Joyland

Consulate |

Splinters

by Deji Olukotun

edited by Guest Editor

Tensing had said little during the drive and just navigated the potholes—gaping cavities now because of the rains—while muttering frustrated phrases in his language, which I assumed to be the equivalent of swearing. He spoke no French or Kreyol and a little English, which made our conversations somewhat forced. We were easing our way slowly out of the Artibonite valley in an unmarked Land Rover, free of the Agency insignia because of the riots and resentment which persisted in some of the smaller peyizan villages. A glance would inform any passers-by that Tensing was not from the island, not so much from his Asiatic looks but from his gruff gestures and habit of spitting out the window with a great deal more hacking and coughing than a Haitian. Agency drivers had a reputation for disliking us locals, but so far he hadn't said anything condescending. A cigarillo dangled from his lips, and he'd been chewing the end of it so that thin strands of tobacco fell into his lap. He kept a small framed photo of his family wedged between the seats, three children and a wife who smiled warmly at you. We were rounding a bend now away from a strip of a roadside market, when Tensing swerved to avoid a donkey cart laden with sacks of sorghum meal. “Stupid animal!” he said. I turned to see that a few sacks had fallen into the road. The cart driver dismounted to retrieve them from the dirt. “Are you calling that man an animal?” Maybe people were right, I thought, about the Agency drivers and their haughty attitude. “No. Donkey a stupid animal.” He pointed at the picture of his family between the seats. “Three in Nepal. One almost kill my son.” “Ah.” He chewed more insistently on his cigarette. I wanted to ask him a few questions about his wife—for example, whether they used donkeys in Nepal to move between isolated towns, like the peyizans did, or if they used them to till soil—but he seemed to prefer silence over any discussion, and our language abilities, as I mentioned, prevented any sophisticated discourse. I had learned English for my referee certification courses and I had picked up some rudimentary phrases by missionaries when I was in primary school, such as “When is Sunday service?” and “Reverend Tomlinson is taking a nap.” But I had only needed to learn the vocabulary of soccer on the field, since the FIFA directive of 2006 had established that a refereeing team was required to speak the same language to each other during a game, with the understanding that players and referees could address most problems through sign language. Soccer is, as you know, a global game, with universal gestures. Anyway, I appreciated Tensing's taciturn nature because it gave me more time to prepare for the technical challenges of arranging the game between the village of R— and the suburb of P—, two communities that were suffering from strained relations because of the earthquake. The Agency wanted the soccer game to ease these “tensions”, as it called them. The official in charge of the game—Moses—had given me an Agency identity card to help expedite matters, and arranged for Tensing to be my driver so that I could drive around the country to personally escort my refereeing team to the field. No expense had been spared. We were headed to Cap Haitien and I hoped to pick up my preferred assistant referee, Jean-Marie Bathe, as the first member of my team. With Jean-Marie's guidance, I felt that we could make adequate preparations for the coming game and collect the remaining members. He also might be able to supply us with some good chalk for the touch lines and help me find some PVC corner flags, essential items for an official game. The surface of the designated field troubled me as well, because it had become uneven after the quake. Jean-Marie might help me come up with a workable solution. Despite these worries, Tensing and I had made good progress so far. Above us, the jagged peaks of the Montagnes Noires protruded into the air, naked as breasts, with most of the trees harvested to bring heat to the households that ringed the chilly mountains. I tried to focus on the game, but the sunlight warming my arm in the passenger's seat and Tensing's almost rhythmic weaving around the potholes made my thoughts wander to my sister-in-law Constance. She'd invited me to move in with the family several times since Fulgence had died, and I wanted to oblige, but it still didn't sit well with me. My brother’s wife Constance and I had shared something together once, some years ago, when Fulgence was out on one of his soccer tours. He'd been in Léogâne for just a week after a three month tour of exhibition matches around the world. Fulgence and I had been busy building his new home, and we had already laid an excellent foundation with special rebar that he had shipped in from Miami, because his travels had made him mistrust everything locally made. We had also bought real hardwood and paid a premium for it. The national coach himself visited while we were mixing concrete and pulled Fulgence aside for a few minutes. After he had left, Fulgence stomped back in my direction. “Goddamn traffickers,” he swore. “I don't give a damn about them.” “What does soccer have to do with traffickers?” “It's got everything to do with them. Coach said we're going on a Caribbean tour to fight drugs. The president made a deal with the Americans.” Even I found that strange. Everyone knew that half the government had its hands in the drug trade. If a deal had been cut, the government would be the first to benefit. “Why didn't you say no?” “Coach wants me to captain the team. You know what that means? More money. Enough to finish this home, even put away some money for my kid's education.” Constance had been pregnant for five or six months by this time, although there was no way of knowing it, for her belly had not begun to swell. “Take this,” Fulgence said, pressing a stack of gourdes in my hand. “Buy what you need to finish my home.” I didn't like the way he was looking at me. It was as if I was a beggar or common laborer, when I was starting to earn decent money as a referee and a French language tutor, serving the more prominent families on the island. “I don't want your money, Fulgence. What's the hurry? Why don't you wait until you return home? Constance can stay with her family.” “No wife of mine is going to raise a baby in her family's home. She's my wife and we've got a son coming. She'll raise him under my roof.” As a single man, I myself lived with our grandparents and I saw no reason to hurry out of the home, not when I could save money and make investments. We argued about it some more until I could see from his jutting jaw that he wouldn't budge. “Alright, Fulgence. I'll do it for you.” “Don't get cheap on me. I want good wood. Real bricks. I don't want cheap stuff. I'm not going to have a roof fall down on my baby.” “Relax. No roof is going to fall on anyone.” Then he drew close to me, angrier than I'd seen him in years. “Don't you tell me when to relax. I'm earning a goddamn living and you aren't doing shit. I wake up every day and the coach makes me run for hours, monkey-see-monkey-do, just to put money away for that baby. Don't you go and fuck it up!” He stormed into the house and I heard him arguing with Constance. Then he hopped in a taxi and headed to the training facility. That was the first time that Fulgence had ever shouted at me and not apologized. Back then, Fulgence was respected on the island as one of its greatest sportsmen, but this did not stop any number of eligible men from trying to visit Constance in his absence, some of them even from the prominent families that I served as a tutor. Constance at first brushed them off rudely, but as time wore on I noticed that she would joke with her admirers, even bantering with them from time to time. I was completely baffled because I had never found Constance unusually attractive and since she was married to my brother she was even more untouchable, to the extent that I thought of her as nothing more than family. But I sometimes looked at her with more patience, trying to find the beauty that all these prominent men seemed to be seeking. We spoke to each other often, although cordially. For example, I'd say something such as: “I don't see why Fulgence spent all this money on these nails. We've got perfectly good nails made right here in Haiti. Homegrown steel.” And she'd smile and say: “We could do a lot more with that money.” Or: “I think you're going to have a beautiful home here for your child.” And she'd say: “Thanks to you, Alain.” I might find her looking over her shoulder as I read a book while taking a break from building Fulgence’s home. She had an excellent mind for predicting plots, spoiling the end of the story for me on more than one occasion. She wasn’t very well read, but I could tell she enjoyed a good story. “Fulgence never reads anything to me,” she’d say sadly. I would try to cheer her up with a silly joke, because I could tell that she missed Fulgence even with his faults and wished he would come back, as did I. I was very busy those days with my refereeing, as I was rising up the ranks and I had become a very competent assistant referee whose services were sought all over the island, including a match in the Dominican Republic. But I still tried to make good on my promise to Fulgence by finishing his home. I could usually secure help from our friends, except on one weekend morning, when I had the difficult task of laying down joists on the floor by myself. There was a cool breeze sweeping down the hillside, and I had stripped down to my waist, enjoying the wash of air over my shoulders. I had become better with tools now that I didn't have Fulgence to show me how to use them and I had to learn on my own. I'd even modified the plans for the floor by placing a few vents in the concrete, creating a pressure differential so that the air circulated and prevented the wood frame from rotting. Sometimes I wished to take a photo to show Fulgence that I had made substantial progress on the home and that I was not, as he insinuated, incapable of hard work. His words had stung me on the day he'd left for his drug tour and I intended to prove him wrong. I had begun hammering in a new joist when I heard footsteps close by. I leapt up, startled, only to discover Constance looking at me. Normally, she would say some clever greeting when she arrived, calling me a funny name, but this time she just gazed at me. I'd never had Fulgence's physique, but my hard work on the house over the past few weeks had toughened up my muscles. A sheen of sweat glazed my torso, and I must have cut an attractive figure. Constance stepped gingerly over the beams laid across the concrete and I could see tears running down her cheeks. I tried to read her expression, but I was puzzled. I set down my tools. “Is Fulgence alright?” I asked. She approached me closely. I could see a soft curve now in her belly, the child finally starting to reveal itself. She grabbed my hand and still I did not understand. I let it rest on her belly, thinking that maybe she wanted me to feel the young baby kicking inside her. “Fulgence is the champion,” she said, “of looking after himself.” As I glanced up then, the breeze carried her scent to me, ruffling her dress, and I finally understood. It hadn't been her looks that made the other men turn their heads. Her smell filled my nostrils and awakened a longing deep inside me. “You're ravishing, Constance.” “You've always been the silly one,” she said. The steady chortling of the Land Rover had, I must confess, made me drift into this daydream, when I had intended to use the trip to organize the details of the coming soccer game. “Roads okay?” I asked Tensing. “I drive in Kivu, Juba, Medellín. This is nothing.” The Agency had ensured that we traveled with two spare tires, several gallons of fresh water, and a half-dozen pre-packaged meals, including utensils, so everything was moving along nicely, despite Tensing's evident boredom. I recognized a few people on the side of the road and waved to them, but we were under strict orders not to use the vehicle to assist anyone else on our trip, and I suspect Tensing would not have permitted my friends aboard, as he stepped on the gas whenever I lowered my window. The cholera had colonized this section of the valley late in the epidemic, and there were still heaps of smoldering piles of clothes that sent plumes of smoke up in the valley, where it hung over us in a sickly cloud. As the day pressed on, the hibiscus blossoms lining the hedgerows became especially bright, streaking by the Land Rover in vibrant colors. The sun began to descend behind the Montagnes Noires and the smoke intermingled with the sun's rays, draping the land in shimmering tassels of gold. I could see the short-handled hoes of the millet farmers in gilded silhouettes. On that day, Constance had wrapped her legs around my waist and we had waddled back slowly in the skeleton of that home, kissing passionately, searching for a wall, a seat, anything for us to hold each other closer. I fell backwards onto a pile of pinewood planks that I had set aside to make a bench, but managed to keep her close to me. She unbuttoned my soiled work pants. I lifted up her dress. Then she broke off our kissing and plunged herself on top of me. Her face, which had struck me with her beauty a moment before, scrunched up in pain as she pumped her hips into mine. She seized my shoulders with her calloused palms, scraping my skin. Then she rubbed herself even more furiously against me. My body grated against the planks. She satisfied herself shortly with a groan and I did the same. Then she collapsed on top of me. Despite our closeness, we avoided looking each other in the eyes. We'd both finished, but I didn't feel satisfied, not truly, and I wasn't too ignorant to suspect that she had become emotional and acted out of some feminine impulse. I, too, had known that my focus was not on her, but on a different thing—a feeling, maybe—of revenge or spite or boredom. I didn't feel like a traitor laying there upon the pinewood, as you might have thought, but indolent and lazy, as if all the things that Fulgence had accused me of over the years were true. “You're so stiff,” Constance said. “I can't move. I have splinters all along my backside.” She laughed. And before I knew it, I was laughing too. She helped me to my feet and extracted the splinters with care. Then she said she wanted to watch me hammer in the joists, giggling all the while. I pounded in the nails again, enveloped by her scent, imagining Constance and I and her new child living under the house that we were building. “Will you come back tomorrow?” I asked. “I'll come back with Fulgence,” she said, running her fingers along my back. “His plane comes in at three o'clock. He'll be so proud of the work that you've done.” Tensing and I arrived in Cap Haitien as the sky lost its color and darkness fell. People looked into the car even more closely because of the night curfew, and I could see a few toughs peering into the windows, wondering if we were an easy target. We motored through the streets, Tensing honking his horn, until we arrived at a four way stop. “This not here.” Tensing pointed at the navigation system on the car's dashboard. The screen showed Cap Haitien and the arteries into the city clearly, but the city itself was completely blank except for the major roads that ran along the coast. “Not working. Where do we go?” “That way,” I said, pointing to the left. The truth was that I hadn't been to Cap Haitien in almost three years, so I was unprepared for the teeming walkers and market sellers—the city seemed alive and bustling with activity. I was also disturbed to realize that the street names seemed to have changed. I used to be able to easily navigate the city, but it had grown and one-way streets now had traffic in both lanes, or dwindled into ramshackle dwellings. Tensing for his part was becoming suspicious of my directions. “We pass.” He pointed at a bar with a group of rough-looking dominoes players in front. “Three times!” He stopped the car and cut the engine, refusing to drive any further. “You ask directions.” I dismounted from the Land Rover. I could see that the dominoes players had already drunk a few beers because the bottles were clustered at the foot of the table, and I wished we'd chosen a different place to stop. Gruff rap haitien was blaring from a small shop across the street, where an equal number of good-for-nothings stood pestering the pedestrians. The dominoes players stopped their game entirely, looking first at the car, then at me with yellowed, drunken eyes. I said a few polite greetings, but they weren't having anything of it. “I'm looking for Jean-Marie Bathe,” I said, eventually. “He lives around here.” “Since when?” “Since the quake.” “Everyone lives here since the quake.” “Your mother lives here,” one grumbled. I ignored him. “He used to stay with his cousin, Manuel Bathe.” “Don't know him.” They were beginning to grow annoyed now, and the one who had insulted my late mother started shuffling the dominoes to start another game. “He's a highly respected referee.” They burst out laughing. Then, as I feared, they began uttering typical slander and abuse against referees, comparing Jean-Marie to president Martelly, and not in a positive light. People often ask me, jokingly, if I issue cautions to people who I encounter in everyday life or if I try to send them off. It's a pointless question in my opinion because a referee can only issue yellow and red cards on the field of play. Nonetheless, I do think about it from time to time, if only on a subconscious level, and I found my hand creeping up my collar shirt as the dominoes players continued insulting my profession, seeking a card in my front pocket. But luckily I kept my hand moving upwards past my pocket and pretended to wipe my brow with my wrist—an old referee trick—so that I wouldn't reveal my intentions. They were too involved with their game to notice. Instead I decided to stoop to their level. “They call Jean-Marie pwazon-chat.” “Ah, Catfish!” One of them made his eyes go cross-eyed. “Like this?” “No, his eyes are different. They go the other way.” He made his eyes separate the other way now, each pointing in a different direction. “I know him,” another player said. “But he's not a referee anymore.” I was surprised to hear this, because Jean-Marie Bathe loved refereeing even more than I did. He could passionately debate the finer points of the Official Rules of the Game for hours on end. “What's he doing, then?” “Waiting to die.” There was a loud crack on the table. Followed by laughing. I could see one of the players grinning from ear to ear, pointing at a domino. “How did you get the two-four?” one said. “I had it, that's all.” “It's because Bertrand always shows his pieces, man.” “No I don't!” “You do. Every time. I can see them right now.” “Your mother shows me her pieces.” “Enough,” the winner said. “Shuffle them up.”