Boyhood In the Plague

"Pestilence" by Jonathan Escoffery



Like a Greek play or really good folk ballad, Jonathan Escoffery’s “Pestilence” opens with a curse: “That first and only plot of American soil my parents purchased together was plagued, as was the house they built atop it.”

As you can imagine, in a story with a title like “Pestilence,” things only get worse from there. But Escoffery’s hand is light and sure. The story has the feel of a modern classic, couched in the elegantly retrospective mode of Reynolds Price, but with the agility of Jamaica Kincaid or Andrea Lee. “Pestilence” is the story of a family in Florida who has recently moved from Jamaica. Immediately, they are beset by crabs and locusts and the curious customs of their new neighborhood.

The narrator and his brother set to the task of clearing away the pests. Escoffery is a particularly astute observer of the rhythms of boyhood and the strangeness of migration. He writes, “At times, we’d look up from our work to see strange boys—colorless or orange-speckled or similarly brown versions of ourselves—crouching in pairs, or in triplicate, thusly occupied, and I wondered, if all the world’s boys were so engaged, would it not be long before we succeeded in our duty?”

Soon, Hurricane Andrew bears down on the narrator and his family, drawing into sharp relief the fault lines within their home. This is a swift, evocative story of family, masculinity, and boyhood. It’s also a lyrical account of the eeriness of immigration and finding oneself in a new context. Through the deftness of the retrospective point of view, Escoffery negotiates the ice floes of memory, drawing out new realizations or splintering old myths about the narrator and his family.

I found this story remarkable in its efficiency and its potency of image. Escoffery is poetic, light on his feet, and wise. He’s also funny as hell. There’s tremendous heart in this story. I’ll remember the crabs, the nighthawks, and the locusts forever. The final lines of the story are still ringing in my ears.

Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading 

Boyhood In the Plague

“Pestilence” by Jonathan Escoffery

That first and only plot of American soil my parents purchased together was plagued, as was the house they built atop it. The millipedes blackened our front steps, made Mom tap dance from car to welcome mat. They crept up pipes, bursting from bath drains at our most vulnerable moments, their dark bodies startling against the porcelain white.

When the crabs scuttled inland by the thousands, choking traffic on Old Cutler Road, only the fool-hearted drove on. My father halted our station wagon, the sea of beige and blue crustaceans washing under us, resigning us to tardiness. From the backseat, Delano and I sat in silent reverence for the clack of claws on asphalt, witnessing pincers and shell-fragments puncture car tires ahead.

And when the locusts swarmed, we four crouched at the living room window, waiting.

Mom said it was the construction, that the onslaught of new development the 80s had ushered in disturbed the animals so, that the clearing of land sent them into frenzy. Dad said it had always been this way, but that people had not yet lived this deep into Cutler Ridge, our southeast section of Miami; that the crabs and locusts came in seasons, and that humans would need to acclimate to them. Delano said it was our job, the boys, to free our block of vermin.

We snuck lighters and matches, cans of Raid and Lysol, to blowtorch the millipedes and melt them to a slough. We prodded the crabs into Mom’s gardening pail and plastic mop bucket with sticks and dried sugarcane stalks. We hovered over the buckets and bet against the crabs as they dragged one another down into mutual destruction.

Our neighbors made meals of these, but as they were blue and not the neatly plated red shellfish we recognized from restaurants’ advertisements, we left our bucketsful at the side of the house for days or weeks instead, letting the sun bake the shells to dry, brittle husks.

These crabs were easy-pickings, except the one we chased through a quarter of a mile of field, till, as though changing its nature by necessity, or as though to prove our misunderstanding of that nature, it escaped up the trunk of an oak.

The locusts we left alone except the three or four that stayed on after the swarm dispersed. We plucked shell-encased legs and wings from thoraces and drowned them in bleach or iodine or whatever we could smuggle out the front door without our parents noticing. At times, we’d look up from our work to see strange boys—colorless or orange- speckled or similarly brown versions of ourselves—crouching in pairs, or in triplicate, thusly occupied, and I wondered, if all the world’s boys were so engaged, would it not be long before we succeeded in our duty?

The locusts and crabs, and millipedes especially, dwindled from one year to the next, until their returns brought so few we missed them entirely and we forgot they had ever covered our sidewalks and highways and skies.

We knew our house was cursed, not simply from the outside, but from within. The animals we brought home met grisly deaths, no matter the care we took. Our Siamese fighting fish launched itself from its aquarium. Mom ladled it off the carpet with the square-rimmed net and thrust it back into its tank, jamming the lid down after, but this seemed only to enrage the fish. We four gathered around the aquarium as the fish rammed the inner glass and beat its face to gristle.

The hamsters we discovered so: the one having choked eating its cage-mate.

“Jesus, Joseph, and Mary,” my father said when I carried the cage from our bedroom into the kitchen. “Maybe no pets for a while,” Mom said.

I felt relieved, but Delano insisted, “If we name the next ones, they might treat each other humanely.”

“They’ll be hard enough to forget.” Dad pointed to the cage. “Imagine if they had identities.” Our father, like many of the Jamaican men my parents brought around, didn’t believe in naming animals, not even the best of them. “Dog already ’ave name,” he liked to say, leaning into his accent. “Dog named dog.”

Our mother, though, had raised chickens and hogs growing up on the outskirts of Kingston, and she’d named every one of them, even after realizing what they were fated for. Mom said of our grandmother, “When Seema put her leather gloves on, you knew it was bye- bye, Betsy. Bye-bye, Henriette.” She took the middle of a dishtowel in her fists and twisted sharply, a neck breaking grick sound emanating from the depths of Mom’s throat.

“Me never did ’ave farm animal,” Dad countered. He reached into the freezer and dumped a handful of ice into a tumbler then placed the tumbler on the kitchen counter. “But me did hit me neighbor’ goat one time.” It was like that between my parents: one having always to best the other. Dad bit down on his lip, forcing the glee from his face. He tilted the neck of a rum bottle over his glass, continuing, “The goat run out in the road and me lick him down with Daddy’s car. And me did think, the car mussee dent up and mister goat mussee dead. But then mas goat stand up straight wit’ him hoofs ’pon the car’ bonnet and look ’pon me. Next thing me know, him turned to the whole of we neighbors and start bawl, ‘Baheeeeeelp!’” Dad squished up his face, squealing in a shrill goat voice. “‘Baheeeeeelp!’ And me did take off, thinking, mister goat going run tell Sheriff John Brown.” Such was his amusement that tears rounded his cheeks.

There’s an alternate ending to my father’s goat story, but on this occasion, he punctuated it with unbridled laughter, and my mother slapped him with the dishtowel, saying, “You’re too cruel, man,” but her eyes brimmed with love.

New plagues disturbed our neighborhood in subsequent years, and by these we kept seasons. We constructed slingshots and carried small stones to fight off the nighthawks. We poured salt on the slugs and frogs that seemed to fall from the sky with the rains. From Mount Trashmore’s sulfuric, skunk-squeezed stench we hid.

Mount Trashmore was the pride and shame of Cutler Ridge—at least that’s how we boys viewed it. If we dragged Dad’s ladder to the side of the house and ascended to the roof, through binoculars we could just make out the landfill’s peak and its buzzard halo. The summer sun bore into Trashmore, releasing funk waves we choked on, and on the hottest days there was nothing to be done but lift shirt collars or hems to our noses, and slog inside.

The nighthawks attacked us night or day, but were most dangerous at dusk. They nested in the ground, camouflaged in the low-lying thicket that spread across the rocky terrain behind our townhouse. If we ambled too close to one, it’d burst from the dirt, gain adequate height then dive-bomb us.

Once, Delano shot a nighthawk as it rose from its swooping attack. We gave chase, but it managed to lose us as it spiraled down into the expansive brush.

By then we had Double-O (short for 007) with us. His mom was a mutt, but his dad was pure Labrador. We ran him in the field, shouting, Get it, boy, and C’mon, Double, kill! something I suspected worked only on TV until Double-O tore off into the briar.

I awaited the bird’s blast back into sky as Double ruffled the surrounding bush, but he came skipping back, jaws clamped on a mass of meat and torn-up feathers. A line of the bird’s blood dribbled down to the V-shaped white patch that made Double’s black fur look especially tuxedo-like.

It took stern commands and tugging to make Double let go of his catch. When he did, the bird lay stiff and gnarled on the dusty gravel. “We killed it.”

“What’d you think we were trying to do?” Delano asked.

I asked him if we should cook it, but Delano told me people didn’t eat nighthawks, so we’d better just bury the bird. I didn’t stop to ask why we would bother; I had a vague sense that we were honoring the dead, that this life we’d taken was somehow different, more valuable than the insects and toads and crabs. To tear life down from the sky like that…or maybe I had begun growing into my conscience and my guilt stood independent of what we’d killed. Or possibly, I felt nothing, and I’m projecting onto my younger self the question: What makes one life worth more than the next? What makes one more worthy of compassion?

We dug a shallow grave, not far from where the nighthawk first appeared. My brother suggested we look for its nest and eggs, to toss them in the hole, to wipe out its line and prevent future attacks, but I remember this with clarity: I had no stomach for it.

“When Daddy dies, I get the house,” my brother told me while we were out walking Double. I can’t remember if it was the time we killed the nighthawk or not. It couldn’t have been long after. Let’s say our backs were bent in work, lowering the carcass into the earth, spreading dirt over the hole. Let’s say the sun inched toward the horizon, sweat rolling from our pits down to our wrists and palms, when Delano called dibs.

I wondered why he would lay claim to a house we’d already agreed was doomed, but said, “What about Mom?”

“Fine. When Daddy and Mummy die, I get it.”

“Yeah right!” I said, but I knew, even then, he was right. The way they fawned over my brother, the way he’d already inherited the best of what our parents had to offer, down to our father’s eyes—eyes which strangers couldn’t help interrupting their day and ours to gush over. How often I had stood outside the huddle, Delano enclosed by our parents and his random admirers. How often I’d wondered if I’d actually disappeared.

“They’ll leave the house to both of us,” I insisted.

“That’s not how it works,” he said. “I’m the first born. That makes me the heir.”

“You’re not royalty, you moron.” But who in this world of carefully constructed hierarchies wouldn’t choose the blue-eyed brown boy to anoint? Who wouldn’t assign him the higher value? You? Who wouldn’t figure him more deserving?

“Doesn’t matter. It’s how it works, Trelawnies.” I’d entered into a chubby stage, and as Delano had entered an evil one, he’d begun pluralizing my name to emphasize my size.

“Then what happens if you die?” I asked.

“Then it’ll go to my son.”

“You don’t have a son.”

“I will by the time I die.”

“Then what do I get?”

“You, Trelawnies, get the shaft. You should be used to it by then.” Seeing he had upset me, he added, “But you’re still my brother, so if you’re good, I might let you live here with me.”

In August of ’92 plague arrived in the form of 175 mph winds. We knew Andrew was coming for Florida, but the weather reports and the associated panic were not the first signs of impending devastation. For one, my parents had begun arguing that summer, tearing into each other with sharp tongues and piercing insults.

Dad claimed she’d become too Americanized in her expectations of marriage. Mom said it was the white rum, the nights he’d disappear then reappear doused in debauchery. Delano told me to escape into the streets to find relief from their bickering, but Mount Trashmore’s fumes chased us back indoors. That entire August the stench seeped into our pores and nostrils, making our stomachs ache. We agreed—Delano and I—that Trashmore was no mere mountain, but a volcano, gradually poisoning us, threatening to erupt.

The stink strangled our summer, but receded the morning before Andrew’s arrival, leaving our spirits considerably higher as we boarded up the house. The breeze felt miraculously soft and clean.

We laughed joyously as we drilled screws into plywood, safe-guarding the windows. “What does it matter that we live in the flood zone,” I wondered aloud, “when our house sits on such a high hill?”

“Is this the fifth hurricane we’ve prepared for needlessly or the sixth?” Delano countered. “Do hurricanes even exist?”

“Can we please, please, please get enough damage to delay the start of school by a week?”

We packed bags, choosing video game consoles over comic card collections for our overnight at our Aunty Daphne’s house—hers being further inland.

The only problem with evacuating was that Double-O had gotten loose the night prior and had not yet returned. He’d taken to visiting his K-9 neighbors, the females; short of locking him indoors, we couldn’t prevent his nightly excursions. But when we locked him in, Double’s howls reached into our dreams, snatching us from sleep. Halfway through his second night of incarceration, one of my parents—my father, I assume—relented, releasing him to the backyard, where he was silent, if absent.

One early summer evening, Delano and I had tailed Double and witnessed the full splendor of his escapade. It was something to see Double scale a fence: his front paws hooking chain links, his back tiptoeing to propel him upward, his V-cut white patch exposed. I couldn’t help exclaiming, “Double-O seven.”

“Double-O seven,” Delano agreed.

It was then that we resolved to have Double-O neutered.

We made the appointment for the procedure, but as my father pulled into the vet’s parking lot one Saturday afternoon in July, Double in the backseat trembling between Delano and me, we began contemplating what it meant for Double to lose his testicles. I didn’t know how to bear the weight of wiping out Double’s line, but my brother expressed his concern this way: “I’d rather be dead than have my balls chopped off.”

My father nodded. “It’s what make a man a man. But it’s you boys’ decision. He’s yours to look after.”

I didn’t know what was right in that moment, but I wanted to be like them, to partake in manhood as they did—no, that’s not exactly it. I wanted to be with them, to be caught up in the love that linked the men of my family. I had begun feeling the weight of our age gap, Delano entering my father’s world and leaving mine. So I threw my hands over my crotch, lowered and shook my head, as though too pained to discuss the situation. At that, our dad put the car in reverse and we headed home, agreeing to tell Mom the vet’s office had been inexplicably closed. It was perhaps the one time I felt such belonging.

What is that inimitable bond between certain fathers and certain sons?

Years later, in high school, Delano would try laying hands on our dad in an argument over his taking Dad’s car without permission. He’d driven the car to Homecoming. Not his high school’s, but FAMU’s, eight hours north of us. Instead of returning the car home, to my father’s, he drove over to Mom’s house, my house, and let our father know he could pick up his car there. I guess he figured he’d postpone his punishment, or maybe he just wanted witnesses. When our father arrived, and the words and excuses inevitably failed Delano, and Dad’s chastisement became too much, he tried pushing our father out of his way. Dad easily won the tussle, pinning Delano against the living room wall, embracing him there, as though to say, Not yet, not yet. You will grow to best me, and all that I am will be yours, but not now. Not yet.

I risked Double’s life for a fraction of that feeling. But in the pre-storm calm, as Delano and I scoured the neighborhood while Dad took the car out to search the streets beyond, I knew we’d made a terrible decision.

I made promises to God that afternoon, to the universe, to any power willing to accept my plea, that if we found Double, I’d do right by him. I’d save him from the others and from himself. But maybe that was the wrong promise to make. Perhaps I should have begun instead with atonement.

I felt certain Double would trot up at any moment, his pink tongue dangling over his black jaw. When the sky turned dark, though, we abandoned the house and Cutler Ridge, heading inland.

“Don’t fret,” our mother said on the ride out. “Puss and dog know to shelter themselves in storm.”

I braced myself, looking to the driver’s seat, certain my father would contradict her, but for once he agreed, saying, “Animals can sense these things.”

I understood anew that my father could change his nature, and that he would do so to protect me. I knew too that what he’d said was at least partially true. No Florida house could prevent trails of ants from marching in before a heavy rain. But where could Double-O hide? He was no insect.

The alternate ending to my father’s goat tale goes as such: “The goat start bawling ‘help.’ And me know it then it must be in some rhatid agony. So me reverse the car to make sure me can aim for its head. Then me lick it down one time for good.”

When the electricity went we knew Andrew would not join the slew of dud hurricanes we’d scoffed at. From the living room we watched a family of palms wrenched from the yard then thrust through the neighbor’s walls. Like pins into cushion. That’s how the five of us wound up huddled in Aunty Daphne’s walk-in closet.

I don’t have to strain myself describing what we’d discover in the light of the following day—the flattened neighborhoods, the mounting death toll—you can find all of that online. I recommend typing Hurricane Andrew aftermath into your favorite search engine then clicking Images to see what I saw the morning after. I’ll say that when we finally located Cutler Ridge, then our block within it—these things were difficult with no road signs, few remaining landmarks, and very many obstacles—little more than the skeletal frame and the squishy, rotting carpet remained of our home.

What the archived pictures can’t convey is that a decomposing palm tree, one that’s been ripped from the earth and left in the road to die, smells pitiful as a rotting human. Or that even the inanimate innards of houses stank of loss, of soaked-through death post-storm, and after a day or so this rot stifled not just Cutler Ridge, but most of Dade County.

You also mightn’t have heard of the animals that escaped Metro Zoo and the various research facilities and exotic dealers during Andrew, the teams of monkeys spotted jogging and swinging their way through wind-toppled suburbs to freedom. Conservative estimates put these escapees in the hundreds, though some wildlife experts estimate that at least 2,500 monkeys got free. You can see these monkeys and their offspring peeking into backyards in certain Miami neighborhoods even to this day. And few Dade County residents haven’t witnessed the parrots and parakeets and cockatiels now inhabiting Coral Reef and Tropical Park and beyond. Some cougars roamed free. Some might still.

So where we spent our youth ridding our block of species, choosing which, by their very nature, deserved to die, nature intervened and, in the course of hours, set loose new life to recapture our neighborhoods.

But that’s not what I want to talk about anymore. I want to talk about that night, crouched in the closet, when the wind howled like a god come down for vengeance. When I said, “I hope Double-O is okay.”

And my mother held me gently in the dark and said, “Someone will have found him and taken him in.” I imagined one of our neighbors shooing Double inside, pulling shut her door just in time to hunker down.

But my brother shifted anxiously beside me as though he already knew my father would respond, “Me didn’t tell you? Me found it? Me didn’t tell you?” His voice took the choppy lilt that it did when he’d been drinking his whites awhile. And though I couldn’t have seen one, tucked deep within folds of blackness as we were, I can’t help remembering a smirk on his face when he said, “Me didn’t tell you me found the dog? Found it, dead in the street?”

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