View from the Pepper Tree: Chapter 2
Leda is Soledad again, wielding a stick in the hot night air of Los Angeles. It is a magnolia stick that she and Manuel use as swords. Manuel is careful not to hurt her, for she is young, only four, and very small, just as her mother and grandmother were and just as her children and grandchildren will be. She holds the stick desperately, wanting just once to knock her brother’s stick from his hand, to make it to the next round against Maria, her younger sister. But tonight, this won’t happen, as Josefa is calling them to come in. There is a visitor.
The three siblings forget their sticks, stripped of large soft leaves, dropping them in the dirt. They will be there tomorrow, waiting for the children to again play their game. Manuel is faster than Soledad and Maria, running into the back door of their house, a cinder block shack at the end of a dirt road. Visitors are always welcome, though scarce. Soledad chases Manuel, wanting to glimpse the person who will surely become a guest of honor, somebody they’ll worship just for the small act of arriving. She bounces over the threshold, a plain division between inside and out, for there is nothing there, just the continuation of dirt, only inside it is harder packed and seems to Soledad to be cleaner. Her toes can feel the difference even if her eyes can’t. Maria is steps behind Soledad, her light brown curls flying over her shoulders. She is almost three, and almost as dexterous in running as her older sister.
The children flock to their mother’s side, now shy of the tall uniformed man in their front doorway. He tries to smile, but doesn’t succeed, his mouth only twitching a little. He probably thinks he has at least grinned, but he has underestimated the movement, and then abandons it entirely, for it isn’t natural to smile at a time like this, is it? Soledad puts her hand into her mother’s; it is moist and callused from work, the knuckles raw and dry, little flakes of skin ready to fall. Soledad loves her mother’s hands, for they are always busy, yet available for her. Manuel stands beside Soledad, his posture confident for a seven-year-old. He believes he is the man of the house when their father is away, which is when he works and often. Papa is a janitor at the university, doing some work during the day, but most at night, when the students are off campus, partying and studying.
The policeman who is trying to be congenial, although he realizes this isn’t the time, looks into Mrs. Pilar Taranco’s eyes. He delivers the news, that her husband has died. Of pneumonia. In the hospital. He’d been taken there from work. The doctors had done all they could, yet nothing could save Manuel Senior, a man who literally worked himself to death. He knew he was sick, so did his wife. But they couldn’t afford for him to be sick. So, he kept on working.
Soledad’s mother sinks to the floor, as if melting into a puddle. Her body shakes, but no sound comes out. Soledad can see that her mother is crying, the tears flowing fast and sure, but it doesn’t seem to be normal crying. Soledad shakes her head to make the sound come back; she feels as though the world has been muted. Then, her mother gives out a gasping scream, her breath and voice and sorrow coming out all at once to make a horrible sound, one that Soledad wishes she hadn’t shook her head for. Then she too starts crying, real crying, with sobs and whimpers and, of course, tears. This gets Maria going, who is always keen to copy whatever her older sister Soledad is doing. Josefa and Isabella, the older sisters, try to stay calm as if they can hush the little ones by doing so, but it is mostly for their mother. They are shocked by the break down she is having, especially in front of a perfect stranger, so feel it is their duty to bite their trembling lips and wipe furiously at their tears to maintain a modicum of dignity. Manuel is also trying to be stoic, as the official man of the house now, and succeeds until later that night, when all is dark and the family pretends to sleep while really listening to one another sob and hiccup. He too joins in the grief, but only then, when nobody can see and his noises could be mistaken for that of his older sisters’.
The police officer is uncomfortable. He clears his throat and offers to call family for Mrs. Taranco, who finally looks up and remembers that she is not alone. She sees the police officer first, a sight that only deepens her grief, for he reminds her of her husband’s death all over again. She then takes in her children, the two small girls wailing with all their might, the two older girls weeping silently and pretending that they aren’t, and Manuel, his face twisted with effort. She regains her good sense and stands up, dusting her skirt with her hands as she rises. She tells the officer of her brothers, who live north, in the Santa Clara Valley. She decides then that she will move there.
Her brothers come, a week or so later, ready to move her young, fatherless family to Mountain View. Pilar feels this is right, as she will be surrounded by her family. She has missed her brothers since living in Los Angeles. She hasn’t missed her mother much, but maybe she can fix that. Maybe living close to her mother will somehow solidify their relationship, remind them that they are blood relatives, mother and daughter. They should be close, so she will try. She also thinks of her sister Chacha, who she’s sure will dote on her children, something she will no longer be well-equipped to do because of money.