The Cost of a Free Ride
As I handed him my dollar, my heart swelled within me, and a lump the size of a spaceship landed in my throat. I looked at him as he reached for the money with unshielded enthusiasm. He looked as if time had painted its presence upon his face with uneven strokes. Daubings of white, silver, and gray had created a motley of hair strands in places where healthy black follicles once swayed to the rhythm of a cool island breeze. His skin drooped and sagged in grand Shar-Pei style, but his eyes were alive, and his smile was broad. He looked seven months pregnant too, swollen with years of unreserved indulgence and iced cold beer. “Tank yu,” [Thank you], he said in a thick Jamaican accent. My heart burned within me, a blending of anger, sympathy, embarrassment, and disgust. How long had he been in the U.S.? Apparently way longer than me. Why was I giving him my dollar then? What was his story? Here I was still stalking survival while he — with palms outstretched — had spiritlessly and shamelessly surrendered.
My story? I spent the first 15 years of my life in Jamaica without a father because the American dream had shackled mine and carried him away. I received only one visit in intervals of three or so years which yielded a brown-skinned doll to compensate for the absences in between. The last doll was my favorite. The others were made of a thin, plastic-like material and whenever they fell, their heads cracked open. But this one was different. In many ways, she was a reflection of me: short, middle-eastern brown, slim, solid, attractive, and sporting a pixie cut, off-black hair, medium brown eyes, and a perennial smile.
I grew up almost poor. When I first came into awareness of myself and my surroundings, I was living with my grandparents and my sister, Loren, in rural St. Ann on what seemed like acres and acres of land brimming with trees of every specie: avocado, breadfruit, ackee, mango, star apple, orange, banana, papaya, apples, and scores more I can’t even remember. We grew tons of coffee, yam, cocoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, dasheens — you know, ground food. The coffee I remember well, however, because we would use a wooden bat to mortar fresh coffee beans immediately after picking them, then make the strongest, most amazing coffee ever! The taste of a large chunk of bread soaked in pure, unadulterated coffee was a precursor to everlasting happiness and energy! I would run in and out our small pink house, up and down the hill that set the house at a distance from the dirt road, dancing in between the clean clothes that hung on the line, under the trees, across the way, and wherever my dusty feet would take me.
“Si dung no pickney,” [Sit down, please child] my grandmother would suggest firmly. But her plea fell on deaf ears. Life was good. Good though I never listened. Good though my grandfather could not walk. Good though I had never met my mother. Then grandmother died, and I and Loren, who was roughly a year and a half older than me, were sent to my pregnant aunt and her two boys in Kingston. I was four, maybe five years old. My mother finally showed up when I was nearing six and the stress of five children under the care of my aunt — a single mother — had turned into physical abuse.
I didn’t get along with my mother. None of us did. Not me, not my older half-brother, Garth (whom we met when we went to live with my mother and my stepfather), not Loren. The concept of a social agenda or fun was outright blasphemy. School trips, slumber parties, birthday parties, creative dancing classes, even parent-teacher meetings were to her chagrin and we learned quickly not to even bring them up in conversation. It was pointless. Her priorities were on us being “good girls.” In fact, she was the archetypal Caribbean mother depicted in Jamaica Kincaid ‘s “Girl”:
This is how you sew on a button…this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down…; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard…; this is how you set a table for dinner…; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well…; don’t squat down to play marbles — you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers — you might catch something…; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot.
The rattle, my friends, was real! My mother made sure her children (the girls, of course) knew how to cook, wash, clean, and take care of a home. And though I mastered the skill, I never ever wanted it to be the defining characteristic that set me apart. But not if she could help it! As we approached adolescence, Loren and I took an interest in church, and getting there was married to first cleaning the floors to a spit shine on our knees with a brush made from dried coconut; cooking dinner for the entire family; and handwashing the dirty laundry, folding them to perfection, and putting them away! We didn’t have boyfriends either; we didn’t dare dream. If we had male classmates who were mere friends, we kept that to ourselves too, particularly when puberty winked at us and joined the sorority. It was a straitjacket of the worst kind. So I longed for my father. With every roar of a plane engine that passed overhead, my yearning intensified, and my impatience ballooned. For when he came, good times came with him. And mother was on her best behavior, sweet as cherries ripened to succulence in the warmth of the Caribbean sun!
Daddy was everything! When he came, we were oh so happy. We would comb the Jamaican landscape, discovering authenticity in whatever form it came — food, people, places, things. In fact it was on one of those escapades that we discovered that my father had a son which meant Loren and I had another brother! His name was Ricardo! He was 11 years old, quiet, and shy, living with his grandmother in the parish of Clarendon. His mother was half-Indian; thus, he had mounds of rolling curls on his head and he was brown-skinned and skinny. Apparently, he had never really traveled beyond the borders of rural Jamaica, so on those rare occasions when he opened his mouth to speak, not one word of English escaped his lips. We had to listen very carefully to understand him! He was young, without an agenda, and easy-going like our dad, and over time, we got to know him a bit better. Discoveries of this nature are not uncommon within the Jamaican culture. In fact, Loren and I had also discovered another sibling of ours — a sister, Pat. But we had known about Pat from the beginning since my mother would talk openly about the feud between her and Pat’s mother (Ms. Henry), for Pat was only five months older than I was. Daddy would often tell mother that he was going to the gym and was lifting weights. “A mussa did Ms. Henry big hell-eva titty dem him did a lif up!” [It must have been Ms. Henry’s humongous breasts he was lifting] she would say, rolling her eyes.
Like most island folk, mother was deeply in love with America. It held promise; Jamaica did not. Of course, we had universities — the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University of Technology. But with a home-made business as a seamstress bringing in just enough for food, we could never afford either. Still, she was thrifty. She operated as banker for “partners” where friends would contribute a set sum of money (called a hand) — sometimes even two hands — into a kitty and then select when they wanted to draw out the total sum from all contributors for day to day living or emergencies. Being the banker meant she could borrow small sums between weekly or bi-weekly draws for day to day living and return it before payout time. “A di people dem paaaadna money mi borrow,” she’d often say to explain why we were getting by. But that wasn’t entirely true because there was Br’er John, our stepfather. And he had an important job at Jamaica Broilers, a major chicken supply chain equivalent to a Perdue in the US. So we didn’t have to make do with whatever was cheap and available. But sometimes we did because depending on him was risky: a smoke weed, chant down Babylon, talk shit, then whoop her ass type a risky.
“Yu neva even put no shuga in a di chicken,” [You didn’t even add sugar to the chicken] he’d start.
“A who you know a put shuga in a chicken?” [Whoever puts sugar in chicken?] She’d fire back.
“But a wha di bombo claaaaat…” [What the fuck!]
And we’d just scatter. God forbid any of us insisting on the insanity of his argument. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. For we had been through it all before — at his house in Spanish Town when we first moved in with them and even after she left him years later and bought her own tiny house made from concrete slabs, which Loren’s husband later nicknamed “the oven.” We had made a pit stop at our grandmother’s in Kingston for two or so years where we occupied the maids’ quarters built independently of my grandmother’s expansive main house complete with every bell and whistle. These quarters consisted of three rooms attached side by side — somewhat equivalent to a railroad apartment — except that the shower with toilet was directly in front of the three rooms and was of tip toe quality. Br’er John never visited us there. But when she popped us into that oven, he re-entered her life bit by bit, spending more and more time away from his five- or six-bedroom house to join us in the devil’s sauna. And even though this was now her house bought with her money, he was still up to his antics. So we opted to indulge in fruits and ground food and chicken. Fruits were cheap. And fruits were free. We could always walk and pick mangoes or walk and beg mangoes or walk and steal mangoes. But we rarely had to do that because he provided. Still, he was not our father. Our father was in America and we were going there even if the woman he married was her greatest rival.
“Yu faada seh him a wait pan Dora fi sign di paypa dem. Mi no know if a arthritis ketch har or wat, but she caaan sign dem yet. Talk bout she did ago sen fi oonu faaas faaas when she reach a ‘Merica. A pretty bway she did a look fi bring off har ugly kyaas-yaiy self! Ooonu no si ow ooonu faada look good! (Tchiupe). Wen Gad did a gi whey ugly, da woman deh did deh a di front a di dyam line. Di front mi seh! But im did waan go a ‘Merica. Well good fi ‘im! Si deh! Im deh a ‘Merica! Ten years an im still married to the dyam crockel! Lawd Gad! We jus ha fi pray fi im.” [Your father says he’s waiting on Dora to sign the alien registration papers. I don’t know if she came down with arthritis or what, but she still can’t sign them as yet. She was talking about how she was going to send for you guys quickly once she got to America. She was only trying to land a handsome man to tone down her ugly cross-eyed self. (Hiss teeth). You don’t see how handsome your father is? When God was giving away ugly, that woman was at the front of the line. The very front! But he wanted to go to America. Well, good for him. See? He is in America! Ten years and he’s still married to the damn kraken. Lord God! We just have to pray for him.]
It took three more years for God to finally answer mother’s prayers and Loren left in August 1983. Alone. She showed no real emotion when the news came, but I’m sure she was excited. I mean, this was America, and Pat was waiting for her. Still, as she was my only full sibling, I was sad that she was leaving. I had never been without her before. We had been together in the country with grandmother when half-way home from pre-school, I lost the battle to the contents in my colon that simply wanted out; together at our aunt’s house in Kingston where she whipped us until we had huge black and blue wales on our skin for weeks on end; together at all the places my mother called home between Kingston and Spanish Town, watching as my stepfather beat the crap out of our mom for one reason or another. We had slept in the room and in the same bed since I came to awareness, and we chatted constantly. We didn’t talk about emotional things, interestingly, but we talked nevertheless. We went to church together, got baptized together, and when school let out early and/or there was an activity (e.g. sport’s day) that would not interfere with the time we were expected home, I would go to her school and hang out with her and her friends. I liked being around her. She was my big sister. She was my friend.
In May 1984, eight months after Loren left, Ricardo and I also set sail across the ocean, leaving behind unforgettable memories of cool breezes, hot sands, warm beaches, captivating landscapes, and congenial people…like my friend Annie. I met Annie in school and she quickly became my best friend. We lived a mile apart with a humongous tree by the side of the road marking the half-way point between both our houses. After hopping off the bus from school, we would journey past her house, which was only a block away from the bus stop, and head toward the big tree with the sun pelting us all the way. We had every intention to split up and go our separate ways once we reached the tree, but that was rarely our experience. We would arrive at the tree, then journey to my house, then turn back and head toward the half-mile marker just to finish a tale or two. Sometimes the chatting would get so good, we would get to my house, then turn around and go the full mile to her house, then back to the big tree, laughing all the way.
When I saw Loren again, spring was in full bloom in New York. Old Man Winter had embraced her a bit too tightly, I suppose, and she looked pale. I soon got over the shock of her living in a refrigerator and going from brown to near white, and we settled down to a traditional chat for the hour and a half it took us to get to White Plains, NY. Ricardo didn’t speak much, but he had always been a quiet one. The City of White Plains was clean, classy, affluent. And I liked living there. The home my father propagandized — not so much. Home was a one-bedroom apartment that he originally shared with Aunt Dora and their U.S.-born only child, Sophia. Now, he was incrementally adding each of his other children for a total of seven people packed tight like a sumo wrestler in a preemie’s diaper. When I walked in that day, I was confused. “But where’s my room?” I asked, rounding corners and investigating thoroughly. My father laughed and sucked the air through his teeth several times, his signature laugh. “This is it mi dear,” he continued. I was speechless.
Daddy was a handsome man! He looked the splitting image of Mohammed Ali, like they were identical twins really. Friends who had that once in a lifetime opportunity to visit that apartment and browse his photo album were shocked.
“Oh my God,” they’d say. “I didn’t know you knew Mohammad Ali like that!”
“No, we’d say. “That’s daddy.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” was always the response.
Soon they learned the story of how he had walked into some place at one time and everyone stood up and started cheering. They really thought he was Ali! That was his draw with women — that face, that charm. Then, there was his personality. He was incredibly easy going, incredibly slow to anger. Just calm. Dead sea calm. In fact, I had never seen my father angry. Instead, laughter was always in his throat. Nothing ruffled his feathers. Nothing! Once, I had wanted to pee one too many times on one of our excursions into the country areas of Jamaica, and he bellowed out, “Again??” But that was an anomaly. He could get along with anybody from any race, any culture, any country. In fact, Daddy could probably have made even iron Hitler relax, maybe even repent. And because of that, he had friends galore. His laughter, his attitude was just infectious. Daddy didn’t talk much at all, so I can’t say we truly knew him. But what we knew was that he liked to laugh. And when he did, he would end by sucking air between his tongue and his canines several times. That easy spirit never failed him. It was his defining characteristic, his pungi in a world full of venom and upheaval.
Over time, we discovered that daddy had a vehicle, a 1959 classic Rolls Royce look-alike that could have made us proud. Except it was yellow. And it was a taxi — a way to make money…well, sometimes…whenever he needed quick cash. Most times, however, it was parked outside the homes of countless women — “aunts” — spell bound by charm and collecting hundreds of dollars in parking tickets that he nonchalantly stuffed inside the glove compartment. When they accumulated to a certain point, Aunt Dora would simply take care of them for she worked two jobs, sometimes three. She was a registered nurse at a major hospital in Westchester County and also a part-time home health aide, caring for an old White man in Rye, NY. So a couple of days out of the week, she did not return home; she was earning a living.
For one year, I lived with Loren, Pat, Ricardo, Sophia, daddy, and Aunt Dora in that one bedroom apartment in White Plains, NY. The living room was a decent size and held two sofa beds and one traditional couch. Loren and I shared one sofa bed, Pat and Sophia shared the other, and Ricardo slept on the traditional couch. Sophia was eleven years old, chubby, and spoilt, the apple of her mother’s eye. But she was young. And she was sweet. She would let us sit on her bed and share her Donkey Kong game! We would scream and flinch and jump as if we were actually the character on his quest to save the princess. And she would laugh and laugh at how silly we were. Meanwhile we were playing, she was demolishing a large order of chicken fried rice with a side order of fried chicken wings, fries, and a large bottle of coke her mother had bought her. And an hour later, we would get the familiar chime: “I’m hungry.” And she would move on to a coco bread, a Jamaican beef patty, and a pineapple soda — her snack. “But yu no jus eat?” [But didn’t you just eat?] Ricardo would say in disbelief. “Laaawd Gad!” [Christ!].
The culture of the home was normal for the odd blending that it was. So we began settling into our new lives, talking, laughing, living — the Odd Couple, the Jamaican Brady Bunch. Daddy drove the taxi during the days, coming back home for varying lengths during the days. Sometimes he had Jamaican goodies: beef patties, cocoa bread, soda. Aunt Dora came and went. In the context of parenting, she spoke when she needed to, but that wasn’t often. She simply hurried in and out the building and to and fro the official bedroom that was off limits to us stepchildren, glancing at us sheepishly, nervously, and in an unfocused way. For indeed her eyes were crossed. And she had buck teeth. We didn’t know what to make of her really; we didn’t bother to try.
Summer of 1984 came quickly, and us older girls were being sent to daddy’s sisters in Cambridge, MA., and Ricardo was about to experience his family in third world Brooklyn! Aunt Jay and Aunt Vee were super cool people. Aunt Jay had lived a more vibrant life, a jazz singer turned something else, turned something else. Aunt Vee was far more conservative, a church-going enthusiast, private caterer, and a doting wife. So we had an eclectic three months, hanging between them and discovering the ecstasies of crockpot cooking, an unbridled life, and the crevices and corners of good ole “Bastan.”
The island man had retrieved his inheritance, and my fingers were still embracing its absence. “Is fi mi lotto!” [It’s for my lotto!] he chimed.
“Lotto?” I came to quickly.
“Yea man, all you need is a dollar and a dream.”
“What the hell? If you save all the money you get instead of spending it on stupid lotto, you’d be rich,” I said.
“Maybe, but you have to be in it to win it!” He ended with a big broad smile and a consequent chuckle, revealing teeth that had obviously been sheltered through his time of storm.
“Whatever!” I snapped. He looked somewhat offended, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to talk anyway. My mind was racing up and down White Plains, NY.
In a millisecond, we were back in New York. Aunt Dora was working. Daddy was playing. And Sophia was eating: Kentucky fried chicken. Pizza. Chicken fried rice. Hamburgers. Fries. Jello. Applesauce. Cake. Candy. We, on the other hand, were adjusting. Loren and I joined a local church and its promising youth choir and began making long-lasting friendships that yielded multiple advantages. We got food and clothes and a wealth of experiences through the different programs the church instituted for the benefit of its younger members. We were privy to concert pianists; up-front and personal discussions with Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon; Studio 54 performers now on the Lord’s side; renowned and up-and-coming speakers; church outings; and numerous opportunities to sing, speak, and lead. Wanting to feel included, Pat joined too, enjoying some of its advantages, but she was never really serious about it. Ricardo did what boys typically do. With the rat race in full swing, he created his own entertainment, fully flavored with drama. Once, he and Sophia were up and down the fire escape feeding and befriending squirrels and birds. In two minutes or less, White Plains police were knocking on the door intent on arresting “criminals” who were reportedly using the fire escape to break in and enter people’s apartments.
“White Plains police no have one damn ting fi du,” Pat chuckled. “A bet yu Brooklyn police woulda jus hang up di phone an roll dem yaiy.” [White Plains police have nothing to do. I bet that Brooklyn police would just hang up the phone and roll their eyes.]
In another instance, when the rest of us were away, Ricardo found our father’s flare gun and opened fire on the apartment. The fiery missile apparently bounced off the ceiling and the walls several times before landing and burning a large hole into the linoleum floor where it fell. When we got back home, we found him shaking like a leaf and bawling his eyes out — terrified! Aunt Dora glared at him intently, pairing the stare with a lecture of academic proportions. She somehow managed to lock one eye unto his fear-filled face. But the other chameleon eye kept darting from him to daddy to Sophia to Pat to Loren to me. So the scourge and the shame were unintentionally shared. Daddy just shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
Life continued for the bunch with school, home, church, and play. Pat and Ricardo went to White Plains High School, Sophia was attending White Plains Middle School, and Loren was in her final year of SUNY-WCC. I was planning on following Loren. Since Pat was the first to land on American soil, she had secured some “working papers” and was making her own money babysitting, wait staffing, and housecleaning for affluent people. She would use the funds for her own pleasure. But she also purchased some clothes and sized ten shoes for Loren and me since Aunt Dora’s sized nine hand-me-downs were giving Loren corns and causing her to limp. We slowly built a relationship with each other, rarely getting on each other’s nerves though we were in such a tight knit space. We would go to the park together or walk down Mamaroneck Avenue to Nicky’s Pizza or Happy Discount Store or Woolworth or somewhere with no particular agenda. But when we were home, our primary mission was to help Donkey Kong save the princess. And we took turns doing so, vacillating between hyper-enthusiastic fans, amateur coaches, and active participants. One evening, we were at the kitchen table, eyes affixed to Sophia’s computer screen. A cacophony of laughter, screams, cheers, advice, and uncontemplated jerks and jumps accompanied Ricardo’s skillful maneuvering each obstacle to get to the beautiful princess. “Run! Run! Run! Run!” we yelled. Then, “Jump! Jump! Jump,” with Sophia roaring with laughter at the level of passion we were displaying toward this Donkey Kong fool who never did what we told him to do.
“You know he can’t hear you,” Sophia’d say, laughing uncontrollably, her hand moving from the bowl of chips to her mouth and from her mouth to the bowl of chips.
“I’m trying to make him jump, but it’s not working,” Ricardo said, dismayed.
“Let me show you how to do it,” Pat beckoned to Ricardo. “Come no man; come no man.” [Come on!]
“Mi can do it man. Wait no! [I can do it. Just wait.]
“Look how yu ago dead now,” [Look how you’re going to die] Pat said laughing, followed by “Jump. Jump. Jump Jump” in rapid succession. When he landed squarely where he intended, loud, obnoxious cheers from his supportive siblings violated the air. And the madness continued for a time. We were in the throes of this massive excitement when suddenly, Sophia slapped Ricardo’s hands from the controls, and in a stern, muffled voice, she commanded: “Move! Go! Go!”
“Whaaat?” We were just confused.
She had jumped up and shut down the computer and was trying to straighten up and sit down simultaneously.
“Go in the living room!” she screamed silently. We began moving in that direction utterly bewildered.
But it was a bit too late, for the door had opened, and it was Aunt Dora. She caught us mid-stream to the living room. And it was obvious what we had been doing only seconds before.
“Hi,” she said. Then, she paused. “I hope you guys aren’t hogging the game and not giving Sophia any time on her own game,” she said.
“No, they’re not, mommy,” said Sophia matter-of-factly.
She stared at Sophia for a few seconds, searchingly. Displeasure masked her face.
“OK,” she continued and headed to the kitchen with several brown paper bags. She sat them down on the counter, scribbling something on their surface areas before putting them in the fridge. Then, she headed into the bedroom, and minutes later, into the shower.
We looked at Sophia questioningly.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
But there was something about her tone, her furtive glances in the aftermath of the encounter that were, if not outrightly fallacious, then tacitly disingenuous. Still, we exchanged the distrust for a strong dose of levity as we settled into yet another episode of Family Feud. But offense castrated our former grins. For when we went to the kitchen later, all the brown paper bags were marked in bold black letters: “SOPHIA’S! DON’T TOUCH!” Our jaws dropped as we looked at each other utterly flabbergasted and unsure of what to even think. Aunt Dora later explained that daddy would soon be home with goodies for us, so once again, in a grand display of naivety, we dismissed the distrust in anticipation of what was to come. But that evening marked the beginning of a familial norm that entrenched our discomfort, for the brown paper bags and their contents became a staple feature we could not partake of, hungry or not. Sophia ate to her heart’s content, and not one morsel could be left over to justify us getting any. We had to eat whatever daddy’s measly dollars could afford. Sometimes it was ok. And sometimes, it just wasn’t. But he didn’t secure a real job or change his habits. Neither did he address the issue with his wife, at least not that we knew of. So we had to learn to fill in the gaps by any means necessary. And we began with our neighbors, The Tutts.
The Tutts were an elderly couple who went to the church we attended and who also lived in a one bedroom apartment on the 5th floor of our building. They took a liking to all of daddy’s foreign-born children and were sympathetic to our plight. They made it clear that they were willing to share whatever God had blessed them with, and soon we learned to trust and accept their sacrifices. While Sister Tutt rustled up some scrambled eggs and toasted home-made wheat bread with garlic-infused vegetarian big franks fried in margarine, Brother Tutt would entertain us with tales of his younger years on the dating scene before he met his beloved Pauline. He admitted to speeding down the road in his shiny Buick with his date in the passenger seat. Then, he would deliberately hang the corners fast and hard so that she would lose her seat and land in his lap! We would laugh and laugh and laugh and Sister Tutt would stick out her tongue at him and end with her traditional, “Oh George!” He was an energetic senior citizen, broad, muscular, and strong, and full of vibrant tales of life’s adventures and God’s leading. Brother Tutt’s stories were endless and hilarious, and we looked forward to hearing them day after day after day, week after week after week, month after month after month. We simply never got tired of listening.
Aunt Dora was enigmatic. One minute she was a “believer” and the next, we were questioning “in what?” She had a clear vintage gallon-sized glass jug with a finger handle that was filled with “holy water” and a small two-inch squared handkerchief that settled at the bottom. Every morning, she would take a sip before she went through that door. I tell you, we would watch her with one eye that stayed open all night long, for we half-way expected that one fateful morning, we would wake up to a headless goat wheeling and turning in true Kumina worship style, splattering blood all over the furniture and all over our faces, and she in the middle, machete raised, and chanting. She was just spooky. Pair that with the lack of decent food and necessary affection, I was determined that my days with her were numbered. Pat and Loren had already begun applying to four-year colleges. And there was talk that Ricardo’s older sister and aunt (by his mother’s side) who lived in Brooklyn, NY were contemplating coming to get him, so I was determined to get out before the machete started swinging again.
I made an appointment with SUNY-WCC’s Admissions Department expeditiously and on the way back, I shared with daddy all that I learned. He had no real advice to offer, so I kept silent the rest of the way. Back at the apartment, I jumped out of the taxi, not quite listening to where he said he was going.
“Where’s daddy?” Ricardo asked when I entered the apartment.
“You know the deal,” I said. “Regular ting. Is Aunt Dora home?”
“No,” Ricardo answered. “I think she went to her second job or one a har bwoyfren dem.” [I think she went to her second job or to one of her boyfriends] he said, chuckling.
“Which boyfriend?” I hissed. “Anybody in his right mind would want that cock-eyed chameleon?” I started spinning my eyes up, down, and sideways mockingly.
“But mi no hear from di odda day she deh pan: ‘I love you h-all. You are h-all my ‘usband’s children and I love you h-all,’” Loren said, emphasizing heavily the misplaced h’s. “Mi nuh know a which man name Hall she meet an a announce seh she love!” [But from the other day, she’s been saying: ‘I love you h-all. You are h-all my husband’s children, and I love you h-all,’ Loren said, emphasizing heavily the misplaced h’s. ‘I don’t know which man named Hall she recently met and is declaring that she loves!]
Pat chimed in: “She probably meet ‘im in a di ‘allway or down a the ‘ospital,” emphasizing the naked syllables. [She probably met him in the hallway or down at the hospital.]
“A probably di ole man she claim she a tek care a,” I piped up. “She mussi a rooks off the poor man an das why him a gi har so much money.” [It’s probably the old man she claims she’s taking care of. She must be sexing the poor old man and that’s why he’s giving her so much money]. To that, Ricardo let out a long, luxurious “Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyy” and started leaping in the air, one high knee at a time. When he landed, he shook his invisible locks for a couple of seconds and began slowly twirling his hips in an iconic representation of Bob Marley and his effortless sensuality.
“I want to give you some love,” Loren started to sing.
“I want to give you some good, good loving.” We continued crooning Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low” and finished off in unison with another emphatic and mocking “Hoe Hi…Hoe Hi” as opposed to the traditional “Oh I.” We were cackling for minutes.
“You guys are so stoooopid,” Pat said shaking her head slowly between laughter. “Ricardo, yu too out a awda,” [Ricardo, you are way out of line] she continued. “Go to your floor!” And the laughing would start again.
I took the opportunity to check on Loren with whom I had made a plan to steal Aunt Dora’s tax returns as support for my college and financial aid application. Since daddy didn’t have anything much to report, it was up to Hall’s heartthrob. She obviously did not have our interest at heart, so we dared not ask her. Instead, we collaborated to dig them up from wherever she had hidden them, copy them, and submit them in support of my college application.
“Did you find the taxes?” I asked, turning to Loren.
“No, not yet,” she responded. “I’m still looking though.”
“Why don’t you just ask Sophia,” my brother jumped in as he made his way to the kitchen and started rummaging through brown paper bags filled with Chinese food and TV dinners that were the exclusive property of our youngest sister. “I don’t think she would tell Aunt Dora.” He uncovered a piece of fried chicken wing and was looking at it longingly, but Loren stopped him instantly.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said. “Wait until she comes back and then ask her.”
“But there are six chicken wings in there.” He whined and scowled at his eldest sister. “She won’t mind.”
“It no matta!” [It doesn’t matter!] Put it back!
“When daddy comes back, he’ll bring us some food,” I said encouragingly as he went to sit on one of the sofa beds totally defeated.
He hissed his teeth. “Whey him ago get it wid him bruk packet self?” [How is he going to help as broke as he is?]
I decided not to answer. Instead, I suggested to Loren that we search for the tax papers while no adult was in the apartment. We searched and searched but could not find them. We stumbled upon them weeks later, forged Aunt Dora’s signature wherever it was necessary, and submitted all of the application documents to the college for admission.
As fall gave way to spring of 1985, Aunt Dora’s indifference towards her husband’s older children was as palpable as it was afflictive. Her family consisted only of daddy and Sophia. She spent money indefatigably on her daughter with enough in spare to address the intermittent outstretched hands of the man to whom she had vowed herself. In the in-between times, daddy would make do by picking up coats and TVs and other roadside furniture that affluent people in and around the White Plains area had disposed of. Sometimes she would genuinely laugh at his effrontery. Other times, she would roll her eyes in complete disdain yet chuckle with enough of an octave to mask the emotion. But what she was unable to hide was the reality of daddy’s indiscretions. When the multitude of “aunts” had the temerity to call and ask for him, she would strain the coiled cord of the dining room wall phone to address the situation in the nearby kitchen in hushed embarrassment. They were intruders, and we were intruders. And so it was that volcanic activity within the four walls of that Old Mamaroneck Road apartment began to slowly churn and build.
June 1985 brought with it a rumble of significant proportions that ended with 17-year-old Pat on the street. An argument had ensued between her and Aunt Dora because Pat had spent prom night at the house of her best friend, Denise, since it was getting late. Daddy arrived on the scene while she was still on the sidewalk with her suitcase and no plan.
“But where are you going though?” was his question.
“I don’t know, but I’m not going back!” she responded.
“Why yu no jus go upstairs and talk to har?” [Why don’t you just go upstairs and talk to her?]
She did go upstairs. But she did not stop on the first floor. She went all the way to the fifth floor to the Tutts. And she stayed there for the remainder of the year until she started college in January of 1986.
“What yu thinking bout?” The Caribbean man’s question violently intruded upon my thoughts.
“Nothing,” I sighed.
“Tell yu what. Fill out dis lotta card for me. Yu look like a lucky one. If a win, yu get half! Wha yu seh?” [Tell you what. Fill out this lotta card for me. You look like a lucky one. If I win, you’ll get half. What do you say?]
“Please!” I said with disgust.
“Di jackpat big tonite yu nuh! Seventy millian! Half a dat is….mek mi si…mi mats nuh so good….hmmmmm 35 millian. Den yu nuh coulda use dat? A plenty house an lan dat yu nuh. Yu can buy anyting yu want. Wha kine a ki-yar yu drive?” [The jackpot’s huge tonight, you know. Seventy million! Half of that is…let me see…my math isn’t really that good…hmmmmm…35 million! Then, couldn’t you use that? That’s a lot of house and land! You can buy anything you want! What kind of car do you drive?]
“Nissan,” I said bemused.
“Yea. But wha kine a ki-yar you want?” [Yea, but what kind of car do you want?]
“Audi!” I said, enthusiastically. “With leather interior.” We both had a good laugh.
“A pretty car for a pretty lady,” he said. “I gat the dollar. You gat the dream. Wha yu seh?” [I’ve got the dollar. You’ve got the dream. What do you say?]
He was smiling and showing his teeth again, and I was amused. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. After all, I had been a nomad for years, just wandering the earth trying to find a place to call home.
The pattern began once I left the one bedroom apartment. Aunt Dora finally pulled the plug somewhere in the summer of 1985, and down the drain we all went, each of us into the sewage of life. Daddy took Loren and me to his friends — the Hopes, Pat was already at the Tutts, and my brother set his sights on Brooklyn.
We didn’t stay at the Hopes very long. But I wasn’t surprised. The minute I walked into that house, I knew it wasn’t home. The ubiquitous smell of pungent cat feces was in severe competition with the damp, moldy smell of dirty, unvacuumed carpeting. Dust had found permanent lodging on the old fashioned wooden furniture so that a farmer could till it and plant seeds. The Hopes invited me to sit, so I made my way into the kitchen for a seat and a glass of cold drink. Mounds of dirty dishes sat in the sink impatiently awaiting the passing of the drought and I couldn’t help wondering how long they had been there.
“Boy, James, dem get big eeh” [James, they’ve gotten so big], Claire called out to daddy from her place in the kitchen. “Yu want a drink?”
“No man. Mi no deal wid di poison, yu nuh.” [No. I don’t deal with the poison.]
“A poison yu call it?” her husband Clarence said with a chuckle. “If a did dat, we would a deh six foot unda awredy.” [Poison is what you call it? If it were poison, we would be dead already (six feet under).]
They were cracking up. But I couldn’t share the levity. Something in the air was killing me. My lungs in particular felt as if they were in a corset and someone was pulling on the strings hard. I began to wheeze.
“Daddy, I can’t breathe,” I gasped.
“She is the one with the asthma, no?” Claire said with concern. Go stand outside, darling. It’s probably the cat hair. The fresh air will make you feel better.”
I sat outside for a while vacuuming up fresh air nasally and wondering if daddy was going to have to pay for us to be there or if they were doing him a favor. And if he had to pay, where was he going to get the money from? Laughter and chatter ebbed and flowed within earshot and perhaps I should have been interested in the conversation, but I wasn’t. I wondered how everyone was doing at home. I wrote mother on occasion, and she always sounded cheery when she responded, but I wondered if all was well. I never once mentioned what was going on, for I didn’t want her to worry. In fact, my letters were designed to make her laugh. I would tell her about the time when Loren and I went to the park and got on the slide without securing our dresses and up over our heads they went! Then, I would tell her that daddy snored so loudly that none of us could get any sleep at night and that we were seriously thinking of becoming ear, nose, and throat doctors overnight. She was roaring when we told her that Aunt Dora had finally gotten corrective surgery on the crossed eye and any day that she made us mad, we were going to cut the strings that held it in place. And BOIINNGG! The eye was going to shift gears. Of course, we wouldn’t have needed to worry about who she specifically named culprit because she’d be seeing triples. Mother wasn’t stupid, however. She hardly expected to send her children into the arms of a bitter enemy to be treated like royalty. But she at least expected her to be fair. And if that was too much, then she trusted that daddy would remedy it even if that meant divorce. Still, no matter the gravity of daddy’s indiscretions, no matter that he abandoned her to live the Bohemian life in Jamaica for four years, no matter her attitude toward us, there was no divorce. It was just mind boggling. When we told Pat’s mother, Ms. Henry, all that was going on, she exclaimed: “A yu faada ina di bottle she a sip every day. Bruck it and tek out the handkerchief! A yu faada ina di bottle!” [It’s your father in the bottle she’s sipping from every day. Break it and take out the handkerchief! It’s your father in the bottle!]
Daddy came outside to check on me. “When you feel better, you can come inside. Claire has already opened up the windows for you, mi bonita una.” I smiled, and he went back inside. Before he had settled on taxi driving, he had worked at a place where there were lots of Spanish-speaking individuals and had picked up the language. From time to time, he would utter something to test my knowledge of the language since I loved languages and wanted to become an interpreter. I sat outside for a bit longer reminiscing about friends back home. Then, I went back inside. I needed to use the bathroom anyway. The invasion of fresh air into the house had made only a partial difference in the living room and none in the bathroom where the cat feces were still peering through the litter. As I looked around the bathroom, it was evident that Claire did not enjoy housework. It wasn’t filthy, but it was less than meticulous the way I liked my bathrooms. I was tempted to pull back the shower curtain to see if there was something alien back there the X-Files series would be interested in but decided against it. So I spread toilet paper on the seat, peed quickly, flushed, washed my hands, and headed toward the living room where the wine rack was situated. There was every conceivable brand of wine, whiskey, and alcohol in there. It was obvious that The Hopes were heavy drinkers. In the past, Daddy had made several wise cracks about their drinking habits. When Claire went upstairs for something and Clarence wasn’t looking, Daddy whispered: “Dem drink like fish. Yu soon see dem a stagga. When dem hit the floor, jus mek a dash fi di door.” [They drink like fish. Soon you will see them staggering. When they fall to the floor, just make a dash for the door.] We broke into giggles.
We didn’t last more than two weeks at the Hopes. Turns out Clarence was peeping at Loren through the bathroom window when she was taking her shower. She told daddy and Claire, but a devastated Mrs. Hope had a hard time accepting that her husband would do such a thing. “I don’t think it’s Clarence. As a matter of fact, he said he saw someone run across the yard not too long ago.” Of course, none of us believed that story. It was virtually impossible for someone to get to the backyard without going through the house. Besides, with it still being day, the individual would have had to be a total lunatic or a brazen bastard to attempt such a thing. Daddy suggested that Loren dismiss the incident, but she demanded that we leave that very night and not another night. So daddy packed us into his yellow cab and drove us back to the apartment on Old Mamaroneck Road. Aunt Dora’s verdict was forceful and unwavering: “Not here!” So daddy took us upstairs to the Tutts and their one bedroom apartment. Since Pat was already on the one couch they had, we made our beds on the floor with the help of some fluffy, thick comforters.
The next morning, we awoke to the scent of scrambled eggs, vegetarian big franks and our favorite: the toasted home-made wheat bread. On that evening and many others that followed, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal involving succotash, vegetarian steaks, baked beans, and macaroni and cheese. It could not compare to stewed peas and rice or mackerel run dung or ackee and salt-fish or eskovitch fish or any of the Jamaican delicacies we had grown up on, but we were raised to understand that “yu cyaan tan pon cow back an cut im tail” [you should not be ungrateful to someone who is helping you]. So we enjoyed their kindness, their friendship, and their sense of humor, and repaid them with gratefulness and humility over the two years that it took us to execute a viable plan of survival. Loren decided to board at Oakwood College in Alabama, where she engaged in pre-med studies. The church sent her off with a sizable contribution from its education fund, and she ultimately went on to study medicine at Loma Linda School of Medicine in Loma Linda, CA. I made plans to follow Loren to Oakwood College, but it did not have a strong modern language program, so I rented a room at the YWCA in White Plains, NY, joined a firm that offered 75% tuition reimbursement, and began pursuing a degree in international management, minoring in French, Spanish, and Italian. Pat decided to board at the University of New Haven. Three semesters later, she abandoned the idea for fear of the amount of loans associated with a degree in hotel and restaurant management and took a job waitering at a local Greek restaurant. And Ricardo joined his mother in Brooklyn, NY. Before long, we totally lost touch with him, though many, many years later, we learned that he had made his home and career near Silicon Valley because of his interest in technology.
“I like the new Infinities myself.” The Caribbean man’s words interrupted me one more time. I glanced at him again, unsure of my next move. He was still smiling, sending some of his island calm my way. I studied him more deeply, concluding within myself that it took a certain type of personality to smile even when the storm was still raging. I had that personality. I was smiling though things were oh so wrong. I was jumping from situation to situation, state to state, and job to job like a frog in short grass and I wasn’t proud of it. But I couldn’t help it. I needed to survive, and in the process, I hadn’t quite figured out stability. And here I was now, unemployed, and handing my dollar to a fellow immigrant.
“How much is the lotto again?” I asked curiously.
“A big money, you nuh! Seventy millian!” [Big money! Seventy million!]
“Yea man! Nobady never win laaas time, so it gaaan sky high.” [Nobody won last time around, so it has gone sky high.]
A “wow” escaped my lips.
“Den no dat mi a show yu man! An yu tink mi a joke. So mek it $5.00 nuh since yu see di light.” [But that’s what I’m trying to show you. And you think I’m joking. So why not make it $5.00 now that you see the light.] He broke into raucous laughter, his big belly jerking up and down, his eyes twinkling, and every tooth showing. The levity threw me back in time and I couldn’t help remembering an old friend. He was loquacious and hilarious, a Trevor Noah in another life. Every encounter relieved and ravaged me simultaneously, for he was the object of an ever present desire — unrelenting, unyielding, untainted — a stillborn forever needing to be expelled. But it was…well, complicated. So I bore the burden like a woman in labor and simply hollered when the pains came. Many years later, I found a home for that love, got married, and had a son. But sadly, it did not last, and I soon found myself in search of a place for me and a small child. During that time period, Aunt Dora had bought a three-bedroom, two-bath co-op unit a block away from where we all were in the one-bedroom apartment, and she, daddy, and Sophia had made that their new home. Since daddy knew of an available one-bedroom unit in the complex, he gave me the super’s number and I hesitatingly arranged for him to show it to me. He and Sophia met me there. It was an old but decent unit though with some nips and tucks, it could be home. It was also a bit pricey although typical for White Plains, NY. Nevertheless, it was a good investment. The school district was good and there was room for negotiation, so I told the super that I would think about it. I was doing just that when I got a call from Sophia the next day.
“Hey, wazzup,” she said. “You decided on the unit?”
“No, It’s not bad. But…I don’t know…Still thinking.”
“Well, just so you know, mommy said she doesn’t want any a y’all in the building.”
“What!!” I exclaimed.
“After she no own the building,” was daddy’s semi vague response in the background, and he hissed his teeth long and hard: Tcchhiuuuuuuuupe.
“A wha wrang wid har?” [What’s wrong with her?] I questioned rhetorically. “She’s ridiculous!” “If she tink we ago deh deh every minute, she kyaa relax herself. Becaw mi no have no intention fi come ova deh.” [If she’s afraid we’re going to be over there all the time, she can relax because I’ve no intention of coming over there.]
“I know. But that’s what she said.”
“She’s a piece a damn work,” I added and hung up the phone. In the seconds that followed, every bit of venom that had been simmering in a cauldron of hate over the last eighteen years came to a boil. Clearly, she was still intent on sucking our blood like a damn vampire until we were languid and lapping in the wind. “That naaaaassy dutty kyaas-yaiy johncrow!” [That nasty, dirty, cross-eyed vulture] I said to myself. “If she ded ina di street and mi see har, mi jus ago tep ova har and waak gwaan.” [If she is lying in the street dead, I’m simply going to step over her and go on about my business.] The awful thing about that statement was that it wasn’t just a thought. It was a vow drawn in blood. And I had every intention of honoring it.
I didn’t buy the unit; I bought a two-bedroom in another county instead. And the very few times I went to see my father over years to come, he had to meet me outside in my car where we spoke for maybe ten minutes at a time. I had vowed never to set foot in that apartment, and I kept my word. But my relationship with my sister suffered as a result. I could literally count the handful of times when she was in my company: when I hosted a Mary Kay get-together at my new two-bedroom co-op in Suffern, NY; when we had dinner together at Pat’s apartment in White Plains for Mother’s Day; and once when I asked her to take me to the airport. We had laughed and laughed all the way home, for I refused to get on the plane since it was raining. She thought I was so very silly. But I did not care.
“Rain brings turbulence,” I had told her. “Nope! Not doing it!” And we laughed all the more. The next time I saw her, it was September 2005, and she was lying in a coffin. Morbid obesity. Family came from everywhere to offer support, and I made an exception then to enter hell. That was the first time since we had left the apartment that the old gang was together again and under the same roof with my father and his wife. But I was in no way comfortable. And when I heard Aunt Dora’s hysterical crying rising above the din of family dispersing to their separate homes, I turned my back and hurried out the door and down the street to my waiting car. I did not even say goodbye. Once outside, I passed daddy coming back from the corner deli.
“Your wife’s crying,” I said.
“Wha she a cry fa?” was the answer. [What is she crying for?]
“I guess she’s sad.” I responded, not sure what exactly to say. “Everybody’s leaving.”
“Me sad to!” he said obviously irritated. [I’m sad too.]
“Dawg no business in a puss fight,” [Not my business] I thought to myself. And I got in my car and drove away.
With Sophia now gone, Pat took it upon herself to visit the aging couple every other week to ensure that they were doing well. I wanted no part of it, and since Ricardo lived in California and Loren in Florida, there was no one else to do it. Pat gave updates to the rest of us though, truthfully, I was indifferent to the information. I remained dispassionate and disconnected for several more years, only visiting the co-op apartment two more times for daddy’s milestone 70th and 75th birthdays that brought family to town. Aunt Dora died the very next year following that last birthday get-together. Pat handled the funeral; no one saw or heard from me, Loren, or Ricardo.
I never thought about Aunt Dora again until I was challenged with being an informal stepmother to three children. I was careful to make sure that I lived up to my promise of always being kind and fair. Yet nothing I did was ever good enough…for the father that is. The children visited based on a pre-set schedule, but every visit was colonoscopic, revealing the chronically diseased intestines of their primary home. Consequently, he prioritized compensating for their every lack which encumbered and overwhelmed me unnecessarily. His demands were augustly unreasonable and unremitting, and in time, it became obvious that I was only there to facilitate his and their care. In fact, it is debatable whether he intentionally misrepresented himself when asked about his expectations during courtship. The answer still isn’t clear. But what is clear is that he did not care one iota about my needs: financial, social, or emotional. At best, he didn’t know how. Consequently, he missed the mark of expressing the kind of deep-seated love and appreciation critical to erecting a fortress of inexorable support, a quid pro quo of a spectacular sort. Now, not many people knew of my experience in that relationship. And fewer still understood it. Still, that man dragged my soul across a football field of broken logic, intent on puncturing every inclination toward a sense of self-esteem and self-worth. And I had to fight like a gladiator every moment, every second, to maintain my integrity and my joie de vivre. Having been through that experience, then, it forced me to re-investigate the circumstances behind our early experiences.
Through more mature eyes, I can see now that Aunt Dora was fighting demons we had not yet encountered. And every one of them had my father’s name on it. It is true that she did not have to handle it the way she did, but I realize that her battles were as real and as difficult to her as they were many: battles having to do with feeling unloved and devalued, battles having to do with no respect, and battles having to do with no real support. Unfortunately, we were caught in the middle. Old folks continue to whisper that daddy never loved her in the first place, that she was his ticket to America. All the more reason he should have stuck to the plan! Simply get the ticket and get off the train! But he did not do that. He sat on that train and enjoyed the ride, completely forgetting that it was a means to an end and producing an unplanned child in the process. When Loren got married, he had mentioned to her that his wedding day was “the longest day of [his] life.” The gravity of that statement was lost in the humor. But the joke was on us really. For when that train pulled into the station where we were waiting eagerly, he was completely unprepared. No doubt our presence elevated carefully suppressed truths and exacerbated reigning insecurities and issues of self-worth in the corners of Aunt Dora’s mind. And perhaps, now overwhelmed by their recalcitrance, she was unable to rise above the shame and the sorrow to ascribe punitive measures where they belonged. So she made us pay. But the blame was his, for we were his responsibility. We projected our feelings unto Aunt Dora; I projected my feelings unto Aunt Dora. But he, our father, failed us. He needed to own that truth. And as much as I hate to admit it, I needed to own it too.
# # #
The memories made me exhausted, and I was ready to go, ready to be alone. I quickly handed the man the extra four dollars to compensate for my wanting to dismiss him.
“Awright, now wi tawking. But gi mi some numbers nuh, so if me get lucky, yu lucky to.” [Alright, now we’re talking. But give me some numbers so if I get lucky, then you’re lucky too.]
“How many do you need?” I asked impatiently.
“Seven is di lucky number,” he responded.
“Twelve, thirty-five, two.” He was writing them down as fast as I was calling them. “Forty, six, one, fourteen,” I continued.
“Ah see di money now,” [I see the money already] he said excitedly. “Gracias, mi bonita una.”
“Ok, daddy,” I sighed.
“When am I going to see you again?”
“One day soon,” I lied and quickly went through hell’s door.