A Jamaican Christmas Story
Terry knew it had been a bad idea from the start, but yet this is where his journey had taken him. He looked down at the flat tire on his broken and battered car and was about to curse in the tongue of his Gaelic youth when he felt the cold nuzzle of a revolver against the back of his skull.
“White boy, don’t move.”
The nuzzle was colder than the December wind that rattled the zinc roofs of the shanties and stirred the stagnant pools of sewage on the sides of the road. He hadn’t noticed it before, but as he slowly bent his knees to touch the ground and raised his hands over his head, he could hear Handel’s “Messiah” bleating over the noise of pot and pans, the shouts and screams of women in the tenements, and the occasional pop-pop of a revolver punctuating the hallelujahs that mocked the twilight gloom of Standpipe.
“If you move, you dead.”
He had asked for this he supposed, and yet, in a way, it was inevitable. Sooner or later he would have been spotted; for here he was he was the whitest man in Jamaica in one of the blackest garrisons in Kingston.
Terry looked at the flat tire and wondered if this was how his life was going to end staring at a broken down car in a urine soaked lane. And to die in the dirt? Such a contrast to the endless green of Ireland. He had left one war and stepped right into the middle of another. Two cities, two islands, two countries that resembled each other in so many ways: cramped bars, fratricidal battles, big hearts, and terrible tempers.
Better to die in the gutter in Dublin than a lane in Kingston. But then, he knew better. For he had also fallen in love with this country where, down in the bush, as they said, people still used the language of the King James Bible with words like, “peradventure” and “artificer”.
A flash of anger rushed through his body, but he quickly calmed himself for he did not want to die with a mortal sin in his mind, but wasn’t it a mortal sin that brought him here in the first place?
He quelled all the thoughts and concentrated on what was happening to him right now. Terry began whispering to himself, “Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death," and then he broke off. He couldn’t go on. It wasn’t right. He knew whatever he said to God would be heard, but in his heart he knew he was the one estranged from God.
“I don’t have much money. I am…was a priest.”
“Don’t lie, white boy, you about to dead.”
“I don’t lie.”
That was one sin Terry knew was not in his character, yet it was his biggest fault He should have lied to the bishop, kept everything hush-hush, and remained in his parish , but he couldn’t. And he should have lied when Denise asked him if he loved her. But he didn’t.
“Turn around slowly.”
Terry did not want to see the gunman’s face. He knew if he was to survive the he should avoid doing anything that would identify the gunman in front of him. He dropped his eyes to the dust.
The gun man tapped him on his head with the gun.
“Is me have the gun, you know. Is me in charge here, so turn around.”
Terry wasn’t going to give the gunman the pleasure of humiliating him either. If he died, then, God to could add pride to his list of sins that was growing day by day, hour by hour.
“Don’t make me have to shoot you for you to turn around.”
Terry decided to take pride of God’s list and shifted in the dust. He kept his eyes on the ground.
“Look at me.”
Terry stared at the ground. He would not look up.
“Father, look at me.”
The sound of the word, Father, shocked Terry. It sounded almost obscene coming from the lips of this man who was about to kill him, but he raised his eyes as if summoned.
From what Terry could see, he was about six feet and very muscular. He probably didn’t need the gun to rob people. He could have robbed them with his bare hands.
“Do you know me, Father?”
The word weighed heavy on him, like a huge stone with which he was now burdened and would carry for the rest of his life.
He said the word, son, out of habit. He would have to learn to stop saying the word that way. It was a life he was now leaving behind.
“Father McDougall, it’s me, Rupert.”
Terry still didn’t recognize him. For twenty-five years he had been in Standpipe, and had baptized so many of these boys who then took first communion, presided over some of their marriages, and prayed over many more as they were lowered into the ground.
That was how he met Denise. The hours of counsel and comfort became something else. At first, he denied all the attraction and tried to bury his feelings in their differences of class and color and when all that failed he resorted to his final defense, St Augustine and the gap between his education and hers.
“I don’t recognize you, Rupert.”
Rupert began peeling off the tam and the rag that covered his face.
“No, no, no! Don’t do that.”
Terry knew he was dead now and tried to muster the courage to continue the Hail, Mary’.
Rupert stood over Terry. With his left hand, he placed the gun in the small of his back, and then lifted Terry to his feet.
“It’s all right, Father. It’s all right.”
Rupert patted Terry on the shoulder.
“What happen to you car?”
“Let me help you. You have a jack?”
“Yes, in the trunk of the car.”
“Give me the keys.”
Terry threw the keys to Rupert and he went around to the back of the car, opened the trunk, and pulled out the jack and the spare tire. He put the keys in his pocket, then slipped the jack under the car and began cranking the lever. Terry tried to help, but Rupert wouldn’t let him.
“You just stand up there, Father, and let a pro do this.”
And Rupert was right. In a matter of minutes, he had taken off the flat tire and replaced the flat with the spare.
“You really are a pro.”
“Long time me doing this.”
“And how long you been a gun man?”
Terry knew he shouldn’t have asked, but he had to. Rupert had recognized him and until he gave up his vestments, he was still the priest for the area.
“I used to do this, but I stopped about ten Christmases ago when you got me out of jail. You remember now?”
“My big brother was charged with murder and the police hold him, me and my little brother for questioning. My mother nearly dead when she hear that the three of we was going to be in jail for Christmas. Them was going murder we in jail with licks if we never testify against me brother.”
It was slowly coming back to Terry as he watched the darkness creep under the fences that leaned against each other and the one electric pole covered with posters of an Xmas dancehall: Sergeant Satta and Bunny Spliff in control. Security tight, tight, tight.
“But, Father, you come to the jail with a lawyer and you get me and my little brother out. And you make sure that everything was all right and you gave us a Christmas dinner when we never have nothing.”
“I am beginning to remember. What happened to your brother?”
“How else him to dead? Gun shot.”
From what Terry could see, Rupert’s eyes had the dead stare of a man who had seen death many times and he wondered if his eyes after working in Standpipe were becoming as dark.
“So what happened to you now? Why are you doing this?”
“Get fired. The boss come a month ago and lean under the car me was fixing and say him have to let me go.”
“Just like that?”
“But you are a good worker.”
“I know that and him know that, but him say him have high overhead so me have to go. So, him let me go like me don’t have baby mother to feed.”
“Things got bad in the house between me and my woman and the children wanted some food, so me decide to try me hand at the gun business again.”
“So, you’re going to rob me.”
“No, Father. This is a sign. I have to find something else to do I don’t know what, but God only give so many chances you know.”
“God gives us as many chances as we need.”
“How you can say that? Look around you. And how come you not wearing you collar?’
Terry couldn’t answer him. He felt ashamed for the collar was the last thing he had torn off his neck when he left the bishop’s office and came to Standpipe to tell Denise about his plans. The collar still burned in his pocket.
“I’m not a priest any more.”
“Don’t lie, Father.”
“I don’t lie.”
Terry cautiously motioned to Rupert and they sat on the ground with their backs against the fence and watched the mongrels dig through the ruins of the grocery store. The evening star, Venus, blinked through the clouds. Terry told Rupert the whole long story of how he met Denise after her husband had died from leukemia and all his evasions of pretending not to love her.
“But you know, what made me fall head over heels in love with her was when she spoke about her relationships with God and how she knew, not believed, but knew she was going to get through her hardships. God for her wasn’t someone in the sky, but a real presence in her life, someone with whom she had a relationship and with whom she wanted to deepen the relationship. She ministered to me. She taught me. That was when I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. All that I had learned from all the books, all that I had read, Denise was just speaking from her heart. She had put all my homilies of faith to shame. And so I said to hell with it!”
“Easy, Father. Any way, she sound like she is a good woman. I say keep her.”
“She cost me my collar.”
“Sound like the collar was too heavy.”
“Yes, you may be right.”
“Father, you can either go with what you believe or with what you know. I say go with what you know.”
“You’re right, son. You’re right. So what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. I only know my baby mother want some food for the children.”
Terry went inside his pocket to give Rupert some money as if he too didn’t have a baby mother to care for.
“No, keep it, Father. I will find something.”
“No, you take it. If you’re going hold up someone else, then take it.”
“No, Father. Me done with the gun business tonight.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“Don’t know, Father. Me have to live one day at a time.”
“Promise me no more gun business.”
Terry stuck out his hand with the bills and shook them.
Rupert took the money.
“I promise, Father.”
The word pressed against his chest like the ragged edge of a stone and bruised his heart.
“I don’t know if you should still call me Father.”
“It don’t matter what them do or say about you, you will always be Father McDougall to me.”
Rupert rose to his feet and helped Terry out of the dust. He walked with Terry over to the car, opened the door, and handed him the keys.
“So what you going do now, Father?”
“The bishop says he can get me a job down at St George’s to coach the football team.”
“I never know you was a baller, Father?”
They stared at each other, and then laughed.
“I never mean it that way, Father.”
“I never took it that way, but I guess I will have to get used to it. Father McDougall, the baller from Standpipe.’
It hurt Terry to say it, but he saw the humor. He cranked up the engine and it made a grinding sound that echoed off the concrete pilings of the grocery store.
“I will come down to the church if you are still there tomorrow and fix that engine for you. But you need to get out of here fast. It not safe for you anymore.”
“How much you going charge me for fix it?”
“For you, Father, nothing. It’s all free.”
Terry put the car in first gear and waved goodbye. Rupert pulled down the shirt over the gun in his back and waved back.
As he shifted the car into second gear, Terry checked the rear view mirror, but Rupert had already disappeared into the darkness leaving only the curses and the benedictions, the hoots and the hosannas, in the darkened lanes of Standpipe.
Update (12/9/2008): "A Jamaican Christmas Story" will be published as a part of the short story collection, Who's Your Daddy?: And Other Stories, due out in May 2009.
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