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Walt has finally come home. It has been weeks, but he has finally awoken. He is still not the same, not her husband. He talks slowly and incoherently, sometimes being demanding and pushy. Leda reminds herself that he must be frustrated, unable to control his body that has earned him his living. She wants to be patient, but it is too much. She has hired a nurse. Hired her before Walt came home, knowing it would be too much even before it began. Knowing she couldn’t care for him at all hours, giving in to his every need. Although, it isn’t much of a change. She’s always been a housewife of the 1950s, serving her husband who works so hard. Finding his slippers, staying in the kitchen to cook dinner, wearing makeup as soon as she wakes, offering him a cigarette, until he stopped smoking. She has babied him, but now it is different. It is like he is a baby, one who needs to be fed and changed constantly. She cannot do this alone, not at sixty-six.
So, the nurse has come. She is a young woman, probably in her thirties, with dark brown hair and bright brown eyes. If she wore lipstick and used a little mousse, she’d look a lot like the nurse who had finally gotten she and her siblings into school. Nancy Barton. That was her name. It has been years since Leda remembered her, but now she does.
Soledad is in the middle of something, something she can’t remember, when Josephina and Isabella burst through the front door, bringing a visitor with them. Mama is startled from the task at hand, kneading dough for bread. Her hands are white and sticky, not fit for welcoming a guest. The red of Mama’s face betrays this fact, her feelings of inadequacy. She would feel awkward entertaining a stranger without flour everywhere, so now she is flustered, wiping haphazardly at her apron while her older daughters chatter about the woman they’ve invited inside.
The woman sees Mama’s predicament and doesn’t know quite what to do either. It would be rude to begin a conversation, introduce herself, without offering her hand. It would also be rude to offer her hand immediately, since Mama is still struggling with the viscous mixture that has implanted itself into the lines of her fingers and around her fingernails. So, there is a moment of silence, a queer pause.
Soledad studies the woman visitor, all dressed in white, even her shoes. Her clothing isn’t pretty in a wedding sort of way, but efficient and clean. The shoes are thick soled and sturdy, not anything to dance in. Soledad sees that the dress is stiff and probably cotton. It looks more uncomfortable than the flour-sack dresses Mama makes for her. The woman’s face is kind, with a look of expectancy as she waits for Mama’s hand-cleaning to introduce herself. She wears a hopeful smile, her mouth surrounded in a glistening red. Oh, how Soledad would love to have a mouth that color, all gooey and ready to kiss. She begins to imagine that the woman is a movie star, somebody like her Auntie Chacha, only famous. Then her eyes find the small black name tag announcing that their visitor is “School Nurse, Nancy Barton.” Then Soledad realizes she is no movie star, and a pang of disappointment hits her heart.
Ms. Barton looks around their one-roomed shack, noticing the hard-packed dirt floor, the straw-filled makeshift mattresses stacked with blankets in the corner, Mama’s “kitchen” (a table strewn with flour and dough, a hot plate, and a wood stove in the corner), and their “living room” (two wooden chairs, scarred and rickety). It only takes the nurse a moment to take all of this in, a moment to realize how poor Soledad’s family is and how tired Pilar is (not just from kneading dough).
Pilar is finally ready to shake hands, and the women do, with Ms. Barton’s lily-white hand a contrast against the rough, work-worn skin of Mama’s. Soledad loves her mother, hands and all, but can’t help feel a longing for a mother with beautiful hands, the nails shaped into ovals and painted red. That would be something!
Nurse Barton explains that she stopped by because she noticed that Isabella and Josefa—who have been standing behind her the entire time, their faces bright with hope and longing, their bodies dancing in anticipation of what their visitor would say—should be in school. They are certainly old enough, the nurse notes, giving a sidelong glance to the girls, who blush with delight at her acknowledgment of them.
Mama explains that the nurse is correct. Her children should be in school and want to be in school. Pilar wants them in school herself. She knows the poverty they are experiencing could be shifted in the next generation with a little education. She knows that working nights in a cannery is not what she has in mind for her children. She wants them to know the comfort of a full belly every meal, the softness of a real mattress, something she’s never felt herself, and the pride of wearing new clothes, not dresses concocted from flour sacks. Pilar explains to the nurse that she wants her children in school, but that it is not possible. The welfare department has deprived them of any help, saying Pilar is able-bodied enough to provide for her children, to pay the school fees, buy them the required shoes to be allowed to attend.
Ms. Barton’s mouth is open in surprise, not understanding how this can be, how the welfare department could deny such a family. For clearly, they are in need. She can see this with her own eyes, in a glance. She purses her lips in thought. Shaking her head in disbelief, Ms. Barton tells Pilar that she will help her, take her to the welfare people herself, make sure the children are given vouchers for school and shoes and anything else they need.
The room is silent in anticipation. The children wait to hear if their Mama, a proud woman unafraid to make her own way in this world, will say yes. Will she allow them to go to school, to accept help from this beautiful stranger?
Mama drops her chin to her chest, trying to think and to hide the shame in her eyes. She needs the help, has asked for it before. That had been hard. Asking and being denied. She didn’t want to be denied again or to look like a beggar, back at the welfare department with another sad story instead of a fine job and self-sufficiency. She thought of her niños, the children who stared at her now with hungry eyes, hungry for education, learning, books, and a social life. Children who wanted to belong as much as she wanted them to. She raises her head slowly, finding the nurse’s eyes. She nods slightly, giving the signal that she will accept the welfare, the help getting through to the welfare department. For Pilar knows they need it, more than ever.
The nurse leaves in what seems like a hurry, maybe feeling as if her quick movements will hasten the process, allow the Taranco family to enter school as soon as possible. The scent of her perfume lingers in the house, and the memory of her words affects each member with excitement, humility, and anticipation. Soledad smiles, remembering the red lipstick and fingernails, vowing that one day she’ll have the same.