Whenever you asked Dotty, “Dotty, how Miss Esmie?”
She always said, “She all right, me taking care of her.”
And that was it.
She never felt inclined to say anything else.
It was always the same response, the same sentence.
But if you said, “Dotty, you taking care of Miss Esmie?” Then she didn’t answer.
She would screw up her plump lips and suck her teeth, “Tcha!”, irritated by what she perceived as a slight. And you’d be painfully reminded of the distinction between both questions, and know never to ask the second one again.
The truth is, that’s the only thing Dotty ever did: take care of her mother. She seemed incapable of doing anything else, which included taking care of herself.
They lived in a respectable hut, in the ‘captured land’ section of Bellgate. There they burnt coal and planted vegetables which they sold out of a zinc shack at the end of Grove Street.
Dotty’s duties included carrying crocus bags of vegetables, tins of coal and Miss Esmie on her back, down to the shack in the mornings. She had to make several trips.
Miss Esmie had lost both her legs—just under the knees—to untreated diabetes. But she liked to joke she had left them at the hospital by mistake. And now she couldn’t walk back to get them.
I didn’t find this funny. Once I had a dream about the legs getting tired of waiting on Miss Esmie to come and get them so they walked home to her instead.
I was seven at the time. I woke up screaming.
The last time I saw Miss Esmie at the zinc shack she was propped up as always on a coal tin (a skill that both fascinated and terrified me), smoking her pipe. Occasionally she waved at people who called to her from passing taxis. Dotty stood beside her, sulking at the world.
“Afternoon, Dotty,” I said.
Miss Esmie took the pipe from her black wrinkled lips and frowned at me. “What you want, bwoy?”
I gave Dotty my list. She walked around the shack, checking off items on the paper and stuffing things into a plastic bag.
Miss Esmie scowled, slowly exhaling smoke through her wide nostrils. “Big bwoy like you still bringing list to shop. What wrong with you brain?”
All this time I avoided her eyes. This amused her. She grinned and blew a fog of smoke into my face. I pretended not to notice. But when the smoke tickled my throat I had to cough.
“Mama!” Dotty shouted. “Leave him alone!”
Miss Esmie murmured and puffed on her pipe, fingering the filthy moneybag tied around her waist.
When Dotty was through she handed me the bag. “TellPearlwe don’t have plummy tomatoes. So me give you two heritage tomatoes instead. Them big and juicy.”
I handed her the money.
She handed me my change.
As I turned to leave Miss Esmie said, “Bwoy, don’t mind me, you hear. Me old, and don’t have a use…only know how to take bellyful turn laugh. But you is a good likle bwoy. You have manners an’ me like you. Dotty like you too.”
Dotty looked embarrassed.
“An’Pearlshouldn’t beat you. I know you not giving no form a trouble.” She cocked her head and scrutinized me. “What kind a trouble you could be giving, eh? Tell me now. See Dotty deh. Never once in my life I ever raise my hand to her. Never. Because she is a good child. An’ me not ‘fraid to tell anybody dat. An’ is not because she is my child. But is truth.” She smiled at me. “I can see you is a good child, too. Yes.Pearlshouldn’t beat you. I soon dead an’ gone. An’ me don’t want nobody. Nobody! Take advantage of Dotty. She better than de whole lot of Bellgate people! Selfishness an’ bad mind full dem heart all you see dem deh…”
I had lost interest in Miss Esmie’s speech. My feet were tired and the bag was heavy.
Dotty said, “Come gwaan now. Pearl waiting on you.”
Miss Esmie stirred, as if reviving from a trance. “Yes, come gwaan.” Then she smiled again, “You want gizzada, love?”
I quickly nodded.
Dotty took two gizzadas (coconut cakes) from the stall and stuffed them into my pocket.
Miss Esmie closed her eyes contentedly and curled her thin lips round the pipe. “Don’t mind, Esmie…I old an’ foolish.” Then chuckling, she added, “Nothing but a burden on me poor daughter’s back. But thankfully I soon dead an’ gone. Dotty want her independence, an’ she shall have it. An’ nobody should begrudge her it! She earn it.”
“I go take dat damn tobacco pipe an’ burn it!” Dotty said in anger, glaring at her mother.
“Me burning it enough,” Miss Esmie replied calmly.
I said goodbye and left.
A week later Miss Esmie died, just as she had promised.
Dotty was left alone.
Everyone speculated about her fate.
Bagga, the richest shopkeeper in Bellgate, said, “Dotty have more breast than she have brains. What go happen to dat girl?”
Aunt Pearl said, “It’s not safe for her to stay up in dat bush by herself. Somet’ing bound to happen.”
I had an idea what she meant.
To this Mama had sighed and responded, “Trouble don’t set like rain.”
Dotty continued to burn coal and plant vegetables, and more people were now buying from the shack. The level of support was surprising, and sudden. And she soon found herself unable to match the demand—selling coal faster than she could burn it and vegetables faster than they could be reaped.
The other shopkeepers grew jealous.
“Dem only going there ‘cause dem know Dotty can’t count money good,” Bagga said.
One morning when I woke up Aunt Pearl was standing over me. “Dotty house burn down last night,” she said.
The news shocked me. But for some reason a ridiculous image of Dotty sitting in the middle of the hut, sulking as the flames danced angrily around her, fixed itself in my mind. “She dead?” I finally asked, wiping my eyes and sitting up in bed.
Aunt Pearl said no. She was fine, and staying at the Police Station onRose Lane.
She told them a candle had caused the fire. That she had fallen asleep and left it burning. She hadn’t been able to save anything besides the clothes she was wearing. But that was enough, since she practically wore the same dress nearly everyday.
Bagga said, “It was just a matter of time. A hope she had sense enough to save the money before she run out.” Bagga was convinced Dotty had amassed a small fortune during the shack’s recent prosperity. And he wasn’t the only one. Many people were wondering where all the money she made was going, since it was obvious she spent little of it on herself. Too, since Miss Esmie’s death she had lost considerable weight, possibly from overwork, and carried herself even shabbier than before.
Dotty soon announced she was closing the shack, and would no longer burn coal and plant vegetables. She was taking a job as a cook at the Police Station, instead, where she had been living since her misfortune.
Aunt Pearl said it was sad that Dotty would now have to depend on people for a living.
Within the first week of her new job Dotty complained her duties were overwhelming. Not only did she have to cook and wash, but was expected to polish the boots of all the policemen. And after working hard all day she barely had enough strength left to fight off the advances of drunken officers who tried to have their way with her.
So by the second week Dotty announced she was resigning.
She also announced she was engaged to be married.
The whole community speculated about who this man was, but they didn’t have to speculate long. Ken, Dotty’s former neighbour and heir apparent of a rival coal burning family, whom Miss Esmie had greatly despised while alive, was walking around Bellgate proclaiming: “I am Dorothy’s fiancé.”
Mama said, “Esmie gyal, if you never dead already dis would surely kill you.”
“I wonder if him is Dotty’s banker,” Bagga mused.
Dotty soon moved in with Ken.
After they were married it was announced they were expecting a child. But everyone already knew this.
Dotty’s belly was already showing. And she was behaving very pregnant. Hawking and spitting and fanning whenever you saw her, her face contorted like a pestered pigeon’s. If you looked at her directly she gave you bad looks.
“Pregnancy don’t suit Dotty at all at all,” Aunt Pearl said.
People also speculated as to who the baby’s real father was. Some suggested that Dotty wasn’t always successful in fighting off the policemen at the station and one of them was the real father. That the real reason Dotty had resigned her job at the Police Station was the shame of her pregnancy.
But Ken was already going around Bellgate with a new proclamation: “I am the father of Dorothy’s baby.”
Bagga said, “Dis man have more message than John de Baptist.”
But people still had their doubts.
The baby came and Dotty’s belly went down, but her breasts got even bigger.
I learned from Bagga that they were filled with milk.
It made me think of Papa’s cows.
But the new couple wasn’t happy; and Dotty seemed the unhappier of the pair.
One day I heard Aunt Pearl laughing and telling Papa that when the baby had been born Dotty had cheupsed loudly and pushed it away from her, “Tcha! How him so ugly?”
Tragedy seemed always to strike only when I was asleep. I shared this misfortune with Dotty, and maybe that’s why as a nine year old who was also fatherless and motherless, I felt a strange kinship with her and was deeply touched by her suffering.
“Dotty baby died last night,” Aunt Pearl said one morning.
I felt a coldness inside my stomach. I asked weakly, without getting up, “How?”
“She was breastfeeding an’ drop asleep, an’ de baby suffocate under her breast.” Aunt Pearl wiped her eyes.
I felt like crying too. I knew Dotty would again be blamed for negligence that had destroyed a house and a livelihood, and now had taken a life.
Ken was unforgiving. He flogged her mercilessly. Dotty could be heard wailing day and night. Yet no one helped her.
Finally he put her out.
He also put a Separation Notice in the Montego Bay Sun.
I read it one day after coming home from school and finding the paper on the kitchen table. It said: I, Kenneth Augustus Emmanuel Shearer III, would like to notify all concerned that my wife of six months, Dorothy Elizabeth Cunningham Shearer, has left the matrimonial home. I therefore renounce henceforth all responsibility for her person as she is no longer under my custody.
Dotty moved into the zinc shack that still stood at the end ofGrove Street.
When I heard this I thought back to the day when she put the gizzadas in my pocket, and Miss Esmie had said, “An’ me don’t want nobody. Nobody! Take advantage of Dotty.”
I wondered if she had somehow foreseen this.
For some reason Ken came to our yard one day, complaining grievously to Mama and shouting at the top of his voice. “Eh Miss Daisy,” he said, “now everybody talking how me wicked. Dem don’t know a t’ing! I marry dat gyal outa de goodness of me heart an’ what she turn round an’ do? Kill me pitney! Me firstborn son. An’ then talk ‘bout how de baby sufficate. You ever hear a t’ing like dat in all you life? Nutten more than de mad gyal strangle me pitney. From de day him born she hate him. Talking ‘bout she can’t take care of baby, she only know how to take care of her mooma. Her mooma who dead an’ rotten!”
He put his face in his hands and sobbed, “God knows what dat poor baby ever do to her.”
Aunt Pearl had been standing on the verandah and listening with a tight expression on her face, “Then if you know she mad, as you say, why you marry her?”
Ken didn’t answer.
Mama shook her head and got up from her chair. “Trouble don’t set like rain.” Then went inside.
A week later Ken had grown hysterical. He could be heard night and day beating down the zinc shack’s door, pleading with Dotty to take him back. That he loved her more than anything, and was sorry, that he would never hit her again, and they could always have another baby.
Dotty didn’t budge.
When Ken, out of desperation, after three weeks of unsuccessful pleading, said to her, “If you don’t come back to me I go kill meself!”
Dotty answered from inside the shack. “Then kill yourself. Who stopping you?”
So Ken made good on his threat. But it didn’t quite work out as planned. He drank gramoxone, a popular herbicide used by Jamaican farmers, but later told the physician the herbicide had tasted too bitter for his liking, so he diluted it with water and sweetened it with sugar to taste.
He was treated and sent home.
Dotty, hearing of his exploits, decided to go back to him.
Things went all right for a while, but then Ken started acting strangely. He wasn’t beating Dotty or anything, but began abusing himself. He would slice his skin with razor blades and bits of glass, and strip naked and smear his body with coal dust and ashes, lying outside in the backyard, where his family burnt wood underground to make coal, and incurring severe burns.
Eventually his family had to admit him to hospital, then to an asylum.
Mama said, “We finally see who is de mad one.”
It was reported that Dotty was planning to move to Spanish Town where she could be closer to Ken and take care of him. And it was said she was eager to make the trip since she was being abused and overworked by her in-laws who blamed her for Ken’s demise.
But in the end she moved back into the shack.
She also began farming and selling again.
Our church’s welfare department decided to start a special fund to rebuild Miss Esmie’s burnt out hut. But that wasn’t necessary. Dotty rebuilt the hut into a modern bungalow with the money she had saved, and with the payout she finally received as the beneficiary of Miss Esmie’s life insurance policy.
After five months the house was finished, and Dotty moved in.
Ken never came back to Bellgate.
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