When Winston returned to Cook Hall, the men’s dormitory of
Howard University, and saw that Tragic had signed both their names to the
notice on the bulletin board—“Mitchell (Tragic) Massey and Winston Rama,
two hungry students from Trinidad, would appreciate Thanksgiving dinner with
American family, November 1960, A.D., Washington, D.C., United States of America”—he
tore off the socks he wore as gloves, angrily double-crossed out his name with
his Parker fountain pen, and ran up the stairs, throwing open his room door.
“Tragic, who gave you the right
to use my name for one of your nefarious schemes?”
“What nefarious scheme? Doing you
a favor, man. Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.”
As usual, Tragic was lolling
about in his blue-striped bathing suit that puffed out full as a skirt. Dunkin,
in his drawers, was preparing dinner on the G.E. hot plate—canned corned
beef and onions fried in oil; the rice, steamed earlier, was already mounded on
plates sitting on the dresser. Super was singing “All night, Miss Mary Ann,”
doing a little chip to the right, to the left, to the right, to the left,
cha-cha-cha, in his tight, racing-red American Speedo.
“And dancing at a time like this, are you
out of your mind? Can’t you see it’s winter?” The windows were crusted with
frost. The trees on campus, save a few evergreens in front of Founders Library,
were stripped of leaves, and the ground between buildings was like a solid,
hard rock. Winston had never dreamed of such inhuman conditions. In Trinidad, when he heard the song “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby,
he had imagined igloos cut in immaculate snow blocks and trained polar bears
walking on their hind legs, a pristine and beautiful landscape, not this
incessant, gray cold, which cut through to the bone and numbed the mind.
“But inside it is summer,” Super
countered, warming his hands over the steam blast of the radiator. Super liked
to say that Howard University kept the temperature of the dormitories high
because of the number of students from Africa and the West Indies, and, of
course, the American South. Winter was not a Negro season, explained Super, the
expert on all things American.
“Tragic, you know you had no right to
humiliate me by putting my name up on the bulletin board, as if I begging for
food.” Winston still stood in the doorway, his books in his arms, really Tragic’s
books, too, since they took the same courses so they could share one set.
“You leaving or coming in?” Dunkin asked.
“Dining or disdaining our humble abode?”
“You are hungry, Winston.
A free banquet could keep you set for three days,” Tragic said.
“Somebody die or step on your toes, Sweet
Boy?” Dunkin asked.
“Did you see how he wrote my name next to
his name on the bulletin board? And stop calling me that.” Winston found it
ironic that Dunkin called him Sweet Boy, since his Indian father had always
called him nigger for his dark skin and tight curls.
“Hot corned beef and rice coming
up,” Super announced.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Sit down, rest yourself, Sweet
Winston did sit down, on the edge of his
bed, so he wouldn’t muss his sheets. He put the books in a pile on the floor.
When he went to bed, he put his pants between the mattress and a board placed
on the springs so he could keep his pleats sharp.
“I mean,” Winston continued, “I
mean, Tragic has no pride.”
“You so refined, you don’t eat
food, Winston?” Tragic asked.
On the first day of school, the
two Trinidadian roommates, Winston and Tragic, and Dunkin and Super from the
room next door—Dunkin from Jamaica and Super, Trinidad born, American raised—had
dutifully marched down to the cafeteria in Harriet Tubman Hall. The food was
served by women in turquoise, nylon uniforms, their hair tucked up under
hairnets and plastic shower caps. All the students had to carry trays while the
women barked out: “Greens or cabbage, biscuits or bread, fries or mashed, hoagy
or wings, move along, hurry up, meal tickets.” It was like an assembly line in
a factory, and still one more example, Dunkin pointed out, of man’s alienation
from himself and the work of his hands and the fruits of the earth and,
furthermore, of all that was discordant and wrong with capitalist society. And
so expensive, Tragic added. Super, the only one of them who had ever eaten away
from home or in restaurants, said, “Okay, okay, let’s buy a bag of rice at the
Chinese store, cook in the room.” Naturally, the kitchen was Winston’s room.
“Face it, Winnie, free turkey
dinner, you cannot beat that.”
“Free dinner?” Dunkin
laughed. “By the time you paid your bus fare, clean your shirts, freeze your
asses off, and get sick waiting for the bus, you paid plenty. Plus your
“What opportunity costs, Dunkin?”
Tragic countered. “An opportunity to stay in this miserable room: You just
jealous of my good looks.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Super
smirked. “And your big congalong.”
They had measured, to Winston’s
chagrin. Dunkin was the biggest. Super, named after the airborne hero who
championed truth, justice, and the American way, was the second biggest.
Super’s real name was Harold Jr., and although born in Arima, Trinidad, he was
raised in the States and had served in the U.S. Army. One of the things about
Super that confused Winston was that he was so light-skinned, he could pass,
which he did when he went shopping downtown or wanted to go into a white
restaurant or sit anywhere on the trolley or see the movies in the white
section or pick up white girls from George Washington University writing
research papers at the Library of Congress. “The dog walks freely in the
street,” Super had quoted an American poem, when asked why he risked his life
over so little. He pronounced the word Negro knee-grow. “A knee grows in
the get-toe,” he liked to recite, “which is connected to the foot-ball.”
“Do you know,” Tragic’s voice was
full of awe, “the American national bird, the turkey, is as big as a crane? The
bird total meat. Think of it. Bigger than a fat chicken. More delicious than
“When the last time you eat
“Shut up, Super, I eat steak
plenty of times.”
“Sure, I believe that manna falls
from heaven. The national bird is the eagle, not turkey, Tragic.”
“Never ate it.”
“See, you don’t know everything.”
“I think I hear the Floor
Father,” Winston whispered. They quickly switched off the lights, played dead
possum. In the dark, Winston could see that the hot plate, even unplugged,
glowed like a coiled snake. The room, faintly illuminated by the sliver of
moon, was draped in silence. The skim of frost on the window, although wafer
thin, seemed insidious, as if it wanted to insinuate its fingers, glove white,
into the room and choke the life out of them. Winston had never seen darkness
like in the U.S. It was not the liquid ink black of late night or even the
early morning gray, lackluster, suffused with the sweet scent of opening
flowers. Night here had a sharp edge, could take your breath away, rob you of
will to live. Winston was glad to be in the dorm room, huddled, hunkered down,
the shadows of his roommates huge as whales, glad even for Tragic’s naďveté,
Super’s know-it-all air, and Dunkin’s facile judgments.
“Just a few, simple rules,” the
Floor Father had said at the first floor meeting in the rec room. “Cooking in
your room is a no-no and a boo-boo. Remember: I have dedicated my life to young
“Young men,” Dunkin had
whispered down the row.
“All clear,” Tragic announced. “No Floor
Father in the old town tonight.” On went the lights. Super started the record
again. Dunkin served the food.
The Floor Father, their chaplain and
warden, was wont to pace up and down the hallways at night, open doors, ask if
all was quiet on the western front. He wore his hair short to the skull with a
narrow, little part shaved up one side straight as an arrow, and he had a
pencil-thin mustache, like Errol Flynn, folds in the back of his neck like fat
pleats, and beady black rat eyes.
“And you can come by my room day
or night, except, of course, during my he-he nap time, which, my boys, is
“Yeah,” Dunkin had whispered.
“Sacred naptime, when Floor Father and his swizzle commune.”
“Any problem, any problem at all,
lads—grades, love, plain old homesickness. It happens to the best of us. At
ease, fellows, at ease.”
Dunkin whispered: “Floor Father ain’t
mentioned the one problem I have. Plain old money, it happens to the best of
Winston wasn’t even listening the
day of the first floor meeting. His former experiences with fathers and their
mysterious ways had been enough. The last time he had talked to his own father
at any length was four years earlier. He was sixteen, and they were at the
racetrack in Port of Spain, each with a foot up on the fence, not looking at
each other in the face. It was Boxing Day, after the Governor’s Cup Race. Their
meeting was accidental.
“So you like to watch the women,
boy,” the old man said apropos of nothing because there were no women in sight.
The crowds had gone home, and the track was being cleaned of shit by a brigand
of ragged men with shovels and pails.
“No, Daddy, I don’t watch women.”
Outside the house he and his
father were civil, acted as if the shouting and carrying on in the house was
only a bad dream, Winston’s bad dream.
“You do not watch women?”
Winston never knew the right
answer with his father. Though a good student, he was not adept at maneuvering
between his father’s traps and barbs, and when he was smaller, he could never
figure out how to avoid a beating. With his first money from working, Winston
had bought a bottle of milk. When his father saw it on the table, he knocked it
over with one swipe. “Boy think he better than his father, bring in his own
bottle of milk into his father’s house.” Winston always loved milk, and when he
was little and his baby sister was nursing at his mother’s breast, he had said:
“Mommy, give me some.”
“No, Daddy, I don’t watch women.”
“Good,” his father said, somehow
satisfied. “For women all be whores tricking you with the disease and sadness
they carry in their pretty pants.”
The comment stung Winston’s eyes with
pinpricks of embarrassment, and he wanted to run until he couldn’t see
straight. It was always like that. His father gave legs to Winston’s feelings,
so that shame was a runaway chicken lickity-split across the road and anger a
lizard creeping into the bushes and hate a wild dog loose in the street. As a matter
of fact, Winston did watch women, he and his friends, on the corner of Frederick Street. They called it eye food. Was that a
crime, a sin, an unforgivable weakness? The time after the spilling of the
milk, Winston had dashed out of the house, heading for the Savannah and the Hollows, where in the small pond giant gold fish
shimmered temptingly under murky water, like precious metal to be mined. He
calmed himself with a particular litany.
“We infer,” he repeated to
himself from his chemistry textbook, “we infer,” he offered, to all the gods of
chance and chaos.
We infer from crystal faces and crystal
form that there must be an internal arrangement of the molecules, atoms or
ions, for external regularity could never result from internal disorder.
“. . . And I challenge each and
all, everyone one of you fine young men, the hope of the future”—the Floor
Father put one foot forward and his hands up boxer style, punching the air—“to
a fierce game of Ping-Pong. But I warn you: I play to win.”
Winston noticed the Floor Father
wore tight wool pants and a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows
despite the summer temperature of early September. In Trinidad, Winston’s
friends threw rocks at aunty-men who carried woman’s purses, pants hitched to
the rump, but Winston always made sure his rocks fell short of actually
hitting, punctuating the soft earth of the road in plops and plucks, harmless
dust puffs. The students in the rec room that day wore lightweight summer pants
of linen or cotton with short-sleeved shirts in beautiful stripes, open at the
neck, the collars high in the back. Winston envied their wardrobes, their
insouciant confidence, their slow, ambling walks, hands in their pockets, eyes
narrowed. They were fashionable. They were popular. They were cool. They were
hot. They went to the barber every Saturday for a conk or a shave, and at night
the ones with long hair kept their waves pressed firm in caps made of nylon
stockings. The Africans, on the other hand, let their hair go nappy-kink, and
some came to class in their national costumes, the little box hats and long
robes of bright colors looking both solemn and womanish. But those Africans
were rich, Winston had heard, with gold fillings in their teeth and beautiful
American watches and radios and record players in their rooms, all the latest
songs by Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan, and Chubby Checker. At least they nodded at
you when they passed by in the hall, were friendly to fellow colonials. The
Americans did not want to claim any kinship with the foreign students. Once
Winston had gone into the bathroom to see an American washing himself, washing it,
at one of the sinks.
“What you looking at?” the man
Dunkin told Winston, “I think you
should go to Thanksgiving, Sweet Boy, and you, Tragic.” They had finished their
dinner, were smoking Lucky Strikes, seeing who could hold it in the longest and
blow the biggest smoke ring ever made by man. “You should go to Thanksgiving
just for the misery of it.”
On Thanksgiving, getting ready for dinner with the American
family, Winston thought he looked presentable enough until he put on his coat.
It was the cheapest coat he could find in the teenage boy’s department of
Hecht’s bargain basement, where they watched you like you were a thief and then
took your money. Too tight at the armholes, it didn’t button at the top,
but at least, he comforted himself, it was his coat, a real winter coat.
Tragic didn’t own a coat.
“What I need a coat for?” Tragic said,
braving the winter in his Howard Bison sweater, running from Cook Hall in the
morning to Douglass Hall, darting at noon into the School
of Divinity library to warm up. He scooted from that
library to Founders Library, where they had the painting of the one-armed
General Howard of the Union Army, slave freer, Indian killer. There Tragic
holed up in the basement by the radiator. The big challenge was to make it to
Drew Hall across the campus for his afternoon labs. Coming back, he ducked into
the Law School. Five indoor buildings, minimum
exposure, why indeed should he go to the expense of buying a coat?
On the coldest days, however,
Tragic was forced to share Super’s fuzzy wool coat, the two taking turns being
warm. Dunkin said the coat was so ugly that it should be banished from the face
of the earth. Speak for yourself, Super replied. Winston said the coat was so
stiff with dirt, it could stand up and walk about on its own. Dunkin said
Tragic and Super were Siamese twins, connected by the coat. Winston said the
coat was so old it looked like it was used by the Napoleonic troops when they
besieged Russia. Which was why they lost.
“Everyman his coataloo,” Tragic
Super defended his coat, saying
it was a respectable fascist cloth coat with a checkered past. The others
didn’t get that joke. He had to explain that Vice President Nixon had gone on
television in 1952 when accused of accepting bribes to say his wife wore a
respectable Republican cloth coat, not a fur coat, and admitted yes, he had
accepted a gift, a pet dog named Checkers. Super knew American stuff like that—for
instance, that George Washington had syphilis, died of bloodletting, and Thomas
Jefferson did not free his slaves, including his children. Other interesting
tidbits from his repertoire of Americana included who in the government wore a
dress to parties—J. Edgar Hoover, that’s who, Mr. “This Is Your FBI”
himself. Super knew about the crooks and the drug addicts, who cheated on his
wife, when and where, who liked to watch little children playing on the
playground. Tragic said who cares. But Superman, with his x-ray vision, also
knew about jobs in the Post Office, immigration raids on foreign working
people, and the powers of the IRS.
“Your coat,” Winston said, “is so
hairy the wearer, in this case, Tragic, will be shot by some hunter or dragged
to the zoo as an escaped animal.”
“My coat thanks you from the bottom of
its hem, man. The beauty of it is that me and Dunkin, we don’t even need a coat
for Thanksgiving.” The pair were going over to Super’s mother’s house, and
Super’s mother was going to pick them up in a car at the door of Cook Hall, so
that Super and Dunkin did not have to stand outside in the winter air one
single, frigid minute. But Winston categorically refused to go over to Super’s
because, as he told Tragic, everybody knew why Super’s mother had to leave Trinidad. And it was not just that their house burned down, a tipped
coal-pot setting all aflame, the family having to sleep in the aisles of the
theater for a week. It was more than that. It was the idea.
“What idea?” Tragic said.
Yet waiting for the bus to Georgetown
in their coats, Winston had premonitions of disaster, that is, he knew he was
making a big mistake not staying under the covers for Thanksgiving. Indeed, he
had been in the States only three months and there hadn’t been one single hour
of the waking day when he didn’t want to be in bed. In his sleep he was home
under a coconut tree on the Savannah or at Maracas Beach feeling bubbles of
foam curling up between his toes. The bus came. They got on. No other
passengers. Winston didn’t know if he and Tragic still had to go to the back of
the bus, so they sat in the middle like they were in a chariot or sleigh or
ship bound to a glorious destination—the outer reaches of the Hebrides, a
dacha in the deep woods. The bus passed one red brick building after another,
all leaning against each another, huddled together against the cold, nobody on
the streets, everything locked up. Nobody had told him about this—the
emptiness of the U.S., how people retreated behind closed doors, even the trees
ringed with little fences against whomever might lounge on the grass, rest
their head. The Americans, Winston noted, used voodoo-like signs, warnings of
Stay Out Or Else, No Trespassing, Beware of
Dog, privacy and property negating all considerations of fellowship and
congeniality. His ignorance of what he was coming to seemed pathetic. What he had
known was that Howard University had a medical school and a tuition he could
afford, and that Eric Williams, who it was said would be the first native-born
prime minister of Trinidad after Independence, had taught at Howard.
Perhaps his mother had known
something of what was to come, felt it through her feet or up her spine, the
taste of metal on her tongue, for the night before he was to leave home, she
had taken him to the obeah man on the hill in Laventille. A descendent of a Carib
woman and a slave, the obeah man knew the secrets of the earth and herbs; he
could concoct special teas for getting babies and medicine for losing babies;
he could mix potions for lovers, set trances for enemies. With a voice raspy as
an insect’s, he pronounced:
“You are a lucky mother, Mrs. Rama.
The years will go by, 1960, 1961, leaves of a calendar. Your son will qualify
as a doctor.”
“But will he come home, buy me a
house?” His mother leaned anxiously over the lantern placed on the dirt floor.
“I don’t want to cook on a coal-pot the rest of my life. I want a real stove,
American fridge like they have on the base.”
Winston knew the rule was not to
interrupt, that interference could taint the obeah man’s vision into the
future, so that what he saw of danger became that danger, a prophecy
fulfilled. Although, of course, it was all nonsense: the obeah, the novena, his
mother’s pitiful prayers.
“He will come back, nuh? He will
come back home.”
“Home?” The obeah man fingered
the shark’s tooth he wore around his neck on a dirty string. “The Earth, she is
“But tell me, tell me true. Will
his daddy ever forgive him for going away, for doing better?”
“Ah.” The obeah man’s face fell
forward, his powers exhausted. Winston rose from his position, slipped a few
shillings in the tin at the door, pushed the flour-sack curtain aside, and
stepped into the night. Near the shack a tethered goat, gnawing at the packed
mud, looked up quizzically, his yellow pupils divided by a band of black, like
snake eyes. “Yes,” Winston said to the animal, for a moment realizing that he
was grown up, and thus would soon have to make friends with the devil, invite
him for a meal, serve up his own heart on a bed of lettuce. Quickly, Winston
looked away, saw the stars floating in the black soup of the universe, each
sparkle a long-dead illusion. And the moon, patched with gray, hovered big and
close. Give me a kiss, it seemed to say, do me a dance, say good-bye.
“Wait for me, Winston,” his
mother called from inside the shack. “I coming just now.”
The next morning, the sun not yet
high in the sky, passing Laventille again, Winston looked from the cab and
tried to locate the particular galvanized tin roof of the obeah man. The
shantytown, silent the night before, was already a dull murmur of male voices,
the doors of the rum shops swinging open, steadying. And women were beginning
to wend their way down to the standpipes at the road to collect water for the
day to carry back in buckets balanced on their heads. The taxi skirted the dry
river. Across it, turrets of the small white mosque seemed as insubstantial as
the wobbling outlines of a heat mirage. Then the taxi driver had to honk at a
sugar cane cart pulled by a big, black ox that was blocking the way.
“Damn coolies,” the man
Behind was Port of Spain, the
house where Winston had been born and lived twenty years, and where his sister
had died. At the last minute before the taxi pulled away, his mother’s wedding
suitcase wedged between his feet, Winston had turned for a final look, and
there, framed by a hundred overlapping mistakes, was his father. For a second,
Winston thought he should stop, make a proper parting. No, never, for the wave
of old anger welled up in his throat, drowned the very thought.
“To the airport,” Winston
commanded, looking straight ahead, and rounding the corner he was suddenly
happy. I’m free, he sang, remembering how it was to play tag, touch base, be
home free. But then, as if the body had its own knowledge, prickles attacked
his nose in sharp stings, and tiny, smarting darts lodged behind his eyes. Not
going to cry, he told himself. He hadn’t since his sister died and was buried
behind the cool, mossy walls of the Spanish graveyard. That was ten whole years
ago. And remembering John Wayne in Rio Grande as Lieutenant Colonel
Kirby York, Commander of Fort Stark, he was able to contain himself, be brave.
When the plane rose, he realized that in some essential way he had escaped with
his life. More time, greater hesitation, and he would have fallen prey to
sentimentality, nostalgia, fear, inertia. The plane cast a great shadow on the
green below, and then it was out, high over the blue sea heading north.
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