Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I get a postcard from a place called Paradise, and on the back is a note from an old friend that says, “Free lunch under the coconut trees.” It is the season of disco and dope smoking, of long, ramshackle cars built by cocaine addicts in Michigan, of oil embargoes and promiscuity and awful haircuts, and I look around at the girls and boys in their platform shoes and bell bottoms and everybody divorced or pregnant or stoned or listening to disco and scratching their VD sores, and I know the world is coming to an end, so I call United Airlines and order a one-way ticket to Paradise.
Paradise, like the Holy Land and the Good Old Days, is always a long way off. You keep getting on smaller and smaller planes until finally you are on a little ferry gurgling through the peacock blue of a tranquil nowhere, and the sun is sinking, and a very polite black man with pomaded hair and a lovely, unintelligible accent is serving you a Heineken.
My friend Trev, a giant with a giant red mustache, is astonished and delighted to see me. He picks me up and whirls me through the air, then pounds my back and stuffs me into a little wrecked blue Toyota with his girlfriend Kate from Baltimore in the back, and they drive me through the jungle to the other side of the island and the little slum they call home.
I fall down drunk in a bed that night and listen to the rats and the roaches clatter through the rafters. The walls are cracked and the screens are ripped. There is no electricity, no hot water. The mosquitoes and the sand fleas eat me alive. In the morning, I take a cold shower with the jumbo roaches and have bread and marmalade with tea and Scotch for breakfast. Trev and Kate drink all day. I don’t wonder why.
Trev takes me out that morning, and we walk the abandoned eastern shores; there are shacks about, and buried treasure, says Trev: old bottles worth money, doubloons. Trev stands six foot six, with feathery, sun-bleached hair and a dazzling chin, a furry red chest glittering with gold medallions, and more repossessed cars, outstanding loans, and unpaid Houston municipal parking tickets than anyone in history. He shows me a pyramidal heap of a shack completely covered in jungle; we walk through a triangular flap on the side. What were once walls are now vines, looped and helical, blossoming, coming up through the drain in the sink. The little room is hot; the wood floor is soggy and shot through with tendrils. Three blue butterflies float idly about.
“Who lived here?” I say.
“I did,” he says, picking up an empty, faded box of macaroni and cheese and giving it a perplexed rattle. “When I first came, but the rent was too high.”
“How high?” I ask.
“Sixty dollars a month,” he says.
We stroll through the aloe and manzanita down to the sand, a mile of deserted beach, the stunning blue vitriol sea. We swim in the warm water, frolic. He wants to share this thing called Paradise: it is a palpable thing, obtainable; you discover it, then keep it; it is not an idea, it is provable by perception; we are here, floating in it, naked. The flicker and flame of fish in a million varieties rip in vivid cartoon colors below our feet: damsel, angel, butterfly, cardinal, parrot, clown. Trev has a spear gun and I dive with it down to the reef, the tattered walls of sunken castles, tall herds of silent fish tipping and disappearing among them. It is dark down here, a great primitive bottom blue. Though the water is filled with sharks, they are mostly harmless, tiger and lemon. I pursue a fat pink snapper and miss by a foot: it flicks and jinks away.
Within a week, I get a job at the hotel on the other side of the island, a breakfast-cooking job. Each morning, Trev or Kate starts up the old wreck of a blue Toyota, with its Budweiser can for a muffler and rag for a gas cap, and hauls me through the wicked floral darkness to the little bay resort town of three thousand, where Kate had a job for a while at the bakery and Trev is adding on a room for Saul Schwartz, the Brooklyn semi-tycoon and owner of Saul Schwartz’s Rent-a-Thing, who lives on the point above O’Henry Bay. Trev has been adding on that room for about a year now. He puts up a board or a sheet of paneling whenever he gets a mind to. He is also building a boat, which is taking a little longer. One day, Trev will strike it rich: treasure, smuggling, brilliant business scheme. Meanwhile, there is youth and dollar-a-bottle rum and the little blue postcard in his head.
The most evil thing in any place is never what you think. It is not sharks, not devils, not ghosts, not darkness, not natural disasters, not Sears and Roebuck, but one of these in a human form, for there is no evil without hatred or desire — and just because you have come through the looking glass does not mean that you have left evil behind. On the contrary. Without a thick wallet, hotel protection, stupid-white-person smile, flowers around your neck, tinily veined white legs, and a big fat wristwatch, your protection is thinner than ever. You have thought, and it has been demonstrated to you, that this place is ideal, Edenic, and you have decided that this is where you will live — it is the place to go at the end of the world and time, where all the basic needs are at your fingertips: fruit on the trees, fish in the seas, sleep under the stars, native girls. Unfortunately, you have been preceded (by several centuries) by a more sensible race, and they are not happy to have your soft, fat-assed, dreaming, idiotic bad habits tracked through their living room. So as soon as you change your colors from tourist to resident, your status is automatically converted from gold to Reynolds Wrap, and you are assigned a sort of unhappy nemesis who will stalk you through the closed rides and shut-up tents of the backward amusement park you have built yourself with the tools of your piña-colada ignorance, until you save up enough money to go back where you came from.
I meet my unhappy nemesis during week three. Kate and Trev and I are sitting at the table having whiskey and cigarettes and listening to the peaceful shriek and clatter of lizards swallowing each other when someone outside begins to shout loudly and not at all recognizably. A little smirk crosses Trev’s face. I hear the sound of a machete striking wood, the slushy whack of a tree going down, then the words cuh-toff your leg, white muddafuckah. Trev draws himself up from the table like a weary priest and strides out the door without a weapon. He is wearing pink terry shorts and flip-flops. His legs are too long and thin for his build, and he wears the shorts too high. I follow him just far enough to poke my head out and get a glimpse in the streaks of moonlight of a small, dark, shiny, yellow-eyed figure who appears to be naked, and the dull, pirate gleam of a machete being flickered about. Trev talks in low tones, his head slightly cocked, his large, faintly moonlit back stooped. I know what his face looks like because I used to work with him at a downtown-Houston pizzeria frequented by the drunk and belligerent and insane. Trev, the manager, would greet them all the same: an inch from their faces with a jocularly sympathetic expression and a ridiculous and mocking tone of voice, which would send them away confused or intimidated almost every time. If that didn’t work, he would pick them up and remove them physically. But the naked little yellow-eyed madman is still shouting, the pitch of his voice unnaturally high and distressed, and that dull blade keeps whipping across the stars.
Trev is always one for the courageous stunt, the cliff dive or the battle with the barroom stranger, and he rarely gets hurt, but one of these days he will push his luck too far. I go to get my knife and find Kate calmly watching a wasp spin around the lip of the hurricane lamp. By the time I find my knife in my dark bedroom, the angry voice is fading off toward the cove. In another minute, Trev appears in the doorway.
“Who was that?” I say.
“Legion,” he says.
“Legion? Who is he?”
“He’s crazy,” Kate says casually, slouching in her chair, arms folded over her chest, her damp, dark, shoulder length hair hiding most of her face.
“What did he want?” I say.
“What he always wants: to kill the white man,” Trev says with a little sniff.
“They fucked up the island.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know — the hotel, the bank going up.” He waves his hand. “Saul’s place . . .”
“Yeah, well, at least they got jobs now, don’t they? Money?”
“What does he do?”
“You might say he is a wanderer.”
Kate nods dreamily, eyes still fixed on the low flame of the hurricane lamp. The wasp has removed itself to the other side of the room and now bumps in sleepy rhythm against the top of the screen door.
“If you want to talk to him,” adds Trev, “sometimes you can find him in the graveyard.”
Trev arches his eyebrows. He is often amused by danger and perversity. “It’s nice and quiet there. . . .”
I have a little taste of my gin and lime. I’ve been drinking them all night, and they have become inconsequential, like citrus-flavored fog.
“Watch out for him,” Trev says, pouring a Scotch and lighting a cigarette. “He walks the roads. He will try to cut you.”
“How did you get rid of him?”
“You know.” He puts on his face. “I outcrazied him.”
“How did you know he wouldn’t hit you with that knife?”
“You have to know how to talk to him.”
“What if I run into him? What do I say?”
“Tell him about Jesus.”
“Yeah, he’s scared to death of Jesus.”
The next week the car breaks down for the thirty-first time, and this time the needed parts can’t be made from pie pans or scavenged from the junkyard. The car itself was an odd, even irrelevant, little dodo bird; it never really stood much of a chance. I have been catching the school bus to work and trying to catch rides back, but largely walking the eleven miles home because I am the soft, fat-assed, dreaming, idiotic, bad-breathed, Christian, wife-beating, slave-raping, Walt Disney, serial-killing businessman tracking footprints through the living room of Paradise, so I make this preposterous five- or five-and-a-half-hour commute five days a week, stumbling home at dusk with a ball of gnats like an exploded atomic diagram around my head.
I see Legion a few times — twice in town shouting at the tourists, once at the gates of the graveyard — then I see him walking the road, coming at me but looking up into the canopy. He is not completely naked but girded about in a gray loincloth, the machete tangled up in it somehow and slapping against his leg. He has a necklace: curved bits of gleaming ivory or shark teeth or human fingers; I can’t tell which as I dive into the shadows of the forest. I watch him approach. He is a silent, bowlegged, barefooted walker. The muscles on his blue-black legs bulge. I have heard that he does not sleep, that he walks without cease, that he hops island to island haunting the white devils. I have seen people like him in the city, the postmidnight marching Philip-Sousa hebephrenics with their broken pool cues and faces lifted to the heavens. His dreadlocks hang down to his shoulders like tangled, tarry black ropes, and he swivels his head about, eyes streaking like long slashes of yellow neon. I catch my breath and crouch quietly in the bush. As he goes by, he looks straight at me, but I don’t know if he sees me (or even knows who I am) because he keeps moving up the road, mumbling something — singing? I wonder. It sounds oddly like “The Banana Boat Song.”
On my day off, I wash my cook whites in the sea outside our door. There are hundreds of little inlets carved along these shores; this one is called Turner’s Cove and has no beach and is too shallow for sailboats to navigate, so it rarely draws visitors. I go in knee-deep and smack my laundry against the rocks. I use lemon-scented Joy and really don’t get things very clean. Our apartment building, a tilting, L-shaped, aqua green, stucco box with iron railings and leaning papaya trees, sits about thirty feet back from the tide line. Through the early green mist, it looks like some haunted amalgamation of New Orleans and Tijuana. In the States, it would have a “Condemned” sign nailed over the door, but no slum in the States ever had a location like this.
By the end of week ten, I have had quite enough of the lush green mango rain, the long walks in the enchanted garden, the sun going down over the nude beaches, and I am eager to return stateside, but I have chipped in all my meager funds to Trev and Kate’s various causes. I have already missed two days of work, unable to catch a ride in, and I cannot lose my job or I will be condemned to tropical eternity. Of course, Trev is going to sail out any day and will take me with him, but that is what he has said every year since he landed, and he would likely be heading for another place just like this one. I may have to swim to Miami with the hammerheads on my heels.
At night, I stay up late, killing mosquitoes, smashing them in a splash of my own blood or torching them off the blue plaster with a disposable lighter. My room swelters like a little Southern hotbox the warden sends you to for complaining about the meatloaf. Someone long ago glued gold sparkles to the ceiling — I don’t know why. The sparkles are almost completely gone, but one flutters down every now and then like a descending champagne bubble in the Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire. Trev has a Bible from which I memorize snatches of the New Testament. There are two Gauguins on the wall: Anna the Javanese and Whence Do We Come? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Iba Sewer, a native girl, shares my bedroom wall; through the thin plaster I can hear her singing or praying, bringing the Lord down from the sky with her loneliness. Sometimes I tap on the wall, very lightly: Morse code for “life is short.” When I first arrived, I thought I might have a chance with her, but she is lofty and cool, a tall, bone-hard, and very proud West Indian girl in her early twenties who made it clear by the elevation of her chin that she was too good for me, though she did sew me a pair of baggy island pants. I don’t know where she got the material; an Albanian flag may have washed ashore. The pants were too big, and I looked like a clown, which may have been her intent. Iba is sweet enough, entirely ignorant, superstitious, full of folk wisdom and herbal cures and other singsong clack. She rarely listens to me, and then with head tilted, suspiciously. She does not accept these stories about the United States — space shuttles and computers and serial killers — though she dreams of going to New York City, where she would watch television all day. There is no television on this island except the one over the bar at Harry’s, whose screen is ghostly green because the signal from Puerto Rico is too weak. Now and then, shadows appear: a baseball game, a Don Knotts movie, Hitler shaking hands with Mussolini on PBS. Sometimes it is impossible to tell what you’re looking at. Still, there is something oracular about the green phosphor glow, the mystery of those wandering, vagrant shadows.
I can’t sleep in the damp sheets with Trev and Kate moaning hotly in the next room and Iba praying and the rats clattering overhead and the clumsy roaches free falling out of the rafters and sixty thousand female anopheles swarming through the broken walls in smorgasbord formation. I dream in primitive images between glances at the clock, and wake up automatically at three minutes to four, head a thick, cracked glass fogged with gin. The roaches hanging on the walls wave their feelers good morning. There must be some invisible roach music — roach music of the spheres — that their feelers conduct like batons. If you spray them with poison, they turn over on their backs and kick their legs like children being tickled; then they get up and scuttle happily away. We call our cans of Raid and Black Flag “roach feed.” I smoke a cigarette and have a mug of tea with Scotch, then take a cold shower; I shave with soap, cut my throat, and wander out into the dawn with a wad of toilet paper pressed to my neck. There is a great, sagging mud hut of a beehive hanging above the door, and the bees wheel madly about it like souls around the face of God.
I make my way through the mist to the intersection of two roads that have no names. If a car goes by I will put my thumb out, but there are few cars on this side anymore; the only real chance is some stray tourist on a motorcycle. At 5:10 I see the school bus, an open coach with a scalloped, red-and-white-striped canvas roof. It is the kind of bus that you see at zoos or Hollywood studio tours. I climb aboard like a rumpled white pirate, long knife dangling along my side. My knife is nice and sharp; I make sure to rake it on the whetstone each afternoon before I leave the hotel kitchen.
The black driver gives me a gloomy nod; the children, all black, are dressed in sharp parochial uniforms. Nobody is exactly thrilled to see me. I slink toward the back and am startled to see Legion draped sullenly in the corner, his long knife sticking out into the aisle. My heart flutters and slaps against the top of my throat like a closed window shade. I almost turn around and walk back off the bus, but that would make me at least three hours late. So I nod at him and try to think of the lines I have been rehearsing from the Good Book. (“Think not that I am come to send peace on Earth. I came not to bring peace but a sword.”) He peels one eyelid up, his head drowsily and contemptuously laid to the side. I can see the devils in him beating their wings to get out. My right hand brushes the handle of my knife. Legion understands. Maybe he would like me to kill him; maybe that would free him from his charge — an honorable death battling the fat-assed, Walt Disney demons — but even crazy people don’t kill on a bus full of little children. He folds his arms and closes his eyes and lets his head loll to the side. It is a gesture that says merely, “Later,” and, somewhat shaken and forgetful of my surroundings, I take the seat next to a shy little girl with a Brady Bunch lunch pail in her lap.
I’m at the resort by six, dressed in my wrinkly, bay-washed, lemon-scented cook whites, the only white boy cooking breakfast in the hotel. The chef frowns at me — I really must get an iron. I help load a van with pastries, a bucket of eggs, a tub of iced fish; we drive to the little club on the pinnacle over Turquoise Bay, where the comfortably rich eat grilled kingfish and poached eggs and petits fours while I, in my rumpled outfit, drip flapjacks onto a black griddle with a black man I can’t understand, who likes me as long as I don’t plan to stay. The cooks have all been here ten, twenty years — this is a lifetime job because it beats the hell out of farming coconuts or raising goats. These lifetime breakfast cooks have some of the fastest, most graceful hands I have ever seen: Stanley can flip eggs in a pan so quickly you cannot see them turn; Thrushie can flip four pans at once; Frank, I swear, cooks three-minute eggs in two.
I get off work at 2:30. There are no rides back — the school bus is long gone — so I hike to Harry’s and watch his ghost TV with its tiki green light. The ferry docks at four, and through the window I see the tourists toddle down, suitcases in hand and wholesome wonder in their eyes. I would trade places with them in an instant — my room for their return voyage home — but it would be like trading rhinestones for Manhattan. I have two drinks, maybe three, then take off my white jacket, knot the sleeves around my waist, jam the knife down into it, and begin the long trudge home.
By the time I come down the other side of the island, the sun has already dipped into the forest behind me. The shadows pool and run, shift and glide. I say howdy to the old blue Toyota, its windows burst by steel-eating creepers, its frame lifted gently into the air, a large purple blossom quivering at the tip of the antenna. At some spots where the jungle looms over, I can barely see the road in front of me. I am out too late; it is the attraction of Harry’s, a lingering limbo between hell and hell. I pick up the pace; only one mile to go. Soon there will be the shore and sloppy marshes full of clattering horseshoe crabs and groves of hunchback coconut trees and pale vanilla orchids hanging in midair — but then I turn the corner and see the bowlegged shadow up ahead.
This island was once a garden; now it is an abomination. There is a pizza place going up next to the bank, another gift shop. Saul Schwartz has just bought six more Things to rent. There is talk of a Hilton being constructed on the south side. It is all my fault. My cook whites are gray and wrinkled. I feel like a ghost, come down through the ages. I am the lemon-scented anti-Paradise who will be destroyed, but I will rise again and again. . . .
“Hello, Legion,” I say in a miserably curdled attempt at friendliness. He makes no response, only stands there, hair spilling solemnly over his face and down his shiny shoulders like an oil geyser, the machete picking up dull coins of light from the holes in the canopy overhead.
I have memorized many passages from the New Testament, but they have all vanished on me. My eyes wander the forest. A bright, laughing blue-and-yellow macaw flaps off and disappears like an apparition into the gloom. A few wild swine crash and snort along the ravine below. Dusk is splitting apart, and night is flooding and roaring in through the cracks. I try to come up with something — that good one from Hebrews, or was it Acts? It seems inevitable that we will end up in a duel with long knives.
“Mon, you walk?” he says, tipping his head at me.
“I beg your pardon?”
“All dee way from dee hotel?”
“Um . . .” The last question I expected. “Yes.”
He is looking at me with curiosity. I’m sure he has seen me walking before — I have felt him following me and have thought I saw him peeking out once or twice from the forest — but it must not seem possible to him that a white demon would walk eleven miles home, even if his eyes tell him so.
“Every day?” he says.
He blinks at me, the muscles in his arms now loose. I think he is impressed, or at least pleased that I am like him in some vital way.
“I’d better go,” I say. “It’s getting dark.” I give a hurried little nod, then stumble around him, and do not look back.
The next night, I come home and find Legion chopping big, hairy green coconuts in half on our stoop. The bees swarm threateningly around his head, but he pays no attention to them.
“Hello, Legion,” I say with the experimental kindliness of an orderly in a mental hospital. He looks up, then back down at his work; there is something distinctly different about his face today — a soft glow — but I don’t want to mistake insanity for benignancy. I slip by him quickly and go inside, where Trev is frying fish in an iron pan with bacon grease and onions. The sink is filled with fish guts and eyes and brilliant-colored skin.
“What’s he doing out there, Trev?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“He’s chopping coconuts.”
“What does he want?”
“Maybe he’s hungry.”
“Why is he here?”
“He asked for you.”
“For me? He knows my name?”
“He called you ‘the one who walks.’ ”
“Well, what did —”
Legion raps on the screen door. His eyes are glazed, a liquid, lotus-eater look, a holy look. I wonder if my walking home has changed him in some essential way, if I have been the accidental instrument of his deliverance. Peace is often discovered this way. I push open the door. He brings in the armful of coconut halves and sets them on the table, six altogether, fairly neatly divided, milk gone. He gives a little bow, a gesture of oblation. Trev looks at the coconuts. “You want a drink, Legion?”
“No,” Legion says.
“You want some fish?”
“Do you love Jesus with all your heart?”
Legion stands by the door and scratches his chest. He has a musky, long-unwashed smell. His scaly feet look like chunks of gray clay, and I see shiny tan creatures bobbing in and out of the thatch on his head. Trev shrugs and flips one of the filets. It flops and pops grease on his arm, and he slaps the spot and curses. Kate comes out of the bedroom topless and, seeing Legion, presses her hand to her throat and backs away. Legion backs away, too, standing in the threshold for a moment; then the tattered screen door rattles in its frame behind him.
“Jesus Christ,” Trev says. “Why don’t you just walk around naked?”
“Sorry,” she says. “I didn’t know he was here.”
I look out the door; Legion is waddling away, bowlegged against the pale sky. I look at the halved coconuts on the table.
“Looks like a peace offering,” I say.
“He’s crazy,” Trev says.
“Still looks like a peace offering.”
“He’ll try to kill you tomorrow.”
“I don’t think he’s a killer, Trev. . . .”
Two days later, out on the road, just past the old blue Toyota, Legion creeps up and clobbers me from behind. At first, I think he has hit me with a baseball bat; the pain is broad and fantastic, up my neck and down my back and ribs, scalding the nerve roots. I even think I feel it burning in the tips of my fingers, but, when I look down, my left arm is gone, and great, awkward pinwheels of blood are spraying all about. I see the arm three feet away, lying pale on the ground, curled fingers fluttering at me like an underwater dream, and I faint in a tingling black swarm of horror, never catching a glimpse of my attacker (never really knowing for sure that it was Legion).
A couple of tourists in one of Saul Schwartz’s Rent-a-Things found me lying in the middle of the road and rushed me into town, where AMA castout Dr. Toffeebox was plucking the olive from the sword of his seventh martini at Harry’s before being called away, and by some miracle of gin and Hershey bars and the fortune of plasma and cold type A flown in from British Kingston, I did not pass on to the real Paradise.
I spend the next month wrapped in gauze and painkillers in my little room with the squashed mosquitoes across the crumbling blue walls like disaster photos of flying shrimp, and Trev and Kate appearing now and then in the doorway with long-faced, dewy-eyed stares. There are no infections, as was feared; knowing something about medicine, I keep my blood-alcohol level high. Iba, the native seamstress, is suddenly nice to me. When she comes by to visit the first time, she is wearing a long, new, handmade dress. (Another flag must have washed ashore.) Her hair is cornrowed and braided with colored beads. She is a very handsome sight. She touches me, a first.
“Why haven’t you been answering my taps?” I ask.
“I thought it was a rat.”
I take a guzzle from the bottle on my bed stand.
“You shouldn’t drink so much,” she says.
“It’s an old herbal treatment for loneliness,” I tell her.
“It will make you sick,” she says.
“Loneliness will make you sick, too,” I say.
“Oh,” she says, fluttering her hands, and for a brief moment I think she may climb into bed with me.
When I get strong enough to move around, I go back to work, where I am the one-armed breakfast cook, gawked after with pity and fascination. Legion has disappeared, and my arm is never recovered, so naturally there are supernatural stories to explain this: the arm is chasing him and will do so to the end of his days. I half expect to see it on the walk home myself, giving a little farewell hula from the gates of the graveyard. I still move about as though I had it, the little spins and grinds of the socket, the spasm and swivel and lurch, the pains and itches along phantom paths, the phony grabs, the one million reflexes. The nerves still fizzle at the unhealed juncture like burning fuses; I look forward to the smooth pink mound, the final closure. This is the hardest lesson of all: learning to say goodbye.
In September, the monsoon season arrives, two straight months of hard gray rain with a roaring, mournful undertone like funeral drums and the waves pounding creamy against the shore and the trees stooped, the dreary plinking on metal rooftops, the droning xylophone of rain-raked sea. The island is so swirled and veiled and drenched in rain that it is invisible to craft passing only a few hundred yards away. In early October, the edge of a hurricane clips the east side and tears off our roof. The owner claims not to have the money to fix it. Everything inside is ruined. The aqua green, stucco slum we called home will crumble back into the wilderness. Kate decides to return to Baltimore. Her father sends money, and she rolls up her water-stained Gauguins and kisses us goodbye.
In a month Trev has a new girl and a little shack over Telescope Bay; he is putting in masts and planning to sail for Martinique, where he and only two other people know the location of a sunken Portuguese caravel. I could go, too, and become a millionaire, but I rent a flat in town and go to Harry’s every night instead, where I sit and drink and think wistfully of the place called home, my beautiful, selfish, collapsing civilization. In a few months, I will have enough money to return there. Out the window, the sun streams pink down behind the boats into the sea. I glance up at the green TV and wave to Harry for one more.