Mothers
Jenny Wu

Before me is a truck bed covered in vegetables. Mothers holding shawls over their eyes say, “Today is the last day. They’re beginning to rot.”

I pick through the vegetables, which are only beginning to rot and can be saved. “I have two green thumbs,” I say.

The mothers laugh at me. One of them, a sexagenarian, wants breast implants. Somebody says, “Mother, why in the world?” She holds a wax gourd in each hand. She says, “Look, they will go right here,” squeezing them under her natural breasts, the shapes of two fox snouts pointing in opposite directions.

A tall man in a cane-back chair watches the road. “That man is the director of the theater troupe,” says my mother-in-law. “He put on a play I wrote last year. He even cast himself to play the part of the old man. Because he thinks he is old.”

My mother-in-law’s house is a long walk from the market. Our two bags crinkle with semi-rotted vegetables that we’ll cook on the stove. My mother-in-law’s voice carries out of doors, over the hills, over acres of grassy land where nothing ever gets lost. She tells me, “Whenever the actors need costumes, I make them. I made hats last year, but the actors complained. They said that my hats were heavy, that they couldn’t move their brows and that some could hardly open their eyes.”

On the day we met, my mother-in-law wound a piece of measuring tape around my chest, holding a thread and needle in her mouth. In her bedroom, I saw the paste she’d ground to make the actors’ rouge, this year’s new costumes on their hangers. They each came with their own sheepskin vest, as stiff and flat as a rug, that would wrap around the actors’ chests. The patterns on the trousers alternated between lotuses and plain flowers, the fabric glinting green like copper. The costumes, like last year’s hats, were heavy, yet they floated over pairs of brocade slippers with cardboard soles.

When the director delivered almond cookies for the New Year, she’d saved them in the wardrobe and allowed herself one a week. This year the director did not eat with her or sit and chat, even though it rained and he’d brought no raincoat.

“How about your mother?” she asks. “Has your mother had a lover?”

The sun rises to noon, and boats pull in nets full of trout, perch, and carp. Men who are still young, whose sons can’t be more than a year old, gather in the road to play kickball.

We stop to relieve ourselves in the women’s public toilet on the side of the road. I pull the tissue from the big wheel in the portico, the big wheel turns one-two-three—the paper flows. I choose a hole and watch the light slant over the aloe-colored tiles, the wind like reams of travelers filing in, the sound of the tissue wheel rolling like a turnstile.

As far as I know, my mother has never had a lover. Neither has my father, but once I dreamed that my father took me to see his mistress. The woman who opened the door was my mother’s younger self, wearing a yellow shirt and a low ponytail. I felt ashamed of my father, how simple-minded he was. Even in her old age, when other women decorated themselves in big irises and rouge, my mother was still forbidden to wear anything but muted colors. So why was my father’s mistress dressed in yellow? More importantly, why was his desire sated by this, this naive color?

The heat of summer lingers in the women’s public toilet, where outside it is already autumn. In this countryside, mysterious bottles of soda are sold with their labels wet and tattered beyond recognition. Signposts are torn down halfway and left to fold themselves into a wad. People disappear with none of their belongings and reappear in the shade of a lemon tree three days later, slightly fatter, slightly happier.

The thing is, my mother-in-law has the same personality as my mother. Their likes and dislikes coincide, and they are both housewives—only my mother-in-law lacks a sense of melancholy. When I’ve spent the afternoon drinking soda with my mother-in-law, I feel like a good daughter, even though my own mother, my real mother, is sitting at home by herself, her elbow on the card table, staring at the floor. I think about the meaning of the yellow shirt, which is, We all love my mother—we just wish she were happier.

And I think I’m mistaken. I’m like the man who finds the ugly aspects of his wife’s personality beautiful when he sees them played out in miniature by his young daughter.

And I think that somewhere, far away, my mother is watching a play on the television, and when the starlet in rouge takes the stage, she’s thinking, What a good daughter I have.

Jenny Wu is an art historian and fiction writer currently living in St. Louis. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in BOMB, The Collagist, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. She was the 2018-2019 WashU Senior Fiction Fellow and the 2016 Humanities Honors Fellow at the Bill & Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.