By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: The story “Hermanas” (sisters) is narrated by an American woman living temporarily in Mexico. She has befriended Lolita, a widow, and her lovely young daughter Graciela. At Church Graciela is introduced to Jim Flores, studying to be a doctor, and they are immediately attracted to each other. Graciela enrolls in a secretarial school, and her friendship with Jim deepens into love. One day the American Senora and her husband take Graciela to dinner in a fashionable restaurant, where they meet a wealthy Mexican, Senor Munoz.
Because it was late, Graciela spent the night with us. Before she removed her jacket, she must call Jaime to tell him of the wondrous events of the day. It was his night to be on duty, but she felt close to him, she said, in the house that was a home to both of them. Eager about Saturday’s plans, her eyes soft with love, she said, “If Jaime had this day free I would not go.” Anxiously she looked at me. “Senor Munoz was kind enough to include my mother in the invitation … would it be proper, would you be in agreement that she go?”
I wondered what the Senora Valades would say to Lolita, the quiet little serving woman in the black dress. “Of course we would be glad to have your mother. She might enjoy the ride and a day in the warm sunshine.”
Graciela’s eyes danced. “I will tell her your words. She may be persuaded to come.” She grew pensive. “I wish Jaime were free.” Her eyes searched mine. “If he were, would you ask the Senor for permission? It would not be proper for me.”
“The Senor is not an old personal friend. It is just as well Jim stays at the hospital, for I do not wish to ask favors.”
Lolita did not go. There was a worried look on her face when she came to the wall door, old Ramon close behind. “It is only because you will watch her, Senora, that I consent.” Disapproval was in her voice.
We came to the Munoz home in the countryside about one o’clock. It was my first visit to a Cuernavaca estate; so the details are vivid to me. The gatekeeper, in his long shirt and loose white trousers, opened the iron gate for us, and we rode down the long shrub- and flower-bordered drive to the house. Hollywood could not have created a better scene, the low-tiled-roof house of many wings, the quiet patios filled with the perfume of flowers and splashing fountains, the long arcades with the orange passion flower and honeysuckle swaying in the breeze.
Down the grassy slope that led to the floor of the little valley was a giant swimming pool, rippling blue-green in the warm breeze. The bath-house, with its marble pillars and perfumed vines, might have been lifted from an ancient Roman villa. The modest little Greek temple on one side was devoted to steam baths. At the opposite end of the valley was a pleasure dome, straight out of Xanadu and Kubla Khan, and complete with a river.
The little river swirled and dashed along the bottom of a natural barranca, artificially terraced and gardened. Close by the frothing waters were shade-covered benches and hammocks. There were, in addition, rose gardens, camellia and gardenia gardens, pools mirroring banana fronds and bamboo, and running streams with serene white ducks. And, hidden by a tall hedge, a prosaic vegetable garden.
Inside the house our feet sank in the soft pile of Chinese rugs. The kitchen, which haunts me still, was tiled in brilliant blues and yellows, and had three refrigerators and sinks, as well as three white-capped cooks. Down the center of the huge room ran a double tiered table upon which was arranged every cooking utensil known to man. Even John, whose perpetual retort to extravagance as “no funccione” was impressed into silence. Graciela’s eyes, on the tour of inspection, were big as saucers, but she kept her head high. Once she whispered, “I wish Jaime could see this.”
Miguel Munoz was the perfect host. He made us feel that he meant the traditional, “My house is yours.” But the long-faced, sharp-eyed Senora Valades who greeted us, asked shortly to be excused, saying she had a headache.
“My mother-in-law,” Senor Munoz explained politely, “does not speak English, and it would further strain her head to be with us today.” It was my secret opinion that the lady did not care for Americans.
His daughter, a pretty, sulky-looking girl of fifteen, with reddish brown hair, came to shake hands with us. She was dressed in a gay peasant skirt and white blouse with handmade lace, and was soon excused to ride away in a foreign sports car with a male cousin to an afternoon party at another estate.
Left to ourselves, we lounged in the sun and shade, and ate fresh strawberries by the turbulent stream. Everything was ordered to please us, from the time of swimming to eating in the shaded patio. Graciela, by some inflection in the Senor’s voice, was always included and made to feel honored and safe. When dusk fell, it was unpleasant to know we must leave this place of luxurious fantasy.
As we walked towards the car, the perfume of the flowers strong in the swift-falling dark, Graciela leaned close and whispered, “When we leave tonight, this place will disappear in the darkness and never come to life again.”
“Yes,” I whispered back, “I can see the genie. He’s waiting, ready to rub the lamp.”
Senor Munoz, ahead with my husband and the twins, turned back to smile at us. “I look forward to spending many more pleasant Saturday afternoons with you in the sunshine of Cuernavaca. It is a promise, is it not?” Perhaps the genie was not yet ready.
A few days later John flew to the States on business, and I lunched at Sanborn’s with two American friends. Halfway through our meal, a gentleman I knew seated himself at a small table, almost touching ours. He was the jaunty and elderly Mr. Henry Carson, an important official in the bank where we had our small account.
In Mexico it is not exactly easy for a foreigner to cash a check. Early in John’s work he had made arrangements with Mr. Carson to cash some of the American men’s checks. Quite often I had climbed the long stairs to Mr. Carson’s office to get his signature on a check. A few times his secretary, a beautiful young woman, moda aristocratic, would sign for him. Mr. Carson, who had long been a widower, treated her with fatherly solicitude.
Today he did not look pleased. Indeed, he was triste, the Mexican triste. Because our tables were so close I discreetly asked him why he looked so downcast. He sighed as he gave his order to the pretty waitress in her long skirt and bright headdress. “My secretary,” his sigh was longer, “has been with me for almost seven years. She is everything a good secretary should be: efficient, kind, tactful, intelligent and even beautiful. Now she is leaving me to be married.”
“That was to be expected,” I said. “I’ve often wondered how you could keep so attractive a girl shut up in a banker’s office.”
“I know.” He struck the table with the tines of his fork. “It has been my good fortune that her fiancé took so long to establish himself.” He gazed sadly at his fork. “You know the custom here, a man must be able to afford a wife before he marries. And now,” he pushed his fork away from him as if it were the offending bridegroom, “I must find a new one. And that, my dear lady, is not easy.”
By this time my two friends were deep in personal confidences, and I felt free to continue with Mr. Carson. “Why,” I asked, hoping to cheer him, “is it so difficult? So many nice girls take business training. It should be easy to get one for so desirable a position as yours.”
“Easy! My dear lady.” His gray brows rose in protest. “Do you know what I require?”
“I’m interested in learning.”
“She must be intelligent and adaptable. She must take shorthand as easily as the bird flies and type like an angel.”
“Pues.” I shrugged my shoulder in true Mexican style. “A little difficult, but not impossible. What else?”
“I have only begun.” He drummed on the table with his knuckles. “She has to have a voice as soft as Micaela’s. After seven years I couldn’t stand a strident voice.”
“Continue, Senor,” I encouraged him.
“She has to be tactful, intuitive. She must have a cheering smile, for I grow frosty these late mornings of my life.”
“And is that all?” I asked it with a little impudence.
“Oh, above all, in addition to being able to spell in Spanish, she has to speak English, hear English, write English, as if she were English born.”
John was not there to restrain me, though I could hear his voice, slightly irritated, warning me, “You can’t rush in there and offer to find him a secretary. Our relations have been strictly business. Besides, he’s able to help himself.” I did not listen to the voice.
“I think, Mr. Carson, that I could find you a secretary with all your qualifications – and more – if you are interested.”
“Am I interested?” He sat erect in his chair, his shrewd eyes burrowing deep into mine. “My dear lady, you have heard me complaining and ruining my digestion, so much so that I’ll be unable to enjoy one of the few pleasures left me, my lunch at Sanborn’s. Where is this paragon, if she does exist? And I tell you plainly, I am all doubts.”
I planned my words carefully. “I could come to see you sometime next week … if you really want to hear about her?” In all my plans for Graciela, some of which I admit, in retrospect, were a little confused, I had not thought of a position comparable to the one Henry Carson would offer.
“Next week!” His voice rose high. “You can’t hold me over the coals that long. Come sooner, in fact, come today.”
I glanced at my companions, still deep in conversation over their dessert. “We’re waiting for the Juarez shops to open. If I come by around four o’clock, will you be in?”
“I’ll be holding the door open until you come.” Just then his waitress set his dish of creamed chicken before him, and he sniffed it distrustfully.
I bowed, smiled, and was gone.
It had been our plan to keep Graciela in school a month longer. What was a month? I fairly hugged myself with joy.
Our interview ended with my promise that Graciela would see him the next day. After he had interviewed her, his Micaela would give her tests for English, shorthand, and typing. If, in my interview, I gave the impression that Graciela’s mother had been more than a companion and less a cook to the Senora Urbina, I did it on purpose. Mr. Carson would just as soon have Lolita a laundress as a duchess, but Micaela of the aristocratic mien must not be prejudiced.
The night before Graciela’s tests was a rainy one. Jim came for supper at the respectable hour of seven. Marita and Judy were already in bed, and the three of us had the living room in blessed peace. Our three heads were close together in the circle of light cast by the one reading lamp. In the semi-gloom outside the circle, the brown walls and the dark carved mahogany chairs and chests loomed huge in the shadows. Jim sat close to Graciela on the Morocco leather sofa, drilling the nervous girl in terms he deemed peculiar to bankers. I pretended to read, but my eyes were more often on her bent head.
In this tense atmosphere the telephone ring came like an explosion. Swiftly I crossed to the fireplace and snatched the receiver off its hook. Miguel Munoz was on the other end. After his gracious salutations, he informed me that he had at his disposal for tomorrow night in the Belles Artes a box for the last performance of a famous Spanish dancer. “It was only this last moment that I knew the box was free,” he apologized.
I would like nothing better, I told him, than to see the dancer, but at this time my husband was in the States and we would therefore be unable to go. The Senor, who knew his old Spanish customs, did not press the subject, but I was certain the smothered sound of displeasure I inadvertently heard was not caused by my refusal.
After the Senor had expressed his regrets, he asked in an elaborately casual way about the little Graciela. Had I seen her since the Saturday we had honored his home?
“She is with me tonight.” That should have been all I said, but in a rush of understanding, I knew why my favor had been courted. I wanted to stop any further advances on his part. “Right now,” I said, “her young man is preparing her for the ordeal she faces when she applies for her new position.”
There was a second’s eloquent silence on his part. Later, I knew how well he understood me, for my blunder gave him an opportunity to act with more precision than he had planned. Gracefully he said goodbye, promising to call as soon as my husband returned.
Both Jim and Graciela looked questioningly at me, as I placed the receiver in the cradle. “It was Senor Munoz.” I sat down and picked up my book. “He asked about Graciela.”
“The old boy is getting solicitous,” Jim said, taking the pencil from Graciela’s hand and closing her notebook. “Let’s have a quick game of chess and call it a night.”
Graciela got out the chess board, and I picked up some knitting. Jim won the game, then told us good night. We sat in the living room until we heard the lock click in the gate and his whistle as he trotted towards Insurgentes to get a bus.
Next morning I walked with Graciela to the Avenida and waited until she got on the red bus. She smiled shakily from the crowded platform. This next hour would be a milestone in her life, and no one could help her. As for myself, I had a hard time occupying myself the next few hours, and when the bell rang shortly before one o’clock, I was waiting at the gate to admit her. I did not have to ask the question, the joy in her face was enough.
“I am to return tomorrow,” she said, when we had cried some happy tears together. “Mr. Carson’s secretary will train me for two weeks, then I’ll be, as you say, on my own. I am so happy I have that bursting feeling.”
Jim came for dinner and took Graciela home. The first moment when Lolita could catch a glimpse of happier days to come was for mother and daughter alone. I wanted only one thing – Lolita to tell me of her joy – but she neither came nor telephoned, and I was vaguely hurt.
Graciela herself did not come so often. Her days were long, not broken by the long siesta hours, when the entire city seems to pile into buses, homeward bound. Graciela ate her lunch from Lolita’s basket and worked by herself trying to learn the office routine.
When she finally came, her joy in her work and in her new independence was contagious. As usual, she came on Saturday. Jim was waiting, and they took the children to Lindberg Park. When they left, at night, they planned to meet the following Saturday.
When that next Saturday came, Jim waited in the garden until dusk. Each shadow that fell across the gate through the long afternoon meant Graciela. When it became too dark for shadows, he still sat there, refusing to go into the house with John and the twins.
“Don’t worry,” I kept repeating. “Something has come up. You know how difficult it is for her to telephone.”
“I don’t like the role of the suspicious lover.” Jim leaned forward in his garden chair, his fingers interlaced, “but there is something wrong. I can’t understand it. When I waited for her at work two days ago she looked strained and jumpy, and that isn’t like Graciela.” He looked at me for confirmation. “I thought maybe she was just over-tired. She’s been under a strain all summer, working to be ready for a job. Then this chance of a lifetime came so suddenly.” He stood up, stretching himself and looking down at me from his slim height. “I’m not so sure now that I had the right answer.”
Absent-mindedly he picked a pink rose from the bush near him and crushed the fragrant petals between his fingers. “I might as well say it aloud.” Casting the rose aside he sat down again, facing me in the gathering darkness. “Do you know anything about this Munoz character, really? Has he been seeing Graciela?”
“I haven’t seen or heard from him since that night he telephoned when you were here.”
I was not as surprised by Jim’s frankness as I might have been, for I had been ordering the same thoughts away from me. I rose, and Jim with me, our feet lingering on the tile path. When we came to the low front step, I paused, my hand on the carved lintel, “I may as well confess, the gentleman seemed too interested, but,” and I almost believed myself as I said it, “I don’t think he has seen her. I think he would see her through me. Anyway,” I added lamely, “he doesn’t even know where she lives.”
“A little thing like that wouldn’t stop him.” Jim held the door open for me. “I’d go to San Angel tonight, but I’ll be late at the hospital if I don’t hustle.” He called goodnight to John, and, a moment later, I heard his whistle for a taxi.
The next Saturday we did not see either Jim or Graciela.