Bills


ago
4 min
107
readings
2
Finalist
Jury
"You look like my daughter," the man on the bus says.

I turn my head politely. "Oh, thanks."

I'm unclear on whether it's a compliment, but why else would he be smiling like that? His arms are splayed across the seatbacks of the bus. Every time we hit a bump, he reaches for the backpack beside him. Before I turn back around, he says, "Yeah. She's in college now, in Florida. That's where I'm from. Where are you from, baby?"

"Oh, the Caribbean." He reminds me of Uncle Pop. Something about his smile. Maybe it's the gap between his teeth.

"Jamaica? My mom grew up there," he says, nodding and pointing a chunky index finger at me in that familiar way, as if he knows me from somewhere, as if our families might just be related. Before I can respond, he continues, "It's nice on the islands, man. But it's tough. My mom had it tough. She was the only girl. Her five brothers didn't do nothing to help out. So she was holding it down alone, then she came here when her Green Card went through. Thought it would be a better life. I wasn't even born yet. Then she met my father, and that's when the real trouble started."

"Trouble?" Hmmm. I turn slightly to face him. He pauses and nods more slowly, unzipping the black backpack. His eyes stare out at the blurry houses, and now he's popping a stick of Extra gum into his mouth. He sets the backpack next to him again and leans forward, hands fiddling with the pack of gum in his lap.

"Man, that man never paid the bills," he says, chewing. "My father acted like being a dad was a title, like he was the blasted president of the United States. Pretending to do things, but ain't doing a thing. My mom thought she hit gold, you know, marrying a doctor, but tell me why this man never touched our bills? Like he playing hot potato with the utilities. Tell me why one day I come home from school"—his eyes are closed now, face scrunched like he's lime-tasting, head bobbing side to side—"and the lights are out. Current is gone. I never see a house in darkness so. But I walk in that day to find my mother sitting at the table with a candle in front her, looking like she ready to summon some spirits. I ask her, ‘Mummy, what going on?' I'm confused. My little brother was playing with his Hot Wheels on the rug and maybe he don't really see what's going on. ‘Your father neva pay de bill,' she said. Well now I real confused. What kinda doctor can't afford to pay the bills? You know that man never even come home that night. Had Mummy calling all over de place, calling his family in Grenada even, trying to track him down. And international calls was expensive back then. So we just gone to sleep. Ate some cold curry for dinner and called it a night. I had to study with a candle next to my copybook. Next day, lights on again and my father walk in like it's nothing. I never trust that man after that. How you a big doctor and could never pay a bill? How I come home from school one day and see people dragging our furniture out of the house and my mother standing on the porch watching all of that with the hardest face I ever see in my life? You know how embarrassing that is? Watching the bank and them taking your couch and table and chairs and threatening to take the whole house because your father can't pay a bill? It not making sense. Man, the man just didn't care. Me, I never miss a bill in my life. I never even tell my daughter all this, mind you, but I don't have to. She never takes anything for granted."

"Why didn't your dad pay the bills?" I'm fully sideways in my seat now. I can't imagine unpaid bills. And I can't imagine our house being repo'd, either.

"Is me you asking? Honey, I wouldn't be here telling you this story if I knew the answer. The man was a waste of time, that's what. After that we had to move into an apartment, some two by four with no elevator. I had to be walking up four flights of stairs every day after school. Good exercise, sure, but my mother wasn't happy at all. In those days, my father could barely even come home in time for dinner. He would stumble in, sweating and panting like a dog, and begging for a plate. Meanwhile Mummy done pack away all the food and put us to sleep, but I could hear everything from my room. She was always real quiet when he came home late. Only after I hear her wash the plate and the door close, then I would come out my room. She would be sitting at the table with a rosary in her hand. I ask her if she okay, but she just nod quietly and refuse to even open her eyes. The man dead five years and up to now I never hear her speak a bad word about him."

The sound of a barking dog interrupts my next thought. He reaches into a jacket pocket and takes out a buzzing cell phone. His lips are pursed.

"Honey, what's up," he says, holding the phone to his mouth then moving it back to his ear as the person on the other line responds.

The phone isn't on speaker but I can hear everything. A voice on the other end rants about unbalanced spreadsheets and unfinished inventory and accuses him of having the worst business savvy in the history of entrepreneurship.

He moves the phone back to his mouth. "Baby, you know once I'm done with this course I'll know how to handle things better. So ease me up a little, please."

I start to turn back around, but he raises a hand, motions for me to wait. There's a question mark on his face, but I don't know why he's looking at me like I might know the answer.

The voice on the other end asks if maybe they should hire a financial advisor or go to business therapy or something. I stare awkwardly at palm trees outside and try not to act as if I'm eavesdropping on his conversation.

He doesn't bother to move the phone to his mouth this time.

"Okay, okay, maybe I'll call Moms," he says quietly. "She'll know what to do."

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