THE STATES by Sean Godfrey
THE SUMMER I TURNED SIXTEEN, my mother called with what she deemed exciting news.
“Guess what?” she said, “You’re coming to live with me in the States!”
It was the same voice she used when I was eight and she surprised us kids with ice cream. It was a Thursday evening in June and my brother and I had just come in from gorging ourselves on the East Indian mangoes that fell from Mrs. Peart’s tree into our front yard. The news did not have the desired effect.
“What about our friends?” And when that didn’t work: “What about church? What about school?” My brother was almost in tears.
“One week,” she continued, ignoring our pleas, “go pick up your tickets in New Kingston. Mr. Perry will take you.” We stared at the floor, both of us mute with disappointment.
“Aren’t you excited?”
No. We were quite comfortable living in Jamaica, boarding with young parents — not our own — whose eyes and ears busied themselves with their three- and five-year-old so much that they overlooked the hour or two infractions of our curfew.
Mummy was living in Miami at the time, a result of the acrimonious divorce that followed our father’s immigration to Toronto with his mistress and their new baby. At first he was the one who wanted me and my brother to live with him, but I sensed that his new girlfriend, only four years my senior, would have none of it. So when Daddy called again to tell us he had to think it over, I held my tongue. And so it was decided. We’d live with Mummy.
I understood the futility of pleading my case but I had to try. I reminded Mummy of my five nonstop years of cramming.
“Every day, Mummy,” I pleaded, “every day since first form I’ve been studying.” And it showed. I had finally passed my eight subjects in O-Levels and I looked forward to the first summer in years without study.
“That’s true,” Mummy said and I detected just the faintest of cracks in her armor. I left out a few things of course --minor details about fêtes, and drinks, and nights away at friends’ houses. What mattered most to me was a trip my four best friends and I planned on taking to a different beach in a different parish every weekend until the start of sixth form.
For the last half of fifth form I had saved a quarter of my lunch money, eyes set on the prize of beaches, the best Escovitch fish and festival and, if we were lucky, girls. Howard Cox, after lying all year about his sexual escapades, planned on hiring a prostitute. Behind his back we deliberated the suitability of his company on this trip, but his parents owned a chain of hotels across the island which meant free lodging for all of us. Patrick just wanted an opportunity to drive and the rest of us wanted to see the water, swim, fall asleep, and repeat the next day. We were boys set on having fun after years of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Add Maths. We wouldn’t have known how to get into real trouble even if we had a manual.
I pleaded and pleaded some more. I rattled off a list of good behavior as yet unrewarded: I kept the right company, I attended church every week, I visited Mrs. Anglin and Mrs. Williams at the old age home at least once per month. I thought of the virginal appendage between my legs and I knew I deserved this one thing.
“Where will you stay?” Mummy asked, “And how will you get around?”
I laid out what I thought was a rock-solid academic plan: two years of sixth form, complete my A-Levels, and then on to medical school at UWI. My brother, fourteen years old, and still in fourth form, begged Mummy for one more year to complete high school. Mummy hemmed and hawed, then relented. But then I said, “Karen and Simone doing the same thing. See Mummy, we are not alone.”
There was a moment of silence, then: “ Karen Metcalf?” And it was over. I had long since expunged the incident from my memory, the small matter of the party in Red Hills where Karen had become a little too familiar with too many of the boys. Contact with her was still prohibited. I could hear Mummy’s mind working out the far reaching consequences of the distance between her and her children. How long had she been gone? Two years? And look at the mess. I was consorting with that leggo girl.
“Pick up your tickets and I’ll deal with you when you get here,” Mummy said. I hung up, turned to my brother and shook my head.
A week later Mummy met us at the airport in Miami in a blue Subaru hatchback and we drove to a small apartment in Hollywood. I was disappointed. It seemed to me to be a step down for us and I began to question my mother’s choices. The house we owned in Jamaica was a four-bedroom, three-bath home with a large yard and several fruit trees. There was enough room for tenants. Now we were the renters, squatters at the mercy of a mercurial landlord. We rode the elevator to the tenth floor and faced a two bedroom apartment with one bathroom and a view of the rows of cars in the parking lot. I shared a room with my brother! She tried to appease us. She drove us to the pastiche of a beach in Fort Lauderdale. She made plans for Disney World but my brother objected.
“You mean like Mickey Mouse? No, Mummy.”
We visited SeaWorld instead and not even the dancing dolphins and splashing whales moved me. I pouted for a day and refused to eat with the rest of the family until day three when Mummy told me to “stop di foolishness.”
Four days after we arrived, she plopped the Sun Sentinel Sunday newspaper in my lap, already opened to the employment section of the classifieds. A few jobs had been pre-circled in red. In my head I pouted but then a few of the jobs jumped out at me. $4.50/hr. You work you get paid, one ad read. Four dollars and fifty cents an hour, I said to myself, in American dollars. I mentally computed the conversion to Jamaican currency. I could work as many hours as I wanted, I thought. It was not Dunn’s River Falls Beach or Puerto Seco Beach or Hellshire Beach, but a job meant an opportunity to make my own cash. Oh, the money I’d save! So I scoured the ads for hours. Pompano Beach, Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Imperial Point—I imagined work spaces with complex machines moving goods from pallets to warehouses to ships going off to exotic and faraway lands.
Mummy said, “No, too far. Lots of places round here.”
So I took a position at Publix Supermarket the following day while standing in line at the customer service desk to get quarters for the laundry. The small “Help Needed” sign with red letters on a black background was barely visible, half blocked by the carpet cleaning machines available for rent. They needed a cashier and the only interview question was, “How were your math grades?”
I showed up at nine the next morning along with a fidgety boy wearing jeans, an incomprehensible tattoo on his upper right arm (he had to be sent home to change) and a sandy-haired woman with the largest breasts I had ever seen. We watched two videos, one on safety in the workplace (hazardous materials, wear gloves and protective goggles, etc.), and one on loss prevention (don’t steal anything). The woman asked a series of questions about whether or not the company spied on its employees.
“Otherwise how would you guys know if people are stealing?” she asked.
Our presenter said, “Trust me, we know,” looked at the questioner for two seconds too long and that was that.
A month later, the entire staff had to watch another video on sexual harassment after Mr. O’Connor, one of the assistant managers, was caught with one of the cashiers in the cash counting office (we never found out who) and was immediately transferred.
I worked almost full time, 35 hours per week. I ignored the complaints of the two radicalized proletariats among us who believed the company scheduled us just below 40 hours in order to skip out on paying benefits. I had no grumblings of my own, except that Zoe Peltier’s thirty minute lunches always turned out to be an hour on the days when she had to relieve me. I enjoyed the repetitive nature of the work, and the constant flow of traffic meant there were few, if any, dead moments at the cash register. Customers loved my accent. Every day at least one person asked, “Where are you from?” then said, “Jamaica? How exotic!" or "My husband and I were there a few years ago—such warm people.” Others spoke of Jamaicans who worked for them. “Hard working guys. Knew the job backwards and forwards,” one man said. Most men heard my accent and almost always said, “Yeh mon,” or “No problem, mon,” or “Irie mon.” Sometimes after saying one of those phrases, they’d slap my back or punch my shoulder as if that last bit signaled some sort of bonding. I liked it.
For two weeks it was funny. Then it wasn’t. I grew tired of the predictability of the comments, especially from repeat customers who had just met me the week before.
Initially I objected in small ways, in a pleasant voice of course. “No one in Jamaica says ‘yeh mon’ or ‘irie mon,’” I’d say, but the customers just laughed. I endured the worst comments when customers returned from a cruise to the Caribbean or some all-inclusive stay at Sandals. They donned generic white t-shirts emblazoned with an image of a Rastafarian playing conga drums, dressed in bright combinations of red, green, and yellow. I was in for it then. They’d regale me with tales of boys approaching them as they left the airport, offering unbelievably low prices on marijuana. Depending on their intonation my customers’ feelings ranged from amazement to glee. Some were bold enough to ask me if I ever did that kind of work. One customer, Randy, who appeared to exist in a perpetual state of tipsiness, said: “You must be used to all that stuff, huh? You can smoke a whole bunch and it don’t faze you. But we over here go giddy for that shit. Fucking fascists and their drug war, man.” As usual he’d laugh and punch me on the arm. What was I to say?
Other times I was annoyed at the assumption that I knew everyone from Jamaica. Elderly women would ask if I knew their live-in nurse or companion aide standing right beside them. I’d smile at their nurses and ask where they were from. Many smiled back in a way that suggested that they told their employer “Kingston” when in reality they were from a small town in St. Elizabeth or St. Mary. And who could blame them? It was just easier that way. I was more forthright with my coworkers. If they asked if I knew so and-so I’d say, “Right, because Jamaica is one big back yard where we all hang our clothes out to dry on Saturday mornings and catch up on the week’s events.”
And then there were the reggae experts. Some would start singing right there in the line: I Shot the Sheriff or No Woman No Cry. If it wasn’t Bob Marley it was some other reggae star. Another man, forgetting all about paying for his groceries, began crooning, “Greetings I bring from Jah, to all ragamuffins…” He paused, expecting me to fill in the next group of words. I told him I did not know the song.
“What do you mean you don’t know it?” he asked, offended.
He was the type of man who believed that Jamaica remained in an uninterrupted state of Reggae Sunsplash, that reggae guided our lives and constituted our moral compass. I actually knew the song quite well but I couldn’t bring myself to give him the satisfaction. Another asked if I knew that Bob Marley’s mother was Jamaican but his father was Scottish. I surmised this was to suggest that the combination of the two ethnicities not only informed Marley’s music but contributed to his greatness.
“It’s a shame when a man doesn’t know his history,” he said, pushing his cart towards the door.
Another time this same man, completely forgetting we had met before, wanted to engage in a lengthy academic discussion of Marley’s entire discography and was puzzled when I did not act like an expert. I should have told him that on the day Bob Marley died, I went to school along with my friends, that I came home that afternoon, turned the radio to FM2 and listened to I’m Born Again by Boney M.
Many of my coworkers asked me to say something in “Jamaican.” To which I’d answer, “We speak English.”
“You know what I mean,” they’d say, exasperated.
Our parents forbade speaking patois so I’d draw from the memory of the language the gardener, the cook, and the washer woman spoke at our house when I was a child. “Whappen bredrin,” I’d manage.
They looked at me misty-eyed, lost in the moment of first contact with a new species. “Say something else,” someone would inevitably shout. They always wanted more. After the third time I tried to educate.
“Most Jamaicans I know don’t speak patois.”
“Say a curse word,” someone else would pipe up. Then I’d explain that I was a Christian and the use of such words was offensive to my God.
“Just one word won’t make a difference,” said, Carol Smith, the head cashier.
“Sin is sin.”
She looked at me as if I was on my way back to the compound to spike the lemonade with rat poison. We punched back in for work.
There were other misunderstandings. On one of the few occasions I did not have a customer, Charlie Smith, one of the assistant managers, asked me a strange question. “If Jack helped you off your horse, would you help Jack off his horse?”
“Sure,” I said.
He turned round to the Store manager, Pete Wilson, and laughed, “What did I tell yah?”
Later that evening he explained the joke. I said it was disgusting. He shook his head. Howard Cox would like these people, I thought, he always had a penchant for the crude.
One evening, the front office cashier, Becky Johnson, wanted to know if I was black. The question confused me.
“Of course I am,” I said. This one’s not too bright, I thought.
“But you don’t sound black,” she countered.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’re different,” she said finally, her face registering her discomfort with her inability to catalog me.
By the end of my first month I wanted to leave the job. The people I worked with were daft and they didn’t think much of me, either. They conveniently forgot to invite me to any parties and my lunch breaks coincided with two women in their sixties, both known for their young people these days monologues.
Then another Jamaican was hired: Rufus Beckford.
And they all fell in love with Rufus. He gladly indulged them, saying the curse words they liked to hear, singing dancehall chimes, and wearing the red, green, and yellow rasta belt. He undid all my efforts to introduce complexity to the Jamaican stereotype. He spoke of waking up early in the morning and going down a groun and harvesting ganja. They lapped it up. He showed them the latest dancehall moves. Of course he was from Kingston.
“Di tirteen,” he told me, dropping the ‘h’.
“Kingston 13?” I asked, my voice barely hiding my incredulity, “and you woke up early and harvested ganja?”
“Yes, my yute,” he answered, shaking his head up and down with eyes half closed lost in a moment of nostalgia. I could have called him on this lie. I could have told them all that goin down a groun was a rural activity, that Kingston was as much a city as Miami. Then he asked me, “A wheh inna Jamaica yuh come from?”
“St. Jago Heights.”
“Where?” he asked.
“Near Spanish Town.”
“Spanish Town? Yuh know Missah Bailey?”
I looked at him like surely he must be joking.
“No,” I said.
“Him work a di cigarette factory. Live down a Rivoli.”
“I don’t know him.”.
I did not walk away from Rufus nor did I give him my back. He was the only lifeline I had to my island in that place and as much as I disliked him, his presence in that supermarket comforted me.
Becky joined us just then and asked Rufus, “So when are you going to bring us that curried chicken?”
“Don’t worry, pretty girl. Ah bring yuh some next week,” and his smile said that they were more than just acquaintances.
He did as he promised. Curried chicken for all the following week. And it was the real deal too, with Irish potato and white rice and cho-cho. The platters, every one, properly licked clean. He even brought Jamaican lemonade, the one we make with limes not lemons, sweetened with brown sugar. The smell—oooohhh it made my mouth water, but I turned my head away before they made it obvious that I was not invited to partake. Becky smiled and licked each finger on her right hand while looking at Rufus suggestively.
Then I began to hate him. They ignored me and deluged him with all their questions. Did he live on the beach? Did he have a TV? Did his family all live in one room?
“Yeah mon,” he said, “seven a wi inna one room.”
Did he know how to climb a coconut tree?
“Yeah mon,” he’d say, “everyday mi climb one a dem tree. Yuh just have fi dig een…” and then he’d explain how to properly scale the limbless bark. Yeah mon, that’s how he answered them. I couldn’t believe my ears.
Once I tried inserting myself into one of these question and answer sessions.
“You know, most Jamaicans don’t smoke marijuana.”
Rufus jumped. “A weh yuh jus seh? Marijuana? Wah kinda Jamaican yuh bi? It name ganja. Yuh in America too long.” He slapped me on the back and laughed. The others laughed too, not understanding what he said to me, but quite sure he wanted me to lighten up.
I complained every night when Mummy picked me up. “These people are idiots,” I said.
At first I assumed most of my colleagues were like me, completing a summer stint before heading off to college or back to high school. Instead they worked hard to prove themselves worthy of full-time employment, and nothing more. A significant number had children. I could not imagine the lives they led.
“Just keep with it,” Mummy said, “you don’t have much longer.” And she smiled.
But I wasn’t the only one complaining. My brother, missing all his friends, racked up sizable telephone bills over the summer, leading her to cut off all long distance capability from our home phone. We longed for our friends, our church, our school, the food, the beach. We longed for the familiar.
By the end, I had alienated all my coworkers. Bag boys refused to bag for me. The cashiers found other things to do while my lane grew longer with disgruntled customers. On more than one occasion I caught Rufus whispering to another co-worker while glancing back at me. I can imagine what he said: that I thought myself better than them, that he knew Jamaicans like me. We lived up in the hills in our nice houses, staring down at the people who did all the work. That was only half true. My family did not live in the hills but people like Rufus did work for us. They were our gardeners, handymen, bus and taxicab drivers, washer women, maids, and day workers. My parents spent their whole lives shielding my brother and me from people like him. Now with the passage of time I understand why my coworkers thought me odd, why they got along so well with Rufus: they too were Rufus.
Back at the apartment I made anemic threats to go back to Jamaica. I sulked when Mummy ignored me and promised I’d take the first flight out the day I graduated college. That’ll show her, I thought.
In the end I would, like other immigrants before me, learn to live in my new country and love it. I moved on along my predestined path. I graduated from Miami Dade Community College in three semesters, went on to University of Florida, became a pharmacist, and married a doctor. Mummy would have preferred it the other way around, me the doctor and Beverly the pharmacist, but she has gotten used to it.
These days I think often of my Jamaica, the Blue Mountains and their smoky charcoal curves undulating through the eastern end of the island. I think of Half Way Tree and Cross Roads where high school girls and boys in pristine uniforms rush the buses to take them home, almost everyone with a patty and a sugar bun in hand. The cars dodge the buses, and the sky juice vendors dodge the cars. I think of Hope Gardens Zoo, of the lone toothless tiger pacing back and forth in its cage. I think of the roller coaster in Hope Gardens Park, rising only five feet off the ground, terrifying no one. I think of Boys’ Champs and Girls’ Champs, the four by four hundred relays capping off the best of high school track and field. I think of Manning Cup and Dacosta Cup, and the center forward at St. Georges’ College. I think of West Indies Cricket and Bobby Gishay’s movie reviews on JBC. I think of Mrs. Spence, my second form French teacher, conjugating the verb aller, her meter stick slamming down in rhythm to each pronoun; je vais, slap, tu vas, slap, il/elle va, slap. I think of my unending love for Big League Soccer and my untiring support for Tottenham Hotspur, of Glenn Hoddle crushing defenders on his way up the pitch to score once more.
And sometimes, I think of that summer.
Every few years after, my friends and I would talk about that summer. Of course they remembered the trip around the island and you-had-to-be-there jokes. Carlton would say, “Remember that time at Puerto Seco beach and that girl from Black River — what was her name again?”
I’d sit and listen as they patiently set up another story so I, too, could understand the punch line. Out of politeness, Peter would ask, “So what you ended up doing again?” And I’d tell them about my summer, shading it in the brightest possible gray, “I made enough money in two months to pay for an entire year of college,” I’d tell them and Patrick would say, “Oh yeah?”
There would be a pause then Howard Cox would say, “I remember her name now: Michelle Grant, yeah!”
And laughing, they’d pat each other on the back.
SEAN GODFREY was born in Jamaica and left the island at sixteen to join his mother in the United States. He has worked as a cashier, a lab assistant, a stock boy and finally as a reference librarian. Currently, he is taking a year off from librarianship to pursue a graduate degree in Creative Writing and Publishing at City University London.