It was a drawing in an oversized children’s book of a tiptoed, twirling ballerina. Bathed in pink, hair swept up, all knees and arms. At recess, while the other children were throwing balls, Margarita danced alone on the asphalt.
Weeks later, the second-grade teacher with the square white face called her to her desk.
“I see you dancing at lunchtime.”
“No, it’s lovely,” she said, pressing a mimeograph with purple type into her hands. “If you wish to take ballet lessons, tell your mother. Three dollars for the summer.”
At home, the house was filled with aromas. Jovita was busy making tortillas, her hands shaping sticky balls of masa, then slapping and flattening. She had lost her job as a casing girl at the meat-packing plant, so she was selling homemade tortillas, pan dulce, and menudo around the barrio. Tia Belen was on the living-room sofa sitting on some gavacho’s lap, drinking bootleg hooch. The man offered her a sip (“Start her early!”), but Margarita ignored him. She hated the smell. Tia said his house was filled with barrels of the stuff.
In the bedroom, Gustavo was sitting on Margarita’s bed holding a glass of Sangria and staring out the window at the backyard coop. Well, he thought, at least we have the chickens. After a few minutes, Jovita began chasing a hen around the yard. When she finally caught it, there was a moment of twisting and then its neck was wrung and its body limp. Jovita looked down at her dress. Gustavo smiled. A couple droplets of chicken blood now spotted Jovita’s bodice. She cursed and stomped into the house, carcass in hand, and Gustavo laughed.
The chickens were good for so many things. Jovita was selling eggs for 15 cents a dozen, three cents under the grocer Mr. Hortega’s price. President Roosevelt—everyone he knew pronounced it Roo-za-velt, but the man on the radio had said Roe-za-velt—had said there was nothing to fear, but that damn gavacho had a job that he couldn’t get laid off from for three more years, and Gustavo’s had ended last Monday.
Ten minutes before closing on a Saturday night. Gustavo in white coat and black slacks, bussing dishes. A hand on Gustavo’s shoulder.
“Today is your last day, Gus,” his supervisor told him. “The boss don’t want you to come in no more.”
The supervisor turned and began walking away.
“Wha’d I do?” Gustavo called after him.
The supervisor turned. “You were late once.”
“That was January, Ramon. I cut my hand. You saw.”
The manager shrugged. Lacking any other way to blame Gustavo, he shrugged his shoulders and tossed the truth at him like a hunk of turned meat. “Mr. Fenster’s racehorse went lame.”
In the kitchen, Margarita’s excited explanation to her mother was only marginally intelligible. The mimeograph only aggravated her mother. Jovita hadn’t completed the third grade and didn’t like being reminded of her failures. Somewhere along the way, Margarita’s explanations ended in a question.
Jovita took a deep breath and stared at the gob of masa on the wax paper.
“No,” Jovita said.
Jovita thought. Nothing came to mind.
“Mama, mama, why not?”
Jovita turned and hurled a sharp tone: “Because you don’t have no ballet shoes. You can’t take no ballet lessons without no ballet shoes.”
Margarita sat on the back porch steps, head in hands. Boots came up and rubbed against her leg, but he got nothing and wandered away. Margarita went to bed early.
When she awoke on Saturday morning, Jovita and Tia were gone. Gustavo was getting ready to look for work. As he was draping the crucifix over his neck, he spotted his mother’s photograph in an ornate metal frame on the nightstand. He stopped. It had been taken on the day of Gustavo’s First Communion, and his mother had dressed up in her best frilleries. He had still been ashamed of her.
Her entire life, Concha never had no money. She’d had looks when she was young, and men whenever she wanted them, and niños when the Lord wanted to punish her, but never no money.
Once, Concha had said to her young son, “How do people get money? I don’t understand any of it.”
Although Concha never mentioned it again, Gustavo had thought about the question for years in countless ways. You have to have a new idea to make money. You have to have rich parents. You have to have a high school diploma. It always changed. Two years ago, when the consumption had taken Concha, she hadn’t had no money for the doctor, so she just holed up in her room for a couple months and sweated and grimaced. Gustavo didn’t really know until she was nearly gone, but even then, what could they do? They didn’t have no money, neither.
Gustavo walked to the front door and grabbed his hat, tapping a decisive crease in it. He would get a job. He would. It had to do with him knowing he was better than his mother. Everything could be fixed, that was the thing about America, that there was a solution to everything, so different from Leon de las Aldamas, where you could have a family of thirteen and arable land and servants who felt like family but then Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula could put a gun to your 12-year-old Fidel’s head and the boy would be drafted and everybody knew the big battle was coming and it was a good way to lose your whole family with your connection to your belongings so your father had to sell his land for centavos on the peso to young Beto Rodriguez who was determined to stay behind and all you could do was pack as much as you could into a few suitcases and get on a train headed for Laredo and pray and pray. They never heard from Fidel again. Someone they met in the market said that Beto had been pulled apart by horses. And Gustavo’s father soon died of the influenza and the kids had to quit school and pick fruit in the fields to make ends meet and their time as part of the ruling class was gone and there was no time for crying.
But this wasn’t Mexico. That’s what they said. This was a country where a poor Italian peasant whose father had died when he was eleven could sail across the ocean, change his name, and become Rudolph Valentino. Maybe he could get hired as a mariachi singer. Maybe he could get hired as a lawyer for the railroad. Anything could happen. Later, after spending all day pounding the pavement and coming up with nothing, Gustavo would lose his hat and spend the rest of the egg money on rye whiskey and a young woman named Marita, and when he came back home at 4 am, there would be liquor on his breath, harsh words, tears, a slap or two, blood.
After the front door closed, the house was quiet. The clock ticked. Margarita stepped on a chair, reached up high, and took the scissors off the hook. She had seen her mother use scissors mending her neighbor’s clothes. You just put your fingers in and pull. The blades sliced cleanly. Margarita smiled excitedly. Being a grownup was going to be so easy. The hardest part was the waiting.
It was dark before Jovita and Tia returned home. They had taken the redcar across town, cleaned some gringa’s house, then took it back. Then the streetcar driver had tossed out a choice greeting—“Beaners in the back, ladies!”—and to boot, upon leaving, had given a lecherous look at her behind and loudly licked his lips. It made her even more tired. Finally, Jovita dropped her purse on the kitchen table with a clink and stopped cold.
“What’s that?” Jovita asked in Spanish.
Margarita had waited all day for her mother to come home and was standing in the doorway expectantly.
“Bally slippers,” she replied in English, her smile radiant.
Margarita had used a pencil to trace a rough outline of her foot on a piece of cardboard. She had cut a sole, such as it was, out of the cardboard, then wrapped it in pink fabric and sewn it roughly in place. She had punched holes in the fabric and found pink ribbon to pull through like laces. The roughly hewn pink creations sat on the kitchen table like a fully realized concept.
That she wasn’t a good enough mother. That she was tan estúpido. That she couldn’t think it good, why couldn’t she think it good? That why did they all expect her to be so smart when she was just nineteen years old? That her daughter’s heart was as big as all of the city of San Miguel de Allende, but where did that get her? How would that save her? That’s what she was crying about.
But as soon as Jovita had stanched the tears, she cleared her throat and summoned her voice—“Go to your room!”—letting it fly hard like a piece of China from the gringa’s cabinet at her Margarita, her cariña, trying her best to block out those damn reasons, those goddamn reasons, and never let them into her head again, because it sure as hell didn’t pay to cry about it.
The foregoing is fiction based on a family story.
If you like this fiction, check out David’s full-length novel, What Happens to Us. Download it onto your Kindle for only $3.99. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU