Ghrirrrk! Ghrirrrk! Ghrirrrk!
Without looking up, the man pruning faded flowers from the bougainvillea vine, knew it was the black squirrels again. They were up there already in the palm tree a few feet away, tearing through the soft sap of a coconut. The enticing milk within brought them back periodically.
The day was cool, mid-December. The first staffers of the NGO next door had just arrived, waved, and gone inside. It was a new day all around.
Henry Eagan, the man with the snips, brushed away a mosquito as he moved about, clipping dead flowers. A clump of the brown, rotted petals at his feet metered his progress. His wife, Emelia, sat under the pergola nearby, humming softly to their baby in a stroller. From somewhere down the street came the comforting sounds of Christmas music.
A stranger rode up, dismounted his bicycle and walked to the 5-foot high concrete block fence.
“Good mornin’, señor,” the visitor said, brightly. Henry, a much taller man, stopped his pruning and went to the fence. He looked down at the stranger with black hair and a clean-shaven face that grinned shyly back, up at him. The fellow wore rubber-boots that reached his knees, and his blue jeans were clean. Good quality, too. His shirt, which boasted glazed buttons, looked a bit too large for him.
“Yes?” Henry replied, in his most unconcerned voice. Beggars were common at Christmastime. Henry did not like, and felt uneasy around, them.
Undeterred, the stranger continued: “I’m looking for work, mister. Anything you have. I can do construction, carpentry, painting, plomeria, cement work—and…and grass cutting,” he added somewhat apologetically. He saw Henry’s hesitation and after a moment finished his spiel: “If not now, then mañana, tomorrow, maybe?”
Henry leaned over the fence listening to the man’s pleading, broken English. The guy had no tools with which to do any of the many trades he bragged of. His desperation slumped like wet laundry. Attired and apparently ready for work, his eyes darted about as he spoke.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Henry said, and was about to turn back to his bougainvillea but hesitated. He felt his dismissal was too curt; not in harmony with the season. He went to the chain-linked gate instead. That seemed friendlier. He softened his tone. “Just had the yard done yesterday,” he said. “There’s some roof work but someone’s coming to do that tomorrow. So sorry,” he repeated. The man’s bright smile faded. Henry had a thought.
“Do you have a number I can contact you if something comes up?” he asked, knowing he would never offer work to someone who had no tools!
“Yes, mister,” came the stranger’s reply. He gave Henry his number.
“And where do you live?” Henry felt the prick of his deceitful interrogation. But, he thought, that’s how you let someone down gently.
The stranger’s name was Ignacio “Nacho” Guzman, and as he re-mounted his bike, he thought of the man’s questioning look at his empty hands. He remembered a suggestion Nessy, his wife, had made before he left the house.
Nacho had awakened at 4:30—his faithful alarm clock and long habit right on time. He was never late for work. In his home country he had attended una escuela vocacional, and was a capable worker.
Nessy worked with the City and had to be up early, also. Tidying up the house and bustling the children while preparing breakfast, took time. She looked forward to the approaching respite during the two weeks of Christmas holidays.
Even with their two incomes, however, the family had been barely afloat. Now they faced an acute situation. A week before, Nacho lost his job at the construction company where he worked for the past five years. The business had been moved to Belize City, and his pay wasn’t enough to support a daily commute from Belmopan. Moreover, Nessy was pregnant and he had to be near her. He had been out daily trying to find work—”anything” as he had told Henry and the many others he had approached—but to no avail.
There was another worry. Their home on Avda. Juán de Díos was a street stop for the annual La Posada, the procession commemorating the search by Joseph and Mary for a room in Bethlehem. It was just a week away and they had been street hosts since moving to Las Flores ten years before. But it cost money, and if nothing turned up in the next day or two, Nessy would need to call Father Bonifacius (“Bunny” to friends) and cancel their participation that year.
“Any hopes for a better day today?” Nessy had asked as she moved about the kitchen. Nacho heard the worry in her voice and joined her at the sink with a quick embrace.
“Maybe you should take your weed-eater so that the people can see you’re ready for work, ¿no?” she pleaded.
“And let them think that’s all I can do?” he replied defensively. She had made that suggestion before. “I just need a fresh pantalón…and some good luck,” he said, crossing himself.
Breakfast—corn tortilla and fried beans—was ready. The older children, following their established routines, helped get the younger ones ready for school.
“I don’t know,” Nacho went on. “As I told you last night, the man on Barbados Street looked like he wanted to help me. I’ll go back again today and ask.”
One of the children came into the kitchen.
“My tummy hurts, Mamá,” she said, rubbing her belly.
“Is she okay, Nessy?” asked Nacho. That time the worry was in his voice.
“Yes, yes,” she said quickly. “A little asafetida mix will fix the pain.”
“Wouldn’t be good to miss work again for a trip to the hospital.” Nacho was concerned about her job, their only income while he looked for work. “If she doesn’t feel better, maybe she should stay at home today.”
“Sure,” agreed Nessy. “Nana Elvia won’t mind taking care of her.” Elvia was Nacho’s mother. Each day the kids went to her house after school.
“Who was that?” Emelia asked Henry casually, after Nacho had left.
“Just someone looking for work,” he responded. “Don’t know why they don’t go to the City,” he huffed from the shade of the bougainvillea.
“He sounded sincere, though, and desperate,” Emelia said. “What does he do?” she asked, with conversational concern.
“Well, you know how they are,” muttered Henry glibly. “They’ll say anything to gain your sympathy, and then you find out it was all baloney.” He grinned. “That one is in masonry, construction, landscaping and God knows what else.”
And there the matter ended. That is, until later that day when Henry got the call.
It rained earlier on, but he had been able to get his errands done, and had the car washed. The sun tussled with the December haze. The bougainvillea was truly eye-engaging. They were relaxing under the pergola. He sipped a lemonade while Emelia put the finishing touches to a bouquet for a friend’s funeral.
The call was from the roofing company contacted to do the repairs to their sunroof annex. Some settlement had occurred to the floor, and a leak resulted. The insurance didn’t pay for subsidence, so he had to see about it himself.
“We have a large contract, Mr. Eagan,” the confident voice on the line said, “and we need to have it finished before Christmas. Sorry, but we won’t be able to do your roof until mid-January.”
“So, what am I to do in the meantime?” Henry protested angrily, knowing he had just been handed a hot potato. “This is December, man, a rainy month in case you forgot!”
“I understand sir, but business is business.” There was an awkward pause. “If you’d like I can give you the number to one of our ex-employees who lives in Teakettle Village.”
“Well, if that’s the best you can do.” Another awkward pause. “I just hope he’s more reliable than the rest o’ you.” He knew he shouldn’t have said that but it just made him feel better. “What’s the number?” he snapped.
The voice on the line read off the telephone number then added, “His name is Seferino Diaz-Almendarez.”
“What was that about?” enquired Emelia. He explained.
The number was busy when he called, so he left a brief explanation. Shortly after, his phone pinged an incoming message.
“Got your request,” it read, “but right now I can’t take on any more jobs. ¡Feliz Navidad!”
Emelia had caught the urgency.
“Bad news, I gather?” She made a face.
“Yes!” He explained. “Where’re these people when you need them?” he mused, crushing the straw and flinging the empty can at the pile of dead flowers.
“Hello! Father Bunny?”
It was Nessy and she was on the line to the priest’s office with a call she put off for as long as she could. Nacho had still not found any work which meant they could not be the street hosts for the La Posada. She spoke softly but the priest sensed her anxiety.
“…and so we can’t host the pilgrimage on our street this year,” she finished. There was a short pause before she added, “Sorry, Father.” A much longer pause followed. Finally, Nessy broke the spell.
“Well, goodbye, Father.”
“Don’t hang up just yet, sister Nessy.” It was like the snap of a finger, and her spirits rose.
Father Bunny was not a man to sit in his office, expecting the affairs of the world to be brought there as to a dump. He was out and about his parish, daily, for was that not his calling, “…to take the gospel…?” While he listened to Nessy’s tremulous voice, he was searching for a memory that could ease this family’s predicament. Then, he got it.
Two days before, he was at the market and ran into a parishioner at the peanut vendor’s stall. After completing their purchases, they diddled a bit about the busyness of Christmas. All the while the man kept shelling the peanuts and popping them.
“Why,” said the communicant, grinning “just two days ago I had to turn down a good contract to fix a roof. Everybody waits till Christmastime to fix up.”
“You’re still there Sister Nessy?”
“Good. Tell Nacho to call this number. Tell him to do it right away.” It was the number of the fellow in Teakettle Village who liked shelling peanuts.
Two years had gone by since then. It was Christmastime once more, and Nessy was busy planning for the La Posada again. They hadn’t missed any before, and that year would be no different. The ’phone rang.
“Nacho,” the now-familiar voice greeted him. “This is Henry. I need your help with something.”
Featured photo: Hart Tillett