Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713
The unnamed first-person narrator/protagonist tells this story in bits and pieces from a jail cell. The central fact of the story is his obsession with his recent girlfriend, Jamaica Delila, toward whom he has ambivalent feelings. He thinks she might have “set me up . . . to do lock-up in this cadillac of castles,” and he fantasizes about beating her. Even as he imagines her falling, however, he cannot help dwelling on the way her hair spreads out and her uplifted hands glow in the light. He dwells even longer on memories of their lovemaking in the bathtub, the boy’s shirts and underpants she wore, and the cartoon faces she drew on their legs with lipstick.
He also remembers her in the daytime, when, high on Benzedrine, she sold tickets at the Obelisk, a run-down pornography theater. There Jamaica entertained herself by staring at the rolls of tickets and, with an ink pen, drawing lines of tickets on her thighs. She also helped keep old Neinmann, the theater’s owner, in line so that she, the narrator, and Raymond could practice their drug trade on the premises: “At first it was sideline stuff, Nembies and speed balls, a little white stuff for the joy bangers who came downtown to cop.” They cut the speed with powder from the crumbling tiles of the bathroom floors and sold it to “silky Main Line debs reeling in their mommys’ sports cars.”
Appropriately, the three drug partners developed a close fellow-feeling for the “cinematic rodents” that overran the building. The narrator also misses “reptilian Raymond,” a hunchback like Quasimodo and a self-described “nice Jewish boy, doing his bit for reverse reparations” by helping Neinmann, “that old storm trooper,” save money to return to Germany. For the narrator, however, the presiding goddess of the whole operation was Jamaica: “Jamaica, you thin wonder in schoolboy clothes. I could crush them all into a burlap bag full of stones and watch them sink in a sewer named for you.” The narrator’s qualifications for belonging to this select group include a brief Florida jail stay for statutory rape before he came to Philadelphia.
Their Obelisk operation went smoothly for months, until Raymond decided to start selling powerful amyl nitrite, “those little extras to close down the days and promote orgasmic endings.” Jamaica began using the drug herself when she and the narrator made love: As he “watched the X’s come up” in her eyes, she would turn into “an electric zombie, a stiff-legged gazelle shuddering in northern catatonia.” Holding his amylized lover, the narrator would have a violent urge to shake the bottled-up blackness out of her, and finally one day he succumbed. Just short of shaking her to death, however, he threw down her limp body, ran to the next room, and destroyed the supply of amyl nitrite. Raymond jumped up to pound the narrator with a nightstick but put it away when Jamaica staggered in.
Raymond’s protective gesture reveals the part he played in their three-way arrangement. The narrator was Jamaica’s sexual partner but Raymond was her big brother. Raymond slept on the living-room couch, and, whenever Jamaica had nightmares, she would get up and go sit in the room with him. He would place her legs across his lap and touch her feet to his forehead, apparently the closest they ever came to sexual contact. The trio’s relationship was potentially volatile.
Jamaica seemed in particular to need a surrogate brother because her own family life was so rotten: Her mother, a West Indian, sold her and her four sisters as prostitutes when they were growing up. Little Jamaica specialized in playing a boy’s role, though her mother would never let her cut off her braids. When Jamaica shears her braids over the narrator’s naked body, he believes it is a message, and indeed, that day the police pick him up with sufficient evidence to send him away for years. Even worse, the police tell him that the Obelisk burned down, with Neinmann in it. The narrator suspects Jamaica of setting him up and Raymond of torching the Obelisk, though he has no proof of either. Still, waiting in jail he makes his decision: “Tomorrow I’ll sing and sell you all.”
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