My maman told me the story of the olden days, when the sun was a sweet orange in the sky. All the days, she said, were buttery, the rivers ran rich like melted coin, and the people were happy as often as not. My maman, she told me that when the Troubles came, even God in his house could not help us, and he squeezed down on that orange sun, but the juice that should have been sweet, when it met this world, it turned to salt; it filled the oceans, and it came out of the people’s eyes. “Marie,” my maman said, “all your life you must look for the sweet. It is there for the finding.” Maman was such a fine chef because she knew that the best dishes use both the sweet and the salt, because that is our life. She told me when she was a young girl, the light in the deepest forest was gold, like the necklace around a rich woman’s neck, but after the Troubles, it turned the dark of iron. Since I was born, I knew only the time of iron, and everything else was like a fairy tale. Maybe that is why the men, they could do it to her in that black-purple forest, in that hate-filled jungle, while I waited up for her all night on my cot in the kitchen. They carved away her face, and I thought maybe this was better — God kept her from looking back on this hell.
After my maman gone, Aunt Josie took over cooking the dishes in the pink house on the hill, but my auntie was not a chef like Maman. She used too much salt, and she knew her days were numbered, so she looked around and offered up the sweet — not her own daughters, no, but me — to the house. She had me mop the floors, rub lemon oil deep down into the grain of the wood, but mostly she left me in the greenhouse on long afternoons alone with the old woman’s son.
But I don’t believe in the past. It’s just a story that happened to someone else.
The horror of the boat trip from Haiti was forgotten when I saw the Florida coast, because I thought at last my life would change. Change, life. Change, I chanted under my breath to the rhythm of the waves, until the other girls thought I was singing, and they hummed along, searching for the melody.
I remember fear like the slosh and thump of water against the boat’s hull. The constant dread of hearing the mosquito whine of a Coast Guard boat coming to turn us back. Worry about the smugglers who ran the boat getting funny with the women. And, far off, the orange halo of light over the cities of south Florida like giant bonfires lit to signal us in. Magic names — Miami, Key West, Delray, Boca Raton — like incantations.
We stole in like thieves. Uncle Thibant had made calls, and my distant cousin Jean Alexi had driven down from Little Haiti to pick me up. Although I did not know this branch of the family so well, I was grateful to have someone take me away from the beach and the danger of police. My cousin also talked up some of the other women in our group — the thin, young ones — who crowded into the back of the waiting van with me.
Behind the tatty front seats the van was pure island: stripped out with nothing more than a filthy metal floor to sit on. At first the most fussy of us, who’d saved clean clothes to be worn after the landing — white blouses and dark, printed cotton skirts — tried to squat and preserve the impression of well-behaved convent girls. But the quick driving and the careless hard turns knocked us over and into each other. I had to brace my legs against the side of the van in order to avoid landing on top of or underneath other bodies. We were like chickens in a box on the way to the butcher.
The two moun, men, who crowded each other on the edges of the passenger seat did not follow island ways and introduce themselves. They were squat and muscled, with blue-black skin and hungry, rat eyes. Jean Alexi, my cousin twice removed, was different. He was tall and loose jointed, all arms and legs and head coming toward you, like a fighting rooster. His skin was light almond yellow, his face small and crowded, with a pointy chin that bobbed constantly as he chewed. (Gum? Tobacco?) But the main thing one noticed on Jean Alexi were his dreads — enormous and dusty-cocoa colored, billowing up like an engorged cockscomb, bundled with a tie like a huge crest. His hair both frightened and fascinated me. I had seen Rastas around the island but never up close. I reached to touch one braid, to see if it felt stiff and hard as rope or soft as fur. He grabbed my wrist tight.
“Now, little Erzulie, what kind of trouble you looking for from Cousin Jean Alexi? Huh, girl?”
“My name is Marie.”
“Your name is what I tell you. New name for new life.”
I tried to pull my hand back, but he held the wrist fast with surprising strength for such a lanky man. His other hand thumped the wheel, his eyes a spinning gold that didn’t seem right. Then he brought my hand to his lips, stuck out his tongue, and ran it along the inside of my wrist.
“Mmm, homegrown sugar. That’s what I miss most of the island.”
At this the other two men noticed me for the first time, appraising.
“Too bad you’re blood,” Jean Alexi said, and he threw my hand back.
“Not my blood,” one of them said.
Jean Alexi looked at him like a knife. “Way too precious for you, brother.”
When I heard that, I relaxed just the smallest bit, thinking that I had a protector. That being family made him different from the other men.
The last time I’d seen Jean Alexi, I was a girl of ten. Our family was celebrating — a wedding or a new car; the extended clan used any excuse. No big luck ever happened to us, so we went all out for every little scrap of good. I played with the other children on the beach, and some boys stole the coins my maman had given me to buy ices with my friends. As I cried, Jean Alexi, all lean teenage muscle, walked by smoking a joint, looking at the pretty tifis, girls, and making loud noises to his gang. When he came alongside us, he saw my tears and bent down. “Ou byen?” You OK? “What make this little face go down, mwen piti fi?” My little girl.
“They took my coins.”
In short order the younger boys had their arms pinned back painfully, and the coins were sorrowfully handed over. “OK, little Erzulie, what you want happen to des boys?”
“Kill them,” I said.
He chuckled. “Oh, my Erzulie, she has a hot temper, moun.”
“Why you call me that name?” Erzulie is the Haitian goddess of love.
“ ’Cause you grow up to be like her.”
The thieving boys cried like babies.
“OK, tell you what,” Jean Alexi said to them. “You crawl to her, and you kiss her feet, and maybe we let you live.”
“Non!” I screamed. I jumped up and down on the sand, drunk on my new power. “That’s not what I said. Kill them! Kill them!”
“Enouf this,” he said. “You one spoiled girl-child.” Jean Alexi winked and threw me a piece of candy as he took off after a girl who shook her hips his way. The boys scattered free. Only later did I realize that Jean Alexi had never given my coins back to me.
Now I felt just a flicker of courage. “We’re hungry,” I said to Jean Alexi.
“Well, let’s feed you.”
His crazy eyes studied me in the rearview mirror, but I convinced myself that they meant me no harm. I remembered the candy he’d tossed me that day — a dried-out pink piece of taffy.
“Don’t you know,” he continued, “you’re in the land of plenty?”
There was some whispered discussion up front, while in the back the girls and I exchanged wondering looks. A few minutes later we pulled up to a brightly lit building with glowing neon signs. Jean Alexi rolled down his window and talked at length into a box that crackled back answers. When he drove around the building, there was a girl sitting in the window — the same one he’d been talking to through the box, I guessed. She was pale and blotchy, her eyes a weak blue. Her whole appearance suggested something uncooked. Greasy long hair, the color of brass, was held up out of her eyes with black bobby pins. But Jean Alexi spoke to her as if she were the most enchanting princess.
“How you doing this beautiful night, beautiful lady?” he said.
“That’ll be $42.50, please,” she said, expressionless.
He handed her a crisp hundred-dollar bill with a flourish. “How about I take you out after work sometime, pretty lady? Take you for some real food?”
She kept up the blank look, and I felt a stab of something: Embarrassment for him? Shame? Jealousy? Here he was, courting this lowliest of white women.
The girl blinked at the bill and hesitated, then took out a fat pen, ran a yellow line over it, and held it to the light. She looked back at her manager, who was busy shoveling fries into small paper packets. He shrugged, and she sighed. “I’ll have to get change.”
I looked into the main restaurant, where the tables sat under a scrubbing light that killed any shadow. Each detail — a crack in a plastic seat, a man’s stubbled chin — showed in stark relief, like grains of sand under the clear ocean back home. The people at the tables seemed to be moving in slow motion as if they, too, were underwater. Eyes half closed, they ate their food out of paper. I, who still had the smell of sour bilge water from the boat on my feet, had risked everything to arrive at this very spot. What would they make of all the trouble I took to get here? And then the thought came up inside me, unwanted: What if this place cost more than it gave? What if it was really no better than what I had given up for it?
The brass-haired girl came back and gingerly counted out the green bills into Jean Alexi’s outstretched hand, avoiding touching him. One of the moun in the passenger seat turned on the radio, and reggae blasted out, as if to convince her that we were like a regular tropical vacation spot in here. The girl handed large white paper bags to Jean Alexi, who turned and gave them to me to pass out.
“You want extra catsup with those?” the girl asked.
“You lose a big, fat chance at happiness, girl,” Jean Alexi said as the last tray of drinks crossed over.
“Would you mind moving your car ahead, sir, so the next customer can pull up?”
Jean Alexi tapped his fingers along the steering wheel as if he were sending out a message in code.
The girl cupped her hand over the mike and leaned her head partway out the window. “I don’t do black fellows, hon.”
Jean Alexi stepped down hard on the accelerator, jumping over the corner of the curb, and shouted, “Ugly cunt!” The bounce of the van tilted the big, papery cup of soda, which spilled down my shirt.
We parked in a deserted corner of a lot, and the men got out to relieve themselves against a dumpster. Us girls looked away, dispirited. The men smoked while we huddled in the back and ate our fill of hamburgers and fries. The girls asked me if they would be safe, and I assured them it would be so, even though I was not sure. I remembered what my maman had said about the time of iron. We threw the paper trash out the window and curled against each other like stray puppies, and I fell into a desperate sleep.
Twelve girls shared a single bedroom in a cinder-block apartment. We had to step carefully, because someone was always lying on the floor either asleep or sick. The girls marked their floor space by spreading out a sleeping bag, towel, blanket, and pillow, but for all our efforts the territory we fought over still ended up being only the size of a coffin. There were fists and nails if anyone touched another’s belongings. The net result of our jealousy was that the room never got cleaned, and the floor on which we slept turned grimy with grit and dust, dead insects and loose hair. Maman’s girl, I felt too far from God in this waste, and I negotiated permission from each girl to mop the floor on condition that all possessions would be kept safe and then returned to their rightful owners. We were so possessive because we had nothing else, and this was no fanmi, family. Girls disappeared with alarming frequency, to be replaced by others, and so we became aloof and tried not to get too close.
Jean Alexi ridiculed my mothering abilities and then gave me special jobs. When young ones were brought in, he took me to the kitchen and showed me how to grind up little white pills and mix them in juice to “calm” the girls down.
Amélie, who was already there when I arrived, had a single thing that made her the envy of us all: a pair of red patent-leather high heels. She and I became friends when we discovered we had both lost our mothers within a few months of each other. Amélie was light skinned, with greenish eyes and a straight, thin nose. Men stopped in the street and stared hungry at the way she rolled her hips as she walked. She talked all the time of becoming a model, but first she needed to save money to have her teeth fixed.
One afternoon we found ourselves alone in the apartment, and Amélie allowed me to try on the shoes. I had never worn such things. Thin, shiny straps went across the toe, another strap circled the ankle, and the four-inch heel was as sharp as a dagger. I walked around the living room feeling like a giant, stumbling as if I were on stilts.
The front door rattled, and Jean Alexi walked in, followed by the two thugs from the van, carrying pizza boxes. When Jean Alexi saw me, his eyebrows shot up.
“What you think, brothers? She take to them shoes like fish to water.”
Quickly I sat down to remove them, but he stopped me. “Keep walking. Get the hang of it.”
Amélie made a face and went to the bedroom, slamming the door.
He moved around the room on his toes like a dancer, giving me advice on how to swing my legs from the hip so that my stride would be as smooth as Amélie’s. I thought he was playing with me, like that long-ago day on the beach.
“Let me tell you what — tomorrow I take you shopping for some of your own girl stuff.”
“I don’t have money.”
“Don’t you worry. Cousin Jean will take care.”
The next afternoon Jean Alexi came back from his business appointments early, and he took me downtown and bought me lunch at a Jamaican restaurant in an alley. I ate jerk pork and dirty rice and drank cold beer, and I thought that finally my American life had started.
“Why don’t we eat at a Haitian restaurant?” I asked.
“Oh, they all in bad neighborhoods. And the owner here owes me monies.”
I cleared my throat for the speech I had been practicing. Maman’s dream was for me to work someplace quiet, like a library, although I wasn’t sure what one did there. Maman’s idea of success was doing something that didn’t give you calluses on your hands. “I need to find a job. I want to go to school.”
“You don’t need that. Soon I’m going to have a gas station, a liquor store. You work in family business.”
Jean Alexi took me to a ladies’ clothing store that played loud music — the fast, thumping kind foreigners danced to in clubs on the island — and a girl with a thin mahogany face surrounded by white gold hair came up to Jean Alexi and gave him a rude kiss on the mouth. She kept her wolf eyes on him, and I saw there had been something between them, but now he simply told her to find his “niece” something real pretty.
“One of your new girls?” she asked.
“I’m his cousin,” I said, and they both laughed.
When we got home, the thugs were eating ribs out of an aluminum tray and watching basketball in the living room.
“What should we call her?” Jean Alexi asked.
“Why call me anything but my name?”
The two fools — Amélie and I called them that behind their backs — were stoned. They giggled and smirked while Jean Alexi framed me between his fingers like he was going to put me in a picture. “You are my star, lady. How about ‘Maleva’?” he said, taking a rib from the tray.
“I don’t want my name gone,” I said, but he didn’t bother to hear me. When I reached for a rib, he slapped my hand away.
“Got to watch the figure, girl.”
The fools laughed and stamped their feet. “Wi, wi.” Yes, yes.
I took my shopping bags and went into the bedroom, intending to lie down for a nap and wait for Amélie to come home for dinner. I worried about this new name. I worried Jean Alexi might try obeah, black magic, try to take my soul away. Fifteen minutes later Jean Alexi came in and insisted I dress in my new clothes; we were going out.
I told him I was tired, and his face grew ugly.
“How you going to get a job and go to school when you’re so lazy?” he said.
“Why these clothes?”
“ ’Cause I like pretty women round me. That OK?”
I put on the skimpy white halter dress and the shoes with heels as high as Amélie’s. Jean Alexi looked at me critically and made me put on more mascara and lipstick, then handed me some silver hoop earrings that were another girl’s.
“They’re not mine.”
“None of this belongs to any of you tifi, get it? All Jean Alexi’s property.”
I don’t ask questions, because you don’t want someone who holds your future in his hands to think that you don’t trust him. I’d heard gossip among the girls, but I knew Jean Alexi didn’t want me for himself. He was family. Maybe he was looking for a husband for me, or, if not that, maybe a suitable job. He told me over and over I was his bijou, his jewel.
We pulled into a hotel parking lot by the airport, where he said he’d brought me to celebrate. I did not take the bait and ask, “Celebrate what?” Getting out, I covered my ears against the roar of a plane passing overhead. The bar was cool and dark to me after coming in from the blinding afternoon sun. The overhead lights cast pools of blue on the tables against the walls, and the air had a sour, refrigerated smell. I shivered in my new dress, which was made to uncover instead of cover. Maybe this was where I would work. Would it be so bad to be the girl behind the counter, all icy and dressed pretty, serving rainbow-colored drinks to tourists?
Jean Alexi put his hand on the small of my back as he steered me toward a booth occupied by a man so fat he was like a mountain. Under his breath Jean Alexi said this man was going to help him get a liquor license. The man was squeezed into his suit, rolls of fat hanging over the collar of his shirt. His baldness and full cheeks gave him the appearance of a baby, but when he looked up, his eyes were cruel. I stepped back.
“Don’t be afraid of Cesar,” Jean Alexi said. He jived and bobbed back and forth, and I saw that he was deferential and weak in front of this man, perhaps the owner of the hotel or the manager of the bar. Maybe Jean Alexi would get me work as a maid or a waitress. The table in front of Cesar was empty except for a glass that held a thumb’s worth of amber liquid. No, probably I was Cesar’s business that day.
“This is fresh girl that I promised you,” Jean Alexi said, bending to give him a handshake and whisper words in his ear.
I turned and fled.
“Maleva!” he called out, but I kept running, only later recognizing my new name. One I would not be using.
I stood by the van until my breath came steady again and my goose bumps gave way to sweat in the heat. No one ran after me. After a while my legs hurt from standing in those heels, and I pulled off my shoes and stood barefoot on the hot asphalt, lifting a foot every minute or so.
At dusk Jean Alexi, all bull confidence, strolled out as if he had enjoyed a visit with his dear friend as intended. He smiled at me and waved me toward the passenger door. “Get in, get in.”
At that moment, seeing the hundreds of cars flying by on the interstate, the glowing windows of the hotel, the lights from the city beyond, I understood that I had no choice but to go with him. I did not know another human being in this place besides Jean Alexi.
“You’re not fou,” mad, “at me?” I asked as he started the van.
“Surprise, surprise. Cesar liked that little act. Makes it more believable that you’re some virgin fresh off the island. He say rest up a few days, and he’ll pay double.”
“You do this to me? Yon fanmi?” I screamed. “I’ll tell Uncle Thibant what you do.”
“From what I hear, this is better than spreading your legs for free the way you did back home. Thibant sent you over on credit. You work off that boat ride on your back.”
“Non! You say, ‘gas station.’ You say, ‘liquor store.’ ”
“Listen to me: we’re all ‘cousins’ over here. Don’t count for shit if you can’t earn food to put in your mouth.”
“I want to work in library.”
Jean Alexi reached his arm so that I thought he was going to hit me, but instead he grabbed a scrap of newspaper. “Read this,” he said, jabbing his finger at the print. When I began to read aloud, he slapped it from my hand. “Reading a dime a dozen here. That make you nothing special.”
We drove in silence.
Uncle Thibant hadn’t rescued me after all, just sent me to a different corner of hell. Wiped the sin off Aunt Josie selling my body. I looked out the window at the miles of city that I did not know. “I clean for you,” I said.
“Don’t need no maid.”
“I take care of the girls, dope them for you. They trust me. I run drugs — no one expect a pretty little thing like me, right?”
“Don’t need mule,” he said.
Back at the cinder-block apartment, I dragged up the stairs behind him and went alone to the bathroom. I took off the dress and shoes, careful because they were not mine, and sat on the edge of the bathtub in my underwear. The tub and the sink were ringed in filth. The trash overflowed with women’s personal stuff. Maman had taught me cleanliness and modesty. Even in the worst times I always turned away to dress; even when the old woman’s son ripped the clothes off me so that the buttons scattered on the floor like teeth. Now I rubbed the paint off my face, stared at the makeup stacked on the shelves, all the lotions and curlers and other fake ways to be beautiful. This was the life offered to me, the same life I’d escaped. If I took it, how long before a better one showed itself?
I walked out of the bathroom wearing the clothes I had arrived in and handed Jean Alexi his dress and shoes.
“I’m going,” I said.
I took my bag to the front door, and he shot up and followed me.
“I can’t even fuck you to get my money’s worth. Just suck me off, then. At least there’s no chance of an idiot coming out nine months from now.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.” He banged his fist on the wall behind my head.
I looked at him then. “You’ll have to kill me.”
He howled but let me walk away down the stairs. We both knew I had reached the point where I had nothing left to lose, and you can’t bargain with that.
“It’s bad out there, fi,” he yelled out the window. “You’ll come back soon, unless you mouri!” Unless you’re dead.
“Coming back won’t happen,” I said.
“I be here when you’re begging. Price go up then!” he screamed at my back.
When I’d walked far enough that I could no longer hear his screams, I sat on the ground and shook. I wasn’t brave enough for my own actions.
Sorry to say I missed him, but then, he was all I had.
After a time I heard footsteps. If it had been Jean Alexi, I might have gone back, but it was Amélie with another girl.
“Jean kick you out?”
Her eyes knew the whole story. “I work at this place before here.” She scratched around in her purse, then grabbed a piece of newspaper off the ground and wrote an address on it. “It’s bad, but they don’t ask questions. My sister Coca worked there. I don’t know anymore. Go early. You have someplace to sleep?”
I shook my head.
“Be careful out here. These are bad streets.” She took me aside. “If you see Coca, tell her I work in a department store downtown, OK? This is just temporary. I don’t want them to worry.” She emptied a few crumpled bills from her wallet into my hand. “How much do you have?” she barked at the girl with her, who made a face but added a few more. With that, they walked away.
When I found the building, the sky was still dark. It was many hours’ walk from Jean Alexi’s apartment, and I spent the whole night in slow movement toward it, like a ship tacking in the ocean, asking for directions that more often than not were wrong. Nobody in this city seemed to know where they were. We were all lost. Under the harsh streetlights with their sickly orange glow, the concrete building appeared squat and neglected and did not seem to promise any kind of future. It reminded me of the morgue back in Cap-Haitien where I’d identified Maman’s body.
I sat against the chain-link fence, my bag in my lap, and fell asleep. I woke to a gentle kick on my thigh and looked up into the not-unkind face of a young Latino man. I showed him the address and said, “Amélie.” When I got no look of recognition, I said, “Coca,” and he nodded.
Inside was a jail, small cages packed tight with dogs that barked and howled. Their cries bounced and echoed off the concrete floor and walls until I felt a humming inside my head like it would split open. The overwhelming stink of pee and kaka gagged me.
The Latino man, Jorge, handed me earplugs and a stained plastic apron. My job was to shovel out the cages, then hose down the floor and the dogs. Afterward I filled the metal bowls with dry food. The dogs cowered, hind legs twitching with fear, but when I unlocked the doors, they bared their teeth and growled.
At noon I finished and was handed a twenty-dollar bill and a stale sandwich. I was eating in the shade of a coral tree that made me long for home when a pretty girl walked up on the arm of an anvil-shaped white man with many tattoos. His teeth, brown and crooked, were capped in gold. The girl had the same features as Amélie, except she did not have the fine cheekbones and clear skin.
Her eyes narrowed, and I saw that the polite island ways were not followed here.
“I am zanmi,” friend, “of Amélie.”
Now she smiled, and I could see it was only this place that made her wary. “How is Amie?”
“She told me to come here.”
Her boyfriend was deaf to us. He picked his teeth, then swatted her on the behind. “Come on, negra. You have a paycheck to earn.”
When he had gone inside, she bent her head to me. “You in trouble?”
“What is this place?”
Coca lit a cigarette, and I admired her red-painted nails. “They steal dogs, pick them off the street. Even pretend to adopt them, but the shelters are starting to catch on. They sell them to the labs, who cram lipstick in their eyes and stuff.” She laughed. “It’s travay.” Work.
“You help me find somewhere to sleep?” I asked.
“Our family is close by.” She gave me the address. “Go introduce yourself to Mama. Use Amélie’s bed.”
For the next two weeks I worked the morning shift, from 5 A.M. till noon. Coca worked in the front office, didn’t come in until nine, but I was buried in the back. After a while I got to know the dogs. I knew that this one would calm down once I entered his cage, and that one could be coaxed with a bit of food. I took out my earplugs, because I recognized the different barks, like voices, and no longer found the noise frightening.
A reddish gold pit-bull mix wagged her tail each time she saw me, and I stole an extra half cup of food for her every morning, because her ribs poked out so sharp against her skin it hurt to see them. After the first week, she let me rub her ears, one shorter than the other and frayed from a dogfight. Under my breath I took to calling her “Rolex,” the most precious thing I could think of. We were forbidden to interact with the dogs and were supposed to treat them no different than cattle in the stockyards, but I would still be gentle. It seemed to me that the condemned especially are entitled to a little kindness, so maybe their last memory of this earth, and of us, their jailers, would not be so damning. Why else does the executioner allow a last meal?
I tried to ignore it when Jorge and the other men rough-handled the animals, pulling the leashes tight till they were swinging the dogs by their necks, like the stripped carcasses of pigs or cows dangling from butchers’ hooks. If the dogs were mean, the men kicked them with their heavy boots, and sometimes they kicked them even when they weren’t mean. It did not matter much either way to the men. I rooted for the meanest dogs. I wished them luck in their attempts to bite, because they were doomed anyway. After a time I thought that we, the humans working there, were equally doomed, and the knowledge that life was as hard and ugly here as it had been back home hooked my chest so tight I could not breathe.
At the end of each week a van would pull up to the back of the building, and some of the dogs would be pushed into the back in plastic crates and driven away, never to return. Then the process of refilling the empty cages would begin again. I was given overtime to stay and clean up after the dogs were hauled away. I dreaded the day it would be Rolex’s turn to go.
One night, as I slept in Amélie’s fragrant bed — carved by her father from a special wood from the islands, its shape like the narrow hold of a boat transporting me back — I dreamed that I was in Maman’s kitchen, watching her make chicken with rice. We were so looking forward to eating it, but no matter what spices she used, the dish grew saltier and saltier until it was finally inedible. My maman gave me a spoonful, but it was impossible to swallow. Tears formed in her eyes, our bodies grew thinner, and she told me it was time for me to fix the dish. I woke at dawn, exhausted.
At work my stomach dropped as I watched them lead Rolex to the shower room to clean the dirt off her. I heard her snarling, and the men’s threats. I walked in and spoke to them for the first time in two weeks. “Let me wash this one.”
They were glad to take a break. Rolex was backed into the corner, teeth bared, eyes hating, as if she didn’t recognize me. Jorge threw me her chain and went off to smoke a cigarette. “Don’t get your hand chewed off.”
I squatted down. “Doudou,” sweetheart, I whispered. “It’s OK now. I take care of you.” I led her under the shower head and shampooed the filth off her. No one could have guessed the luster of her coat once it was clean. The men watched silently as they smoked their cigarettes.
“I’m going to take her for a walk to dry off,” I said.
One of the new men said it wasn’t allowed, but no one seemed to care enough to stop me.
“Give it a break,” I said to the new man, scornful, because any show of softness would be the end of us. I left the shower with Rolex, collected my purse while Coca watched me through her eyelashes, then walked away. I stopped at the end of the street and looked back. No one followed. After a few blocks I turned again and still saw no one.
I ran faster than I thought I was able, buildings and cars melting past. The faster I ran, the more Rolex stretched her strides, heading straight ahead as if she’d known this was our fate all along and had simply been waiting for me, in my slow way, to figure it out. I ran faster, air a fiery piston in my lungs, my bag slapping hard against my side. We came to a park, and I veered off into the grass, its softness relieving the hot pain in my feet. I slowed, and Rolex slowed too, as if we were a single animal. We trotted and then walked, blowing out breaths like runners, and when we came to a fountain, I let her drink deeply from it.
We spent the whole day in the park, resting under a tree with spreading branches. The neighborhood had bungalow houses set back on grassy lawns and palm trees that made thick shade. I watched blond, blue-eyed mothers wheel their babies through the park. Some of the babies were being pushed by dark women, from Mexico or Central America or the islands. The sight of all these women calmed me and made me feel safe. I was sick of the world of men. I fell asleep under the tree, holding Rolex’s leash, dreaming I was home.
When I woke, the dog was watching a young black woman pushing a pram with a white baby in it. I called out, “What time is it, sister?” and she said, “Five in the afternoon; time to quit loafing.” I laughed at the tease. “Is he friendly?” she asked, pointing to Rolex.
“She needs to be, doesn’t she?” I said.
“Be careful. The police don’t like our faces around here unless we working.”
“I hear you,” I said. “Any chance your people would want this dog?”
She shook her head. “No chance. The woman doesn’t like any dirt in her house.”
“That’s too bad.”
“It is.” The young woman had skinny, bowed legs and a big space between her front teeth. She struck a match against the pavement, lit a cigarette, and walked on.
I took out my lunch, ate half, and fed the rest to Rolex, who gulped it down without chewing, then looked for more. No more here, I thought. Sitting under that tree, I was about as happy as I’d been since leaving home, but I knew that I would have to move on soon.
I walked through the park to the edge of a long street with houses that looked like the palaces of kings in the Bible — bigger than the pink house on the hill, even. I tied Rolex to a lamppost, but I worried this would leave her too helpless, and perhaps she would end up back where she’d started. No, I thought as I untied her leash, she is wise enough to recognize kindness when she runs across it. I had not seen so much myself since I’d come here. We were both dumb animals, lost and alone. Sometimes I felt the flame of goodness in the world was riding lower, guttering, about to go out.
But maybe she’d walk up to that big white house, the one with lights in the windows, and maybe she’d curl up on the porch by the door, and the yellow-haired family that lived in it would come home and find her asleep, and they would see that she was precious, and they would take pity, which is the most that any of us can expect.
Maybe after weeks and months of plenty, Rolex would be restored. Of her past life she would remember only the shower, the hands rubbing shampoo into her coat, the run through the sharp, clean air as she fled. She would recall as her true beginning the day in the park. The nap would be her resurrection, and I would be her weak angel, her dark Erzulie, who brought her to the life that was waiting for her, the life that should be promised to us all.
I took off the ribbon that held my hair and wound it around her neck in a bow, so that anyone could see she had been loved. Rolex strained ahead, sniffing the coming darkness as I unclipped the chain from her collar, and then she was gone.