“Flexing” by Winston Nugent

It was Saturday afternoon. The blue sky was dotted with clumps of puffy white clouds forming a fisherman struggling with a big tuna on a long, rainbow-colored line. The turquoise sea was gentle, and the wind was cool. It was not a typical beach day, however. Children were enjoying themselves in the narrow lagoon where eyes were watching them as they romped and splashed like captured dolphins on display in an aquatic zoo.

Jojo and his friends were in Gallows Bay (the village where slaves were hung after running away from the plantations) under a makeshift bungalow of bamboos and coconut boughs. A safe distance away, a man was feeding some wild yard chickens with “titty” bread he had bought from Buddo’s Bakery for five cents apiece. His son, 10, was about to throw his net in the lagoon for live bait. Later they would find themselves at the Frederiksted Pier hoping to catch a good size snapper for dinner.

Jojo and his friends were playing dominoes, eating “roast” doctor fish, fried barracuda served on grape leaves, and just reminiscing about old times. Some of them were arguing as to whose family member was the best at cooking one of the island’s cultural dishes, kallaloo.

“Say that again!” someone yelled.

“My grandmother was the best,” Jojo said.

“Man, you talkin’ crap!” shouted someone from afar.

“Who could cook kallaloo better than Miss Maude?” said another.

A small crowd gathered around Jojo, including his childhood friends: Bongo, Manjack, Bijou, and Charlie. Some were drawing sides because they knew who Miss Maude was. The others were coming on Jojo’s side because they knew his grandmother and her delicious kallaloo.

Now the game of talk was about to begin; this occasion was nothing new. Every Saturday traditionally, they would gather at the lagoon and enjoy some leisure. It was here they discussed the politics of the day. It was here they get to know who had died and whose family members were in the “mainland (America).” It was here they got to see old school mates and hear of who had died or who had gotten married, divorced or have a child on the way. Mostly it was the “boys.” Occasionally, girlfriends, sisters, and wives would show up.

Sometimes their talk would become violent without violence—call it a West Indian thing. For a stranger like a tourist, it would seem like a big fight taking place. For Jojo and his friends, it was “flexing.” That is, who could out-talk the other, normally wins the argument.

“My grandmother was the best,” Jojo repeated with conviction.

“Tell me how,” someone said. “What did your grandmother put in it?”

“What do you mean?” Jojo said. “What were the ingredients?”

“Bull’s-eye!” said Bongo, who usually traveled from Grove Place on his ten-speed bicycle to be at the bay to get his favorite conch water or, as most of us called it, “strong backwater.”

Jojo looked at Bongo like he was one of the pelicans’ birds that perched on the dock of the bay patiently waiting for the fishermen returned from sea and said, “Why you all want to know that for?”

“Because if you can’t tell us what kind of stuff she put in her kallaloo, then she can’t cook it,” said Charlie who was Bongo’s partner on the domino table and whose family allegedly owned over sixteen acres of land that contain ruins of the 18th-century sugarcane village.

Jojo was looking for support from those who knew his grandmother well enough to know that he was able and capable of answering Charlie’s and Bongo’s challenge, so he shouted at them, “Man, you all talkin’ crap!”

“Ah!” said Bongo, “you don’t knooooow!”

“Man! I do know. I used to watch her as a small boy when she was cookin’ kallaloo. I never forget how.”

“Well?” said someone standing behind him, looking over his shoulder. He hated that; soon, the chatterbox will start to run his mouth about the game. Soon everyman on the table will know what he has in his hand. Over the years, he had played dominos with some guys, and he could swear they have x-ray eyes. They could read the dominos you have in your hand before you look at your own. Jojo was never that good. So he didn’t want this guy over his shoulder, giving them an added advantage. He turned around and watched the person hard until he got the message. The person slowly eased away from him. The person was still close in Jojo’s estimation, but what? He decided to ignore the person just for peace’s sake.

“Ok,” Jojo said.

They were watching him like he was a calypso singer on stage in the competition and had forgotten the lyrics of the song and suddenly stopped, looking stupefied. Now we would see the proof of the pudding, Jojo said to himself. It was now to put up or shut up. Jojo had the feeling Manjack was dying for him to mess up and get the chance of the last laugh.

Manjack hated losing at anything, even when they were kids, and were playing a marble game called “knuckles.” He gets angry because when it came time for his knuckles to be knocked hard with one of the marble after loosing, he would create a stink and walk away with his jar of pretty looking marbles. He was also Mr. Connection; everybody was some cousin. He claimed Queen Mary, who in the riots of 1878, partially burned down the town of Frederiksted, was his great-great-grandmother from his father’s sides who was a great king in the Kingdom of Mali before Jesus Christ was born.

“First of all,” Jojo said boastfully, “kallaloo bush.”

“Man, that’s the first thing! Everybody knows that,” said Charlie.

“No! No! No!” said Bongo. “What kind of bush? Because some people from the other islands don’t use the same kind of bush-like us.”

He was right in that; for example, in Trinidad, they mostly used the dasheen leaves. Their kallaloo was more a sauce to pour over rice or just place on the side. Our version was more like a soup, and where the Trinidadian used coconut milk as part of their mix, such is non-existent in ours.

“Man,” Jojo said, “I’m talkin’ ‘bout the wild ones we used to sweep the yard.”

“Yes, I remember,” said Manjack, who sat quietly across from Bongo drinking sorrel he said grew all year round on the five areas of land he had gotten from the Department of Agriculture some three years ago for one dollar a year. He claimed he was a small farmer specializing in strictly local stuff, such as eggplants,
cucumbers, peppers, okras, and pigeon peas.

“Well,” Jojo said, “That’s the same bush I’m talkin’ ‘bout.” The other guys that were on his side shook their heads in agreement with him. They somehow felt his confidence. They recognized that he was going right with his story. When you’re telling a story of challenge, it was a big mistake if you messed up. Automatically, you become the laughing stock of the crowd.

“What again, man?” said Manjack impatiently.

“Fish, like bluefish or snapper boiled or fried.”

“Yea,” said Charlie, “but you have to pick-up the fish first before you put it into the kallaloo pot.”

“Okra an’ eggplant,” Jojo continued, ignoring Charlie’s explanation, knowing he was right.

“Yea,” Charlie said again.

“Conch,” said Jojo

“Yea, man!” said Bongo.

“Crab! Better yet, land crab!”

“Yea, now you talkin’!” someone shouted from the side.

“Pigtail,” said Jojo.

“Man, that’s pork,” said Bongo.

“So?” said Charlie, who was smiling and licking his lips. He told Jojo once that back in the days of his grandfather, the old man used a local salt known as “ekisura” to cure pork. He said his grandfather would rub a mixture of dried and crushed plants like basil, rosemary, sage, and parsley on the pork, hang it up with wires on the roof’s rafters and let it air-dry for about three weeks to a month.

“Man, I thought you were just talkin’ ‘bout seafood kallaloo,” said Bongo sticking out his mouth like a snot-nose parrotfish.

“Yea, me too!” said the guy standing over Jojo’s shoulder. “I don’t eat pork, brother, man.”

“Look,” Jojo said. “I’ am talkin’ ‘bout the days of my grandmother, alright. You all seem to forget back in slavery times, our people had no choice but to eat what they could afford or what the slave masters gave them, and as a result, they had to be creative. Let me tell you all this; when my grandmother was makin’ her kallaloo, pigtail, salt pork, salt beef, salt-pig feet, and some other wearied stuff usually go into the mix.”

“Like what, again?” said Bongo.

“Man, like hambone, pig snout, and…”

“What! Pig snout?” said Manjack, scratching his head.

“Yes,” Jojo said, “and even pork ribs and a bush called ‘Whitie Mary.”

“And it use to taste good, brother man!” shouted Charlie licking his lips.

“You done?” said Manjack.

“No, said Jojo. “I remember that she also put, ‘Bata Bata’ and sometimes spinach.”

“What the heck is ‘Bata Bata’?” said Bongo with an intense look on his face. He seemed perplexed. It was quite obvious that he had lost some of his cultural perspectives. It seems that while he was developing his Rastafarian philosophy, ‘Bata Bata’ sounded like the whip the slave masters’ used on the backs of his African ancestors. So, for him, the name was lost in cultural translation.

“Man,” Jojo said, “you don’t know what ‘Bata Bata’ is?”

“’Tis the first time I am hearin’ ‘bout it, brother man,” Bongo said.

“Charlie,” Jojo said. “Tell this fool what is ‘Bata Bata.’”

“Man, I don’t remember,” he said.

Jojo looked at him in disbelief. “You don’t remember what ‘Bata Bata’ is?”

“I don’t even remember what the heck is ‘Whitie Mary’,” said Charlie, embarrassingly.

“Man, you guys have lost you all culture. ‘Bata-Bata’ is a bush-like spinach. However, the leaf is a little bit broader. When my grandmother put that in her Kallaloo, it makes it thicker and slimy.”

“Now, what is ‘Whitie Mary?” said Bongo.

“It is a finery bush. It mostly grows in your back yard. Sometimes we feed rabbits with it,” Jojo said, feeling satisfied that he has convinced them so far that he knew what he was saying.

“You don’t see the things around here anymore,” said Charlie with such a serious expression on his face, shadows from the bungalow’s roof masked it a darker shade. Manjack sat there, drumming the domino table with his fingers. He looked at Charlie and shook his head up and down in agreement.

The one person who sat at the domino table and said nothing throughout the discussion was Bijou. He was a school teacher. He called “the professor.”

Bijou shuffled in his seat and then coughed. “I agree,” he said eventually. “We have allowed our cultural provisions to go extinct.” His voice sounded authoritative.

“You right,” said Bongo, “like how we hardly could find any more guavaberry trees growing wild around the island or in our back yard.”

“Guavaberry?” said Charlie. “What about Stinkin’ Toe?”

“Stinkin’ Toe?” said the man standing over Jojo’s shoulder.

“You mean, ‘Locus’?” said Bijou.

“Yea, ‘Locus,’” said Charlie with finality in his voice.

Jojo remembered as a child, he used to go down to the rain forest to swim in Creque Dam, half of mile from the beer-drinking pigs, and he would stop and pick up these hard Appleton shells that fell from a tall, thick looking tree with rope-like vines hanging from it. Each shell contained two or three dark-Appleton marble-like seeds covered with Appletonish powdery like flakes. Sometimes the flakes would turn into dust between your fingers when the wind blows. The flakes came loose when you put one of the seeds in your mouth to suck. Sometimes the flakes would stick to your gum like caramel taffy when it mixed with your saliva. It smelled like rotten eggs, but it was a delicious tasting fruit. Jojo’s grandmother used to tell him that “Stinkin’ Toe” contains a protein that was good for building up your body, and so he was encouraged to eat it.

“Look, guys,” Jojo said, “I was talkin’ ‘bout my grandmother’s kallaloo.”

“You done? “said Manjack.


“Well?” Manjack said.

“Well, what?” said Jojo.

“Done the story, man.” Manjack sucked his teeth, then turned his back towards Jojo. His big rabbit ears were up like two television antennas. He was still listening but pretending he was disinterested.

“As I was sayin’,” said Jojo, when my grandmother put all those ingredients in her kallaloo, nobody kallaloo can beat that, much less taste better.”

“You know something,” said Bijou, “I heard what you guys are saying, and I understand. I think your grandmother was a boss of a cook. But as far as I’m concern, when are we going to cook some just like that?”

“I can’t cook that stuff like that,” said Charlie.

“Me too,” said Bongo.

“Me worst,” added Manjack.

“Well, I’ll cook it,” Jojo said. He looked at them and saw a cloud of resignation.

“When?” said Manjack.

“Next Saturday,” he said, “right here on the bayside.”

“No pork, man,” said Manjack.

“No, pork?” said Jojo.

“Yea,” said Bongo. “No pigtail, no salt pork, no pork rib, no pig snout or hambone.”

“I want mines only with conch, fish, crab, lobster, or whelks!” said Bijou.

“Look, “said Charlie, “don’t forget the ‘Bata, Bata,’ spinach, okra, kallaloo bush, ‘Whitie Mary’ and the hot pepper!”

“Gentlemen,” Jojo said, “I left out one of the most important things.”

They all looked at each other and shouted in unison, “FUNGI!”

“Who has a double blank, win the game,” said Bongo.

Jojo looked at the one domino he held in his hand. He jumped up, slammed down his final domino and said, “I win.”

Winston Nugent was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and grew up on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. He was the winner of the first College of the Virgin Islands Poetry Award in 1975 and the recipient of The Caribbean Writer’s Marguerite Cobb McKay Prize, as well as The Daily News Prize for his story ‘The Rim’ published in The Caribbean Writer, Vol. 33. He presently works at the legislature of the U.S. Virgin Islands as a writer/journalist.

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