The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 2


by Frances Sherwood


The Cold

When Winston returned to Cook Hall, the men’s dormitory of Howard University, and saw that Tragic had signed both their names to the notice on the bulletin board—“Mitchell (Tragic) Massey and Winston Rama, two hungry students from Trinidad, would appreciate Thanksgiving dinner with American family, November 1960, A.D., Washington, D.C., United States of America”—he tore off the socks he wore as gloves, angrily double-crossed out his name with his Parker fountain pen, and ran up the stairs, throwing open his room door.
           “Tragic, who gave you the right to use my name for one of your nefarious schemes?”
           “What nefarious scheme? Doing you a favor, man. Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.”
           As usual, Tragic was lolling about in his blue-striped bathing suit that puffed out full as a skirt. Dunkin, in his drawers, was preparing dinner on the G.E. hot plate—canned corned beef and onions fried in oil; the rice, steamed earlier, was already mounded on plates sitting on the dresser. Super was singing “All night, Miss Mary Ann,” doing a little chip to the right, to the left, to the right, to the left, cha-cha-cha, in his tight, racing-red American Speedo.
           “And dancing at a time like this, are you out of your mind? Can’t you see it’s winter?” The windows were crusted with frost. The trees on campus, save a few evergreens in front of Founders Library, were stripped of leaves, and the ground between buildings was like a solid, hard rock. Winston had never dreamed of such inhuman conditions. In Trinidad, when he heard the song “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, he had imagined igloos cut in immaculate snow blocks and trained polar bears walking on their hind legs, a pristine and beautiful landscape, not this incessant, gray cold, which cut through to the bone and numbed the mind.
           “But inside it is summer,” Super countered, warming his hands over the steam blast of the radiator. Super liked to say that Howard University kept the temperature of the dormitories high because of the number of students from Africa and the West Indies, and, of course, the American South. Winter was not a Negro season, explained Super, the expert on all things American.
           “Tragic, you know you had no right to humiliate me by putting my name up on the bulletin board, as if I begging for food.” Winston still stood in the doorway, his books in his arms, really Tragic’s books, too, since they took the same courses so they could share one set.
           “You leaving or coming in?” Dunkin asked. “Dining or disdaining our humble abode?”
           “You are hungry, Winston. A free banquet could keep you set for three days,” Tragic said.
           “Somebody die or step on your toes, Sweet Boy?” Dunkin asked.
           “Did you see how he wrote my name next to his name on the bulletin board? And stop calling me that.” Winston found it ironic that Dunkin called him Sweet Boy, since his Indian father had always called him nigger for his dark skin and tight curls.
           “Hot corned beef and rice coming up,” Super announced.
           “Are you listening to me?”
           “Sit down, rest yourself, Sweet Boy.”
           Winston did sit down, on the edge of his bed, so he wouldn’t muss his sheets. He put the books in a pile on the floor. When he went to bed, he put his pants between the mattress and a board placed on the springs so he could keep his pleats sharp.
           “I mean,” Winston continued, “I mean, Tragic has no pride.”
           “You so refined, you don’t eat food, Winston?” Tragic asked.
           On the first day of school, the two Trinidadian roommates, Winston and Tragic, and Dunkin and Super from the room next door—Dunkin from Jamaica and Super, Trinidad born, American raised—had dutifully marched down to the cafeteria in Harriet Tubman Hall. The food was served by women in turquoise, nylon uniforms, their hair tucked up under hairnets and plastic shower caps. All the students had to carry trays while the women barked out: “Greens or cabbage, biscuits or bread, fries or mashed, hoagy or wings, move along, hurry up, meal tickets.” It was like an assembly line in a factory, and still one more example, Dunkin pointed out, of man’s alienation from himself and the work of his hands and the fruits of the earth and, furthermore, of all that was discordant and wrong with capitalist society. And so expensive, Tragic added. Super, the only one of them who had ever eaten away from home or in restaurants, said, “Okay, okay, let’s buy a bag of rice at the Chinese store, cook in the room.” Naturally, the kitchen was Winston’s room.
           “Face it, Winnie, free turkey dinner, you cannot beat that.”
           “Free dinner?” Dunkin laughed. “By the time you paid your bus fare, clean your shirts, freeze your asses off, and get sick waiting for the bus, you paid plenty. Plus your opportunity costs.”
           “What opportunity costs, Dunkin?” Tragic countered. “An opportunity to stay in this miserable room: You just jealous of my good looks.”
           “Yeah, that’s right,” Super smirked. “And your big congalong.”
           They had measured, to Winston’s chagrin. Dunkin was the biggest. Super, named after the airborne hero who championed truth, justice, and the American way, was the second biggest. Super’s real name was Harold Jr., and although born in Arima, Trinidad, he was raised in the States and had served in the U.S. Army. One of the things about Super that confused Winston was that he was so light-skinned, he could pass, which he did when he went shopping downtown or wanted to go into a white restaurant or sit anywhere on the trolley or see the movies in the white section or pick up white girls from George Washington University writing research papers at the Library of Congress. “The dog walks freely in the street,” Super had quoted an American poem, when asked why he risked his life over so little. He pronounced the word Negro knee-grow. “A knee grows in the get-toe,” he liked to recite, “which is connected to the foot-ball.”
           “Do you know,” Tragic’s voice was full of awe, “the American national bird, the turkey, is as big as a crane? The bird total meat. Think of it. Bigger than a fat chicken. More delicious than steak.”
           “When the last time you eat steak, boy?”
           “Shut up, Super, I eat steak plenty of times.”
           “Sure, I believe that manna falls from heaven. The national bird is the eagle, not turkey, Tragic.” 
           “Tasty, Super?”
           “Never ate it.”
           “See, you don’t know everything.”
           “I think I hear the Floor Father,” Winston whispered. They quickly switched off the lights, played dead possum. In the dark, Winston could see that the hot plate, even unplugged, glowed like a coiled snake. The room, faintly illuminated by the sliver of moon, was draped in silence. The skim of frost on the window, although wafer thin, seemed insidious, as if it wanted to insinuate its fingers, glove white, into the room and choke the life out of them. Winston had never seen darkness like in the U.S. It was not the liquid ink black of late night or even the early morning gray, lackluster, suffused with the sweet scent of opening flowers. Night here had a sharp edge, could take your breath away, rob you of will to live. Winston was glad to be in the dorm room, huddled, hunkered down, the shadows of his roommates huge as whales, glad even for Tragic’s naïveté, Super’s know-it-all air, and Dunkin’s facile judgments.
           “Just a few, simple rules,” the Floor Father had said at the first floor meeting in the rec room. “Cooking in your room is a no-no and a boo-boo. Remember: I have dedicated my life to young people.”
           “Young men,” Dunkin had whispered down the row.
           “All clear,” Tragic announced. “No Floor Father in the old town tonight.” On went the lights. Super started the record again. Dunkin served the food.
           The Floor Father, their chaplain and warden, was wont to pace up and down the hallways at night, open doors, ask if all was quiet on the western front. He wore his hair short to the skull with a narrow, little part shaved up one side straight as an arrow, and he had a pencil-thin mustache, like Errol Flynn, folds in the back of his neck like fat pleats, and beady black rat eyes.
           “And you can come by my room day or night, except, of course, during my he-he nap time, which, my boys, is sacrosanct.”     
           “Yeah,” Dunkin had whispered. “Sacred naptime, when Floor Father and his swizzle commune.”
           “Any problem, any problem at all, lads—grades, love, plain old homesickness. It happens to the best of us. At ease, fellows, at ease.”
           Dunkin whispered: “Floor Father ain’t mentioned the one problem I have. Plain old money, it happens to the best of us.”
           Winston wasn’t even listening the day of the first floor meeting. His former experiences with fathers and their mysterious ways had been enough. The last time he had talked to his own father at any length was four years earlier. He was sixteen, and they were at the racetrack in Port of Spain, each with a foot up on the fence, not looking at each other in the face. It was Boxing Day, after the Governor’s Cup Race. Their meeting was accidental.
           “So you like to watch the women, boy,” the old man said apropos of nothing because there were no women in sight. The crowds had gone home, and the track was being cleaned of shit by a brigand of ragged men with shovels and pails.
           “No, Daddy, I don’t watch women.”
           Outside the house he and his father were civil, acted as if the shouting and carrying on in the house was only a bad dream, Winston’s bad dream.
           “You do not watch women?”
           Winston never knew the right answer with his father. Though a good student, he was not adept at maneuvering between his father’s traps and barbs, and when he was smaller, he could never figure out how to avoid a beating. With his first money from working, Winston had bought a bottle of milk. When his father saw it on the table, he knocked it over with one swipe. “Boy think he better than his father, bring in his own bottle of milk into his father’s house.” Winston always loved milk, and when he was little and his baby sister was nursing at his mother’s breast, he had said: “Mommy, give me some.”
           “No, Daddy, I don’t watch women.”
           “Good,” his father said, somehow satisfied. “For women all be whores tricking you with the disease and sadness they carry in their pretty pants.”
           The comment stung Winston’s eyes with pinpricks of embarrassment, and he wanted to run until he couldn’t see straight. It was always like that. His father gave legs to Winston’s feelings, so that shame was a runaway chicken lickity-split across the road and anger a lizard creeping into the bushes and hate a wild dog loose in the street. As a matter of fact, Winston did watch women, he and his friends, on the corner of Frederick Street. They called it eye food. Was that a crime, a sin, an unforgivable weakness? The time after the spilling of the milk, Winston had dashed out of the house, heading for the Savannah and the Hollows, where in the small pond giant gold fish shimmered temptingly under murky water, like precious metal to be mined. He calmed himself with a particular litany.
           “We infer,” he repeated to himself from his chemistry textbook, “we infer,” he offered, to all the gods of chance and chaos.
           We infer from crystal faces and crystal form that there must be an internal arrangement of the molecules, atoms or ions, for external regularity could never result from internal disorder.
           “. . . And I challenge each and all, everyone one of you fine young men, the hope of the future”—the Floor Father put one foot forward and his hands up boxer style, punching the air—“to a fierce game of Ping-Pong. But I warn you: I play to win.”
           Winston noticed the Floor Father wore tight wool pants and a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows despite the summer temperature of early September. In Trinidad, Winston’s friends threw rocks at aunty-men who carried woman’s purses, pants hitched to the rump, but Winston always made sure his rocks fell short of actually hitting, punctuating the soft earth of the road in plops and plucks, harmless dust puffs. The students in the rec room that day wore lightweight summer pants of linen or cotton with short-sleeved shirts in beautiful stripes, open at the neck, the collars high in the back. Winston envied their wardrobes, their insouciant confidence, their slow, ambling walks, hands in their pockets, eyes narrowed. They were fashionable. They were popular. They were cool. They were hot. They went to the barber every Saturday for a conk or a shave, and at night the ones with long hair kept their waves pressed firm in caps made of nylon stockings. The Africans, on the other hand, let their hair go nappy-kink, and some came to class in their national costumes, the little box hats and long robes of bright colors looking both solemn and womanish. But those Africans were rich, Winston had heard, with gold fillings in their teeth and beautiful American watches and radios and record players in their rooms, all the latest songs by Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan, and Chubby Checker. At least they nodded at you when they passed by in the hall, were friendly to fellow colonials. The Americans did not want to claim any kinship with the foreign students. Once Winston had gone into the bathroom to see an American washing himself, washing it, at one of the sinks.
           “What you looking at?” the man had asked.
           Dunkin told Winston, “I think you should go to Thanksgiving, Sweet Boy, and you, Tragic.” They had finished their dinner, were smoking Lucky Strikes, seeing who could hold it in the longest and blow the biggest smoke ring ever made by man. “You should go to Thanksgiving just for the misery of it.”

The Coat

On Thanksgiving, getting ready for dinner with the American family, Winston thought he looked presentable enough until he put on his coat. It was the cheapest coat he could find in the teenage boy’s department of Hecht’s bargain basement, where they watched you like you were a thief and then took your money. Too tight at the armholes, it didn’t button at the top, but at least, he comforted himself, it was his coat, a real winter coat. Tragic didn’t own a coat. 
           “What I need a coat for?” Tragic said, braving the winter in his Howard Bison sweater, running from Cook Hall in the morning to Douglass Hall, darting at noon into the School of Divinity library to warm up. He scooted from that library to Founders Library, where they had the painting of the one-armed General Howard of the Union Army, slave freer, Indian killer. There Tragic holed up in the basement by the radiator. The big challenge was to make it to Drew Hall across the campus for his afternoon labs. Coming back, he ducked into the Law School. Five indoor buildings, minimum exposure, why indeed should he go to the expense of buying a coat?
           On the coldest days, however, Tragic was forced to share Super’s fuzzy wool coat, the two taking turns being warm. Dunkin said the coat was so ugly that it should be banished from the face of the earth. Speak for yourself, Super replied. Winston said the coat was so stiff with dirt, it could stand up and walk about on its own. Dunkin said Tragic and Super were Siamese twins, connected by the coat. Winston said the coat was so old it looked like it was used by the Napoleonic troops when they besieged Russia. Which was why they lost.
           “Everyman his coataloo,” Tragic replied.
           Super defended his coat, saying it was a respectable fascist cloth coat with a checkered past. The others didn’t get that joke. He had to explain that Vice President Nixon had gone on television in 1952 when accused of accepting bribes to say his wife wore a respectable Republican cloth coat, not a fur coat, and admitted yes, he had accepted a gift, a pet dog named Checkers. Super knew American stuff like that—for instance, that George Washington had syphilis, died of bloodletting, and Thomas Jefferson did not free his slaves, including his children. Other interesting tidbits from his repertoire of Americana included who in the government wore a dress to parties—J. Edgar Hoover, that’s who, Mr. “This Is Your FBI” himself. Super knew about the crooks and the drug addicts, who cheated on his wife, when and where, who liked to watch little children playing on the playground. Tragic said who cares. But Superman, with his x-ray vision, also knew about jobs in the Post Office, immigration raids on foreign working people, and the powers of the IRS.
           “Your coat,” Winston said, “is so hairy the wearer, in this case, Tragic, will be shot by some hunter or dragged to the zoo as an escaped animal.”
           “My coat thanks you from the bottom of its hem, man. The beauty of it is that me and Dunkin, we don’t even need a coat for Thanksgiving.” The pair were going over to Super’s mother’s house, and Super’s mother was going to pick them up in a car at the door of Cook Hall, so that Super and Dunkin did not have to stand outside in the winter air one single, frigid minute. But Winston categorically refused to go over to Super’s because, as he told Tragic, everybody knew why Super’s mother had to leave Trinidad. And it was not just that their house burned down, a tipped coal-pot setting all aflame, the family having to sleep in the aisles of the theater for a week. It was more than that. It was the idea.
           “What idea?” Tragic said.
           Yet waiting for the bus to Georgetown in their coats, Winston had premonitions of disaster, that is, he knew he was making a big mistake not staying under the covers for Thanksgiving. Indeed, he had been in the States only three months and there hadn’t been one single hour of the waking day when he didn’t want to be in bed. In his sleep he was home under a coconut tree on the Savannah or at Maracas Beach feeling bubbles of foam curling up between his toes. The bus came. They got on. No other passengers. Winston didn’t know if he and Tragic still had to go to the back of the bus, so they sat in the middle like they were in a chariot or sleigh or ship bound to a glorious destination—the outer reaches of the Hebrides, a dacha in the deep woods. The bus passed one red brick building after another, all leaning against each another, huddled together against the cold, nobody on the streets, everything locked up. Nobody had told him about this—the emptiness of the U.S., how people retreated behind closed doors, even the trees ringed with little fences against whomever might lounge on the grass, rest their head. The Americans, Winston noted, used voodoo-like signs, warnings of Stay Out Or Else, No Trespassing, Beware of Dog, privacy and property negating all considerations of fellowship and congeniality. His ignorance of what he was coming to seemed pathetic. What he had known was that Howard University had a medical school and a tuition he could afford, and that Eric Williams, who it was said would be the first native-born prime minister of Trinidad after Independence, had taught at Howard.
           Perhaps his mother had known something of what was to come, felt it through her feet or up her spine, the taste of metal on her tongue, for the night before he was to leave home, she had taken him to the obeah man on the hill in Laventille. A descendent of a Carib woman and a slave, the obeah man knew the secrets of the earth and herbs; he could concoct special teas for getting babies and medicine for losing babies; he could mix potions for lovers, set trances for enemies. With a voice raspy as an insect’s, he pronounced:
           “You are a lucky mother, Mrs. Rama. The years will go by, 1960, 1961, leaves of a calendar. Your son will qualify as a doctor.”
           “But will he come home, buy me a house?” His mother leaned anxiously over the lantern placed on the dirt floor. “I don’t want to cook on a coal-pot the rest of my life. I want a real stove, American fridge like they have on the base.”
           Winston knew the rule was not to interrupt, that interference could taint the obeah man’s vision into the future, so that what he saw of danger became that danger, a prophecy fulfilled. Although, of course, it was all nonsense: the obeah, the novena, his mother’s pitiful prayers.
           “He will come back, nuh? He will come back home.”
           “Home?” The obeah man fingered the shark’s tooth he wore around his neck on a dirty string. “The Earth, she is our home.”
           “But tell me, tell me true. Will his daddy ever forgive him for going away, for doing better?”
           “Ah.” The obeah man’s face fell forward, his powers exhausted. Winston rose from his position, slipped a few shillings in the tin at the door, pushed the flour-sack curtain aside, and stepped into the night. Near the shack a tethered goat, gnawing at the packed mud, looked up quizzically, his yellow pupils divided by a band of black, like snake eyes. “Yes,” Winston said to the animal, for a moment realizing that he was grown up, and thus would soon have to make friends with the devil, invite him for a meal, serve up his own heart on a bed of lettuce. Quickly, Winston looked away, saw the stars floating in the black soup of the universe, each sparkle a long-dead illusion. And the moon, patched with gray, hovered big and close. Give me a kiss, it seemed to say, do me a dance, say good-bye.
           “Wait for me, Winston,” his mother called from inside the shack. “I coming just now.”
           The next morning, the sun not yet high in the sky, passing Laventille again, Winston looked from the cab and tried to locate the particular galvanized tin roof of the obeah man. The shantytown, silent the night before, was already a dull murmur of male voices, the doors of the rum shops swinging open, steadying. And women were beginning to wend their way down to the standpipes at the road to collect water for the day to carry back in buckets balanced on their heads. The taxi skirted the dry river. Across it, turrets of the small white mosque seemed as insubstantial as the wobbling outlines of a heat mirage. Then the taxi driver had to honk at a sugar cane cart pulled by a big, black ox that was blocking the way.
           “Damn coolies,” the man exclaimed.
           Behind was Port of Spain, the house where Winston had been born and lived twenty years, and where his sister had died. At the last minute before the taxi pulled away, his mother’s wedding suitcase wedged between his feet, Winston had turned for a final look, and there, framed by a hundred overlapping mistakes, was his father. For a second, Winston thought he should stop, make a proper parting. No, never, for the wave of old anger welled up in his throat, drowned the very thought.
           “To the airport,” Winston commanded, looking straight ahead, and rounding the corner he was suddenly happy. I’m free, he sang, remembering how it was to play tag, touch base, be home free. But then, as if the body had its own knowledge, prickles attacked his nose in sharp stings, and tiny, smarting darts lodged behind his eyes. Not going to cry, he told himself. He hadn’t since his sister died and was buried behind the cool, mossy walls of the Spanish graveyard. That was ten whole years ago. And remembering John Wayne in Rio Grande as Lieutenant Colonel Kirby York, Commander of Fort Stark, he was able to contain himself, be brave. When the plane rose, he realized that in some essential way he had escaped with his life. More time, greater hesitation, and he would have fallen prey to sentimentality, nostalgia, fear, inertia. The plane cast a great shadow on the green below, and then it was out, high over the blue sea heading north.

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