The Rhythm of the August Rain CHAPTER ONE
God liked to play games with people, made the biggest things creep into their lives when they least expected them. If it wasn’t so, Renford would have gotten a shout-out before he climbed onto his bicycle to tell him a drunk driver was coming down the road, and somebody would have told Miss Maudie, hinted to her gentlelike, that she’d won the lottery. It might have saved her the heart attack when she heard it on TV. But, no, Shad was to reflect later, God liked to spin people around with a shock and see if they could walk straight, like a child about to pin the tail on the donkey. Like the boss after Shannon’s call.
The news had fallen out of the clear blue sky. Shad had been minding his own business, wiping the dust and salt spray off the bottles behind the bar before any customers came in. The ocean had been drumming on the cliff below and the breeze blowing through the bar’s open sides as they always did. Even the tiny island sitting a quarter mile offshore hadn’t been doing much of anything. The mildewed buildings in the middle were sitting roofless and somber in the sun, the almond tree tossing its leaves now and again.
The petite bartender had squatted down to reach the vodka and gin bottles under the sink, and since it had been a month since he’d dusted, he’d had to do more wiping than he’d expected. Beads of perspiration had popped out on his bald head, and his once-crisp white shirt was getting damp. Normally meticulous about his appearance, Shad had barely noticed. He’d been brooding about an upcoming celebration, the one that surprised every man no matter how far in advance he’d been notified. He’d just started talking himself into a positive attitude (for the sake of the children, if nothing else) when the telephone in the bar had started to ring.
“Largo Bay Restaurant and Bar,” he sang out after snatching up the receiver.
“Shadrack Myers, how are you?” a woman said with an unmistakable lift to her voice.
“Shannon!” Shad inhaled sharply through the gap between his front teeth. “It’s still cold in Canada, nuh?”
The woman laughed in her usual hearty way. “No, it’s June, remember? It’s spring here, the flowers are out and everything.”
“It’s nice in Jamaica, too, dry season.”
“She good, busy planning for us to marry next month. Is all she can talk about—wedding, wedding, wedding. You would think we was young, not big old people with children.”
“You’re getting married? That’s wonderful!” The groom wagged his head in doubt. “What day in July?” she added, her voice more intense. “Maybe I’ll be there.”
Shad’s hairless eyebrows shot up as he leaned on the counter. “You mean—you coming back to Largo Bay?”
“After fourteen years, Shad, can you believe it?”
“I better get the boss.”
Shad hurried toward the parking lot, where Eric Keller was peering inside the hood of his ancient Jeep pickup with a sour face.
“Boss, your baby mother on the phone,” Shad called from the safety of the restaurant, and Eric looked up, frowning. As the tall American trudged past in his old shorts and flip-flops, knobby knees slightly bent, Shad thought about giving him Shannon’s news, but decided against it. Certain messages shouldn’t be relayed by third parties to sixty-five-year-old men with white hair and paunches, especially when ambulances took half a day to reach this corner of Jamaica.
As Eric took the receiver back to his apartment, Shad picked up his dusting cloth, trying to recall Shannon’s face, but the years had turned it into a blur above her tall, skinny body. It hurt Shad’s heart to know that the fourteen years since she’d been in Largo had dimmed his memory of her, as much as she and Eric had loved each other. Their much-talked-about affair had started soon after Eric had opened his retirement dream, a cozy hotel called the Largo Bay Inn, where Shannon had been a guest. Every month thereafter for two years, she’d arrive to stay in Eric’s suite, and he’d walk around beaming. Everyone had expected them to be together for the rest of their lives, but the photographer had suddenly stopped coming to Largo, leading to much speculation among the hotel employees. A year later, after she’d sent cards with photographs she’d taken herself of her new baby, the fears of the worst gossipers were confirmed.
Shannon had been missed by all of the workers and been on their minds for years after. They’d imitated her laugh, loved that she’d tried to remember everybody’s name, and that she’d brought presents sometimes, once an apron for Beth and a bottle of aftershave for Shad. They would remind each other how she was always taking pictures, always carrying a camera. After she stopped coming, the photographs of Eric’s daughter showed Eve as a serious, solid-looking child.
The bottle dusting finished, Shad started sponging down the refrigerator shelves, waiting for the boss’s explosion of Irish temper after the call—like when he heard a liquor bottle break—because the timing of Shannon’s visit couldn’t be worse. But the bar owner returned and placed the receiver in its cradle, his eyes numb.
Shad stood up and slammed the fridge door shut. “She coming back.”
“She told you, huh?”
The men returned to their chores, nothing more needing to be said between two people who were closer than family. Over the years, Eric and Shad had become codependents, struggling now to eke out a living from the crude roadside bar that one owned and the other ran since the demise of the hotel. Both men would have found it impossible to live without the other.
It had been seventeen eventful years since the two had met. The starting point had been when Shad arrived back in Largo with his small family after a year’s stay in Kingston Penitentiary for stealing a woman’s purse in Port Antonio. His grandmother had immediately found him work with her friend Old Man Job. As she reminded her grandson daily, the devil found work for idle hands; besides, he had to support her in her old age.
Old Man Job, a toothless and talented jack-of-all-trades, was building a fifteen-bedroom hotel for an American man who’d bought Mr. Sommerset’s property on the point at the end of the bay, a job that called for a young man to carry cement blocks and steel beams. Twenty-year-old Shad had no interest in construction, but the only other honest work he could get in Largo Bay was fishing, which he hated with all his might for its danger and clinging stench.
“You have a girlfriend and a baby to mind,” Granny had urged him. “You is a man of responsibilities.” He had taken the construction job.
The owner of the hotel being built had been Eric, and Shad had liked him from day one.
“Looks like we’ll be learning this stuff together,” the big American had told him as they watched Job layering concrete blocks with mortar. True to his word, Eric had worked shoulder to shoulder with Shad digging trenches, laying footings for the steel rods, piling up blocks for the walls, doing whatever it took to create his hotel.
“I never see a white man work so hard,” Shad had told Beth one evening while they were eating dinner, Granny snoring in the next room. “He say he used to sit behind a desk all day, but you wouldn’t believe it, the way he work. He not proud, you know, like some of them brown people who think they too good for hard work.”
When the job was done, Shad had become the hotel’s bartender (learning on the job) and Eric a big deal in the little village. His exalted status came from being white and foreign, and the owner of the only real business for miles around. He was as happy as a pig in mud, he used to say.
“I dreamed of this every day before I retired,” he’d told Shad as they laid steel rods for the lobby’s concrete floor. “I couldn’t wait to kiss that paper company good-bye.”
“But you were living in New York!” Shad had protested, not imagining any place more wonderful than the skyscraper city on TV where everybody looked busy and rich.
“Listen, man, the only reason I stuck it out for thirty damn years working in human resources was so one day I could live in the Caribbean and never have to suffer through another winter. And since I couldn’t live down here without working, I figured that the best way to make some money was to own a hotel.” Eric had shoved a rod into place with his boot. “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I work for anybody again.”
Contrary to Eric’s hopes, the Largo Bay Inn had never made a profit. Limited by its size and location in the isolated northeast of the island, it barely broke even every month. Ironically, although Eric had to live on a shoestring, the hotel brought prosperity to everyone else in the village. The conch divers and hair braiders and vegetable gardeners had money jingling in their pockets for a change. Employing up to thirty-five workers in the tourist season—receptionists, gardeners, cooks, and maids—the inn put food on the tables of Largo’s families. This beacon of hope burned for seven good years, only to be blown out. A Category 5 hurricane sweeping across Jamaica had not only destroyed the Largo Bay Inn, but had washed away the narrow peninsula road leading from the main road to its front door. At the storm’s end, the battered, roofless hotel had been left standing on a tiny island, an almond tree its only companion.
One and a half years after the storm destroyed the hotel, Eric had opened the Largo Bay Restaurant and Bar, a humble shadow of its predecessor. It wasn’t a matter of choice. Having no other source of income, his retirement savings sunk into the ruined hotel, and still too young to draw Social Security, he’d finally given in to Shad’s suggestion that he use the small insurance check to build a bar on the scrap of land he still owned beside the main road. The money had only been enough to construct the rough walls, concrete floor, and thatch roof that now housed the bar-cum-restaurant, Eric’s compact apartment stuck onto one end.
The shabby bar was an embarrassment to the former hotelier from the opening day, leaving him in hapless despair, knowing that he had no other option. On the other hand, to Shad the bar was as sweet as it was to every thirsty tourist. His only alternative to fishing, it was his workplace and savior. In other words, the bar’s owner and its bartender had been bonded by the bar and were stuck with each other like a resigned married couple.
A half hour after the call, Eric strolled in from the parking lot wiping his hands on a cloth. A lock of hair blew across his face and he thrust it away with his shoulder.
“Something is up with Shannon, I’m telling you, coming back all of a sudden like this.” He looked at Shad sharply. “Did you tell her about—?”
“I don’t tell her nothing, boss. I don’t like cass-cass and gossip, you know that.”
“It’s a crazy coincidence, then.”
“Maybe she just need a rest.”
“She’s working, doing an article for a magazine.”
“She can write something about the new hotel we going to build, then.”
Eric took a ginger ale from the fridge. “Nah, it’s an article about Rastafarians.”
“Pshaw, man, Rastas is old news. How she can write about Rastas and a nice hotel going up?”
“She doesn’t even know about the hotel. It wouldn’t matter to her, anyway.”
If Eric thought that Shannon wouldn’t care about the New Largo Bay Inn, as the villagers had already christened it, everyone in Largo did. It was the talk of the sixty families living from one night’s catch to another. Eric and Shad were to go into the hotel business again, but with a bigger hotel this time, they were saying, thanks to a rich businessman named Danny Caines.
The villagers had all seen the investor from New York when he came down earlier that year. A few had even met Caines as he made the rounds in his rented car. The strapping African American had turned out to be in his midforties, younger than everyone had expected. He was a friendly type, although his relationship with a local seamstress had been a little too friendly for some. For a while during his visit, the hotel project had been in danger of dying because of the torrid affair, but in the end, despite his misgivings about cost overruns, despite the dressmaker’s wrath when he thwarted her plans to marry him, Caines had decided to build the hotel after all. Even the Mafia didn’t stop people from visiting Italy, he’d said with his deep laugh, and one crazy woman wasn’t going to stop him.
Shad shook his head, grinning. “Shannon coming back—plenty action in July.”
“That’s exactly what we need,” Eric said, taking a sip from the bottle and coughing.
Shad slapped him on the back. “We buying Miss Mac’s land next door—”
“You’re getting married—”
“—and two of your women coming down at the same time. Action, camera!” Shad couldn’t help but clap his hands over his head and send out the high-pitched wail that always signaled his delight as he spun around on one heel.
“At least you don’t have another woman waiting in the wings,” Eric commented as he poured the ginger ale into a glass.
“Now that is cass-cass.” Shad steadied himself against the counter. “They say black man like confusion, but you can match any black man, boss. You make me laugh, no joke. I hope Simone can laugh at it, too.”
Simone was a woman who’d briefly lived in the ruins of the old hotel the year before. An American whose family had migrated from Jamaica when she was a small child, she’d come back seeking a place to heal, had exiled herself from her own life and camped out on the little island for two months. The boss had fallen for the mysterious woman with doelike eyes, and he’d grieved for weeks after she left Largo, but he’d stayed in touch with her and they’d planned for her return in July. And now she’d be met by Shannon, Eric’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. It sounded like one of the soap operas Shad watched on his day off, and he couldn’t wait to tell Beth that The Young and the Restless had nothing over Largo.
The little bartender shook his head, tut-tutting. “Boss, you have too much woman in your life. You should settle down like me.”
Eric sat at his do-everything table near the bar where he ate, read, and entertained his guests. “You mean after I’ve had a flock of children like you? No, thank you.”
“Just one thing I want to ask you,” Shad said, suddenly serious as he scrubbed the dust cloth clean. “With all the excitement coming up, don’t get sick or nothing, I begging you. We can’t afford for anything to happen to you, like how Danny Caines have no hotel experience and you the only one can manage the hotel.”
Eric threw one leg over a chair. “What d’you mean the only one? I wouldn’t take on this deal if you weren’t going to be a partner, buddy.” Which was the boss’s way of saying that he didn’t really want to build a hotel again but, indebted as he was, he had to, and Shad was to be his trump card.
In exchange for being the needed local partner, the younger man had agreed to do the real work, from running around during the construction to managing the hotel later. But that’s what partners were for, Shad was convinced, especially scrape-bottom men such as him who didn’t have any money or land to invest in a deal, who had few legal opportunities to get ahead. And if two American men needed an on-spot Jamaican partner for their hotel, if they wanted a young, hardworking man with a willing heart, he would be more than happy to oblige.
With five mouths to feed, Shad had not only accepted the upcoming challenge of becoming a partner but longed for it. His ambition had been nurtured from childhood when Granny had predicted that, because of his dark-dark complexion and high forehead, he would be a busha one day, as big as the white overseers in slavery days. Granny might be dead, but her words continued to ring in her grandson’s head, and he carried with him everywhere a small plastic bag with a tablespoon of dirt from the top of her grave, his good-luck charm, to make sure her prediction came true. The new hotel was his one shot, he’d remind himself every night after he’d crept into bed beside Beth, his one chance to be somebody, even if his partners ran him into the ground while he did it.
After hanging the dust cloth over the edge of the sink, Shad looked at Eric. “Boss, where Shannon going to stay in Largo?”
“She asked me to book her into Miss Mac’s.”
“You forget Miss Mac not going to have the boardinghouse no more? We buying the land and tearing down the house to build the hotel.”
“Shit, you’re right.” Eric hit his forehead, white hair jerking forward. “And the closing is Friday the thirteenth. How could I forget?” He rolled his eyes up to the thatch as he tossed down the last of his drink. “There’ll be no boardinghouse after that.”
Shad squeezed his lips together in irritation. Known as Largo’s sniffer and snuffer (a title bestowed by his former teacher and mentor, the said Miss Mac), the bartender knew that sometimes the boss needed help with his own sniffing and snuffing. His mind went to sleep at least half the day. “And remember, boss, Simone going to be staying in your apartment, so Shannon can’t stay with you.”
“I’ll call her tomorrow.” Eric stood up. “Maybe she’ll have to stay in another town. I have to take the car to Port Maria now before the garage closes. I think it’s the carburetor.”
The next evening, after the first of the regulars had settled into their arguments, Shad watched Eric maneuver past him to take the phone into his apartment. When he emerged later, the boss’s ruddy face was a shade paler and his eyes even more glazed than the day before.
“You told Shannon about Miss Mac?” Shad asked, opening a soft drink for him. Eric took the bottle and nodded. “What she say?”
“The Delgados—she’ll stay with the Delgados.”
“That make sense, like how Shannon and Jennifer used to be good friends before. . . .”
Shad chewed his top lip as he poured ice into a Styrofoam bucket and placed it in the fridge. Eric was staring at, not seeing, the dangling bottle opener.
“Boss, you okay? You look like a duppy frighten you,” Shad said, trying a little levity. Eric always laughed at the mention of ghosts.
The bar owner took a gulp of his drink. “She—she’s bringing Eve.”
“That good news, man! Like how your son come down last year and see Jamaica, is time for the daughter now. But why she didn’t tell you before that she was bringing Eve?”
Eric made his way to a stool, patting the counter like a man who was blind. “She just decided, she said.”
A call from the end of the bar turned Shad’s attention to his customers and a fresh bottle of white rum. As he topped them up, Eli, Solomon, and Tri sucked him into a debate about the current prime minister, the first female leader in the island’s history.
“Don’t tell me,” Tri insisted, thumping the counter, “that a woman can run a country as good as a man, don’t tell me that.” Thin and sinewy, mauger to the locals, the aging Triumphant Arch never backed down from any political argument, the louder the better. “What you think, Shad?”
“Give the woman a chance,” Eli said in his slow, rambling way. “Is only her first term and—”
“No woman should lead a country,” Solomon put in. The former chef of the hotel, reduced to the bar’s part-time cook, wore his usual grumpy face. “The Bible say that woman should walk behind man.”
“You show me,” Eli challenged him, “where in the Bible it say that, and I going to show you a man who write it.”
“All I know,” Shad said, “is that every woman I ever meet can think smarter and faster than a man. You forget I going to get married next month because Beth outthink me?”
When the bartender got back to his stool, Eric had left the counter, his soft drink abandoned. He’d be sitting on his verandah looking across at the island in the pale moonlight, listening to one of the Cuban radio stations as he always did at night. He never liked to sit in the bar unless he had friends over, and tonight wouldn’t have been a good night, anyway, not with the way he’d looked after this second phone call.
Throwing the bottle into the garbage can, Shad mulled Eric’s reaction to Shannon’s news. He could understand the boss being upset yesterday about his ex-girlfriend’s coming to Largo—just when Simone was visiting—but tonight he’d acted differently, completely differently, to the news that Eve was arriving, his own child. This time he was holding back, keeping his face blank, no joy, nothing in his eyes.
To Shad, a man for whom family meant everything, there would have been no better news than hearing that one of his children was coming to visit. Not that Eric had been the same kind of parent. Everyone knew he hadn’t been much of a father, his two children brought up by two mothers far away in Washington, DC, and Toronto, but he was a good man down deep, and he didn’t bear malice toward anybody, least of all his own children. Why then this reaction to the news that his daughter was coming? And what was the real reason Shannon was coming down after all this time?
Shad reached for a rag to wipe down the counter, knowing that the Canadian woman had won the first round. She’d thought faster and smarter than the boss.