I opened my eyes from a deep sleep with a start. Nonna’s toothless face hovered over mine, her eyes swollen and red, her breath hot and coffee-tinged. I pulled the sheets up to my chin and tried to calm my breathing. I dreaded what she had to say. Three days ago she’d awoken me with news of my father’s death.
“Listen,” she said quietly, touching my cheek with her dry fingers, “I want you to walk your mother to work this morning.”
“She’s going to work?” I said, surprised. I’d been told by Sister Claudia, principal of St. Lawrence’s Elementary, to take the week off.
“She has no choice,” Nonna said. “They only gave her three days.”
My father’s death hadn’t fully sunk in yet: the body in the casket, the flowers, the funeral, the mourners, all of it unreal. The only thing absolutely real, and terrifying, was my mother’s grief. I’d seen her grieve before—when my cousin Donna died in a car wreck last year she was beside herself—but this was something else. Inconsolable, she was finally given pills to numb her out. I had no idea how she planned to go to work.
She sewed pockets at the Brill shirt factory, a few blocks away from our house, a job she’d held as long as I could remember. My father, who had worked in construction and made a good dollar for someone who could barely speak English, used to gently mock her modest paychecks. But she liked her job. She liked getting ready in the morning, putting on a slash of lipstick, popping a Dentyne in her mouth, and heading out the door. She liked her colleagues—mainly immigrant women like her—and enjoyed her independence.
“Come on,” Nonna said, “get up.”
I dressed and went down to the kitchen, not knowing what to expect. My mother had lashed out at me the day before yesterday, after a car almost hit me crossing our street—she slapped me in the face so hard she left a handprint. I was afraid I’d catch another slap if didn’t watch myself.
Dressed in black again after a brief reprieve of floral smocks, Nonna had prepared me milk and coffee and a slice of toast with butter. My mother came down a few minutes later dressed in black, tremulous, her blue eyes red-rimmed.
“I made you a latte,” Nonna said.
My mother waved her hand and took a seat at the table. I tried to catch her eye, but she stared off into space, oblivious to me. My kid sister Angie was staying with my Aunt Celeste for a few days. Her twins would be a good distraction. Little Joey and Charlie were a lot of fun. I hadn’t talked to her. I kinda missed her even though she could be annoying.
“Carmela,” Nonna said, “drink your latte. Sammy’s going to walk you.”
My mother shot me a look. “I’ll be fine,” she said.
“Never mind, he’s walking you. Son-of-a-bitches could have given you the rest of the week. It’s Thursday, for God’s sake.”
“With your sister. She’ll stay there this week.”
I finished my toast and drained the rest of my coffee.
“Come on,” said Nonna. “It’s late.”
We stepped out to the front porch. After unceasing sunshine for three days—the morning of the funeral almost painfully bright—clouds had moved in. Nonna waved to us from behind the screen door. My mother walked slowly, her veiled head down, black shoes clicking the pavement. I offered her my arm but she refused it. We passed Mr. Warden’s house. He stood on his porch dressed in baker’s whites and watched us in silence. He owned the little bake shop down the street. He hadn’t come to the funeral. My mother didn’t give him a second glance.
I walked a few steps behind, now and then catching up to her.
“What are you doing?” she said.
She said nothing else as we walked to the Brill factory, with its white brick facade and blue sign. I didn’t know what, if anything, to say to her. I thought for a moment she might apologize for slapping me, but I was mistaken. I thought about mentioning my father but sensed this would be a mistake.
She kissed me perfunctorily and mounted the stairs that led to the employee entrance. When I noticed a run in the left calf of her black nylons, I felt an unbearable ache in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to let her know about it, but didn’t want to embarrass her. At one point she stumbled and I started for her, but she recovered her balance and disappeared through the doors without looking back. I stood there for a moment, the weight of the sky and the day and the future flattening me against the earth.
Salvatore Difalco’s work has appeared in many print and online journals. He currently splits his time between Toronto and Sicily.