“Jamaican is strong,” Tony said, slowly turning the blade in the lantern flame. This wasn’t Onny’s Tony from Chi-town, but Barbara’s man, Tony.
“Yeah. Whatever you say. Jamaican strong,” I mumbled, delirious with fever—swollen foot throbbing and blue streaks tracking up my bare right leg.
When the blue blood poison reaches the heart, you’re dead. No more pain. Lord Shiva caught the poison of the world in his blue throat, I recited from my Theosophical Studies class, 200 level, in the spring of ’72…just last year…Then I dropped out. My roommates, all female, wouldn’t leave me alone. Granted, I wasn’t paying any rent, but I didn’t have an actual room, either. I had wet dreams every night, right up till the point they evicted me…and I had to move back home to Pittsburgh. You see, there was an unwritten payment expected for me to stay there. And I had failed to deliver. Not that any of them were unattractive. Hell, all three were gorgeous. But each and every one had an old man.
Just like Barbara had her Tony. Still, I was expected to do my duty from the first night I showed up here, on the run from Onny and her broken bottle solution to romantic struggles. She was afraid I would leave her for Barbara—slender, petite, little-girlish, and the only other working girl as pretty as Onny. Well, she got her wish come true.
The blade was beginning to glow. Tony pulled it out. “Hold him,” he said to his brother, much younger than him. Stanley, another popular name in Kingston, was probably closer to my age. Maybe seventeen, he had been deprived of any formal education, living with the tourist-hustling team of Barbara and Tony. I honestly liked Stanley, though he could barely spell cat. Not his fault.
“In a minute dis all be over,” Tony said, savoring the sight of the red-hot blade.
“Got to draw deh scorpion poison out…or you die.”
I thought I heard him say, “Then you no good to us.”
Knife hovered scant inches above the bug bite, or scorpion sting pustule on top of my foot.
“Stop that train, I want to get off…” I reversed the lyrics. Was I singing out loud?
I heard the sound of the knife sizzle my flesh like bacon hitting the pan. I didn’t scream.
Fuck ‘em and their, Jamaicans are strong, song. Groaning, grunting, moaning all permitted, though, as I smelled my skin cooking.
Little bubble of smoke rising up from my foot seemed to be laughing.
You not so smart now, are you college boy. Define this?!
I admit. They had me…good. Just where they wanted me.
Onny had warned me more than once. “Dey gonna use voodoo on you, make you do what dey want…to get dem money, get dem all over to deh states.”
It was just an insect bite, or a scorpion sting that got infected…bare feet in flip-flops out dancing at the bar just some hours ago, Barbara doing the rub-a-dub on me. Up close, she smelled like bubblegum and dimestore perfume, but even in the low light, I could see the line of clown make up stopping abruptly at her jaw. Hell, she had to be pushing forty, if not frightfully older. Jamaican sun can be hard on a face….and yet, she was still playing the little girl routine, to hook her men, bring them home, clean them out, or, if they were a real catch, make them into their money slaves, according to Onny, until Barbara and Tony could bleed them dry.
I cringed. Pulled away from her bony hips, and ambled back to our table in the tourist, navy boy and rub-a-dub dance dive along the waterfront. I rubbed the Red Stripe, still slightly cold, against my forehead, getting hotter. My foot was starting to hurt for no damn reason. I looked down. The top of my right foot was red and pushing up like a volcano.
Swelling grew throughout the night. By the time they were ready to walk home, my foot could barely hold weight. They carried me, my arms thrown over the shoulders of Tony and Stanley, back to their strange, two room abode.
Barbara was singing the whole way like we had been out celebrating, coming home from a party. She had a good voice, just like Onny. Except hers was high and too syrupy sweet…like her frilly white socks, pleated black skirt and ruffled white blouse, with a little red scarf in the neck, to complete her black and white, Catholic School Girl outfit.
“Stop that train…”
Tony stuck the knife, with bits of my flesh still clinging to the blade, back in the lantern flame. “Got to do it once more,” turning the blade over, “jus’ to make sure of it.”
“No. No. Huh-uh. You can’t…” This time I screamed.
“Jus’ let it out,” Tony laughed. “You can’t help it you weak. Afraid of what we do. Afraid of what a little scorpion can do. You try, but see, you jus’ can never be strong like us.”
I must have passed out for a minute. When I opened my eyes, Barbara was pressing something cool, that felt good, next to the wound.
“Green banana,” she said, like it was an ingredient in her favorite recipe, or something. “This gonna draw out deh poison. Make you all better for us. You see.”
Tony had the gauze ready to wrap it up after Barbara compressed the firm, moist fruit to the seared open flesh. He bandaged the green banana up inside the dressing, the good-sized slice nearly covering the top of my fattened foot. It was a hefty-sized banana. Must have been two inches in diameter.
There were two beds in the long, narrow bedroom and living room. Since I had yet to fulfill my duties with Barbara, I had been sleeping with Stanley. It was an unspoken, head to foot arrangement. Stanley slept with his head at the normal top of the bed, same as the other bed where Tony and Barbara were sleeping. I slept with my head at the foot of the bed. All night long the rats scampered back and forth in the ceiling… sounded like they were bowling. I would doze off and on. Get up, drink water. I was able to put more weight on it as the night wore on. By dawn, it felt like the fever had broken. But the blue streaks were up past my knee.
They were still asleep when I put my flips flops on and hobbled down the stairs. I had five bucks to my name, still riding in my shirt pocket from last night. I was surprised they had not taken it off me.
Outside, I grabbed a cab in a hurry. “Take me to the clinic.”
There was only one that I knew of. I hoped that he was familiar with it as well, because I could not name any streets.
“How much money you got?” I was surprised that he was asking a white college kid if he had sufficient funds to cover the fare.
I couldn’t lie. I was too sick. “I’ve got five dollars Jamaican.”
“Not gonna be enough, mon. I take you far as I can.”
“I’ve got blood poisoning,” I said, pulling up my pants leg to show off my blue streaks.
“Good t’ing you going to the clinic, then.”
“I can’t walk.”
“Den you crawl…Jamaican strong. Jamaican man would make it in your condition, no problem.”
I was too weak to argue with this routine I was getting out of everyone. One minute you’re a sex object. Then you’re a ticket to the states. Then you’re a ganja customer. And last, you’re a weak American college kid who has lost their way.
I fell asleep in the back seat. Cab skidding to a stop woke me up. At least he stopped under some trees in the shade, as it was nearing ten a.m., or so, and starting to heat up. Or, maybe it was my fever returning.
“How much further?” I asked.
“Just up there. Maybe a mile or so.”
“Then why don’t you just take me the rest of the way?”
I pass up your five dollar a long time ago,” he said. “Now I just want to stop ‘ere and have some little t’ing me wife makes me.”
“Is it at least on this street?”
“Yes. You see…Not too far. But clinic for Jamaican, not for bad tourist who get mixed up down here.”
“Thanks, “ I said, completely sick of his routine.
I careened down the road. There was no sidewalk, just a swath of packed dirt in between the crumbling road, not well-traveled, and the businesses, fences, trees and shrubbery that lined the way. I bounced along, using the objects to my right to rest against, or support me, or push off from as needed, when I felt like I was about to fall down. I don’t know how, but I made it this way in about twenty minutes, which seemed like an hour.
Inside, it was only slightly cooler.
There were a sea of dark faces in one large room, all sitting in wooden chairs, waiting for treatment, or accompanying those who were too sick to care for themselves, like me. I stumbled up to the receptionist desk. She was of African decent, but spoke in an English accent.
“Are you here for someone, sir?”
“NO. I am here…for me.”
“Oh,” she raised a well-plucked, thin, inquisitive brow, more disbelieving than stern.
So I gave her the show. Raised up my right pants leg.
“Oh,” she said again, in a different tone. “Your name?”
I pulled out my wallet and showed her my fake, California driver’s license. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the last name on the license.
“Have a seat,” she said, writing my name down. “It may be awhile.”
As I turned, I noticed that all eyes and ears had been tuned my way. I couldn’t make it further than the first row. Two kids got up and sat on the floor at the feet of their mother, freeing up a little short, high-backed bench.
“Oh god,” I let out a tremendous sigh, sitting down, and propping up my leg. My chin rolled over to my chest immediately. I was almost out cold when one of the children, a boy who was part white, with curly blonde hair and dark freckles on light, golden brown skin, handed me a glass of something cold.
“For you,” he said.
I took it. Drank it. The plastic cup had some kind of thick juice, maybe breadfruit, poured from a plastic thermos with a shiny, stainless steel top. I gulped it all down in one good tilt.
“Thank you,” handing it back to the boy, maybe eight or nine.
He smiled like a cherub.
I knew then I would be all right. And what I was going to do.
I fell asleep again.
Some time later, I awoke to a name being called, “John …, John …, John…,” each time, followed by the last name that was unfamiliar to me.
A minute later, a nurse was beside me. I had failed to recognized my own name, which, of course, wasn’t my name at all. I had been going by so many, as I tried to stand up, that in all honesty, I could not remember for a moment who I was.
“That’s okay,” she said, a nurse, white like me, with an English accent as well. “Just lean against me. Keep your foot up. Good thing you made it here to us today.”
“Yes.” I was going to be okay. But there were many faces staring up at me who I knew were already here when I had arrived.
“What about them?” I mumbled.
“Don’t worry, Mr….” she spoke my ethereal last name. It was common—too common for me to remember. “We’ve got you, now.”
As she undressed the wound, she peeled away the strange banana fused to the top of my foot, now a sickly brown color, and held it up to the light.
“Green banana,” I mumbled, as she tossed it in the brown metal trash can with a thud. She seemed to know exactly who, or what I had been up against…down near the harbour.
They used a local anesthetic to clean the wound and dress it with a copious amount of a powerful antibacterial and burn treatment ointment.
“New stuff from American,” the doctor beamed. “Silver oxide…We’ll give you a tube and some gauze to take home with you.”
He was Jamaican—short, spry and full of a smiling bedside manner.
“Now stand up,” she comanded, “drop those trousers, and bend over for me.”
Before I could tense up, she jabbed the needle into my rear. The pain and pressure felt sweet going into my backside.
“We’ll give you some antibiotic to take in a pill form—some sulfa, powerful and simple, the Jamaican way,” the theme song returning for a moment. “Drink lots and lots of water. Also, you will have a prescription to fill at any Chinese pharmacy for pills to clean and build your blood. You should be better in about a week, if you stay off your feet, and change up your bandage, with the cream, once a day. Plain soap and water to clean the wound…gently. Leave it if a scab forms….Take sponge baths.”
“You have a safe place to stay,” the nurse, like Bridget, squeezed my hand.
“Yes. I think so.”
“There’s a little storage closet in the back with a cot. You can sleep the rest of the day back there, untill five o’clock when we close,” the doctor said.
“Okay, but I don’t have any way to get back down to the harbour where I’m staying.”
“Near the harbour?” nurse Bridget raised her brow. “I think there’s someone who works here who can give you a ride. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.”
As the sun was setting, the man dropped me at my door.
I got out, thanked him, clutching the bag with the sulfa pills.
I pushed open the gate and limped down the familiar corridor. As I entered the courtyard, I could go to my right, or my left.
Her voice chose for me.
“So you come back,” she said, standing at the top of the stairs, smoking her Craven A, like she had been expecting me all along.
Up there the sun could still catch hold of her cheek before it dropped into the harbor.
I didn’t say anything.
Majestic, I mumbled to myself, looking up at her. She was wearing a simple black skirt and white blouse, like she was getting ready to go out. Her hair was pulled down in plait, ready to take on her wig.
I grabbed hold of the railing and pulled myself up, one step at a time, pausing on each one so it could sink in, exactly what I as doing.
As I reached the little landing, the warm sweet sun nibbled our faces, tasted like candy. I breathed her ambrosia in, and felt her hips against me. Something at the very bottom of me was in love all over again, and whispered the word, home.