It was past eleven at night when my mother called. The rain came down in great big sheets, and I’d been curled up under three blankets with the heater on for hours, reading a book about digestion.
“You’re still up,” she said.
“It’s not that late. What are you doing?” and before she could answer I started guessing, “Watching a crime thriller?”
“Ha,” she said. “A western. The one with the good-looking sheriff who’s in your yoga class. What are you doing?”
“Reading and resting,” I said.
“It’s raining a lot,” she said. “Reminds me of winter in Pingtung.”
“CeCe and I planted bell peppers this week, so it’ll be nice to have them watered without me having to do it,” I told her.
“Is she asleep?” she asked.
“Of course. She’s right next to me,” I said.
I thought about my mother sitting on her green corduroy sofa in her new apartment with Tuo-Ba, her mop-like dog, watching the Western. From time to time, she must wonder what she would do next now that she was alone, except for the dog. A dog was good at filling holes in a schedule. A lot of walks to punctuate the day. Random and intermittent socializing with other dog owners here and there. Buying dog food and treats, vet visits. My mother took Tuo-Ba to volunteer at the library with a team of other service dogs. Children arrived to read to the dogs once a week, eagerly sounding out syllables on a bright blue carpet lined with drowsing dogs.
She cleared her throat a little. I heard Tuo-Ba by the tinkling of his little tag.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said, but cleared her throat again.
“Are you sick?” I asked.
“No, I’m not,” she said and cleared her throat.
I heard her walking around, opening a drawer. A faucet turned on.
“I need your help with something,” she said.
“What?” I asked, my voice perched.
“Someone came over earlier today,” she said. “And they fell. They’re still here.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Who came over?”
My first thought was that she had invited a man to her place.
“Wen-Ting, from the building,” she said, and drank water. “I invited her up to have tea after dinner.”
CeCe flipped her arm in the air and smacked my pillow. Had I been lying down it would have been my nose. Lately I had heard snippets from all kinds of parenting gurus via podcast or Instagram about not letting your kids sleep in your bed. Boundaries! Sleep hygiene! Blah blah, I thought. But how about a black eye or a broken nose as deterrent?
“How did she fall?” I asked.
“She was leaving and she fell down the stairs,” my mother said.
I had often been frustrated by my mother’s opaqueness, but this was really a new level.
“Is she okay?” I asked. “Did she have to go to the hospital?”
“No,” my mother rebuffed gently, as if I’d asked whether she wanted to try paragliding tomorrow.
“No, she’s not okay, or no, she didn’t go to the hospital?” I closed the book and set it against my lap. The heater clanked and I could hear it clank below, too, in the downstairs neighbor’s apartment.
“She didn’t go to the hospital. I brought her back up here,” my mother said.
I was already setting and resetting the scene. Mrs. Tsai had fallen down some of the stairs, and crying in pain, had hobbled back up the stairs to my mother’s apartment? Maybe the injury was a sprain, a fracture. Maybe my mother had iced her ankle or wrist, and Mrs. Tsai had fallen asleep on the couch, not wanting to sit in the ER all night.
“Did she break anything?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. She’s resting. I need your help. It’s important, but don’t come now. Just come in the morning,” my mother said. “It’s late. No need to wake up CeCe.”
I moved some of the hair out of CeCe’s face. Her skin was creamy as a cashew aside from the little white dots that sometimes appeared on her cheek. The corner of her mouth glistened with spit.
“Okay,” I told her. “I’ll come right when we wake up.”
Driving in the rain proved to be difficult. A car accident jammed all the traffic into a single lane. CeCe complained from the backseat booster about having to leave home without getting to play Barbies. But when I told her that Nai Nai would probably have some delicious moon cakes there and that she’d get to play with Tuo-Ba, she eventually changed course.
We circled the block and meandered up a side street before finding a parking spot. And then we trudged through the rain under CeCe’s clear umbrella. Rainwater gushed down into the gutters.
The slippery lobby was posted with a sign about the elevator not running, so we climbed to the fifth floor, one floor smelling like paint, another of boiling cabbage.
“We’re here!” CeCe announced when my mother opened the door.
“Oh! Come in,” she chirped, the heat from her apartment pouring out into the hall. Tuo-Ba shuffled forward happily, rubbing his moustache on our shins.
The small dining table was arranged with plates of sliced fruit and moon cakes, covered in plastic wrap.
“CeCe, will you help me feed and dress Tuo-Ba? I’m going to give your mom some books,” my mother said. She showed CeCe the food scoop and bag and pointed to a green diamond sweater for the dog.
I followed my mother into her bedroom and found Mrs. Tsai face down on the bed with her knees on the ground. She was completely still.
“Is she dead?” I asked in disbelief.
My mother nodded, frowning.
“Why did you bring her up here?” I hissed. “Why didn’t you call an ambulance right away?”
“She can’t pay an ambulance fee,” my mother said crossly. “And her son doesn’t work.”
“But now she’s here, and her legs are–” I swept my hand over Mrs. Tsai’s body, “like this!”
“I need your help to bring her downstairs,” my mother said. “She lives on the second floor. We can put her on her own bed. Like this. Then I can call her an ambulance.”
“The paramedics can’t help her now,” I said.
“That way it won’t look suspicious,” my mother said.
“I can’t get the sweater on,” CeCe was calling from the kitchen. And then as if she could teleport, appeared behind the door. “What are you doing in there?”
My mother stepped out and led her back into the kitchen. The dog sweater was on halfway, but backwards. They laughed. I shut the door.
If we carried Mrs. Tsai’s body back to her own apartment, would it seem strange that my mother was calling an ambulance? They were having tea and she’d fallen down the stairs on the way back home. If my mother had called for help, Mrs. Tsai would be in a hospital, or maybe she’d still have ended up in the morgue.
“It’s me,” my mother said and quickly opened the door. “CeCe is watering plants on the balcony. We can cover Wen-Ting with a sheet, take her down to the apartment – I know the keypad code to unlock her door. We can put her on her bed. Then I’ll call the ambulance later.”
“Well, we can’t do it now, with CeCe,” I said.
“We can do it tonight,” she said.
“But what about her fall?” I asked. “Won’t the paramedics see she has an injury from falling down the stairs? And won’t it be strange that her knees are like that? What if they match the sheet fibers on her body to your bed?”
My mother scoffed. “That’s stuff they do on murder shows,” she said. “This was an accident. I should’ve just dragged her to her own apartment when it happened. Come out.”
She closed the door behind us and we called CeCe in. Sitting at the table eating fruit and cakes, and drinking tea, I felt like I was in a bad dream. And had my mother said dragged?
I returned to my mother’s apartment in the evening as soon as I dropped CeCe at her dad’s. The rain had ceased long enough for me to walk through the cold without getting wet. I was thankful since CeCe had taken the umbrella with her.
My mother and I pushed Mrs. Tsai into a seated position on the bed. She was absolutely rigid and startlingly cold. When I finally dared to look at her face, her eyes were open!
“Oh my God!” Her eyes were hazy, grayish.
My mother reached out and had to push the lids down twice.
Draped with a sheet and in a permanent yogic chair pose, we lifted Mrs. Tsai to the door and then hurriedly shuttled down one flight after another.
“What if you’re questioned by the police?” I asked.
“I’ll tell them we were going to meet for tea last night. She never came. This morning, I go to her door and she doesn’t answer. So I get worried and call the police. In case she fell. And she did fall.”
We passed the floor that smelled of boiling cabbage. A dog barked behind a door.
“If someone sees us, we’re screwed!” I whispered, running around the curve so that I could keep Mrs. Tsai level.
My mother started to laugh her silent laugh.
“Imagine someone comes out of a door right now. ‘What are you carrying? Looks heavy. Let me help you,’” I said.
“No one is going to help us,” she said between our shuffling.
When we got to the second floor, we hurried down the hall to Mrs. Tsai’s door and my mother trembled, lifting her side of the body with one hand while punching in the code with the other. She got it wrong the first time and I started to panic, sweeping the hall and staircase with my eyes.
“I really hope you know the code,” I said. “We can’t go up and down, up and down like this.”
When the door opened, we hurried in and followed the familiar floor plan to the bedroom. Like my mother, Mrs. Tsai lived alone. Her little apartment was tidy and smelled of cedar and camphor. A rattan living room set with red cushions crowded around an old TV.
In the single bedroom, a big red calendar with a single date on each rice paper-thin page, and a black and white photo of her family of origin hung on the wall. We lowered Mrs. Tsai onto the bed, face down, and then maneuvered the sheet out from under her.
“Won’t it look strange to find her like this?” I asked.
“Probably,” my mother said. “Probably strange to find anyone dead.” She patted down Mrs. Tsai’s hair and smoothed her blouse.
A narrow gray cat slithered into the room.
“Tu zi,” my mother said, folding up the sheet.
“Rabbit?” I asked.
“The cat jumps like a rabbit,” my mother said. “Mrs. Tsai was funny.”
“Should we feed her?” I asked.
My mother turned on the kitchen light. We rifled through the cabinets and found it well stocked with tins of sardines in tomato sauce, pickled vegetables, rice, pork floss, dry noodles, and a variety of soy sauces and vinegars. Nice French wines frosted in the refrigerator, along with glass containers of cooked porridge, poached chicken, and tea eggs.
“You two drink together?” I asked.
“Sometimes tea, sometimes wine,” my mother said.
“Will you miss her?” I asked.
“Yes,” my mother said, clearing her throat. “She was a nice woman.”
Finally, underneath the sink, I found the cat food and scraped it into the cat’s dish. We slipped out then and locked the door behind us. My mother had always been friendly and likeable, lighthearted. She had friends from before my father’s death, a few she still met for lunch or coffee. But Mrs. Tsai was a friend she’d made in this new life on her own.
“What will you do tonight?” I asked as we walked back through the hallway.
“Maybe go on a walk with Tuo-Ba,” she said. “It’s not raining.”
“I’ll walk with you and Tuo-Ba,” I told her.
She looked tired but pleasantly calm. I followed her up the stairs and back into her apartment. I pulled on my jacket as she leashed Tuo-Ba and straightened out his sweater. On our way out, I picked up her old umbrella that sometimes opened too far out, but still worked.