from NER 38.1 (2017)
When oil drop to 9US$ a barrel, man, you know you getting lay off. The only question is when. Like everybody else in the industry, you wait.
It come like the worst thing that could happen, when they announce people will have to go “in tranches” every month.
At first, every time you don’t get a envelope, you breathe a sigh of relief. After a while, though, you start feeling like a death-row inmate in a cell near the gallows; like these bitches want you to witness everybody else execution. Soon, the fact you still working come like a noose swinging in front your face, grazing your nose. You start to wish they just get it over with.
And when it happen, you rush home to Judith, your common-law wife, mother of your two children, and give her the news. She put her hand on her heart and say, “We could breathe easy now, Junior. We could move on.”
You and Judith cling to one another there in the kitchen. You feel your prick resurrecting like Lazarus. Is months since the last time. You know Judith feeling it too. She pulling away? No, she gripping on tighter.
You’s a trembling school-boy again, mouth watering over hers as you grab deep inside that house-dress like is a bran-tub. You find her panty-crotch and rake it aside. Right there on the counter, next to the toaster, it happen. Two jook and a tremble and everything done. But Judith don’t seem to mind. She patting your back, stroking your hair, till your breathing slow down. Then she whisper she going for the boys.
You swagger to the bedroom. Dive on the bed, hug the pillow, and smile. You not too worried. The severance pay was a good chunk—it’ll hold you for a while. Besides, you tell yourself, it don’t matter how low oil go; Trinidad need man like me. They can’t shut down every rig, every factory. Nah! METs will always find work.
But then April turn to May, May turn to June, and still nobody hiring Mechanical Engineering Technicians. The talk everywhere is recession, recession. Judith still have her receptionist job in the doctor-office and y’all could probably manage a li’l while longer. But what really starting to hurt is your pride. You’s a big, hard-stones man and watch you: every day, waking up with the house empty and a note from Judith on the table. Cook, clean, wash, iron—you do everything she say.
Until one night, when Judith squat over your face and say “suck it,” you shove her off and say, “Suck it your damn self. I’s not your bitch.”
You call your cousin Rufus, in New York. America have the most factories. Rufus name “citizen,” he must know somebody to offer you a li’l something under the table.
Three days later, he call back. Good news. If you organize your visa and ticket and get there by September month-end, they’ll squeeze you in at the S-Town Supermarket near his house, in Queens. “Engineering work?” you say. And the man say no, is the meat room. You hesitate when you tell Rufus, “Yeah,” but, same speed, you hang up and tell Judith, “He mad or what? I have education!”
You plan to wait couple weeks, then say you didn’t get the visa. Meantime, you drop your tail between your leg and call your eighteen-year-old baby sister, Gail.
“You think you could ask that old man something for me?”
“A job, nah?” Gail say, like she was waiting on the call.
“Yeah, girl. Things hard. You know I’s not the kind to ask Mr. H for favors. But them Syrians, they own everything. See what you could do, nah?”
Imagine you asking Gail for help. After you never do one ass for her. After you did move out and leave her with that drunk skunk, your father, Luther Sr.
When she first hook-up with Mr. H, that married asshole, it did make you feel to vomit: your li’l sister spreading her legs for him, for his money. You did tell Judith as much and she say, “Well, talk to Gail? You’s she big brother.”
But you did say, “Nah, is not my place.” And is true. Gail was fuckin’ for betterment. How you coulda ever face her and say “Don’t” when Mr. H was the one minding her: putting a roof over her head, food on her table, clothes on her back, making she feel classy, giving she a start in life. That’s more than you—Mr. Big Brother—or your waste-a-time father ever do for the li’l girl. Shame!
Next day, Gail call back: “Sorry, boy. Hard luck.”
You wonder if she even ask.
One night, after everybody fall asleep, you packing away the school books your son Jason leave on the dining table. Flipping through his sketch pad, a heading in red catch your eye: “My Family.” Four stick-figures in scratchy crayon clothes. You’s the tallest and next to your watermelon head it have a arrow and a label: “Luther Jr. Stay-at-home Dad.” In your hand it have something that resemble . . . a axe? a boat paddle? Nah, you realize is a spatula.
“Fuck,” you mumble, pulling out a chair and sinking in it. Your son gone and ask the teacher what to call you, now that you’s scratch your balls for a living.
“Junior, you sure you want to do this?” Judith say. She straining macaroni in the sink; you grating cheese. “America ain’t no bed-a-rose, nah!” she add.
You argue back and forth ’bout all the people she know that gone America and dying to come back.
Then—thunk!—Judith rest-down the strainer hard in the sink. You glance across. She staring out the window.
“You go miss me? That’s what it is, ain’t? Tell me.”
“Don’t be a ass!” she say. “I’s a big woman, I could handle myself. But, is the boys . . .”
“Let we cross that bridge when we get to it,” you say, a tightness in your chest like you just bench-press one-fifty. “I don’t even have a visa yet.”
You go down a li’l stronger on the grater. This fuckin’ woman hard! Harder than this old, dry cheese. It woulda kill her to say she go miss you?
The two of you was seventeen, in the last year of technical school, when she get pregnant with Jason. Y’all wasn’t in love or nothing, but her parents put her out, so you had to band together. Your parents was a disgrace: Luther Sr. drowning in puncheon-rum, and your mother, Janice, ups-and-gone with a next man. Three years pass you straight, like a full bus. Then Judith find out she pregnant again, with Kevin. You and Judith, it come like y’all grow up together. And, although you’s a big man now, twenty-four years, you never had to face the outside world without Judith. She raise your babies and, in a way, she raise you too.
She never been the lovey-dovey kind but, man, she get more colder lately. She dropping words for you; saying things like, “People can’t make love on hungry belly.”
You pay for the appointment, fill out the form, take the picture. You photocopy a bank statement, fake a job letter. You line up in the road at 5:00 am, in front the US Embassy, with a sandwich and a juice box in your jacket.
People in the line shoo-shoo-ing. Uncle Sam know everything is what they saying. Hmmm. Suppose the Embassy ask ’bout your aunt who did overstay her six months in LA? Suppose they know you lose your real job?
When your batch of twenty get call-in the Embassy, you watch everything. People go up once to hand in their documents. Then again for the interview. You figure out those getting send by the Post Office counter is the lucky ones. Them others, who drop their eyes and slink out quick, quick, them is the rejects.
You watch five from your batch get reject—some of them real posh-looking.
Shit! If they could do them that, who’s me? You feeling like you have to pee but you dare not leave your seat.
At 9:00, they call your name; 9:15, the interview start.
The lady barely watching you. She asking simple questions but you feel like she just waiting for you to trip up. When she ask, “Purpose of visit?” you amaze yourself with how you slant the lie you and Judith did practice (“Vacation”). How you pull it nearer the truth.
“School purchases,” you say in your best English, “before September. The children needs plenty things.”
The lady smile. “They always do,” she say.
Your B1/B2 visa get approve.
You feel high and light—like you could reach America on your own fuckin’ wings. You stop at KFC near City Gate, the transport hub, and splurge: a bucket, four regular sides, a two-liter Sprite. A nice surprise for the boys after school. On the maxi-taxi ride home, you decide how you going to tell them.
Jason ripping into his second piece. Kevin still nibbling a drumstick. You watch all their hand and face getting greasy and sticky; the ketchup plopping down on their vests. Scabby knee, shred-up elbow, Jason missing teeth, Kevin always-runny nose. Is like you recording a movie in your head, to replay later, in America. They sit, stand, climb, all over the dining-table chairs, while Judith complaining and wiping, wiping.
Finally, you say, “Boys, what if we could eat KFC every Friday?”
Not even glancing up from his meat, Jason answer, “I done ask Mummy that long time and she say we can’t afford it.”
“I know. But we could afford it now. Daddy going America.”
The boys stare at you blank, blank.
“Allyuh have to make a list of all the toys allyuh want. Because, when I go America, I getting everything.” You growl the last word, bare your teeth, like a hungry lion.
The cubs laugh.
“America far?” Jason say.
“Yes, I have to go on a big airplane.”
“We could go too?”
“No, you have school. Plus you have to take care of your mother.” You glance at Judith. She look like she holding her breath. In truth, you doing the same damn thing.
“So, Daddy,” Jason say, “when you say ‘everything’ you mean I could get a G.I. Joe watch?”
The boys call toy after toy, snack after snack—everything they know from American TV. With every yes, their excitement grow and grow. Till they fidgeting again—more than ever now—popping up like bubbles in the Sprite. They start rocking the chairs and singing, “Daddy going America! Daddy going America!” They making you feel like you’s a superhero.
“Stop it!” Judith shout. “Stop that right now!”
A few weeks later, in the purple-looking hours before dawn, you slink out your bed and into the boys’ bedroom. You tiptoe and kiss Jason, on the top bunk; you bend and kiss Kevin, his cheek wet with dribble. You want them wake up so you could hear them say, “Bye, Daddy,” but, same time, you scared they will. You might be able to bear it. Or you might just say, “Fuck America,” and stay.
In the stillness, you hear a engine purr and handbrakes jerk. Your brother-in-law, Declan, just pull up outside.
Judith with you by the kitchen table, going over everything one last time: ticket, departure card, Rufus address, virgin passport. You tuck them inside the same bomber jacket you did wear to the Embassy.
Your almost-empty suitcase standing up by the door—halfway in, halfway out—like it have two minds ’bout this whole thing. You and Judith hug and you kiss her on the cheek. Then, you put her at arm’s length. Is time to go—Declan waiting—but the last seven years, they come like glue. Your palms not budging from the sleeve of Judith nightie.
You fake a grin and say, “Take care of them li’l fellas, eh.”
And you linger, hoping she say something tender; so you could say something tender too. Something like “I frighten” or “I will miss you.”
But it don’t happen. So you just leave Judith right there, leaning on the doorframe like she propping up the house.
October first you touch down in JFK. The place big, big, big and bright, bright, bright. It come like you in one of them sci-fi movies where they land the plane inside a spaceship. Only shiny metal and white light.
Everybody else seem to know where they going so you fall in and follow the crowd. In the immigration line, your heart racing just like in the Embassy—like you guilty of something. The officer asking almost the same questions and you give the same answers. He do so—Bam!—and stamp your passport for six months. Hallelujah!
You find your suitcase in no time—thanks to the orange ribbon Judith did tie on it. Then, the crowd take you past the customs desk and through a wall of doors that just open up by itself.
Suddenly, you in a big, wide clearing with metal barriers all ’round. Just beyond, it have at least three rows of faces and signs, plenty handmade signs. And plenty eyes aiming at you, but looking past you—you’s not who they want. You freeze on the spot, like fuckin’ stage fright. You trying to sift through, to find that one face, the only one you know in New York City. Seconds ticking and your spit drying out on your tongue like rain on the road. What if he forget?
“Junior! Yo, Junior! Over here!” Rufus find you. He a li’l way off to the side of the room, waving, like he signaling a plane.
“Welcome to the US of A!” he say, hugging you hard.
“Thanks, man. Thanks,” you say.
Is a long, hot drive to Queens. Why the ass Rufus don’t put on the air condition? But he saying is the last summer weather so enjoy it while you can.
The air different, kinda crispy. But you surprised how dull and dingy the place looking. Brown everywhere. And kinda industrial. A small hope start bleeping inside you—maybe you’ll find MET work here; maybe this grocery thing is just a start.
Then, the streets get narrow and you reading signs: check-cashing, car wash, Rite Aid, eyebrow threading. What the ass is “eyebrow threading”? And where all the damn white people? You thought New York streets would be crawling with them, but you only seeing brown faces, like yours.
Another right turn and is strictly houses now—all the same type but different colors. Rufus stop and get out to open a saggy chainlink gate.
Rotting garbage sneaking up in your nose-hole. It have to be garbage. It can’t be shit, right? This is America, for chrissake. Still, you don’t say nothing to Rufus because you don’t want to embarrass the man. You get your suitcase and follow him.
“But this is one big, macco house you have here, Rufus!”
“Yeah,” he say, “Top-floor rented out to some Jamaicans. But I hooked you up, cuz. You got the whole basement to yourself.”
The basement turn out to be some pipes and pillars, a rust-bitten washing machine and dryer, a plain cement floor. But in one corner, near the stairs, it have a crooked, wooden room leaning up on the concrete wall. As Rufus unlocking the door he grin (just like your son Kevin) and say, “Built this myself. Used to rent it to a Paki, but I threw him out for you.”
It don’t have much in the room. A patchy old couch (Rufus show you how to fold it out to a bed), a TV, another contraption he say is a electric heater, a closet and a musty smell. But say what: you in America! That’s the only damn thing that matter.
Rufus say, “Look, I gotta bounce, kid. Shift starts at six. Take a nap or whatever. If you’re hungry, help yourself to anything upstairs.”
“I could call home?” you say.
Rufus open his wallet and flip a card in your direction. Turning away, he say, “Just read the back and follow the instructions. Phone’s in the kitchen. You’re gonna have to stock up on that shit.”
“First thing tomorrow,” you say, running up the stairs behind him.
“And remember, the deal is . . .”
“Yeah, I know: basement free this first month; buy my own food; two hundred a month after that.”
“A’ight,” Rufus say. He point to the phone on the wall and duck out the side door.
Leg-shaking, you dial; following the voice instructions, waiting for the international beep, praying you didn’t mess up.
“Hello,” Judith answer.
Boom! You could jump for joy.
“I reach,” you say.
“Yeah, is me. I reach.”
You shouting in the receiver but Judith still not hearing you.
Work at the grocery start bright and early the next day. It turn out not to be in the meat room. Ahmed, the manager, save that better-paying job for a fella from his own country, Palestine. You get the $4.25-a-hour job packing shelves and swiping goods with a li’l sticker-gun.
Becky is a cashier. The only white girl. She think she down with all the other cashiers but you hear them laughing behind her back and calling her “fat white trash.”
That evening, you decide to buy some groceries. It late, the store ready to close. Becky is the only one still open. As you set down your things she say, “You don’t talk much, do you, Island Man?”
“Ah! See, he smiles!” she say, and you smile a li’l wider. “So, you got a family back home?” she ask.
“Lucky bastard. How old?”
“Seven and four.”
“Miss ’em yet?”
“Nah.” Technically, is the truth. But a truth with plenty holes in it, like the netting on this paw-paw you buying. You smile in a guilty way. But Becky blushing, as if your smile have something to do with her. Ha, Lord! This fat-girl think you desperate or what?
She making small-talk, punching in prices—mostly from memory. But then you notice she skipping over some things, just pushing them down the belt. You think is a mistake—she must be distracted with all the chit-chat—so you stretch out your hand to stop the next can. Becky watch you dead in the eye and wink.
You bag your groceries and burn road home.
You boil water and make some Top Ramen. Chili-Lime Shrimp. The thing smelling like fuckin’ insecticide—tasting worse—but at least it warm. You eat on the edge of the sofa-bed, watching the TV, but really the damn thing watching you ’cause your mind so fuckin’ far right now.
This is the first time you ever thief anything in life. Suppose Ahmed find out and call the police? Suppose they post your ass back to Trinidad? Imagine you: in a vest, short pants, and handcuffs, waddling off the plane; your boys ducking down ’cause they shame. You decide never to do this thing again—never, ever. And you decide to pay it back by working extra hard and doing anything the boss ask you to do. You will make yourself Ahmed li’l bitch.
And—Shit!—you keep that promise. You punch your card every day at seven and punch out every night at nine. Sometimes you doing double shifts. Sometimes you covering for people. Still, every red cent of your weekly salary spend-out before you even get it. It have Rufus rent to pay, Judith money to send, and you trying to full a barrel with food-and-thing to ship home for Christmas. A few groceries for yourself now and then—soup, bread, cheese—but, for a fella in your situation, phone cards is Life. America over-lonely. Just work, work, work, then this empty room. So you don’t mind: you would rather starve than not hear your children.
Becky, like she realize you don’t take no lunch break. She ask ’bout it one day and you brush her off with a weak joke: you maintaining your physique. Couple days later—lunchtime self—you taking a smoke outside with Carlos, the Dominican fella from Produce.
“Ma-a-n,” he say, “you peep that sexy, new, morena ’cross the street at the dry cleaners?”
“Nah, which one that is, boy?”
“Short. Thick. Tremendo culo.” He move his hands like he tracing a big, round pumpkin.
“Oh, she? Yeah, I glimpse her yesterday. But that’s not my scene, brother.”
“Whattaya mean, amigo? You don’t see that ass?”
You laugh and explain, “I not really into fat girls, you know, Carlos. Gimme the smallies, the chicken-wings. You see how I magga? I like girls to suit my size. When a woman drop she leg on me in the night, I mustn’t dead in my sleep.”
Carlos slapping his thigh and dancing around. He swear you’s the funniest man he ever meet. Chilling out like this, talking big—the way you talk back in Trinidad—and having somebody appreciate you for it. It real nice. A nice change from licking American ass whole day: “Yes, the brussel sprouts is right this way, ma’am . . . No, sir, don’t worry, I’ll clean that mess right up.”
A noise come from behind, inside the loading bay. You spin ’round; Becky standing up there clutching a li’l Ziploc bag with both hands.
Oh, fuck! Maybe she hear what you just say ’bout fat girls? Apart from Carlos, she’s your only friend here. You don’t want to hurt her feelings.
Becky just giggle, “Oops! Male-bonding,” hand you the sandwich and walk off, back to her register. Each half of her bottom trembling to a different beat, like they suffering from two separate earthquakes.
You like Becky. She real easy-going. Always happy, always joking. When she laugh, she does make a noise like hiccups and her freckles does bounce like they in a Carnival band. But, you starting to get the vibes that Becky want you to love her.
She say she from Pennsylvania. Thirty-five, never married, no kids. She living with roommates, a bunch of other “ex-Amish girls” catching up on life. You don’t know much ’bout Amish people except what you see on TV: they does pray plenty, farm plenty, and they don’t like outsiders. You must be as “outsider” as it get, so you very surprised that Becky always squeezing in a line or two ’bout how “black men are so hot” and how “the Caribbean accent is so sexy.” Like is only one fuckin’ accent for everybody in the whole Caribbean Sea. Steups!
One day, Becky come out plain, plain and ask, “So, you’re not married, but is there . . . anyone? Special, I mean?”
You hear yourself say, “Special? Nah. Just my children-mother.” And you almost expect a cock to crow because you feel like Judas Fuckin’-Iscariot. You don’t know why you keep doing this shit! Hiding Judith. But you just have this gut feeling things will go better for you, in America, if you hang a fuckin’ sign round your neck: “Come in. I open . . . to everything.”
Rufus home on his off-night and y’all watching Die Hard with a Vengeance on his illegal pay-per-view. You tell him ’bout Becky. “My man!” he say. “That’s your meal-ticket, yo!”
When you look confuse, he spell it out in neon. “Nigga, you better fuck that white heifer and get yourself straight. Yeah, they gave you six months. But you can flip that into a lifetime, with a Green Card.”
Frowning, you wonder if you hear right. Rufus know Judith; he does stay by your house every Carnival; he’s eat her food; and she does much-him-up. They kinda close. You start to wonder if Judith set him up to test you or something.
“The fuck you looking at me like that for?” Rufus say. “I ain’t telling you fall in love with the bitch. I’m saying: make her love you. Opportunity’s knocking and you need to respond, nigga. Think about your family.”
You still gaping at Rufus like you no habla ingles. He shrug and done the talk, “People get married for papers all the time, cuz. This the US of A, remember.”
Your mind sign off from Bruce Willis problems. You glimpsing now that you been thinking way too small ’bout yours. Why keep sending your family sandwich money, when you could bring them to a fuckin’ banquet?
Rufus damn right: being here in America ain’t about your preference. What kinda girls you like or what kinda work you qualified for. Is about keeping yourself ready: knees bent, palms cupped. And juicing the fuck out of every opportunity that drop down.
Make Becky love you, Rufus did say. Make she love you till she would do anything to keep you. Sign on that dotted line, even. Yeah, you could do that. But you have to work quick—only five months left.
Later that night, you start feeling shaky ’bout your decision, so you call home.
Judith hear the beep and bawl, “Boys! Come quick! Is allyuh father.” The connection real good this time: you actually hear their rubber slippers going plap, plap, plap. Some rustling; a couple thuds—they fighting for the phone. Jason win and Kevin start to cry. While Judith petting him, you ask Jason ’bout school, if he behaving himself.
“A boy did push li’l Kevin down in school,” he say. “But I find the fella and push him back harder.” He singing the whole story in his high-pitch voice.
“Good,” you say, “stick up for him, eh. Always. You name ‘Big Brother.’”
Then you talk to Kevin. He parrot everything his big brother just say—only with a lisp. As you listen, you close your eyes. This is what everything is about: Jason and Kevin. Rufus right: is not about just feeding them. If you bring them to America you could give them what Luther Sr. and Janice never give you and Gail: a head-start in life.
Then, Judith come on. She do a quick run-through: your mother and sister doing good, light bill and cable bill paid up, no water because the landlord didn’t pay the bill, send the money Western Union next time (Moneygram line always too long).
She on top of everything. Super-capable. That’s how it is with Judith. She don’t neglect a single duty, but she does make you feel bad for making her do it—like you’s not enough man. Before you leave, she did open her legs for you, but she never make a fuckin’ sound. She hard.
Her voice change now, though—low and trembling—when she say, “It had another shooting. Right outside the school. The snow-cone vendor. They say he was a gang-member.”
“The boys see?” you ask, hoarse, because you frighten and you choking on it like stale bread.
“Nah. They was in class, thank God. But still, Junior . . .”
“I know, I know.”
Jason and Kevin. You could send them all the money in America; that can’t block them from a Pleasantview bullet.
Winter coming fast. Your first. Your nose bleeding every time you step outside, your skin gray and itchy. You never been this fuckin’ cold. And you miss your sons so bad it come like a toothache that does fill up your head and get worse and worse every day.
Soon, the bomber jacket not cutting it no more. Rufus lend you some stuff—coat, gloves, scarf, beanie—and you find some boots in the thrift store on Merrick Boulevard. Hand-me-downs, but fuck that! You stepping high these days, since Laparkan Shipping collect the barrel you was filling. Six weeks, they say—it’ll get to Trinidad in time for Christmas.
Now, you have time, a li’l extra cash; now, you focusing on Becky.
Four and a half months to go.
You start lining up your day off with hers. Green Acres Mall every week. Is the closest thing to dating. But you’s the illegal and she’s the citizen, so she doing most of the spending: cologne, down jacket, Timberlands. Watch something too long and Becky buying it for you. Is a new feeling, a woman treating you so. It come like she’s Mr. H and you’s Gail. It too easy; you don’t trust this set-up.
So, you never slack off. Is work, work, work. Through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. But your day off, that’s always for Becky.
One freezing Sunday in January, you bouncing towards the food court, to get some General Tso’s Chicken, when Becky say, “No. Let’s eat next door, at the Ponderosa.”
“That place look pricey,” you say.
Becky wink. “Today’s special. We’ve been friends now for exactly three months and five days. It’s like . . . our anniversary or something.”
Becky grab your hand, pull you through the mall and across the street, to the all-you-can-eat restaurant. You real excited. They don’t have nothing like that back home.
Becky taking a bit of this, a bit of that; li’l ants’ nests of food—plenty less than you woulda expect for her size. But you! You make a fuckin’ mountain.
Back in the booth, she snuggle up—close, close—while you shovel food in your mouth.
“I was thinking,” she say, pick-picking at her plate, “you could show me your place today. It’s near, right?”
Like a dumb-ass, you blink a few times. You didn’t plan on making The Move today. You was easing up to it, thinking you needed a few more weeks. Then she woulda be ready to give you the punani. Nah, that’s a lie. You was stalling ’cause you not ready. To horn Judith for the first time. To sex Becky when you ain’t even attracted to her. And not just sex her—no—you have to fuck her, till she seeing stars and you getting stripes. Till she love you and want to keep you in America.
Rufus in your head: opportunity knocking, boy. Respond.
Fifteen minutes later, you and Becky on the bus heading to your place.
Rufus cooking pelau and blasting old-time calypso. When you introduce Becky he switch on the Trini-charm: kiss-up her hand, bear-hug like they’s old friends. She blush and then “Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot” come on. She bawl, “Oh my God, I love this song!” and start doing a totally outta-time, white-girl conga while she sing, “Olé, Olé! Olé, Olé!” You and Rufus clap but you feeling shame for Becky. As you turn away and start leading her downstairs to the basement, Rufus slap you twice on the back.
You turn on the TV; it have nowhere to sit but the bed. It creaking; will the li’l fold-out legs take you plus Becky? You not even sure how to do this: you may be a liar but your prick ain’t; it does always tell the truth.
She say, “Brrrr! It’s chilly down here,” and latch on to your side.
You lower your lashes, like you drawing the drapes, and give her a cock-lip smile. You make your voice velvet as you say, “Lemme warm you up.”
You put a arm ’round Becky, kiss her. Soft, lips-only, shy. You still listening for some reaction from your prick. Radio fuckin’ silence.
Her kiss getting aggressive, she treating your face like chocolate. Still nothing. She dip down suddenly and squeeze your crotch. Still spongy.
Then Becky push you backwards on the bed. The springs creak again as she wriggle off to kneel on the floor. When her lips wrap you up, a sigh leak through your teeth. You don’t have to worry again. In fact, you don’t have to do nothing but lie there, staring at the beams-and-them. Becky using her tongue like a magic wand. You don’t know where she pull out a rubbers from, but she rolling it on for you. Then she climb on. Slow. And you feel like you’s Moses rod and she’s the Red Sea. “Oh Gawwwd,” you moan. If this was Judith you woulda look—spread them knees and look, play with it li’l bit. But now, you squeeze your eyes tight, tight and wrap your hand in the sheet. You concentrate on the feeling. Not the person. And you tune in your ears to all the cussin’ and groanin’ and all the claims that you’s the biggest she ever had and she think she gonna tear and she in so much pain but it feeling so good to her. And the American accent. Man, you fucking a white chick! With your eyes closed this could be any white chick: Carmen Electra, Anna Nicole Smith—any-damn-body you want it to be.
You and Becky been at it for weeks.
You still sending money for Judith, you still calling. You filling a second barrel—Becky helping.
It come like you have two lives, two parallel tracks that never cross. You keep hopping lanes but nobody noticing and everybody happy-like-pappy.
Still, time ticking down. Rufus say you ain’t staying in the basement even one day past six months. “I ain’t harboring no illegal,” he say. “For INS to come kick down my fuckin’ door? Nuh-uh, nigga! I done told you: get that bitch married, or get her pregnant. Or go the fuck home.”
Something have to happen soon. The tricky part, the part you spend whole nights studying, is how to mention marriage to Becky without looking like a asshole.
One day, she find you in the aisle, labeling cereal boxes. She giggling so much she resemble the Jell-O heap by Ponderosa. She say she get a letter from her cousin, Naomi, down in Florida—a next ex-Amish chick. Naomi getting married—finally!—in June. Becky want you go to the wedding.
Like a fuckin’ marksman, you see the shot and take it. “I can’t, babes. Remember, my visa up April 1?” You know she don’t “remember” ’cause you never said it before.
“This April? Oh my God! That’s two months away,” Becky say. Her hands fly up like two frighten doves. They rest on her mouth.
She back away from you a few feet, then turn and speed off. She glum and quiet, quiet whole day—nothing you say or do is funny.
Late that night, you in the basement, watching Knight Rider reruns. Guiltiness resting, like a concrete block, on your conscience. You toying with the idea of calling Trinidad. You need to hear Judith voice; to make sure that the home-fires still burning, that if all else fail you still have her and the boys. You never once, ever cheat on her. This thing you trying with Becky shouldn’t count neither. Yes, you was unfaithful, but it have a bigger picture: you was fucking for betterment. For the whole family.
Somebody knock the basement door just as the line in Trinidad start ringing. “Vis-i-tor!” The way Rufus say it, you know is Becky.
You barely hang up the phone before she walk in and slam the door. Face on fire. Huffing and puffing. She might blow the whole damn house down.
“So that’s it? That was your plan? Fuck the fat girl for a few months, then leave? Go back to the Island? To your kids-mom? Your wife? Or whatever. I don’t even know.”
“You have it all wrong,” you say. “I tell you: she and me, we done, babes. That’s why I in America. Look, I know you mad that I never say I leaving so soon. But, to be honest, I was hoping something woulda work out by now, so I wouldn’t have to go. I talk to Ahmed ’bout work permit—but he ain’t biting. It have some chick by Rufus job who willing to get married, but we gotta pay her, like, six thousand or something. I ain’t got that.”
You doing good so far—only one lie: about Judith.
Becky stop shifting from side to side. She listening now, believing—you hope.
“C’mere,” you say, in your new yankee twang, as you slide to the edge. When she sit down, you hold her hands and say, “Babes, I wouldn’t play you. It hurting me that you thinking so. This here between us—this shit is real, yo. And I want it get realer. But I’mma run out of options soon. I don’t wanna be one of those guys, like Carlos, who overstay and then gotta spend his whole life dodging cops.”
“But you wouldn’t have that problem if you stayed,” Becky say.
“How you figure that?” you ask, faking dumb.
“We could get married.”
Boom! But still, you draw back and say, “Naw, babes I couldn’t ask you to . . .”
“No, I want to. And you wouldn’t have to pay me or anything. ’Cause like you said, this shit is real and we’re heading there anyway. Right? This’ll just be a li’l sooner.”
“Right,” you say, “but I never want you to feel I using you ’cause . . .”
“I know you’re not,” Becky say, resting her finger on your lips. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have taken the time . . . been such a gentleman . . . with me.”
You shrug and look bashful.
“So, Luther Archibald Junior, will you marry me?”
As you say yes, your pores and your cock raise the same time. Adrenaline. But you don’t know if is fright or excitement.
You fuck, and afterwards you go up in the kitchen together and make scramble eggs. Becky spend the whole night this time. Y’all barely fit on the sofa-bed but is okay; you don’t do much sleeping anyway. Becky talk and talk, ’bout the wedding, the future. You listen and nod, in a daze almost. You keep seeing Jason face: that Christmas morning when he rip off the gift-paper and see the remote-control tractor he did wish for; and how he start to cry when you drive it and blow the horn—because it get too real, too sudden.
By morning, though, everything settle; you and Becky raise a new plan, shiny like a foil balloon.
You not going home April 1. You and Becky getting married in March—a few weeks away. You’ll get a apartment together. You’ll go to a immigration lawyer—it have one in the strip-mall across from the supermarket. Your papers should come through in two, three years. A year or so again for the boys’ papers. By that time, you’ll have a better job, a nicer place to live. They’ll come across.
Becky, she super-excited. She getting a new, readymade family for the old one in Pennsylania that cut her off.
“I’ll love those boys like my own,” she say.
You won’t actually need her by then, but it nice to hear Becky thinking so.
And it have a next part to the plan you don’t tell her. After they come across, the boys will file for their mother. You will make sure it happen. Until then, you’ll send money for Judith every month and she will never, ever want for nothing as long as you alive. She might be cold, she might be hard, she might not love you—but she’s your children-mother.
Sunday, you call home as usual. You tell Judith: Ahmed sponsoring the Green Card. METs in short, short supply in New York. With all the old machinery in the S-Town Supermarket chain, they need a man with your skills.
Judith voice get high and girlish as she bawl, “Oh God, for true, Luther?”
“Is not a now-for-now thing,” you warn. “And it mean I can’t come home in April, maybe not for years. Not until they organize the papers and the lawyer give the green light.”
“That’s okay,” she quick to say. “We’ll manage. Ain’t we managing now? And the li’l sacrifice is for the boys. So I don’t mind. Do what you have to do, Luther.”
Humph! Something drop in your belly and drag. You glad Judith making this so easy but, same time, you wishing she struggle—just a li’l bit—with not seeing you for so long. It come like you and Judith been business partners this whole time—and the boys is the business.
Then Judith ask, “So after your papers go in, how long before we could get married?”
Your blood turn icy-slush in your veins.
“Ain’t we have to be man-and-wife for you to file for me? Besides, you don’t think is time? Seven years, remember?”
“W’happen, girl? Like you feel I go leave you out or what? I can’t believe you thinking so low, Judy.”
She back down. For now.
March 16, ten days before your City Hall wedding, you in work swiping canned beets and trying to decide what color waistband to rent with the tuxedo. Ahmed peep out his office and shout down the lane, “Lu-ta! Phone call!”
“Me?” you bawl, jumping up from the stool and dropping the pricing gun. On impact, the thing split in half—you’ll have to glue it together again, for the third time.
“Yes, you, mu-tha-foo-ka.”
Ahmed watching you hard, hard. He barely move out the doorway to let you in.
Breathless, you say, “Hello?”
Then, the nicotine croak: Janice. “Junior? Is you, son?”
“Yes, Mammy. Is me.” Your mind gone straight to Judith and the boys. Oh God, another shooting by the school!
Janice start crying and you can’t make out a word. Judith come on. The boys fine, she say.
“So why allyuh calling me here? I can’t talk.”
“Listen, you have to come home. Police lock up Gail. And Janice, like she going crazy.”
“What?” you say, a li’l too loud. Ahmed step back in the office. But God help him if he try take this phone out your hand now!
“Yeah, they say she shoot the old man,” Judith explain.
“Mr. H? What happen?”
“The story still hazy. But it look like she was pregnant and she find him with a next woman. He beat she and she loss the child. She did move back in by Janice last week. Then, next thing we know—Pow!—she shoot the man.”
You walk back to your stool but you don’t sit. You just stand up there, middle of the canned foods aisle, staring down at the pricing gun—how it skin-open on the floor, orange stickers spilling out like guts.
You, is you to blame, Luther.
You shoulda do what you really wanted to do when you first hear ’bout Gail and Mr. H. You shoulda walk up in his cloth-store, ask to see him in his office, close the door, lean over his desk, point in his face, and threaten his Syrian ass. You shoulda warn him that Gail not alone in this world, that she have a big brother. A brother who know every Pleasantview backstreet inside out, who have friends in Lost Boyz gang, Red Kings gang, and other low places. And that he need to get the fuck outta Gail life.
But then, how she woulda eat? You wasn’t helping.
Okay. Then why you never talk to Gail sheself? Why you never tell her what you, as a man, know ’bout men like Mr. H? That he was planning to suck her dry like a plum seed, then move on to the next ripe one. Why you never warn her? That when you fucking for betterment is okay to let them keep you, but you must never let them own you. Control your damn feelings. And don’t plan no long future with them—get what you need and get out.
But no, you didn’t do none of that. Ain’t, Luther?
You pick up the pricing gun and re-roll the tape. With some slapping and squeezing, you reattach the two halves. A few practice clicks and it working again. You crouch to the bottom shelf and start shooting cans, shooting fast.
Fast like how your heart beating.
Fast like how you thinking.
What if it was one of your boys in this mess? What if it was li’l Kevin in trouble, and Jason didn’t show up? Or the other way around?
Nah, that’s not how you raising them, Luther. They does stick together.
Well, they getting older, smarter. What if you don’t go back for Gail, and one day those same boys watch you and say, “Why, Daddy? Ain’t you’s she big brother?”
Half hour pass. You done price-out everything.
You slide off the stool, to the cold floor. Arms across knees, you make a hammock for your head—it heavy. With your own disappointment. And, you steeling yourself to tell Becky. And if you get through that, you have to gear up to comfort your mother, to meet Gail lawyer, to walk in the jail. You excited to see the boys again but you ’fraid to see Judith, to lie next to her, lie to her face.
Judith and Becky. Becky and Judith. You been feeding them so much stories: candy soak in cocaine—they eating out your hands, licking your sticky palms, begging for more. Now, you got to keep everything straight in your head, Luther—at least for the next month—till you make it back to America.
If you could do that, nobody getting hurt; everybody staying hopeful. Even you.