Brown Skin Gal
She had the smoothest and clearest skin – like the Indians. No, not the Indians and Cowboys, the Indians Columbus couldn’t find? No, not them – and not the West Indians, either. In fact, she had no kind of Indian in her, because she is a Bahamian. And that is that But, boy, she had some smooth skin!
She was the one he met at the dock after his Pa fired him off the mail boat. He remembered her – she was the one who kissed him on the “Rocky Road,” which was planned to one day pave new residential developments in Nassau. Children should know to come straight home from School, but some of them stopped to “spin the bottle.” The kiss was sudden and brazen. Yep, how could he forget.
The fisherman in the docked dinghy already had her Four-shilling note for the fish she was buying. The man in the boat scraped rough scales from a Grunt Snapper.
Brad was just back from Inagua, working on his daddy’s mail boat, delivering grocery and mail to that remote southern Out Island. That was not what he wanted to do after finishing school, but that was what he had to do. But, he could not take the stress and cussing from Captain Collins, his daddy.
“You think you entitled,” he heard the British Guiana man yell. “Well no one ever entitled me – I had to carry my weight. You better clean out that hole. As long as you work on this boat, you do as you are instructed. Or get the hell off.”
Brad got the hell off.
Now here she comes (what was her name?), from the other side of the hill, come to buy fish. She leaned into the dinghy to get her grunts; her bosom leaned against the frail fabric of dress. She had matured from womanish to woman. He watched.
“You buy enough for me?” he teased.
Well, I’ll be ___, you asking me for fish and you work on a boat. You shoulda bring me some.” She showed even white teeth. She strung the straw through the mouth of about a half-dozen cleaned fish, looped the rest of straw around her middle fingers, prepared to walk home with a string of fish
“I just quit the boat.” That came out involuntarily. He saw again the angry image of the man everybody called Captain Collins, never by another name. He pushed back the image, and also the tear that rose like a flowing tide.
“How could you quit, and your daddy is the captain?” she asked, sort of, as she walked away from the dockside. She glanced behind, as if expecting him to follow.
He hopped ahead to reach her side. “You still livin’ on East Street?”
“Chile, daddy ain’t goin’ nowhere. He could buy some land real cheap on the other side of Wulff Road, where they pushing the trail back south. But he say he born on East Street, and that’s where he ga’ die.”
“But if he go south, it will still be East Street. It will be East Street South.”
“Yeah – that don’t mean the same for him. He born on the real East Street.” She poked his side and winked. “You know what I mean, Bradford Collins.”
He followed in her eye the twinkle and invitation for sweet casual talk. “Well, I guess I’ll have to come and move you out of East Street.”
“You trying to propose?” She laughed. “You better quit jiving. How many women you have? Probably, one in every island.”
“Do want to go to the Cinema on Saturday?” Just like that he asked her to go to the show – well, well.
Her plump behind pushed ahead as they climbed to the top of East Street Hill. This was part of the ridge that ran the northern coast of the island. Town was on the north side of the hill – Bay Street; and on the south side was where colored folks lived – over the hill. At the top of the hill, she looked back and smiled on him. Then she leaned back to walk down the hill.
He gazed at the firm in her calf muscles. Then he glanced up at a tree full of guineps. He jumped sudden and grabbed a bunch of guineps. Couple fell on the hot asphalt road. Biting into the skin of one, still on the bunch, he tasted the gelatin coating of the inside seed. Yep, these were sweet. He broke of a few for him, and gave the bunch to her hand that had no fish.
“How you ga’ take me to the show, when you out of a job? Remember, you just quit the boat.”
“That ain’t your business, girl. You just get ready. Here, these some sweet guineps. They sweet like me.”
Now that he was walking even with her, he noticed that perspiration dampened the underarm of her dress. Her teeth were so white, framed by such brown skin, as she bit into the green skin of the stolen fruit.
“You tief these people guineps, an’ put me in partner with you.” She laughed. “I hope you don’t tief no money to take me to the show. You done make me a receiver.”
“I gat money, girl. I don’t steal.” He thought, Mama would give me money.
The marquee of the movies loomed ahead – “Now Showing.” As they slowed, he looked at Clark Gable leaning into the remarkable lipstickedy face of a lovely actress. Just below his moustache, her mane of golden hair seemed to sway in a breeze. The smell of buttered popcorn wafted in the air.
“Well, I want to sit in the balcony, Bradford. Are you goin’ to buy balcony seats?
“Sure, baby,” said Brad.
That girl was Petunia, who was to become the other woman. That was the one he took to the cinema. Then he took her back to her house, but he did not take her inside. He took her outside, in the outhouse, while the door was locked from inside. That is how it started with that Petunia girl.
Week after week, he took her to the show, and in the outside toilet. And they thought nobody noticed. They was doin’ it so slick and quick. He acted like he had to go to the toilet, then she would sneak around back, and he would let her inside when no one was in sight. They never took off any clothes – they were so quick – because it was just a li’l bit.
But every little bit hurts. It was not too long, one Saturday night, when she ran from her seat to the inside toilet of the theater. She heaved and threw up, and she knew something was wrong. They left before the end of the show.
Walking home, along East Street, she told him, “You know, I missed my time of the month.”
They passed a forest of bushes and trees, a vacant lot, which was a landmark for the side road that led to her Papa’s house.
“What you trying to say, Petunia?”
“That my time of the month is not comin’. Don’t you know what that means.” Her nose flared.
“I know what you mean. I’m not stupid.” His mother had just explained what it meant a few weeks ago. He really did not know before. He knew women got pregnant from sex, and they had babies. No big bird brought a baby. The women got big and bigger, then the midwife came, and there was the new baby. “Are you sure you big, girl,” he asked.
“Listen, Brad, I know you is a man, and don’t understand these things, but I never miss. I am regular.” She laughed, but it came from her outer voice, not from deep inside. She was not amused.
“What you planning to do?” His voice also echoed from a hollow place.
They had reached the banister of the outside porch. She held onto it, and sat herself on the porch steps. She hung her head. He could not hear the sound she made, so he asked her to say it again.
She raised the pitch of her voice. “I said, Papa will kill me for sure. He alread treat me like some outside child – and he so mean when he get to drinking.”
“He not ga’ kill you. You his flesh and blood.”
“Well you know, Mama found out about us – you know. She say, if I get pregnant, I better learn how to take care of the baby. Say she gotta work, and can’t raise no before time children.”
“Well you need to go to the nurse, cause you don’t know for sure.”
“Then everyone will be calling me “Dyna,” a hot woman. My name will be gone.”
“Well if you expectin’, you expectin’.” Brad had pushed a piece of straw from a coconut palm leaf between his teeth. A piece of popcorn got stuck. “As long as the baby is mine, I will support it.”
She whirled back at him. She heaved, but repressed the nausea. She sucked in her breath and her snot. She was silently crying, but she spun around, right close to his face.
“What the frig you mean by that?” she asked. Then, without waiting for an answer: “What you mean if it is yours. Who else own you think it would be. Just because I live on East Street, and we don’t have much money like your family, you think I’m bad. Well you the only who could be the daddy, cause you the only one I gone with. And I thought you was different and decent. Boy, I shoulda listen to what Mama tell me – now, I ga have to raise a child by myself. And Papa done told me he’ll kill me if I go get pregnant, ‘doin’ all that freshness with you’. “ Her body leaned into the porch banister.
“Listen here, I said I’ll take care of the baby – if you really having a baby. I know how to get a job. I just want to be sure you ain’t trying to put me in no trick.” As he spoke, his eyes caught a movement in the twilight.
This middle aged woman entered the yard with a straw basket, heavy with Saturday groceries, balanced securely on her head. Yes, Petunia’s mother approached the porch.
The woman was gazing at her daughter. The daughter lifted her head and gazed back. Brad noticed the shiny sweat on her forehead, and the focus of her eyes. He felt and watched the mother quicken her steps.
“What’s wrong with you girl? What you cryin’ for?”
Brad answered, even though he was not spoken to, “She’s pregnant.” Then he picked at his teeth with the piece of straw.
The older woman looked at him. He saw a distance and reproach in her eyes. Then he remembered what he had overheard her say one time – “his Ma is the Inagua woman who took up with that foreign boat captain. You know she left her husband for him, left him in Inagua. Now she in Nassau, livin’ with him, she think she such a big shot, but she jus’ a salty foot gal, no better than the rest of us.”
Now he felt all the trouble in the wall had hurdled the wall he hid behind. He had hid from those eyes, but those eyes had X-ray vision, and, now, they had no expression, and they faced in his direction.
The voice carried no emotion. “I know she’s pregnant.” Then her full face turned toward her daughter.
In back of Petunia’s house, this rich white man had built this giant wall. It separated the poor from the rich, the colored from the white. Brad felt a separation like that – and he was the poor one. The huge wall was the shoulder of Petunia’s mother that reached out to embrace her child. It was the back of her graying head.
Once, for fun, he had jumped the white man’s wall. He landed on the other side, and wanted to stay. He did not, could not. He stole an orange from one of the trees, then leaped the giant stone-wall and barbed-wires back into the weedy bushes of Petunia’s yard. In her yard, he thought, “I don’t belong here, but I’m supposed to be here.”
Now he was on the backside of a shoulder, cold to him, but warmly embracing her child. He thought, “I’m supposed to be holdin’ the mother of my first child.”
This is what the story was with Petunia. Her Papa never did put her out, never tried to whip her, none of that foolishness. The mother would have left his drunken behind. She told him so, and meant every word. After all she went through for that girl, you all just don’t know.
The daughter, expecting her child, did move out anyway. She went to her Grandma to live. But just before the baby was due, she moved back home. Her belly was big and taut like a Junkanoo drum, and her nose spread out like twin bugles.
They had stopped going to the show. They had their own reality. Sometimes he visited the grandma’s house, sit in the old women’s yard under the dilly tree, on the backside of an old washing tub. He was learning the mechanic trade, working odd jobs, making a few shillings here and there. When he didn’t work he stopped by to visit.
It was a cool February night when the baby came. Petunia felt the pain in her mother’s house. Her younger brother was sent racing to the midwife. The nurse came quickly, washed her hands with Dettol solution, and delivered from the girl turned woman (despite her screaming and thrashing) a healthy baby girl. The scale that the nurse bought showed eight pound, five ounce.
Brad came the next day. He was there all day. Everyone in the British colony had a day off for mourning – the King of England was getting buried. They let Brad hold the baby, his baby.
He watched the children play – no school. They played “Rounders.” One child knocked the spongy red ball way over the giant wall; the other scaled the wall to retrieve the ball.
The mother screamed, “get down from that wall before you break your neck.”
Brad laughed to himself. “That’s little children,” he thought, “They always want to jump a fence.”
Petunia’s mother even smiled his way, he could swear it was a smile. Great God Almighty! She offered him a white and red-trimmed enameled plate chock full of Peas and Rice and fried fish, with a tablespoon stuck under the mound of rice. He ate with the children on the front porch. He felt at home.
When the baby got big enough to eat food, the young parents, though no crazy Papa made Bradford marry Petunia, they moved into a rented clapboard house. The landlord was a Bahamian lawyer, a friend of Mr. Collins, Brad’s father. They were in a new world, soon to get married, but they never did. They just lived together with the baby girl.
Their world extended from the south side of Wulff Road, on the new part of East Street, north, to the sea docks, in town. When they moved it was Summer in Nassau, but the way time flies, Winter would soon come, and the baby would soon walk.
He worked as a stevedore now for three pound and ten shillings each week. He always could find a job – and he was never lazy to work. That was one thing even Petunia’s mother admitted about him.
Their new world was surrounded by a bigger world. Their world was a tiny concentric, but one with widening circles. The Great War was finished. Clouds of radioactive dust settled over Japan. Allied forces looked toward a new sunshine, as the dark menace of Germany was dismantled into a divided country. Yet Britain became weary, even though the darling Elizabeth would be coronated Queen Elizabeth II. Therefore, the United States received the baton to lead the human race to a new world order.
The waterways of the world became ocean routes for leisure travel again. Those fortunate ones from the temperate zone escaped gray winter snow, and jumped on the hotel-sized cruise ships, destined for the tropic sun. It was good to play again; it was time to settle your nerves, because the war had unsettled everyone.
The new routes converged onto Brad and Petunia’s world, or around their world. The young couple found hope. They too had been thrust into the war of life, and now found hope in peace. Maybe these sunshine lovers would spend some money in tropical Nassau. Brad spoke excitement everyday. He unloaded the freight boats, and watched the cruise boats unload elegant sunshine seekers who flaunted Yankee Dollars at wide eyed natives.
But his excitement waned. First he heard the rumor. A week later he learned the rumor was true – the shipping company was laying off stevedores. His name was on the list. The next day they sent him home. His little baby girl – Georgia – had grown two conspicuous front teeth, and she was just learning to walk. He deflated.
“Maybe I can work construction at one of the new hotels they starting to build out west.” His thoughts came to a dead hush.
“How come they cut you loose?” Petunia asked. “I thought your uncle was the foreman. What kind of family you got.” She rocked the baby, without looking at him.
“Not ‘cut loose’ girl, laid off, just for a while. Don’t you know the difference between ‘cut loose’ and ‘laid off’? They’ll call us back when the winter season come, and when the hotel business pick up again.”
She raised herself up, and rested the sleeping child on the bed, crossways. “You the one don’t know the difference – because they the same. They goin’ pay you while you “laid off,” huh?
He gave no answer. She was right, but he had hope. He expected his final three pound-ten shillings envelope.
She was right too, about the saving. He did never open that Post Office saving account. But, when she had told him, he said he was the man. He gave her one pound-ten shillings every week. He kept the two pounds to throw away on Haitian liquor at the Last Chance bar, next to the dock.
He was wrong to drown his future in the bottle, and she tried to make it right. One time, on his payday, she showed up at the bar with the baby on her hip. That showed him up among his friends. That was the first time he slapped her down.
“Don’t try that mess with me girl,” he cried. The half-empty glass was in his hand.
He was wrong too about hitting her, just because she was right. And being the man and hitting her did not make him right.
That is why he said nothing when he realized that “cut loose” and “laid off” was the same. He just stayed silent and thought about his fate, an old rum bottle, plugged tight, full of mistakes and empty with good times that were gone, drifting without direction, beyond the Nassau dock.
He looked at her smooth wet forehead, her pretty brown skin. Then he looked down at the raised bronzed veins of her hands, as she shook out a big towel to cover the baby. He thought to himself, “While I was gone, loading those ships, she has stayed home and minded this baby, all by herself.”