BABY TONY IN HEAVEN
by Larkin Vonalt
Even with the air-conditioning going full blast, the truck is hot and the drive along I-20 out of northern Louisiana monotonous. It’s the end of Labor day weekend, and evacuees from the gulf coast are traveling north to escape Hurricane Gustav. When I left the motel in Monroe, a number of families have already set up camp in the parking lot.
We turn north out of Vicksburg on Highway 61. It runs along the Mississippi river from New Orleans to Minnesota. From the 1920s through the fifties, it was an important trail for blacks leaving the deep south for better prospects in Chicago. The New York Times‘ music critic Robert Shelton wrote: “Jazz came up the river. Blues came up the river. A lot of great basic American culture came right up that highway and up that river.”
We went up Highway 61 as far as Greenville, noting the first legal liquor store in Mississippi (the Jigger and Jug Package Store, which opened in 1966) and stopping for a hamburger. We’re on the west side of Greenville now, so we just meander over to State Highway 1, heading north through miles of cotton fields and sleepy little towns like Rosedale, Gunnison, Alligator.
Just north of Round Lake, a roadside shrine catches my attention. There is a life-size painted plywood silhouette of a little boy waving, and a little red chair. In the ten seconds it takes me to decide to stop, I’ve traveled another 800 feet. I find a place to turn the truck around.
“What’s going on,” my 13-year-old son asks sleepily, awakened by the change in momentum.
“Nothing, I just want to look at something.” He sighs and closes his eyes again. The roadside memorial consists of a large cross, a couple of concrete angels, the little red chair painted with the words “Baby Tony,” a hand-lettered sign that says “Pray for My Mama” and about a hundred red and white bicycle reflectors.
I am interested in roadside shrines. It seems strange to say that I admire them, given that they are landmarks to someone’s heartbreak, but the impulse to erect them feels entirely right to me. One mother said that she felt closer to her daughter on the narrow median strip where the girl died than in the cemetery where her body was laid to rest. “This is where her spirit left this earth,” she explained, and that is explanation enough.
My husband has no patience for such things. He is a champion of getting from point a to point b in the most efficient way possible and we would never stop, let alone turn around and go back for a pile of stuff on the side of the road. But when I am traveling alone (or with my kid) I often stop. I’ve photographed dozens of them, but the results are always flat. The energy that’s there can’t be captured by the camera, I suppose. I go on trying, though and I am composing a photo when an SUV stops alongside the truck.
A woman gets out of the vehicle and hurries towards me. There’s a twinge of anxiety– have I trespassed? Have I done something to offend?
“Hello! Hello!” she calls. “This is my grandson’s shrine, Baby Tony. I made this for him.” She is standing in front of me now, a woman in late middle-age, her salt and pepper hair pulled off her face into a tidy bun, still in her denim dress and flat shoes from church this morning. “I am so glad you stopped!”
We chat a little about the shrine, and she asks if I have time to come back to her house for a minute. It would be easy to say no, I really have to get on the road. It would be prudent to say no, wouldn’t it? My husband would be stunned that I would even consider saying yes. But she looks so hopeful I find myself saying “Sure, you lead the way.”
Baby Tony’s grandmother’s home is a tidy one-story house I’d passed a mile or so back. Other than the marquee in the neighbor’s yard (“Have you robbed God? You robbed him of tithes and offerings. Repent for Grace”) it seems entirely unremarkable.
“Come this way,” she says, “I want to show you something.” She sounds quite urgent and I hurry after her around the side of the house. There, in a grove of trees is a trampoline and around the trampoline are dozens and dozens of red tricycles.
“After Baby Tony died,” she says, “people just started bringing them to me.” There are 67 tricycles arranged one after the other in a large rectangle. Some face left, others face right. There’s no significance to the number, Janice says. Sometimes there are more, sometimes there are less. When she’s been given a particularly nice tricycle, she has passed it on to a child that didn’t have a trike. “That’s the way Baby Tony would have wanted it.”
One of the tricycles is cream-colored and quite old; the others are all red and white in various states of repair. Some are entirely covered in rust. An orphaned tricycle tire hangs on the handlebar of a neighboring trike. Her daughter and grandson had been over to the house the night before the accident, she tells me. Baby Tony was three years old.
“I was sitting in my chair and he was sitting in my lap. He was such a sweet little boy. His mama said to him, ‘Come on Baby Tony, we got to get home to make some supper for your Daddy.’ He leaned up next to me like this and he said “Gramma, I’m going to see God tomorrow.’ I just didn’t know what to say to that, but my hair just raised up like this on my neck, see. When Baby Tony and my daughter were about to go out the door, he ran over and held his arms up for me to pick him up. When I did he put his little arms around my neck and he said ‘Pray for my Mama.'”
And on the next day, there was an accident. Just a single car, just a little ways up the road. Her daughter drifted to one side, overcorrected, left the road, and rolled. She spent weeks in the hospital, but Baby Tony was killed immediately. The first tricycle was there in Janice’s yard when she got home from the hospital that night.
It wasn’t every day, but at least every week, that another tricycle would appear. Some old, some brand new. She knows the details about some of the trikes, but others are more obscure, arriving in the night, or when she is away. She started lining them up along the edge of her yard, and as the line grew, she had to turn a corner and then again, until the never-ending parade of tricycles was complete.
“It’s very peaceful out here,” she says. “And if I feel sad, I come out here and it feels like Baby Tony is still with me.” She excuses herself and goes into the house, returning a few minutes later with a much-larger-than-life painting of a little boy in a Hawaiian shirt. He looks like an old soul, I think. “This is Baby Tony!,” she says, and her voice is full of joy.
I’m astonished to see that I’ve been there for an hour, and I still have to get on up the road to Memphis. I give her my address and promise to send her a copy of the photograph of she and Tony in the garden of tricycles.
“Oh, please. Wait just a minute,” she says and runs into the house. When she returns she puts a golden pear in my hand. It’s heavy– plaster, I think. “You are supposed to have this,” she says. Pears– the symbol of motherhood and immortality. I thank her for the pear and for taking the time to tell me about Baby Tony.
“Oh no,” she says, “thank you. Thank you so much for stopping.”
I climb into the truck, waving at her as I back out into the road.
“What was all that about?” my son asks, awake now. We are passing the spot where Baby Tony left this earth and I explain that the lady was the little boy’s grandmother. “Oh, that’s so sad,” my son says. He picks up the pear. “I can’t eat this, can I?”
“No, it’s not real.” If I didn’t have the photographs, it might all have been a dream.