Even looking out through the glass patio doors at another beautiful desert sunset, I was wallowing in self-pity over my lost mobility; confined to a damned wheelchair. Not only was I required to be off my feet for possibly another two weeks but I still had to carry around the damnable halo as well.
If you're picturing a sweet, cherubic winged child, erase it. My halo wasn't a luminous circle of light denoting holiness, it was a clumsy steel and leather frame sitting on my shoulders with four metal points screwed into my skull to prevent any motion in my broken neck. And I was getting damned tired of it.
Mom came into the room and stood behind me with her hands on my shoulders. "Doing OK, Honey?"
"I'm good. I just want this torture device off me."
"Soon, Baby." I felt her touching the healed incision on the back of my neck where they had gone in to repair the damaged vertebra. I knew I should be counting my lucky stars that I wasn't a respirator-dependent quadriplegic. Or dead.
"We'll see what the x-rays look like tomorrow. You know Dr. Winslow won't keep you saddled with this thing any longer than is necessary."
"I know, Mom. You know me, always got to be out doing something. Sitting around drives me nuts!"
This was the point in our often-repeated conversation where she found a way to change the subject. "Mm. You know, I've been thinking about landscaping the back yard so it would kind of blend into the desert instead of the grass coming to an abrupt end at the rocks and sand. Maybe xeriscape it and put in a rock garden with a little irregularly shaped grassy area and some flowers around the patio. What do you think?"
"Yeah, I think that'd be pretty."
She patted my shoulder. "How would you like to be the designer? It'll be a good chance for you to use your artistic talents. You can park yourself on the patio and rough out some sketches in pencil and pastels. Then maybe we can get that guy that did John and Irma's yard. He did it beautifully, didn't he?"
"Yeah, it was a great job. Sure, Mom, that sounds like a fun project. I'll work on it tomorrow after we get home from the clinic."
We lived in a pretty nice tile-roofed adobe and stucco house – more like a hacienda - on the very edge of a small southern Arizona town. My dad had it built after he hit it big in the computer software business. We were over a hundred miles from his offices but he was a pilot and had his own Cessna 210 he flew back and forth. He developed pancreatic cancer about a year and a half ago and, unlike Steve Jobs who held out for quite a while, Dad was dead less than six weeks after the diagnosis.
Mom was going to sell the plane but I begged her not to. Dad would sometimes let me take the controls once we were in the air and I wanted to get my pilot's license and fly it myself. That's how I wound up in this wheel chair looking like something out of a sci-fi film.
I didn't crash the 210. My instructor thought it was too much airplane for me to begin with so we were in his old Skyhawk. We were on my first cross-country flight approaching a landing at our second stop. The turbulence had been fierce over the desert and we were both anxious to get down and take a breather. We had just crossed the end of the runway and I was in my flare when we got hit with some sort of a big downdraft and slammed onto the runway hard enough that it blew the right tire. The wingtip dropped and caught in the tall grass causing us to spin off the runway and flip over. I knew something was wrong right away because my neck hurt like hell and my whole body felt like it was asleep.
The NTSB investigated of course, and based on my instructor's statement and other reports of severe clear-air turbulence in the area, they decided I wasn't at fault. My instructor's plane was totaled but his insurance replaced it. While I was still flat on my back in the hospital, I got a nice card from him with a note asking me to let him know when I'd be ready to sit in the left seat again. I sent back a thank you card with a note saying I would call him the moment I had medical clearance. I was going to fly that 210 come hell or high water.
My visit to Dr. Winslow's office turned out to be all good news. The x-rays showed that the bone graft was as solid as a rock and he removed the halo. God, what a relief! I'd still have to wear a stiff cervical collar for a while but I'd be able to start daily PT and, with some hard work and a little luck, get back to full function in three or four weeks. We were introduced to the physical therapist in his office and set up a schedule for her visits. She looked like she could bend steel bars and chew nails but she was really sweet and promised she have me in shape in no time.
By the end of the day, I had eight sketches of various landscape designs to present to Mom. We discussed and fussed over them until they were whittled down to three that we'd show to the landscaper. We got his number from our neighbor, Irma across the road and made an appointment for him to come over the next afternoon.
I was still feeling like I'd been machine-washed and tumble-dried from my first session with the physical therapist when the landscaper, Mateo Marquez arrived along with a younger man he introduced as his son, Miguel. After we traded handshakes and names, they followed my wheelchair through the house and out onto the patio. Before they even sat down to look at my sketches, they both took out their wallets and showed us their green cards.
"What's this for?" I asked the older Mr. Marquez.
In heavily accented English, the older man said, "Theese to show you we are legal."
I couldn't pass up an opportunity to show off my Spanish. "Bueno. Le señores cuidado para algunos té helado?"
The older Mr. Marquez said, "Si, gracias."
The younger Mr. Marquez said. "Yes, thank you. Iced tea would be very nice." He didn't have a trace of an accent.
I must have blushed because he flashed a beautiful smile and said, "I've lived here most of my life."
Mom laughed. "Show them your sketches, Honey. I'll be right back with the tea."
They studied all three ideas for some time. Miguel looked up at me and asked, "Did you do these yourself, Miss Oakley? They're very good."
"Thank you, Miguel. I'm an art major at ASU. On temporary hiatus as you can see. And please call me Sarah."
"Sarah, a beautiful name. Let's go out to the end of the yard and look at it from another angle. May I help you?" he asked, glancing at the wheelchair.
My fiercely independent self almost refused his help but then relented to the kind gesture. "Thank you, Miguel."
After more discussion, Mateo said they could do it and that it would take four or five days to complete. He and Mom went into the house to discuss the costs and Miguel pushed me back to the patio to finish our tea.
Nodding at the collar, he asked if I had been in an accident. I told him about the plane crash, vowing to be back in the air within a month.
"I'm envious, Sarah. I've always wanted to learn to fly but I doubt that will ever happen."
"Why is that, Miguel?'
I felt a little ashamed for being so cavalier. "Yeah, it ain't cheap. Don't give up hope though. I'm sure there are ways. More tea?"
Mom and Mr. Marquez came back out to join us. He rattled off a few sentences in Spanish to Miguel, who responded with, "Por favor, Papa. En inglés!
He turned to Mom and me and said, "I'm sorry. Sometimes it's just easier for Papa to explain things to me in Spanish. What he said was we have another job going right now but that he could finish that one by himself while I got started on this one day after tomorrow. That's if it's OK with you, Mrs. Oakley."
Looking at me, Mom said, "Well, I suppose that would be all right. I need to drive up to Phoenix on business for two or three days but Sarah will be here. Is that OK with you, Honey?"
"No problem. I'm looking forward to being a sidewalk supervisor." Three of us laughed. Mr. Marquez senior wondered why.
The next afternoon after Mom headed north, I was lying on a chaise on the patio recovering from my second PT session. It wasn't any easier than the first. Dr. Winslow still wanted me to use the wheelchair as much as possible. It's not that my legs didn't work, it's just that after nearly two months of relative immobility, they were still weak and he didn't want to take the chance that I would fall and undo all his hard work. Anyway, the therapist helped me walk all over the house so I took that as tacit permission to abandon the wheelchair from time to time.
As I lay on the patio enjoying the warm spring air, I was thinking about the landscaping and the landscapers. Mateo and Miguel were both very handsome men but in different ways. I guessed Mateo to be about fifty but it was hard to say because his face was weathered from working outside his whole life. Still, you could tell he was probably a real babe magnet when he was younger. Miguel was just plain yummy. The Indian heritage was quite pronounced with his skin as brown as toast and his ebony eyes and glossy black hair. I didn't doubt he had a string of girlfriends around the county. He might have even been married but I didn't see a ring on his finger.
I was curious about his education because he was so articulate and well spoken and didn't fall into the patois you often hear among the migrant workers. I intended to find a tactful way of asking him about it the next day when he showed up to begin the job.
In the meantime I lay there thinking about wearing something nice, maybe vaguely provocative without being slutty. A girl could always dream, couldn't she?
He arrived at seven the next morning in a pickup loaded with tools and pulling a trailer with a bobcat on it. I answered the door on my feet and wearing a terry robe. He apologized for ringing the doorbell so early but wanted to ask my permission to drive over the lawn on the side of the house to get to the work area, promising to repair any damage.
"Do whatever you need to, Miguel. You're the pro and I'll trust you to do the right thing. I've got some coffee brewing. Would you like a cup?"
He hit me with that gorgeous smile again causing my heart to do flip-flops. "Yes, that'd be nice. Thank you. I'll meet you on the patio after I get everything unloaded."
I'd decided on a pale yellow summer print dress that showed just a hint of cleavage. I added a touch of makeup and a tiny dab of cologne. I checked myself out in the mirror and approved. I wasn't what you'd call a knockout but I wasn't bad looking if I do say so myself. The carafe of coffee and two cups, cream and sugar were on a tray on the patio table when he sat down across from me, already sweating.
"You look very pretty this morning, Sarah."
"Why, thank you, Miguel." Was he flirting or just being a nice guy?
"It's going to be noisy around here for most of the day. I hope your neighbors aren't late sleepers."
"Don't you worry about that. Just do whatever you have to do."
"Thanks. The first thing I have to do is to crank up the sod-cutter and roll up all that beautiful grass. We don't want it to go to waste, do we? Then I'm going to start moving dirt with the bobcat to build the rises and drainage areas the way your sketches show. I might be working a little late because I want to finish with the bobcat and get it back to the rental service. It's kind of expensive. By the way, I'd like your permission to use whatever sod is left over from this job on other projects."
"You can use the sod wherever you need it. I can't wait to see this when it's finished. Your dad did really nice work on John and Irma's place across the road. I don't remember seeing you on that job."
"No. I was getting ready for finals at school."
"Where are you going to school, Miguel?"
"Yuma's where I was going. It's only a two-year school and I'm done there now. I've been taking on-line courses from ASU since then. I want to get a degree in agribusiness so I really need to be enrolled at the Polytechnic campus."
"That's great! I'll be very disappointed if I don't get an invitation to your graduation."
"If I ever graduate, you'll definitely be invited." Standing, he said, "I think I'd better get to work. It'd be embarrassing to be fired by your own father." He gulped down the rest of his coffee and headed back to his pickup.
I swear I've never seen anyone work like that man. I mean he never slowed down. By ten o'clock, he had the sod cut, rolled, dampened, stacked and covered. I almost felt guilty watching him. I had some cookies and a pitcher of iced tea ready by the time he pulled the plastic tarp over the sod. I called to him and waved him up to the patio.
He'd long since shed his shirt exposing a slim but powerfully muscled torso glistening with sweat, the hair on his chest and belly plastered to his skin. I saw that he wasn't as dark-skinned as I originally thought because there was a band of comparatively pale skin inside the top of his jeans. I got a big grin as he sat down and emptied a tall glass then held it out for a refill. The guy wasn't even breathing hard.
"I should tell you, Sarah, that's it not considered good form to fraternize with clients, especially pretty ones. Not even for refreshments or to use the restroom. Some people think it's taking liberties."
"Really? Well, I think that's just silly. What do you do if you have to pee, just go behind a bush?"
"Yeah, if you really have to but when you're sweating like this, you really don't have to pee very much."
"I still think it's silly. Anyhow, I won't tell if you don't."
"What would you like for lunch?"
Miguel got a vaguely distressed look on his face. "Sorry, Sarah, I can't have lunch with you. My father and I will meet every day at lunch to talk about the work."
"Oh, sure, that makes sense. Well, that only leaves dinner then. Can you do that?"
He shook his head and looked at the ground. "As long as I'm working for your mother, I'm not allowed to be socially involved with you. It's stepping across a forbidden line. Perhaps later when you're not my employer's child. I'm sorry, Sarah."
It took a few seconds for it to soak in that I was being snubbed. "I see. Well, I can take a hint. Just forget I even asked, Miguel. I guess you'd better get on with your work, right?" I walked through the patio doors into the house and pulled the drapes.
I had to apologize to the therapist for snapping at her every time I felt a little pain. I tried to explain that I was upset about something else and finally asked if we could cut the session short and pick it up the next day.
Still in a major sulk when Mom called to check on how the work was going, I said, "I really don't know and I don't much care."
"And what does that mean, Sarah?"
"It means I haven't looked outside or spoken to that Mexican since this morning."
"That Mexican? Two days ago you called him Miguel and now you call him that Mexican? First of all, Mateo and Miguel are from El Salvador. Secondly, referring to him in that derogatory tone of voice is counter to everything your father and I ever taught you. Thirdly, maybe you'd better explain what happened between you and Miguel."
I hadn't been scolded for ages and I wasn't far from tears. "Well I asked him to lunch and he found an excuse to get out of it, then I asked him to dinner and he flatly refused like I had just committed some sort of social gaffe or something. All I was doing was trying to be nice and he just blew me off!"
There was a long silence on the other end of the line, then a big sigh. "Sarah, is Miguel still there?"
"No, I heard his truck leave a few minutes ago."
"Give me his father's phone number. It's on a card by the phone."
I read the number off to her.
When she began speaking again, her voice had that quality of barely controlled anger. "Listen very closely to what I'm about to tell you. You are dealing with people who's livelihood is dependent upon a very strong work ethic. Part and parcel of that work ethic is a code of behavior that is absolutely inviolable. Social involvement with an employer's family, especially one that could be even vaguely construed as having romantic overtones is going to be seen by them as a fast track to deportation. You put Miguel in a position that left him no way out but the one he took. Your behavior was rude and insulting. You'd better hope that Miguel is in a very forgiving frame of mind when you apologize to him tomorrow. Now, I'm going to call Mateo and apologize to him for the insult his son has been handed. Good night, Sarah."
She hung up. I sat there with the phone to my ear and tears running down my face. I hadn't felt shame like that since I was a little girl.
Miguel had already been hard at work for a couple of hours before I finally mustered the courage to walk across the yard and talk to him. There was a load of trees, bushes and plants on his trailer and he was placing them according to the plan. He looked up and saw me coming but didn't even break stride. As he passed by me, he nodded and said, "Good morning, Miss Oakley."
"Good morning, Miguel. Um, could I speak to you for a moment?"
He finished placing the tree where it was going to be planted. "Yes, Miss Oakley, what is it?"
I couldn't hide the tears. "I spoke to Mom last night."
"I know. Papa told me about it."
"Look, Miguel, I..." My voice broke. "Oh, damn, this is so hard!" I took a deep breath and tried again. "Miguel, I'm so sorry for the way I behaved yesterday. I was trying to score points with a guy I wanted to impress and then I got angry when you didn't play the game the way I wanted you to. Can you forgive me Miguel? Please?"
He looked at me closely, like he was trying to decide if I meant what I was saying. He nodded his head. "You're forgiven, Miss Oakley. Sarah. Your Mom is a very wise woman. She appreciates that immigrants are always walking a tightrope. Now, maybe you do too. It might be a good idea for both of us to confine our conversations to the job at hand. That way we can avoid misunderstandings." There was no anger in his voice but there was no compromise either.
That stung too.
"OK, Miguel. If that's the way it has to be. I'll be in the house if you need me for anything." I took a few careful steps toward the house, feeling the residual weakness in my legs, then stopped and looked back at him. "Miguel, please don't hate me for being a petulant little shit. I guess I'm still trying to grow up."
My dad told me once that one of life's repetitive little embarrassments is when, out of the blue, something incredibly stupid that you did in the past drops uninvited into your consciousness. My behavior toward Miguel was definitely going to be one of those.
That night Mom got back home. I didn't want to look her in the eye after all that had happened but you know how moms are; they can forgive anything.
She hugged me and kissed my cheek. "How'd it go with Miguel?"
"I guess he accepted my apology but I don't think he wants anything to do with me now."
"Well, I imagine he's a little gun-shy, don't you? Give him some time, Sweetheart. I could tell by the way he looked at you the first time you met that he was attracted to you. Don't blame him for keeping his distance, at least until this job's done."
"Can you think of anything I could do to make him feel more comfortable around me?"
"Just be pleasant and don't crowd him. The harder you try to make him like you, the more distant he'll grow. Let it rest, Honey."
The next morning Mateo and Miguel were both hard after it when Mom and I took our coffee out to the patio. We waved and they waved back. Somehow that made me feel a little better. There was a short conversation between the two of them before they walked up to the patio.
Mateo nodded at Miguel, indicating that he should speak. "Mrs. Oakley, one of the kinds of stone that you specified on your plans has gone up sharply in price since the last time we ordered it. At the price we bid the job, our margin of profit is going to shrink a lot if we use it. We were wondering if we could either use river rock instead or ask for an increase in the cost of the job."
Mom just smiled. "Why don't you gentlemen sit for a few minutes and have a cup of coffee. Sarah, would you get two more cups, please?" She looked at Mr. Marquez and said, "Cost overruns are a part of business. I'd like you to order the marble chips and we'll adjust for it on the final bill. You know, Mateo, when you and I discussed the cost for this project, I was wondering how you could do it for so little. How can you operate your business on such a thin profit margin?"
Miguel once again took the lead. "Mrs. Oakley, if I may speak for Papa, the competition among immigrants for this kind of work is pretty stiff. The only way we can get jobs is to bid them as tightly as possible. As it is, Papa doesn't think we'll be able to stay in business for another season. We're thinking about taking what we've saved and going back to El Salvador."
Looking directly at Mateo, Mom said, "That would be an unfortunate loss for our community. Tell me, what would it take to make your business more profitable?"
Miguel asked us to excuse him and his father for a few moments and they walked to the end of the yard speaking in Spanish. After a few minutes, they came back and sat at the table.
Again, Miguel spoke. "Mrs. Oakley, because of our green card status, there is no way we can come up with a bank loan to put us on a profitable footing. To insure survival, we'd need to be a much bigger company with several crews and a lot more equipment. Papa appreciates your concern but he doesn't see any way out of our predicament."
Mom spoke directly to Mateo again. "I'd like to make you an offer." She had that look that said she was about to do some hard business. I started to leave the table, thinking Mateo might feel uncomfortable discussing business in front of me.
"Please sit down, Sarah. You have a stake it this." Looking back at Mateo and Miguel, she laid it out. "Mr. Marquez, Mateo, I've seen the quality of your work. Every one I've spoken to that has used your service has been impressed with your honesty and the product you turn out. Now, my late husband left us very well provided for and I'm in the process of selling his business for a very nice profit indeed. It's not my intention that that money gather dust in a bank vault. I'm looking for opportunities for investment. In short, Mateo, I'd like to invest in your business."
This time Mateo spoke. "Sra. Oakley, the kind words you say touch my heart but I wonder do you know what mi hijo mean when he say we need much equipment? I do not think we can pay back so much money."
"It wouldn't be like a bank loan, Mateo. It's called venture capital and we would both share in the profits. I believe Miguel can explain the difference to you. Why don't you two talk about it for a day or two and then if you're interested, we can sit down and discuss details, say when this job is done. Meanwhile, go ahead and order what you need and don't worry about stretching your profit any more thinly.
Mateo stood and nodded at Mom and then at Miguel. They went back to work.
As soon as we were inside the house, I burst out, "Mom, are you serious? Are you crazy? What do you know about the landscaping business? Oh, and while we're at it, when were you going to tell me you were selling Dad's company?"
In a somewhat exasperated tone, she said, "Yes, Sarah, I'm serious. No, I'm not crazy. I don't know a whole lot about the landscaping business except that it can be very profitable if it's done smartly. And I'm telling you now about selling your dad's company. I've been made an offer that's too good to refuse. It will make us financially secure for the rest of our lives. I'll share the details with you as they emerge. Any more questions?"
The finished landscaping was absolutely gorgeous. Mom asked Mateo and Miguel to attend a bar-B-Q she was hosting to show off their work and to meet some of the neighbors and other people who might be prospective customers. Mateo had agreed to more detailed discussions about Mom's offer of venture capital.
If we did get involved in the landscaping business, my contribution, when I wasn't in school, would be designs and sketches of the client's ideas. We had even looked at some properties large enough to house an office and enough equipment to supply at least two additional work crews. Mateo was a shrewd businessman in many respects but was hampered by his limited English and his green card status. Miguel would serve as consultant, and intermediary.
Mom strongly suggested Mateo and Miguel apply for citizenship. She had gone online for information and found that they both already met all of the requirements. It would put the growing business on a much stronger footing and simplify a lot of the legal work. She offered to tutor Mateo through the materials he would need to take his exams as well as help him with his English. Miguel would have no difficulty with any of that.
While all this was going on, I was back in the air again and had done my solo cross-country. I was due to take my written private pilot's test in a week and my flight test the day after. As soon as that was done, my instructor would begin to bring me up to speed on the 210. It had a lot more avionics as well as gear. It was my hope to have my instrument rating by the end of summer when I headed back to school in Tempe.
About a month later, toward the end of June, Miguel and Mateo were at the house working with Mom on a list of vehicles and equipment necessary for the first big expansion. After dinner and an hour of business talk, Miguel asked me if I'd like to take a walk out into the desert and enjoy the cooling air.
I guess the ear-to-ear grin on my face answered his question. We headed out the patio doors and through the garden. We just strolled for a while without saying anything. He finally stopped and turned to look at me in the fading light.
"Sarah, I wonder if you know how grateful Papa and I are for all that your mother is doing for us?"
"I wonder if you and Mateo know how grateful Mom is that you're allowing her to buy into your business. Between your Papa's knowledge of landscaping and Mom's organizational skills, this business is going to fly."
"I think you're right." He stood silent for a few moments, clearly nervous and uncomfortable. "That's not really why I asked you to walk with me. I'd like us to start over."
I felt my heart skip a couple of beats. "Miguel, you don't know how happy I am to hear you say that. I'd like very much to be friends with you again."
He looked slightly disappointed. "Friends?"
"Well, at least friends."
He held my shoulders and stepped forward touching his lips to mine with a gentle, almost chaste kiss. I looked up into his onyx eyes for a moment and returned a kiss that was anything but chaste. The sexual tension that had weighed heavily between us since day one simply melted away and neither of us could wait another minute.
We began struggling with each other's clothes, unbuttoning buttons, tugging at zippers and rushing to shed the thin cloth barriers to the demands of our pent up lust. As the last article of clothing fell to the ground, Miguel's arms encircled me, crushing me against his hard body and harder cock, exploring my back and my ass with his hands as his tongue explored my mouth. I let my body slide down his until I was on my knees. I buried my nose in his thick, black nest of pubic hair and inhaled the heady mixture of soap, sweat and passion while his fingers combed through my hair. My right hand moved up the inside of his leg until it found its target. I ease the foreskin over his large knob and replaced it with my mouth, licking and sucking while my left hand cradled and gently massaged his balls.