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 daughter Graciela. At Church, Graciela is introduced to Jim Flores, studying to be a doctor, and their friendship deepens into love. While dining with the American Senora and her husband in a fashionable restaurant, Graciela becomes acquainted with a wealthy older Mexican man, Senor Munoz. Through the aid of the American Senora, Graciela secures a secretarial position with Mr. Carson, a banker. Senor Munoz discreetly begins to court Graciela.
It was September again, and the valley of Mexico City was one vast flower garden. Amporo brought me loads of pink and white cosmos, purchased for a few centavos in the market. The rains slackened, then took on new force. The white peaks of the twin mountains seemed forever obscured in clouds and mist, but the air was soft as a baby’s cheek, and the grass and trees were a lush green. The cool freshness was exhilarating; yet I often caught myself standing in the patio, my errand forgotten. In more than a week Graciela had not been to the house. Pues, the telephone was still on the mantle in the living room. With quick fingers, I dialed Mr. Carson’s bank.
Only seconds and Graciela was there, her voice confident and poised as she announced Mr. Carson’s office. When she recognized me her voice had a lilting gladness. At the same time she was evasive. With little formal politeness I said that we had missed her, and would like to have her come to us on her way home that night.
“I cannot come after work.” All the sadness of the world was in her voice. “But,” and I could tell she spoke with sudden decision, “I will come now, if you wish it.”
It was almost one o’clock. I called to Amporo to set an extra plate and hurried into the kitchen. John and Graciela met me at the gate and came in together. She wore the same clothes I had selected for her in the spring: the black skirt, the white blouse, and the American jacket. On her own she had added a black straw beanie and white gloves and a fresh flower. Anyone who looked at her proud, young head would know, at once, that she was a young person of importance, secretary to a banker, perhaps.
When we had passed from the shadowed living room into the sun-lit dining room, I was shocked. “Graciela,” I said, drawing her face toward me with my hands, “tell me what is wrong. If you were twenty, instead of eighteen, I’d say those dark spots under your eyes were circles.”
“It is nothing.” She took my hands away and pressed them to her cheek. “Just being indoors when I am used to romping with my twins.” She stooped to hug Marita and Judy who were rushing towards her, all squeals of delight.
The meal was merry but unsatisfactory. Every time my lips started to frame a question, Graciela had a funny story to tell about Mr. Carson and his indulgence of her mistakes. Only this morning she had made a mistake in a letter, so funny that Mr. Carson had exploded with laughter when he caught it. “‘It is a shame to correct such a mistake,’ he said to me, then he laughed harder. It is all so wonderful.” Her dark eyes were soft. “And I owe it all to you two.”
John patted my arm, and picked up the twins for a last minute romp in the patio.
Alone with Graciela, I twirled the dessert fork in my fingers, knowing at best I had only a half hour more with her. “You have not,” I said, eyes on the fork, “explained why you have forsaken us so suddenly. The Saturday you were to meet Jim here, he was in a black mood waiting for you. I have not seen him since, have you?”
“No.” Her answer was a whisper. “I could not come, and I cannot see him again.”
Her words shocked me into silence. I could only look at her face, drained of all color and heavy with despair.
“It is Senor Munoz?” I asked at last.
She nodded, her lips trembling.
Well, I had suspected it, but his celerity and determination stunned me. “Senor Munoz went to your mother!” I said it as a fact, not an accusation. She nodded again, her tears falling on her listless fingers.
“Will you tell me about it? I want to understand.”
“I cannot tell you.” I had to strain to hear her whisper. “My mother said I was to say nothing … I promised her.”
There was finality in her words. When she stood up her shoulders were bent, her slight body shaking. “Now I will go, if you give me permission.”
I blazed with anger. How dared Lolita do this to her child? How dared she ignore my part in what had happened since she placed Graciela in my charge? I had not asked for the responsibility. Yet I said nothing, for I recognized the girl’s misery. And I knew she must return to work.
“Go upstairs and wash your face. I’ll walk with you to the bus.”
She came back with her tears dried and her eyes swollen. There must be time for her to compose herself before Mr. Carson and the office girls saw her. “I’ll send you in a taxi,” I said, helping her with her jacket and hat.
There was little chance for conversation on the street, but I managed to ask, “At work, before Mr. Carson and the others … are you sad and distracted?”
“Oh, no, believe me, I do not let him know. Being there, working and knowing that he approves of me, it is the only thing that keeps me sane.” Her eyes begged me to believe she would not let me down.
“You must be happy before him, be efficient in your work.” I looked deeply into her sad eyes. “It is necessary that you make Mr. Carson happy and keep this job. As long as you have it, you may be able to do something.”
“There is nothing I can do … or you. My mother has arranged everything. She is to have a dress made especially for her in New York for the wedding.”
She spoke with such bitterness that my feet stumbled on the pavement, and Graciela caught my arm. I felt the trembling of her body. A thousand protests ran through my head, but there was one thing I would ask.
“Have you seen Jim, told him what has happened?”
“I have promised my mother. I will not see or talk to him again.”
I threw caution in the street. “You meant that you are leaving him alone with no explanation, nothing?”
“My mother says that in time … when …” Her mouth refused the words … “She will explain to him.”
“Hasn’t Jim called or tried to see you?”
We were standing on the curb, and a cruising taxi pulled in near us.
“He came twice to the house, but my mother had Ramon go to the gate and tell him we were not home. When he telephoned the office I had the girl say I was busy. Once he waited for me, but I worked late into the night, and when I came out he was gone.” She made no effort to stop the flow of tears.
Traffic whirred by us. The taxi driver had opened wide his door, his eyes dark with impatience. The first rain of the day fell as I guided Graciela into the taxi. I watched it disappear down the Avenida, then ran towards home, darting from willow tree to willow tree to avoid the downpour.
I wanted to call Jim so badly that I had to hold my hands tight to my sides. Since last Saturday he had not been to see us. I would wait for John’s advice.
Lolita was something else. I felt that I had a right to an explanation from her, and a right to tell her she was doing an unpardonable thing. When I telephoned Leela Beeson she said that Lolita had not worked for her for days. Lolita, she told me with some asperity, had told her that the work was too tiring. It was indeed later than I thought. I waited for a lull in the rain, then sent Amporo upstairs to watch the twins. Fortified with a raincoat and umbrella, I took the yellow bus to San Angel, my fury mounting with each lurch of the decrepit vehicle.
There was a bus stop within a block of the Urbina place. Most of the iron shutters were still drawn over the shop windows. Hurrying along the street was a wet, sad vender of sweets and ices, his wagon proudly named “The Little Eagle of the North,” covered with a piece of dripping canvas. A beggar was taking refuge form the stream in the outdoor telephone booth Lolita had used to call us.
Time seemed endless in the wind and rain until I came to the familiar gate and found the hidden bell. Hours later, it seemed, old Ramon stumbled to the gate, his arm still in a sling.
“Si esta, Senora,” he said, beckoning me to follow.
I stumbled with him along the dark entry, moldy and damp with age, into a wide corridor. Here on the right, close to the street, were the servant quarters, dark and dank with the odor of centuries. To the left was the main wing of the house with its long side gallery, its rotting floors, and its neglected garden extending to the wall that separated the house from the street.
Lolita was in the laundry room, her back bent over the ancient cement tray. Somehow her bent back and the laundry tray made me feel better. She was not yet living on Munoz bounty. When she saw me she straightened herself. As I looked at her, she lowered her eyes, but not before I had seen a flash of fear in them – or was it shame? Wiping her hands on her black and white checked apron, she came towards me with the air of a person who would be happier fleeing, but was determined to hold ground.
“Ay, Senora. It is a bad day for you to be out. Come with me and I’ll take off your wet shoes.”
I followed her into her narrow room with its double cot and two stiff-backed chairs under a lone, high window. I let her kneel at my feet and remove my damp pumps, thanking her as she covered my feet with a towel. That done, she stood above me anxiously waiting.
“Sit with me.” I indicated her other chair. Obedient as a child, she sat down opposite me, and while we could not hear the rain through the heavy tiled roof, we felt its chill presence. For a moment we faced each other in a silence that was neither hostile nor warm.
“I think you know why I have come,” I said, at a disadvantage because I must make the first overture.
All her life she had been trained to avoid the displeasure of the people she served. Her face was an innocent blank. “I do not know why the Senora troubles herself to seek me.”
In that instant I recognized that Lolita had been my adversary since that first interview when she placed her daughter in my hands. A dark place in her mind grudged my doing the thing she could not do. All these months I had been serenely confident that we wanted the same thing for Graciela. Now I did not know. I could not match her in subtleness; my strength lay in directness.
“You know why I have come.” Her face was obscure, and I made the next plunge. “How did Senor Munoz find you, and when did he make his offer?”
“How he found me I do not know, Senora.” Her eyes were focused on her folded hands, her words darkly polite.
“He is a man of wealth. It would be easy for him to trace you. But that,” I dismissed the idea with a turn of my hand, “is of no consequence. He wasted no time in coming.” I leaned forward suddenly, my eyes trying to force Lolita to return my gaze. “Tell me his offer.”
I think, she realized she would gain nothing by concealment. She told me Senor Munoz had come to see her and declared his intentions straightway. I fixed the date as the day after my telephone conversation with him, when I thought I had adroitly stopped him. The Senor wanted to marry Graciela. As long as Lolita lived she could sit on velvet chairs and eat the sweet bread of the rich. It was that simple.
Once I unwound the trappings of her polite language I learned that the marriage date had already been set. Because I must not antagonize her, I moved more cautiously. Our first bout concerned Jim.
“Do you realize what you are doing to him, Lolita?” I kept my voice calm.
“Un joven.” She shrugged. “In a short time one so young will have forgotten the whole affair and pay court to another girl.”
“You know there is a deep love between them.”
Her smile dismissed it as nothing, but I persisted. “You know they had declared their love and you did not oppose it.”
“It was a thing of the distant future, so of no consequence.”
“I do not think so. You knew their plans, for Graciela to work in her new position until she had grown up a little and until Jim was ready for his internship.”
Lolita said nothing to my accusations, and I went on. “You knew how they had planned to work together when Jim began his practice in a remote village. Graciela herself told me you would be housekeeper while she worked with Jim, that she would help rear their children.” Then I changed my attack.
“Why do you object to Jim? Is he not far beyond anything you had hoped for Graciela?”
Her delicate nostrils twitched scornfully. “What is he but a young man with years stretching before him in poverty?” She looked at me accusingly. “He does not care about the money that will mean comfort and security for his wife. He thinks only of research! At the best what he has to often is precarious. And he is neither Mexican nor American.” She tossed him aside with her worn brown hand.
In defending Jim I forgot discretion. “If he is young, Graciela is younger,” I almost shouted the words, then I calmed myself. “Both of them can wait a while with profit. And have you forgotten her new position that will support you both in a splendor you have never known?”
She had the grace to flush.
“He has everything to offer Graciela,” I said eloquently, pressing my advantage, “youth, a bright future, and he is all the better for being an American who has decided to return to his ancestral home. His strength and aggressiveness will give him success. You know that.” I eyed her in stern righteousness.
“That is all of the future. And he is not handicapped? Not even your army would take him.”
I rose from my chair, the towel slipping away, and walked across the narrow room to the foot of the double cot.
“Are any of us without some imperfection?” I sat down on the hard cot. “Is Graciela so perfect that she has no scar of body or mind? No,” I declaimed, striking the cot with my hand, “you cannot use Jim’s foot as an excuse for your decision.”
It was almost dark in the room with the high window and crumbling plaster. I moved from cot to chair, thinking to use my most telling argument. Before Lolita could stoop to help me, I slipped my cold feet in the welcome towel.
“Our religion — the new religion you have found – does it mean nothing to you?” I pounded my arguments into her passive ears. “You told me that at last you had found a religion that satisfied the longings of your soul. You said it was a religion that would free you, enable you to be equal with all people.”
Before my onslaught, she lowered her eyes, and I saw her fingers quiver. Surely I was striking a responsive chord. “You will not destroy this hope, will you?”
Slowly she lifted her eyes to mine and I saw in them a sadness that disarmed me. “Senora,” she said quietly, “you do not understand. You are not of Mexico, you have never eaten the food of the poor or slept on a straw mat. You have not known a tomorrow without hope.”
For a long minute I did not answer her. My mind told me that she spoke the truth. I had not lived bereft of hope, and the future had once held no hope for her. “With Jim and Graciela you need not fear.” I said it softly and she answered as one who does not hear.
“Try to understand, Senora. You have not walked in the shadows as I have, nor slept in a dark room in the rear.” She leaned forward, and her gnarled brown fingers touched the rough surface of my tweed jacket. “You, Senora, have always had a warm coat, you do not know what it is to wear a reboza to keep out the cold.” Her fingers moved in a gesture of supplication, and her voice was hoarse with passion. “Think what it means to me, Senora, to have my daughter offered a high place in my country. Do you think under the same conditions you would refuse?”