Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008
The faint odor of rotting flesh greeted the James family as Mr. James turned the family’s beaten-up Honda onto the dirt road. It was New Year’s Day, and the James family was taking their usual New Year’s drive with the windows down and the breeze blowing through every corner of the car. Mr. James decided to drive off the main road and through the New Road sugar cane field. It was Carnival parade day on the island and the main roads would be blocked off for the crowd of dancing revelers. As they drove further into the cane field, the stench became stronger. The stink permeated every crevice of the car. The kids, Thomas and Andrew, scrunched their faces and covered their noses to block the scent. It was worse than the time when Mrs. James had bought live chickens with intentions of cooking them and completely forgot about them. The poor chickens were tied up in a plastic bag for a couple days outside the kitchen door in the 90 degree heat.
“For Christ sakes, roll up the windows!” Mrs. James shouted to her husband. “What’s wrong with you?” She glared at him. He glanced apologetically to where his wife was shooting death rays at him before pressing the button that sealed them in.
“Mommy, mommy, look!” Thomas, who was the older boy at six, pointed up ahead, to where there was a black pig that was almost the size of a fully-grown cow lying flat on its side. The pig’s belly was swollen with an assortment of parasitic insects buzzing around its carcass.
“Oh my god!” Mrs. James covered her eyes with her hands. The kids and their father studied the pig quickly when they drove by. There was already liquid oozing from the body.
“Are we past it?”
“Yeah,” Mr. James chuckled. His wife took her hands down, and looked at the road ahead. Because of the curves in the road, there wasn’t much to see except for eight-foot-tall sugar cane stalks that swayed with the northeast trade winds. When a particularly strong gust blew, the family could see glimpses of aquamarine and tangerine-colored concrete houses with red galvanized roofs and white aluminum shutters. Mr. James rolled the windows back down, releasing the stench that was trapped in the car. He inhaled the fresh island air, now perfumed with the sugary aroma of overripe cane. The cane had been on the stalk too long; sugar production on the island had ceased earlier the year before and the last cane crop would soon rot and die away. For now though, the cane danced and played in the wind without a thought of its impending doom.
The family drove on in silence except for the occasional bump or pothole, and the chatter in the back seat coming from the kids. Every now and again, a truck would zoom past the little Honda, tossing lots of beige soil around. The couple never looked at each other, only at the road ahead. Mrs. James put the radio on ZIZ, the local station, where they were commenting on the parade. As usual, the parade had begun two hours late. Every so often, Mr. James glanced over to where his wife sat, willing her to look his way. She hadn’t really looked at him for the past two weeks. She’d glare, stare, roll her eyes at him, but she never once looked at him. She kept her eyes on the road ahead, drumming random patterns on the roof of the car with her fingers. She squinted at the sun’s brightness, but didn’t look away or shade her eyes with her hands. Her husband reached over and pulled the sun visor down on the passenger side. She slammed it back up and continued squinting at the sun.
They reached the end of the bumpy road and the car exited the field with a huge jerk over the railway lines. The kids giggled. “Let’s do that again.” Thomas said. When he didn’t get an answer, he went back to the Pokemon game in his hand.
“Look at these churches. They sure build them up fast.” Mr. James pointed to where a Mormon church and a Baptist church faced each other. Each church was surrounded by a well-kept lawn, flowers, fruit trees and a chain-linked fence. It was rare to see houses of worship so entrenched in island suburbia. They were usually on main roads in villages, and not on the last road of a well-established residential area. If it weren’t for the giant crosses on top of each building, they would be nothing more than typical two-story brick houses with wide verandahs, hurricane shutters and shingled roofs.
No one responded to Mr. James’s observation. His wife was looking out the window at the older houses they passed. Each yard was well-tended with a plethora of different-colored hibiscuses, crotons, yellow bells and roses. The houses were old, and not as brightly-colored as they had seemed in the distance. Up close, the chipped paint and cracks in the concrete that spread out like spider webs were visible.
“Do you think we should visit my aunt? We didn’t go see her for Christmas.” He looked at the road ahead, not wanting to direct the question to her. She didn’t turn her head, but continued staring at the houses they drove by. “Kids?” he said looking to the back seat for some support, “there’ll be presents.”
“More presents!” Andrew’s eyes lit up. “Let’s go by Tanty.”
“Don’t bribe the children. I don’t want to go by your crazy aunt.” She hissed through her teeth. She never turned to look at him.
“She will say something if I don’t visit her.”
“Right now I don’t give a rat’s ass,” she mumbled so the kids wouldn’t hear. “If you go, I am staying in the car.”
“Mommy lets go by Tanty! Let’s go by Tanty,” Andrew shouted, jumping up and down in the back seat.
“Not today, kids.”
“We want our presents,” Thomas started, jumping up and down.
“I said no,” she said sternly, still looking at the houses
“Please, please, please,” they pleaded, “we want our presents, mommy please.” Mrs. James drummed rapidly on the roof of the car.
“Come on, it won’t be for long,” Mr. James said to her. “We will only stop for five minutes.”
“Pretty please mommy? We love you.” Andrew was now rubbing her arm with his tiny hand. He did that whenever he wanted something from her, or when he felt that she was sad, or tired. She usually found it endearing.
“Cut it out!” Mrs. James snapped, turning around to look at the kids. “I said no!” The kids stopped hopping around. Andrew started to cry. Thomas rubbed his shoulder and traded video games with him.
“You didn’t have to yell at them; they are only children” he whispered fiercely
“You didn’t have to bring up the presents.” She whispered back, turning her face towards his profile. He wanted to turn around to meet her eyes, but he was afraid of what he would find there. He kept his eyes on the road.
They drove by the Governor General’s white sprawling house with its manicured lawn and whitewashed concrete fence, which faced the cemetery. In the middle of the cemetery’s grounds was a church that was at least two hundred years old.
“That’s a beautiful church – look at all the black stone. Those are volcanic rocks.” He pointed at the building and turned to the kids, who looked at the church briefly before returning to Pikachu and Gargamon.
Mr. James reached over to where his wife’s right hand was resting on her seatbelt and placed his hand over hers. She tugged her hand free of his and slapped him on his wrist. She blew on her hands and placed them outside the window, letting the wind wash them clean before bringing them to rest on her lap. It reminded him of what the kids did in elementary school when they had had a falling out with one of their friends. No part of your former friend was allowed to touch you. If even the sleeve of their uniform grazed yours, you had to cleanse it by blowing profusely on it and brushing off the invisible, offensive dirt.
He glanced over to her face and sighed, his chest heaving as if the weight of the world was resting on it and he had the most difficulty getting it off. They drove past little wooden shops with galvanized roofs that were closed for the day and then down past St. Johnson’s Village playing field. The car dipped down into the valley of Fortlands and came out facing the Caribbean Sea. There were perfectly-shaped waves as far as the eyes could see. Mrs. James looked at these waves and at the blueness of the sky, which was so perfectly reflected in the water. She couldn’t determine which made the other more brilliant – the ocean for reflecting those varying shades of blue, or the sky for giving the ocean its color and spark.
“At some point you gon’ have to talk to me.” Mr. James looked at his wife’s profile as the car circled the war memorial, which was built with the same volcanic black rock as the church. These rocks had lost most of their shine, thanks to the salt air, and were now a dreary gray. She leaned forward and turned the volume up on the radio.
The radio commentator, who was also the local TV station’s sports reporter, gave a play-by-play as each troupe danced its way down the island main’s road. The first troupe was titled “Birds of Paradise.” “Look at these gorgeous creatures in their splendid costumes. For those of you listening at home, let me briefly describe the spectacular magnificence on display today. The women are wearing french-cut gold lamé bathing suits, with feathers of all the different, exotic island birds sticking out of their hair. The men are in fuchsia tanks and shorts with little wings of greens, yellows and blues on their back. Have you ever seen such a magnificent scene of exotic tropical colors? It really is a marvelous display. Everyone should come out and support our local talent. I’ve never seen such beautiful costume-making. Such beautiful ladies too…”
“He’s such a ninny!” Mrs. James started. She turned the volume down. “Why the hell is he describing it as exotic and tropical? You would never find anyone from an island saying they are exotic and tropical.” She waved her hand around in the car.
“He’s just playing it up for the tourists.” Her husband answered. “You know they like that sort of thing. Everything has to be exotic and tropical.” He laughed.
“I didn’t ask you for an answer,” she returned.
“Maybe we should stop and look at the parade for a while?” He asked the kids in the back.
“Let’s get ice cream too,” Andrew said. “I want chocolate, and vanilla and strawberry and –”
“You gon’ make yourself sick with all that ice cream,” his mother said to him.
“And then, can we go by Tanty, please, please, please mommy?” Thomas pleaded.
“We can drive by the parade and maybe stop for ice cream, but we are not going by Tanty today.” She paused for a moment. “Maybe some other time.”
“Tomorrow?” Andrew suggested.
“No. And if any of you ask me again, no ice cream at all today.”
“Ice cream, ice cream,” the boys chanted.
“Ok, ok, we’ll stop for ice cream, but we’re only going to watch the parade for a little bit. I really can’t take on the noise today.”
“Yeaaah! Ice cream!” Andrew shouted. He went on to discuss with his brother the various virtues of the different flavors.
The family drove into town, and parked in the newly-built parking lot on Port Zante. They exited the vehicle and walked hand in hand to find a suitable viewing spot; Mrs. James walked between Andrew and Thomas, holding on to their sweaty palms, and Mr. James walked on the end, next to Thomas. They walked to the intersection of Church and Central Street and waited with the other onlookers for a troupe to pass. The kids danced to the soca music coming from the approaching band, Mrs. James stared at the baby-pink government headquarters building, which was directly opposite to where they stood; Mr. James looked at his wife looking at the building.
Soon enough, a parade of different-shaped women in bright yellow bathing suits danced by the intersection. Their legs sparkled from the combination of sweat, baby oil, and the bright blue and red glitter dust; they wore multi-colored flags wrapped around their waists and similarly-colored wrist and headbands. For the most part, the women danced from left to right with the occasional jump or two. They had been dancing and moving for more than an hour; they wore the tiredness in their faces.
When the tempo of the music increased, a few of the more adventurous women put on a display for the onlookers. They ground their hips sensually to the music in pairs, or grabbed a man from the troupe behind them or one of the onlookers, and did the same. When the music got particularly exciting, the same women leaned over, buttocks in the air, palms on the tarred street, and gyrated their hips in small circles. Often, one of their troupe mates or one of the obliging males would stand behind them, holding on to the woman’s hips and matching her motions.
Mrs. James looked over to where her husband’s eyes followed the women as their bodies moved up and down, round and around. She looked at him and hated him. She’d never really hated him before.
Before she knew what she was doing, her hand was cuffing the back of his head with a resounding “whap.”
Embarrassed, he looked at her. “Sorry.”
The kids laughed at the interaction between their parents, not fully understanding what was going on.
“You can’t let the woman treat you like that,” an old man who stood beside them said. “She got to understand that looking at woman is a natural thing.” Mr. James just turned to the man and smiled. “You know how it is sometimes.”
The old man chuckled. Mr. James touched his wife’s elbow and whispered sorry again. She didn’t turn to face him; she simply hugged her hands closer to her chest.
“Is she one of them?” she asked.
He had no answer for her. They stood there, each not knowing what to say to the other; they looked at the dancers in their oh-so-brilliant colors and the people who came to watch them. Everyone seemed so happy and carefree moving to the music. It was the celebration of a new year. The couple remained transfixed on the scene around them until they could no longer ignore the children’s pleas for ice cream. Mr. James happily took Thomas’s hand and led the charge to the ice cream shop. He snaked his way inside the crowded shop while Mrs. James waited outside with the kids. He emerged with cones for all of them.
“I didn’t ask for any,” she told him.
“Can I have it Mommy?” Thomas asked?
“No, no, I want it” Andrew began.
“You can share it,” she returned to the kids. The kids finished off their ice cream hurriedly so that they could get to the rapidly-melting bonus cone. Mrs. James held the dripping cone as they walked back to the car. After the kids were finished with their individual cones, they argued over which one of them would start eating the other cone first. Mrs. James took a plastic cup out of the car and divided it in two. By this time, the ice cream was mostly liquid. When they were done, Mrs. James took them to one of the standing water pipes and washed their hands and sticky faces as well as her own. They walked slowly back to the car. Somehow, Mr. James had managed to eat his cone without getting any of it on his fingers or face.
The family hopped in the car and began the drive back home. “How many times do you want me to apologize?” Mr. James started. They were about a quarter of the way home. The country road was mostly deserted since most of the action was happening in town. The kids were glued to the new games they had gotten for Christmas.
“I never asked you to.” His wife responded.
“What can I do to make it right? It was a mistake.”
“She got some suga down deh,” the kids started singing one of the songs made popular by one of the local bands that was playing on the radio. “Suga down deh, suga down deh…”
She exhaled deeply, looking out at the setting sun and the burnt orange clouds. They were rounding the bend that led to Canada Estate.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. James said again.
“Look kids,” she said pointing up ahead, to where an immense black and white pig lay on its side. It was smaller than the first pig they had seen, and less bovine in shape. The entire family turned their heads in unison to look at the dead pig. Unlike the pig in the cane-field, this pig had no stench, no swelling; it just lay there on its side, legs sticking out.
“I think it’s moving!” Thomas shouted. Indeed, the pig was twitching ever so slightly. “We should go help it.” He pleaded.
Mrs. James looked at the animal lying helpless on the side of the road. There was nothing she could do for it. They couldn’t pick the pig up and put it in the trunk and take it to the hospital. Everyone would call them crazy for trying to save it.
“There are no animal hospitals close by, dear,” Mrs. James said softly to her kids. “It would die before we got someone to look at it. It’s best to let it die.”