Caybigan/Chapter 1

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WE were sitting around the big centre table in the sala of the "House of Guests" in Ilo-Ilo. We were teachers from Occidental Negros. It was near Christmas; we had left our stations for the holidays—the cholera had just swept them and the aftermath was not pleasant to contemplate—and so we were leaning over the polished narra table, sipping a sweet, false Spanish wine from which we drew, not a convivial spirit, but rather a quiet, reflective gloom. All the shell shutters were drawn back; we could see the tin-roofed city gleam and crackle with the heat, and beyond the lithe line of coconuts, the iridescent sea, tugging the heart with offer of coolness. But, all of us, we knew the promise to be Fake, monumental Fake, knew the alluring depths to be hot as corruption, and full of sharks.

Somebody in a monotonous voice was cataloguing the dead, enumerating those of us who had been conquered by the climate, by the work, or through their own inward flaws. He mentioned Miller with some sort of disparaging gesture, and then Carter of Balangilang, who had been very silent, suddenly burst into speech with singular fury.

"Who are you, to judge him?" he shouted. "Who are you, eh? Who are we, anyway, to judge him?"

Headlong outbursts from Carter were nothing new to us, so we took no offence. Finally someone said, "Well, he's dead," with that tone that signifies final judgment, the last, best, most charitable thing which can be said of the man being weighed.

But Carter did not stop there. "You didn't know him, did you?" he asked. "You didn't know him; tell me now, did you know him?" He was still extraordinarily angry.

We did not answer. Really, we knew little of the dead man—excepting that he was mean and small, and not worth knowing. He was mean, and he was a coward; and to us in our uncompromising youth these were just the unpardonable sins. Because of that we had left him alone, yes, come to think of it, very much alone. And we knew little about him.

"Here, I'll tell you what I know," Carter began again, in a more conciliatory tone; "I'll tell you everything I know of him." He lit a cheroot.

"I first met him right here in Ilo-Ilo. I had crossed over for supplies; he was fresh from Manila and wanted to get over to Bacolod to report to the Sup. and be assigned to his station. When I saw him he was on the muelle, surrounded by an army of bluffing cargadores. About twelve of them had managed to get a finger upon his lone carpet-bag while it was being carried down the gang-plank, and each and all of them wanted to get paid for the job. He was in a horrible pickle; couldn't speak a word of Spanish or Visayan. And the first thing he said when I had extricated him, thanks to my vituperative knowledge of these sweet tongues, was: 'If them niggahs, seh, think Ah'm a-goin' to learn their cussed lingo, they're mahtily mistaken, seh!'

"After that remark, coming straight from the heart, I hardly needed to be told that he was from the South. He was from Mississippi. He was gaunt, yellow, malarial, and slovenly. He had 'teached' for twenty years, he said, but in spite of this there was about him something indescribably rural, something of the sod—not the dignity, the sturdiness of it, but rather of the pettiness, the sordidness of it. It showed in his dirty, flapping garments, his unlaced shoes, his stubble beard, in his indecent carelessness in expectorating the tobacco he was ceaselessly chewing. But these, after all, were some of his minor traits. I was soon to get an inkling of one of his major ones—his prodigious meanness. For when I rushed about and finally found a lorcha that was to sail for Bacolod and asked him to chip in with me on provisions, he demurred.

"'Ah'd like to git my own, seh,' he said in that decisive drawl of his.

"'All right,' I said cheerfully, and went off and stocked up for two. My instinct served me well. When, that evening, Miller walked up the gang-plank, he carried only his carpet-bag, and that was flat and hungry-looking as before. The next morning he shared my provisions calmly and resolutely, with an air, almost, of conscious duty. Well, let that go; before another day I was face to face with his other flaming characteristic.

"Out of Ilo-Ilo we had contrary winds at first; all night the lorcha—an old grandmother of a craft, full of dry-rot spots as big as woodpeckers' nests—flapped heavily about on impotent tacks, and when the sun rose we found ourselves on the same spot from which we had watched its setting. Toward ten o'clock, however, the monsoon veered, and wing-and-wing the old boat, creaking in every joint as if she had the dengue, grunted her way over flashing combers with a speed that seemed almost indecent. Then, just as we were getting near enough to catch the heated glitter of the Bacolod church-dome, to see the golden thread of breach at the foot of the waving coconuts, the wind fell, slap-bang, as suddenly as if God had said hush—and we stuck there, motionless, upon a petrified sea.

"I didn't stamp about and foam at the mouth; I'd been in these climes too long. As for Miller, he was from Mississippi. We picked out a comparatively clean spot on the deck, near the bow; we lay down on our backs and relaxed our beings into infinite patience. We had been thus for perhaps an hour; I was looking up at a little white cloud that seemed receding, receding into the blue immensity behind it. Suddenly a noise like thunder roared in my ears. The little cloud gave a great leap back into its place; the roar dwindled into the voice of Miller, in plaintive, disturbed drawl. 'What the deuce are the niggahs doing?' he was saying.

"And certainly the behaviour of that Visayan crew was worthy of question. Huddled quietly at the stern, one after another they were springing over the rail into the small boat that was dragging behind, and even as I looked the last man disappeared with the painter in his hand. At the same moment I became aware of a strange noise. Down in the bowels of the lorcha a weird, gentle commotion was going on, a multitudinous 'gluck-gluck' as of many bottles being emptied. A breath of hot, musty air was sighing out of the hatch. Then the sea about the poop began to rise,—to rise slowly, calmly, steadily, like milk in a heated pot.

"'By the powers,' I shouted, 'the old tub is going down!'

"It was true. There, upon the sunlit sea, beneath the serene sky, silently, weirdly, unprovoked, the old boat, as if weary, was sinking in one long sigh of lassitude. And we, of course, were going with it. A few yards away from the sternpost was the jolly-boat with the crew. I looked at them, and in my heart I could not condemn them for their sly departure; they were all there, arraiz, wife, children, and crew, so heaped together that they seemed only a meaningless tangle of arms and legs and heads; the water was half an inch from the gunwale, and the one man at the oars, hampered, paralysed on all sides, was splashing helplessly while the craft pivoted like a top. There was no anger in my heart, yet I was not absolutely reconciled to the situation. I searched the deck with my eyes, then from the jolly-boat the arraiz obligingly yelled, 'El biroto, el biroto!'

"And I remembered the rotten little canoe lashed amidships. It didn't take us long to get it into the water (the water by that time was very close at hand). I went carefully into it first so as to steady it for Miller, and then, both of us at once, we saw that it would hold only one. The bottom, a hollowed log, was staunch enough, but the sides, made of pitched bamboo lattice, were sagging and torn. It would hold only one.

"'Well, who is it?' I asked. In my heart there was no craven panic, but neither was there sacrifice. Some vague idea was in my mind, of deciding who should get the place by some game of chance, tossing up a coin, for instance.

"But Miller said, 'Ah cain't affawd to take chances, seh; you must git out.'

"He spoke calmly, with great seriousness, but without undue emphasis—as one enunciating an uncontrovertible natural law. I glanced up into his face, and it was in harmony with his voice. He didn't seem particularly scared; he was serious, that's all; his eyes were set in that peculiar, wide-pupilled stare of the man contemplating his own fixed idea.

"'No, seh; Ah cain't affawd it,' he repeated.

"The absurdity of the thing suddenly tingled in me like wine. 'All right!' I shouted, in a contagion of insanity; 'all right, take the darned thing!'

"And I got out. I got out and let him step stiffly into the boat, which I obligingly sent spinning from the lorcha with one long, strong kick. Then I was alone on the deck, which suddenly looked immense, stretched on all sides, limitless as loneliness itself. A heavy torpor fell from the skies and amid this general silence, this immobility, the cabin door alone seemed to live, live in weird manifestation. It had been left open, and now it was swinging and slamming to and fro jerkily, and shuddering from top to bottom. Half in plan, half in mere irritation at this senseless, incessant jigging, I sprang toward it and with one nervous pull tore it, hinge and all, from the rotten woodwork. I heaved it over the side, went in head first after it, took a few strokes and lay, belly-down, upon it. Just then the lorcha began to rise by the head; the bowsprit went up slowly like a finger pointing solemnly to heaven; then, without a sound, almost instantaneously, the whole fabric disappeared. Across the now unoccupied space Miller and I rushed smoothly toward each other, as if drawn by some gigantic magnet; our crafts bumped gently, like two savages caressingly rubbing noses; they swung apart a little and lay side by side, undulating slightly.

"And we remained there, little black specks upon the flashing sea. Two hundred yards away was the lorcha's boat; they had reshuffled themselves more advantageously and were pulling slowly toward land. Not twenty feet from me Miller sat upright in his canoe as if petrified. I was not so badly off. The door floated me half out of water, and that was lukewarm, so I knew that I could stand it a long time. What bothered me, though, was that the blamed raft was not long enough; that is, the upper part of my body being heavier, it took more door to support it, so that my feet were projecting beyond the lower edge, and every second or so the nibbling of some imaginary shark sent them flying up into the air in undignified gymnastics. The consoling part of it was that Miller was paying no notice. He still sat up, rigid, in his canoe, clutching the sides stiffly and looking neither to right nor left. From where I lay I could see the cords of his neck drawn taut, and his knuckles showing white.

"'Why the deuce don't you paddle to shore?' I shouted at length, taking a sudden disgust of the situation.

"He did not turn his head as he answered. 'Ah—Ah,' he stammered, the words coming hard as hiccoughs out of his throat; 'Ah don't know haow.'

"'Drop the sides of your boat and try,' I suggested.

"He seemed to ponder carefully over this for a while. 'Ah think it's safer to stay this-a-way,' he decided finally.

"'But, good lord, man,' I cried, angry at this calm stupidity; 'if that's what you're going to do, you'd better get on this door here and let me take the boat. I'll paddle ashore and come back for you.'

"He turned his head slowly. He contemplated my raft long, carefully, critically.

"'Ah think Ah'll be safer heyah, seh,' he decided. 'It's a little bit o' old door, and Ah reckon they's a heap of sharks around.'

"After that I had little to say. Given the premises of the man his conclusions were unquestionable. And the premises were a selfishness so tranquil, so ingenuous, so fresh, I might say, that I couldn't work up the proper indignation. It was something so perfect as to challenge admiration. On the whole, however, it afforded a poor subject for conversation; so we remained there, taciturn, I on my door, half-submerged in the tepid water, my heels flung up over my back, he in his dug-out, rigid, his hands clutching the sides as if he were trying to hold up the craft out of the liquid abyss beneath.

"And thus we were still when, just as the sun was setting sombrely, a velos full of chattering natives picked us up. They landed us at Bacolod, and Miller left me to report to the Sup. I departed before sun-up the next morning for my station. I didn't want to see Miller again.

"But I did. One night he came floundering through my pueblo. It was in the middle of the rainy season. He wasn't exactly caked with mud; rather, he seemed to ooze it out of every pore. He had been assigned to Binalbagan, ten miles further down. I stared when he told me this. Binalbagan was the worst post on the island, a musty, pestilential hole with a sullenly hostile population, and he—well, inefficiency was branded all over him in six-foot letters. I tried to stop him over night, but he would not do it, and I saw him splash off in the darkness, gaunt, yellow, mournful.

"I saw little of him after that. I was busy establishing new barrio-schools which were to give me excuses for long horseback rides of inspection. I felt his presence down there in that vague way by which you are aware of a person behind your back without turning around. Rumours of his doings reached me. He was having a horrible time. On the night of his arrival he had been invited to dinner by the Presidente, a kind old primitive soul, but when he found that he was expected to sit at the table with the family, he had stamped off, indignant, saying that he didn't eat with no niggers. As I've said before, the town was hostile, and this attitude did not help matters much. He couldn't get the school moneys out of the Tesorero—an unmitigated rascal—but that did not make much difference, for he had no pupils anyhow. He couldn't speak a word of Spanish; no one in the town, of course, knew any English—he must have been horribly lonely. He began to wear camisas, like the natives. That's always a bad sign. It shows that the man has discovered that there is no one to care how he dresses—that is, that there is no longer any public opinion. It indicates something subtly worse—that the man has ceased looking at himself, that the I has ceased criticising, judging, stiffening up the me—in other words, that there is no longer any conscience. That white suit, I tell you, is a wonderful moral force; the white suit, put on fresh every morning, heavily starched, buttoned up to the chin, is like an armour, ironcladdlng you against the germ of decay buzzing about you, ceaselessly vigilant for the little vulnerable spot. Miller wore camisas, and then he began to go without shoes. I saw that myself. I was riding through his pueblo on my way to Dent's, and I passed his school. I looked into the open door as my head bobbed by at the height of the stilt-raised floor. He was in his camisa and barefooted; his long neck stretched out of the collarless garment with a mournful, stork-like expression. Squatting on the floor were three trouserless, dirt-incrusted boys; he was pointing at a chart standing before their eyes, and all together they were shouting some word that exploded away down in their throats in tremendous effort and never seemed to reach their lips. I called out and waved my hand as I went by, and when I looked back, a hundred yards farther, I saw that he had come out and was standing upon the bamboo platform outside of the door, gaping after me with his chin thrown forward in that mournful, stork-like way—I should have gone back.

"With him, I must say, the camisa did not mean all that I have suggested, not the sort of degradation of which it is the symbol in other men. The most extravagant imagination could not have linked him with anything that smacked of romance, romance however sordid. His vices, I had sized it, would come rather from an excess of calculation than from a lack of it. No, that camisa was just a sign of his meanness, his prodigious meanness. And of that I was soon given an extraordinary example.

"I had with me a young fellow named Ledesma, whom I was training to be assistant maestro. He was very bright, thirsty to learn, and extremely curious of us white men. I don't believe that the actions of one of them, for fifty miles around, ever escaped him, and every day he came to me with some talk, some rumour, some gossip about my fellow-exiles which he would relate to me with those strange interrogative inflections that he had brought from his native dialect into English—as if perpetually he were seeking explanation, confirmation. One morning he said to me: 'The maestro Miller, he does not eat.'

"'No?' I answered, absent-mindedly.

"'No, he never eats,' he reiterated authoritatively, although that peculiar Visayan inflection of which I have spoken gave him the air of asking a question.

"'Oh, I suppose he does,' I said, carelessly.

"'He does not eat,' he repeated. 'Everyone in Binalbagan say so. Since he there, he has not bought anything at the store.'

"'His muchachos bring him chicken,' I suggested.

"'No, señor; he very funny; he has no muchachos, not one muchacho has he.'

"'Well, he probably has canned provisions sent him.'

"'No, señor; the cargadores they say that never, never have they carried anything for him. He does not eat.'

"'Very well,' I concluded, somewhat amused; 'he does not eat.'

"The boy was silent for a minute, then, 'Señor Maestro,' he asked with suspicious ingenuousness, 'can Americans live without eating?'

"So that I was not able to drop the subject as easily as I wished. And coming to a forced consideration of it, I found that my anxiety to do so was not very beautiful after all. A picture came to me—that of Miller on his bamboo platform before his door, gazing mournfully after me, his chin thrown forward. It did not leave me the day long, and at sundown I saddled up and trotted off toward Binalbagan.

"I didn't reach the pueblo that night, however. Only a mile from it I plunged out of the moonlight into the pitch darkness of a hollow lane cutting through Don Jaime's hacienda. Banana palms were growing thick to right and left; the way was narrow and deep—it was a fine place for cutthroats, but that evocation had lost much of its romantic charm from the fact that, not three weeks before, an actual cutthroating had taken place, a Chinese merchant having been boloed by tusilanes. Well, I was trotting through, my right hand somewhat close to my holster, when from the right, close, there came a soft, reiterated chopping noise. I pulled up my pony. The sound kept up—a discreet, persistent chopping; then I saw, up above, the moonlit top of a palm shuddering, though all about it the others remained motionless, petrified as if of solid silver. It was a very simple thing after all: someone in there was cutting down a palm to get bananas, an occupation very common in the Philippines, and very pacific, in spite of the ominous air given to it by the gigantic bolo used. However, something prompted me to draw the midnight harvester out.

"'Heh, ladron, what are you doing there?' I shouted in dialect.

"There was a most sudden silence. The chopping ceased, the palm stopped vibrating. A vague form bounded down the lane, right up against my horse's nose, rolled over, straightened up again, and vanished into the darkness ahead. Unconsciously I spurred on after it. For a hundred yards I galloped with nothing in sight. Then I caught a rapid view of the thing as it burst through a shaft of moonlight piercing the glade, and it showed as a man, a grotesque figure of a man in loose white pantaloons. He was frightened, horribly frightened, all hunched up with the frenzy to escape. An indistinct bundle was on his right shoulder. Like a curtain the dark snapped shut behind him again, but I urged on with a wild halloo, my blood all a-tingle with the exultation of the chase. I gained—he must have been a lamentable runner, for my poor little pony was staggering under my tumultuous weight. I could hear him pant and sob a few yards in advance; then he came into sight, a dim, loping whiteness ahead. Suddenly the bundle left his shoulder; something rolled along the ground under my horse's hoofs—and I was standing on my head in a soft, oozy place. I was mad, furiously mad. I picked myself up, went back a few yards and, taking my pony by the nose, picked him up. A touch of his throbbing flanks, however, warned me as I was putting my foot into the stirrup. I left him there and thundered on foot down the lane. I have said I was mad. 'Yip-yip-yah-ah, yip-yip-yah-ah,' I yelled as I dashed on—a yell I had heard among California cattlemen. It must have paralysed that flying personage, for I gained upon him shockingly. I could hear him pant, a queer, patient panting, a sigh rather, a gentle, lamenting sighing, and the white camisa flapped ghostily in the darkness. Suddenly he burst out of obscurity, past the plantation, into the glaring moonlight. And I—I stopped short, went down on my hands and knees, and crouched back into the shadow. For the man running was Miller; Miller, wild, sobbing, dishevelled, his shoulders drawn up to his ears in terrible weariness, his whole body taut with fear, and scudding, scudding away, low along the ground, his chin forward, mournful as a stork. Soon he was across the luminous space, and then he disappeared into the darkness on the other side, flopped head first into it as if hiding his face in a pillow.

"I returned slowly to my horse. He was standing where I had left him, his four legs far apart in a wide base. Between them was the thing cast off by Miller which had thrown us. I examined it by the light of a box of matches. It was a bunch of bananas, one of those gigantic clusters which can be cut from the palms. I got on my horse and rode back home.

"I didn't go to see him any more. A man who will steal bananas in a country where they can be bought a dozen for one cent is too mean to be worth visiting. I had another reason, too. It had dawned on me that Miller probably did not care to see any of us, that he had come down to a mode of life which would not leave him appreciative of confrontations with past standards. It was almost charity to leave him to himself.

"So I left him to himself, and he lived on in his pestilential little hole, alone—lived a life more squalid every day. It wasn't at all a healthy life, you can understand, no healthier physically than morally. After a while I heard that he was looking bad, yellow as a lemon and the dengue cracking at his bones. I began to think of going to him after all, of jerking him out of his rut by force, if necessary, making him respect the traditions of his race. But just then came that Nichols affair, and flaring, his other bad side—his abject cowardice—reappeared to me. You remember the Nichols thing—boloed in the dark between my town and Himamaylan. His muchacho had jumped into the ditch. Afterward he got out and ran back the whole way, fifteen miles, to my place. I started down there. My idea was to pick up Miller as I passed, then Dent a little further down, find the body, and perhaps indications for White of the constabulary to whom I had sent a messenger and who could not reach the place till morning. Well, Miller refused to go. He had caught hold of some rumour of the happening; he was barricaded in his hut and was sitting on his bed, a big Colt's revolver across his knees. He would not go, he said it plainly. 'No, seh; Ah cain't take chances; Ah cain't affawd it.' He said this without much fire, almost tranquilly, exactly as he had, you remember, at the time of our shipwreck. It was not so amusing now, however. Here, on land, amid this swarming, mysterious hostility, at this crisis, it seemed a shocking betrayal of the solidarity that bound us all white men. A red rage took possession of me. I stood there above him and poured out vituperation for five good minutes. I found the most extraordinary epithets; I lowered my voice and pierced him with venomous thrusts. He took it all. He remained seated on his bed, his revolver across his knees, looking straight at some spot on the floor; whenever I'd become particularly effective he'd merely look harder at the spot, as if for him it contained something of higher significance—a command, a rule, a precept—I don't know what, and then he'd say, 'No, Ah cain't; Ah cain't affawd it.'

"I burst out of there, a-roar like a bombshell. I rode down to Dent; we rode down to the place and did—what there was to be done. Miller, I never wanted to see again.

"But I did. Some three weeks later a carrier came to me with a note—a pencilled scrawl upon a torn piece of paper. It read:

"'I think I am dying. Can you come see me?


"I went down right away. He was dead. He had died there, alone, in his filthy little hut, in that God-forsaken pueblo, ten miles from the nearest white man, ten thousand miles from his home. He had died there all alone.

"I'll always remember our coming in. It was night. It had been raining for thirty-six hours, and as we stepped into the unlighted hut, my muchacho and I, right away the floor grew sticky and slimy with the mud on our feet, and as we groped about blindly, we seemed ankle-deep in something greasy and abominable like gore. After a while the boy got a torch outside, and as he flared it I caught sight of Miller on his cot, backed up into one corner. He was sitting upright, staring straight ahead and a little down, as if in careful consideration. As I stepped toward him the pliable bamboo floor undulated; the movement was carried to him and he began to nod, very gently and gravely. He seemed to be saying: 'No, Ah cain't affawd it.' It was atrocious. Finally I was by his side and he was again motionless, staring thoughtfully. Then I saw what he was considering. In his hands, which lay twined on his knees, were a lot of little metallic oblongs. I disengaged them. The muchacho drew nearer, and with the torch over my shoulder I examined them. They were photographs, cheap tintypes. The first was of a woman, a poor being, sagging with overwork, a lamentable baby in her arms. The other pictures were of children—six of them, boys and girls, of all ages from twelve to three, and under each, in painful chirography, a name was written—Lee Miller, Amy Miller, Geraldine Miller, and so on.

"You don't understand, do you? For a moment I didn't understand. I stared stupidly at those tintypes, shuffled and reshuffled them; the torch roared in my ear. Then, suddenly, understanding came to me; it came sharp as a pang. He had a wife and children—seven children.

"A simple fact, wasn't it, a commonplace one, almost vulgar, you might say. And yet what a change of view produced by it, what a dislocation of judgment! I was like a man riding through a strange country, in a storm, at night. It is dark, he cannot see, he has never seen the country, yet as he rides on he begins to picture to himself the surroundings, his imagination builds for him a landscape—a mountain there, a river here, wind-streaming trees over there—and right away it exists, it is, it has solidity, mass, life. Then suddenly comes a flash of lightning, a second of light, and he is astounded, absolutely astounded to see the real landscape different from that indestructible thing that his mind had built. Thus it was with me. I had judged, oh, I had judged him thoroughly, sized him up to a certainty, and bang, came the flare of this new fact, this extremely commonplace fact, and I was all off, all off. I must begin to judge again, only it would never do that man any good.

"A hundred memories came back to me, glared at me in the illumination of that new fact. I remembered the camisa, the bare feet. I saw him running down the lane with his bunch of stolen bananas. I recalled that absurd scene on the waters; I heard him say: 'No, seh; Ah cain't affawd to take chances; Ah cain't affawd it.'

"Of course he couldn't afford it. Think—a wife and seven children!

"That night I went through his papers, putting things in order, and from every leaf, every scrap, came corroboration of the new fact. It was easy enough to patch up his life. He was one of those pitiful pedagogues of the rural South, shiftless, half-educated, inefficient. He had never been able to earn much, and his family had always gently starved. Then had come the chance, the golden chance—the Philippines and a thousand a year. He had taken the bait, had come ten thousand miles to the spot of his maximum value. Only, things had not gone quite right. Thanks to the beautiful red-tape of the department, three months had gone before he had received his first month's pay. Then it had come in Mex., and when he had succeeded in changing it into gold it had dwindled to sixty dollars. Of course, he had sent it all back, for even then it would take it six more weeks to reach its destination, and sixty dollars is hardly too much to tide over five months for a family of eight. These five months had to be caught up in some way, so every month his salary, depreciated ten per cent. by the change, had gone across the waters. He wore camisas and no shoes, he stole bananas. And his value, shoeless, camisa-clothed, was sixty dollars a month. He was just so much capital. He had to be careful of that capital.

"'Ah cain't affawd to take chances; Ah cain't affawd it.' Of course he couldn't.

"And so he had fought on blindly, stubbornly, and, at last, with that pitiful faculty we have, all of us, of defeating our own plans, he had killed himself, he had killed the capital, the golden goose.

"Yes, I found confirmation, but, after all, I did not need it. I had learned it all; understanding had come to me, swift, sharp, vital as a pang, when in the roaring light of the torch I had looked upon the pale little tintypes, the tintypes of Lee and Amy and Jackson and Geraldine."