It was a Thanksgiving celebration among employees of a community hospital. Folks who shared a kinship sought and found each other. They came from all departments, Radiology, ER, OR, ICU and others. Transplants thought they were, from the West Indies, they had embraced this American holiday and ensconced it into their fold effortlessly like a hand in glove. If truth be told, this holiday was catnip writ large as it centers around eating. Denizens who normally take advantage of any excuse to gather for a feast needed no convincing; sending a preacher to the choir is redundant.
This was an unusually cold, though crispy day. It had the silver lining of keeping everybody indoors instead of spreading out in the yard. As normally occurs in such social encounters, men and women congregated by gender. The chatter became spicier as time went on or more precisely as tongues loosened due to liquor consumption and fulfillment of ravenous appetite. Gluttony met its cousin, gossip, and like a marriage made in heaven, up they went for a joy ride, while the participants discarded discretion, self-restraint and allowed free flow of their inner thoughts. In such setting revelers were having a myriad conversation, loud and gay, frivolous and entertaining. Jokes were galore, valued according to their wit, brevity, spin of facts and truths.
Such was this joyous atmosphere when Matthew, the stout orderly known for his famous signature whistle, made an entrance. He had the reputation of handling large quantity of food and liquor well. Some would be happy to coin the narrative in a different way and would say that there has yet to be a dish or a grog he didn’t like while others would go further and add that there yet has to be a pillowy bosom he could resist. All would also agree that no self-respecting party can take place without his suave demeanor, his fleeting stepping on a dance floor and most of all his talent at regaling an audience with his tales, especially after he has a couple of drinks under his belt.
So this Thanksgiving celebration would be no different, especially since he worked the 7 to 3 shift and anticipating the offerings, he made sure he brought along his party appetite and raunchy stories. At work, Matthew was prim and proper, speaking militarese as he had retired from the British Navy. In a social gathering, his speech changed to his native vernacular and that added to the fun. The affair was taking place at Ana’s house, the head nurse of one of the medical units. She, along with so many other female participants by their rotund size were advertising their gift for satisfying the most demanding palate and also their own predilection for savoring a tasty meal.
“Matthew, my buddy, come here and get this plate that I fixed for you!” Ana proffered toward him with a grin. Needless to say, the plate was filled to the brim and could easily feed a couple of people.
“Food good, man,” Matthew said with his best colloquial manner and accent, a signal that he was about to act as a home boy. It wasn’t long after a few beer bottles that some guys were milling around him.
“Me had a good life, man,” he volleyed as an opening salvo while rubbing his paunch, another sign that he was about to go on one of his famous soliloquies and bystanders needed to pay attention.
“Me ever tell you the story of the bar fight me had as a young buck? Then listen up. At 18, me enrolled in the military when me first came to the States. Me was in basic training and one Friday night me and some other fellows went to have a drink at a bar. Here came this redneck; him said him didn’t like to hang around darkies and us better leave before him give us a whupping. Me was pumping iron and me muscles bulging, man. Me got mad and man, me lick that boy! Oh yes him think him can mess with me. Me hit him right on the jaw and broke it. Military Police came and, of course, put blame on me. Me don’t care. Them silly people gave me dishonorable discharge. ‘This is a scarlet letter that will wind itself around your neck like an albatross and will follow you for the rest of your life,’ said the military judge. Me felt like telling him to go jump in a lake, man. Me found out if me mentioned me time in the military and notion of dishonorable discharge, me wouldn’t be hired for a job. So, me left States, went home, stayed for a while and me went to England and became a member their Navy for twenty-five years. Me retired and me came back to States. Me never mentioned to nobody me ever was in American military. No man.”
Guffaws, followed, in a display of spontaneous catharsis. In a sense it was a communal therapeutic session against authority. Matthew was preening and they all shared in this demonstration of gumption, raw audacity, ego buttressing, even if evanescent or wishful. Matthew dared do justice by deed to their wistful deceptions in the quotidian. His intonation when imitating the voice of the judge, mimicking him so dead-on and yet veering into the vernacular seamlessly in a mocking tone alternating with cocky and arrogant flair were plainly comical. While brawn was his instrument in confrontation, now he was using his brain, filleting his opponent, splaying his craft as a raconteur, turning the narrative on its head to keep his audience in awe. The joke was no longer on him since he turned it upside down. Comedy has a way of allowing painful truth to be addressed without offending, at least when done with deftness.
“What about them Brits, how did they treat you?” One chap asked him.
“Them no different. When me beat one bloke up, them like that word bloke, me made sure me no leave no mark or proof. Word spread quickly not to mess with me. Me became champ of arm wrestling.” He flexed his biceps as proof of his prowess, proud like a peacock.
“About them books when making a port call?” Another fellow asked.
“Now why would you ask me a question like that at a place like this?” He responded with a wink and a smile, and then, “Books like the warmth of body of a well-endowed black fellow, regardless of what them may say in public. Them Brits would get mad at me when them books would come toward me. Me got in a couple of fights. Once them drink some whiskey, them true nature come to the surface and them start talking trash. Me never accept that, man. No way!” He would shake his index finger and pretend to make a mean mien while saying this. Matthew holding court was a joy to behold in his natural milieu, free of artifice, among his brethren.
“Here is some tafia made with some good and strong rum.” Ana offered him. This type of preferential treatment was not lost on the fellows who imagined all sorts of things as its meaning.
“Matthew, tell us your worst experience.” A female asked him.
Turning toward her and morphing into his impeccable high-class British accent, he said in a grave voice, “My worst experience was to listen to a young girl from Botswana describe the painful experience of genital cutting and the emotional trauma it wrought on her psyche and her permanent lack of sexual pleasure. I just don’t understand how we can be so cruel toward one another. Others make us suffer; why we have to add another layer is beyond me.” A silence followed, awkward at a time of celebration, and sensing he could have brought a killjoy to douse the steam of the powwow, he said, “Why don’t you guys ask me about my greatest experience?”
“Yeah man, come so and tell us!” Someone in the rear ventured to ask him.
“You would ask that, would you not? Can you handle the truth?” He riposted, but without missing a beat as if to show this was a pure rhetorical question, he pursued, this time going back to his colloquial banter, “There’s nothing better than a good meal, a good tafia, some exciting sex and to top it off a good night sleep.”
This time all joined in the laughter, men and women in equal measure.
Reynald Altéma, MD.