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  • Bedtime Stories
  • Justin Campbell (bio)

My father’s hands are cracked and ashen. As I pour him a cup of ink-black coffee, he examines his fingers and his palms. Lines of cracked white running through his black skin look like a tributary map. I set the coffee down in front of him.

“I’m getting old, mija.”

I pull my hair into a ponytail with a brown rubber band. “You’re barely seventy, dad.”

“I am old, see?” He holds up his hands.

“If you lotioned them like Mom used to tell you to… .”

Any mention of my late mother engenders a kind of awkwardness between us. He sips his coffee and pushes his black-rimmed glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “What are we doing today?”

My father has been living with us for just under a year now. He could not stay with my brother because my brother lives in the closet space of a friend in Santa Monica.

“We need to go to Costco and then to Jason’s school in the afternoon. I told Miss Stevenson that I’d come and help out.”

“And tonight?”

“Carl will be home at seven, we’ll eat dinner, and then put Jason to bed.”

“So, the usual.”

“Yes. The usual.”

My father emigrated from Jamaica when he was a young man of twenty-three and has spent the entirety of his life in the States supervising a landscaping team. He was the only non-Hispanic man there. Growing up, most of my friends assumed my father wore a white shirt and tie to work like theirs did. Before retiring with two slipped discs in his back, he was often mistaken for being Cuban or Dominican. Clients would say things within his hearing that they thought he couldn’t understand. Nevertheless, he became close with the Spanish-speaking crews he worked with. My brother and I grew up being called mijo and mija and receiving besos after he told us bedtime stories at night before sleep shut our heavy eyelids. He would sit on the edge of one of our beds, smelling of the pure, simple soap he showered with when he got home from work. “Tell us a story, Papa,” I would ask as my brother sighed and pulled the blankets over his head.

My father would close his eyes and take a deep breath. “Okay, mija. Okay.”

When I was little boy, not much older than your brother is now, my friends around the neighborhood used to call me beenie bwoy. This did not bother me because it was true. I had small hands and short legs. In those days, I used to walk to school through a tall grass field with me lunch money and books, wearing me only school uniform jacket. This field was a kind of short cut for me, because on some mornings my mother would send me to the market in Kingston to get soap for her to use to wash the day’s laundry. In Jamaica we did not have washing machines like you do today. My mother had to do it with her own two hands. One day, I was running through the field, fixing to be late, when up out of the tall grass came what the folks back then used to call a bandulu. His name was Franklin and he was the baddest boy in all of Kingston. The passa passa of the boys at school was that Franklin’s father [End Page 431] did the boy’s chores for him and that one time, the boy’s teacher took five raps on her knuckles from the flat side of Franklin’s ruler. He usually had a group of good-for-nothing boys that followed him like a pack of wild dogs. On that day Franklin was alone, carrying a small knife with what looked to be a sharp blade in his hand.

“Where you going in such a hurry, Winston?”

I tried to keep on walking, but Franklin slid in front me for to block me from getting through. “Be off with you,” I said. “I’m going to be late for school.”

“Why you...


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pp. 431-434
Launched on MUSE
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