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Roman Temples, by Nan Leslie

by Nan Leslie
  

When Wayjohn rolled off his pallet onto the cement floor, he was careful not to step on his brothers and sisters, laid out head to toe, his mother's heavy snoring a base drum to the night warbles hanging in the heavy dank air, seized by a dead sleep that nothing could wake until she willed it so. Out back, along a slope of vine, broken bricks, and the skeleton of a Volkswagon Bug, stood a large tin barrel that held water for drinking and bathing. He lifted the cover, patina-burnished with mire that grew rampant in Jamaica's climate, then dipped a clean rag dotted with dish detergent he had stolen from the hotel kitchen, and washed himself, carefully running a sliver of wood underneath his blackened fingernails. Then he tugged his white-shirt-black-pant uniform off the wash line and dressed for work. The bow tie he kept in his pocket for the final minute when he would take up his place in the restaurant. He would walk the half mile down the mountainside, and then three more miles by the only serviceable road, stopping midpoint for a glass of warm water from one of the shack-keepers touting native goods, rather than waste money on the bus.

Wayjohn liked his job and was grateful to have it. The dollar an hour he earned put food on his mother's table, food they had gone without before. He was a bright boy, nearly seventeen but with a naiveté that comes from unenlightenment; he had never left the island, and like almost everyone else he knew of, he had had his visa application recorded for travel to The United States. The forms had been filed for more than three years now-and still nothing. That is not to say his lack of knowledge was puerile innocence: all around him guerillas and police, drug lords and black market hustlers thrived, a deliberate force on the island, and one he tried to avoid. And he had learned from the tourists: he never missed a chance to ask questions about America the Beautiful, the land of skyscrapers and the NBA.

Those Americans!-how they loved to feast. With their Movado wrists and gold-plated necks, Wayjohn believed all Americans feasted in this way. He manned one of the stations for the buffet breakfast; cooking omelets to order, a dozen fillings oozing out of eggs flipped to a golden brown by his practiced hands. He arrived at the hotel kitchen before 5 A.M. to prep the fruits, vegetables, and cheeses he would need, stopping off first at the long rough table behind the air-conditioning ducts where the employees were allowed a meal. One free meal per shift and those who worked a double were given two free meals and the leftovers that could not be saved. Wayjohn often worked a double shift when he could get it. The leftovers fed his family for three days. There was competition, of course, but he had seniority now, up from dish crew and bus boy to apprentice chef.

And he could be creative with his omelets: fruits and nuts, seafood with lobster sauce and capers, bean and bacon with a dab of goat's cheese, sweet vanilla eggs with kiwi and powdered sugar. The line to his station wrapped around the waffle and prime rib stations twice over. The training he had received at the government-run technical school had lifted him to an enviable position. With any luck he would become a full sous chef within two years. Chefs, head waiters, and the maitre d' earned higher wages; in addition they received a portion of the tips from workers under them. Wayjohn's weekly take peaked at fifty dollars, depending on tips. He knew some of his waiters held back a little, but he didn't begrudge them the extra quarters: everyone was bursting with hungry dreams.

The tourists liked Wayjohn's affable smile and his talent for flipping omelets high into the air while singing reggae. A natural performer who might have gone anywhere had he occasion to balance on heavy wire fifty feet up in the air, his bony frame was a bottle of energy waiting to be released; it fairly popped out of his black-button eyes when he laughed-all teeth and ears and his body knotted with muscles formed from hauling cast iron pipe through the mud hills of his youth in the days of the great sewer system that never came to pass.

The skeletons of large construction plans initiated, then defaulted, their foundations scattered throughout the township like so many archeological ruins, turned over to seed where the weeds thrived unabated as the children who used them as play forts. But to the envious eyes of the mountain dwellers-precarious eyes-lush-green and wet as far as the eye could see, the grand resorts rose up from the tropics like Roman temples, framing stippled sand and sea and sky. Another portico so far removed, and still young boys stole over bars for a glimpse of this Americanized world. Electric gates and high cement walls that masked smoking tin sheds-open wounds, rabid dogs, dead fly fevers, the stench, the flatness of indeterminate lives, secondhand comic books and film noirs, satellite CNN and MTV, the lottery of Nike's and Hilfiger's, Calvin's and Coke's manifested in drag on the village streets at night, the flesh hawkers, the back rooms where you could buy a rum and a hand job for an American dollar. The downtown overrun with Tourist Police dressed as white hunters, sharp whistles in their mouths, the native tongue a sweet melody of English wags gone wandering, with the Eh's and Ah's and Oh's pouring out of their mouths like foiled alphabet soup. And in the broader scope of public opinion, the currents took far more than they gave, the communal tears of political injustice no longer potent in their familiarity.

And Wayjohn in a job of respect-his mother's greatest pleasure. Wayjohn smuggled her the cozies when he could: sugar packets from the store room, tea bags, but never Blue Mountain coffee, so expensive it was kept locked up, safe from dipping fingers. Occasionally he managed an American magazine, dropped carelessly on the beach, or an abandoned bottle of lotion for her scabby hands. His brothers and sisters ran over the tiny house like mice in a cage, seven of them in one room-separate fathers come and gone, with only their droppings left behind to fertilize the small kitchen garden.

Wayjohn our future, his mother said, placing her head on his knobby shoulders, cradling the leftover baked potatoes he brought her to mash with mango and raw sugar for the little ones' dinner. He loved his mother fiercely: her scarred face and blistered hands, the shapeless build of a woman who had spent her youth in childbirth, and who now endured. It was a great responsibility-being the oldest boy-Wayjohn felt it gripping his heart. When he returned at night, his brothers and sisters rushed to wrap themselves round his legs, feeling his pockets for sugar cubes or condiments, mesmerized by stories of the rich Americans. After dinner his time to write poetry, lilting lyrics of the island ways, the indigenous tempo and beauty of their native tongue.

The hotels hired local bands: Rastafarians who played the native reggae, calypso, and soca music the tourists loved. The band members used second-hand instruments and wore black pants with shiny multi-colored shirts, striped hand-knitted berets, their thick black hair towering in long braids, and they smoked the reefers behind the air-conditioning ducts before each session. "Wayjohn, you cool, mon," they said. "You jam with us anytime, mon," but he could not afford to buy an instrument.

On his day off he walked into the music shop in downtown Kingston. The window displayed all manner of guitars, but Wayjohn's eyes fell at once upon a beautiful 12 string classic, an instrument so fine and mellow, he knew he could not rest until his fingers had traveled over it. "This guitar..." the owner shook his head and made a great motion of sighing, "you can never afford. Solid spruce top, Indian rosewood body, ebony fingerboard, the very best one I have."

"How much?" Wayjohn asked, cradling the instrument to his chest as though it were a new born baby, his ear nearly touching the strings as he plucked each note and heard the truth of its tone.

"Sixty-thousand jay," the owner said firmly.

"Let me practice here until it is sold? I'll pay you each time."

"Forty jay, each time."

"Three times a week for one hour."

The owner took his money in advance of the first week and the deal was set. When Wayjohn brought his pay home at the end of the week his mother asked, "Where is the rest?"

He did not know what to tell her. He was afraid to tell her about his music; she would only shake her head and roll her eyes and tell him they needed money more than music-music would not feed them. But he could not give it up. Even if he never joined a band, this single hour gave him more pleasure than all the rest of the hours put together, a child's lifetime of hours not being an easy thing to weigh. Not even the good meals at the hotel, gorging on sausages and eggs, sweet rolls and papaya, drinking the rich dark bottoms of coffeepots, could compare to the exhilaration he felt as he ran his fingers over the splendid instrument.

His technique improved. He had no formal lessons, but there were a few pieces of sheet music and a beginner Thompson primer that he used to teach himself to read music. It was frustrating to match the notes to the finger placements, but he kept at it until he had it mastered. The old man was impressed.

"You learn quick," he said, scratching his beard. "You might be able to earn something from this, a little for you, a little for me. You can give lessons to the children. Their parents will be happy to pay for the privilege of music lessons.

"I'm not ready," Wayjohn said. "I need more practice."

"Children!" the old man scolded, "seven and eight year-olds! They will not know except what you teach. You don't have to pay me any longer. You can practice after the lessons and I will give you half the money from each lesson."

"You will?" Wayjohn looked up. This was truly an extraordinary thing.

The children used another guitar, one made out of cedar instead of spruce, not so fine as his. Wayjohn saved his money from the lessons. His name grew in stature throughout the township. His mother heard of his success and asked, "You kept this from me?"

"I was ashamed," he answered, "about the money."

"But now he pays you. You can make up for it."

"I'm saving to buy the guitar."

"That will take a long time." His mother sounded skeptical.

"Yes," he agreed, "a very long time."

Then an American came into the shop, a fat white man, wealthy in his cream linen and blue silk and leather sandals. Wayjohn was in the back room practicing when the man stopped to listen.

"Who's playing?" he asked the shopkeeper.

"Wayjohn. He teaches guitar lessons. Would you like some?"

"I'd like to meet him," the man answered.

The shopkeeper fetched Wayjohn.

"Where did you learn to play like that?" the man asked.

"I taught myself."

"I let him use the instrument to practice on," the shopkeeper said, "whenever he wished."

The man ignored him. "You are accomplished for being self-taught. I own a villa by the golf course. Would you like to come over and jam with my band sometime? I use them for recordings. We might be able to use you."

Wayjohn agreed and they set a time to meet. He knew where the villa was. It was one of the large winter homes built into the mountain overlooking Montego Bay. Someone very important lived there; armed guards patrolled the grounds. The entire property was walled with barbed-wire strung across the top. The only entry was through the manned front gate.

When Wayjohn climbed the slope that lead to the estate, he stopped to rest several times. Finally he was waved through the gates, with a surly look from the guard, who acknowledged his uniform pants and T-shirt with a wad of spit that landed on the ground just in front of him. Inside the villa he noted the cool tile floors and expansive rooms that opened to the mountains and sea like a vast watercolor painting that took the place of exterior walls. The man took him downstairs where a group of musicians looked up expectantly.

"Well?" the man said, "Play."

Wayjohn played his best song.

"He's a natural," said a man holding an electric guitar.

"I told you," answered the rich man.

"I think we could work him in," said the base player.

"Do you have a job?" the man asked.

"At the hotel. I cook."

"How much do they pay you?" he asked.

"Eighteen-hundred jay."

"A day?"

"A week."

The man looked at the other band members. "Would you like to record with us in Kingstown? I'll pay you twice as much as you make at the hotel, plus a percentage of the royalties if the record sells well."

"I don't own this guitar. I'm saving to buy it."

"I'll buy it for you," the man said.

From his mountaintop perch high above a gully of runoff from the rainy season, Wayjohn watched the jumbo jets that just yesterday had meant the promise of a new life. But now they were just giant birds in the sky, flying off to roost awhile before heading home. He traced the skein of smoke with his fingertips, as if the sky were a giant Etch-O-Sketch, finally lying back with his eyes closed, until the planes' engines lulled him to sleep like the purring of a contented cat.

  

Nan Leslie won the fiction award from the University of Washington's Fiction Writer's Association, and is nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. She has published more than 20 essays and short stories in literary magazines and anthologies such as Mindprints, Ascent, The Pittsburgh Review, Del Sol Review, The Best of Carve Magazine, and has written feature articles on crafting fiction for The Writer as well as interviewing editors of literary journals for writer's magazines. She formally wrote a newsletter, The Daily Grind, for Coffeehouse for Writers, lauded by The Wall Street Journal, and was on staff at Moondance and then Able Muse as fiction editor and teacher of a fiction workshop. She is currently fiction editor for The Green Hills Literary Lantern, funded by the Missouri Arts Council, and senior fiction editor for Web Del Sol's In Posse Review. She lives and works in a lakeside cottage in Maine.
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