Grime is not always grime

Fiction by Anthony C. Winkler: an excerpt from the forthcoming novel Dog War

red shovel

Image posted at Flickr by Adam Bindslev under a Creative Commons license

You get to Miami from Jamaica by crowding aboard a brushed-metal pipe outfitted with clumsy appendages and pretending that it was right-minded and Christian to sit with strangers thirty thousand feet up in the breeze as if beneath your feet was the comforting solidity of God’s good ground. Or so it struck Precious Higginson, who on the roaring and quivering take-off of her flight muttered a prayer aloud that drew an inquisitive stare from the businessman sitting next to her.

“I am ready to go,” Precious announced when she realised that the man was staring curiously at her.

“Go where?” he asked suspiciously, the pipe tilted at a dizzying angle and thundering into the sky.

“Up there,” Precious pointed at the ceiling of the climbing aircraft. “If He calls, I am ready to join my husband.”

The man grasped her meaning and didn’t particularly like it. “Go where you want to,” he grumbled sourly. “I’m going to Miami. I not going anywhere else.”

“He leads,” replied Precious stoutly, “and I but follow. Where He leads, I go.”

Just then the aircraft shuddered and trembled as if it had hit a bad stretch of gravel road, and Precious gave a little squeak of terror, closed her eyes, and muttered a fervent prayer.

The man bolted up, gathered his briefcase, and shuffled up the aisle as far away from Precious as he could get.

“Thy Will be done,” said Precious aloud, as the aircraft flew into a cloud that pummeled its riveted body with invisible fists.

“Amen, Sister! Amen!” bawled an old Jamaican woman sitting behind her.

The aircraft gave a sickly wobble. “If dis be de time, I am ready!” the old woman crooned.

“So am I!” Precious flung piously over her shoulder. “Ready as ready can be!”

“Show me to de land, Oh Lord!” bellowed the old woman with a tinge of hysteria in her voice.

A stewardess hurried over to stand beside them. “Would you please not talk so loud!” she ordered briskly. “We’re in turbulence and you’re frightening the other passengers.”

“If dey be not ready, dey should well be frightened!” croaked the old woman.

“Amen!” seconded Precious.

“Hush you mouth!” hissed a young mother sitting across the aisle with her small child. “You frightening me pickney!”

“Lamb need not be afraid,” rasped the old woman. “It is craven old sheep dat should tremble.”

“Ladies, please!” pleaded the stewardess as the plane shuddered from a solid body-thump.

“Yes, sir!” squealed the old woman in a quaky voice. “We lick a good pothole dat time.”

“But no fear in we heart! For we know we destination,” reminded Precious, turning to mutter between the seats.

The plane rocked and dipped and yawed like a carnival ride. “Now is perfect time for a hymn!” the old woman croaked.

Then she began to sing “In the Sweet By and By”, joined in by a shaky Precious, whose usually melodious voice wavered and cracked with every lurch and shudder of the metal pipe in which she was sealed and fastened high up in the breeze.

When the plane finally landed with a jerk and taxied to a stop, the old woman breathed a loud sigh of relief and proclaimed, “Thanks be to God! We reach safe!”

But by then Precious had regained her sense of earthbound composure and was too embarrassed by her pushy airborne evangelism to offer any reply but the backslider’s half-hearted “Amen.”

The entire planeload of people shuffled through the tubular corridors that unwound to the melée of Customs and Immigration Clearance, Precious hangdog and blushing at the scowls and dirty looks darted at her by fellow passengers.

She arrived at Shirley’s house to a splatter of wet kisses from her two grandchildren, who danced and skipped gleefully at her coming to live with them, and a warm but reserved greeting from Henry, the too-too son-in-law, who was a doughy-faced white man with red hair and a freckled nose. The children paraded her through her new bedroom, prancing and jumping beside her with uncontrolled excitement and delight as though she were a new puppy. They showed her the bathroom, the closet, the kitchen, the cellar, squealing over every revelation. They took her to the backyard tree house, which both of them scornfully explained they were too old to enjoy any more.

Cheryl-Lee, the younger daughter, confided in her about that nasty Timothy Pigeon who lived down the street and whom she intended to punch out next time he snickered at her in the school hallway. Henrietta, the older one, interrupted with superior criticism: as far as she was concerned, punching out a geek like Timothy Pigeon was not worth the trouble. Certainly, it was not worth detention. Precious lectured in a stern grandmotherly voice that Jamaican girl children did not punch out boys, but then she quickly bit her tongue when she remembered that she had once knocked out a boy with one thump outside the tuck shop after he had squeezed her batty without permission. Cheryl-Lee wanted to know what a girl in Jamaica would do if a Timothy Pigeon was always snickering at her, and Precious lied and said that she would ignore him. How could you ignore a geek? Cheryl-Lee asked insistently. Precious did not know what a geek was and was about to ask when Henrietta suggested that instead of punching out Timothy Pigeon, Cheryl-Lee drop a lizard down his pants. Cheryl-Lee thought that was a wonderful idea and asked her sister to help her catch a lizard for dropping down Timothy Pigeon’s pants and the two children gambolled off down the street promising to return as soon as they had found the right-size lizard.

Groggy with a hangover and befuddled at the newness all around her, Precious wandered back into the house where she found that Shirley had strapped on a gun under her armpit and was ready to leave for work. Shirley was a Miami police now. She kissed Precious goodbye and drove away after telling Henry not to cook any dinner for her since she would not be home until about three in the morning. Then Precious was left alone with Henry, wondering if she should warn him that his daughters were out looking a lizard for Timothy Pigeon’s pants.

She decided that she shouldn’t interfere. Her brain was still thirty thousand feet in the breeze. She was in a place which struck her as strange as the moon and made her feel like a gate-crasher at a wedding.

She excused herself, went into her bedroom, closed the door, and crawled under the bed to catch her breath and take stock.

Precious took stock. Except for the distant burble of the television in the drawing room, the household was quiet. From under the bed, America reminded her very much of Jamaica, the cobwebs under the bed being uncannily alike in either country. The stale mustiness of the mattress and the comforting dimness of the airless crawlspace between bedspring and floor were quite what she was accustomed to find under a Jamaican bed. If she didn’t know better, she would even think that she was under her own bed in Runaway Bay after a row with Theophilus.

It was still hard for her to believe that her husband Theophilus was dead, but if he was dead under the bed, the one place where Precious always stared unflinchingly at the truth, then she could be quite sure that he would be just as dead in the open air. Her house in the Jamaican mountains was locked up and periodically tended by Maud, the woman she had employed to tramp up the hill three times a week to dust and look after the dogs. She was still in a muddle about the house, but even her decision to let matters rest as they were for the time being didn’t seem so confusing under the bed.

Her reverie was interrupted by a creak of her bedroom door. She glanced over the cobwebbed floor and glimpsed a small brown face peeping inquisitively at her from the edge of the bedspring. The face melted in the bedside gloaming and, after a flurry of pattering feet, a child’s excited shriek of discovery rang through the house, “Grandma’s under the bed! Grandma’s under the bed!”

Precious hastened to wriggle out from under the bed just as there was a rap on her door and the pasty face of Henry swivelled round the jamb.

“Precious,” he asked solicitously, “are you feeling all right?”

“I feel fine,” Precious declared with dignity.

“Cheryl-Lee said you were under the bed.”

Precious brushed herself off, opened her mouth to make an indignant denial, but resolved that migration and green card would not turn her into a liar.

“Dat is where I do my best thinking,” she sniffed.

Henry, looking scientifically interested in this new thinking technique, cocked his head and approached.

“I better make sure I dust and vacuum under your bed, if that’s the case. You might be spending a good deal of your time under there.”

He bent down on his knee and peeked under the bed. “I’ll get the vacuum right now,” he announced.

“You don’t have to vacuum . . .” Precious started to protest, but it was too late.

A few minutes later he returned and vacuumed thoroughly while Precious sat on the edge of the bed, twiddling her thumbs and feeling like a fool. He scurried down the hall and returned with a throw-rug, which he placed on the floor, saying that it would be easier for her to slide under the bed if she first lay with her back on the rug. He demonstrated by sliding smoothly under the bed with his back flat on the throw-rug.

“It’s rather snug under here,” he said from under the bed, his voice taking on a slight metallic bedframe echo.

He slid back out, stood, and carefully arranged the rug with his foot. “I must try thinking under a bed sometimes,” he chirped. “Maybe it’ll help me clear my head.”

Precious tried to make some noncommittal reply but managed only a disgruntled growl.

Cheryl-Lee stood in the doorway solemnly bearing witness to the whole proceedings. “Daddy,” she asked quietly, “Can I think under Grandma’s bed, too?”

“I don’t know,” said Henry, looking nonplussed at Precious. “I think you better ask Grandma.”

“Grandma?” the child asked piteously.

Precious sighed, thinking that she had never before in her life met a man that she would rather thump down on the spot more than her American son-in-law.

“I suppose so,” she grumped.

The child giggled, lay on her back on the rug, and shot under the bed. “It’s dark under here!” she squealed.

She scooted back out and propped up her elbow on the rug. “Grandma, will you come under here with me?”

So Precious reluctantly had to get down on the floor and slide under the bed with the grandchild. Soon Henrietta popped in and demanded to think under the bed with her grandmother, and before long Precious found herself pinned under the bed between two squirming children while Henry bent down and shouted encouragement and thinking technique at them.

“Did you find a lizard for Timothy Pigeon?” Precious asked in a whisper, propped snugly on each side by the wriggling bookends of her granddaughters.

Henrietta giggled. “Yes! You wanna see it, Grandma?”

“But don’t tell Daddy,” Cheryl-Lee warned. “Or he’ll tell us not to do it.”

“Don’t worry,” Precious whispered back. “Knowing your father, he might want to bathe de lizard to get it ready for Timothy Pigeon’s pants.”

Both children cackled gleefully at this idea, shaking so hard on the tiled floor that they vibrated Precious between them.

“Everybody still cozy under there?” Henry sang out in the daybreak treble of the capon.

Every home is a honeycomb of intersecting routines, private ceremonies, and personal habits. And so was the one in which Precious now lived and to which she tried to adapt. The children had their fixed schedules of school and play; Shirley had her bizarre police work that gave her the nocturnal habits of an owl, departing in the evenings for night patrol and returning early in the morning when the children were first stirring; Henry had his beauty shop where he gave perms and managed a staff of five beauticians, requiring him to leave shortly after the children caught the school bus and just as Shirley was settling down for her day’s sleep.

For the first week, Precious was caught up in adapting to this hustle and bustle of intersecting domesticity without getting in anyone’s way, but after only a few days she had such a good grasp of who should be awake when, who should be rushing out of the door, who should be settling down for a day’s or night’s sleep, that she could contribute to the smooth running of the household in little helpful ways by settling down this one, fixing a snack for that one, or playing the cuckoo clock for any who overslept. Having served her domestic apprenticeship under the most cantankerous man to ever step foot across threshold, Precious was grimly of the opinion that no man or woman born was her match when it came to mastering household quirks and complicated timetables.

That Henry was a beautician struck Precious as suspiciously odd if not downright unmanly, but she was careful to keep a straight face and offer no unwanted criticism. She just knew in her heart that she would never sit down and chat about women’s hairstyles or perms or hair straightening with Henry. If he wanted to discuss the criminal mind, slaughter in Africa, or the guttersnipe tactics of English football hooligans, she was more than willing to reply to the extent of her ability to hold intelligent conversation on these male topics. But if he should broach the subject of perms or dyes or hairstyles to her, she intended to yawn politely and remind him of his manhood.

During her first few days in America not an hour passed when Precious did not stumble upon a stupefying sight that made her just feel to stop and stare. America struck her as vast, strange, bizarre, and its exotic newness would have overwhelmed her senses and made her giddy, had she not determined ahead of time to sternly repel geography. Of course, she knew that her foot now walked the shores of a far-flung continent, but she would still not allow herself to be bullied by the atlas. She remembered that Theophilus had told her that when he was in America, for one whole day all he could think about was, “Rass, dis place big, you know!” and that even as he stood at a urinal he had found himself silently and obsessively muttering, “Rass, dis place big, you know!” over and over again. But that was Theophilus. He was willing to kowtow to geography. Precious, on the other hand, knew who she was and what she was and was determined that no amount of continental land mass or foreign spectacle would reduce her to spatial muttering in the toilet.

Still, the first few days stunned her with such an unexpected array of sights that for nearly a week all she could do was gape and gawk. If she was not careful, migration was going to turn her from a decent Christian woman into a Peeping Tom, she told herself sternly in the evenings during contemplative moments of retreat under the bedspring, and while she did her best to refrain from staring, she could not help herself when she encountered outlandish scenes she had seen before only in Cinemascope movies.

It was not so much the foreignness of the place, for as a Third Worlder of moderate means Precious had been amply exposed to glimpses of America in television, movies, and magazines, and knew what to expect. But what stunned her on her first drive through America was that the whole place appeared spanking new and shiny. Compared to Jamaica, which seemed steeped in a perpetual mildew and grubbiness, America shone as if it had just been polished. But the curious thing was that it was a shine and a sheen visible only to new immigrant eyes, for when Precious repeatedly mentioned how America looked gleaming and shiny to her, Shirley said gruffly that the whole stinking city was getting nasty and shabby, that Precious felt as she did only because she couldn’t yet see American grime. There was Jamaican grime and there was American grime, and your eyes had to get used to American grime before they could see it. For an example, she pointed to a white man slumped against a bus bench and said that he was an American beggar, and when Precious looked at the man and saw that he was not only white but that he wore shoes and a presentable pants and shirt, she scoffed and said that such a man certainly wouldn’t be a beggar in Jamaica, to which Shirley replied, “Exactly! What dey call poor here is a joke to us. Is de same way with grime. Our grime is not deir grime and deir grime is not our grime, even though an ignorant person might think dat grime is always grime,” and Precious felt so stupid and put in her place that she stopped passing comment about America and contented herself with merely gawking.

Precious made one last brave attempt to defend her maligned Jamaican senses and score at least one point by sarcastically remarking to Shirley that at least murder was still murder in Jamaica or America and the two countries had that much in common. But Shirley again scoffed and said that murder in Jamaica was one body with a machete chop or perhaps one measly bullet hole, but that murder in America was at least two bullet-riddled bodies along with a gunman suicide. That was real murder, not your fool-fool garden party that know-nothing Jamaicans called murder.

Precious sat glumly in the front seat after that and held her peace, for the discussion was beginning to give her a complex. Shirley drove slowly through one neighbourhood after another, past shopping malls and stores and parks, and tried to point out all the sights and places of interest, but because of her complex, Precious could hardly concentrate enough to listen. Finally she blurted out, “I not going let you give me a complex. I say de place look shiny and new. And it look shiny and new. And dat is dat.”

“Mummy,” Shirley chided, “this is not Jamaica.”

“I am aware of dat!” Precious grumbled. “But you can’t do everything better dan us! You can’t have you own special grime dat only you can see! And you can’t murder better dan we murder! Out of order!”

“Mummy, I’m just saying dat we do things big here. We don’t murder one-one like Jamaicans do. We bag ten and fifteen on de spot. Sometimes we bag twenty-five, thirty.”

“Stop you boasting! And stop running down you homeland! You born and raise in Jamaica, too!” Precious said shrilly.

And she steadfastly refused to listen to any more of her stuck-up daughter’s patriotic ranting and raving.

The hardest thing for Precious to get used to was the constant spectacle of whiteness all around her, the unending procession of white face after white face frothing down the streets and through the malls in a perpetual tide of foam and spume.

The first time, for instance, when Precious came across a white man digging a hole in the sidewalk of a street, she could not help but stare, for she had never before in her life seen a white man even carry a pickaxe in broad daylight, much less raise one to dig a hole. Of course, one knew from books and the cinema that white men did such things abroad, but schoolbook knowledge was simply not the same as seeing with one’s very own eyes.

She had been strolling with Shirley and Henry and the two grandchildren towards their car in the parking lot of a shopping mall when she spotted the white man digging the hole in the sidewalk pavement. Beside him leaned a big-belly black man who peered captiously down the hole and bellowed criticism and commentary over the digging. Precious stopped and stared, her mouth agape, at this scene from a movie.

“What you looking at, Mummy?” Shirley asked, edging closer and licking an ice cream cone.

“A white man digging a hole in de sidewalk,” Precious mumbled.

“Damn lazy brute dem,” Shirley groused. “Dey work for de government. If it take a normal man an hour to dig de hole, it take dem five.”

“But digging a hole!” Precious mumbled, confused. “I never know white man could dig hole.”

“Who say dey can dig hole? They’re damn lazy! You want to watch?”

Precious muttered that she did not, for she felt vaguely queasy at the thought of sticking her nose into another’s business, but Shirley had already seized her firmly by the elbow and was half dragging and pushing her across the striped parking lot towards the edge of the road where the men were working, all the while whispering to the children that Grandma had never before seen a white man dig a hole and wanted to see such a wonder up close for herself.

“Is that true, Grandma?” Cheryl-Lee asked in a whisper, excitement shining in her eyes. “You’ve never seen a white man dig a hole?”

Precious tried to mumble something in defence of this embarrassing shortcoming in her upbringing, while doing her best to shake off the official police death-grip with which Shirley steered her across the parking lot.

“Sometimes our garbage man is a white man, Grandma!” Henrietta blurted, skipping merrily at her side.

They were within earshot range of the digging men now, and Precious could even hear the big-bellied black man complaining about the depth of hole.

“It got to be deeper, I tell ya!” he was twanging to the white man, who was so deep down the hole that only his blood-gorged neck blazed above the ragged rim. “I know the line’s down there someplace! You just gotta keep digging!”

The white man hoisted the pickaxe and drove the blade into the earth with a porcine grunt, while the black man slouched with his hands resting heavily against his knees and peered attentively into the hole.

“This is fun!” Cheryl-Lee announced. “Watching a white man dig a hole!”

“How come we never did this before, Mommy?” Henrietta asked peevishly in a tone that implied maternal neglect.

“Lawd Jesus, Shirley!” Precious muttered, tugging at her daughter’s sleeve. “Dey goin’ see we watching dem. Come, make we go back!”

Shirley kissed her teeth in an expression of contempt.

“I am a tax-payer,” she growled. “I have the right to watch any man dig any hole so long as is my taxes paying for it. I am sitting right here and watching my taxes at work.”

She sat down stubbornly on the curb, licked her ice cream cone, and watched the white man dig. The children plopped down in an arc of silence and studiously peered. Henry leaned against the trunk of a tree and looked amused.

Before long they could hear the white man groaning that the sun was too hot and the work too hard, and he and the black man withdrew under the shade of a nearby tree and lolled against its trunk, chatting and swatting idly at the swarms of hovering gnats and flies.

“See what I tell you!” Shirley said triumphantly. “And you say white man can dig a hole! Dig an inch and him take a half-hour break! Damn lazy brutes.” She lumbered to her feet and started across the parking lot towards the car.

Though the men had seemed oblivious to their presence, Precious thought some polite explanation of the family’s gawking necessary. With Cheryl-Lee hanging onto her hand, she strolled over and remarked to the panting white man whose face was broiled a florid and ugly red by the exertion and the hot sun, “That’s a very nice hole you were digging.”

The man looked at her quizzically, turned to his black companion and asked, “What’d she say?”

“Grandma says she likes the way you dug that hole,” Cheryl-Lee explained primly. “This is my Jamaican Grandma,” she added.

The men whispered and stared as the family retreated towards the car parked in a distant corner of the enormous striped lot.

“I felt some explanation was necessary,” explained Precious as Shirley drove out of the parking lot. “So we wouldn’t seem uncouth.”

“Lawd God, Mummy,” Shirley muttered. “You don’t understand dis country, you know!”

“I just wanted to compliment him on de nice hole!” said Precious stoutly. “Hi! What’s wrong with dat? Henry, what’s wrong with dat?”

“Nothing!” agreed Henry brightly. “That man has probably dug a hundred holes without a single compliment from the public. I think it’s very thoughtful of you.”

“You would,” Shirley carped.

“I didn’t think there was anything wrong with saying something nice about the man’s hole,” Precious mumbled defensively.

But Henry couldn’t leave matters resting on that shaky note. He had to press ahead one obnoxious step further.

“Let’s play a game!” he said brightly, turning to the children in the back seat as Shirley drove out of the parking lot. “Grandma isn’t used to seeing white workers. From now on until we reach home, let’s find examples of white working men for Grandma.”

“Lawd Jesus!” protested Precious.

But it was too late. All the way home the children intermittently exploded into piercing squeals of triumphant discovery, crying out, “White man trimming a hedge!”

“White woman mowing the lawn!”

“White man walking a dog!”

“That doesn’t count! That’s not work! Does that count, Daddy?”

“White man painting a fence! Hah! That counts!”

Before long the two daughters were fighting over the passing pool of working white men, as each pirated examples from the other’s hard-won stock.

“That was my white man in the tree! Wasn’t that my white man in the tree, Daddy?”

“I saw the white man painting the fence first! Didn’t I Daddy! That’s my white man!”

“I have five white men and you only have two! Nah nah nah nah naaah na!”

“Dad! Tell Henrietta to stop! She’s provoking me!”

“The white man in the tree belongs to Henrietta. The one walking the dog doesn’t count. But the one painting the house is Cheryl-Lee’s,” adjudicated Henry with a Solomonic air.

Shirley drove home with a sullen scowl.

That evening, as Precious lay on her bed thinking about the day’s contretemps, she heard the door creak open and saw Cheryl-Lee framed in the doorway. “Grandma,” the girl asked timidly. “Can I come in?”

“Of course, darling,” Precious welcomed, reaching out for her.

The child hurried over, snuggled against her grandmother, then squirmed away. “Can we go under the bed and talk, Grandma?”

“We don’t have to go under de bed. We can talk right here.”

“But I like it under the bed, Grandma!”

Precious sighed. “All right,” she said heavily.

Soon they were scrunched under the bed. Precious heard footsteps briskly approach her door and Shirley call out, “Mummy! I gone to work. See you in de morning.”

“Goodbye!” Precious bellowed back.

She heard Shirley ask in a puzzled tone through the closed door, “Why Mummy sound like she so far away?” and Henry answer nonchalantly, “Oh, she’s probably under the bed. She goes there a lot.”

“Henry, are you driving my mother under a bed?”

“I didn’t do anything but fix up under the bed for her!” Henry squealed.

Shirley’s footsteps beat a brisk tattoo to the front door and a few minutes later Precious heard her car drive away.

“Grandma,” Cheryl-Lee asked petulantly in the under-bed dimness, “didn’t I see the white man painting the fence first?”


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2006

Anthony C. Winkler is the author of five novels: The Painted Canoe, The Lunatic, The Great Yacht Race, The Duppy, and, most recently, Dog War (forthcoming from Macmillan Caribbean). He has also published a memoir, Going Home to Teach, and a collection of short stories, The Annihilation of Fish. Born in Jamaica, he currently lives in the United States.