. After her parents both died of consumption, which also had some early health effects on Lupita as well, she continued living there after meeting and marrying her husband in a church ceremony. She was too young, she realized later, and had rushed into the marriage out of desperation. But by then she was pregnant with Flavio and knew she had little alternatives. Her choice of a mate had proven a bad one, and she now was faced with the consequences of that choice.
The house was old now and showed the ravages of time. Without proper repairs it was barely livable. The sun baked the walls and the roof leaked when it rained or an occasional snow swept by which fortunately was not that often. Somehow, Lupita had managed to eke out a living under these conditions for many years now. There was an ample well in the back of the house and she tried to plant a vegetable garden in rows she dug from the hard soil with only an old hoe. Without sufficient water, however, it was a rough way to gain enough food to survive. Still, here they were surviving day by day with no real future ahead of them.
Lupita would lie awake many nights after the children had gone to sleep wondering about the future and how she was to keep even a bit of food in their tiny shriveled stomachs. If it were not for her friendship with Socorro, a widow with a car who lived three miles north of her place, who would come by a few times a month, take her into Ajo where she would trade a few remaining artifacts her parents had brought from Mexico for food, they would not have been able to survive this long. Now, there were only a few artifacts left and God knows what they would do then. During the winters, Socorro would take them deep into the surrounding area to gather enough wood for the wood burning stove which was their only way to both heat food and the keep the hut warm. But for some reason, Socorro had not been around for several weeks now and Lupita began to think about taking the kids and walking into Ajo to trade more artifacts. It would be a long six mile walk for the kids and she didn’t look forward to going, but she was at a last point of survival now.
The only money Lupita ever got ahold of was from the few things her selfish husband had left behind when he abandoned her and the kids. He had taken most of the better artifacts with him. The few antiques and Mexican santos had been preserved as their only livelihood. She felt despair at what they would do once there were no longer any items to sell or trade.
On this particular day, Lupita sat at the small handmade table in the combined kitchen and living room, her head bent low and tears filled her eyes. She wept for her children. How was she going to keep feeding them with only a few small vegetables left from the garden? And, the thought of what would happen to the children if anything were to happen to her sent chills up her frail spine.
She raised her head and peered around the tiny kitchen, a well swept dirt floor with only the small table, four chairs and the old wood burning stove with four grates on top and a large oven which kept them alive in the cold days and nights of winter. The windows had broken panes and no curtains and at night the moonlight would flood over the bed which she shared with the two children. Everything else that had been there when her parents were alive had long ago been sold. The only means she and the children had of relieving themselves was the slanted outhouse in back, which she feared would one day collapse. They bathed by pouring buckets of well water over themselves after soaping up and then using the remaining water in the bucket to rinse off.
It was time she tried to prepare lunch. She looked at the sagging counter next to the stove. There were only a few old tortillas and one rather overripe onion on the counter. The lard was down to scooping the sides to heat the food. That was all she found in the garden that morning. A few pinches of salt remained in the saucer but the salsa was gone. She would cut the onion up and fry it and make tortillas for the children. She would have to get by with one of the tortillas and some salt. She had fed the children the remainder of the beans for supper, giving herself only a small teaspoon full. She knew she would have to get the children ready and walk into Ajo if they were to eat another meal.
Lupita tried hard not to despair, and knew she had to keep up a cheery outlook for the sake of the children. She lived now only for the sake of her kids, with nothing to dream about for herself. It would take every ounce of strength she had left to keep them fed. She probably would have to carry Rosita part of the way to Ajo and poor Flavio’s legs would get tired and they would have to stop and rest every so often. She dreaded the idea but it had to be done; there was no other way. She had thought many a night how peaceful it would be to die and escape the misery of this life. But she could never abandon her children the way her terrible husband had done. She had to keep going for their sake, somehow, someway.
One day while they were in Ajo, she had heard a couple of women taking about something called “Welfare.” Supposedly, it paid money to single mothers with kids. Enough to buy food and wood and garden supplies. Today, she would check into that while they were in Ajo.
She had been taught by her parents and grandfather to always be proud and not depend upon others to get by but she was desperate and for the sake of her children she would do anything. If there was any way possible to get that Welfare, no matter what, she would do it. If only Socorro would drive up today before they had to start the grueling journey into Ajo. Lupita wondered what had happened to her anyway!
There was no breeze at all as Lupita roused herself to prepare the meager lunch. The sweat dripped off her forehead and down her darkened face. She was weary in every bone in her body but she knew she had to get the children something to eat before starting on the journey.
The sound of the car startled Lupita, who at first thought Socorro had finally come. No other car had ever stopped at the adobe before. Cars would swish by on their way to and from Ajo, which was south of Highway 8, the east/west road into southern California and San Diego.
Cautiously, she moved toward the doorway, No, it was not Socorro. Who in the world could this be, she wondered.
A large expensive car sat in the yard. The children had jumped up and ran to the front door, huddling around the old dress of their mother. A tall, well dressed man stepped out of the car and smiled broadly at Lupita and sized up the children.
“I am very sorry to bother you, senora,” is voice soft and melodic. “As you can see by the smoke, my radiator is low on water. I have been driving non-stop to get to my sick mother in Ajo, who is in the hospital, and it is boiling over. I wonder if you might spare a little water to cool it down enough to reach Ajo without splitting the engine? He spoke very good Spanish.
For a moment, Lupita was unable to speak. This was all so new to her. Then, “there is a well in the back yard with a bucket.” A couple of times a day she had to draw water from the well for cooking and to clean up the kids, dirty from playing in the yard. The rope always cut into her hands and the weight wrenched her back. But, she thought, he looked strong and healthy enough to draw his own water. She waved her arm toward the back. “Help yourself.”
“Thank you very much, senora, I only need a short bucket full,” and he started around the adobe toward the back. Lupita stared after him, hugging the children close to her who were staring at the tall stranger with open mouths.
“Who is he, mama?” whispered Flavio hugging her legs.
“Just a man needing water for his car, honey. Nothing to worry about. He’ll be gone in no time.” The stranger came around to the front, sat the bucket down and reached inside the car to pull the hood latch. Smoke flaired up and he waved his long arms across his lean body to shoo it away from his face. He had to use a rag to take off the radiator cap, which was it seemed to Lupita terribly hot. Then, he slipped off his jacket and tossed it onto the front seat. “Don’t need that anymore,” he grinned, attempting a bit of humor.
Lupita stared at the man while he was pouring the water. He had well defined features, rather handsome, with a straight nose, full lips, and straight white teeth. His full head of hair was dark brown and he wore no facial hair. His trousers had a well defined crease. Lupita thought he takes good care of himself. For a moment she felt a long forgotten stirring in her bosom. He sure was something worth staring at, she thought, somewhat surprised at herself for such a thought.
“You are very kind, senora, and I thank you for the water.” He hesitated before speaking again. “I have been in such a rush to get to my mother I haven’t stopped to eat anything. I was wondering if you might have an extra taco or something simple to tide me over until I get to Ajo?” His voice trailed off into silence, thinking he shouldn’t have asked such a thing.
Lupita, startled by the words, gulped hard. She was instantly embarrassed at her poverty, and wondered had he not noticed. What was she to do? There was only enough for the children.
“Senor, there is only an overripe onion and a couple of old tortillas, but I can make up a small onion taco. I am sorry but I do not have anything else, and the children must also have some of that.”
“That would be just fine, if you are sure,” he hesitated. Lupita turned quickly, “I’ll get you the taco, senor.” He stood quietly by the front of the car and smiled at the gawking children.
“What are you playing?” he asked cheerfully.
“Just with some things,” Flavio answered politely, unable to tell him what they were playing. Lupita quickly emerged from the doorway and handed the taco, wrapped in a napkin, to the stranger. “I apologize for it, sir,” she whispered. She hoped she had left enough for the children. She had forgotten all about herself given the strangeness of the situation.
The stranger thanked her, chomped at the taco, and quickly got into his car and sped off down the highway toward Ajo. Lupita stared open mouthed at this sudden departure. For a moment, she was dazed, then grabbed up the children and went inside to fix their lunch. It had all happened so fast, she had wanted to ask him for a ride into town. He hadn’t given her a chance to say anything. Then, she recalled he was rushed to get to his sick mother, and tried to push any bad thoughts aside.
After fixing lunch, she decided the kids needed to take baths and put on their best clothes before going into Ajo, so decided she’d wait till the morning to do all that. She was dead on her feet and after lunch, they would all lie down and take a short nap.
“Mama, who was that man? Rosita asked.
“Just a man, honey, who needed water for his car. Don’t think about it anymore. We’ll probably never see him again.”
It was an unusual event. And, it had happened so quickly, hardly having any time to think about it; hardly any time to try and digest the experience. But, she was not going to forget it for awhile, she knew that. She just wouldn’t talk about it anymore with the children.
Lupita sat at the table watching the children gulp down the onion tacos. For herself, she drank only a glass of water. Now, there was nothing left to eat in the small adobe hut. Early in the morning, she would have to scratch through the garden to try and find something she’s missed so as to feed the kids before starting their journey. They were such wonderful kids and she felt really fortunate to have them, even if life was hard for them now.
The evening shadows crawled over the doorway and the front of the house. Lupita sat in the narrow doorway and held the children close to her. She triedc hard not to show the fear that gripped her and made her gasp for breath. What could she do! A fleeting thought of killing herself and the children crossed her mind. Quickly, she shook her head from side to side as if to literally throw off such morbid thoughts. She tried to picture what she had to do in the morning to find something for breakfast and to get the kids bathed and dressed for the trip into Ajo. Thoughts of the stranger nagged her and she needed to simply forget that man.
“Look, mama, a falling star,” Flavio was pointing at the heavens. “Ain’t it pretty?” Rosita gasped and pointed at the many fireflies creating their own little stars in the darkening sky. The sounds of the crickets filled the night air as they snuggled closer in the doorway. The smell of dried sweat and stale onions oozed from their small bodies. They needed a bath but she was just too tired to do it tonight. First thing in the morning, she whispered to herself. First thing in the morning.
Lupita kept wondering what had happened to Socorro. What she did not know then but found out later was that Socorro had suffered an embolism and lay dead on her kitchen floor for over a week. Some bikers from Casa Grande had stopped by her house to fill up their canteens and discovered the body and had notified the sheriff in Ajo who had taken the body to the morgue. She lived alone and Lupita was her nearest neighbor with no way to check up on her.
Just as she nudged the children to get ready for bed, some bright lights of a car glowed on the horizon. Probably someone going to Highway 8 on their way to some special place, she thought. She could only imagine being in the car; going somewhere new. Not too many cars came this way but it did happen sometimes. She started to stand up when the car careened into the front yard and slid to a stop. The headlights vanished before she was able to see the tall stranger step out of the dust covered sedan. Lupita could only stare open mouthed. No words came to her.
“Well, good evening to all you pretty young people. And, how is everybody?”
Lupita gulped hard and managed to say, “We’re fine, but what brings you back here?”
“I visited my mother in the hospital and she is going to be all right. I hope to bring her home tomorrow or the next day. I am much relieved now. I was so worried about her. She is nearly eighty you know and lives all alone.”
“Well, I am very happy for you and for your mother. You’re very lucky to have her for so many years. I lost mine some time ago. Papa too, and my grandfather before that.”
“I happen to pass a grocery store and thought I would bring you a few things. I hope you won’t be offended.” He turned toward the rear of the car and began carrying out several boxes of goods. Lupita jumped up and told the children to go inside. She began helping the man bring the boxes inside.
“Just put them down on the table,” standing aside as he brought in the last of the several boxes.
“I do hope it’s all right. I just thought you might need a few things.” He stood straight up and Lupita stared first at him and then at the boxes, dumbstruck. She did not know what to say or what to do. Just stood there staring at the overly packed boxes. The man began taking things out of the boxes. “I brought some sacked beans and rice but also some cans of frijoles for a quick meal.” He placed a large five pound sack of Masa Harina flour on the floor propped against a leg. There was a large packet of dried milk and some cereal and cake mix. There were cans of corn, peas, squash, stewed tomatoes. Sacks filled with potatoes, onions, raw tomatoes, corn on the cob, lemons and limes and Jalipeno peppers for making salsa. There was also a large jar of El Paso salsa in the meantime. He placed two dozen eggs between the cans and a large slab of bacon and several rolls of Jimmy Dean maple sausage. There was a two pound butter container. There were dozens of tortillas and nine grain bread loafs. There were two large heads of lettuce and some celery stalks. Two large bottles of Wesson oil, packages of salt, pepper, and sugar and large sacks of apples, oranges, grapes, mangos, bananas, grapefruit and several kinds of nuts. A large slab of Mexican white cheese, some packets of spaghetti with canned Italian sauce and some strawberry boats, and a large tin of cocoa.
“I have some wooden stakes in the back of the car for fuel and I have some steaks I thought maybe you could cook us up a real home made dinner; maybe with a corn cob and some salad. I haven’t had a good home cooked meal for some time. Or, are you too tired? I can help you, of course. I do most of my own cooking back in San Diego. I live alone so have to be able to fix my own meals when I’m not eating out.” The children stood close together, their mouths agape and eyes wide as saucers, staring longingly at more food than they could ever remember seeing at one time on their kitchen table.
Lupita was still staring at all the food. The table was laden to the edges and she couldn’t remember when there had been so much food in the house. “I don’t know what to say. How can I ever repay you for all of this?” Then, “Yes, yes, of course, bring in the wood and I’ll heat up the stove. I’ll have a home made steak dinner for you in no time.”
“Steaks for all of us, please.” He hurried quickly to the car and brought in the stakes. He also brought in a large ice container filled with two bags of ice to keep the meats cool. He yawned, stretched and plopped into one of the kitchen chairs. “Such a long day. I’m pooped.”
Lupita deliberately ate slowly. The children glanced at her for clues as to how to eat the steak and corn on the cob and salad which she’d sprinkled with Wesson oil and lemon juice. She’d also made a batch of biscuits with melted butter.
“Just eat,” she told them, and smiled as they wolfed down the best meal they had had in ages or ever since their grandmama had died. The stranger laughed and patted Rosita on the head as she gobbled her steak. After a brief silence while they enjoyed their dinner, the stranger said ,”My name is Rivera, Cesar Rivera and now tell me yours,” he asked smiling at all three of them whose faces were beaming.
“I’m Lupita Ortiz, and these are my two children, Flavio, age 5, and Rosita, age 4 years.”
“I live in San Diego,” Cesar continued, “and as I said, I live alone. I had a wife and three sons. She died many years ago and my sons are scattered all over the globe. I hardly see them. Then, there is my mother, whose lives in Ajo because that is where her husband, not my father, lived when they met and married. She is long ago widowed and on her own for years.”
“I came here with my parents and grandfather when I was very small. My grandfather built this house. Once it was rather grand, not like now. Rosita and Flavio were born in this house and have never lived anywhere else.”
“Can I ask about the father? Only if you wish to tell me.”
“Yes, I was married for some years but it was a bad mistake. I was too young to understand about being a wife and mother. He left two years ago and we have been alone ever since.” While telling him her story, she had taken a good look at him. He was handsome and well bred and seemed gentle and easy going. Something she had not known in any man except her papa and grandpapa. Lupita also noted how Cesar did not seem to take any real notice of their poverty and treated them as equals, even the children. She admired this in him and did not recall meeting any man who simply ignored their smell and their clothes.
Flavio gulped the last of his steak and stared at Cesar. “I do not know where San Diego is, sir. Can you tell us about it?”
“You’ll forgive them, Cesar, they’ve never been anywhere else but here.”
“I understand. Well, for one thing, it is big, much bigger than Ajo. And it is on the Pacific Ocean, which is the best thing about it. I love the water. It is costly to live there, but fortunately I have my own business. I own a small Men’s Ware store, selling mostly men’s suits, coats, shirts, ties, shoes and things like that. There are hundreds of thousands of people who live there. It has lots of cars, all racing around in every direction. People always on the go and the traffic is miserable. But it does have the biggest and best zoo in the world. You kids would love it if you ever get the chance to see it. It takes more than one day to really see everything there is there.” He drank some water and wiped his sensuous mouth. Lupita thought he would be a good kisser.
“It does get crowded, and smoggy at times. But if you live there, you hardly pay any attention to the weather unless is very bad.” Flavio had never heard the word smoggy but was fascinated by the big man who talked so easily. His father had never talked much and seemed to be mad all the time. He had no ideas whatever happened to him and mama never talked about him at all.
“I don’t know exactly know to begin this, but I have something to say.” He paused, “I was wondering, well what I am trying to say is my mother is coming home from the hospital tomorrow and needs someone to care for her. I mean someone to live in her home, full time and do the housework, cooking and cleaning. The whole works. My mother can take care of her personal needs but little else. She has a car that can be used to go shopping. I really could use someone to be with her.” Lupita was staring at him with moisture in her eyes.
“I don’t suppose you would be interesting in moving into Ajo and taking care of my mother and her home? There are plenty of rooms for all of you and a school is nearby when you get ready for that. I come over here several times a year and would be available for anything you might need. All you’d need to do is ask.” He stopped short, feeling like a car salesman. He shrugged his shoulders and stared at all of them.
Lupita seemed dazed and looked down at her hands and then at the children.
“Of course, there will be a small salary in addition to the free room and board. My mother is getting pretty old and probably won’t last for much longer. I realize you would have to board up this place and I can help you with that and get a van to move anything you would want to take with you. You don’t know what might happen to it with no one living here.”
Lupita hesitated. “I wonder what would we do if and when your mother passes? It sounds like a big responsibility. I guess we could come back here.” She was wondering, although they couldn’t be much worse off than they were now.”
“Maybe you could sleep on it and talk it over. I can come back in the morning and take you to meet my mother before you decide. But, I know she would love to have all of you in her home.”
“Oh, mama, could we go please and see the place and meet his mother? I do want to go, please,” begged Flavio. Rosita was shaking her head, “Yes, mama, can we please?”
“Well, I do appreciate the offer and the chance to visit as you say.” Then, after a moment, “Yes, we can be ready to go with you tomorrow morning if you wish to pick us up.”
“Yes, that’s wonderful!” He exclaimed excitedly. “Of course, I’ll be here first thing in the morning.” He stood up and stretched. “Would you like for me to help you clean up this mess? It would be no problem.”
“Oh, no. You’ve done plenty all ready.”
“Well, then, I guess I better be heading on back. I still need to see my mother this evening in the hospital.” He wished them all a good night and kissed Rosita’s hand playfully. “I’ll see you all bright and early.” And, he strode quickly out the door. Lupita could hear the roar of the engine as he started the car.
Lupita had hesitated to give a final answer but in her heart, she knew exactly what she was going to do. The children would be better off in town and she had also worried about their upcoming schooling. There would be other children to play with and playgrounds to go to, and to the movies. She would have no further worries about putting food in their mouths and with a small salary she could buy them new clothes since they were quickly outgrown the ones they have now.
“Come on children, help me clean up so we can go to bed early. We need to get up early and take baths and put on our best clothes, and I’ll fix you a great breakfast of sausage and eggs and buttered toast and fried potatoes. How does that sound? And hot cups of cocoa?”
As they busied with the kitchen, she was thinking, This will be the best chance of a lifetime for all of us and the needs of the children will always be my first concern. And, maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a chance to consider for once a dream for myself.