Eric Walrond, "The Palm Porch" (1925)
NOBODY had ever heard of Miss Buckner before she swept into The Palm Porch. The Palm Porch was not a cantine; it was a house. Still, one was not sure of that, either; for a house, assuredly, is a place where people live. But Miss Buckner did not only live there: she had cut up the house in small, single rooms, each in separate and distinct entities. Each had its armor of leafy laces, its hangings of mauve and cream-gold; each its loadstones and daggers; its glowing dust and scarlet. Each its wine and music, powders and mirrors.
High against the sky, on slender, ant-proof poles, The Palm Porch looked down upon the squalid cosmos of Colon. Facing north—a broad expanse of red, arid land.
Before the Revolution it was a black, evil forest-swamp. Deer, lions, mongooses and tiger cats went prowling through it. Then the Americans came . . . came with saw and spear, tar and lysol. About to rid it . . . molten city . . . of its cancer, fire swept it up on the bosom of the lagoon. Naked, virgin trees; limbless. Gaunt, hollow stalks. Huge shadows falling. Dredges in the golden mist; dredges on the lagoon. Horny iron pipes spouted over the fetid swamp. Noise; grating noise. Earth stones, up from the bowels of the sea, rattled against the ribs of scaly pipes like popping corn. Crackling corn. Water, red, black, gray, gushed out of big, bursting pipes. For miles people heard its lap-lapping. Dark as the earth, it flung up on its crest stones, pearls, sharks’ teeth . . . jewels of the sunken sea. Frogs, vermin, tangled things. . . .
It browned into a lake of dazzling corals. Slowly the sun began to sop, harden, dry it up. Upon its surface, buoying it, old tree stumps; guava, pine. On them snipes flew. Wild geese came low, dipping up an earth-burned sprat. Off again. River stakes. Venturing to explore it enterprising kids would slip through . . . plop . . . go down . . . seized by the intense suction. Ugly rescue work.
In time it gave in to the insistence of the sun. White and golden husks shone upon it. Shells; half-shells. It cut, dazed and dazzled you. Queer things, half-seen, on the dry, salty earth. Ghastly white bones; skulls, ear-rings, bangles. Scrambling. Rows. Sea-scum fought and slew each other over them.
As time went on it became a bare, vivid plain. City’d soon spring upon it. Of a Sunday blacks would skip over to the beach to bathe or pick cocoanuts on the banks of the lagoon. On the lagoon . . . a slaughter house and a wireless station. Squeaking down at the flat, low city. Pigs being stuck, the unseeing hoofs of cattle . . . the wireless . . .
tang ta-tang, tang ta-tang
stole out of the meridian dusk.
Upon the lake of sea-earth, dusk swept a mantle of majestic coloring.
East of The Palm Porch, roared the city of Colon. Hudson Alley, “G” Street . . . coolies, natives, Island blacks swarming to the Canal. All about, nothing but tenements . . . city word for cabins . . . low, soggy, toppling.
Near the sky rose the Ant’s Nest. Six stories high and it took up half a city block. One rickety staircase . . . in the rear. No two of its rooms connected. Each sheltered a family of eight or nine. A balcony ringed each floor. Rooms . . . each room . . . opened out upon it. Only one person at a time dared walk along any point of it. The cages of voiceless yellow birds adorned each window. Boards were stretched at the bottom of doors to stop kids from wandering out . . . to the piazza below. Flower-pots . . . fern, mint, thyme, parsley, water cress . . . sat on the scum-moist sills of the balconies.
Over the hot, low city the Ant’s Nest lorded it. Reared its mouth to the heavens. Sneered truculently at it. Offensive, muggy, habitation made it giddy, bilious. Swarms of black folk populated it. . . .
Sorry lot. Tugging at the apron strings of life, scabrous, sore-footed natives, spouting saliva into unisolated cisterns. Naked on the floors Chinese rum shops and chow-stands. Nigger-loving Chinks unmoved and unafraid of the consequences of a breed of untarnished . . . seemingly . . . Asiatics growing up around the breasts of West Indian maidens. Pious English peasant blacks . . . perforating the picture . . . going to church, to lodge meetings, to hear fiery orations.
Ant’s Nest. On one hand the Ant’s Nest. On the other, the sand-gilt lake. In this fashion it was not an unexpected rarity to find The Palm Porch prospering. Austerely entrenched, the rooms on the ground floor went to a one-eyed baboo and a Panama witch doctor. Gates at the top of the stairs kept intruders off. A wolf hound insured the logic of the precaution.
Around the porch Miss Buckner had unsheathed a strip of bright enamel cloth. From a man’s waist it rose to the roof. It was beyond reason for anyone to peep up from the piazza and see what was taking place up there. Of course there were iron bars below the white screen, but Miss Buckner had covered these with crates of fern and violets strung along it. In addition, Miss Buckner had not been without an eye to a certain tropical exactness.
About Miss Buckner the idea of surfeit . . . oxen hips, long, pliable hands, roving, sun-staring breasts . . .took on the magic of reality. Upon the yellow stalk of her being there shot up into mist and crystal space a head the shape of a sawed-off cocoanut tree top. Pressed close to its rim were tiny wrinkles . . . circles, circlets, half-circles . . . of black, crisp hair. It was even bobbed . . . an unheard of proceeding among the Victorian maidens of the Indian tropics. Unheard of, indeed.
Further to confound the canaille a heretical part slid down the front of it. Strangely anti-sexual, it helped, too, to create a brightly sodden air about Miss Buckner in the ramified circles in which she set her being.
Urged on by the ruthless, crushing spirit which was firmly and innately a part of her, Miss Buckner, consciously unaware of the capers she was cutting amid the synthetic hordes . . . black, brown, yellow folk . . . had, perhaps, a right to insist on such things as a frizzly head of hair. Perhaps to her it was a trivial item of concern—to her and her only. And, by way of sprucing up lagging ends in her native endowments, items such as wavy, sylvan tresses, or a slim, pretty figure, Miss Buckner had an approach to one . . . life . . . that was simply excruciating. Where, oh! where, folk asked, did she acquire it? London . . . Paris . . . Vienna? No! In reality Miss Buckner, a dame of sixty—it was the first time that she had deserted the isle of her birth in an animated raffle across the sea,—would have fallen ill at the very suggestion of having to go to Europe or anywhere in fact beyond the crimson rim of Jamaica in quest of manners. Absurd!
And so, like a bit of tape, this manner to Miss Buckner stuck. Upon women Miss Buckner had meager cause to ply it, for at The Palm Porch precious few women, except, of course, Zuline, her Surinam cook, and, of course, her five daughters, were ever allowed. It was a man’s house. When, as a result, Miss Buckner, beneath a brilliant lorgnette, condescended to look at a man, she looked sternly, unsmilingly down at him. When, of a Sabbath, Miss Buckner, hair in oily, overt frills, maidenly in a silken shawl of gold and blue, a dab of carmine on her mouth, decided to go to the mercado, followed by the slow, trepid steps of Zuline, to buy achi and Lucy-yam and cocoa-milk and red peas, she had half of the city gaping at the very wonder of her. Erratically, entirely in command of herself, Miss Buckner, by a word or gesture . . . quick, stabbing, petulant . . . would outbuy a deftly-enshrined Assyrian candymaker, the most abject West Indian fish dealer or the meekest native vendor of cebada. Colorful as a pheasant, she swept on, through the mist of crawling folk, the comely Zuline at her elbow, plying her with queries surely she did not expect her to possess enough virginity to answer. Dumping as she swept along vegetables, meats, spices in the bewildered girl’s basket. Her head high above the dusky mob, her voice, at best a thing of angel-colors, uncaught by the shreds of patois going by her.
In fact, from Colon to Cocoa Grove, Miss Buckner, by the color-crazed folk who swam head-high in the bowl of luring life stirred by her, was a woman to tip one’s hat to—regal rite—a woman of taste, culture, value. Executives at Balboa, pilots on the locks, sun-burned sea folk attested to that. They gloried at the languor of Miss Buckner’s salon.
Of course, by words that came flashing like meteors out of Miss Buckner’s mouth, one got the impression that Miss Buckner would have liked to be white; but, alas! she was only a mulatto. No one had ever heard of her before she and her innocent darlings moved into The Palm Porch. Of course, it was to be expected, the world being what it is, that there were people who—De la Croix, a San Andres wine merchant, De Pass, a Berbice horse breeder—murmured words of treason: that, out of their roving lives they’d seen her at a certain Bar in Matches Lane stringing out from over a broad, clean counter words of rigid cheer to the colonizing English barque men . . . but such, too, were cast to the dogs to be devoured as expressions of useless and undocumented chatter. Whether the result of a union of white and Negro, French or Spanish, English or Maroon . . . no one knew. And her daughters, sculptural marvels of gold and yellow, were enshrined in a similar mystery. Of their father and their ascension to the luxury of one, the least heard, so far as the buzzing community was concerned, the better. And in the absence of data tongues began to wag. Norwegian bos’en. Jamaica lover . . . Island trumph. Crazy Kingston nights. . . . To the charming ladies in question, it was a subject of adoring indifference. Miss Buckner herself, who had a contempt for statistics, was a trifle hazy about the whole thing. . . .
One of the girls, white as a white woman, eyes blue as a Viking maid’s, strangely, at sixteen, had eloped, much to Miss Buckner’s disgust, with a shiny-armed black who at one time had been sent to the Island jail for the proletarian crime of prædial larceny. Neighbors swore it was love at first sight. But it irked, piqued Miss Buckner. “It a dam’ pity shame,” she had cried, between dabs at her already cologne-choked nose, “it a dam’ pity shame.”
Another girl, the eldest of the lot (Miss Buckner had had seven in all), had oh! ages before given birth to a pretty, gray-eyed baby boy, when she was but seventeen, and, much to Miss Buckner’s disgrace, had later taken up with a willing young mulatto, a Christian in the Moravian church, and brutishly undertaken the burdens of concubinage. He was able, honest, industrious and wore shoes, but Miss Buckner nearly went mad—groaned at the pain her wayward daughters were bringing her. “Oh, Gahd,” she cried, “Oh, Gahd, dem ah send me to de dawgs . . . dem ah send me to de dawgs!” Clerk in the cold storage; sixty dollars a month . . . wages of an accursed “Silver” employee. Silver is nigger; nigger is silver. Nigger-silver . . . blah! Why, debated Miss Buckner, stockings couldn’t be bought with that, much more take care of a woman accustomed to “foxy clothes an’ such” and a dazzling baby boy. Silver employee! Why couldn’t he be a “Gold” employee . . . and get $125 a month, like “de fella nex’ tarrim, he?” He did not get coal and fuel free, besides. He had to dig down and pay extra for them. He was not, alas! white. And that hurt, worried Miss Buckner. Caused her nights of anxious sleeplessness. Wretch! “To tink dat a handsome gal like dat would-ah tek up with a dam’ black neygah man like him, he? Now, wa’ you tink o’ dat? H’ answer me, no!” Oh, how her poor little ones were going to the dogs!
And so, to dam the flow of tears, Miss Buckner and the remaining ones of her flamingo-like brood, drew up at The Palm Porch. Sense-picture. All day Miss Buckner’s brunettes would be there on the veranda posturing nude, half-nude. Exposed to the subdued warmth, sublimated by the courting of fans and shadow-implements, they’d be there, galore. Gorgeous slippers, wrought by some color-drunk Latin, rested on the tips of toes—toes blushing, hungering to be loved and kissed. Brown and silver ones. Purple and orange-colored kimonos fell away from excitably harmless anatomies. Inexhaustible tresses of night-gloss hair, hair—echoes of Miss Buckner’s views on the subject—hair the color of a golden moon, gave shade and sun glows to rose-red arms and bosoms. Vases of roses, flowers . . . scented black and green leaves . . . crowned the night. Earth-sod fragrances; old, prematurely old, and crushed, withered flowers. Stale French perfumes. . . . Gems. Gems on the tips and hilts of mediaeval daggers. Priceless stones strewn on boudoirs. Hair pins of gold; diamond headed hat pins. Shoe heels ablaze with white, frosty diamonds. . . .
Upon the porch sat the cream of Miss Buckner’s cultivation. Sprawling, legs . . . soft, round, dimpled . . . on the arms of bamboo chairs . . . smoking . . . drinking . . . expostulating.
On the bare floor, dismal gore-spots on various parts of their crash and crocus bag—eyes watering at them—were men, white men. In the dead of night, chased by the crimson glow of dawn, intense white faces, steaming red in the burning tropics, flew madly, fiercely across the icy-flows of the Zone to the luxurious solitude of The Palm Porch.
To-night, the girls, immune to the vultures of despair, lie, sprawled on bamboo lounges, sat at three-legged tables, eyes sparkling, twittering. . . .
O! comin’ down with a bunch o’ roses
Come down when Ah call ya’ . . .
Rustle of silks. European taffeta silk. Wrestling-tight. On an open, buxom body, cherished under the breezes of a virgin civilization, it was a trifle unadoring. It pressed and irked one.
“There now, boys, please be quiet . . . the captain is coming . . . .”
Anywhere else she’d have slipt up, but here it rippled like an ocean breeze free of timidity or restraint. In the presence of Islanders it might have resulted otherwise, but to strangers—and it was so easy to fool the whites—the color of one’s voice went unobserved.
“Skipper, eh? Who is he? Wha’ ta hell tub is ’e on?” Expectorations. Noisy-tongued lime juicers. . . .
“Let the bleddy bastard go to . . .”
“Now, Tommy, that isn’t nice. . . .”
“Hell it ain’t! Blarst ’im! Gawd blimmah, I’ll blow ta holy car load o’ yo’. . . .”
Again the swift, swift rustle of silks. Olive one of silk; sweating, arranging, eliminating. . . .
“Anesta, dear, take Baldy inside. . . .”
“Do, darling . . . !”
“No, Gawd blarst yo’ . . . lemmego! Lemme go, I say!”
“Be a gentleman, Baldy, and behave!”
“What a hell of a ruction it are, eh?”
“Help me wit’ ’im, daughter. . . .”
“Do, Anesta, dear. . . .”
Yielding ungently, he staggered along on the girl’s arm. He stept in the crown of Mr. Thingamerry’s hat. A day before he had put on a spotless white suit. Laundered by the Occupation, the starch on the edges of it made it dagger-sharp. Now, it was a sight. Ugly wine stains darkened it. Drink, perspiration, tobacco weed moistened his sprigless shirt front. Awry—his tie, collar, trousers. His reddish brown hair was wet, bushy, ruffled. Grimy curses fell from his red, grime-bound lips. Six months on the Isthmus, its nights and the lure of The Palm Porch had caught him in its enervating grip. It held him tight. Sent from Liverpool to the British Postal Agency at Colon, he had fallen for the languor of the sea coast . . . had been seized by the magic glow of The Palm Porch.
He came down from Heaven to earth
Day by day like us He grew . . . .”
La la la, la la la la-ah ah
La la la, la la la la-ah ah ah. . . .
“John three, sixteen, and the Lord said there was light. ‘And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.’ . . .”
Upon a palpitating bosom, Miss Buckner put a young, eager hand. It was wildly in quest of something . . . anchorage, perhaps.
Viewing it—queer, the disorderly temperature of women—Captain Tintero, a local vigilante, shot a red, staring eye at her. . . . “Well, my good lady, I see you are nervous as usual. . . . Is not that so?”
Flattered by the captain’s graciousness, Miss Buckner curtsied. Her eyelids giggled coquettishly. “Oh, my dear captain,” she said, “it is so splendid of you to come. I’ve been thinking of you all day—really. Wasn’t I, Anesta, dear? Of course! Anesta, dear? Anesta, where are you, my dear? Where oh where are you?”
“It’s good to be this way. God blarst mah, it is. ‘And the Lord said unto him, this is my beloved Son in whom I’m well pleased.’ . . .”
“ . . . now laddie boys, don’t be naughty . . . be quiet, children. Captain, as I was saying . . . naughty . . . naughty boys. . . . Harmless, captain. Harmless, playful things. Anesta, Anestita? Is that the way you . . . persuasive captain!”
Cackling like a hen, pitching men to one side, she swept along. One or two British youths, palsied with liquor, desire, glared at her . . . then, at the olive figure, gold and crimson epaulets, high, regal prancing, at the uncovered, wolf-like fangs of the Captain. . . .
“Christ, He was your color. Christ was olive. Jesus Christ was a man of olive . . .”
Grimy Britishers. Loquacious lime-juicers. Wine-crazed, women-crazed. . . .
Bringing up the rear, Captain Tintero, at best a dandy of the more democratic salons, grew warm at the grandeur of ennui, the beauty of excess. He, too, alas! was not to be outdone when he had set his heart upon a thing. Beau Brummel of the dusky policia, he was vain, handsome, sun-colored. He gloried in a razor slash on his right cheek which he had obtained at a brawl over a German maiden in a District cantine. Livid, the claret about to spring out of it, it did not disfigure him. It lit up the glow women fancied in him. When he laughed it would turn pale, starkly pale; when he was angry it oozed red, blood-red. . . .
For a vigilante the road to gallantry was clear. Heart of iron, nerves of steel—to be able to club a soused Marine to smithereens . . . possessing these, it was logic to exact tribute from the sulky vermin of the salons. . . .
Inflated by such authority, the Captain swore, spat, dug his heels in the faces of the English. . . .
Applying a Javanese fan to her furious bosom, Miss Buckner, her taffeta silk kicking up an immense racket, returned to the Captain. A bolden smile covered her frank, open face.
“Now, you impetuous Panamanian!” she warmed, the pearls on the top row of her teeth a-glitter, “you must never be too impatient. The Bible says, ‘Him that is exalted . . . The gods will never be kind to you if you keep on that way. . . . No use . . . you won’t understand the Bible! Come! . . .”
Gathering up the ruffles of her skirt, she sped along. Into a realm of shadowy mists. Darkness. “Too much liquor,” she turned, by way of apology, tapping her black bandeau and indicating the tossing figure of the British Postal Agent . . . “too much liquor . . . don’t mind . . . el es Ingles . . . postal agental . . . Ingles . . .”
“ . . . no matter what he says. . . .”
“Baldy! Why, the very itheah! . . . Go quietly, dear. . . .”
“Really, Captain,” Miss Buckner waved a jewel-flaming wrist, “it is quite comic. Why, the fellow’s actually offensive! And all I can do is keep the dear child out of the wretch’s filthy embrace . . . advances!”
It didn’t matter very much, after all. And brushing the slip aside, Miss Buckner went on, “But of course,” she conceded, “one has to be pleasant to one’s guests. O! Captain, in dear old Kingston, none of this sort of thing ever occurred. . . . None!—And of course it constrains me profusely!——
“Anesta, where are you, my dear?”
Out of the dusk the girl came. Her grace, her beauty, the endless dam of color, of emotion that flooded her face bewitched, unnerved the captain. In an attitude of respectful indecision she paused at the door, one hand at her throat, the other held out to the captain. . . .
In one’s mouth it savored of butter. Miss Buckner, there at the door, viewing the end of an embarrassing quest, felt happy. The captain, after all, was such a naughty boy!
• • • • •
Down on the carpetless porch, dipt in the brine of shadows, the hoarse, catching voice of an Englishman called. “Anesta, Anesta . . . mulatto girl . . . Gawd blarst the bleddy spiggoty to ’ell! Come to me, Anesta! So ’elp me Gawd if ’e goes artah ’er I’ll cut the gizzard out . . . hey . . . where’s that bleddy Miss Buckner . . . ?”
Sore, briny silence. “And His word is mine. And the word was God, and all things made by Him, and God. . . . No. Gawd damn it, that isn’t right. Jesus! . . .”
“And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not. . . .” Endless emotion. Swung up upon the shores of a spirit-sea, where the owls and saints and the shiny demons of the hideous morass emerged at the low tide to mate and war and converse on the imperishable odes of time . . . ghastly reality!
• • • • •
Scream . . . it touched no one. Doing its work at a swift, unerring pace. . . . A death-rattle, and the descent of shadows and solitude.
• • • • •
At noon the day after the cops came and got the body. Over the blood-black hump a sheet was flung. It ate up the scarlet. Native crowds stuck up their chins at it . . . even the tiny drip-drip on the piazza. From the dark roof hanging over the pavement it came. . . .
Way back—to be exact, a week after life moved on The Porch—a new white screen-cloth had been put together and pelted out that way. A slow, rigid procession of them. Now, its edge—that is the novelty of it—taken off, Miss Buckner, firm in the graces of the Captain drunk in Anesta’s boudoir, was so busy with sundry affairs she did not have space to devote to the commotion the spectacle had undoubtedly created. To put it briefly, Miss Buckner, while Zuline sewed a button on her suede shoes, was absorbed in the task of deciding whether to have chocolate soufflé or maiden hair custard at lunch that afternoon. . . .
Published in The New Negro: an Interpretation, 1925