St. Elizabeth, Jamaica - 1962
They had to keep Percival McGann's casket closed for the wake. And nothing the mortician did – not the airtight sealing of the gold-embellished pine box or the wreaths made from woven palm fronds, hibiscus and hydrangeas – could mask the stench of the burnt corpse inside. Scores of mourners, mainly old cronies, distant relatives and current plantation workers in their wide-brimmed hats and stained overalls, stood in line to cast their eyes on what would be the last trace of the McGann way of life.
A morbid fascination with the account of Percival's death spread throughout the parish until the man himself had been reincarnated in anecdotes to scold unruly children. Some even began to use the term "McGanned" to threaten adversaries and foes. Onlookers from as close as Lacovia to as far away as Southfield flocked to Pride Estate as though the image of Christ had materialized on a piece of bulla cake. And although the horde dared not pass the pillars of palms that lined the entryway of the property, they could at least say they had been to where a phenomenon had taken place; had stood in the same vicinity where a man had burst into flames by a forceful shove, or depending on who relayed the story, a slight touch. A man who was so towering a figure on his own two feet, that when he prowled the cane fields on his steed he was like a giant; a man whose roar-of-a-voice was so deep and booming that when he rebuked his field hands, they prayed to be swallowed up in the black hole he called a mouth.
Perhaps it was fate. Perhaps revenge. Whatever the case, the nature of Percival's demise seemed to verify what the townspeople had long suspected – that the McGanns were cursed. Not since the last breath of slave driver Quinn McGann, more than a century before, had any male from his line died naturally. It seemed Percival had inherited more than the sprawling 2000-acre sugar estate.
A beacon of the countryside Pride was. Built on a hillside just beyond Bamboo Avenue, it had remained virtually unchanged in its 167-year existence. A cobblestone walkway led to the portico entrance of the great house, with windows as tall as men. Its façade, painted a pumice gray decades prior, resembled a steel fortress. Behind it rested the massive sea of yellow-green cane stalks; the wind-powered sugar mill; the boiling, curing and still houses. There was a stable for the two horses, and a massive, decrepit stone edifice that served as the plantation’s main mill until the bulk of it was destroyed in the great storm of 1912.
Despite its imposing appearance, Pride was not what it used to be. Its yield had been on a slow, but steady decline, and as of late, several workers decided they would rather take their chances in the city. Production wasn’t the only thing that had changed. So had Jamaica; her people, her politics, even her landscape. Those giving to the earth now had to contend with those mining it. Tractors were no match for bulldozers or beach resorts or golf courses. Pride was like an aging figurehead.
Down the hollow hall from the parlor where the wake was being held, Percival Jr. was coming to terms with his father’s death by removing any evidence that he had existed. Balanced atop a stepladder in his new office, PJ struggled to unhook from the wall a massive oil painting depicting the elder McGann in his prime, the embers of life aglow in his gray eyes. He had made major changes to what, only four days prior, had still been Percival Senior’s study – a dimly lit, dank space yellowed by the past and crumbling under the weight of tradition.
Wooden shutters were opened like wings. Scarlet hued carpeting was torn away from the floors, revealing the original rosewood. Long white sofas, which had been prohibited from use for years, were removed and replaced with cushioned armchairs. Bookshelves were emptied of old artifacts, heirlooms, and spineless, loose-paged tomes filled with the things that mattered most to Percival Senior – textbooks on accounting, economics, and statistics from his days at university; books about business; books on how to make money, how to save money, how to invest money and how to coerce others to spend their money; notebooks upon notebooks filled with scribbles and notations that exposed the long hours slaved over failed ventures and deferred dreams. For inspiration, there were binders with newspaper and magazine clippings on young men, not unlike himself, who had made empires out of ideas, who could illustrate their success in pie charts and graphs, and who could count their dreams in pounds and pence.
Soon after toppling the portrait of his father, PJ propped its gilded frame against the office door and made his way over to the dessert table in the hallway, brushing dust and lint off his tailored gray suit. As he cut a large piece of the rum cake left over from Christmas, Clara, a stocky, burnt umber beauty clad in white, approached the table carrying a silver tray with a pitcher of sorrel balanced carefully atop it. She too was in the midst of a balancing act. A regrettable stint in PJ’s bed had left her dazed. Although it was brief, she was still finding her way through the fog. Like all the workers, she feared an uncertain future, the manic pace of PJ’s remodeling, and the vehemence of his mother’s commands.
“Are Archie and Ronald here?” PJ inquired.
Clara responded with an affirmative moan and then turned her back to him as she replenished the half-empty punch bowl on the table.
“I haven’t seen those boys all day.”
“Them out back…near the old mill,” she responded. “Some people can’t face the dead.”
“No one’s asking them to bury the man,” he said as he let a finger trail up the side of her arm. “I just need them to take some boxes to the attic.”
PJ's touch was like the kindling of a small fire and it took everything inside Clara to extinguish it. He made her forget the magnitude of her own strength; that her scent alone could knock men out of their right minds, steal precious moments from other people's lovers, and even cause them to break allegiances with their mothers. Even more so, was the near blinding of her foresight. During their relationship she had ceased from being the voyeur of things to come. PJ had, for a time, stripped her of this truth. He seemed to possess his own abilities – the power to disarm, to make her oblivious to everything in and around her. It was her inability to "see" Percival Sr.’s death and PJ's subsequent reaction to it that finally caused her to break free of him.
Clara suddenly turned to face PJ.
“Why you always cut me bad eye, ee?” he demanded. “What me do you now?”
There was a time when Clara was enamored by PJ’s use of patois. It made him seem familiar, common even, like the boys from her childhood in Accompong; the ones she would seduce into scaling soursop trees; who would help her carry zinc pans filled with water to wash clothes. But soon Clara came to the realization that it was all a ruse, that their time together was executed with the same precision he used in maintaining the general ledger. And like a record of gains and losses, his exploitation of patois was calculated, was just a tool to get her into bed; to fool her into believing that despite his fancy suits and waxed Cadillac, he was just like her.
“Me?” Clara scoffed. “You can’t do a blasted thing to me…not anymore. Is your poor father me a think ‘bout.”
PJ kissed his teeth. “Just make haste and go on, mon,” he said, dismissing her with a flick of his wrist. “I’m in no mood for your foolishness. Not tonight.”
“That man cuss the day you born,” she said, ignoring him.
“You too bad mind, you know that? You no know what you’re talking ‘bout.”
“I know what I see, though.”
PJ laughed. “Yeah? What the hell the devil show you now?”
“No one more devil than you,” Clara declared, “a wait fi you daddy die. And the moment you get word, you fly like rolling calf and dash him things ‘way. If them never say Midas was the one…my God…I woulda swear it was you.”
“You and your Poco shit. Always a talk ‘bout what you see. I wonder why you never see you no good…always wasting my time.”
Clara was suddenly too ill for words. It was at that moment she felt a slight twinge in the pit of her belly. She placed the silver tray under her arm and made her retreat down the hall. PJ watched her disappear into the kitchen. Not long after, Maude, unhinged by her new role as widow, and suffocated by the pungent stench of death and body odor, escaped the ceremony and joined her son in the hallway. A mulatto, she wore a black dress that offset the shock of her copper-colored hair, which hung down her back in a thick, unfinished braid. The only hint of her age was the wisps of gray at her temples. She stood clutching an accordion fan in her fist. PJ had not spent much time in his mother’s presence since the news of his father’s death. He now noticed how her loss had sucked the vibrancy out of her olive complexion.
“Is like a dream, no?” Maude said. Her gaze went straight through him.
“More like a nightmare,” PJ responded, placing her in a chair near the table. “We lost five workers this week alone. Michael’s mother sent him to work in that new resort in Port Antonio. Even ol’ Clayton’s gone…rather sell pepper shrimp on the side of the road.”
Maude shook her head in disbelief. “Just the other day I picked out a suit for your daddy wear to the New Year’s Eve party and now is the one he’ll be buried in.” Her voice trailed off. “I never saw this coming.”
“No one did,” PJ reassured her.
And although they had not, PJ certainly did not shy away from imagining the possibilities. During the moments when the study was slowly transforming into his own sanctuary, he would pause in disbelief to ponder on what he had dubbed “The Boxing Day Miracle.” For PJ McGann, independence had come twice that year.
Several men in houndstooth caps exited the parlor; the solemn chorus of “I’ll Fly Away” trailing behind them. When one saw Maude and PJ, he removed his hat and nodded in acknowledgment before lowering his eyes to the ground.
“There’s too many of them in here,” Maude declared, blowing her nose with the monogrammed handkerchief she retrieved from the cave between her breasts. “Every time one of them come in smelling like molasses I think is him. I watch the door expecting him to walk through.”
“No use dwelling on it, Mama.”
“Is not easy, boy.”
“He’s not coming back,” PJ said, more to himself than to her.
“I know that,” Maude snapped, suddenly gaining color. “Why everyone keep telling me that?”
Maude began fanning herself furiously. PJ threw his arms in the air then abandoned her for his office. She followed behind him and for the first time noticed the changes he made to the study; the several boxes brimming with her beloved’s belongings.
“You must be mad!” she yelled as she took a seat opposite her son’s new desk.
PJ leaned back in his leather chair, sipped on his very own glass of Pride Estate Rum and flipped through the estate’s financial statements. But it was hard for him to ignore her.
“Go on, Mama,” he urged calmly. “Pull out your hair, rip your frock, call on God.”
“Is this why I hardly see you all week, why you never find time to peek your head into the wake?”
“You think ‘cause Daddy’s dead the work’s done?” he snapped.
“You never even wait ‘til him in the ground.”
“Look around you,” he said, cutting the air with a sharp gesture of his hand. “Is not just land you live on, is a business. With Daddy gone, Pride may never be the same again. There’s no way we’ll recover if we don’t act now. Things can’t be done the old way, Mama. There’ll have to be some changes ‘round here.”
“And what exactly are we changing for?”
The look in her eyes reminded PJ of his father. He too was bound by custom; shackled to it. PJ sat calmly as his mother adjusted her glasses. He wanted to inform her of his aspirations but knew it was futile. Maude McGann was not in the business of hopes and dreams.
“Is complex,” he said after awhile. “No worry yourself.”
“What’re you really up to?”
“Why must everything I do have a hidden agenda?”
“I know you better than you know yourself,” she countered.
PJ’s sigh was like a bicycle tire being released of all its air. “I’m sure you’d find out anyway,” he said, shuffling his papers. “I’ve scheduled a meeting with Trevor Hills.”
“The director of St. Elizabeth Tours,” he corrected. PJ paused, waiting for her reaction. There was none. “Is a tourism company,” he explained.
“But we deal with rum and sugar,” she said as if informing him for the first time. “What business we have with that?”
“Is just another way for us to increase revenue.”
Maude rolled her eyes. “You mean another way to fill your pockets.”
“Like I told Daddy, we’re living in a new age. The export of rum is on the decline. Imagine what that will mean in ten years. I want to capitalize on this new wave of tourism; make the estate an attraction.”
Maude stared at her eldest son. At thirty-two, with his honey-brown skin and fair eyes, he was the spitting image of her late husband. But the comparison ended there. Where Percival Sr. was calculated, PJ was impetuous, driven by his lust for success and wealth. Where Percival Sr. was shrewd, PJ relied on limited knowledge; was a grade A dunce. When Percival Sr. came upon a stumbling block, he could always rely on his years of experience. When the same happened to PJ, he had nothing to fall back on; just fell on his ass.
For Maude, PJ’s “attraction” would be just another of his botched schemes, like the time he tried to turn the parlor into an art gallery. On full display were ancestral portraits dating back to the era of Quinn and landscapes detailing the beauty and brawn of Pride. On one occasion, PJ set up a private viewing for collectors only to have it thwarted when Maude revealed at the top of her lungs, and to his dismay, that none of the artwork, which belonged solely to the estate, would be for sale.
“Why you want every stranger walking through here…with cameras?” she inquired. “What do you think this is…a zoo?”
PJ remained silent. Maude leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms against her chest.
“So this is your big idea.”
PJ came to a boil. “Why can’t you trust me? I never ask you for anything; not a thing. I’m finally at a point where I can make my own decisions. I just want your support.”
“I don’t think this is something your father would have approved of,” she said, shaking her head.
“What did that man ever approve of when it came to me?”
“Oh, bite your tongue,” Maude snapped. “Your father never disapproved of you.” She removed her cat-eye frames, placing the glasses down on the desk before squeezing the bone between her eyes.
“Do you know what his favorite saying was?”
Maude abruptly rose from her seat. “You always remember the bad,” she said as she went to leave the room. “There was some good too.”
PJ, always swift, sprung in front of her and obstructed her path. He held out the palms of his hands as if there was something within them he wanted her to see.
“He would always say ‘If you never did favor me, I wouldn’t think you were mine.’” PJ smiled, but pain resurfaced causing his lips to tremble into a frown. “Might as well have jook out my heart.”
Maude stared at her eldest son vacantly. “But you were always so different…” she revealed.
It was at that very moment, something inside PJ broke. She could not see it and if it were audible it would have made the most awful sound.
“You would defend him.”
Maude tried to recover. “What I mean is you never cared much for the estate. You were always off doing your own thing; never hitch-up in the fields like your brother. But when you came back from university, said you were going to work for the family, you should have heard the way your father talked about you. You were his pride and –”
“Daddy’s only pride was Pride itself,” PJ interjected. “Not even your golden boy, Donny, was a match for this place.”
Maude glanced up at the empty space above the mantle place where the portrait of her husband had been for decades; the wallpaper around it darkened by time. It wasn’t until Archie and Ronald entered the room and waited on her for direction, like dogs wanting to play fetch, that she found the strength to muster up words.
“Don’t look at me,” she said crossly. “Is PJ king and conqueror.”
PJ instructed the twins on where to place the boxes and as they were leaving, Maude spotted the family Bible among the heap.
“You can’t throw this away,” she protested.
PJ scoffed. “Since when you read Bible?”
“Is an heirloom,” Maude informed her son as she opened to the page with their family crest and tree. “Is a record of the births and deaths of your ancestors.”
“Tombstones,” he said, pushing the book away.
“Your father was going to pass it down to you when you started your own family,” she tried to explain.
“If it means so much, you keep it,” PJ said sternly, before taking leave. “Add your husband to the lot.”
“Pride” is a story about the McGann family. It’s 1962 in Jamaica, and a new era has begun. The planter society is struggling to stay afloat while the tourism and mining industries breathe new life into the island. Navigating this dichotomy between tradition and modernity is PJ McGann. After his overbearing father is killed, PJ is determined to gain independence from his family’s archaic traditions by turning their sugar estate into a tourist attraction; just as the island gains its independence from Britain.
Camille Wanliss Ortiz holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. Her work has been published in Harlem World Magazine and Promethean, a literary journal. She is the recipient of the Adria Schwartz Award in Women’s Fiction.