Cold comfort

“Is three hard thing to be in this place — a woman that’s black, and that’s old.” A short story by Pam Mordecai


No Ma, no Dearma, no Gran. No. I swear is not swear I swearing. You see that — all you make me so nervous me chatting gainst myself. Me NOT swearing. Me begging. Begging God.

Jesus-self know me have to bawl out to Him for me never feel cold so in my life. Like me don’t have on the big sweater. Like me don’t have on no clothes at all. Me cold so till me don’t feel it no more on my skin, don’t feel it in my flesh; it gone through skin and flesh and now it sawing-sawing like them big-big rata that run in cane field, chawing right through me bones . . . Drilling me joints like the lectric hammer the roadworks people-them use to bruck up asphalt and cement when them fixing leaking pipe and thing.

But see here, Dearma, is what crosses this upon me this day?

Big man dress up into three-piece suit and jacket and tie, and him look me right in me face and hawk and spit the something straight out him mouth, so if me never step to one side, the load of nastiness land pon my bodice, and is the one so-so frock me have decent enough to look work in, even if it can’t keep the cutlass-chopping icy-coldness out. Talk truth, me never see a set of people to hawk and spit so. White oh, brown oh, black oh. Make no difference. Everybody spitting. To the right, to the left, all about. Summer oh, winter oh — never mind the season. It make not a difference. Them just gravel down for the catarrh and, whoosh, fling it out anyhow.

Allelulia, Jesus. I think I see the place. Bear me up, oh my sweet fambily — Mama, Dearma, Gran. Just beg the Lord for this little last-chance to work out.

Must be the grocery shop that over there. Risto say I must cross here, and then turn right.

LOOK OUT, GIRL.

Lord Jesus. Father God Almighty. My heart. My one little tired old heart. Thanks, Gran. If you never call to me, is dead-house them would be taking me just now. I never see the car at all. Never see it at all, at all.

I know say that is my fault, so I shut up and go-long. Remember, “Don’t walk till the green light stop blink.” Me can’t make no sense of that. If the light turn green, and green mean walk, why me can’t walk? Red, stop; green go; yellow, take time. Now me have to deal with this teasing green that say walk and don’t walk, same time.

Four month, three week, two day now, me looking, looking work into this city so till me can’t member now how much establishment me enter, much less how much man and woman me talk to.

Praise Jesus! Is the right place. “Help Wanted” sign big in the window, just like Risto say. Do, Father God, just help me through. Help me to talk up good. Help me to show myself like I have a nose upon my face.

You see Gran, me don’t forget. Like you always say, “Anoint the enterprise with prayers.”

Oh my sweet Jesus, touch my tongue, and touch them heart. Do. Touch them little squeeze-up heart.

“Good morning. I see a sign out there say you need help. Please if I could speak to somebody ’bout working here?”

I watching the young gyal face. All now me could write one book long as Old Testament bout how people face look when them have things in them mind that them think them smart enough to hide from you and all the time you knowing so clear the very manner of bad-mindedness that them is busy contemplating. She prips and prips and make her way back inside of the place on some heel that so high that her winding backside look like it going lift off like a helicopter.

I know, Gran, I know. But the girl could be my daughter and she look at me so saucy, so careless. After all, me not no puss nor dog nor no-parking sign. God forgive me, but may she know the day a body look upon her so.

I don’t know if I too like this place. It so narrow and long that the little good sunlight from the big window in the front, never mind it stretch out itself, it don’t reach too far.

See the saucy girl coming back now.

“Wait here.”
These people don’t know “Please”? Don’t know “Would you care to take a seat and rest your foot?”

All right, Gran, me hear you. Judge not. Who is me to judge, anyhow. Me not judging, Gran, just taking me time watching the young woman wind her big bottom on her way back into the back.

But stop. Is who this fancy man? Pink shirt and purple trousers? Gold watch? And him plenty blacker than me. Well siree. Live long enough, you see the devil and some.

“Morning, sir. I see your sign. I come to interview. For cook or waitress, sir. The two of them, I sure that I can do.”

You see Risto, me hear you good good. Me talking up. Looking this funny man right in him four eye, for the little cut-off glasses is like front-line soldier bodyguarding the next two behind.

“Know who cousin, sir? Me don’t know nobody name “Newvel”, and for sure me don’t know him cousin.”

Listen me Gran, just kibba me mouth and hold down me two hand before me fetch him one clap that will separate him brain box and him skinny neck from the fandangle shirt. This pretty man laughing back of him hand like me don’t have two eye to see that him skinning him teeth. Look here bwoy, don’t annoy me today . . .

“What it is I am to ‘Never mind’, sir?”

See here, Ma, Dearma, Gran, in two more minute I going damage this man.

“What I can cook, sir? Well, ordinary food: meat, chicken, pork, rice and peas, vegetables, lay out a very nice salad. And I do bread sir. Not so many can do bread but I learn at prison. Pleasedontmisun-derstandmesir! Me wasn’t into the prison. Never do nothing bad in my life. The prison oven is the one oven in my country part that could bake bread, sir, so is there me learn to bake it.” This man annoying me soul case. Me don’t care if is own him own the place, him cyant look pon respectable somebody like them come from dungle. And look my colour — plenty better than him-own, no two way bout that. “Waitress experience, sir? Well, no. I never really do that yet.”

See, Gran. Telling the level truth, honesty being, as you would say, the wisest policy. God pikney must not lie.

Puss must be hijack this fancy man tongue. Him have one hand akimbo, the other one locking up him mout . . . Ah, hand and mouth moving now.
“Pardon, sir. What you said? I should come to the back?”

Is vex him vex because him blacker than me make this man adding insult to injury? Now, what difference it make if I walk out the front or the back of him place? You want bet I tell him two bad-word?

Okay Gran. Okay Ma. Okay Dearma. I know. Proverbs say, “A soft answer turneth wrath away.” Me not saying one thing to him. Removing me brown body quiet out through this back door.

“What that sir? If I would like green tea or cocoa tea?”

But Gran, Ma, Dearma, the man talking change. Him talking bad now — just like you and like me.

“What part of Jamaica I come from? Gutters, sir; St Elizabeth. What bout yourself? Port Royal born and grow! Imagine that. My mother father family come from there, but is not really a place that I rightly know.”

You got no job for me? Not just now? I look like a hard worker so you really sorry? I should come in another four months at the start of warm weather, if I am still free? In the meantime you going take the liberty of offering me a few little tips?

“Well I guess it can’t do me no harm. And this is nice warm cocoa tea. And outside it is cold as the blooming South Pole and in here I enjoying your heating for free.”

“Listen Ma’am. Is just this. Is plain you come from decent family, but the ‘please’ and the ‘sir’ and the ‘pardon me’ not good currency. Not here in these white people place. You get me? These people navel string cut pon one thing — money. You have something to sell that them need? That is cool. You have nose on your face and once you open you mouth them will see you is nobody fool. But you need to sound crufty; a little bit rough. You name neyga already. Is no good, if you soft. Them will trample on you till your back and belly meet. Them will work you till you stupid and you falling off your feet. You have to be ready. You must know to fight. Look civil but hard. Don’t smile till you know that you have them right into the palm of your hand.”

Gran, you think I could talk out my mind? You think I could sort of speak free?

“You finish your tea, Ma’am? What about a next cup? No, you just sit right there — don’t bother get up, not just yet. Rest there for a bit. Look outside. You can see for yourself that the Devil, him wife, and the worst of him kin having one free-for-all with the snow and the wind.”

“Well, I see what you saying, sir. It blowing real bad. But is best I be going, fore it get plenty worse cold. Is three hard thing to be in this place — a woman that’s black, and that’s old.”

“That’s another thing, Ma’am. Not to take liberty and fast with your business, but it don’t do up here to think nor to talk about ‘old’. You see all them pretty grey streak on your head? Them must go under cover till you draw CPP. Get a wig or a bottle of Clairol, you hear. I myself will confess, I bestow now and then a small helping hand to what God give me.”

“Well I telling you, them things would have to come free till I find me a job. I does have some experience with hairdressing, too. I work in a parlour once long time ago.”

“For true? Well, you see that? What a good thing you talk. Just a block down that way — a very short walk — a friend with a parlour is needing some help. A big lady. She white but she sound as a drum. Drink her hot ginger tea and take a small rum when it cold. She is one I could quick recommend. You want to go by? I will call, say you coming. Don’t do no harm to try. When you done, you could pass back and say how you fare.”

Well, you see that now, Ma and Dearma and Gran? I guess in this life we all live and we learn. And I thank you for grabbing so hard on my hand for I little most clap him, you know . . . And look how him treat me, no mind him dress pretty. You would think I should know not to judge by the outward, but look to the heart.

See me here one more time, with this light teasing green. I going step when I ready. Any man think him bad, make him touch the Lord’s temple. Must be that parlour there. And you know, I forget to ask the man name. Well, pardon me, sir. I really feel shame. Anyhow, I going pass back, no mind what’s the news. Is my first real connection that I make, on my own. Praise the Lord. And ’nough thank-you, Ma, Dearma and Gran . . . Like the gentleman say, “Nothing tried, nothing done.”

“Good morning, young miss. My friend up the road make me to know the lady in charge here is needing some help. And him say he would call her. Please ask if is so. You don’t mind if I sit here till you go and come back? And just one more thing. Out there it well cold, so please see with me: you does please have a washroom where I can make a small pee?”