Three images from Jamaican Men: Father Artist, Father Shopkeeper, Father Artist, also by Opal Palmer Adisa
Dawn and I were playing by the hedge. We had picked a handful of red flowers and stuck some in our hair. Dawn said hibiscus were good for shining shoes. We were both barefoot, even though Mommy told us to keep shoes on when were outside playing. I ran towards the house to get my shoes. I wanted to see if they would make my shoes shinny.
As I bent to pick up my slippers, I heard the gate open, and then
Dawn squealed, “Daddy.” I turned to see her scramble into Daddy’s arms, and Daddy pressed her to his chest in tight embrace. Immediately sweat pricked my nose. My sandals fell from my hand. My stomach grumbled. I did not run to Daddy, not even after he put down Dawn and said, “Come here Mus-Mus,” using his pet name for me. “Come to Daddy.” I could not go to Daddy. He was not to have been here. If I went to Daddy I might never see Mommy again, and the thought made me wet myself.
I remember waking that morning and not seeing Mommy. I remember Mommy being gone and Daddy not saying anything, as if she had become a duppy. I remember looking everywhere for Mommy and not finding her. I remember no one saying anything about where she was. Then after a long, long time Mommy came back.
She came with a driver and a truck. She directed the driver to pack up most of the furniture from the house. Just before we were leaving, she told us to go and say goodbye to Daddy, but when we went he would not hug us; he sat like a statue on the veranda of the house where we had all lived, and he did not look on us or speak. It was as if he did not see us. Dawn hugged him and said, “Goodbye Daddy.” But he did not hug her back, nor did he smile. I had stood there waiting for him to lift me up and kiss me goodbye, but he was unmoved, even when my mother came on the veranda and told us to go and get in the truck. Dawn pulled me away. I twisted around. I heard Mommy say to Daddy, “We leaving now.” And that was when he sprang up and slapped her in the face. It was so quick, like a lizard pulling in its tongue quickly after it catches an insect. It sounded like someone popping a paper-bag. Dawn pulled me and we ran to the truck and the driver lifted us up and put us in the middle seat. Mommy came and got in the truck, pulling me in her lap and settling Dawn between her and the driver. As the truck pulled out the driveway, tears ran down Mommy’s cheeks. I glanced through the drive’s window and Daddy was still sitting on the veranda. Dawn waved and shouted, “Bye, Daddy.” But Daddy neither waved nor shouted goodbye in return. As the truck turned out the drive-way the driver asked, “Yu okay ma’am?”
“”Yes, “ Mommy replied wiping her face with her handkerchief. Then she pulled me to her chest and said softly, “No man will ever put his hand on me again.”
The truck roared as the driver changed gears. The breeze blew dust into the open windows. The canes were almost fully grown, dancing in the breeze along the road. A few dogs chased the truck, barking at the tires. Dawn reached for my hand and squeezed it. I whispered bye Daddy. I love you.
Hearing the noise, the maid, who was not our maid, but the maid of my mother’s friend, and who was also watching us while my mother worked, came rushing out the house. She was the only person home with us. We did not like her, as she did not fuss over us as Bee, our old maid, used to. In fact, after our mother left for work, she shooed us to go outside and play, and she didn’t come and see about us until she called us in for lunch. Then she made us take a nap, and then just before Mommy came home from work she bathed and prepared us for dinner with Mommy.
I could not remember the maid’s name, but she grabbed a hold of my hand, and called for Dawn, who seemed glued to Daddy’s side and who was holding his hand.
“Sar,” she said speaking to Daddy, while looking around as if to find a stick to scare away a stray dog. “I’s responsible for dese children while dem moda at wuk. Please sar let go de little girl hand.”
Daddy smiled, and in that moment I loved him dearly and wanted him to hoist me above his head. He approached the maid, still holding firmly to Dawn’s hand.
“I am Mr. Palmer,” he said, now walking towards me. “These are my children. I am their father, and I’ve come to get them.”
“Lawd, look at me dying trial,” the maid shouted. “Look at me dying trial.” She jumped from one leg to the next, and began to holler. “ Help! Help! Help! Dis man want tek Miss Palmer chil’ren dem and she de wuk.” Immediately the maid in the adjacent yard to the right hollered back:
“Gertie, is what? What happening ova dere?”
“Miss Palmer de wuk and lef her picknie dem wid me, and dis man come fi thief dem.”
“These are my children,” Daddy said scooping me up into his arm, and still holding onto Dawn.
“Lawd Gad,” Gertie screamed as if she were in severe pain and reached for Dawn’s hand. “You can’t tek Miss Palmer’s children dem,” she said firmly.
“I am their father and you cannot prevent me from taking my children.” Daddy said turning towards the gate. At this point Gertie shrieked.
“Help me, oonuh help me. De man a thief de woman pickney dem and me a go lose me wuk. Call de police.”
As Daddy approached the gate with me in his arms and Dawn by his side, the gardener from next door, sprang forward, and stood baring the gate with his cutlass hoist.
“Sar,” he said in a voice as thick as molasses. “You nah leabe dis yard wid Miss Palmer pickney dem. Me no care if yu is dem fada.”
Dawn begins to cry and hugs Daddy’s leg. The maid next door is shouting at the other maid across the road, asking her to call the police as the phone is not working. Gertie has gone to the far back of the house hollering across the fence.
“Ms. Sally. Ms. Sally in de house. You is home ma’am. Please ma’am, ah need your assistance. A man is here trying to thief Miss Palmer’s chil’ren, and she at wuk.”
Bared from leaving by the gardener, and Janice, the maid whose house was opposite ours, Daddy turns back towards the house and sits on the chair under the car-port. Although my shorts is wet, he sits me on one leg, and pulls Dawn up on the other.
“Hush, don’t cry, me Dawn-Dawn,” he says kissing my sister on the cheek. As he wipes her nose, Gertie snatches me from his lap.
“Hello. Hello. What is all this racket about,” Miss Sally says peering through the fence and row of trees that partially block her back yard from ours. Gertie runs with me in her arms to speak with Miss Sally. She is breathless and her words roll like marbles.
“Miss Sally, ma’am, please ma’am ah need you help. Dis man want thief Miss Palmer chil’ren.”
Miss Sally uses her hands and parts some of the branches so she can have a better view. “Who are you?” she demands in a stern headmistress voice. “Why are you creating confusion in this yard? You cannot take the woman’s children.” She says speaking to Daddy.
“I’m their father and they are my children too,” Daddy says walking towards the fence.”
“That is neither here nor there,” Miss Sally replies, and at the same time, Gertie tugs Dawn free from Daddy, and running with me in her arms, and pulling Dawn, and losing her slippers in the process, she bolts inside the house, slams and locks the front door.
Dawn cries, “I want my Daddy, I want my Daddy.”
“Yuh betta quiet til yu Mommy come. Yuh can look at yu Daddy through de window. All the while Getie is running about, closing the windows, running to lock the back door, then coming back in the living room where we are huddled. She holds the butcher knife between her breasts and stands behind the locked door. She is breathing through her mouth. She hollers through one of the partially open windows.
“Sar, a beggin yuh to please leave.”
“I’m not leaving without my children,” Daddy says very calmly, walking back to sit in the chair under the car-port.
“Oonuh call de police,” Gertie shouts. “Me and de pickney dem lock up in de house. If him try fi tek dem, is de butcher knife him gwane taste first.” Then speaking more to her self she repates, Yu see me dying trial, lawd puppa Gad!
Dawn and I hug each other and cry. I hear a chorus of voices. I cannot make out what anyone is saying. Gertie shouts out again.
“De phone here not wukin. Ah beggin oonuh, please call Miss Palmer at wuk.” Gertie shouts out the phone number repeatedly.
“Hush, oonuh hush,” she says to us in between shouting request for help to the other maids.
After a while the noise recedes. Gertie looks outside again, then pulls us from the window in the living room, and puts us to sit on the floor near the door leading to the kitchen. She tiptoes as if afraid to wake someone sleeping although we are the only ones home. She opens the fridge and pours us lemonade in our red and green plastic cups. She peers outside again.
“Good,” she says heading back to the kitchen. “Mek him sit right dere till de police come.” Still tiptoeing she brings us crackers and cheese in a saucer. Dawn pushes it away, so she places it on my lap. I take a bite of crackers without the cheese then rest my head on Dawn’s shoulder. We are both crying quietly.
I open my eyes and I am lying on the sofa in the living room. The wind blows the curtain like a kite. I look around and there is no one. I hear voices. I get up and the front door is open. I walk onto the veranda, and from there I see Daddy with Dawn in his lap. He is surrounded by two police officers, a man and a woman. Miss Sally is in our yard now, and she is by the fence talking to Gertie and the other maid next door, who sent the gardener with the cutlass to prevent Daddy from leaving with us.
“Come here little Mus-Mus,” Daddy says upon seeing me. I go to him and he hoists me on his lap. He looks on me and smiles and I want to say forever in his smile. I love his smile, which reminded me of mother’s freshly baked bread. “Don’t you want to come with Daddy?” I am suddenly afraid.
It sounds like all the maids and gardeners in the neighborhood have been called, and they are speaking and shouting at our front gate.
I climb down from Daddy’s lap and wail, “I want Mommy. Mommy! I want Mommy.”
Gerite stops talking with Miss Sally and the maid next door and comes and picks me up. She rocks me like I am a baby. I feel my tears wet the shoulder of her blouse. She walks and sits on the veranda and cradles me in her arms. Miss Sally comes and sits by us and pats my knees. She fishes into her pocket and pulls out an icy-mint. I take it even though I don’t like icy-mint. They are Dawn’s favorite. I love snow-ball candy, but Miss Sally never has those unless she sends her maid to the shop and tells her to buy some sweets for us.
Miss Sally is a jaundice looking woman with a tall neck, and fingers like chicken feet. From where she sits, she beckons to the police. The woman police approaches. Miss Sally speaks to her as if she is a student in her class. “Listen here,” she begins. “Mr. Palmer might very well be the children’s father, but he is only causing confusion. Don’t you see these children are in distress? There must be a reason why Mrs. Palmer had to run away from him. He needs to leave now. Mrs. Palmer is on her way, but you must make him leave before she comes or who knows how this whole business could escalate.”
The police woman nods her head and walks back to where my father and the policeman are in discussion. The policewoman takes Dawn from my father’s lap and tells her to go and sit with us. Miss Sally opens her arms to welcome her. Dawn walks over slowly, glancing back as if she doesn’t want to come.
“Come big sister,” Miss Sally coaxes Dawn to come. She fishes into her pocket and produces another icy-mint. Dawn comes and takes it, and I let go of Gertie and hug her.
After what seems like an eternity, my father is on his feet, heading towards the gate, sandwiched between the two police. Holding hands, Dawn and I step off the veranda. Gertie pulls us back. Daddy glances back at us and smiles and I want to hide in his smile.
“Sir, you have to leave. Keep going,” the male police speaks sternly to Daddy.
“They are my children,” Daddy replies.
“Dem is little girls, not yet ten; dem belong with dem mother,” the police woman says.
“Is for de court to decide,” the police man rejoins.
The gardener from next door is talking to the maid from the house in front of ours. As daddy steps through the gate, he raises his cutlass like a flag, and shouts, “Is me keep de man from thiefin de woman pickney dem.” His mouth is big and his teeth are white, but one is missing from the upper right side.
A chorus of applause goes up. Voices of exclamation!
Daddy doesn’t turn back or wave or says goodbye.
We stand in the middle of the driveway, Gertie forbidding us to go to the gate so we can see down the road. I see Daddy drive by in his shiny car, his face looking straight ahead, his starched white shirt, gleaming. Dawn and I wave to Daddy, but he is gone.