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November 19, 2006|Desiree Zamorano | Desiree Zamorano is a playwright and a Pushcart Prize nominee.

On Mercy's plate there rested a homemade tortilla, fresh from the griddle on her mother's stove, slightly charred. Her older sister, Lydia, already imperious and miserable at 10, had cried at the wretchedness of the burned patches, and in frustration stormed out of the kitchen and off to school, dragging their brother Isaac along, slamming the back door behind her.

Mercy ate her sister's share. It was delicious, especially the crisp, blackened bits. Mercy had turned 8 in September, just a month before, and her mother had marked that day with a breakfast of hot muffins, crisp bacon, fried eggs. Mercy actually got two slices of bacon that morning. Lydia had cried at the injustice of burned bacon.

After Lydia dragged Isaac out the door, her mother made sure the stove was off, put a wool hat on and wrapped herself in a shawl. She spoke to Mercy in Spanish. "I need to finish this dress for Mrs. Lansdown. You're going to stay home this morning and take care of Joel. I'll be back in an hour." As her mother slammed the back door, the wind rattled the kitchen windows, and Mercy stood, watching the wind beat against the oak trees.

Her mother said the baby's name more like "Ho-ell."

Mercy watched the bright sun, the blue sky and the flailing tree branches for a moment, then walked through the house. She walked through the front room, with its sofa, radio, rocking chair and sewing table. Often her mother was the fixture that accompanied the sewing machine, pumping the treadle, pins between her pursed lips, tugging, pulling, rearranging fabric on her machine, the fine lines of wrinkles on her face echoing the threads she worked with. A granny quilt, made from years of knitting and crocheting

Scraps, lay tossed across the sofa. In the center of the floor was a braided rug, made from years of sewing scraps. Mercy wished there were a rug like that in the room she shared with Lydia.

She walked past the bathroom, cold white tile, cold white toilet, institutional chrome fixtures. She went into her bedroom and pulled out her doll, Amalia.

Amalia was her Christmas gift when Mercy was 5. She was a porcelain-faced doll with silky brown hair, lifelike cheeks, lips and eyes. But the thrill was when you tilted this doll, as Mercy did now, and she said, sweetly, plaintively, "Mama!"

Mercy hugged the doll close.

She walked by her brothers' room. Joey was in there, but he was quiet, and Mercy wasn't going to bother him.

Mercy brought her doll into her mother's room. Her mother slept in a huge four-poster bed. It was neatly made, covered with a quilt. A matching small braided rug lay at the side of the bed.

Mercy propped her doll against the pillows and pretended to serve her breakfast in bed.

Mercy's favorite room was the kitchen because it was slightly warmer than the rest of their house, and the aging wood under her bare feet felt smooth. The kitchen had a small breakfast table, which couldn't possibly fit all of them at once, so they ate in shifts. Her mother extended the table with a leaf on only extremely formal or important occasions, like the afternoon Mercy's father was buried. Her mother had widened the table in order to hold the serving bowls, casseroles, dishes and desserts that his parishioners had brought to sustain his family.

Mercy brought her doll into the front room and sat down on the rocking chair. She rocked back and forth for a moment. The wind continued to rattle the windows, shake the branches. It was howling now, and drafts entered the house. She stared at the radio in the center of the room, just under the windows.

Mercy was absolutely forbidden to play with the radio. Isaac had once, breaking something so severely that the radio was quiet for a month. Their mother told them over and over how many dresses the repair cost. How many hours of careful measuring, cutting and stitching. Mercy knew she was forbidden to play with the radio.

She turned it on.

The music she heard was light and playful, and it filled the small living room. Mercy recognized the same music they played at the white steeple church where they held dances on Saturday nights, the dances she and her sister spied on. Mercy loved to watch everyone dance; the women were so beautiful, the soldiers from Camp Cooke so thrilling. That's what she would do when she was old enough.

That was beneath Lydia's dignity to even contemplate.

"They're just a bunch of nobodies from nowhere, like us," she said. "When I get out of here I'm going to dance with somebodies. I'm gonna be somebody. Look at those dresses! Half of them were sewn by your mother! When I grow up I'm gonna buy everything from the store. Brand new. Everything."

Lydia always referred to their mother as "your mother," as if that was the only way she could bear it.

Mercy went into the boys' room to check on Joey, music trailing behind her.

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