Jackfruit

NOTE: It’s been finals week–ugh!–which is why I haven’t blogged lately. This post is the piece I wrote for my final writing class assignment (also this week). It’s about my time in Uganda but probably won’t fit into  the book about Patrick’s adoption.

“Jackfruit”

The pimply jackfruit sits on Vena’s knees like a second pregnant belly, the size of a basketball but misshapen, yellow-brown. The stink of rotten onions fills the small car—Vena picked it well—and Wilfred puts the windows down.

The look, smell—the dense weight—it would never sell in a U.S. grocery store, the muzungu thinks. But machete through the ugly rind and what a treasure. Pineapple-banana scent, warm yellow color, exotic tulip-shaped fruits nestled, jewel-like, in a yellow velvet pulp.

The muzungu peers her neck to catch fragments of the sky between the shacks, leaning buildings, trash heaps that crowd the narrow alleys and streets crisscrossing this hill-mountain. She shifts Patrick on her lap so he can see their upward climb. He points and jabbers, waves at children. Wilfred turns this way, that way—a fun maze without the fun.

At the very top is a flat space, with a large concrete building that looks as if a wrecking ball swung through it a few times but then gave up. Wilfred crunches to a stop on the rubble that is working its way out from the structure. Men, young and old, squat on the ground, sit on chunks of cement and in blown-out window ledges, stand around in small groups. It is a Sunday, but, judging by the looks of the area, this may be the scene every day of the week. Two young men approach as they get from the car, and Wilfred huddles with them, slips them some cash.

Vena hands Wilfred the jackfruit and leads, picking her way carefully in her Sunday shoes. Just over the crest of the hill, they see the slum, spilling down the side. Cast-off building materials poured from a giant dump truck, heaped up haphazardly into “homes.”

Vena nods at the women cooking over open charcoal fires, sitting on doorsteps feeding babies, hanging laundry. The muzungu follows her, clutching Patrick to her side as if he will somehow transform her white skin, her other-ness. She nods, too. Some women dip their heads, a couple even smile, but the men’s eyes are hard. The rare muzungu who comes here bears judgment or pity, neither of which builds a father’s sense of manhood.

I’m Alice, going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

No, that’s not quite intense enough.

The red dirt paths between the homes form channels for run-off from above. They are walking on the slick, smooth bank of a stream. The smell of waste grows stronger when the water pools, covers the vegetable scent from cooking pots. She copies Vena’s flat-footed, splayed-out steps, leans on buildings at tricky spots. If she had her arms free she could touch fingertips to the walls on both sides, elbow-to-elbow in some spots.

Down, down, down. The maze driving up the hill was nothing compared to this. How does Vena know where to go?

Then Vena stops.

“Uncle? Uncle?” she calls.

She ducks her head inside a doorway.

Excited chatter. A woman steps out, near the same age as Vena but looking older with her hair in a kerchief and her chest sloping like a soft hill all the way to her waist. She hugs Vena, pats one large, strong hand on Vena’s belly. Wilfred, who came down the hill behind the muzungu, stands by, holding the jackfruit, smiling.

Vena turns to the muzungu. “This is my cousin. We grew up together.”

The cousin tucks her head, but the muzungu reaches out for one of her hands, shakes it. The cousin’s head comes up, her eyes brighten.

“This is Jennifer. She is adopting Patrick,” Vena tells her. “She is living with us for awhile.”

The cousin motions them in. Their eyes adjust to the sudden dark. One room, no windows, though light filters in through a jagged hole high up in the wall, covered with a piece of cloth. One small, upholstered chair sits next to the door. Across from it two others are stacked, with a small coffee table perched on top. Vena takes the jackfruit from Wilfred, puts it on a shelf that holds a bag of rice, a bag of beans, and says something to him, tipping her head toward the chairs. Wilfred sets the coffee table in the center of the room and places the chairs around it.

“Jennifer, sit there.” Obediently the muzungu sits. Her knees touch the table. Patrick slides from her lap and stomps his feet, glad to be down. He beats his hands on the table.

There is a rustle just above the muzungu’s head. Halfway up the wall, the bricks jut in, forming a wide, deep alcove. A man sits up inside this, swings his legs over the side.

“Uncle!” Vena says. He slips down, one hand clutching his loose pants, the other holding his buttonless cardigan closed over his bare brown chest. He blinks but then recognizes Vena and begins chattering in Lugandan. The muzungu pulls up her feet so he can shuffle between the table and the chairs. Vena hugs him gently.

“Jennifer, this is my uncle.”

He turns to the muzungu, a smile splitting his wrinkled face. Cracked brown teeth fill the gap. Beside him Vena’s white teeth gleam. A picture perfect for toothpaste advertising.

Vena told the muzungu once that she, Vena, had such nice teeth because she had no sugar as a child. “We were lucky to get one meal a day,” she said. “No money for sweets.”

“So if a person has nice teeth, they were probably poor growing up?”

Vena shook her head. “They were poor AND their mamas cared about their teeth. The ones with teeth like…?” She pointed at her gums and looked at the muzungu.

“Stumps? Decayed?”

“Yes. Their mamas gave them sugar cane as babies. Cheap. Keeps them from fussing. Easier for the mama, but bad for the teeth.”

The uncle settles in his chair, the one near the door. Wilfred stands, uncertain, until the young cousin pulls a wooden stool out from against the wall. She and Vena hold a hushed conference, and the cousin slips past the door cloth.

They talk, the voices up and down, laughter tinging. Patrick moves down the table, wiggles his way between the uncle’s knees. The uncle asks Patrick questions. More laughter.

The muzungu does not understand, but she smiles, watches, tries to look at the room without showing that she is. Labels—the plastic ones from 2-liter soda bottles—have been fastened to the wall. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Mountain Dew, Sundrop; a red, orange, purple, green, yellow patchwork. She watches the uncle’s hand rub Patrick’s head, answers the questions he asks her through Vena.

The cousin comes back with soft drinks, lukewarm in glass bottles, small cakes in cellophane packages. The muzungu hopes Vena gave the cousin money for this.

Is her reluctance to take—masked as guilt for their spending money on her—a way to separate? She remembers the story of the three Southern pastors, firm in their conviction that drinking alcohol was a sin, being offered beer by a pastor at an overseas conference. Two refused, one accepted. When the two later said, “How could you?” the other answered, “I thought one of us should act like a Christian.”

Translation: not separate, not better. Seeing past the outside, looking in.

The cousin pulls aside the doorcloth and sits on the stoop so she can talk to Vena and still greet passersby. A few stop to chat. A few try English with the muzungu. More laughter. The bright patchwork on the wall fades as the light changes. The cousin’s shadow stretches behind her.

Vena stands.

“No, Uncle, do not get up.” She leans down to hug him.

The muzungu steps over the table, stands near the uncle. “Good-bye,” he tells her. The cousin reaches for the muzungu’s hand, holds it for a moment before Vena leads them out.

Out to where sewage smell drifts up from the water in the path.

Just like jackfruit.

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