Bama’s family is driving back home to Milan from the hospital in Memphis. In the back seat, Bama is sandwiched between her brothers. Darrell stares out the window. Nazareth, who has just learned to walk, swings his legs and sucks his bottom lip. Up front, Bama’s mother is holding the fourth baby, the one who did not make it. It’s wrapped in thick blankets like it could be kept warm. Bama’s mother still looks pregnant, her belly rounded in front of her.
It’s already quiet when Bama’s father says, “Everybody hush up. There’s something on the radio I want to hear.”
There are the alien sounds of the radio scanning stations, a second of whirring static, and then the nasal tones of the boxing match: Smokin’ Joe versus the Bellflower Bomber. Bama’s mother looks at her father as if to say, Really? Now? But she doesn’t say anything.
“The Bomber started boxing when he was five years old,” Bama’s father says to her in the rear-view mirror. His teeth gleam. “How’d you like a pair of gloves, Bama?”
“Yes,” Bama shouts.
“Alabama,” Bama’s mother says.
Her head is turned away, looking out the window at nothing, at the dark.
“No,” Bama says.
From the radio, the announcer’s voice is frenzied over the roaring crowd.
“The Bomber has a fantastic chin. He can land a punch with either hand,” Bama’s father says.
Bama doesn’t know what this means. Her father says many mysterious things. The year before, he’d said they should move from Memphis to Milan to get out of the city, to start a farm, so that the children could know things, like how cows can feel a storm coming, and how goats’ pupils will keep you up at night, and how chickens lay misshapen eggs when they’re scared, and how pig skin feels like human skin and sunburns just the same. They’d moved to Milan and he bought the land, but that was as far as they’d got.
While the baby was dying in the hospital, plugged into machines and tangled in winding cords Bama, Darrell, and Nazareth were at the zoo with their grandmother.
While the baby was dying in the hospital, plugged into machines and tangled in winding cords, Bama, Darrell, and Nazareth were at the zoo with their grandmother. They’d seen the big cats, the apes, the elderly giraffes napping in the shade. They lingered longest at the farm animals. A zookeeper led a demonstration on how to milk a cow. Bama fed a pig a peppermint and thought about all the things she would know once the animals finally came and filled her father’s empty acres.
After the zoo, Bama and Darrell pestered their grandmother to drive them to the river. She took the long way back to the hospital, circling back on Riverside, so the kids could press their faces against the window and see the great silver ribbon of water running by. Every time the river flooded when they lived in Memphis, a call would come out on the radio and Bama’s father would leave in the middle of night with all the able-bodied men. He carried sandbags all night, stacking them along the bluffs. In the morning, their father came home the color of river mud. He’d sling Bama and her brothers over his shoulder and stack them on the couch like a wall of squirming, shrieking sandbags.
In Milan, there was not a river but there was Area Q, the munitions testing site. Bama and Darrell would sometimes creep along behind the high brick wall, waiting for the blast, plugging their ears. After the explosion, Bama pretended she’d been hit and Darrell carried her over his shoulder. Walking low to the ground, he watched for the enemy. With each detonated bomb, every window pane in Milan rattled, quivering like loose teeth.
Bama takes out her notebook. She hands sheets of paper to Darrell and he balls them up in his palms. Bama pulls the mats off the floorboard, revealing the big rusted holes in the bottom of the car and the street racing underneath. Nazareth is watching in a trance, his skinny legs folded on the seat and out of the way. Darrel pulls a lighter from his pocket and lights each ball of crumpled paper on fire before tossing them through the holes in the floor. He and Bama look back over their shoulders to watch the bright little fireballs re-emerge behind the car. The flaming crumpled paper bounces out from the corroded metal floor and into the street, spreading across the empty road behind them. They look like phosphorescent insects—the kind Bama has seen squirming in the sand when she scraped a finger through it—glowing yellow before extinguishing in the night.
As they drive further from Memphis toward Milan, past the reach of radio waves, the sounds of the boxing match and the eerie warbling cheers fade entirely into static. There is no way to know who got sick first—the baby or Bama’s mother—or whether they got sick together, sharing a virus in the beating, wet womb where nothing was separate or alone. It was death, not birth, that separated them at last. Pressed against Bama, Nazareth’s sleeping body is hot and his hands are moving, fingers unfurling dreams. Bama closes her eyes and tries to picture them all together—her and Nazareth and Darrell, mother and father, all the animals they’d get, and the new baby too. But the images on Bama’s eyelids are soft, fading, until Bama can see only herself through a haze of ghosts.
Martha Park is from Memphis, Tennessee. She is the Phillip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University's Stadler Center for Poetry.