Devil’s Lake

Spring 2012 Issue

B.J. Hollars: The Longest Wait

We have been waiting for you for nine months now, but still, you are not here. On the longest days, I make a beeping sound in my throat, then turn to my phone, tell your mother, “Hey, I just got a text. Say’s sorry it’s late, but it’ll be here any minute.”

You’re not.

You are not here one minute and you are not here the next.

Are we concerned by your late arrival? Yes, secretly, though the midwives insist that your tardiness is hardly unusual.

Relax. Babies do not wear wristwatches.

This seems like sound advice.

Nevertheless, TV has convinced us that there must be scientific certainty to your arrival.

We understand that there is to be the breaking of water, the white knuckled pushing, and then you are ours—promptly at forty weeks.

Better late than never, I tell your mother, and when that doesn’t work, I say, Hey, at least it’s not an if but a when.

We are grateful that you are a when, and we are equally grateful that you held tight when that tornado tore through our town. You were just a poppy seed then, half a thumbnail bobbing in an endless ocean, the definition of vulnerable.

Your mother, the dog, and I were vulnerable too, taking refuge in a bathtub in a bathroom in a duplex in a cul-de-sac at the edge of a road at a corner of a street in a city that nearly blew away.

We’ll tell you all about this when you’re older, but it will be hard for you to understand. How the wind picked up, and then picked up everything with it. How the meteorologist shouted “safe place!” before fading from the screen.

A friend says, Take long walks! so we climb the mountain behind our house.

We are half a country away from that bathtub now, from that storm, and so we wear boots—not flip-flops—as we slog through Wisconsin’s snow.

Alabama has become an afterthought, though it is also a before-thought, and a during-thought, and a constant thought.

Most days I try to forget to forget but I always just remember.

The wind blows differently here. From atop the mountain behind our house, it seems to blow colder, cutting into your mother’s face. Yet she—so determined to sweat you out—hardly seems to notice. Your future dog, too, points her nose uphill, completing our weatherworn trio.

One day, I think, you will make us a quartet, but that day is not today.

Sometimes, after our mountain walks, I listen as your mother pounds up and down the stairs bargaining with God.

I will walk up and down these stairs a thousand times if you will just release it. We have been waiting for so long now. Please try to understand.

But we are not surprised when you do not come that day. Or the day after.

After all, we’ve bargained with Him before, praying for strong foundations, for reinforced walls, for trajectories that do not lead to us.

On Monday there are contractions; we both have them. Mine aren’t the same as hers, just shaky nerves in the minute prior to kick-off. Alabama is playing LSU for the national championship, though we remain half a country away, bundled in our team spirit sweatshirts in solidarity for a place we used to call home. The previous fall, we lived so close to Bryant-Denny stadium that our windows rattled with the touchdowns. And then, one afternoon there was a touch down of another sort, though our windows did not shake. It was as if we were in the eye of the storm but somehow failed to see anything.

The game is scoreless and then it is not: a field goal, followed by another, and another. Alabama is up by nine, and while your mother’s mild contractions continue, we distract ourselves with football talk. We decide to wait out the pain for a while, allowing the ebbs and flows of the body to do their work while we feign focus on the screen.

Our dog is the first to know that something is wrong. She patters down the staircase and hides atop our bed. This is not the first time she has sensed danger. There is another contraction, followed by another, and we are timing them now, feeling out the space between them.

At the end of the first quarter, your mother calls the hospital:

Hi, I have been having painful contractions… fluctuating between three and five minutes…baby one, but I’m almost at forty-one weeks…hopefully…note quite yet…we’ve just been waiting for so long…

We do not go immediately.

Instead, we sit on the couch debating quarterbacks and running backs for a few quarters.

Eventually, I say: “You know, it’s nice to have something to take your mind off of it.”

No one need tell her what the “it” is.

On the television screen, running back Eddie Lacy spins free of a lineman, and I shout, “Now that’s a tornado!”

That, child, is not a tornado. A tornado is no longer a spin move, though once we called it that. After a few years of flag football on the corner of Tuscaloosa’s 15th Street, I nearly perfected that move. For a time, my fellow flag footballers even called me that—Tornado.

We have waited long enough, and so, leave home with six minutes left in the fourth. Your mother’s contractions have expanded, quickened, tightened, and while we’re both anxious to watch the final minutes (well, maybe me more than her), we are less anxious to birth you in our living room.

We drive down Ferry Street, past the Dairy Queen, through the park, around the bend, and finally down Whipple Street, parking on the second story of the garage. “Yakkaty Yak” blares during the entire drive, which seems appropriate given the lunacy of reproduction.

While we fill out paperwork, Trent Richardson runs the football for a touchdown. While we settle into our room, Coach Saban hoists the trophy.

“You can turn on the game,” your mother says as she slips into her hospital gown. We search for it, but the game is gone now, nothing left but infomercials.

Eventually, a sports channel begins replaying the game in its entirety, and as your mother grips my hand, breathes deep, we stare at the screen together.

It feels redundant, watching the plays already played and knowing the outcome. But we like knowing—a contrast to our current predicament of not knowing anything at all.

The nurse is kind, and as I doze off in a chair beside the bed, she drapes a warm blanket over my shoulders. The entire room is trapped in half-sleep, though when our eyes momentarily bob back at the television screen, we see not a football game, but the footage they’ve been replaying throughout each Alabama game all season: the foreboding cloud hovering over the football stadium, the tornado that thumped our town.

“We survived that,” I mumble to the nurse.

It’s 3:00 a.m., or later.


“We survived.”

“Tornado,” your mother explains between contractions. “We survived that.”

We try to tell our story to the nurse, but it makes less sense now than ever.

How we crouched in a tub with our poppy seed son and were somehow not blown away.

“It went right by our house,” your mother says between contractions, and I nod, staring once more at the tornado on the screen, wondering how, nine months later and half a country away, still it has managed to find us.

Your mother is in a different bathtub now, a swollen fish trying to push you out. We are no longer afraid of what’s outside our window, but what’s inside her, instead.

Nature scares us differently tonight.

The water helps, your mother says, so she rocks back and forth in the tub.

In Tuscaloosa, we mostly just stayed still in our bathtub, hunkered, protecting our head with the couch cushions.

Hours later, when the real work begins, I will begin to understand devastation the way I knew it once before. I will see your mother’s face buckle like her legs never did on that mountain. There are no trembling lips, just promises to God and curses to God and apologies to God as well. But the time for dealings is over, there is no more bartering, we have nothing left to give.

We are just two people in a hospital who have been waiting so terribly long, and when the midwife says push, your mother pushes.

All I say is, “It’s coming close,” though in Tuscaloosa it was the opposite.

You are not there and then you are, a body bursting into the cold sun.

First you breathe and then you don’t but then you do again.

a photo of the author, B.J. Hollars B. J. HOLLARS is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (University of Alabama Press, 2011), Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight For Tuscaloosa (forthcoming from University of Alabama Press, 2013) and Sightings: Stories (forthcoming from Break Away Books/Indiana University Press, 2013). More from this issue >