The second time Auncil’s picture appeared in the Gleaner, his mother blocked his path with her big body. She tried preventing him from riding his beloved bike, even if just with friends. Every time she noticed he was dressed for sport, she’d head for the door.
Auncil hated this new obstacle to the world outside his home and hated even more the accompanying lectures about the dangers of life. He was already twenty-one. He did not need to hear her sighs and grumbles, her saying, “I don’t know why you have to live so. You must want me go to a’ early grave. A that you want? Eeh?”
“Why you have to carry on so?” he’d sigh. And, his father might add, “Make the boy go have some fun, Dorcas.” But they knew it came down to getting past her and it would take some doing.
“Why you cyaan stay as you yard, Auncil? Why you love to gallivant so?” she’d press.
“I have to live me life, mama! I can’t stay in the house like some rat. A that you want fi me?”
“I don’t know why you ha’ fi go bout so much, is all. . . . You is everything to us, you know.”
“I know, mama,” he’d say. But oonu get to decide on that. What me get to choose? he’d think and never once say out loud.
He would feel a stabbing pain in his chest as his annoyance rose but he could not bring himself to argue too much with her. She meant so much to him. It would hurt even more than his annoyance to do anything as feisty as talk back, even at his age—especially at this age. Instead, he’d put a smile on and hug her tight. She would sigh again, this time into his shoulder—he was that much taller than her—and then beg him, as he walked out, “Please, I beg you, don’t kill me today with any foolishness.”
By foolishness he thinks she meant chances with his life, as if he was not a top-ranked cyclist known for his deft skills during the steep downhill street races that sometimes happened in the hills of St. Andrew. On the front page of the Gleaner he’d appeared in his striped bicycle shorts and shirt and matching cap, his legs still on the pedals as if he was in mid-cycle. What chances did she think he was taking? And today? Did he even look as if he was going racing?
He felt good in his new clothes that he had bought with his last winnings. From the baby blue bush jacket to the dark blue polyester pants, everything was brand new and crisp. And though his white leather shoes were not new, they had been polished to an even brighter shine than the day he had seen them in the store. Anybody with eyes could see that Auncil was going out on the town.
He was heading out to take the Sunday morning train from Kingston to Montego Bay. It was the end of his last free summer, that special time between his recent graduation from the university and the beginning of his life as a professional man. A time that was an ending and a beginning. He had raced every chance he could and made a decent amount of change, enough to help his parents a bit and to also give himself some spending money before his “free paper bu’n.” He had earned this break, this summer, and this day out.
Auncil was not about beating the clock when he went out the door. Today he was about skylarking and did not need his mother to try to make him feel bad about having a little life while he could.
At the train station, he tugged on the hem of his shirt and smiled at the thought of seeing Benson and Nigel again. He had met them in first form of high school and they had become fast friends. They were all bookish boys who were obsessed with ska and soccer. Benson and Nigel had lived with their respective aunties while they went to school in Kingston and were as serious about their grades as Auncil was. Their futures were tied to their families’ well-being as much as it was to their own. Any failure would be beyond some personal disappointment. They were all only children as well and it was as if their circumstances had made them brothers, the best of bredrens from the minute they’d met.
After their A-levels, they had parted ways only so far as miles go. Auncil had gone on to the University of the West Indies. Benson had gotten a job with the bauxite mining corporation near his mother’s house in St. Ann, and Nigel was teaching at a secondary school in Manchester where his folks lived. The miles did nothing to diminish their connection, however. They wrote often and sometimes they would find a way to spend some time together, like they used to, if either Auncil went to the north coast of the island or they came to Kingston. It had been over a year since he had seen them last though because he had been so busy studying and then racing to fund his one last relatively free summer.
Auncil looked around at the rest of the crowd waiting for the train. There were more people there than he thought there would be even on this Sunday. Many more. But it should have been expected. For months the Holy Name Society of St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church had been advertising the day trip from Kingston to Montego Bay. It was in the paper, on the radio, and all over the streets in conversations and fliers: “A day to remember! A bashment of the best sort! Wear your best and come celebrate the last weekend of the summer of ’57! Come one! Come all!!”
Auncil had, of course, seen and heard and even talked about this trip, but he was not a church man and between studying for his exams to qualify as an accountant and finally completing his degree so he’d be set for life—life as a working man who could support his parents—he had not thought much about buying a ticket or about the fact that his day trip was on the same day as this grand affair. It had been a long road to this summer and—with his father no longer able to support him and his mother since his hands got too stiff to make shoes—Auncil wanted more than anything to finally get the piece of paper, that degree, that would set him on his way to adding to the household instead of still being one more expense to manage, one more future barely hanging in the balance.
All around him the sun bounced off the bright clothing of the hundreds of people dressed to the nines: the plump light brown girl in the yellow polka-dot dress and green patent leather shoes; the man in his crisp beige short-sleeve shirt and matching pants with a crease so sharp it looked like it was made of something harder than cloth; the children dressed as if they were going to Christmas service instead of a day in Mo’Bay.
Auncil felt the sweat trickle from the top of his head. He was wearing a straw hat with a small brim, but the heat of this last weekend of August reminded him they were still in the midst of hurricane season. Not even his finely made hat could combat this weather. As he swiped the sweat from his brow, he felt the wind announce the approach of the train and soon also heard it chug along the tracks and roll to a stop for all to board. The train, like so much of this day, was spruced up: a new diesel engine and extra cars for the bigger crowd. To Auncil, all things about this day seemed new and built for better times.
The ride to Mo’Bay was smooth, the crowds tightly packed but convivial. Someone hummed “Nearer My God to Thee” and Auncil thought briefly of his father who would sing hymns when he used to shape the shoes over the wooden molds he stored in the zinc shed behind the house. As a child, Auncil used to sit on the concrete steps and watch his father work like some kind of artist. He was a tall man who was darker than Auncil and he did not speak much. But, still, Auncil felt a warmness watching him work. “You good, my star?” he’d sometimes ask. “Make sure you study them books and get a job with you head. Don’t want to end up a manual laborer like this ol’ man.”
Auncil had heard this time and time again, but he saw no problem with this kind of work. In fact, he wished his father would take him on and show him how he made such beautiful shoes, shoes sought after by enough people to pay his school fees and provide a goat at Easter. Instead, he studied like they wanted and got top marks. He became a scholarship boy and now he was a college graduate. It had been a long journey of many nights bent over books. Many years of one high-stakes exam after another. Now, he could begin to reap the rewards. Just in time.
His father’s fingers had turned to stiff yams, like something someone dug up from the ground, turgid and twisted. The chickens they raised were rationed and mostly for eggs, and his mother was now sewing day and night to keep even a little rice in the house. Watching her bent over the Singer sewing machine, pedaling past midnight, was enough to make Auncil study even harder than he had in high school. For a time, the only socializing and fun he let himself have was when he raced down those steep hills, no handbrakes, no padding, no helmets. Just the wind rushing over his face and arms, the burn in his chest and legs, the tears from the pain and the joy—and the feeling that he was faster than even his own thoughts, more able and glorious than he often dared to hope.
His mother, though, did not know about the racing until that photograph had appeared in the Gleaner. Auncil had won another race and some journalist had rushed up and taken a picture of him still on his bike. He’d asked Auncil for his name and, knowing that his mother would not approve of such reckless skylarking, he had told him a made-up one. He did not think the photo would appear in the national paper. But it had. And, even with the fake name, of course his mother found out where he sometimes went on Saturday mornings. The way she carried on, you would have thought he had become a drug addict or a madman or a murderer. For weeks after the discovery, she would mumble, as if to herself but clearly within his earshot, “See me dying trial? Oonu see it? De lawd know say trouble don’ set like rain. . . .” His father just sat on the same steps that Auncil used to watch him from and sipped milk and white rum while staring at the zinc shed.
They could not know how that wind, that speed, that sense of flying and having legs like pistons kept him from utter despair at the sight of what their lives had become. They could not seem to see how those races and the victories made him feel that he could do anything.
The first time Auncil’s photo appeared in the paper was a day his parents would never forget. Patrick and Dorcas had been married for six years by the time that day arrived. Before Dorcas was seen walking home from the hospital with the tiny bundle in her arm, she had had other pregnancies that ended with dead babies. Too poor to get a car ride and weak from the delivery a mere two days earlier, she walked like she was being carried home, back straight, smile wide, and feet quick. Patrick walked beside her and hoped that everyone they passed could witness the boy God had given him. He was pleased to grant permission when a photographer from the paper who was charged with taking pictures of newborns for possible publication with cute captions snapped a picture of Auncil swaddled in his blanket.
As was the case with the second, more recent photo, no one thought that baby picture would get published. In fact, no one thought of it again until it was discovered in the paper days later: “Auncil Thomas arrived on the scene ready to take hold!” He was round and pale, cheeks like puffed-up coco bread, and gripping the finger of someone who was out of the frame.
When Auncil’s mother saw the racing photo, she could not help but remember that moment so soon after he was born and wonder how many times her baby would end up in the news.
When Auncil arrived at his destination, Benson and Nigel were easy to spot. Both were over six feet tall, like Auncil, and while one was pale to the point of appearing luminescent in the sun, the other was so dark it seemed that even the island’s sunshine was swallowed by the depth of his skin’s shade. Auncil was glad to see them.
It was as if he were back at Ardenne High School, just a boy once more with nothing to worry about but passing his exams, finding time for soccer after school, and hoping that some girl he found attractive would like him back.
Auncil had spent the first moments at Ardenne wondering if he could make a space for himself there. Would he find friends? Would he be smart enough? Would he be able to keep his grades up and hang on to his scholarship? Was he, in fact, worthy? Enough?
He knew the price of his parents’ poverty. He knew that they had not had his luck. They had not been able to go further than primary school and had had to find some skill they could live off and use to help support their family by the time they were fifteen. He knew he had to succeed.
In his home room, they placed the students in alphabetical order. In front of him was Benson Singer and, behind him, Nigel Thornhill. When the bell rang for recess, the three boys had walked out into the yard in the same order they had sat all morning.
“You buying lunch?” Benson had been the first to speak.
Nigel and Auncil turned at the same time and looked at him. Auncil held up the ham sandwich wrapped in brown paper just as Nigel explained that his aunty had packed him leftover curried chicken and white rice. And, like so, they had found each other.
Auncil saw it as another stroke of luck. He would not be alone in this school full of kids who probably had more money and intelligence than he was born with. He might just have enough to get through the work of staying afloat in this new river to cross.
After he had gotten into high school, his mother had quickly made all his uniforms. She washed and pressed them weeks before the start of the first term, then hung them on some nails his father had hammered, just for this purpose, into a wall of Auncil’s tiny bedroom. Sometimes Auncil would wake up to his mother standing quietly in front of the uniforms, watching them. Sometimes she carefully touched a sleeve or a button.
The morning he set out for his first day of high school, she made him his favorite breakfast, mackerel and boiled green bananas. As he ate, she watched him and smiled. When he was done and was licking his fork, she said, still smiling but with a serious note in her voice, “The hard work just beginning now, Auncil. Don’t get complacent.” She said this after every hurdle he cleared. Each time it made his stomach hurt and his heart speed up.
So, it was no small thing that he had encountered two classmates who were willing to literally walk with him from day one. By the end of his first recess with his new friends, he felt more assured. They had even gone so far as to share each other’s meals and make plans to kick around Nigel’s soccer ball after dismissal. It felt like a Godsend.
Now, during that Sunday in Mo’Bay, Auncil told them about his graduation and the new job he would start. Benson told them about his engagement to a very pretty girl from his church. And Nigel told them about the promotion he was hoping to get.
“T’ings a look good fi we!” Nigel announced as he took a drink of some beer from a bottle.
“A true, I-ya. A true. . . .” Auncil agreed. “Me just hope say mi parents don’ create problems when me start fi make moves.”
Benson burst out laughing, “You can g’waan hope, bredda! None a we parents know how fi leave a man in peace!”
Auncil and Benson nodded and chuckled. Then they fell into silence for a while, each one appearing to drift into his thoughts. Soon enough, their reunion was over and it was Auncil’s time to return to Kingston.
He hoped his mother and father would be sound asleep when he got in. But, these days, his father might be asleep in a chair, head flopped back, mouth open, glass with a ring of milk at the bottom on the floor along with a white rum bottle by his feet. His mother would be stationed near the front door, pumping her feet, driving that sewing machine over one garment or another. He had just gone on a day trip with a whole heap of church people. He would say as much. He hoped they would have no cause to sigh and hum hymns, to talk to God about him as if he was not there.
As an only child, Auncil often wished he’d had siblings, other people who could share the job of carrying his parents’ dreams. He felt like he lived on a tightrope. He had to be what his parents wanted. They deserved a good son. And he had to have his life. It was his! When he was about twelve years old, he would climb the highest tree in the backyard, the Blackie mango tree that seemed bigger than the house. He pulled and pushed himself higher and higher, ignoring the sap that stuck to his hands and feet, feeling the power of his body until he was perched mere inches from the top.
From there he sat and watched whatever he could see through the leaves: the other houses in the town, the cars, the people, the sea. Once he had stayed so long, his parents came looking for him. He heard them calling his name, shouting louder and louder. He saw then come through the back door and walk around the house shouting at the top of their lungs. “AUNCIL! AUNCIIIL!!” He could tell they were in a panic, but he did not want to give in just yet. He did not want to have to choose them over his moment above it all.
His mother marched back into the house and he watched her exit through the front and walk down the street, still shouting, her head swiveling from side to side. His father also went back in through the back door only to go out the front and search in the opposite direction as his wife. He could tell they were losing their minds. He wanted to say, “I’m here. Don’t worry.” But he also wanted to sit as high in a tree as he’d like and not have to answer to anyone.
Eventually, he came down and waited for them in his bedroom. His parents returned together, sweating and darkened by their screaming in the hot sun. When his father saw him, he stumbled into a chair, the relief so overpowering. His mother, however, grabbed a broom and rushed at him with a fury he had never seen. “You wan’ kill me?! A weh you deh all dis time?!” He stammered the truth: he had been sitting in the big mango tree in the back.
She beat him until she cried. “I think you dead. . . . I think him dead and him a sit up in a tree a watch me!”
Auncil cowered on his bed. The places where she had struck him stung more and more with each minute. If only his life could be his own, just his own. If only he could be loved as much as he was loved by them and not be made to smother his freedom in the service of their feelings.
He watched her leave the room without looking at him. Then he heard her crying and heaving for too many minutes afterward.
Sitting in the train, heading back to Kingston, Auncil felt like he was on his way in every way. At 11 p.m., the heat of the day was long gone and Auncil was glad to be at a window. He watched the trees bend to the will of the wind and the force of the train. He watched the stars shine brighter in this part of Jamaica than even over his home perched on a hill in Harbour View. He would sleep well tonight, he thought. And tomorrow he would start that job with the Bank of Nova Scotia. His degree would finally get to work and give his mother the easier life she deserved. Perhaps, make enough to find his father help for his arthritis, enough help to separate him from that bottle of white rum.
But he would not give up racing. He would probably move out and get one of those new homes in the housing schemes being built all over the parish. He would have his own home, his own life, his own freedom to come and go as he pleased.
His mother would make it like he was killing them even though he would take care of them for as long as he breathed. Upset as she would be, he must live on his own. How could he really enjoy his life otherwise? How could he go on only feeling the thrill of being alive when he was hurtling down a hill, tensely perched on a bicycle?
The first race he participated in was by chance. He was riding his bicycle up a hill and he came across a group of cyclists lined up across the road. He pulled to the side to see what they were about and watched as they raced down the hill at full speed, a devil-may-care look on their faces. He had to join in.
After they passed him, he turned around and let his bike barrel down the hill. He was like a bullet. As he rounded a corner, he glimpsed the sheer drop to his right, the road a mere cut in the side of a mountain. In that second, he was on top of the world, full of life like he had never been before. It was him, his body, his heart, his very life all at the mercy of his will.
He had to do it again and again, and again.
As the train made its way from Mo’Bay, Auncil felt the breeze increase its rush across his face and the arm he had rested on the windowsill. It was almost like he was riding down those hills again, hurtling toward that finish line and giddy from the rush of his blood.
He closed his eyes and tried to tune out the sound of the train’s engine. He let the wind remind his skin. He could live like a victor. . . .
He did not know how much time passed before he heard the train’s whistle blow and felt the car tilt as it traveled a curve. Auncil opened his eyes to a sky that seemed darker even as the stars were more pronounced. He squinted into the distance, hoping to see the skyline. He looked as hard as he could and waited for his eyes to adjust to the night, enough for him to see all he could as he journeyed home. He searched for that line between heaven and Earth, but he was not sure he could make it out.