Teacher . . . Teacher. What it mean when I wearing an orange color suit and I standing in front of me auntie house and the house be white white?
Teacher answers by sitting up in his bunk and giving a deep sigh. He gouges crusts of sleep from his eyes with his thumbs and lets go of an expansive yawn half-covered by the back of his hand. The yawn deflates him and he sits there slumped over-exhausted from a night of fitful sleep.
Teacher fingers the gold crucifix at his neck. Maddie’s wedding gift to him in another life, before jail, before anyone thought him capable of killing his wife. It’s all he has left of the love and promises of that day. He presses its cool to the heat of his skin, closes his eyes and feels anchored for a moment. Island thinks Teacher’s praying, divining, whenever he does this. Teacher is.
White white? Teacher’s voice is scratchy with the irritation of not being awake yet. He is a slight man with simple moderate features. The kind of face people find something comforting and familiar in.
Yeah, mon, Island persists. So white it bright ya know?
The dormitory is hot and it’s early yet. Teacher glances around and sees Big Lou filling up his green plastic mug at the dorm hot pot. The fragrance of cheap coffee wakes his nostrils from across the bay. Big Lou shuffles past to his chair where he will sit for most of the day watching the goings on of the dorm without appearing to. He nods at Teacher, noting Island sitting there on the edge of Teacher’s bed, and gives a slight smile. Teacher raises his eyebrows, nods back and returns a faint smile of his own. The bass screech of an airplane sounds overhead as it takes off from nearby LaGuardia Airport.
Teacher?, Island says again. The name all “tea” and “cha” and no “er” with his thick rude boy Jamaican tongue. Island’s face has the look of a sagging mask. Gray and pallid. His heavy jowled cheeks scarred and pitted brutally black by acne. His eyes are red rimmed. The whites muddy and yellow. Teacher suspects hepatitis and has suggested Island go down to sick call. Island waved him off and requested instead that Teacher find him a piece of chocolate that he can put on his makeshift altar as an offering. As if that will solve the problem.
One minute, Teacher says. He slips on his shower slippers and goes take a leak. Most everyone else, fifty men in this tight bay, are still asleep. Sprawled on their bunks wearing boxers and T-shirts, wife-beaters or simply bare-chested. It’s been a burning summer and there’s only one fan.
All right, Teacher says when he’s back on his bunk.
Island hasn’t moved.
It’s a good dream.
You sure Teacher?
Teacher nods. Your aunt, she’s passed on?
Yeah, says Island. Scared and hopeful of what Teacher is about to say.
And you were special to her?
Yeah, mon. Island is getting excited and Teacher is struck by how easy he is. Me her favorite nephew ya know.
Well . . . Teacher concentrates. Flipping through dusty brain cells where long ago college psychology courses and forgotten books like Mysteries of the Mind and Truth in Our Dreams, read when he was desperate for direction in his life, are stored. His mind rustles stubbornly against such an exertion first thing in the morning and Teacher asks himself, not for the first time, why he’s allowed this charade to go so far.
Island is leaning in close. Expectant.
. . . The house . . . It’s the other side . . . Like a portal. That’s why it’s so white and bright.
Island shifts on the edge of the bed. He doesn’t like the mention of death in his dream.
But it’s OK, Teacher continues. See it’s just the doorway your aunt used to contact you. That’s why it’s her house. It’s not for you–you didn’t go inside the house, right? And for a moment in Island’s gray trembling cheeks Teacher fears he has finally done it: the misstep that will do more damage than good to this desperate man grasping at straws.
No, mon! A great grin gathers Island’s hanging face into something almost boyish, almost sweet. Me stay outside by the big banana tree.
See? Teacher says. Grinning a relieved silly grin. He could be home telling Ezra and Carol, his kids, one of his made up stories that they loved so much. Not Teacher but Daddy, easing their fears with his imagination. The only good he’d ever found for it until now.
And the orange suit? Island prods. Eager to hear more.
Teacher frowns in coy meditation. In truth he already has an answer. He’s on a roll.
The orange suit symbolizes the prosperity you’re going to be dressed in. Your aunt is showing you that everything’s going to turn out fine. Your future: orange like the morning sun. Good things are coming.
Island loves this. He faces trial in three weeks. Could go away for a long time. Thank ya, Teacher. He is pumping Teacher’s hand in both of his. Ya make me mind easy.
Teacher feels good. Lifted on the shoulders of Island’s relief. He resists a competing, disturbing thought. That the sun is never so orange as when it is setting. Dying into the horizon.