"Keep an open mind and a closed mouth, Baby Girl.” That’s what Mary always said, and even at the age of eight, Becca knew how to keep her mouth shut. She was a keeper of secrets. From infancy she had seen fingers raised to rouged lips, eyelids that fluttered, lights that flickered behind closed doors, the currency of secrets and taboos. She found it no different on the island. Loyalty and love were bartered and sold like sugar cane, deals made sweetly larcenous by the soft Trinidadian patois of the tropics.
On the day Mary was hired, Becca’s mother, Dora, took her daughter aside. “Your stepdaddy’s going to let us hire a housekeeper while we’re here, These people are very poor and Mary’s got a large family to support so she’ll live with us except for Sundays, understand? She’ll be your babysitter too, so be a good girl for her.”
“Where is her home?” Becca asked.
“She lives in a village on the other side of the island.”
”She won’t go home all week?” Becca didn’t understand.
“That’s right,” Dora said. “And she’ll share your room. That’s why we got twin beds for you.”
Mary, thin, small boned, with skin the color of coconut husks, moved into the house carrying a quiet reserve and an old suitcase. Becca was intrigued by the woman’s voluminous, homemade skirt, and the print cotton turban wrapped around her hair. Older than Dora, Mary had a weathered face, but her slow smile was youthful, and behind her glasses, Becca detected a twinkly presence that promised fun and perhaps mystery.
“You gone be my new baby girl,” she said to Becca. Her voice was muted but musical.
“I’m no baby,” Becca said. But her heart jumped. She had yearned to be somebody’s baby for a very long time.
Mary made breakfast and braided Becca’s hair into pigtails every morning. She was like a real mommy who hugged you and taught you to ride a bike. Who read stories and sang to you.
Becca hated Sundays because Mary left to go home to her own children. Mary set a clock on those mornings, woke even earlier than usual, and did her hair up in a fresh bandana. A pair of silver bracelets, her prized possession, jangled on her thin arm. They were heavy bangles that didn’t quite meet in the middle, like a forefinger and thumb encircling a wrist. The ends were tiny little arrow heads, pointing at each other, their necks etched with simple designs.
Mary tied a few belongings into a square of purple fabric and carried it to the bus stop before the sun was up. Once Becca soundlessly followed her into the kitchen, and watched her place two eggs gently into the packet. Becca hurried back to bed and pretended sleep, never telling her mother. It was one of Becca’s secrets.
At bedtime, Mary often lit an old corncob pipe, closed her eyes and leaned back in a rocker, smoking and rocking, and softly humming.
“You awake, Child?” Mary asked when Becca stirred. “Come climb up on my bony old lap.”
Becca sat crossways, blushing, resting her head against Mary’s shoulder, knowing eight and a half was too big, too old for such comforts. The lemon fragrance that rose from Mary’s skin, mixed with the smoke of the tobacco, drugged Becca with pleasure as she closed her eyes, inhaling as they rocked.
`“Can you keep a secret?” Becca asked.
“I keep an open mind and a closed mouth,” Mary said.
“My best friends are Patsy and David,” Becca said. “Mack doesn’t like them. He wants me to play with Caroline and Sarah who I hate.”
Mary nodded and rocked.
“Can you keep a really big secret?” Mary stopped rocking.
Becca whispered in her ear, “You can’t tell anybody, but David takes us in the jungle.”
“This David a big boy?” she asked.
“Oh, he’s twelve and knows everything,” Becca answered. Mary rocked again.
“What you doin’ in dat jungle? Catching pollywoggles?”
“Yes, and David teaches us scouting too. We have a secret handshake.” Becca reached for Mary’s hand and twisted pinkie fingers with her.
“All childrens love the jungle,” Mary said. “my childrens too.”
“ Mack forbids it.” Mary said nothing. “What’s your last name, Mary?” Becca asked.
“Oh, the questions you ask, Child! What you need with names?”
“I hate Mack’s name. Chumski’s our new name. Becca Chumski. I hate it. I always want to stay Becca Spenser.”
“Spenser. That your real daddy, child? Was he in dis war?”
“Sergeant Spenser,” Becca said and nodded. He crashed in a B-17 over France, but she didn’t remember him. It was a story Dora told her, and one she didn’t like to believe. It became a Crayola drawing she did in school--Nazi planes with red swastikas pursuing a big silver angel that spiraled downward. But she harbored a secret hope that he was alive somewhere, looking for her. And sometimes she dreamed of a shadowy man tossing her in the air, laughing, and catching her to his warm chest. Mary rocked, listening to her secrets.
“Mama says we were poor before she married Mack,” Becca confided. “I lived with other people then.”
“Where was your mama?” Mary asked.
“She worked at a hospital and had an apartment with some nurses. I lived with Granny until she got sick, then Mama paid Mrs. Black to foster care me.” Becca didn’t mention how she sucked her thumb and moped between her mother’s infrequent visits.
One morning Dora came up the walk with a tall man in uniform, an oversized Raggedy Ann doll clutched under his arm.
“Honey, this is your new daddy, meet Mack,” she said. Her dark eyes sparkled under lashes thick with mascara. “Look at the present he bought you.” Becca wrapped her arms around her mother and buried her face in her neck. Dora put the child down on the sidewalk and added,” Look honey, it cost more than twenty dollars.”
Mack pushed the doll at Becca. They eyed each other warily, stepfather and stepchild, and drew invisible battle lines in their hearts. There was something she didn’t trust in his moist smile. She left the huge doll outside where it was soon ruined by rain. But Dora had finally come to claim her and Becca vowed to hold on forever.
The trio moved to a motel, ate out and went to movies at a local theater while they waited for Mack’s orders. Soon they boarded a military cargo transport to Trinidad, British West Indies. Becca, standing on her knees on the bucket seats, watched their descent through the little window of the airplane. As they circled the island she spotted Waller Field, an oasis in a clearing bulldozed out of the jungle. A checkerboard of paved streets gridded the expanse surrounded by a sea of green. The houses stood on stilts.
“Why are the houses like that?” Becca asked.
“They’re built up high to catch the trade winds,” Mack answered. “This place is hot and humid. But look, under the house, there’s room for our car, and the washing machine and a place for you to play.” Becca was pretty sure she wouldn’t be allowed to play anywhere near his beloved Buick, the pride of his manly heart.
Mack adjusted his tie and smoothed his uniform. “Look,” he said, “we’re landing on the same airstrip they used to ferry B-24’s and troops back home from Europe during the war.” Dora’s brow was furrowed. “I wonder if they have a beauty parlor,” she said.
The Base Commander, General Schwinn and Major Peavy, Mack’s new boss, waited on the hot tarmac. Becca thought the General looked like Errol Flynn from the movies. At the bottom of the rollaway steps, Mack stopped and stood at attention to salute them.
“At ease,” the Major said, extending his hand. “We don’t stand on much ceremony around here. Harry Truman wants us old warhorses to have a good time.”
“Lieutenant, you’ve got yourself a gem in this little wife of yours.” The General’s hand reached for Dora’s slim shoulder. “She would fetch a pretty penny on the black market in Port of Spain.” He winked and leaned in, his breath smelling of liquor and nudged Mack with a jocular elbow.
“Yes, Sir.” Redness inched up Mack’s neck. Dora smiled, tossing her long dark hair.
Major Peavy said, “We need you here, Chumski. Welcome aboard. Lots of opportunity for your talent here.” He turned to Dora. “We’ve got nice quarters for you, Mrs. Chumski. There’s a base school for your little girl.”
Becca clasped her mother’s hand. Your little girl.
“You’ll have no trouble finding a maid. The natives here work for almost nothing.”
“Got to watch ‘em,” the General warned. “They’ll steal you blind.”
`Major Peavy laughed, his hand hitting his thigh. “You’d better watch the General too,” he said to Mack in a stage whisper.
Becca noticed the redness inch up into Mack’s face. It pleased her.
Mack and Dora, giddy newlyweds, were swept up in peacetime festivities. Under tropical palm trees and orange moons, they danced and partied at the officers’ club with the fervor of youthful survivors. The war and all its sacrifices were behind them, and Dora decidedly liked being an officer’s wife.
Becca lay on her stomach on her parents’ bed watching her mother dress for the evening.
Becca could never get enough of her mother. The sound of her girlish voice. Her feminine rituals: she perfumed her wrists, plucked her brows with tweezers, depilated her legs with creams and bowed her mouth with crimson lipstick. Swathed in diaphanous, spangled dresses, her beauty dazzled Becca.
Tonight Dora wore a strapless red dress, skirted with layers of organza. She smiled at the mirror of the dressing table which reflected her. Mack sat on the edge of the bed tugging on black, shiny shoes.
“Isn’t it wonderful to have a full time babysitter?” Dora said,
“Don’t you be getting too familiar with that maid,” Mack said, swinging his jaw toward Becca.
“Oh, honey,” Dora said, “Let me worry about Becca. Besides Mary’s taken to her as if she was her own. Just don’t you worry about us.”
“She’s real nice,” Becca said.
“Don’t talk back, Becca. You just follow the rules. You stay away from boys, and those enlisted brats, you hear me? If you’re going to play, go over and see the Colonel’s girls. They’re about your age. And keep away from the Buick.”
“Those girls are mean,” Becca said quietly.
Dora got up and pirouetted in front of the mirror.
Mack ran his hands slowly down his wife’s slim back, cupping her ass. Becca rolled over and stared at the ceiling.
“Just don’t be leading on the General tonight, you hear me? Remember you’re my wife.” He stooped to kiss Dora’s shoulder. When the couple descended the stairs each night to answer their whirl of invitations, Becca saw Dora as distant and beautiful as a star in a summer sky followed by the ominous cloud of Mack. She turned to the warm, waiting arms of her Mary.
“You act like a whore on that dance floor! Whore! Whore! Don’t you see how you torture me?”
“If it wasn’t for me, you’d get nowhere,” Dora screamed.”
“Don’t lie to me. You’d spread your legs for any man in that club.”
“When you make Captain next year, you can thank me!”
“Don’t taunt me, Dora. I’ll kill that son of a bitch and you too.”
“Go on, hit me, hit me. You know that’s what you really want to do.”
The crash of dishes, or glasses or pots and pans. Sometimes the whack of flesh on flesh. Thuds. Sobbing. Becca running to her mother’s side.
“Go to bed, sweetie, Mommy’s tired. Mary, put the child to bed, please.”
“Come with Mary, Baby Girl. Ain’t nothin' here for you.”
“Where could he be?” Dora asked one night. Mary had prepared dinner and Becca ate at the kitchen table while her mother paced and worried. A telephone call confirmed that Mack had gone to the Officers’ Club with his boss for a drink after work, but then they left. A quick highball at the bar was nothing unusual, but the Lieutenant normally rushed home to his young wife.
Mary put Becca to bed long before Mack returned, but the commotion woke them. They could hear his excited voice. “Look at it, Honey,” he yelled. A pot clattered to the tiled floor. Becca ran to the kitchen, with Mary following.
Mack whooped and danced across the tiles. The kitchen seemed to be raining money as he pitched American currency high in the air, letting it fall willy nilly. An indulgent Dora sat at the table, smiling. Her drunken husband cavorted in piles of ten and twenty-dollar bills. Strewn on the kitchen table, sticking out of the pockets of his uniform, and wafting in the air, it was a blanket of dough. He grabbed them up and reached for more to toss like confetti. Becca turned to look up at Mary, who stood behind her, hands locked on Becca’s shoulders. Mary’s mouth was agape, like Becca’s own, for neither had ever seen so much money. Becca didn’t know so much existed, and could not comprehend how it all found its way into their kitchen in the middle of the night.
“Look at Mary!” Mack said. “You’d love to grab a few handfuls, I’ll bet you” Mack’s mouth twisted when he looked at her. “Lookee here, lookee here. Whoopee. Becca, lookee here.”
“Mary, forgive him, he’s drunk,” Dora said quietly.
“He’s not abotherin' Mary, Missus. A pot of de coffee put on for the Mister?”
“He and Major Peavy just sold their cars in Port of Spain,” Dora said in way of explanation.
“The Buick?” Becca asked. “Not the Buick.” It’s his prize.
Mary’s face was soft in the yellow light, but her back was ramrod straight. “Sounds like your Mister found dem Sullivan boys.”
“That’s the group that cornered the market on the American cars? I’ve heard rumors.” Dora nervously smoothed the bills that she caught midair.
Mary’s face darkened, and her fists clenched. “Thugs. They get rich on the black market while the rest of us starve. It’s not right, Missus. They ain’t nothing' but criminals.”
Dora flushed. “I don’t really know the politics here, Mary. A lot people got rich off the war. I’m sorry that we brought you trouble.”
“No trouble for Mary, Missus. Those old boys knife each other in the alleys. I just hate to see the Mister give them his good car, that’s all.” She lowered her eyes but her fingernails pinched into the tops of Becca’s shoulders.
“Ow,” Becca said.
“Please put Becca back to bed, and then some coffee would be good. You can help me here, Mary.”
“He sold the Buick?” Becca asked, not comprehending. “How could he? It was his favorite.” Mary led her back to the bedroom.
“Grown folks says and does silly things sometimes, just same as girls and boys. You be ‘spectful of your Daddy, no matter, and go sleepy time, my Papaya.”
Becca could hear Mack’s voice as she drifted off to sleep. “Count it. Count it again!”
Becca had fitful dreams. The Sullivan boys morphed into brown-skinned versions of Mack and drove her around in Mack’s Buick, covered in hundred dollars bills. She was dying, suffocated under money.
The next morning Becca slipped out early to meet with her Troop. The jungle surrounding the military base was officially off limits to all civilian personnel, but the children could never resist its call, making weekly forays, and linking pinky fingers with solemn promises of secrecy. The squawk of parrots and wild macaws, the gibber of monkeys in the trees drew them in. A whole chorus of birdsong and a drone of insect-whirr knitted with the subtler music of the creek. The fast moving current lapped at rocks that emerged from the water like the tops of bald heads, pink and shiny, giving slippery access to the far side. The shallow burble threw off a froggy aroma.
Becca followed her friends in single file down their worn path. Eleven-year-old David, was their leader. David’s father, Base Provost Marshall Spinelli, taught his son about survival and jungle training. The patio of the Spinelli’s home housed a small zoo of caged rodents, wild birds and one loud monkey named Adolph who spit fruit pits at the children when they gathered to watch his antics.
Becca’s best friend Patsy and her little sister Lizzie, daughters of Sergeant Johnson, were next in line and. Becca followed, bringing up the rear as the lookout. “Baby croc in the mud,” she’d yell and David would respond “Good job,” over his shoulder. Then he’d stop and study the banks to make sure the Mama croc wasn’t on their side of the creek.
If Becca heard the slightest rustle in the brush, she’d cry, “Stop. Listen!” The troop froze in place until David checked it out. Solitary at the end of the line, she felt important. Her ears and eyes focused on the lush foliage, the beauty of the owl butterflies, the dangerous sounds of slithers and crunches—she was David’s valuable rear guard. One of Becca’s many secrets was how much she liked David. Although Patsy was her best friend, she was not a confidante. In the darkness of Becca’s bedroom, during whispered goodnights, between bedtime stories and prayers, only then would Becca tell the secrets of her trespasses and her heart, and only to Mary.
David stopped to pick up a stick, and with its tip turned over the leaf of a plant along the path. “My father said spiders lay their eggs under this one.” The children squatted in a semi circle to look closer. David was their authority. As they hiked, he pointed out geckos and beetles by proper name, and avoided mishaps with poison ivy and venomous snakes.
“Hey,” David said, “my Dad’s got a big surprise. He’s going to drive the jeep around this afternoon with it. You better take a gander. This is likely the end of our hikes.” His face looked serious.
“What kind of surprise?” asked Lizzie.
“The end of our hikes?” Becca cried. “Did somebody see us down here?” Her heart thumped under her shirt, thinking of Mack.
“No, nothing like that,” David said. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise, you’ll see,” he answered, swinging the machete. He hacked small notches in the trunks of the undergrowth to leave a fresh trail home.
Milky sap seeped from the wounds of David’s cuttings, and on the return trip, Becca noticed that the white ooze had dried in rivulets the color of dark blood. It made her sad, made her remember that the jungle was taboo; that her best friends had fathers who were not officers. This perfect Trinidadian day with her three pals was forbidden. She dreaded to go home, her chest swollen with secrets. And David’s surprise bothered her. But then she would think of Mary, and try to keep an open mind.
They emerged from the jungle near noon and the sun poured across the hot asphalt like butter.
“We’ll come down the Main Road,” David promised as he headed for home, “so go by the banyan tree and wait in the shade.” Becca and Patsy found their bicycles stashed behind the shed of the Motor Pool. Becca had a shiny blue bike, her last birthday present, but Patsy’s old yellow Schwinn was a boy’s hand-me-down, beat up and scratched, from her dad.
“They won’t get me a good bike until Lizzie’s old enough to ride her own, and then she’ll probably get the new one anyway,” Patsy groused. The boy’s crossbar made it easy to carry Lizzie, Becca reminded her.
“Don’t worry, Patsy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll let you ride on mine.”
The banyan tree stood in the center of a small, sun-drenched field. The girls leaned their bikes against the trunk and spread out under the shade of the dense foliage. Lizzie stuck her thumb in her mouth and sat on Patsy’s lap. Sweat trickled down their backs in the heat.
They could hear the jeep from the next block, as it beep—beep---beeped, demanding attention. When it rolled into sight, the girls saw David sitting proudly beside his father on the front seat, waving and smiling as small groups of people gathered on the sidewalks. An enormous dead snake encircled twice around the khaki vehicle with its cloth top. The boa constrictor was as thick as a palm tree and looked to be as long as the base swimming pool. The shiny scales of its skin gleamed in the noonday sun, reflecting glints of iridescent color as the jeep bounced.
The Provost Marshall parked and a crowd gathered around. The girls ran to David’s side.
Provost Marshall Spinelli stood up so his deep voice could be heard. “This poor
beast had to be killed because it was looking for prey near the garbage dump,” he explained.
“Too close to the community for safety,” he said. “Sgt. Callahan and Pvt. Kirk helped me
trap and shoot it. Too big to relocate it alive.” He shook his head. “A damned shame,” he said,
smoothing his handlebar moustache.
Monstrous in size, the snake was beautiful, coiled in loops. One milky eye, flat as a platter, shone under the sun. Even the throng of grownups made a fuss. Becca found her hand cupped over her own mouth, while Lizzie squealed. “What a surprise, what a surprise.”
Becca was shaken. David was sadly right. A snake that big could swallow Lizzie. The troop would have to stop their jungle trips. Even David was no match for this snake. Her heart hurt at the thought of losing their jungle. She wondered if Mary had seen the boa, and what she’d have to say about it. She dearly hoped Mack knew nothing at all.
She loped up the stairs, breathless and flushed with excitement, but stopped abruptly as she opened the screen door. Dora sat in the living room, weeping into a handkerchief. Mary, wearing her glasses, stood with her hands outstretched. Mack, dressed in his uniform, swept past Becca and exploded out the door, almost knocking her down.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “What happened?” She could feel her heartbeat under her thin cotton shirt. Her voice sounded shrill, the snake excitement now translating into some new, unknown terror. The possibilities raced through her mind. Mack had seen the snake? David’s father had told Mack about her visits to their zoo? He found out about their trips to the jungle?
She knew it was bad, whatever rule she had broken. The secret was out. Mary’s hair was wrapped in a fresh turban of cotton, and her cardboard suitcase sat on the floor. “What is it?” Becca cried. Mary knelt down next to her, and held her shoulders with long fingers.
“Mary got to go home to her own childrens, Baby Girl. Can’t stay by you no more.” She began to work her silver bracelets off her brown arm.
“Why? Why?” Becca asked.
Mary squeezed each bracelet, forcing the ends tighter together, making them smaller. Tears sprang to Becca’s eyes as Mary slipped the bracelets onto her thin arm. “You’re giving them to me?” she said incredulously. Her arm dropped under the weight of them.
“You’ll get used to the feel of them, Child, there’s two for you to keep always, rememberin’ me and you. “
Becca turned to Dora.
“She can’t leave,” Becca said, her voice filling with sobs. Her mother, eyes brimming with tears, said, “Oh Becca, Mack says she must go.”
It was a tiny thought at first but then as if someone turned a switch and a bright light exploded in Becca’s head. “Count it again,” he had said.
The bangles were hot against Becca’s skin, Mary’s body heat trapped in the silver. Becca imagined a part of her dear Mary transferred to her very being. She was the one grownup in the world who truly loved her, and she didn’t even know her last name.
“No!” Becca yelled, turning in panic to her mother who still wept, hiding her face. “No,” she screamed, “No!”
Mary hugged her hard, her arms clinching the child—not a love hug, but another kind of hug, welding their spirits. She whispered in her ear.
“You stopa dat, Baby Girl, and listen to your Mary. This is true, now for me to go. You wear the bracelets for me till I come back, hear me?”“You’ll be back?” Becca’s breath gushed in relief.
Mary backed off, pinching the bracelets now, smaller and smaller until they moved over Becca’s hand with the right snugness.“You wear for me, you hear me? I love you, Papaya.”
“They are so heavy, Mary, so smooth. Like tiny snakes.”
Mary smiled her glorious wide smile, and said, “You’ll get used to the feel of them, just like we women folk get used to our Misters.” She looked at Dora, their eyes locking.
“There’s two for you to keep always, rememberin' you and me,” she said, tapping the bracelets, kissing Becca’s cheek tenderly.
Mary stood up, took off her glasses, and carefully folded them. They disappeared into the pocket of her full, calico skirt. There was another bulge there, just a vague thickness like a deck of cards or a packet of tobacco, hardly discernible. Becca let her gaze drop to the floor.
“Oh, Baby Girl,” Mary said, as she walked toward the door, “don’t you look fine.”