His eyes were pure Rosa, like almonds, coming to a little point in the corners. After a moment, he decided I was not a danger and sat down, running the truck along the wood slats of the porch.
I realized he probably did not speak any English. I searched for the few phrases I knew well enough to say competently. Most of my Spanish involved beer, pool, money, or insults. I didn’t know “truck” or “toy” or anything else that might interest a small child.
“¿Tu es Manuelito?” I asked.
He scowled suddenly and smacked his small hand against his chest. “Me llamo Manuel. No Manuelito. No no no no.”
I laughed. Made sense. I wouldn’t want to be called “little” either.
He pushed his truck around a bit more, glancing back up at me as if wondering why I was there. “¿Tienes chicle?”
Thankfully that was also one of the few words I knew, as children along the border were always selling boxes of gum, shouting, “¡Chicle! One dollar! ¡Chicle!”
I shook my head. “No.” I fumbled a minute, then was able to say, “¿Te gusta chicle?”
He nodded, then abruptly jumped up and ran inside the house, leaving his truck.
Rosa approached then, sitting on the top step. “What do you think, Gavinito?”
I shrugged. Yes, I thought it was possible. But I wasn’t giving any game away to her. My feelings had shifted upon seeing him. If he was mine, then I wasn’t sure who Rosa was to me anymore.
“You didn’t tell me about him before. All those years.”
Rosa pushed the truck back and forth on the porch, the plastic tires rumbling over the boards. “Too late. I not find you when I carry him. By the time you come again, he is gone.”
“I could have helped you then.”
The door pushed open wider and Manuel came back out, proudly holding out a clear plastic tub filled with little square gum packets. “¡Chicle!” he said. “¿Mama Rosa?”
Rosa shook her head, so he pushed the container at me. “¿Chicle?”
I took one of the little squares of packaged gum, four yellow pieces wrapped in clear plastic. “Gracias, Manuel. I like yellow.”
He set the tub on the porch and reached in, fishing around until he found a green one.
“You like the green?” I asked. At his quizzical look, I said, “Te gusta…” Crap. I didn’t know “green.”
“Verde,” Rosa said. “¿Verde es bueno, no?”
Manuel fumbled with the plastic wrapper, then shoved all four pieces in his mouth.
“¡Demasiado!” Rosa said, but she laughed. “Manuelito. Hijo loco.”
Manuel chomped on the gum, trying to make it a manageable size, and resumed pushing the truck.
“¿Donde esta Mama Letty?” Rosa asked.
Manuel pointed to the door. Rosa stood up, but I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I didn’t want to see this woman who had raised my boy, who would lay claim to him, take him deep into Mexico where I could not easily go.
I wanted to help Rosa.
“I come back,” Rosa said. “Get to know your boy. He not say much English words yet, he is little, but he understands. Letty speaks English to him.”
I watched Manuel to see if he would react to that.
After she had disappeared inside, I asked him, “Manuel, do you understand me?”
He ignored me, now making truck noises around the wad of gum. I wasn’t sure how to relate to him, what to do. I had the crazy urge to pick him up, to crush him against me, to know his weight, to feel how real and substantial a boy he was.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked.
He looked back at me, one hand on the truck, the other propping him up as he crawled along the porch. In that glance, I could see myself as a boy, the small face that had looked back from the mirror, one that was caught in photographs my mother tucked inside albums.
Rosa was right, he was mine, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
A beautiful woman in a velour sweat suit pushed through the door, holding two boxes that she could barely manage. I stood up as she brushed by.
“Can I help?” I asked, but she ignored me, dashing down and dumping the boxes in the back of the pickup. I realized now that there were several others already there. She was packing.
“Are you Letty?” I asked as she passed.
She halted, turning her face to me, the perfectly styled hair and heavy lashes out of sync with the panic in her eyes. “You cannot have the boy,” she said. “I love Rosa, but she tells many wild tales.”
I stood up. “I’m pretty sure he is mine.”
She straightened to her full height, and up on the porch, she towered over me. “That would be easy for her, no? Some American boy come in and save her? What, you plan to marry her and make more little babies?”
“I’m not sure what is going on here. She brought me here to see him.”
Letty whirled around and snatched up Manuel. He was too large to carry easily, and he fought her, but she pinned him against her hip with practiced ease. “He is all I have now, and I must keep him safe. So get out of here and let us be.”
She opened the door, then closed it behind her again. I could hear the twist of several locks.
The truck sat forlorn on the porch. I leaned over and picked it up, moving it next to the tub of gum. I knew I could knock on the door, or go around and find another way in. But hell, I didn’t know anything. Maybe you could line up a half-dozen dark-haired kids, and I would see something of myself in every single one.