Alek, Stella, and I lay in our pajamas at the fringe of the worn Persian runner in the upstairs hallway. We craned our necks, saw most of the dining room table downstairs. A coil of kielbasa from dinner sat on a white, gilt-edged plate, and Uncle Larry sliced a piece off and bit into it. The smokiness of that sausage lingered on my tongue from the late evening meal our aunt had served us.

Still chewing, my uncle raised a shot glass to his mouth, then paused and held it out from his nose, reddened by the January cold he’d just tramped through. Aunt Felicia leaned forward, crushed out her cigarette in the ashtray. She had an about-to-scream look on her face.

He finished chewing, ran his free hand over the wispy hairs on top of his head, then knocked back the whiskey. “She won’t last the night.”

My aunt leaned into the table. “Who said? The nurse?”

“No, damn it. The lady doctor.”

“Calm down.” They were talking loud, and we heard everything. “You talked to her?”

“Doctor Segal,” he said. Then he poured another shot. “Let’s take the kids.”

I stretched my neck out further. My mother’s sister turned her head sideways, looking somewhere not in the room. Or maybe at my mother’s framed picture from last fall, which I had placed on the buffet so we could see it during meals.

Her husband leaned forward, waited for his wife to meet his gaze. “Your cousin Tommy was there. He says let them remember her all prettied up. I’m not so sure. It’s their mother, for crying out loud!”

Earlier in the day, Mother took a turn for the worse, and they marched us into her room at Temple University Hospital. She wore a baby blue nightgown of soft cotton, and was doped up, hardly knew we were there. Aunt Felicia had applied face powder, rouge, and lipstick, until she looked like a doll. We stood solemnly around the bed while my aunt ran a brush through her hair with long, slow strokes. She tied her hair back with a blue satin ribbon, ran it just inside her hairline. It looked like a tiara.

At the table downstairs, my aunt turned toward her husband. “Flossie, down the corner store. She says the kids had enough. I agree.”

Our uncle poked the air with his finger, about to make a point. Then he sat back. “It’s your sister.”

Our aunt got up from the table. “I’ll go say my goodbyes. You stay.” As she left the room, she turned and added, “It’s for their own good.”

We’d heard it before. When they thought we were out of earshot, they’d go on about us. We were too young to deal with it. Let them remember her from last year. Mother said make sure we listen, they were the only family we had. When she went back into the hospital after the holidays, our aunt came over every day, cooked, sat in the dining room smoking and drinking. She would come upstairs once or twice an evening to make sure we were cleaned up and headed to bed. Many nights, we fell asleep to the sound of Johnny Carson on the TV downstairs. They slept it off while we lay awake listening to the jokes carry upstairs in the quiet house.

When the front door closed, my little brother looked scared, my little sister buried her face into my side, said in a muffled voice, “I want to go.”

Alek shushed her. “Don’t be a goofus. Do as we’re told.”

“No,” I said. “We go.”

“How?” Alek asked.

***

We let half an hour go by before we made a whispered phone call from my mother’s empty bedroom at the front of the house. We waited at her window a long time until we saw the car pull up. Our uncle lay snoring on the sofa as we crept down the stairs and across the living room to the front door. He stirred, called out, “That you, Sue?” He was dreaming of our mother, had a crush on her, called her sweetheart, or Susie. We held still a moment when he struggled to raise his head. When he flopped back, we slipped out the front door to the waiting car.

The light from the street lamp at the far end of the block didn’t reach our house. Poplar Street was mostly dark, but our living room lamp shined a faint rectangle of light onto our sidewalk, illuminated the soot-blackened snow out at the curb. The three of us stepped through it in our boots, pajamas, and winter coats. From the driver’s seat, Camille leaned over the front bench seats, threw the back door open, whispered, “Get in!” We piled into the old Bel Air, and he pulled his black cabbie hat over his head, told me to shut the door. He kept down, brushed the steering wheel with his hat bill, like that would make us invisible. I said, “Better move. Our aunt’s coming back.”

He steered the car into the swishing street and we made our way through North Philly toward the hospital. He breathed heavy, repeated, “I’m getting in trouble.” Camille was also sweet on Mother. From Venezuela, he’d come to study, but his English never got good, and he took a room over Flossie’s, got on with the cab company. He helped out at Flossie’s when he wasn’t hacking. I accompanied my mother in there almost every day for milk or bread. She carried her gold lamé purse, full with quarters from her coat check job at the Polish Club. When Flossie wasn’t around, he’d shoo us off when she tried to pay. “Get going,” he’d whisper, “no charges today.” She never argued, just closed her purse and left. Every Friday over tea, she prattled on to my aunt and uncle about Camille, how kind he was. Uncle Larry always went out back and dragged on a Lucky when she did that.

We pulled into a parking spot near one of the hospital’s back doors. Camille said we had to wait, his friend would signal when Mother’s room was clear. We sat for a long time. He ran the engine and heater every ten minutes or so, constantly checked the back entrance through the rearview. Alek complained for a while, but was the first to fall asleep.

I asked Camille if he loved my mother. “Tu madre es una mujer hermosa,” he said. “Susan is beautiful. Inside and outside.”

A year ago, she was also silly, which we loved. It meant things were normal. She lived with big energy when she could, and if you didn’t know her, you’d never guess what she was up against. She posed for that picture we kept on the buffet, sitting sideways on the porch rail in the back of our row house, in her navy blue dress with the white Peter Pan collar. She flashed her impish smile, one hand on her hip, the other primping her dark hair.

Last fall, she brought Alek and me to the Polish Club. We manned the coat check window after the first big rush of customers, while she went out on the dance floor. We peeked through the portal window on the lobby door to watch. Uncle Larry always danced the waltzes with her. At Christmas, after she’d started chemo all over gain, she relived every tradition we’d ever done. She never said it, but we knew she was thinking one last time. She hosted Christmas Eve Wigilia, with her sister’s help. They served all the courses—Polish black mushroom soup, a large flounder, fried smelts, sauerkraut flavored with brown sugar, onions, and mushrooms, all the side dishes, and an endless stream of sautéed pierogies onto the table, with every stuffing but meat. Our mother stood at the skillet until they insisted she sit down to the table. After dinner, we put the bubble lights on the tree, laid the train set around it, first time since our father left. We got everything we asked for Christmas morning.

All that played back while we sat waiting. It was getting colder faster, and Camille started running the heater more often, shaking his head each time. Just as Stella fell asleep, he looked in the rearview and shouted, “Vamanos!”

A chubby Latino man in green scrubs held the door open, said, “Get moving!” as his eyes darted up and down the street. Alek and I ran to the stairwell, with Camille right behind, carrying Stella, her head bobbing on his shoulder. The man led us in silence to the third floor. When he was sure the hallway was empty, he motioned us out of the stairwell.

***

“Mother?”

I stepped close, leaned over as she lay sleeping, exhaling with the breath of an infant. My duffel coat fell open and one of the button pegs rested on her nightgown. A plastic tube had been inserted into her nose and I could hear the oxygen flowing in. It reminded me of the harness horses wear.

“Mommy?” said Stella.

Our mother smacked her lips silently, like two damp layers of tissue separating and closing.

Alek touched her shoulder and whispered, “Mother?”

She woke with a start and we all stepped back. She coughed softly, sounded like a child clearing her throat in another room. She grimaced, then opened her eyes. “My babies,” she whispered. We wouldn’t have known what she said if we hadn’t heard it many times before.

For the next hour we leaned over her as she drifted in and out of sleep. We were mostly silent, said our Sweet mother’s and I love you’s from time to time. Stella stroked Mother’s hair and whispered, “Baby mommy.” Twice we left an opening for Camille, and he stepped forward, kissed her cheek softly, said, “Te amo.”

At 2 A.M. there were two soft taps at the door. Camille herded us into the bathroom shower, pulled the curtain shut behind him. We huddled close, felt each other’s breath on our faces, heard someone enter the room, walk around a few minutes, and ask “How you doing, dear?” Then came a rustling of objects, then silence. We went out again and mother’s breast rose and fell more slowly. Once, I thought she stopped drawing air, but her breast heaved slowly again after a moment. When the clock said 4 A.M., Camille said we had to get home before sunup. Alek and I kissed Mother on the forehead, and Camille followed. I helped Stella climb up on the bed and she nestled into her arms. Mother’s eyes opened slowly, Stella said, “Don’t go, Mommy,” and just then our mother’s eyes widened, she took in a quick breath, let it out slowly, and stopped breathing. Everything changed for us, right there. Hope and life and family and future—all that abandoned us with her last breath. Camille snapped out of it, told us to hurry, they’d be in soon. We gave our last kisses, full of tears, ignored Camille’s pleas to leave until he shooed us out with his hands. I had to cup my hand over Stella’s mouth. We left the way we came, before the night nurse made it back in.

***

At the funeral, Camille sat behind us near the center aisle, gave us each a pat on the shoulder every so often. Aunt Felicia, Cousin Tommy, Flossie, and other family and friends slumped in their seats down the pew and behind us, with identical faraway looks. How could this happen? She was so young. Just before the service started, Uncle Larry slid into our end of the pew, away from the grownups. He leaned toward us, we could smell the whiskey on his breath.

“You get to see her?” he asked me, as softly as his gravelly voice allowed. I must have looked guilty, he read my silence as yes, and nodded. Then he reached across me, gave Alek a pat on the hand, and held Stella’s hand for a moment. “Wish I could have been there.”

“Did you tell?” I asked.

“Hell no. You don’t either.” He looked at the casket standing a few feet away, then at Aunt Felicia and the other grownups far down the pew. He smiled through watery eyes. “It’s for their own good.”

 

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Ronald Jackson writes stories, poems, and non-fiction from his home in Durham, NC. His work has appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, The Chattahoochee Review, Firewords Quarterly, Kentucky Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Prime Number Magazine, Tar River Poetry, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and other venues. Recognitions include honorable mention in the Doris Betts Fiction Prize competition in 2012, third prize in Prime Number Magazine’s 2014 flash fiction competition, and honorable mention in the 2014 New Millennium Writings short-short fiction competition.