Rosa's Gift and Other Stories

Rosa's Gift and Other Stories

by Michael Cantwell


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From a young writer trying to win a girl to a boy grappling with confusion about sin, each protagonist in this collection of nine short stories experiences a journey, an encounter, or a revelation that transforms them.

In Rosa's Gift and Other Stories, author Michael Cantwell presents these stories reflecting the joys and sorrows of all stages of human life. In the title story, "Rosa's Gift," Peter Collins, a semiretired commercial artist from New York, visits Guatemala, where he studies Spanish. As he wanders around Antigua, he meets a teenage Mayan indigene, a little girl who sells trinkets to tourists. Peter is inspired to help her get an education. In doing so, he is forced to confront the extreme poverty of Mayan life. "Christmas in the Great Depression" tells the story of Philip Nason, a twelve-year-old boy who wants a bicycle for Christmas. Because of the Depression, his father explains a bicycle is something the family cannot afford. Phil responds by waging a campaign, drawing cartoons promoting his wish and posting them all over the house and on the windshield of his father's car.

As Cantwell's characters receive insights that help them meet the challenges of life, he makes each personality and destination come alive, from Depression-era Detroit to a confessional in a dark church in a New England city to the streets of Havana.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491704233
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/21/2013
Pages: 138
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.32(d)

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Rosa's Gift and Other Stories

By Michael Cantwell

iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2013 Michael Cantwell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-0423-3


Rosa's Gift

When I began my study of Spanish in Guatemala, I felt that I was back in elementary school. I was sixty years old and, having been commanded by my teacher never to speak English in class, found myself mumbling incoherently like a first grader in need of special education. A special education was precisely what Senorita Maria Robles Guzman had in mind for me. I was bombarded with grammar drills, reading exercises, and lots of homework, which I soon discovered was called tarea in Spanish.

Maria and I met for four hours every weekday morning, holding sessions either in her home or in my hotel in the heart of Antigua. We'd been studying close to two months, when she brought a book to my hotel, the cover of which was vaguely familiar to me. The title, in Spanish, was El Principito. The cover drawing was of a little boy dressed in a green shirt and pants, standing on an asteroid the size of a house. Stars and planets whirled all around.

"El Principito—The Little Prince!" I exclaimed, forgetting the injunction never to speak English in class. "Of course! It's been a long time since—"

Maria nodded, her expression of unassailable composure never abandoning her large moon face.

"Mira, Senor Collins!" She pointed to our surroundings. We were sitting on the roof terrace of my hotel, which presented us with a view dominated by two volcanoes.

"Those are the volcanoes you see in the drawing," Maria said in Spanish. I don't know that I had ever noticed the two tiny craters, one smoking, that lay on either side of the boy prince in the drawing. "San Exuperay, the French author and aviator, was flying to Peru, when his plane crashed in Guatemala City. He was convalescing here in Antigua when he got the idea for The Little Prince. If you remember, the prince tends a rose that grows on his small planet. Antigua was once called the City of Roses."

I remembered only pieces of the story. The prince visits other asteroids inhabited by solitary persons until he descends to Earth. There, he meets the fox that leads him to see his responsibility and awakens his desire to care for the lonely rose that struggles to survive on his asteroid. Now, as I looked at the drawing and up again at the distant peaks, I shivered with excitement.

I had recently retired from my job as a graphic designer in New York City and had come to Guatemala in search of the new frontier that ever beckons the American spirit. After visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal, I had settled in Antigua, where I wandered down cobblestone lanes at dusk, tracing the patterns of my evening walks in Greenwich Village. I'd come to Antigua on the advice of a friend who praised its beauty as well as the friendliness of its citizens. It didn't take me long to agree with him on both counts. However, I soon decided the vendors in El Parque Central were more intrusive than the drug dealers in Washington Square.

"Mister, you want to buy a sweater for your wife, your daughter? I have good price for you."

"You want a guide? A bag of cashews?"

Brightly colored blankets were spread out before me. I had no wife or daughter to buy presents for. I was divorced and hadn't seen my ex-wife since she'd left me for the golden promise of California twenty years earlier.

It was not that I was completely lacking in sympathy for the vendors, most of whom were Mayan indigenes. As a designer, I appreciated the craftsmanship evident in their woven goods. No, it was their overwhelming numbers, coming at me from all sides, that finally drove me away from the park.

I found refuge a few blocks away. La Fuente was a somewhat secluded outdoor café with tables arranged around a grassy courtyard. A fountain splashed in the middle. I discovered that I could order a cup of tea and spend the afternoon doing my tarea without being disturbed. On weekends, indigenes were welcome to spread their weavings (or tejidos) on the grass and wait for customers but were not allowed to approach people who sat at the tables. I was pleased with this arrangement—until one Saturday afternoon. I was sipping tea and contemplating reflexive verbs, when I became aware of a young Indian girl sitting on the walkway alongside my table. She was clearly on forbidden ground, but as she paid me no mind and only stared dreamily out at the splashing fountain, I made no objection to her presence.

Her tejidos lay in a pile beside her. She wore her colorful huipil, decorated with bird designs, as a smock. Her dark gray-speckled skirt covered the rest of her slim body. She caught my glance, gathered up her woven goods, and was about to leave, when I waved to show that I did not find her presence intrusive. Seeing this, the girl broke into a smile that, although revealing a missing tooth, was immensely appealing.

Since she was clearly not a pest, and my curiosity was now aroused, I decided to test my fledgling Spanish. I'd studied some Spanish in college many years ago but had taken up advanced Spanish with Maria to become more conversant. "De donde es usted?" I asked, meaning, "Where are you from?"

The girl gave me a puzzled look. I realized my American accent was confusing to her. I tried again, and this time I got through. "Santa Catarina Palopó," she said. "Cerca Lago Atitlán."

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"I live in Antigua with mi tia, my aunt. I was born in Santa Catarina."

By now, the girl was no longer one of the faceless vendors I'd come to regard as pests. She was a fellow member of that society of beings loosely defined as human.

"Como se llama?" I asked. "What is your name?" "I am called Rosa—Rosa Martinez Lopez."

"Pleased to meet you, Rosa. You may call me Pedro—Pedro Juan Collins. I live in New York City." Her eyes widened. "Please join me." I pointed to the empty chair opposite mine.

She looked around and gestured toward two plump waitresses who stood at the cash register. "I am not allowed," Rosa said.

"Nonsense," I said. "I am paying for the use of this table. I invite you as my guest."

After some shrugs and shy giggles, Rosa got up and sat in the latticed metal chair across from mine. She looked quite small in it, and I guessed her age to be about twelve years. I later learned she was fourteen.

When I summoned the waitress, she came over hesitantly, a frown on her large, pudgy face.

Rosa told me in a half whisper that she wanted a Coke and a raisin cookie. As we waited, Rosa and I smiled at each other. It occurred to me that she might be an orphan. I hesitated to ask, but she told me her story when her Coke and cookie arrived.

"My mother died when I was six years old. She was killed in the war. The army came to our village looking for comunistas. They killed our priest and did bad things to many of the women. My mother was fighting them when they shot her in the belly."

"I'm sorry," I said, genuinely moved. Maria told me that as a child, she had seen young men hanging by their necks from the trees that lined the traffic island of the Alameda Santa Lucia.

"And your father? Is he still alive?" "Si. He married another woman after my mother died. She did not want me or my hermanito, my baby brother, to live with them. My father doesn't give us money, because she gave him two children, and he must spend his money on them. Mi hermanito lives with my grandmother in Santa Catarina."

Just then, an older girl, balancing a stack of tejidos on her head, came over to Rosa. They spoke together in a language with a lot of guttural sounds, which I later learned was called Kaqchikel, a Mayan dialect. The girl pointed to the big cookie that lay untouched on Rosa's plate. Rosa gave it to her. Without saying another word, the girl walked away munching her commandeered sweet.

I was astonished. "She took the whole cookie!" I protested. "I thought you were offering her a bite."

Rosa shrugged. "No problema. She is my friend."

"Yes, but—I bought it for you." I offered to order another, but Rosa declined. Then she thanked me for my hospitality, balanced her bundle on her head, and trotted over the lawn of scattered weavings to join a group of women who sat around the fountain.

I woke up the next morning with nothing to do. It was Sunday. I had no class, I'd done my tarea the day before, and I was not disposed to do any further sightseeing. As often happened when faced with dead time, I sat in my room, brooding over the failures of my life: my collapsed, sterile marriage; my dreams of becoming an artist that had led to my career as a commercial hack designing soap labels. As my Irish forbearers would have put it, I had come to the end of the world and had nowhere to go.

It was early afternoon when I roused myself with a great effort and decided to go out to lunch. As I walked under the arch on Avenida Cinco, I heard a cry of "Pedro!" I turned to see Rosa running toward me, her sandals slapping against cobblestones. A dozen or so glassy beads swung from one arm while she waved to me with the other. I couldn't remember when I'd been so glad to see anybody. I told her I was going to La Fuente and invited her to come along. She readily trotted along at my side. We were a Mutt and Jeff couple. I was tall and rangy at six foot one. My sandy hair had only darkened over the years, and my height compensated for my cocktail-hour paunch. Rosa barely came up to my rib cage.

In the café, she stared at the menu a long time. It dawned on me that she couldn't read in either Spanish or English. I read the menu to her and suggested pollo pepian, a local favorite, and an ice-cream sundae. To my surprise, she ordered a fruit salad with yogurt and granola.

"That is what young gringos like to eat," I teased her. "Do you want to be a gringo?"

"I want to be like you." She smiled. I was truly touched.

When Rosa's salad came, I saw that she was having trouble using the spoon. I wondered if she'd ever used one. I showed her how to hold it. As it was, she ate less than half her salad and apologized for not eating more. I said we would ask for a takeout bag.

She smiled. "I can give the rest to my friends."

I thought of the girl and the raisin cookie with some dismay. While the waitress prepared a package, I looked at the beads that lay beside Rosa's plate. I thought that if I bought a few to give to friends back home, I might help Rosa without putting a strain on my suitcase.

"Do you like these collares? Mira! The black stone in this one was born on Vulcan Fuego. Here is jade."

After some sorting, I selected a half dozen necklaces, asking the price of each. Rosa was surprised that I didn't want to bargain, but she told me she would give me a discount. I peeled off five one-hundred-quetzal bills (roughly sixty-five dollars) and handed them to her.

"Muchas gracias, Pedro," she said. "My friends will be muy contento, very happy."

"Your friends? I thought—"

"Si, the collares are from them. They are watching my tejidos in the park while I am with you."

"But—but—" I sputtered like an old car starting up. "I wanted to help you."

"No problema, Pedro. Es igual." She waved my sputtering away.

There were other consolations for me in Antigua. I'd taken to doing some drawing in the afternoons. I made some sketches of the indigenes I saw around town and wondered if I might have a future doing something other than designing soap labels. I asked Rosa to pose for me and found her to be a willing subject. I took one photo of her standing beneath the Arch of Catalina, which supported the clock tower that was the signature emblem of Antigua. Then I took one of her sitting beside the fountain in La Fuente.

Yet again and again, I failed in my efforts to help her in any material way. Then it occurred to me to buy her a gift outright. When I suggested this to Rosa, she beamed. We walked to the crowded supermercado, where stalls loaded with all kinds of merchandise lined labyrinthine passageways. We passed a display of glittering wristwatches, and I asked Rosa if she wanted one.

"I would like a sweater," she said. Rosa led me down an aisle where pants, shirts, and sweaters lay in piles. She asked me to hide behind a wooden post while she negotiated a price. "You are a gringo. If they see you, the price will be higher." I did as I was bidden and waited until Rosa returned to tell me she had found what she wanted for a little under ten dollars. I gave her sixty quetzales, and she came back with a fine-looking woolen sweater.

I held it up for inspection. "Wait a minute—this sweater is too small for you."

"It is for my hermanito, my baby brother. He lives in Santa Catarina, and it gets cold at night."

"Wha—? Rosa, that's very nice of you, but I want to buy a present for you. Are you sure you don't want a watch?"

"No gracias, Pedro, estoy contento. I am happy."

The next morning, I spoke with Maria about my encounters with Rosa. "Why does she always give whatever I give her to someone else? She seems to spend all her time in the streets with friends. Doesn't she have a home?"

Maria laughed her wise shaman laugh. "Let's start with where she lives. She lives with her aunt. It is not a home like yours or mine. There are no chairs or tables. If she is lucky, she sleeps on a cloth mat spread out on the floor."

"Okay, but how do you explain that whenever I buy her something, it always goes to somebody else?"

Maria gave me a smile that told me I just didn't get it. "You are looking at Guatemala only through the eyeglasses you brought with you from your culture. Remember, Rosa is a Mayan indigene and an orphan. Everything she has belongs to her aunt except for what she shares with friends. Her aunt makes the weavings she sells. She must then give the money she earns to her aunt. Her aunt gives her a little money, maybe a hundred quetzales a month."

"A month? That's what I spend on lunch."

We were sitting around Maria's dining-room table, and she rapped her knuckles on the linoleum cloth that covered it. "When you invited her to have lunch with you, it was probably the first time she ever sat down to a meal at a table and was given a knife and fork. Rosa and her friends eat finger food. They snack during the day on tortillas stuffed with rice and beans and whatever they scrape up. They must share what they have."

"I can understand that part," I said. "But she's only a child. She should be in school!"

Maria laughed her wisdom-of-the-ages laugh. "There you go again, looking at things through the lenses of your culture. There is no money for her to go to school. Public schools are free, but money is needed to buy books, clothes, and supplies. If she goes to school, she is not in the park selling tejidos and is of no use to her aunt."

I found myself stammering in outrage. "But she's smart! I'm sure she would do well in school."

Maria laughed again, and I ran smack into her implacability once more. "Can't you put those red, white, and blue tinted glasses down for a minute? She doesn't expect to go to school. Rosa will work for her aunt until the day, if she's lucky, she marries, and then she will have babies and work for her husband. She will probably have the babies in a few years, with or without the husband."

I heaved a sigh. "But what about you? You have a graduate degree in—of all things—literature, and no macho husband or clinging children in sight."

She let out another laugh. "I am not an indigene, and I am not a Guatemalteca tipico. My mother kept me in school when I was a child. When I went to the university, I taught Spanish in the mornings and took my classes at night. Marriage? Maybe someday. But I want to be free. I love my country, and I want to use my education to make it better. But always I want to lead a life of the mind."

As Maria spoke, I found myself gazing dreamily into her dark, limpid eyes, which shone with steadfast brightness despite all the human misery they had witnessed. I allowed myself to contemplate the splendid curves of her shoulders, her ample bosom. For a moment, I entertained the fantasy of having Maria as my wife. But I knew she was too sensible to consider marriage to a gringo viejo whose prospects for being admitted to a nursing home were more promising than those of providing a young bride with a home and family.

Then I was coming to the end of my time in Guatemala. I'd allowed myself two months, all of which had been satisfying, but now I was ready for my return flight to New York. When I told Rosa I was leaving in two days, she shrugged, not saying anything. We stood in awkward silence under the arch of Santa Catalina, a silence that was broken by the ringing of the bells of the church of La Merced.

"Oh, I'll be back," I said impulsively, as it seemed the blood had left her face and her eyes had moistened. I'd made no plans to return, but now I realized I'd made a promise. Rosa still didn't speak but turned her head away.

"Rosa, I would like to buy you a good-bye present—something just for you."

She didn't answer right away. At last, she said, "You told me you were going to give me a photo of yourself."

"Yes. My teacher took one of me. I'll bring it tomorrow." Then an idea struck me. Rosa was carrying a worn-out shoulder bag. I remembered she had admired my knapsack. "Tell me, Rosa—is there a store in Antigua that sells mochilas like mine?"

Excerpted from Rosa's Gift and Other Stories by Michael Cantwell. Copyright © 2013 Michael Cantwell. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction....................     ix     

Rosa's Gift....................     1     

Christmas in the Great Depression....................     23     

Golden Gloves....................     33     

Wheel of Fire....................     42     

Writing Class....................     54     

The Children of Che Guevara....................     70     

The Heavy Bears....................     87     

The Lords of Corfu....................     100     

True Love....................     114     

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