She turned the blackened old skeleton key in the lock, yanked it out, and threw it under the bed. My mind caught up with what she had just done, as a sick grin crested on her face. Beaded sweat on her forehead, white teeth, small wide nose, long strong neck, her cords rippled and pushed out as she said, “Now you gonna haf to fight mee to get out uh here. Can’ go out dat door without deh key. Can’ get deh key till you pass me.”
She paused for effect, her chest rising faster instead of slowing.
Then she laughed, “Jus’ you an’ me now.”
We were at least 30 feet up in her one and half room apartment, above the New Apple Bar, at 20 East Street, Kingston, Jamaica…down near the harbour. It was noon. Already hot and humid, around Valentine’s Day, 1973.
My duffel bag, change of clothes, and boots were here. My return ticket on Air Jamaica, way passed expired, was across the island in her one room house, halfway up a steep dirt road, above a crossroads with a general store-post office, called Albert Town.
I was 20. She was my luck run out.
Capricorn. Goat, her cloven hooves dug in…There was a bust on her dresser. Strong, angular-jaw-faced African woman, like her, she used it to hold her wig, tool of her trade—tricking men for money, down near the harbour.
She slowly picked up her brown wig off the bust, then lifted the heavy ceramic head in one hand, holding its stern face by the neck. “Jamaican women strong, like her, Erik.”
I backed up till I bumped into the door in her bite-sized bedroom, claustrophobic panic setting in…
“You t’ink you can stop her, Erik,” raising the bust in her right hand. “If I can’t have you, den no one else can.”
My bell rang. I lunged, grabbed her by the waist, same weight as me, about 125, and before she could swing the heavy stone bust at me, I lifted her up and flung her across her bed. She slammed against the wall like a Jamaican rag doll, slumped over on the bed, rolled off, and hit the floor face down.
She was out cold.
I didn’t have time to consider the Super Man strength that had just commanded my body. I dove under her bed, frantically reached around and found the skeleton key.
I needed to grab all my clothes and belongings, so she wouldn’t use them to cast a spell on me. I remembered she had placed a lock of my beard in her little wooden box on the bed’s headboard.
No time for that.
I needed to take my boots, leather jacket and duffle bag for the return, somehow, back to the states…where it was still winter.
She groaned, eyes still shut.
I grabbed my deer skin leather shirt, symbol of my Colorado freak flag freedom, shoved the skeleton key in the lock, turned it, yanked the door open and ran down the hall.
I heard her conscious and rising to her feet by the time I was out the door. I was running in cheap flip-flops. She was bare foot. We were both on our track teams in high school.
I tore down the long hallway of the apartments, mostly working girls, that sat above the bar.
She nearly caught up to me at the outside stairs, exiting down to the ‘yard.
Empty beer bottles collected by the back door to the stairs, their mouths always open.
I heard the bottles break, first one, then another, on the wooden railing as I half stumbled down the well-worn, sun and heat splintered stairs, into the concrete courtyard.
Only a matter of time now. It was another long corridor to reach the street. And there was a heavy wooden gait that creaked open to the inside, with some difficulty, before you reached the sidewalk on East Street.
I couldn’t let her trap me and corner me in that narrow corridor, holding two broken bottles.
She had caught me.
I stopped dead. Turned.
Her chest panting again, only this time she was holding a broken beer bottle in either hand.
Red Stripe, no doubt. “You not gonna get away from me Erik,” she shouted to the unseen audience.
It was high noon. There were several more one room apartments that circled the courtyard. Everyone was coming out to see the show.
“You t’ink I let you go…to Barbara!” shouting as much to her audience, gathering in a circle around us, as to me. “You t’ink I let any woman have you…without a fight…college boy?”
Everyone was pouring out of the rooms upstairs too. We were surrounded by a dozen fight fans, most on her side, mostly female. Women who worked the streets, as she did. But she was the best by far. And didn’t come by her title without true beauty, brains and street fighting grit…The Queen Of East Street. What chance did I have? And there was no escape, either, as her neighbors—her audience hungry for blood, my blood, the blood of a privileged white American college boy—would never allow my escape. But would cheer for everything else.
She was utterly defiant and radiant with power, standing barefoot in her simple light skirt and bright tube top. Her shoulders rippled. The sweat beaded above her full lips. Chest expanding like a race horse at the gait, I had already memorized the muscle in her thighs, her calves, with my fingertips. I knew how hard her stomach was, how soft her breasts were, and had stared at her witchy, third nipple at the top of her stomach, between and just below her breasts, in wondrous fear. Her neck could carry a stove up a muddy hill in pitch black, never looking back, save to laugh at me, stumbling fool in the darkness.
I did love her. But my love was not possessive like hers. She just didn’t understand. Culture shock. I didn’t want to marry her, take her back to the promise land, grant her escape from the island poverty, and limited choices. I just wanted to love her and whatever time we had together.
I’m sure there were other men who started out as Johns, and became much more—who came to her from far away, and she read into their eyes the promise of freedom, marriage, escape. I know there was one from Sweden. A sailor. He had sired her son, seven years old, who lived with her mother across the island. I know she had waited for him to return…And she thought for a second I was him, the first time she saw my face, stepping out of the cab—the cabbie gesturing up to her, asking her if she wanted him to bring me up.
It was my downfall that I had left her and come back…after the fatal bus accident in the middle of a Pennsylvania blizzard. Both my buddies, in Pittsburgh and State College, had ripped off my ganja shipments that I knew had arrived in the mail (because I saw the special weed getting smoked around the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State campuses). What else was I to do. I had nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide out and hatch a new plan. And when I managed to recover a quarter pound of the super high test ganja and sell that for $120, and there was still some time left on my Greyhound Ameripass, I took that as a sign—I had ot go all the way back down to Kingston…to her…Besides I had left a pound and a half of pure, red flower tops sitting under her bed that I could sell to tourists and Navy boys for a buck a spliff, or what ever came my way, to get by.
She thought I had returned solely for her, to marry her, to whisk her out of this dead end life and take her home, to my home in Colorado. And she reasoned that if I didn’t want that, it was only because I was ashamed of her, or she wasn’t smart enough…lord knows she didn’t lack in looks.
All this came up and fizzed like bubbles on top of a cold glass of Myers and Coke.
“You not strong like Jamaican, Erik. You never be strong as us,” as much for the crowd as for me, circling me.
Sun glanced off the undulating bottles in front of her breasts, weaving a poetic dance.
I could hear their music.
Crowd just wants to see a little bit of your blood, then it all will be over…
For the second time in just a little over a month, I was in a life or death situation—the first time due to drugs, this time owing to sex. Once again, I left my body while fully conscious, just like I did in the cathedral-quiet moments after the bus stopped rolling over the guard rail, and down the embankment.
I looked down on us from above, and felt enormous compassion for her. A quantum second later, I was back in my body and that compassion was extending my right hand to her in a gesture of peace.
Here, let me take that, is what I was trying to say. You don’t have to hurt me…or you.
I may have mumbled, I’m sorry, as the crowd shouted, “Get him! Cut him open! Make him pay!”
She lunged at my hand. I tried to pull it back. Not in time. She slashed me at the base of my right index finger.
Still in that other mind, seeing things from above, I knew that would be all, as I raised my hand up for the crowd to see…the blood run down my arm, and drip on the bleached blonde concrete hammered by noon day sun.
All that was needed. She started to cry. Then sob. She stumbled backwards. The crowd parted for her. She turned and careened towards the back stairs, setting the bottles down at the foot of the staircase.
As if her body weighed a thousand pounds, I saw the depression instantly crush her, just like it did when she came off a gambling spree. She pulled herself up the stairs, dragging along the railing, like a pack animal weighted down to its limit.
At the top of the stairs she stopped and turned. “I let you go, Erik. But I don’t know if I can go…on,” the last part muffled. Always the actress, I couldn’t tell if it was just another theatrical performance, for me, for the masses yearning to be free. After all, she was…The Queen of East Street.
I picked up my lucky, chamois cloth shirt, western style with the snap buttons, from the concrete courtyard. Luckily, there was no blood on it.
A woman, who had been kind to me without wanting my body or my money, took me into her little abode off the courtyard. She was one of just a couple who were not cheering for blood.
It was instantly cooler inside her little place.
I sat down at a Formica top table. My red blood dripped onto the blue. She stopped the bleeding. Washed the wound and dressed it. She told me I need stitches. But, of course, I never got any.
More importantly, she took my side. As we sat there and she consoled me, word filtered down into the courtyard that she, my keeper, had locked herself away, and was threatening to kill herself with sleeping pills and rum…
“She won’t do it,” the woman said, older, maybe forties, who knows. Anyone past thirty was old to me. “She’s done this before…for attention. And she tryin’ to get you to come back upstairs…lock dat door again so you can’ get out…Don’t go.”
“But what about my stuff? I need my boots, my leather jacket.”
“Not worth it…You need your life, too. Go to the American Embassy. They help you get off the island.”
I had enough cash on me to find a bar, where she hopefully would not look for me—too wasted on downers and booze to get out of bed—and at least get things started with a couple of stiff Myers and Coke…
Around sunset, I did the only thing I could…walk over to Barbara’s place. I was down near the harbor. No navy ships in port. There was only one other white face that lived down here—Tony, from Chicago—who was one of her regulars.
“He give me dah purr tongue reel good,” she had said, in exchange, mostly, for the latest racing tips…her favorite wager when she was on a gambling spree.
So I couldn’t go to him, even if I had known where he lived.
My finger throbbed. Head ached. Stomach churned.
“Stop that train I want to get on…my baby she’s a leaving me now…”
Keith and Tex played her song in my head. No more Queen of East Street. No more…