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A quarterly international literary journal

Pappa



By J.M. Amoroso


/ Fiction /

I lose my soul in the mirror every day. I give it a year, maybe two if I’m lucky, before I face the dreaded decision: shave my head…or wear my remnants proudly. I intend to fight my hairline’s surrender for as long as I can.

My two suitcases are packed. Stuffed is more like it, but I haven’t packed my hair products yet. They’ve never spilled during one of my trips home. I wrap each bottle in bags within bags and hope for the best. It’s a wasteful use of plastic but, environment be damned, I must look good with what’s left of my moss. I’ll recycle when I’m bald.

It’s time to call my mother.

“Hellogoodevening,” Ma says.

“Ma. It’s me.”

“Tony?”

“Yes. Me. I’m almost done packing. But I have no room for my clothes. The things I’m bringing for you are taking up all the room.” I bend the truth.

“Clothes? Yuh doh have to pack so much. Is only a week yuh coming for, not so?”

Instead of clothes, I should have mentioned my devices. Cell phone. Laptop. Tablet. Bulky headphones. Charger cords tangled together like a den of snakes.

“True.”

“If yuh want, I could run the machine whenever. All yuh need is clothes for two… three days. It doh matter if yuh wear the same t’ing over and over,” she says, “as long as it clean. I doh mind doin’ it if it mean yuh could bring everyt’ing on my list.”

She’s a tough negotiator and she’ll do anything to ensure her favorite brands make the cut. Ma always tells me about Macy’s sales as if they’re old friends. Their ads appear on bootleg cable in Trinidad, a place where Macy’s has no stores. Ma doesn’t know America has become a middleman: a transshipment point for South Asian goods. I don’t have the heart to tell her Martha Stewart’s collection is “Imported”. I leave the packaging in my apartment anytime I travel home.

“What time yuh landing?” she says. “I need to remind yuh uncle.”

“For the umpteenth time, Ma, I should land around half-two.”

“Alright. Ah remember now.”

“Ma…” I put her on speaker, freeing my hands to tousle my hair. It’s my daily check for thickness. Traces of Sienna Naturals leave-in conditioner remain on my fingers. One suitcase is open. My Briogeo styling gel, unwrapped, tests the narrow space between a record player and a Calphalon pressure cooker. “Your father lost his hair young?” She doesn’t like to talk about him. In the past, she mentioned him in unfavorable terms, when my homework depended on it. Family trees. DNA. Ancestry. I’ve studied my relatives’ scalps from afar.

“Pappa? No. He still have all his hair.”

I stay quiet.

“Hello? Yuh there?” she says.

“What exactly do you mean by ‘have’?”

“He still have all his hair.”

“Ma? Wait. Go back. I thought your father died when I was a baby?”

“Who tell yuh that?”

“You did.”

“I doh t’ink I ever say he did die.”

“When I asked you and aunty and everybody else about him—”

“You were the one who made it sound like he was dead. We just didn’t correct yuh.”

I stare at my phone’s screen. “You mean… he’s alive?”


* * *


I hurry off the plane to collect my luggage, but not before a duty-free pitstop. I know the drill. My uncle, a stocky Indian man, waits for me in full view. He wears a white merino vest, cargo shorts, and Nike slippers—the uniform of a man who just woke up from a nap and stumbled into the airport. Each time, he greets me loudly. Each time, I ignore the curious eyes around me. He doesn’t even pretend that he shouldn’t be standing where he is, but as a retired customs officer, his old friends usually wave him through to baggage claim from the waiting area, against the flow of arriving passengers. He likes to show off his connections.

“Had a good flight?” he says, wearing the smile of a man about to stock up on his favorite duty-free drink. He’s a Macallan man, but his liver wants to have a word.

As we exit, a thick hand rises amid the growing crowd of people enlisted for airport pickup duty. Ma is quite short, but I could find her in any crowd. Her retirement uniform has grown on her: a navy-blue skirt and a cotton jersey. This one has a faded “USA” print across the front. I recognize it as one of my first deliveries when I had returned after my first semester at Northwestern.

She touches one suitcase, impressed by the size. She knows they are both for her.

“Yuh tired?”

“More hungry than tired,” I reply.

“I cook pelau before yuh uncle pass to pick me up. Pigtail. Everyt’ing. It might still be hot when we reach home. I make some sorrel too.”

My favorites. It’s time for me to smile.

We load the luggage into my uncle’s car. Whisky bottles clank as I place them on the floorboard. Ma sits up front. She strains to catch a glimpse of me in the back. I exhale loudly, letting her know how much I’m anticipating her cooking. Ma’s pelau is art in food form.

“Big plans for the vacation, Tony?” my uncle says to me through his rearview.

“Same ol’, same ol’, Uncle. All my friends work during the day. So, we only make night plans. It’s not like university days when we went all over the place during the day anytime I visited.”

He nods. “Still… how often yuh get to see yuh friends and them, eh? Go and enjoy yuhself.”

I smile, posing for his mirror.

Ma stares out the window as we stop at a traffic light. The clouds, antsy, crown the distant mountaintops. There are no views like this in Brooklyn. Then, the landscape zooms past again. I lean forward and touch her shoulder. “Yunno, Ma… I was thinking…”

“Yes?”

“The two of us… we should go and see Pappa.”

Her head droops. She studies her fingernails.

“I don’t have anything to do during the day,” I say.

“This is not somet’ing yuh go and do because yuh bored,” Ma says. “Read a book if yuh want somet’ing to do.”

“Ma, I’m a journalist. I read all the time. It’s part of the job.” I lean back, sprawling one arm across the back seat. “I could go by myself if you don’t want to come.”

She shakes her head. “It not easy to get there.”

“I have all the time in the world. Maybe Uncle could take me.”

“They doh really know each other.”

“My grandfather has been alive all these years. And you knew about Pappa all this time, Uncle? Everybody in on the secret except me.” I draw my forefinger toward my pursed lips, pretending to be in on the secret now.

My uncle looks at me in his rearview. His eyes widen and he smooths his grey goatee. Then, he pinches his thumb and forefinger together, zipping his lips shut, escaping direct blame.

I’m on my own.

“If everybody did know, it wouldn’t need to be a secret, not so?” Ma says.

“I have all the time in the world this week to make the trip to wherever he is.”

“I doh want yuh goin’ there by yuhself.”

“Then come. But, either way, I’m going to see him. The secret’s out.”


* * *


On the third day, she relents. She will call her father. She makes it clear: she’s doing this for me, her only child.

Grandfather.

I’ve only ever used that word when asking about her childhood. A distant time. Now, it has new meaning.

Ma’s father.

Pappa.

It’s not a simple phone call, but Ma is making it more complicated. Over the first two days, she searched for her small blue diary. Its cover has faded. The office where she worked had given her one each year, until she retired, as if she no longer needs to track dates and times. She thinks out loud, flipping the crimped pages, and finds Pappa’s number. Something tells me she wishes she had thrown the diary away years ago.

She sends me to the parlour to buy a disposable cell phone.

“What about your own phone?” I ask.

“Doh ask questions.”

When I return with the phone, she’s quiet. She motions me over, pointing at the purchase. Scissors in hand, she attacks the plastic packaging.

She assembles the tiny SIM card and charges the device. Every movement is forceful. She activates the phone and dials the number, pressing each button as if trying to break it. She stands with one arm folded across her body. Her power pose. In my younger years, I always felt outnumbered whenever I upset Ma. It was me against her and her silence.

“Good morning. This is Andrea.” She does not shoo me away. “Your grandson is in town. For some reason, he want to see you… he here until Sunday.” She shakes her head. Then, she lifts her sprawled arm from her stomach to look at her watch. “Yes?… No?”

Her sabotage is obvious. I shoot out my hand, waiting for the phone. She glares. She slaps my hand away.

“We’ll be by the big tree tomorrow at ten. The silk cotton one.”

I’ve done it!

Ma opens the cell phone’s battery compartment and removes the SIM. She cuts it into two. She walks to the kitchen holding both pieces and the phone. Ma slams her foot on the garbage can’s pedal. The cover flies open. She looks at me and dumps all the pieces in the garbage. She lets me know in advance: this is the first and last time I will see Pappa.

“All of this hiding, Ma… what did he do that’s so bad?”

“Yuh old enough. Yuh need to see it yuhself.”


* * *


Ma has barely spoken since yesterday. Her only words were a warning, reminding me to bring enough cash for an emergency. I roll my eyes. A real emergency would need more than money.

We are sitting in a taxi and her large handbag rests on her thighs. The radio relays the start of the cricket match at the Oval. West Indies versus India. The coin toss has concluded, and the captains return to their respective pavilions, rallying their troops, ready to battle over the next few days.

The taxi stops at the stand. It’s an organized line of vehicles that follows the rules of the taxi driver’s world. Our taxi, the newest arrival, joins the back. We exit onto the sidewalk. No longer seasoned in the car’s cold air, we thaw out in Trinidad’s vengeful weather.

Steam rises from every car’s hood, until a midday shower blesses most of the island. Meteorologists have it easy every day.

The taxi stand is next to an open field. A street market bustles between, an arbiter between work and play. Fruit and vegetable stalls line the pavement indistinguishable from one another. Only colors may guide customers. Greener greens. Redder reds. Prices, per pound, are identical. Collusion, monopoly, and competition, all rolled into one. It’s like the summer farmers markets I’ve grown accustomed to in Brooklyn, except these sellers flourish year-round.

I lift my gaze. Near the front of the taxi queue, a tree lords over part of the field. There are only a few of them in the country. When I was younger, I always wondered if Jack ever came to Trinidad, if the silk cotton tree could have replaced his beanstalk.

A vendor is standing on the pavement, having left the shade of her stall. Thick-armed and head-wrapped, she swipes her knife through a mango cleanly, without brushing the seed. The skin is a tropical rainbow of green and yellow and blushing red. Mango juice runs down her arm. She turns halfway and rests the larger seeded piece on the counter behind her. Holding the fleshy part, she assails it, cutting it into cubes as she sacrifices her first sample. She waves it proudly on the point of her knife.

“Love, yuh want some?”

“No thanks,” I say, browsing her neighbors’ stalls too. Some of the fruits have been cut and chowed, soaked in spices and peppers. My mouth springs water at the scent.

“It sweet.”

The vendor gives me an idea. “Ma. We’re not carrying anything for your father?” I steel myself. “Pappa?”

Ma looks at me, unsure of what will come next. She shakes her head. She’s distracted. Looking left and right, her eyes scour the street. She shifts her attention to her watch before resuming her search.

“You always say I shouldn’t go by anybody’s house with my hands empty and swinging.”

“This different.”

“Different how?”

“I not buying anyt’ing for that man. You? Well, yuh could do what yuh want.”

I translate this as permission. I try to be considerate by hiding my excitement. A man who I thought was dead, I will see today. Alive.

I dread the thought of staining my clothes upon meeting Pappa as we ole talk over mangoes. So, I settle on apples instead. I don’t even know if he likes them. Or if he prefers one type over another. I hedge, buying both red and green varieties.

Ma walks along the pavement, moving from the back of the taxi line toward the front. She passes by the lead car and continues on. Her eyes seem drawn to a black car up ahead. It looks like a limousine. The windows are a deep tint, hiding everything inside. I catch up to her, cradling a too-thin plastic bag of apples that I hope will not tear before we arrive.

Ma stands next to the car. The driver exits. He towers over my mother and me, despite the advantage the pavement offers us in height. The man is not dressed for driving a limo. His plaid shirt and khakis seem out of place. I cannot see his eyes behind his shades. His bushy moustache completes his off-the-clock appearance.

He is looking in Ma’s direction. He looks at me next and nods.

Ma pulls out her cell phone and steps away from the limo. She glances at me and, cupping her hand around her mouth, she turns her back to me. I inch closer, buoyed by apples.

“Santi? Is Andrea. Listen. I can’t talk long. Yuh nephew reach. He here for a quick trip. He’ll come and check yuh today or later this week.”

I bristle at Ma’s plans for me to visit Aunt Santi without involving me. Perhaps it’s my penance for forcing her hand to arrange this visit to Pappa’s.

“But I callin’ to let yuh know, we goin’ and check you-know-who… Tony’s bright idea… yuh really t’ink I would go out my way to go by him? … Santi… remember. If yuh doh hear from me, around three, yuh know what to do. We leavin’ right now. Alright? … Good.”

Ma steps down from the pavement and walks over to the driver. The driver unbuckles a small pouch. She drops her phone in.

“You too,” the driver says.

I look at Ma, confused.

“You want to go and see your grandfather, right?” She draws out the word like a contestant at a spelling bee. “This is how it’s done.”

I understand her words. I don’t understand why.

I reach into my pocket and extract my phone. I turn it off before handing it over.

As we get into the limo, the leather squeaks at the lightest touch. The windows filter the sights and sounds of the outside world.

“Would you like an apple, sir?” I say, squinting in the dark interior.


* * *


I know we’re in the same vehicle, but I can barely see Ma. I’m afraid to reach for her hand in case I scare her. I clutch my bag of apples.

“Ma?” I whisper.

Soon, a hint of light fills the vehicle. The dark windows grow lighter and lighter until we can see outside again, the tint fading completely. My eyes adjust. I see Ma sitting across from me. She ignores the scenery. We are deep in the countryside and I wonder about my grandfather’s lifestyle. We drive up a pathway. Coconut trees flit past us. I have missed the sight of their wide leaves dancing in the wind and makeshift ladders nailed rung-by-rung into their slender trunks, challenging brave climbers to drink some coconut water. My adopted home abroad offers no view like this. I savor the last seconds as the car slows.

But these trees do not invite strangers to enjoy their fruit. They are pruned. Not a dry branch in sight nor is any haphazard wood ladder affixed to them.

Ma doesn’t budge.

“You’ve done this before?” I ask.

“Yes. Years ago. Different car.”

Someone opens the door.

“Please,” the driver says. “We reach.” He waits for us to exit.

I’m surprised at the sight. A huge mansion. Wide columns shape the archway at the entrance. There are long fields of manicured grass on either side of the tree-lined pathway. Everything I see on the property amazes me. My mind begins to churn, jumping from one question to another. I wonder about the upkeep. It must be expensive to maintain this lifestyle, even though this is the country. Does my grandfather work here?

My gift embarrasses me. I raise the bag to eye-level and think to myself that I might have been better off listening to Ma.

“Welcome,” someone says. It’s a man’s voice and he turns to the driver. “Thank you, Jaffer,” the man says. “Stick around. Alright?”

“Yessir,” Jaffer says, nodding slightly.

I sneak another look at the manicured palm trees. I lose count after twenty. I glance at the house. A pink bird feeder hangs from a branch nearby. Filled with red liquid, hummingbirds feast on nectar at several ports. These possessions are no small luxury. My eyes hurt as I haven’t blinked in a while.

Ma walks toward the man. “Father.”

I am motionless. Unable to speak. This man is my grandfather. He’s not who I had been picturing all my life. On the flight. Over the past few days.

He wears a crisp straw hat. Trimmed white sideburns peek out. His striped long-sleeved linen shirt is buttoned-up and pale khakis cover his legs. Dark brown sandals hide his toes. He’s dressed like a perpetual tourist. Pappa has bathed himself in sunscreen. He has not rubbed it in well. His complexion is light, but I notice the small dots of the white liquid peppered on his face. A red patch of sunburn or rosacea—I am not quite sure—afflicts his nose. He looks more European than I ever would have imagined. In some parts of the country, he could pass as a foreigner.

“Andrea.”

“We here. Let us just get this over with, please?” Ma says.

“Andrea. You bring my grandson here to see me and that’s the first thing you decide to say?”

I take his side. “Yes, Ma.”

“Anthony.” Her jaw clenches repeatedly like a beating heart. It’s been years since she called me by my given name. It was always the first sign I had disappointed her in some way. “Come and meet yuh grandfather.”

“My grandson,” Pappa says. “Let me take a good look at this young man.”

I am a child again, grinning like a fool. “Hello, Grandfather.”

“Anthony? Do you go by ‘Tony’ or ‘Anthony’?”

“‘Tony’ is fine.”

“Hear him!” he says to Ma, clapping gently. “You sound like one of those Americans. You can’t be from Trinidad and sounding like that.”

My grin erupts. “I’ve been back and forth between Boston and New York for a few years now. For university too… just outside Chicago. I did journalism.”

“A transient,” Pappa says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were a world traveler too.”

I stare at my grandfather’s face.

“I have a little cancer thing I was dealing with. Nothing serious. Already taken care of.”

My eyebrows raise. Ma is unmoved.

“I didn’t mean to… are you going to be alright?”

“Yes, yes. Nothing that I can’t handle. It comes and goes. Back and forth for a few years now, like you on the east coast.” He winks at me.

“Well… glad to hear it,” I say. I nod, entranced. “It’s good to finally meet you.”

“I’m glad you and your mother made the trip.” His head bounces from Ma to me and back to her. “Shall we go for a little walk around the orchard?” Pappa says, turning and walking away.

I put my present behind my back and point my chin at Ma’s handbag.

She smirks and wags her finger. She fiddles with the zip, ensuring it’s sealed.

“Orchard?” I say.

“Yes, Tony. I have quite an extensive orchard here.” He turns around and sees me pushing my bag toward Ma. He stops himself. “Some apples and other things.”

“I didn’t know apples could grow in Trinidad,” I say. “I had no idea… I didn’t want to come empty-handed.”

“Yes. This is my little secret here. It’s quite alright, Tony. It’s the thought that counts, not so? I haven’t had a town apple in years. It will be good to taste the competition.”

I look at Ma, wondering if she and Pappa fell out over his secret fruits.

There are men working on the far side of the field. They are all big and strong. For some reason, they are shirtless. They see me watching them. They pause, resting their pickaxes. There’s a wooden chair, high like a lifeguard’s station, next to their worksite and a man is sitting on it fully dressed. He claps staccato beats and the men resume their intermittent stabs on the land. I hear no equipment other than metal striking soil as each pickaxe cuts into the deep brown earth that matches their complexion.

One worker is slow to resume. He smiles at me and waves.

I grimace at the sight. His mouth is like a black hole with dark gums. Not a single tooth. The foreman snaps his fingers and steals the worker’s smile.

“It took years and years of experimenting,” Pappa says, “but I finally figured out how to grow all kinds of fruits here. I export across the Caribbean. With the right kind of workers and care, you can do anything. A little climate control never hurts.”

I can see Pappa is proud of his work. I’m trying to piece together the puzzle I’m seeing, a peek into the life I’ve missed since I was a baby. But Ma has hoarded the pieces.

“You like horses, Tony?”

He catches me taking in the sight of several horses being trained and fed on the other side of the land, away from the rhythmic tilling. A young woman brushes a horse’s mane. Her complexion is somewhere on the spectrum between my brown skin and Pappa’s. She watches my mother and me.

“Never really had a chance to like them. City boy and all.”

“How long are you in town for?” Pappa says. “Until Sunday.”

“Well next time, if you stay a little longer, come and see me. You can get some lessons. I have some of the most beautiful Arabians.”

He’s giving me a guided tour. Ma trails us. Her walk has slowed as though deciding whether to take another step. She clasps her hands.

We walk between rows of orange trees and Pappa lectures me about his estate, like a missionary spreading his gospel. I miss the view as my eyes are fixed upon him. At the end of the long row, there is a covered and secure tent-like structure. I point it out.

“Greenhouse. Climate control. Apples need it. I’m trying my hand at berries too,” Pappa says. “Would you like to stay for tea?” Our tour’s sudden end saddens me.

Ma perks up. She looks at her watch. “I have somewhere to be. I’m meeting Santi. At three.”

“Santi. Yes, Santi. How is she? She doesn’t come and see me,” Pappa says.

“Neither do I,” Ma says. “I wonder why.”

“Andrea.”


* * *


We sit in the veranda, shaded by the lace-like fretwork hanging from the ceiling. Pappa motions one of his staff over and raises three fingers.

“The next time you’re here, Tony, maybe you’ll be up for meeting your cousins.”

“Cousins?”

Ma raises her hand and slams the table, jolting spoons and teacups to life. “Father!”

“What, Andrea? You didn’t tell him?”

The maid returns. She is an elderly Afro-Trinidadian woman, without a trace of a smile. She sets the cups down and presents a selection of loose-leaf teas. I wonder how many employees Pappa has in total.

“Bring some honey too,” Pappa says to her. His smile has vanished. He must be a strict boss. “And…” He motions, signing an imaginary cheque.

“Tell me what, Ma?”

“That is somet’ing yuh should tell him yuhself. I’m not yuh messenger.”

“Tony… your cousins …. Well, one of them helps with the horses, she came about from some youthful indiscretions of mine… before I built up everything I have today. Before I really settled down in Trinidad. So, your mother and your Aunt Santi have a sister or two.”

“‘A sister or two’?” Ma says. “Like is no big deal. Half-sisters. Barely.”

“Half-sisters,” Pappa says. “It’s all in the past, Tony.”

I’m not disappointed or upset. And I understand why Ma and her sister pretended things weren’t what they were. Holding onto this secret now seems extreme for something that happens all over the country. All over the world. Since the beginning of time.

“All in the past,” I say.

The maid returns with the honey and a three-tiered tower of finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets. I survey each level, eyeing my choices. I think about all the treats I’ve missed out on by not knowing my grandfather over the years. I think about the invitations from Pappa that Ma must have declined. Weeks stretching into years until decades passed. The maid removes a small notepad and pen from her apron’s pouch. She places them on the table.

“It’s a little early, but I can’t let you leave here without eating something,” Pappa says. “Tell me, Tony… what do you think of the honey?”

I dip my teaspoon into the small jar. “It’s good,” I say, licking my lips.

Pappa smiles. “I made it. Pure honey. Right around the corner.”

“You’re a renaissance man, Pappa.”

“Time to go, Tony,” Ma says.

“Already? It’s barely after one.”

“Yes, I have t’ings to do before we meet Santi.”

Pappa scribbles on the notepad. He tears the page, folds it in half, then offers it to me.

I accept, nodding. I look at Ma for permission as I unfold it. It is a P.O. Box address.

“Write to me, please,” Pappa says. “If you have time. I know you young people tend to be busy. But I would like to hear from you. If you have any questions you want me to answer… ask away.” He taps the table twice with his pen.

“Alright.” I turn toward Pappa. “I’ll do that.”

He readies to stand. In a wide grip, he puts his hand on his hat. He has my hopes in his hand. I tell myself not to worry; no matter if his hair is thin or lush or somewhere in between. There’s nothing I can do about my genes.

He straightens his hat. It barely budges on his scalp. Then, he stands. He winks at me.

“You hear, Andrea? I’ll hold you to it, Tony.”

* * *


The driver has returned. Ma’s mood has lifted. She did not hug her father when we arrived and she’s just as cold as we leave.

She enters the car and waits for me to wrap up my visit. My grandfather is less talkative. He has run out of products to showcase and there is too much family history to learn in the few private moments without Ma sulking.

“I look forward to next time,” is all I can muster.

Jaffer eases the vehicle out, crawling along the red brick and gravel pathway.

“Thanks for doing this, Ma. It means a lot to me.”

She remains silent.

“I understand why you’ve been hesitant to reconnect after all these years.”

She sits up straight. “You do?”

“Yes. I didn’t like hearing about his, as he put it, ‘indiscretions’.”

“Yuh t’ink that’s the reason why I doh talk to my father?”

“Yes. Makes sense.”

“Yuh didn’t notice anyt’ing else, Tony?”

I stop to think. I nod slowly. “Actually, now that I think about it… yes.”

Her frown lengthens. “Yes, Tony?”

“Isn’t it strange that those fellas weren’t using heavy machinery? For a man who knows so much… about horses… beehives… crops. That surprised me. It’s inefficient.”

“Some journalist yuh must be,” Ma whispers. She glances at the opaque glass partition between us and Jaffer. “Those people in the field? Those inefficient people? Them is the reason why all ah we fall out with him before yuh was born. Tony… these people and them is not employees.”

Not employees? I cover my mouth with both hands and close my eyes. They can’t be… I open my eyes. I turn toward Ma. She nods, silently. I understand what she’s said and I turn away from her, toward the limo’s back window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the men in the field again.

Pappa doffs his hat, sending us off. I sit up and twist in my seat at the sight. With a clear view, I see his hair is cut short. But I see his hairline. No retreat. Even at his age.

I run my hand through my own hair and try to guess the number of years between us. Pappa’s image is almost gone as the car speeds away. My tinted reflection takes his place.

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