The Sea-Grape Tree
Uncle Obediah’s cigarette-hardened voice came back to Shad as he removed the fairy lights from their box.
“Don’t fall over, you hear,” Uncle would rumble from the stern as they rowed out for another night’s fishing, the light from the kerosene lamp glinting off the water, “because the onliest thing between you and a shark is a miracle.” There was no sinking boat tonight, no fishing net entangling arms and legs, but Shad felt as if he were back in the old canoe—his eye on the circling shark of failure—and he sent up a brief request for a miracle.
The main reason for the bartender’s prayer was his conscience. Raised by a God-fearing grandmother who still nagged at him from somewhere off his left shoulder, Shad was trying to suppress his guilt. He hadn’t been this sneaky, this dishonest, since he was nineteen and had started stealing ladies’ purses after he’d lost his bus conductor work. The resulting year in the Kingston penitentiary had cured him, until now.
Here he was, seventeen years later, taking the boss’s money from the cash register when he wasn’t looking, and spending it on something Eric Keller would not have condoned. It was a rash decision but, being a man who followed his heart, Shad had decided that the risk was worth it. Because Danny Caines was worth it.
“He’s never been to Jamaica before,” the boss had explained about Caines a few weeks earlier. “He wants to get to know the island real well before he decides if he wants to go into business with us or build a hotel in Largo.” Eric had lit his pipe, his dry, ashy elbows squarely on the table as he sucked in and puffed out. Then he’d leaned back and exhaled, twiddling his black eyebrows. “And we need to know him before we go into business with him.”
The project was at a delicate stage. It was like a newborn baby, eyes shut tight and fists curled, needing nourishment to stay alive. If Caines didn’t like what he saw, there’d be no hotel. Of course—Shad sighed at the thought—the investor himself might turn out to be a samfie-man, a big-talking con man who’d carry the village down even further. Unwinding the last of the lights, Shad sent up a second appeal, this time that the newcomer might not turn out to be the shark.
Samfie or savior, Caines was to be the guest of honor at a welcome party Shad had planned down to the last detail, from the Spam in the sandwiches to the white rum in the punch. One way or the other, the party was on and half the village about to arrive. Shad had decided that this celebration was going to be a real party this time, not the boss’s idea of a party, where the guests had to buy their own drinks. This time the invitees had been promised one free drink and one sandwich each. But they would have come anyway, would have bathed and put on the deodorant and clothes they saved for church, just to feast their eyes on the main attraction—the American man who could change their withering lives.
No one had more to gain or lose from this encounter than Shad. Squatting down in front of the bar with the fairy lights, the bartender remembered his grandmother’s prediction.
“You going to be a busha one day, watch me,” Granny would say, always squeezing her lips together at the end like a punctuation mark. It was a prophecy that the other old ladies agreed with, because the color of the boy’s skin was as black as the night sky between the stars, and his forehead round and high, sure signs that he would be a big shot one day, big as the white overseers in sugar days.
The image of being a busha, complete with a large concrete house and a Mitsubishi in front, had begun to form in Shad’s mind six months before, shortly after a real estate man had said that a client of his was interested in partnering with Eric in a hotel venture. Right away, the boss had declared to the Realtor—in front of Shad, no less—that his bartender would have to be a partner. Shad knew the reason. Eric had built one hotel already and he had no intention of exhausting himself again to build another hotel from scratch, not at the age of sixty-five. Nonetheless, making a poor bartender a partner was a bold suggestion in Jamaica, one only an American who’d never understood the island’s class barriers would make.
The possibility of being a partner in a hotel had been keeping Shad awake at night, Beth snoring softly beside him, because it offered a thread of hope in a place where a man on the bottom had little or nothing to pull himself up with. And being a practical man, the bartender would remind himself, almost as soon as he started imagining the new house and car, that he was happy doing what he did and being who he was.
Shad hung the fairy lights over the last tack under the counter. Despite his guilt about taking Eric’s money, he was looking forward to the party. He and every man-jack in the village needed cheering up, because they were tired of grieving the lack of work, the youth lost to Kingston and crime.
Granny would have understood. After she got the news that Obediah had drowned, and after she’d thanked God that Shad had stayed home with a fever and missed the storm that killed her son, she’d dried her eyes.
“Nothing that a little curry goat and white rum can’t cure,” she’d said with a sniff and a wipe of her kerchief. Then she’d asked her neighbor to tell everyone to come and mark her son’s passing.
Shad plugged the lights into the wall outlet and stood back. They were blinking just the way the man in the shop said they would. On sale for half price, the Christmas lights had been hard to pass up, even if it was late January. Maybe they’d distract Caines from the drab truth of the bar, its open sides, rough concrete floor, and thatch roof held up by telephone poles. Maybe he wouldn’t notice right away that Eric—his prospective partner—didn’t have two shillings to rub together.
Laughter leaped over the kitchen partition behind Shad. “More work and less frolicking, please,” he called, “and remember to put the fruit in one of the nice glass plate.”
“Yes, sir,” women’s voices called back amid titters.
He brought out the mixers from their plastic cases under the sink and set them beside the row of glasses. The white and brown rums he placed within easy reach, and the vodka, gin, and whiskey farther away. His movements were swift and sure, those of a man who thought of liquor as a business, not a beverage.
The clatter of the kitchen’s bead curtain announced Beth at his elbow, one hand smoothing her hair. “You want us to make a fruit salad or just slice the fruit?” She had on her light-blue dress, the one that showed she still had half a waist after birthing their four children.
“You mean your mango or my banana?” Shad replied with a grin, wiggling his hairless eyebrows like an underage scamp.
Beth sucked her teeth, pulling the air in between her teeth quickly, a flirting little suck, not the long drag of air she made when she was disgusted. She ran her hand over the back of his shirt, ironed earlier that afternoon while yelling at the older children to finish their homework. “You think you still a playboy and I still a young girl? After we done with the party, you know we going be too tired for anything else.”
Shad walked her to the side of the bar facing the ocean, his arm around the familiar rolls of her waist. “Come watch the sunset with me, then.” He looked at her sideways. “We can pretend we having sex.”
Their laughter died away into the late-afternoon softness, into the postcard scenery that Largo Bay’s residents usually ignored. In front of them, a short grassy lawn ended abruptly at a cliff, the waves crashing fifteen feet below. To their right, a beige beach extended in a graceful, one-mile curve, and under its arc of coconut trees lay the fishing canoes, the lifeline of the village.
A quarter mile in front of the bar, in choppy, turquoise water, sat a tiny island. Eric, its owner, had officially named it after the woman who’d lived on it the summer before, the woman named Simone. Uninhabited now, the island housed only two roofless buildings that remained as testament to Eric’s old hotel, the Largo Bay Inn, which Shad had helped build fifteen years before and where he’d first worked as a bartender.
Small by North Coast standards, with only fifteen rooms, the inn had been known for its spectacular location on a peninsula at the end of the bay, the narrow driveway perfumed by frangipani trees. It had become a beacon of light in the village, employing workers and makers of shell necklaces and tie-dyed shirts. The boss had been the proud innkeeper for seven years, waving aside advice about the need for a retaining wall for the driveway. Better to spend the money on magazine ads, he’d countered, to entice guests to come to this eastern end of the island, far from Negril and Montego Bay.
Eric’s day of reckoning had come, however. A monster hurricane called Albert had wiped out the thin strip of land that had been the hotel’s driveway, leaving the battered buildings stranded on an island. With the demise of the inn, the village had lapsed into its former rusty state, one of the few signs of life being the roadside bar that the boss had built with the meager insurance money.
“You still don’t answer the question,” Beth said, bumping him with the side of her hip. “Sliced fruit or fruit salad? Maisie waiting in the kitchen.”
“Fruit salad,” Shad said, kissing her on the cheek, “with cherries on top.”
She returned to the kitchen and he to the slicing of limes, oranges, and mint sprigs for the garnishes. Spry and trim, he looked more like a teenager than a man in his midthirties planning the future of sixty families. Being short and without prominent features, Shad was not a man who was noticed at a distance. You had to get up close to see the shine in his eye, the glow from his pores, the glow of a man who still laughed with his family. The bartender’s other distinguishing feature was his smile, an ear-to-ear grin that displayed all his teeth, especially the two front teeth with the space between, the smile that had, in his boy days, saved him from licks from his grandmother and earned him money running errands.
Darkness was now blanketing the bay, and preparations for the party were complete, the radio tuned to an old Peter Tosh reggae. One naked bulb hung over the bar and two over the restaurant tables, the blinking fairy lights like giddy children below. At any moment Eric would be bringing Caines from the Montego Bay airport and pulling up at the boardinghouse next door.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell them nothing,” Miss Mac, the boardinghouse owner, had promised. “I just tell them to follow me.”
If it were up to the boss, there’d be no welcome party, and probably no new hotel. The bar had almost not come into existence. Embittered by the destruction of his inn, Eric had only grudgingly constructed the Largo Bay Restaurant and Bar at Shad’s suggestion, and it was the younger man’s belief that anything built in anger could never make a profit, forcing the bartender to stay on constant watch, reining in expenses, robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Eric, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care about the status of his bank account, and if it wasn’t for Miss Ferguson’s calls from the bank, he wouldn’t even inquire. When Shad reminded him about payments to suppliers, he’d shrug his shoulders and say they’d have to wait. It didn’t matter to him that after seven years of fitful existence, the little roadside bar was sliding deeper into debt.
“Like his spirit dying every day,” Shad had explained to Beth the afternoon before. “We have a man ready to put up money to build another hotel—and the boss hanging back.”
“He kind of old to start again,” Beth had reminded him over the pigeon peas she was picking.
Shad had nodded. “And like he don’t even understand that this hotel must-must happen. He don’t understand how the sea getting fished out and is a good night when a fisherman come back with one, two dozen fish nowadays. All it going to take is one bad hurricane and the village going to dead, you know.” Shad had spread his hands, urging Beth, as if she needed convincing. “Things tough now, but better can come again.” Beth had nodded and picked two more pea pods.
“The only hope,” Shad had concluded, “is this investor man, Danny Caines. I think we should give him a party, kind of warm him up from the beginning, you know, use a little psychology on him.”
The guests were arriving, starting with one of the regulars, a gaunt man in his sixties who approached the bar rubbing his hands. His name was Triumphant Arch, a man who enjoyed a good argument.
Shad placed a glass of rum on the counter and Tri slid his fingers around the glass. His teeth clinked against its rim as he took his first blessed gulp.
“Big bashment tonight,” he said when he set the glass down.
Shad ran his hand over the bald scalp his children loved to rub for good luck. “Mas Tri, do me a favor, nuh? No talk about political corruption, please. We want to make sure the man know that Largo is a decent place and that the hotel belong here, you get me?”
“No problem, man,” Tri agreed, and took another gulp.
“And stop drinking out Mistah Eric’s free liquor!” a grumpy voice called over the partition. The kitchen’s bead curtain parted and a towering, somber man emerged. Solomon, the bar’s part-time cook, descended from his status as chef of the old hotel and deprived tonight of his usual shot of white rum, threw a glare at his drinking buddy as he plodded past holding a tray of sandwiches. He was wearing white as usual, the tall chef’s hat, double-buttoned jacket, and immaculate pants at odds with the gigantic, crusty feet, the toes of which hung over the front of his flip-flops. Depositing the tray on a table in the middle of the restaurant, Solomon returned to the kitchen without another word.
Fifteen minutes later, the place was full of Largoites, most holding glasses of rum punch, everyone looking tidy, as Granny used to say. The older women wore dresses with careful necklines, the young girls short, bright outfits, all with dustings of talcum powder to the chest to keep them fresh. Faded shirts were tucked neatly into the older men’s pants, while T-shirts slouched outside the young men’s jeans. Neighborly comments were passed in low murmurs, everyone leaning on one leg and then the other, tamping down their excitement.
The murmurs stopped when Eric appeared in the parking lot, Miss Mac and a strange man in tow.
“They come!” Shad called, turning down the radio. Beth and Maisie rushed out of the kitchen with plates of fruit as the bar’s owner waded into the crowd.
Taller than any villager, out of place among the well-dressed folk, Eric looked like he should have been on a dock somewhere in his old shorts and sandals, his flowing white hair, reddish face, and small paunch those of the captain of a vessel. The newcomer behind him—the man Shad had told everyone must be treated with respect—was looking around and smiling. Mahogany-colored, his big scalp bald as a baby’s, Caines appeared to be in his early forties. He was muscular for a tall man, almost as tall as the boss, and he stood with his chest high in its banana-patterned shirt, as if he had a world, or an island, to conquer.
“What’s going on?” Eric called to Shad, and raised his arms, the flabby skin underneath shaking with indignation, questioning the cost already. The bartender lifted his own skinny arms and grinned, and everyone laughed. An elderly man with a shock of fluffy gray hair patted Eric on the back.
“A little surprise business, suh,” said Old Man Job, village elder and contractor on the old Largo Bay Inn, a man who made up for his lack of teeth with his common sense. “We know you want to welcome the gentleman to Largo, give him a nice party. Not true?” Eric shot a look at the bartender under his thick eyebrows and lowered his arms, and Shad exhaled, knowing he’d have to endure only a couple days of grumbling before all would be forgiven.
“A party for me?” the visitor said. His voice warmed the room, and when he laughed the sound came straight from his big chest. “I love it!”
Shad circled the bar and grasped the man’s hand. “Mistah Caines, welcome! My name is Shad, and I run things for Mistah Eric.” The newcomer had a firm, friendly handshake, making you want to shake it again. “We privilege that you come down to see us. You going to love Largo, I know it.”
Shad swung around to the crowd and held Caines’s arm high like a boxer’s. “Give the man a Largo Bay shout-out, people!” he yelled. The crowd clapped and whistled, and a few even stomped their feet.
“Thank you, thank you,” Caines said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Nobody’s ever thrown me a party before!” He spoke with a nice American twang, but his proud, almost arrogant stance said something different.
“What about a beer, a nice, cold Red Stripe?” Shad asked, a man who liked to guess his customers’ drinks.
“I’d better change,” Eric grunted before he escaped to his apartment at the end of the building.
Shad got busy with the drinks. When he looked up, Caines was chatting with his new landlady, and Shad wondered if they were talking about the old woman’s house and land next to the bar, the property that he and Eric thought would be just right for a hotel. Miss Mac wanted to sell it—so she said, anyway, but if old ladies didn’t like you, they wouldn’t sell to you, no matter how much money you had.
The bartender placed the visitor’s drink on a tray and added a Coke. “One beer,” he said, approaching the two, “and one Coke for the lady.”
Caines removed his glass with its perfect head of foam and Miss Mac took her glass. “And I didn’t even order nothing.” She laughed, the gold fillings flashing at the back of her mouth.
Shad was about to answer when he felt a stiffness in the air, heard the falling away of chatter. A woman had stepped onto the floor of the bar. It was Janet, the village seamstress who visited the bar almost every night, on the prowl for the American man she’d predicted would marry her and take her away. Fishermen could only buy her rum, she’d declared, and she was a champagne girl (a girl still at forty).
Short and well-padded, Janet walked carefully on her high heels, the plunging neckline of her tight white dress putting the church dresses to shame. A vision of village sophistication, she wore a new wig that framed her rounded features and curled around her ears. Looking left and right as if she’d never been in the bar before, stopping with one leg bent like a beauty queen, she looked at Danny and smiled.
“You ever see such a thing?” Beth hissed when Shad got back to the bar.
“He don’t stand a chance.” Shad nodded, watching as Caines, a red-blooded man with no ring on his finger, turned toward the woman.
“Queen of diamonds,” Beth muttered.
Shad shook his head, remembering the dressmaker beating some regulars at twenty-one in the bar with a pack of cards she’d brought. Janet had slapped down the winning card and said, “That’s me you see there, in America, the queen of diamonds.”
The bartender closed his eyes and pressed his fingers into the lids. Jeezum peace, he groaned, plenty shark in the water tonight.