Paradise on Edge (Excerpt)

By Arlene Quiyou Pena

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Jacob didn’t miss Port-of-Spain, the bumper-to-bumper traffic commute to his office at the bank, or the starched button-up shirts and ties that had come to define his orderly life. Now retired, he grew his hair longer and delighted in his daily walks to the sea. The sun was rising as Jacob reached the midpoint of the hill in front of Neville’s house. He opened the gate when he saw a lamplight in the window. The small house stood nestled between Tilly’s wild orchids, red ixora plants, and the vegetable garden at the back. The mango tree branches drooped with the weight of the ripe fruit as the sparrows feasted on the discarded ones rotting on the ground. It had rained heavily the night before, and the purple honeycreepers drank the dew off the leaves. Since Tilly had died a year ago, her husband, Neville, sat at their bedroom window, seldom leaving his home as the overgrown foliage threatened to devour the house.

            “Morning,” Jacob called out as he walked up the stone pathway. Neville’s head peered around the curtain of his bedroom window; he waved and then quietly pulled back out of view. Jacob had sat next to Neville in primary school and could recall the tall bony nine-year-old who made the girls laugh. Now the two men sat in front of the living room’s great bay window.

            “Hazel came by yesterday to check up on me,” Neville said. “Boy, when you going to marry her?”

            “What make you think she wants to get married?”

            “Women want to get married,” Neville said. “Only we men like to play the fool.”

            “Times change,” Jacob said. “You don’t see how these young girls treating the young boys today?”

            “You not so young,” Neville said. “And neither is she. You better be careful someone don’t snatch her up from right under your nose.”

            “Eh-eh, you trying to give me some competition?”

            Neville laughed. “At my age?”

            “Who you think you fooling?” Jacob said. “You had your eyes on her since you were sixteen years old.”

            “Sound like you jealous?”

            “Nah!” Jacob said.

            Voices from the garden diverted their attention. They looked out the window and watched as five young men dressed in ill-fitting clothing move through the garden like locusts.

            “What the ass is this?” Jacob said. The two men stood and hurried out to the porch.

            Neville called out to the approaching men. “Get off my property!”

            When Jacob walked down the front steps towards them, the young men, their arms loaded with vegetables and mangoes, ignored him and strolled past the trampled plants and out through the gate.

            “What kinda behavior is this?” Jacob shouted after them.  “We don’t tolerate stealing in Mari Village. Where you fellas come from? You want some fruit ask for it. Don’t steal!”

            After Jacob closed the gate behind them, one of the young men stopped and pointed a long stick at Jacob’s throat and squinted at him.

            “Man, the fruit rotting on the ground and you quarreling? I come from this island, just like you. So watch yuh self.”

            Jacob stared at the young man as he strolled up the hill to meet the others. He picked up a broken orchid plant with its tangled roots exposed and bleeding and recalled his neighbor’s recent complaint about hearing somebody in her yard the night before last. He didn’t know if these fellas were responsible for any wrong doings on the hill, but their brazenness exemplified an ugliness plaguing the island.

            “In our day, them fellas could never get away with that shit. We would’ve run them outta the village,” Jacob said. “Boy, what happen to us?”

            “We got old and tired,” Neville said. 

            Jacob felt uneasy as he continued down the hill toward the seawall. He walked along the beach away from the fishermen’s boats. He stopped and removed his khaki shorts, red faded tee shirt, sneakers, and walked into the sea in his bathing trunks. The water reached his mid-thigh as he stood on a sand bar. He thought of the young man who had pointed the stick at his throat. Was this the new heir to Mari Village? He shuddered. He raised his hands above his head and shouted, “I’m not old and tired!”

            But he had felt threatened by the young men. In his youth, he had avoided trouble, but when arguments escalated to fights, Jacob never backed down. He recalled a schoolboy’s scuffle with Neville where both of them had nursed bruises and hurt feelings. In the end, Neville had become his brother. Now, Jacob no longer recognized the island of his youth. He had stopped buying the newspapers. He didn’t want to read any more stories about murders or botched kidnappings.

            Enveloped in the cool water, he wondered what he had done with his time. He had no wife, and no children to whom he could pass on his history. He wondered what his life would have been like if Hazel had stayed in Mari village. He had held onto his memories of her during his marriage and divorce from Mona, and his relationships with Teresa and Camille. He remembered Hazel pale blue dress, and a satin bandeau that held her dark curly hair away from her face. It was at the church’s bazaar. Jacob had watched her from the side of the bandstand as he tried to summon his courage to ask her to dance. Her mother was in charge of the cake booth, and when Hazel wasn’t dancing with the young boys who sought her attention, she stood behind the table and moved in time to the calypso music. He had inched his way closer to the booth and looked into the glass cabinet at four large cakes - chocolate, coconut with cream icing, pineapple and cherries, and sponge. He glanced at Hazel and saw her looking at him. He had hesitated, unsure of what to do next. He recalled feeling the perspiration dripping down the center of his back. “Yuh want to dance?” Jacob asked. She looked over at her mother who had nodded her approval. He held Hazel’s hand and took her to the dance floor; the tone of her voice and her smile had enchanted him. Yet, within months after meeting Hazel, Jacob had heard that her mother had sent her to live in New York. He had seen her only once in the last forty-five years, a chance encounter ten years ago at a carnival fete where he met her husband. Now Hazel was back.

*

Four months earlier, when she returned to Mari Village for her mother’s funeral, he had arranged to meet at her home. He had arrived minutes early and sat in his car. He surveyed the house, which he had avoided after Hazel left. The curved coconut tree that had once stood at the entrance was gone, but Miss Myrtle’s precious vegetable garden bloomed. He looked into the rearview mirror, and wondered if his face revealed his lost years. He grabbed the bottle of wine he had brought for her and exited the car. He saw her on the front steps leading to the veranda and embraced her. He felt her body stiffen, and then she relaxed into him. He followed her into the house, and had expected to see her husband, but he sat alone with her in the kitchen as she prepared the dishes for their lunch. She looked lovely, he had thought. He traced the profile of her face, the fine lines on her forehead and slight creases along the side of her nose. Her beaded earrings brushed against her bare shoulders as she took the macaroni pie from the stove and place the dish on the counter. She told him that she was happy many of her mother’s friends had come to the funeral.

            “I thought I would’ve seen you there,” Hazel said.

            “I couldn’t get out of a meeting. I heard it was a good service.” Jacob hadn’t forgotten his humiliation when Miss Myrtle had asked him to leave her yard so many years ago.

            “How long you staying in Mari?”

            “A couple of months. I have to fix up the house before I put it up for sale.” 

            He followed Hazel to the veranda and helped her place the dishes of stew chicken, fried plantains, and raw cut vegetables to the table. He had stopped drinking alcohol, so she filled his glass with coconut water. They sat across from each other and talked about the changes on the island, her years working as a guidance counselor in Brooklyn with high school students, and his work in the village council.  

            “I remember meeting your husband?” Jacob said. “I forgot his name.”

            “Kenneth.”

            “Right.” Jacob nibbled on slices of guava cheese. “I thought I would see him today.”

            “We’re divorced.” 

            “Oh? How long ago?”

            “Some years now.”

               Jacob’s mind buzzed. He wanted to ask her more questions about the divorce, but Hazel had pushed her chair away from the table and took the dirty plates and utensils to the kitchen. He stayed on the veranda and watched the sea glittering like a sequined tapestry undulating in the wind. He thought of their last week together on the beach before she had left Mari Village all those years ago when they were teenagers. He had kissed her for the first time, awkward and curious. Now, he rejoiced in the death of her marriage and felt energized with the possibility of a new life with her.

*

Jacob felt the heat of the sun on his face now and dipped his head under the water. He saw Hazel’s house in the distance. He picked up his clothes from the beach and crossed the road. When he entered the house, Hazel handed him a bath towel. He placed his arms around her waist. The smell of the freshly baked bread reminded him of Christmas, familiar and reassuring. Jacob held onto Hazel, as if he could conjure up those missing years of their youth. He noticed an open suitcase on the floor in Hazel’s bedroom and her clothes folded neat on the bed.

            “You going on a trip?” Jacob asked.

            “Cassie’s wedding in New York.”

            “Oh yes, I forgot. Talking about wedding,” Jacob said. “Neville asked me when we’re getting married.”

            Hazel laughed. “Tell him to mind his own business,” Hazel said. “Besides, our relationship is probably closer than most marriages.”

            “Don’t know how you can say that,” Jacob said. He was changing back into his tee shirt and khaki shorts. “We don’t live in the same house. We eat breakfast and some dinners together, but then we head back to sleep in our own beds.”

            “So?”

            “You take off to New York for weeks at a time, and I don’t know what you doing. In my book, when you love someone, you get married and share your life with them.”

            “We’re still getting to know to each other.”

            “I’ve known you since you were fifteen.”

            “That’s a long time ago,” Hazel said. “We are not the same people.”

            “I never stopped loving you.” When she didn’t reply, Jacob kissed her on her forehead. “I have to open the store. Mrs. Graves is coming in late this morning.


Sparks

By Laura Dennison

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You handed me the welding helmet and warned me about burns and arc flash. You told me the sparks would provide enough light to see what I was doing.

            “Keep your hands steady,” you said. I knew that was impossible, but I tried anyway. I went on to weld—in rough, wiggly lines—our initials into a piece of scrap metal. With the bulky helmet over my eyes, I couldn’t see you or anything around me. All I saw were sparks. It didn’t matter. In the beginning, that’s all we needed.

We met in the summertime on a camping trip. You were the burly electrician with the nice butt; I was the skinny, blonde girl finishing off her fourth year of college. I liked the way you wrapped the warts on your callused fingers in electrical tape, and how you replaced the two-pronged outlets in my ancient apartment—that old, red-bricked building on Main Street that we both thought was haunted. We used that place as a playground: climbed the fire escape to the third floor so we could sit and drink beers as the sun set, letting our bare feet dangle; opened the bathroom medicine cabinet to slip razorblades into the slot in the wall labeled RAZORS; explored the long, narrow crawlspaces behind the galley kitchen, wondering if we’d stumble across a century of used razorblades in the process.

            Then there was that night we crawled out from a bedroom window, climbed up to the flat part of the roof. I wrapped us up in my patchwork quilt and there we lay, drink the Barefoot wine we bought at the corner store. When packs of partygoers passed by down on the street below, we took turns tooting at them with the little bike horn we carried with us. The party girls, dressed their shimmery tops and stilettos heels, up, stared up, wide-eyed and confused, while the boys with backwards baseball caps hollered, searching for the source of the sound. We ducked down, stifling our giggles. We were untouchable.

            It felt like the right time to tell you about what happened three years prior: the breakdown, the psych ward, the lithium. I told you how surprised I was to still be here—how I felt like I was living past an expiration date.

            You also had a story. You told me about the car accident that landed you a ride in the ambulance chopper. You said that your rib lacerating your kidney was nothing compared to the injuries to your head—how you feel like a different person now and can’t remember things the way you used to. “I still feel like I’ll be dead by thirty,” you said.

            I nodded. “Me too.”

            I reached for your hand. We made our own warmth, swaddled there together in that blanket. I shut my eyes, happy we’d found each other—two humans with no futures to scare us.

*

And now three years have gone by. We’ve moved in together—a new apartment—one with modern, three-pronged outlets, no fire escape, no slits in the walls to deposit sharp objects, and nowhere to sit at night other than the beige-carpeted floors.

            We’ve stopped spontaneously driving to the beach in the winter to lay out our blankets and have the whole place to ourselves. We’ve stopped racing each other through the downtown streets to see who can run fastest without bending our knees. Once, in the beginning, we spent a whole hour laughing after you dared me to peel a banana using only my toes and I succeeded. But now you spend your spare nights in the garage working on your old truck, while I stay in the bedroom, wrapped up with the patchwork quilt and a book.

Last weekend, though, we went on a date. On our way home from the diner, we stopped to let an elderly couple cross the street. The man wore a bowler cap and clutched his partner’s elbow. She clutched a three-pronged cane and wore a tight, white perm. Each small step seemed in slow motion.

  “I hope I die before I get that old,” you whispered after they passed.

“Me too,” I said. Only I mouthed it more than spoke it, and I don’t think I meant it.

In five years we’ll be thirty. I’m too afraid to tell you that I’ve started daydreaming scenes of a life ten or twenty years from now. After we finally drove away, all I could do was stare at my interlocked hands in my lap as they grew colder. I glanced over to see your knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel, and it made me wonder if you were merely reading off the old script—the one with no future and neither one of us in it.

*

At night, back in the new apartment, the four white walls of the bedroom make up a perfect square. It feels like we’ve explored every last inch. We lie on top of our queen-sized mattress underneath the same old quilt. There’s so much space between us now that didn’t exist before, back when we were forced to cram together on the tiny twin. I can’t even feel the heat of your body against mine. I turn toward you and you roll closer against the wall, pressing yourself deeper into the whiteness, making yourself small. I try to make sparks myself—like we once did— but it’s like rubbing two twigs together, hoping for a fire. It only works in the movies.