Don Pedro grabs a hold of the corn stalk base with his left hand to make sure it isn’t loose. The brown earth under his right palm isn’t crumbling beneath the pressure of his hands. Instead, it is solid. And all along the chain linked fence, the single row of corn stands 7 feet high. It’s hot this August with humidity making his face feel like mother nature’s hot breath. Gnats wiz past his ear, landing on the back of his pink neck, a few shades short of fuchsia. The creases make it look cracked with salty dirt ringed around his collar. The blondish white hairs soaked in sweat stick to his head as he dabs a wet rag on his neck after dunking it in a bucket of ice water. “Conyo! Esta calor!”
His voice is rough and deep. My mother tells me to go ask him if he wants me to refill his bucket as she checks on the arroz con habichuelas, and hands me another cup with more cold water in it. “And stop staring at him through the glass window. He’s gonna see you putting hand prints all over it.” She hurriedly walks over to the screen door and wipes off my small handprints.
“Oye, Ruthie. The son of a bitch cats están cagando en mi jardín!”
Don Pedro’s voice is like a fire engine. I’m scared to approach him. He’s old but so powerful. Tossing pieces of trash into a plastic bin and cursing under his breath as I approach him. My mom said he once tossed a guy through a glass window out of a bar for insulting his mother. “What’s a matter for you?!” he now booms in my direction.
Don Pedro’s eyes are small and dark like mine. But where mine hold wonder and softness, his are opposite, hard and wise. “I brought you more water, abuelo.” My big framed glasses are slipping down my nose and I’m trying hard to inch them upward by scrunching up my face while handing him the water. I accidently splash some of it on his white freckled hand as he goes to grab the cup. I am startled and stare at him wishing my mom could have just sent my brother outside instead of me. It’s so hot that within the short time I’ve walked down the stairs and across the yard to mi abuelo, my polo shirt is sticking to my back and I can feel my chones clinging around my thighs.
Don Pedro is looking up at me from all fours wiping his hand on his pant leg, in his rough voice I hear, “How come you make a face like that,” mocking me, he’s squinting his eyes and scrunching up his face while pouting his lips out. “You no pay attention and spill the water. Hold this.”
The plastic bucket has weeds, cat poop, crunchy leaves, old dirt that is no longer rich soil, empty potato chip bags, and sticky plastic popsicle tubes in it. I’m struggling with the heavy bin and he looks at me frowning. “Hey, hey, stop. Put that down.” I placed the bucket by my side. “Can you hold it or no?” He’s agitated, I’m nervous. Flies are swirling around the bucket trying to dine on the compost-trash mix. “No, I can hold it. I’m strong! I have muscles!” I say this with confidence, still inching the glasses up my face and he laughs. “Show me your muscle, cabron.” I pull up my sleeve and squeeze my scrawny 10 year old arm as tightly as possible.
“That’s it, eh? Mira este.” His index finger and thumb are pinching my brown arm as I tightly keep squeezing. He then, pinches my muscle so hard I feel it go beneath my bicep and then he pulls upward and I squeal. It’s sharp, painful, and mean. But he laughs, he laughs at me and not with me.
“That’s no muscle!” Don Pedro’s now on one knee showing me his 20 inch bicep. And I stand holding my arm in pain while trying to bat away the flies from the bucket as well as from my self confidence. I look around to see if anyone saw, and who but my own brother laughing from the other side of the screen door.
Don Pedro crawls left toward each new area in the garden. It isn’t really an expansive garden, more like a small section of the backyard he converted into a makeshift Puerto Rican homegrown produce isle. It’s what he does. Makes things from nothing. You have spare time and spare space? Fill it with something man made. You don’t have a job, you do something around the house. You say you’re a man, you prove it by doing, not by saying.
With his own bare hands, he had an addition built on to his home. Don Pedro and his friend pieced together an extra first floor room and bathroom along with extended hallway and closet on the back end of the house. He was retired at 70 and still doing more than most in their 20s. The room was for mi abuela and the closet was for our coats and his hat collection. The sweet, stale scent of his straw hats, felt hats, wool hats all worn and sweated in drove my curiosity wild. Peeking my head into the closet, trying on hats and smelling the saved scent of Puerto Rican musk from the crown of each one. I was caught a few times by my brother. Pleading he not tell, I was sure to have to give up my share of oatmeal glazed cookies as a bribe.
Don Pedro taught me to never place my hat on the ground and never let anyone take my hat from my head. He also taught me to never show weakness. Now, he did yell at me for fighting in school but I believe he liked knowing I wasn’t getting pushed around. He taught me bad phrases like, “one tough son of a bitch” and one that seemed so cool to dismiss people with, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”…even if it was the middle of April, July, or September.
Don Pedro, I barely knew you and so I make up stories of how I imagine you’d have been, just as this one. I was with you for a short time and I watched how you’d move, steady and heavy with purpose. Hands so heavy and hands so rough, yet when building or producing harvest, they were always careful and firm. Your personality layered and your intentions well, you were a complicated man. I could only imagine your life in it’s prime, Don Pedro mi abuelo.