At Old Fort Craft Park Delores links hands with the flushed face men in floral shirts who are too polite to decline, and the women in broad straw hats whose thin lips fix in frightened smiles. Before the tourists pass Delores’s stall, she listens to the prices the other higglers quote them—prices that make the tourists politely decline and walk away. So by the time they get to Delores—the last stall in the market—she’s ready. She pounces. Just like she does at Falmouth Market on Tuesdays as soon as the ship docks. But the tourists hesitate, as they always do, probably startled by the big, black woman with bulging eyes and flared nostrils. Her current victims are a middle-aged couple.
“Me have nuff nuff nice t’ings fah you an’ yuh husband…come dis way, sweetie pie.”
Delores pulls the woman’s hand gently. The man follows behind his wife, both hands clutching the big camera around his neck as if he’s afraid someone will steal it.
To set them at ease, Delores confides in them: “Oh lawd ah mercy,” she says, fanning herself with an old Jamaica Observer. “Dis rhaatid heat is no joke. Yuh know I been standin’ in it all day?…bwoy t’ings haa’d.”
She wipes the sweat that pours down her face, one eye on them. It’s more nervousness than the heat, because things are slow and Delores needs the money. She observes the woman scrutinizing the jewelry—the drop earrings made of wood, the beaded necklaces, anklets, and bracelets—the only things in the stall that Delores makes. “Dat one would be nice wid yuh dress…” Delores says when the woman picks up a necklace. But the woman only responds with a stiff smile, gently putting down the item then moving on to the next. Delores continues to fan. Normally the Americans are chatty, gullible. Delores never usually have to work so hard with them for their politeness makes them benevolent, apologetic to a fault. But this couple must be a different breed. Maybe Delores is wrong. Maybe they’re from somewhere else. But only the American tourists dress like they’re going on a safari, especially the men, with their clogs, khaki apparel, and binocular-looking cameras.
“Hot flash and dis ungodly heat nuh ‘gree at’all,” Delores says when the woman moves to the woven baskets. Only then does the woman smile—a genuine smile that indicates her understanding—the recognition of a universal feminine condition. Only then does she finger her foreign bills as though unwilling to part with it. “How much are the necklaces?” she asks Delores in an American accent. She’s pointing at one of the red, green and yellow pendants made from glass beads. Delores had taken her time to string them.
“Twenty-five,” Delores says.
“Sorry…that’s too much,” the woman says. She glances at her husband. “Isn’t twenty-five a bit much for this, Harry?” She holds up the necklace like it’s a piece of string and dangles it in front of her husband. The man touches the necklace like he’s some kind of a necklace expert. “We’re not paying more than five for this” He says in a voice of authority that reminds Delores of Reverend Cleve Grant, whose booming voice can be heard every noon offering a prayer for the nation on Radio Jamaica.
“It tek time fi mek, sah…” Delores says. “Ah can guh down to twenty.”
“Alright, mi will geet to yuh for fifteen!” Delores says, suppressing her disappointment. As she counts the change to give back to the woman, she catches her eyeing the miniature Jamaican dolls. Surely it must remind her of the types of people on the island that she’d only get to see in a day—the people her husband captures with the camera slung around his neck, snapping pictures every so often at something he and his wife can marvel at later with their friends. He too surveys the table of the Rastas with the long, oversize penises, the smiling women with tar black faces and basket of fruits on their heads, the grinning farmer carrying green bananas in his hands, the t-shirts with weed plants and a smoking Bob Marley with IRIE written in bold letters, the rag dolls wearing festival dresses that look like picnic table cloths.
“If yuh buy three items yuh get a discounted price…all these t’ings are quality,” Delores says, seizing the opportunity. “Yuh wouldn’t get dem anyweh else but right yah so.”
The man takes out his wallet and Delores’ heart leaps in her throat. “Give me two of those in a large…the tank in a small…” he points at the t-shirts. Once he makes his purchase, his wife, as though given permission to grab as much local souvenirs as possible, purchases a woven basket—“for your mom”, more bracelets with Rasta colors—“For Alan and Miranda”, and a couple of the rag dolls decked in festival dresses—“For their girls.”
By the time they were done, they bought half of what Delores had. Only Delores can sell these souvenirs in a day, because unlike the other higglers, she knows she has a gold mine at home—a daughter she has to support—one who is going to be a doctor. She does it for her. Thandi. All the foreign dollars she stuffs inside her brassiere will be saved inside the old mattress on the bed that she shares with her mother.
Thandi waits to show Delores her drawing. Her mother comes home from the market and immediately begins to cook dinner, her stocky frame pouring over the small stove. Delores wipes her face with the collar of her blouse and stirs the cowfoot soup. She mindlessly dashes salt and pepper and pimento seeds, talking to herself about the day’s sales. “Ah told di man twenty dollah. Jus’ twenty dollah. Him so cheap that him pull out a ten…say him want me to go down in price. But see here now, massah. What can ten dollah do?” She laughs and leans over and tastes the soup, her face scrunching as she reaches for more salt. “Eh, eh!”
“Mama, I have something to show yuh,” Thandi says, taking small steps toward Delores, clutching the sketchpad filled with her drawings. The fire is high under the pot, and the house now has the smell of all the spices. “What is it now?” Her mother says. “Have you seen yuh sistah since mawnin’?”
“Where the hell is that girl?” Delores turns to Thandi, her eyes big and wide like a ferocious animal. “Ah tell yuh yuh sistah is siding wid the Devil. Two nights in a row she hasn’t been home. Is which man she sleeping wid now, eh?”
“I don’t know…she neva tell me anything.”
Delores laughs, throwing her head back so that her braids touch the back of her neck. She seeks the council of the shadows in the kitchen, the ones that lurk from the steady flame of the kerosene lamp. “Yuh see mi dying trial?” she says to the shadows. “Now she keeping secrets from me.” She turns back to Thandi. “You tell yuh sistah that if she have a man, him mus’ be able to help pay Mr. Sterling our rent. Our rent was due two days ago. Two days! And Margot deh ‘bout, playing hookie wid god knows who…or what.”
Thandi remains silent, hugging the sketchpad to her chest. It steadies her. She stares at her mother’s back, the broad shoulders, the cotton blouse soaked with perspiration, the strong arms that look as though they could still carry her, the wide hips, the swollen feet shoved inside a pair of old man slippers. She listens to her mother talk to the shadows crouched in every corner of their shack. Though they are shadows of inanimate objects, they stir with life, mock her. Thandi looks away from each of them, her eyes finding the flame in the kerosene lamp. How weak it seems, trapped inside glass. This little flame that has the potential of destroying the whole house. Thandi stares at it. She stares and stares, her own flame building on the inside, burning and burning until it’s too hot to keep inside. “I want to draw,” she says out loud. This incites Delores to stop talking and moving. The fire hisses under the pot. Delores turns around to face Thandi. “Beg yuh pardon?” The spoon is dripping to the floor.
“I said I want to draw,” Thandi repeats.
“So why don’t you sit and draw?” Delores asks. “See di table dere. Draw.”
“I mean I want to do it for a living. I want to…”
“Hold on a second.” Delores puts both hands on her hips, her big chest lifting as though filling with all the wind and words she would eventually let out to crush Thandi’s dreams. “Yuh not making any sense right now. Yuh not making no sense a’tall, a’tall.”
“I am really good at it,” Thandi says. She opens her sketchpad and walks up to Delores. Her fingers tremble as she turns each page, showing her mother sketches after sketches. Her mother takes the book from her and examines the sketch of the half-naked woman standing in front of a mirror. Thandi is certain she recognizes the mirror. It’s the one on the vanity. Thandi holds her breath as her mother stares at the image. What is she thinking? She wonders, almost asking this out loud. She has been waiting for the right moment to tell her mother about her plans to apply to art school. Brother Smith says she’s good and after high school has what it takes to enroll in Edna Manley School of Art in Kingston. Thandi looks at the page her mother is looking at, wishing now that she had been more precise with parts of the sketch that now seem mediocre under her mother’s gaze. She balances her weight on both legs, wringing her hands then putting them to her sides since she doesn’t know what else to do with them. Delores is silent for a long time. Too long. “What yuh think?” Thandi finally asks.
But Delores is shaking her head. “Yuh draw dis?” She asks Thandi without taking her eyes off the woman on the paper.
“Yes,” Thandi responds. Her mother is staring into her eyes now. Thandi wonders what she’s thinking. But Delores returns the book to Thandi without saying a word. She resumes cooking, stirring the pot of cowfoot soup.
“I want to draw,” Thandi says again. “I want to be an artist. Maybe yuh can start to sell my drawings to yuh customers.” Thandi continues to talk as though talking to herself. “I’m really good at it. Brother Smith says I’m really talented. He said I could go to a school for art...”
But Delores stirs and stirs the pot, Thandi’s words seeming to drown in the bubbling soup.
“Mama, yuh listening?” Thandi touches Delores’ arm. “Mama, yuh hear me? I want to go to art school.”
“I’m busy,” is all Delores says. “I’m sending you to school to learn. So, yuh g’wan be something good in life. Nothing less. Don’t come to me wid dis argument again, yuh hear? Yuh is no damn artist. We too poor for that. Yuh g’wan be a doctor. People can’t mek a living being no ch’upid artist. Do you see the Rastas selling in di market making money wid dem Art?”
Thandi shakes her head, her eyes on the floor. “But there are different types of artists, mama.”
“Different types of artist mi backside!” Her mother seems unable to contain her annoyance now. “G’wan go learn yuh books, yuh hear! Yuh should be studying now. The CXC is jus’ around di corner. Why yuh not studying? Yuh need all nine subjects to be the doctor yuh want to be…”
“That you want me to be.” Thandi puts the sketchpad down on the dining table.
Delores stares at her. “Thandi, what yuh really saying to me?”
Thandi lowers her head and folds her arms across her chest. She cowers under the weight of the silence, her heartbeat echoing in her eardrums, her face hot. “Nothing,” she replies.
“Who—who is filling up yuh head with all this, eh?” Delores asks.
“I have a mind of my own, you know,” Thandi says. Clutching her sketchpad, she walks outside into the darkness that consumes her, leaving the back door open. “Where yuh going? Dinner will be ready soon!” Delores calls after her. But Thandi doesn’t respond to this. She’s too tired. Tired of everything. She leans against the back of the house and slides down to her buttocks, still clutching the sketchpad to her chest. All she wants to do now is close her eyes out here in the dark to quell her nerves, her shuddering breath. This simple act of defiance has incited the eruption of slight tremors inside her. She’s not sure if it’s caused by her rebellion or by this need—this passion that has caused her to fail all her other subjects as though it has possessed her, transformed her. For the old Thandi would never have voiced her desire to Delores and walk out of the house that way. Her chest heaves and sighs as though struggling to hold on to her last breath, struggling to hold on to pieces of her old self in case she goes insane.
Thandi disappears outside into the darkness, taking all of Delores’ breath with her. The girl must be smelling herself now, Delores thought. “But ah who filling up har head with all this rubbish, eh?” She asks this to the shadows. She wants to know. She has to know. Not her Thandi. She can’t be losing her Thandi now. She’s supposed to be the good one, different from her sister. Had Thandi not been such a good girl all this time, Delores would’ve knocked her in the head with the spoon she uses to stir the soup. But Thandi’s eyes held in them the same glint of that thing Delores saw in Margot’s eyes years ago on that day when the ship docked; the same glint that made Delores swallow the hardness lodged in her throat. She had to look away from it in case it struck her down like lightning.
She cannot get the sketch of the half-naked woman standing in front of a mirror from her mind. The resemblance between Delores and the woman in the sketch is uncanny, almost like a picture taken of her—same face, same eyes, same mouth, same sagging breasts resting a top the high bulge of her belly. She remembers the earnestness in her daughter’s eyes when she looked at her and the slow smile that spread across the girl’s face—one Delores hasn’t seen in a long time since Thandi is always so serious. Her daughter’s face had transformed before her. So much so that Delores had to look down at the drawing again to see what the magic was. She didn’t know whether to feel proud or self-conscious; for in the sketch Delores saw everything she thought she had hidden so well, tucked away in the folds of years, heaped upon each other like steps that she takes one at a time. In her daughter’s drawing, she saw the lines in her face, the weight of life revealed in prominent features like her double chin. She saw an ugly woman—an ugly black woman with bulging eyes too wide to be gazed into before looking away; and nose too flat on the broad face. In this sketch she was not human, but a creature. This is how her daughter sees her—bull-faced and miserable. All Delores’ secrets and insecurities are exposed in the gaze of this child.
Delores sits down, her bottom hitting the chair with a loud thump. A wave of exhaustion hits her. She feels again for that lump in her right breast that she felt for the first time this morning. “But what is this blasted thing though, eh?” She asks the shadows that fill the room, her only companions as of late. There’s no man to talk to. No children to confide in. Silence fills the house, giving way to the crickets that serenade her from outside. She thinks nothing of the lump. She hasn’t looked at her breasts, much less touched them in years. So when she felt the small, round hardness, which reminded her of one of those smooth stones at the bottom of the river, right under her arm, she brushed it aside. She wouldn’t let it slow her down. She would sell her soul if she had to. Though, certain pains haunt her still. They become encroached in her joints, become embedded in the lines in her face, around her mouth and under her eyes that bulge like that of a bullfrog’s, giving her a perpetual startled look. And so whenever Delores looks in the mirror, she sees little reminders of those pains etched in the aging of her face, making it look older at forty-six. Those memories that tug at her skin with all the weight they carry. All the guilt that resonates whenever she thinks of the look in her daughter’s eyes sixteen years ago.
Thandi’s drawing reminds Delores of this pain. It started the day she took Margot with her to the market. The girl was barely fourteen at the time. In the summers when Margot was out of school she would help Delores carry the things to Falmouth and spread them out so that Delores could sell. While Delores sold items to tourists, Margot would help count the change and wrap the fragile items in newspaper. One day a tall, dark hair man walked into Delores’ stall. He was wearing sunglasses, like most tourists tend to do on the island. When he walked into the stall, he had a presence about him, an air Delores associated with important people—white people. Except, he wasn’t white. A mixture, maybe. A mulatto kind. He wore a button down shirt that revealed the smooth dark hairs on his chest. When Delores peered up at him, he was peering down at Margot. He turned to Delores, his eyes hidden behind the shades. “How much?” he asked in a voice that sounded to Delores like thunder.
“Di dolls are twenty, sah. Oh, an’ di figurines guh for fifteen U.S., but ah can give yuh fah ten. An’ di t-shirts! They’re unique, sah. One of ah kind! Only fifteen dollah.”
“No. Not those things,” the man said returning his gaze to Margot. “I’m talking about her.” He used his pointy chin to gesture to a skinny Margot who, at the time, had barely started menstruating or grow breasts. Delores looked from her daughter to the tall stranger wearing the sunglasses. “She’s not on sale, sah.”
The man pulled out a wad of cash and began to count it in front of Delores. Delores counted six hundred dollar bills. She was blinking so fast that her eyes grew tired from the rapid movement. She had never seen so much money in her life. The crispness of the bills and the scent of newness, which Delores thought wealth would smell like—the possibility of moving her family out of River Bank, affording her children’s school fees, books and uniforms, buying a telephone and a landline for her to call people whenever she liked instead of wait to use the neighbor’s phone. All these possibilities were too much to swallow all at once. They made her stutter her next response. “Sah—but she—she’s only fourteen.”
The man placed the bills in front of Delores. She tore her eyes away from the stack of hundred dollar bills sitting there on her table to look into the terrified eyes of her daughter. Margot was shaking her head slowly, mouthing “No”, but Delores had already made up her mind the minute the scent of the bills hit her. Her eyes pleaded with her daughter’s, and also held in them an apology. “Please undah-stand. Do it now and you’ll tank me lata.” Delores hoped her eyes communicated. She nodded to the man wearing the sun glasses when Margot looked away, defeated. The man took Margot somewhere—Delores didn’t ask where he was taking her. It was in the direction of the ship that had docked for the day. The girl followed behind him, her steps feeble, uncertain. She never looked behind her to see the tears in Delores’ eyes.
When the man returned Margot later that evening, she never spoke to Delores. She never spoke to her for days, months. Delores had left the market that day with six hundred dollars plus tip that the man added. (“She’s a natural, this one,” he said to Delores with a wink like a school teacher giving a report on performance. It was the first time Delores had seen his eyes, which were a shade of green that reminded her of those lizards that changed color in the grass). Delores stuffed the money in her brassiere. At home she hid it inside the mattress where she hid all her money. She hid it so well that she never realized when the money disappeared. It wasn’t until her brother, Winston, who was living with them at the time, announced months later that he got a visa and a one way ticket to America did Delores wonder where he got the money. She never thought about the bills the stranger peeled out of his wallet that day and place on the table in her stall; her mind must have tucked the memory away as covertly as she hid the money. Immediately after Winston’s announcement Delores ripped the sheets off the bed and stuck her hand inside the hole underneath the sponge layer. Nothing came up in her tight fist. The realization burned her stomach and spread across the width of her belly like the pressure of a child about to be born. Delores almost collapsed, not with the fury and raging anger she harbored for her brother, but for the loss of her daughter’s innocence, which she realized too late, was worth more than the money she lost and all the money she would ever gain.
Now Delores sinks into the chair around the dining table. The shadows converge on her, their wings spread in an embrace. She’s one with the darkness. For this terrible sin she committed is unforgivable. Thandi, might have seen this too. She captures everything. And all Delores is to her is this ugly, dark woman capable of nothing but fits of rage and cruelty. No wonder Thandi hates her now. And then there’s Mama Merle, sitting outside on that rocking chair. The old bat will spend another day wishing her beloved, good for nothing son home; while Delores will continue breaking her back to provide for the family, doing what she does best: Survive.
The sky opens up, giving way to the golden shower of the sun. Its spherical shape is hidden behind its luminous rays that cap the hills and mountains. There is very little one can do to avoid the sun when it’s at its peak, hovering above the land with a searing, watchful eye. And with the sun comes that heat. They go hand in hand like John Mare and his old donkey, Belle. So arresting is the heat that people have to stop what they’re doing every so often to preserve the little energy they have. Or if they must keep moving, they have to slow down at a snail’s pace.
Way down Mercy Lane, the barren fruit trees wilt and the grass brown with all the moisture sucked out of them. Dogs lay on their sides with their tongues out, goats lean against the sides of buildings or fences, and cows move about with exposed ribcages, gnawing on bristle grass. Children crowd around stand pipes to bathe or drink from the little water that trickle from them while some accompany their mothers to the river with big buckets.
Meanwhile, idle men hug trees for shade, pressing flasks of rum to their faces. Some chew sugar cane or cut water coconut open with machetes to quench their rabid thirst. Church people mumble prayers against Satan, wondering if the world is coming to an end. Verdene Moore and the likes of her (the battyman and sodomites) could be behind this for all they know. All this heat and no rain mean all things living will eventually die. So the God fearing people become intent on staking their claim in Heaven while the sinners put their hands to their heads and cry “Jesas ‘ave mercy!”.
Crops are ruined, forcing the market vendors out the market with nothing to sell. The normal meanness that the heat and the sun brought is compounded by the anxiety of hunger and bitterness. The children sit inside houses on cardboard boxes, sucking ice and oranges, careful not to provoke mothers who are now prone to throw fits of rage while scolding. Teenagers escape to the backs of schools and churches and to the river to seek reprieve from the heat, their own heat more glorious, spontaneous.
Only vendors like Delores who sell in the market have to bear the heat. For money has to be made. Even at their own risk. The sun and heat penetrate the blue cover above Delores’ stall, making it feel like the inside of an oven. She fans herself with an old Jamaica Observer. Her bright orange blouse is soaked with sweat, like someone threw water and drenched her under the armpits, across the belly, all the way down to her sides. The heat seeps into her skin and stays, pushing out beads of perspiration like tiny fountains beneath the hairs. Two vendors couldn’t take the heat, so they packed up their things and went back home. The others, including Delores, sucked their teeth: “Dem really aggo give up a day’s work because ah di heat? Ah nuh Jamaica dem born an’ grow? Wah dem expec’?”
Delores wipes the sweat off her face with a rag she tucks inside her bosom. She prepares for business as usual. Mavis, who has a stall next to Delores, is fully covered from head to toe. She reminds Delores of one of those Muslim women she sees sometimes—on very rare occasions—walking in the square with their faces covered.
“Di heat is good fi yuh skin…mek it come quicker,” Mavis says, adjusting the broad hat on her head. Delores sucks her teeth at the woman who has been trying different skin lightening remedies since Delores knew her. Delores has already dismissed the woman as off. For only off people do those things. People like Ruby who used to sell fish and is now selling delusion to young girls who want more than apron jobs. Poor souls think a little skin lightening will make the hoity-toity class see more than their shadows slipping through cracks under their imported leather shoes.
“Why yuh nuh try drink poison while yuh at it?” Delores asks the woman.
Mavis rolls her eyes. “If me was as black as you, Delores, me woulda invest me money inna bleaching cream. Who want to be black in dis place? A true nobody nuh tell yuh how black yuh is…”
“Kiss me ass, gyal! An’ g’weh wid yuh mad self!” Delores throws down the old newspaper.
Just then John-John stops by with his box of birds he carves out of wood. He sees the women arguing, sees his opportunity, and seizes it by defending Delores. “Ah wah Mavis do to you, Mama Delores? Here…sidung an’ let me handle it. G’weh, Mavis an’ leave Miss Delores alone. Yuh nuh have bettah t’ings fi do? Like count out di ten cents yuh get fi yuh cheap t’ings dem? Yuh son sen’ yuh money an’ t’ings from foreign, yet yuh stuck inna dis heat? Fi wah?”
Mavis whips around to face him now like a player caught in the middle of a dandy-shandy game. “A an’ B having ah convahsation. Guh suck yuh mumma, yuh ole crusty, mop-head b’woy!”
But John-John puts down his boxes of birds, a smile hinging on his face as though he’s enjoying this exchange. “Every Tom, Joe, an’ Mary know seh yuh nuh get no barrel from foreign. A lie yuh ah tell. When people get barrel dem come moggle in dem new clothes. Yuh dress like a mad ‘ooman, an’ yuh look like one too wid dat mask pon yuh face!”
The other vendors in the arcade holler loudly with their hands cupped over their mouths, shoulders shuddering, and eyes damp with tears. Mavis adjusts her hat, and touches her screwed up face with the bleaching cream lathered all over it like the white masks obeah women wear. “A true yuh nuh know me,” she says, her mouth long and bottom lip trembling. “Me son sen’ barrel gimme. Ah bad-mind oonuh bad-mind!”
“Nobody nah grudge yuh, Mavis,” Delores says. “Him jus’ a seh it nuh mek sense if di clothes yuh son sen’ look like di wash out clothes yuh sell. There’s a discrepancy in what’s what!” The other vendors’ laughter soars above the stalls, flooding through the narrow aisles where the sun marches like a soldier during a curfew. Delores continues, “Is not like yuh t’ings sell either. Usually di tourist dem tek one look, see di cheap, wash out, thread bare shirt dem then move on. Not even yuh bleach out skin coulda hol’ dem!”
“G’weh!” Mavis says. “A true fi yuh pickney dem nuh like yuh, mek yuh ah pick pon me!” Satisfied after delivering the final blow, Mavis retrieves into her stall with a smirk Delores wishes she could slap away. But she couldn’t move fast enough, because John-John is already holding her back. Her hands are frantically moving over John-John’s shoudler; wanting to catch the woman’s face and rip it to shreds. For that smirk holds the weight, the scorn, of her situation. It holds the memory of Thandi’s drawing. All week her movement has slowed because of it. Setting up her items took longer than usual. She’s always the first to have everything presented well enough for the tourists to come by, but that week she struggled with the simplest task of covering the wooden table with the green and yellow cloth. All because of Thandi’s sketch. One of the figurines had even fallen, breaking in half during set up this morning. Nothing went right. The thought of spending the entire day selling felt like she was carrying an empty glass pretending to have liquid in it. She confided this to Mavis, because she wanted someone to talk to at the time. How she has been selling for years now and has never felt this way. How Margot, and now Thandi, could care less if she dies in this heat, a pauper. And now Mavis calls her out. Mavis of all people. Mavis—with her crazy, lying, bleaching self—knows that Delores’ children hate her. Mavis—the woman with nothing good to sell and who can never get one customer to give her the time of day—knows Delores’ weakness. And now the woman has everything over her. She knows it. That smirk Delores itches to slap off her face says it all; and even if Delores succeeds in slapping the black off the woman (more than the bleaching products she uses could ever achieve), it won’t erase the fact that Mavis probably has a better relationship with her son than Delores would ever have with her daughters.
And now John-John releases Delores. “Yuh mek har know who is in charge, mama Delores! A good fi har.” He says. “Nuh let har get to yuh dat way.” Delores ignores him and plops down hard on her stool. She picks up the Jamaica Observer again to fan with as John-John surveys her table, checking if she sold any of his carved animals since the last time she saw him.
“Notin’ at’all?” He asks when she tells him. He sits down on the old padded stool in Delores’ stall and runs one hand through his dreadlocks, visibly puzzled. Delores is the best haggler out here, so her news of no sale all week is sure to cause an alarm, even to the most envious vendor.
“Yuh see people come in yah from mawnin?” she asks John-John in defense. “Sun too hot.” She doesn’t tell him that lately she hasn’t been in the mood to do the regular routine—linking hands with tourists, courting them the way men court women, complimenting them, sweet talking them, showing them all the goods, waiting with abated breath for them to fall in love, hoping they take a leap of faith and fish into their wallets.
John-John shakes his head, his eyes looking straight ahead outside. “We cyan mek di heat do we like dis, Delores. No customers mean nuh money,” John-John says. His body is sluggish on the stool, his movements slow. His jaundiced eyes swim all over Delores’ face. “Wah we aggo do, Miss Delores?” He asks.
“What yuh mean what we g’wan do? Ah look like ah know?” Delores fans herself harder, almost ripping the newspaper filled with the smiling faces of politicians and well-to-do socialites on the front page. She wants John-John to leave her alone to her own thoughts and feelings. But the boy can talk off your ears if you let him. He would sit there on the stool and talk. Sometimes this interrupts Delores’ work, because tourists would see him in the stall and they would politely walk away, thinking they were interrupting something between mother and son. “Well, Jah know weh him ah do. Hopefully him will sen’ rain soon,” John-John says.
Believe you me,” she says to John-John, who now squats to diligently paint one of his wooden birds. “Tomorrow g’wan be a new day. Yuh watch an’ see. Ah g’wan sell every damn t’ing me have.”
“Yes, mama Delores. Just trus’ an’ Jah will provide fah all ah we,” John-John says. The pink of his tongue shows as he works on perfecting the bird’s feathers. He has been working on that one bird since last week. Usually it takes him only a few hours. When he finishes the bird, he separates it from all the others that he wraps one by one in old newspaper to place inside the box. Delores picks up the bird he just finished. It’s more extravagant than all the others with blue and green wings skillfully outlined with black paint, a red and yellow underbelly, and red beak. The eyes are sharp, the whites in them defined with the small black pupils. It looks like a best seller. Delores already prices it in her head. She guesses fifty U.S dollars. More expensive than his other bird designs. Tourists buy them up like bag juice. So it’s not like this one won’t sell. John-John gives the birds to Delores to sell for him. He collects half of what she makes for the sales.
As Delores examines this new bird she thinks of the parrot she once saw at a place called Devon House in Kingston—a colonial mansion with a beautiful garden that had just openned up to the public. The year was 1968. It was her first trip to Kingston at seventeen years old. She left three year old Margot with Mama Merle and rode on the country bus to town all by herself. Initially she went to look work as a helper; but on a whim, she decided to venture to that new place people were raving about in the newspapers. Delores wanted to see it all so that she could write home with exciting stories. So she wandered from Half-Way Tree where the country bus dropped her off, all the way up a busy street called Constant Spring Road. With a few wrong turns and stops to ask for direction (“Beg yuh please tell weh me can fine Dev-an House?”), she made it. It would take seconds for the nice Kingstonians she asked to understand her heavy Patois and point her in the right direction, their Patois milder. Their streets had names. So it wasn’t hard getting to the place. Once she arrived she was taken by the Devon House mansion and the garden surrounding it. It was just as beautiful in real life as it was in the papers—white paint glowing in the sun, big columns and winding staircases, a water fountain. But more than the house were the parrots. They seemed suited for their habitat too—(before the officials moved them to Hope Zoo)—flying from tree to tree with colored wings through a lush garden of Champion and oak, mahogany and birch, palm and Spanish Elm, Lignum vitae and Stinking Toe—every tree you could think of! And Delores knew them all. There were lots of colorful flowers too—Hibiscus, Petrea, White lilly, Heliconia, Bougainvilla—most of which held droplets of rain. Some flowers Delores had never seen before—had no idea they even existed in those colors. Delores followed the birds until she got to the courtyard where genteel Kingstonians sat, enjoying the outdoors under the shade of fancy umbrellas and broad hats with trimmings. As if caught in a limelight on stage, Delores figeted with her Sunday dress—the bright yellow one with lace and puffed up sleeves that she wore to nice events and places. She felt like Queen Elizabeth in that dress, especially because she had a pair of frilly green socks to match and a shiny pair of flats with buckles on the sides that never showed any specs of red dirt. The only thing missing were a pair of gloves.
And the Kingstonians—ones looking significantly different from the ones she stopped to ask directions on the way—must have thought so too. For a hundred pairs of eyes followed her when she walked by, frowning pale faces transforming into amusement. She must have made a good impression to be stared at that way. So caught up she was in how rude these Kingstonians were, staring like that without shame (Damn bareface!) that she didn’t notice the pile of dog mess. She stepped right in it; and in her shock, stumbled into the path of Catholic school girls. They were probably on a school trip, gliding in a straight line across the courtyard like swans being led by a mother swan—a nun who walked with her head tilted to the sky as though confident that the girls wouldn’t wander off. The girls gasped when Delores stumbled in their path, immediately corking their small noses with delicate pale hands. The way the girls snickered as their eyes roved over Delores’ dress made it seem as if the dog mess was smeared across it. Right then Delores hated her dress. But it was her shoes and socks that incited the most laughter. And then the nun, as polite as she thought she was, smiled at Delores, her pinkish face glowing like a heart. “You must be lost…Are you here with the group from the country? They’re by the picnic tables.” How did she know Delores was from country? That morning Delores thought she did a good job putting her outfit together in preparation for a day in the big city. But the girls were all snickering amongst themselves, shoulders hunched and pretty heads jerking back and forth, moving their lengthy ponytails secured by white ribbons. Delores should have known better to listen to her mother. “If me was suh big an’ black, me woulda neva mek scare crow come catch me inna dat color. Yuh bettah hope di people inna Kingston nuh laugh yuh backside back ah country.” Mama Merle was right. Maybe bright colors weren’t for her. The girls’ laughter followed Delores all the way back through the gate like the smell of dog mess she never stopped to get rid of. She was too afraid the laughter, exacerbated by her mother’s pointed words, would catch up with her and maul her (“Country blackie, guh back ah country! Country blackie, guh back ah country!”), worse than a swarm of flies.
It was as though a veil had lifted from her eyes. For when she looked down, all she saw was her black skin and how it clashed with the dress. With her surroundings. With everything. It had collided with the order and propriety of the colonial mansion that day. And the uniform line of those high color Catholic school girls. On her way back to River Bank, anger loomed large in Delores. She wasn’t sure why, though. Why those high school girls affected her so. Something about that trip changed her. On the bus ride home she became cynical, mocking everything—the sea-green of the nauseating sea, the sun that sneered in the wide expanse of a rather pale sky, the mountains and hills drawn haphazardly across it, the indecisive Y-shaped river that once swallowed her childhood, and even the red dirt from the Bauxite mines caked under her worn heels seemed like a wide open wound that bled and bled between the rural parishes.
Now Delores looks at this bird John-John has created—a creature of the wild that he too had probably seen and fell in love with. Delores frowns. John-John looks up and sees her staring at the bird. He gives her one of his clownish smiles, his front teeth lapping over each other like the badly aligned picket fences around Miss Gracie’s pig pen. “Ah see yuh admiring me work, mama Delores.” He’s only a boy, Delores decides. In time he will begin to see the ugly in everything and everyone.
He raises the bird to Delores and she takes it. “Yuh didn’t have to…” She says, her heart pressed against her ribcage since no one has ever given her anything. She always wondered if she’d ever see anything like those parrots again.
“Is fah Margot…” he says. “Tell har is a gift from me…ah made it ‘specially fah her…the prettiest one in the lot…”
Delores’ hand shakes and the bird slips from her fingers and drops with an impact that breaks its beak. She’s not sure now if it slipped or if she heard Margot’s name and flung it. The smile fades from John-John’s face. He says nothing. He only sits there, his shirt open, his hands on his knees with his legs wide. He looks down at the de-beaked bird on the ground.
“Me nevah mean fi bruk it,” Delores says. She bends to pick it up, but John-John stops her. “Is OK, Mama Delores. Nuh worry ‘bout it. I an’ I can mek anothah one.” But the shadow hasn’t left his face, and his eyes barely meet hers. She knows he has been working on this one for a while. She knows it probably took him a long time to choose the right colors.
“Ah can always mek anotha one…” John-John says again after a while, his eyes focusing intently on something in front of him. “… maybe if ah start now ah can give it to you tomorrow…”
Delores is silent. She knows if she agrees verbally it would give him too much hope. Delores lifts her tongue and tastes the dry roof of her mouth. She takes a sip of water from the plastic cup that grew warm sitting there on the table. It doesn’t help. A wave of exhaustion comes over her that makes her lose focus. Like all other things that slow her down, she thinks this too will pass. Only this time, she’s not certain what exactly she hopes will pass first—the drought, the fatigue, or that dark, looming thing that has been present inside her since the trip to Kingston. She has held on to her anger all these years, knowing very well what she would say to those girls if she ever sees them again. She could still hear the voices that chased her that day—“Country blackie, guh back ah country! Country blackie, guh back ah country!” Though the voices were all in her head, she knew the girls were thinking them. She knew they wanted to chant those words along with the ghosts. After decades of stagnancy, the words become molten inside her—a dark, murky substance that poisons her veins. For the times when it doesn’t seep out in the form of toxic air, the residues blacken her heart, which expels her rage like a dark diffuse cloud under water. “She can come collec’ it harself…” Delores finally says to John-John. “Ah can’t speak for Margot…Margot is a big ‘ooman. She know what she like an’ what she nuh like. If yuh want my humble opinion, not a bone in dat girl’s body is deserving of anything yuh can sell fah good money tomorrow.”
Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn is a Jamaican-born writer who received her Masters of Public Health from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and subsequently received her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has earned her fellowships from Kimbilio, the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers. Her work has been awarded Honorable Mention from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and has appeared in Red Rock Review, Mosaic, Ebony.com, and the Feminist Wire. She currently teaches writing at the College of Staten Island and lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York.