Salvi’s sister had been hassling him for a month.
”Have you been by Ma’s? I know how she can be, but she’s sick, Salvi.”
“She asked for me?”
“No,” Donna hesitated, “but . . .”
“She doesn’t want to see me.”
“She doesn’t know she wants to see you, but she does.”
Eventually he stopped picking up when Donna called, so she sicced his ex-wife on him.
Joanna had not set foot in his apartment since they’d separated. When she came to pick up Tony after his weekend visits, she always waited at the door, arms crossed, while Salvi gathered their son’s things and said goodbye. But last Sunday, when she came to get Tony, Joanna had not only agreed to come in, she’d accepted a cup of coffee. He’d felt a prick of hope, encouragement in a shared laugh over Tony’s Harry Potter obsession. Then, staring into her mug, she said what she’d come in to say:
“Donna told me about your mother. Sounds like she doesn’t have much longer.” She put her hand over his; he hoped she didn’t feel the tremor that shook him. “You really should go see her, Salvi. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
He had enough regrets.
He hadn’t seen Ma in months, since her last run-in with her landlord, Kenny Gilbert. Kenny had inherited the building from his mother, who’d lived in the top floor apartment since Salvi’s family moved there when he was in preschool. Kenny had been a lanky teenager back then, whom Salvi followed around like a puppy. Whenever he climbed the stairs in search of Kenny, Mrs. Gilbert offered cookies or brownies, a reward for making it all the way to the top.
Mrs. Gilbert got along with everyone on Earth except Ma. And Ma had gotten worse since Kenny took over, yelling at the neighbor’s children for climbing the tree out back, ripping up any flowers whose petals hung over her side of the garden (reserved solely for “useful plants” as she referred to her vegetables and herbs), and calling to complain about noise whenever another tenant had “too many guests over”. Salvi was sure it was the final straw when she rammed into a neighbor’s car in the driveway.
“That’s my spot,” she’d hollered behind Salvi’s shoulder as he tried to negotiate with the neighbor. “It’s your fault for parking in my spot.”
Ma had let her insurance lapse. Salvi had to shell out more than $5000 to fix the cars— money he’d been saving to buy a new engine for his boat. He promised Kenny if Ma caused any more trouble, he’d come evict her himself.
“That’s it, Ma! I’m not coming to the rescue again. You’re on your own.”
“Don’t bother coming back at all!” She’d held her chin high when he walked out, her eyes fiery.
“She cried for two days after you left,” Donna told him later.
“For dramatic effect,” he said, “so you’d feel sorry for her and think I was the bad guy. It’s the same old routine, Donna.”
“No,” Donna shook her frizzy mop. “Not this time. I don’t think she hit that car on purpose; she just said that to hide that she lost control. She needs us, Salvi. You can’t just abandon her.”
Donna gave him a half-pleading, half-horrified look.
“Fine, I’ll go.”
When he pulled into Ma’s driveway, the day nurse was standing at the window. He turned the key and his temperamental old truck sputtered and shook. As it quieted, he checked his messages. A text from Donna said she was stuck behind an overturned truck on the highway. Shit! He’d be with Ma on his own. He wondered if Donna was lying about the truck.
The day nurse emerged, kerchief on her head, pocketbook dangling from her forearm.
“You must be Salvi. I’m Margaret.”
“Nice to meet you. Listen, Donna’s running late. Could you possibly stay a little longer?”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I have another patient waiting.” She looked anxiously toward the house. “Your mother’s had her medication for the day. She won’t need any more till the night nurse arrives. She’s napping now; she’ll probably sleep for a while. If she wakes up in pain, she can have one more dose of Tylenol with codeine, but not until she eats something. There are sandwiches and some soup in the fridge.”
She must have seen the panic in his eyes.
“You’ll be fine.” She gave him a strained smile, as though she was holding something between her teeth.
When he entered the living room Ma was asleep on the sofa, her back to him. The bumps of her spine pressing against her nightgown looked like knuckles on a clenched hand. He closed his eyes and an image unfurled in his mind.
Sheets in piles on the shelves, him curled in a ball below them. At six, he was small for his age — much smaller than Tony was — and fit neatly under the bottom shelf.
“Ready or not, here I come,” Ma called. As her footsteps echoed down the hallway he grinned. She’d never find him. He imagined he was on the Millennium Falcon, in one of those compartments for contraband under the floor, the storm troopers’ metal boots clanging above as they searched for him. When the scene had played out in his mind, the dark closet closed in on him. He didn’t hear footsteps anymore.
He waited and waited, his legs ached, his feet went numb. When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he crawled out and tip toed down the hall. In the kitchen, breakfast bowls and cereal boxes still littered the table. He poked his head into the den and saw her curled up on the sofa, her back to him.
His fingers and toes tingled; blood rushed through his veins. He opened his eyes, shutting off the memory. It was one of only a handful from his childhood that he recalled in vivid detail. Whenever he let it play out in his mind, it haunted him. He’d never spoken of it to anyone except Joanna.
He sat in the armchair by the fireplace, prickling with sweat in the dark, overheated room, thick with the scent of antiseptic. He leaned to take off his jacket and knocked over a baby picture of Tony. Ma stirred and glanced around, hazy with sleep.
As her eyes focused on him, they narrowed.
She hmmmphed. “Finally come to see your Ma, huh. What? You worried I’ll leave you out of my will?”
Salvi barked a laugh. As if she had anything to leave.
“I came by to see how you’re doing, Ma.”
“I’m dying. Like you care. How’s the boat?”
That’s what she asks? Not how is second grade going for Tony? Not how are you doing since the divorce?
“Still needs a new engine.” It had needed a new engine since before Dad died. They’d rebuilt the thing twice.
“I thought you said you were getting a new one.”
He had, just before he’d spent all his savings on her accident.
“Haven’t got the money.”
Disgust pinched the edges of her mouth. “Just like your father. How many times did I hear that from Carlo? I told him he should’ve stuck with tuna fishing.” She launched into a well-worn rant about her late ex-husband, the celebrated fisherman Carlo Balzarini, who could find tuna when no other boats could. Every captain on the docks wanted to hire him. He’d been saving to buy his own boat.
“Then one close call, and he got spooked.”
Ma had been pregnant with Salvi when it happened. His father had been fishing out at Georges Bank one night when a storm blew in. The boat was tossed around, and his leg got tangled in a dock line. Then a wave swept him overboard. The rope broke his leg but kept him close to the boat, and the crew was able to haul him in. Otherwise, they might never have found him in the dark, angry swells.
“Lost his nerve after that. Quit tuna fishing altogether. Bought that damn lobster boat instead, so he could stay close to shore,” Ma sneered.
“He wanted to be home with us at night, Ma.”
“My father fished out on the open ocean, running line with his bare hands. ‘You never get ahead playing it safe,’ he used to say. Daddy was a barracuda. Your father. . . ” she pursed her lips, “he was a jellyfish.”
“Ma, let Dad rest in peace, please.”
She draped her arm across her forehead and her watch, the one his jellyfish father had given her, slid down her arm. The gold band, woven like a braid, dangled precariously from her wrist. As a boy sitting on her lap, Salvi would trace it with his finger, trying to follow one of the strands of gold all the way around. But she never kept still long enough for him to find the end.
“No, I’m not okay.” Her caustic tone undercut by a quaver.
“How about some soup?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I can’t give you any pain medication till you eat something.
She grunted but didn’t protest. He went to the kitchen and returned ten minutes later with a steaming bowl of the soup he’d found in the fridge.
“What took so long? Ugh, I can’t stand chicken noodle.” She wrinkled her nose but took the bowl.
As she blew on a spoonful she asked, “So what happened with Joanna? You were crazy about that girl.”
“She says I have trust issues.”
“So she dumped you?” Ma snorted. “How’s Tony?”
He told her about taking Tony to his first game at Fenway, and how he’d won first place in the talent show at school.
“What’s his talent?”
“That’s for girls. You pay for him to do that?”
“He loves it.”
“No wonder kids pick on him.”
“What do you mean kids pick on him?”
“Joanna told me kids were picking on him at school.”
Joanna knew better than to tell Ma stuff like that. She’d make it into something wrong with Tony when the problem was the other little shits.
“You were a wimp, too, you know,” she said, without looking up from the bowl.
Something snapped inside Salvi. It was now or never.
“Hey, Ma? Remember how we used to play hide and seek?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t have time for games.”
It was true. After the divorce, she’d hardly ever played with them.
“When I was little, you did, when we first moved here. I used to hide in the hall closet.”
“Oh yeah,” she nodded, slurping a spoonful of soup. “Donna I could find in a heartbeat, but you’d squirrel away somewhere—you were such a runt-—took forever to find you.”
Salvi shifted in his chair. “Remember the time you gave up? Stopped searching for me and laid down for a nap?”
She looked at the ceiling, her face scrunched up.
“When I finally came out, I tried to wake you.”
Salvi felt like his six-year-old self again, standing next to her on the sofa, her back aimed at him like a giant fist.
“Ma, you’re s’posed to be looking for me. I hided forever.”
She didn’t move.
“Ma,” he called, his pitch rising. “Ma!” He poked her with his finger.
“Ma!” He shook her. “Ma, wake up!”
He shook harder. “Ma, please wake up. Ma! MAAAAAA!” His throat burned, the floor rushed at him, he gasped for breath. He was all alone. Daddy gone. Donna at a friend’s. No one to go to for help. Then he thought of Mrs. Gilbert. He ran out of the apartment, up the steps and banged on her door. When she opened it, he grabbed her hand.
“Come quick. It’s Ma. She won’t wake up. Ma’s dead,” he screeched, dragging Mrs. Gilbert down the stairs. They rushed through the door, into the den.
And there was Ma, sitting on the sofa, legs crossed, flipping through a magazine. She looked up, surprised.
“Mrs. Gilbert. Hello. What can I do for you?”
Mrs. Gilbert gave a tight smile. “I, uh…” She looked down at Salvi, red blotches blooming on her cheeks. “Salvi thought . . . he said you wouldn’t wake up.”
“What?” Ma’s laugh ripped through him. “Salvi, what kind of game are you playing?” She frowned, but a hint of a smile flickered across her lips before she looked back up at Mrs. Gilbert. “I’m so sorry he disturbed you. You know how boys can be.”
Mrs. Gilbert glanced back and forth between Salvi and Ma, perplexed. As she left, Salvi knew he would never go to the top of the stairs again. When the door had closed behind her, he turned to Ma, an anguished crease between his brows. She did not look up from her magazine, as though it were a game, avoiding his eye as long as possible. At last she yawned, tossed the magazine on the table.
“Go wash your hands,” she’d said matter-of-factly. “I’ll fix you a snack.”
When he’d told Joanna the story she said, “That explains a lot.” They were lying on the mattress on the floor of their first apartment. She was quiet for a while, running her fingers over his chest. Then she’d said, “You should talk to a therapist.”
“I’m not crazy.” He’d scowled, turning away from her.
Joanna had pressed against his back, wrapping her arms around him. “You should at least talk to your mother. Ask her about it. Your father had just left, right? She was suddenly a single mother, under extreme stress, exhausted, probably scared to death.”
“Ma has never been scared of anything.”
“Maybe she just had a moment where she felt paralyzed, like that feeling in a dream, you know, when you can’t make your body move.”
“Yeah right,” he’d said with a bitter laugh, then turned over and pulled her to him. “I’ll make your body move.”
Maybe Joanna was right. She’d been right about a lot of things.
At first, it seemed like Ma didn’t remember. She shrugged, her face expressionless. Slowly, she slurped another bite of soup, then said, “What about it?”
Salvi cocked his head and stared at her. “I was a little kid, Ma. I thought you were dead.”
“Well I wasn’t. You should’ve been grateful for that. When my grandfather was a little boy in Italy, he found his mother on the kitchen floor, and she was dead.” She jabbed the soup spoon at him. “Murdered by looting Nazis. His father off fighting with the Allies. At eleven, he had to take care of his three younger siblings.”
“That’s why you traumatized me? ‘Cause your grandfather suffered a horrible tragedy.”
“Did I ever tell you about fishing with my father?”
“No,” he said, irritated by the change of subject.
“On his days off, my father fished for our supper. My sister and I took turns rowing out in the dory and “helping” him, not that we were much help.
“I thought you hated fishing.”
“It wasn’t a choice. We did what we were told. One day, Daddy caught a cormorant. It swallowed his bait, hook and all. He wasn’t about to let a good hook go to waste, so he ripped it out of the bird’s throat. Even with its head nearly severed, it thrashed around in the boat, its big black wings spreading blood everywhere. I started crying like a baby.”
“Quit crying over a stupid bird,” he yelled. Told me to throw it overboard, which made me cry harder. On the way home, I could barely row.
‘C’mon, you can do better than that,’ he hollered. ‘Row harder.’
“Suddenly, he slumped forward, clutching his chest. When he fell off the bench, I panicked, started hyperventilating. Until I realized I had to get us home. That snapped me out of it. I grabbed the oars, rowed us back to shore as fast as I could, and ran to get Uncle Joe. When we returned, Daddy was whistling, cleaning the fish.”
“So this is some kind of family tradition?”
She sighed. “I thanked Daddy later, for showing me what I was capable of. You were just like your father, Salvi. Soft. Meek. Afraid of every little thing. You needed toughening up. Your father wasn’t going to do it, so I had to.
“Here.” She handed him the empty bowl. “Now, my pill.”
His body walked to the medicine cabinet as his mind reeled. Next to the Tylenol with codeine was a bottle of aspirin. The pills looked nearly identical. He took out one of each, held them in each palm, considering: She’d never know the difference. Let her see just how much pain she can handle. He thought of Joanna, of Tony, what they would think. Salvi clutched the right pill in his fist, dropped the left one down the drain, and returned to the living room. He seemed to be watching himself cradle her head, hold the glass while she drank. She felt like a bird, her bones delicate and weightless. As he laid her back down, she sighed and closed her eyes.
“I did what I thought was best for you.”
He didn’t respond. She looked up at him with a pitiless gaze.
“Salvi, Tony is a Mama’s boy. You’re going to have toughen him up, if you know what’s good for him.”
Victoria Fortune is a former teacher and editor, now devoting her time to writing whenever motherhood allows. She was born in New York, raised in the South, and now lives on the coast of Massachusetts. She is fascinated with setting, and how we are shaped by the places we inhabit. She has written numerous instructional texts for students. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in The Sun, she writes for the blog actsofrevision.com and tweets as @VicforVictoria.