Ninth Letter is pleased to present Kyle Minor’s novella “In a Distant Country” serialized on our website, one section per week, for six weeks. Section five begins below; to start at the beginning, click here.
In a Distant Country (cont.)
Mrs Tina Brocken, Loxahatchee, Florida, to Miss Anna Ratliff, West Palm Beach, Florida, May 10, 1993
Im so sorry to here the news about your daddy passing after such a long and bravery struggle. I don’t even know if you remember me because you was so little when we knew your daddy. We knew your momma too and she might remember us. If she does, you say hey to her for us and you tell her we don’t care what anybody says we think she is a fine person. She was always a good lady to all of us even though there was problems between her and your daddy that’s the things that happens to everybody in the world and when you get older you will know it too. You are an adult now so you like to already do but thats neither here nor there. Kay-Sara-Sara, like that old French song goes.
I will do my best to write all the things I want to say to your daddy in this letter. I want you to forgive me for not coming to the funeral service to say them for my own self and to his face. There is a lot of reasons for it. Some of them are because I don’t go to the Baptist church anymore even though I still believe in God and pray in Jesus name. I have gray in my hair people don’t gossip probably like they used to or even remember me but maybe some do I dont like there stairs when I pass by and what they are thinking about me and what kind of mother is walking by them when I walk by. Also I am not a disrespectful person especially to somebody like Leslie Ratliff when I first heard about the brain cancer I just cried and cried you can ask anybody around because they all heard me. Not just because I felt sorry for him with his pain or but because it really is such a blow to loose him we loved him so much.
Let me start at the beginning because I know your daddy was a discrete man and wouldnt tell everybodys business so you might not know. We had a daughter. Her name was Sheila. When she was born she was the love of our life mine and her daddy too. She was bad sometimes and got into things but thats how children do and she wasnt any different. We didnt have much trouble with her until she got to teen age. Even then she wasnt so bad but just wanted to wear makeup a lot of dark makeup around her eyes thick blue eye shadow and red lipstick and so forth. She was never one to mouth off but some kinds of rebellion are silent like the preachers say the devil doesnt come dressed up in a red Halloween suit he is more like to be the man in the suit and tie on the airplane real handsome with his hair slicked back and two hundred dollar shoes. Well Sheila was very pretty and spoke good to everybody and cleaned up nice and dolled up she was a prize fit for a movie star actor or a tv anchorman or a rich man which I admit to thinking back then that Sheila was just going to catch the eye of one of those boys in her class from Palm Beach who was going to be a doctor or lawyer or inherit a business and I could just see us out there visiting maybe taking one of those yachts to the Bahamas because that is something her daddy had in common with a lot of those guys with the yachts is he was and is a very good watercraft man. People who are into watercraft know who is able and who is not able and you get respect that way no matter how much money you have or dont have and I know it because we have ended up on boats with people like that and it always worked out okay even though it made me a nervous wreck because you always wonder what people like that think about a hairdresser and a Sheet Metal Technician II nearly to Sheet Metal Technician I certification.
So we could of went on like that and everything turned out okay like it does for other families whose daughter wants to wear some makeup or hoop ear rings or a short skirt like many do since we might be in the Last Days before Armageddon and Jesus riding on the white horse to rapture the living and the dead in Christ will rise first. But one day a mimeograft paper comes home from school about the senior trip. Sometimes the senior class goes to Europe but this senior class the note said is a very special one and they the students voted to make theirs a service and missions trip to the poorest most backwards country in the world which is right in our backyard Haiti you see on the tv the black people men women children washing up half naked in the rick kitty boats and running from the police and hiding in the bushes the ones who werent able to get away.
Sheilas daddy and me thought there was pros and cons of going to Haiti and not Europe. On the one hand it would be a good cultural uplifting experience to see Paris and London and Big Ben and the Eyeful Tower and that one class a few years back got to go to Omaha Beach where Sheilas granddaddy almost died fighting for our freedom that would be a good thing to see. On the other hand it would be very expensive to ride the airplane over there across the ocean. They have these chicken barbqs to raise money for kids who arent rich like most of the kids but every year I watched those kids sorting dirty t-shirts for the rummage sale and their parents marking notebook paper price sheets for the silent auction items and on the day of the event the same kids and parents up there with the teachers people like or dont like in the clown dunk tank or running the duck pond for the little kids or the ring toss or whatever and all the while you see those rich kids and their parents running around like life is easy and spending the money on the expensive rummage like one year I saw this boob doctor from Palm Beach buy a real nice baby grand piano for his church then strut around like he was the Warren Buffit of charity and filanthropy, and everybody knew that his money was going to pay for some kid not much different from Sheila because of the in adiquacy of some parent like me and Sheila’s daddy. Nobody wants to be made to feel that way.
It didnt matter anyway because once Haiti is where the class was going thats where Sheila was bound and determined she was going and I was not one to stand in her way. Her daddy neither. So I just signed the papers. Right away Principle Ratliff called to say there was a special senior trip scholarship fund nobody knew about so we had to keep it quiet but would we like to take advantage of it. This was not the first kindness of your daddys we had seen. I dont want you to think we were poormouthing him. We had money coming in from two jobs but tuition was not cheap at the Good Shepard Academy.
The school sent home all these lists of items to buy. Pack heavy and leave light, they said. All those little Haitian kids didnt have toys so we packed some Matchbox cars and bored games and some baby dolls. We bought a pair of cheap underpants for every day the idea being to use them one time and then give them away so some Haitian lady could have a new pair of her own after it got washed. We bought packs of cheese crackers and pop tarts in case a snack was needed because it was dangerous to eat the street food and there wasnt enough at the mission to go around except for regular mealtimes.
You should of seen all those kids lined up at the airport in Miami with all there luggage and backpacks and laughing and horsing around. Me and Sheila’s daddy both took the day off work and went down there to see her off. Your daddy was there too with his clipboard playing his role of principle just making sure everyone was accounted for and handing out these little hard candies butterscotches and peppermints and also some caramels to everybody just to make a nice mood. We watched that plane go up in the air through the window by the gate. Sheila’s daddy said this was a big turning point in our life because soon she would be gone to college or married or both. I said she would not be our little girl anymore and he said she will always be our little girl. She will never stop being our little girl. He wasnt ashamed his eyes got wet. That wasnt like him. If you ever met him you would see a man with green navy tatoos and a weightlifter and a blackbeard just a big man some would say intimidating. That was part of who he was its true. But he was a daddy foremost and thats what killed him if I get to lay blame.
We knew while they stayed over there we wouldnt here much from the kids. Sheila only got to call us one time for about three minutes the connection was bad and it costed us fifteen dollars. She said it was so lovely the retarded children were lovely and the pregnant girls. Just to here her voice was reasuring. You know thats an island where people are fleeing from danger so you worry about violence and all that. But nothing like that happened where they were. They didnt see anything like that. She felt safe over there and maybe it would of been better if she had got a scare while she was on that senior trip.
She was real quiet when she got home but also somehow lit up like a fire beetle. You how teen agers are moody and girls especially. We got used to that and tried to be understanding. But when Sheila got back from that trip she like to floated from cloud to cloud even if she was just vacuuming the living room. Twitterpated is what her daddy said. I agreed but there wasnt a single boy calling the house. One day I just came out and asked her and she got shy and wouldnt say very much. But after graduation I knew she was going to William Jennings Bryan College with a full scholarship even room and board then all of a sudden she said she was going to stay home and go part time to the junior college. That was worrisome, her walking away from an opportunity like that. She clammed up about why but we were for sure it was a boy.
Then one Saturday morning the third week of June, there was a knock on the front door. I looked through the curtain liked I used to do and it was your daddy. That was weird for the school principle to be at the door after your daughter already graduated. I called everybody to the living room then I let him in. He was wearing a two-button shirt and corduroy pants, and I remember thinking that was funny because it was hard to imagine him in anything but a suit and tie and penny loafers. I offered him some tea and we all sat on the couches in the living room to talk. It was small talk for a while and then he said to Sheila would she excuse us for a few minutes. Her face was red flushed the whole time he was there then it got redder when he said that. Her daddy said Sheila you better get on to your room. After she left he said what kind of trouble has my daughter got into.
Your daddy had a real nice way with people. He said you know sometimes its not the children who get into trouble but the adults who might get them into some. He said something has happened but I am not sure exactly what or how much of it. It took him a long time to get into it but the long and short was that one of the missionaries in Haiti was an old school buddy of his from Apalachicola Bible College and maybe thats what blinded him to what must of been going on between this older man and our Sheila. He said this missionary man had wrote a letter saying would your daddy come talk to us about how him and our daughter were in love from only a few days together and then it all made sense to me why Sheila was acting like a lovesick fool and not taking her scholarship and room and board at William Jennings Bryan College.
Right away Sheila’s daddy got up and started pacing the room. Principle Ratliff said if it was his daughter he would want to punch somebody in the mouth for being the bearer of bad news but he would refrane because of his love for God. But something we had to consider now that Sheila was eighteen and legally an adult was something could come of it. He asked did we think she was motivated enough to do something rash? Her daddy said he was. Principle Ratliff said that was another matter but he understood well enough because he had a daughter of his own, and here Anna you should know he went on and on about his love for you even then when you was so little he was thinking about when you would be grown and married he would be so proud of you but he wanted it to be somebody your own age or a little older who loved you and you loved. We said that was what we wanted for our daughter too.
We called Sheila into the living room and told her in front of your daddy and all of us what he had said and was it true? She was slippery about it. She said that this man Brother Samuel she had met was very nice and they had got close but no closer than very close friends. Nothing unto ward had happened. Principle Ratliff said he had a mimeograft letter he would give to us so we could see what Brother Samuel had said and from here on out he would leave the matter to our family to make some choices about but he would help if he could he just didnt know what more he should do about it telling us was the right thing to do he thought.
I must have read that letter a hundred times since then including one time today. That letter is really what got so much of this thing off the ground between Sheila and Samuel Tillotson. One day I came home and saw her reading it and she was cucumber eyed like she had been getting. I said that is poison and fire you are playing with and she acted like it wasnt. At that age you know everything or think you do.
A couple of times the phone rang and she answered it then said a few words like she was speaking code. After that she would leave the house all the time. Later we found out she was going to my sister’s house her aunt Glory that traitor. Over there she was talking to Samuel long distance Lord knows how much it was costing him or how he was paying for it. What we know now is they were making their plans. One day she was there in the kitchen cutting carrots and the next day she was gone. He swooped in on the airplane and took her up to his brothers house in north Florida and they came back married and saying they were moving to Haiti in two days.
At the time what I thought was what can I do about it now? What is done is done. Marriage has always been sacred to us we are belivers in Jesus. Now I am more sophisticated about my thinking on it. Now I think my daughter was just a child and you cant make a child enter into a binding agreement she was manipulated into. We should of pushed for an annulment like her daddy wanted and put our foot down and said no way are you leaving the country no way with that man old enough to be your daddy with salt and pepper hair and crows feet at the corners of his eyes and his teeth gone so yellow already. But then I just thought what can you do? She was already a year older than I was when I married her daddy.
We said stay at our house then even though it was strange but they had already got a room at the Holiday Inn on Okeechobee Road the same place where her daddy and me had our honeymoon so that was a strange thing to ponder all those memories and think of what was going on in that hotel room. So we took them to a very nice expensive dinner at the Red Lobster to celebrate the wedding we had not been invited to or told about. That was very hurtful even though it saved a lot of money I always wanted to give Sheila the kind of wedding like I never had with a big white cake and a train for her dress and I was going to do her hair up in a tiara and spend a lot of time getting it just right like nobody did for me. A church wedding and not a reception in the church fellowship hall but a real banquet hall someplace like in the movies.
I was real proud of Sheila’s daddy during that dinner he leaned over to Samuel Tillotson. He was trembling which is as unusual as tears for him or it was then. He said now that you are a part of our family I want to welcome you into it and you are like a son to me. Which was funny because they were about the same age. He said I just want one thing from you and thats you take good care of my daughter because she is the only thing we got in the world worth a tinkers dam we dont even care about the house or the cars its just her we would give anything in the world for her and you should feel the same way. And Samuel to his credit said that he did feel the same way and we should all feel good knowing that Sheila would be very loved. Right then he put his hand on both our shoulders and prayed there in the restaurant for the family we were becoming to each other. That was embarrassing for us but it would of been impolite to say so because this seemed like a real important moment for all of us. Plus we wanted everything to be nice since Sheila was leaving and it might be a while before she could get back home to see us.
We drove them to the airport. They sat in the back seat and held hands. I didnt like the way Sheila was dressed for the trip a little tarty but I tried to keep it to myself because she was leaving like I said. I had made sure she had all her comfort things she needed and things to do her hair curling irons and so forth. I kept thinking something was missing and later I relized it was some of her stuffed bears she slept with every night until then that her uncle Frank got her when she was little for Chrismas one year. At the terminal there she said Sammy I am hungry can you bring me something? Her daddy like to leaped up to run get her a sandwich. He brought back four sandwiches and four ice cream sandwiches. Her pretty mouth was chewing. Her mouth was always so pretty. I saw Samuel looking at her mouth like a wolf but what could I say I couldnt say nothing they was married.
Her daddy was always quiet but he got more quiet. There was a plane that went down sometimes from the missionary flights international sometimes we brought down some packed boxes with cheese crackers, magazines, granola bars, fresh underwear to give the old ones to those Haitian ladys and pass the goodwill along. I always wrote a letter too but Sheila didnt write back very much. When she did it was short and she just wanted something like feminine products which I was happy to send the next box. One day your daddy called and said its Principle Ratliff but we can be friends now so just call me Leslie and thats what we called him from then until the day he died. He said what can I do and I told him there was nothing to be done about our daughter whats done is done but my husband has got very quiet.
A few days after that your daddy knocked on the door again it was early evening. He told Sheila’s daddy he heard we was going to put an addition on our house. Sheila’s daddy said that was no longer because the addition was for a guest room for visiting grandbabys and no body of that discription was going to visit us now they just planned to stay overseas always. And your daddy, Leslie, he said time has a way of working these things out. He was very gentle. He said he knew a few things about construction. He was good with electrical work and he could knock out walls with hammers and crowbars and he could hang dry wall and he could lay all kinds of floors from tile to laminate to wood or even carpet.
Every Saturday for eight months after ward he came over and helped Sheila’s daddy with that addition. We lived with a open house for a long time. Just Visqueen hanging over the open part to protect from the wind and rain. When we was both gone to work or shopping or church the old jewish lady two houses catty corner from the mailbox was agreeable to watch over the house so no robbers saw no one was home and stole from us. We got a dog too. Big Doberman named Sweetheart. Sweetheart loved your daddy. Thats another way of knowing how good a man he was because guard dogs know bad people.
Almost two years that guest room sat finished and empty. We bought a bed to put it in there but no body slept in it. One day on the six o clock news came word that Baby Doc Duvaliay was fleeing from a cooday taw. We heard there was un rest but the reports now got bad. Somebody at the Baptist church brought over some articles from the Miami newspaper which covered Haiti a lot because of all the Haitians living there and sure enough it was bad enough we got worried. Sheilas daddy said he was going over there on the first plane but the missionary board called and said no planes were getting in and dont go over any way it could put Sheila’s life in danger if not handled right the customs being different over there and kind of savage with bribes and extortions possible.
Her daddy stopped going to work then. I called the boss who was an old friend and he said dont worry do you need money and I said we had some saved. He said if his daughter was in trouble overseas he would wait by the phone and they had sheet metal men to cover the hours dont worry. Sheilas daddy stopped sleeping in our bed. He went into that empty guest room and just sat there on the bed. I told him he was going to rot in there and not do any good. He said he was waiting for the next knock on the door with the sheriff or some missionary saying his daughter was dead. I told him dont talk like that you have to have faith. He got real cold then and said havent you figured out by now it doesnt matter how much faith you have the same bad things happen to Christians as pagans. I said I know I have seen the same things as you.
There was that knock on the door. It was a week later. I heard her daddy there in the guest room. He said shes dead our daughters dead. I said its probably some kids selling worlds finest chocolate bars for the school money drive trying to win first prize of a black and white tv. He said if its somebody in a suit then you will know.
Who it was was Leslie. Sheilas daddy said he wasnt coming out of the guest room. We all went in there and sat on the bed the three of us. Its bad news he said. She is dead, Sheilas daddy said. Leslie said no shes not but Samuel is. Sheilas daddy closed his eyes. He didnt make a sound but there was tears shooting down his cheeks. That son of a bitch he said. Leslie put his arms around both of us even though he was not a hugging man. We told him we ought to go down there and get Sheila. He said dont do it let her grieve the loss her own way let the authorities at the missionary bored handle sending her back who knows what shes liable to do in her grief if we show up there.
This made me angry. I am her mother. I am the one whos supposed to be with her when she is grieving. I dont care if shes in Haiti or Timbuktu or if the plane ticket costs three thousand dollars or you have to fly on the back of a bird. I said we are going its settled. Your sweet daddy said I don’t blame you. He opened his billfold and gave us some money. We wrote some letters and sent them down with the missionary flights plane. We bought some tickets and went down there as soon as they opened the airport for comercial flights. There was a hundred people outside the gate wanting to give us a ride in their taxi which was probably a run down car or pick up truck. These people smelled to high heaven. They dont wear deodorant down in those places. We chose this one short little fellow who had all his teeth and spoke English. His name was something like Ornery but I dont think thats how its spelled. We asked him if he knew the Baptist Mission in Koulev-Ville and he said he had a cousin who used to be a cook there.
He put us in his pickup truck all three of us in the cab together. The roads were terrible. People were walking between the cars in the streets trying to sell you things through the window it was terrifying. The buildings were all cinder block painted some god awful color pink or green or yellow sometimes with a picture painted on the side or some words in french. There was a lot of places that had been tore down very recently. You could tell because people were picking in them for food or whatever was inside, scavenging like vultures. What kind of country is this I wanted to know. I was so happy we had come to take our daughter home.
We gave the driver some money at the mission gate but he said it wasnt enough. We tried to haggle but he acted like he didn’t understand and he kept saying I gave you the ride why wont you give me the money? Some other Haitians came around trying to sell us trinkets and paintings and others were saying you are thiefs. Finally a white man came out and saw us and said who are you and what are you doing here? I said we are the Brockens, our daughter lived here, she was Sheila Tillotson. When he heard that he took money out of his pocket and gave it to the driver and started talking to everyone in that Creole and some people were arguing but he sent them away and took us inside.
I need to make this long story shorter. This is supposed to be a letter about your daddy and I am going on too long about this but this is part of the story okay. They brought us out all this food but Sheilas daddy said he didnt want to eat anything in this god forsaken country he just wanted to see his daughter where is she. He went storming around yelling Sheila Sheila, and it took a while to get him calmed down. They took us back into a back room. I said shes not here. One of the women said no shes not. Where I she? The woman said she didnt know. Is she alive? These are the questions any mother would want to know. The woman said as far as we know. She was not un kind. She was trying to be calm but she was upset as us. Sheilas daddy said tell us what you know. The woman started to talk but the man said we just got there we should rest. Sheilas daddy grabbed him by the shirt and said you tell us what you know. The man put his hands on Sheilas daddys hands but what can you do? Sheila’s daddy had sheet metal arms. The man said okay al right you tell him to the woman who I gather was his wife. The wife said I dont know how to say this but she ran off with this Haitian man Kinnel who was friends with Samuel. Shes been gone a few days and we dont know where she went. We didnt know this would happen we are so sorry. Sheilas daddy said this Kinnel is a black man? He is Haitian the woman said. Sheilas daddy said when you say run off do you mean escaping danger or site seeing or romantic or boyfriend girlfriend or get married? And the woman said theres no way to know for sure but we think romantic by now. Shes very confused shes been thru so much.
What was there to do after that but go home? We stayed the night in the mission but neither of us slept at all. In the village you could here some people singing hymns in that Creole. Even though it was Christian it sounded like the voices of the demon possessed. The whole country was infested. Somewhere out there I was sure Sheila was singing with them. She was turning into one of them and probably having babies with one of them or made one al ready because there is no birth control in that country for sure un less you are getting it from Americans and she was out there living like a savage. Her daddy said the same thing in the middle of the night. If she has any babys they are going to be black. That was his last word on the subject. He also said we are never going to see her again.
Your daddy was very good to us after that. He had the ladys at his church cook us meals in a rotation one for every day of the week for a month and bring them to us so we didnt have to worry about the cooking. He visited with Sheilas daddy and he said dont listen to the poison those old bitties are spewing. Just because they go to church doesnt make them spiritual. No person in their right mind can blame you for what choices she has made. If any body is responsible it is me Leslie Ratliff I should of not taken those kids down there my old friend was a snake and I should of known it I should of kept him away from her I should of been more aware. Sheilas daddy said no its not true. What a girl learns about love she learns from her daddy. Theres something I did wrong and I should of known it when. Even those early signs I had a chance. That red lipstick and those hoop ear rings and those short skirts. I said your not leaving this house done up like a two bit whore but I could of put my foot down more. I could of got out the belt or the switch like the bible says spare the rod or spoil the child but I couldnt bare to do it not when she was little and not now and now I am paying the price you sow what you reap. Your daddy was so compassionate he said no no thats not true I have been a principle for many years now and you see all kinds of kids good and bad from all kinds of families good and bad and you know God forgives sins and there is still time for Sheila I knew her she was a good girl even if she had a wild streak. He said you know the story of my wife who left me for the navy captain. She may be a kept woman but I know in my heart God will bring her back to me. She is still my wife in the eyes of God. God will forgive my wife and I will forgive my wife and she will come back to me. And God will forgive Sheila and you will forgive Sheila and she will come back to you. Then we will all sit down and kill the fatted calf and feast like in the story of the prodigal son your family and mine all of us together. The day is coming you will see.
Every Saturday they had this same conversation. Then one Saturday there was some news from the mission. Some body had creeped back from the provinces and said Sheila was dead and they buried her in a family crypt somewhere. They werent telling where. She had got sick and died and everyone was afraid because she was white. There was some debate about whether to send news but finally they did send it out of a heart for her family. But you tell me. If they really had a heart for our family they would say where she died and where she was buried so we could go get her. Those people. But it never happened. We dont know where she is and we dont know if she had any babies. They would be our grandbabys. I would take them now even though they might be black. They would be black but they would still have Sheilas face and some of her features. I would love them the same as I loved her. I am not prejudice. I would raise them to know the lord and go back to church and never let them wear any thick makeup or jewlry. I would work as hard as I had to so I could send them to Good Shepard Academy and give them a good education because its so important. But every day I think they dont even know English and probably cant read or do basic math. That just galls me every day. They are alive and carrying her blood I know it. They will never know my name or that I am there grandma.
If you think it was hard for me you should of seen Sheilas daddy. He lasted 18 months after that. Massive coronary. His heart just exploded. There was surgery but it was to late. The only person who came around after that was your sweet daddy, Leslie Ratliff. Oh was he a friend to me. We sat a part on the couch and watched television and some times went to the movies one time he even took me to the musical play Fiddler on the Roof. Lonely days were made less lonely even doing things like watching the Kentucky Derby on tv or baseball then making cookies or sometimes he would help repair the toilet or any thing else that was broke. One day I said to him why dont we get married. We love each other in the right way and never did any thing un toward. We could make a life together. I said I made my peace with my daughter is never coming back. I said your wife is never coming back to you either. He said she is not dead. I said I know but she might as well be dead to you. He said I trust the lord. Well I admire him for that but as you know, your momma had made her choices and they were ever bit as binding as the ones Sheila made. But your daddy was not scared off. He kept visiting just as a good friend and I was respectful to the love he still had for your mother and he was respectful to me and treated me like a dear sister in Christ even though I had stopped going to the Baptist church because of those bitties and there gossip.
One thing I never said to your daddy because I never blamed him was how different life would be if no body had invented the mimeograft machine. It was that mimeograft machine that brought home the paper that convinced all the parents to send their children to Haiti instead of Europe. And it was the mimeograft machine that brought the copy of the letter from that terrible Samuel that Sheila always used to sneak off and read and help her fall in love some more and go down the wrong path. Thats something I think about all the time. I was thinking about it today. I was sitting on the bed in that guest room your daddy helped build. Sweetheart was barking. The rest of the house was so quiet I had to go turn on the tv to keep me company. Its what made me think of writing you the letter. I was thinking about that mimeograft machine and it got me thinking of your daddy. He was so special. Every body must of told you by now but I wanted you to know how much he meant to me being here for me in my darkest hour. I wish he would of known God doesnt always answer prayers the way you want him to. Maybe you could of been a daughter to me. I couldnt take the place of your real momma or your daddy and you couldnt take the place of my Sheila but we could of still been like family to one another. Maybe theres still time.