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Winter Fiction Issue No. 3

Patsy

A short story by the author of Here Comes the Sun.

photo collage
Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban

“Mommy ’ave some good news!” Patsy says to Tru at the Tastees Restaurant in Cross Roads where Patsy takes her after picking her up from school. Workers from nearby businesses sit on benches near them, devouring beef patties and cocoa bread. Tru and Patsy sit at one of the plastic tables that face the road. Tru is looking at her, blinking as though there is dust in her eyes from the construction work at the gas station. Her eyes are a lighter brown than her skin, with the sun at their centers. She has been studying Patsy like this lately — like she’s years older with the wizened observation of a woman with experience. Miss Gains has suggested that she skip a grade. Patsy has given it much thought, fearful that her daughter might be too small to exist among the bigger children, though her intelligence is the same as theirs, if not higher. But that is all Patsy fears. Deep down, she welcomes the idea of Tru’s skipping a grade. It will only make her mature faster, frog-leaping over milestones that will relieve Patsy of the burden of raising her. But she’s quickly overcome by guilt for feeling this way. Her daughter’s face holds within it a conviction — a darkness and a mystery that Patsy fears, which sometimes causes her to look away or fix what doesn’t need fixing. Like now. Patsy reaches her hand across the table to wipe the patty crumbs from her daughter’s mouth. For good measure, she smooths Tru’s bushy eyebrows with a finger and tugs at the tips of her plaited pigtail, held by white bubbles and clips shaped like bows. When she runs out of things to fix and touch, Patsy’s movement slows.

“What is it yuh want to tell me, Mommy?” Tru asks, chewing with her mouth open, the space where her two front teeth used to be visible.

“Is a surprise.”

“Yuh got me a football to play wid so I can be like di Reggae Boyz?” Tru asks, her eyes getting larger.

“No. Is a biggah surprise.”

“Albino Ricky say dat nothing is biggah than di Reggae Boyz,” Tru counters.

“Dat’s Ricky’s opinion. And how many times I tell yuh not to call di dundus boy dat? Dat’s not nice. I hope yuh don’t call him dat to him face.”

“No, Mommy.”

“And I hope yuh not letting nobody tell you what to think.”

“No, Mommy.”

“I want you to grow out of dat tomboy ways of yours. Good girls keep dem self neat an’ clean. Like those Wilhampton High School girls. Dey don’t play wid boys an’ dirty up their nice white uniforms. Dey are well-behaved an’ obedient. Can you promise me dat? Promise me dat you’ll—” She catches herself when she notices her daughter’s eyes fall away from hers. Patsy takes a deep breath and changes the subject. “All right. If I tell you my secret, promise me dat yuh won’t seh anyt’ing to Grandma.”

“I promise!” Tru says, animated again, bobbing up and down in her seat with the excitement of holding a big secret.

“Yuh sure?” Patsy asks, half-smiling.

Tru nods with such vigor that her plaits shake.

“I don’t t’ink yuh big enough to handle secrets.” Patsy leans back and playfully folds her arms across her chest. “Only big girls keep secrets,” she says, echoing what her Uncle Curtis used to say to her when she was Tru’s age.

“I’m a big girl!” Tru shouts.

Patsy laughs despite the uneasiness knotting inside her stomach. “All right. I’m going to America,” Patsy says finally, crushing the napkin in her palm. But something else small yet significant slips from her grasp.

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“I got my visa today …” Her voice trails.

Tru’s eyes widen. She springs from her seat and comes around the table to hug Patsy tightly. “We going to America!” Tru shouts, drawing the attention of people who stop their conversations to stare at them. Some grudgingly turn their heads and shrug, their voices lowering to whispers; others raise their brows and smile with admiration. Patsy lowers her gaze, embarrassed yet proud — two feelings she has never felt simultaneously. She allows herself to sit with her daughter’s arms around her — her daughter whose only glimpse of America is through the Walt Disney fairy tales she watches on television when Mama G is not around to talk about the devil in cartoons, or the ones she reads in books Cicely sends her. Also, there was that snow globe Patsy picked up once from the Woolworth downtown — an unusual treasure amid the Virgin Mary and Jesus figurines that sit on the whatnot inside the living room. Tru, like Patsy, delighted in shaking the thing to see flurries of snow fill the glass and settle on the beautiful two-story house and the surrounding pine trees inside it. “Snow!” Tru would say, giggling while tilting her head back and fluttering her eyelids as if she could feel the the flakes on her face.

One day, the globe disappeared. Tru admitted to having taken it to school to show her friends, and she had somehow misplaced it. Patsy almost fell on her knees the moment her daughter confessed. She grabbed her daughter then and gave her two big slaps on her buttocks. “Me did tell yuh to tek it to school?” But it was Patsy’s eyes that were hot with tears that rolled out of them. “How much time me warn yuh to be careful wid it!

Inside the globe was the picturesque beauty of a place that offered a secret promise of a life without worry or care or want. When Tru lost it, Patsy felt like she had lost her fairy tale — something her daughter didn’t understand at the time since her eyes brimmed with hurt and questioning; her cheeks dry while Patsy’s were wet.

Closing her eyes in this moment — the sun on her lids creating a yellow void inside of her — Patsy regrets the scolding. She squeezes her daughter in a tight embrace, wishing she could be satisfied with the simple pleasure of feeling the sun on her eyelids and being bound to her daughter in their circle. But as she inhales the smell of the Blue Magic hair oil she uses in Tru’s hair, which mingles with the smell of beef patties and exhaust fumes from traffic, and as she listens to the sounds of rush hour on Half-Way Tree Road clamoring around them, Patsy only feels her secret yearning for more deepening.

Truth be told, she never loved her daughter like she’s supposed to, or like her daughter loves her. Tru’s love for her — an unconditional love that Patsy doesn’t have to work hard to earn or deserve — seems unfair. Everything Patsy does and says to her is taken with wide-eyed acceptance. Sometimes Patsy wants to crush the image of herself that she sees at the center of her daughter’s eyes. The day Tru lost the snow globe, Patsy struck her hard, finding for a moment a reprieve in her daughter’s anger and hoping the frozen image would drown in her daughter’s tears. But Tru didn’t cry, coming to Patsy moments later with those wide brown eyes that seem to take up her whole face — bottomless wells Patsy is careful not to look into for too long. For if she looks, she might lose the penny that the wells beg of her, and lose, therefore, herself.

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She began to plan and dream without Tru, writing letters to Cicely about staying with her in Brooklyn, applying for a passport and a visa. The rest she’ll consider when she gets to America — a place where, she hears, jobs and opportunities are abundant. Cicely told her that they have things like job agencies to help people find work. “An’ good jobs, too! Yuh can mek triple what yuh making at di Ministry in one week!” She didn’t tell Mama G or Roy at first, because she wanted to see if she would get the visa. Now that she has it, she wants to give herself some time to figure out a way to tell Tru that she’s going to America without her. As if Tru already knows this but is sparing Patsy the energy to muster up an explanation, she holds on to Patsy tighter. A lump rises steadily in Patsy’s throat. “God nuh ’ave no room in him army fah di coward at heart,” Mama G always says. Patsy swallows.

***

The night Patsy tells Tru that she isn’t taking her with her to America, there’s a power cut. Mama G went to a night service, leaving them alone. It’s one week before Patsy’s departure, which means she cannot delay telling Tru any longer. She holds her dream in a tight clasp at the dining table as the child peers at her in the dimness of the flame inside the kerosene lamp. Patsy can vaguely make out the expression on her daughter’s face. “It will only be for a few months,” she says to Tru, unable to look straight at her.

“Why?” Tru asks. “Why yuh going without me?”

Patsy sighs. She quietly praises JPS in this moment — something she never does, always cursing the unreliable power company for its constant outages. The darkness is helpful as she struggles to find the words behind the veil; however, her shoulders are enhanced by the shadows on the walls when she shrugs, guilt and helplessness rising in a grandiose gesture. What can a young woman on the brink of defeat say to the questioning face of her six-year-old daughter? Where is the honor in her daughter knowing she owns nothing? Not her dreams. Not her life. Not herself. Most important, what can she give her? What could her repression of desires, which she has resisted for so long, achieve other than resentment that could potentially destroy Tru?

So, it is with common courtesy that Patsy raises her head to meet her daughter’s querying gaze, fidgety as she readies herself to hand in this very important resignation. To say to Tru what she has always known — I cannot raise you. You’re better off without me. But the words stall in the back of her throat.

The night is still. Not even the sounds of gunshots crackling in a distance can be heard to fill the silent void. Pennyfield was once a middle-class neighborhood until the original owners, with some means, fled in the 1970s, thinking Jamaica was on its way to becoming a Communist country, like its neighbor Cuba. Panicked, they leaped back into the arms of Mother England. They left faded colonial houses, stripped of paint and stature. They left mango trees, pear trees, ackee trees, and guava trees susceptible to the stones of hungry children. Each house now stands weighted with the burdens of economic strife and Mother Nature. Pennyfield, which is positioned under the foot of the hills and spreads all the way to the sandy gully, got its name from the Englishmen who once buried pennies in the area for good luck, according to Ras’ Norbert, the old Rasta man who lives in a shack down the road. He says the Englishmen buried generous amounts of gold coins. “Believe me, believe me not!” the old man would holler before beginning his tale, his one good eye roaming to find the steady pair of anyone who would listen. This supposedly happened before the upper-middle-class Jamaicans flew away like exotic birds to seek refuge. And certainly way before Mama G’s gaze moved heavenward. And before trigger-happy young boys drew invisible lines across the gully, marking their turfs with sanguine spray paint, their cryptic crab-toe writing scrawled across buildings and walls: PNP versus JLP; ONLY BATTY MAN WEAR ORANGE; KEEP JAMAICA CLEAN, VOTE GREEN; WE WANT FREEDUM.

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Sometimes, during turf wars, the night gives way to the sound of gunshots. Patsy likes to think of those sounds as resonating firecrackers — fleet and bright, like those at National Stadium on Independence Day — never aiming for a permanent silence that lingers over the land for days. From her bedroom at nights, she hears the shots firing. But in a place like Pennyfield where these sounds are common, people are unastonished, hardly bracing for attack, though they will never sleep with doors and windows wide open or without burglar bars. And quiet as it’s kept, they can be at ease because of Pope. Patsy knew Pope as Peter Permell, when they were schoolmates at Pennyfield Primary — the oldest of Miss Babsy’s three sons, who grew up on Melrose Lane. He became Pope when he was deported from America. Presently, he presides like God himself over Pennyfield, more powerful than any crooked policeman or politician.

A moth hits the lampshade and falls on the table. Patsy watches it wiggle its way across the wooden surface. It’s easier for her to rest her gaze on the fluttering wings of the insect. Tru is quietly watching her, waiting for a response. Their day had begun simply, with shopping for school supplies for Tru at Woolworth, promisingly with Tru picking out fruits and vegetables from the market downtown and correctly citing the change she was owed from the vendor. “Good girl!” Patsy had said, caressing Tru’s shoulder.

“I will send nice t’ings. You will have dat football yuh always wanted an’ more,” Patsy tells her, unable to disguise the crack in her voice. “Yuh like pretty t’ings too, don’t? Girls like pretty t’ings. I’ll send yuh so many pretty t’ings dat you won’t know what to do wid dem.”

Patsy’s tears come when she sees the soft trust in her daughter’s eyes dim. It might have been the kerosene flame playing tricks on her. When she blinks again, it’s completely gone. Tru starts to cry, her little body trembling. “Ah don’t want pretty t’ings! You lied to me! Yuh tell me I could come!”

Patsy moves toward her to comfort her, but Tru shoots up from the table and dashes inside the bedroom. At that cry, Patsy’s blind desire becomes outrageously asinine. For there is a part of her that wonders if she’s a coward, a part of her that wants the maternal side — whatever ounce of it she can muster — to win. But when she saw the trust in her daughter’s eyes fade, her strength collapsed with its departure and the familiar apprehension gripped her again: Patsy has no comprehension of what this relationship with her daughter should be. It’s not like she had a guide. She has been raising herself since she was nine years old, accepting that the dying woman who was responsible for her had given up less valiantly. Patsy has never felt such defeat against herself. She lowers her head in her arms on the table, and sobs.

Nicole Dennis Benn’s first novel, Here Comes the Sun (Liveright, 2016), won a Lambda Literary Award and was named a Best Book of 2016 by the New York Times, NPR, BuzzFeed, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Root, BookRiot, Kirkus, Amazon, WBUR’s “On Point,” and Barnes & Noble. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, she lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York. This story is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel Patsy.