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Authors: Victoria Brown

Minding Ben

BOOK: Minding Ben
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MINDING
BEN

Victoria Brown

For my mother, Agatha Ule Brown, who let me go.
And in memory of Carolyn Helen Brown, and Daddy.

THE MIDDLE PASSAGE

DECEMBER 1989

T
he whole thing, from start to finish, from first talk to walk off the plane, took about ten weeks total. That was it. Ten weeks and I went from a small village on a small island to the middle of New York City. Well, to Brooklyn, but still, can you imagine?

On the morning I left, my mother came into the room I shared with my sister, Helen, and placed her hand on my shoulder. I didn't move, I just lay there feeling her cold fingers through the thin fabric of my nightie, thinking how this would be the last time my mother would come into my room and wake me with her touch.

Helen sat up in bed next to me. “Wake up, Grace,” she said. “Time to go America.”

I rolled over. “What time it is, Mammy?”

“What you asking what time it is for? If I come to wake you up, then it must be time, right? Come on, quick.” She left the room, and I understood that, even on this morning of so many lasts, much would remain as it had always been.

Helen fell back against her pillow and cracked up. “You and your mother, boy.”

I hugged her tight around her fatty waist. “Don't laugh too hard. I'm about to get on a plane and go.” And so I was.

The wooden floorboards creaked in each familiar spot, and I could hear Daddy snoring in the front room. His watch on the dining table said one-thirty. My mother waited in the kitchen for me, her back against the counter. “The water in the blue bucket on the back steps already,” she told me. I went outside and looked around. Buttery yellow moonlight lit the night, and everything was at once familiar and strange. I could see the sheeny outlines of trees I had climbed forever, the rose mango and the big guava on the hill with our old tire swing, the long trunks of coconuts and papayas. The back wall of the Baptist church on the hill, flat and triangular, and the big white cross that shone against the bright, dark night. Our garden spread off into the distance and then disappeared at the tree line marking the end of our property. My world for sixteen years.

I stepped down the uneven stairs to the bucket, glad my mother had at least decided I could bathe here. The backyard bathroom was bound to have at least two sleeping cane toads at this hour. I threw my towel over the half door and hung my nightie on one of the nails pounded into the wall.

“Wait,” my mother said.

I covered myself. “What?”

She came to stand on the narrow step next to me and reached into the bucket.

“What are you doing?” I asked, stepping away. “I can bathe myself.”

“Come back here.” She was mashing something in the calabash dipper. I looked and saw wild licorice, lemon slices, whole green limes, and yellow stinking suzies. A bush bath.

“No way,” I said, “uh-uh.” I was not going to America smelling like the bush I had come from.

“Gracie, come here. Time wasting,” my mother told me. She continued to mash around in the calabash.

“You must be joking. I'm not bathing in that, and I'm not letting you bathe me, Mammy. You know what?” I moved up another step. “I'm clean. Let Helen use it in the morning.”

My mother sighed the sigh of martyrs, stretched one hand over the bucket and the other out stop-sign in my direction. She closed her eyes and began to pray. Helen swung back and forth on the squeaky half door and grinned. I flashed her a breast. “Rub your body hard with all the bush,” my mother said when she had finished her prayers. “Your arms and legs, use the lemon on your face. Everywhere.” She pantomimed a vague distance from her privates. “You hear me?”

She and Helen left me alone, under my banner of silver stars. I scooped out every leaf, every piece of lemon and lime, and every last stinking suzie petal I could find. With a washcloth I scrubbed my face, under my arms, and between my legs. Then, as I always did after bathing, I hand-washed my panties and hung them up to dry in the morning sun I wouldn't see.

We were dressed and ready to go by 2:15. My suitcase of unsuitable clothes was packed and by the front door. My flight was at 6:30, and it would take little more than an hour to get to Piarco, but my mother, quoting the parable of the ten virgins, insisted Mr. Herman leave with plenty time to spare.

By now my father had awakened and come out to sit on the couch. To ford the short distance from bedroom to living room, he had hopped awkwardly, holding on first to the bed's headboard, then the doorjamb, and finally the back of the couch before lowering himself, breathing hard, onto the tattered cushion. Helen perched on the edge of a dining chair, and my mother stood next to the door glancing through the curtain. I sat next to Daddy. This was the last time we were all going to be together for I didn't know how long. Soon, we heard Mr. Herman's quick footsteps, then his little knock knock on the gate. “All right, girl,” he called and then clapped. “You looking ready to go in the cold.”

I tugged on the neck of my uncomfortable sweater. “Mornin', Crane,” he said to my father and reached for my suitcase.

“Watch you back, Herman. It heavy heavy.”

Herman bent his knees deep, minding what my father said.

Then Daddy said to my mother, “Why you don't move from by the door and give the man some room? Watch the door there, Herman.”

My mother pursed her lips and stepped out into the gallery. She stuck her head back through the curtains. “You coming or you staying?”

Hel got up and fake clouted my father's head as her good-bye. He and I were left alone. “Well, Daddy, I gone.”

He pulled out a nip of
babash
from the side of the couch. “Here, take a drink with me before you go.”

“Crane—” My mother would give him silent hell for the rest of the day if she saw this, but I took a quick swallow of the bush rum and passed it back to him.

He drank and tucked the small bottle away. “When you see you reach America and you sleep and wake up in the morning, don't wash your face with cold cold water, you hear me?”

“Yes,” I said, as if this was the most important piece of advice I had ever been given. Mr. Herman's horn honked, and I jumped. “Go, go,” my father said, “before she come back to get you.” I laughed, and he laughed a little too. “You still have the parcel I give you yesterday?”

I patted the purse on my lap. Inside, wrapped in newspaper and then a piece of cellophane, was a pinch of dirt from our backyard.

“Good. Don't forget to do with it like I say.”

“I won't forget.”

The horn tooted again, and I got up, sure it was my mother who had told Mr. Herman to honk for me.

“You coming down?” I asked.

He nodded. “Go and bring the crutch for me.”

I gave them to him, noticing that the padding meant to cushion his armpits was torn. “That comfortable, Daddy?”

“You mother taking them by Radix later today,” he said, and I helped him up to standing. “You go. I coming.”

I went out to the gallery, and my mother, sitting up front with Mr. Herman, beckoned me down. I ignored her and waited for Daddy. “Go down, go down,” he said when he had cleared the curtains. “I coming.” I ran down the steps and stopped at the bottom. Moonlight or not, my father couldn't come down in the dark. He could barely make it down during the day. Taking the steps two by two, I ran back up and hugged his still skinny belly. Since the big operation last year, his massive body had withered. His nickname was now more suited to the lanky water bird than to the heavy lifting equipment he used to be. “Okay, Crane. I gone, okay.”

I felt his ribs expand and, without giving him a chance to say anything, ran down the steps and into the car. From the front my mother said without turning around, “I say like you did change your mind.” And when I said, “Actually . . . ,” Helen rammed me so hard in the side that I couldn't say anything else for a while.

Hel fell asleep against me before the junction marking the end of our village. I realized that I had dozed off too when the car jerked hard and Mr. Herman shouted “Whoa!” He pulled off to the side, and we all got out. My mother looked up to the sky: “But Lord Jesus father what kind of sign is this?”

I walked to the back, seeing the flattened tire and the greedy edge of the pothole even in the darkness. “You don't worry about a thing, girl. Ten minutes and we gone,” Mr. Herman assured me. He got to work, and I went to stand with Hel. There was no one to help and no one to call. In the milky moonlight, Morne Diable was deserted. The few who worked outside the village would be in the deepest sleep until the four o'clock cock crowed. We were stranded at the edge of the world.

Mr. Herman's ten-minute estimate stretched to forty-five. I thought that my father would be done by now, and then I felt ungrateful. My mother hummed tuneless hymns that reached under my skin and to my fingertips. I wished we were little girls still and could play clapping games to drown her out. I hugged Hel when Mr. Herman said we were on our way, and she laughed and hugged me back. Soft enough so that my mother wouldn't hear, she whispered, “You going America today even if I have to fly you on my back.”

IT WAS JUST OVER
two months ago that my aunt in the Virgin Islands had included her telephone number in one of her infrequent letters to my father. The next week Hel and I had walked a mile down the Quarry Road to the lady on the hill and rung. My aunt's voice sounded just like my father's, and she told us to call collect the next time. Hel and I called the next week and the week after that. Pretty soon we were talking every Friday about what a great idea it would be for me to go to America to live with her oldest daughter.

My mother was not pleased with this communication. When I told her that I could not remember who first brought up the idea, she pursed her lips, unsure of whom to blame. She didn't put it past me to have told my aunt that I was miserable, that I wanted a big life and not a small island. Or it very well could have been meddlesome Velma trying to get my mother's children away from her. But my mother couldn't bring herself to actually talk to my aunt, and Daddy couldn't make it up the grassy hill on crutches. So, Aunt Velma and I came up with a plan for me to move to Brooklyn to live with her daughter and her six-year-old son. I'd go to high school during the day, and, instead of her daughter having to hire a sitter to watch her son in the evenings, I'd take care of him. She'd sponsor me to get my papers. It was a good plan.

I woke up to the sound of the trunk slamming shut. Helen peeled away from my torso, leaving a dark, wet stain on my sweater. Full of sleep, she asked, “We reach?”

I looked out the window, past the brightly lit car park, past the buildings' low, peaked roofs, and saw the painted tails of all the planes lined up ready to go. “We reach.”

As soon as we walked through doors that slid open automatically, we heard over the PA system, “Passenger Grace Caton, please report to the check-in counter immediately. Passenger Grace Caton to check-in.”

Mr. Herman looked at his watch, and I looked around for a clock. It was quarter past five, later than I'd thought we'd arrive but still with plenty time before I had to leave. My mother said, “But what is this?” and quickened her steps as we all did, heading over to the row of attendants waiting under the Pan Am sign. She stepped up to a lady with overblushed cheeks and a purple-smeared mouth. I stepped alongside her. “I'm Grace Caton.”

“Your flight's already boarding, Miss Caton,” she told me, and I wondered if she didn't feel clammy wearing all that makeup so early in the morning.

“But my flight not supposed to leave until six-thirty.”

My mother didn't like this kind of boldness from me, but the attendant agreed. “Yes, but everyone's already checked in, and the captain can get an earlier push-off.”

“But this is real stupidness, in truth,” Mr. Herman said. “A time is a time.” My mother looked around in her bag for my passport and ticket. When the attendant asked how many bags I was checking and my mother said one, I said, “Mammy, please,” and she stepped back half a pace from the counter. I got my boarding pass, and we all rushed to the gate. “You see, is a good thing I say to come so early,” my mother said. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

She and I had never been big huggers and kissers, and now, when I needed to go quickly, it was Mr. Herman who came forward to squeeze me farewell. Standing a foot away from my mother, I said, “Bye, Mammy,” and to Helen, “Your turn next.”

Mr. Herman looked from me to my mother with disbelief. “Girl, you crazy or what?” he said. “Come over here and give your mammy a hug up.” I stepped back, hugging Helen first, feeling her so familiar and warm. We had shared a bed since she was born. And then I hugged my mother, towering over her wrapped head and feeling her body, bony just like my own, beneath her light cotton dress. She didn't hug me back, only stood still to receive my affection. Then I let her go and walked through the gate.

I WAS ON AN
aeroplane! I was on an aeroplane!

And since no one sat next to me, I bounced up and down, and opened and closed the window shade and lowered the food tray, and checked to see how far back the seat could recline, and pressed on and off the overhead light, and turned a ridged knob and felt a stream of cold air blast my forehead. We left exactly at 6:00
A.M.
, and as the plane rose, shuddering and pinging before whirling away, I was scared breathless remembering the news of that other Pan Am flight from a year ago. Beyond the patches of thick greenery and brown fields, I saw the island's curves and contours, familiar only from geography class maps, and the land's sudden drop into the lapping gray sea. Off on the horizon, a cap of blazing sun was beginning to spread sparkling light on what was no doubt going to be one more hot, dry day in Trinidad.

We stopped in Barbados and Jamaica for passengers who had come from the small islands scattered across the Caribbean Sea. They came aboard already wearing the woolen coats they wouldn't need for hours yet and sat still, looking serious and straight ahead. In Jamaica an old woman with heavy gold earrings in stretched-out lobes stood for a long time before taking the seat next to mine. She kept her straw bag on her shoulder and fumbled with the seat belt. Without her asking, I clicked the buckle around her waist. Then, we took off for good. The crew served white-bread triangle sandwiches with pink finger sausages that tasted like Christmas morning. The old woman refused everything and instead pulled out a brown bag from her purse and ate what smelled like a saltfish sandwich. After a half an hour she leaned over and said something I couldn't make out. “What?” I asked her.

BOOK: Minding Ben
7.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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