I waited in the kitchen the morning Mrs. Rivera came. Mom had baked a coffee cake and then decided to make blueberry muffins too, just in case, and the scent of sugar hung heavy in the air. My nephew Tim rolled a toy dump truck over the linoleum, stopping to put his stuffed cow in the back, and then again to take it out. He was always doing things like that, fitting wooden puzzle pieces into their frames, snapping the big colored plastic beads together, pushing the pegs into the holes of his mini workbench.
“Where’s Vince?” I asked Mom.
“He went to work.”
“He was supposed to be here.” My voice was sharp, indignant. “He said he’d be here.”
Mom set down the saucers and forks she’d carried to the table. “Some things are harder to face than you think, Kathleen.”
“I don’t care. I don’t care how hard it is. Why doesn’t he keep trying to make things right? How can he let this happen?”
Mom held a finger to her lips and nodded to where Tim sat on the floor absorbed in his play. “It’s not up to Vince,” she said in a hushed tone, her church voice. “And I think this is the right thing for Rosa. At least for now.”
“He’s a coward.”
Mom’s eyes brimmed with tears. She walked back to the counter and scooped grinds into the coffeemaker. We both jumped at the knock on the screen doorframe, three soft taps punctuated by a tentative, “Hello.” A word divided into two distinct syllables by an accent Rosa’s voice had only hinted at.
“Mrs. Rivera. Come in,” Mom said, taking off her apron on the way to the door.
I was surprised at how much younger than Mom she seemed. Her hair fell in thick loose waves just past her shoulders, the frost of gray still a prelude of what would come. And her skin was clear, a slight shade paler than Rosa’s. She wore black slacks with a coral pink sweater and a small crucifix on a thin gold chain.
“Call me Ana,” she said, taking Mom’s outstretched hand in hers. I was seated at the table and she smiled at me from across the room. “Kathy?” When I nodded, her smile broadened. “When Rosa writes, she calls you ‘sister.’”
I knew my silence was rude, but I was determined to hold tight to my mad, and her gaze gravitated to her grandson. The room quieted except for the roll of the toy truck wheels and Tim’s soft babble. When he stopped and turned, his eyes grew wide. He scrambled to his feet and walked over to stand near my chair, his little hand grasping the denim of my jeans.
“Do you remember me, Timoteo? Your abuelita?” Mrs. Rivera’s eyes were cups of sadness that could break your heart.
“Come say hi to your grandma,” Mom said. “She’s come to visit you.”
Tim’s fingers tightened around my pant leg and I lifted him into my lap.
“Do you like music?” Mrs. Rivera asked him. She reached into her handbag and took out a tiny drum attached to the end of a stick. A wooden bead dangled from a string on each side.? She twirled the stick between her hands and the beads danced against the drum. When they stopped, she held the little instrument out for Tim to take.
“Go ahead.” Mom said. “It’s for you.” I knew she was uncomfortable and wanted me to encourage him.
“It’s okay,” Mrs. Rivera said, setting the drum on the tabletop. “When he’s ready.”
“My son was supposed to have the day off,” Mom said. “He feels awful not to be here.”? She shot me a warning glance. “Rosa should be down in a minute. She must still be getting ready. Would you like coffee?”
Mrs. Rivera took a seat at the table, though she kept herself perched on the edge of the chair rather than settling back into it. Now she took a folded sheet of paper from her purse. “I’ve written our addresses, in Hartford and also the island.”
“You can’t take her to Puerto Rico.” I spouted. “It’s too far. You can’t do that.”
Mrs. Rivera looked confused and she drew her hand away from the paper.
“Kathleen.” Mom’s voice seemed to come from another room, a scratch of sound from a radio speaker.?
“How long?” I was afraid to look away from Mrs. Rivera, convinced that all hope balanced on this very connection, even as her features blurred before me and my arms shook. “Please don’t take her.”
Mom gasped then stepped up to lift Tim from my lap, settling him on one hip and picking up the little drum as she carried him away from the table. Mrs. Rivera came and squatted in front of me, the touch of her fingertips weightless as she brushed a few strands of hair away from my wet cheek and tucked them behind my ear.
“How long?” I asked again. “How long?”
“Maybe a little while, until she’s better. Just until then.” She paused and when she spoke again her soothing tone seemed more somber. “As her sister, you will help care for her bebé muy bonito, her beautiful baby.” Mom had set Tim down and given him a puzzle from his toy basket, and Mrs. Rivera’s attention drifted again in his direction. The little drum lay beside him, the beads at rest on the floor. “You will be the one who helps him remember, to remind him his mother loves him.” She hugged me before she stood. Then she asked if Mom might take her to her daughter’s room.
Now I knew how Vince felt because I wanted to run out of the house and not come back until it was over, or maybe ever. Except here was Tim, my brown-eyed nephew, his round face framed with hair the color of ginger, filling in the puzzle frame one piece after another while everything around him fell apart.
When they came back downstairs, Mom and Mrs. Rivera carried Rosa’s floral tote and the blue suitcase in which the trinket box she’d given me when she first moved in had once been packed. Rosa trailed behind, her steps slow and measured like someone in a trance as if the very weight of her feet exhausted her. She looked the same and yet different. Her hair was still long and curly but lacked its shine. And the line of her shoulders, more round than square, made her clothes look as if they hung on a hollow frame.
“Look, Mommy!” Tim said, picking up the stick drum at last and sprinting toward her.
He didn’t notice her flinch, didn’t understand that her extended hand had sprung out in something as kindred to fear as affection. So, when she finally reached down to touch him, he leaned into her, wrapping his arms around the backs of her knees.
And when she said, “Be good for Auntie. Remember she is your madrina, your godmother,” he didn’t realize she was really talking to me. He didn’t know she was about to leave him.
I didn’t utter a word until we were outside, Mom and me and Tim standing on the porch, Rosa and Mrs. Rivera crossing the farmyard on their way to the car.
“You’re letting people decide for you,” I called out, no longer able to hold back. “I thought you didn’t do that.” And then louder when I saw the hitch in her step, “You’re the one that doesn’t do that.”
But she took another step, and she never looked back. Not while her mother lifted her bags into the trunk, not before she slid into the passenger seat and Mrs. Rivera closed the door then crossed to the driver’s side.
The engine was so quiet I wasn’t even sure it was running until the tires started to roll. And then I was down the steps, racing after them, landing on my knees in the dirt as the car turned at the end of the driveway. “I knew you wouldn’t like it here,” I yelled. “I knew you’d hate it. I knew we couldn’t make you happy.”
I stayed there like that until the car was out of sight and the dust that rose behind it had rained back down. And when I finally turned around, Mom and Tim weren’t on the porch anymore. Nor were they in the kitchen. It was like the room had become a stage for ghosts with a puzzle half done and a forgotten stick drum, and a spread of baked goods left untouched.