Friday, June 13, 2008
Girl, What IS Your Problem (The Lost Chapter and a Give-Away)
“I wanted to shake her!” “She’s just too daggone stubborn!” Ayo Montgomery brought out strong reaction in some readers and reviewers. (So I had to show my girl some love by posting a picture of her favorite flower) :) I imagined them talking back to the book: “Girl, just what is your problem?” There’s always a reason; it may not be good enough, but a reason, nevertheless. So what could have happened in a woman’s life to make her say “I can’t go through that again.” And is the reason good enough? Is she letting the past dictate her future?
So read on to make your own decision. Let me know if you understand. And please share your thoughts on what I call the “lost chapter,” a prologue I was advised to cut. It’s a no-no for the beginning of a romance. Still, this chapter has moved everyone who read it. Actually, the story of Ayo’s young life is an almost completed manuscript. I just haven’t figured out what to do with it.
And to make Friday the 13th some reader’s lucky day, I’m offering a prize to the first person who can email me at email@example.com with the name of Ayo’s DC condominium. The gift is a duplicate of the Romance Slam Jam Mini-Swag Bag. It includes a jar of Orange Blossom Balm, Coconut Cloud, a Dusk to Dawn CD, a bookmark and recipe card. Good luck - I can’t wait to hear from you!
Night fell like a velvet, star-strewn curtain in Trinidad. In the hills of Maraval, it was especially beautiful; they seemed closer to earth here than anywhere else in the world. The night breeze cooled the plantation-styled home, blowing from the front gallery straight through to the kitchen. In the living room Maurice Montgomery stretched out on the hardwood floor cradling nine-month old Kedar and watching the country’s evening news. The baby laid in a chubby sprawl on his father’s chest. With his fluffy baby Afro and deep dimples carved into his honey-butter face, Kedar was Maurice in miniature. He loved this time of night – home with his wife and child. His love for them was like a white hot comet that never burned out.
“Ayo!’ Maurice called out. “Come look. This is the story I filmed today!” He choked back a burst of laughter at the antics of The Earth Mother’s back to nature group. Today they had come down from the hills into Port of Spain wearing nothing but grain bags over their dry, dusty bodies. “See, they dressed decent for town, because up in the hills they go naked.” When the ultra-smooth reporter began to recite their names – Cucumber, Sweet Potato and Cassava – chosen because of the vegetables they grew in ground fertilized by their own waste, no less - she choked back a burst of laughter of her own. Maurice guffawed, and Kedar joined in. Instead of all-gums, his wide grin now exposed two new baby teeth. Maurice stretched his arms, holding his son high over his head. “Yuh laughin’ too, baby boy?”
As quickly as it had come, Maurice’s laughter died. A grainy, live shot of a small scowling man replaced The Earth Mother’s ragged band. Each sentence of his scowling, rambling rant was punctuated with a jab of his knobby forefinger.
“Dat man is trouble, oui!” The sight of Martin Gary pulled a rapid-fire stream of patois curses from Maurice’s mouth. Gary, a petty tyrant, held a choking grip on the small island country of Meridia. Dissention meant a cell in the capital’s medieval prison, most times on murky, made-up charges. Gary practiced a cynical kind of obeah – he was in fact a confirmed Catholic, but he knew his people and held believers hostage to the ways of their ancestors. Even so, he couldn’t control everybody - there was open rebellion with anarchy rolling across the country like a towering, violent tidal wave. Meridia was in chaos; so much so that US troops were rumored to be on their way to protect its citizens and embassy.
Later, the sounds of Maraval’s night creatures soothed the family to sleep. The next morning, Ayo leaned up on one elbow and gazed at her husband. She loved her “old man,” as she called him when she teased him about the 10 year difference in their ages. He was 6 feet of sleek, honey-colored muscle with the face of a fallen angel. But Ayo didn’t care what he looked like, because Maurice Montgomery was a gift. He loved her the way a man is supposed to love a woman. If she could have created a mate out of a dream, he still couldn’t come close to the real life man beside her.
She sighed with contentment, putting Martin Perry and his goons out of her mind until a phone call interrupted their morning coffee and planted the seed of fear into Ayo’s mind. She watched Maurice’s expression change from surprise to determination and then resolve. He stood quickly, leaving his coffee to grown a thin, cool film.
When Ayo approached with Kedar, the freshly bathed baby gurgled with glee at the sight of his father. Maurice lifted the child from her arms and held him against his chest, stroking Kedar’s hair and nibbling the curve of his son’s tiny ear.
“Baby, I need to talk to you. Something has just come up.” Holding Kedar in the crook of one arm, he reached out with the other to draw her close. “You know how I feel about this Perry mess, don’t you?”
“Yes…” Ayo’s stomach lurched. Both hands balled into fists; the nails dug into her palms.
“The station wants a report straight out of Meridia. They asked me to go.”
Ayo’s voice rose sharply. “But Maurice, that place is a battle zone! Perry is crazy and so are his people. They want to keep power and they don’t care who or what they destroy to have it.”
Kedar’s mouth trembled with the beginnings of a whimper. “It’s okay, baby boy.” Maurice lowered his head and crooned in Kedar’s ear. He grasped one tiny hand and rubbed his thumb over the soft surface. Kedar let out a shudder and settled back into the warm strength of his father’s arms.
“But that’s the point,” he countered. “No one outside the country really knows what’s going on. Perry has the place in grip! I’ve worked there before that criminal took power. I made a lot of contacts, from government officials to the country folks struggling to get by. I can get more than the party line because the people I know trust me. And they want the truth to be told. I have to go.”
And so it was done. Maurice gave her the courtesy of a discussion, but Ayo knew the decision had been made before that phone call ended. Three days later, the station manager sent a car for Maurice and two print journalists, one from each of the country’s major newspapers.
In Trinidad her extended family had become Roy and Gemma Charles and Neville James, who were also Maurice’s best friends. Roy and Gemma owned the Scarlet Ibis Restaurant. Neville operated an art gallery out of a magnificent colonial mansion near the Queens Park Savannah. “Come stay with us,” Gemma urged. “We can play in the Ibis kitchen and I’ll show you some more Trini dishes to keep your man fat and happy – well, at least happy,” she chortled.
“I’ve got my baby and my books,” Ayo laughed. “The time will fly and he’ll be home before we know it. You know how much I love being up here.” Bright bursts of flowers bloomed among the lush green plants carpeting their hillside. Broad banana leaves provided just enough shade against the brunt of the mid-day tropical heat. The evenings were fragrant and cool. “It’s just how I imagine the Garden of Eden would be.” Waving her friends off, she settled herself to wait for Maurice’s homecoming – and what a homecoming she planned for the man she loved!
That Sunday afternoon, after Kedar’s bath, Ayo dusted his warm, wriggling body with powder. She’d just leaned over to kiss his forehead when the phone rang. She grabbed it up, certain it was Maurice. “I’m on my way to the airport, “ he shouted over the static, wavering connection. “When we get to Trinidad, the station will have a car waiting to bring me home. See you soon, baby. I love you.” The connection failed, but Ayo plopped on the side of the bed and wept with relief. He was safe; he’d be home in a few hours.
By air, Meridia was an hour away. On-time flights were rare, even before the country’s upheaval. When four hours passed since his phone call, Ayo didn’t worry. Besides, there was always a traffic jam coming from Trinidad’s Piarco Airport. She and Kedar dozed in the cushioned rocking chair Maurice bought for his wife and son when Kedar was born. The memory of that day made her laugh out loud. Her strong man looked like a little boy at Christmas, dragging that chair out of the back of his too-small car.
The sound of a car winding up the hill jolted Ayo out of her barely-there sleep. “At last!”
She rushed out onto her porch and into the warm tropical night, cradling Kedar against her chest. She frowned; instead of four men there were three. Two of them were Maurice’s traveling companions. Roy had no reason to be there. Sunday was his only day off from the restaurant and with few exceptions, he spent it at home with Gemma,
She latched onto a shred of hope. Maybe this was another of the tricks Maurice loved to play on her. But one look at their stricken faces told her different. She began to tremble and in an eerily calm whisper, directed her questions to the man she knew best.
“Roy, what’s going on? Why are you here?”
Roy reached forward to place both hands on her shoulders. He struggled with words that came out in a ragged whisper. “Because I’m the only one who should bring you the news. His calm broke into heaving sobs, “Oh God, Ayo – Maurice was shot and killed!”
Ayo mouth fell open but there was no sound at first. Then her scream spiraled up and out into the night. She stumbled back. Kedar slipped from her grasp and clutched the front of her blouse, desperately scrambling to hold on. Terrified by the sound and his near-fall, Kedar wailed, burying his tear-streaked face into his mother’s chest. Ayo’s brain was frozen in disbelief but instinct pushed her to wrap her arms around her terrified child.
“NO”! She shrieked again. “I talked to him earlier. He was on his way to the airport!” her mind could not hold on. This was some horrible dream. Ayo squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that if she didn’t see them, the men standing on her gallery would be players in a nightmare from which she’d soon awake.
Ricky Maraj, one of the newspapermen, stepped forward. Dust settled on the jet black hair that brushed his collar. His dirty, torn shirt showed signs that something had gone wrong in what should have been an uneventful ride to Meridia’s airport. His jaw worked; he swiped one hand across his face and swallowed.
“Mrs. Montgomery, please hear me out. Maurice’s contacts got us into places that would have been difficult for anyone else, but thanks to him we got our story. One of the men we interviewed asked for a ride. We dropped him off near a rum shop and just as Maurice stood up to let him out, shots were fired in our direction. We all ducked, but Maurice was still outside.’ His voice broke. “And the shots hit him.”
Ayo swayed but Roy grabbed her before she and Kedar fell. “It was an area that was usually safe, but a dispute between the political factions spilled over into that neighborhood. We just got caught.” Maraj was utterly miserable; he looked like he would soon be sick.
“Where is my husband?” Ayo whispered, holding back the wail that would surely frighten her trembling son.
“Ayo, there’s more. As soon as these men got word to their papers and the TV station, the manager found Neville. You know he has connections. He took over. Went straight to one of his big time friends and chartered a plane. He said that anybody who stood in his way in that godforsaken Meridia would have a lifetime of hell to pay. He’s on his way to bring Maurice home. The plane lands at 3:00 tomorrow.”
Ayo’s head jerked up. “Now you hold on a minute!” A jolt of anger pierced through the fog of her shock. “Nobody asked me! I’m his wife. I’m supposed to bring him home!”
“Listen Ayo. No one wants to take away your rights. Black or not, you’d be spotted as a foreigner and when you opened your mouth, as an American. The US Embassy has rounded up all its personnel and they’re holed up in the embassy. They’ve evacuated their citizens from the medical school campus on the other side of the island. You see how serious it is?”
Ayo didn’t reply, but she knew he was right. His reasoning cooled her fury.
“You would be left with no protection. Although you hold a US passport, you’re not on the list of US citizens living on the island. Even if you got to the embassy, you’d be stranded. And if not, you’d be arrested. Then who would see about Maurice? And who would care for Kedar?”
This is not real. None of it; not this conversation, these people in my house – none of it. He was almost home. But being what he called a “true Caribbean man,” he had to find out the truth for his people. And being the good guy he had always been, he wouldn’t leave his source without a ride. Maurice’s good deed had gotten him killed. Weak from the weight of shock, Ayo clutched Kedar and dropped down on the couch. The two men who witnessed Maurice’s death each bent to take her hand and offer condolences that to all of them could never be enough.
Before she lost her courage, Ayo made the call to Canada that she dreaded. When Maurice’s sister dropped the phone and screamed out for her husband Trevor, Ayo had to repeat the dreadful words to her horrified brother-in-law.
“Lord, please help me,” she mouthed, over and over into the sleepless night. The next morning, she felt slapped awake, jerked from sleep and made to stand on legs too weak to hold the weight of her anguish. The sense of loss was a cold gray undertow, pulling her deeper and deeper into grief. Earlier Maurice’s Aunt Elvie had come up from Belmont to keep Kedar. The feisty matriarch was the Montgomery family’s backbone, but today she appeared shrunken and frail. Her voice trembled. “T’ank God my sister already gone; it woulda kill she to lose any of she chirren.”
As it was in the rainy season, a few minutes of hard rain gave way to a burst of sun that baked away any evidence of a downpour. Justine Lewis had flown all night from DC through almost every island in the Eastern Caribbean to be with her best friend. Roy and Gemma waited with the two women. They all stood at a door off the runway, clutching huge umbrellas. Trinis called them “house and land” but today Ayo found no amusement in her adopted countrymen’s knack for nicknaming anybody and anything.
Just as the brilliant tropical sun broke through, the plane bearing Maurice’s body turned in a semi-circle and began its descent. Ayo took deep gulping breaths to swallow her sobs. “Lord help me,” she mouthed the plea softly. “Hold me up.”
The door of the small plane opened. The cargo bay opened and Maurice’s smooth, polished coffin was placed inside the hearse’s double door. At the same time, an attendant lowered the steps for Neville to disembark. His grim, sorrowful expression broke through her stoic resolve.
“No, she murmured softly, “no.” She pressed a fist against her mouth to hold back the sobs. But instead of standing with them, Ayo broke from her friends and ran to the hearse. “I’ve got to go with him.” No one stopped her when she pulled open the front door to the hearse and slid in beside the driver. “I can’t let him take this ride alone.”
Later, alone in front of his open coffin, Ayo spoke softly to her husband. She caught the tears that ran freely down her face. “Remember how we danced to that calypso, “Wet Me Down?” Her sob was bittersweet. He would appreciate the joke, but he was gone and they couldn’t laugh together. “I love you so much, Maurice. You gave me everything – true love, a life full of joy, and most of all, our beautiful Kedar. This isn’t goodbye, my love. It’s just farewell until we meet again. And we will. You and I will be a part of each other for eternity.”
In the days after his memorial service, dusk was especially difficult. She remembered their second date. They stood together, watching the sun set over DC’s Tidal Basin. “Dusk and dawn are my favorite times of day,” she told him. “They remind me of the never-ending wheel of life.” But these days, dusk represented nothing but the beginning of dark.
“I can’t see past each day that begins and ends without Maurice,” she confided to Gemma, who urged her to move closer to their home in St.Ann’s. “You need to be with people who care for you and for Maurice. You know that’s what he would have wanted.” Ayo’s quiet, barely controlled despair frightened her friend.
But she couldn’t; she needed to be in the space they shared, with his clothes, his cameras and books, their bed; everything just as it had been on the day before he left for Meridia. At night she would pray to sleep at least until dawn. Through her grief, Kedar was her only solace. “What am I going to do here,” she asked herself one early morning, watching the coral and blue dawn blend into a new day. As much as she loved her new home and country, she knew she couldn’t stay there without Maurice. It would take just one more lonely rainy day to send her spinning over the edge. And then who would care for Kedar?
Three weeks later, after tearful farewells, Ayo and Kedar touched down at National Airport. Justine took a slow drive through the city – up 18th Street, onto Columbia Road and then onto Harvard Street, into the circular driveway of Harvard Hall, her art deco condominium.
“You’re home again. See how much Maurice loved you? How many men give their wives a deed to their own condo as a wedding gift?”
“I know,” Ayo sighed, struggling with the rush of emotions. “I was living here when I met him. He said ‘we can’t let go of the place we fell in love, now can we.’ And because of his love, I can come right back where I started.”
When she stepped inside, Ayo was overwhelmed by a sweet, almost physical sense of homecoming. Everything was in its place, exactly as it had been two years ago with the exception of one silver-framed photo that traveled on the plane with her. She set it on the small table next to her bed. It was of Maurice, his dimpled smile bright and beautiful forever.
She walked through the rooms and onto the sun porch, holding Kedar against her heart. This is where she would heal, raise her child and celebrate the memory of her husband. She was home, again.