Derringer Award winner Steven Torres was born in the Bronx, NY, and spent some of his childhood in Puerto Rico. He is the author of The Concrete Maze and the Precinct Puerto Rico series. Here he shares the personal story behind his tale “The Care of Widows and Orphans,” which appears in the current March/April 2020 issue of AHMM.
The story is a love story. The lovers are a woman and the man whose death made her a widow. How did I develop them?
My mother’s name is Carmen, like the female protagonist of the story, so there is that.
Around 1990, my mother and I went to visit the place she had first called home back in the 1940s. The place was beautiful—lush and green as you’d expect in the tropics. A stream about five feet wide ran through the place. But that was the only running water. And there wasn’t any electricity. Or phone lines. Or a paved road. Not when my mom lived there and not when I visited more than forty years later.
My mother’s family had been something between renters and squatters on that land. Apparently, the family had been on that land so long they’d acquired rights, and besides, the owner liked them and needed my grandfather’s help maintaining the land. The family was dirt poor and hardworking. My grandparents paid their way through life by making charcoal, by making moonshine; my grandfather picked coffee when that was in season and cut sugarcane when that was in season. My grandmother sewed borders onto ladies’ handkerchiefs for women she would probably have considered impossibly refined.
I say all this because it’s the only way I can think of to explain how the “Carmen” character in my story developed. She developed in real life long before she was on paper, and I have no doubt that women like her can be found in all times and places.
As for the deceased husband, he’s based on my grandfather, whose name was Francisco. My grandfather died at the age of twenty-nine from what my grandmother believes was colon cancer. Of course, they didn’t have the money for a doctor’s visit. I never knew him, but I knew about him. He wooed my grandmother by telling her how beautiful her eyes were, how beautiful she was, and how he loved her smiles and even the dark moods of her face. He told her he would give her the moon and the stars if it were ever in his power. It never was. They worked hard for the little they had, and they were happy together.
My grandmother is in her nineties now and has trouble remembering many things, but oh, does she brighten if you ask her of him. Then the seventy years that have passed since his death vanish, and he becomes once again the man who loved her.
You might ask how any of this suggests the story I ultimately wrote. Hard to say. A bit of good luck, if I’m honest. So much of the story was written for me by others long before I was born. The wonder is why I didn’t write it earlier, and why I didn’t do something more grand with the materials I was given.