All That You Can Afford to Lose

Justin Haynes

Two hours after he learned about the baby, Gittens wanted to bury it. It wasn’t really a baby, but that hazy early-formative stage. Gittens was vexed with Gemma’s role, but she said that if he was going to chase after every tail that blew like a kite in the breeze then that was what he would get. I didn’t know how Gittens got his hands on the remains, much less where Gemma had the procedure done. This was 1982, and carnival was around the corner, and everybody was singing Penguin’s “Deputy.”

“We have to go to the hardware store,” Gittens said, and so, with me in tow, another Gittens adventure began. We drove out to the Main Road, but it was only after we reached the hardware store that I saw that Gittens was out to mamaguy me. He asked one of the workers if he could buy a forest.

“You and your partner better get out of here before they have trouble,” the worker said. So Gittens drove us into Port of Spain, and we were laughed out of another hardware. In East Dry River a man waved his cutlass at us. We were cursed out of Tent City too. “How you mean you want to buy a forest, man?” asked the clerk whose eyeglass lenses were thick enough to spy on Barbados’s parliament. A long steups escorted us out of his establishment.

“I’ve been thrown out of better places than this,” Gittens said over his shoulder. But on the pavement a woman with very short eyelashes who seemed to be wrapped in a sheet, and whose hair was shaved close to her scalp, whispered an address to Gittens, and we were off once more. This time we ended up in Gonzales.

Something must have been going on that day because a passel of youths, bad-johns in the making, stopped us from driving past them. They just stood in the middle of the road. All of them wore red wristbands on their left wrists. “Road closed, saddists,” said one of the young men. I thought that there would be trouble because Gittens could get very ignorant when he wanted, but he just waved at the youths, and then he turned the car around and parked two blocks away from the encounter. Then he leaned over me and dug through the glove compartment. “To make it harder for them to thief,” he said before I could ask. He removed a document that I couldn’t see, then clicked the glove compartment shut. He told me if I knew what was good for me I wouldn’t leave anything behind that I couldn’t afford to lose.

We walked past the youths, and they had their eyes mostly closed, but one of them shoved me in the shoulder, and said, “Aye, saddist, it cost $20 to come through here.”

“Don’t make joke,” I said.

He shoved me again, and I fell onto my palms, and his partners laughed. There were about eight or ten of them. My palms were bruised, and bits of pebbles had embedded into my skin. “Best to give them the $20,” Gittens shrugged. I reached into my pocket, and was grateful that there was a loose twenty there because if I had to open my wallet they surely would have taken everything.

Finally Gittens and I found the right street, but it was a hard march uphill. When we finally found the place we had to pass through a solid red metal door to get us into the yard, then we had to make our way through some ankle-high weeds around to the back, then we had to climb the external staircase to the upper apartment. There we faced a blue wooden door split through the middle like an equator. Gittens knocked at the top half of the door, and he had to jump back so that when it swung open at speed, it would not knock him right back down the steps. A very old man, whose face was a nest of wrinkles, and whose eyes had no reason to still be that clear and sharp at his age, stood before us in a ratty mustard jersey that said boots, boots, boots. “Yes, boss,” said Gittens. He clapped his hands together. “Here to buy a forest.” The old man looked at each of us then shut the door just as quickly as he had opened it. “What the jail,” said Gittens, but a moment later a young boy, no older than 14, but who sounded like a middle-aged man, opened the top half of the door again. I looked to see that he wasn’t wearing the same clothes as the old man, because I already understood what was happening here.

“Yes, man,” said the youngster. “A pleasant good morning to you.”

“You too, man,” said Gittens.

“I hear you here for a forest?”

“Is so,” said Gittens.

The boy looked at me. “Is for you or for him?”

“Me, boss,” said Gittens.

“So why he here for? You feel this neighbourhood so bad that you will get robbed?”

“Well a forest might be heavy to carry,” said Gittens. The youngster watched him for a few moments. “Hold on,” he said, then he pulled the door closed once more. I looked out at the way that we had come to see if the youths from earlier were around, but everybody knew that people in Gonzales weren’t stupid, and it had grown so hot that they had probably sought out some shade. Nobody, not even a stray dog, was out right now. I wiped the back of my neck with a handkerchief, but Gittens was not sweating at all, and he laughed at my highfalutin rag.

“So why you even going through with this rigmarole?” I asked him, but before he could answer the young man was back by the door.

“Measurements, boss,” he said.

“Righto,” said Gittens.

“What kind of forest are you looking at? Practical or other?”

Gittens thought for a moment. “I’m not really trying to cut down any trees,” he said. “Not trying to make furniture or anything like that.”

“Good. Good,” said the boy. He made a note on a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard. “So,” he said, “you want to lay somebody to rest?”

“Yes,” said Gittens. “That self.”

The boy nodded and made another note. “Do you have at least a few hectares for a forest?” I expected Gittens to stumble here. He was living in the mother-in-law apartment behind an old woman’s house in Woodbrook. Her husband had died a few years before, and she liked having a young man around. She was getting older, and Gittens helped her with chores like cutting the grass and taking her to the grocery. He surprised me when he told the boy that he had a plot of land ready and waiting. “Basic forest burial plot is five blue notes,” the boy said, and I was surprised again when Gittens, that wretch, reached into his pocket and pulled out five hundred dollar bills like he worked at the central bank. He still owed me $250 from an All Fours game.

The boy took the bills and counted them off then stuffed them into the waistband of his short pants. “Now,” he said. “Animals. How about a manicou or two?”

“But how you mean?” Gittens asked. “How you could have a forest with no manicou?” Another annotation.

“Macajuel?”

“Yes, man. You must have a little evil in the world.”

The boy said that those animals were included in the base price, but some people were kind of funny about what they wanted in their forests, and so he sometimes pulled certain things out. “How about some mongoose?” he asked. “Just to make sure that the macajuel don’t get out of hand?”

Here Gittens thought for a few moments. “I feel like that will cost extra.”

The boy said, “I could see right away that you was a smart fella.”

“How much?” Gittens asked. The boy quoted the price. “Best put it in then,” Gittens said. “You must have a little good in the world.” He peeled off a few more bills.

“Finally,” the boy said, “you want anybody in there for them to talk to?”

“Like who?”

“That I cannot say.”

“Can’t or won’t?” The boy just watched Gittens, and Gittens watched him back. I looked away from both of them. All of the houses in the neighbourhood could use a fresh coat of paint. A few fix-ups here and there. Everything seemed right on the lip of disaster. “Alright,” Gittens finally said. The boy nodded, and he disappeared from sight as he bent down and searched along a shelf. When he popped up again, the boy held out a heavy calabash. I knew it was heavy because Gittens turned to me and said, “What you think you here for, your looks?”

As I lifted the calabash, the boy said, “Last last thing. Hear me, and hear me well. Once you start digging the hole for burial, you have 15 minutes to get all of your business done and to get out of the forest.”

“Or what?” Gittens asked. The boy just looked at him. “Right,” said Gittens.

On the way back to the car I asked him once or twice to stop so that I could catch my breath because the calabash was heavy as hell, but he kept walking ahead, looking out for the youths, who were gone. He was in a happy mood, and he whistled Penguin’s “You Fraid the Devil.”

Back at the car nothing was missing from the inside, but one of the back tires was gone, and the wheel well now rested on a grey cinder block. Gittens steupsed, opened the trunk, lifted out the jack and spanner, exchanged them with me for the calabash, and he squatted by the side of the road while I loosened the bolts.

* * * * * * *

You must think that I’m some kind of mook, but Gittens saved my life one time. In the way that life can be cheaply ironic, my wife Myrna had lost our first baby three years earlier. It was early in the pregnancy, and she felt pains in her stomach, and by the time that she got to the hospital nothing could be done. I wasn’t even there, and this bothered me to this day. It was Gittens, who always had trouble holding down a job, who drove her into Cocorite. Sometimes, in cases like this, it was best to give a little space, and when Myrna, her eyes forever red from that day on, said that she was heading back to her mother’s house for a while, what could I do but help her pack?

Gittens moved in with me the next week.

Someone cynical might say that he had just been kicked out of Debra’s house and he didn’t have a place to go, and this was true, since this was a few months before he moved into the old woman’s mother-in-law apartment, but Gittens did everything while he stayed with me: washed the wares, mopped the floors, cooked rice and peas. Slowly I improved. So when he needed to carry a calabash or change a tire here or there, well that wasn’t too much to ask.

* * * * * * *

When life laughs, sometimes you have to laugh back, or else you might end up in perpetual tears, so from that year on, every J’Ouvert Gittens and I played Blue Devils. No different this year. Except that we also signed up to play in a big band because Gemma had wanted to, and she had talked me into it too. “It will be good for you,” she said. After the tire was changed, I asked Gittens when he was going to take care of the forest, and he told me not to worry, that there was time on the weekend for that. Myrna never moved back into our house, and when I found out that she take up with some scamp who I had gone to school with who used to get plenty licks for being dotish but now sold insurance, I couldn’t say that I wasn’t vexed. So when, the same afternoon that we bought the forest, we saw him and Myrna at the mas camp picking up their costumes, what do you think happened to everything inside my head and in my heart?

Gittens spent the next few nights at my house, and when the weekend came, and he said he was going to take care of the forest, he told me that I didn’t have to go, but I figured that I needed something like this to take my mind off all the weight surrounding me and to chase off some of the shadows that were creeping in.

* * * * * * *

It was some old land in Bagatelle that Gittens was going to use for his burial forest, and I said, “G’s and H’s, you could have told me that I would need to bring a cutlass or something for protection.”

Gittens shot me a cut-eye. “Is people like you who does make it hard for the poor people in this country to get any kind of respect. Poverty is not a crime, breds,” he said. I felt ashamed of course. Back in secondary school, Gittens always wore threadbare uniforms, and I knew that he had a tough time of it. But still, that was a long time ago, and I didn’t want to get chop up so close to Carnival. But when we found the clearing there was no one to be seen anywhere, not even youths who were looking for trouble. It was another very hot day, and just like the people in Gonzales, the people in Bagatelle were not known for being stupid. The air was very hot and very still. I didn’t see that Gittens had bought a spade, but when I finally saw it, I knew who would be shoveling.

“You’re something else, you know that?” I said as I unbuttoned my shirtjack and hung it on a nearby branch. In the heat the ground was hard and unyielding, and while I thought that it might take about 20 to 30 minutes to dig the hole, some 45 minutes later I was still breaking my back. Finally, the hole was deep enough for Gittens’s liking, and he laid the calabash in the ground, and he even took the spade from me and filled in the hole. “No magic words?” I asked as we headed back to the car.

“No, smart man,” he said. It took me a moment to remember to fetch my shirtjack, but, of course, it was gone.

* * * * * * *

All that night I entertained fever dreams. It was easy to figure out the characters and the plot. Myrna was there, and that twerp who went to school with me and Gittens. The old man from when we bought the forest, and a few of the youths from up Gonzales, put in appearances. One of the youths made me step out of my Clarks desert boots, and I walked around in thin socks that eventually disintegrated on the hot ground. It was the heat of the ground that woke me, and somewhere around 3:35am I realized that I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, so I made some tea, tipped in some condensed milk, and hung a thin blanket over my shoulders and watched the sun lift above the rooftops.

The next day was Sunday, and Gittens was whistling Penguin’s “Betty Goaty” as he stepped out of the shower with a towel wrapped around him. “You ready?” he asked me. But I was feeling mashup, and I told him so. “Nah, man,” he said. “We have to go right through with this.” He had stored the remains of his child in a sealed box in my fridge, and now I thought about replacing the fridge. It was the coolest day in two weeks, and when we got closer to Bagatelle, there were people out and about. Children were playing cricket in the street. A parlor was doing brisk business on the end of a block as people stood outside its door and shouted to the shop’s proprietor over the counter.

When we got closer to the site where we had dug the hole for the calabash, however, trouble arose. A group of youths stood around the entrance to the field, and they wore the same red wristbands that we had seen on the youths up in Gonzales. Gittens walked past them without sparing a look. “Whoa, saddist,” one of the young men said. “How you could come through just so, not even from here and acting like you own the place?” Gittens kept walking, and I jogged to catch up to him. When I looked back, one of the young men was already delivering a kick at me, and I barely escaped a sneaker in my backside.

“Gittens!” I shouted, but he had already started running, and soon I was beside him. The young men and their curses followed us. “See if we don’t kill your ass when we hold you,” one of them shouted, and I sprinted past Gittens, who was slowed down by the parcel in his hands.

Looking back now, I think that the only reason we escaped was because we turned a corner and ended up in the forest that we had planted just the day before. So many trees. Taller than I had imagined that they could ever grow. The wind shook some branches. Here and there you could see animals scampering. A smell like lavender floated out to us.

The young men were not foolish.

If there’s a forest today when there had not been one yesterday, then chances are that it could be only one thing. They didn’t follow us in, but they sent their curses as emissaries. Once Gittens and I were about two metres into the forest the voices behind us disappeared completely. I looked back and saw a macajuel hanging down from one of the branches close to us, and I ran forward to catch up to Gittens. He was finally sweating, and when I wiped me face and neck with my handkerchief, he didn’t laugh at me this time for carrying it.

* * * * * * *

Again I didn’t notice Gittens toting the spade, and again, when I noticed it, he was already handing it to me. We had travelled about one hundred metres into the forest, and I used a penknife to mark our progress on certain tree barks, but I knew that they would be gone when we tried to get out. We had already been in there, I estimated, for some five minutes, but I saw that my watch had stopped, and I didn’t know for sure what the time was. “This looks like the right place,” said Gittens after examining a small clearing.

“Any spot in particular?” I asked. He waved about vaguely.

“Remember we only have 15 minutes,” he said.

I stuck the spade into the earth.

This time the ground was much more giving, and it only took about five minutes to get a hole deep enough to satisfy him. “Alright, partner,” he said. But his voice sounded funny, and when I looked back at him I saw her. The child was about three-years-old, and she stood a few feet behind Gittens. If she took one step forward she could have held out her hand and taken his. Myrna’s mouth, but my nose. Myrna’s eyes, but my ears. Gittens saw that I was looking behind him, but when he turned and didn’t see anything, he jumped forward and moved past me. I didn’t want to take my eyes off her because I knew that when I did, that she would disappear, and I wouldn’t see her again. Finally, I heard Gittens clear his throat, and I didn’t even blink properly, probably just enough to clear the tears, but that was enough, and when I looked again she was gone, and a few feet away I saw a mongoose bustling through the bush.

“You alright, partner?” he asked, and I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to talk, but when I did, my voice sounded surprisingly like my own.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s take care of this for you, and let’s get out of here. Time’s running out.”

“Alright,” he said. “First do me a favour?” He was crouched near the hole in the ground. “Help me get it out of the box,” he said. “I don’t think we should bury it in the box.” This was the last thing that I wanted to do just now, but I took the box from him, and had to steady myself for a few moments since the box’s weight had grown as heavy as a coffin’s. “Hurry up, partner,” he said. “Before Carnival come and gone.” Opening the box, I was already thinking ahead. When we were done here, we still had to find a way out of this forest and, after that, make our way past a group of youthmen who wanted to kill us. But for now, I opened the box and looked inside. Gittens had his hand on my shoulder. The box was empty, and, from my calculation, we only had two minutes to get out of there before we were lost forever.


Image credit: Nadia Huggins, Milligan’s Cay, off St Vincent.

Justin Haynes is from Trinidad and Tobago.  His writing explores Caribbean folklore characters and other marginalized figures. His writing has been published in Caribbean Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, Akashic’s Duppy Thursday, and in other journals.

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