Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Chapter Twenty

From outside, the restaurant was an unpromising lump of badly plastered and crumbling adobe, but it was nicer on the inside, with tiled floors, fresh paint, and some warped and fading prints of famous paintings. The place was dim and smoky, with most of the light coming from flickering wall sconces, and oil lamps on the mismatched tables. Chairs wobbled on the uneven floor, and dishes, glasses and silverware seemed to have come from any source the proprietor could find. Although it was all clean, nothing matched anything else. The patrons were as mismatched as the décor, with most in casual, if not outright dirty, workaday garb while others were dressed in the finery of decades past, out for a celebratory meal.

Amalia and Donovan found a place to sit, and a teenage girl in a faded dress and clean apron approached their table. She announced the evening's menu, which was dictated by what was available that day. With the offerings limited, they made up their minds on the spot and ordered a carafe of the strong local wine for good measure. As they sipped their first glasses, Donovan tried to keep his conversation directed toward questions he had about the workings of the market and their plans for the rest of their stay in town, but by the time their entrees arrived and they were pouring their second glasses of wine, he was feeling bolder, although not so bold as to ask any direct questions about her and Carina. He cast about for the nearest safe topic. "Tell me about Magda. How did a sweet old lady like Mother Reyes end up with someone as mean as her for a grandchild?"

"No one really knows. Back when my parents were growing up, they would've probably given her a pill for it." Amalia wrapped a bit of quail in a scrap of tortilla. "She got all her notions about life from her grandmother's photo albums and whatever things had been saved in closets and jewelry boxes. She wants to be rich."

"That's silly. No one is rich. No one who is honest, at least."

"That doesn't matter to her, and it doesn't help that her parents and grandparents were better off than a lot of their neighbors. It gave her notions. Like all sensible people, her family pretends to be poor, but Magda prefers to show off."

"Where did Mother Reyes get the money to support these ideas of hers?"

"I'm afraid it wasn't all good. Her husband ran a bank in town. It went under during the bank runs that followed the mortgage loan collapse, but some say he worked out a deal with his parent bank, which was one of the big multinationals." She shrugged and turned back to her meal. "It would explain a lot, since he seemed to be doing better after the crash than before. He died peacefully in his sleep a few years ago."

"Lucky guy."

"Yes, he was lucky, but his daughter wasn't. Regina was my best friend, and her husband had a ranch. Regina wasn’t one for country life, so they lived in town and only used the ranch for vacations. They got word one night that their foreman had armed the ranch hands and declared the property his own. They rode out with the loyal hand who had come to warn them and that jackass shot them in the desert just a little ways east of town."

"And no one did anything about it?"

"What could anyone do? Things were still pretty chaotic at the time. As you can see, it’s better now. Unlike some people, the citizens of Macrina organized themselves, once they realized they could no longer count on the government."

Donovan considered this, moving some of the food around on his plate with his fork. "I guess that was just a lie they told us in the Guard, that ordinary citizens can’t be counted on to work together for the common good. That’s how they justify going after hoarders, you know."

“I know. But how do they think the United States came together in the first place, if not by average people? Short-sighted federal policies have ruptured our country, but we’ve found a way to manage, just like the pioneers. Maybe someday we’ll even be able to get regular gasoline deliveries again.” At the skeptical look in Donovan’s eyes, she added, “Why not? We couldn’t get coffee and chocolate for several years, but the Macrina market has those now.”

Donovan's eyebrows went up. "You’re kidding. Chocolate?"

"Sometimes. If you can pay for it, of course."

"Do you think they have any here?" Before she could answer, Donovan waved the waitress over. "Do you have anything chocolate?"

"We have butter cake with chocolate icing. But there's only one piece left. We've got plenty of apple pie--"

"No, we want chocolate. Bring the cake."

The girl left and Amalia stared. "That's going to be very expensive.”

"Nothing is too good for the woman who saved my life."

Amalia pursed her lips. "It was all Carina's doing. I'd just as soon have shot you, or don't you remember?"

"I remember lots of things."

Amalia sat back in her chair and folded her arms. She pretended great interest in the doings of the diners around her until the waitress brought the cake, set it in front of her and hurried away. Amalia stared at the dessert as if uncertain what to do next.

Donovan had never seen her flustered. "Go on. Don't tell me I've wasted my money."

"Only if you have some, too." She pushed the plate toward the center of the table and waited until he had picked up his fork before tucking into the dessert. "This was a splendid idea," she admitted. "Don't tell Carina, but I do get tired of honey and apples all the time."

"One wouldn't know it."

"There's no point complaining or wishing for things."

"You're right there's no point in complaining, there's no reason to go on living if you're not wishing for something."

Amalia started to shake her head, but when she looked at Donovan again her lips twisted into a wistful smile. "You have no idea how much time I spent wishing," she said. "Until I realized that it only got me into trouble. A person can't take. . . well, there's just no use in. . ."

"I know," Donovan said. He reached across the table to take her hand, but she pulled away. "So," he said, as if nothing had happened, "We were talking before about Magda. I wonder, do you think she'll let me in to see Mother Reyes if I come to town alone? You’ll want me to pick up the ration book, right?"

Amalia pushed the empty dessert plate to one side. "I honestly don't know what Magda will do. When Carina and I talked about having you come to town for us, we thought she would have run off again by now or that Mother Reyes would've been able to answer her own door. This puts things in a different light."

"Maybe I should bring some chocolate with me, wear fancy clothes and pretend to be rich."

"Yes," Amalia said, "She can probably be bribed."

"Give her an old necklace, a pair of earrings…"

"A silk scarf and some bangles…"

"And lots of lipstick!"

Amalia suppressed a giggle. "You’re obviously resourceful. You'll figure out a way."

The waitress brought them their check, and after puzzling over it for a moment, Donovan laid a few coins on the table. Then he stood up and pulled back Amalia’s chair for her, took her arm and led her out the door. "Yes," he said, "I will figure out a way. Trust me."

As they left the restaurant, the chivalrous hand on Amalia’s elbow somehow came to be clasping hers, something they both pretended not to notice as they walked the dark, narrow street back to camp, and as Amalia climbed into her bedroll to sleep, she noted that the earlier haze had vanished and the stars in the clear night sky seemed especially bright and promising.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Chapter Nineteen

While Amalia and Mother Reyes talked about farm animals and economic matters, Donovan looked around the small bedroom, paying attention to the little things—the rosary and glass of water on the nightstand, the lace runner on the dresser and the little bottles and framed photos that were arranged on top of it. The photos were of a man in the stiff-looking suit and tie of long ago, a pretty, laughing woman, a black-haired little girl with a mischievous smile, and a fuzzy snapshot of two young mothers with their children. This was the picture Donovan wanted to look at more closely, and he stood up.

"Amalia's mother and I were great friends," Mother Reyes said, seeing what had caught his interest. "So were our girls."

"My parents had a summer home just outside of town," Amalia said. Her tone was oddly clipped, as if each word carried a price. "We came here every year during school vacations. Our parents wanted us to get used to the land in case the worst happened. Regina was our best friend and was Magda's mother."

Donovan nodded. Asking what had happened to Regina seemed like dangerous territory. "Your family doesn't have a house in town any more."

"No. My father sold it when the war with Iran began."

"A smart move," Mother Reyes added. "Things were crazy here for awhile. Soldiers, shortages, riots…"

"We were hardly immune," Amalia reminded her. "We still had to come to town for supplies."

"Of course." Mother Reyes patted Amalia's arm and Donovan remembered that Carina had said their father died in a food riot. "But at least your family and your livelihood weren't in daily danger, and that was what your father wanted."

"Yes," Amalia said in a tone that sounded unconvinced. She stretched her arms overhead and pretended to yawn. "I hate to cut this short, Mama, but we're pasturing at Cortina's tonight and we need to go while there's still a chance we can hitch a ride back into town."

"Your letters and ration books are where they always are, love." The woman fumbled with the drawer of her nightstand. Amalia reached over to help. Inside she found a stack of envelopes clipped together and marked with her name. She flipped through them, pulled out the ration books and did a cursory check for missing coupons.

"I apologize for my granddaughter's behavior tonight," Mother Reyes said.

"It's a tough world," Amalia said.

"Not for her, it isn't. I give her everything she needs, and more. The world may be mean, but that doesn't mean she should be. I've told her. . ."

Amalia's face softened and she gave Mother Reyes a hug. "Don't worry about it, Mama. I'm way too old to care what a teenager thinks of me."

Mother Reyes looked away, ashamed nonetheless.

"I’m more worried about you than about her," Amalia went on. "Are you getting everything you need? I wanted to bring you something tonight but I had no idea what you might want."

"You're sweet to offer," Mother Reyes said, clutching Amalia's hand. "But your mother would haunt me from her grave if I took anything more from you. She'll probably haunt me anyway for letting Magda keep Carina's ration books. I should be giving them to the church to help feed and medicate the poor."

"Well, as Regina's comadres, we promised to help look after Magda if anything should happen. You know that."

"Like that little ingrate needs your help. Some days I'm tempted to cut her off entirely, let her see what the world is like when you don't have Grandma and generous comadres to pay for every little whim."

"That's between you and her." Amalia kissed Mother Reyes on her thin cheek. "We've got to get going."

"Will I see you again soon? Next month's market, maybe?"

Amalia exchanged guilty glances with Donovan. "We thought we might send Donovan alone next time," she admitted.

The old woman smiled on Donovan. "If you come, you'll be just as welcome as Amalia and Carina have always been." She fumbled for his hand.

Donovan started to shake her hand, but then gave her frail body a quick embrace instead. "Thank you, Mother Reyes. I'm looking forward to seeing you again."

"And I'm looking forward to seeing you too, young man. Take care of my girls for me, you hear?"

* * *

The road out of town was lit only by a few dim stars on this hazy night. Amalia pulled a small battery-powered light out of her donkey's saddlebag and stuck it through a loop on the animal's bridle that until now Donovan hadn't been able to guess the purpose of. This provided a little shaky light on the path ahead of them. As they rode quietly through the town's outskirts Amalia was silent and Donovan was reluctant to intrude on her private thoughts.

Cortina's place was a ranch on the derelict west side of town. Tonight one of his sons was minding the operation. "I didn't expect you so late, Ms. Channing." He took hold of the bridle so Amalia could dismount.

She swung a leg over the saddle and jumped to the ground. "We had to make a stop and it took longer than we thought."

"Ain't that the way of it?" He handed off the jenny to a little boy, then went to help Donovan. "You'll be wanting a rubdown and pasture tonight for these animals. Anything else? Oats? Alfalfa?"

"No, pasture and grooming is enough.We'll probably leave day after tomorrow."

While the boy took the animals away to be curried, Martin made a few calculations on a piece of ledger paper. After examining it, Amalia nodded and handed him some coins. "Any wagons heading back to town that you know of?"

The man shook his head. "I'm sure if you wait long enough, someone will come by."

They waited at the gate for several minutes before Amalia turned on her flashlight. "Come on," she said. "We'll probably encounter someone along the way." She cast a doubtful look at his leg. "You can still walk a little, can't you?"

"Sure," Donovan said, although he was anything but certain he could hold up the entire way. Luckily after only a quarter of a mile they found a man on the side of the road, digging a stone out of the hoof of one of his mules.

"I can take you into town," the man offered. "But not to the market itself, and only if my mule don't start limping again. I don't want to be unfriendly but. . ."

"Of course not," Amalia said. "We wouldn't want to add to the load of an animal that's hurt."

The man flapped the reins and clucked to his team. The mules pulled against the traces and the wagon jerked forward. Two miles later, he dropped them off in the center of town and went on his creaking way. "Come on," Amalia told Donovan with a tug at his sleeve, but Donovan hesitated, sniffing the air. He was hungry and this time his stomach wouldn't be denied.

"Why don't we get us a bite to eat at that restaurant? My treat." When he saw the hesitation in Amalia's eyes he added, "We haven't eaten since lunch. What are we going to do? Go back to camp and wake everyone up cooking?"

"I had thought we'd just eat leftovers."

"When we can eat a hot meal in a restaurant instead?"

"We're here to make money, not spend it."

"I've got a little cash of my own. Let me treat you. It's the least I can do after all that you've done for me."

Amalia shook her head. "If you want to go in and get something, that's your business. I'll wait out here."

Donovan's stomach growled and he grabbed Amalia's hand. "When was the last time a man asked you out to dinner?"

Amalia was so surprised by this tactic that she had no answer ready.

"That's what I thought." Donovan put a hand on the back of her waist and guided her toward the scent of cooking food.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Chapter Eighteen

After traversing the center of town, Donovan and Amalia turned onto a residential street. It was peaceful after the bustle of the main drag, but there was something close and mysterious about it, too. The houses were ramshackle, the lights faint and few, the trees too twisted against the darkening sky to make anything about this dirt road with its crumbling sidewalks feel homelike. Shadows darkened and elongated across the road, and by the time they had passed the third house, the darkness had engulfed nearly everything in their path. It was with relief that Donovan saw Amalia turn Goneril in the direction of a gate, hardly distinguishable from the others with its splintering wooden posts. They walked their animals into a dusty courtyard of cracked and missing tiles, almost artistic in its placement of broken planters and dead potted trees.

Amalia swung herself down from her jenny, tossed the reins over a post and helped Donovan off his mount. His brace squeaked as he followed Amalia to the door of the seemingly deserted house. Amalia jerked a string by the side of the door and from somewhere inside, a bell jangled. There was no response at first, then they heard at the door as someone fumbled with the locks, then the door opened a crack.

"Who is it?"

Amalia's lips curled down in annoyance. "It's me, Magda. Amalia Channing."

The door opened a little and Donovan could see a pale face rimmed with a mass of dark hair. "Who's the man with you?"

"His name is Donovan Sloan. He's a friend."

"And how do I know that?"

"Because I'm telling you so. For Christ's sake, let us in. What the hell is that you have on? And where's your grandmother?"

The door swung open to reveal a young woman standing in the dim light of an oil lamp, dressed in a stiff red gown, her neck and arms dripping with gold chains and charms. The dress was too tight for her pudgy body, but she wore it as though the bulges and straining seams were the height of fashion. She stood back to let Amalia and Donovan enter, glaring from under kohl-blackened lids. "My grandmother is resting," she said. "She wasn't expecting you. It's been so long, she was beginning to think the raiders got you." She turned an imperious gaze upon Donovan. "Maybe they have."

"Cut the crap," Amalia said. "All we want is to see Mother Reyes, get my ration books and go. Your grandmother is still alive, right? You haven't suffocated her with a pillow so you can get your inheritance early?"

Magda widened her eyes in mock horror as she shut the heavy door behind them, so many rings glittering on her fingers that she could barely lift her hands. "I don't know how you can say such a thing. I guess being out there in the country dries you up and makes you bitter." Without waiting for a return comment, she led the way across the tiled floor, wobbling in her stilettos, to another heavy door, this one of finely carved oak set in a freshly plastered wall decorated at the top in a blue native design. With a smile that was all confection and pretense, she said, "You'll see for yourself how well I care for Nana."

They entered a sitting room so richly furnished and bright with electric lamps that one didn't notice at first that it was small. The plastered walls were decorated with the same blue trim as in the previous room and a fire blazed in a rounded fireplace in one corner. Paintings and Indian rugs hung on the walls, and thick-pile woven rugs of a strange design lay scattered over the tiled floor. The dark wood and leather furniture looked too stiff to be more than decorative, but in a concession to comfort, there was a mound of tasseled pillows in front of the fireplace. Perched on one of the pillows was a tiny wren of a girl who watched the strangers with glittering eyes.

"Hello, Cruz," Amalia said. Her words were affectionate, even if her tone was not. "You've grown so big since I last saw you."

The girl rose warily and brushed down the skirt of her ruffled dress. Like Magda, she was weighted down with jewelry. She stared silently at Amalia for a moment, then fixed her gaze on Donovan. "Who are you?"

"He's Mrs. Channing's bodyguard," Magda said, crossing the room in quick strides and opening another door. "He's here to make sure Nana doesn’t short Mrs. Channing any of her ration coupons because you know they're terribly poor out there in the country, without a thing to eat but tumbleweeds and cow manure."

"Oh, for God's sake." Amalia sighed and followed her into a hallway with Donovan close behind.

They walked to a door at the end of the hall, which Magda opened after a perfunctory rap. "Nana," she said,"It's that friend of yours." The way she spat the word "friend," she could've been talking about rats. "She seems to have brought a friend of her own with her."

Amalia and Donovan stepped into a bright room full of blond wood furniture and decorated with framed photos and religious pictures. In the bed, looking lost amid the white sheets and colorful quilts, was a white-haired old woman, frail and wan, but with startling blue eyes that lit up at the sight of her guests. "Amalia!" she said, pushing herself up in bed and holding out her gnarled hands. "Come here, dear. I've been so worried."

Amalia took the woman's hands in her own for a moment, but then gave the woman a hug instead. "Mother Reyes, it's so good to see you."

"Good to see you too, mi hijita. Stand back and let me have a look at you."

Amalia submitted to the old woman's clucks and nods as she took in her short hair, boots, heavy work pants, and checked cotton shirt stained with the dirt and sweat of a day working the market. "You still dress and cut your hair too much like a man."

A haughty sniff indicated Magda's approval of this remark.

"But you look healthy. You get enough to eat?"

"Yes, Mama."

"Then you won't need your ration books," Magda grumbled.

The older women ignored her. "Do you still read?" Mother Reyes asked.

"Yes, I'm reading Robinson Crusoe with Carina, and the Bible every night before I go to sleep."

This last surprised Donovan and it must have shown on his face because both women turned toward him. "And who is this nice-looking young man?"

Amalia motioned him forward. "This is Donovan Sloan. He works on our farm now."

Mother Reyes took one of Donovan's hands. "I'm glad to know the girls have a little help. A farm is too much work without a man."

"He can't be much help with that thing on his leg," murmured a voice from the doorway.

"He manages well enough," Amalia said. Her eyes met the old woman's and flashed her a wink so quick that Donovan would've thought he was imagining it if he hadn't caught the slight change in Mother Reyes' tone.

"I bet he does," she said. Before Magda could make another caustic remark, Mother Reyes looked at her. "Magda, dear, I'm sure your daughter could use a little company. You should never leave a child alone with a fire."

Magda pouted. "Cruz is fine. And besides, Laura is out there. Somewhere." She turned on one of her sharp heels and flounced away. Amalia shut the bedroom door behind her. "So how are you really?" she asked, sitting beside the bed. "I can't believe you've put up with her attitude for so long. I thought she would've run away by now, or that you would've kicked her out for the sake of your own sanity."

The old woman put a cautionary finger to her lips and motioned for Donovan to pull up a chair. "Let's talk softly. I don't put it past her to listen at the door."

Amalia took one of Mother Reyes' hands in her own. "Can't you find someone else to take care of you? I know you can afford to pay."

"Yes, I still employ Laura, and I assign her to do most of the cooking and cleaning. Magda doesn't do much at all except go through my closets and jewelry boxes, trying to wear everything at once."

"Will Kevin not take her back? You don't need so much anger and negativity around here."

"Kevin doesn't need it either, I'm afraid." Mother Reyes sighed. "And I can hardly turn my daughter's only child out into the street. She and my great-granddaughter are all I have left."

"You have friends, Mama. Friends can be as good as family."

Mother Reyes winked at Donovan. "Doesn't that sound more like something Carina would say?"

"It sure does." When he saw Amalia bite her lip in annoyance, he added, "She's feeling happy. It was a good day at the market."

Mother Reyes patted Amalia's hands. "We need more good days for you, then. You used to be such a chipper little thing."

"Okay, okay…"

Sensing her embarrassment, the woman changed the subject. "How is your sister? I have a couple letters from Miles for her."

"Good. She'll like that."


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Chapter Seventeen

Amalia had covered the remaining wares on their table with a blanket and was taking items off the overhead rack when Melinda came up. "I staked us out a camping spot," she announced. "Diana is over there now with our carts. I turned the animals out to pasture at Cortina's and told him we'd bring yours along shortly."

"Cortina's is kind of far," Amalia observed.

"Well, they said Janie is getting a little loopy, and Klein's is full. Are you done here?"

"I suppose so." Amalia looked at Donovan. "You've been wearing that brace all day. You up for walking, or should I drive the cart over here and pick you up?"

"I can walk," he said, although he was tired and the bands were chafing through his pants.

They set off toward the end field, where the horses and carts had been tethered for the day under a tarp. Together Amalia and Melinda got the animals harnessed and hitched to the wagon and Melinda gave instructions on how to find their campsite.

"I guess there's some kind of guard for the night?" Donovan asked as they made their way toward where the campfires were already dotting the old soccer field.

"Yes, it's included with our fee. There's never been an incident, although of course we take the most valuable and portable things with us, like cash, batteries, jewelry and the like. Anyone can be tempted, especially if it's something that fits easily into a pocket"

"Do they charge for the campground, too?"

"Not yet, although there are rumors that they might start after the first of the year."

"I guess the safety makes it a bargain."

"Most of us think so. There's another town about an equal distance away from our valley, but they don't do anything to protect their merchants. Our main fear is that Macrina will become too big one day and start to attract attention."

"And what will everyone do if that happens? If the Feds move in, I mean?"

"We'll figure something out. We're resourceful."

* * *

It didn't take long for Amalia and Donovan to set up camp. Once they had things in order, Amalia announced she was going to take the jennies to the Cortinas'. "Do you want to come along?" she asked Donovan. "I plan to stop at Mother Reyes' house on the way and get my ration book. She lives in one of those chameleon houses I told you about, and you might find it interesting."

Although he had been looking forward to a rest in front of the campfire, curiosity got the better of him and Donovan joined Amalia in unharnessing the jennies and saddling them to ride. Getting into the saddle was tricky, and he wasn't a good rider even without the brace. but at least the animals were short and slow, unlike Gonzales' frisky buckskin, which he hadn't seen since morning.

"Where's Gonzales?" he asked as they threaded their way out of the campsite.

"No telling, but I have a pretty good idea. I sometimes wonder if the only reason he comes to town is so he can visit the bars and whores."

"So he wasn't joking this morning on the trail?"

"No, and it's a shame. His mother has a lot of land and isn’t expected to live much longer. Gonzales will be a rich man by local standards, but instead of developing his property, he goes off to town and raises hell every time he gets a little ahead. He won't ever find a wife among the local girls if he keeps behaving like a delinquent, and he'll help if he's going to run that place like it needs to be run."

"Maybe he's just not cut out to be a rancher."

"No, he loves the land and has quite a knack for it when he applies himself. It's the war that did it to him. He hasn't been the same since the Alberta campaign."

"I've seen fighting get to a lot of people. Even some guys who seemed pretty tough."

"It doesn't seem to have gotten to you."

"Yes it did," Donovan said. "That’s why I left. And it wasn't nearly as bad as Alberta, although having to pull a trigger on your own countrymen is bad enough."

"You couldn't take it anymore?"

"It was that. But there was also a girl. A fellow soldier. She was shot during a raid. Several of us were. She didn't make it."

"The bullet in your shoulder."

"Yes. The man was only defending what he had spent his life trying to hold onto for his family. I started to figure that out, with all the time I had to think and be pissed off in the hospital. If I had a wife and kids, I would've hoarded for them, too. It's crazy what they made us do. We take a vow to protect this country and its people, but instead we kill them and kill ourselves trying to do it."

"Well, you got out. In time, maybe you can try to put a few things right."

"I'm not the sort to join one of the rebel groups or anything. I want out of the game altogether. The Guard takes hapless street kids like me with nothing going for them, they give us our first regular meals, new clothes, a little education..."

"Indoctrination, more like."

"I guess. They tell us that we're making things like they used to be back in the old days; a more equal society."

"An interesting lie, because this is where equality is."

"Maybe you're right. Out here it looks like your efforts amount to something."

"We've got our problems too," Amalia cautioned. "But that's just life. We can't make every little problem go away, because in the end, it's we who are the problem."

They were approaching the end of the road and merging with a busier street, dimly lit with solar lights. A few shops were still open for business, and people wandered the sidewalks, some of them going into the stores, some peering in the dirty windows. Somewhere a street musician played a harmonica. A few children ran shrieking down the sidewalk, a rangy mutt loping beside them. At the end of the block a man in white was quoting the Bible, shouting his apocalyptic message to passersby. He pointed at a nicely dressed young couple and screamed "Sinners!" A man in an embossed leather vest with a badge strode up to the street preacher and said a few words to him. Meanwhile a horse trotted along pulling a light trap carrying a neatly dressed family. A trio of scooters zipped past, going the other way in a cloud of dust and the smell of coal diesel.

"It looks like there's some night life around here," Donovan remarked as they passed an adobe building that seemed to be of enormous interest to some of the street crowd. One sniff of the air, redolent of grilled meats, spices and baking bread, explained everything. "It’s a restaurant!"

Amalia smiled. "I told you this town wasn't as sleepy as it looked."


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Chapter Sixteen

When they got back to their tables, fifteen minutes later than they had promised, Diana and Donovan had checked the going rates for wool, dried apples, chiles, eggs, seeds, socks and used clothing. Donovan had also managed to lift a wallet, although he had done it so cleverly that Diana hadn't noticed. It was nice to have a little money in his pocket again.

"You've done some good work," Peterson told them, after Diana finished rattling off her mental tally of the day's prices. "So did you get a feel for how things operate around here?" he asked, turning to Donovan.

"Yes, sir. It looks like there's a bit of a black market going on, in addition to the regular trade, but most of these folks seem to be honest."

"I've learned not to question where some of these people get their stuff. Best just to be glad there's still a place where a person can buy a working flashlight battery, fertilizer, or a bit of kerosene without needing fifty different types of credentials saying you're allowed to do it."

"It's a clean and well-organized place. I've seen markets in other towns that were dirty and not very safe."

The old man smiled. "Yes, everyone has to pay a fee to sell here, but it's worth it. They use the money to pay people to keep it orderly. They have men go through and make sure nothing is happening that shouldn’t. Maybe you saw one of them-- the guys in the red and blue vests? No? Well, you'll see one soon enough. They don't check into the origins of what anyone is selling. That would be bad for business. But they do make sure there's no stealing going on. Just honest trade. Steal or cheat a customer and you'll be kicked out."

"Good idea." Donovan would have to be careful if he picked any more pockets.

"It's what our government used to do," Peterson continued. "In fact, that used to be the whole reason we had a government, but now. . ."

"Dad," Melinda broke in. "Are you going to finish helping set up or are you just going stand there talking about the old times?"

Peterson turned around in mock indignation. "Young lady, you need to indulge me. I'm in my dotage."

"I have a feeling that excuse won't work for me," Donovan said. He walked the few steps to Amalia's table and found her struggling with an overhead rack weighted with strings of dried chiles, apples, squashes and a few items of fancy clothing. "Do you want me to hold that?" he asked, seeing her struggling to hold a pole and simultaneously wrap a length of twine around it.

"No," she said. "You take the twine and the knife. I've got the pole. Tie it to the ring on the tabletop, then twice on the table leg— low and high."

Donovan did as she directed, then did the same on the other side. The support still seemed flabby, so they stacked a couple sacks of animal feed and ears of dried corn against the poles. When they were done, he stepped out in front of the stand to take in the effect. Amalia had spread a colorful Indian blanket over the table and arranged jars of pumpkin seeds and various types of pickles and preserves along with some goat cheese, small tools and utensils and a few pairs of hand-knitted socks.

Underneath the table were baskets and boxes of extra items. "I only set out one or two of each of the things we brought. There's not enough room to display it all and one jar of pickled nopales looks just like any other. It keeps our display uncluttered. You want to make it easy for people to see what you have to offer."

"Sounds like you're pretty good at this."

"It's not my calling, but I've learned to do it well enough."

She went on to explain her pricing strategy and Donovan gave her a few tips based on the prices he and Diana had collected. As they were talking, customers started wandering up, checking out what they had to sell and asking questions.

Before he knew it he found himself negotiating the sale of strings of chiles, sacks of dried corn and jars of Carina's applesauce. Some of the customers had cash to spend and Donovan, with his years on the street, fell into an easy negotiating style, but many customers wanted to make trades and this was trickier.

"Do we need aspirin and cough drops?"

"Only if they're in sealed boxes and at least a year from the expiration date."

"Are we interested in strawberry seeds?"

"Who's the seller? No, I don't know him. We've never tried strawberries, so if they don't come up, I'll have no way of knowing if they didn't sprout because of us or because the seeds were no good."

"How about soap?"

"Oh, yes. As long as it's not lavender. I love it, but Carina hates it and says she can't stand the stench."

"What about piñones?"

"No, we've got plenty at home. But ask her if she's got some salt, spices or jerky to trade."

It took the better part of the day, but by sunset Donovan felt he was beginning to get a sense of how the local barter economy worked, and what kinds of things Amalia and Carina needed for the farm. Some things surprised him, like the way Amalia turned down a perfectly good opportunity to trade some chiles for a battery, but then bartered a pair of socks for canned pears and a CD of an old rock band.

"I don't know that I'm ever going to learn to do this on my own," he told her as they were shutting things down for the evening. "Sometimes you make trades that seem a little strange."

"You mean like the Rolling Stones CD?" Amalia asked with a slightly guilty smile. "That was just a sentimental impulse-- my grandmother used to listen to their songs, and they were a favorite of her mother. Don't let it confuse you. Our main goal is to get things that we can't make for ourselves or barter from our neighbors. If you stick to that principle, you won't go wrong."