Him: After the great debate
We didn’t have a phone at home when I was a little boy so I don’t know why Ma used to say it all the time, but she would always say that phone calls late at night mean nothing but bad news. Phone lines eventually came down into Jack’s Hole though. The telephone poles were installed right after Mr. Palmer won his parliamentary seat but it wasn’t until he was up for reelection that the wires were run to each house, and even then, it must have been the king of coincidences that the phones that didn’t work on that first morning when the services were installed, the phones that didn’t yield a dial tone no matter how many times you pressed the little button on the base, those phones all belonged to longtime supporters of the opposition. Ma didn’t walk around the community with her index and middle fingers in the party’s V-for-Victory signal; she didn’t wear a green T-shirt to stand in the back of a truck during an election motorcade; she didn’t even talk about politics, at least not to me, but since our phone worked that first morning, I can only assume that she had voted for Mr. Palmer, or that she would after that anyway.
I used to lie down on the red velvet settee and wait until Ma had gone to bed so I could find a girl to talk to, any girl who would let me whisper-whisper to her on the phone late at night. It wasn’t hard to figure out what to dial even if a person hadn’t specifically told you their phone number. We all had the same 963 area code and even the last four digits ran consecutively along the row of houses in our little corner of the Hole. Sometimes it would be Dawn or Nadine, two first cousins who were the same age and looked like twins and who lived with their grandmother, Miss Minna, just across the street. Their number was the mirror image of ours – 1101 and 1011 – and when I called it at night, one or the other of them would answer. It was the easiest number to remember and thus the first one I would try, even if I didn’t really care about either of those girls. When I got a busy signal, I knew some other guy had beaten me to the call and I would make my way down a mental directory. 1101 and 1011 were 90 spaces away from each other. I like the mathematical symmetry and thought it would make a great picture when it lit up the telephone exchange, but it wasn’t the only available connection.
There weren’t 90 houses in our little community even if you went to the innards of Jack’s Hole and came back but I assume that some of the numbers might have been reserved for future development. Ever since, there had been talk of some tourist spot or other that would come to the lookout point where Jacks Hole opened up to a view of the Caribbean Sea; maybe they’d reserved some of the numbers for that prospect, although it was probably never going to happen – maybe when PNP got back into power, as unlikely as that was these days. I didn’t think too much about it anymore. American politics was even more polarizing if anyone could believe that.
Sometimes when I was on the phone, as intently as I had to listen to hear whoever was on the other end of the line whispering back, trying to keep just as quiet in their house and as I was trying to keep in mine, I wouldn’t hear that Ma was up until she appeared. Sometimes, she would move around in the dark without saying anything and I would only know that she was up until I heard the steady stream of her bladder emptying into the toilet. Other times, she would stand, hands akimbo, feet apart, her silhouette illuminated by the street light that shone through the seams of the living room’s louver windows, and say louder than was probably necessary, that I should let decent girl pickney go to bed.
Nothing you saying going help whoever on that phone, Ma would say, as though she was warning the person on the other end, instead of advocating for me, her only child. Sometimes she stood there and waited for me to hang up the phone, other times she just kept muttering until her voice faded behind her closed room door when she went back to bed. Nothing you saying to her could be good. Nothing good ever come from a late night phone call and I hope whoever you talking to…
It was funny that now I barely talked on the phone at night. Living in New York these past 3 years had changed a lot of my habits. Work and studying didn’t leave much time for anything other than writing and besides the only person who called me regularly was Brownie and she kept a schedule. I had stopped responding to her emails but she still called me almost every night. After I talked to her and called Ma like I did twice a week now, I didn’t pay attention to the phone. Besides, I didn’t usually hear the ring of the house phone all the way down in the basement at Aunt Ruby’s. Someone was always playing a radio or else the kids that she “babysat” in her unlicensed day care were shrieking, as one of them was almost always doing, whether from delight when things seemed good or from frustration when they didn’t get their way. There were a couple of kids who often slept at the house when their mothers worked as night shift nurse aides so the random screaming was almost round the clock.
Sometimes, it was noisier in the house than the school cafeteria on the last day of finals, someone shouting or crying, someone being reprimanded, someone else telling them to quiet down but adding to the cacophony – it could get so loud you could hardly hear it if you were sitting next to the landline in the living room or kitchen. But at night, even on a sleepover night when the kids had finally cried themselves to sleep and before they woke up from a nightmare, when the last load of laundry had been washed, or even if someone’s last load was still tumbling in the dryer, the thrill of a ringing phone sounding through the house was usually an alert that something bad was about to happen.
I was writing an editorial about the color and gender divide, about what the two front runners for the democratic candidacy meant – the first female or the first black presidential hopeful – and how progressives would choose what side of history they wanted to back. I heard the ring when it started. I don’t know why it startled me but it did. I looked at the time display on the Toshiba laptop, one of my upgrades bought with my construction earnings that were just about running out. Good thing the semester was wrapping up in a few weeks.
It was just a ringing phone, low first but then it began to sound more insistent, ominous, like everyone was trying to ignore it, trying to avoid being the one to open the phone line that would let the bad news in, and yet it rang, demanding acknowledgment and acceptance.
It was just after midnight. 12:01, when I looked. The numbers added up to thirteen. I shuddered at the omen.
Junior. The voice was at the top of the stairs. Aunt Ruby. She sounded sad.
I didn’t answer until she called me again. Junior. Phone.
I had two thoughts while I walked and then leapt up the steps two at a time. First, Ma wasn’t dead. If she had died, whoever it was on the phone would have told Aunt Ruby and she would come down the stairs and break the news to me, probably make sure I was sitting down, maybe even bring me some sweet tea when she came. I looked at her sad face but also took in her empty hands when I moved past her limp frame half blocking the doorway.
The second thought was what I was going to do about the situation that would inevitably present itself when I got to the phone. Did I want to go back to Jamaica? Was I ready to go now? It was the last year of my student visa. If I go back to Jamaica now, I might not be able to come back. Did I want to go back to Jamaica to live? And if yes, was I ready to go now?
Hello, I said into the phone. I didn’t hear anything so I said it again, louder, demanding whoever it was say their piece so I could make my decision.
I recognize the voice immediately as belonging to Miss Minna, the lady across the street back in Jack’s Hole – Nadine and Dawn’s grandmother. 1011. I added the numbers in my mind, not for the first time, remembering that there was no way to arrange the numbers where they added to unlucky number 13. Although this was a bad news phone call, it wasn’t death. I made myself relax. If it had been Miss Green, our next door neighbor, 1102, I might have had a heart attack before she said anything. Miss Minna’s number meant safety.
Hello, Miss Minna,I said.
How you know it’s me, she asked, her voice brightening, forgetting for a moment, perhaps, the reason for her call.
I ignored the question and retrained the focus. Wha a gwan, Miss Minna?
Oh. Nuh worry too bad, she said, her voice going low again, but your mother inna the hospital. When she come back to, she did say we nuh fi badda yuh but me think you woulda waan fi know.
Come back to? Ma had been unconscious? What happened to her?
My heart rose and fell and rose again. I didn’t have money for this. I started to think about what I could sell. How much would I get for my laptop? Could I return it, maybe?
What happened to her Miss Minna, I asked.
I don’t know mi son, but if a did me inna the hospital, me know the girl dem woulda come look fi me.
Even after I hang up the phone and tell Aunt Ruby what she hung in the background waiting to hear, that Ma is okay even if she’s in the hospital, even after I make my way back down the basement steps, my mind a calculator tape as I take an inventory of what I can sell to send whatever Ma will need for the hospital bills, even then, I am thinking about Miss Minna’s unspoken dare – any child would come back to make sure their mother, or in her case grandmother, was okay. What kind of son would my Ma have raised if I didn’t do the same?
Did you enjoy this latest installment? Let me know in the comments. Thanks.
Copyright (C) 2017 by Karen Wright
The above is an excerpt from an ongoing creative writing project which will probably be heavily edited in the future. Please do not copy or otherwise share this content.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Thanks Tara Patrick who bought me a drink to fuel this latest edit. Click to visit her on Instagram. I will feature new sponsors here on the blog too.
A few months ago, I started a new novel and shared some of these chapters on this blog. I am finally finishing up this project so I decided to start again at the top and release them to you. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will share the entire draft here on this page. Come back to read the rest of the story.