Things at the apartment became much more complicated when they brought Jay home. His calmness seemed to have been reserved for the hospital. He cried all the time, often in the middle of the night, often so loud that it woke up not just their roommates but the other tenants of the building. Anna forgot what a good night’s sleep felt like, and the knocks at her door became regular. “Control your child, please,” they’d say, their tones biting.
It was in those first few weeks that Anna remembered she had only just turned sixteen. Others her age were still in school, still having fun, and she was stuck taking care of her son. She couldn’t go out, even though she desperately wanted to. And Louis never offered to stay and help. She’d do everything she could, rocking him, singing to him, and it would soothe him for a while, but then he would start crying again. In February, she discovered one song that always worked was The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and that became her go to.
It was that May that she woke up to the note.
I am filing for divorce and returning to Iowa. Please don’t ask me why, it will only make things more difficult.
It took her a moment to catch her breath. He had been an absent father at best, and she wasn’t sure that she really loved him. And yet, he had worked steadily, and she didn’t know what she was going to do without him. She dressed in a robe and found Mildred in the kitchen with a cup of tea. She broke down in tears as she explained the whole story. How tired she was of everything, how she’d fantasized of late of taking a kitchen knife and cutting her throat and that everyone, most of all her son, would be better off.
“Don’t talk like that,” Mildred said as Anna cried into her arms. “Jay needs you.”
“I’m tired of it. I don’t want to be a mother.”
“Anna, it’s going to be okay,” Mildred said. “It’s not as if he was a good husband.” Maybe that was it. All she’d have to do was find someone else. But what that husband left without another word or explanation a few months later, without so much as a fight in the preceding weeks? Maybe she was the only one who could stick up for herself.
Things seemed to improve in the few years. Without Louis, the apartment seemed less crowded, and no one seemed to mind that Anna was a single woman with a child. There were men who courted her, but she was not interested in them. She got a job at the local grocery, and for a while, things seemed good. Mildred, Ethel and Ruth took turns watching Jay while she worked. His hair grew dark like his father and his first word was “mama”.
And yet, he rarely ever smiled. Still the first time she wondered if there was something wrong was when he turned three and she bought him a stuffed bear for his birthday. It had been weeks and he had, on many occasions, refused to play with it, but she hadn’t thought much of it. That night she had gotten home late as her coworkers had invited her out and she reasoned to accept because it had been ages since she’d been out dancing.
The others were listening to the radio. “Jay’s asleep,” they said.
“Thank you,” she said as she stumbled into the hallway, tipsy from the night.“Have fun?” They asked playfully.
“Very!” Anna exclaimed. It was true. For one night, she forgot that she was a mother, forgot about her responsibilities, and was simply a nineteen year old girl.
Jay was not only awake, but he seemed to be attacking the bear with a butter knife, attempting to cut of its head. He saw her and stopped, and she snatched the knife away from his hand. She wondered how he’d gotten the knife and then remembered that earlier that day she’d eaten her breakfast beside his crib and had probably dropped her knife and not realized it in her rush to leave for work. She also thought that it was a miracle he had not hurt himself. Still, she was horrified. The bear’s head now hung loosely on its neck.
“You don’t do that,” she screamed. “Mommy bought that as a present for you.” She spanked him.
He began crying and she sighed. She was tired, and didn’t want to deal with this right now. Anna continued screaming at him before Ethel came in and asked what was going on.
“He was trying to decapitate the bear with a butter knife,” Anna exclaimed.
“How did he get a butter knife?”
“I don’t know,” Anna said, not knowing why it mattered. “I’m going to sleep,” she added after a long silence.
“Alright,” said Ethel, concerned.
In bed, Anna, for reasons she didn’t fully understand, began to cry. She knew everyone judged her for being young and single and divorced and she knew the others thought she wasn’t a good mother, even if she was trying her best.
Still, as the next few years passed and the country began to climb itself out the depression, Anna realized that her son was not a normal child. The year she’d enrolled him in kindergarten, she moved from the grocery to a secretary position at a local junior high school. She dated a few men, none for longer than a few months, and all of them were like Louis. They didn’t want to take care of a son. She thought of Ruth, who by then was married to a nice man and had a daughter of her own. Everything seemed easy for her. Maybe because she’d waited.
She thought on occasion of her parents, who she never saw and thought it was best to keep that way. She wondered what they’d think about the fact that Louis had left her after scarcely a year, that she hadn’t found a husband to help her raise the child. Ethel and Mildred continued to help her on occasion, as did Ruth, but none of them truly understood what she was going through, how she was truly in this alone. She began to despise Boise and despise the fact that she’d never been outside of Idaho. Maybe, when Jay was a little bit older, they’d go on a road trip together. Because in spite of all of the stress, anxiety and frustration, she knew that she really did love him and wanted to have a good life. She just wished she had someone to help, or at least someone who cared enough to notice.
As he got older, Jay only continued to act out. When he was five she was called to a special meeting by his teachers. At recess, he had killed a squirrel and begun showing his classmates, seriously disturbing several of them. Jay had explained that he wanted to be a taxidermist and did not seem to understand why he had made his classmates uncomfortable. Before they left, his teacher explained that while he was smart, he seemed to have an almost pathological need for attention.
“Does someone watch him while you’re at work?” The teacher asked.
“I’m divorced, I do what I can,” Anna said defensively.
“Just something to think about,” she responded.
In the car, she scolded him.
“What’s the matter?” he said in the car. “It’s just dead.”
“Most people don’t like to look at dead things, honey,” she explained calmly.
“Then they’re pussies,” he said.
“Where did you learn that word?” Anna demanded.
“Everyone says it.”
“Do they? Well, it’s not a word for nice boys to use.” In the back of her mind was what his teacher had said. Maybe what he needed was a father figure after all. Sometimes Jay would ask, and Anna would always give him half responses.
While she waited for her knight in shining armor to come along, she resolved to begin taking Jay to the movies. She remembered the summer she was pregnant with him, and how the movies had been her only source of reprieve. Maybe it could be like that with the two of them now. He liked Snow White, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Bringin’ Up Baby, but his favorite was The Wizard of Oz, and they saw it at least four times in the theater. She realized that it was Judy Garland that he had a crush on. It was cute, in a way, some sense of normalcy. She’d felt the same about Jack Pickford early in her own life. That Jay would later recall these trips to the movie theater as among the happiest moments of his life always left Anna with a bittersweet feeling.
She’d meet Richard, a doctor, in 1942. She was charmed by him instantly, and, unlike the other men that had come in and out of her life, he seemed interested in taking care of both her and her son. Finally she was able to move out of the apartment she’d lived in since she was fifteen. At first he was a gentlemen, not only with her but with Jay, taking him to baseball games, organizing family trips. Together, they went to the Redwoods in California and as far south as Arizona. After years of suffering, it finally seemed like things were going to turn out alright. Slowly, the memories of her past, of the daily struggle of the depression, began to fade. Richard treated her lavishly too, often taking her on expensive trips or to nice dinners without her son. “You’ve given your whole life to him since you were fifteen,” he’d say. “Jay’s old enough to look after himself. And you deserve to be a little selfish.” She thought he was right.
As Jay grew, he did well in school, and seemed to be well liked by his classmates. By the time he entered high school he also had grown quite handsome and had attracted the attention of almost every girl. There was one girlfriend, Mary, that she knew of, who seemed nice enough. And yet, it ended suddenly mere months later.
“What happened?” Anna asked her son one day.
“Nothing,” he responded, not going any further, though in the weeks and months following, there was noticeable change in his personality, and not one for the better. Richard told her that he she was too soft on him, that she shouldn’t sit by and just take his open disrespect of her.
“He’s had a hard life,” Anna would reason.
“Still,” Richard would say. “He has to learn how to be a man.”
By then he’d begun spending long periods of time away from home. According to him, he was always at the library, reading various books. That much was true, but he also spent time hanging out with unsavory characters, and every so often she’d get a call from the police. Every time, it would get worse. They tried to buy liquor underage became they were hanging around the rich man’s house to your son is in custody for holding up a convenience store.
Anna’s last conversation with her son would become forever etched into her memory. She played it over and over again in her mind, wondering if there was anything she could have said and done differently. She was furious. While no one was hurt, the owner was intent on pursuing charges. With each time before, he’d given her a tearful excuse. And this time, he had none. He begged for Anna to to help him. “I’m sorry, but you’re on your own. Now and forever,” she said. She hadn’t really meant it. She would have forgiven him in time and when he got out after two years, would have welcomed with open arms. Richard told her that she was free. That now, they could have a life together without her miscreant son who was always getting into trouble.
But what Richard didn’t understand was that her son, for better or for worse, had been her life. Still, they began to build their new one together. One day, shortly after his sentencing, she had lunch with Ruth, who she’d never lost contact with. Ruth explained that it seemed that what he wanted was her attention. Her love. Maybe that was true. But not all children acted like out like that.
He was due to be released in 1952, but by then he was eighteen and had no obligation to contact her. And he didn’t. After five years she began telling people that she’d had a son but that he had died. It was easier than the truth. After ten, everything seemed like a distant memory. She’d find out, nearly twenty years later, of everything. Of how he’d had a wife and son but had ended up in jail again. And of course, of everything that happened after. The man she saw on the television screen was terrifying, but he was undoubtedly her son. It made the least sense of all.