Delphia sat perched on a spindly chair in the dark, her knees pulled up to her chest. Still awake dressed in only a slip. She stared out the window and chewed on her nails pensively as the rain poured down. She shot a glance at the lumpy shape of her mother on the bed. Then tried to focus on the droplets running along the window glass.
The room was stuffy. Suffocating. The air stale. It felt as if she wasn’t able to take a full breath. She lunged forward and clawed the window open. She stuck her head out and the rain splashed on her hair. The air was cold, fresh. She drank it in. She turned her face up to the sky. She tried to look at the clouds, but her eyes squinted as lightning flashed. Her mouth opened to catch the rain. The sound of it hitting the pavement was a constant rush in her ears. It was joined by the rumbling of thunder. The young woman found herself laughing. She stayed out there, free, until the rain had numbed through her skin and finally hit her bones.
She plopped back into her seat and the muggy heat of the room. And the smell. The guilt. How could she laugh? Delphia looked back over at her mother. There was no worry about waking her up now.
The neighbor, Ms. Palermo had already left before Delphia had come home from work several hours ago. Her mother had been feverishly mumbling in her sleep. As always she was asking where Delphia’s father was. Why hadn’t he returned from the fields yet? In the dark, Delphia pulled her dress over her head and carefully removed her sole pair of stockings. After tucking the blanket around her mother, she climbed in beside her and tried to comfort her. The feeble woman gradually fell quiet with Delphia’s arms. Sleep settled upon them, a heavy wave that carried Delphia away to the sea. Sometimes she would linger after work on the boardwalk not far from the dinner club. Delphia would stand there under the street lights and stare at the water until the pull of her daughterly duty wrenched her away.
Her eyes fought to open when she felt her mother twitch. She was resurfacing from the ocean and had just turned her head to peer at her mother as a death rattle left the old woman’s lips. A breath that started as a gasp before relaxing into a soft sigh. Every muscle in Delphia’s body tensed as she sat up.
“Mama?” Delphia put her hand to her mother’s cheek. Her jaw was slack against her daughter’s hand. “Mama?” She grabbed the old woman’s shoulders and shook her, but her head only lolled against the pillow. Wisps of gray hair disarranged. The balding spots visible as lightning flashed through the room. Delphia was frozen in place for several minutes. She didn’t know what to do. The rain started to patter on the window panes.
“Mama?” she kept repeating.
Delphia reached out a hand and brushed her mother’s hair away from her face. She climbed out of bed and pulled the blankets up to her mother’s chin. Her mother had been ill for quite some time, years before she was finally bedridden, but her death was still a shock. Delphia didn’t know how to define her feelings. She didn’t exactly feel sad. At the same time, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders and it was replaced by fear. The fear of being alone. She didn’t have any other family now. It was just her. Her and the dozen other Fitzgeralds in the directory. To them she was a nobody. Probably they’d be more likely to think she was an imposter, rather than believe she was some distantly related Midwestern cousin.
Now she sat soaked on the spindly chair. Her mother was giving off fumes. She tiptoed to the dresser and pulled out dry clothes. She ran a brush through her hair and tiptoed out of the room. A quick walk down the hall, she stopped in front of a door and paced back in forth for a few minutes. It was still early. Ms. Palermo could still be sleeping. Then again, she often went to early mass several times a week. Delphia hoped this was one of those days. She knocked rapidly. Silence. She knocked again and called for Ms. Palermo. There came a shuffling sound, the door clicked.
“What is this?” Ms. Palermo asked.
“She’s dead,” Delphia said, “She’s dead.” Her voice cracked as she repeated it. Suddenly it was real. Her chest felt like it was collapsing. The young woman tried to fight the sobs that were welling up inside her to answer Ms. Palermo’s questions, but she couldn’t get any words out. She stood there gasping with tears streaming from her eyes in the hallway until the old woman took her hand and led her back to the apartment where her mother lay.
Ms. Palermo left her by the door and went over to Delphia’s mother.
“You shouldn’t have left her like this for so long,” the old woman scolded. “Go get me clean water and some cloths.” Delphia had stood frozen by the door, but she took a step over and pour water from a pitcher into a chipped ceramic wash basin. She pulled several ripped up flour sacks from the drawer. She took the basin in both hands and went to Ms. Palermo’s side as she pulled back the blankets. The smell was worse. Delphia gagged and vomited into the wash basin she held. She was overcome by a fresh wave of tears.
Without a word, Ms. Palermo pointed to the chair by the window and took the basin from Delphia’s hands. She dumped it out the window and refilled it. Delphia retreated to the chair and stayed out of the way as Ms. Palermo busied herself cleansing the body. The old woman kept muttering in Italian and crossing herself. The rain stopped and the clouds brightened. She barely noticed when the old woman left to use the telephone in the hall. The men came and carried her mother out.
Ms. Palermo mentioned something about money. Delphia pointed at her purse. Ms. Palermo rifled through it and gave some to one of the men. He gave her a slip. Ms. Palermo let out a sigh as she shut the door.
“Now you, child, get some rest. Then you must call this man about your mother.” She shoved the slip of paper into Delphia’s hand and bustled out of the room. She curled up on the davenport, but couldn’t sleep. She stared at the bundle of soiled sheets in the corner. The pervading smell of death still lingered.
Finally, she gave up. Delphia dragged the metal wash basin out and began to fill it with water. She spent the morning scrubbing and bleaching everything that she could. The windows were all thrown wide to let in a breeze, but all Delphia could smell was the odor.