(This story originally appeared in the November 11, 2016 edition of Joyland Magazine, an online publication for short fiction.)
After reading the letter once, Truth called to her son, Cuffy, who was now six years old, in the next room. “Let’s take a ride, babe.”
“What kind of ride? A bike ride?” Cuffy had been playing chess by himself while looking out the window onto Mason Street. The sun was out, the street busy, the world inviting.
“Nope. Cable car, to start with. Then we’ll go from there.”
“But where’re we going?” Cuffy was a very precise person who liked to know exactly what his mother’s plans were so that she wouldn’t deviate from them midway through, which she often did.
“City tour.” Truth gathered light jackets for them both, put water and snacks in a battered gray knapsack, the same one she had taken to Guyana and had on her back when she met the father of her only child, awaiting her on the dock at Port Kaituma. “Let’s see. You can take your little magnet chess set if you want. We’re gonna take a lot of buses.”
“Why? Why can’t I ride my bike? It’s so nice out.” Although Cuffy had lived in this railroad flat in the Tenderloin his entire life, he loved being outside. There were no trees on his block, not one blade of grass, but when he was younger he had liked running up and down the sidewalk, and now he preferred to bike his two-wheeler back and forth in front of the flat. He didn’t mind cold or rain or fog, but Truth was very protective, and unless she also wanted to sit outside and watch him – and she was less partial to rain and fog – then he had to stay inside.
“We’re going too far for it to be a bike ride.”
“Where exactly are we going?” Cuffy knew his city geography from the innumerable “city tours” his mother had taken him on over the years. They had no car, but with a Municipal Railway pass, she had shown him nearly every corner of every district in the city, and some of the East Bay too. “Couldn’t I take my bike for part of it? I could ride next to the bus while you’re on it.”
Snorting, Truth raised her eyebrows at him. “Honey, you’re out of your mind. You know I wouldn’t let you do that in a million years! It’s totally unsafe. Okay, here’s the plan. We’re going to the Fillmore first. And then down to State. After that, I’m not sure. C’mon. Let’s go.”
Outside, various passersby waved hello to the pair. Cuffy was one of few children on this block, which was populated mostly by old people or prostitutes, though in recent years some Eastern European/former Soviet Union refugee families had moved in, living five or more to a room.
“How’s chess?” asked Vladimir, the old Muscovite who combed their block daily for aluminum cans and had taught Cuffy how to play when he was barely five. As always, he touched the top of Cuffy’s curly hair as if it were a talisman. This gesture irritated Truth, as it seemed white people always wanted to touch black people’s hair, and once she’d asked Vladimir not to do it, but his English was so limited he didn’t understand or pretended not to. Though the habit continued to bother her, she let the matter go when she saw how much her son liked the old man. They would sit on the stoop, playing chess for hours while she read beside them, keeping one eye on Vladimir just to be perfectly sure he didn’t have any nasty ideas. As a single mother, she was ever alert for “too friendly” men who might regard her little boy with suspect interest.
“Karashaw,” said Cuffy, who already knew more Russian than the bits Truth had managed to pick up. In Jonestown, Peoples Temple had been studying Russian in preparation for a possible move to the Soviet Union, which of course never materialized. Since Truth had been working at the Geary office those last years of the Temple’s existence, she hadn’t learned more than a few words of it. For a time, she did refer to herself as “comrade” or “tovaricha,” as did many in the inner circle, even those who stayed in the United States, but after the End, such vocabulary seemed foolish, so she stopped.
They walked down Powell toward the cable car turnaround on Market Street. Even though Truth disliked tourists, she liked to watch Cuffy enjoying the street performers who congregated there to entertain for money. The captive audience of strangers had likely never seen some of the odder San Francisco live shows, like the gilded statue, a person of indeterminate gender who would paint himself or herself silver or gold and assume a position for hours on end – Buddha one day, Rodin’s “Thinker” the next. The person could remain still as stone for so long that sometimes Truth wondered if it were healthy. Once or twice she asked herself if the performer had figured out some very clever way of substituting a real statue while he or she went off for the day, and the bowl in front of the statue filled to overflowing with crisp and crumpled bills, anchored by heaps of coins in various currencies.
“I wonder who he’ll be today,” said Cuffy, his grin twitching with anticipation as they neared the turnaround, where a long line snaked up toward them. Behind dozens of tourists, they joined the end of the queue. “Mom, can I go see?”
“No, you cannot.” She shook her head. “It’s too far from here. When we get closer, you can go look, as long as I can keep my eye on you.” She held his hand tightly as they surveyed the people in front and behind them.
She could hear Minnesota accents, French, Texas drawls and an African language she couldn’t decipher emanating from the nearby crowd.
“What’s that?” asked Cuffy, listening intently as a man in a turban walked by, speaking to another, similarly clad older man. “Indian?”
“There isn’t really a language called Indian. It could be Hindi, but I’m not sure.”
Cuffy stared after the two men. “I like their hats. Could I get a hat like that?”
“They’re called turbans. I suppose they could be Muslims, not Hindus. Maybe Sikhs.” Did Muslims speak Hindi? Truth felt ashamed of her ignorance. She ought to know. She had learned in Peoples Temple of the ever-present and usually subconscious condescension of white people to those of color, especially the assumption that the latter were all the same. She too had grown up in that ignorance. Her parents never tried to correct it. “In Guyana, a lot of people worship the Hindu gods like Shiva and Kali. People who originally came from India.”
“To Guyana? But Guyana’s in South America!” Cuffy knew a few things about the country of his birth father, information his mother was always happy to share. But she wouldn’t say much about the actual man. He didn’t even know his father’s name.
“Yes, sweetie. But the British, you know, the Evil Empire before ours, they shipped all these East Indians to Guyana to pick sugar cane.”
“A lot like slaves. They were called indentured servants, which was basically the same thing. Supposedly they could pay back their ship fare and then be free. Only the plantation owners ripped them off for food and shelter, so they never could get enough ahead of their debts to buy their freedom.”
Truth laughed. “No. Not like us. We’re not badly off, honey. Mommy gets health insurance from the city and a salary we manage to live on, right?”
“But then how come you’re always saying we can’t afford it, whenever I ask for something?”
She messed his hair, which was very like her own, only his curls were tighter and brown where hers were loose and white. “I mean, compared to plantation workers, we’re pretty well off. Do you know, when I lived in a commune in the Temple, we had an allowance of two dollars a week?”
His jaw fell. “But that’s what you give me, and I’m only in first grade!”
The line was moving now as the cable car waiting on Market turned and began to load passengers. She knew Cuffy would rather wait for the next car so he could watch the performers, and she wasn’t in a great hurry. It was Saturday, and the letter in her pocket would surely require multiple readings over the course of this day before she was ready to decide how to respond.
The living statue was there, painted copper today, standing in a position resembling something from an Egyptian papyrus, shoulders front with head in profile, feet turned in the same direction as the head.
“Wow!” Cuffy walked around the statue-person, thrilled at the new color and enactment. “How does he do that?” he called to his mother, who was now letting other passengers enter the cable car while she retained her place at the front of the line and kept her eye on Cuffy.
“C’mere!” she shouted, annoyed.
Reluctantly, he joined her. “What?”
“First, you shouldn’t talk about him as if he wasn’t there when you’re standing right next to him! It’s rude. It’s like how people talk about the lousy service in a restaurant right in front of the waiter! And second, we don’t know if it’s a man. It could be a woman. It’s hard to tell.”
Cuffy shook his head. “Mom. It’s obviously a man. Look at his chest.”
“There are women with really small breasts like that. He’s so petite. I mean, he or she is so petite.”
Cuffy snorted. “Mom, it’s not a girl! He doesn’t have a shirt on! Can I go back and look?”
“All right. Only stay where I can see you, and don’t talk about him in the third person. I mean, don’t say ‘he’ when he’s right next to you.”
She watched as another child, roughly Cuffy’s age, joined him in circling the gilded statue-person. When the other kid, a white girl with light brown hair and eyes, went to touch the statue, Cuffy pulled her hand back and whispered something. She could just imagine what he was saying: “Don’t do that while my mom’s looking. She never lets me touch him.”
Truth looked around for whoever was with the girl, and spotted a middle-aged man perusing the newspaper while he surveyed his daughter. They weren’t waiting for the cable car but seemed to be stopping on a walk up or down Market Street. As she watched the girl and Cuffy now running in circles around the statue, she thought she recognized something in that girl, something that reminded her of herself. She wanted to tell the kids to stop running, but she didn’t want to lose her place in line, and the street noise was pitched at too high a volume for her to shout over. Just then the father went over to the kids and apparently told them to stop, for they did. After Cuffy pointed at Truth, the man came toward her.
“That’s your boy?”
“He’s a sweetie. They seem to like each other. How old?”
“Mine too. Just had her birthday last week.” While he paused to read the headlines on his folded newspaper, she studied him. Business suit. Tie. Balding. The kind of guy she used to assume was a racist, capitalist monster on appearance alone. Lately, she had begun to reserve judgment on strangers, a new experience for her, something she was learning from her son.
“What’s her name?”
Truth gasped. The name was the same as That Woman’s mother, who had died of cancer at Jonestown, before the End, and it was That Woman the girl reminded her of – hair, complexion, eyes. She hadn’t thought about That Woman in a while, actually, as the life of the Temple receded while Cuffy’s life and needs grew larger. But that was silly. Anna was a common name.
“And what’s your son’s name?”
Usually, his name elicited a long discussion. Either she would explain that he was named after the great slave rebel of Guyana in the 18th century, and then she’d have to offer that her son was half Guyanese, and then she’d have to say where Guyana was, because everybody thought it was in Africa, and since Cuffy had terracotta skin, they assumed he was African. Which he was, by way of the slave trade to the east coast of South America. Or else she would say it was a “family name,” which cut off the questions and was true in a non-blood, chosen-family sort of way.
“Hmm. Unusual. I know that name from somewhere.” The man looked into her eyes. He was about her height and age, and behind his wire-framed glasses his hazel eyes searched with sympathetic curiosity. “And what’s very odd is that you look a lot like my wife.”
“What’s odder is I think I know your wife.” Truth hesitated. She had never referred to That Woman by name ever since the latter had defected just a few months before the End, and went off to warn everybody, including the FBI and State Department, that mass suicide was planned by Jones and the leadership, though nobody took her seriously, except Leo Ryan.
For years, Truth had blamed her for instigating the suicides, for sending the congressman to investigate Jonestown, which had in turn led to the murder of Ryan and the crew of reporters, which then led to the Peoples Temple membership assuming that the compound would be stormed by the Guyanese military and that it would be more noble to die than to fight, especially since the Guyanese army was black and basically stooges for American capitalist interests. But now, nearly twenty years later, she wasn’t so certain of this interpretation of events.
“You know Susan? From the bank?”
Truth laughed. “No. Not from the bank. Is that where she works now? I think I heard that from someone.”
“Oh.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “So you know her from before. Were you in the Temple?”
The man sighed. “I’m Alan, by the way. Alan Friedman. And you are?”
She hesitated. “Well, Susan probably remembers me, but I’m sure she doesn’t like me.”
He shook his head. “She’s not like that. Really. She doesn’t hold grudges. But I won’t tell her we ran into you if you don’t want me to.” He looked away from Truth and regarded their children, who were sitting cross-legged on the ground near the statue; Cuffy was showing Anna his palm-sized chess set.
“National hero of Guyana, right? Paul Cuffy.” Proud of his memory, he smiled at her.
“You have got to be the first and only person I’ve ever met not from the Temple who knew who Cuffy was.”
“Well, I suppose I’m a member by association. Or former member. Or apostate maybe.”
Just as Truth was thinking, “or traitor,” Alan added, “Or traitor. I know that’s what a lot of people call Susan. You know, she really wanted to save people.”
Truth blinked. “But she didn’t.”
“No.” Alan looked into Truth’s eyes. “No, she didn’t, though not for lack of trying. I know she lives with a lot of guilt about it every day. She’s getting closer to forgiving herself. I mean, she did everything she could to save those people. Were you there? In Georgetown, I mean?”
“No. I never went over. Jim didn’t let me.” She wanted to say more, but stopped herself.
Truth didn’t respond.
“You know, Susan lost her mother there, a couple of sisters-in-law, or ex-sisters-in-law, and you know all about her brother.”
Another cable car rolled down the tracks, and the conductor pushed it with his back and shoulders across the turnaround.
“I know who you are!” He smiled. “Susan’s told me about you, mostly because people used to get you two confused.”
Truth was surprised. She was used to being taken for Susan, but had never considered that others might take Susan for her. Susan had been very high up in the inner circle, at Jim’s right hand. That’s why her defection had so disturbed him, perhaps more than anyone else’s. And her brother was Jim’s sycophantic male adorer, who had pretended to defect with the others on November 18th, only he took a gun into the plane and started shooting, failing to kill anyone because his gun had malfunctioned. Still, he went to prison for years.
Truth winced. It sounded a little silly, being called Truth, when who knew what Truth was, anyway? Truth was relative. She had given her son a proud, strong name, a heroic name with a history. Truth was nobody’s name, just an idea. An idea of Jim Jones. An idea her 18-year-old self thought was terrific. “We’re going to take this cable car, Alan.”
He smiled. “Okay, Truth. I’m glad we met. It was nice to see our children get along, don’t you think? No sins of the fathers for them, huh? Sins of the mothers would be more accurate, I guess.”
She frowned. Truth supposed he meant to be funny, but his remark disturbed her. “Cuffy! C’mon, we’re going now!” she called to her son as the people on line began to gather their belongings. “Cuffy!”
Alan bowed a little. “Maybe we could get the kids together again sometime. Here’s my card. So long.” He walked off toward the statue and collected his daughter, who turned to wave at her, and they headed east toward the Bay, hands held. Just as the conductor gestured for people to board, Cuffy arrived by her side.
“You know what that girl said?”
“Anna, her name is Anna.”
“Yeah, anyway, you know what she said?”
“What did she say?” They managed to get their favorite seats on the rear right banquette, where no bodies would obstruct their view of the world.
“She said the statue was magic. That it wasn’t a boy or a girl. Like a fairy.”
When Cuffy said fairy, he pronounced it “ferry,” which always made Truth smile. San Francisco had plenty of fairies and ferries; either pronunciation worked.
“Do you agree?”
Cuffy nodded vigorously. “Don’t you? It’s the perfect solution!” Then he was distracted by a clown walking by with many balloons and pointed. “Mom! Could I get one? Please? Pretty please with sugar on it?”
“Saved by the bell,” she said, as the conductor rang to signal to the brakeman, and the car lurched into motion. Then Cuffy saw something even more interesting on the sidewalk and promptly forgot about the balloon. She took the letter from her back pocket, unfolded it and read.
We haven’t seen you in so long. We haven’t seen Cuffy since he was born. We want you to come visit us. Soon. Your mother isn’t well, and I’m not doing so hot either. Will you come? We’ll buy your plane tickets. It would mean a lot to your mother, and to me of course too. I want to see my grandson again before I die. I’m not saying I’m planning on dying next week, but it turns out I have cancer. And I finally got your mother to the doctor to have that shaking looked at – do you remember? You noticed that her hands trembled when we visited you after Cuffy was born. She has Parkinson’s. Growing old is no fun, believe me, but we’re not complaining. Anyway, there are some things we want to talk to you about, and not on the phone. It’s too complicated to write it all down in a letter. So, please. Make a reservation, and I’ll send you a check to cover it.
I want to see my grandson again before I die, and of course I want to see you too.
See you soon, Elizabeth.
“Who’s that from?”
Cuffy tried to read it. “Why does it say Dear E…Eliza…?”
She folded it back into the envelope, which she stowed deep in the gray knapsack. “You know my real name is Elizabeth. I mean, the one I was born with.”
“No, I didn’t!” He was smiling, excited by his mother’s revelation of such a juicy secret.
“Yes, you did! I’ve told you before. You just forgot.”
“There’s an Elizabeth in my class. She’s nice.”
Truth grunted. It had taken forever to get people to call her Truth; she didn’t want her son to make her name an issue. “Grandpa usually calls me Truth. He must have forgot.” She paused. “He’s not well.”
“What do you mean?”
“He has cancer.”
“It’s a really bad sickness. Sometimes it can kill you.”
“I wish I had it!” Cuffy looked gleeful.
“No, you don’t! That’s a horrible thing to say.”
“I didn’t mean it. So, is he going to be all right?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are they going to come visit?”
“They want us to come to New Jersey.” She frowned. “I hate it there.”
“Oh, please? Can we go? I want to ride on a plane. You’ve ridden on planes. Why can’t I?”
“Honey, it’s not so simple.”
Above Chinatown, they got off the cable car to wait for an electric bus to take them west to the Fillmore. It was a route they’d traveled many times, when Truth had described what her life had been like before Cuffy entered it. He didn’t seem to believe there had even been life before he arrived, and while he was curious about his mother’s history, he didn’t think her life then was as real as it was now.
“What are we going to do in the Fillmore? Stare at the place where the Temple used to be?”
“I don’t like your tone, Mister. That Temple was very important to me.”
“Like, a hundred years ago.”
She shrugged. “There’s the bus coming.”
They got on, and the bus eventually descended from the heights, where wealthy people had fancy flats and freshly painted Victorian mansions, down to the flatlands, where what had once been acres and acres of decrepit buildings were now gentrified co-op apartments. Gay men seemed to be everywhere, always the first to move into the inner city and fix it up so that blacks couldn’t afford the rents anymore. Truth sighed deeply. The only thing that seemed to have changed since 1978 was that gay people were no longer oppressed – at least in San Francisco.
When the busdriver called out “Japantown, next stop Japantown,” they both rose.
“Mom, this is so boring for me. Can’t we go into Japantown instead? I’ve never even been there, and we’re always so close whenever we come here.”
She steered him down the stairs and up the block toward Geary. The Temple building had been destroyed in the 1989 earthquake, and a post office had taken its place. There really was nothing to look at, but she had to stand there, on the sidewalk where she’d once spent years of her life, going in and out of the Temple, sleeping there in the days when she worked like a maniac, so full of purpose. She closed her eyes, trying to sense Jim’s spirit, which sometimes lingered here, but felt nothing. There was no point in lingering.
“Okay, are you done?”
She wanted to smack him. “Cuffy! This place is part of your history. A big part. You probably wouldn’t even be here if not for the Temple.”
“Big deal. Can we go to Japantown now?”
“I don’t like that place. It’s so fake.”
“Why? We go to Chinatown all the time.”
“I know. But Chinatown is where real people live and have lived for a long time. Japantown is some architect’s creation. It’s for tourists.”
“So what? I heard they have a really neat fountain.”
“Who told you that?”
“Midori. Her father has a store there.”
“She’s probably filthy rich.”
“Who cares? I like her. She’s one of my friends at recess. Could we go see her? She told me she usually spends Saturdays at the store.”
“Do you know which store?”
“Opposite the fountain. Thanks, Mom!”
She smiled ruefully. Even when she was dead set against whatever it was he wanted, Cuffy often managed to get his way. She realized she had never been very good at opposition. Not with the neighbor boys, who wanted her titties; not with Jim, who wanted her energy; and not with Cuffy, who basically wanted her love. This giving in was different than the others, she told herself. This was appropriate.
Japantown made her eyes hurt. Just as she’d always suspected, it was full of rich people. Not, in this case, only rich white people, but lots of rich Asians too. She remembered how Jim would talk about how the Japanese had been put into what he called concentration camps; yes, they were concentrations of Japanese people, but not the same as what happened in Germany, not extermination camps, not what he said would happen to black people in the United States. In Jonestown, he’d terrified the elderly blacks, insisting the KKK was marching down the streets of Los Angeles, but it wasn’t true. She looked around. No black people here except Cuffy, who was running in circles around the fountain, now joined by a little girl who had run out from a fancy store featuring silk kimonos and other shiny articles of clothing. A silver-haired man ran out behind her, yelling in Japanese.
“It’s okay,” Truth called to him. “They’re in school together. Cuffy wanted to say hi to Midori since we were nearby.”
The man looked at her suspiciously. “Who are you?”
“I’m Cuffy’s mother. They’re both in first grade. He and Midori play at recess.”
“Okay. You watch them. I go back to my customers.”
When he said, “Who are you,” did it mean that she couldn’t possibly be Cuffy’s mother? Or did he mean, who are you, as in, I’ve never seen you before? Hard to tell.
With her eye on the children, Truth made her way over to his store. It was so expensive there were no prices anywhere, a sure sign of a place exclusively reserved for the excessively rich, for whom prices were irrelevant. She frowned. Yet Midori and Cuffy were playing the chase game like old friends. Clearly they had done it many times before. She wondered if Cuffy, like her, was always attracted to what was different, rather than what was like. Then again, there were only a few black girls in his grade, and their names came up sometimes, but not as often as Midori’s.
An African couple came out of the store with shopping bags full of purchases. The woman smiled at her, pointing to the display. “Beautiful kimonos, no? We can’t get these in Togo.”
Flustered, Truth nodded, then shook her head. “Oh. I suppose so. I mean, I suppose not. Hello.”
The very tall man and woman, dressed in brightly patterned bou-bous, smiled again and then walked off. Clearly, they had plenty of money and were not worrying about the high cost of shopping at Midori’s father’s store.
After his customers had departed, Midori’s father re-appeared. “Good afternoon. Forgive me for rudeness before. I am Yoshi. And your name is…?”
“Truth. Truth Miller.”
“Ah. Miss Miller. I am glad to meet you. Midori is always talking about your son. Cuffy this. Cuffy that. They like each other a great deal, I think.”
He, too, was an older parent. So old he looked like he probably had grandchildren too. Truth assumed Midori was the product of a late second marriage.
“Do you have other children, Yoshi?
“No. Just Midori. My wife and I try very very hard without luck, and finally we receive our gift, just after we have given up.”
So, Truth was wrong. Again. “Had you considered adopting?”
She frowned. “No. Not like me. Cuffy is my natural child.”
“Aah. I see.”
But he looked a little confused. Surely, if he would study their faces, he would see that she and Cuffy had the same eyebrows and nose, but most people saw only skin color. To most, skin color was everything, the only thing. So they assumed she had adopted him, like Midori’s father and probably Midori too, if she thought about it. Truth was sure no one ever assumed he had adopted his daughter.
“Excuse me. I have things to attend to inside.”
She nodded. Despite persecution during World War II, and the fact that the Japanese had suffered mightily from the dropping of the atom bomb, she had never felt pity for them. Most importantly, the Japanese had joined the Germans, and though they were Asian, like the Nazis, they seemed to believe they were superior to all other humans. During that war, the Japanese had enslaved Korean women and devastated China, all in the name of their superiority. Sighing, she chided herself for condemning all Japanese people, as if Midori and her father were among the guilty of fifty years ago. They weren’t.
“Mom. Watch this!”
Cuffy and Midori were now doing cartwheels around the fountain. Midori was better at them and could perform in perfect parallel to the edge. But Cuffy was more spontaneous and less accurate. His second cartwheel caught his right leg on the low cement wall of the fountain, and before she could yell “watch out!” he was down.
“Baby!” She ran very fast to his side.
“I’m okay, Mom.” Cuffy was sitting up, rubbing the side of his leg. “Good thing I was wearing jeans, though.”
She pulled up the material. His skin was chafed but not bleeding.
“Let me put something on it,” she said, though she didn’t have anything with her.
“Nah. I’m okay. Hey, Midori! Can you do three in a row? I can.” And he was off again.
Shaking her head, she sat down on the edge of the fountain, hoping her presence there would prevent a repeat injury, and pulled out the letter, re-reading her father’s neat print.
Anyway, there are some things we want to talk to you about, and not on the phone. It’s too complicated to write it all down in a letter. So, please. Make a reservation, and I’ll send you a check to cover it. I want to see my grandson again before I die, and of course I want to see you too.
See you soon, Elizabeth.
Did he want her to feel sorry for them? They were old. They had lived long, healthy lives. She hated the thought of returning to New Jersey. Since she’d left at l8, Truth hadn’t been back, despising the nauseating sameness of suburbia that had formed her, a sameness she’d spent a lifetime rejecting. Her parents hadn’t suffered the way the old people in the Temple had. They were white. They were middle class, though not wealthy, like some of the white families other members had left behind. They weren’t educated, like the lawyer and academic types who populated the inner circle. For a moment, she wondered if Jim found her less useful to him for her relative lack of privilege. She’d never thought of that before. Was that why he hadn’t slept with her? Because she could offer him nothing of status? Because there was no advantage to her being his lover, in comparison with Jocelyn, for instance? She didn’t like that idea, not at all.
“Cuffy! Let’s go. We did what you wanted to, and now we’re going to State, like I wanted to.”
“Mom. Not yet! I’m hungry. I’m thirsty.”
Just as she was getting the snacks out of her bag, Midori was pulling Cuffy behind her toward Truth. “Mrs. Miller? Can you come into my father’s store? We have plenty of food in back.”
Truth wanted to say no. She wanted to get away from here, from the thoughts she’d been having, but Cuffy said “Please? Pretty please? I like Japanese food. Sometimes I share Midori’s sushi at lunch.”
“You never told me that!”
Reluctantly, she let her son pull her into the store. Separated from the retail area by a silk tapestry was a kitchen area on the left and storage on the right. After opening a small refrigerator, Midori arranged several California rolls on a red enamel tray.
“Yummy!” said Cuffy, rubbing his belly and smiling hugely at Midori.
Truth shook her head. So Cuffy liked to eat seaweed! She never had. She would try it, though, to be polite. It was funny to her that Cuffy had this other life she knew little about, the life of a first grader in a multicultural public school in a big city of the 1990s. It was nothing like the life she had known in 1950s New Jersey, a life she had preferred to forget. Whenever her son asked about her own first grade experience, she had to say, truthfully, that she didn’t remember. Truth had willfully suppressed most of her life prior to meeting Jim Jones.
Midori’s father entered the room and said something in Japanese to his daughter.
“Can I get you anything, Mrs. Miller? Cuffy?”
She shook her head. “Your daughter is quite the hostess.” She wasn’t sure she meant it as a compliment, but the man beamed.
“Yes! This is very important in our culture. Excuse me. I wish I could sit with you, but I have new customers.”
The children were eating sushi off the tray with chopsticks and talking about their teachers and classmates. Truth sampled one and nearly spit it out. If she were alone she would have said, “Yuck!” but she said nothing and instead sipped the water Midori had set before her. Perhaps she would not insist on going all the way to State after all, on her tour of places of Truth’s past she chose to remember, the world of her early Temple days.
Her new doubts about Jim and his motivations buzzed in her brain like trapped honeybees. Against her better judgment, she began to list all his lovers, and what each had brought to him in terms of status: Jocelyn had the big-deal minister father, whose praise he courted, whom Jim thought would confer legitimacy on the Temple. The first major traitoress, the one who was Sean’s mother, had a husband who was an Ivy League lawyer, an inner-circle chief who seemed to think Jim was God up until the day he himself defected. Privately, Truth had wondered if Jim really wanted the lawyer but settled for the wife, instead. Their child had died at Jonestown. And That Woman, Susan, she was a big-deal rich Jew, whose mother, Anna, had given the Temple tons of money – a quarter-million in properties. It felt awful to think this way about a man who had worn thrift-shop clothes all his life and driven second-hand cars when he could have been like the Bagwhan, with 28 Rolls Royces, or Sun Myung Moon, with his mansions all over the world. No, Jim wasn’t into money. It was just coincidence, all these women with connections who caught his eye and shared his bed. She flushed, angry with herself for reviving petty, jealous concerns of long ago, of the life pre-Cuffy.
“Hey, Mom. Hello?”
“Don’t say ‘hey,’” Truth said automatically. “It’s rude.” She wondered where that had come from, then remembered her mother saying it to her, and suddenly she could picture her mother and father and herself at breakfast in their little kitchen, eating eggs and white toast, the room probably the size of this one, big enough for a table, three chairs, a fridge and stove and that was about all. “What?”
“You weren’t listening! I was saying that Midori’s been on a plane.”
“Six times!” said Midori proudly. “We go to Japan every year to see our relatives. It’s a long trip, but I love flying.”
“You’re a lucky girl, Midori. But you know, flying is expensive.”
As she spoke, Truth realized that money was not what kept her from visiting her own family. She was lying not only to Cuffy but to herself. And in the letter in her pocket, her father was offering to pay their way.
“Mom, why can’t we go visit our relatives? I’ve never been on a plane,” he said sorrowfully to his friend, who nodded knowingly.
“Well, I’d never been on a plane at your age either,” Truth retorted. She didn’t like how Cuffy was acting like some deprived child, just because he hadn’t flown by the age of six.
“Please, Mom? You said Grandpa was sick. I’ve never even met him.”
“You did meet him. He and Grandma came to see you when you were born.”
“But I don’t remember! It’s not fair. Midori goes every year all the way to Japan. Japan is much farther than New Jersey.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve seen them on the map. At school we have this huge world map, and everyone writes their names on places where they have family.”
“And you wrote New Jersey?”
“Yup. And Guyana too.”
She shook her head, amazed by the way Cuffy accepted the circumstances of his life in stride. He didn’t judge everything like she did. Truth had always been like that – unwilling to accept the world as it was, distrustful, always assuming people were lying. Cuffy must be more like his father, she thought, if trusting people were something that could be passed on in the blood.
“Maybe what?” Midori and Cuffy spoke simultaneously.
“Jinx!” they shouted. “Double jinx! Triple jinx! Quadruple jinx!”
(Annie Dawid is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other literary work in this edition is Long Before Jonestown: Indianapolis, 1956. Her two book reviews are New Materials Worth Reading in New Jones Biography and Jonestown Plays Minor Role in Novel. Her complete collection of articles for this site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)