Paps disappears for a while and Ma stops showing up for work, stops eating, stops cooking for my brothers and me, stops flushing cigarette butts down the toilet and let them pile up instead, inside of empty bottles and in tea cups, wet cigarette butts clogging the drain of the sink. She stops sleeping in her bed, and takes the couch instead, or the floor, or sometimes she sleeps at the kitchen table, with her head in one arm and the other arm dangling down towards the linoleum, where little heaps of cigarette butts and empty packs and ash pile up around her.
We tip-toe. We eat peanut butter on saltine crackers and angel hair pasta coated in vegetable oil and grated parmesan cheese. We eat things from the back of the refrigerator, long-forgotten things, Harry and David orange marmalades, with the rinds floating inside like insects trapped in amber. We eat instant stuffing, and white rice with soy sauce or ketchup.
Eileen, ma's supervisor, calls to check up.
"This makes six shifts in a row," she says, "what's going on over there?"
Machinery buzzes and clanks around her. There's the piercing clatter of bottles being hustled down an assembly line.
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"Speak up, honey," she hollers, "It's louder than hell where I am."
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN?"
"I mean it's loud here! I can barely hear you. Fuck it. I guess I'll just have to come over and see for myself." The line goes dead and I wait for the dial tone and then that other noise, the one that means that you've forgotten to hang up the phone.
Eileen comes straight from the brewery, still in her long white lab coat, her safety goggles perched on the top of her head. She was born in China; she is tall and thick with high cheekbones that stick out like handlebars below her eyes.
"You're huge," we say. "There's no room for you. You'll bump your head on the ceiling."
We try to close the door on her, but she muscles it open and holds up one of her legs, pointing to her boot.
"I'm shorter without these."
She takes off her coat, talking about how there is a part of China where all the women are built like her, "like Cadillacs," she says, and laughs, holding out her big hands on either side of her in a motion that is meant to imply hugeness. She hands us a brown paper grocery bag, bends down to unlace her boots, and says, "Don't open that just yet, just set it on the table and fetch me your mother from wherever she's hiding."
"She's sleeping," Nelson grunts. We don't bother taking the groceries into the kitchen, we just dump everything onto the living room carpet and tear into the sliced bread and cheese, jamming fistfuls into our mouths, drinking the milk out of the carton, looking straight into Eileen's eyes, the three of us, daring her. She flashes her long, wide horse teeth at us. She tosses her boots into the closet.
"You'll choke," she warns, "if you're not careful."
"THERESA!" she hollers, stepping over us, and Ma comes running, throwing herself into Eileen's big arms, burying her face in Eileen's silky black hair, and crying.
Eileen stands there for a while, then reaches into her lab coat and pulls out a tissue, taking my mother's face in her hands and wiping it down, tucking wisps of hair behind ma's ears. We are kneeling on the floor, not two feet away from them, and the longer Eileen stands there, grooming Ma, the less we pay attention to the groceries. Then Eileen starts kissing my mother all over, little soft kisses, covering ma's whole face with them, even her nose and eyebrows. Then she puts her lips on Ma's lips, and holds them there, soft, still, and nobody-- not me, not Ma, not Brian or Nelson, nobody-- says a word. There isn't a word to say.
About the author:
Justin Torres' stories have appeared in Tin House, The Greensboro Review, and Sleeping Fish.