Our shadows grew so long that day. They stretched across the eastern field and slapped against the horizon with wriggling fingers like the pods on the wisteria vines, reached beyond everything we thought we knew, and grabbed at something brilliant just on the other side. It was beautiful and majestic, and I knew you were leaving.
You turned to me and you said, “We deserve so much more than this. Come with me, Momma.”
But I couldn’t. And you did. And that was the last time I saw you.
You knew all that already though. What you don’t know is everything that happened after you left.
That night, I made supper for Pa and me. First time in seventeen years I was cooking just for two, and I overestimated. Left over catfish and fried okra. And Pa reacted the way he always did:
“Bessie, you know that fish don’t freeze. Bessie, you know fish don’t grow out there in that field. Bessie, you idiot. That kid is gone, so stop from cooking for him.”
I took out the things too unbecoming to write down. But you know Pa. And he reacted like he always did. And I wore my sunglasses for a week until the swelling went down.
You always did like my sunglasses. Even as a baby, you’d reach up and grab the frames, and sometimes I’d wince, but your smile—that gurgling giggle that displayed your innocence—melted me, and I knew everything would be alright. When you were twelve you picked out a pair for me that had neon pink around the lenses. They were the same color as the feathers of those flamingos that fascinated you when we took you down to Florida to visit Pa’s sister Mavis. You used her hot glue gun to attach little rhinestones to the arms. I lied and told Pa they came that way. It was another one of our secrets. My little artist.
The next day Pa planted half the field and left the rest to go fallow. I watched the sun bake the soil even as it darkened under the irrigation system. The echo of you splashing in the sprinklers made the world suddenly so large. And you were so far away. I portioned out some of the peaches we canned together last winter to make the cobbler Pa loves—the one he takes with the gin from his basement still that helps him forget—and you were so far away. I heard you plead with me to go with you, and when I hesitated you said:
“He don’t deserve us, Momma. But if you can’t come with me, I’ll get strong and come back for you.”
Leaving was the strongest thing you could do, Elijah. Don’t you ever look back.
All my love, Baby Boy,
Life happens in spasms without you here. Pa spends more time down in his basement, so he’s been sleeping later, and the crops are a bit paler than they should be. I still wake up before dawn to try to time his breakfast right. To make sure it’s ready and warm when he wants it. And we fray a little, like ripped aprons, every time we pass each other in the kitchen.
Ester Jacobs from next door gave me a ride into town last week to get some flour and cooking oil. She said her nephew Phillip had moved into the city for college, and that he had seen you at a boxing gym. You begged some man to put you into a fight so you could win the cash prize. He told you you were too small; that you’d get yourself killed. And Phillip said you said you knew how to take a punch. Guess that’s one thing Pa taught you.
I almost told Ester to veer that Oldsmobile onto the highway, but I didn’t. I’m weak, and he’d come looking. Chances are he’d find us. You know how people like to talk in this town. As Ester spoke, a thousand chickens pecked at my chest. I don’t want to see you suffering.
Ester’s going to ask Phillip to get your address so that maybe I can send you these letters I keep writing you.
Take care of yourself, Baby Boy,
I got another tape today. When you refused to give Phillip your address because Pa might find it, I offered him $40 a cassette to go to the ring and film the matches. I know there’s real videos out there for cheaper, but the professional ones only focus on the fighters. Phillip’s bootlegs are shaky. They sometimes turn my stomach from all the moving, but it’s because of that I catch glimpses of you. I see you standing next to the ring smiling and yelling and slapping the blue fabric with open palms. Your hair’s gotten longer, and I swear your jaw looks sharper than it did the day you left, but I can’t really be sure. I pause the tape and the ricocheting image of you pulsing on the screen replaces my memory of your smile.
Phillip says they wouldn’t let you fight so you became a promoter. He says that means you pick out the boxers, pair them up to go head-to-head against each other, and suss out the over/under odds. He says if you can pack the seats you stand the chance of making a pretty penny, and from the looks of the tapes you must be doing well.
The videos and these letters make me feel closer to you somehow. I know you’ll never see me watching you, but I’m here. I’m seeing you be the man you are away from here. And though you’ll never actually read these letters, I get to imagine you in my life. I get to write as I would be. Away from here. Away from him. There’s a pressure in these parts that builds beneath the wrath of a brutal sky and bears down on all of us. But seeing you, writing you, makes it less so.
I’m proud of you, Baby Boy. Though when my dreams turn to nightmares, you pop up—frozen—with those lines from the VHS tape streaming across your body, and you stand by and watch as Pa takes his displeasure out like he does. Sometimes in my dream I fight back. I stand up for myself. I do what a mother’s supposed to do and protect you. The lines disappear from your frame, and you’re suddenly in full motion again. And you’re real; you’re flesh; and I can hug your neck. But I wake up. And you’re a ghost haunting a tape I keep hidden from Pa beneath the quilts in the chest.
I’ve grown to despise him.
Still I love you, Baby Boy,
The summer crop failed. The only thing he bothered to pick were the berries from the juniper trees at the edge of the property. He spends more time clanging against the copper under the floorboards than he does doing anything else, other than drinking. I sometimes hope he drinks himself to death. Then I can go to you, or you can come home. But then maybe there ain’t much home to come back to. With no crop, there’s no money. And the mortgage is coming due. And here both your Momma and Pa are bootleggers in their own right: him with his homemade gin and me buying these secret tapes.
I wonder sometimes what sort of mother I could’ve been if things were different. I think maybe I might’ve been another woman altogether if I hadn’t met him. Hadn’t ended up here. I wonder, too, if I’m finding myself in these messages to you. If this is who was buried beneath him.
Last week I gathered up most of what was left in the pantry. All the fruit jams and stewed tomatoes we canned in the oven over the years. Remember how you would laugh when I smeared the blackberry seeds across your nose? And you would stick out your tongue to try to lick it off, and we’d both watch the double boiler through the glass window in the oven door as the pressure locked what we had made together into the jars. I went into your bedroom for the first time since you left and found one of those labels you made out of glitter and glue and construction paper when you were about eight. You showed it to us, and you were so proud. Eli’s Momma’s Sweets and Treats. Except it said “sweats” because you were never too good of a speller. Pa slapped it out of your hand and stomped on it. You ran off to your room to cry, and he nearly broke my wrist when I tried to run after you.
“Stop babying the boy,” he said. “He needs to grow up to be a real man.”
And he stormed out into the fields, and I snuck back to you. I held you in my arms, and you cradled my bruised and swelling wrist in your tiny palms. And that was when I started to call you Baby Boy. I don’t know if you remember that.
Ester took me to the copy place. The clerk helped us photocopy the label you made. Ester and I spent a whole afternoon taping them around the jars. I sold them at the farmers market for $3.50 a pop. I didn’t make enough to cover the mortgage, but I still set aside the cash for two more tapes from Phillip.
I’m always dreaming of you, Baby Boy.
I decided yesterday to leave him. I made up my mind at 3:42 exactly.
He’d skipped lunch, spent all his time hemming and hawing underneath me, and I imagined him six feet underground and gasping for air. I left the faucet running in the kitchen sink while I was washing the plates of an uneaten meal, and I wondered if it could overflow and leak through the floorboards to fill up the basement before he could even notice. Though I think the bastard would have grown gills from all the imbibes.
His footsteps boomed as he ascended the stairs. I flipped off the faucet quickly and turned and dried my hands on the dish towel. I don’t know if I looked guilty from the fantasies or if he just thought I looked insincere, but his face was clouded over. Lightning flashed in his hollow, red eyes.
“Where’s my food, woman?”
You know Pa though. It was a demand, not a question. He glanced at the table to find only the stack of notices from the lenders at the bank. Looked at the dishes on the drying rack. Saw the lima beans and the pork fat scraped into the garbage can. His teeth were gritted like a wild bobcat caught in the traps you used to help set up around the farm. His fingers dug into my shoulders, tried to find bone, and he tossed me aside. My head hit the wall clock as I fell. The glass broke and collected on the floor like a million fallen stars that had lost all their luster. It stopped at exactly 3:42pm. I knew I had to leave. I had to find you.
I stayed up last night planning my escape. I watched your videos—all seventeen of them—with the sound off while Pa snored in the bedroom. Even his own lungs want to get away from him, from the rotgut pit of his stomach and the putrid ash that was the heart of the man I married. You looked so happy on the tapes. For a moment, I felt you next to me. I saw the powerful man you have become. Such a far cry from my baby boy. The one Pa liked to push around. The one he whipped for drawing pictures instead of tilling soil. The one he punched for loving me more than you loved him. The one I couldn’t protect. The thing about pressure is that it builds and builds and has to release.
Morning came, and it was spring again. The sun tipped the horizon and spread dark shadows from the tangerine and robin’s egg sky. I felt it on my face and realized I’ve spent a year without you. One more grisly year with him.
I crept slowly down the basement stairs, all the while listening for the guttural snarls from the bedroom. I found Pa’s old wrench. I found the bolts on the boiler of his still.
The thing about pressure is that it builds and it builds until it just explodes.
He was still snoring when I left the house. His breath caught in his throat and rumbled in an almost sympathetic way. I walked out to where we stood when you told me goodbye. I reached up my arms and wriggled my fingers like the dangling blossoms of a wisteria vine against the horizon. Pointed them at the city. Pointed them at you.
The thing about alcohol is that it evaporates quickly. And once the liquid leaves that heating coil, it ignites just as fast.
I’ll see you soon, Baby Boy.
I love you,
The fire department said the whole thing was an “unfortunate accident.” Said I was lucky I’d gone out early to tend to the fields or else I’d be barbecue like Pa. And when the insurance paid out enough to settle things up with the bank, I asked Ester to drive me into the city.
I got a little apartment not too far from the park. I go there sometimes to watch the sun rise and cast its shadows through the great oaks that seem so much more majestic here than they did back home. Like their very persistence within the city proves the nature of their power.
Phillip told me what gym you’d been working out of, and I went by to try to find you. But they said they’d never heard of Elijah Craigson. They had a VCR though, so I showed them one of the bootleg tapes, and I paused it at one of the scenes when you were in full view.
“Oh! Baby Boy,” he said. “The kid always called himself that. Damn fine promotor. Especially for as young as he was. Hightailed it out of here about a month ago with one of our best fighters. Going to try to get him work in the big leagues.”
I go to the park sometimes. I watch the sun and imagine your shadow stretched to the horizon line. The sky is that flamingo pink you love and speckled with rhinestones, and you’re happy. You finally have the freedom you’ve always deserved. And I realize I now get to find mine.