There is really no time to go into how many friends I had or the names of all the fruits and things we roasted on the beach. Not for this story. I never think to give more information on the tiny inconsequential speck of dust that all but disappears in the Atlantic, but I suppose some details are necessary. It’s the fourth speck in the chain, above Venezuela, but we’ve managed to pack nearly a quarter of a million people on top of it. Where I am from, a baby had to avoid being born on full moons and on days when there were great winds, and rainbows, and when the sun set too east of the island. The woman who raised me said I was born between the two storms and the Great Fire that had flattened the capital city of Castries. It was a sure sign that god had seen the coming of something foul. Said that I had inherited ungratefulness from my mother and more than pride and vanity, ungratefulness was the deadliest of sins. I was always getting into trouble with her. I never knew my real mother. In fact, my life began with fiction, as I have heard close to twenty different versions of how she gave me up shortly after my birth, and how I came to live with my father’s sister in a small wooden house by the airport. I have no recollection of these things. I only remember coming into being at about six with the feeling of waiting for something. We waited together for dollar vans, in hospital lines, and for our fathers to come back. I remember looking up at her arms in whatever line we were in, and seeing their muscles and their veins. My aunt told me to call her ‘Muh’. Her husband had left for America along with my father. Muh worked as a maid for an Indian lady on the city side of St. Lucia. Her task was to wash clothes by hand and hang them out on the old line to dry. Then she’d iron and fold the uniforms for the Indian children. The more she washed, the more clothes came. With the clothes drying on the lines went my time for playing and being a ten year old, my summers were wasted because I sat along side Muh with a bucket and a bar of blue soap of my own. It was with this blue soap that we washed dishes, cleaned the rotten floorboards in the house, and washed ourselves. She was always working. If not washing clothes, then it was washing dishes or mopping the floors for the Indians. When I helped Muh with laundry, she made me responsible for panties and socks, for collars and cuffs, because my hands were still small. She took over the towels, the Indian children’s school uniforms, jeans and dresses…dunking and ringing them out with revenge for someone, maybe god, or maybe for her husband. I remember the veins in her arms swelling and the muscles tightening and fibers flaring under her skin. The wet brown towels felt too heavy, like they were pulling against everything in the world that made sense. Her hands grew an extra black layer of hardness that made it possible for her to handle hot pans with boiling soup on a burning stove before she left for the day. We’d rush for the dollar stand and sit for another two hours on the van heading to the country. We had always lived in the old house Muh’s mother left her. Our house was raw, brown rotten wood because it had never been painted. It sat beneath a rusty galvanized roof that leaked in various spots. Even the nails were rusty and the boards squeaked and sang with our every movement. On days that the rain came down hard, we placed enameled basins and bowls to catch the leaks. It was only the sound of heavy rain hitting the steel, the leaks dropping into the aluminum containers, the roaring brook outside that could put Muh in a good mood. Something in her would snap back to the peaceful reality of things. We’d share the same bed and cuddle under the sheets. I missed her smell of cigarette smoke, sweat, and whatever rum she’d been drinking. The smell of a real woman, although she could never be my mother.
We did stunts without any padding. Had scars all over our knees and elbows. My friends were those who defied gravity. Our bodies could hang off the gigantic tree with the fat roots that surfaced over the soil like a nest of mating boas. That umbrella tree was the gathering place, community center, theatre, shelter, and church all in one. The roots replaced benches. We would grow into old men sitting around the fires they kept in the middle. Toiling in the hot day, the men became more agreeable in its shade and sat on its roots with their shoulders against the trunk. The oils from their backs left smudges on the smooth velvet bark and on the roots. Black fingerprints remained on the branches from their climbing days as children.
Our house was set further up in the hills, by the soccer field where you could see the planes come in and leave. Our kitchen was outside on a concrete stoop. We’d get there just before sunset. Seen from our little wooden terrace, just a slit of orange glow remained on top the blue sea. I secretly waited for a mounted god to ride across the horizon, grab the stick of sun and spear down all of our sorrows so that Muh didn’t have to wash clothes and work for the Indians in the morning. They had already drawn me away from my friends and spoiled my summers. Muh tended her small garden of cucumbers, onions and okra. I went with her on Saturdays to gather salty seaweed to keep the slugs off the cabbage. We had a cat which Muh lazily named Puss. Puss was small and slender with gray and black stripes and a bobbed tail like a sphinx. She was my faithful hunting partner with special abilities – even for a cat, to fly up banana trees to catch lizards that we would both torture.
Muh still had to wash her own clothes before the light completely faded. She’d put green bananas or dasheen, or yams, on the coal-pot to boil while doing her laundry by the river. We made due with lanterns and candles till the morning. If we were walking home in the dark and smelled the smoke and saw a tip of the spliff glowing red, then we knew who it was. Attway was one of those Rastas people never saw. Went up to his brother’s farm in Zion and never came down except of those times when he got cravings for cigarettes. He smoke high grade and he smoke cigarettes, sometimes in one joint. When we saw him, he brought home fresh-caught fish to our house from the ports. The fish was cooked or smoked that same evening, because we didn’t own a refrigerator. He’d let the fish steam in its own juices – that was the way St. Lucians cooked their fish and meats with onions and spices and other vegetables and a little black pepper, but never to add water. He had many odd jobs, but mostly he did nothing. I always looked for him by the fishermen’s boats because he’d paint on their boats and they’d paid him in fish. Him and Muh had struck some sort of deal. He was always at our home. He painted the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and other Rastafari icons, and sometimes he’d paint images of peace, or a black fists, or sometimes just a few words like BE HUMBLE, or GOD IS LOVE, or FEARLESS. He painted on dollar vans too.
Most of the dishes were cracked because Muh threw things at me when she got angry. She’d glue them back together with Crazy Glue from America. We’d all sit on the low table in the living room floor and eat by the two lights of the lanterns. Our dark faces coming out of blackness, our giant shadows bouncing around the rotten walls and ceiling behind us. Attway would show me the sketches for something he was going to paint on someone’s vehicle. Muh and him would smoke cigarettes and complain about the day, about how corrupt all politicians were. Both of them despised pretentious people. “Big hypocrites!” Muh would shout out. Muh was always very serious, but Attway made her belly hard with laughter. She’d be pounding her knees with her black hands because she couldn’t hold herself up. I’d only seen her like this with Attway. I’d wished they were husband and wife. He was Muh’s one close friend, but Attway was everybody’s friend. We had to shout his name from the space in our bellies, because it required more air. He’d always shout our names back with bona fide pride that scared away any discontent we might have been feeling. He was just one of those spirits in every village, town, and city that folks looked to, to measure the current state of their souls. Attway also cut the grass and unclogged people’s gutters piled with red clay when it rained. Muh used to say that he could have been handsome with his long shiny plaits if he laughed a little softer. I liked him because he made us forget our reality. He made sure all the boys kept on top of our football juggling skills as if the whole country depended on it. “No slackin, don’t get lazy with it mahn. Move to di ball!” He’d start off. He’d coach anyone, anywhere, in whatever village he was passing through. “The ball dhere to keep you fit, and when you fit, you feel nice.” He himself couldn’t play. Watching him juggle the soccer ball was like watching a kung fu movie. He made us laugh. That was his main job.
I remember when he fell and became hunched and lame. This all happened before the baby. I was about ten. Muh and I were leaving for church on an early Sunday morning. We had passed him setting up his stand by the bridge. Muh had always anticipated that little chat before reaching the church in town. He’d whistle through the missing teeth in front of his mouth and say how good Muh looked. Called Muh ‘Blondie’ because the hot sun had bleached the tips of her braids a reddish color. Muh would be in a very foul mood all day if someone hadn’t hit on her and I had to take the punishment for it. “Taking your blows?” That was they said hello and especially since Attway was working on the Sabbath.
“Taking them with grace.” He laughed back.
“I’ll ask Jesus to send you some real grace.” Muh said
You want me to believe all dat turn duh uhdda cheek biz-neice?
Two cheeks I have. What cheeks dhey want me to turn again? Butt cheeks? I not in dat biz-neice.”
“An why you bodha go dong dhere? Di Sabbath on di Satuday anyhow. You know who da is di only man livin today? Jah is di only man livin, the only Iverlivin God. Everyting else done dead. God long dead in dat church dere. It’s me dhat will be comin back for sinnas. Right before dey shut dheir eyes and right before dey draw dere las breath. I’ll be holding someting shining in my han. Dey’ll fink it was Jesus with all his angels and swords. Dey’ll feel dheir deepess fear gettin closa. But it won’t be no sword. I’ll be holdin a mirror for dem bloodclat!”
Attway made his real money by selling coconuts on Sundays. He’d climb the trees with his cutlass clenched in his mouth. He was such a graceful figure gliding up the trees like a sloth. He’d pick the nuts and set them out on a blanket for sale by the concrete bridge, at the entrance of our village. I still could hear him rasp, “Ko Ko nut, Ko Ko nut. Duh wata goood for flushin duh kidneys. You can cut it wif a likkle rum. Duh jelly goood for duh bones.” Coconuts always sold themselves. By noon, after everyone had walked miles from their churches in the city, their mouths were dry and thirsted for the drink of fresh coconut water. Attway was there every Sunday splitting the green orbs in half and making little spoons from their husk. His precision with the cutlass was impressive. In the midst of casual conversation, the heavy blade came down without ever cutting his palms. “I sell nuts for different prices sometimes.” He was telling one of his customers. “Sometimes five US, ten US. Even twenty US those tourist willin to pay. You know why? It’s like new blood. The wisdom of Jah in duh coconut wata. You never know what you’ll need that day. But it is only Rasta that can authorize Jah’s blessings.” Crowds gathered, flies clawed at the jelly, and dollar bills were in and around the pan he used for collecting payment. People aimed for the pan, but it usually bounced and bills poured on his red blanket like libations. Attway worked the stand alone, but never looked down at the money. It was like he didn’t care. Whereas everyone else watched the little change they had been given to survive on. He wasn’t someone to ever withhold bread, or mangoes from us. Sometimes we would even see him feeding the skinny dogs by the road. He was just there at the stand those afternoons for the next witty exchange.
But that afternoon, the crowd gathered around his body, under the same tall trees that he could scale so effortlessly. I took a glimpse through the older people’s legs. His face was bloody with deep cuts and gashes on the sides and part of his lip had split on the stones at the base of the bridge and ripped. There were cracked baby coconuts, leaves and branches around him on the rocks washing the red river water to sea. It was as if God had dropped him when he dropped God. That’s what people were saying. They had to call the hospital in town to lift the body. From that height everyone expected sudden death from broken ribs puncturing his lungs, but Attway got up before the town medics came and walked off somewhere into the hills. He’d completely vanished, erasing himself from the memories of St Lucian people.
Before Muh could start on the day’s laundry, she’d have to wash the dishes the Indian family had left from last night’s dinner. She labored like this to feed me and her newborn baby boy, who either hung from the cloth sling tied to her back, or in my care while my father, a mythical figure I’d only seen in photographs, earned extra money as a gas station attendant overseas. He told us he was living in different places. Said he’d send for me when things settled. We’d put his food on the table, or on the little stool because he wouldn’t touch anything in his plate. The lady Muh worked for knew my mother to be a thief, but Muh only stole when things were really bad. Someone had taken that lady’s bangle, the one with the studded rubies, so she planted a bright colored scarf in the laundry to catch the thief. Was it the curse or the pattern on the scarf that made Muh grab it and stuff it down into her burlap purse? She thought the Indians had taken the country from us. What’s a piece of fabric to wrap her baby in? Something in the cloth came alive that night to play with my baby brother. The countryside woke up to Muh’s screams. Her baby’s whole head wet, stifled in sweat, the scarf around his face. Ma was no subtle woman. She loved and hated with the same intensity. But now, with the baby gone, the milk in her chest froze to stone. Her voice was gone, her eyes dim. She’d walk around the house, tensed-up like acoustic strings. The feeling of violence echoed with the squeaking floorboards. People referred to her in terms of before and after the scarf. I remember being hungry a lot during those days. Ma’s eyes were different. Perhaps she’d stayed in her room or maybe it was just that I kept a distance from her. I became quiet and more studious, spending most of my time outside.
I still remember those auspicious evenings after walking home from school; the river water rushed and the fog began to recede back into the clouds swallowing the mountains. There was always that smell of red earth and I don’t recall there being a distinction between us. Often it was accompanied with the smell of burning wood and leaves from two houses down. The old lady who made coals (fuel for coal pots) lived there. I was getting ready to wash my school uniform and I’d filled a bucket with clear water from the stream. Puss took her usual place beside me on the bench and cunningly slid onto my lap. I remember gently placing her back on the bench and then looking into the bucket. Hundreds of black dots danced at the top of the bucket. My first thought was that a mysterious force had sprinkled black pepper into my laundry. I thought if I turned around, I’d see Attway back from the dead. I passed my hands against Puss’ fur to discover her pink skin crawling with fleas. They were chewing into her flesh with thousands of angry bite marks. I hadn’t noticed the patches of fur that fell off around her neck and on her chest and along her lower back. I threw her into the bucket of cold water and held her down to wash off the fleas. She cried and scratched my hands drawing blood. Fleas all came up to her face for air, tens of thousands sizzling on the water’s surface, going into her mouth and into her wide, scared, precious eyes. I tried to get them off by wiping her face but she struggled to jump out and one of my palms wasn’t enough. There were so many coming out of nowhere, swimming back from the water to sting my hands. She kept scratching and crying. I was so disgusted and desperate and I pushed her whole head under the water till a silence fell on all of the confusion I was feeling. The fleas came up in clots of black ink. Puss’ head came up too. The scratching and crying stopped. When I let Pus go, her legs twitched and her body slowly floated up to the surface. She was barely breathing and I knew I had done something bad. I quickly laid her body out on the stones to dry just like I had seen Muh do with the thicker towels.
Her stomach was alive, but her head hung lame off the boulder. She rasped. Her last breaths pushed against the whole universe. Feelings of immense guilt flashed through me like the stings of a thousands fleas. Hundreds of thoughts rose together to choke me. I hurried off to the house to do my homework because I didn’t know what else to do. I hoped that she would magically bounce back with the same resilience she had when she landed on her feet from great heights, but once I got back to Puss’ body, I saw that her stomach had stopped moving, her body was deflated and stiff, with a streak of red escaping her mouth. Her eyes were open and fleas and other insects had begun to disassemble her under the hot sun. Bugs that I didn’t even know existed had their way with her. It was as if a great lioness was splayed out on the African plain. I dug a hole and covered Puss with the loose stones on the banks.
I never told anyone about that and Muh didn’t even notice the cat’s disappearance. She would leave during the nights and I’d see her enter the house in the black hours of morning. Rumors spread. Neighbors said they saw her frequent the ports, asking for cigarettes from sailors and calling for sex. Someone had seen her cutting her thighs and her wrists with broken glass. It was the blue soap that made the skin on her hands rough and darker everyday and when she wasn’t taking care of herself properly, it started to blister and someone probably saw her picking at it, I thought. They said she had gone off and was just cutting herself in town while drinking, but I knew. She was soon put away in the asylum on the coast. People didn’t want me to know where it was exactly. I was happy for the first few days because I could have gone to any of my friends. Even the Indians would have taken me in, but I stayed with the old lady who made the coals. I lived there happily till in dawned on me what had really happened. Muh’s husband never came back to see her at the asylum and he had stopped sending her money long before the baby had suffocated. My father took it alright. He sent for me shortly after she was admitted. The old lady had given me a necklace of seeds the shape of beans, but they weren’t beans. She said Custom officers wouldn’t stop me and I should plant them as soon as I got to America. If I drank the tea from the leaves, she said, I would live forever. Muh had said the old lady had cured people of sickness like cancer and AIDS. I have never properly grieved Muh or my brother. I had seen people fall from coconut trees and rise up again. I had never seen a person die before and I thought my brother was just sleeping elsewhere and that someday soon he would show up in my mother’s sling again.
Muh and I did see Attway once in Soufriere, the south of the island from inside a dollar van. His clothes had more holes than before and he walked with a noticeable limp. I yelled out, but Muh just squinted hard as though she wasn’t sure it was him. He made his living now by performing tricks for tourists. “Jus trow di breadstik ennywhe close to my lips,” we heard him sing to a foreign family sitting at the balcony of a French restaurant. Did a funny version of the Creole dance with his bent back. Then he saw us. Smiled at me with even less teeth. Muh’s face had an expression that I will never fully comprehend. I had never seen tears flow so profusely and so suddenly without them been beaten out. They fell onto the cheeks of the sleeping baby against her chest. There was a strange distance in her eyes like they had seen the future of the whole country. The dollar van pushed off. I looked back to see if he won the basket of French bread. Attway’s wobbling silhouette faded beneath the dust from the van as if it was all a dream. That was the last time I’d seen him.
A few years later, island people said he’d reappeared in Castries, where he slept at the corner of the main junction; by Massade Street. He had by his feet a bowl for pedestrians’ miscellaneous offerings, which were often blocks of orange cheese inside a white loaf of bread. That was what most people ate for lunch. Two stray dogs warmed his legs at night and ate out of this bowl as well. He sat there for years without words, but he could be heard at night sometimes barking like a dog.
It was his brother, a Rasta they called Creation who had finally identified him when he went looking for work in the city, sometime after their mother died quietly. He assumed like everyone that Attway had eventually succumbed to the internal bleeding from his fall, but Creation had found what was left of him. His plaits clumped into one massive, thick, dry dread. His nails grew and the area around him took on the smell of dogs. Creation had to force him into a dollar van and then carried him to their mother’s old cottage slung over his back. He tied Attway down to clean under his feet, which were now permanently marked by oily black stains. His forehead was several shades darker than the rest of his face. When he cut Attway’s locks, he found a colony of centipedes had nested in his hair and was stinging his temples. Two big ones and six little ones Creation had pulled out. Their venom had reached the blood in his brain. Creation’s face streamed with quiet, hot tears that fell onto Attway’s spotted scalp. He passed the warm wet towel over his brother’s head and dressed him in white. He prayed over his sleeping brother for the three days that he was there. Then he, too, collapsed on the straw mat at the corner of the bed. The mango leaves shimmered with moonlight and the rougher waves from that side of the island carried the healing scent of almonds and seaweed into the cottage. You could see sickness and pain evaporating in the cool rays of the moon. But when Attway woke on the third day, he left for the city again. The leather sandals his brother braided him were cast aside and he walked the length of the island to reach the familiar stoop at the corner of the dusty street. By the smell of his sweat, his dog friends knew he was home, and had let out yapping screams miles before they saw him approach. Once they saw and recognized the animal dressed in human clothes, their barks broke into deranged howls. Their tails wagged madly and they huddled around him. There they knotted again into a single beast – which probably still sits there with a new hive of insects breeding in its fur. There the legends had begun about Attway the Christ, Attway spotted in the hills as Jah, but these we must leave for another time.
I arrived at JFK in the winter of 1990. Got my first knocks outside the airport. Silly Caribbean dreams snuffed out by the sharp freezing breeze, sidewalks dotted with black chewing gum, and angry pedestrians pushing for taxis. One enters this city with the scraping sound of rolling luggage against raw pavement. The buzz from the plane engines will ring in his head for days. I was only twelve. Why did people come here to live? The airport is the last chance we get to turn around. I still remember when I first heard the American accent. It was in the voice of a homeless man in the restroom that told me to “get duh fuck out of here…wherever duh fuck you from. This place will break your heart, son.” I smiled and choked it down. Thought he might have been talking to someone else. To himself, maybe.
I had already seen the nation’s wealth, the metal fences and lights illuminating empty parking lots from inside the aircraft. From that height, cars crawled slowly across the boroughs. People in America had driven cautiously because they cared about each other, I thought. But the world when we landed was cold and dark and if ever someone slowed to let you pass it was because of traffic. I saw this rush in the heavy-with-makeup eyes of people. Dreams survived, but were never allowed to flourish. Concrete streets dried up the better parts of free spirits. I didn’t know it then, but children were extensions of their mother’s frustration, and were raised solely to increase the welfare balance. More and more of them were welcomed into the household, but not for love.
My palms became cold and sweaty. Even in the summer months, the coldness and wetness didn’t leave. My first ten years in America were spent in the most profound confusion and silence. Maybe something that took root in St. Lucia and gained its strength here and grew into shame. “Everywhere you go from this point” my father was breaking me into the ways of this world, “there will be things that you will have to put away and other things to get used to. Stay away from all the shops you see around here. Stay away from girls and stay away from boys talking about dope.” The thing to put away first was going to church. That left nowhere else to go but school. I was thrown into the most backward seventh grade class at the public junior high near where we lived. I knew most children knew something I didn’t. That thing called “cool” that determined everything; a thing that eluded me from my skinny body to my Payless shoes. My father never mentioned his sister or the baby. It was easier that way for me too. To forget that St. Lucia and all of its people had ever happened. My friends and the things we did on the island would have been an embarrassment in this context. One must abandon all natural habits and get rid of his Caribbean accent with haste if he is to survive junior high. I got that. Being from a different country and starting junior high was a lot like dying and going to hell. My art teacher had said the same thing.
The walls in our living room were uneven and in some places the exposed sheetrock bulged and leaked. Roaches came in through the cracks. The walls were better in my room. The blood of mosquitoes that had been killed dotted the partition at the head of my bed. I sometimes feared they were dried boogers of the children who lived here before us. At nights, the lights from Yankees’ Stadium momentarily shined, but the narrow horizontal windows had let little daylight in. My father and I were living inside of a fog that allowed only shafts of surplus light from the sidewalk. And in those leftover flashes, I saw the world for what it was. The sun, which had given life to all things here wasn’t shining. It didn’t rise or fall behind the gray buildings. It wasn’t smiling and whatever else people were saying about it. It had only one purpose, which was to pump out darkness. Someone else had noticed. There was an old Korean lady with very pale dotted skin who stood by the fire hydrant every morning. I thought she was praying. But my father said she was waiting for the spaceship. “What spaceship?” I asked him, but he didn’t want to get into it. That’s usually how our conversations went.
There was a kitchenette in the living room that separated our bedrooms. We ate Chinese food almost every night and then we’d return to our rooms. My father stayed in his smoky crowded room in front of the television for almost the whole night. He’d watch reruns of old boxing matches and I could hear him cheer for whoever the darker boxer was. He’d call them “blackie”. “Come on blackie!” He’d shout while punching the air and biting his lips. He was very black himself. When he made me angry, I always thought of him as the black cast iron kettle on the stove that no one used because it took too much effort to lift. I’d never go into my father’s room except to ask him for money. He would always say he didn’t have any. He didn’t work because he was collecting disability for some reason that I didn’t understand. Even his sister who lived in Harlem had been apprehensive about coming over. I’d seen her that first time I’d arrived from the airport, but not once since. She lived by the tall projects in the Spanish section of Harlem on 108th and third, but in a basement apartment also. I had gone there on occasion to visit my three cousins. Their situation was only slightly more humane. The main difference was that they spoke, whereas my household was full of death and silence. It didn’t matter what time I’d get over there. My cousin Petra was perpetually in one of her brothers’ faces, or in her mother’s face, yelling or hissing under her breath, straining her forehead. The brothers were engaged in long, drawn-out wars, and the two rooms in that apartment were always potentially hazardous. It was never quiet, but at least there was language.
We rented the basement apartment from the white man who lived on the ground floor. Years later I learned the man was Puerto Rican, but I had not yet known the difference. There was a fenced yard with a mixed breed pup in the back. Our apartment was seventy percent underground, and I could see the man feeding the dog his leftovers if I pressed my forehead to the long narrow window of my room. I only saw his feet, or up to his knees at times. They would step outside briefly while food was placed in the crusty plastic bowl, and then they’d shuffle back inside. In the eight years that I lived there, I don’t think he ever knew I watched him. I doubt that the high-spirited puppy had a name. I named him Prince because once, when my father had made attempts to make my transition to America more bearable, he had taken me to see the Prince of Egypt. Prince’s suffering was that of the children of Israel and Prince would soon be free. Children from my school would throw things over the fence when Prince barked. I saw him swallow a square of Now and Laters with the paper wrapper still on it. Sometimes I stood on my bed and tapped the glass window to let Prince know his day was near. He will be free. He licked and frosted up the glass with his breath and stayed there in anticipation of other cryptic signals. For hours he waited, scratching and whining. I was his only friend and when he realized it, he howled. The howling made my stomach heavy with sadness, and I’d sink back into my bed because I knew that I could not save him. Our landlord had built Prince a wooden house outside, but my father made it clear that I wasn’t allowed back there.
Junior high was over. High school was a little less dismal. This was only because there were art classes and an open art room, into which I attempted to escape every chance I got. I spent all of my free time after school there for the first two years.
I had not gone past the two boroughs I came to know; The Bronx and certain parts of Manhattan. There were many jumpings in junior high. Many rejections from girls. All that was going to end. I started to rebel. Started cutting all of my classes, smoking cigarettes and cussing like everybody else in my high school. It was the chemicals inside of spring that made me act out and encouraged the girls to laugh and stick their hips out. But attention from those chicks released chemicals in thugs that made them want to jump me after school.
One of them was my ‘friend’. They’d come to where I lived to jump me yet again, but I wasn’t there. They slashed the tires and broke the fork on my bike that was chained up to our fence. My father came to the school to complain to the dean. It was so strange seeing him in my school. He looked like he had just crawled out of a different time. Seeing how he spoke to my teachers and my guidance counselor I felt some mix of embarrassment and pity. All these years in America and he had not shed the thick St. Lucian accent. I watched how he climbed up the small staircases in his bulky clothes and his old sneakers that looked too big. Everything was so off about him. It brought out all of his deficiencies, and mine. Something happened to my father before I even got to know him. He had somehow become a trace of the person Muh bragged about. I had seen a chief of police in the security guard’s uniform because I loved my father, or who I thought he was in those photographs. “He had a smile that hung in the room till it made you smile.” Muh would point at it. Now his face looked like there was never anything to smile about. That life had played a sick joke on him.
My guidance counselor told him to pull me out of the school and to think about the option of a school five hours away, in Maine: A high school ran by Buddhists in the middle of the woods. The counselor called me “sensitive”, a word that made my father cringe because he equated me with something weak, frail and therefore likely to fold. The Buddhists had a different way of looking at sensitivity. She told my father. All I had to do was apply. There was a long waiting list, but I got in at the beginning of the next semester because I was brilliant. With the exception of English, I had nearly aced all of the regents and AP courses they had put in front of me. You should have seen my father then. His eyes, his very skin came alive when he heard that I’d gotten into that new school. Got me on the bus leaving from Chinatown. His back was so straight for the first time, you’d think he owned the school.
I arrived on the second day of the orientation because I had mistaken the date. I think I got wrapped up in the excitement too. Everybody seemed zonked out. They were walking unnaturally slow, eyes glazed over and pretending not to see the person in front of them. The other black boys were unfazed by my presence. They acted like they were walking on air having already reached enlightenment. We weren’t allowed to talk for large parts of the day and I didn’t mind. Wake. Sit. Breakfast. Duty. We still studied for regents exams independently. Then Walk Meditation in the forest. Lunch. Duty. Walk. Sit. Study the Dharma scripts. Walk. Sit. Walk. Sit. Sit. Sleep. The monastery bells would ring. Everyday it was like this. By the fourth day I was a zombie too. Repressing every urge so I could fit into the stream of bodies floating down the halls. Didn’t even know I still HAD urges until I wasn’t allowed them.
My duty was to arrange the offerings retreaters left for the Buddha within the temple. Stones, sea shells, beads, flower petals, crystals, and wedding rings left by wives with shredded hearts from cheating men scattered like glass before the Buddha’s feet. I was instructed to wash my hands and light incense before touching the objects. I swore I saw the statue smile when I configured the charms into a penis and a silver necklace outlining urine on the concrete. I knew what the Buddha needed. We were becoming great friends. Another time, I offered him a piece of my cake from lunch and I came back to a totally transformed Buddha. He was bleeding from his palms and kundalini chakras. Ants had swarmed him. The queen and her army had gathered around the seated lotus. It took three days for his company to leave. I couldn’t just remove the cake and break some ant’s leg. So I let the insects feast and accumulated zero karma. I had already asked the Buddha to forgive our lizard-killing sprees. But the monks did not see my friendship with the statue as beneficial. They switched my duty to sweeping the staff library. It took less time, but was far more boring.
That same night, the monks had to call the hospital because I couldn’t breathe. I started panicking from hearing voices. TV commercials were playing in my dreams. Whole conversations tickling the inside of my brain. I couldn’t sleep. It might have been something in the food, or those meditation practices because other students also started getting sick. The tv commercials made us wake up crazy. Two students started fighting at the breakfast table for no reason and this one guy kept spitting on people.
That was the thing they didn’t tell you about silence. It doesn’t exist. When you stop talking, others in the air around you cut in, and they’re not so easy to talk to. So you scream, naturally, to drown them in the sound rising up your esophagus. You rave. I stayed in the hospital in Maine for another eight days, but the nightmares didn’t leave for a while. The nurses kept switching up my meds. I was quite the amusing med trial rat. Pills that made me feel nothing were kindly offset with pills that made me feel something. They were forced to transfer me to my borough of origin; into the Bronx State Mental Hospital.
The universe does not expand. It begs. Its over-extended palms ask constantly in a desperate attempt to find cure for sickness, as the sun is sent out every morning from behind the gray tenement apartments through the Bronx State Mental Hospital’s scratched-up windows to wash across the yellow-tiled wards. Like a searchlight scanning the globe, it seeks out change in humdrum patterns of life, at the backs of crinkled heads of crazy patients and their sleeping eyelashes. Rays of light deposit pain from preceding nights in minuscule in-between places. Dry skin, hair, and wet dreams meet there in panic. Wet, not from pleasure, but from cold sweat and electric tears of the schizophrenics. Pockets of grief collect on our foreheads. We hear the call for breakfast. Last names are shouted into the long halls of patients for trays with food and meds. They call us their clients. The sun takes a particular interest in the residents of Bronx State, gathering up the ends of our nightmares to water the planets. Then the smudge of light ducks underneath the dark clouds, which seem to always loom over the hospital.
What I remember is warmth because it had been cold in Maine. Morning light slowly crept into the large turquoise waiting room inside the men’s ward. Me, and the two men admitted that night, pushed off the sticky gymnasium mats and sat up when we heard the orderlies coming from down the hall. We were taken upstairs dressed in nightgowns and socks. Rooms inside were bluish-gray like overcast skies. The smell of coffee from the cafeteria was the next thing to hit. The warmth continued inside the restroom to the yellow tiles on the wall, to the huge urinals, to the old sinks with yellow crusty rings.
Cigarettes were generously offered as I walked pass the men to use the urinals. “Cigarette! Cigarette!” Someone whined in a falsetto and they all laughed together like it was the funniest joke ever told. Smoke reversed into their nostrils, and then caught in their giggles and snorts as they approached each other in the circle of idiots. I wondered how long some of them had been in the hospital. Their beards were down to their chests. The light from the barred windows fell evenly on their foreheads. This made them all look intelligent somehow. Outcast philosophers and learned street-hustlers who were done with hearing lies from the doctors gathered there like cranks from the Bible giving their crazy explanations of the world. Apparently there was a heaven on top of this hell and schizos were caught in the middle. There was once life on all the planets, but the long arms of the devil had stretched across the races, setting brother against brother, daughter against mother, inmate against inmate and it is only like this that planets became deserts. Earth was the last stronghold. Most of what they were saying, they were getting from the blind man the rest of the lunatics called, ‘PROPHET’. Nurses called him PROPHET, too.
PROPHET didn’t hang out in the restrooms like the rest of them. He didn’t quite come out except to stroll over and sit on that one chair in the corner of the cafeteria and to receive his supper tray. He’d pile what the nurses had saved from his breakfast and lunch onto that tray and eat everything as one meal and then head back to his room. Inmates said he’d been in there the longest. Doctors didn’t know where else to send him. I wondered why they called him PROPHET and if that was his real name.
But there were a lot of faces in a tight space. I hung with SHEPHERD sometimes who was a little older than me. Kept me from slipping away in there. The first day we met, SHEPHERD had put me onto his workout regiment; “In case you need to throw down a guard or something.”
SHEPHERD was skinny too, but cut, so I listened.
“Just five of these every time before a meal,” his toes were on the metal frame of the bed for incline.
“Just do them casually,” he puffed.
“When you wake up, before you go to sleep- boom, boom, boom. Just hit them. Do chin ups here.” He pointed to wooded ledge over the door of his room. “Your press ups. Do ten of those. Clean the shit from your ass before you sleep. Wake up the next day ready for whatever comes at you. Simple.”
So it was me, Shepherd and Wallace. Everyone else in H ward looked like they swallowed a basketball. Guts pushing out and eyes puffy from too much sleep.