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Authors: Makeda Silvera

Tags: #Fiction, #General

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BOOK: The Heart Does Not Bend
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“Come, Molly, start de dusting, de day almost done.”

It was my job every Saturday to dust the furniture and wipe the living room’s tiled floor, the verandah and the bedroom we shared. Our living room and dining room were combined in one very large room, set off from the kitchen by a wide stone counter where Mama rolled out the dough for her pastries. Two bedrooms and an indoor bathroom were down the hall. The dining room contained a mahogany table with six chairs. A vase with fresh-cut flowers sat in the centre on one of Mama’s crocheted pieces. There was a built-in wall cabinet that stored our good glasses and our china plates, cups and saucers.

The living room, which opened onto the verandah, had a couch and two armchairs, a coffee-table in the centre. On its surface was another crocheted piece with pineapple designs, and little porcelain figurines of grandly dressed men and women nicely arranged. Close to the window sat our record player.

“Gatty, before yuh leave, yuh want a taste of de whites?” I heard Mama asking Miss Gatty. But the question was just a formality. Every Saturday afternoon, after the washing and baking, they turned to women talk on the verandah, their throats eased by a flask of white rum, ice and a bit of water to chase it.

“So, how Mr. Mikey doing?”

“Him doing good. Him get a job wid some big-shot dressmaker-designers.”

“Dat real nice,” Miss Gatty said, pouring herself a shot of rum. “Dat nice.”

Then Mama lowered her voice. “Ah only hope to God him find a nice girl soon. Ah can’t tell nuh lie, ah really worry sometimes.…”

Her voice drifted off. Then I heard her say, “Molly?” I stayed behind the curtains, not wanting to be discovered, and she went on. “Gatty, ah don’t know how him turn so. Ah love him wid all mi heart, but ah wish him was more like Peppie. Even like Freddie, God forgive mi. Yuh know, a little more manly, especially in de voice.”

“So him never interested in girls, Miss Maria?”

“Never. From him born him different. Him tek him whole physical features off Mammy, same small bone, all him have from him father and me is de blackness, nutten else. If mi never give birth to him meself, ah would a think him is a jacket. But mi know mi never unfaithful to Oliver Galloway.”

“Miss Maria, look at it dis way: it might all be a part of God’s plan.”

“Gatty, don’t talk nonsense, what kinda plan? Mi sacrifice too much already to be curse wid dis. A mi son and mi love him, but mi not Mary and him not Jesus. Mi nuh want him fi bear any cross, for de mother always feel it, and mi load too heavy already. From mi born mi bad luck.” With that, my grandmother poured herself another rum.

“Him different from him born,” she repeated. “When Peppie a fly kite and knock marble, Mikey playing dolly house wid Glory. When him turn teenager, him tek to de sewing machine more than Glory.”

“Him will change,” Miss Gatty reassured her. “In time him will see is not a normal way to be.”

“But Gatty, de bwoy near twenty-one, what chance him have to change?”

“Miss Maria, sometimes things have a way of turning. Him young, him have him whole life in front of him and as me Maroon granny use to say, ‘What nuh dead, nuh dash wey.’”

“Dat is true,” Mama said, but she was not convinced.

I’d never thought about Uncle Mikey’s lack of interest in girls. He and Uncle Freddie never got along. They often fought, but I thought that was just what brothers did.

Miss Gatty left shortly after, her hands clutching two cloth bags filled with ackee, avocados and fruits from our yard.

The first letter we received after Uncle Freddie left came not from him, but from Uncle Peppie.

Dear Mama
,

I hope this letter find you in good health. Freddie arrive safe and sound. He got a part-time job as a packer in the same factory as Glory about a month ago. I am still working in the autobody repair shop and that going good, I learning a lot about European cars
.

Thank you for the escoveitch fish. Glory and me eat it off in less than a week. As always the fruitcake was nice-nice, it make me miss home even more. Enclose you will find a money order to
help with things. Give my love to Mammy, Aunt Ruth, Aunt Joyce, Molly and everybody else
.

I remain your faithful son
,

Peppie

Mama folded the letter and the money order and tucked them in her bosom.

“Freddie get a job,” she said proudly. “Ah think foreign will do him good.” Then in a disgruntled tone she added, “But you think him would at least write mi.” She shook her head and lit a cigarette.

“Come, let we go change de money order. God bless Peppie, him is really a good son, him and Mikey.”

That night we went to the movies, our usual routine on a Friday. The Ritz Theatre was just a mile away, an easy walk. Kingston was a safe city back then. Sometimes we went to the Majestic Theatre instead, but tonight it was the Ritz and Sophia Loren, my grandmother’s favourite actress.
The Millionaires
was playing. We took our seats in the front row, ate warm peanuts from the shell and waited for the lights to go down. I fell asleep in her lap before the movie ended, but it didn’t matter what the storyline was, for like Mama, I had fallen in love with Sophia. We made our way out of the theatre, hands folded into each other’s, and stopped off at Olive’s Hideaway for refreshments, rum for my grandmother and a pineapple drink for me. Uncle Mikey was already home when we got in. Mama talked endlessly about Sophia Loren and her beautiful dresses. My uncle indulged her with his wide, beautiful smile, but he didn’t care much for Sophia Loren. Audrey Hepburn was his all-time favourite movie star.

I fell asleep that night in Mama’s lap, listening to their chatter. I could see how different Freddie and Mikey were. Freddie loved Audie Murphy, Alan Ladd and John Wayne and outdoor sports. Mikey stayed indoors and was partial to sewing and planning dinner parties. The one passion they shared was music, but even in that they had different tastes. Freddie loved rocksteady, Duke Reid and Sir Coxsone, Prince Buster and street dances. Mikey loved American R&B, Johnny Mathis, Jackie Edwards, Little Richard and Frank Sinatra ballads.

It was only after Freddie left that Uncle Mikey started having parties at our house on the first Sunday of every month. They were small, with only ten or so guests. I stayed in my Sunday-school clothes and my grandmother was always dressed to kill. The meals were elaborate, served in hulled coconut shells and on banana and papaya leaves.

Paul, the dress designer Mikey worked with, was my favourite guest. He was a tall, thin, handsome man who kept his straightened black hair pulled back in a ponytail tied with a red silk scarf. He wore big colourful capes over his street clothes. Helen, Paul’s sister, who also worked in his dress shop, came too. She was tall and slender like Paul and always dressed in a red or black kimono. She piled her hair high on her head in swirls, two chopsticks holding it in place. Her skin was flawless, almost raven black. She was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.

There was Nat, a guitarist and singer, and Richard, a short, muscular dancer who looked like a black Yul Brynner. George, a chef at a Chinese restaurant, sported two gold crowns in his mouth. Ken was an actor in pantomimes at the Ward Theatre in downtown Kingston. He was a very pretty
man, thin and fragile, like a girl in the movies. There were the twins, Tom and Rex, who dressed in matching clothes, a couple of photographers, a painter and June, the only other woman who was a regular guest.

Mama’s favourite was Nat. He was older than the others and resembled Uncle Peppie, cool coal-black. He played songs she knew, the mento, and the rhumba, the mambo and the bolero.

Mama loved to dance; it was one of the few times her face relaxed. I watched her dancing to a mento beat, the hem of her dress floating above her knees, her dress hugging her Sophia Loren breasts. I wanted to dance like her when I grew up. I wanted her breasts and floating hips.

On these occasions Uncle Mikey was happy and relaxed, too, more so than at any other time. Mama moved easily among his friends. If she had any anxieties, they surfaced when she was sitting alone on the verandah, or when Miss Gatty came on Saturdays to do the washing.

I didn’t meet the dundus girl until weeks after she came to live next door. She was a quiet girl, who never left her yard to play. The other kids were unrelenting in their teasing. “Dundus gal, dundus gal,” they’d singsong in front of her gate or when she walked home from school. Because of that, her father built her a treehouse in their backyard, which was the envy of the street.

We met through the fence one day when I was watering my grandmother’s flower bed.

“Hey, gal, what yuh name?” I asked, spraying the hose on her.

She didn’t flinch, just stood there staring me down. I sprayed her again and then ran off. She made me uneasy with her white-white face and pale, wide-open eyes.

A few days later she came to the fence and called out to me.

“Petal, mi name Petal. Yuh want to come over?”

I shrugged as if I was quite indifferent.

“Yuh don’t want to see de treehouse?”

“Yes, ah guess so,” I answered lazily, and crawled under the barbed-wire fence into her yard. We climbed up to the treehouse using a ladder made of thick rope. I was sitting on the floor thinking about what it would be like to have the treehouse for a bedroom when she asked me, “Yuh want to see something?”

“Mm-hmm,” I answered, only half-interested.

“Yuh promise not to tell?”

“Tell what?” I asked.

“Yuh have to swear on yuh granny grave dat yuh won’t tell.”

I hesitated, but curiosity got the best of me. “Ah swear.”

“Swear on what?” she insisted, staring into my face.

“Ah swear on mi granny grave.”

“Now swear on yuh mother grave. Wey she deh?”

“Canada.”

“Well, swear on her grave.”

I swore. Petal took out a matchbox from the pocket of her yellow calico dress. Slowly she opened it, revealing a live grasshopper feeding on grass. She stared at me again, shutting the box.

“Yuh mek mi swear on mi granny grave for dat?” I asked angrily. I sucked my teeth like my grandmother did and got up to climb down the rope.

“Wait, ah only joking wid yuh.” She grinned. “Yuh ‘ave nice eyes.”

I couldn’t find anything complimentary to say about hers, so I just looked into them. She fiddled with the matchbox, and the grasshopper tried to escape as she opened and closed the lid; all the time she looked straight at me. I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted her to be like Punsie, who filled our yards and our street with screams and laughter.

“Open yuh mouth,” Petal commanded.

“For what?”

“Jus’ open it,” she insisted, the grasshopper dangling between her fingers.

“Yuh is a mad gal!” I shouted.

“Is brain food, it will mek yuh smart, and it taste good.”

I was not convinced. “Who tell yuh dat foolishness?”

“Mi see it on television, is brain food in America.”

“Dat is nasty,” I said, disgusted.

“Yuh like the treehouse?” she asked, and before I could answer, she told me I could climb the fence and use it whenever I wanted.

“Yuh going to eat it now?” she pestered, knowing full well that I liked the treehouse.

“Awright, only after yuh!”

She pulled the right leg off the grasshopper and crunched it to bits between her teeth.

“Mm-mmm,” she said, satisfaction all over her dundus face.

She pulled off its other leg and waited patiently until I gathered enough nerve to open my mouth. Reluctantly, I bit into it. It was surprisingly crunchy and tasted almost like grass. We ate the rest of the grasshopper bit by bit. I never did tell Punsie and the others. I just said that we played games in the treehouse. I begged Petal once to let Punsie into the treehouse, but Punsie and the others had teased her too much in the past. For the next two years, until I turned eleven, Petal and I secretly ate live grasshoppers.

BOOK: The Heart Does Not Bend
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