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Soledad had been taught to pray. Pilar attended Mass each week and made sure all of her children received their first communions in a special way. In time, it became time for Soledad and Maria to take the Lord’s sacrament, so Pilar talked to the nuns, those women Soledad thought of as plain and very nearly dead, about getting her daughters’ communions dresses.
Soledad often found that asking the nuns for help did nothing for her mother. Pilar faithfully attended her meetings, prayed until her knees were bruised, and lit candles for those who had gone before. The nuns continually told Pilar to pray, that God would help her with her trials. Soledad often wondered if praying would put food on the table or clothes on their backs. The nuns mentioned praying for strength, but strength would not help anybody to overcome hunger and cold.
However, the nuns came through for Soledad’s communion. She and Maria were now being taken to a dress shop owned by a Catholic man, a good man who would allow Mama to purchase the right clothes for their special day at a discounted price.
The store owner’s wife greets Pilar with a cold stare, her cigarette dangling from hands full of green-blue veins with red claws. She wears an olive-green skirt, endlessly pleated, and a mess of hair falls lazily from a bun, the scraggily strands plunging into the back of her mustard-colored blouse. The collar of the blouse has intricate lacework, complimenting the shiny white buttons. She wears panty hose, something nobody in the Taranco family had ever owned. The woman’s big toes stick out of each toeless black heel. The leather folds neatly over the toe, framing its plumpness. The seam of the panty hose peeks through that hole as well, making Soledad think that this woman, although rich enough to buy nice clothing, does not know how to dress herself neatly. As a complete package, she looks alright, but under scrutiny, the woman looks unkempt. She wears a large gold necklace, lopsided so the clasp is showing. Rings also adorn her fingers, causing her to look like a jewelry store rather than a rich woman.
The messy woman turns, stamping one long black heel into the carpet. The back of her mustard blouse betrays what she had been doing before the family had arrived. The wrinkles are consistent with marks that would be made from lounging in a chair, smoking lazily. She marches out of the room in a huff, turning before she completely disappears into the back of the store to tell her husband, “You’d better hurry up. We ain’t got all day.” Soledad looks for comfort from Maria, who is busy admiring racks of gauzy communion dresses, unaware of the selfish woman.
The man, Mr. Hampton, turns to Mama, lowering his eyes apologetically. “I’m sorry about that,” he murmurs, motioning with his eyes toward the back door his wife had slipped through. “She’s got nerves. She’s not well, my wife . . .” he trails off, hoping this weak explanation will smooth the situation over.
Mama smiles and says, “Girls, which dress do you think is yours for this special occasion? Go on, start looking!” She doesn’t do this to ignore the man’s embarrassment, but to move the attention to her daughters, whose special day it is.
A flicker of thankfulness crosses Mr. Hampton’s face, but only for a moment. He quickly begins motioning toward the racks that hold the right sizes, showcasing the fanciest dresses, rather than the plain, poor-looking ones. He did not act like his wife, an obviously selfish woman.
The girls decide on their dresses quickly, a relief to Pilar who glances at the back door nervously every few minutes. She does not want to overstay her welcome, to abuse the privilege she has to be there in the first place. When Mr. Hampton announces that the total is $0, Pilar bites her knuckles, hoping it will stop the tears of gratitude from flowing. After a moment of composing herself, she insists that she will pay, telling Mr. Hampton that he has done enough already.
He waves this off, instead turning to wrap the dresses in soft tissue paper. The rustling crackles of the paper fill the awkward silence. The girls find it comforting, the sound of that paper. They will take it home and play with it, maybe using it to line the bureau drawer they share or to create dolls.
Soledad and Maria lift their packages off the counter and head for the door. Mr. Hampton waves goodbye, telling them that they are good little girls who will make God beam with happiness. His wife stumbles out of the back room, still smoking and rumpled, to see the family leave. She stares at them blankly, without a smile or a word. With her eyes she seems to be saying, “And don’t come back, ya hear!”
Communion day comes and goes, and soon the girls forget their commitment to God and find themselves sneaking into the Mountain View movie theater, where their sister Mary works. Mary returns from her job, smelling of butter and salt, full of the latest gossip of the stars. Soledad is enchanted with the talk and longs to see as many movies as possible. Of course, Pilar cannot afford to take her brood to the movies each week, so the girls have Mary sneak them in. Pilar does not know about this, for if she did, their bottoms would be spanked to blisters.
Mr. Figarelli is the grumpy owner of the theater. He despises anybody younger than he, doing all he can to spread his misery and cynicism. Mary feels a satisfaction in sneaking her sisters past him, knowing she has got the better of him. Soledad and Maria enjoy their times watching the big screen, knowing they must keep their heads down and their bodies invisible as they leave, for Mr. Figarelli scans the crowd with his squinty eyes, hoping to see something amiss. They giggle each time they escape.