“Mama,” Jacob says, and it sounds like he’s said more. Like I want. Like I need. I lay still enough he’ll think I’m asleep. The heat already rising from the floor like burning from a baking pan. His baby sister shrieks to a growl, and he leaves. When Jacob was born, my water broke and he was breech; when the doctor cut me open and went in there to get him, she say he’d crawled all the way up inside me, was balled up underneath my ribs like he ain’t want to come out.[private]
When I wake up again, they outside with Pop; he’s wrestling the tiller through the garden, his rows of corn and snap beans and squash, and Jacob is sitting on the front steps, the baby in his lap. From the back, Jacob could be grown; not just his build but the way he curl around the baby, lean down to her, talk so low I can hardly hear. She glows in his lap, bright to his dark. He asks her, “You see Pop, Mayla? You see Pop?”
His daddy Michael the one want to name him Jacob. Said it was his granddaddy’s name. Said his granddaddy was extra salty when me and Michael hooked up, said: We don’t bring they kind home, Michael. “It’ll piss him off good if we name his half-black grandson after him,” Michael said. I had only picked out a girl name – Michaela Marie – so I went with it.
Sometimes I wonder if it was a bad thing, naming him after his white grandpa. Maybe I should’ve named him after Pop. Maybe then Jacob wouldn’t judge me so harsh every time I come home from working a double at the bar, every time I stay out and do something that make me forget Michael in jail, make me forget my kids. Maybe then he wouldn’t glare at me. Like now.
“I made her two bottles today,” Jacob says. He looks down when he says it, sucks his lips in over his teeth like he shamed they crooked. Got his teeth from his daddy. I shake the bottle I’m making.
“She hungry again,” I say.
“She wouldn’t sleep with you gone.”
“Make it thicker at night,” I tell him.
“She scream herself to sleep.”
“Babies cry.” The baby kicks one peach foot. “Give her,” I say, and Jacob hands her over.
The phone rings. I pick it up and I can tell from the static leaden silence that it’s him on the other end of the line waiting to say his name after the operator speaks, and I can see him pale and bald, all the hard lines of him, his jaw, his arms, the V of his hips, like stone, all still and tense before he says his name: Michael.
“Yes,” I say. It’s only when I hear his voice that I know I’ve been waiting for days, through shifts and sleeping and more shifts, to hear him speak to me again.
“Jacob,” I say. I hold out Michaela. He looks at me like he’s hungry, like only I have something that could fill him. His eyes: mine. I turn back to the wall, the phone, my love. “Hey, baby.”
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward will be published by Bloomsbury on the 16th January 2014 in hardback (£16.99) and eBook (£14.99).[/private]