This project will be written during November 2017 as part of National Novel Writing Month #nanowrimo.
Check back for updates on the story as the month progresses.
As you read this, I’ll be on the last bus out of Carolina. You probably have a lot of questions and may be furious as you search for answers in this letter. Pastor Ayres promised me he would explain things as best he could, but I know he can’t possibly tell you the full story. So that is why I’m writing. I hope, I really hope momma, that you will understand.
Leon and Ramona are with me. You should know that they are safe and will be taken care of. Pastor made arrangements with Aunt Agnes and they will be staying with her and her family. They don’t have much, but she was happy to take care of them for a while and give them a good home.
A home. A real home, momma. I know you tried to provide that for us. And for a while you did. Oh, how I miss the days when we were the happy family you see on the TV. Happy. I think we had that once. And it’s that memory that fills my heart now as I take away the pieces of this family that you and pops have broken apart.
I don’t blame you, momma. You and pops probably had a wonderful life together before I came along. I know I wasn’t easy. You made that plenty clear in the stories you would tell the church ladies. You had it rough, I know. Your momma wasn’t really around to help and pops family had long since disowned him, though neither of you would ever talk about it.
Pops had it bad too. I know he had his own dreams of being somebody and having us most definitely got in the way of those. Suddenly he was working extra shifts to make enough just to keep us all fed and a roof over our heads. I know this weighed on him, the pressure, the extra responsibilities, the long hours. I see why he turned to the bottle to get some time to his own.
As weekends with all of us together slowly and slowly faded away and more and more arguments over money, over booze, over the house filled our days, I know us kids became too much for you both. We had church, but you never seemed to want to ask for help. You both were too proud to appear like you were needy people. So you’d put on happy faces like you did your good Sunday clothes. And those shining moments held us kids in hope, but I’m old enough to know when those church bells rang, those walls would come crumbling down.
For a long time, I didn’t know. I relished in whatever love or small amount of attention you and pops would shower upon us. I kept dreaming that one day the anger he held within him would disappear. I held out for the day when you wouldn’t need to sneak yourself alcohol to muster your own daily routine. But it’s gone. The light in both your eyes don’t shine as they once did.
Birthdays aren’t celebrations anymore. We no longer expected gifts at Christmas and other holidays. Every now and then, pops would bring home old toys he got from the nice ladies at his work. But he never gave them to us with the smile he had in the pictures that hang on the walls. Those are for show too. They just serve as a painful reminder of what used to be.
I cried momma. I cried oceans of tears that could fill worlds over. I prayed someone would save us. I prayed upon my knees, upon my pillow as I slept at night, upon every meal we ate and on every star in the night sky. I took my beatings, the countless and pointless slaps, smacks and punches. More than any kid should ever have to endure. I held my tongue while you would yell and spout foul words that would echo so deep into my ears that they’d sink down to the bottom of my soul.
I took extra too, when I knew they were coming Leon and Ramona’s way. I’d tell them to hide, to run, to go outside and play. I tried to save them their childhoods as much as I could, knowing mine was long over. But I’m still a kid myself, momma. I’m grown, but I did not bring those kids into this world. I shouldn’t be the one looking out for whatever life they have left.
But, as I’ve heard you mutter under your breath with such bitterness many times before, “If I don’t do it myself, then who will?” It took me too long, but I finally knew no one was coming to save us. No one would stop the beatings, the drinking, the wicked downward spiral we were on. It had to be me.
Our neighbors had to have heard the arguments or our cries. They must have long since given up any chance at change. I don’t fault them for not getting involved and minding their own business. Teachers had to have known too that something was going on at home, but also chose to not stick their noses into what they may have thought a family issue. Pops family, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to find them. I knew you had a sister from her Christmas cards, but that was it.
I didn’t know how, where or when, but I knew what had to be done. Listening to Pastor Ayres’ sermon one Sunday, I finally saw in him the light. The way out for us. I stopped him one morning after he visited my Sunday school class before church. I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth, but he had to have known. Or he saw the righteous rage behind my eyes and sought to calm it before the cycle continued.
I begged him not to speak to you about it. Not to go to the police either. I knew those routes would not end well for us kids. He told me to sit tight a few days and let him discuss options with his wife. A fear suddenly grew in the pit of my stomach, but I trusted him. I saw something in his face and heard something in his voice that told me it would be okay.
Then I remembered your shoe box. The one you kept hidden from us kids and maybe from pops too. Leon happened upon it once while he was hiding during a game of hide-and-seek. When I found him, he had already gotten into your lipstick in the box and your pictures and letters were all over the floor of the closet.
I had seen a green envelope — I’d never seen one in color before—and it held the Christmas card Agnes sent you a couple years back. I remembered reading the address on the back and wondering how far the card had traveled from Washington D.C. all the way to our house. That was how Pastor got to Agnes. I copied down her name and address and he reached out to her through her church.
He has probably told you that they were told the truth about everything, so it is not worth trying to get the kids back. Or even getting in touch with Agnes. At least not until you and pops get your own lives back in order. Or, if by some chance, you find the ounce of respect you have left for yourself and leave him.
I know it may be hard to hear this, momma. I won’t pretend to know everything you’ve got going on in your head. But I know you know. I know you know how his anger, his whole outlook on the world has grown weary. And it’s changed him. In such dark ways.
I loved him too once, so I can see what you see in him. He lit up the room with his smile. His laughter boomed across the house like a soulful song bellowing from the depths of his heart. And when he held you in his embrace, you could see the happiness tearing up in his big bright eyes.
But that man he was, the picture perfect husband and father, is long gone. And I fear he’s taken you with him. My hope is that with us out of the way, maybe you will see. Maybe you will take a good look at the man he is now. And I hope you will find peace with what you decide. But I know we can’t live there like this, pretending what we are is what family is.
I love you, momma. I miss you momma. Oh, how the thought of you does things to me. Even now. As I leave you, wondering if I will ever see you again. I love you so much it hurts when I write that, not knowing how you will take this letter. Praying you won’t just rip it up. Hoping that you are reading this alone, as I told Pastor to tell you. Not with him around.
After I see to the kids getting to Agnes’, I’m headed up north by myself. I’ve got my own work to do. Part of me wants to tell you where I plan to go and what I plan to do. But there are parts that don’t really know. And other parts that worry if this letter ends up in his hands that he’ll come find me and take back the name he gave me.
I have seen too many troubling things, momma. I got storms inside me about it. Terrible winds blow through my mind and my heart aches with fear. It feels like a tornado ripped through my house. I need to find a way to reconcile the hurt within me and maybe make a friend with peace. I need to get back to me.
I remember how you held me momma, when I was a boy. Despite your worry, your tired eyes and your broken heart, you still held me like a momma should hold her child. I would close my eyes and just feel your heartbeat, singing sweet harmony with my own. We were love, like when you held me in your belly. Thank you for those moments. Thank you for bringing me into this world and keeping me alive all these years. I just don’t know if you can do that anymore. Either you don’t have it in you or you’ve lost that love for me somewhere along the way.
Maybe your love got spread too thin between all of us and you couldn’t hold on to any for yourself. I wish I knew how to help you find it. I would love to see you smile and laugh again. To see you dance and maybe cut in and sway along with you. I still dream of sharing my joys with you. Of making you proud. And one day when your aching bones grow weak, taking care of you like you cared for me all those times I got sick when I was younger.
I don’t know what else there is to say. I promised Pastor and his wife that I would keep in touch with them, so if you ever want to write back, they may know how you can reach me. I will tell Agnes the same when we get there. I may visit them but I just don’t know what the future holds for me yet. I can’t see that far right now, I just know the road ahead of me is long.
I want to make something of my life, momma. I know I can. My foundation is cracked but it is made of stone. It will hold. I just need to fill in the holes and make them stronger, so one day I can build this house into something great.
Promise me momma that you will be there with me one day. Talk to Pastor or his wife, they are truly good people. I know it ain’t in you to ask for help, but there is no shame in needing it. You held and carried three children, you have raised us all almost by yourself. I know you are strong. Nobody can ever take that from you. But we all fall. We all can use a hand to hold onto while we pull ourselves back up onto our feet.
Our ties may be broken, but they are not lost. I will always hold out hope for you. As many times as you’ve wronged me, I still can’t help but love you. You’re all I got, the only home I’ve ever known. You are my momma and that won’t ever change.
Please just let us go. Let us be. Let us feel what happiness is again. Help us grow to be good people. And put all this hurt behind us. I want this for Leon’s gentle kindness, for little Ramona’s big heart, for you, for me and us all as a family.
I admit that I really don’t know if I’m ready for any of this, but I’m so tired of sitting by while we’re dying inside. There’s just got to be better. A better world for each of us.
I’ll pray for you, momma. My heart will always cry for you. Even when my eyes have dried up. I will long for the day when it joins yours again in song. A sweet song full of joy. Just joy. Forgiveness. And always love. Take care of yourself, momma. And don’t be afraid, or too proud, to ask for help. We all need it.
I took the picture of you holding Ramona as a baby while Leon and I are at your side. The one that hung high on the wall for all to see when you came to our house. I will keep it with me as a reminder of what we once had. What our family meant to each other back in the day. When love was not all we had, but all we needed.
It may leave a big hole on that wall. Maybe you’ll replace it, or maybe you’ll take down all the pictures of us or you may not even have noticed if I didn’t mention it. I really don’t know what we mean to you anymore. You might have given up on things ever changing. Or denied all the bad things going on to yourself so much so that you believe everything between us was fine. Or maybe that hole on the wall will ache like the hole in your heart now that we are gone.
Go find the life you used to wish for when you were my age. Find peace. Find happiness. Find the woman holding the baby with her boys by her side, just smiling. In love.
Russell Jones, Jr.
It warms my heart, brother, to hear you are doing so well. Wow, I really can’t believe how you have grown. College. College?! That’s just great news! I was happy enough just to hear from you, but that is all the better. You have had your struggles in school, but you were always smart. I knew one day you would be doing things I never imagined. Far better things than I could. And look at you now.
I’m just… I’m beyond words. For once! But you know me, that never stopped me from writing before. I’ll be damned, you’re becoming a man, you really are. I love the pictures you sent, I think I see a hint of some dirt growing on your lip there. Soon enough, you’ll be fighting them off, if you aren’t already. If there’s anything you got handed down from me, it’s my rugged good looks. I’m teasing you. You’re your own man. Always were.
Ramona looks so grown too. Both of you have got to stop trying to make your brother feel older than I need to. Please send her all my love. And if there’s any left when she’s done with it, take a little some for yourself. I miss you both as much as I did that day I left you. Crazy to think it’s almost 10 years ago now. Funny thing that time, it creeps by you when you’re not looking.
I still got all my charms and wits about me, though, no worries there. But it’s just hard to believe that much time has gone already. And I’m still handsome enough to get my share. Well, I shouldn’t be going on about all that mess now that I found me a good woman. I don’t know, Lee, I don’t like to put my eggs in one basket, but there’s something about this one.
I won’t lie to you, I really wasn’t looking to set myself down just yet. And I’ve told you before—maybe a bit more than I should have—about all the trouble I’ve gotten myself into in the past few years. I never intended to be the kind of man running around with more than one woman at a time, picking up married women and messing around with just the wrong girls. I’ve been down, brother. Real down. I see it now. How I was filling some kind of emptiness inside me in all the wrong ways. But I think I’m on my way back up.
Maybe I needed to get all that junk out of my system. I think I was trying to make up for lost time, since I wasn’t the first horse out of the gate. And it took me a long time to even get started. But then I was off to the races! Too much so. So much I almost ran right past the good thing I got going now. Luckily for me, she saw through that big head of mine and put aside my overconfidence.
Her name’s Marieta and I’m telling you I could go on about her forever. I’m taken with her like I’ve never been with another. She is a real woman of a whole other kind. I feel lucky every time we’re together. And I have been myself with her more than with anyone I have ever shared company with.
She knows me. She knows us. We had one hell of a real deep talk one night. Heck, right into the next morning even, about just everything. Everything that happened to us as kids. I just let it all out, like I hadn’t ever before, not even to Pastor Ayres back when he helped us out of there. And she just listened. She cried too. And she held me as I cried and I felt something I haven’t felt in so long that I thought it wasn’t in me to feel anymore. Loved.
Trust me brother when I tell you, being with a woman is one thing. I won’t deny how that feeling fills you in ways nothing else can. Words haven’t been made yet. Singers and poets keep trying, but not a one has even come close to capturing it. That alone is good. Real good.
Let me tell you, though. When you feel that goodness, that fire, that tenderness, that truth, that nourishing beyond song and poetry kind of good that comes from laying with a woman you love, a woman you have connected with in some deep soulful way. When you look into each others eyes while making love and see yourselves for the hot holy messes of beings put on this world that you are. There are no words. There aren’t even sounds that could convey what that feels like. But I can tell you I don’t ever want it to go away.
I hope one day you feel the way I feel right now. I hope you can just put yourself, all of yourself — the good the bad and the downright ugly—out there for someone and just feel the relief of having them say you are not some broken person. That what happened to you should never have happened to you, to anyone. And then look you right in your eyes, through tears, through years of pain, through old fears and new ones, and just tell you that you are okay. You are in a much better place. And then really be there, for you, with you, and—maybe for the first time in your life—beside you. A true partner.
Whew. Sorry, brother. I got myself all worked up again there. But that’s okay, this time it’s in a good way. Because there’s hope there now where once there was not. I feel like the weight of the world has been taken off my shoulders. Like I can lift my head up again and see the sunshine. And feel it for once in a real way, not like the half-man I have been playing at being in these last few years.
We talk a lot. We have real long and deep conversations. I love to just listen to her speak. I hang on her every word. And when I talk, I can tell she is really taking in my thoughts with as much consideration as she would someone much wiser than me. There’s a great communication with us that is a whole new level for me.
I really want that for you too, brother. Maybe it doesn’t have to be the way I have it, but I want you to know if you ever want to talk about anything— and maybe I haven’t been there for you before in this way, but—I am here now. I will listen.
You may not be ready. And I know you and Ramona both went to some special counselor that Agnes’s preacher set up way back then. So maybe you have gotten through some of it yourself already. Just know, you don’t ever have to walk alone. I am here for whatever, if and whenever you need.
You are my only brother and I know I ain’t much, but I’m as best you got. So I’m ready for you if you ever need me. You can call on me and I’ll come running. You and Ramona are my family, my heart and soul. You can do no wrong in my eyes. And I love you both more than anyone in this whole world.
That goes even if things with me and Marieta get to the point of… I can’t even believe I’m writing these words. No, let me not get ahead of myself. Just know, I’ll never put you two before anyone else in my life. Trust in that. We’ve been through too much together. And that tie between us is stronger because of it.
I worried. I worried for a long time that you both would hate me for taking you away. For leaving you alone in a whole new place. It might have been part of the reason I decided to head out on my own for a while. But mostly I wanted to make sure you were safe. I wanted to put you in good hands and get out of your way.
I feared pops might come. I think I knew momma would stay away, knowing Agnes could give you more. And she wouldn’t have to ask her to, because it was already decided, so she could save face. But pops might have wanted to lash out. To fight back for what I took from him. To once again put me in my place for thinking myself better than he was.
I hoped though, and this is why I saw Pastor Ayres as our light, that if he thought word would get out about what he was really up to, he could lose a lot more than just us. His job. His name. His place in the community he clung to. As much as he wanted to be left alone, pops hated being lonely.
So if all the other fears wouldn’t keep pops from getting to us, I hoped Pastor himself could put the fear into him like no other man could.
Pastor was a good man, a man of truth and conviction. Besides being able to see into a man and size him up with one handshake, he was one of the biggest men I’ve ever known. You may not remember or thought because we were so small that he appeared larger than he actually was. But no, Pastor was a house of worship unto his own.
But I still didn’t know if that was enough. I had no clue how pops would react. My dream was that he would just be relieved and move on with his life. But I hadn’t ever had a dream come true.
I was scared. I took his beatings enough to not be scared about him hurting me. But I was scared of retaliation. I knew showing him up like this, taking away his punching bags and play toys, it might have lit his flame. It could have put the rage that laid behind his eyes over the edge and unleashed the sleeping beast within him. So I wanted to put enough distance between the both of you and me, that if he came for me, he wouldn’t get to you too.
It lightens whatever fear I might have had left in me to see how well you both are thriving there now. You are not only grown, but you both are doing so well for yourself. Ramona’s almost a woman. It gives me an overwhelming sense of pride to see you both happy. Like what I did so long ago may have been worth it. Like I can finally breathe easy now and focus on doing better for myself.
It may still be a long road ahead. And the road behind me even longer now. But I’ve learned about things, I know where I’ve been. I may not be where I’m going yet. But I am finding my way. It may be far off, but I can start to make out where I’m headed. My place off that road. And I can’t wait to rest my aching feet.
I think I’ve gone on long enough now. Forgive your older brother for trying to get down a whole life story into each letter I send. You probably have some real reading to get done, now that you’re going on to study at college. College man! I am so proud of you, brother. Study hard and even work harder. Make what you want of yourself in this world. Take us higher. I know you’ll be great.
Please tell Aunt Agnes I said thank you so much for the invitation to come down for Thanksgiving. Marieta’s family already asked her to bring me along to their place. They live up here, not too far from where I work, and they want to meet me. I’m both nervous and excited at the same time. I have never been to an official sit-down dinner with a girl’s family. Especially not one as meaningful to me as her.
I hope they see how much I love her and how good I’ll be to her. She makes me better than I am, and I pray they see me through her eyes. I hope they see I am done with all that bad in my past and that it is truly behind me now. I’m looking to make good. To do good. And to do right by her. I want to make her as proud to be with me as I am to be with her.
If all goes well, the plan is that I will then save up some extra money. Maybe I’ll take on some side work so that I can make enough to come down for Christmas and bring her along with me. I want you all to meet her. And I want her to know why I’m so proud of my little brother and baby sister. I also want her to see what she’s getting herself into by being with me. Teasing. If I haven’t run her off yet, I don’t know that I can. Which is good, because I sure don’t want to.
I’m so happy with her I feel almost at peace. My guard is down. But I’m okay with that. I think if I’m going to be in this, I have to give her all I got. All my love. All my hopes and dreams, my regrets and my fears. All of me. Just be completely open. It sounds scary as hell to say that, knowing the hurt I’ve seen from love before.
Love has led me to some scary places. Places where you put others before your own self. Your own wellbeing. And I’ve sure had my share of burns from love. I’ve learned a lot about the troubles love can bring you. The down side, the heartbreak and the heartache.
I’ve seen enough of love gone bad to know what it’s like when it’s no longer there. When sweet turns bitter. And the darkness consumes the light. And I learned it all the hard way.
But it’s something I’m going to have to let go. I know I can’t move forward looking back. I can’t stand on the edge and hold on expecting that will be enough to get me by. You can’t close your eyes thinking love won’t leave you if you can’t see it go. That’s not how love works.
You have to take that leap of faith. Jump in. Dive in. Or fall, freely, into love. And that’s all right by me. I think I’m ready to let that kind of love in again. It may be weak, but my broken heart has been put back together. It’s getting stronger, louder and better with every beat.
See you soon brother, with love,
Russell Jones, Jr.