I saw my mother for an hour and a half each day.
Half hour in the morning, when she’d wake me at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for school, and then an hour at night, just long enough to make sure I ate dinner and did my homework. The rest of the time, she was working. She didn’t talk about what she did much, or where exactly she did it. I had a few clues, like when she’d come home smelling like grease and coffee from the diner around the corner, or when I’d find wadded up receipts from the gas station just up the road in her pockets. Once I even caught her coming out of one of the other rooms at the seedy downtown motel we called home, pushing one of those cleaning lady carts.
I asked her what she was doing, that wasn’t our room.
An expression flickered across her face, a moment of panic mixed with mortification, but she caught hold of it quick and waved me off.
“What needs be done,” she said, and told me to go on home.
I didn’t know what that meant, but I was only around seven, so I didn’t think too much on it, either. I tried not to think on much, really, like why we didn’t have a real house with a yard, or why I didn’t have a dad, like my friends. I used to, when I first learned about those kinds of things, but it made Mom cry, so I stopped.
I hated to make Mom cry.
We didn’t have much outside of our single room on the second floor of the motel. Enough clothes to get through a week thanks to charity drives at the church, carefully maintained school supplies that Mom squirreled away any chance she had to get her hands on them, food. Mom didn’t have a whole lot she could take pride in, but I was clean and cared for, and she was proud of that.
I just wished she was around a bit more. She did, too, she assured me, but it wasn’t as simple as just wanting it.
“How come?” I asked her when she was tucking me in one night.
“‘Cos there’s things that need be done, and no one else to do them for us,” she said.
She was smiling, but there wasn’t much joy in it. I didn’t get how something that was supposed to mean she was happy ended up looking so sad.
When I told her I could help, she smoothed my hair back and kissed my forehead. “Just having you here is all I need.”
I let myself believe her, and things went on as usual for a while.
A few months later, the diner closed down. The owner had a heart attack and died and his kids shut down the business while they waited for it to sell. It was too much trouble to keep it open in the meantime. I only knew about it because I overheard Mom talking on the phone with a friend while I was supposed to be asleep. There was a pause and then she said she’d just have to find somewhere else to work. The diner had been her main source of income.
I started seeing her even less after that.
My hour and a half became an hour, then shorter still. She’d be in long enough to wake me in the morning and put dinner on the table in the evening, then it was out the door to who knows where. I wasn’t even sure when she was sleeping. Even still, she did her best to maintain my status quo.
Clothes, school supplies, food. Clean and cared for.
I couldn’t help but notice wherever she was going now, whatever she was doing, she couldn’t say the same for herself.
It was the change in her face I saw first. Mom had always had what she called her “winter layer”. It kept her features and figure rounded out, sometimes a little too well. Now her double chin had receded into a defined jawline. The rosy hue of her cheeks dimmed to pale pink and then ash. Dark circles rimmed her eyes.
When I mentioned it, she joked looking like a raccoon was all the rage.
I asked where she went at night, but she kept it vague, stating she had to work. When I told her to stop, to rest, tears filled her eyes and she took my face between her cool hands.
“It’s my job to worry, not yours, ok?”
She stopped waking me up in the morning. She’d be gone by the time my “new” alarm, salvaged from a trash can, went off and I’d have to get myself ready to go out and meet the bus. Our dinners became a sacred fifteen to twenty minutes where she’d watch me eat, usually some variant of tough, gravy-covered meat and wilted vegetable in a to-go container, and I’d prattle on about my day before she’d run off again to whatever job she’d managed to line up.
Each night, the spring in her step as she went back out the door dampened just a bit more, as if the ground beneath her feet was becoming a muddied pit intent on sucking her down. I bit my tongue to keep from commenting on it.
Don’t make Mom sad. Don’t let her see you worry.
It was worse when she came back. Her skin had taken on a waxy quality, like a mask stretched too tight over her skull. The hair she’d always proclaimed was her best feature lost its glossy sheen. She left clumps in the drain, in her brush. Bits of her scalp peeked through the thinning strands. She smiled less, and even when she did, it was tight lipped and strained. It didn’t stop me from catching sight of her teeth, yellowed and fragile, missing in some places.
Even as it seemed like I was watching her fall apart, she never stopped working.
“Stay home, Mama,” I insisted.
She’d come through the door, favoring one leg. She sucked in a sharp breath through clenched teeth when she put my to-go box of dinner in front of me and gripped the edge of the table. Beads of sweat dotted her forehead. But she shook her head.
“Why?” I cried.
“It needs be done,” she said, kissing my head. “Eat, before it gets cold.”
The meat was flavorless and the veg mush, but I ate every bite while she watched me, her dark eyes burning with a feverish intensity.
She was gone again as soon as the food was.
I couldn’t get the sight of her out of my head, gaunt and slowly curling over herself, like the roly poly bugs in the walkway outside our door when I poked them. Wherever she was going, something bad was happening to her. I was determined to find out what it was.
I followed her the next night, careful to keep my distance and stay close to the shadows, like I’d seen in the movies. If she caught me, I knew she’d be angry. I wasn’t supposed to be out after dark. Her gait was uneven and slow, making it easy to keep up with her. She was bundled in a long coat despite the warmth and kept it pulled tight around her.
She came to stand at an intersection and I ducked into an alley, heart pounding with nervous excitement and breath caught behind a harshly bit lip. After a moment, I inched toward the building’s edge and looked toward her again.
She had remained in place, perched on the edge of the curb with her head turning back and forth, waiting for someone.
A cab? I wondered, but it didn’t have the usual markings of a taxi. It just looked like a regular car.
If that was the case, I would be in trouble. I hadn’t expected her to take a car, a luxury we could never really afford, and I wasn’t sure I knew how to get back to the motel on my own. Panic gnawed at the edges of my excitement, eating it away. Did I give myself away? Or hope I’d be able to find my way home if she left me?
As I agonized over my limited options, a car crept down the street, past my alley, and came to idle in front of Mom. The silhouette of the driver leaned across the passenger seat.
Mom tried to turn her limp into a saunter as she approached the open window and leaned forward. Words, spoken too low for me to hear, were exchanged. The driver started to reach for the passenger door and Mom stepped back to give it room to swing open.
Her grip must’ve loosened on her coat, because it parted, and then fell open.
The driver yelped suddenly and jerked back. Mom grabbed at the car door, fingers curled like claws, and begged him to let her in, but he spat a curse word at her and his tires squealed. She beat against the top of the car, trying to run alongside it while the driver yelled at her to get away, but she stumbled and spilled to the ground. The car screeched off into the night, leaving her sprawled on the sidewalk.
“Mama!” I screamed, all my fears of getting caught swept away.
I leapt from my hiding spot and raced to her side. I tried to turn her over, but she struggled against me, pulling away with what little strength she had.
“No!” she said. Her voice shook with denial, shock, and something else I hadn’t heard before: a snarl of raw desperation that sent me reeling back.
But my surprise wore off quickly and it only made me want to help her more. I grabbed at whatever was closest to me, the waist of her coat, and tugged. “Get up, Mama!”
Before she could catch hold of it, the coat slid away.
She wasn’t wearing much beneath, a lacy bra and a pair of short jean cutoffs, but I hardly noticed her clothes.
For a moment it looked like thick, red ribbons had been tied across her stomach. But the way they glistened, so wetly, beneath the streetlight betrayed that illusion. The gauges that pockmarked her flesh were deep and uneven. Their edges were jagged, some tinged with gray that was starting to border on black.
A very faint odor, sickly sweet, drifted up from the open wounds.
Mom’s head hung low, her features partially obscured by a limp curtain of hair. “I’m sorry,” she wept.
I let the jacket fall back into place and stumbled a few steps back, my stomach roiling.
Mom pushed herself to her knees and then struggled to her feet. Her jacket fell freely open, revealing the extent of her ruined body. More gashes were sliced into her legs. A particularly nasty one had been cut deeply into her calf.
They were all roughly the same size.
All roughly the same shape.
Enough to fool a kid into thinking it was some kind of steak.
Enough to send a kid to bed with a full stomach.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, fat tears rolling silently down her cheeks. The only unscarred part of her left. “I did what needed to be done.”