Authors: Nikki Woods
The stifling heat and humidity had already caused my stiffly-ironed white linen suit to go limp and maneuvering a large suitcase, one overnight bag and a briefcase while balancing on strappy gold sandals that were made for style and not comfort was no easy feat. Thankfully, I spotted Uncle Winston quickly, and yep, he was propped against his 1977 sky blue Toyota pickup, sporting what looked like the same navy blue polyester pants and white button-up shirt he wore last time he came to pick me up. A blue baseball cap fit snugly on his head. Uncle Winston had always had a thing for blue. He still smelled of the same cheap, spicy cologne, but his hair was peppered with a bit more gray. Other than that he didn't look as if he'd aged a bit. West Indian blood preserves very well. I counted on that as I grew older.
After a brief hug and peck on the cheek, I hopped into the left side passenger seat. It still felt strange to sit on the opposite side of the car and drive on the opposite side of the street than we do in the states. I buckled my seat belt, then checked it twice to make sure it would hold my weight and prevent me from flying through the windshield. It's not that I didn't trust my uncle's driving. I didâsort of. Who I didn't trust was everyone else out there on the roads. Jamaicans drove as if they were at an Indy 500 on streets that are better suited for Matchbox Cars.
“You look good,” I said as my uncle readjusted his mirrors and seat for probably the fifth time since morning. The habit had been a long time in the making.
“Thanks.” He then proceeded to give me a laundry list of his aches and pains, ending with, “But I'm hanging in there.”
I waited for him to inquire about my health, but he didn't. “And how is everybody?”
“Oh, just fine.” He smiled weakly then ran down a second list of aches and pains, this one belonging to his worrisome wife, Auntie Dawn.
“I'm sure everything'll be all right, Uncle Winston.”
He “uh-huhmed” as if he'd heard that line before and fiddled for the pack of Kools in his front pocket. He grabbed the weathered box, tapped it, and when one crumpled cigarette popped out, stuck it between his lips, now black after forty years of smoking. “Yeah, Mon. And you know, dealing with Mama Grace has been difficult for her; difficult for everyone.”
Dealing with Mama Grace? I knew what he meant. But the phrase “dealing with” didn't sit well with me. You deal with clogged pipes. You deal with unruly pets. You don't deal with your dying stepmother. But then, one would have to know Uncle Winston for the “dealing with” phrase to make perfect sense.
Uncle Winston was my grandfather's childâthe product of a relationship my grandfather had prior to meeting my grandmother and continued for a short while after they married.
Winston's mother had left him on my grandparent's doorstep when he was one month old and Mama Grace was nine months pregnant. Pa-pa never said who Uncle Winston's birth mother was and I don't think Mama Grace ever asked. She just did what she had to do. Uncle Winston was a living, breathing reminder of Pa-pa's infidelityâan automatic strike against him. He was a lazy bum by most people's standards. That was the second strike. The third strikeâwe were forbidden to talk about in public. When you don't feel accepted in your own family, it's hard to feel accepted anywhere else. But I guess that could be said about all of my aunts and uncles.
My grandparents had a total of five children together. Only two were still living. The oldest son lived in the states and couldn't find his way out a paper bag with a flashlight in one hand and a map in the other. Uncle Paul had only returned to Jamaica once in the past twenty-five years and that was for his father's funeral. Doubt existed as to whether he would return to bury his mother, citing work and family reasons that, when added up, wouldn't amount to much.
My Aunt Lonnie, the baby girl of the family, remained on the island and seemed to have it allâbeauty, a loving husband and daughter, and all the success anyone could ever want; she and her husband owned a grocery store in Ocho Rios. But appearances could be deceiving. She also had paperbag issues; or more specifically, the bottle contained in the paper bag.
Two of Mama Grace's children died before they reached their teen years: one from scarlet fever and one from a bullet, both boys. My mother was the third child who died before my grandmother, thirteen years ago.
My uncle continued to drone on, filling me in on the family gossip and scandal: who was pregnant without benefit of marriage; who done “tiefed” whose husband; who done turned Rastafari; and who had narrowly escaped jail for selling ganja, which in Bob Marley country, despite what the law books say, is not really seen as a crime, just an act of stupidity for getting caught. He added exaggerated colorful sidebars more for his amusement than mine. He did this as he negotiated his way out of the parking lot, honking and cursing, causing sweat to prickle the back of my neck. The windows were rolled down because no air conditioning existed and I had to fight to keep long strands of hair from blinding me permanently. Finally, I gave up and fished though my purse for an elastic band, pulled my hair back into a ponytail, tucking stray hairs behind my ears. I was listening with only one ear and half a heart. I had come back to Jamaica for only one reason.
I sighed and pressed my forehead to the window. Even a year was too long to have been gone from a place so firmly embedded in my spirit, but the pressures of working and paying bills tended to cut into one's vacation time.
Kingston, the island's capital, was quite different from the Jamaica depicted in those seductive TV advertisements with their bikini-clad populated beaches, lush landscapes and refreshing waters. Steeped rich in culture and history, Kingston was no longer in the business of scenic splendor. Where once palm tree after palm tree lined the streets, now one-hour cleaners,
express patty shops, and gas stations complete with slurpee machines had taken over. A barefoot woman walked down the street, carrying a baby. A small child was clinging to her hand, his belly distended from lack of food. You wouldn't see that on any postcard.
My uncle calling my name yanked me back into the conversation. “I'm sorry, you were saying?” I twisted a bit and faced him.
He sucked spit through his teeth good-naturedly. “Lawd a mercy, chile! You woulda' thought you were my age de' way you hard of hearing so! I was saying that you would understand everything when you read the letter.”
My forehead pulled together in a puzzled frown. “What letter?”
“Aunt Bea didn't tell you about the letter?”
Uncle Winston's lips formed a perfect “O” and he slid into the role of the innocent. “I thought she woulda' mentioned the letter.”
“Dammit, what letter, Uncle Winston?” I was tired, hot, and my patience had been stretched thin.
He hesitated and stroked his chin.
“You might as well tell me, Uncle Winston.” He hesitated again and I was fed up. No backbone. “You know, that's why this family is so jacked up. Too many secrets! I'm gonna find out anyway so you might as well tell me what's going on!”
Uncle Winston had the nerve to harrumph and I shot him a look designed to pierce not only flesh, but bone.
“All right. All right.” His hands gripped the steering wheel. “Mama Grace wrote this letter addressed to you. Aunt Bea found it while they were readying Mama Grace's body for the funeral home.”
“What did the letter say?”
Uncle Winston shook his head and his lips flattened into a grim line. “Now that, I don't know. You know Aunt Bea ain't going to tell me something really important. She mentioned she found it, but then just as quickly shut her trap and we haven't been able to pry anything else outta' her since. I thought maybe she brought it up when she called.”
“You know good and well that if she didn't say anything to you, she wasn't going to say anything to me.”
“I can't really speak to what people do or don't do.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and shrugged. “No sense in raising your blood pressure over it.”
I fumed silently but he had a point. Finally, I said, “You're right.” I let it go for now.
Relieved, Uncle Winston nodded, then cut me a sideways glance. “Bianca's gonna arrive at de' house later tonight. She said she wants to spend some time and catch up.”
Bianca was Aunt Lonnie's daughter and my favorite cousin. We were born on the same day, in the same month, in the same year, only in different places; she in the islands and me in the states. Bianca was absolutely gorgeous with long black hair, slanted doe eyes and exotic coloring that her father's Chinese ancestry brought. When she was nineteen, she was crowned as first runner up to Miss Jamaica. She was hoping for a Vanessa Williams' type scandal to occur so that the title would pass to her but it didn't happen. She still had the crown hanging on one of the posts to her bed and the dried bouquet pressed between the pages of her diary.
Bianca was beautiful, rich and extremely confused. In her early twenties, she was constantly on the hunt for true love. As she got closer to thirty, she started settling for whatever happened along. She became a member of the Baskin Robbin's flavor-of-the-month club. Now she was content to spend her daddy's money, breed horses, and talk shit. Bianca made most family members nervous. Whereas they â including Uncle Winstonâwere content to gossip
about family behind their backs, Bianca spoke the truth about everyone to their face, no matter how painful that truth might be.
Having her as company would certainly be interesting.
“She can help you get Mama's things in order. You know, Mama, didn't believe in throwing anything out. There are piles of newspapers, old letters, and photographs all over the house. I was going to do it myself, but just couldn't find the time.” I almost smiled at how easily the lie slipped from his lips. He wasn't about to clean up anything. “I was just speaking to Bianca on how helpful your little friend's brother had been to Mama in the end. The girl you spent the summer with, her brother. His grandfather was the doctor at the health center. What was his name? Him take mighty good care with her.” Uncle Winston chuckled softly as if he had shared a joke. Surely, he hadn't realized what he'd just said. “You remember him, Kingston. What's his name again?” He scrunched his face up and scratched his head. His perplexed look almost made me sick. How can you not know the name of the man that took care of your dying stepmother?
“Damon,” I said, my back teeth clenched, almost choking on the name. A long time had passed since I'd uttered it. And an even longer time since I'd felt good about doing so. Damon. I repeated the name to myself, but it still didn't make sense. Why would Damon be involved?
“Yeah. That's him.” Uncle Winston popped his fingers and pointed at me with a slick smile. “Damon.” He chuckled a little more than necessary and slid me a sideways glance. I
wanted to tell him to keep his damn eyes on the road. His comments seemed too coincidental. I stared straight ahead and focused on the street signs flying back. No wonder Mama Grace never liked him.
“I think her and him will make a good couple.” Shock slammed against my chest and almost knocked the breath out of me. “Who would make a good couple?”
“Bianca and that doctor fellow. It's about time for her to settle down, anyway. I must tell her to go check him when she gets in town.” I had nothing to say that would have been even remotely pleasant. The name Damon was enough to bring back a flood of painful memories and Uncle Winston was not helping. I folded my arms and hunkered down in my seat. Tense silence accompanied us the rest of the way home.
Mama Grace, Randy, and now Damon; what else could possibly happen?
The old mango tree still stood prominently in my grandmother's front yard; the years gone by evident in the gnarled and weathered bark. I wrapped my arms around the trunk, pressed my cheek into its roughness, and closed my eyes. If you need guidance, hug a tree and gain some strength from the ancestors; the roots stretch deep. That's what my mama told me. I held on now for dear life.
Lush tropical plants danced along the iron-rod fence and bordered the sidewalk leading to the verandah: hyacinth, roses, and lilies intertwined, making a living collage. No longer healthy and vibrant, but slightly limp, the plants strained with the little strength they had left to catch a few leftover raindrops that were falling from the roof. The limestone wall that separated Mama Grace's house from next door was overgrown with moss and thick vines mingled with the low branches that hung from the orange trees that lined the edge of the property. Blossoms were scattered throughout the yard like splatters of paint dropped from a careless painter's brush.
Mama Grace's four guard dogs yapped from the backyard, straining to be released from their cages. Toy, her poodle, jumped, twisting as I tried to pet her. Each jump causing me to dance to prevent her from marking her territory on my white linen pants. Her coat was dirty and matted. Many a summer day was spent as a child sitting on the verandah with cousins combing her fur for ticks. We would pick them, squash them, and watch the blood splatter on the steps.
Sometimes we would bet bananas on who could spray blood the farthest. In Jamaica, dogs were a necessity to keep people from “tiefing'” you out of house and home. They were not pets. Cocoa was spending her vacation time tucked away in a doggy hotel, groomed and spoiled. My grandmother would tease me mercilessly about that. I would tease her back and tell her that I planned on letting Toy sleep in my bed while I was here. She would twist up her nose in disgust and click-clack her false teeth. But Toy had outlived her.
My luggage sat on the sweeping, red-brick verandah between the two wicker rocking chairs that still sat in the same place by the front door. The one on the left had been empty now for almost two decades since my grandfather, Pa-pa, passed away when I was ten. The chair on the right appeared to be rocking slowly, singing a soft lullaby of days gone by. Between the two chairs, used to sit a small square that proudly held my grandfather's most prized possession: an ivory chessboard that had been carved by hand. My grandfather won it in a card game while in the army stationed in Cuba. Mama Grace was his
love, he would always say. Chess was his first. Pa-pa could have played chess all day long and half the night, even play by himself, if he had toâif Mama Grace had let him, which most times she didn't.