Holmes, a past contributor to THE2NDHAND, lives and writes in Kingston, Jamaica. This piece is the first in a two-part feature here (check back Wednesday for the finale). Holmes' "Strays and Salvage" zine, the first in a series published by Parking Block, was recently released; for more from her, visit her here. Holmes likewise contributed to THE2NDHAND's 10th-anniversary collection, currently in fund-raising mode, in a collaboration with T2H editors Todd Dills and C.T. Ballentine. Preorder your copy of the book.
Roselyn felt no particular remorse over having lost every volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or the home and gardening magazines she bought because she was still flipping through them when her turn came in line at the grocery store, but she tore through the stack of Economists, to which she had only recently stopped subscribing, hoping to find a few dry issues with their covers still intact. Finding nothing, she brought these down to the driveway as well, tossing them against a mountain of frilly pages already overcome with patches of growth. Some of the paperbacks had bloomed with the moisture, expanding and rippling around the spine.
From the driveway she had an unobstructed view of the housing scheme. Hers was the house on the uppermost right. Lawns and patios overflowed with ruined furniture and electronics, broken window frames, shingles, and the warped plywood of makeshift shutters. Soggy mattresses stained yellow and brown had been angled to face the sun. Clotheslines and tree branches were crowded with curtains, straw mats, rugs and towels, all worn ragged from having been used to seal windows and doors during the hurricane. Neighborhood boys in oversize basketball shorts picked their way through the mess while girls sat and watched, bouncing their heels against retaining walls.
Roselyn noticed one girl in particular, 12 years at most, wearing a school uniform without an undershirt or a training bra. Her hair looked like it had been used to scrub pots. She had the deceptive stillness of a hummingbird. Roselyn crossed the street and moved closer.
"Evening Mrs. Posey!" shouted the three Smyth girls in unison. Roselyn smiled and waved, not remembering any of their names. The youngest quit her game of stabbing ants as they left their nest in order to dance around Roselyn's leg.
"Hello," said Roselyn. She must have known the child's name at some point. It would have been on the pamphlet from Grandma Smyth's funeral. The funeral, Roselyn remembered, which had taken place less than a week before the storm.
"Greetings," said the child.
Her massive hazel eyes were rimmed with thick lashes curling in every direction. Someone -- most likely the dead grandmother -- had braided her hair too close to the scalp and secured it with plastic, bow-shaped clips. Her fat, dark lips showed no evidence of grief. Roselyn knelt, inverting their relationship in height.
"Can you spell your name?"
"Yes," the child boasted, leaning into her hip and popping a leg out in the other direction. Sass.
"Spell it for me."
"Only if you can do the alphabet backwards."
Roselyn looked up to the girl on the wall, who was staring into whatever view she had from up there: rooftops, trees, the city in a haze of evaporation, an indistinct horizon, a cargo ship or two in the harbour, Roselyn on her knees.
"In class, if we spell the alphabet backwards we get a gold star and then the teacher puts it on the board next to our names and whoever has the most gold stars wins."
"Oh?" Roselyn's ears defended themselves against the angry pitch of the child's voice. This was an ugly stage of child development.
"I have three stars, Lyssa only has one and Katy has none." This she shouted in the direction of her sisters, who paid her no attention.
Roselyn rolled the names Lyssa and Katy around in her mind hoping to stumble on the third.
"Why aren't you in school today?"
"Auntie Sue broke the car." The child reached into Roselyn's hair and fiddled with her earrings, pulling a little too hard. Roselyn wanted desperately to wash herself. The child had left something sticky in her hair.
"Who's watching you?"
"Grandma," she said. Roselyn considered telling her that Grandma Smyth was dead and dead people couldn't watch children.
"And Uncle Stew," she sniggered, pointing to an open window on the second floor. Morbidity starts early. All of these houses were built the same; the ones on the left side of the road are mirror images of those on the right. Uncle Stew was in the master bedroom.
"Is that your friend from school?" Roselyn asked, indicating the girl on the wall. The child made a visor with her hands and squinted. The glare from the whitewashed wall hurt her eyes. She shrugged.
"Don't know," she said.
"You don't know, or you can't see?"
"I'm going to go say hello to your Uncle Stew."
The child belched in response.
"What do you have on your hands?"
"Tree's blood," said the child, offering Roselyn a sniff.
"It's called sap. Tree's don't bleed."
"S'what you think."
The child sucked her teeth and scampered onto the lawn to chase Lyssa with her ant-stabbing stick. Lyssa's legs were longer, putting her at one stride to her younger sister's two, and so the child quickly gave up, settling instead for beating the bark of a Lignum vitae tree to get at the insects underneath. When she found the insects, she beat them now harder than before, standing back and taking care not to let any of their little bodies or body parts land on her dress.
The front door was thick with layers of deep brown paint, each new coat applied with the intention of hiding the cracks in the previous coat. A shallow gutter leveled off with gravel ran along the perimeter of the house. Roselyn knocked.
When she had waited for what she thought was longer than necessary to wait for a man who was one flight of stairs and a corridor away, she walked around the house, calling Stew's name and looking up at the windows. Eventually, he peered down at her, eyelids swollen from interrupted sleep. She hoped.
Miss Meade shuffled to the board. Her white button-up blouse was tucked into a black skirt chalked grey, which stopped mid-shin, just above her heel-less loafers. The woman almost never shaved. She nudged her glasses higher onto her nose.
"Good morning, class."
Chairs scraped against the poured cement floor as the few children present scrambled to their feet, faced forward, then all together in a low, awful drone, said, "Good morning, Miss Meade," dragging out the vowels for as long as a single breath would allow.
Ana rarely said the words out loud, but always made shapes with her mouth along with the rest of the students. Miss Meade nodded in approval and signaled for the class to take their seats.
For girls, the uniform was a green-checkered dress with matching bloomers and a white collared undershirt. Boys wore khaki trousers and shirts with the school's emblem sewn onto the left breast pocket. Both wore black shoes, with the exception of a few dark brown pairs approved by the principal. Stud earrings were allowed, all others strictly prohibited.
While Miss Meade scratched words on the board to be copied by each student into her or his notebook, letter for letter, Ana's hand moved instinctively, deliberately, her eyes on the board more often than the page. She would not go back to dot Is and js or cross ts until every letter had been joined. She felt about this rule the way she felt about removing mattress tags: disobey and stealthy assassins would kill your family. Cursive lettering is a system of bridges. Break one and all will fall.
Miss Meade read a passage aloud for the students to transcribe. A lazy start. Ana had hoped class would be canceled again today. While other students asked for a pause in the reading, or for the repetition of a passage, Ana continued bridging letters in the back of her notebook. Her pen surpassed the speed of the teacher's dictation.
The classrooms were arranged in a single-story building shaped like an L. The kindergartens sat at the L's elbow between a caged playground and the bathrooms. From there, grades one through six were arranged in ascending order along a covered walkway. Opposite the walkway was the main playing field -- a dusty plot edged with metal fencing and barbed wire marred by wild vines. The assembly hall at the head of the lot was a freestanding open structure on a raised foundation with metal pillars supporting a pointed roof. Only the older students knew what went on underneath the hall.
Ana lay her pen in the desk's slot and rested her hands on the wood, feeling the carvings against her palms. Decades of students were telling all subsequent students that they had been here first: Robin was here, Desmond was here, Rani, Brian. Swastikas, hearts, an assortment of stick figures shoving stiff pricks into stick chicks.
The fluorescent lights hung in a permanent state of disuse, blackened by a solid coating of dust. At around half past eight every morning, the sun came stabbing through the spaces in the walls, sweeping across the floors and desks so that the students had to rearrange themselves at various points throughout the day to avoid being blinded or scorched. These fingers of light allowed for a basic understanding of the passing of time as they angled across the room. Beams were fattest and longest in the afternoon just before classes let out, long and skinny at the beginning of the day, and short and squat at noon when the sun was highest in the sky. Ana had come to look forward to that frown of light on the centre of her desk, which meant it was time for break.
Before the storm, she had watched her father hammer shutters in place over the glass doors, traipsing back and forth on the patio with a box of nails. There had been determination in his eyes as he eclipsed daylight. The handle gripped, the nail held firmly between index finger and thumb, the space between his eyebrows buckled in concentration. He raised his arm and took aim, and in four strikes or less he buried the nail in the wood. This same action was repeated for hours until the glass was covered and Ana was in complete darkness, unable to discern where she ended and the house began.
"I know we haven't had class for a few days now, but I'd like to go ahead with the quiz just the same," said Miss Meade, opening a manila folder. Grunts and moans from the class. "These words were assigned to you last Tuesday, and I expect that you will have had enough time to review." Her glasses were a prop for intimidation. She pulled them down and peered over them. "Now, this will be for a grade," she was having to shout over the noise of protests, "so don't f--," she stumbled, students widened their eyes, scowls turned into smirks, "so just. Just do your best." Eruption of laughter. "Fine. No grade. Quiet down and we'll call it a warm-up. Take out a sheet of paper and a pencil. Everything else under your desks."
There is no day as pristine as the day after a storm has passed. Skies are bottomless and unblemished by clouds, the air is crisp, a constant breeze smells of someplace cleaner than downtown Kingston.
Miss Meade called out vocabulary words and waited until the majority of the students had written down a definition. Philip, Ana's desk partner, had his nose an inch away from his paper. Miss Meade turned her back.
"Psst," Philip hissed. He cocked his head at Ana and clasped his hands. The Jesus plea. She shook her head.
"Aqueduct," said Miss Meade. Lush rustle of pencils on paper. "Heads down, please. If I see the whites of your eyes, I'll find a way to torture you after school."
Philip clucked at Ana.
"Miss, you can't torture us," squawked Carol.
"Wrong, Carol. See this yardstick? These notches? One for every student who would claim otherwise. If the tongueless could claim anything," she said, sniggering.
Carol rolled her eyes so hard they made a sucking sound in their sockets.
There was hardly any damage to the school. The classrooms were just as they had always been and the fields were bone-dry. A mongoose darted in and out of hedges. Diseased cats picked through piles of rubbish.
"Philip, eyes down."
Principal Jenkins appeared in the doorway as if she had been standing there all along, khaki pantsuit camouflaged against khaki dust. Only in shifting her stance did she betray the illusion. Startled heads swung in her direction. Before the students could recover from the shock to stand and greet her in the appropriate manner, she backed out onto the walkway and beckoned for Miss Meade to follow.
Miss Meade told the class she would only be gone for a few minutes and they should remain quiet and in their seats until she returned and was that understood. They assured her it was.
"G'morning, Sylvia," said Principal Jenkins, hooking her arm in the crook of Miss Meade's elbow. Camaraderie among faculty: this was covered in a chapter in the handbook.
"Principal Jenkins," said Miss Meade, squeezing the former's wrist. "Good to see you. All's well?"
Principal Jenkins nodded. Interlocked, the two walked toward the playgrounds.
"Bored as pudding in that damned hutch. How many students do you have today? I'm not sure we should bother with assembly. Most of the choir's missing and I've got a portable TV on loan."
"About half, I'd say," said Miss Meade. "Or a little less than half. It's hard to tell just by looking -- some desks are always empty, and I haven't called roll. I was going to use their quiz papers."
"A quiz? Today? Honestly, Sylvia, show some compassion. Do you know what I put on my toothbrush this morning? Hemorrhoid cream. It'll take their brains at least another day to reboot. Hardly any at all down in the kindergartens. Though I can't complain. Hear that?"
"Wind. Birds. Leaves."
"But the parents have some nerve. Thinking that just because we canceled school for a few days, suddenly it's a national blasted holiday." She stopped to kick a pebble off the walkway. "Do you know how many phone calls I've gotten?"
"We never expected all the students to show up today. Phone lines are out all over town."
"But not one single call."
"It's still early."
"Was there a death count?"
"Beg your pardon?"
"On the radio, or in the papers. There's usually a death count. Not so much for the city, but for the coast. People build their houses too close to the shore and then they're surprised to see waves in their living rooms. Entire houses are at the bottom of the sea."
The groundskeeper pushed a wheelbarrow heaped with debris across the playing field. Seeing Principal Jenkins with Miss Meade, he set the wheelbarrow down and tipped his cap. They in turn acknowledged him, the principal by raising her palm, the teacher by an upward jerk of her chin.
To be continued 12/29/10.
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