Read an Excerpt
Up ahead a herd of cattle toddle down a path. They moo and jostle as they splash into the ocher river, triggering the flowers on a tree festooned with Spanish moss to burst into a spray of screeching birds.
In theory this is stunning. But in Jamaica, an island that produces elemental drama daily, no one stops to look. Not the women spreading clothes on white boulders. Not the naked children swinging out on leafy vines. Not the men in trunks and soccer shorts who wade upstream, waist deep, empty bamboo rafts in tow, hunched against the current, delivering the vessels to the starting point for tips.
Fifteen feet away from us the captain of our raft is punting with a slender pole. The braided muscles in his back are coiling. His navy polo shirt is snug. Water tongues the grooves between the knuckled stems that form the hull. In essence we are sailing on a fence.
People are watching me. Waiting. A bead of perspiration stretches from my beard and bursts against my shirt.
Then as the captain steers around a bar of silt I find a question.
“Okay, Chadwick, on the night before you’re set to go to the gallows you get a set of choices. A last book. A last song. A last meal with any writer living or dead. And the chance to sleep with anyone in the whole wide world—a living anyone, of course.”
The producer on the raft beside us smiles and makes a fist. This is how she told me that she wants the show to be—arch and energetic.
I am a guest on Trapped in Transit, a travel show on A&E.
Each week on TIT, as all the members of the crew appear to call it, an odd couple chosen from the worlds of politics and entertainment take a journey: Howard Stern and Yasir Arafat canoeing in Mongolia. Martha Stewart and Biz Markie on a llama in Peru.
Chadwick is a congressman. If his reparations bill is passed, every black American will receive a million dollars in exchange for relocation to Liberia.
I’m a playwright and director whose grandfather moved to Harlem from West Africa in the twenties. Chadwick is fifty. I am thirty-eight. Chadwick is married. I will never be. He is a Republican. I like to call myself a negro. He is bald. My locks are wrapped around my head to form a turban.
His freckled cheeks are settling into jowls. His nose is sharp and owlish. He does not have an upper lip. His forehead lasts forever.
“I think I’d have a rack of lamb,” he answers. “And it is always hard for me to sleep without my wife. My favorite book has always been Heart of Darkness. Conrad is amazing. You should read him. I would dine with Rudy Kipling. As a boy in Oklahoma I felt connected to his stories . . . all the Indians. I know that our natives aren’t the same as Kipling’s Hindus, but I could still relate. As far as music is concerned I think I’d listen to Aretha Franklin. And you—you asked the question. What would you do?”
I glance at the producer, a desert-colored woman with a se- cret trail of bites along her neck and stomach. Her name is Amaranta.
Smiling as she looks away, she scoops her copper hair into a ponytail. When she looks again I recognize the contour of her body in her nose. Like her back, it arches inward on a bony spine then flares into a bulb of spongy flesh.
The diamonds on her wedding ring are glinting. Her cheeks are hard and chiseled like the stones. But as a woman she is soft. Her skin. Her voice. Her touch.
Last night, as she read to me in bed, I told her that her skin reminded me of sand. She drew her nipple on my chest and said I was her Tuareg . . . the way I wrap my dreadlocks like a turban, the oily blackness of my skin, the height of what she calls my Libyan nose. She held me by my cheekbones when she kissed me. She christened them my little horns.
“Ride all over me,” she whispered. “Find water.”
Chadwick leans toward me.
“On my final night on earth I would experiment with pork.”
“You would cook it in a whole new way?”
“More than that. I’ve never had it. My father was a member of the Nation of Islam. My mother is a Jew.”
“So you’re mixed,” he says appraisingly. His voice is engaged but impersonal, as if I were a piece of art. “I would not have known.”
“And now you do. What does that mean?”
“Well . . . nothing.”
“So why did you ask? What does it mean in terms of reparations? Do I get less for being a diluted brother or do I get a little extra for the Holocaust?”
“And what would be your book?” he asks me after we have sailed a mile in silence.
“I would read the Book of Psalms. I’d listen to “Redemption Song” and some fish and bread with my closest friend Kwabena Small, the best playwright I know.”
“And what would be the other choice? The woman?”
I burrow through the crates that line the basement of my mind and mount a retrospective of my lovers. It’s an exhibit of ambitious scope. The catalog is thicker than a phone book. I can’t decide. But I know that I have loved them all . . . at some time . . . in some way . . . with some degree of faithfulness and truth.
We argue politics until we disembark at Rafter’s Rest, a restaurant and bar that occupies what used to be a rambling house: white walls, soft arches, slim columns.
Just beyond the restaurant the river broadens as it sweeps into the sea.
A buffet lunch is laid out on the covered esplanade: jerk chicken, curried conch, pasta salad and escoveitched fish . . . fried snappers marinated in a habanero vinaigrette.
On the opposing bank, old trees with silver trunks and thick uplifted roots like rocket fins are soaring to the sky.
I sit alone. I cannot eat. My mind is exhausted. I keep returning to the question. Who would the woman be?
I go outside to think inside the minivan. If I had driven on my own I would leave.
The Isuzu is parked in a ring of vans beneath a poinciana tree aflame with red blossoms. The drivers are clotted in ragged groups, playing cards, chewing cane and smoking—from the odor, more than cigarettes.
Resurfacing the driveway is a gang of men who’ve clearly learnt the art of pouring asphalt by telepathy.
Everything is slow, and then a whistle rifles from the road. Suddenly everything is frantic. Men begin to dig and mix and roll and cart, while splashing their bodies with beer, brewing perspiration.
A mud-encrusted pickup trundles through the gate. It stops abruptly and a female voice demands a work report. From the driver’s side a bangled hand slides through the open window. The hand unrolls a fist and fans the foreman forward. He dips his head inside the cab. There is a sharp exchange and then he straightens up, a little softer in his posture, and watches as the Ford begins to roll toward me, the driver searching for a radius of shade.
As she walks toward the restaurant, the woman with the bangles stops and reaches in a tote bag for a telephone. She is tall, with dreadlocks braided in a fat chignon. She is calling someone whom she knows quite well, for she dials without looking.
“Don’t fret, I’ll soon be there,” she says with a mischievously guilty laugh.
“But there is no story,” she emphasizes. “Same story. Didn’t I tell you that I don’t want no lover till the right one comes? Anyway. I have to go and brutalize these lazy men that work for me.” She begins to walk, then stops again. “Mind your business. There is no story to tell, I said. A lover would only distract me now.”
That night I meet my lover at a lodge up in the mountains. I am staying at a hotel on the beach.
“Sleeping in your bed last night was absolutely careless,” Amaranta mutters as she cracks the door. “And all these marks you left on me. What am I going to tell my husband?”
The room is long and narrow. At the other end, beyond the double bed, the drapes are flung apart. Through the sliding door come mist and chill and insect sounds, the smell of grass and pine.
A kerosene lamp is seeping amber light into the grooves between the planks that form the wooden walls. We are stand- ing by the dresser. I hold her from behind, resting my chin on her head.
Her short nightgown is blue. She smells of ginger oil and citrus . . . maybe tangerine.
Watching our reflection in the mirror, I reach beneath her nightgown and my fingers find the ripples in her stomach. As the hem begins to flounce I see the creamy smoothness of her thighs, the hint of twitching muscle, the mole below the crescent of her panty wax; there, the skin is dusky rose and prickly.
As I stroke her there she arcs her back and smiles, then sucks her teeth and shuts her eyes and presses all her softness into me.
I reach below her stomach for the scar she earned while bearing children. There is a lip of fat on either side. I pinch it and she moans. As I kiss her ear she reaches up and slings her arms around my neck.
I wet my thumb and trace her hollows, her underarms, her nostrils, her navel, then the birthing scar again. As she sighs I raise her gown. She releases me so I can slip it off. I leave it bunched above her breasts, framing her within her own reflection; and she sees her many colors—her copper hair, her custard skin, the trail of purple bruises on her neck and rippled stomach, between her legs the coils of deepest nigger black.
She turns around and kisses me, tipping up with girlish glee. She hugs me tightly and I watch her in the mirror, her spine drawn tight inside her body, pulling down her shoulder blades. She tongues my nipple through the fabric of my yellow cot- ton shirt, then drops herself against her heels, thudding on the wooden floor, now rubbing hard against me, her bottom sucking in then flaring out. Something spurts inside me every time I see her underlying fatness pool then drain below her skin.
Naked now, we kiss. Our bodies damp with sweat, we shine each other slowly with our palms. All of this in silence. She turns around and plants her palms against the dresser, reaches down between her legs and finds me.
“We may never fuck like this again,” she whispers. “We may never fuck again at all. But this is what it is—a fuck. And this is what I want.”
From the Hardcover edition.