Caribana

Fiction

In the summer of 1977, almost a year after Elvis’s death, I met my father for the first time. While many were still mourning the passing of “the King,” in Toronto, we were preparing for a party that promised to be hotter than the record temperatures that divided the city into those who loved the heat and those who didn’t. Almost everything I knew about Albert Godfrey was twenty years out of date. His lean, compact build, easy smile, slick razor cut, natty clothes and Ray-Ban shades had been captured in a snapshot taken 
on a hot day in 1958, not long before I was born. For me, those details were as close as I thought I’d ever come to knowing my father. Until that August morning when I rode the revolving door into the Sheraton Centre Hotel.

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There he was, looking around the lobby anxiously. I could hardly breathe. When he saw me, a grin hijacked his face; I hadn’t seen anyone that happy in 
a long time. I swallowed hard, my stomach churning with fear and excitement, my throat dry. As we shook hands, the warmth of his palm against mine, 
he leaned in close and kissed me on the cheek. And for that brief moment, I found myself believing in God—something I hadn’t done since I was a kid.

“I cyant believe we both really here,” he said. His voice was soft and breathless like he’d just had the wind knocked out of him, too. Around us, voices rose and fell amid laughter and a baby’s cries. It felt as though we’d walked into a surprise party in our honour. My father shuffled from one foot to the other, and when our eyes met, he smiled shyly, uncertainly. I smiled back, and pointed to two seats in a quiet corner.

Evelyn, would never have spoken to him again if he hadn’t brought her to Toronto, since there was no Caribana in New York.

Albert stroked the leather armrest of his chair and asked me about Toronto, as though it was on the other side of the world instead of just across the border. He was surprised when I explained that the Arctic was the only cold place in Canada during the summer. I couldn’t help laughing. He stared 
at me blankly, then chuckled and began playing with a piece of lint on his pant leg. I studied his rough big-knuckled fingers, trying in vain to pair them with the delicate, flowery signature on the back of his photo. From there, 
I moved on to his hair, which was a maze of grey and black, and his marble-smooth skin. But it was my father’s nose I will always remember. Demanding more than its share of space, his bulbous nose was a touch Cyrano de Bergerac, but with none of the French romantic’s famed ugliness. I stroked my own, a smaller version of his. He was more handsome than he deserved to be, I thought, as though looks depended on actions.

“Yuh prettier than in pictures,” he said suddenly.

“Pictures? What pictures?” I snapped.

“The ones I,” he paused, licked his lips, “ask yuh motha for send me. A new one every yea—”

I clenched my fists to keep my hands from shaking. “Why didn’t you just call or write? At least I would have known you were alive.”

He hung his head, and mumbled something about not wanting to make things worse. By then, the veins in my skull felt like they were pumping 
something heavier than blood.

“I always know how yuh doin’. If anythin’ happen to yuh, I woulda been there.”

But what was the point in explaining that he’d already missed so much—the parent-teacher nights my mother attended alone, the Father’s Day cards I made in grade school, my high school graduation speech. The summer I was fourteen, I dug through every drawer, shelf and hiding spot in her bedroom until I found a shoebox older than me in the back of the closet. For months afterward, I kept the stolen photo tucked under my pillow, looking at my father before I went to bed each night. His level gaze directed at the camera, the whiteness of his shirt and the perfect cut of his dark suit, worn with ease, as though he dressed like this every day. He’d seemed so cool and in control then, as though he could do anything.

“Gem, is sorry me sorry for all these years. Me dint mean for let yuh down.”

His eyes were so sad, I felt tears gathering behind my own. I bit my lip, stared at the carpet and silently counted backward from ten—a habit I’d developed as a child. When I finished, I said, “We’re here now. That’s what matters.”

He nodded for what seemed a long time, as though he didn’t trust himself to speak.

“Why don’t we go and see the parade?” I stood up and waited for him to do the same, but instead, he began talking about how his wife, Evelyn, would never have spoken to him again if he hadn’t brought her to Toronto, since there was no Caribana in New York.

“But I tol’ her for remember is me day wid me daughta. I hope yuh don’ mind too much.”

I shook my head slowly, and watched him get to his feet.

“Ev and Clary cyant wait for meet yuh. I go get them an’ then we go.”

Who’s Clary, I wondered, as my father disappeared into a crowd of 
slack-jawed boys in baseball caps and loud teenage girls in Afros and Farrah Fawcett flips.

  • • •

Evelyn wore a T-shirt that read New Yorkers come in two kinds: loud and louder. She was an Amazon, at least six feet tall, which brought my head to her chest as she pulled me into a bear hug. “Now this is a picture,” she said, the word sounding more like “pitcher.” She clapped her hands. “Ya look lovely.”

I said thank you, though I was embarrassed by her praise. I wore a faded coral peasant blouse, yellow flares and old Jesus sandals my mother always threatened to throw out. I hadn’t wanted to dress up and risk looking like 
a fool, but now that seemed like a poor excuse. Even Clarice, who was a kid, seemed to think so, the way she frowned at me.

“Clarice, cat got ya tongue? Where’s ya hello for Gem?” Evelyn said.

The little girl said hello, and then turned to my father. “Albee, is it time to go yet?”

At his nod, Clarice’s expression softened into a happy leer. Something 
I associated with parties and adults who’d had too much to drink. She was good at getting what she wanted, and she knew it. My father smiled, reached for her hand, and the two of them walked away. In her red, green and gold outfit, Clarice looked like gaudy Christmas wrap.

“Only nine and she got G wrapped round her little finger,” Evelyn said. 
“I swear sometimes you’d think it was her Mr. Godfrey was married to instead o’ me.”

With his squared shoulders and gentle swagger, my father had the natural charm of a man who could divide the women in his life as easily as the heat wave did Torontonians. In his powder-blue silk shirt and beige dress pants, Albert could have been headed for an air-conditioned concert at the O’Keefe Centre instead of the sweltering heat of the Caribana parade.

  • • •

Outside, people strolled down the middle of Queen Street. It was one of 
the few days in the year when Toronto forgot its dull Protestant roots. Across from the hotel, colourful booths dotted the usually grey Nathan Phillips Square, and the air smelled of curry and fried fish. The clock at Old City Hall chimed, but it couldn’t compete with the lively steel drums we could hear from two blocks away on University Avenue.

“Toronto seems like a nice town,” Evelyn said.

I nodded, and agreed that it was, not bothering to add that it was, in fact, a city. In those days, with bars still closing early and people smiling whenever they asked me where I was from, Toronto often felt like a big small town.

When we reached the parade, Evelyn said, “This is one classy street. Reminds me of, ya know, grand ol’ Park Av’nue in Manhattan.”

I’d never seen Park Avenue, but I’d always thought of University as dignified and sombre, sleepy even—home to Toronto’s four big hospitals and the American embassy. People usually seemed insignificant next to the stone memorials for heroes of the first and second World Wars. But today, warriors, mermaids, dragons and sea gods floated down one side of the double boulevard, waving to the roaring crowd. Handsome bronze-painted mas band players and sequinned beauty queens in peacock blue and green stirred 
up the mood even more with mesmerizing gyrations that would have put a young Elvis to shame.

Evelyn, Albert and Clarice grooved to the beat effortlessly. I wasn’t much of a dancer, but it didn’t take long to, in my mother’s words, “fin’ me feet.” The rhythm tickled my soles, and from there travelled through my legs, hips, chest and arms until it totally infused my body like some sort of potent spell or herb. For other partiers, that elixir sloshed around in wineskins that dangled from their necks, wrists and belt loops.

Down below on University Avenue, bare-chested men lassoed their women with the mesh tank tops they’d left home wearing, while women flashing skin like it was easy money danced hip to hip or crotch to crotch with man-sized lizards, frogs and bees. A spirit on stilts teetered past, a red-lipped grin contorting his masked face, his teeth a bright half moon against his dark plastic skin.

Next up was a sea lobster with a strap-on dildo so huge I winced. The minute Evelyn saw him, she clamped a hand over her tinted glasses. I laughed, tempted to lean over and see if she really had her eyes closed or whether she was watching every move his dildo made. We’d barely stopped laughing when a mermaid and fisherman appeared.

The mermaid’s costumed skin shone slickly, as though she’d just arrived fresh from the sea. Her dyed weave bounced in time with her breasts, and she flicked an ample tail at the husky bowlegged fisherman in his tatty straw hat, top and shorts. Whenever he tried to kiss her, she shrugged away with a roll of her eyes. On his third try, the dainty mermaid gave the fisherman a shove that toppled him to the ground as easily as a cardboard cutout. People gasped, a few even hissed, although he was on his feet in seconds, smirking and hugging the mermaid, like he’d already won her heart. But she took her time, batting her eyelashes with dizzying speed. Then, slowly, she removed her hands from her hips and surrendered, letting the fisherman kiss her long and hard to a serenade of cheers and whistles.

  • • •

In between floats, Albert scanned the crowd as though expecting to see someone he knew. “The parade remind me of Carnival in Antigua,” he explained.

I nodded. “The first Caribana was in 1967.”

“Almos’ ten years. Was a good idea judgin’ from all the people.”

“Maybe I can persuade Mom to come next year.”

“Lil use for love Joovay morning. Bands playin’, people dancin’ in the streets before the sun even rise,” Albert said, staring into the distance. “Was one big party, the place to be when we were young.”

Young? It was hard to imagine. “Mom hardly ever talked about you. When she mentioned your name a few days ago, I thought you were dead.”

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“Dead,” Albert flinched. “That’s what me get, I guess, for bein’ such a jackass all these years.”

Lillian must have loved or hated my father terribly—or perhaps both. Whenever I asked about him, she said there wasn’t much to tell, except one time when she said Albert was the sort of man that most people liked. “What part of New York do you live in?” I asked.

“Brooklyn. Yuh ever been there?”

I shook my head. The farthest I’d ever been was Niagara Falls, an hour and a half from Toronto by car.

“Yuh have for visit then. If is awright wid yuh motha, that is.”

“I’m not a kid anymore. Besides, our apartment doesn’t feel that big these days.”

“When yuh graduate, will be time for look for yuh own place.”

I stared at him. “Graduate? How did you know?”

“Me have friends in high places,” he joked, gazing at the sky. “So how yuh enjoyin’ school?”

We detoured through Osgoode Hall, which looked like both paradise and prison with its pristine gardens and high, spiked black iron fence.

“It’s . . .” I paused, momentarily torn between the complex truth and a simple lie, “more work than I expected, though I’m learning a lot.” Glen, my former tutorial leader, now lover, saw to that. But I didn’t bother to elaborate. He was a part of my university experience, like smoking pot, which I’d leave behind before long.

After that, our conversation returned to the subject of the weather—and the parade, which my father believed was vital on a day like this. The perfect distraction from the heat, he said. As we looked around, I noticed the swaying bodies and half-closed eyes of people dancing to a rhythm in their heads. I shut my eyes, losing myself in the ether of sound, and when I finally opened them, Clarice and Evelyn had returned from the washroom. We listened to Evelyn complain about the long lineups, while Clarice sulked after Albert refused to carry her on his shoulders.

“Yuh too ole for that. Come stand here,” he said, motioning to a spot beside him.

As I moved over, I took in Clarice’s sloped chin, large eyes and peach-pit-coloured skin. There wasn’t the slightest resemblance between her and my father, though he treated her like his daughter, while he and I were family, and strangers at the same time.

All of a sudden, Clarice yelled “Look!” and pointed at the street.

Gossamer wings, shimmering haloes and dazzling white teeth added to the unearthly beauty of five leggy women in glittering second-skin bodysuits. Next to me and Evelyn, three men in “We Be Jammin’ ” T-shirts, fanny packs and knee shorts wore dreamy looks as the women, breasts heaved as high as their stiletto heels, blew kisses. Even the most evil bastard would become a saint if one of these beauties was waiting for him in heaven, I bet. Evelyn smiled, as though she’d read my thoughts.

“G never likes the angel on our Christmas tree. But somethin’ tells me he’d like one of these better.” She winked. 

I laughed, glad my father hadn’t come alone after all.

The angels started shrieking. Seconds later, the devil strutted out of a mist of dry ice, a microphone in his hand. Red horns sprung from his dreadlocks, a pointed tail from the tight black jumpsuit that showed off his tall broad-shouldered frame.

“How everybody feelin’?” he bellowed, his amplified voice deep and sexy.

“Good!” and “Hot!” people yelled. One bold woman shouted, “Hot for you, hon’!” The devil shook his pitchfork in the air with a satisfied grin, and women in the audience cheered.

I returned my father’s smile before we both glanced away. He looked tired, older than he had just a few hours ago, but more real to me than he’d ever been.

“Glad to hear it ’cause I’m here to make sure all the party people feelin’ hot, whether you’re from Antigua, T &T, Jamaica, Grenada, Martinique, Barbados, Dominica, Ghana!” He paused after each country, while people raised their hands and whooped with pride. “And let’s not forget Brixton, the Bronx, and Scarborough, Ontario.”

After the applause ended, the music picked up and the chorus line of angels kicked up their legs. Around me, the din of voices swelled with the same comforting quality as Evelyn’s hug, and for a moment, I felt an unexpected, overwhelming surge of happiness.

  • • •

By five, the crowds on University Avenue had thinned out, but Queen Street hummed with tired partiers. Garbage cans lining the sidewalk overflowed like mini Mount Vesuviuses. We detoured through Osgoode Hall, which looked like both paradise and prison with its pristine gardens and high, spiked black iron fence.

“They make these entrances them small-small,” Albert said, manoeuvring his way through the boxy gate after me.

“They were built to keep the cows out.”

“Cows?” Clarice giggled.

“It’s hard to imagine now, isn’t it?”

“That’s what yuh call progress.” Albert laughed. “Yuh know yuh history awright.”

“It’s going to be my major,” I said, surprising myself. The decision I’d been thinking about for months suddenly made.

“Ya picked yaself a good field,” Evelyn said. “This world’s full of history.”

Sunlight glanced off the solid stone buildings bordered by a cobbled walkway, a band of glossy flowers and shrubs, stately trees and a sparkling lawn. Evelyn slowed, and we all lingered, watching its perfection slowly dim until Clarice announced she was hungry.

By the time we reached the hotel, cars thronged the street in a temporary traffic jam. The happy faces of just a few hours ago were replaced by a more sober crowd, who knew nothing of the spell that had briefly transformed the city and brought it to life. As I listened to Albert and his family talk about going home the next morning, I knew I couldn’t go back to the hotel with them. I wanted to say goodbye out here, where the remaining light and heat, and even the garbage, reminded me of the fun we’d had.

“I should get going,” I said.

“So soon? We’d love to have ya stay.” When Evelyn saw that I wasn’t going to change my mind, she said, “Well, don’t be a stranger, otherwise we’ll come and find ya, won’t we, Clary?” Clarice nodded and smiled at me for the first time that day. She and Evelyn waved as they went into the hotel. My mother would have liked them, I thought.

I returned my father’s smile before we both glanced away. He looked tired, older than he had just a few hours ago, but more real to me than he’d ever been.

“Prob’ly a good idea not for push our luck,” Albert said, though he was clearly disappointed. “We did good for two people no see each other in almos’ twenty years, eh?”

I inhaled deeply and nodded as a guy in a T-shirt that said “Elvis lives” walked by. “Yes,” I said, hoping luck wouldn’t desert us like it had the King. “Yes, we did.”


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