Irma the Practical

by Donna Miscolta

Irma clamps her mouth so that the pins press into her lips and the tiny metal heads tilt toward the roof of her mouth. She has never swallowed any pins, but she thinks of what it might feel like if she did. She removes them one by one, slipping them into the satin to hold the hem.

She smooths the wedding dress that is spread across the bed, and considers the different opportunities she will have that day to tell Donald she wants a divorce – or rather, that she will have a divorce. Despite the church, despite the social stigma, it is an American thing to do and she has been an American for nearly thirteen years now. She bastes the hem of the dress in place, and with each pull of the needle, she recites one of the options – when he comes home from work, after dinner, at bedtime. When she has one stitch left to complete the hem, she is on the third option – at bedtime – but decides to add an extra stitch so that she ends up on when he comes home from work. And these are the words that fill her head like a broken record as she readies the dress for Louise Mitchell who will come for her final fitting this afternoon with that cow of a mother.

Irma carefully gathers up the dress from the bed, one arm beneath the bodice, the other cradling the skirt, the sleeves dangling free so that she appears to be lifting a limp and senseless bride. Before placing the dress on the dressmaker’s dummy, Irma holds it against herself and stands in front of the mirror. It’s not her size. She’s tall and thin, while Louise Mitchell promises to assume the bovine bulk of her mother. Louise’s current robustness, notwithstanding, Irma has snipped and tucked at Mrs. Mitchell’s instructions, and Irma can only hope that on the day of the wedding Louise has no plans to eat, sneeze or laugh. Irma had done all these things – normal human impulses – on her wedding day nearly thirteen years ago in the Iglesia de Santa Cruz, the tiny church in Colonia Real.

She did not, however, have her own wedding dress. It was a dress that was shared among the family, traveling up the coast to be worn by one cousin or to the interior for the vows of another. Even as she pleaded with her mother to allow her to alter the neckline to suit her elongate frame and to add new lace at the sleeves, she was reminded that the dress must be preserved for her young cousin Ana. Irma shakes her head now at the thought of Ana who never did wear the dress, leaving Mexico without being married, arriving at Irma’s door one day, tired and dusty but with a shine in her black eyes when she announced she had come to the United States for a better life, as if it were an original idea. As if her way was better than Irma’s.

Perhaps if she had not worn a used wedding dress, perhaps if she had not celebrated with such uncharacteristic behavior – eating pan dulce until her stomach cramped, inhaling the scent of her bouquet until she showered it with a vigorous sneeze, laughing at the old and silly jokes about wedding nights that her male cousins delivered with a sly wink, perhaps things would have gone differently. Idiota, she scolds herself. She is too reasonable to succumb to such foolish explanations. Still, they were sometimes easier to accept than the truth – that she had married the wrong man.

As Irma positions Louise Mitchell’s wedding dress over the dummy, she thinks about her own wedding day, how she had thought such a day would never happen, how she had made it happen.

Donald O’Hare came to Mexico from el norte in 1917. The first time Irma saw him was from behind her desk where she was the receptionist for the Bustamantes, a family of lawyers known in San Blas for their prodigious triumphs in the courts, the fruits of which did not improve the parsimonious wages to their office help. Irma greeted the norteamericano with her businesslike smile and accepted with a solemn nod the card he handed her. She motioned for him to sit down and though the chairs in the Bustamante office were plush and comfortable, the norteamericano perched rigidly on the edge, his fingers quietly drumming the large black case at his side. He was a salesman, and Irma knew the Bustamantes kept such people waiting. As she busied herself with minor paperwork, she stole glances at the lanky American with thinning blond hair and pale blue eyes that suggested something visionary.

Ilusiones, thinks Irma with both scorn and regret. She goes to her sewing table and finds the box of beads Mrs. Mitchell left at the previous fitting. She winces as she wonders what that woman will bring today. At each of the last few fittings, Irma has watched Mrs. Mitchell open up her voluminous handbag and pull out a tendril of lace or a set of opalescent buttons or a tiny silver cross, saying, “This should add a bit of elegance.” So Irma has affixed them all, the lace in a small bow at the waist, the buttons to accent the cuffs, the silver cross embedded at the throat in her skillful stitching. She congratulates herself on her ability to incorporate these extraneous adornments without ruining the line of the dress. But these beads, she thinks as she rattles them in their box, can only be trouble. Ilusiones, Irma says aloud this time.

“It’s a busy schedule today,” she said to the American, who answered with a polite smile that told of patience and endurance. Irma looked at the card he had given her since already she had forgotten his name, such was the impression made by this quiet and pale man.

“Mr. O’Hare, would you like a cool glass of water?” she asked, and the man answered in slow, but proficient, Spanish with a pretty speech about the hospitality and beautiful people of Mexico.

Irma blushed because she knew she wasn’t beautiful, knew also that this man was speaking about manners and customs which seemed to matter more to him than looks. A sentiment she would have found noble had he himself not been so lacking in physical beauty. And yet this man’s very appearance – the long and not entirely inelegant limbs, the kind if docile mouth, the steady hope in his eyes – triggered something in Irma, an impulse at first and then something much more calculated.

Knowing that it would be a half hour or more before one of the Bustamantes deigned to receive the salesman, Irma sat down next to Donald O’Hare who took appreciative sips from his water glass. She knew some English – an important skill for someone like her who expected to move up in the world, who was meant for someplace larger than San Blas. Though her English was far from the fluency of Mr. O’Hare’s Spanish, she wanted to put it on display.

“And from where is it that you come, sir?

He smiled to acknowledge her words as if they were something genial and gracious, and Irma flinched inwardly at her self-serving motives.

He gave a brief answer back in English. “From California. San Diego. Kimball Park, really.” But then, as if accepting Irma’s linguistic offering for what it was – a gesture – he reverted to his slow but nimble Spanish.

He was in Mexico, he said, to satisfy a need for travel and adventure, and, he added, to escape the persistent inquiries regarding his absence from the Great War. Asthma was not something conspicuous like a limp, was not regarded with the same consideration as other conditions or infirmities, he explained without rancor, though with a slight air of injury. Irma nodded in understanding, allowing a judicious pause before a casually phrased question about his return to Kimball Park.

It was here that Donald O’Hare was transformed, his body less rigid, his pale blue eyes more focused. He leaned forward and spoke in a confidential tone, and immediately disappointed Irma by a wandering explanation of his job selling typewriters in Mexico, how his employer based in Guadalajara had assigned him to travel the smaller towns out toward the coast, how in his travels he had been struck by the variety of crafts, by the rainbow colors and the graceful designs painted on or woven into them.

Irma had nearly decided to leave the gringo to his ramblings and return to her desk when Donald O’Hare finally came to the point. He would start his own business in Kimball Park, selling authentic Mexican handmade goods. He had already accumulated an array of serapes, sombreros, ollas, obsidian sculptures of frogs and birds and Aztec gods, clay replicas of pyramids. Within a few months he would be back in Kimball Park, no longer a traveling salesman. He would set up a shop and people would come to him. Irma nodded her head in approval, a marvelous idea she agreed. She settled a gaze on him that conveyed how deeply sincere she was, and he responded with a smile and an invitation to dinner.

It was a small café, inexpensive and without intimacy. However, the candlelight flattered and the scratchy music from a radio filled the more than occasional silence between them. An agreeable silence, Irma thought and even ventured to say out loud.

“Yes,” Donald said.

“It’s as if words are not necessary between us.”

Donald nodded, and Irma placed her hand on the table, the easier for him to take it in his own.

The wedding six weeks later was a simple and hurried affair, squeezed between a town procession in the morning and an evening fiesta in the church plaza to mark the start of the fishing season. This resulted in some additional and unexpected guests at the nuptials, morning stragglers or early fiesta-goers supposing them to be part of the daylong fishing celebration, and Donald O’Hare was seen embracing perfect strangers supposing them to be the friends and family of his bride.

Herself a bit giddy, Irma excused this blunder, smug as she was about starting a new life in el norte. No longer would she answer to the Bustamantes or their clients in exchange for the slim wages she earned and the condescending looks she didn’t. She would instead be a witness to her husband’s business venture – an idea that never failed to produce a light in his pale blue eyes and a hope in Irma’s dispassionate heart. It was this promise of a future for their thin, plain daughter with the stern face that persuaded her parents to so readily consent to her marriage to a foreigner. And so the wedding dress was brought out, sent down from the hills of Copala where it was last worn by a cousin of a cousin. Irma wore hyacinths woven in her hair and pinned at her throat because the flowers camouflaged her long neck and the reddish hue made up for the fact that her skin lacked the rich cinnamon tone of the other women of the region and was instead the color of corn tortillas.

The day after the wedding, Irma packed her modest belongings into Donald’s car already crammed with a final shipment of authentic Mexican crafts that would complete the inventory for the opening of the shop which Donald intended to call La Perla del Mar. While she agreed the name was romantic, Irma suggested something more straightforward and in English such as Treasures of Mexico or simply Treasures. But Donald’s mind was made up and Irma only shrugged, knowing that marriage was a compromise. Irma settled in the front seat of the Pontiac, and the overflow from the back seat of blankets, pottery, huaraches in every size, and miniature piñatas gave a feeling of festive abundance.

Before starting up the engine, Donald reached in his shirt pocket, withdrew a small box, and presented it to Irma, his eyes alive with the pleasure of giving. When she opened it, she emitted a quiet gasp of delight. She slipped the string of pearls around her neck and admired the way it swung down her chest as the light played on the beads like some congenial spirit. Donald and Irma O’Hare drove through the dusty streets of San Blas and with the cheers as well as the sighs of relief of her parents behind them, they headed north on the highway. Through the mangroves of Sinaloa and the deserts of Sonora, skirting the border of Arizona and then California, the Pontiac took on sand and heat and the oppressive weight of the silence that had inserted itself between Donald and Irma from that first candlelight dinner.

“The strain of traveling,” Donald said as they drove through Tijuana, trying to ignore the clothes laid out to dry on the roofs in the shanty towns, disembodied and abandoned.

“Exhausting,” Irma added.

“Almost there,” Donald said as the border gate came into view.

Irma leaned forward to look and her string of pearls, which she had worn from the start of the trip, looped around the gearshift. Before she had a chance to extricate herself, Donald downshifted, yanking the necklace loose and sending the beads to bounce and roll like the contents of a broken piñata. Her hands flew to her neck as if she could somehow restore the beads there intact. But even though Donald pulled the car over and they gathered the pieces into Irma’s lap, even though they measured the number of beads they found against the length of the string to verify they had collected them all, they never restrung them.

Irma stirs Mrs. Mitchell’s beads with her fingers. Best to anchor each one separately, she decides. Stringing the beads to loop at the waist would be a quicker solution, but the tediousness of sewing each individual bead in place somehow appeals to her. She threads her needle and begins her task, positioning the first bead and then the next, marking a trail of the events in her life. The grand opening of La Perla del Mar, celebrated with bunting and bright paper flowers that drew only a handful of people who fingered the merchandise curiously and then let it fall back to the shelf; the quiet closing of La Perla a few months later, the piles of unsold items moved to their tiny house to be stored under the bed, stacked in the closet, thrown across furniture and crowded onto tables; Donald’s return to a traveling sales job, this time door-to-door in the neighborhoods of Kimball Park, not the towns of west central Mexico; Irma’s job in a sewing factory where the work was unimaginative, but Irma was not, finishing extra pieces to earn bonuses and eventually saving enough to buy her own Singer.

Throughout all of this, Donald and Irma did their duty by each other as husband and wife, producing a daughter who resembled her mother in every way, and a son who was also a near-replica of Irma except for the pale blue eyes. It was the passing on of this trait that left Donald completely bereft of the light in his own eyes that had once kindled with the dream of La Perla del Mar. As the years went by, it was Irma’s sewing business that flourished. The concentration in her sharp face and the nimbleness of her thin fingers could swiftly yield uniforms, costumes, evening dresses, wedding gowns, whatever the customer desired.

Irma is nearly finished now with fulfilling Mrs. Mitchell’s desire for beads on her daughter’s wedding gown. She steps back to examine the effect and is pleased again at how skillfully she has rendered a bad idea. She has sewn the beads into the folds of the skirt so that they are not immediately obvious, but a glint here, a gleam there, gives a hint of something to be disclosed. She stitches in the few remaining beads and as she draws the needle through the last one, the doorbell rings. Irma knots the thread and breaks the extra length with a practiced yank. She passes a final look of stern approval over her handiwork, then pulls her face into an agreeable expression for Mrs. Mitchell and Louise.

At the door, Mrs. Mitchell prods Louise across the threshold and greets Irma with a brisk, “And how is it looking today?”

“Elegant,” replies Irma as she leads the way to the dress.

Mrs. Mitchell confirms this assessment with a deep satisfied inhale. She breathes out slowly to savor her creation. “I knew it was a good idea,” she exclaims. She looks to Louise who nods dumbly.

“Louise,” Mrs. Mitchell groans in irritation. “Show some appreciation, dear.” Mrs. Mitchell steers her daughter closer to the dummy on which the dress is displayed. She cups Louise’s face in her hands, shakes it slightly as she whispers urgently, “Honey, it’s all for you.”

Louise’s round face goes splotchy with a sudden onset of tears. “Oh, dear,” Mrs. Mitchell sighs, pulling a handkerchief from her purse and mopping at her daughter’s face with the same motion Irma has seen her use when wiping a spill from her teacup. “Louise has the bridal jitters,” Mrs. Mitchell explains to Irma.

“It’s perfectly normal,” Irma remarks, though she offers this more from hearsay than from experience. Her own wedding day emotions arose not from second thoughts about her acceptance of Donald’s polite and proper proposal, but from gratitude that it had been spoken at all.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” wails Louise who nonetheless yields to her mother’s hands which busily unfasten belt, buttons and hooks until she stands exposed in stockings and slip.

Irma removes the wedding dress from the dummy and holds it out to Mrs. Mitchell who strokes it like a favorite pet before helping her daughter into it. As Louise stands silent and stone-faced, Mrs. Mitchell smooths the sleeves, fluffs the gathers at her daughter’s thick waist, spreads the skirt evenly around her feet, and carries on a vigorous monologue.

“Louise is marrying a dentist. She’ll have a house, over on Clover Street, where so many of the best families have lived for years. It’s a very good match for Louise.”

Irma remains silent, her throat prickly as if small pins lodged there after all. She wishes for the fitting to be over, wanting the old cow and her doughy daughter out of her own house here on Fig Street where she has lived since her marriage to Donald.

But Mrs. Mitchell is directing Louise to walk the length of the small room made smaller by their presence. She is indicating with a twirling finger when Louise should pirouette left or right. Then she holds up her hand to halt Louise who is perched on the balls of her feet, her hands hovering at her sides, fingertips brushing the shiny white fabric of her dress.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” Louise says again, more quietly this time, but with no less conviction than before.

Mrs. Mitchell is more sympathetic now. Her voice is gently conspiratorial. “There’s no shame in it, Louise. It’s the way of things.”

She motions Louise forward. “Come, dear.” She sways her hand back and forth to set the tempo of her march. As Louise walks steadily toward them, Mrs. Mitchell nods her head with encouragement while Irma watches the wink of the beads in the folds of the dress.

As Mrs. Mitchell and Louise leave, Irma’s children come home from school. They duck from Mrs. Mitchell whose hand finds only air to pat. She laughs and the sound makes Irma think of the shrill chuckle of the mangrove cuckoo she used to hear as a girl in San Blas. The thought of her hometown makes her nostalgic, not for the life she had there, but for the life she had counted on having here.

She revises the thought she had earlier about having married the wrong man. Who would she have married if not Donald? She goes to the bedroom closet and from beneath a pile of serapes and woven blankets filmy with age, she withdraws a cloth pouch. She doesn’t open it, just presses it between her hands, feels the hard, knobby contents. She shakes the pouch to hear the soft clack of small objects, then puts it in the pocket of her sewing smock. The weight of it hits her at stomach level.

She hears the front door open and a clank of metal in the hall as Donald drags in the model Hoover he demonstrates to housewives in their homes. She remembers the decision she made earlier in the day – when he comes home from work. She spies the check Mrs. Mitchell wrote out to her before she left, exclaiming something about taking care of business. “After all, marriage is a practical matter. Isn’t that right, Irma?”

Donald’s footsteps sound in the hall and when he enters the room she knows she will see in his eyes the resignation and the faint, faint hope of a dream. Instead of greeting him she heads to the kitchen to heat the stew for dinner. After dinner, she tells herself.

Donald comes in and as she stirs the pot on the stove, he puts his thin, barely puckered lips to her temple.

“How was your day?” she asks. She knows he takes it as an inquiry into the number of vacuum cleaners he sold that day, which is, after all, how she means it.

“Two,” he answers. “Maybe.” She waits for him to explain. “One customer isn’t sure. She wants a second demonstration.” Irma wonders if when he is demonstrating his vacuum cleaner a housewife might unbutton her housecoat, let it drop in a heap at her feet. She sees the handle of the vacuum cleaner slip from his grip and while he satisfies his desire, the Hoover roars on its own, suctioning the same piece of carpet over and over. She wonders, but she knows better.

“Be forceful,” she tells him.

“Show that you believe in your product.”

“I am. I do.”

Irma sighs into the pot which is bubbling now. At the dinner table, there is little conversation, the children as taciturn as their parents. It is the way they are – a quiet family – Irma reasons. There is nothing wrong in it. And yet, she wants to prod them in some way.

“Sit up straight,” she says.

Her blue-eyed son complies. Her daughter does too, but in an exaggerated way, sitting stiff and tall, her shoulders at her ears, her chin tilted upward. It’s a posture that is both cartoonish and familiar, and Irma is suddenly seized with the suspicion that her daughter is imitating her. But then she sees the earnest look on her face and knows she is sincere, which makes Irma feel worse than if her daughter had been mocking her.

After dinner, Irma releases the children from their kitchen chores and sends them off to play in their rooms. Donald goes to the living room to watch the evening programs. Irma sits at the uncleared kitchen table with a bottle of beer. At bedtime, Irma thinks. She gets up and takes a second bottle from the refrigerator and carries it into the living room. She sets it on the coffee table in front of Donald and leaves quickly so he must call out his thanks to her retreating back.

She still has the hem of Louise Mitchell’s dress to finish. The dress is on the headless dressmaker’s dummy. She kneels at the hem, lifts and lets fall the folds, eyes the bottom for evenness. Her work is faultless. She removes the dress from the dummy and lays it across the bed just as she had done earlier in the day, and sews the hem in place with a permanent stitch.

That night as she lies silently next to Donald in bed, she lifts her head slightly from the pillow to see her sewing smock hanging on the door. It’s too dark to discern the pocket. She thinks of the beads of disappointment she has embedded in the shiny hopeful fabric of Louise’s dress. At least that girl will start out with a dress that’s her very own. It’s one more in a long line of wedding dresses Irma has made. Tomorrow she will start another.

Tomorrow Donald will show another housewife a vacuum cleaner.


Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her short story manuscript has been a runner-up for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Find her at


Filed under Fiction

2 responses to “Irma the Practical

  1. poetic, melancholy, reminiscent of my own experience, reassuring, it makes me want to shake her…..

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