Finding Father

Excerpt from the unpublished novel “The Angel’s Share”

• February 2011

I am, not a selfish man. I love much, much more than myself.

I love my father.

For here I am this morning, sandwiched between two trucks on the Flat Bridge, traffic backed up on both sides to god knows how far? It is seven o’clock and still I am not even half way to Hampshire. And with every honk of an angry horn, or every stop and start and stutter of the vehicles in the line, every inching forward of the traffic, I feel my career disappearing slowly behind me. So how could I be a selfish man? How could I not love my father? I am sacrificing my day for him; I am sacrificing a board meeting for him; I am sacrificing my career for him.

I have sacrificed a woman for him.

And this damn ugly river sliding like a brown snake through the misting gorge that extends for miles on both side of this slab of a bridge on which I crawl, still snaking down, slowly and menacingly. The land rising on both sides of it; one side green and lush the other cavernous and bare, both rising high—a gorge, through which the river and the road that tracks it share an uneasy alliance, slipping and sliding together like lovers entwined in some sensuous ritual—knowing, understanding, accepting that every now and then the river will gather its forces from way beyond, in the hills of St. Catherine, and thunder through it taking everything in its wake, cutting off the north of the country from the south.

Where could he be? I have tried calling Una twice, but the phone rings out.

Where could the old man be?

It is hard not to think bad thoughts. This is Jamaica, modern-day Jamaica, where it is so easy to get away with murder. Two months ago, in Manchester, a retired banker and his wife, a retired teacher, were bludgeoned to death and burnt in their houses—lived there all their lives on a five-acre farm, farming goats in their retirement, murdered and burnt alive. A month ago another old man who spent his life working in England, having built a house here, returned to retire; he was trailed by gunmen from the airport, robbed, killed, bludgeoned, and cast on the street like a dog. And even now, in the news every day, old people, homeless people, emerging from the bushes and hills of Mandeville, dead, half dead, discarded; some wandering into the sulfuric death of the bauxite red lakes, some swept up from the streets of Montego Bay and dumped like garbage in the hills, to clean up for a tourist conference. It is a hard place to be old and retired or homeless.

Your father is missing, Everton, and he is not with you!

How you mean missing, Una?

I came home and he is not here.

But where could he be?

But better get here, Eva . . . You better get here . . .

Where could he be?

And now, this empty space, this phone ringing and ringing with no answer. As if he has dropped off some cliff. Missing?

What was the last thing I said to him? What was the last thing I saw of him? What did he look like, what did he want to do? Was he smiling? What did I say, what did I say? Later, old man, next week, a coming for you next week. Was that the last thing—was later the last thing? Did I say later or did he say later? Was he smiling; was he sad?

Did I leave my old man sad? Did I say next weekend meaning yesterday or day before yesterday, when I was wrapped up in the arms of an ungrateful woman?

Where is he?

I can’t even see around the corner of this damn gorge, just the damn truck in front of me and the light blinking, indicating it is going slowly, as if everybody can’t see that. And everything shaded in mist. And trees hanging now on both sides of the gorge. Breadfruit trees along the slopes, small cultivations with no system to them: yam curling up the vines, corn, peas, vegetation up and down—dense. Even the light posts are laden with heavy vines and one can hardly see them, just the hint of board in some places and the lines sagging out like overweight clotheslines. And the people, now, slipping up and down the side of the gorge, like ghosts coming into view as they hit the road, even as the mist stirs slightly and the day starts . . . moving among the trapped motorists, hawking guineps and mangoes and oranges and star apples and jackfruits, shoving them against the glass, pushing them through open windows as we slip uneasily from the flat bridge and onto the road.

The truck in front of me curves away and for a minute I am pointing straight ahead, across the water, and because of the curve of the road it seems the trees on all sides have met and I am heading straight across into a wall of trees with the water curling, a serpentine green from deep inside it. There is a stillness and a pause—a waiting, and everything green and still and the mist rising, drifting from the water as if it is very cold in the green dark out there and the sky barely showing above. And the patches of blue I see beyond the embracing leaves are just faded versions of the vegetation and the shifting shades of mist coming from inside it. And for a minute, everything is beautiful, as I have never remembered; everything is cold, cozy and private yet wild, like a soft wet Christmas morning.

This must be what he sees. This must be what makes him love this place so much.

For this is his place this is his domain; the territory he supervised while he worked for the government: all the land that is fed and silted by this river, all the land that draws water from it, all the lands fed, silted, and served by the tributaries that feed it. Everything shooting out on every side of this curvaceous cavernous serpentine curl: from the hills of Harkers Hall through the plains of Riversdale, Knollis, and Tolough in the east; to as far west as the orange groves of Linstead and Wakefield and the plains of Springvale made green by miles of cane fields.

He took me there once—I now remember, yes. Took me there once, I remember . . . a long time ago now . . . and it all comes to me right now in this place, strange … but I remember.

I was at his house for the weekend when a farmer, Hansel, came to tell of a disease he had found in his oranges. And father decided immediately over breakfast that he had to go over the entire territory in order to provide a report for the minister on Monday.

It was Saturday morning on a long holiday weekend, perhaps Labor Day, I don’t remember. But it was one of the very few times I spent a weekend at his house. Holly, my brother, had other things he wanted do, and so did Meagan, my sister. But I wanted to go with father and see the span of land he commanded on behalf of the government, and most of all I wanted to have him all day to myself.

So I jumped into the passenger seat of the fishtail car and he drove after the farmer’s old Land Rover, throwing dust in its wake as if it was digging a new road as it went. I must have been somewhere between sixteen or seventeen, for I remember the first bar we stopped at, he introduced me to the barmaid, asked me what I wanted to drink and laughed and slapped me on my back when I ordered a soft drink.

“Give him a dragon, give him a dragon stout, boy turning man now. Drink a dragon today, young boy. Next thing people come in here and see you drinking water, and I telling them you are my big son. Drink a stout. “

“Aren’t we going to work?”

“We are working,” he said seriously to me. “We are working, but work don’t have to be work . . . well, not all the time.”

So I had my first real drink on a dusty Saturday morning in a dirty little bar in Wakefield with my father sitting with rum in his hand looking proudly at me and making bets as to whether or not I will throw up on myself.

We plunged through that large area west of where the Rio Cobre curls toward the St. Catherine hills, to a vast land of orange groves and tall cane fields with coconut trees ever standing way back in the distance. And the roads through the fields were almost always long and dusty and straight and the dust almost always thick, dry and rising, blocking the taillights of the land rover ahead of us. And my father sped through the road and the thick dust as if he did not need to see.

And every now and then a break would appear somewhere on one side and he would swerve and swing down a long lane of tress. Then on some little hill or at some little corner would be a small farm with families, and children running around the car and little mongrel dogs yapping at my heels when I disembark.

And every little village or collection of houses or farm had a dusty little corner with a bar. Some still unopened, some barely, with no customers but a few old-timers lying on the pavement from the goings on of the night before; some the bartenders just stirring; a few opened but empty, and every now and then one or two with a few men sitting in a corner nursing white rum—some shuffling domino pieces across tables short of players.

We stopped at every bar, every shop and almost every house along the way; where he would engage the farmers in small talk, flirt with the bartenders, ask about their family; he may have kissed some babies but my memory is hazy on that. Then he waded into their fields with a businesslike look on his face, slicing through the oranges to examine the cores and shake his head. Then examining the sugar cane—cutting it; tearing the sharp leaves apart till the flaking inner dust would fly in the air like powder; peering like a surgeon to where the leaves meet the skin and where the skin turned to joints; then breaking to see the joints themselves; then nodding again or shaking his head; then moving on from farm to farm, from estate to estate, examining bananas, sugar canes, oranges, even the apples and avocado that were not being farmed for production.

Dusk caught us halfway through a little town east of Ewarton called Redwood. A little place no more than a village with a dusty road leading to a square no bigger than a lot with a shop and a bar at its crest. Roads led off to its right and left. In front across the dusty road a wide track led down to where I could see the tops of houses and two women walking up toward us with large water buckets on their heads.

Father parked his car, beside Hansel’s old Land Rover, and headed straight for the little bar called George’s Place. He stomped up the dirty concrete steps like he owned the building, looked across at the group of men sitting around a domino table and shouted; “George, how things, man, you don’t have anything to quench thirst in this godforsaken place?”

To my worshipping eyes he was like a god. The way he strode into the bar in the same manner he had been striding around the countryside all day: tall, broad, with his booming voice, commanding people and having them respond quickly, to his smile and to the flash of his black eyes and his mouth’s arc and the flesh wrinkling at the corner of his eyes. Never mind that he had taken me from my Pentecostal mother, knowing how she was growing me as a good church child; never mind that in one day he had given me more liquor to drink than I had ever even seen in all my life; never mind in addition to that first stout, I had drank white rum, rum punch, beer, coconut water, mannish water, rum and coke, and a tot of Jan crow Batty, plus food of every kind and taste, from curried goat to jerk pork, fried chicken and ackee and salt fish—never mind that. Never mind that by the time I sat at the bar and faced my next stout, my stomach was churning with the turbulence of a boiling pot.

Never mind all of that. He was the father I dreamed of: the man who dragged life around with him wherever he went, dragged it into an empty bar with old men sitting around, desolate and empty with nothing to do; but as he strode in, he brought life and suddenly the barman was serving drinks, suddenly the domino game in the corner is revived, suddenly people were stopping by, peeping in, sitting down. He was a man in command of himself and all around him. And even when halfway through the stout I began to vomit, I tried hard to hold it in, and when my stomach rebelled I put my hand to my mouth to stem the flood so I would be brave and manly for him. But the vomit came hard, filled my hand and spurted through my fingers onto the counter, on my clothing, on the floor and onto Hansel who was trying desperately to tend to me.

“Time you son go home now!” he shouted to my father. But I wouldn’t leave him that day for all the money in the world.

So, I was happy and thankful when father shouted over his shoulder from the domino table for George to give me somewhere to lie down and give me a little rum or something too so I could rest. “Boy must turn man.” he laughed. “My big son that you know, boy turning man now. George, find somewhere put him to lie down and give him a little rum to hold his stomach.”

Then George called a woman from somewhere inside who stripped my clothing from me and gave me old trousers and a t-shirt and put me on an old bed in the back to lie down; then she gave me a mixture of rum and something very sweet that put me to sleep almost immediately. When I opened my eyes it was past midnight and I was in a different bed in a different place. This was a cleaner room, with a bed with sheets stiff as starch and a clean hard smell. Somewhere outside I heard singing. My stomach was burning, as if someone had lit a fire inside me. I opened the curtain, looked outside, and saw a large yard with trees and flowers and with a walkway on one side that led to an open gate. Through the gate I could see another yard across the road, where part of a large tent showed.

Father had found a nine night and he was over there at the wake singing his heart out, paying tribute to someone he may or may not have known. In the short time since he hit the town, he had even found someone to put me in a clean bed, medicate me, wash and dry my clothes and hang them neatly on a chair next to me.

A woman came and said my father had left instructions for me to dress and join him as soon as I wake up.

“How you feel?” She asked.

“Not so bad.”

“You feel terrible, don’t it?”

“Little bit.”

She laughed, shook her head, and gave me some hot soup to drink. But though soothing to some extent, it did little to calm the storm inside my stomach, and I began to wretch again as I tried to fight my first hangover.

“What little boy like you doing drinking so much rum,” she said to me, wrinkling her nose at the stench of liquor coming from inside me. “Drink this.”

Whatever it is was, was so bitter she had to hold my nostrils for me to swallow it.

“Now lie down and don’t move,” she said.

I did. And did not.

The next sound I heard was my father as he shook me and teased how come I come to country and sleep through the whole nine night. “Come, rise and shine,” he said. “We have to bathe and finish the inspection;”

“What time now?”

“Soon five o’clock.”

“We not going home?”

“We go home later, after.”

“Where is Hansel?”

“Him gone home last night.”

“But Aunt Una!”

“We were working.”

“But what Aunt Una goin’ say?”

“What she must say? We working! Cho, if what you doing important, no little waiting won’t kill nobody. Is the choices we make. You will learn that is so life goes sometimes.”

And so he led me, with George and his woman, down through the town and down the little hill where I had seen the women bringing water on their heads. It was still dark, but my stomach was normal again and I was as hungry as if I had not eaten in weeks.

We got to a crystal spring that father said was the main tributary of the Rio Magno; it was barely more than a trickle from the hills but we were led to a deep pool with the water sweater than the filtered ones they sell in Kingston, so clear the sides reflected deep into it and through the pre-dawn mist curling there.

Father stripped naked in the early morning and walked carelessly into the water, as if into some causal baptism. I stood staring, amazed that he could be so casually naked, then looked around to see that George too was naked and all his wife had on were thin panties, her chest bare and her breasts hanging down her chest like small palms turned inside out. I stood there, mouth agape, wondering what to do, acting shy, wondering if I would measure up to my father.

“You afraid of the water?” father asked.

“No, not really.”

“Well, come in.”

And finally, still clad in the old shorts George’s wife had loaned me, I slipped from the unassuming graveled beach. The harmless transparent water suddenly gave way to a deep pool that reached my shoulders; the water was cold, as if the mist had held the temperature there. And everything around and above was intimate and cozy, with the thin fog misting, flitting, and tangling with the dark foliage that covered the steep slopes of the hills around us, as this Rio Cobre valley now surrounds me.

None of my friends had a story like that, ever. Not through high school or college; none had a story to rival that weekend I trampoozed through the hills valleys and plains of St. Catherine with my father.

We did not get home until close to four o’clock Sunday evening—we had the rest of the territory to do. And though the routine was the same, though we stopped at almost every farm along the way, and though there was more food on offer, we ate a little less. And though the dinking was the same, there were less bars open on a Sunday, so by the time we got home I was less filled and less drunk and a little less sick.

We still had space for Una’s Sunday dinner. And my father still found time and energy to drive me back home to my mother that evening. And still when we got there, we sat in the parked car outside the house for about fifteen minutes or so, while he talked a bit about my career and asked what I planned to do with my life.

“You enjoy yourself this weekend, though.”

“Yes sir, but me vomit up.”

“Don’t worry bout that, boy your age shouldn’t learn to hold liquor too well. You don’t want turn rum head or nothing like that.”

“Yes sir.”

“You see how you old man have to work hard for a living though.”

“That no hard, is just drive and drink and eat and get drunk.”

“Well, the lesson for you here is not how hard you work, son. Is how much you enjoy you work. That is the thing. You don’t see I finish that entire territory—visit all farm. And right away I understand what causing the problem, for the people them find it easy to talk to me. So now I know what to do and what they have been doing wrong. You never pick up that?”

“Ohh.”

“So what you want to do when you grow up?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Well at your age you should have a very good idea. You must start thinking about that now. What you good at what you like to do in school?”

“Everything. Well, I try get good grades in everything.”

Then he laughed, reached into his pocket for some money. “You not easy. This is yours, don’t show you mother . . . . Whatever you chose make sure is something you like, something you enjoy that mean something to you . . . so when you make sacrifice, stay out and make you wife vex, it still not matter. You understand?”

“Or my mother?”

“Well if you want tell her about everything is your business. As far as I know, you come spend the weekend and I bring you back home. Come!”

***

The Pum Pum Rock, as some call it, shifts by slowly across the river to my left. With the traffic’s pace, I can’t help but glance at it. I am able to see every part of it for as long as I want. Even now, as early as this, in this traffic jam, people are still stopping to take pictures of this perfectly formed vagina in the rock. Some stop just to point it out to their friends and children.

One man is fighting his way down the slope of the river with his small son; he gets there and is met by a hustler of a guide in a sleeveless undershirt and shorts, who now pilots them both across a shallow section of the river. They crawling up the bank to the rocky edge, where he finally places his son there in the middle of the cleft of the rock—resting his head on the smooth hard clitoris while his father takes a picture. Then both now, leaning deep into the crevices of the flaring dark inner portion, as the guide backs away, down into the shallow water to take the picture. There is laughter and cheering around, everyone finds it funny. I can’t help but smile myself. And wonder what hand of nature could have sculpted a vagina so perfect and brilliantly detailed in the hard face of a rock.

Thank god the traffic begins to move. I shake the image from my head; a perfect vagina is not an image I want in my mind right now.

I try to get Una on the phone but there is no answer.

I think of getting Holly to hear what he knows or whether or not he has called the police. But my brother’s phone is busy. Or perhaps he just switched it off. He has been known to do that sometimes. Maybe I should have called him earlier, or maybe I should have gone to his house on St. Jago Heights before I made the drive down here all on my own. I don’t know. I am a bit confused this morning. Una called me and I made a promise; it is now my responsibility to fulfill that promise, to find out what has happened to my father no matter what the cost. I have to go. So what if my career is on hold. So what if my future is on hold.

I made the decision that was right.

Now the traffic is moving and if I hurry I might make it by eight thirty. But my day is dead and I will not make it back to work in time. I try to push my job from my mind. So what is a job anyway? Corporations can wait. Opportunities will come again. There is always a better deal has been one of my mantras in sales meetings and negotiations; but not in sales, not in sales, I tell my staff. There is always a better deal for us, but never for the client. We are the only deal they have.

Not in sales—not in sales.

“Everton Dorill,” my manager would say, “you were born for this.”

“No,” I would tell him, “I am born for everything; this is just a part, sales is just a part.”

Now they have given me my own brand, my own line, went out and bought a snacks-and-water company and gave it to me to run. This is not sales anymore; this is marketing management. And now this: my first board meeting, the first board meeting where I must present my plans and projections for making this company the number one in the island. After years of dreaming, months of planning, nights of sweating; days and days of phone calls and studying, now after all of this I must let it go and take care of my father.

Now suddenly, at this moment at this crossroad as the pathfinder enters the first roundabout at the end of the gorge, I am assailed by uncertainty and confusion and I am being blinded by tears from God knows where. Suddenly I am fighting tears of despair and anger, as if all the events of the morning are catching up with me; halfway to my destination and I cannot hold them in any more. Hard tears too, not sobbing ones, just hard blinding tears, clear and unaccompanied by any sort of emotion—like rain while the sun still shines. Hard tears burning my face and filling my lashes, tears I do not need to wipe away. And even as I blink them away I find that the car has gone around the roundabout twice without taking any exit from it.

I must be a mad man, thinking like this when my father is missing and may be lying dead in a ditch somewhere. I must be a mad man thinking this way, in a time like this in a country like this, where old people are murdered in their sleep and nothing seems to come from it. I must be a hard selfish person to think of my career at this time.

But I am not thinking of my career by my own will; the thoughts are flooding me, though I try to push everything from my mind and focus on my love for my father—on my duty as his eldest child. I am trying, but it is upon me, this feeling this desire to save myself and my career. I am confused by the emotions and I am blinded by my tears.

A brake screeches behind me; horns blow from all sides. I am still in the roundabout and I am now endangering other motorists around me. I swing to the soft shoulder near Juci-Beef Patties, and I hear even more screeching of tires and cursing motorists. The vehicle lunges over the curb wall and stops on the soft shoulder. I press my hands to my face, lean into the seat to calm myself.

My hands are trembling.

There must be away out of this; there must be a way to save us both.

But there is no way at least not at this time. I can’t call and stop a board meeting; people have come from Trinidad and Barbados for this board meeting. And I can’t leave him there lost wherever he is; he is my father and I love him.

But there is always a better deal.

But not in sales. Not in love. Not in father.

But there always is. What about Holly? Holly. Maybe Holly could help. He has big house in St. Jago Heights. The traffic is thinning; he could make it here in no time.

I dial my brother’s number. This time he answers

“Holly!”

“What happen, Eva?”

“You hear anything; you know that father is missing?”

“Mother called. She says you taking care of things—that you going down there. So I should be asking you that.”

“I am not there yet.”

“You don’t reach yet? Where are you now?”

“On my way. But, Holly . . .”

“Well alright fill me in; I have to move, Eva, I have to move.”

I have never really liked my brother. Mother said it was because I was jealous for my father. But I am not sure. I just hate the way he always looks out for his interest first. As if he was trained to look out for himself. And not to mention his Ivy League University of Miami education; his fancy orthodontist doctor title, his fancy private practice—house-on-the-hills-better-than-people attitude. I am not even aware how I hate him; maybe because he always had my father, every day, every minute, he had him living in their fancy house going every day to high school, passing my home every day, sometimes driven by my very father, while I was on the bus—sometimes not even having bus fare; all the privileges, all the favors, all the fathering he needs. And every time there was something to do, they would always find a way to call me and I would come running.

And now today, I must sacrifice all that I have worked to achieve.

Everything. Everything I worked for to this day.

I ring Holly again. “Holly, you hang up on me. I wasn’t finished.”

“Sorry, Eva, but I trying to get out of the house, kids to go to school and so on.”

“Holly, I need your help. I have a board meeting; I will not be able to make it in time . . .” I am stuttering.

“What you mean?”

“I need you to go to your mother for me.”

“How you mean me? Go? I have to take the kids to school.”

“Holly, you have a wife.”

“But she have to go to work; I have to go to work.”

“Holly, it is your practice, and is two of you. Holly, I have a board meeting; and you know I would not have hesitated if it was not life and death.”

“So what kind of meeting can be more important than that, Eva. Some things need prioritizing. Is your father we talking about here.”

“Holly,” I pause, and almost bite my lips. “You don’t have to tell me that, Holly. Everything depends on this meeting; people are coming from abroad. I must make this meeting.”

“But is you father; they will understand.”

“Holly, I will take care of this; all I am asking is for you to go there, see what is happening, do what you have to do, call the police, and then as soon as my meeting is finished I will take over. Just the first part, Holly.”

He pauses.

“Boy, Eva.”

“Holly, your mother,” I pause at that for effect; “Your mother needs you to come now. I must make this meeting.”

“So what time the meeting going done?”

“Ten.”

“Boy, Eva, I don’t know . . . . Ok. I will see what I can do.”

“Don’t just see, Holly. I need you to do this. I need to be sure you are taking care of this.”

“All right, all right,” he shouts in my ear. “Go to you damn meeting. Alright.”

“Thanks, Holly.” But already the line is dead.

But I do not mind that; I am already thrusting the pathfinder to join the traffic. Gravel is flying in the air, dust is spiraling high behind me as I swing hard into the roundabout and point my nose toward Kingston.

I have meetings to do; I have a career to save . . . . I am running out of time.

This is important, and even father had said decisions can be justified if the cause is important enough . . . or something to that effect.

Again for some unknown reason the hard tears are back; they burst through my lashes even as I try to blink them away.

This is not selfish, this is not selfish.

I am not a selfish man. I love my father.

 

Garfield Ellis grew up in Jamaica, the eldest of nine children. He is a two-time winner of the Una Marson prize for adult literature; in the first instance for his first collection of short stories, Flaming Hearts (1997), and later for the novel Till I’m Laid To Rest (2010). He has twice won the Canute A. Brodhurst prize for fiction (The Caribbean Writer, University of Virgin Islands), in 2000 and 2005, as well as the 1990 Heinemann/Lifestyle short story competition. Garfield is also the author of Wake Rasta (2001), Such as I Have (2003), and For Nothing at All (2005), and his work has appeared in several international journals, including Callaloo, Calabash, the Caribbean Writer, Obsidian III, Anthurium, and Small Axe.

 

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