“Mermaid River”

An O. Henry Prize-Winning Story by Alexia Arthurs

The sign read, Welcome to Mermaid River, and in smaller print, No Swimming, The Rocks Are Sharp, but my grandmother remembered when the river was just a river. Nobody called it any name or took photos in front of it, and the rocks were sharp but it wasn’t anything to keep anyone from swimming. When my grandmother was a girl, the river used to be fat. The day I sat with her across from Mermaid River, it was thinned down and half dried up. And the stones were sharper, angrier than my grandmother remembered, as if the river rebelled when the resort wanted to stretch and the surrounding land was bought up. The river became Mermaid River, and what wasn’t bush to be chopped down were houses where country people lived. The houses were torn down, replaced by vacation cottages. But I haven’t seen Mermaid River in years, not since I left Jamaica. I only have my memories to go on.

These days I ask for fried plantain between two pieces of bread for breakfast. Sometimes I ask for scrambled eggs on the side, or an egg sandwich with fried plantain on the side. I always drink tea. The cereal boxes sit on top of the fridge, barely touched. They are the sugary kind I see advertised on the television. My mother bought them four years ago as one of many introductions to America. Sometimes, after she’s put my breakfast in front of me and I sit eating alone, my eyes will catch on the boxes sitting on top of the fridge and it will occur to me to throw them out. They must be expired by now. But I never do, I always forget, and now they almost seem to belong in our kitchen.

My first morning in this country, I ate the bowl of cold cereal and drank the glass of orange juice my mother put in front of me, and my stomach cramped and pained and finally I vomited. The night before, sleeping in my new bed, all of it felt strange, as though I had stepped out of my skin and was watching myself from outside myself. When I was little I used to show off to my classmates that my mother was in America and would soon send for me. But the story began to seem far off, less true, almost as though it belonged to someone else, so I stopped telling it. That first night, the woman who resembled a woman I used to know—that’s how my mother seemed to me in the early days—showed me to my room. She opened a closet and showed me new clothes. She rubbed her hands against the dresser, pulling out drawers to reveal new socks and underwear. She explained that the entire bedroom set was new. In the woman’s face, I recognized the roundness of my grandmother’s face.

My second morning in this country, my mother asked what my grandmother usually gave me for breakfast. I didn’t tell her porridge, which my grandmother prepared every school day, ignoring my complaints. My grandmother believed porridge was “proper food” for learning, since it was the kind of meal that kept a belly full until lunchtime. But I hated how full cornmeal porridge left me—I liked to run to school and it interfered with my speed. I also disliked the lumps and the fact that porridge always made me need to go to the bathroom in the middle of my morning classes. I hated shitting in school, because if you took too long somebody would always make notice of it and ask what you were doing, and then everyone in the class would start laughing.

So I told my mother what my grandmother made on weekends, and since then I’ve basically eaten the same meal every weekday morning. On weekends my mother prepares pancakes from a box—another “introduction to America.” I would prefer plantain and bread and eggs, but I don’t want her to feel bad. She already worries what I will eat when I start college next fall. She says if I can get a little hot pan in my dorm, she will ship me plantains if I end up someplace where I can’t find them. I tell her she doesn’t have to worry. I will eat American food when I have to.

*

I have on my coat, my hat, and I’m pulling on my gloves when my mother walks down the stairs. She has rollers in her hair, and she’s wearing the lavender nightgown. Months ago, when my mother stood in front of the nightgown rack at the department store, she was running her fingers along the pink version of the lavender nightgown. She asked me which one she should get, and since the pink reminded me that there was already too much pink in her closet, I picked the lavender one. Not long after, my mother was drinking a cup of tea while I ate my breakfast. When she got up to wash the breakfast dishes, my eyes were pulled to the back of her nightgown. It took me a moment to realize that I was looking at blood. And it took me another moment to realize it was probably period blood.

I quickly turned my face away, begging my mother to see the blood herself because I didn’t know how to voice those kinds of things to her. I heard her walk up the stairs, and before I left for school she had changed into another nightgown. Whenever she wears the lavender nightgown, I always remember the blood, and sometimes I look for evidence, the dull imprint of an old stain. There isn’t any. My mother comes over to put some money in my hand, as she does every Monday morning since she knows I like a beef patty and a cream soda from the Jamaican restaurant after school. She also gives me the letter to show my teachers. I fold it without looking at it and put it in my coat pocket. Then she is wrapping her arms around me and whispering a quick prayer because she watches on the news the ways in which America can swallow black sons. She still worries, even though I’ve done well in Brooklyn for so long already.

Last night it snowed but only left a dusting. I watch where my boots make prints in the snow. The thing I hate most about winter, besides the cold, snow, and extra clothes, is how dark the mornings are. Because there isn’t light shining through my window, I stay in bed longer. I’m always tired until spring comes. The first year, I explained how tired I was and my mother thought maybe I had worms, so she bought a special drink for me. The drink was meant to clean me out, which is why my mother asked me if I saw any worms when I used the bathroom. I told her I didn’t see anything, and because she asked when my stepfather and I were eating dinner, he began to choke because he was laughing so hard, and it took him a long time to finally say, “Why are you asking the man his business for?”

There is an old woman in a wheelchair waiting at the bus stop, smoking a cigarette with gloved fingers. There are also the regulars, a mother with six children huddled up next to her. All of them look exactly like each other, and nothing like her. The oldest boy helps the mother huddle the smaller ones, since her arms are busy holding the smallest one. All their names start with “Jah”—the mother is calling their names because the bus is pulling up. “Jahzalia. Jahmalia. Jahmajesty. Jahmarie. Jahzal. Jahdan.” The oldest boy is hauling the stroller onto the bus and the mother calls the names of all her children, worried that she will lose one of them. The eyes of everyone on the bus are forced wide open because the mother is loud and everybody is wondering at those names and all those children.

The bus stops at the L train station. Just before the doors open, the oldest Jah hollers bye to his brothers and sisters, and his mother pulls him down to her to kiss his cheek, smashing the youngest one between them. It is loud and very dramatic. Even the bus driver is looking through his rearview mirror. I get off too. The family does this every morning, as if they don’t live in the same house and see each other on a daily basis. Then the youngest is crying and the mother is holding him up to the window so he can see the brother, who is standing on the sidewalk waving one last good-bye.

On the subway platform, the conductor speaks on the intercom, asking people to please let go of the doors. He says that another train is pulling up in two minutes, and people causing a delay are endangering themselves, but nobody pays him any mind. One lady holds the doors open for a whole group of people, including me. Now a man is holding the doors open for the last stragglers.

Every morning the same old lady walks up and down the train car, preaching and giving tracts to anyone who will take them. She always seems to pick the fullest car, the last one, weaving her way through and around people and never bothering to break her sermon to say “Excuse me.” After preaching, she prays for us and then she breaks into a hymn. The woman next to me hisses her teeth and says it is too early for all of this. Two girls, maybe two years younger than me, are leaning against the doors and laughing into each other, probably because the singing is so bad. The old lady tries to give a tract to a couple with dreadlocks, but the man takes one look at the tract and says, “A white Jesus you a gi mi? Mi no bother wid nuh white Jesus.” The woman he is with laughs. Most everyone else is folded into himself or herself, sleep still in their eyes because they are holding on to the last free moments before work or school.

I touch the letter in my coat pocket. I imagine the tidiness of my mother’s handwriting and the polite way of her words.

*

When I was little, my grandmother and I lived in the house I was born in. The bed my mother used to sleep in when she was a girl was the same bed she gave birth in, a bed I claimed as my own for the eight years my mother left me with my grandmother. My placenta and umbilical cord were buried under either the ackee tree or the breadfruit tree. My grandfather buried them deep, so no dog could get to them, but he died when I was a baby and my grandmother couldn’t remember which tree it was. She always wanted to say it was the ackee tree but she really wasn’t sure.

My name was supposed to be Sylvia if I turned out to be a girl or Roy, after my father, if I turned out to be a boy. But when my mother pushed me out, my grandmother said that no one spoke for a moment, and then the midwife, a woman with aging eyes, asked, “A light ’im light so?” No one who had seen how dark my father was would have asked that. “Samson,” my grandmother said. “We a go call ’im Samson.” My grandmother said she looked at my albino skin and knew I would have to be strong. That’s why she named me Samson instead of after my father, whom she called a “cruff” whenever his name came up. Because the labor pains silenced my mother and my grandfather wasn’t interested in what they named me if it wasn’t after him, no one argued with my grandmother. My name is Samson Roy Johnson.

When I lived with my grandmother, she used to take me with her down to Mermaid River. But I soon became tired of sitting around while she and the other women took care of business—selling the food they prepared, talking people’s business, and whatever else old women did that bored me. I was freed when my grandmother started leaving me at the house of a woman who watched children, and then I started school. After that, I hardly bothered to make it down to Mermaid River, and then, when I went of my own accord, it was because of what Roger Boxx said.

A man went mad down in Porus and chopped his wife with a machete, which was how Roger Boxx came to be in my class, since his people took him and his little sister to live with them. Everyone had heard about the woman who was chopped. My grandmother and I were eating fried fish and watching the evening news. She paused from picking a fishbone out of her teeth to say, “Jesus,” elongating the word and almost whispering, in the way she did whenever she heard something painful and surprising, or sometimes, miraculous.

Roger Boxx was the shortest boy in our class. He took over from Clement Richards, who had been the shortest boy in the class but made up for his height with his voice, which sounded like he was copying after his father, who was a Seventh-Day Adventist minister. Nobody paid Clement Richards’s height any mind because they were invested in the way his voice sounded, in the highs and lows, the drama of it. Roger Boxx didn’t seem to have anything about him to level out his height, so nobody paid him any mind. He took up a space next to those of us who were never invited to play cricket. Silently, except when it came time to cheer, we watched the games from the edge of the field.

After a week or so, Roger Boxx and I were paired up as spelling partners. As soon as he sat down after pushing his desk next to mine, he told me that he had a Game Boy at home. I told him I had a three-legged dog named Delilah who ate the pears that fell from our pear tree. We became inseparable.

I remember how one time Roger Boxx said that he wanted to see Delilah but when we got to my house, she was nowhere to be found. This was because, as I suspected about the Game Boy, I didn’t have a three-legged pear-eating dog named Delilah. In fact, a man who lived down the road owned a three-legged pear-eating dog he called Trouble. The first time I asked about the dog’s name, the man told me Delilah since he knew my name was Samson. I didn’t confess any of this to Roger Boxx. We walked around the yard calling out Delilah’s name, and I told Roger that sometimes Delilah walked all over the district and then she might come home with somebody’s fowl in her mouth.

This was how Roger Boxx and I, tired of looking for Delilah, came to be playing marbles in the front yard when he looked up and asked, “Who is dat ole woman?” I looked up quickly to see who was walking into the yard and my mind got stuck on the word “ole” when I saw that he was talking about my grandmother. I never thought of her as old until he said it, maybe because she raised me as if she was my mother since my own mother had been in New York for eight years already, working and making a way so that she could send for me. Or it could have been because she was big and tall, and even with gray hair she never seemed weak. Old meant weak to me then. The word surprised me, offended me, and put a fire under my tail. I decided that since my grandmother was old, I had a responsibility to help her more.

*

I get off at Broadway Junction. The preaching woman gets off too, hauling two big bags with her. Just before the train stopped, she abruptly ended the hymn, gave everybody a last word about Jesus’s coming again and getting our lives right, and quickly stuffed the tracts and Bible into one of her bags. We go up the stairs and then the morning crowd swallows her. I follow the crowd that gets on the down escalator, then walk a little way to the stairs that lead to the A and C train platform. The A train is pulling off but that’s okay. It’s really the C I need to get on.

I sit next to a young couple sleeping on each other. It’s the only free seat. The girl’s legs are spread out across the guy’s lap, his arms are wrapped around her, and they look to be completely lost in sleep. Across from me a woman is looking into a mirror and putting on her entire face. My mother’s voice comes into my head, so I smile. She would call the couple sleeping and the woman putting on her makeup “slack.” She would be horrified. She would say that Americans don’t have any shame, and she would warn me, “Please, Samson, I didn’t bring you to this country to tek up dem ways.”

*

The morning after Roger Boxx called my grandmother “ole,” instead of running off early to watch the cricket games in the schoolyard, I stayed behind. After I had eaten my porridge, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and put on my uniform, I stood behind my grandmother in the kitchen with my hands in my khaki pants pockets. Standing around was the quickest way to become involved in whatever needed to be done around the house. “Here,” she said, bumping into me as she turned around in our small kitchen. “Yuh look like yuh wan’ someting do.” She gave me a pan filled with big pieces of coconut to cut into the little pieces she used to make coconut drops. That morning she had thrown the coconuts against a big rock behind our house because it was the way she busted them open. I’d heard the coconuts being flung while I ate my porridge.

When I got to school, Roger Boxx and the other boys who nobody wanted on their team were watching the last minutes of the game. Roger held his arms up as if to say, “Where were you?” I only shook my head, because explaining I had willingly stayed behind to help my grandmother cook wouldn’t make any sense to him. I took my place next to him and we watched the rest of the game together.

After school, I told Roger Boxx that I couldn’t play marbles because I had to help my grandmother. He looked at me as if I wasn’t making any sense to him. After I walked out of the schoolyard, I turned around to see that he was playing football with a marble. I couldn’t see the marble from the distance where I was standing, for all I knew he could have been kicking a small stone, but I knew it was a marble because we played football that way sometimes. I almost went back to play with him. I’d told him a half lie. I didn’t have to help my grandmother and she wasn’t expecting me. My plan was to go down to Mermaid River to help with the selling and, when the sun began to set, the packing up of the leftovers and bringing it all back home.

In front of a yellow house was a tree and under the tree were three women standing huddled close to each other. I saw my grandmother before she noticed me. A big-boned tall woman, she was hard to miss. She was picking at something wrapped in a piece of foil, and then she, Mrs. Angie, and Mrs. Wright were laughing loudly, the kind of laugh that made their whole bodies dance. For a moment it seemed as though the woman laughing as if she didn’t have one fret in the whole world wasn’t the same woman who quarreled with me. Then she saw me, and I saw myself in her eyes, a 12-year-old boy prone to trouble since I sometimes didn’t know what to do with myself. She started walking quickly toward me and I could see the questions in her face. She wanted to hear what happened, what trouble I had gotten into, since I never made it down to Mermaid River after school.

“Wah ’appen, Samson?” my grandmother asked when she was close enough to call out.

“Nothin’.” I shrugged my shoulders.

My grandmother stood in front of me wearing a faded church dress and an old purse, the handles of which were tied around her waist. I knew the purse was where she kept the money she made from sales and the mints she sucked on when she felt for something in her mouth. I grew up hearing her say, “Mi feel fah something,” and then she would look for the purse so she could suck on a red-and-white-striped mint. I hadn’t seen the purse in some months, and I missed it, because I used to take money when I wanted to buy a suck-suck at the shop, or a mint when I too felt for something in my mouth. I had been taking money and mints from that purse my entire childhood and I always suspected my grandmother knew, but when she finally caught on she said, “O Lawd, O Jesus, O heaven cum down an fill mi soul, di bwoy a thief fram mi!” and then she started keeping the purse somewhere in her bedroom.

Although it occurred to me to look for it, I hadn’t built up the ambition, especially since the last time I went into my grandmother’s bedroom to look for something she hid from me, I hit upon the pail she used in the nights when she couldn’t make it to the bathroom. Usually she emptied it out in the toilet before I even climbed out of bed. She had forgotten, that morning, and as I looked down at it I realized that I was seeing the entire meal she had eaten and drunk the night before. I couldn’t say why I was so annoyed at being greeted with her bowel movements. At first, I thought it was her negligence that upset me, but then I realized, plain and simple, that I was angry she had created the opportunity to disgust me.

At the time I didn’t understand why my grandmother was so angry when she came home to meet my annoyance and scorn. It was the complaint I greeted her with when she walked into the house. She wanted to know what I was doing in her bedroom, and if the pail bothered me, why I hadn’t emptied it myself. She asked why I left the pail in her bedroom for the entire day for her to come home and throw it out. She wanted to know how I could scorn the woman who had cleaned my vomit and wiped my behind and changed the sheets when I used to wet the bed. The whole incident bothered and embarrassed me, and my grandmother was so angry that she left me to prepare my own dinner.

“Wah yuh doin’ down ’ere?” My grandmother wanted to know down at Mermaid River. I remember she was looking over me carefully, and using her hand to shade her eyes, which made the bangs on her wig scrunch up. She braided her hair in little plaits but I only saw them early in the mornings or late at night because she wore a wig everywhere.

“Oh, I just come down to help you.” This made my grandmother look at me hard, as though I was telling her stories.

But she looked happy to see me, too. She could show me off to Mrs. Angie and Mrs. Wright, telling them how I always brought home the highest marks in school. She offered me the piece of foil she was eating from. It was a piece of jerk chicken, still warm as I used my fingers to break the flesh apart. Mrs. Angie was roasting jerk chicken in a steel drum and Mrs. Wright was roasting yam, saltfish, and corn in another one. They were across the road from Mermaid River, under a tree where everything they needed was laid out: chairs for sitting, an umbrella, paper fans, and a Bible and church hymnal and other necessities I can’t remember. The tree was in front of the house where Mrs. Angie lived with her husband. On one of the two front walls of the house were painted the words we sell hot good food, big enough for the people in passing vehicles to make out. Every morning my grandmother woke up early to prepare various sweets, like tamarind balls, coconut drops, and plantain tarts. Then she walked down to Mermaid River to sit under that tree with her two friends. On the days it rained, if the rain was very bad, they all stayed home. But if it was only a drizzle, Mrs. Angie would get her husband to tie a piece of tarpaulin under the tree.

*

There are three black students in my chemistry class, and then there is me. When I told my mother this, she said I shouldn’t worry with those things. The and then there is me part was supposed to be funny, but she didn’t get it. My mother wants to keep me strong to make sure I do something important with my life. My stepfather is a garbage collector, which must have been a disappointment to her. Once, I heard her telling her friend that she never wanted to marry a man who came home with dirt under his fingernails. The irony of my mother’s marrying a garbage collector, the exact kind of man she didn’t want to marry, filled the next moments with laughter. But my mother says my stepfather’s job is very good money in this country, and nothing to be ashamed of, and she says this to convince the both of us, and to meet our surprise, because where we come from, nobody with any shame would willingly collect people’s garbage for a living.

When class ends, I walk up to the chemistry teacher to show him the letter. He is an old white man with thinning hair, who smells of cigarettes and something else we can’t put our fingers on. He is known to make at least one student a semester, usually a girl, openly cry. He is also the only teacher who cusses in class, saying, for example, “I don’t give a rat’s ass” whenever someone gives him an excuse. Now he says to me, “I’m sorry for your loss.” This is a surprise to hear from him, but how he says it feels appropriate since it’s the uncaring way he always speaks. He must have lived a hard life—that’s what my mother says about people who are miserable. Then he says it’s okay that I’m going to Jamaica, but make sure I get the notes from someone when I get back. I thank him and leave the classroom.

I show the letter to all my teachers. Mrs. Cunningham, my French teacher, looks very sorry for me because this is the kind of person she is. She looks like she is about to hug me but she remembers herself, so she only puts her hand on my shoulder. My classmates want to know what’s in the letter because they are nosy. I see them looking at me.

*

The day I went down to help her, my grandmother and I sat under the tree, waiting for customers. She started telling me about old times—how the river used to be fat, how it used to be unnamed.

Eventually a tour bus pulled up across the road, everyone disembarked, and a guide began talking to a group of people. Then the tourists were taking photos and a few crossed the road to our stand. One woman bought a dozen coconut drops from my grandmother, explaining that she was taking them back home with her. As afternoon pushed into evening, cars pulled up alongside the tree. Mrs. Angie and Mrs. Wright would get up to take the orders. I collected one of everything my grandmother prepared and held them out by the top of the plastic bags she tied them in, so customers could see what we had for sale.

By the time the second tour bus pulled up, I had learned that as little girls my grandmother and her friends from primary school tied up their uniform skirts to wade in the river. One time, they got it into their heads to wade in their drawers, so that’s how they were, all four of them, and then they wrung out their drawers and hid them in their schoolbags and walked home holding down their skirts in case a heavy wind blew.

Sometimes someone would go home with a busted-open foot, a sharp stone having made its mark. The time it happened for my grandmother she was walking softly on that foot when her mother asked her, “Wah wrong wid yuh foot, gal?”

“Nothing, ma’am,” my grandmother said, and then she tried to walk normally on the foot, just until her mother shifted her attention to something else. Later my grandmother was made to reveal the foot, to lift it onto her mother’s lap, because her mother once again noticed how lightly the foot was touching the ground. Somehow my great-grandmother knew the cut was from a stone in the river, so even while holding my grandmother’s foot on her lap, she smacked the side of her daughter’s head, hard enough for tears, because she wasn’t allowed at the river without somebody grown watching. Later, though, my great-grandmother found a piece of aloe vera to rub on the cut. And that day under the tree, the memory of the whole incident made my grandmother smile.

*

My closest friend is a Chinese boy named Jason. His real name is something else. Every time we have a new class, the teacher will try to pronounce his Chinese name and Jason will say, “Just call me Jason.” We met freshman year in literature class because we sat next to each other, so we were always assigned to work together. When Jason asked where I was from and I said Jamaica, he complimented my English and asked what language Jamaicans speak. I laughed. at question is what I remember when I think about us first becoming friends.

We are the same: quiet, loyal, but mostly our commitment is because we were each other’s first friend in a new school. Sometimes we forget each other. Jason will hang out with some other Chinese boys, and I will hang out with the smaller amount of black boys in our school. The black boys like me, especially because sometimes what I say that isn’t meant to be funny is funny because I say it. Since I don’t want to bother with the pizza they are serving in the cafeteria, and I see Jason with some other Chinese boys eating pizza, I go to the gym to watch the basketball game.

Since the game has already started, I sit on the bleachers and watch. Nicolas looks up and asks if I want to play. “Next game,” I say, knowing that by the time the next game starts it will be time to head back to class. Before I moved to Brooklyn, I’d never played basketball before. I like that they want to include me and I’ve grown to enjoy watching them play when I have nothing better to do, but usually I try to get out of playing, because I know I’m no good.

If I could play basketball better or liked watching it more, my stepfather and I would get along better. We get on fine. Nothing is wrong. I just know I am not the son he was hoping for. Sometimes he sees me studying and says, “I could have used a little bit of that when I was your age,” but I know he is also saying, “You are not how I was expecting.”

Sometimes I’ll sit for a while to watch a game with him and I can tell my presence pleases him. When he and my mother picked me up from the airport, he touched my shoulder and smiled; later he would laugh at my accent. My mother told me that because he is older than she is, he didn’t want to bother with any babies, which is why he was glad she already had a son. They married just before they sent for me, since my mother didn’t want me to think of her without respect. She said she couldn’t bring me into any living arrangement with a man she wasn’t married to. She is always telling me everything, even what she is ashamed for me to know. This is how my mother kneads the eight years away.

Sometimes I want to lie on my bed in the middle of the day, which is another thing my stepfather doesn’t understand about me. I just lie there thinking, with my hands folded under my head, and sometimes I fall asleep. When I lived with my grandmother I used to sit up in the mango tree to think, or when I had to memorize something for school. One time, my grandmother told me that the man next door complained that I was sitting in the mango tree because I wanted to peep on him. But when she told me this, she was smiling like she really wanted to laugh at the man. Because she did things the old way, she didn’t want to laugh at him in front of me, because she didn’t want me to forget I was a child. I smiled back at her, because this old man was known to be miserable and forever convinced that people were stealing from him, or watching him, or talking his business.

*

All those years later, my grandmother still went back to Mermaid River, though she hadn’t let the water touch her in years. All her life, she only called one place home, and she watched it build up and change so that some parts didn’t bear any resemblance. As a little girl walking to and from school, she’d become familiar with the concrete-and-zinc houses whose backyards dipped into the river. In the afternoons a woman used to sit on one of the verandas discreetly breastfeeding a fat baby. Next door lived a couple that seemed to enjoy cursing each other at their gate. A cherry tree leaned out of one of the yards, which attracted schoolchildren. When the houses and the inhabitants were gone, the government finally looked about the potholes in the roads. My grandmother packed her basket every morning and walked the twenty minutes to the river, where people will remember her, if they remember her, as an old woman selling food from a basket when they got off the bus, or stopped their car to see Mermaid River, maybe to take a photograph by the sign. Perhaps they heard the story given by the tour guide, or read it in a pamphlet, or knew it for themselves: an old-time story about how old-time people used to see a mermaid combing her hair on the bank of the river. The mermaid is said to have jumped back into the water when she realized she was being watched. Welcome to mermaid river and in smaller print, no swimming, the rocks are sharp. Always, someone will dip his or her foot into the water, since the sign only forbids swimming.

Only now does the history of that river sit on me. I realize that my grandmother had a world all her own, one that excluded me because I’d never thought of her as a little girl or as anyone other than the woman who took care of me until the real woman who should have been taking care of me was set up good enough to send for me.

The day after I helped my grandmother down at Mermaid River, I still had the fire lit under me, so I flung the coconuts against the cement at the back of the house. I cracked open tamarinds and, following my grandmother’s instructions, folded them into little balls with sugar. I got to school a few minutes early and was shocked to see Roger Boxx playing cricket. at was how he would level out his height; he turned out to be the strongest cricket player in our school. And he brought me along. He convinced the other boys to look past my overall mediocrity and my subpar batting skills, and then my mornings and afternoons were filled with cricket. The first few days, I felt guilty when I thought of my grandmother, an old woman, whom I should have been helping. But guilt often loses its flavor, I’ve found. My grandmother shook her head when I raced out of the house in the mornings. She said she should have known it was too good to be true, but I knew she missed me. The morning I started leaving early again, I left the coconuts on the dining table. I left them even though I knew they were laid out for me to crack.

*

I close my eyes on the plane. I see three old women under a tree, laughing a dancing laugh. My mind doesn’t recognize who they are and still I want to tell one of them, “I never seen you laugh like that but once the whole time I knew you.” I open my eyes and I can’t say whether I was dreaming or remembering, maybe both.

My cricket days ended when the school year came to a close because my mother finally sent for me. She had married a man for love. It also solved the problem of getting her papers. Now I am back, finally, for my grandmother’s funeral. In the city, the heat feels as if it wants to knock us down; that’s what my mother says, she says the heat wants to knock us down. I have been craving the sunshine the whole time I’ve been away. On our way from the airport, my mother convinces the taxi man to stop in the city. All because my stepfather wants oxtail from a restaurant he ate from when he visited the island with another woman long before he knew my mother. My stepfather says he has been thinking of the oxtail for the past seven years. I see my mother look at him because she cooks oxtail in New York whenever he wants it. I see the look she gives him and I understand because I am her child. The look passes, and then my mother is telling my stepfather to buy enough oxtail for all of us.

This is how my mother and I are alone in Kingston, Jamaica, such a small place on the globe in my world history class that if you aren’t careful you can easily miss it. At that market, there are so many people, most of them trying to sell us something. There is a man selling string crafts, he has them stacked up on top of his head and he is shouting that the crafts are patterned into the hummingbird, the national bird. There is a woman selling bammy from a basket on her head. There are fruit stands and men roasting meat, corn, and yams. My mother’s head is turning to look at everything and everyone because she so badly wants to use the spending money she budgeted.

Long after my mother and I have eaten, my stepfather is still sucking the oxtail bones.

The taxi is driving my mother, my stepfather, and me to my grandmother’s house, where we will meet relatives before the funeral tomorrow. Even though I’m waiting to see Mermaid River, I almost miss it, because on the other side of the street, there is a tree, and behind the tree is a blue house that used to be painted yellow. There is no longer a sign that reads, we sell hot good food. There are no old women laughing a dancing laugh.

I can’t remember this, but my grandmother used to say I would sleep on her breast after my mother left. I cried when she put me in bed by myself, so she put me in bed next to her. She said I used to fall asleep with my head on one of her breasts. This embarrassed me because it was a story that my grandmother repeated often to her friends and I realized early that old-women breasts were something I should stay far away from. I didn’t know what about the story pleased her to retell it. Now I think maybe she was trying to say “Listen, to how this boy loves me.”

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This story first appeared in The Sewanee Review. See the other 2019 O. Henry Prize stories here.

Alexia Arthurs was born in Jamaica in 1988 and moved with her family to Brooklyn in 2000. She has published short stories in Granta, Small Axe, Virginia Quarterly Review, Vice, Shondaland, BuzzFeed, and The Paris Review, which awarded her the Plimpton Prize in 2017.






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