Excerpt

My Mother’s House

Francesca Momplaisir

The following is an exclusive excerpt from My Mother’s House, by Francesca Momplaisir. When Lucien and his wife, Marie-Ange, immigrate to New York City from Haiti, they purchase a home that they turn into a community hub. But Lucien has demons, and soon, he begins a tragic, and terrifying decent. But what he doesn't know is that the house is watching, and sees him for who he truly is.

The house screamed, “Fire!” from every orifice. Difé! Melting windowpanes rolled down the aluminum siding, dripping polyurethane tears. Orange, blue, and yellow flames hollered their frustration into the icicles along the struggling gutters. The two-story (three, if you counted the basement), one-family (two, again, if the basement was included) House had had enough. Fed up with the burden of Its owner’s absurd hoarding, inexcusable slovenliness, and abuse of power, It spontaneously combusted everywhere a power source sprouted unkempt. The matted nest that passed for a fuse box in the basement; the half-assed hose that connected the gas stove to the wall in the upstairs kitchen; the shaved pipes that pulled natural gas from its source to the boiler and radiators throughout the House; the power strip in the upstairs bedroom that powered a tenant’s hot plate, microwave, refrigerator, stereo, television, DVD player, cable box, computer, and electric shaver and toothbrush; the tangle of Christmas lights left plugged in and blinking as a deterrent to robbers over the holidays. The House blew it all up and burst into tears It had been holding back for decades.

It cried and laughed at the same time, watching the owner scurry out of the basement. When the tenant jumped out the upstairs window, the House doubled over and shook in amusement. It nearly keeled over from being tickled by the rodents and roaches racing one another into and out of their hiding places, confused which would be best—crackle in the fire or crack in the icy January air outside while trying to make it to the safety of a neighbor’s house.

The House listened for the loud cries.

Anmwey! Difé!” the owner hollered as he ran its circumference. It tracked the movements of the owner, who ran around like a man trying to keep his pants up after having missed a belt loop while getting dressed. It watched as Its pajama-clad owner rushed from the backyard up the skinny driveway to the front stoop, then through the frozen garden in the empty parcel where another house could have been built, then around to the backyard again. The House didn’t see where the tenant vanished to, but he was gone before the ambulance arrived. It had a hard time emoting and keeping eyes on the owner simultaneously, but the House continued to cry and laugh convulsively. “Anmwey!” the owner shrieked as he waited for help to arrive, help the House did not want.

It tried to figure out how to drown out his cries. It screamed in different ways for different reasons until sirens overwhelmed them both. The fire trucks pulled up out front and, mercifully, the drivers silenced the blaring. But the night was far from still. The House blinked rapidly as the engines’ discordant lights made a visible noise of their own. It closed Its eyes to shut out the annoying but necessary red and yellow spinning that cracked the dark freezing night. Desperate for attention, It pumped out flames with renewed vigor like a toddler in a tantrum forcing herself to cry harder.

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It wished It had been built with the ability to speak, since people-talk always trumped Its performances. It huffed as the owner continued screaming in his native language: “Pitit mwen yo!” It wanted to shut him up. But a firefighter came across the half-frozen man while inspecting the perimeter of the House for points of entry. The House rolled Its eyes as the owner spoke English to ensure the firefighter understood.

“Hep! Difé! My sheeldren!” His accent protruded like a boil through taut skin.

It looked down at the two men and easily deduced that the heavily masked rescuer was white by his blue eyes reflecting the frosty glint of aluminum siding in the January night. The firefighter chased the owner back through the rock-hard soil of the hibernating snow-covered garden and out to the front of the House. The man finally stood still, watching powerlessly as his house blazed before him. Difé!

The House ignored the outside entertainment and, refusing to be defeated, It tried to turn Its efforts inward. It spread flames through every corner of Itself to produce Its cry of fire for on- lookers to see. It kept an eye on the owner standing outside in the subzero air bawling and mumbling to himself. It drooped to see the hydrants give more easily than expected. It recoiled as the hoses gushed against Its battalion of flames fighting for their right to be and be seen. It had earned this catharsis. It had endured and witnessed, had stood silent and been complicit. It deserved to explode publicly, to commit suicide grandly. It harnessed and funneled the flames to fight off the water like hell itself.

It followed the firefighters as they focused on the left side of the House where most of the windows were. Their hoses lined the narrow driveway that separated the opportunistic flames from the closest neighbor’s house, a tacky yellow eyesore with brown trim. Ambushed on Its left, the House strained to push fire out of the singular window on Its right. Its flames stretched their fingers across the empty parcel, trying to reach the tips of the dormant leafless apple tree. That was Its only hope of spreading Its fury: extend Its fire to high-five the tree, set it ablaze, then jump to the next house just inches away. If Its flames could reach the branch tips, they could skip to the almost-elegant pale blue cookie-cutter structure and take out half the block toward the main boulevard at least. At least.

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The House longed to level all Its neighbors that should have known about Its suffering.

The House longed to level all Its neighbors that should have known about Its suffering. It knew that they’d also been in pain, but they’d done nothing to help themselves or It. It would be the brave one, the one to put an end to it all. It would euthanize them, take them out of their misery, in the only way It knew how. The people were a different matter. It wanted to tear them down for putting their houses through the same suffering It had endured; the same misery that had been replicated in the various shades of brown, languages, and accents of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. How could people want to live through all of that? What was there to live for after all It had seen and been through? Why prolong the pain? What were they trying to prove? Perseverance? Resilience? To what end? Why stand outside in paper pajamas in the middle of a blocked-off street, in the mean January air, in the middle of the goddamned night, shouting, “There are people in there!”

The House changed tactics. It retracted the flames. It in- haled and held the smoke in Its chest, tricking the firefighters into believing that they were winning. For now, It would have to settle for self-consumption. Like an unseen hell, It would de- vour Itself without the fanfare of sparks. Lanf è. It would revel in the blue and yellow hues of Its dark interior. Hellfire. It would swallow molten glass and metal as salves to soothe Its regret at not having destroyed other houses whose inhabitants surely should have known the hurt being heaped upon It. It held Its breath and allowed the flames to do their worst inside to make Itself forever uninhabitable. It allowed them to eviscerate all of Its wood paneling, floors, and furniture. It took one hard gulp of fuel from the kerosene heater to burn through the floorboards in the cold upstairs bedrooms. No one would ever sleep there again. Difé! One long lick with ten tongues through the shotgun first floor, blackening the foyer, living room, dining room, and kitchen. No one would ever be welcomed, invited to sit, presented with a plate, and allowed to dip a tasting spoon there again. One jagged cough through the basement, a hiccup of final fumes, skipping over and in between defunct TVs, stereo turntables, eight-track tape decks, and heaping crates of unsorted junk. No one would ever stoop through the tight tunnel to thrift shop among the owner’s dusty collection again.

The House floated in and out of consciousness, waiting to die. It would no longer have to stomach wickedness, deviance, and injustice. It looked forward to the demolition that would level and free It at long last. It sighed and quietly stuttered, “Di-di-di-di-difé.” It closed Its eyes, ignoring the embers’ red glow. It didn’t feel the water pounding around Its gutted insides. Even if It had given credence to the owner’s incessant pleas, It wouldn’t have felt the tickle of a small child or the heft of a few adults crouching in one of Its corners. 

 ***

Well into his sixties, Lucien was arrogant enough to wish there’d been songs written about his birth, so he would know that he had been a miracle. He remembered only being abandoned in the care of his aunt La Belle by his U.S.-bound parents before his first birthday. Newly settled into his true complexion and curly hair texture, he’d become the perfect light-skinned, silky- haired toddler that Haitian families welcomed and worshipped. As he aged, he’d retained his color that was the creamy beige of traditional flour-thickened vanilla porridge—labouyi— boiled slowly and sweetly, eaten from its cooled-down edges to its enticingly hot center. His light brown eyes looked hazel in sunlight, proof of the centuries spent preserving the mark of miscegenation that had produced his lineage during centuries of slavery. His last name, Louverture, was the other legacy of that epoch.

Tante La Belle had been the same color. She should have been pretty given her light skin, smooth hair, green eyes. She believed that she was, but even Lucien’s merciful and grateful gaze could not make it so. Her features had come together awkwardly on her flat, round, wide face. Her eyes protruded like two egg yolks in a pan. Her bottom lip hung open, exposing the pink inside with its blue-green and purple veins. As much as she’d tried to hide her freckles, the three-dimensional skin tags around her nose resisted the heavy face powder. Her hair should have made up for some of her ugliness, but it had been so thin that it exposed her scalp.

As downright ugly as she was, she liked to think that Lucien resembled her. But his features had come together to make him a gorgeous toddler and, later, a pretty preadolescent boy. But he didn’t remember his face. Who and what he’d been between his childhood and his preteen years were murky. He couldn’t recall if La Belle had been kind to him or if he had made that up. But she’d bathed him like a baby until he was nine years old, slathering lotion over his skin in a way that had made him feel awkward and aroused at the same time. She loved to touch him because of the way her hands felt again his creamy skin. He would wait with anticipation as she slid off the rings she wore on each finger. She would end by running her fingers through his curls to remove the remaining oil. He would stand in her full-length mirror to bask in the sight of his shiny naked body, taking his time to get dressed, never looking at his own face.

He had not been able to resist the way she had doted on him, reminding him how beautiful a boy he was, how he looked like a prettier male version of herself. He’d once asked her why she’d had no children of her own and she’d responded that she hated all children except him. He’d been flattered at the odd com- pliment that had raised him to a status just above special. Her attention had approximated love, and the responsibility she’d placed on him had resembled trust.

He vaguely remembered the deeds that she’d made him commit. But he recalled with precision his early love of count- ing and his giftedness at math. He still relished the calculation of money and the appraisal of the value of things. He was an intelligent boy, but by age eleven, Lucien was only sporadically attending the clean, pricey Seventh-Day Adventist seminary for which his parents dutifully paid tuition twice a year. He’d never enjoyed time behind the doors of the pastor-led school. He’d even found the freedom of recess in the yard confining. Instead he’d wandered throughout the roughest parts of Port au Prince, daring shirtless slender boys—muscular despite days without meals, with skin as dark as the bottoms of their bare feet— to attack a well-dressed, well-fed, well-heeled cream-colored man-boy like himself. From the same dirty streets gorgeous indigo girls rose and ripened like curvaceous eggplants. With a frightening hunger in hand, he harvested the loosest ones and fucked them before bringing them to his newly adopted home, the brothel at Bar Caimite. He’d claimed the entryway to the place, which smelled of rum and frequent and corrupt sex. Leaning against the doorframe, he’d become a permanent fixture like the knob and hinges. A mature teenaged toughie, he’d installed himself as a handsome recruiter and de facto bouncer and earned his way to part ownership in only two years. He packed an old pistol and liked to watch the American and Euro- pean soldiers, peacekeepers and self-proclaimed rescuers of his people. They unabashedly entered his bar to enjoy their favorite overpriced liquor and even more expensive ladies of the dawn, bon matain, afternoon, and evening. He’d owned these women and even some soldiers by means of blackmail and the pistol he bragged about but never brandished.

Lucien had always preferred reclining against walls to sit- ting in chairs or on high-backed barstools. A burgeoning nar- coleptic, he needed to stand to stay awake. He remained vigilant to watch the prettiest little brown-skinned girl he’d ever seen, a precociously dressed two-year-old whose father was a ris- ing military man in François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s personal guard. From his post in the doorway, Lucien watched the coddled Marie-Ange Calvert grow up for more than a decade beside the general who drove, carried, and held the hand of his baby-doll daughter to the elite Catholic school up the only green hill in Port au Prince. Lucien was puzzled by his amorous feelings for such a young girl but determined to wait until she was of age to court her. For this reason, he hadn’t taken any girls seriously until he was twenty-four. By then, Marie-Ange was fifteen, old enough for him not to be embarrassed by his slow chase—stalking, really—of this maturing untouchable beauty. Why she’d married him was one of the many stories he’d rewritten upon arrival in America. He preferred to focus on how well he’d dressed back then. The sharp creases in his linen slacks. Panama shirt starched as crisp as kassav. The collar tips as hard and pointed as sharks’ teeth that would later devour daring or stupid Haitian boat people. From his open collar, a hypnotic gold chain beckoned to passersby. He flashed new greenbacks that hid his wad of ratty Haitian goud. The bills tempted beggars, hungry hookers, and ambitious marriage-age schoolgirls with no acceptable suitors. Not that he was suitable.

But he looked like he could get somewhere.

Yet he’d always known that calamity, not his good looks and exquisite dress, had forced Marie-Ange into his embrace for protection. Fear tightened around her waist, forced her to bend over his left forearm, allowed him to give her the most painless, pleasure-filled, doggy-style fuck any virgin had ever experienced. He had not expected the day to end that way, but, a natural opportunist, he was always ready for the unexpected. He was one of the first to see the eight armored trucks along the Palais Nacional road, carrying expendable blue-black Hai- tian soldiers strapped with U.S.-supplied machine guns. Behind them, an American exported tanker and a band of Union Jack– bolstered combatants stomped the dirt road smooth, ready for a fight. Many assumed that this was just another episode of grandstanding by the newly appointed president for life Jean- Claude Duvalier. But it turned out to be one of many attempts to overthrow the demon president bent on slaughtering his real and imagined enemies and terrorizing ordinary citizens. It was merely a single song set to play over and over again on the aging record player in Bar Caimite.

Because baton blows were hard to count amid chaos, Lucien had paid less attention to the potential eruption of random beatings of innocent street peddlers and truants. Instead, he looked at the ground in front of the bar near his left foot, where he had scattered just enough sugar to draw out a line of soldier ants. These he counted obsessively while waiting for dropped treasure. He would forever advise those under his care or influence to look down when walking so they would never miss dropped coins or bills. Standing outside his own bar, having counted women, money, and ants, he would catalog the shoes of polished private schoolgirls.

Their footwear boasted water droplets from the lush wet grass of the school grounds. Sturdy English garden greenery taunted the browning tufts of weeds drying out on the lawn of the national palace. Both greens mocked the gray dust of the rest of Port au Prince’s streets, where the only verdure to be seen were the plantains lounging on market tables. If Lucien had been paying attention to the landscape, he would have been counting the disappearing trees, an occupation that would have grown easier with each passing season until Haiti’s trees quickly became endangered and then extinct. But he’d been more concerned with the shoes that would bring his beloved to him.

A third of the girls wore the same standard-issue Mary Janes purchased from a flabby market woman with New York ties—Buster Browns with chunky rubber soles and cutesy patent leather low block heels. Some sported the odd white Keds for the one day of mandatory physical education in which they were forced to participate. Lucien knew how many shoes each girl owned. Most of them were awarded three different pairs at the beginning of every school year. Everyday BBs, ineffective cloth-topped sneakers that sucked up street dust like a Hoover, and patent leather for church. The church pairs were so shiny the girls could use them as mirrors for applying Vaseline to their lips. Beyond his obsessive need to count, he wasn’t interested in these. He waited to spy the pair of matte leather French kit- ten heels better suited to a teacher than a student. But even the teachers at the most expensive Catholic school in Port au Prince couldn’t afford to buy them. The shoes Marie-Ange sported were one of many pairs purchased by her father during his presi- dential trips through Paris en route to Switzerland.

After counting the shoes and the girls, Lucien counted the days of the week on his fingers. On this day, the day of the coup attempt, he confirmed that it was indeed Friday. Bored but patient, he even started to count the boys, scrutinizing the face of one, Marie-Ange’s baby brother, to deduce if something had happened to make her late. Had their father unexpectedly sent his chauffer on this particular Friday? Did he forewarn her of what the line of soldiers had been planning? The boy’s face surrendered no clues. Instead, his attire reminded Lucien of himself as a schoolboy, in a white shirt, plaid tie, and shorts too short for an adolescent boy; they exposed his legs and thighs that were more curvaceous and elegant than a girl’s. As he thought back to those times, he heard someone whisper, I am nothing. The soft sound came from within and resonated outward. He needed to count.

He looked over his shoulder into the bar behind him, taking inventory of the patrons. Startled, he turned around fully to recount the women leaning over and chatting up men, deliberately doling out copious amounts of cleavage. He counted the ones sitting in the laps of patrons, throwing back shots of diluted rum. One of them was missing, but so was one of his regulars, a sloppy-fat gray-haired white soldier who paid a monthly retainer. Lucien heaved his relief without letting on that he had been worried. He turned back around so he would not miss Marie-Ange passing by.

Growing impatient, Lucien started walking toward Marie-Ange as soon as he spotted her distinctive shoes amid the early- dismissed upperclassmen. She was still at least five hundred yards behind, making her way down the last green slope. His headstart allowed him to make it to the bakery, where he would watch her enter to secure the pastries for which he had prepaid. Given her status and wealth as the daughter of one of President Duvalier’s most trusted generals, he didn’t want her to see him handling dirty bills. He knew that she would refuse to accept a gift from him, a hang-about nearly a decade her senior with no known profession.

He would never meet her standards. He was a vagabond— a dead one, if her father ever caught a whiff of him on her uni- form. The general would know. Her father had first figured out that she went to the bakery on Fridays by sniffing her imported cream cardigan. He could smell the butter, flour, and even the salt water and oven heat that was used to make her preferred patties. Papi General had spies in the area, failed ones who told him only what Lucien had paid them to say about his distant liaisons with Marie-Ange. Which is to say they told the general nothing except what she had eaten, if she had also opted for a beverage, and whether she had shared with her younger siblings. Dirty money aside, Lucien never wanted Marie-Ange to see him deep in one of his counting spells. If he’d had to pay the girl behind the counter in Marie-Ange’s presence, she would have misjudged him as a penny-pincher instead of the well-dressed, mysteriously moneyed suitor she couldn’t look in the eyes.

Lucien entered the bakery and leaned against a tall, skinny refrigerator that grunted as it forcibly slurped electricity from the generator like a thick milkshake through a stirrer straw. He stared at the wind chimes that would announce her arrival. When they finally tinkled, he watched as she walked in with three of her little sisters and her youngest brother. He winked at the boy to disarm his disgusted, dismissive stare.

He turned his attention to the baker, who handed Marie- Ange the same pastries she always ordered. She nodded grate- fully and gracefully as she handed a bag to each of her siblings and kept one for herself. He was glad to see the children run out when they heard the sound of military trucks passing. They were hoping to glimpse their father driving by on his way home, so they wouldn’t have to walk. If they saw him, they knew to make excuses for Marie-Ange, who stayed behind shamelessly pretending to avoid Lucien’s stare. The trucks were headed toward the capitol instead of away from it, which was unusual. Lucien and Marie-Ange knew something was amiss when they saw her siblings freeze in the doorway. He let her walk outside alone, so he wouldn’t be accosted by her father. He followed when she started to run in the direction her siblings were sprinting. Spotting confusion up ahead, he ran behind her. He was on her heels immediately and took the opportunity to hold her waist to guide her away from the dustup. They lost the children they were trying to catch up to amid the running shop owners and the army trucks that tried to speed through thick traffic. Even with the cars giving them priority passage, the envoy could go only twenty to thirty miles per hour in short sprints.

With one swift movement Lucien swooped Marie-Ange up and over his shoulder and accelerated in the opposite direction to get her to safety. Although she would never learn how, she would eventually admit to herself that, in the years she’d grown from girl to near woman, Lucien had followed her even to the safe place her father had chosen for such an occasion as this. She fell asleep in the crook of his arm, in the most secure place she’d ever known, a place so far outside Port au Prince it could have been another country.

In the morning, Lucien woke Marie-Ange and handed her the traditional remedy for extreme shock: equally traumatizing bitter black coffee in a covered emaillé cup. He watched her eyes flicker as she tried to recognize the squat hut where she’d slept. The countryside that buffered Port au Prince was equally unfamiliar. He could see that she recognized two people—him and her godmother, Nen-nen, who was safety itself. The newly bound couple would spend nearly a year hiding there, too afraid to let anyone know where the general’s daughter was after he had been “disappeared” or assassinated. There were rumors of both and one equaled the other. Lucien and Marie-Ange as- sumed that her siblings had met the same fate, gorged on by the indiscriminately lustful vampiric militia who fed on the blood of children and adults alike.

When Lucien recounted the story of his immigration to New York, he liked to say that his parents had rescued him from an economically declining dictatorship. He’d left Haiti right after Papa Doc had died, making his vicious nineteen-year- old son president. In less than a decade Lucien would opine on the sensationalism of America’s six o’clock news that dubbed the juvenile president “Baby Doc,” trivializing the experience of those brutalized, erased, or massacred throughout Haiti. Lucien’s parents had really rescued their grandchildren from the trouble they’d known Lucien had gotten himself into back home. In fact, he’d immigrated when Haiti was still a country much like other Caribbean islands—pretty beaches cradling neat hotels that rose like champagne glasses on glittering trays. Behind the paradise, mean dirt roads, hungry hovels, squat donkeys, and skinny cows held themselves together as stur- dily and desperately as the proud, undernourished dark waiters serving maraschino-cherry-laden Shirley Temples to the bratty children of French and American tourists.

He’d never bothered to analyze why his parents had left him behind. It was common for immigrating parents to leave their kids while establishing themselves unencumbered in a new and unfamiliar place. Mothers and fathers would promise to send for their children when they reached school age and expensive all-day American childcare was no longer necessary. They would excuse themselves for leaving the children a little bit longer while they amassed enough to rent a proper apart- ment or even buy a house. By that time, it was too late to try to integrate an adolescent into such a new environment. Some- times they decided to spare themselves the embarrassment of a rebellious teenager’s behavior. They still sent hefty remittances to the relatives caring for and putting up with lost, resentful, and recalcitrant children. They absolved themselves of the sin of abandonment that left their children with oozing wounds that would never close.

I am nothing.

Lucien had opted to become what he’d believed his parents had seen in him even as an infant—a wild, soiled boy whose insides would never be as clean as his perfect light skin. He’d grown up thinking of them as the source of the countless luxuries he’d enjoyed all his life, and becoming the child his parents had written off as a worthless and shameless embarrassment. It was too late to make him into the son they would have liked to bring to the United States much earlier for schooling. In- stead, by the time he’d gotten his passport and plane ticket, he’d been living as deep in rural Haiti’s soil as the mahogany tree roots surrounding the cement-block hut. His pregnant wife was still nursing their first child. He didn’t see anything wrong with his circumstances and was comfortable with the fact that he had squandered his elite seminary education to pimp hope- less women at a brothel watering hole. Earning nothing but dust in Bois Droit, he manipulated his parents into listening to well-crafted recorded messages. The cassette tape missives did not require the flawless French and impeccable penmanship of handwritten letters. He was capable of both, but the tapes and photographs messaged the intimacy and urgency he wanted to convey.

He’d choreographed poses for the photos of him and Marie-Ange under an emaciated almond tree with their dusty bare legs evidencing their desperation. They were holding hands, her head on his chest, his free hand on her belly. He knew that these would scare his parents into rushing him to the States. They were nearly as incensed at the sight of their high-yellow son with a beautiful brown country dweller as they were at the story of her escape from Port au Prince amid a failed coup d’état. That her father was one of Duvalier’s closest generals was nearly as frightening as the fact that he had been disappeared. Lucien knew the things that would tug at his parents’ hearts as they weighed their decision to bring him to America. Entire families had been known to vanish in the wake of a patriarch’s assassination. To add to their fear and worry, he’d considered counting coins in the background while Marie-Ange recorded the section of the message he’d scripted for her. But her succinct explanation of what had happened to her father sufficed. He preferred to count in private and in his head anyway. He had learned to dismiss the breath at the back of his neck eschewing the foreign yet familiar words, I am nothing. Nothing—until I count.

Zero, un, deux, trois . . . He always started at zero. He’d counted the many coins and then the soiled wrinkled bills that resisted his attempts to smooth them out. “This is enough to get me into town to pick up the money transfer.”

“Are you sure they sent the papers as well?”

“Guaranteed. With this belly”—he ran his hand along the width of her stomach—“they would be cruel not to. I’m going and soon so will you.”

“And my children. I am not leaving them behind.” Marie- Ange cast a glance at Veille, their first daughter who had not yet turned one.

“We’ll all be together. I won’t let them leave my girls be- hind. Or my boy.” He patted her stomach again.

“Girls. I can feel it. This one is a girl too. Nen-nen also said—”

“You listen to that old woman.”

“Yes, I do. Do you have any idea how much magic is keep- ing us safe here?”

“Ezili. I know, I know.” He was tired of hearing about dei- ties masked as saints. He especially despised Ezili, the goddess who exerted her dominance over men.

“You know, but you don’t believe. Someday you will. Mark my words.”

“I believe. I just don’t worship. I won’t submit.”

“You sound like my father,” she said for him to hear. Under her breath she whispered, “But you’ll never be the man he was.” She didn’t articulate the rest of what she was thinking, that she was pregnant with a baby in her arms only because he was her ticket out of hell’s hunger and the devil’s danger.

“I couldn’t bow down to anyone, even at the seminary.” “Anyone except me.”

“Precisely.”

“To do that, you must love her too.”

“As long as she gets me to New York, I’ll do whatever she requires.”

“Go then.”

“I’m not leaving yet. I have to take a bag with me in case I can’t get a bus to come back tonight.” He silently enumerated everything that would be needed.

***

Lucien could tell that his parents did not recognize him as he came down the Jetway at JFK Airport, despite having seen the carefully orchestrated photos he’d sent. He barely recognized them in their heavy coats, wool hats pulled down over their eyebrows, and scarves wrapped up to their bottom lips. Rather than hug him, they helped him put on his coat, each one holding a sleeve as an excuse to touch him. But he felt nothing even when skin met skin. Especially then. What he felt were the tears that arose from nowhere inside him. He swallowed them with the words he didn’t acknowledge, I am nothing.

Within a week of his arrival, he was rolling coins into long bank-issued paper tubes. He licked his lips as he counted over and over the tips he’d earned as a newspaper delivery boy. He contemplated how he would miss them when he started working his manly job as a steelworker at a plant in New Jersey that was too far to get to by bus and train. Only two months later, a week before he started work, he made a trip back to Haiti to hold his first child again and to have reassuring sex with Marie-Ange. He stayed long enough to rub the sides of her stomach and the small of her back when she went into labor with what neither of them knew at the time would be twins. A year later, he imported her and their three baby daughters to New York.

He loved that there were four of them, four women specifically, enough to count and to manage. A lot to feed, but Marie- Ange would start working as soon as they could find childcare for their girls. They agreed that they would not depend on his parents. They didn’t even want to continue cramming their family of five into the small apartment. They could not have predicted that the upper Manhattan tenement would someday be turned into luxury housing for Columbia University professors. Anxious to be out from under the strangers who were his parents, Lucien made the right connections with the lower Mob loan sharks who ran the union at the steel plant where he worked. From them he secured a loan for the down payment on a house in South Ozone Park, Queens. Once established, he and Marie-Ange inadvertently helped transform the once Italian neighborhood into a mixed immigrant community of primarily Caribbeans.

Through word of mouth about the compassionate and savvy young couple, newly arrived Haitians—mostly distant family members at first—flocked to SOP as they tried to find their way in their new country. Lucien had been the first to call the house Kay Manman Mwen, “my mother’s house,” KAM for short. The name stuck, and over the years he capitalized on what it had become: a welcome center, restaurant, motel, half- way house, off-the-books job brokerage, legal office, and casino. Veille, Clair, and Dor, born in that order, were Lucien’s motivation to hustle and secure his foothold in New York. He never liked the city. He always longed to return home to Port au Prince, where he could stretch his legs while leaning against the doorframe of Bar Caimite, counting ill-and easily gotten gains from gambling and pimping. But his girls, which included Marie-Ange, were different. They were enough. They would always be enough to keep him in America, to make him happy in a hostile place. For them and his precious house he’d sweat in 150-degree steam at the plant. He would lose all of them, his three daughters, Marie-Ange, and his house, one decade at a time. He knew because he’d counted the time to the day.

The house was the last to be taken from him.

__________________________________

 

From My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir. Used with the permission of the publisher, Knopf. Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Momplaisir .




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6 International Crime Novels You Should Read This May This month Stateside readers are enjoying a strong influx of good crime fiction from the Spanish-speaking world, plus a new mystery...

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