As the months rolled by, the rain-flowers flourished, and Landon refused to cut them back. Such is the growth rate in the tropics, and the richness of Santo Domingo's soil, that they soon spread from patio to cornice, and to the four corners of the roof. They wove a solid canopy of leafy ropes, trailing long strands of purple blossoms. To the bananaquits, this was a trove of nectar; swinging like acrobats, they sipped the lilac trumpets with their needlelike beaks. But to Altagracia, the thunbergia vines were a nuisance. Night and day, their fleshy blooms dropped into the courtyard; it took a constant round of sweeping to keep up with them. This was the origin of their local name: not flowers that like the rain, but flowers that rain from the sky, falling still unblemished. In the evening, as Landon shared a glass of rum with a friend, the blossoms would plop around them, sometimes landing on the table. By breakfast time, the courtyard would be littered with them, now faded and decayed—and Altagracia's task would begin again.
Landon Stowe's childhood hadn't required much contact with "the help." Only rarely did his mother, a self-reliant Vermonter, hire someone to assist with the heavy cleaning; and even then, she treated the woman—a worn, middle-aged widow, whose husband had died of cancer—more as a sister than an employee. His father had done the gardening on their tiny farm, as a way of relaxing on the weekends, or after business hours at his insurance firm. Landon had always lent him a hand, until he went off to college. Now that Mr. Stowe was getting up in years, he had the grass cut by a high school student, out to earn a bit of pocket change. Still, he was the neighbor's son, not a factotum.
As a free-lance journalist, Landon could live almost anywhere. When he moved to the Caribbean, in search of warmth and lower expenses, he migrated to an alien culture, with no resemblance to New England. Altagracia became "the other," as anthropologists say, the native he was forced to confront. She spent the night at his house in the Zona Colonial only when he left town. Otherwise, she reported for work every morning at a quarter to eight, except Sundays, and stayed till two-thirty. It took a dire emergency to make her go past that hour. When he asked her why, she answered coolly, "I don't like all these vegetables you eat. When I get home, my cook has a real meal waiting for me, with lots of meat." As a Dominican friend had noted, "In this country, even the servants have servants, so there's no humiliation involved." Certainly, Altagracia always preserved her dignity. She prided herself on her pious name, Mary of High Grace, and wouldn't answer to the usual diminutives—"Tatica," "Tati," and the like. But vanity seemed to govern her more than religion. Her ample bust jutted out firmly, despite her fifty-odd years, and she set it off with a conical, fifties-style brassiere.
At breakfast, in the sun-striped courtyard, he enjoyed chatting with her, though he could never predict where her thoughts might lead. One morning, a couple of years after he'd settled into the house, she announced: "Soñé con usted"—"I dreamed about you last night." At the moment, he was more intent on his tea than on her dreams: it was murky-brown, as usual. "Do you really have to make this so strong?" he asked, in his sluggish gringo-Castilian. Altagracia understood, but she didn't react. She was used to his accent, by now, and his caprices, too.
Much as he gloried in his Caribbean idyll, at times he feared he was drifting too far. He'd just turned thirty-four, and his age was already catching up with him. A night of Cuba-Libres, a morning of inky javas, and an afternoon of beers on a sun-scoured beach, had caused him palpitations. The cardiologist reassured him, with a Dominican pat on the back. "Your heart is fine," he said, looking at his EKG. "These flutters in your pulse may recur. But if you stay out of the sun, and skip the stimulants, you'll be back to normal in no time." At first, Altagracia went on brewing Dominican coffee—a concentrate richer than espresso. When Landon asked her to switch to tea, she still prepared it like coffee: an extract so strong, the cup could almost walk. He diluted it with hot water, but kept on begging her—"por el amor de Dios!"—to make it weaker.
The neighbors in his barrio had insisted he hire a housekeeper; they claimed it was his duty to help the poor. Altagracia came with a recommendation from his old friend Horacio, the Dominican-American artist who'd suggested he move to Santo Domingo in the first place, and though Landon had never wanted a maid, she proved her usefulness. Normally, he was willing to put up with her quirks; but in his current state, carburetor tea on an empty stomach was just too much. This morning he wouldn't meekly ask for more hot water; this morning he would lift his voice in protest. "Altagracia," he croaked, "I can't drink this! I've told you a million times: it's bad for my heart!"
She showed no sign of having heard him. Plucking at withered leaves and dried-up twigs, she moved from plant to plant. He'd acquired a number of potted specimens, and she tended them with pleasure, proud of her green thumb. She paused before a red hibiscus; the bush had bloomed again, after several weeks of "rest," as Altagracia called it. "Cada flor tiene su tiempo," she was fond of saying. "Every flower has its time." He could tell by her beetled brows that new pearls were about to drop. "Look at this rose, how pretty," she remarked. "It's not a rose," he corrected. "It's a hibiscus." "Well, I may be stupid," she went on unperturbed, "but I know the heart is just like one of these flowers. When it opens up too wide, it blows apart. Maybe that's what's happening to you." She stood there appraising him. Embarrassed, he fell silent. After a while, she brought him a cup of pale, watery tea.
He'd meant to ask about her dream; but his train of thought was derailed by Marino, the handyman. Banging on the door till admitted, weighed down by clanking tools, he made his usual boisterous entrance. As with Altagracia, Landon had hired him mainly to stave off the other aspirants. At twenty-two, Marino already had five children to support. "You have to give me work," he would state. "I've got a family to feed." He always made their procreation sound like Landon's fault. Today, as on other days, he couldn't think of a thing for him to do. But luckily—as ever—Marino invented a job himself. Shouldn't that musty mosquito net be replaced? And while we're at it, why not stretch the net on sticks clamped to the bed? Landon's shallow pockets were being plumbed once again.
Altagracia abhorred having Marino around the house, and went out of her way to mistreat him. She considered him a menace to her livelihood, a canny fox who stalked her gringo goose and his golden eggs. If he scrubbed the floors today, why shouldn't he water the plants tomorrow? What if he brought his wife along, to do the cooking and the laundry? After a couple of years on the island, Landon knew another impulse stoked her resentment. Rightly or wrongly, she considered Marino a Haitian—an "invader"—though he'd been born in the Dominican Republic. As a Haitian, according to the local mantra, he was "black" by definition; as a Dominican, she was "white," and convinced of her superiority. In fact, her skin was so dark that in the States she would've passed for an African American. But her hair was straight, and by island standards, that made all the difference: it shone black and lustrous, without a single thread of gray. Its lankiness, and her slanted eyes, added an Indian cast to her features—proving the old Taino genes still lived on.
Today Altagracia was bristling more than usual, and Landon could sense that trouble was in store. "Marino is no Dominican," he heard her grumble under her breath, "the police should send him back where he belongs." To Landon's relief, no major squabble marred his peace that morning. But his premonition held true: the battle of the T-shirt was about to begin.
As T-shirts go, it was a special one: midnight-blue, embossed with NEW YORK—the mecca of Dominicans—in raised, silver script. On Sunday, Altagracia's day off, Landon had ransacked his closet, trying to unearth the garment. He thought it would make a perfect gift for his next-door neighbor's son. The boy was about to celebrate his fifteenth birthday—the most important for Hispanics, since it marks their coming of age. By offering him such a coveted present, Landon could wish the family well without having to stay too long at the party. He was certain he'd seen it just a week or so before. How could it have vanished overnight?
Suddenly, he felt assailed by a wave of insecurity. Altagracia had worked for him for many months, without stealing a centavo; the same was true of Marino. He'd put up with their quarrels, often enough. But now their rivalry assumed a sinister air. How could he figure out which of them was the culprit? Anyone who pilfers will also lie, so he couldn't hope for a straightforward answer. Besides, as a Dominican had quipped, "in this country, it's always somebody else's fault." Mulishly, the uneducated balked at owning up to the slightest bungle, no matter how obvious. He was sure the perpetrator would never confess. Worse, each of the suspects would blame the other, and over time, things might turn ugly.
Based on the evidence, he deduced Marino must be the villain. After all, why should Altagracia want a T-shirt? She was a single, middle-aged woman, with a grown-up daughter, no sons, and—so she claimed—no boyfriends. At her age, she was more reliable than a roving young handyman, with a big brood to feed. She'd spent a lot more time around the house than he had; she reported to duty every day, whereas he dropped by only once a week. Simple familiarity led Landon to favor Altagracia, in his judgment of the case. Still, he was determined to question her. On Monday, when he broached the subject, she seemed suspiciously nonchalant. Instead of sorting through the closet herself, to make sure he wasn't mistaken, she took it for granted the shirt was gone. Shrugging her shoulders, like an operetta soubrette, she embarked on one of her recitatives.
"I can tell what you're thinking; but you should know I would never take such a tacky cosita. I can ask you for anything I want; and if you don't need it, you'll give it to me, pim-pam-pum. Like that broken plate you let me have, the other day—the one that split in two, from just sitting in the cupboard. It wasn't much of a present, but that's why I asked for it. I wouldn't even look at anything of value, without your permission. That's how I am: así soy yo." After a tribute to his kindness, which he took with a block of salt, she insinuated slyly: "Remember what happened when you first got here? The plumber's kid-brother was helping him, while I was doing the wash, and he made off with one of your shirts. The next day you sounded like you thought it was me; but then you learned your lesson, you found out it was him. I felt insulted—si, señor, very offended. But I've forgiven you. That's how I am: así soy yo."
It was odd Landon hadn't recalled the incident himself, under the circumstances. The boy had been devilishly clever. While Altagracia's back was turned, he'd snatched a wet T-shirt off the line, and quickly slipped it on under his own. In the sweltering heat, the water marks on his chest and shoulders had easily passed for sweat. His only mistake was bragging about the feat, later on, to his elder brother; the plumber, fearing he might lose a client, spilled the whole story. He hadn't apologized, of course: after all, he wasn't to blame.
Landon tuned in again to Altagracia's monologue. "I just can't figure out what happened," she was saying, philosophically. "All I know is this: the only other person here besides you and me was that black hoodlum, ese tíguere prieto. I'm not telling you he's a thief—but just think about the last time something got stolen. Anyway, I hope you realize, once and for all, it couldn't have been me."
"I never accused you of taking the shirt, did I? Let's just forget all about it."
"No, no, no," she insisted. "You can't forget about it. If you let that no-good prieto come around here again, he'll grab more and more of your stuff. Up till now, it's only a camiseta, but next time it'll be a record-player, or a radio." She shot him an ominous look.
He'd had more than enough. "Bien, bien, Altagracia. Don't say another word about it. I'll decide what to do."
Something else came back to him now. Several months before, Marino had asked him for an American T-shirt—a request he'd pointedly ignored. Landon no longer tried to keep up with Dominicans' needs for a certain shampoo, sold only on 127th Street, or a brand of tennis shoes, available only in the Bronx. On his infrequent trips to the States, he didn't have time to be their errand boy. Maybe Marino believed, when he snitched the NEW YORK shirt, that he was only taking his due. But how could he have stooped so low? When he reappeared on Friday, Landon warned him he wouldn't tolerate such behavior.
Predictably enough, the young man blustered with righteous indignation. "The señora and I were in the house, so it had to be one of us. But I wouldn't do something like that. A lot of people rob their bosses, but I don't. Maybe you're just assuming it was me because you don't know me well enough. But ask my old patrón, the engineer, or Padre Flores, or my uncle, Juan de Dios, who's worked at the Spanish embassy all these years. They can tell you I've always been honest."
So that was what he was to Marino: his "new boss." Landon mulled it over for a moment. A builder couldn't possibly keep tabs on all his part-time laborers; Father Flores was such a saint, he could easily be fooled; and as for "John of God," relatives were bound to vouch for each other. Looking Marino square in the face, he challenged him: "I'd like it so much better if you'd just admit you did it. If you tell me the truth, and return the shirt, I'll forgive you—I promise."
The handyman's features were average, almost nondescript, and for that very reason, they seemed archetypal. His eyes glittered with defiance. Despite all he'd suffered for it, Marino took pride in his ethnicity. Often he'd said to Landon, "Why don't you let my wife clean the house for you, señor? These pelo-buenos are too stuck-up to do the job." Here again was the mystification of race, seen from the African side. In this combat with an ancestral enemy, Marino wouldn't budge an inch. "Just come with me right now to my house, and you'll see for yourself I don't have that shirt."
"Oh well, it doesn't matter that much, does it? Maybe some youngster climbed down from the roof, and yanked it off the clothesline." That kind of thing could easily happen, in the Colonial quarter; boys were always prowling from roof to roof, especially when the mangoes ripened. But not in this case: the NEW YORK shirt had never been worn, or laundered, or hung out to dry. Marino could tell from Landon's tone of voice he was only trying to brush him off. The pudgy pink gringo crossed his arms on his chest, with an air of finality. "Anyway, there's nothing here for you to do today. I'll let you know if something comes up."
Marino started to object again, then stepped into the street. Once outside, he wheeled around. "Wait, señor, let me say one more thing."
"No." Landon shut the door. "There's no work for you this week—that's that."
Feeling guilty, he paced back and forth in the sala, bumping into several of the stout mahogany chairs. He ended up at the back of the house, where Altagracia was ironing. "It serves him right," she grunted. "Lying and stealing like that. It's bad enough to rob you, but then he had to go and lie. I've always said he was a crook, ese prieto." She thrust the last words home with a vigorous shove of the iron; it was Marino's face she was mashing, flattening his nose and sizzling his eyes. "That's the end of him around here. This time it was just a shirt, but next time it would've been something bigger. It's a good thing you canned him now, before it was too late."
"Please, Altagracia," he muttered under his breath. He was shocked at her vindictiveness.
A week later, the bell rang, at ten in the morning. When Landon opened the door, there stood Marino, a crease of resolution in his forehead. "I want to tell the señora just what I think of her," he announced. "I talked with my uncle, Juan de Dios, and he says if you're treating me this way, she must've put the idea into your head. You're right, it had to be one of us who stole that T-shirt—but it wasn't me. Let me speak to her, and you'll find out who's the thief around here."
Landon agreed to let him in, but only on condition he wouldn't make a scene. Marino strode back to the courtyard, catching Altagracia off guard. "The señor is right," he began. "If the shirt is missing, one of us must have taken it. I know it wasn't me, so it has to be you." Then he shrieked at her: "You did it! You did it! You know you did! I'm telling you right to your face! And you tried to make him believe it was me. Look me in the eyes, and tell me you didn't do it!"
Her defenses crumbled. "I never said you did it, I never even thought it," she whined, her eyelids twitching.
"Well, one of us stole that shirt, and it was you."
"No it wasn't, I swear. It wasn't me, and it wasn't you."
Landon cut to the chase by reinstating Marino. "I'm convinced nothing else in this house will ever be misplaced. You can spy on each other, to make sure. Whatever else walks away from here, both of you go with it." As he listened to himself, he realized they'd turned him into a monster. He longed for the simple, sturdy virtues of Vermont.
At an exhibition opening, a few days later, he ran into Horacio. He took Landon aside with a purposeful air. "I hope everything's all right."
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"I mean with that maid of mine you've inherited."
"I'd almost forgotten. She never mentions you."
"Oh really? Maybe she's ashamed of the connection," he chuckled suggestively. Suavely handsome, with olive skin and amber eyes, he was notorious as a ladies' man.
"She must've kept house for lots of people, in her time. After all, she's close to fifty."
"Fifty!" Horacio hooted. "That's what she lets you believe. She's sixty, if she's a day."
"She claims she doesn't know her age."
"She used to date her birth to Hurricane Zenón; she can't be ten years off the mark. But she's always been duplicitous."
"Nothing major," Horacio granted. "She used to lift the usual things: socks, underwear, shirts—you know. She liked to wait till repairmen or shoeshine boys were around, so they could take the blame."
When Landon told him about the recent incident, he winked. "You can be sure she did it, amigo, absolutely sure."
"But why would you knowingly recommend a thief?"
"Be happy she's just a petty thief. She won't steal anything big. At least now she's your thief, nobody else's! That's our Dominican spin on things. Everybody's got to have a thief, so why not stick with one you can trust?"
The conversation turned to other subjects, but Landon was only half listening; he couldn't take his thoughts off Altagracia. He felt like a real cabeza cuadrada. This was what Dominicans called moralizing foreigners, who were too "square-headed" to cope with a little corruption. From the island point of view, Altagracia's conduct was perfectly normal. In fact, given his carelessness with valuables and cash, she could've done much worse. Maybe he was just being righteously indignant, like a typical Yank.
Who cared about the stupid T-shirt? He imagined Altagracia with her protégé, dancing to a salsa or meringue… Showing off her bust, she was dressed in a matronly shift, her movements lively but sedate; younger by far, he was wearing snug charcoal jeans, with NEW YORK emblazoned on his chest.
When the handyman reappeared, a brand-new polo shirt vanished. This time, Landon said nothing about the theft, to either Altagracia or Marino. When she scheduled a wash for the following Friday, he counted the shirts in the hamper the night before. The next morning, around noon, he checked the clothesline she'd strung in the patio. He studied the red hibiscus, then the yellow; but out of the corner of his eye, he totted up the shirts.
"Hay ocho camisas." Altagracia snorted. "Don't worry, they're still here."
"What are you talking about?"
"Oh, I counted them, too."
"Why should I care how many there are?" he growled over his shoulder.
He'd never felt so out of place in Santo Domingo. A few days later, he was afloat on a rocking chair, in the steam-bath of early afternoon. He pried himself away from a clammy manuscript by Padre Flores, to say good-bye to Altagracia. As she opened the front door, he noted the huge dimensions of her straw handbag: the rayon dress she wore on duty couldn't take that much space. Even his fleeting glance didn't escape her. "Would you like to look inside?" she sneered.
"Why should I want to?"
She glared straight into his eyes. "Because that way you can be sure. Since you don't trust me, we'd better keep things clear. That's how I am." She tossed the phrase behind her again, as she slammed the door: "Así soy yo."
For ten days or so, nothing went amiss. But then one evening, as he was dressing for dinner, Landon realized another shirt was gone. It was a white, hand-tailored button-down—one he reserved for special occasions. As before, what troubled him wasn't so much the bother or the loss, but the uneasy climate of distrust. How had Altagracia pulled off this latest caper? Lately, he'd even taken to locking his closet.
The next morning, after breakfast, he asked her to join him in the front room. He seated her in a rocking chair, and took the one opposite: they needed to reason together, as equals. The novelty of the arrangement rattled her. Her eyelids twitched, as on the day when Marino confronted her. Landon hadn't meant to upset the social order, but all the better, if it induced her to tell the truth. "Altagracia, another shirt has disappeared. I didn't notice it till last night." She clung to the chair, not even breathing. "I don't know how you did it. I must've left the closet unlocked."
Her eyelids started jumping again; she seemed to emerge from a deep hypnosis. "I didn't do it," she mumbled weakly. "I didn't do it."
He'd been prepared for her denial. "Altagracia, you stole the T-shirt and the polo shirt. You stole the dress shirt, too. Why don't you just admit it? You don't have to return them. Just tell me the truth. That's all I care about, the simple truth." Her face bulged, as though steam were building up behind it; the tension became intolerable. "Bueno," he muttered, and rose to his feet.
She pitched forward onto her knees, grabbed his legs, and burst into tears. "I didn't do it, I didn't do it. I took the T-shirt, and the polo shirt, but I didn't take the good one, so help me God. I swear it on my mother's soul. I didn't do it, I didn't do it." She sobbed hysterically, swaying back and forth on the floor.
"It's all right, it's all right. I believe you, Altagracia, I believe you. Stand up. Please stand up."
He felt ashamed. All that to-do for a few measly shirts?
For weeks afterward, Altagracia prayed every night to San Antonio, the patron saint of lost objects. In long-winded arias, she recounted all the times he'd interceded on her behalf. She shuffled around the house with a hangdog air, and black circles ringed her eyes. One afternoon, he came across a makeshift altar in the pantry: plastic bottles of holy water, half-melted candles, and garish pictures in a sacra conversazione. Michael flourished his sword, while trouncing a beet-colored snake; Thomas bowed contritely to a pierced, shining hand; Mary Magdalen, in gilt and orange robes, stood transfixed before the gardener at the tomb. Altagracia had summoned not only Anthony, but the whole canon of saints to her rescue.
Later that evening, as Landon sat wrestling with the household accounts, the phone rang. Despite the bad connection, he recognized his brother's voice. "You will be flying back to Vermont for Ma's birthday, won't you? It's her sixtieth, and we're planning..." He called her Ma, Landon called her Mother; he was a scientist, Landon was a journalist. But they'd always had a good rapport, and they chatted for fifteen minutes or so. When Landon's sister-in-law took over, she skipped the small talk: just wanted to find out how you were, love from all of us, the children are fine. "By the way, you left a white shirt upstairs, when you made that lightning visit at Christmas. We'll keep it for you here, till you come back next month."
Altagracia arrived bright and early, the next morning. Landon was tempted to leave her in the dark: by telling the truth, maybe he'd only spoil things. Ever since she started praying to San Antonio, she'd done everything just so: the tea was weak, the food was lightly salted, and she didn't leave dust-cloths on his desk. But after breakfast, from behind the newspaper, he finally spoke up.
"Altagracia, guess what my sister-in-law told me? I left that white shirt at her house." She was nudging dead rain-flowers into a rounded clump. "Altagracia, oíste? The shirt's been found."
She turned to face him, holding her broom like a scepter. "I heard you, all right. God answered my prayers. But you thought I was lying, didn't you? Usted no me creyó."
Did she really expect him to beg her forgiveness? The nerve of the woman. "Have you apologized for stealing the other shirts?" he shot back.
He decided it was best to change the subject. Suddenly, something came back to him: in all this time, it had completely slipped his mind. "Altagracia, a few weeks ago, you mentioned a dream you'd had, a dream about me. Do you still remember it?"
"How could I forget?"
"Oh, of course. Your memory is perfect."
"Well, my dreams are short, and I always remember them. In this one, you were helping me make fruit salad. You've never done that before, have you?"
"You wouldn't let me, even if I tried." He was tired of her reproachful air.
"We made the salad out of papayas, mangoes, pineapples, and bananas. It must've been for a party; we chopped and chopped till we filled a great big bowl." She had started on one of her recitatives, and nothing could interrupt her now. "Then we went to the front door, and I said good-bye. In my dream, the street was different. It was long and empty, and I kept walking till there weren't any houses. I thought I was going home. Instead, I ended up way out in the country, like where I grew up. After a while, I came to a river, the widest river you ever saw. There was lots and lots of mud, but that didn't stop me. I took off my shoes and kept on going, till I got to the water. The funny thing is, I walked right out on top of it. I didn't sink. I just kept walking, all by myself."
She stared into the distance for a while, then went back to her work. When Landon finished reading the paper, Altagracia was still hovering around the patio, sweeping the flagstones she'd already swept, and watering the plants she'd already watered. She wanted to be near him, he realized, not without a twinge of gratitude. Though her dream had brought them closer, it had also opened a chasm: they could only wave to each other now, from cliff to cliff. Whatever her dependence on his money or his gifts, he would always see her standing there, as free of him as he was of her.
Title graphic: "Altagracia's Altar" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2010.