Minutes after seven that Monday morning, Bertram Allen stood looking out of the glass door of the corner grocery store he had owned for three decades. This was how he now spent many of the day’s quieter moments, watching people come and go from the newly opened coffee shop on the other side of Utica Avenue. The shop, Mo’Joe, had not been open for more than a few weeks, which made the steady flow of customers seem rather curious, as if an accident.
Day and night, people disappeared through the shop’s heavily tinted glass doors. They were young and white, the kind of young white people who had moved to New York from the small towns and suburbs of America, who had journeyed from afar to dip their toes in city life for a few years before returning home or settling down in the suburbs of New Jersey or Connecticut. Many of the men came wearing tight-fitting clothing and toting purse-like satchels, and though they were white, these men made him wonder about his son. He could not see inside the shop, past the tinted glass, and so it was a mystery to him how they occupied themselves inside, why they often remained in there for hours at a time.
Bertram was himself still awaiting his first customer of the day. His store had never, even in its best years, enjoyed as much business as the coffee shop now did. Still, for almost half a century it had met the needs of the many West Indians who lived in the neighborhood, giving them, as well as those who lived elsewhere and were willing to travel, many of the things that were a part of everyday life in the Caribbean—Carib, Banks, Piton, and Prestige beers, preserved mango, pepper sauce, green seasoning, jerk seasoning. From the day he inherited the store, he had taken care to run it as he believed the original owner, Henry Bonterre, would have. It had changed, but he liked to think of the changes as amendments to Bonterre’s ideas, steps towards realizing the man’s vision.
He had first made small improvements, installing a security camera, purchasing a digital register and scale, replacing the rotary phone with a push-button one, and fixing the cooling system in the soft drink cooler. Then, at the start of his third year, when he felt more comfortable running the store on his own, he began to plan his first real project, the redesign of the awning. He had forever thought that the combination of red letters against a yellow background was all too ordinary, being that it could be found on awnings all over New York. The new awning was maroon with large cream-colored letters that spelled out BONTERRE’S CARIBBEAN GROCERY in its center, a name Bertram chose because though it was now his store, he wanted to honor the man who had come before him. The name was enclosed in a rectangle of West Indian flags, which was an idea inspired by Bonterre, who had kept a small flag from Grenada, his home, pinned beside the register.
Along the bottom of the awning, smaller letters told of what could be found inside the store. Listed there were the usual items, like cold drinks and beer, hot sandwiches, cigarettes, produce, and coffee. But as the years passed and the store evolved, it came to include things that could not be found in just any grocery store. The words SHIPPING BARRELS, for instance, were added in the early nineties when he got involved in shipping the barrels that many neighborhood people used to send stuff to family back in the West Indies. And when a business dedicated to shipping opened a few doors down, Bertram had bought an additional display case, hired a Trinidadian woman to make pastries five mornings a week, and had the words BAKED GOODS added to the awning.
Whenever he thought back, he came to the same conclusion, that he was most proud of the awning. Fresh baked pastries had not filled the display case since 2002, the year that a stroke came and left the baker woman paralyzed down one side of her body. By then a Caribbean bakery had opened on the block, one door down from the shipping store. But even if his side businesses had not endured, the awning stood as a reminder of them, a testament to what had once been. His regular customers had been there to see it all, could appreciate how he had built up the store, and many had continued to bring him their business even as the storefronts of Crown Heights filled with more and more shipping stores, bakeries, and supermarkets. But few remained. They had grown old and moved to nursing homes. They had retired and moved to Florida or returned to the islands that had borne them. Some had passed on. Others had gone to live with their adult children and their children’s families. To see the store for the first time now was like showing up to a one-day cricket match in the final overs, after the outcome had been determined.
Still standing at the door, he lowered his head some and closed one eye. There was an old bullet mark in the glass door, and if he looked at it this way, the white spot where the bullet had struck almost perfectly covered the second O in the coffee shop sign. The bulletproof windows had been another of his improvements. He did not know what store owners did today. Back then, they had simply replaced windows as they shattered. It was cheaper than putting bulletproof glass in every window. But with his son spending so much time in the store, he had not wanted to take any chances. In those days his little universe at the corner of Utica and Sterling had seemed forever unchanging. He had not imagined an end to the daytime shootings, he could have never foreseen the coming of a trendy coffee shop.
Despite the splintered glass, he recognized his wife, Marilyn, coming down the street. She stopped at the corner outside Mo’Joe and waited for the light to change. It was a familiar sight, the mother of his children making her way to work a little past seven, wearing the same navy blue suit that she wore each and every Monday. Today she had matched the suit with a shirt that was a lighter blue, the color of a clear sky.
As she stepped down into the crosswalk, she met his eyes and gave him a smile. He glanced at the cars parked on either side of the street, then turned back to watch her cross. Moments later she was standing out in front of the store, a little more than an arm’s length from him. But she came no closer. Instead, she looked down the block and raised a finger to her chin, as if contemplating something. He waited to see what she would do next, and when she turned and looked despairingly in the other direction, he understood.
Pulling the door open, he said, “Excuse me, young lady. I notice you looking lost. Do you need some help?”
“From you?” she asked, looking him over. “No. No thanks.” Their little games never felt old, despite having been played time and time again. They had been married for donkey years, as he liked to say, and he still could not be more attracted to her.
“Alright, but you hadda move from here. You blocking my entrance, lady,” he said.
“Ass,” she laughed. “That is not how you treat a pretty girl. How did I end up married to a man who don’t know manners?”
He took the bunch of keys from his belt. “That is for you to answer. I’m jus the stranger-man walking you down the road.”
As he locked up the store, he glanced at the clock behind the counter and sucked his teeth. “Don’t worry, sweetie. He’s on his way,” Marilyn said. He did not have to tell her why he was upset. Their first child, Cheryl, lived just down Sterling with her family, in a brownstone that shared a wall with Bertram and Marilyn’s.
Cheryl’s son Anthony was working in the store for the summer, and Marilyn would go next door and check on him in the mornings because she knew how the boy’s tardiness bothered Bertram. That morning, Marilyn told him, Anthony had slept through his alarm.
“That boy would be late to his own funeral,” he said, returning the keys to his belt.
“Then you shouldn’t take it personally,” she said. “Anyways, stranger, are you going to help out a lost woman or what?” She raised her foot and looked at the ground underneath it. “I’m looking for that train that travels below the pavement. Have you seen it?” she asked.
“Let me show you,” he said, unable to help laughing.
Before they went, he took another look at the cars parked along the street, wanting to make sure that the glass installation man’s truck had not arrived as yet. The store, Mo’Joe constantly reminded him that he no longer needed bulletproof glass on the exterior. Not even with his grandson working there.
“I told you he’s coming just now,” Marilyn said, mistakenly thinking that Bertram was looking for Anthony. “Just let it go. Not everyone can be as perfect as you, eh.” She did not know that he was having the storefront windows replaced. He had not told her because she would question why, if they were leaving New York, he was still putting money into the store. Workmen often came first thing, but he hoped that the glass man would not show up until later in the day, when she would not be around to see.
“You talk funny, stranger,” she said as they walked towards Eastern Parkway, where she would catch the 4 Train to Manhattan. She did administrative work in a real estate office, had worked there long enough that she now told people what to do. “What language is that? Jamaican?”
While many West Indians lost their accents after they migrated, Bertram’s was still strong enough that Americans who wandered into the store often had trouble understanding him if he did not speak slowly. “I’m from Trinidad, the land of the most beautiful women,” he said.
“The most beautiful women, huh? So then why you still living in this place?” She slid her arm through his and gestured towards their city surroundings with her free hand. “Why don’t you move back to all your beautiful women?”
“If I was back there,” he said, “who would walk you to the subway?”
“You would just have to take me with you then,” she said.
Bertram said very little the rest of the way. While their jokes about moving back home had once made him laugh, they now reminded him of their last night trip to Rockaway Beach some weeks back.
“Know what I’m thinking?” Marilyn had asked. They had been sitting in the parking lot at Beach 15th Street, with the car doors locked and windows rolled down an inch or so. There were nicer beaches, but he and Marilyn had been making the twenty-minute drive to the edge of Queens since before it became unsafe to stand out on the boardwalk at night.
“What, Mary?” he asked. The boardwalk stood between them and the beach, blocking a good part of their view. In Trinidad, where a body of water was never too far, they could have driven right up to the sand, parked up under a coconut tree and sat with the windows rolled down all the way.
“Two more months,” she said. “We’ve been in this country how long, how many decades?” Far Rockaway had changed, just as Crown Heights had. New homes were being built. He doubted, though, that it would ever again be the kind of place where they felt comfortable straying from the car at night. “Two more months and we’re home again,” she had said, exhaling. “Then you could carry your old wife to a real beach.” She had leaned her head back in the headrest and closed her eyes.
Bertram kissed Marilyn goodbye at the turnstile and headed back the way he had come. Outside, he felt the coolness of early morning quickly giving way to humidity. Even now, he could barely believe that she was serious about retiring in Trinidad. The plan was not new. It was something they had decided as a newlywed couple, before any of the children came, when Bertram was just a clerk in Bonterre’s store. At the time he had believed it was a good plan—make a living abroad, and when their working lives were over, return home. But with each passing year, each newborn child, the plan had been talked about less, and it had eventually become nothing more than a response they gave people at parties or weddings, nothing more than something to joke about.
He could not deny, though, that the timing was right to leave Brooklyn. First off, it was a good time to sell; Cheryl and her husband, college professors both, had recently bought their home for more than five times what Bertram and Marilyn had paid for theirs in 1972. Second, they had finally squirreled away enough money to retire. Marilyn deserved to stop working, but she would not be able to do so as long as Bertram owned the store. More so than Bertram, she had supported them as they paid off their mortgage and sent their children to Catholic school and then college. And the grocery store, which had never put much on the table, had started to lose money again, something it had not done since Bertram’s first years running it.
Still, he worried when he saw her making plans to leave, booking plane tickets and looking for suitable tenants for their home. Although he did not stop her, he knew he was not ready to let go of the store, the neighborhood. Bonterre’s had always been more than a business to him. He had taken the clerk position in his early twenties, when he was just a young man who had followed his wife to a foreign land. Once in America, it would have made sense for him to enroll at some university to further his education, as Marilyn had. But it was the store, and the familiarity of the products on its shelves, that had offered refuge and eased his homesickness. Later, Bonterre’s would become a second home for his children, a place for them to come after school and do homework until their mother returned from work and took them home for dinner.
So that night at Rockaway Beach, he had, for the first time, met Marilyn’s retirement talk with silence. Instead of playing along, he stared out at the horizon, barely discernable between the night sky and night ocean, and he thought about his daughters. Even after they moved out they had stayed within reach. Cheryl had gone upstate for graduate school, but she could not live any closer than she did now. And once she had a family of her own, his other daughter, the one who lived in northern New Jersey, might also come back to the place where, as people said back home, her navel string was buried. His son, Shawn, was a different story altogether. He had not turned out as Bertram would have liked, despite having practically grown up within the shelter of the store. Bertram could not remember the last time they spoke, and did not want to.
He did not know how long he had kept his eyes on the horizon, trying to avoid Marilyn. The seconds had seemed to pass ever so slowly. But when he turned back she was fast asleep, her eyes closed, her breathing steady. It was what they came there for—the smell of saltwater and the sound of the waves lapping on shore, which, like a lullaby, eased them to bed.
The car was dark except for a ray of light coming from a streetlamp above. The light entered through the windshield, fell across his wife’s face, and reflected off her hair, which was thoroughly gray because she refused to color it. He reached out and moved some hair out of her face. He asked himself, as he would for weeks, how long she had been sleeping. Had she stayed awake long enough to notice his non-response? Marilyn Eunice Allen, his wife of more than forty years, understood his silences better than anyone.
His grandson Anthony stood under the awning, punching buttons on his cell phone as he waited; it would be some time before Bertram entrusted him with a key. Although the boy was already twenty minutes late, he followed Bertram inside in no apparent hurry, continuing to play with his phone as he sauntered along.
The phone beeped and he brought the screen closer to his face.
“Listen to me,” Bertram said. “Put that device away. Turn it off and don let me see it again while you working.” Anthony’s t-shirt hung almost to his knees, and part of him wanted to send the boy home to change. “Tuck in your shirt,” he added.
Anthony started on the first tasks of the day, turning on the toaster and starting the coffee maker, and Bertram went around to his spot behind the counter. It was here where he spent most of his time, where he felt most at home. Sometimes, if he stood in some other part of Bonterre’s for too long, he would begin to feel a strangeness, as if he were a visitor in someone else’s store. But there, at the register, he could ring up customers while, with the help of mirrors and video monitors, keeping an eye on the place. There was a stool in case he got tired of standing. Taped to the cigarette shelves overhead were photographs of his wife and daughters and grandchild. There was also a photograph, in black and white, of him and Bonterre, who had been so tall that Bertram did not even reach his shoulders.
Next to a Trinidadian flag, which hung where Bonterre’s Grenadian one had, was a laminated sheet of paper with the words BERTRAM’S COMMANDMENTS typed across top. “Thou shall not take days off,” read the first commandment. “Thou shall not give family discounts,” read the second. Though he had felt obligated to put up the sheet, a sixtieth birthday present from his daughters, he had deliberately placed it off to the side, where he would not have to look at it. He liked that it acknowledged the lengths to which he went to keep the store in order. He took that part as a compliment. But he did not appreciate its teasing aspect, how it made light of the store’s rules, most of which had come from Bonterre himself.
Bonterre had not put down any of his rules in writing. Bertram only knew them from his years as a clerk, from seeing Bonterre refuse tips and give exact change and handle money with his right hand, food with his left. From time to time Bertram tried to write out a list of rules from memory. It was something he wanted to leave for the next owner, who would not have witnessed how Bonterre and his rules had kept up the store amidst the neighborhood’s decline. But the list was incomplete, nothing more than a rule scribbled here and there among the pages of the notebook that he kept below the register, the same one he had used to jot down ideas for side businesses. And even if he ever got it right, remembered all of the rules and found the words for them, he would never feel comfortable putting them up beside his daughters’ lighthearted present.
He watched Anthony take pastries from their packages and set them in the display case with its foggy glass and dull, scratched metal. That morning, he had plans to make a new sign to hang in the window. It would be nothing special, the words BEST COFFEE FOR FREE or FREE – BEST COFFEE or simply FREE COFFEE handwritten on a strip of paper. But the paper lay blank before him, partly because he could not decide what exactly it should say and partly because he had to keep one eye on Anthony, who did not have a mind for details and too often forgot to arrange the best-looking pastries first in the display window or check for cracked eggs when restocking the fridge or sweep behind the counter on cleaning day. In the earlies, Bertram’s first days in the store, Bonterre had always been just a step behind him, forever there to show him the proper way of doing things.
It was quarter to eight by the time Anthony got around to adjusting the clock. He checked the time on his cell phone, then stood up on the stool and put the clock forward a couple minutes. Bertram waited until Anthony had come down to say anything. “What are you doing?” he asked, and he reminded the boy where he kept the phone number to call for the official time.
Anthony dropped his shoulders and let out a deep breath. He dragged his feet to the phone in the back room without looking up from the floor.
“Try not to forget again, eh,” Bertram said after him. “My ears,” he said, “are tired of hearing me repeat myself.” Bonterre, who had once cussed him for coming to work with a ketchup stain on his shirt pocket, would not have tolerated Anthony and his carelessness past the first week. In fact, he had not hired teenagers to begin with. But because Bertram would not bring on just any old boy from the neighborhood, because things had not worked out with his own son, he was left with little choice but to be patient and hope that his grandson would one day become the sort of person he could trust with the business.
With Anthony, at least, he did not have to worry about there being any surprises, as there had been with Shawn. He had known that there were dangers to raising his son in New York. But he had figured that with a sister on each side of him, and responsibilities in the store, Shawn would be shielded from bad influences. And it was true that he never got in trouble with his teachers or the law. Bertram, then, had been completely taken by surprise when Marilyn started dropping hints, asking him wasn’t it interesting that Shawn didn’t pay any mind to girls and making mention of Shawn’s funny way of dressing, which, it turned out, were her quiet ways of telling him that their son was different. It was for this reason that he did not scold Anthony for wearing his clothes too big and stopping work whenever a pretty girl was in the store.
He was finishing the sign when the day’s first customer came in. The customer, a young white man, looked familiar, and thinking he remembered him from the week before, Bertram took a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and placed it on the counter. “Mediums, right?” he asked when the man came to the counter with a banana and an orange juice. He slid the pack towards the man, smiling and speaking slowly so that the man would have no trouble understanding. He would later feel stupid for having made an effort, for trying to make him feel comfortable, as if he might one day be a regular customer.
“No, I don’t smoke. Too expensive,” the man said. His clothes, jeans and a t-shirt, were not as tight-fitting as those worn by the other young people who were moving to the neighborhood. “And they don’t let you smoke anywhere these days.” He forced a smile.
Bertram took the cigarettes up and set them off to the side. “How about a complimentary cup of coffee?” He heard what sounded like a shipping barrel fall in the back room, where Anthony was supposed to be sweeping.
The man looked at him blankly, as if he were speaking a strange language.
He pointed towards the coffee machine. “You wah some free coffee, man?” he asked, forgetting about trying to speak slowly and be understood.
“Oh, coffee,” the man said. “No thanks.”
He watched the man cross the street, to Mo’Joe. He then revisited the sign he had been working on. He had thought it was finished. But he now decided to add, in smaller letters along the bottom, the words BETTER THAN MOJOE, not caring that he had left out the apostrophe. He then fixed the cap firmly back on the marker and, while listening to hear what noises were coming from the back room, began to tear carefully measured lengths of scotch tape
About once, twice a week, Bertram would get a lunchtime visit from Alwyn Richards, who had owned the grocery store where Mo’Joe now stood. Nowadays, they would go to the back room for their ritual game of dominoes, sitting across from each other at the table where Bertram’s children had, in what seemed like another life, done their homework.
Bertram had neither a three nor a six and, unable to play, he tapped the table and added another domino to his hand. “Where that boy gone?” he asked. He glanced at his watch and tried to spot Anthony where he was supposed to be, behind the register. He always took the seat nearest the doorway so that he had a clear view of what was going on in store.
Alwyn, knowing the round was his, dragged things out, pretended to study his pieces. “That is why they say family and business don’t mix.” He took a swig from his beer and set it back on one of the leftover barrels, the condensation from the bottle adding to water stains from years gone by. Finally, he played a 2-3, his second to last piece. “Licks, licks, and more licks.”
Bertram played a 2-5 and immediately stood up, before Alwyn could slap his last domino on the table. It used to be that, in the store’s best days, their games had taken place on the sidewalk. Rain, storm or shine, men had lined up to play, congregating out in front of the store as they waited their turn, passing the time with talk about, among other things, their home islands, places which some of them had not laid eyes on in over a decade.
Despite having won, Alwyn did not budge from his seat. He knew that Bertram would not let the game finish until he had won at least one round. It had been this way since their days of competing for business. Bertram, the more competitive of the two, might not have had held such a strong desire to outdo the St. Lucian Alwyn if they had not both been West Indian, if Alwyn had been Chinese or Middle Eastern or Jewish like the other store owners in the area. Privately, Bertram also knew that they would not still be sitting down to play dominoes if a coffee shop were sitting where his store had been, if it had been Alwyn slowly putting him out of business and not the other way around.
“Jus now,” Bertram said, signaling that he would be right back. “I hadda send the boy on a delivery.”
“The President?” Alwyn asked, calling their friend Roosevelt John by his nickname, which came from his habit of referring to a former U.S. president when introducing himself. “Roosevelt, like the president,” he would tell new faces.
“Yes, boss,” Bertram said. Roosevelt, who was confined to his apartment near St. John’s Park, had Bertram bring him groceries each and every Monday. Before falling sick, he had taken part in their games.
“The man nuh dead yet?” Alwyn joked.
“You sending Grandson, eh?”
“Is only for today, man.” Bertram would have ordinarily made the delivery himself. But if he missed the glass man, the man would have to come back another day, when Marilyn might be around.
“Next one,” Alwyn said, tapping his beer and handing Bertram a five-dollar bill. He paid for whatever he took from the cooler, just as Bertram himself did.
Bertram found his grandson a ways from the register, making funny faces in the video camera behind the counter. He gave Anthony the grocery list he had written up, a list he himself knew by heart, and stood watching with his arms crossed as Anthony went from shelf to shelf, often unknowingly passing by items that fell farther down the list.
“Hey Stevie,” Alwyn said from the other room, using Bertram’s nickname. “Tell me, what’s going to happen when Grandson has go in the toilet and relieve himself? You gonna watch over him then too? Let the boy work so you could come back for a next round a licks.” Anthony glanced up at Bertram and smirked, as if he was looking at someone who should not be taken seriously.
“You could talk your rubbish in your own store,” Bertram said. “Not mine.” A sometimes customer, Richie, passed in front of the store wearing plaid pajama pants. Richie, a middle-aged man who had lived in the neighborhood his whole life, was not shy about leaving the house in his sleep clothes. He was carrying a bag of groceries, and did not glance at the sign for free coffee.
When Anthony finished going through the list, Bertram double-checked the order, emptying everything out onto the counter and then having Anthony pack it back up into the brown paper bags.
“Good work,” he said before Anthony went on his way.
Standing at the door, his arms still crossed, Bertram saw it all before it happened: Anthony doing as he had been taught, looking left then right at the cars stopped on Utica waiting for the light to change. The light turning yellow as Anthony stepped down off the curb. Anthony crossing in his slow way, not caring that the waiting cars would not be able to go until he was out of the crosswalk. And then the car coming up Sterling, speeding up to make the light.
The car screeched twice, first as it skidded around the corner onto Utica and again after it struck Anthony and sent him flying onto the hood and smack into the windshield. The screeches were louder than Bertram would have thought, as if he were standing amidst the whole thing and not inside the store.
The car, an old maroon Cadillac, was from another time, the kind of car someone his age should have been driving, so he was surprised when a young man got out from it. Before helping Anthony off the hood, the man walked around to the other side of the car, as though unsure Anthony was safe to touch. He tried to guide Anthony to the sidewalk, but the boy just stood there, absolutely still except for his eyes, which moved about wildly, as if he had suddenly awoken to find himself in strange territory.
Alwyn called out. “Eh, what all that commotion out there?”
The driver lowered his head some and said something and Anthony nodded and let the man lead him over to the curb to sit. Not more than a few moments passed before Anthony leaned over and vomited onto the sidewalk.
Immediately, the man held his hands out towards Anthony. “Fuck,” Bertram could see him saying over and over again. “Are you okay? Fuck.” Bertram had to watch his mouth move because his voice was quiet, infinitely softer than the screeches, though he could not tell if the man was speaking in a low voice or if his voice was just not coming through the glass. The man set his hand on Anthony’s shoulder and said something else to Anthony, who shook his head yes before laying down to rest on the sidewalk.
“Stevie,” Alwyn said, still in the back room. “We go play or what? The dominoes are falling asleep, man.”
A small crowd had gathered around Anthony, and the man turned to the crowd and, in a pleading manner, seemed to be explaining himself. It was then that the woman stepped forth from the crowd. She knelt down beside Anthony and checked him over the way a doctor would, peering into his eyes and holding his hand to check his pulse. She called out instructions and onlookers began to scatter, making phone calls and going for help. It made Bertram smile to know that, in the surrounding blocks at least, such things occurred.
“Stevie, man. What the hell is this?” Alwyn had come up behind him. “That’s your grandson over there? What the hell you still standing here like a doh doh for?”
Opening the door, Bertram was instantly reminded how humid it was. He felt the thick air on his face and wanted to go no farther. He went on, but when he reached Anthony, he stood behind the woman, trying to stay out of the way. Anthony, still lying on the ground, looked half-conscious, like he had just awoken from a long sleep. You’re supposed to look both ways, Bertram wanted to say, even though the boy had.
“He’s yours?” the woman asked him.
Bertram gave a slight nod.
“It looks worse than it is. He probably only has a concussion, maybe a broken bone. But you should carry him to the hospital in case. To be safe. You never know.” Strangely, she was wearing a sweater and sweatpants despite the summer heat. “I’m a nurse,” she added, as if Bertram needed convincing. “Was a nurse.”
“I’ll go get my car,” he said, taking the keys from his waist. He was planning to go straight to his car, leaving Alwyn to watch the store in his absence. But when he looked back and saw that his friend had not followed him outside, saw Alwyn was standing in the doorway, where he himself had stood moments earlier, he decided to lock up. He knew it was a bad thought, but he could not help but feel comforted to know that Alwyn had no store of his own to go to, that he too would have to face the realities of the world.
The woman, Evelyne, offered to drive and he let her. At her suggestion, he sat in the back with Anthony, and every so often she would take her eye off the road ahead and glance back in the rearview mirror and tell him to shake Anthony awake. While stopped at a red light she passed him his cell phone, which he kept in the glove compartment for emergencies, and he called Marilyn and asked Marilyn to call Cheryl.
Evelyne continued to take charge when they got to the hospital, leading the way into the Kings County emergency room, telling Bertram to go find seats while she handled things with the woman behind the desk. She stayed at the desk for longer than he would have thought necessary, and as she stood there talking, he tried to put a finger on how old she was. She had the face of a woman in her thirties. But the way she dressed, in unseasonable, loose-fitting clothes, as if she no longer worried about men and what they thought, made him think that she might be in her forties.
She came and sat down beside Anthony. She did not tell Bertram what had happened at the desk, or what they were waiting for. But she seemed untroubled, seemed to be waiting for something, and so he, too, waited.
“It was here you used to work?” he asked. He had gotten the sense that she knew the receptionist.
“No, not here. I was at Brooklyn Hospital. For almost twenty years.” There was something pleasing about her voice. He had noticed it earlier, but only now did he hear that her accent, though Americanized, came from Trinidad.
“People with the most experience get laid off first, eh,” he said, thinking of Marilyn and the decades she had spent at her job.
“Maybe,” she said, and she gave Anthony a shake. “I left.” She paused, seemingly contemplating something, and then she went on, looking off at the other side of the room as if talking to someone Bertram could not see. “It was a good job, close to where we lived.”
“Where do you now live?” he asked.
“Willoughby Avenue,” she said, making the face of someone tasting bad food.
“Not around Bonterre’s?” Because she had stopped to help, he had assumed she lived in the immediate neighborhood.
“Bonterre’s?” she asked. “That’s by where your boy was hit?” She had taken Anthony for his son and he had not corrected her. “I was just passing through.” In spite of her smooth, wrinkle-free skin, Bertram detected echoes of a lost beauty, facial features that had hardened with time, something he had first noticed in his own wife around her fiftieth birthday. But she was quite fair-skinned; perhaps she had simply not aged well.
The rest of the family arrived shortly after the nurse examined Anthony and sent him back out to wait for a doctor. Cheryl and her husband David walked in first. Marilyn, who they had picked up on their way, came in behind them. She silently took a seat while they checked out Anthony, inspected his cuts and scrapes. His daughter and son- in-law both taught in Queens, less than twenty or thirty minutes from Marilyn’s job, and Bertram often questioned why Marilyn didn’t just go with them to and from work. “She’s not a child anymore,” Marilyn would say of Cheryl. “Let her have a life.”
Cheryl and David went up to the receptionist desk together, and Evelyne turned to Marilyn. “I told Bertram, the whole thing looked much worse than it was. It could be nothing more than a concussion.”
“It was you who stopped to help?” Marilyn asked.
Evelyne nodded. “Yes.”
“We’re grateful for your help,” Marilyn said, shaking Evelyne’s hand. “Thank you so much.”
Cheryl came back from the receptionist desk without David. “I can’t listen to him any longer,” she said. “He asks a thousand and one questions.”
“Your husband is like mine in that way. Maybe David gets it from Bertram,” Marilyn joked.
Evelyne, though she smirked, looked at Bertram with traces of confusion in her face, as if she had just learned something unexpected about him.
Marilyn introduced Cheryl and Evelyne. “I can’t thank you enough,” Cheryl said. “There’s probably only a handful of people in this city who would have done what you did today.” They shook hands. “Sorry I didn’t say anything to you before. I was so worried about my son that I didn’t even see you sitting there until now.”
“You and David are his parents?” Evelyne asked. Bertram looked away.
“Yes,” Cheryl said. “Of course.”
David returned. “How long did they tell you the wait would be?” he asked Bertram. “All she would say was that it could be hours.”
Bertram responded with a blank look, and Evelyne spoke for him. “It could take some time. Once you don’t need urgent care, you could have quite a wait.” Looking around the room, he was able to count at least eight parties who had gotten there before them. “I used to work in a hospital.”
It was David’s turn to introduce himself to Evelyne and thank her. He then had Anthony get up and sit down between him and Cheryl, and Marilyn moved to Anthony’s old seat, between Bertram and Evelyne.
“Everything okay, Daddy?” Cheryl asked.
“I’m sorry about what happened,” Bertram said.
“Yeah, but Anthony knows better than to just run out into the street like that.” She stared hard at Anthony. “Don’t you?”
Anthony quietly said yes.
“It’s not his fault,” Bertram said.
On his right, Evelyne was telling Marilyn why she had stopped going to work, how she had been barely able to get out of bed after, as she put it, losing her son. It surprised him to hear Evelyne, a practical stranger, talk so freely about her private life, but Marilyn had a way of getting people to open up.
At first, he thought that Evelyne’s son had been somehow taken from her, killed or placed in a home by Children’s Services. But he gradually realized that she meant her son was lost in a figurative sense, something Bertram felt he understood. Her son called every so often, but he would not tell her where he was or what he was up to. For all she knew he was living halfway around the world. Yet, she traversed the neighborhoods of Brooklyn hoping to run across him.
“I imagine that’s got to be one of the toughest things for a parent,” Marilyn said after a while. “Losing your child.” She did not flash Bertram a look, did not give him any sign to let him know her words were meant for him too. But she would not have done that, he knew. Over the years, they had come to an understanding, a tacit agreement, that they would not acknowledge their son’s existence around each other, that she would get off the phone when he came into the room and he would go about his business as if he had not just caught a small piece of his son’s life.
A patient was called in to see a doctor. By his count, there were still five parties in front of them.
On his left, Cheryl was on the phone with his other daughter, the one in New Jersey. It was this daughter, Sharon, who had quietly sided with Shawn. She believed, he had learned through other family members, that Bertram—by trying to help his son, by making him go to counseling at the church—had cast Shawn off.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Evelyne was still talking, and with her accent, diluted by life in America, her voice could have been easily mistaken for Marilyn’s. “I would always wonder what else I could have done,” she said again and again.
“Why are you still here?” he asked under his breath.
Finally, after hours of waiting, it was their turn to see a doctor. The family walked down the hallway together, but Bertram pulled Marilyn aside before she could enter the room. “I’ll go,” he said. “Forget about the other night. I’ll go.” Marilyn looked puzzled. “To Trinidad. I want to move back, like you’ve been talking about.”
“Okay, Bertram. We can discuss this later,” she said, her words carrying a tone she had used with their young children. “Come, let us go in and see about Anthony.”
Inside, the doctor checked Anthony and concluded that he had only a concussion. A very tall man, the doctor tilted his head down to talk to them. He tried to convince Bertram that x-rays were not necessary, but Bertram would not relent and the doctor eventually checked his watch and sighed and sent Anthony to another part of the hospital and told the adults to go back out to the waiting room, where Evelyne was still sitting. A short while later, Anthony rejoined them in the waiting room, and some time after that, the doctor appeared and confirmed that things were just as Evelyne had predicted.
That night, Bertram reopened the store and stayed there much later than usual. He wanted nothing less than to go home and have to face Marilyn; the moment, the one in which had said he would go to Trinidad, was now miles away from him, and he could not find his way back to it.
Coming back from the hospital, he had met a note from the glass people letting him know that they had come and he had not been there. Missed you, the note said. He had balled up the note. But he now tried to straighten it out, smooth out the crumples.
He thought about his last visit home. Each morning, he had gently awoken to the sound of the ocean breeze playing with the window curtains in his childhood bedroom. The ocean breeze was one mark in the island’s favor. But he did not have any other good memories from the trip. He remembered the frozen look on his mother’s face, still but somehow not peaceful. He remembered, in the days after her funeral, being ever shuttled between houses and restaurants. The houses belonged to families he had known growing up. Inside, however, he found that many of the old familiar faces had been replaced by younger faces that he did not recognize, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and in-laws. And the only restaurants he could remember going to were American chains—McDonald’s, Subway, Ruby Tuesdays, and KFC.
Across the street, Mo’Joe was the only store open. A lone light in an otherwise dark row of storefronts. He had had no idea that it stayed open so late. A young man went inside. The man, in his nearly skin-tight jeans, struck Bertram as the kind of guy Shawn would have dealings with. Bertram took down the free coffee sign, neatly folded it, and placed it in the drawer below the register.
The night outside was a perfect temperature, and he did not think of his machete until he was already standing at the curb. He could not say why he went back for it. He did not plan to confront the young man or anyone he might encounter.
Inside Mo’Joe, it did not feel late. The place was very well lit. And it was filled with sound—the purring of coffee makers, the clinking of glasses and plates, patrons’ conversations, music from speakers overhead. There were only a couple empty tables.
A young woman showed him to a small circular table. She left and came back with a menu and said that a waitress would be coming to take his order. He spotted the man with the skin-tight pants on the other side of the room. He did not know what to think: The man was sitting across from a woman, but he knew that women often had friendships with those kinds of men.
“Nice knife,” the waitress said when she came. She was not white, but she was also not pure black. Back home, they would have called her red-skinned. In New York, people would have taken her for Latino. But she could have been mixed with anything. “Cutlass,” he said, using the word he had grown up with.
She made a sour face. “Umm, okay,” she said. Her head was shaved except for a fin of hair that ran down the middle of her head. She had a piercing in the middle section of her nose, like a cow. “Anyways, what can I get you?”
He turned to the window, tried to catch a glimpse of the quiet street outside, but he could only see the reflection of the shop’s interior. He opened the menu and scanned the first page he came to, and when nothing caught his eye, he asked the waitress for a recommendation.