In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Alexia Tolas’s ‘Granma’s Porch’ is the winning entry from the Caribbean.
When Babou drop me off at Granma house, I don’t complain. This the first time I sleep on clean sheets in weeks. Plenty perks come with living with Granma. For dinner, Granma got steam sausage and rice. I don’t have to warm up no Chef Boyardee. Granma got Rich Tea cookies to dip in Milo. I ain’t eat this good since I come back to Long Island.
The floor always sweep and mop. Dishes wash. I don’t have to fight dust bunnies to get through the door or brush roaches off cups full of soda and cigarette ash. Mind you, Granma don’t let me louse all day, but at least I’s the child again. Babou say he only gone for a little while. I almost wish he don’t come back.
I got company living with Granma. Rico and Glenn live in Petty’s. Sade right behind us. Her mummy and daddy don’t need no excuse to send her by Granma. I know she’ll be sleeping by me every night. Granma play like she mad, like giving Sade some sausage and rice breaking her pocket, but when dinner time come, she looking all round for Sade saying food getting cold.
But the thing I love most bout living with Granma is I get to see the new boy.
I meet him when we come for Sunday dinner. Babou was talking with Granma. Uncle Shane start bout how Babou abandoning me. Uncle Shane ain’t never like Babou. He had to move out our house when Babou move back in. That was four years ago, but he ain’t get over that yet. I gone outside on Granma porch so I don’t have to hear them row.
I feel safe out here on the porch. Granpa did love the sea so much, he build the porch right over the sound. This porch done seen me grow. When I was little, Granma did plait ribbons into my curls here every morning. Mummy would sneak up behind me and tickle me till I pee, then toss me into the sound to bathe. Me and Sade done skin enough knee tripping on this splintered wood. Everyone feel at home on Granma porch. Rico and Glenn just bout raise on it. I done seen every inch of they scrawny selves, more than I ever wan’ see.
I was on the porch when he walk over. Uncle Gully sent him to beg some oil for frying fish. When I see him, my heart catch fire.
Don’t get me wrong: Long Island boys look good. When the Anglican Diocese host Jamboree here, all the girls from Exuma and Eleuthera drool over our boys like they ain’t got none back where they come from. But I ain’t never seen nothing like Demetri before. Brown sugar kiss his gilded skin. The sun blink at the golden glint of his hair. I almost drown in the cerulean waters that rise up to meet me when he look over. He got them eyes that shift with the light. Sometimes they so clear you could see right down to the bottom. Other times they froth with the Lusca’s rage.
I pine all week to see him again. The moment Babou kiss me goodbye, I hightail it to the bush. I find the two healthiest piece of love vine I could and bless them with our names. One for Helena, one for Demetri. I wrap them round each other tight, twining them into eternity. Then I close my eyes and throw them into the air. It land on rock. Our vine need to grow strong. I place it on a jumbae sprout, fingers cross that the wood elves ain’t seen me interfere.
Demetri from Nassau, but his mummy family from Long Island. He’s Uncle Gully grandnephew, but we ain’t related, thank God! Gully only my Mummy’s half-uncle. Papa Frank, Granma’s daddy, had him by one other woman. When the baby born, the woman show up on Papa Frank and Mamma Louise doorstep, place him in Mamma’s arms, and wipe her hands clean. Papa tell Mamma say that’s her child now. But Mamma make sure every guilty hand stay bloody. She carry Uncle Gully to see his true mother, her legitimate children, and her husband every Sunday in church. Demetri say he moving to Long Island. Court say he can’t be round his daddy no more. His mummy decide to start fresh on the island. I more than happy to have him. I only wish Demetri ain’t had to live with Uncle Gully.
Gully’s my family, but none of us allowed to visit him. His one consuming thought is how much use he could find for rum. He’ll declare to anyone who’ll listen that he only keep rum in the house for medicinal purpose. You got a cut? Pour some rum on it. Mosquito bite you? Rub some rum on it. You run out of mouthwash? Throw some rum in your mouth and don’t worry bout rinsing. As the years go by, Gully list get longer with ways to use rum for everything but drinking. When Demetri came for the oil, Gully was trying to fry fish in Aristocrat.
My problem with Uncle Gully is he like touch. If you sit next to him at a function, he’ll have his hands all on your thighs. He like squeeze and rub and talk bout how ‘you looking good, you know’. He has a special liking for me. His ex-girlfriend was name Helen. I don’t wan’ think bout what memories I inspire.
Demetri don’t like living with Gully, that’s clear to see. No one could ignore Gully leopard-print speedos or his grapes falling out the bag every time he stretch. No one could hide from the smell of spoiled rum and vomit. He say Gully like get too close, and he ain’t interested. As soon as the cock crow, Demetri at Granma door looking for me. Granma quite fine with that. Granma ain’t got no grandsons, and Rico and Glenn lost they charm years ago. She quick to dote on this Adonis. Granma does greet Demetri every morning with a plate. He try to turn her down, but when his belly rumble halfway through his second refusal, she near drag him to the table.
Demetri never wanna leave, neither. When it get dark, he wan’ stay on the porch and talk. His pink lips grow pale whenever Granma turn on the outside light and call me in. I ask Granma if it safe for Demetri to be living with Gully. She say Demetri’s a boy. He gone be fine.
The boys catch feelings when Demetri pull up in the settlement. They was smelling they oats from May. They was only waiting for summer to spread them. But then this god show up. Now all the girls from Hamilton’s and Mangrove Bush come flocking to see him. Suddenly they must come to Aunt Shelly shop for grocery. They walk on the wrong side of the road to cast their siren song into Uncle Gully house. They agree that this summer hot hot, so they must wear pumpum shorts and spaghetti strap to keep cool. And all of a sudden, everything so funny! I swear they trying to converse with seagull how much they squawk. I can’t tell if they spells working on Demetri, but they sure working on everybody else. Gully got plenty girls to tell how good they looking. Petty’s benefiting from the boost in local attractions, too. Sturgie’s bar never been so full. The old man dem and the drop-outs catch scent of the pheromone accumulation. Now Petty’s the new hub of the island. It don’t bother me none. The old men don’t mind me when there’s plenty more shapely things to watch.
What makes me laugh is how these girls wan’ play friends with me. In class, they treat me like hand towel. They use me to clean up they homework, then throw me in the trash. I know it’s nothing personal. A lot of my schoolmates just ain’t comfortable round me. They don’t like talk to me because I’s talk like ‘real white people’. I tell them I’s code-switch, but they look at me like I speaking German. I channel the spirit of Toni Morrison and Jane Austen in my essays. When I speak, I use more words than William Faulkner. My classmates don’t know who they is. They say I think I better than them. Say I’s use big words and speak proper round teachers to make them look bad. At least them set remember me. When I did come back from the States to live with Babou, some of my classmates ask me if I’s a new student. That was in April. They forget that until that same January, I’d been sitting next to them for seven years.
Now every girl in school wan’ act like my buddy. Even the twelfth graders using me as camouflage as they sniff out the new blood. I play like I ain’t notice they front. Rico kiss my hand. If I like Demetri, he say, I shouldn’t be entertaining these crabs. They climbing me to get to him. But they gone get to him anyhow. I ain’t no looker. Glenn tell me I too hard on myself, that I got little something-something, but I know that ain’t no true. Once, I asked Babou if this girl Nina prettier than me. He tell me say:
‘There’s different types of pretty.’
Right. My own father don’t favor me, and I don’t blame him. These girls have C-cups while I still wearing a training bra. My hips round, but they ain’t spread yet. Meanwhile, these girls got barrels to swing and waist thin as thread. Nina bent down in Biology and my throat got hard. Even Sade got more to offer than me, and I got her by two years! Her mummy’s mummy got breasts to share, and she share a lot with Sade. Our Granma hardly got any, and she ain’t think to give Mummy an ounce. Poor me ain’t got nothing to inherit. I’m only warming the bench in this contest.
So I be friendly with the girls. Let them fight over who Demetri sapphire gaze’ll land on next. I just want to bask in his glow as long he’ll let me. And he lets me. Maybe it’s because the boys don’t like him. Even Glenn does snub him when he come by Granma porch. Only boy who does treat Demetri like anything other than snake is Rico. I think Rico like having someone else to relate to. Someone quiet and reserve like him. Someone who do more than play with stick and ball. Rico does come out of the house a lot now. His pallid skin finally getting sun, and that make me happy.
Honestly, though, I don’t think Demetri really care how these boys treat him. Demetri run deep like Dean’s Blue Hole. He don’t be running round like Aunt Rosie boys. Those boys forget they age. They throw sand over they head and say is fairy dust. They gallivanting through Neverland popping wheelie and launching cork boat. Demetri prefer to stay behind. He’s the type like dip his toes in the water to feel the cadence of the sea. When the boys scorn him, he does laugh and grab my hand and make for the porch.
Demetri find his home on Granma porch. We watch the gaulins saunter through the mud, picking at minnows trap by the tide. We trace our stories in the bog. We talk bout things even Rico don’t talk about. We talk bout religion, how I don’t feel the spirit like Granma say I should. How Demetri daddy use church to hide from his demons. We talk bout the politics, how gubment don’t pay us out islands no mind, how roads getting eat up by the sea and how we ain’t got no doctor if someone catch sick. We talk bout how each year seems like less and less fish in the ocean. We talk bout how some people don’t love they fathers like they should. Mine like too much woman and make Mummy work hard ‘cause he can’t keep a job. Demetri daddy do things he ain’t suppose to when he drink. He ain’t tell me what those things is, though.
But the sirens’ call eventually breach Gully threshold. More and more, Demetri eyes linger on them Mangrove Bush girls. Every day, he say a little more to them harpies from Hamilton’s. He too good-looking to waste the summer. So when Demetri say he wanna play Spin the Bottle, every organ in my belly shrivel up and burst into powder. It’s over.
When we gather, it’s me and two other girls: Nina and Jenna. Nina giving me snide smirks, telling me bout how she sorry I have to get my first kiss from Rico or Glenn. I hate that it’s her playing this game, but I accept defeat. She’s a starting pitcher, after all.
Demetri bring the bottle. He got plenty to choose from by Uncle Gully. We head for the cave uphill. That cave been me, Rico and Glenn clubhouse for years. We use to wage war with Aunt Rosie boys for this castle. We defend it to our deaths. We almost too big to fit in here now, but them fools would all fold theyselves into origami penguins to fit in this cave today. I don’t know why Glenn offer to do this here. He trying to ruin good memories.
Nina and Jenna get good and comfortable. Nina lips dance in triumph. Jenna practicing her pucker, looking like old hogfish. Demetri say he going first. I close my eyes to block out the salivating tongues.
So why everybody grow so quiet? Why only Rico making noise?
I open my eyes to find the bottle neck on me. Nina and Jenna look like they just get stab. Glenn like he seen ghost.
Demetri run his fingers through his hair as we walk into the bush. My head bout to explode from the pent-up tears. He ain’t want me. He mean for the bottle to land on Nina or Jenna. I tell him he could try again to get the girl he want. No hard feelings. He laugh. It’s not a laugh like something funny. It’s a breath, a burst of air that release all the pressure building inside. It’s a whisper of assurance, followed by a soft brush of fingers on my arm. He step into me. Press his body into mine. Each muscle nestle into my skin like warm butter into bread. His fingers trace tiny circles under my arms and wake a trail of smoldering fire up my spine. I shiver. My tongue so dry you could use it to sand wood. My body open wide when his lips touch mine.
Our love vine catch good on that young jumbae tree. I been looking after it every day since our first kiss. I water the vine and the host to make sure they grow strong. Granma say I’s fool to be watering weeds, but she don’t know how important it is for this vine to stay healthy. Them girls mad now. They say Demetri only like me ‘cause I white. I like to die with laughter. Most of them the same color as me, and that ain’t real white. I didn’t know real white till I land in Florida. The first thing them people ask me is if I’s Cuban or Puerto Rican. I tell them neither. I tell them where I from and they hoot. One boy ask me say how I from the Bahamas if my skin so bright? I tell them how my daddy Greek and Mummy family descend from plantation managers escape from Haiti before the revolution. I swear the only thing they hear was Haiti. Them Americans treat me dead stink after that. They like place you in a box, but when you get too many tags, they toss you out.
But Demetri ain’t checking for them. He tell me it ain’t my skin that make him love me. I beautiful, more so than anyone want to admit. Them girls don’t want me to know how pretty I is because if I knew, I’d be too strong. Underneath they smiles and bandeau tops, them girls got coco plum for brains. But I have more. That’s what he want.
We spend almost every second together. Me and Demetri sit on the porch and steal kisses behind the washing machine. We swim through the canals and tangle our limbs through one another’s. In the water, Demetri hands go lower than when they on land. Sometimes my bathing suit get in the way. I try to push his hands to safer places, but they stubborn. His fingers trace the inner lip of my bikini bottom, brushing the soft skin just above my triangle of curls. The water get hot when he touch me. But my belly grow cold. There’s something taboo bout doing things like this at the canal. Before we start growing hair in strange places, us Petty’s kids would swim through the mangroves naked as the day we was born. We built Atlantis on coral shelves. We buried treasure in the silty islets dotting the swamp. The canals rechristened us mermaids and we frolic among the schools of fish. But Demetri say mermaids was never innocent, and neither is we.
Glenn don’t like how close we getting. He say I prefer things that glitter over my friends. Glenn spending more and more time with Aunt Rosie boys instead of us. He say I too grown for his company now. Rico tell me say don’t worry bout it. Glenn just a sore loser.
Sade ain’t like me and Demetri together neither. She been in love with Demetri ever since he did come beg for oil. But Uncle Freddy big in the church, so her appeals for Demetri’s attention was limit to riding bike with no hands or running pass Gully door at the break of dawn laughing like banshee. Uncle Freddy stopped that quick. He beat her boongie raw one day she step on Gully front step. He tell her that he beat her because he love her, and that if he don’t punish her, someone else’ll do worse. Uncle Freddy stop Sade from sleeping over by Granma, too. He say Granma heart too soft. Say that boy is trouble. His age looking for only one thing, and he ain’t getting it from Sade. Then Uncle Freddy look at me. That’s why Sade think is me who cause her daddy stop her from playing with us. She say if I wasn’t kissing up on Demetri all the time, she would have more freedom. I kiss Demetri up all the more. Ain’t nobody need her big bubbie self around anyway.
Since Sade don’t sleep over no more, Demetri been coming by my window at night. He pretend like he gone home when Granma turn off the outside light and call me in, but once my bedroom light turn on, he knocking at the window. He hate living with Uncle Gully. Gully forget what it’s like to be sober. He always moaning bout Helen. He always griping bout how ain’t no one Christian enough to give him little hundred dollars every once and a while for his bills, like Demetri mummy ain’t paying for everything already. He always coming into Demetri room to mope.
Gully break Demetri bed the other night. Demetri ain’t say how, but Gully solution is for them to share one now. Demetri say he rather share bed with me. He figure how to pull the window screen out. He wanna come in. He wanna try some things, some things we can’t do by the canal. But I say no. Demetri give me this doleful look every time. It look like his soul tearing a little bit more with each rejection. But I can’t let him in. I don’t want Uncle Freddy to be right.
Mummy call me every night, but this night different. She ask me where Babou is, like she don’t know. How long he been gone? What he tell me when he bring me by Granma? I tell her, but the way her voice crack, I don’t think that’s what she wanna hear. Babou tell Mummy that I beg to go live with Granma. He tell her he still in Long Island. Granma don’t say nothing. She take her knife and run it through the silver top leaves, lips tight. She ain’t say nothing when Uncle Shane and Uncle Freddy come to laugh about it later, either. Uncle Freddy look at me and ask where my daddy is. Ask me say if I think Babou love me. I don’t give him the satisfaction of a reply. They laugh when I rush from the settee. It’s like Christmas come in July for my uncles. They cackling over what woman Babou run off with, and how Mummy is a real ass to let this man ride her. It’s Sade mummy who break the riot. What would they do if they wives left them to go live in foreign? What would they do if they ain’t had no warm body next to them at night? My uncles grow silent. This the first time my heart hurt for my father.
So when we go to the canal the next day, I don’t fight Demetri hands. I let him go deeper in my bathing suit. I let him graze my nipples till they pucker. I let him pet the silky webs between my thighs. I let him tear down the coral spires and sink the pirate ships. And when Granma turn off the outside light and call me in, I push out the window screen myself.
I ain’t check the love vine in a long time. I don’t need to see it to know how me and Demetri doing. Since he been sharing my bed, he been happy as a lark. We touch each other like we do in the canal. We try some things, things Demetri seen in a book. My hands feel like they don’t belong to me anymore. But he always look so happy afterwards.
At first, Uncle Gully ain’t notice Demetri sleeping out. When he down a bottle or four of Aristocrat, he don’t notice the moon chasing the sun. But soon, Gully start asking Granma if she see Demetri wandering about after dark. Granma give me one hard look. She start peeking her eye through my bedroom door at night to make sure that Demetri ain’t wandering bout in there. Demetri get real sour bout that. He say Granma too nosey. It’s like he blame Granma for him having to sleep home.
Granma start watching us close now. He still be polite with her, but barely. Granma eyes shimmer beneath her glasses when he stomp off. But she hold firm. She still check my bedroom every night to make sure he not where he ain’t suppose to be. She find all kind of chores for me to do so I can’t entertain him on the porch. Soon, he stop coming. Glenn tell me say he been taking Nina to the canal instead. His grin near break his cheeks when he tell me that. If Glenn did know how that hurt me, how that slice through my chest, he wouldn’a tell me about Demetri and Nina. Or maybe he does know how much it hurts . . .
Only Rico is my true friend. He come up with a plan to patch me and Demetri up. Instead of Demetri coming for me every morning, Rico does. Granma happy Rico getting out of his house. She say Rico too like hermit, always hiding in his shell. She don’t know is people like her who run him in there. People round the settlement always making comments about how Rico so shy, how he don’t act like a boy just ‘cause he don’t run amuck. Demetri prove them all wrong.
When Demetri see me, it’s like we never part. He take me in his arms and mold me into his flesh. I blush when I feel how much he miss me against my thigh.
One day Demetri don’t wanna hang out on the porch. He wan’ show me something in Gully house. I hesitate. I ain’t allowed in Gully house. But Demetri say it’s his house now, and no one say I can’t come to his house. I look at Rico. I only going if he go, too. Demetri frown. He stare Rico down hard. Whatever he wanna show me, it must be good.
Gully house nasty bad. Everywhere you turn is bottle. You could smell the kitchen from the front step. He must be ain’t clean them fish dish since Demetri beg for oil. The floor worse than when I was living with Babou. Flies dot the ground like they’s design on the tile. I see why Demetri get mad when Granma turn her back on him.
Demetri take us into his room. Even in here, rum coat the walls. The bed must be get drunk from the fumes, ‘cause it fumbling round on only two legs. The mattress sagging in the middle from where the box spring collapse. There’s blood on the sheets. Rico ask Demetri how that happen. Demetri say is drunkard’s demons.
Demetri bend down under the bed. He pull a book from the ruin. On the front is a naked woman, her legs spread wide to show what God give her.
My heart fly up to my ears. As Demetri flip from page to page, the valley between my thighs flood. Rico can’t tear his eyes away. Demetri pass the book to Rico. He pat his legs for me to lay between. Forgetting all about the flies and the fish oil and the rum and the sweat, we lay off on the ground, drinking in the forbidden nectar.
Demetri run his fingers along my pants hem. He ask me which pictures I like the most. He tell me hands ain’t enough anymore. I can choose how we go further.
I’m not sure who notice first. Rico flip back to one page with two men. There’s nothing wrong with looking at two men kissing. There’s nothing wrong with Rico pony rising when they touch. At least I don’t think so. But when Demetri see it, he slap the magazine from out Rico hand.
‘You fassy, eh?’
Rico go wan, more so than he ever was before he greet the summer sun. He shake his head, but it’s no use. I can’t say how long I know. I guess I always have. But Demetri like he never seen Rico before. His eyes grow dark, like mountains of waves crashing against his skull. He tell Rico to go. To carry he fassy ass. His words whip Rico to tears.
I reach for Rico, but he rush beyond my grasp. Demetri kick the magazine. Why he crying? Is Rico deserve to cry. Rico ain’t did nothing wrong. But here Demetri is, blood seething through his pores. He say Rico need straightening out, he need big man to teach him what being fassy really feel like. For the first time, my heart don’t skip a beat when I look at Demetri. For the first time, I see the brass underneath the gold.
Glass rattle on the floor. We turn. Is Gully at the door. Ain’t nothing covering his grapes today. The moldy flesh putrid with the smell of decay. He grin. His mouth missing one more tooth than usual.
‘Helen, you looking good, yah know.’
Demetri grabs my hand. He throw himself in front of me. Gully reach out and punch him in the face. I never knew how much strength drunk man could have. Demetri raise his fists. The ocean pour down his golden cheeks.
He tell me run.
All the way home, I hear Gully moaning. The moans ain’t got no sorrow in them.
Rico on the porch. He try to explain, but I take his hand and kiss it. Ain’t no need to explain. But I can’t tell him what happen when he left Gully house. I think back on all those nights I leave Demetri on this porch. Those nights I kept the screen in. I wonder if Granma would’ve peeped through my bedroom door so much if she knew why Demetri did never wan’ go home. I check the love vine like I should’ve been doing. My body turn to salt.
The jumbae dead. It cover in white blotch. Fungus take it. The love vine parch. It barely hanging on to the jumbae feeble leaves. If I’d been checking on it, maybe I could’ve save it.
I take up the vine, tenderly brushing the fungus away. It ain’t take hold of the vine yet. I place him on another, stronger bush. I tell Granma I too sick to go to Bible study today. My soul don’t need saving.
When Granma leave, I run a hot bath. I wash away the smell of rum, the grime of old fish oil. I on the porch when he come. He’s clean too, but the moon reveal the bruises. I kiss the bloody eye he take for me. I kiss the fingermark dig deep into his thigh. I caress the old scars, scars that was there before Gully. I take Demetri into my mouth like the women did in the magazine. And when he lay me down along the splintered wood and push into me for the first time, I don’t think about the porch. I don’t think about how Granma plait my hair with ribbons. How Mummy tickle me till I pee. How me and Sade skin our knees. How Glenn and Rico dance naked as I spray them with hose. I think about Demetri. He need the porch more than I do.
Image © Oscar Flowers