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Excerpt

Patsy

Nicole Dennis-Benn

June 3, 2019 
The following is from Nicole Dennis-Benn's novel Patsy. Patsy moves, undocumented, to the U.S., leaving behind her mother and young daughter, Tru, in Jamaica. While Patsy struggles with the American immigrant experience, Tru grapples with her mother's decision and tries to build a relationship with her father. Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of Here Comes the Sun, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Lambda Literary Award.

1

Just two years shy of 30, Patsy has nothing to show for it besides the flimsy brown envelope that she uses to shade herself from the white-hot glare of the sun. The envelope contains all her papers—from birth certificate to vaccination records. But most importantly, it carries her dream, a dream every Jamaican of a certain social ranking shares: boarding an airplane to America. For the destination, and for the ability to fly.

So when Patsy got the second opportunity to interview at the U.S. Embassy, she went. She hadn’t mentioned this to her family and hadn’t stopped to consider what they would think. This morning she slipped out of the house early—before Mr. Belnavis’s cock crowed, before the scent of Miss Hyacinth’s baking bread replaced the damp smell of morning, before Ras Norbert started chanting, ”Believe me! Believe me not!” about gold buried in their backyard. Patsy scribbled a letter to her daughter in her best handwriting and left it next to Mama G’s Singer sewing machine in their modest two-bedroom house in Pennyfield—a working-class neighborhood contained by a hill and a gully. “Have a good day at school. Remember to look both ways before you cross the street and do not talk to strangers. Also, tell Miss Gains I will pay at the end of the month.

It wasn’t yet hot and humid when Patsy left, which made the light brown tweed blazer and olive polyester skirt that her best friend, Cicely, sent from America years ago seem like a sensible choice. Once upon a time they were too big when she tried them on, but now they fit snugly. Patsy had hung them up outside the wardrobe days before her interview to get the camphor-ball smell out the fabric, since she has never worn them. She wanted to appear confident, though when she stepped o the bus on Half-Way Tree Road she started to sweat. She stood still for a moment and looked back down the long stretch of road from which the bus came, wondering about how, when she left, her daughter simply turned on the squeaky queen-size bed they share without questioning.

In the dark, as Patsy got dressed, she felt—or did she imagine it?—the eyes of the child peering at her from the bed, knowing and watchful. Patsy always dresses in the dark since she never looks in mirrors, is unimpressed with what she catches glimpses of: an average moon-shaped face, broad nose, full, down-turned lips, the way a child looks who has lost something, save for the perpetual deepened dimples in each cheek. She has eyes men compliment her on, though her large breasts upstage them, and dark brown skin that emphasizes the whites of her perfectly aligned teeth. Her hair she simply straightens with a hot comb every Sunday evening after dinner and brushes back into a tight bun with a slab of gel. When she felt Tru’s eyes this morning, she readied herself to put her index finger to the child’s lips in the dark and explain. But she didn’t have to. For Tru tends to squirm and sigh in her sleep anyway, as though she has already discovered Patsy’s betrayal. Not since Patsy hid the letters with the Brooklyn address inside a locked briefcase, which she keeps on top of the wardrobe, had she felt so dubious and guilty at once.

In the embassy line, Patsy fiddles with the small tiger’s-eye pendant around her neck—another gift from Cicely—for good luck. “Ah bought it in Chinatown. Yes, m’dear! Dem ’ave a place name suh! Dem ’ave good, good deals. When yuh come we can go together.” A liquid-like sensation shoots through Patsy’s veins underneath the tweed jacket. Though she’s early getting to the embassy, there is still a long line stretched all the way up to Knutsford Boulevard by the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. The bright June morning is a merriment of blues, greens, and yellows. The sun is already approaching its hottest at seven o’clock, and the scents of Julie mangoes and crushed worms fill the air—remnants of last night’s shower. A flock of white, triangular birds y south the way they do when fleeing the cold from North America.

But Patsy doesn’t pay attention to any of this. She clutches the large brown envelope under her armpit, where sweat blooms down her sides. Cicely told her to wear a suit. “Dey will tek yuh more seriously dis time.” But standing in a suit in the hot sun only makes the heat feel worse. ere’s no way Patsy can take o the blazer, since the blouse underneath is soaked by now, hugging her like a wet T-shirt, too scandalous for the gaze of the Americans inside the embassy.

Aside from the few women dressed like they’re going to church on Easter Sunday, in hats and pastel-colored dresses with perspiration visible on their backs, many people, like Patsy, are dressed formally in business attire—some of the clothes borrowed, some bought, most too dark and heavy for the mocking heat. Patsy beckons a boy selling frozen bag-juice, hoping it will relieve some of the heat and maybe numb her nerves as she thinks of the questions the American will ask in the interview.

Twenty dollah, miss-th,” the boy says with a lisp. He’s also selling whistles hung with strings around his thumb for people who, though in line to leave the island in droves, might want to join the evening celebration of the Reggae Boyz making it to the 1998 World Cup in France. Everyone in Jamaica is getting ready for the match this evening between Jamaica and Argentina. Nothing brings Jamaicans together like an international sporting event where they’ll be represented. Strangers embrace in Half-Way Tree. Gunmen lay down guns, grab barflies, kiss their proud, laughing mouths, and spin them like battling tops into the street. Young people open kitchen cupboards to fetch Dutch pots and metal spoons to bang with. In Penny eld, men started making bets as early as last month, digging deep inside shallow pockets at Pete’s Bar, where there’s a big TV. Miss Maxine, known in the community for her cooked food, is prepared to snatch the fattest fowl from her coop to make brown-stew chicken and white rice for the occasion to sell with her special malt-liquor concoction—good for women wanting to conceive and men desiring energy, especially on a night of predicted victory.

Patsy pauses and looks at the young haggler with the bag juice and whistles around his thumb—a scrawny young man no older than 16 in a mesh marina and a pair of knee-length shorts that don’t cover the scars on his legs. “Twenty dollah one bag juice?” she asks him.

“Yes miss-th.”

“Yuh t’ink people ’ave money like dat jus’ because dem inna embassy line?” Patsy asks.

The boy doesn’t respond, knowing his market. Just as he’s about to move to the next customer, Patsy says. “All right, gimme di orange.”

The boy hands her the juice and takes her money. He swiftly counts it, using his free thumb. Patsy watches him, impressed, as her mind spins and loops around the numbers. She lifts her tongue to the edge of her lips as she too counts in her head. Math was her favorite subject in school—the only subject that she excelled in. For there is nothing more certain than numbers. When the boy gives her the exact change, she tells him to keep it. It is easy to believe each penny will go toward his future; it is easy to believe he has one—that he will live out his days not selling juice and whistles, but working in someone’s bank as a senior accountant. Or owning one himself. But this moment of optimism lasts no longer than the line stretched around the corner, full of people who have discovered that certain seeds the land will not nurture. “T’ank yuh, miss-th,” the boy says, slightly bowing his head as though in resignation.

Patsy thinks of all the money she has wasted, investing in a passport and an American visa application. She was turned down two years ago with no explanation. People say it’s because she doesn’t own property in Jamaica. Aside from the seed money she gets from Vincent, the married businessman she sleeps with, there are no real assets she can tell the Americans she owns. “Dey tend to give you a visa if dey know yuh have assets to come back to. Dat way yuh won’t run weh fah good,” said Ramona, one of the other secretaries in a cubicle next to Patsy’s and the only one Patsy eats lunch with. “Also, dem tend to be lenient if yuh own yuh own business too,” said Sandria, the other secretary, who tends to butt her nose into people’s business, then go back to tell their boss, Miss Clark—a witch of a woman who scowls at everyone below her rank.

Pricked by the hopelessness of her situation, Patsy considers her story—one that lacks the drama inherent in, say, an asylum story, which she heard guarantees acceptance anywhere. She read in the Jamaica Observer a few months ago about the man who got chopped up with a cutlass by four men who found him in a “compromising position” behind a bush with another man. How he hauled himself, not to the hospital or police station, but to the Canadian Embassy and got a visa on the spot. “Dem funny man can mek anyt’ing ’appen. Even part di sea an’ walk ’pon wata. All dem ha do is cry wolf,” Ramona had said, wrinkling her nose and folding the paper. Nonetheless, Patsy practices in her small cubicle at the Ministry, sitting upright in her swivel chair, legs crossed at the ankles, facing the blank wooden partition.

And again, last night in her bed, lying on her back and staring up at the gaping hole of blackness in her bedroom, her daughter snoring softly beside her. “I am going to visit a friend”—simple as that, though she still lacks confidence saying it. She plans to follow it up with her rehearsed story—one that would convince them that she has no inclination of running away, because—how could she? She’d tell them that she owns land in Trelawny where she plans to build a house. (The land really belonged to Papa Joe, Mama G’s father and Patsy’s grandfather, a sugarcane farmer. He was forced to sell it to developers, who bought it for chicken feed and turned it into a stadium. Papa Joe died from a broken heart shortly afterward.) The embassy officials won’t know whether it’s true.

Most times Patsy stops herself mid-practice, worrying about being struck by lightning for lying, like Mama G always warns. But then again, Mama G has warned against other things that Patsy has disobeyed. Her whole childhood was spent with her mother at church or on street corners handing out Jesus Saves flyers and praying for “sinners” who refused flyers because they were in a hurry to work or school. Almost always Patsy would find herself repenting for sins she committed. But to lie for an American visa won’t be so bad, she reasons, since God will understand that it’s for the good of her family. She will go to America and send money home as soon as she finds work. is much is true—as her daughter’s name suggests. It’s a nickname that has stuck—a casual and spontaneous utterance when Patsy was too exhausted one day. Or was it for a whole week? A month? A year? She tends to lose count of these periods, too weak from the dark, heavy thing she cannot see but knows is always there, quiet and waiting. Mama G calls it the Devil’s cold, because it has a tendency to creep up like a thief in the middle of the night. How often has Patsy gone through periods where she feels like it’s pressing down, down on her chest? ere are times when she can barely breathe because of it, much less lift the sheet to get out of bed. It was during one such spell that she willed herself to utter her daughter’s name, Trudy-Ann, which rushed out with an exhaled breath as only Tru.

Without pausing to correct herself, Patsy let the name carry on, since it drew her daughter to her anyway. She looked into her child’s large brown eyes that day. Her open moon face, which is similar to Patsy’s, lacked the earnestness of a curious toddler. When the thing finally lifted and Patsy regained her ability to breathe, she repeated the name, seeing something take shape in her daughter’s eyes. Mama G, whose head remains in the clouds, surprisingly caught on to the name as well, since to her the name sounded like the sort of name that would make the child less sinful. When the little girl began to write her own name, she spelled it as TRU—the name her school friends and teachers used, the name Pastor Kirby called her when he asked Patsy if she would send her to Sunday school like the rest of the children. “She might even learn to be a girl then,” he pressed. Only Tru’s father refuses to use the name or acknowledge it.

Patsy thinks about all this as she sucks on the cold bag juice, relieved to feel both its cooling and numbing effect. The embassy line begins to move steadily. In the shade of the palm trees Patsy pays more attention to the other people around her, wondering about their lies—how creative they might be. Take the man in a dark suit, who looks like he’s on his way to his own funeral. Like Patsy, he clutches his documents in an envelope, constantly adjusting the blue tie around his neck with the black callused ngers of a laborer, maybe a farmer. What might a man like that say to the embassy official? at he owns many acres of land? at he uses it to plant produce? at the produce doesn’t remain untouched, sitting bruised and overripe in Coronation Market, the only market where his things might sell, since his country can’t export them? Or maybe he’s going away for a few months, maybe a year, to farm, like most Jamaican farmers, who have lost the ability to profit from their own land.

And then there’s the family of four behind him—a mother and her three small children. The oldest is a girl who watches her younger siblings as their mother scurries over to a food cart made of bamboo painted black, green, and yellow like the Jamaican flag. Peeled Julie mangoes and June plums dangle in transparent plastic bags from its awning. The children should be in school, Patsy thinks. What might the mother say to the embassy official? Patsy imagines the mother lifting up the two younger children for a smug-faced official to see—perhaps even handing them over like the bag of June plums to assess their worth. “See? See?” the mother might say. “All t’ree assets right ’ere.”

*

Once inside, Patsy sits and awaits her turn, unable to revel in the reprieve of the cool air coming from the air conditioner. She feels hotter all of a sudden. People are seated next to her on plastic chairs, waiting their turn. Each time the attendant calls, “Next!” the person at the end of the front row gets up and goes to the available window. People move down accordingly, reminding Patsy of a game of musical chairs. Patsy prays that the window she gets called to will have someone nice and in a good mood. The Americans are protected behind a glass partition, their heads bowed as they take notes or review questions. Some seem distracted by things other than the person in front of them, perhaps unable to understand the patois spoken by the men and women from the rural parishes—country people who have left their villages before the crack of dawn, squeezed against vendors carrying produce to sell at the markets in town. Perhaps the Americans are equally frustrated, because no one can understand them either, especially when their t’s sound like d’s and their vowels are sawed in half, making simple words sound complicated or completely swallowed. “How many rums do ya have in the house yur building?”

A confused interviewee might respond with, “But sah, me is a Christian. Me nuh drink rum.”

Once she makes it to the final seat in the front row, Patsy overhears the interview of a middle-aged man who is dressed in a pristine white suit and powder-blue shirt, looking like he’s on his way to a banquet. “Repeat wha yuh jus’ seh, Officer. Me cyan’t hear yuh good.” The man presses the left side of his face to the glass partition, smearing it with his cheek. “Dis ah me good ears. Come again.” Patsy cannot hear the interviewer’s question, but by the look on the older man’s face—crumpled like the handkerchief that he pulls from his back pocket to wipe perspiration despite the cool air—he’s still unable to comprehend the interviewer’s question. Just then Patsy hears, “Next!”

She almost leaps out of her chair, the clack-clack of her wedge heels too loud in her ears on the concrete tiles as she hurries to the window, adjusting her blazer and steadying her hands by squeezing the brown envelope. Like Patsy, the interviewer to whom she’s assigned is on the chubby side. Not that this fact eases the pressure inside her in any way.

She just has a tendency to find something in common with people. Patsy doesn’t know the details of her interviewer’s face. All she knows is that it’s flushed pink by the heat and sun, which he has undoubtedly gotten a lot of in Jamaica. Even his eye color misses her as they greet, since she doesn’t dare meet his gaze. She fixes her eyes instead on the center of the man’s forehead, just like Cicely tells her to. “Americans like direct eye contact, suh mek sure it look like yuh staring dem in di eye.” Patsy notices the man’s striped shirt and khaki slacks, the color of the uniforms the schoolboys wear. She’s sure he smells like cigarettes and coffee, since American men on television, especially the detective types, like coffee and cigarettes. She can almost smell it through the glass partition that separates them. Patsy always wonders why glass partitions are necessary at the embassy. It’s not like it’s a bank where there are vaults of cash. And even with banks one can just walk in and sit down with an associate. But then again, the desperation contained within the stiff grins and the too-tight metal clasps and neckties worn by the visa hopefuls might get out with a force hurling them over tables and onto the legs of the American interviewers like dogs in heat. “Please, sah. Please, madam. Me ah beg yuh a visa. Me pickney dem ha eat. We have nothing out ’ere. Di government nuh like poor people.

“Tell me your occupation,” the interviewer says to Patsy, silencing the bloodcurdling cries of desperation in her head. He’s looking down at Patsy’s documents. Or he might be reading a script. She’s not sure. She would have thought any other person who fails to raise his head in greeting impolite.

Patsy clears her throat. “I’m a civil servant, sah. A secretary at di Ministry.”

The man scribbles something on a sheet of paper. “Sounds like a good job.”

Not when is minimum wage an’ yuh have a dawta send to school, an’ a retired mother living undah yuh roof fah free since she give all ah har pension to di church, Patsy wants to say. But she keeps this to herself in case it might jeopardize her chances. Also, she got the job because Pastor Kirby knew someone who knew someone else who had a second cousin in HR. For at the time no one wanted a high school dropout.

“What’s the purpose of your visit to the United States?” the man asks. He raises his head and pins her with his eyes. Aside from her wanting more out of life, and more resources to take care of her daughter, the possibility of her and Cicely together again in America looms so large in Patsy’s heart that she almost trembles, having to compose herself before she utters the first answer aloud to the interviewer. Though she has all of Cicely’s letters saved, she carries around the one she favors most in her purse. It was written months after Cicely vanished from Pennyfield. Not a word about where she went until the letter came. Patsy read it so many times that she has memorized it:

Dear Patsy,

I am writing from Brooklyn, New York. I was going to write sooner, but I had to get settled first. Please don’t tell anyone you heard from me. Not Roy, not Mama G, not Aunt Zelma, and especially not Pope. America is everything that we dreamed about. There is so much here. It’s cold and snows a lot in winter. If you see me again, I’ll be so light. I am more comfortable now. But I miss the sea. I miss the hills that surrounded us. I miss gazing up at the sky at nights and seeing stars so close that I could grab them. I miss the smell of breadfruit roasting and saltfish cook-up. Now I have to go to a restaurant to pay for it. But that isn’t so bad. I always pretend that you’re here too. I like to imagine us, free without your mother, my aunt, Pope, Roy, and everyone else in Pennyfield. Like I said, don’t tell a soul you heard from me. Now that I am here, my memory of you and our special friendship will live forever. You have always been my home in this world.

Yours, Cicely

“I’m going on vacation,” Patsy blurts out, forgetting to say she’s visiting a friend. Vacation by itself sounds idle—something white people do. Like the ones she sees on the island, lazed and sunburnt on the beaches. But before Patsy can correct herself and continue about her elaborate plans to build a house on the land she forgot to mention, the man says, “I can never understand why you Jamaicans go to America for vacation when you live in this paradise.” He chuckles to himself and shakes his head.

“Is really for a wedding,” Patsy hurries to add. Since sickness and death are two things one can’t lie about without jinxing oneself. It isn’t what she rehearsed, but she’ll go with it. She’s stunned by the ease with which the lie flies out of her mouth. Cicely got married years ago to a man she only married for papers. “It was jus’ so-so,” Cicely said over the telephone. Normally, they would dance around each other’s dating life—Cicely never asking about Roy, and Patsy never inquiring about Cicely’s love interests or offering information about hers. Patsy had cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder, listening to Cicely above the noise of squawking fowl in the backyard and the drumming of her own heartbeat as Cicely said, “We did it at the courthouse. Before we blink it was ovah. Di hardest part was convincing di immigration officer. He wanted proof. But thanks to those acting classes we did in school, ah showed him. You woulda think our relationship was real.” She cackled. Patsy was comforted by her friend’s comedic account, picturing Cicely tongue-kissing her play-husband under the bored gaze of a white man fiddling with his pen. But there is no way that this interviewer at the embassy could possibly research this detail.

“Wonderful,” he says. “Who is getting married?” “M-my best friend.”

“When is the wedding?”

“October.”

“May I see the invitation?” The man asks.

“Sah?”

“The invitation. I need proof.”

“Oh! Yes, yes, di invitation.”

Patsy feels faint all of a sudden, making a production out of fumbling in her handbag for something she does not have. All the time and money and practice that went into preparation for this interview ash across her mind. Her head spins. She’s about to lose everything because of one stupid lie. She cups her mouth. In her best English she says, “Please forgive me, but I forgot my invitation.”

“I get stories all the time,” the man says, looking away from her pleading gaze to the paperwork on his desk. He taps his pen lightly on the table. Patsy watches his fat fingers curl, holds her breath as the pen hovers. In one stroke he could write her off. Stamp denied on her paperwork. Quietly tell her that she can apply again next year when there’d surely be a wait-list for interviews that might take another two years to get. Patsy focuses on the pen, which is in charge of her destiny.

“Why should I believe you?” the man says, pausing to look at her.

“The friend who’s getting married is—” Patsy stops herself and searches for the right words. The memories of them together make her smile. Usually she reserves these thoughts for nighttime, right after everyone goes to sleep. She lowers her eyelids and dabs at the sweat on her top lip, hoping the man behind the glass cannot read her mind and see an image of Cicely lying naked in sunlight inside the house on Jackson Lane, soft and fleshy as ripe roast breadfruit. Pastor Kirby preaches against such evil, his mouth foaming like a rabid dog every time he shouts fire and brimstone on the damned souls who have such desires. Mas’ Jacobs—a slight, friendly man with a lisp who used to call Patsy Passy, was chased out of his mother’s house for it when Miss Roberta, the town crier, claimed she saw him put a little boy on his lap.

But Patsy cannot help it. With a visa she wouldn’t have to rely on memories any longer.

Patsy lets out a sigh that fogs the glass in front of her, “She’s like a sistah to me, sah. My dawta’s godmother, who ah haven’t seen in years.” She swallows, feeling all the other lies that have been stored up inside her go down with the force of a whole chicken bone in her throat. She almost chokes before the man says, “You have a daughter, you say?” Patsy pauses again, confused, when she notices the smile on his face. His first.

The interviewer she had two years ago wasn’t satisfied with that answer by itself. Her having a daughter meant nothing to them then. Clearly, the embassy had begun to figure out that people would leave ailing parents, spouses, and newborn babies if they have the opportunity to live and work in America. It reminds Patsy of the Rapture. Mama G always talks about the Rapture—how Jesus will return for the good Christians, the chosen ones, leaving loved ones behind to be destroyed by cannonballs of fire. Though in Jamaica the chosen ones are the pale-skin people on the hills living in mansions. Since they’re so far away from everything, tucked up there near Heaven—away from the hot, dusty city, and black faces slicked with sweat and creased under the weight of daily burdens. They have no reason to escape.

“Yes,” Patsy replies. “Ah have a dawta.”

She opens her wallet to show a picture of a smiling Tru in a red plaid uniform—one taken on the first day of basic school.

“She’s beautiful,” the man says. “How old?”

“Five going on six in October.”

Patsy quickly closes her wallet. Hiding the photo takes the sin out of lying, out of wanting.

“My wife just gave birth to a girl. Our first!” the man con des, lowering his voice. “And would you know, she hired a Jamaican nanny. Nice woman.” It’s Patsy’s turn to smile. But, upon realizing she’s already doing so, smiles broader—this time feeling it touch her eyes. She leans in farther toward the glass partition to see the picture the man holds up of a sleeping, bald-headed baby. “She’s lovely, sah,” Patsy says.

The man smiles again, reminding Patsy of a glistening penny caught in sunlight. “Thank you,” he says, flushing pink. Patsy realizes that what she sees on the man’s face is pride—a pride that saddens her for no earthly reason, at least no reason that anyone would understand had she told them, and no reason that Patsy herself understands.

She focuses on the man’s color, amazed how white people can change color in an instant. Cicely changes color like that too—an ability that made Patsy’s best friend the most worshipped girl in school. Teachers spoiled Cicely because of it. They made it known that girls like Cicely, the pretty ones, were worthy ones. She was quiet, an angel that had fallen, stunned and flushed by the jarring descent. Whatever she said in class or on the playground was taken, in a sense, as biblical. Never mind that the whole community knew that her mother, Miss Mabley—a peanut-colored coolie with hair so long that it touched the high mounds of her swaying backside—slept with men who paid, and that Cicely never knew the man who put white in her blood.

They were ten years old when Cicely chose Patsy. Patsy happily took on the coveted role of Cicely’s best friend—a role that came with certain privileges, like playing with Cicely’s long, silky hair, which went past her waist and shimmied with every movement, and the bliss of confessional friendship filled with intimacy and gossip. Patsy also did Cicely’s homework, helped Cicely with math tests by scribbling answers on Wrigley’s gum wrappers, and protected Cicely from jealous bullies, who used the shame of Cicely’s mother’s death a couple years later as ammunition. Patsy’s drive to help Cicely was an impulse that was as mindless as a blood cell that spends its whole life providing oxygen to a tissue.

You have always been my home in this world. Patsy pictures Cicely as pale as the father she never met, pale as the princesses in those fairy-tale books she sends Tru with her initials, CM, written in perfect script on the inside, her beauty preserved like a carved ice sculpture in that cold weather.

“She’s my everything,” the interviewer at the embassy is saying to Patsy, still musing about the baby in the picture.

“Mine too,” Patsy says.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Patsy. Used with permission of Liveright. Copyright © 2019 by Nicole Dennis-Benn.




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