Mother and Daughter
by Gary Soto
Yollie’s mother, Mrs. Moreno, was a large woman who wore a muumuu and butterfly
shaped glasses. She liked to water her lawn in the evening and wave at low riders, who would stare at her behind their smoky sunglasses and laugh. Now and then a low rider from Belmont Avenue would make his car jump and shout “Mamacita!” But most of the time they just stared and wondered how she got so large.
Mrs. Moreno had a strange sense of humor. Once, Yollie and her mother were
watching a late night movie called “They Came to Look.” It was about creatures from the underworld who had climbed through molten lava to walk the earth. But Yollie, who had played soccer all day with the kids next door, was too tired to be scared. Her eyes closed but sprang open when her mother screamed, “Look Yollie! Oh, you missed a scary part. The guy’s face was all ugly!” But Yollie couldn’t keep her eyes open. They fell shut again and stayed shut, even when her mother screamed and slammed a heavy palm on the arm of her chair.
“Mom, wake me up when the movie’s over so I can go to bed,” mumbled Yollie.
“OK, Yollie, I wake you,” said her mother through a mouthful of popcorn. But after the movie ended, instead of waking her daughter, Mrs. Moreno laughed under her breath, turned the TV and lights off, and tiptoed to bed. Yollie woke up in the middle of the night and didn’t know where she was. For a moment she thought she was dead. Maybe something from the underworld had lifted her from her house and carried her into the earth’s belly. She blinked her sleepy eyes, looked around at the darkness, and called, “Mom? Mom, where are you?” But there was no answer, just the throbbing hum of the refrigerator.
Finally, Yollie’s grogginess cleared and she realized her mother had gone to bed, leaving her on the couch. Another of her little jokes. But Yollie wasn’t laughing. She tiptoed into her mother’s bedroom with a glass of water and set it on the nightstand next to the alarm clock. The next morning, Yollie woke to screams. When her mother reached to turn off the alarm, she had overturned the glass of water.
Yollie burned her mother’s morning toast and gloated. “Ha! Ha! I got you back. Why did you leave me on the couch when I told you to wake me up?” Despite their jokes, mother and daughter usually got along. They watched bargain matinees together, and played croquet in the summer and checkers in the winter. Mrs. Moreno encouraged Yollie to study hard because she wanted her daughter to be a doctor. She bought Yollie a desk, a typewriter, and a lamp that cut glare so her eyes would not grow tired from hours of studying.
Yollie was slender as a tulip, pretty and one of the smartest kids at Saint Theresa’s. She was captain of crossing guards, an alter girl, and a whiz in the school’s monthly spelling bees.
“ Tienes que estudiar mucho,” Mrs. Moreno said every time she propped her work weary feet on the hassock. “You have to study a lot, then you can get a good job and take care of me.”
“Yes, Mama,” Yollie would respond, her face buried in a book. If she gave her mother any sympathy, she would begin her stories about how she had come with her family from Mexico with nothing on her back but a sack with three skirts, all of which were too large by the time she crossed the border because she had lost weight from not having enough to eat.
Everyone thought Yollie’s mother was a riot. Even the nuns laughed at her antics. Her
brother Raul, a nightclub owner, thought she was funny enough to go into show business. But there was nothing funny about Yollie needing a new outfit for the eighth grade fall dance. They couldn’t afford one. It was late October, with Christmas around the corner, and their dented Chevy Nova had gobbled up almost one hundred dollars in repairs.
“We don’t have the money,” said her mother, genuinely sad because they couldn’t buy the outfit, even though there was a little money stashed away for college. Mrs. Moreno remembered her teenage years and her hardworking parents, who picked grapes and oranges, and chopped beets and cotton for meager pay around Kerman. Those were the days when “new clothes” meant limp and out of style dresses from Saint Vincent de Paul.
The best Mrs. Moreno could do was buy Yollie a pair of black shoes with velvet bows
and fabric dye to color her white summer dress black.
“We can color your dress so it will look brand new,” her mother said brightly, shaking the
bottle of dye as she ran hot water into a plastic dish tub. She poured the black liquid into the
tub and stirred it with a pencil. Then, slowly and carefully, she lowered the dress into the tub.
Yollie couldn’t stand to watch. She knew it wouldn’t work. It would be like the time her mother stirred up a batch of molasses for candy apples on Yollie’s birthday. She’d dipped
the apples in the goo and swirled them and seem to taunt Yollie by singing “Las Mañanitas” to her. When she was through, she set the apples on wax paper. They were hard as rocks and hurt kids’ teeth. Finally they had a contest to see who could break the apples open by throwing them against the side of the house. The apples shattered like grenades, sending the kids scurrying for cover, and in an odd way the birthday party turned out to be a success. At least everyone went home happy.
To Yollie’s surprise, the dress came out shiny black. It looked brand new and sophisticated, like what people in New York wear. She beamed at her mother, who hugged Yollie and said, “See, what did I tell you?”
The dance was important to Yollie because she was in love with Ernie Castillo, the third best speller in the class. She bathed, dressed, did her hair and nails, and primped until her mother yelled, “All right already.” Yollie sprayed her neck and wrists with Mrs. Moreno’s Avon perfume and bounced into the car.
Mrs. Moreno let Yollie out in front of the school. She waved and told her to have a good time but behave herself, then she roared off, blue smoke trailing from the tail pipe of the old Nova. Yollie ran into her best friend, Janice. They didn’t say it, but each thought the other was the most beautiful girl at the dance; the boys would fall over themselves asking them to
The evening was warm but thick with clouds. Gusts of wind picked up the paper lanterns hanging in the trees and swung them, blurring the night with reds and yellows. The lanterns made the evening seem romantic, like a scene from a movie. Everyone danced, sipped punch, and stood in knots of threes and fours, talking. Sister Kelly got up and jitterbugged with some kid’s father. When the record ended, students broke into applause.
Janice had her eye on Frankie Ledesma, and Yollie, who kept smoothing her dress down when the wind picked up, had her eye on Ernie. It turned out that Ernie had his mind on Yollie, too. He ate a handful of cookies nervously, then asked her for a dance. “Sure,” she said, nearly throwing herself into his arms. They danced two fast ones before they got a slow one. As they circled under the lanterns, rain began falling, lightly at first. Yollie loved the sound of the raindrops ticking against the leaves. She leaned her head on Ernie’s shoulder, though his sweater was scratchy. He felt warm and tender. Yollie could tell that he was in love, and with her, of course. The dance continued successfully, romantically, until it began to pour.
“Everyone, let’s go inside and, boys, carry in the table and the record player,” Sister Kelly commanded.
The girls and boys raced into the cafeteria. Inside, the girls, drenched to the bone,
hurried to the restrooms to brush their hair and dry themselves. One girl cried because her
velvet dress was ruined. Yollie felt sorry for her and helped her dry the dress of with paper
towels, but it was no use. The dress was ruined.
Yollie went to a mirror. She looked a little gray now that her mother’s makeup had
washed away but not as bad as some of the other girls. She combed her damp hair, careful not to pull too hard. She couldn’t wait to get back to Ernie.
Yollie bent over to pick up a bobby pin, and shame spread across her face. A black puddle was forming at her feet. Drip, black drip. Drip, black drip. The dye was falling from her dress like black tears. Yollie stood up. Her dress was now the color of ash. She looked around the room. The other girls, unaware of Yollie’s problem, were busy grooming themselves. What could she do? Everyone would laugh. They would know she dyed an old dress because she couldn’t afford a new one. She hurried from the restroom with her head down, across the cafeteria floor and out the door. She raced through the storm, crying as the rain mixed with her tears and ran into twig choked gutters.
When she arrived home, her mother was on the couch eating cookies and watching TV. “How was the dance, m’ija? Come watch the show with me. It’s really good.”
Yollie stomped, head down, to her bedroom. She undressed and threw the dress on the floor. Her mother came into the room. “What’s going on? What’s all the racket, baby?”
“The dress. It’s cheap! It’s no good!” Yollie kicked the dress at her mother and watched it land in her hands. Mrs. Moreno studied it closely but couldn’t see what was wrong. “What’s the matter? It’s just little bit wet.”
“The dye came out, that’s what.”
Mrs. Moreno looked at her hands and saw the grayish dye puddling in the shallow lines of her palms. Poor baby, she thought, her brow darkening as she made a sad face. She wanted to tell her daughter how sorry she was, but she knew it wouldn’t help. She walked back to the living room and cried.
The next morning, mother and daughter stayed away from each other. Yollie sat in her
room turning the pages of an old Seventeen, while her mother watered her plants with a Pepsi bottle.
“Drink, my children,” she said loud enough for Yollie to hear. She let the water slurp into pots of coleus and cacti.
“Water is all you need. My daughter needs clothes, but I don’t have any money.”
Yollie tossed her Seventeen on her bed. She was embarrassed at last night’s tirade. It wasn’t her mother’s fault that they were poor.
When they sat down together for lunch, they felt awkward about the night before. But
Mrs. Moreno had made a fresh stack of tortillas and cooked up a pan of chile verde, and that broke the ice. She licked her thumb and smacked her lips.
“You know, honey, we gotta figure a way to make money,” Yollie’s mother said. “You and me. We don’t have to be poor. Remember the Garcias. They made this stupid little tool that fixes cars. They moved away because they’re rich. That’s why we don’t see them no more.”
“What can we make?” asked Yollie. She took another tortilla and tore it in half.
“Maybe a screwdriver that works on both ends? Something like that.” The mother looked around the room for ideas, but then shrugged. “Let’s forget it. It’s better to get an education. If you get a good job and have spare time then maybe you can invent something.” She rolled her tongue over her lips and cleared her throat. “The county fair hires people. We can get a job there. It will be here next week.”
Yollie hated the idea. What would Ernie say if he saw her pitching hay at the cows? How could she go to school smelling like an armful of chickens? “No, they wouldn’t hire us,”she said.
The phone rang. Yollie lurched from her chair to answer it, thinking it would be Janice wanting to know why she had left. But it was Ernie wondering the same thing. When he found out she wasn’t mad at him, he asked if she would like to go to a movie.
“I’ll ask,” Yollie said, smiling. She covered the phone with her hand and counted to ten. She uncovered the receiver and said, “My mom says it’s OK. What are we going to see?”
After Yollie hung up, her mother climbed, grunting, onto a chair to reach the top shelf in the hall closet. She wondered why she hadn’t done it earlier. She reached behind a stack of
towels and pushed her chubby hand into the cigar box where she kept her secret stash of money.
“I’ve been saving a little every month,” said Mrs. Moreno. “For you, m’ija.” Her mother held up five twenties, a blossom of green that smelled sweeter than flowers on that Saturday. They drove to Macy’s and bought a blouse, shoes, and a skirt that would not bleed in rain or any other kind of weather.