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She’s Gone

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The debut novel from the award-winning Ghanaian-born Jamaican poet.

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Excerpt from She’s Gone

A trooper had escorted them from Georgia. Pedro, the lanky bassman, had counted his change inside a convenience store and thought he had been shorted; after that the clerk fell into character and a tragedy was averted by Kofi, the shorthaired lead singer, who strode across the parking lot in tie-dyed jeans to interrupt his bredren’s exposition on civil rights and slavery with a simple observation: “If they call the cops they’ll search the bus. If they search the bus they’ll find the weed. If they find the weed we going to jail. If we go to jail we’ll miss the gig. If we miss the gig we miss the chance to spread the word. This country needs salvation.”

They spent the next half hour concealing guns and ganja and shouting at each other, Kofi and Pedro almost coming to blows. But nothing happened. The flashing lights did not appear. Then just outside of Columbia, the trooper showed up. No siren. No lights. And they held their breath until I-20 delivered them to South Carolina.

The performance in Columbia was going to be the twelfth gig of a Tidewater tour of small clubs and universities. The idea was to use the tour to hammer out the dynamics of the songs they were going to record in New York for their fourth album—the one they expected to bring them stardom. The first three were successful but sold well only in Europe and the Caribbean. America was not an easy market. Even though their appearance on The Grammys was a blip showing Kofi scowling and holding the Grammy that he had been handed during the sloppily organized and unglamorous pre-televised ceremony, the fact that they could stick the words Grammy winner beside their name had to count for something. Of course, critical success did not pay the bills. But with heightened interest in Marley thanks to the Marley children, and with the sweet marriage taking place between hip-hop and reggae, Pedro was convinced that something could happen.

Kofi was not convinced. He did not rap. Hip-hop rhythms were different, and hip-hop ruled black sensibilities in America.

As Pedro snored and tossed and muttered in the bunk below, Kofi tried to use his mind to trap the sound of the engine in one part of him and hold it just there. He was working to discipline his wandering mind, to get it to serve him only.

He held the sound of the engine in his bones until they arrived at the Governor’s House, a small hotel in downtown Columbia. The lobby had the look of a once elegant home with a carefully arranged library of books and dull oil paintings of fruits and decanters. The carpeting was a mixture of crimson and tan.

At the marble counter, Kofi said he had to have a room to himself, muttered something about needing to write, and left his bandmates giggling at the sign that they had pasted to his back: Reggae Virgin.

In his room he undressed to his dull white briefs and sat on the edge of the bed. His head hung low, and his fibrous beard tickled the coils of hair on his chest, which was broad but soft, with nipples that would not seem out of place on a pair of woman’s breasts. He was a big man, bearish, with a proud stomach that would contract itself as soon as he stood up, though it was sagging now. But he assured himself that he was fit and that was enough. Fitness showed best from his waist down. From dancing every night on stage his legs were tight and muscled.

Reggae Virgin. He crushed the note. So he didn’t pick up women on the road. He flopped across the duveted double bed, his head hanging off the side, the whole world topsy-turvy. A week ago Pedro had given him a batch of letters from Dorothy. Should he read them now?

He pictured her sitting like a dowager on her front verandah in Jamaica, swathed in her golden kimono, waiting for him to arrive, sipping gin and smiling like a mother would. The night he left, she was standing in the same kimono, drunk, crying, for the first time looking like fifty-two. She swore at him, cursed him, punched him, pushed him, and then held him close, the sea wind tossing her gray highlighted hair.

How sad, he thought, as he felt the weight of blood against his brain. How sad. How did it come to this?

When the voices had convinced him that he could fly, she did not release him in fear for her own safety. Instead she clung to him, and he had dragged her along the graveled road of her beach cottage on a sun-drenched morning, the screaming gulls and the grumbling sea drowning the sound of cars and people from the village across the cove.

It was all coming back now . . . clearly but upside down . . . he was running, telling her he could fly, pumping himself into a sprint, knowing he could lift his body and fly over the twisted sea-grape trees and beach bramble, over the cottage, over the beach with the overturned canoes of fishermen, over Dorothy and the small, dumbfounded audience of the short fat cook, the tall skinny helper, the ancient gnarled gardener with his machete, and the perfectly proportioned black teenaged boy who stood shirtless and in awe at all that was going on.

How he had run. How had she kept pace with him? Crushing his bandmate’s note into a plug, he thought about the force of Dorothy’s hold as she pleaded and screamed as if she thought he could actually take off. Now leading him inside she nursed him, fed him his medication, her concoction of herbs, and her whisperings of assurance. He liked being mothered. It was impossible not to feel as if he owed her something after this, and she knew it. He called that feeling love until he felt more himself and he wanted to play music again . . . then the fight . . .

Would he be coming back? He told her he didn’t know. She called him ungrateful. Reminded him that he was leaving with more than when he came—hand-dyed cotton shirts, Russell & Bromley shoes, silk boxer shorts. It was a younger woman. She knew. But what did she know? What the bomborassclaat did she know? She knew everything except the truth—that she loved him more than he could imagine loving her, he had been living with a constant sense of guilt, and he had felt the guilt souring into anger. He had to leave before it curdled and became disgust.

Should he read the letters now? Or would they spoil his mood? If they were like the rest, they would.

She had a way of reminding him of his perversions, his attraction to a woman who knew her own desire and used him as a tool. She would remind him of those moments when he was weakest emotionally—of the fact that she had seen him weeping like a child, hopeless and weak under the weight of his depression. She would remind him that not many women could give him what she had given him. And yet her letters were laced with a terrible quality of sadness and hurt.

He rolled onto his belly and allowed the room to settle. He dug through his bag for the zip-locked bundle, opened one, and sat on the edge of the bed to read.

The letter began quite cunningly: By the time you get this letter, Aunt Josephine might be dead.

She knew how much he loved his aunt and she knew that this threat would bring him back. He crushed the letter like his bandmate’s silly note and made to fling it at his image in the mirror, but instead he unfolded it and placed it in his lap.

Nothing was free of complication with Dorothy. She should have been simply an aunt, the best friend of his Aunt Josephine who had raised him as her son. But it had never been quite that way with Dorothy. She had made her home a refuge for him. Unlike his Aunt Josephine, descended from old Jamaican free coloreds who became wealthy merchants and crusaders against slavery at the dawn of the nineteenth century, Aunt Dorothy had come into her wealth late. She began as a secretary for an old lawyer and brilliantly orchestrated her way into his bed and then into matrimony. She was twenty-three and he was sixty and sickly with no apparent heirs.

People thought the old man was gay, as he kept his long-term liaisons with prostitutes in downtown Kingston discreet. But Aunt Dorothy was proud of what she did for him, of her calculation that he would need her, and of the way she protected him from people who tried to discredit his name with lies and innuendo. He died one morning while they were walking around the Mona Dam, a large reservoir tucked into the side of the mountains that surround Kingston.

He left a decent fortune to her, and Dorothy began her new life as a shrewd investor in the garment industry and several businesses, including a printing company and a recording studio. She was a committed patron of the arts—especially the modern dance movement—and she gathered around her a retinue of male dancers who protected her fiercely and made everywhere she went something of a party.

Kofi had gotten used to it, and she had sensed that for him to continue to be happy with her, she would need to keep a space for them alone. It worked for a while—she reminded everyone that Kofi was different, and her dancers grudgingly stayed out of his way. But he still felt closed in, scrutinized. He knew he had to leave. And now he imagined her walking through the rooms, picking at the things he had left there, contemplating how to bring about his return—using everything in her, every predatory power she had, to get him to come back.

He could read no more.

Can’t let her get under my skin.

Kofi closed his eyes. The darkness was complete. He wanted spots of light—moments of lightness that would confound the gloom.



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