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Authors: Francisco X. Stork

Irises (6 page)

BOOK: Irises
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“We'll see.” Aunt Julia pressed down on the sofa with her hands. “I think I'll sleep out here,” she told Mary.

“You'll be more comfortable in Papa's bed,” Mary said. “Mama hardly makes any noise at night.”

“I'll be fine out here,” Aunt Julia insisted.

Kate wasn't sure whether Aunt Julia was more repulsed by the thought of sleeping next to her own sister or by the fact that she would be sleeping in the same bed that her father had slept in. But she knew that however long Aunt Julia stayed, it was going to seem like an eternity.

After lunch, Aunt Julia fell asleep on the sofa. Mary and Kate washed the lunch dishes. During the years, they had gotten used to working side by side over the sink.

“I found the insurance policy this morning,” Kate said. “It was in Father's desk drawer.”

“Oh? But you told Aunt Julia you hadn't.”

“I didn't want her to know.” Mary looked at Kate. “I'm not sure what her intentions are here,” Kate explained. “I don't trust her that much. Suppose she wants to get her hands on the money. . . .” She concentrated on a smudge on one of the glasses.

“She's not as bad as you make her out to be. She doesn't seem well.”

“Mmm. Anyway, the policy is for one hundred thousand dollars.”

“Wow! That's a lot of money. Isn't that a lot of money?”

Kate shook her head. “It has to last us until we get jobs and start making it on our own. That's a long time. In the meantime, we'll need to hire someone to take care of Mother for seven hours a day, at least until school is out.”

“Seven hours a day,” Mary repeated thoughtfully.

“That would be from eight o'clock when we go to school until three.”

“But you work until eight and I don't get out of school un
til four
.”

Kate looked away from Mary. “You'll have to give up your hour of art studio after school.”

Mary was silent. She dipped a dish into the plastic tub of soapy water, rubbed it with a sponge, and then dipped it into the hot, clean water.

“It's only one hour,” Mary said.

“I'm sorry.”

“Maybe I can go in a few hours on Saturdays.”

“I need to keep my volunteer job at the hospital,” Kate said. “I can't just stop going. People are depending on me.”

“It's not fair,” Mary said, shaking her head.

“You could paint at home.”

Mary started to say something and then abruptly stopped. For the first time ever, Kate saw a flicker of resentment in her sister, as if Kate could not possibly understand the sacrifice she was asking Mary to make. “Can I at least stay in art studio for a few more days? There's something I'd like to finish.”

“Okay,” Kate said quickly. “We might as well take advantage of Aunt Julia while she's here. But only for a few more days. It's a long time to leave Mother alone with Aunt Julia.”

“Talita will still be coming,”

“Still. You need to get home from school as soon as yo
u can
.”

Mary stopped. She held a dish in midair. “Kate, will we need to hire someone seven hours a day when you go to UTEP? Evangelina's older sister goes to UTEP and she only has classes in the morning. Some days she doesn't even have any.”

“We'll see,” Kate said. Mary's question gave her a pang. Things would have been so much easier now if she had told Mary about Stanford from the very beginning. But it was
her
secret, hers and Mother's. The visit to Stanford, the promise that she made her mother was something all her own. Besides, she hadn't gotten into Stanford yet. Why worry Mary over something that might not happen? And then there were all the financial questions. Even if she got a scholarship, how would they pay for all that needed to be paid?

Kate carefully folded the dishcloth she'd been using and left the kitchen.

 

A
t school the following Monday, Mary wanted to eat her lunch alone in the art studio, but Renata insisted that
sh
e sit in the cafeteria. Renata was quiet at first, unsure whether
to crack her usual jokes, but then a boy at another table stuck two French fries up his nose, and Mary and Renata laughed.

“I never expected you to come back to school so soon,” Renata said.

“Kate wanted us to. I think she was going crazy being in the same house with Aunt Julia.”

“Are you sure you're ready for this?” Renata asked, looking in the direction of the boy with the French fries. He had offered the same two French fries to the girl next to him and she was screaming. Mary smiled and shook her head. It amazed her how she could feel so much sorrow and laugh at something silly at the same time.

“Kate's probably right . . . for once,” Renata said. “You want to come to my house after your studio?”

“I can't. I have to go home and take care of Mama.” Mary looked at her peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich and put it back in the paper bag.

“You don't feel like eating?” Renata asked.

“No. Not right now. You want it?”

“Thanks. Mom made me the usual. Every week I ask her to buy something other than bologna, and what do I get?” She opened up the two slices of white bread and showed Mary the slice of bologna smeared with mustard. “Why, I ask you,
why
does she treat me like this? This is the kind of stuff they feed people in prison.” She closed the sandwich and took a bite out of it. “Oh, well, a girl has to eat. And you do too. Here, have some chips.”

“No, thanks.”

Then Renata scrunched her forehead. “You have to go home and take care of your mother right after school?”

“Yes.”

“What about studio?”

Mary folded the top of the paper bag. “I won't be able to do it anymore. With Papa gone, there's no one home.”

“And Kate, what's she doing?”

“She has to go to work after school.”

“How much does she make an hour, all of five bucks? There's no one at the Red Sombrero at that time. She can stay home with your mother and let you paint.”

“We need the money,” Mary said. There were times when Mary enjoyed Renata ranting about Kate, her righteous anger on Mary's behalf. But today was different. Even though she agreed with what Renata was saying, she did not want to feel any resentment toward Kate.

Renata waited a few seconds. “Are you guys going to be okay moneywise?”

“Papa had an insurance policy,” Mary said.

“I don't want you to worry about anything. You're my sister, right?”

“Yes.”

“I mean you got a sister, but I'm your
soul
sister. And you
know Mom, she's already beating the drums, making sure those
stingy deacons at the church do what's right for you. She's talking to friends who know about programs that can help you guys, taking care of your mom and everything. Okay?”

Mary felt a warm, watery lump in her throat, and her eyelids trembled. “Okay,” she said.

Renata reached over, found her hand, and held it tight i
n hers
. “I know, I know,” she said. “I have this effect on people.”

Mary took a deep breath. She had to look away from Renata or she would come undone.

“Hey.” Renata shook her hand and waited for Mary to look at her. “I need to talk to you about something.” She handed Mary a napkin and Mary blew her nose.

“What?”

“I've had some inquiries. A couple of very cute guys have very discreetly asked me if they could send you flowers.”

“Sure,” Mary said.

“Well, let's think about this more carefully. If I tell them you said yes, that they can send you flowers, they might get their hopes up that maybe you'll go out with them.”

“Oh.” Boys had been asking Mary out for years, but she never went out with anyone. A girl named Angie asked her once if she liked girls instead of boys, and Mary said no, she liked boys, and even named some of the cute ones. She just didn't feel like going out with them. Later, Renata told her that Angie was jealous because a boy she liked had said Mary was the most beautiful girl in school. People made comments like that all the time, but Mary tried very hard to ignore them. It was difficult enough to paint without being full of yourself. Mary thought that if there was anyone beautiful in her family, it was Kate
.
.
. and Mama when she was young.

Renata continued, “I'm not saying they're not being sincere when they send you flowers, but in my vast experience with the male species, there's always an ulterior motive when they do something nice for you. I know, you have your painting, blah, blah, blah. But suppose, miracle of miracles, there's a guy somewhere in this universe who's actually nice and not intimidated by strong women like us.” Renata stopped to grin. “Just suppose there is
— don't you want to give that guy a chance?”

“Rennie, Papa just died!”

“They don't mean to be disrespectful, but you've been telling boys that your father won't let you go out until you're eighteen, so now they're wondering if the rules are gonna change.”

“Tell them the rules haven't changed,” Mary said, pretending to be very stern. Renata and Mary had known each other since the sixth grade, when her family started coming to the Church of God, and ever since then, Renata had considered it her primary duty in life to get Mary to be more or less like other girls.

“Okay, but they're not going to go away. They're not the usual bunch, either. I'm getting quote unquote ‘expressions of concern' from extremely cute, non-jerky juniors and seniors.”

“I have to go to class,” Mary said, getting up.

“I'm not through with you yet,” Renata yelled at Mary as she walked away. “I'll call you tonight.”

Mary made it through her afternoon classes as she always did
— not paying much attention to what the teachers were saying. Usually she daydreamed about how to solve whatever problems she was having with her painting, but that day she was thinking about Kate and Aunt Julia. Yesterday evening they'd gotten into an argument. Aunt Julia thought that since Papa was dead and Mama was incapacitated, it was up to her to decide what was best for them. Kate told her that she was eighteen, and as Mary's closest kin, she was responsible for her. Mary didn't understand why Kate couldn't just let Aunt Julia say whatever she wanted. She seemed to get weaker after every disagreement.

After her classes were over, Mary went to the art studio as she usually did. She felt a weight descend upon her at the thought that this would be her last week going there.

The art studio was the size of two regular classrooms joined together. There were easels for painting and tables for sculptures and silk screens. Mr. Gomez's office was in a small room down the hall. Mr. Gomez wasn't there, so she went on to the studio.

She walked to the corner of the room where she kept her easel and painting materials. The easel held the painting of the two irises she had been working on. The actual irises she had used for models now stood wilted in a crystal vase of murky water. Their purple was not the same purple as the irises in her painting. Her petals were opaque. They lacked the inner radiance of Van Gogh's flowers or of the real flowers. There was an invisible strength in those fragile-looking irises that had eluded her. Would she ever be able to paint like she used to?

A sound startled her. She turned quickly and saw a boy standing behind her.

“You Mary?” he asked.

She didn't recognize his face. Maybe he was new in school. He wore a long-sleeved blue shirt and jeans that looked worn out with use.

“I am Mary. What can I do for you?” she answered.

He looked at her as if he had never heard someone her age speak like that before. Kids at school were always making fun of her, in good and bad ways, for the formal way she spoke. But Papa never allowed slang at home, and his rule had unconsciously carried over into school.

BOOK: Irises
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ads

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