Gangster Paradise

Lisa-Anne Julien

I sure if I tell Mr and Mrs Honeyblossom ‘bout the time I find my mother hangin, them go think she swayin nice and easy from a hog mango tree in we front yard. In they mind, they seeing the cool Caribbean breeze causin the leaves — or as Mr Bethelmy, my English teacher at St Antony’s Junior Secondary used to say — the foliage, to brush she dark skin and get tangle up in she afro. 

     Because every damn breeze in the Caribbean cool, right? 

What time of the day was this? Them go probably ask in dey hoity toity English voice. But they don’t tell time with watch, dread. They know when things happening according to what they were doing while you ketchin’ your ass on this paradise island.  

So my mother coulda dead while they was digging out spoonfuls of pawpaw. Or eyeing black pudding on a white china plate. Maybe she dead just as they was about to, how that chef on TV6 call it again, oh yes, get gastronomically down with Trinidad bake and saltfish. Gastronomically down. Who does talk shit like that? Maybe they wash it down with we orange juice and wonder how it so thin and sweet. Not bright yellow, and I sure, sour, like the ones on the breakfast table in The Young and the Restless

Maybe, as my mother last breath leave she body, them was busy pastin cream on their red, blotchy skin. Or jumpin in the hotel pool for a few minutes. Or snappin they fingers for the waiter to bring them anything with ice and fruit juice and plenty rum.  

I sure Mr and Mrs Honeyblossom imagine my mother hangin next to my own swing, the one with the tyre at the end. Both long ropes together, side by side. 

It mighta shock them to know that not every Trinidadian child had a swing, or a mango tree, or a fuckin front yard for that matter. 

Or mothers who take they own life.

Click. Click.

The police takin pictures. Nobody even thinkin bout giving me CPR. Instead, they laughin. Something about Escobar. They might laugh even more to know that what really botherin me is not getting shoot in the elbow and the back of the ankle and the shin bone and the back of the hand. Places on my body I even forget bout and never imagine I coulda get shot in. No, what really getting on my damn nerve is the blasted midday sun in my eye and fuckin hot concrete that feel like it goin to melt meh skin off.  

I finally in the back of the ambulance. It funny but of all the people I had to pay off left and right in my life, I never thought bout the ambulance services. Them fuckers took almost a hour to get to me.

“Lux? You could hear me? You still have time to repent.” Pastor Markinson climbin in too.  He is the only holy man in Pinelands, probably the only one on this whole stinking island, still willin to give last rights to a gangman. 

“Lux?” 

How I get the name Lux? I not sure but when I was a little boy, Jackson Brown, drunk outside Trina’s Tavern any evenin that wasn’t a Sunday evenin, used to hail me as I gettin water from the standpipe. My real name, Lennox, used to slip through his no-teeth mouth and sound like Lux. So I guess it stick. Jackson Brown wasn’t his real name either. His mother, a Shouter Baptist, had give Jackson Brown some stupid African name nobody could pronounce. So how he get he own nickname is another story. 

But plenty woman say the name Lux suit me. Like the soap, hard and sweet at the same time. My last girlfriend, a undercover narcotics agent if you could believe, confess with her last breath, the one I self squeeze out her throat, that her superiors tell her to lather me up good. You know law enforcement services gone to shit when officials resorting to…what you does call it? Yeah, metaphors.

“Jesus said I am the resurrection and the life,” Pastor Markinson sayin. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die. And whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this, Jesus asks? Do you believe this, Lux? Death is just a doorway, nothing to fear.”

I want to tell him I know death is nutten. Well, almost nutten. I don’t spend a lot of time thinkin about who need to die and why. But as for my own death, I know how things goin to go down. I wasn’t goin to go out like my mother, tongue swollen and hangin out, eye half open, legs long and sprawl out over a pool of piss. No, I was to goin to think about the things I want to think about. Like the tamarind season and how, when I was small, even though I always promise myself I wouldn’t wrinkle up my face, I couldn’t get away from the sourness…no…the sweetness in between the sourness, that the tamarind give. 

I tell myself I goin to think about the last time I see Kevin. He, fightin to breathe the same way I doin now, and me, leanin in, waitin for him to tell me what to do, who I must go after and how. And how he just keep sayin a bunch of words that don’t have no connection. Stupid life. Mummy. The lime tree. Stop. I passed, Mummy. Wow. Corbeau flying. Ride the wave. Stop. Stupid life. Dead dog. Mummy. 

These things I tell myself I going to think about just as life leavin me.

But now, now that it here, now that my body not feelin like my body, now that things beepin everywhere, I find myself only thinking about Mr and Mrs Honeyblossom. 


But plenty woman say the name Lux suit me. Like the soap, hard and sweet at the same time. My last girlfriend, a undercover narcotics agent if you could believe, confess with her last breath, the one I self squeeze out her throat, that her superiors tell her to lather me up good. You know law enforcement services gone to shit when officials resorting to…what you does call it? Yeah, metaphors.

I wonder if I ever cross their mind while they doin their rich people things – spoonin the froth off their cappuccino or pourin themselves another brandy after some fancy dinner. And when they sail around the world to see icebergs in…I don’t know, Alaska. And sunsets over deserts in Africa. And slums in India or Brazil that was just as poor or even poorer than Pinelands. I wonder if they ever, ever think about me?

***

It was August. In the year of Hurricane Mildred. 1983. Old Pieman livin in the next lane used to say when they name a hurricane after a woman, is because it sure to cause Almighty havoc only a woman know how to do. Not sure why he wanted to make people feel he ‘fraid woman. Everybody know he chop up he own wife and paid police not to charge him.


Mildred had the winds howlin and the tree and dem bendin backwards. Or forwards, however you look at it. Sometimes I used to open the louvers in my mother’s bedroom just a little to feel the cool wind on my skin. 

“You will catch cold.” My mother used to say when she saw me doin it. 

And right there, I feel guilty. Because cold mean sickness and sickness mean medicine. And if it bad, doctor. And she didn’t have money for that.

After Mildred pass through Trinidad, everything get swollen with water. Swollen. Mr Bethelmy woulda like that word. Every drain, pothole and open manhole that children in Pinelands learn to jump over with they eye close, swelled up with water, rubbish, branches and dead animals. 

It was the first Saturday after the rain when my mother, busy cookin something in the kitchen and hummin some sad Jesus music, tell me go fetch water. 

I was happy and vex at the same time. Happy she was up early, doin somethin. Happy it look like she wasn’t going to be in bed all day, lyin under the thin, grey coverlet like a lump. Relieve that it seem to be a day when there wasn’t going to be no cryin for no reason. Well, no reason I could see at least, beyond the fact that you live in Pinelands because you kill priest in your past life and this was your penance. Grateful it look like she was cookin something decent so I didn’t have to pretend to be going to check my friend Jason at the time his mother would be putting food out for her family. 

But I was vex. It was Saturday mornin and I wanted to relax. From early on a Saturday plenty jackass in Pinelands pumping reggae and washing their car. Whether it was a beat-up Datsun or a new Mercedes some bandit just lock a man neck for, dem fellas was washing it with pride.

And I didn’t feel like walking to the standpipe. The sun was already hot. It was good for drying up the rain but couldn’t do nothing for the smell. 

That is what people don’t understand bout hurricanes. They too busy cryin over the destruction to notice that a smell get pull out from all kinda corners. And when Mildred pass, the smell just say, right, and stay there. As though to remind you that you poor as fuck and livin behind God back. It wasn’t only the rancid smell that come out from old cupboard and underneath floorboards, but a smell that say hope dead, move the body. It kill that little secret you keep close to your heart, the one only you know ‘bout. The one that say one day, one day, life will give you a last little chance to get out of this shithole for somewhere better. Mildred blow that to fuck away. But sometimes the bits and pieces stay floatin around you like dead rat you could smell but can’t find. So even if you want to forget, you can’t. And let us not forget the rat and them that not dead; the ones that walk out of the broken houses, strong and vex as though them was paying rent up in there.

“Lennox, you gone yet?”

I steups a little and turn off Scooby and Scrappy Doo. I put on my thin rubber slippers and went out the door.

“Lennox?” 

She had a habit of doing that. Calling me back inside. Sometimes it really used to get on my nerves.

When I went back inside she put two fingers around the back of my neck to give me a little shake and then pull me into her chest. She had a funny smell. It was everywhere.

Years later, especially during the few times I make jail, I tried to explain — with bad metaphors and highfalutin words — that smell to myself. My science teacher at St Antony’s used to say a smell is gaseous. But my mother smell had a thickness, a warm kinda mushiness to it. Like a cloud that harden, but just a little bit. Like somethin I could squish between my fingers and move around to the parts of my body that need it. That morning, in all the small folds in her body I coulda smell fish, coconut, guava jam and I think, chow chow. It was a layered smell. Mr Bethelmy woulda like that word too. 

“God break the mould with you, you know that?” She hold my face with her hands, then put her lips on my cheek, blowing hard on it. The fartin sound make me laugh, even though it was not as ticklish as when she used to do it on my belly.  “Don’t forget the buckets. And take your time, okay?”

I start walking again and she call me again. 

“Lennox? I love ya. Alright? Okay?”

She didn’t stop saying okay until I say okay. 

My science teacher at St Antony’s used to say a smell is gaseous. But my mother smell had a thickness, a warm kinda mushiness to it. Like a cloud that harden, but just a little bit. Like somethin I could squish between my fingers and move around to the parts of my body that need it. That morning, in all the small folds in her body I coulda smell fish, coconut, guava jam and I think, chow chow. It was a layered smell. Mr Bethelmy woulda like that word too. 

I pick up the buckets, wondering why God break he mould. I can’t imagine God breaking anything. Although Father Ignatius said Jesus get damn, blasted vex when he find sinners selling cattle and exchangin money in the temple. And yes, Father Ignatius did say damn and blasted. Then Jesus drive them out and throw down the tables. So I always used to wonder if God was angry when he make me. That would explain breakin the mould. And how my life turn out like God pee on me. It was only long after I learn what breakin the mould mean. And part of me was glad my mother never live to see how wrong she was.

Comin back with the water, I stop outside Miss Timm’s house to pick some ripe plums from her tree. When I check the scene in front to me, a red car was driving past in slow motion. It stop. Someone try to wind down the back window but it stick. 

Smallpox, biggest scoundrel in Pinelands, and two white people get out of the car. And they was white. Not like light-skinned Trinis with their soft hair and brown eyes who think they white. And who does always get the shock of they life when they go America and England and get treat like nigger.

“This is our fourth stop on the tour. This part is what I like to call the real Trinidad – beyond the tourist paradise..” Smallpox was tryin hard to talk good English. And how is it those white people didn’t mind Smallpox, with all the plenty plenty bumps on his face and hand, drivin them around? “You swam in our beautiful beaches. You bathe in a waterfall. You saw how many different kind of birds we have.”

Species, I want to say.

“In this beautiful island of Trinidad,” Smallpox said.

Twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, I want to tell him. Mr Bethelmy drill that in we. And that people from Tobago already don’t like we head as we feel we better, so we must always call our country by its proper name.

“But this, what you see here, is the real Trinidad. In order to understand Trinidad, you have to see this part too.” 

What the fuck he smilin about? I look at what he was pointing to. Houses that paint blue, red, and green but that somehow all look the same. Puddles of dirty water. Shit that Mildred vomit up and that the Ministry of Water and Sanitation Affairs wasn’t goin to wash away anytime soon. A cross with beat-up flowers plant in the ground.

“This is where you could come to pound cocoa with a mortar and pestle. Grate coconuts, squeeze the juice and boil it down on outside fires of hard wood and dried bamboo. Then watch the coconut oil born. If you want some dreadlocks you could try some in your hair. Mix it up with aloes and ratchett, plenty of which growing here.” Smallpox grin and try to touch the white lady’s hair but she just step back. 

What fuckery this man talking? The only time I see mortar and pestle is when I go by my grandmother in Toco. That was country business. And which Pinelands woman had nothing to do whole day but grate coconut?

It so easy to fool white people? 

When I look at the white man and woman again, they was lookin right at me. My heart start beating hard but it feel like it in my head. I can’t say what I look like. Maybe my face squish up because the sun was in my eye. I don’t know if it was the red and green buckets next to me. Not the stretched-out T-shirt hanging off my shoulder, or the thick piece of twine holding up my khaki shorts, nah. I don’t know what it was or if it was all that together but when I take my foot out of my slipper and scratch my left ankle with my right big toe, they camera went up. Click. Click. Click.

“Hello.” The white man start smiling and walkin towards me. But how his teeth so crooked and yellow? “Good-day, and how are you?”

The white man voice send me back into the stories from Mr Bethelmy’s class. Prince. Princesses. Castles. Turrets. Turrets? Is that what they call it? Wolves. Sugar houses. Green, green grass. Streams. Deer that look up no matter how quiet you is. Stories about toadstools and all the little people you couldn’t see living in tree trunks, hiding behind grass and in petals when they close in the evening. 

Stories about snow. Stories that use to make me wonder how it feel, taste. That it can’t really be as cold as people make it out to be, right? 

Stories about Jack Frost. Who was he, really? I mean, really?

Stories where people name…Honeyblossom.

“What’s your name, love?” Mrs Honeyblossom voice was soft and sing songy. 

Love? Where that come from? Not even my mother talk like that. Using that word like it wasn’t nothing. 

They couldn’t stop askin questions about where I livin, my family, the water I carrying, the school I goin to. But I just stand up there. I wanted to ask my own questions. Why you here? Why you leave wherever nice place you come from to bother yourself with Pinelands? Why you believin anything Smallpox say? You know I read all the Peter Rabbit stories? And they better than Anansi stories but I would never say that to my teacher. His name Mr Bethelmy. 

But I just keep quiet.

“Who does he live with?” Mrs Honeyblossom was lookin worried.

“With his mother and brother. Just over so.” I watch Smallpox and I sure he wink at me.

Mrs Honeyblossom say something in her husband ear. 

“Take this, my dear. Buy yourself something nice,” Mr Honeyblossom crunch up something up in his hand and then push it in my pocket. I move back, but not far enough because I smell cologne, sweat and beer. “You take care, okay?”

They turn around and walk back to the car. 

I dig my hand in my pocket and pull out a hundred dollar note. I stare at it, smell it, sure I seeing the sweat from Mr Honeyblossom hands on it. I put it back in my pocket, thinking that my mother was goin to be glad for it.

When I get home, I find my mother hangin from a nail on the cupboard in the bedroom. Everythin in that house was rusty and old and woulda break if you look at it too hard. But not that nail. Not that fuckin nail. That thing stay there. Firm. Strong. Holdin on for dear life to the red and green scarf wrap round my mother neck.

***

“Our Father…you could manage, Lux? Our Father, who art…”

But look how Smallpox catch onto somethin, from early early. One time, I read this article. The writer was carryin on about why everybody suddenly so fascinated about how poor people livin. I forget what she call it. Romancing…romanticising…poor people…poverty. Somethin like that. You could read that she was vex and calling on tourists, especially white people, to stop watchin poor people – whether we in favelas or slums or townships – like we in zoo. At the time I had laugh and think bout Smallpox.  

Smallpox. RIP.

“…Amen.”

“Pastor, you think one mistake could change your whole life?” The ambulance going fast. I know it goin fast but is like we floatin at the same time.

“Yes, Lux. Yes. People end up in jail for life because they get angry and make one mistake. But redemption is also just one action. With one prayer, you could be forgiven.” 

Every time I try to ketch my breath, like to actually ketch hold of it and push it down my throat so I could breathe, it run away from me.

“You think if I had answer their questions, things woulda have turned out different?”

“What? I don’t understand. What you mean, Lux?”

“Maybe my mother wouldn’t ah hang and my brother wouldn’t ah dead.” 

“What?”

“And I wouldn’t ah taken to this gang life like…like…gimme a nice simile Pastor.” 

“Like a kingfish to water?”

“That is a idiom, Pastor.”

“You were always a smart boy, you know.”

 “Pastor, why…why some people so curious about the ghetto?” 

“What? I don’t know anybody who curious about the ghetto.”

“They have people like that.”

Pastor Markinson laugh. “Well, maybe they think that is where the real people live?”

“What so real about the fuckin ghetto?”

“I don’t know. Let me continue with the Scriptures and-”

“And the ghetto is the same after they gone. Maybe worse.”

“Well, I don’t know about worse.”

“After the Honeyblossoms, it was worse.”

“Honeyblossom? That is a kind of flower?”

“Mr and Mrs Honeyblossom.”

“You not making sense, boy. Lux?”

I smelling vanilla essence. My mother bakin sweetbread. Is a good day. And a good day does lead into a good weekend and a good week and a good month and a good life. She will ask me to glaze the sweetbread with sugar and water. Then she will put them back into the oven.

I not hearing the beeps anymore and the siren from the ambulance is like a buzzing mosquito. And for once the mosquito not getting on my nerves and I don’t feel like killing it. A cloud in front of me. But how? Just like that? It look like my mother dough, rising and coming closer. Then, as if she punch a hole in the centre, it starting to come down. Something, or someone coming through. I could see a face. Faces. I know the faces and the smiles.

“What’s your name son?” Mr Honeyblossom is smiling. And his teeth straight and white now.

“Lennox.” All the words in my report book – politeness, conduct, decorum – went into my voice.

“And where do you live?”

“Just over there. Caroni Lane. Number 72.”

“You like living here?”

“Oh, yes sir. Everyone here is very friendly. We are very neighbourly.”

“Neighbourly? That’s a big word.”

“I have a good English teacher. His name is Mr Bethelmy.”

Mrs Honeyblossom walks over and she and her husband look at each other. I know when people plotting and they plotting. 

“Have you ever been to Las Cuevas Bay, Lennox?” 

“No, sir.”

“Would you like us to take you to Las Cuevas? It’s a very beautiful beach. We can have lunch along the way.”

“Thank you sir.”

“Good lad.” Mr Honeyblossom reach into his pocket and take out a hundred dollar bill. “Here, take this. It’s for you to buy anything you like.”

“Thank you, Sir. That’s very kind of you.” I know my smile big and wide.

“We will come and collect you right here at 10am tomorrow. Okay?”

I say yes and Mrs Honeyblossom stoop down, her blond hair ticklin my face and I want to laugh. Click. Click. The flash blindin and I only seein white. But I smile and smile. 

Lisa-Anne Julien, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, works as a freelance writer and development consultant in Johannesburg, South Africa. Some of her writing achievements include being awarded a“Highly Commended” prize in the 2009 Commonwealth Short Story, placing  second in the UK Writer’s Forum monthly short story competition in August 2015 and writing regularly for O, The Oprah Magazine South Africa. She also participated in the Femrite Women’s Writers residency in Uganda in 2013 and the Yale Writers Conference in Connecticut in 2014. 

Lisa-Anne is currently working on her first full-length novel. www.lisaannejulien.co.za

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