The Old Place by Kendall Defoe


PART ONE     

The plane landed and he bounced in his seat as he felt the wheels touch the runway. He was glad that he was next to a window and could see where they were after such a long flight. His mother told him that they would stop in Miami before they reached the island, but that was only for a few hours. The pilot announced the time of arrival and the temperature as the plane came to a stop. His ears still bothered him and he did not like the gum his mother gave him. It didn't help unblock his ears, but he was glad to have something besides the food on the plane.

They all walked on the runway to the airport. When he is older, he will think back to this and how it never happened to him again. The heat reflected off the tarmac wrapped him up tightly and the light bothered his eyes; he felt the stickiness of the gum in his pocket and on his fingers. His mother took him by the hand and followed the other passengers into the small terminal. He could hear only one other plane moving and preparing for either flight or storage behind him. The air smelled of oils, fuel, and salt. He liked those scents together.

He thought about the sea. His mother had pointed out the window when the pilot announced that they would be landing shortly. He saw the rich blue of the water, and then almost immediately the airport. There was a thought in his mind that the plane might be too fast when it landed, that they would overrun the land and all be in the sea. This scared and excited him. He knew that he was a good swimmer and could make it back to shore easily. It looked like an island that he could circumnavigate after a couple of hours. He did not share any of this with his mother.

They went through customs, where his mother had a long discussion with two agents who looked bored and uncomfortable in their blue uniforms, and then to the luggage carousel. The other passengers had quickly taken their suitcases and other packages from the rotating metal and plastic conveyor. He would think about how lonely it looked inside that small greenish-blue room. They could take a trolley out into the taxi stand area. There was a janitor with a broom clearing a space in a corner as his mother was speaking to a cab driver. It was hard to imagine working in that building.

They would be staying with his grandmother. He liked this idea very much and wondered what her home would be like. They would also have to visit several aunts, uncles and other relatives that he knew nothing about. His mother spoke to him in the taxi and told him of their plans. They knew him, she said, but he would be meeting them for the first time, so he would have to be polite. You have to remember their names. Many years later, he would regret how many of those names he had forgotten.

His grandmother came to the door very quickly. She did not use a cane, but he noticed how careful her movements were; how her smile made her eyes pierce him through the large glasses she wore. When she hugged him, he could smell food and the perfume in the powder she put on her neck and arms. It was a comforting smell.

They had dressed well for the flight. His mother put him in a dark navy blue shirt and trousers with black dress shoes. She wore a hat with small white flowers and a simple cotton dress to deal with the weather. His grandmother wore a very colourful pattern that made his eyes travel up to her neck. He could see the haze of powder on her skin filling up with rivulets of sweat. She dressed for the heat. They were all in their outfits for different reasons; it was another comfort to him.

It was after seven in the evening when they finally unpacked. The heat had passed and they were sipping drinks in the darkened living room. They had been sitting there for a few hours and his mother and grandmother had been discussing how “unfortunate things were” and what the “plans were for the next few weeks.” He had been filling in the blanks in one of his invisible ink game books when his grandmother announced that he and his mother would be sharing a bed in the spare room while she slept in her room. He finished the drink in his hand and smiled. They had eaten rice and beans and cups of hot cocoa. He wanted to sleep.

The problems with the mosquitoes began from that first night. They had lit a green mosquito coil in the room before going to bed, but it did not help. The smell of it comforted him, but he was still in tears from all the bites and itches on his body. The heat kept him from using a blanket and the insects would not let him be. His mother awoke, turned on a light on the bedside table, and saw him in tears. She told him that they just wanted to taste him for now and that they would get tired of him soon. He smiled as she wiped away his tears and they both fell asleep. He dreamt of the snow and ice back home.

He woke up alone and very itchy. His mother had a bottle of lotion on one of the dressers. It felt cool on his skin. The smell of the green liquid would always be associated with the intense heat, as would the odour of the mosquito coil. He counted the bumps on his legs and chest. They were not so bad after the lotion. He promised himself that he would not scratch the bites until he let the liquid help him.

The living room was very different in the daylight. A very large plant stood in one corner of the room, its leaves touching the upper pattern running along the edge of the ceiling. The curtains were tied up with brown strips of fabric attached to hooks on the wall nearest to the front door; there was an old-fashioned stereo system with a turntable and two speakers next to the bedroom door. He thought that his dresser at home would be a good match with it. There was also a large television near the entrance to the kitchen. He did not even dare himself to turn it on.

There were pictures on every wall. He liked the landscape painting over the couch. It portrayed a house with smoke coming out of a chimney. Several mountains framed this setting and there was a body of water in the background. He knew this had to be his mother’s island; the hilly, mountainous place where both she and his father were born. He was too young to remember being taken there to visit his relatives.

There were many framed photographs around the painting and on the stands that held the television, plants and flowers, mementos and other objects he could not name. He recognized people who must have been his mother and grandmother; the others were mysteries. His mother would take him to visit many of them over the next few weeks. A few of the frames held black-and-white photos of men with his mother and grandmother. Some of the pictures were very faded and had white lines where they had been folded or dried out by exposure and age. He really wanted to know who these men were. No one was familiar.

The kitchen was much more cramped than the other rooms he had seen. His mother and grandmother were sitting at a grey-patterned table with metal legs. Next to a grey concrete wall was an old-fashioned washing machine. It had rollers above its white tub and there was a crank with gears attached to them. He thought of a cartoon that he saw once where a cat ended up getting squeezed through a set of rollers like wet laundry. He quickly got the image out of his head. He smelled coffee and eggs.

It would be hard to forget the taste of powdered milk. His grandmother poured a mix of it with boiled water on his sugar and cereal. It did not taste bad at all. It was like any of the other drinks he would mix with milk and water at home. His mother rarely bought these types of drinks for him. He regretted this and planned to mention it later. They had a lot to do first.


PART TWO     

The suit looked nice in the mirror. It was dark and felt lightly on his body. His mother had had it made for him before they left and he remembered being measured by a very old tailor who carried two sets of measuring tape around his neck (yellow and white). Parts of the suit itched and he began to feel hot; his mother told him that he looked very handsome and his grandmother just smiled as they both adjusted his tie and put some sweet-smelling cologne behind his ears. They were both in dark outfits with hats. His mother was not wearing the same dress that she had worn on the plane and he noticed how similar she looked to his grandmother. It was the first time he thought of this.

He had met many people over the last week. Both his grandmother and mother introduced him to people who told him that they were his cousins, distant relatives, aunts and uncles of those distant relatives. It was one of the fastest weeks of his life. He saw many homes; small yards filled with scrawny dogs, chickens; lizards that were very still in the daylight. One house that was near a beach had a natural bridge formed out of eroded rock just over the sand and surf. The beach was blindingly white. Sand flies landed on him as they walked past the trees and rocks. He did not mind them.

He did not recognize anyone in the room. There were many women with small fans and handkerchiefs trying to keep themselves comfortable in the heat. Many were dabbing their faces and he could not tell whether it was for the tears or the sweat. They looked overdressed to him. The above ceiling fan was more for decoration than air conditioning. Most of the men in the room were silent as the women responded with loud “amens” to the speakers at the podium. His grandmother participated in this. He could not hear his mother’s voice.

What language did that priest speak? At first, he thought it was Spanish (his mother understood a little of the language). But he realized that none of the “r’s” were being rolled. The priest never spoke to him as he was pointed at and a question was asked that he could not understand. One of his teachers had said the mass was once performed in Latin until something called Vatican II was called. He had a vague thought about when the first one was called. And he was impressed when his mother responded to the priest’s questions in the same language. He wished there were more people in the church.

His grandmother was not with them the next day. Neither were any of the people he had met over the last week or seen in that cramped room with the ceiling fan. His mother was just behind him as they walked down a long pathway next to a wall divided into separate grey rectangles with plaques bearing names and dates. He thought that it was a strange way to do things, even with the limited space on the island. But what bothered him the most was that he could not find the name and dates he was looking for. The wall ran all the way down to a clearing on his left-hand side. The pathway was made of the same type of cement. On his right were trees and plants pressed into the metal body of a fence. He noted the red petals that fell from some of the flowers. They felt like satin. He tried not to step on them as they walked past the wall.

It would be the only time in his life when he forgot about Christmas. His grandmother bought him a tape for his Walkman (Synchronicity by the Police). His mother took him to the beach on Boxing Day. They did not swim. They walked along the white sand, looking off at the sea and a few distant boats. He would always remember how quiet it was that day. He would also remember the building they saw on that same beach.

It was a tall and white cylinder with a roof like something from a castle; painfully bright in the sun and sand. He could not see any glass in the few windows in the structure and no doors, only an opening made with smooth curves. As they got closer, he could tell that the whiteness of the building came from the plaster or thick paint that covered it. There were no visible outlines of brick or mortar. Inside it was grey and dusty. There was only one space inside. His mother told him that she was not sure what it was there for; it could have been a lighthouse, she said. He could hear their voices echo inside of it, along with the gentle sound of the waves.

It was a strange place to start crying. His mother was right behind him, but she did not say anything when she saw his shoulders shake with his sobbing. That was what he would remember the most. She left and he continued for a few minutes. Wiping his eyes, he stepped out of the building and walked up the beach to where his mother was now waiting for him. They had to get back to his grandmother’s house by four to help with dinner, his mother said. She did not try to take him by the hand.


Writer/Reader/Poet/Dreamer... Kendall is a college instructor, experimenter with the written word, and someone who thinks that books are worth saving. (Also: librarians and snail mail—damn you, Canada Post and certain school boards!) I just hope that someone gets a laugh and enjoys my work...