I have decided to hold myself accountable for keeping my creative writing muscles from atrophying by posting some work here. Feel free to comment and provide constructive critiques! – Holly Edgell
MY MOTHER’S ISLAND
Even alive, Mother left little trace of herself. She sort of wafted through the day in a protective bubble, one that allowed her to smile at me and express polite interest in my activities, but mostly float out of my reach.
In my teens, frustrated and – frankly – obsessed with grasping something about my only parent, I resorted to detective work. I rifled through the drawers of her desk, a dainty thing at which she wrote letters to about half a dozen pen pals around the worlds, tallied up household expenses, and did the crossword puzzle each Sunday. I searched through her dresser drawers and closets.
Mother’s intimates were inscrutable: white or beige, unadorned, and folded neatly. It was coming across those cool, neat bras, slips and panties – the closest things to her skin – that convinced me Mother was unknowable. This was just before I headed off to college.
My grandmother was always vibrantly present and more or less my best friend. It was Noni who tucked me into bed at night and saw to all the tender deeds and chores that come with caring for a child. She championed my every interest and activity: stamp collecting, the Boy Scouts, drama club, college.
“There’s my handsome genius!” Noni’s wide smile and outstretched arms greeted me after school almost every day, as if we’d been apart for weeks.
Even my grandmother’s second husband showed more enthusiasm for me than my own parent. With earnest kindness, Mr. Davy taught me to ride a bicycle and gave me the “talk” when the time came. When I decided to write a book that imagined a man’s search for his father, he edited the manuscript and persuaded a friend in the publishing business to read it. That book launched me: A bestseller for a first-time author. More bestsellers to come.
“You know, young man,” Mr. Davy said at the launch party Noni threw for me. “I couldn’t be prouder of you.”
Mother’s reaction to the book: I remember her sliding a hand down the cover of the autographed copy I gave her. After turning it over and glancing at the photograph of me on the back, she gave a half smile, walked over to a bookshelf and slid it in between “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and “The Sun Also Rises.”
And yet, after losing first her and then Noni within the space of seventeen months, it was Mother I found myself thinking of the most. Then, after my second divorce two years later, I fell into a mild depression. It was not one of those incapacitating depressions, the kind that prevents a person from getting out of bed in the morning. It was more like a film of lethargy and disinterest over everything. I couldn’t get any work done and – since I didn’t need the money – felt no sense of urgency to shake off the funk.
A small discovery
With Mother increasingly on my mind, I decided to go through her belongings. She had owned very little. We, Mother and I, had lived in a cottage on Mr. Davy’s property about one hundred yards behind the main house. Everything in it save our clothes and my boyish possessions – the furniture, plates, rugs, lamps, the books – belonged to him, and later Noni, and later me.
After the funeral, my grandmother (showing no sign she too would soon be gone) packed up Mother’s clothes and a few other items. They fit into five plastic storage containers, the flat kind that you can slide beneath a bed. I remember feeling giddily triumphant when I came across an envelope containing a few yellowed photos of Mother as a little girl. Why had she never shown them to me? (I spent the better part of a day brooding about that).
I realized they must have taken in the country where she was born, an island in the Caribbean. The shots were all outdoors, and she – a ten or eleven-year-old girl? — always seemed to be squinting into the sun or half-concealed by shade, head cocked to one side and hands behind her back.
With the desperate glee of someone who sees a lifeline dangling within reach, I hit on the idea of going to Mother’s island. Her father had worked there as a civil servant for the colonizer. When he died, Mother and Noni came to the United States. There was no family left there that I knew of; still, I had some notion I would connect with Mother, find clues to her inner life, or learn of a childhood event that marked her forever. I had nothing better to do, and the idea of travel was the first thing that had gotten my blood pumping in a while.
The country is one of those ridiculously pretty islands with an aquamarine bay full of bobbing boats. There are white sandy beaches fringed with palm trees upon which brown skinned children frolic, and pink skinned adults repose – either exposed to the sun or protected from it by enormous umbrellas. I took a room at a blindingly white “ye olde” hotel on Front Street and passed the first couple of weeks there drunk and sunburned. I rarely left the waterfront and mostly disported myself among the tourists. A few of them recognized me, and I found myself a little too pleased by this. Two elderly ladies asked me to autograph my latest hardcover. An attractive woman of flirted with me at the hotel bar two nights in a row, but I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for her.
Inevitably, I began to be depressed by the hotel and the waterfront. It was all too sunny, too pretty, and too soft. I wasn’t ready to leave the island, so I began making inquiries about finding a place to stay among the locals.
My new place
The hotel bartender, whom everyone called Brick, told me there were widows in the better residential neighborhoods who rented rooms. These women, Brick explained, were unwilling to part with their large homes, so they took in boarders to pay for upkeep. It was becoming quite a trend for foreign businessmen to take what was called a “widow’s room.” Brick had a cousin who knew someone.
Settling into my new digs gave me a pleased and placid sort of feeling. I had not done anything in the way of exploring my mother’s roots. Still, I felt comfortable in my “widow’s room,” and began to actually do some writing based on notes I had brought along. The quest for clues about Mother seemed beside the point.
My widow was Mrs. Chambers, a slight woman of pale brown complexion and gray eyes with thick white hair cut in a pageboy. She spent most of her time sitting on her cool, deep verandah. She was heavily into reading magazines, crocheting doilies, and gazing toward the sea. She liked a good chat, and often had visitors: ladies of middle or advanced age from the neighborhood. She couldn’t get around very easily due to a variety of ailments, so people came to her, sometimes sitting with her on the verandah, sometimes calling up greetings and gossip from the gate below.
My landlady’s son Reg was deaf and mute. He could, however, read lips extremely well and used a pencil and notebook to write notes when he wanted to communicate. He was a very handsome man: tall and brawny, with his mother’s gray eyes and brown curly hair. I guessed he was in his mid-thirties. I suppose some people might describe a man like Reg as “of indeterminate race.” To me he looked like an Italian or Greek Tom Selleck, complete with mustache and roguish charm. Soon enough, Mrs. Chambers told me the story of her romance with Reg’s father, a much older Englishman who had married her only a few months before he died.
“We were together, like man and wife, for a long time, you understand,” she explained my first evening on the verandah. “I told him we should marry for the sake of Reg.” Mrs. Chambers told me this story a few times, never elaborating much on this basic story line. Always I had the impression that getting her husband to marry her had been the signal achievement of her life. Reg, if he were with us, would roll his eyes and press his lips together when saw that his mother was launching into the story.
Reg devoted most of his time running the household. There was a nurse who came in the morning to help her bathe and change Mrs. Chambers and administer medication. There was a fortyish woman my landlady referred to as “my hair and nails girl” of who visited once a week to wash and style the widow’s hair and manicure her fingernails. A quiet, thirtyish woman named Mari cooked and cleaned. Mrs. Chambers described her – somewhat dismissively — as “Spanish,” since she came from South America.
Next door to the Chambers home lived Mrs. Ferrer and her grown daughter Gloria, who seemed to be about Reg’s age. Unlike my own landlady, Mrs. Ferrer was pink, stout and spry. She was forever tottering around her garden, directing workmen or handymen, or gossiping over her gate with some neighbor or another. I often saw her strolling with her daughter in the evenings. When mother and daughter passed by the verandah of an evening Gloria would call up:
“Goodnight, Miss Maddy,” and the pair would keep moving.
My landlady would call out:
“All right then, Gloria,” and lift her hand in a half-hearted way. Mrs. Ferrer neither called out nor looked up.
Gloria had a small upper body and an enormous rump and thighs. She was a redhead and as pink as her mother. I never saw her outside without a wide straw hat and sunblock smeared over her exposed arms and calves.
The Ferrers had a swimming pool, not large, but excrutiatingly inviting. Early on I thought of asking either Gloria or Mrs. Ferrer if I could take a dip occasionally, but I felt awkward about doing so sensing Mrs. Chambers might not like it.
The Ferrers also had a boarder, a small man of East Indian descent named Sam. I learned from Mrs. Chambers that Sam was an accountant with a wife and children on one of the other islands. I never spoke to Sam, but he would always nod or raise his hand as he zipped along on his motor scooter if he saw me in the Chamberlain yard or on the verandah.
My new island routine began with a morning walk along the sea wall, followed by coffee and toast in the Chambers kitchen. After that I would sit at my laptop for about two hours and later walk down to the harbor front for lunch at one of the hotels or cafes, always avoiding the hotel where I’d originally. In the afternoons I napped luxuriously: two or three hours at a time. There was usually a cool breeze coming off the sea, and the coconut tree fronds rustled sweetly outside my windows. Evenings I took tea with the Chamberlains on the verandah. Some nights we watched American television shows, or listened to local radio serials. It was all profoundly good. I hardly thought about my original reason for coming to the island.
One night after I’d been in the Chambers home for about three weeks, I woke up perspiring; the air was still and the moon was shining on my face. A very subtle sound that I recognized as a splash drew me to the window overlooking the Ferrer pool.
There, in the moonlight I saw an incredible thing: Sam, the Ferrer boarder, was seated at the side of the pool, with his calves in the water. His head was thrown back, his mouth slackly open. In the pool, with her face buried in Sam’s groin, was Gloria. I immediately got an erection, which surprised me; there had not been much going on in that area for months. I watched Sam and Gloria until it was over. Sam climaxed with a stifled gasp. Gloria vanished into the pool for a second or two and resurfaced. I saw then that she was not wearing a bathing suit. Presently Sam got up, deftly wrapped a towel around his waist and went into the house. Gloria commenced to swim laps. The moonlight shone on her massive buttocks. I found myself wanting to see her naked body, so I waited. After about ten minutes, she pulled herself out of the water on the shadowed side of the pool. I couldn’t see much more than her basic outline. Then she was wrapping a towel around her. She disappeared into the house.
It was hard to sleep after that. Sex. Images of Gloria and Sam. Then images of Gloria and me instead of Sam followed by images of me and the pretty woman who’d flirted with me a few weeks earlier. There was still no breeze. Every movement I made in an attempt to make myself more comfortable made me sweat as if I were doing calisthenics. Finally I positioned myself with my feet at the headboard, and my head under the slowing moving ceiling fan and willed myself to stay still. Sometime later I heard drops of rain hitting the palm fronds outside the window and I felt my eyelids grow heavy. Then, sleep.
In the morning I woke cranky. It was pouring rain and cool when I shuffled down to the kitchen. I found Mari there, laying out my breakfast things.
“I am sorry your breakfast is late,” she struck me a newly alive, vibrant. “The nurse did not come today so I was helping Mrs. Chambers with her bath.”
I was astounded and hoped it didn’t show. I’d assumed Mari didn’t speak much English.
“No problem.” My voice was a croak.
“These island people think of rain as some kind of plague,” said Mari still smiling. “Everything but the essential stops when a rain like this comes. They call it a tropical wave.”
I nodded, still slightly unnerved.
Mari began assembling teacups, toast and marmalade on a tray. I gulped down coffee as if my life depended on it.
“You are surprised I speak English,” she said. Her accent was pretty. I made protesting sounds, but she brushed the air with her hand.
“I was an English teacher in my country.”
“Do you know I make more money doing this than I did at home in my profession?”
“Crazy,” I said.
Reg came into the kitchen then. He and Mari exchanged small, solemn bows of the head as she handed him the tea tray. He winked at me and left the kitchen.
“Well, I will leave you to your breakfast,” Mari said. I raised my coffee cup to her as she left the kitchen carrying a broom.
Later I found Reg and Mrs. Chambers on the verandah staring out at the sea through a sheet of rain. Mrs. Chambers’ crochet things lay in her lap. Reg, feet propped up on a stool, was flipping through an old National Geographic without looking down at the pages. When he saw me standing beside him he picked up his notepad and scrawled a quick note.
“Tropical wave,” I read aloud. “Yes, Mari told me.”
There was a stack of magazines at Reg’s feet, so I pulled up a chair and began to read ten-year-old copies of Time and Good Housekeeping. We about an on the verandah, with Mrs. Chambers sighing intermittently and the rain coming down unremittingly. Finally, I went back to my room where I spent no small amount of time trying to figure out why I was still feeling out of sorts. I ruled out the rain, since I am partial to downpours, providing I have nowhere to be. I flashed back to the night before and the scene between Sam and Gloria; the image no longer struck me as erotic but rather mildly disgusting. I stared down on the pool next door, now slopping over its edges. It occurred to me then that I had been thinking of the island as a place of innocence, a blameless place. This line of thought delivered me to that old saw that things are not always as they seem. From there it was only a few moments before I started thinking about the nature of secrets, which of course led me to thinking about Mother. An idea struck me then and propelled me down the stairs and back onto the verandah, where my landlady was still sitting, now with a throw across her lap and an ancient Ebony magazine in her hands.
“Sorry to interrupt you, Mrs. C.” I knew she liked it when I called her that.
“Not at all, young man.” She knew I liked it when she called me that, and we both knew she preferred a chat to reading. I sat down in the spot where Reg had been.
“Do you know of a family named Greene by any chance?
“Greene? With an ‘e’ on the end?”
“Of course… Old island family. Why you asking?”
“My grandmother was a Greene. She grew up here. My mother was born here.”
“Is that right?” Mrs. Chambers gave a sideways look that was rather appraising. “You never told me.”
“I never thought to.”
Again, came the sideways look, this time with raised eyebrows.
“So you’re a Greene, with an ‘e’ on the end.”
I asked her why the spelling of the name so interested her.
“Because there are white Greenes – with the ‘e’ – and black Greens. Or “colored” as some might say. They don’t have the ‘e’ on the end.”
Mrs. Chambers set aside her magazine and called out for Mari who appeared in what seemed like no time at all.
“Bring us some tea, child.”
Mari favored the two of us with the vast smile I had only discovered she had that morning.
“That girl love a good rain,” said Mrs. Chambers. “She never happier than when she going along the road with her big umbrella. What a thing, eh?”
I agreed that it was quite a thing.
“So what can you tell me about the Greenes with an ‘e’?
“With or without…. All of you all are related.”
I pulled me chair closer and moved it around so that my landlady and I were face to face.
Reg delivered the tea tray, and raised his eyebrows at me over his mother’s head. I took this to mean something like: Good luck, friend. You’ll be stuck with her for a few hours. He left the verandah. I told Mrs. Chambers my grandmother had been named Nancy Greene, and she told me more about my family in the next hour than I’d ever known.
“When I was a girl,” she began, “the Greenes were still big around here. Owned lots of land, you understand, and some kind of importing business. Mr. Bob Greene was a known figure. I believe he gave one of my uncles a job once….”
Mrs. Chambers supposed that Bob Greene would have been my great-grandfather. I said I didn’t know. I did have an idea that my grandmother had been an only child.
“That sounds right…. And, I remember there was a bit of a scandal.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Yes, my dear.” Mrs. Chambers was now warming to the storyline. “Don’t hold me to the details… You will have to check. But I do believe Miss Nancy Greene wanted to marry Dr. Dickenson. Colored, as some might say. Used to tend to the poor people them. And those upper class people who might have… a condition they didn’t want their own doctor to know about.”
She took a sip of tea and I felt ready to crawl out of my skin.
My mind had already leapt forward to wondering if Dr. Dickenson was my grandfather.
“Anyway, somehow or another Miss Nancy found out Dr. D. had a wife in England. He had studied there and married a Jamaican. Something like that.”
Then Mrs. Chambers asked me what my grandfather’s name was.
“Spencer. Henry Spencer.”
“Yes. Very sad. The suicide.”
She must have seen the confusion on my face.
“Oh. You didn’t know?”
I shook my head. Mrs. Chambers said she could remember reading about it in the newspaper. Now she leaned toward me and placed a hand on my knee.
“Miss Nancy and her daughter were together when they found the body. Hanging.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course!” She withdrew her hand and leaned back, indignant. You don’t forget something like that. An Englishman working for the government, married to a Greene? You don’t forget something like that.”
I told her my understanding was that my grandfather had died of some species of tropical disease. She sipped her tea and then told me if I didn’t believe her I could go down to the library and look up the old newspapers.
“And you should go over to Salus Court.”
“Not too far from here. Reg can direct you. When the rain stops.”
“What’s at Salus Court?”
“That’s where they all used to live. Some of your black family still living there.”
The idea amused her and she cackled.
“So how exactly am I related to the…. other Green family?”
“Same old story, I suppose.”
I suddenly felt rather brain-tired, the way I feel when I’ve been writing for too many hours. Reg reappeared then with the cordless telephone, which he handed to his mother. I went to my room and slept for twelve hours straight.
The next morning Reg sketched a map to Salus Court for me and I walked there. It was as if the previous eighteen or so hours of rain had never happened. There was very little standing water and the sun blazed down from a cloudless sky. The humidity was intense and I was sweating and panting when I fetched up at my destination, a small dead-end lane off of Bellinger Road. There were four houses on either side, long low-slung shotgun structures that were common around the island. They were painted in pastel colors and all had dark green trim, from jalousie windows to door frames. At the end of the street sat a large white two-story house, much like the Chamberlain home with a deep verandah and plenty of pretty Victorian architectural detail. The street and sidewalks were brick, like some of the touristy areas near the harbor.
It was very quiet as I stood there looking at what I realized was a connection to my past. On the verandah of the big house an enormous woman dressed in white was helping a small elderly lady into a rocking chair. No sooner had the two women sat down, than I found myself surrounded by a swarm of children in school uniforms. They surged around me, an army dressed in bright white shirts and navy trousers and skirts, squealing laughing and staring. There must have been more than a dozen: little kids to teenagers with every shade of skin imaginable except white. Two of the older boys nodded. One of them said:
The children surged past me and into Salus Court as a body, then split apart on the bricks, a few of them heading for each of the small pastel houses where adults stood waiting on front verandahs. Then, without consciously deciding to do so, I began walking toward the house.
“Good afternoon,” I said, pausing at the foot of the steps.
“Who come to me, Nurse?”
“A man, Miss Doreen.”
“Of course, it’s a man.” Miss Doreen was like a small brown bird, and snappish. “Who?”
Nurse, shining and very black, exhaled loudly.
I introduced myself.
“Come up and sit, young man.” Miss Doreen beckoned in my general direction. “No point standing in the sun hot when there’s shade right here.”
Nurse continued silent.
“How can I help you? You lost?”
“No, ma’am. I’m here because my grandmother was a Greene. I think she lived here.”
“A Greene you say?” Miss Doreen turned to her companion. “Is a white man?”
“Very white,” she replied, examining her fingernails.
“Then you must be Miss Nancy’s grandson. No?”
I said I was.
“Well, my Jesus God.” Miss Doreen’s voice was a low croak. “Nurse, bring two glass of lime juice. With plenty ice.” Nurse heaved herself out of her snugly fitting rocking chair and went inside, allowing the screen door to slam behind her.
“My Jesus God. You sitting down, young man?”
I said I was.
“I remember your granny very well. A good girl, a lovely woman. Such a shame. She was children with my children.”
“Is that so?”
The old woman nodded.
“Lived in this same house. We colored families lived out there.” She gestured to toward the street with her chin. “How she keeping? And your mama?”
I said my mother and grandmother were both dead.
Miss Doreen paused, but did not offer condolences.
“You know, I don’t believe your mother ever came back here after her father passed. Mr. Spencer.”
I said I thought that was probably the case.
“Your granny came, though. I remember. She came for her mother’s funeral. Miss Gracie. One or two days after that old Mr. Bob died. Your great-grandfather.”
Nurse returned, bearing three glasses of juice on a tray. She wrapped Miss Doreen’s hand around one of the glasses with exaggerated care, handed me the second, and took the third for herself. Now that I was in her chair, she lowered herself onto the top step, her upper body in the shade and her legs exposed to the sun.
“Miss Nancy didn’t come back for Mr. Bob’s funeral.”
The old lady sipped, then pressed her lips together and closed her eyes. I looked away and watched a little boy still in his school uniform dash across the bricks from one house to the one opposite, where an even smaller girl handed him an exercise book. He was in no hurry to return home, standing and fanning himself with it. This made the girl giggle.
“Haul your backside, Cedric!” A woman was waiting for the boy in the doorway. He turned and headed back, proceeding brick by brick.
“Boy, don’t make me come out in this heat.”
The boy skipped along and disappeared into the house.
When I turned back to Miss Doreen I saw her head was nodding. Nurse rattled the ice cubes in her glass.
“I think she’s asleep,” I said.
“Probably so,” she sighed deeply. “She does come out here every afternoon self. Even in this bloody heat.”
I looked into my glass for something to do.
“She likes to hear the children them. Coming in from school.”
“That’s very sweet,” I said.
“Sweet?” Nurse made a dismissive sucking sound. “They don’t pay her no mind. Waste of time.”
I tried to think of something to say. What is an uninvited guest to do when his host suddenly nods off? Then Miss Doreen made a sort of gurgling noise and her head snapped up.
“Eustace. My son. He would remember your mother and your granny. Come back Sunday.”
Miss Doreen called to Nurse.
“Come, child. Help me up. This heat getting to me.”
The visit was over. I would have to wait two days to learn anymore about Mother.
That evening it rained again, but not like before. The drops came intermittently, landing gently on the roof and vegetation, tapping instead of pounding. I sat at my laptop after tea and typed up everything I’d learned about the Greene family so far. I described Salus Court: the houses, Nurse, Miss Doreen, the children, even the lime juice. Then I got into bed and fell asleep to the soft music of the rain.
A sound roused me a few hours later. At first I thought it was low thunder, but listening more closely I realized it was a series of grunts. Looking down from my window I saw Reg and Gloria having sex . Gloria was leaning against her side of the low cement wall that divided the two yards, so that I was more or less looking at the top of her head. Reg was behind her thrusting and groaning, his hand gripping her breasts through her wet shirt, his face buried in her neck. I watched until they were done. Reg pulled up his shorts and Gloria smoothed down her skirt. They nodded to each other and then Reg swung his legs over the wall and disappeared into the house below me. Gloria stood there leaning against the wall, her back to the Chamberlain house. I moved away from the window. There had been no erection for me. The scene struck me vaguely sad. Listening to the rain I found myself thinking back over my own romantic history, dwelling with especial melancholy on my two ex-wives, both happily remarried.
When I finally fell asleep I dreamed about Noni and Mr. Davy. They were dancing close together in the living room of the House (it was always capitalized in my mind), and I was watching them from the Cottage (also capitalized, the outbuilding where my mother and I lived), even though in real life there was no view of that room from our place. They were smiling at each other: Noni, radiantly happy and Mr. Davy indulgent. I called for Mother to come watch the dancing couple, thinking that watching them would teach her how to be happy.
On Sunday I waited until early afternoon to go back to Salus Court, not wanting to disrupt any morning ritual the denizens might have or find the place deserted while everyone was at church. As I turned into the little street I could see a man I took to be Eustace on the verandah of the house. Various children were playing on the sidewalks and in the street itself. Many stopped what they were doing to stare at me as I made my way toward my destination. The whole thing had the feeling of a red carpet.
Eustace stood as I approached. He was at least six feet tall, with honey brown skin and a shiny bald head. Dressed in crisp white, he might have been any age between fifty and seventy. If he’d known my grandmother he would have to be closer seventy at the very least, I figured.
“I’ve been waiting for you.” He was squinting at me and seemed to be saying I was late for a specific appointment. We shook hands and I saw he was holding a bulging manila folder secured with rubber bands.
“I didn’t know exactly what time to come,” I said. “Didn’t want to come too early on a Sunday. Sorry.”
This seemed to mollify him. He gestured to a chair and we both sat.
“I have all the proofs here,” he said slapping the folder.
“Proofs?” I wondered if he were talking about photographs.
“Documents, deeds, title to the property. We got it all fair and square, as you might say.” Eustace spoke with authority, reminding me of a school principal spelling out the rules to an unruly kid.
“I am sure you did.” We sat there for a moment or two, missing each other by a mile.
Then it dawned on me.
“Do you think I’m here to…. Get something from you?”
“You’re not?” His sideways look reminded me of Mrs. Chambers.
I shook my head.
“Mama said you were Miss Nancy’s grandson and wanted to speak with me.”
I told Eustace that it had been his mother who suggested he might be able to tell me about my family.
“I don’t want anything except information.”
Eustace raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. Then he seemed to relax.
“Your granny was much loved here in Salus Court. Your mama, too.”
This was the stuff.
“Miss Nancy was older than me…. About ten years or so. She and her parents lived here in this house.” He gestured behind him with a thumb and gazed out at the children running to and fro. I thought he might be casting his mind back until he barked:
A pretty girl of twelve or thirteen years old peeled away from a clutch of other adolescents and trotted up the verandah steps.
Eustace handed Leila the folder.
“Put his in the top drawer of my desk, child. Mind nothing fall out.”
“Yes, sir,” Leila blinked in my direction.
“And bring us two glass of lime juice, with plenty ice.”
Leila walked carefully around us, holding the folder before her like some sacred tome. She went through the door and did not allow it to slam behind her.
“Are all of these kids your grandchildren?”
“No, sir. Some are great-grandchildren. Some are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my brothers.”
He looked at the kids again and barked.
“Frankie, how many times I tell you not to stone the ball so?”
A scrawny little fellow stopped in his tracks and turned toward us with a basketball in his hands.
“Next time I keep that ball, young man.”
“Yes, sir!” The boy sounded like a soldier responding to a drill sergeant.
Leila was back with the same small tray Nurse had used and two tall glasses filled to their brims. She handed the tray over to Eustace and flew down the stairs to rejoin her little gang. Eustace and I sipped. I was bursting to ask questions, but I didn’t want to blow anything by seeming too pushy.
“Anyway,” Eustace said after draining about half of his glass, “Your grandmother was older than me, but she always had a kind word for the children in the yard here. We black Greens lived in the bungalows, you understand.”
“She always seemed to like us more her own kind, you know.”
I said nothing.
“She was to marry a colored doctor, a Dr. Dickenson.”
I murmured that I’d heard this.
“Turns out he had a wife in London. From Barbados or somewhere. No one here knew. People said your great-grandfather dug it out, investigated, you know. So that Miss Nancy wouldn’t marry a black man.”
I sipped my lime juice in order to have something to do with my face.
“Your people never mixed, you understand.”
I asked Eustace what he could tell me about our family tree.
“Well, the old people used say there was two brothers name Greene. Greene with an ‘e.’ They came from England after slavery days. They bought up land that the slave owners were getting rid of.”
“Like Salus Court?”
Eustace nodded. There was also property at the harbor front and in the hills, he explained.
“One brother, Walter Greene, he brought his wife. They would be your ancestors. The other brother Cedric Greene was a bachelor. He took up with various colored ladies. They would be my ancestors.”
“Ah,” I said. “So you and I are related.”
“Distant,” Eustace didn’t seem to like the notion. “Very distant. Somewhere along the line we dropped the extra ‘e.’”
I sipped again.
“These bungalows are the latest version of the houses Old Cedric built for his women and his children. Built these in 1940 or so after a fire took the originals. Just renovated last year.”
Eustace and I sat in silence for a moment or two. With two clumps of children screeching at each other I expected him to bark at the offenders, but instead he continued his talk.
“Miss Nancy left Salus Court when she married your grandfather. He was from England, worked for the governor.”
“In fact, my father and I, we helped move her effects and clothes and so on… Daddy drove the mule and cart to her new house. Gone now.” Eustace took a long pull at his lime juice. “She rode with us, I remember that. Mr. Bob didn’t like it. I remember that, too.”
“She used to come here every Saturday, never missed. Her mother was sickly, you know.”
I said I didn’t know.
“Yes. From England. You would scarcely see her outside. The heat, you understand.”
I agreed that the island was very hot.
Eustace wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
“Miss Nancy and Penny. Every Saturday self. Never missed.”
I felt a small jolt in my middle of my chest when Eustace said my mother’s name. Noni had always called her Penny.
“Penny was the star when she came around, my friend.”
Eustace looked me in the eye and smiled.
“We used to have races. Boys teams and girls teams. Then the fastest boy and fastest girl would race. Penny was the fastest girl. Sometimes she would win.”
I tried to picture the grim girl from the old photographs running up and down Salus Court, but could not.
“She was quiet you know. Shy. If you saw her at her own house or on the street. But here in Salus Court?”
Eustace leaned back in his chair and laughed.
“I can still see her, man. She used to wear a what-you-call-it bandeau in her hair. And she would have on boy’s short pants under her frock. Soon as she finished paying her respects in the house, she was outside and kicking off her shoes.”
He shook his head.
“Old Mr. Bob didn’t like it. Neither did Mr. Spencer.”
Unbidden, Leila trotted up the stairs then and removed our empty glasses and tray. I marveled at this. My own impression of children (based on the offspring of my friends) was of rudeness and mayhem.
“The children are very…. Mindful.”
Eustace raised his eyebrows at me again.
“We don’t tolerate any nonsense ‘round Salus Court.”
I murmured my approval.
“Miss Nancy had a mind of her own. After Dr. Dickenson brought his wife here, she invited them for tea at her house.”
Eustace smiled at the memory.
“My father and I went to pick them up, in Mr. Spencer’s Daimler. Your grandfather didn’t like it, but what could he do? We carried them back home afterwards, too. Neither of them spoke a word going or coming.”
“Do you think my grandfather knew about my grandmother and the doctor?”
“He knew, yes! Everybody knew.”
“Boy.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“And then,” Eustace paused dramatically. “And then.”
“She began to assist Dr. Dickenson in his office. And go ‘round with him on house calls, and so on.”
A dark theory about why my grandfather killed himself was beginning to establish itself in my brain. I pushed it aside.
“So I suppose I am the last of the Greene family… with an ‘e.’”
Eustace pursed his lips and looked at me sidelong again.
“Not exactly? My grandmother was an only child.”
I am sure I was goggling, but Eustace kept his counsel for a moment.
“I don’t like to spread gossip,” he said licking his lips.
I told him I didn’t consider family history to be gossip.
“Well, then. If you are sure.”
I told the man I was sure. He stood and told me he would be right back. I paced the verandah, noticing that the sun was still blazing and that my shirt was stuck to my back. How long had Eustace and I been talking? Only the littlest kids were still playing in Salus Court now. In fact, they were racing up and down the short street, boys and girls all together. I imagined Leila and the other older kids reluctantly bending over unfinished homework inside the little bungalows.
Maybe it was the heat and the stories colliding in my head, but I had a sudden and strong feeling of empathy for Mother, or rather for the younger version of my mother that Eustace had described. It carried the sensation of an almost pleasant shock. I could see Penny Spencer running toward the verandah, her bobbed hair flying straight back, a look of triumph and delicious freedom written all over her face.
Eustace was back, the screen door slamming behind him.
“Sorry, friend.” He settled back into his chair. “Was checking on something.”
I returned to my chair, willing Eustace to pick up where he’d left off.
“Anyway,” he cleared his throat. “Mr. Bob had what we call an outside son.”
There was the sidelong look again, complete with pursed lips.
“The mother was a Venezuelan… She had a boarding house on Front Street.”
“How do you know this guy was Mr. Bob’s son?”
“Well, he never claimed him in terms of name, you understand. But everyone used to called him Verde. That’s green in Spanish.”
I nodded waiting for more evidence.
“To this day I don’t know what his real name was. We all called him Verde. Even the children them. I remember he used to come here to Salus Court every other Sunday for his maintenance.
“Money. Mr. Bob gave him money in an envelope. He was a proud boy, not too much older than me. Never used to look left nor right when he came. March straight up to the front step and call out: ‘I come Mr. Bob. I come.’”
Eustace looked grave and examined the palms of his hands for a moment.
“Poor fellow. Must have hated coming like that. And Mr. Bob would make him wait sometimes. He would sit on the bottom step there and wait.
Eustace examined his hands again.
“When he finished school, Verde went to work for Mr. Bob. He was like a handyman you might say, fixing up the family’s rental properties around the island. Later on he collected the rents. Half of the wives in those houses were his girlfriends… He was a handsome fellow. Looked liked Cary Grant or one of those.”
“Were he and my grandmother ever close?”
“I don’t think so, you know. Don’t really remember.”
“So what happened to Verde?”
“Hah!” Eustace slapped both hands on his thighs.
“What a thing, my friend.” He clapped once and chortled before continuing.
“As I say, Verde used to collect the rents, every end-of-month. One day he just took the money, jumped on a boat at the harbor and gone!”
“To Venezuela. So they say. His mother had left a few years before.”
Eustace clapped his hands once again.
“That was quite a thing. Mr. Bob vex! We all said it served him right. He was a real so and so. Never a smile. Tight with his money. Would curse anyone out –reason or no reason. Man, woman, or child.”
Eustace’s amusement receded at this thought. We both looked out on Greene Court, which was now completely empty of children.
“You don’t want to know how we Greens came to own all this?” I was surprised to hear him ask me a question.
I said I was curious, but didn’t want to pry.
“Pry? You done know practically everything else, man.”
I felt my face redden.
“Here’s how the thing gone. After you grandfather em….. passed away, your granny and mama left for the States, right?”
I nodded. Clearly, Eustace wanted to spare me the tale of my grandfather’s suicide or assumed I already knew.
“Old Miss Gracie took very sick after a few years. Cancer. Mr. Bob spent plenty of money sending her back and forth to England. She refused to go to America. I remember my pa saying she could have been healed twice over if she would have listened to sense and gone to Miami. Meantime all of that was going on Mr. Bob lost his mind. He began to sell land and he began to drink. Stopped going to the office to stay here with Miss Gracie.”
I saw that Eustace had a pained look on his face.
“You know, as bad as Mr. Bob was, he was part of the scene, you understand. A fixture, so to speak. We hated to see him go down so. He sold off some properties, gambled others. Until only Salus Court was left.”
We both looked out at the short brick lane, neat sidewalks, and bright bungalows.
“Your granny came back for her mother’s funeral. She stayed for a few weeks, right here in the house. By this time now, Mr. Bob wasn’t doing too good. He died the day after she left. She didn’t come back for his funeral. I remember it was just us Greens and a few business associates at the church. Dr. Dickenson was there, if you can believe it.”
Eustace shook his head.
“We all wondered what would happen to Salus Court. I was a grown man by then, of course. Married. Had my two sons already. All of us in here, we just went about our business for a few weeks. We figured someone would come and tell us to move.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, two lawyers came one Friday morning. They asked for my father. He was the oldest of the Greens, you understand. They all went into the house here. The rest of us, we all gathered in the street. I remember my mother comforting some of the other ladies. Everyone thought we would have to go.”
Eustace stopped and folded his arms over his chest. He looked down at his feet and pressed his lips together.
“I will never forget it.” His voice was low. “Daddy called all of us into the house. For some of the family it was the first time inside, you understand. It began to rain. I remember that. We all crowded into the parlor. Daddy stood with the two lawyers. White men, you understand. And one of the men said that Miss Nancy had signed Salus Court over to Eustace Cedric Green, Senior, in trust. That was my father.”
Eustace looked at me, arms still crossed.
“It sounded beautiful, the way the man said my father’s name.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a great story.”
“Yes,” said Eustace. “Yes, it is a great story.”
We sat there on the verandah for a few moments more. I realized he had not asked me anything about myself, nor had he invited me into the house.
“Well, I will have to say good afternoon to you now, sir.” Eustace stood abruptly and extended his hand. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Thank you for talking to me,” I said.
“Take care,” said Eustace and disappeared into the house. I wondered if he’d wanted to make a quick retreat in case I asked to have a look inside his massive manila folder. I walked out of the Salus Court feeling a little like a woman had cut short a date that had been going well.
There were no signs of life from any of the little bungalows as I passed by. I wanted to linger, to savor the image of Mother as the child Penny, kicking off her shoes and plunging into a pack of brown-skinned cousins. Instead I walked down to the harbor and headed for the hotel where I’d stayed upon arrival.
Brick was on duty at the bar and remembered me.
“Is the writer-man, come back again at last!” He grinned as his wiped a glass. The place was empty.
“As you can see, we are very busy this evening, boss,” he laughed. “Don’t tell me. You want a rum and coke, easy on the coke, with two slice of lime.”
I complimented Brick on his memory, took my drink and found a table near one of the open jalousie windows. My face was hot and no doubt red from walking in the sun. The breeze from the harbor felt good and the drink went down easy. Brick appeared with another before I had even formed the intention of ordering.
The story of my family was now laid out neatly in my mind’s eye, more or less sequentially. I had a notion of why Mother was as she had been. At the same time, I was conscious of a coolness toward Noni, an entirely new sensation. My grandmother had ridden off into the sunset, found new husband and lived a comfortable life. Mother had arrived abruptly in a new land bewildered and probably afraid. How long did the image of her father hanging by his neck linger?
There’s no telling how many rum and cokes I drank that night. At some point Brick put me into a taxi, because the next thing I remember was arriving at the Chambers place and handing over a wad of money to a grinning driver. I couldn’t move, so the cabbie decanted me onto the gravel drive. It was dark, but I have no idea was time it was. Reg appeared, peered into my face and shook his head. I thought perhaps he’d been watching for me and felt so moved by this notion I began to cry. He more or less dragged me up to my room.
As I began to pass out, I remember thinking it was time to go home and write another book.
© Copyright Holly Edgell 2018