by Kim Gittens
“You ready to go?” L had been with the Cliftons for almost seven years to Nadine’s almost four. He was rumored to be close to forty, and seemed to have no family of his own. On Wednesdays, he requested – and always received – the evening off to ride his bicycle somewhere. He, too, had light-skin but was darker than Nadine; he could not pass like she could. A good-looking man, he was the subject of much conversation among the young female help of East Egg concerning a certain part of his anatomy given his height, feet and hands. These women all wished he would give up his solitudinous ways and take them in his arms.
Nadine was surprised. She hadn’t realized L had given her leaving much thought after he’d told her about the job. Nor did she think he would know about her plans, as she had tried to be surreptitious about them – buying extra cotton out of her own money when she bought some for Mrs. Clifton to hand make the pillowcases in the guest rooms, buying extra dry goods on her day off to take with her for her journey.
Nadine took some time to answer. She knew L would not betray her to Mrs. Clifton.
“I am.” The stress of leaving East Egg left her as she uttered these words. She’d spoken – acknowledged that this was to be done, was being done – out loud.
“That’s a long journey you fixing to take, Miss Nadine.” He always called her that even though he didn’t have to.
“I’m ready, L.” And she was. When she’d left school, she was hoping to be a nurse, maybe work for the Red Cross or tend to the war wounded wherever she might be needed. But at the time, she’d also thought that she wanted to be married, and had tended home for that last year she should have been in school before discovering that she couldn’t compete with Edgar’s bottle and his carrying on about how she was going to make him a lot of money. Not in an improper way but in a way that Nadine was looking at again now that she was to make the journey to the HMHS Britannic – as passing for white. Edgar had made her feel uncomfortable in his seemingly good fortune, like he’d hit the number consecutively, and was living off those highs daily. She was aware of her talents, her boundaries and limitations in the body that she inhabited.
That this had occurred to Edgar did not seem likely. Dry cleaning delivery was good work but not something that Edgar had wanted for himself. He wanted to own something, a business, and ventured Nadine’s earnings would get him there.
“You ever been on a ship before?” L asked.
“No sir.” She chuckled, and L did too.
“Well, I’m glad you applied after I told ya about it. What kind of work are you gonna be doing, they tell you?” The car was travelling at a comfortable speed and was motoring through Queens, having left Long Island. Nadine tucked the blanket around her legs to keep the wind from seeping in any further.
“Orderly, the letter said.”
“Well…be careful ‘round those patients, and don’t let anyone speak to you any ol’ way.”
“Well, I don’t know quite yet what I will be doing around those patients to be careful but they said they’ll train me.”
“Marla know yet?”
“Naw, she doesn’t.” Nadine owed her cousin a letter as it was her turn to write. Even though Marla lived in Harlem, the two preferred letters as their method of communication. They never had enough time to talk to each other when they met up those few times a year. In her last letter, Marla mentioned she would also be getting on a ship courtesy of Mr. Marcus Garvey. The SS Yarmouth would be leaving for Cuba on November 24, 1917. Somehow, Marla – likely due to all that time she’d spent setting up and cleaning up after attending the UNIA meetings, and the sweet talking in that baby voice she liked to affect – had managed to secure a position on the ship as a cook. Nadine’s ship, the HMHS Britannic, would be setting sail almost one month after, on December 23, 1917.
Nadine hadn’t told anyone of her plan to sneak away from her job and join a hospital ship docked in England. It seemed crazy, she knew. She didn’t know anyone in that country, had only heard snippets about it from people and what she’d seen in the papers, usually about The Queen and some royal this or that or the other. But she knew people in the United States, in New York, in East Egg. Most of the time, each person was two people, so if she knew twelve people in New York, she really knew twenty-four. There were two faces to everyone she had ever met and she was tired of it. She, too, was tired of having two faces, of having two voices. There was the voice she used – familiar, homey, sisterly – when speaking to her Black brothers and sisters – even as they assailed her with talk as if she had no understanding of being hungry, of washing dirty drawers, of running errands, of guilt and anxiety when a store was entered.
Her guilt and anxiety when going into a store was different from theirs however. She was not followed, spoken to abruptly, watched. She could take her time to admire merchandise, handle it with thought, wonder about its origins, make thoughtful choices. She always wondered when she would be caught and advised to make a purchase or move along. Thanking the shop owner for the opportunity to look at his wares was her way of showing she was white like him or her; during these conversations, she used her second voice, which did not drop the ends of words or generally betray the English she had learned as taught in the good school she’d been able to attend. These dual realities – what she appeared to be and how she acted versus who she was and how she wanted to act – weighed too heavily on her. Some others she knew who could pass like she could enjoyed the ease their life had given them. For Nadine, it was a cross that even Jesus himself would have refused.
The car was on Eastern Parkway, now, in Brooklyn. L liked to turn onto Atlantic Avenue and take the local streets into Manhattan when he was alone or during the one other time Nadine had been alone with him in the car. The streets here were filled with color – the people, the clothing, the languages, the smells and the sights. Filled with visible life, the place was in direct contrast to East Egg. Atlantic Avenue was also wide, with four lanes in each direction, which allowed the recently purchased Rolls Royce, with its cream exterior and extra wheels, to preen in the cold sun-filled air.
Nadine wondered how Marla would feel about her going to England. She would be leaving next week by ship, and it would take her six days to get there. She thought about small things – keeping her hair smoothed down so the water wouldn’t nap it up, where she would hide when she felt uncomfortable in conversations, if her clothes would stick out – most of them being clean but not fancy. She did not want to draw attention to herself, and made a note to finish the two dresses she’d started making for herself before she’d departed. With the early attention Mrs. Clifton liked to give to Christmas, Nadine could hardly start a task before she was being politely asked to fetch something else as if she had a choice in saying no, get it your damn self.
“I said, do you know what to bring with ya?” L repeated his question. Nadine realized she had missed his asking the first time.
“All that I have, L. All that I have.”
West 158th Street did not look like at all how Nadine imagined it. The white colored buildings were bunched together so they were indistinguishable from each other. L shut off the car and waited a little further back along the street where he’d found parking. Nadine walked to the building and got into the elevator. “Mrs. McKee, please.” The elevator boy seemed pleased to oblige.
Straight ahead after you turn left, she was told, when the elevator reached the 5th floor. Nadine did as she was instructed and rang the bell of 5C.
A handsome white woman came to the door. “It’s come! She promised!” Mrs. McKee’s voice was shrill and horrible. “Come in, come in.” Absently, she invited Nadine inside. The apartment was small and dark, with large framed photographs of landscapes on the wall. A puppy appeared from a back room and proceeded to chew on the bottom of the sofa. Mrs. McKee, appearing embarrassed by the behavior, finally looked at Nadine. “A friend’s,” she begged off. She tore the butcher paper off and admired the dress from arm’s length. “I must…” she murmured. She placed the dress across the sofa, and unzipped the dress she had on. “A hand, please,” she asked cordially, and Nadine soon zipped her up into Myrtle’s used dress.
“Oh, Mr. McKee simply must…” Mrs. McKee gushed. “Do you think he’ll take a picture of me if I asked him too?” she enthused. “He always says I’m not as interesting or pretty as real life. Oh, he will, he will, he must, he must…”
It was nearly two pm in the afternoon when Nadine arrived, and the McKee apartment proffered good light. Nadine, hoping to leave soon, could see the faint edges of the washed out blood ever so carefully on the dress as Mrs. McKee twirled and hummed. Having rescued a fair amount of Mr. Clifton’s shirts from foreign lipstick, she was aware of how stains mar regardless of the effort to remove the offensive mark. She left Mrs. McKee smoothing down the dress and taking imaginary photos of herself as she stared into the living room mirror.
“You mind if we stop?” Nadine knew that L was talking about lower Harlem, 125th Street.
“Naw, go ahead, we got time.”
L parked and went to the smoke shop for a cigar. Nadine wandered to a newsstand, and bought pencil and paper to write to Marla. As the car home jostled, she wrote a few lines to her cousin, and allowed herself to dream about life afloat at sea.
The next day, Nadine assisted Becca, the cook, in silence with the Christmas dinner shopping and prep work. Since it would be her last time doing so, she saw no need to be mentally present. Doing so would leave her little room to dream. She posted the letter to her cousin, knowing it may be some time before she read it.
When Marla boarded the SS Yarrow a few days prior to Thanksgiving Day, she had not realized there would be only one other woman with her on the ship. No matter. She hoped she would be enough for the eyes of men onboard and on land when they got there. She was thirty but had already started to fret about her looks. The ship’s boss man, Mr. Cockburn – a high falutin but not unkind negro according to Marla’s assessment – showed her the kitchen, and, in a detailed manner, told her about the proper preparation and storage of food while they were at sea. It was all similar to her job as the cook at the church except keeping out water would be the challenge. The whole crew gathered on the deck to wave goodbye to what seemed like, to Marla, all of black New York. She waved back knowing that no one cared. Back in her quarters, she took time to assess her space. Her room was as big as the bathroom in her building, and was next to the other woman, a dark-skinned buxom woman named Kitty who would also be cooking with Marla.
It was cold, and one of the sailors, before allegiances were made, gave her his jacket so she could keep warm. As the Yarrow pushed further into the sea, it tossed in rough waters and Marla struggled to stave off the somersaults in her stomach. She caroused with the Black British crew members and remained leery, like the rest of the crew, of the spy who was rumored to be on board working for J. Edgar Hoover. She didn’t feel sophisticated enough to figure out who it might be, though she tried to pay attention to everyone’s words, coughs and blinks. When something seemed suspicious, she recorded the date, time and action in the back of her journal. She enjoyed the kitchen, where she could escape, and spoke with Kitty as they prepared meals.
“How you feeling?” Marla asked. There was no need to specify that she meant about the spy business and not in general. The atmosphere on the ship, though they were now on day three of an eleven day trip, had quickly become tense.
“Hmmmpf.” Kitty replied. She took a drag from her cigarette, balanced it on the ledge near the dry goods and proceeded to prepare the fish for stew. “I thought my church was bad. This here spy and secret game is more than I bargained for.”
Marla, anxious to finish the journey and solve the mystery, lowered her voice as she mixed salt and flour for dumplings. “You think it’s Mr. Cockburn?”
Kitty cleaned the fish as she thought. Like Marla, her voice was low. “He getting paid a whole lot of money from Garvey just to be here from what I understand. He would be foolish to mess with that.”
Marla looked down at the flour all over her hands. She was in a mess. She sighed, and rolled out the dumplings. Mr. Garvey had said there would be obstacles to their return to Africa. She took more flour, sprinkled it on the hard countertop and continued to roll in silence.
On day six, Marla was on her way inside when she walked past the tail end of a fight between a Black sailor and a White one. Mr. Cockburn broke it up, but the tense air now turned to almost stony silence on the ship. That night, after the kitchen had been cleaned, she lay in her small bed and pondered deeply about what she had left and come into. Mr. Garvey was not available to provide clarification, assurance, and support. She was far from home, in an old borrowed ship. She was not buoyed by readings from The Negro World as a way to keep her enthusiasm. She turned to her journal, instead, addressing the entries to Nadine in the hopes that her favorite cousin would somehow be able to save her from her doubts.
When they reached Cuba, Marla and the crew found a hot, fetid, beautiful place. She washed herself quickly, eager to throw on a dress and sway her large derriere and long legs in heels down a street so she could discover the place. The crew remained cagey, untrusting of each other. Mr. Cockburn complained to Mr. Garvey in a long call back to the United States, Marla heard later, about fights among the crew, about his hard work in stemming a mutiny due to the crew being informed upon arrival about delayed wages, about a leaky ship.
Upon leaving Cuba, the subsequent trips to Jamaica and Panama did little to stem attitudes, despite the sun and good alcohol. At nights, after stopping in Cuba again before the return trip home to New York, Marla – sans Kitty, who had disappeared in Panama – drew her knees up to her chest, and pulled them close to her to keep her safe and nurse the familiar. She tried to imagine a trip to Africa with these people or people like them. She pulled out a copy of The Negro World, and read the same paragraph over and over again for hours.
On the morning of December 16th, Nadine walked through East Egg with a suitcase. She had borrowed Mrs. Clifton’s warmest gloves, knowing she might not be able to return them. She had never not returned anything in her life, and meditated upon whether or not she would be a thief if she didn’t as she tramped through the snow. L had gotten a car and was meeting her at a rendezvous point to take her to the ship that would be taking her to England.
Nadine was extremely cold as she disembarked from the car upon arrival and waited to board the ship. L squeezed her elbow and slipped her some hot wrapped food he’d requisitioned from Becca.
“You think you’ll write?” he asked. He was always hopeful.
“I will, L. Make sure Becca reads it to you.”
L’Quentus nodded up and down slowly. Anything that allowed him to spend more time with Becca was alright with him.
On the ship, Nadine found her small cabin. She spent her days exploring the vessel, reading and staring at the sea. She engaged in polite chitchat during dinner, demurring opinions on race as those she had no authority on. This usually worked. When it didn’t, she’d remember forgotten dinner engagements and excuse herself. When she could brave the cold howl of weather on deck, she’d reflect on how far she’d come, how brave she was. She was lonely but also felt exhilarated.
Marla did not like birds but the crew had picked up the pets in Panama and Jamaica. The nightingales were brown and appeared unremarkable to her. When they sang, she could never quite figure out where they perched when they did so; later, she’d realized someone had let them out of their cage and they’d hovered somewhere above her.
She stayed in the kitchen when another fight broke out about wages. The smell of fish ringed the room, and the sweat she didn’t realize she had was dripping down her chest to the stained apron. She spoke to the new helper they’d found for her during their return visit to Cuba. It was impossible to tell if she understood Marla or not but the crew took breaks from their arguing and sulking to comment that the food tasted better.
Despite it all, Africa remained in sight for Marla – Africa, possibly Nigeria as the first stop. She longed to leave the United States, with its death. When she was eighteen, her best friend – her mother – had died with Nadine’s mother during the last Yellow Fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1905. She’d hidden in her room during the funeral and afterwards, not wanting to partake in the celebration parade. The body was burned without her. Her mother had taught her how to cook, use a matchstick to make eyeliner, catch a man’s eye, and given her the truth better than any other woman had ever been able to besides Lela, her best friend from grade school. Now here she was among a mostly colored crew that couldn’t get it together, and would be felled not by disease but by fixable man-made problems.
Before she and Nadine were sent to New York by Mammam, she’d found her mother’s grave, a little mound of earth just outside the French Quarter. On the dirt, she placed a flag of love she’d made from strips of cloth from her own shirt and mounted on a piece of wood, and ran away. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be near the gravesite due to the potency of the disease but she couldn’t help herself especially after watching the way her mother and Nadine’s had suffered.
The nightingales withdrew as the SS Yarrow drew closer to New York. Marla was grateful for the respite, and grumbled about their arrogance even as they sang less. Not only could they travel wherever they wanted but they could also sing the blues through songs that disavowed translation.
England was grey and cold. The snow was tinged with dirt and unlike the pristine powdery mixture that stuck for days on the Cliftons’s lawns. The HMHS Britannic was magnificent when Nadine boarded it a day after her arrival. She timidly asked for a tour and was given a quick one. She was expected to know her way around as the going would be fast once they picked up the wounded. That evening, she wrote a letter to her cousin to be posted as soon as it was possible.
The sick and the dying poured in, and Nadine saw parts of herself in all of them – the pieces of her that died when she swallowed and shat out painfully that which she couldn’t say in conversations – a response to a friend or acquaintance or fellow bus or subway rider who commented on the ugliness or stupidity or general shiftlessness of another fellow negro. Death was the same in all races – she learned – except for the dead, it was final and encompassed the whole body. It did not live on singularly in a part of the body that was dragged, killed and regenerated to die again in a never ending cycle that was Nadine’s life. She wiped foreheads, changed waste pans, mopped floors. The ship, like life, rocked indifferently with its inhabitants. Despite the waste and death around her, she was glad she’d come. She was ministering to the ill in the way she could not have done with her mother, and so felt useful and respected. She was called by her full first name all the time, and thanked for her work regardless of its type.
When the explosion hit the ship on the last day of 1917, Nadine had been acclimated to the ship for nine days and had become used to the occasional odd object that might brush against its side. Shouts and concern about the object and its possible damage were usually quickly regulated to one part of the ship, and shut off with a clang by a door somewhere, but this time the shouts did not subside. There was blood on her uniform today despite the small number of patients on the ship. She had helped hold a man down while they took his leg and some of the fingers of his left hand. He was left-handed, she knew, because he had held a white cloth of some kind when he was brought in. A handkerchief, perhaps, or a surrender sign or a please see me because I’m dying sign. Did death need a sign like that? Her mother had not had one nor had Marla’s mother. Their deaths had been slow, painful, wretched. The windows of the house had been kept open to allow their dying spirits and the life spirits of New Orleans to mingle so they could fight for their human lives in the air in the hopes that perhaps the two women might be spared instead.
The head nurse on the twelve pm shifts, Francis, always looked at Nadine hard, as if trying to figure her out. Nary a word came from her unless it involved the care of the patients. When working with her, Nadine kept her mouth and nose covered at all times to appear as if she was taking the threat posed by germ mixing quite seriously but really it was to restrain herself from responding to Francis’ keen stare with some choice words. Nadine suspected the nurse was passing as well and was trying to out Nadine so she could take a fall although, so many miles away from land and New York and race and judgement, nobody really had to.
Ward beds suddenly slid to the side. Instrument laden trolleys skidded away from the doctors and nurses. A nurse was thrown off balance and ended up near full waste pans. The ship was now listing, dangerously to the left.
A crew member appeared, shouting and running to the small group. “Evacuate. Evacuate. Everyone must evacuate. We’ve hit a mine. We’ve hit a mine.” He ran the length of the long, tall-ceilinged room, and bounded up the stairs against the back wall and through an oblong door, never stopping.
There were ten patients, three doctors, four orderlies and five nurses plus Francis. Quickly it was agreed that the patients had to be taken to the life rafts as soon as possible. The memory of The Titanic seemed to slip into everyone’s mind without a word being spoken.
Nadine could not die on the ship. This she knew. She had left a job without asking, stolen money, lived two lives on a daily basis. No, she was not ready to meet her maker just yet. Not until she could handle the balance that was her life, master it, and move on, make something of herself, as her mother had always told her she could
She and the other orderlies were tasked with escorting the three more severely injured patients to the life rafts located on the topmost right side of the vessel. Like the ship, her heart seemed to move to the left, too, as they carefully pushed the beds to the location. She made a note to run back and get Marla’s letter in her cabin before they left, though how she would do this, she could not fathom.
The world fell and dropped around them as they made their way closer to the rafts. Ropes, boxes, screws, unknown parts of the ship. The smell of the sea was also filling in fast around them. Nadine remembered how angry she’d gotten once when her favorite shoes had gotten ruined, and the house had been flooded when it rained all day in New Orleans. Now both her legs were covered in water up to the midcalf and she dared not complain as she and Bergamot, an orderly of unknown ethnic origin, pushed and pulled a bed to reach their destination.
“We made it,” she cried, once the rafts were in view, unaware of the hope of success she’d been holding.
Bergamot nodded, appeared preoccupied.
The patients were lowered onto a life raft in a hurry. Francis, who’d been following close behind and appeared unable to wait for orders from the crew, had ordered the move. The patients bobbed like excavated mummies in the air as they were lowered down. One clutched Nadine’s hand before he went, confused by the chain of events. When her turn came, Nadine’s heart stopped as she jumped through the air and landed with a bounce onto the raft idling on the water. Francis jumped last, though the doctors pleaded for her to jump before they did. There were seven in total on the small yellow craft which included two wounded. As she looked at the Britannic lolling further onto its side from her new vantage point, Nadine heard a chirping sound and looked around.
“Bergamot,” she marveled over the din of confusion, “You taking them too?” The nightingales had been brought onto the Britannic to provide levity and gaiety and life to the ward and to their work. Bergamot fed them and tended to their cage.
“We’re too close!” Francis interrupted loudly. “Too close!” Nadine simply thought she meant to the ship, which was now at forty-five degree angle, and would soon sink to the bottom of the ocean. But they were too close to the ship’s propeller, which has not been stopped in the haste to get the life raft into the water.
The craft was being pulled towards the propeller by the suction of the propulsion. One of the patients managed to get himself off his cot and flailed around on the raft itself in an attempt to escape. Nadine watched his mouth move as he panicked, a series of openings and closings seemingly with no sound.
The two doctors who were on board attempted to move the raft away using their hands as oars. The raft, however, continued to move towards the propeller, increasing in speed. There was no way they would be able to escape the path it had made in agreement with the sea.
Nadine scrambled to get out of the way but there was nowhere to go.
The nightingale cage was minced with a slight metallic sound. The propeller did not stop – for brown feathers, flesh, or bone.