Fever

“I wanted to stay forever small . . .” A short story by A. Naomi Jackson

Illustration by Chris CozierIllustration by Chris Cozier

Grief scrapes at my skin
She never
“Be a big girl!”
wanted to touch
much
except to disinfect or bandage

— June Jordan, Ghaflah

I wanted to stay forever small, to always feel Mommy’s brown hands stretching to unkink my hair. I was willing to suffer, take a hit of shampoo in my eyes, for the thrill of Mommy’s nimble fingers working on my body. I wanted Sunday night to lengthen with the sounds of Trinis fighting next door and Mommy singing with Jamaican rockers songs on the radio. I wanted to hear DJ Prince Calunda growl that he loved “all Caribbean massive from head down to shoe’s ground”, and see my mother’s breasts shake with laughter at his fake Bajan accent.

That Sunday, Mommy inspected me after my bath. I stood in the tub with the water draining and my Don King afro standing at attention, wanting this part to be over quick. It didn’t take her long to see the pockmarks creeping up my arms, to grab my wrists and frown. My heart soared as I imagined our all-day play-date, where she would play the mother and I would play her lovesick child. Mommy would sing like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music; she’d read to me from the stories she’d written featuring me. Trying to get closer to my dream, I assumed a commanding voice, said that I’d have to stay home so I didn’t get the other kids sick.

Mommy grabbed me by puffs of nappy hair. Rage pushed through her throat and made itself known: “But what is this? You really talking to me like you is a big woman, telling me when I should go to work and when I must stay home?” My head hit the spigot as she pounded me with the back of her hand; I dove for cover in the few drops of water that covered the bathtub. She pulled the small hairs at the nape of my neck and demanded, “You big enough to earn your own keep yet?” Her breath, heavy with pigeon peas and rice, seized the air. I took the easy way out, used my Cheshire cat grin to ease the coldness from her eyes. Softening, she wrapped me in a towel to shield me from the September breeze drafting through the bathroom window.

“But these Americans does take this chickenpox thing too seriously. It’ll be our little secret. Just don’t go running yuh mouth to your friends at school, y’hear?” I nodded, buried my head in the familiar curry stain in her nightgown where I felt safe.

The next morning, my fourth-grade teacher Ms Nodaros held up my pocked arm in a victory dance against my mother. She knocked the words through her nose, proclaiming the start of my quarantine: “Class, Cassandra Wyre will be leaving us for two weeks as she recovers from the chickenpox.” Ms Nodaros had scores to settle. The month before, Roy Jenkins, the Vaseline-smeared Jehovah’s Witness, had provoked me. He had been taunting me with talk of Jehovah and damnation all year. Those words, “Shut the f— up!”, had been coming for weeks. I couldn’t stop them when they finally made it past my censors. Like a game-show host offering a consolation prize to a sore loser, Ms Nodaros asked me to come on down to the front of the room for my punishment, an afternoon spent writing “I will not say curse words in class”. The next day, Mommy stormed our classroom and threatened to kick Ms Nodaros where the sun don’t shine. Ms Nodaros quivered in her gray pumps, before rising to all five feet of herself and sputtering, “I think it’s time for you to leave.”

I saw Ms Nodaros’s spine straighten with spite when she asked the long-haired, green-eyed twins, Saqueeta and Najoya, to escort me to the school office. I waited there for hours, my brow burning with fever. Every half hour, the school secretary, Ms Freidman, called my mother at work. I smiled each time my mother’s answering machine intoned, “You have reached the desk of Ms Yvette Cunningham. I’m sorry I’m not available to take your call but . . .” When the lunch bell rang, I was still clutching my math textbook and memorising my mother’s answering machine message. After feeling my burning forehead, Ms Friedman finally called my father. I didn’t want to speak to him, but was relieved when she said he was on his way.

Daddy arrived just before the bell for last period rung, wearing a silk tie that squeezed itself around his thick neck. He asked Ms Friedman if my mother was on her way before he looked at me and asked, “Cassandra, are you really sick?” He stepped into the circle of heat that surrounded me, pulled back when my fever hit him. His heavy fingertips barely grazed my forehead as he assessed my situation. He sighed, put my small book-bag on his back before escorting me to his brand-new champagne-colored car. We rode in silence, my throat choked by the smell of new car leather and my stepmother’s gardenia perfume.

When we got to the apartment he shared with my stepmother Nadine, Daddy settled me on the living-room couch. I noticed Daddy’s subversive shrine to me peeking out from one of the end tables. There I was at five years old riding on Daddy’s shoulders at the West Indian Day parade, my shirt soaked in tears at the man playing mas as the devil. In another picture, me and Daddy grinned on the beach in Barbados, as I held a piece of shark bigger than my head at the market. I reached for a picture of Mommy, Daddy, and me at my christening, and marveled at Daddy’s boldness. Above my head, though, there was no confusion about whose house this was. Pictures of Nadine — Aunty Nadine, as she insisted I call her — from her teaching days in Jamaica loomed out of focus.  Nadine’s eyes pierced me from the wedding picture with my father taken just six months before. I felt her gaze and grew warmer under the blankets where I was sweating out my fever.

I woke up around seven o’clock with a dry mouth. I started dragging myself to the kitchen in search of water, but stopped when I heard Daddy whispering on the phone. Daddy reddened as he put a pot of tea on the stove, his stomach pushing past the white t-shirt he’d stripped down to. I watched the bite mark on his left shoulder move up and down as he rifled through a tin of Ovaltine biscuits; there was Mommy’s mark on him.  He talked to his new wife on the phone, his voice dropping as he admitted that he didn’t know “when her mother would come for her.” I imagined Nadine on the other end, working the hospital switchboard, asking Daddy in a strained voice when I’d be going home, then telling a loved one to hold for bad news.

Nadine clicked into the apartment on her dirt-brown pumps around nine o’clock, long after her shift as a receptionist at Kings County Hospital had ended. She looked at me swaddled in her good sheets, at my father, and then back at me. Daddy shrugged his shoulders, mumbled an apology for not being able to get in touch with my mother all night. As the silence between Daddy and Nadine settled, I felt my stepmother’s overly lotioned limp hands slip Vicks onto my chest and in my nose. She worked with the officiousness of a nurse, without love. A touch that stung. She laid a slick hand on my forehead, shook her head as she fetched my weekend visit pyjamas and helped me change out of my school clothes. Thinking me asleep, Nadine whispered to my father, “Six months we married and this woman already thinking I must mind her children when she don’t feel like it?” I retreated under the covers, humming the rockers tunes my mother sang to me on Sunday nights. My breath caught in my throat as I remembered Mommy’s lonely voice moaning, “Night nurse, only you alone can quench this here thirst.”

Sirens shattered my sleep just before midnight. The cops banged on our door, asked in booming TV voices if we knew the whereabouts of one Cassandra Wyre. My mother’s audacity reached up to grab my father’s throat yet again. Nadine paced with her bony arms crossed over her chest. I stuffed my feet into my penny loafers, not waiting for her to give me another cue to leave. Daddy asked in a quiet voice whether or not Mommy planned to press charges. Officer Braithwaite raised his eyebrows in a knowing way as he and Daddy shared the open secret about my mother’s madness: “Can’t be sure. She did say something about kidnapping.”

I hated the cop for putting Mommy’s business out there. But right then, I wanted to be friendly with anybody other than these play parents. I needed to push past my stepmother’s lifeless hands moving over my body’s unfamiliar terrain. I wanted to erase the sting of the icy apology my father muttered when his wife arrived home, finally, and found me still there. I latched myself to the police officer and held on, tugging at his walkie-talkie, singing him songs from my school play, asking questions about his gun. I needed him to like me.

I rode home in the cop car, sirens blaring like me and Officer Braithwaite agreed on. I wanted this to be my ride. To give my mother a taste of her own madness. To exert some will in a situation that had long since spiralled out of my control. We sang the jingles on the Caribbean radio station, me and Officer Braithwaite: “Ms Jamaica should not only be pretty / but also intelligent and witty.”

As we rolled onto President Street, I heard my friends from the building pounding the pavement with their double-dutch acrobatics. Everybody in Brooklyn was out that night, trying to escape the body-swelling Indian summer heat. They turned to see whose business would sprawl out onto the sidewalk when the car door opened. I walked tall, fiddled with the house keys hanging from a chain around my neck to keep my hands busy. Before we even stepped off the elevator, I could smell black-eyed peas stewing on the stove and hear Night Nurse drifting from apartment 3I. Mommy greeted me at the door, a cocktail of brandy and milk in one hand and a bottle of calamine lotion in the other. She was singing our song.