“That’s him!” the white man shouted. “Stop the car!”
“Who? Where?” said the white woman, who had arrived with the man ten days ago, and was definitely sleeping with him. Persephone sighed. Their car was stopped in a line of traffic on South Avenue. She had no idea who they were talking about, but her job was to be nice to these white people, take them where they wanted to go, protect them from crime of either the random or targeted nature and advise them on all things Jamaican. They were searching for a face. And a body. She had to help them find the face and the body, hopefully owned by a single human being— a man— because the female face of 2015 had already been identified. And there was only the rest of this day left for the search.
The light changed, but the cars didn’t move. The intersection up ahead was blocked. Taxi men gestured at other drivers who blew their horns at still others. People in giant SUVs spoke on their cell phones. October, late lunch traffic, Kingston, Jamaica; about to pour with rain. Tomorrow couldn’t come quickly enough for Persephone. The white people were leaving on an early flight and that was one ring of her cell phone alarm she was longing to hear.
“Can’t you find a place to park?” Jim, the white man, said. The traffic was beginning to move – if Persephone didn’t find a place to park right away they would be carried with the sluggish tide of cars onto Waterloo Road, where stopping really would bring road rage down upon their heads. She indicated right, caught the eye of an oncoming motorist, mimed prayer with both hands, and the motorist braked.
“Thank you, bredren,” she whispered and turned across the traffic into the parking lot of a jerk restaurant. She drove into the only remaining space, felt the eyes of the security guard at the gate follow them and fixed a smile on her face. If they did not go into the restaurant quickly, the guard would insist they move.
“Who are you talking about?” she said to Jim.
“That guy! You didn’t see him? Half-naked. Could use a square meal, I guess. But he’s IT. He’s the 2015 guy!” Jim released his seat belt and got out of the car. Half-naked? Surely he could not be talking about a street person?
The white woman, Madison, also got out of the car and Persephone followed. Jim strode out onto South Avenue just as fat raindrops began to fall. “Wait!” Persephone yelled. Good god, these people were children. It was like trying to manage a crab race, the crabs constantly heading in different directions, or sometimes just hunkering down inside their shells, uninterested in the yelling, sunburned tourists who had bet on the outcome of the misnomered “race”. Persephone had managed crab races, not to mention wet T-shirt contests, and pass the plantain games for a few years— she’d been what was called a playmaker at an all-inclusive hotel on the north coast. Then she gained a little weight— well, more than a little— courtesy of the bottomless buffet line at the hotel, and her playmaker days were over. Now she was employed as a liaison officer for Jamaica’s premier model agency.
“Wait Jim!” she called again and ran after him.
“You cyaan park here, Miss,” said the security guard, barring her way, but with an eye turned up to the lowering sky. There would be no security guarding if it really started to rain.
“A soon come,” she panted. She really did have to lose some weight. Long days behind the wheel of a car, and longer waits while her charges interviewed this new face or that new body, took their toll. As did a constant diet of restaurant food. When she had taken this job, she’d hoped to meet someone, anyone, with a ticket out of Jamaica. She had hoped—still hoped— for an American, because now that was a big country with no shortage of choice about where and how to live. She didn’t think she could manage the everlasting grey of England, or the long biting winters of Canada. So far there had been no rescue.
She saw Jim on the other side of the road, outside a townhouse complex, talking to a madman. Yes, a madman. She was a bawn an grow Jamaican and she knew a madman when she saw one. It had been in the newspapers that Jamaicans had more mad people than any other country, so said some notable psychiatrist, and Persephone believed it. When she had first moved to Kingston after her playmaker stint, she’d lived in the side of a Mona house— it was one room really— with a passage said to be a kitchen, and an exterior walkway said to be a verandah, and it was located next to a piece of open land. Only a few locations in any Jamaican town were worse—say, next to a gully or a squatter settlement— but the rent had been cheap. When she first moved in, a man had kept goats on the open land, and often their bleating woke her in the mornings. But then the goat man moved on and his place was taken by a madman—who capered while he talked to invisible people, masturbated with breathtaking frequency, threw a piece of waste cardboard over a macca bush and lived under it, set fires, went through everyone’s garbage and left it strewn on the upwardly mobile, respectable streets of Mona, and who, starting at exactly three a.m., sang a well remembered hymn of Persephone’s schooling in a creditable baritone.
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love
The love that asks no question
The love that stands the test
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best
The people of Mona had meetings about the madman. The better off residents summoned their security guard companies; the less well off called the police. The guard companies came first and chased off the man. He returned. Then the police came, handcuffed him and threw him into the trunk of their Toyota Corolla, the one with the single remaining digit of the emergency number— 9—on both doors. The Mona residents were relieved. There were efforts to contact the owner of the land who was long in foreign, plans to write to the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation, who all agreed was not worth a single dollar of the taxes they extorted from the consolidated fund, and talk of collecting money to build a chain link fence around the open land. Vigilance was essential, the good people of Mona agreed. But within a month, the madman was back, dirtier and thinner, his voice ever in fine fettle. Persephone moved to lower Graham Heights, close to a squatter settlement it was true, but there was a limit to the housing options available on a liaison officer’s salary.
Jim was talking to the South Avenue madman. Now this was not a sight Kingston residents saw every day and they took immediate note. Cars stopped their inching progress. Drivers and passengers craned their necks. The townhouse security guard, who was frequently plagued by this madman and was itching to do some head-cracking with his baton, ducked under the red and white barrier that demarcated the line between order and chaos, yard and street. A vendor selling carvings on the sidewalk near the plazas strolled up, calling over his shoulder for other vendors to join him. The woman selling ironing boards waddled over. The coir mat man on Waterloo Road dashed through the traffic, which was now in gridlock. “Sas crise,” Persephone whispered to herself as she crossed the road. So far the rain was holding off. She needed to sort this out fast.
For the first time, she looked at the South Avenue madman. His homelessness was evident in the grayish dust on his skin. He was tall, at least six foot four, almost Usain Bolt height. And young, but he could have attained the magic age of eighteen, when no parental consent would be needed for anything at all. Through the dust she could see his skin was rich brown, like a Red Stripe beer bottle. He was thin, of course, and so his bones were visible, but not in a way that made you think famine or anything upsetting like that; no, the madman (madboy?) had the look of an athlete— not the powerful structure of today’s sprinters, but the lithe, springy aspect of a pole vaulter. Persephone knew the qualities of photogenia: the carved cheekbones, the contrast between skin color and teeth, the cleanness of the whites of the eyes, that certain haughtiness of demeanor, smoothness of movement, asymmetry of feature, the singular nature of the whole package. Check, she thought.
The madman leaned slightly towards Jim, who was talking and gesticulating. He didn’t seem dangerous, although Persephone knew you could never tell. Last month an old woman had been sitting on a bench outside a rum shop in downtown Kingston and a madman sat beside her. The two were seen in conversation and no one thought anything of it until the madman got to his feet and cut off the old woman’s head.
This madman wore only a pair of stained and torn up khaki pants, which rode low on his hips and Persephone saw the architecture of his arms, the dimples and curve of his ass, the relative length of his legs. Check and double check. But still. This was a madman.
“Jim,” she said. “Ahm, this is not gonna work, this is not possible…”
“My God,” said Madison, arriving. “Gold. Goddamn fucking gold.”
“Come with us,” Jim said to the madman. “We just wanna talk to you. Are you hungry? Thirsty? We’ll buy you lunch, a drink, whatever you want. Just for some talk.”
“Jim,” Persephone said again. The rain was starting. That would clear the spectators who were not in cars. “You can’t…”
“What? Let’s go eat. Where’s the harm in talking? We can eat in that jerk place over there, right where you’re parked. Come with us,” he said again to the madman. “What’s your name?”
The madman did not answer. There was a cacophony of car horns, as those drivers who were farther away and unable to see the intriguing tableau on the sidewalk expressed their frustration. The rain started in earnest. “Come. Let us buy you lunch,” said Madison to the madman, her eyes alight with avarice, no doubt imagining the contract a madman might sign. She dug in her handbag, took out a scarf worth a few months of Persephone’s pay, and skillfully covered her head. The madman said something, but too softly for anyone to hear. Then he turned his face to the falling rain and opened his mouth. The rain carved streaks in the dust on his face and he looked blissful.
Persephone was becoming drenched. For a second, she envied the madman his lack of clothing and could imagine the freedom of accepting rain as a personal shower on her own skin, the freedom of having nothing worth losing. She risked touching his arm, and instantly he lowered his gaze to hers.
“Come nuh?” she said to him in Jamaican. “Di white people-dem waan buy you lunch. Dem naah hurt you.” She saw his eyes focus slowly and then she saw intelligence blaze in his eyes.
“Will,” he said, in a scratchy voice. “My name is Will.” Huh. Standard English. “Come,” she said again. She led him across the road in the downpour and the white people followed. No question; her shoes were ruined.
The security guard remained in his shelter with the door closed as they ran into the jerk restaurant. Naturally, the wait staff would not allow a half dressed madman inside. The rain hammered the zinc roof of the verandah where they waited, while Jim negotiated with a supervisor. Persephone tried to make a plan. Assuming they were allowed to eat, they could do that. She was hungry, she realized. The Americans could try to talk to the madman—Will, she said his name in her head— and they would quickly see what they imagined was quite impossible. Will would have no education, no passport, no driver’s license, no home and no behavior. He would be a crack head or a schizophrenic. He would be unable to manage the simplest of the many demands of modeling. He might look like the statue of an ancient Greek warrior carved not from marble but from some fine-grained tropical wood, mahogany perhaps, or the old yacca of the Blue Mountains, but he was, inescapably, a Jamaican madman. After lunch, which Persephone hoped would last until the rain stopped, they would simply drive away and leave the madman of South Avenue on the sidewalk. She hoped her boss would not be too angry with her, as it seemed clear Jim and Madison would not find their male face of 2015 before the first flight out the next day.
They waited. Jim’s arms waved and he wore a big smile on his can-do American face. Persephone could see the restaurant was empty— the lunchtime crowd had gone. That was why she’d found a parking space. Her stomach growled. She dug in her handbag for a tissue and wiped her face. Will stood immobile, his eyes closed. Persephone saw Jim shake the supervisor’s hand and she knew they were in.
Half a jerk chicken. Or slices of jerk pork. Thick, with a rim of fat. Hardough bread. An ice cold Pepsi, or at the very edge of dreaming, a Red Stripe beer, the bottle slippery with condensation. Were these things possible, could they come to pass in front of him, at a table, his to eat as slowly or as quickly as he wanted? Will’s mouth filled with saliva. He kept his eyes closed because he wanted to heed only his sense of smell, until he was either evicted from the restaurant or eating what he could smell. Could taste. The last thing he had eaten was a desiccated bun, slightly mouldy on the outside, behind Chang’s on Half Way Tree Road. When had that been? Yesterday, he thought. He pushed all sound away – the distant negotiation of the white man with the supervisor, traffic, the rain over their heads. Living on the streets meant you learned how to push things away, even things happening to you. He had not been born on the streets; he often wanted to explain that. He had grown up eating at tables. He had held knives and forks and spoons. He had failed to finish what was on his plate and pushed it aside. He had bent his head to say grace, led by his mother, the Christian. He had watched her cook, even as she tried to shoo him from the kitchen. He used to think he might be a chef, crisp and authoritative in a white uniform. Now his body knew the territory of certain words— eviction. Expulsion. Revulsion. Rape.
He felt someone touch him and he gathered himself. Now he would discover what the next half hour would bring. He opened his eyes. It was the fat browning who had touched him. “Come nuh, Will,” she said. “We a go eat.” If only there were a god to thank.
The white man was holding out a shirt and Will put it on. He had worn shirts. The last one had been bloodied and torn from his body and he had used it to clean his wounds. He had left it on the asphalt of Mandela Park and limped away. He wondered if he would be allowed to keep this one; he thought he probably would. No one would wish to wear a madman’s shirt.
They sat at a table almost completely hidden behind a big potted palm. They were not fully sheltered from the rain, so they had to sit too close to each other on one side. Will saw the two foreigners and the Jamaican were breathing shallowly. “What you want, Will?” the white man said. “Jerk chicken? Pork?” Let it be enough, Will thought. Please. Enough. Let it be too much to finish. Just this once. He lowered his head. He did not want to see the face of the waitress who had just walked up to them. He knew it would be rigid with disdain. He did not want to see the faces of these strange people who sat with him at a table in a restaurant. He knew they wanted something from him. The only thing he did not know was whether they would take whatever they wanted without his consent.
The white man ordered food. Will struggled to understand him because he spoke so quickly with a strange accent. He had not grasped what had been said on the street – something about a new career. Photographs. The waitress came back with plastic place mats and glasses of water. Will drank his water immediately – it was too cold and hurt his teeth.
“So,” said the white man. “My name is Jim, this is Madison, and we want to…”
“Jim. Wait. Let the man eat first.” Persephone turned to Will. “Him waan talk to you, ask you if you waan do sumpn, aarite?”
Will nodded. As long as it came after the food. “What’s your name?” he said to the Jamaican woman.
“Persephone,” she said slowly, sounding out the syllables. No one could ever pronounce or spell the name her father had burdened her with. She often thought about changing the spelling—something like Perseffoney would make life easier. So far she hadn’t faced the paperwork.
The madman met her eyes. “Umm. The Greek goddess,” he said. “Wife of Hades.”
They all stared at him.
The food came. Plates of it. “Help yourself, Will,” the white man said, pushing the chopped up jerk chicken over.
Go slow, Will thought. Soon this will be over. He helped himself to the chicken, the pieces of thigh and leg and breast, and the thick slices of bread. He let the others take their first bites, wanting to keep the meal in front of him, wanting the anticipation. Everything was soon over; the bad and the good. He saw his bloody shirt again. He was big now, but as helpless against a group of men as he had been as a fourteen-year-old against one man. The others ate with their fingers. The madman picked up his knife and fork.
The white folks gulped their sodas. Will knew the food was too peppery for them. He ate slowly, imprinting the flavors in his mind, his mouth. The rain stopped. The waitress sat at the bar and watched them. She did not come over to ask if everything was all right. When he could eat no more, he put his hands in his lap and regarded the white man.
“What is it you want?” he said.
The white woman spoke. “We’re talent scouts. From the U.S. We’re on contract from a big modeling agency in New York. Image Incorporated, have you heard of it?” She rushed on, aware of the stupidity of the question. “Anyway. That doesn’t matter. The point is— we’d like you to come with us now. To a photo studio. To take some photos. We have to do it this afternoon, because we leave tomorrow. We can pay you fifty dollars for today. U.S. dollars. If the photos are good, you could be a model.”
Rescue, Persephone thought. For a madman. Suddenly it all didn’t seem so ridiculous. Who was this man, this street person, who ate with a knife and fork and knew the provenance of the name Persephone?
“Yu unnerstan?” she said to him, and immediately regretted the patronizing words. Of course he understood. But he was so still, so silent.
“That’s all?” he said. “Pictures?”
“That’s all for today,” the white woman said.
Jim paid the bill. In the parking lot, glances were exchanged between the two white folks, and the fat Jamaican woman and Will knew they were considering the obstacle of having him in their car. He knew people thought he smelled bad, but he thought he smelled like the street—of diesel fumes and smoke, garbage and wastewater—smells that were tolerated unless emanating from a human being. He stood a little apart from their whispered conversation. He made a bet with himself – although they could all fit in the car, the white people would take a taxi. He would be driven to the studio by the Jamaican woman.
Persephone wound down the windows and breathed through her mouth. She thought it would take weeks before the lavender scent of her air freshener could be restored to the interior of her car. She hated traffic. She hated the city. She hated her job. She turned up the radio— what was there to say to a madman?
Your parents were teachers?” Will said. She noted the absence of the word “Miss” at the end of his question.
“My father. He was old school. And plain old when my mother had me. Why you ask that?”
“Your name. My father too. A teacher, I mean. He loved Shakespeare.”
Persephone wanted to ask how he came to be on the street. It felt too intrusive, like asking about someone’s sex life. “He’s dead, then?” she said. “You lost your parents?”
“No,” Will said in his unused voice. “They’re both alive. Live in Red Hills now. I grew up in Kingston Gardens. Family house on the edge of downtown. My father was the history teacher at George’s until he retired.”
They pulled into the parking lot of the studio. The Americans stood on the sidewalk. “Will, wait,” Persephone said. She wanted to caution him somehow, but about what? She wanted to excuse herself and she wanted an explanation from this sane, sober, stinking, and starving madman. He looked at her steadily and she thought he knew the exact phrases she wanted to utter. How did you come to this? How can I be sure it will never happen to me? He got out of the car and walked over to the Americans.
Inside the modeling agency, Will’s arrival shattered the order of the day. People came from their offices and whispered in corners. Heads were shaken. Appeals were made to management. But Jim and Madison were cloaked in American certainty and all was overcome, beginning with a shower in the outside guard quarters. Then Will was wrapped in a too-small towel and made to walk back through the office full of appalled workers to the dressing room for the studio. Their stares were soap on his skin, for his belly was full. He felt a strange kernel in his throat and slowly recognized it as amusement. He heard the Americans organizing someone to go to the New Kingston Mall to buy new clothes. “Extra large,” yelled Madison.
“Pant length at least 36 inches, no, maybe 38,” said Jim.
Persephone came out of the restroom. She had combed her hair and reapplied makeup. Her clothes were still damp but not visibly so. She wondered if the madman would need an agent.
Will sat in the dressing room. The air conditioning made him shiver. He wanted to sleep. The couch on which he sat was too small for him to stretch out. The tiles were cold on his bare feet – his shoes had been taken away. He thought of his parents with the familiar vortex of loss and rage. It was easy not to think of them while he lived on the streets. Here, with a roof over his head— awaiting store bought clothes, not hungry, not afraid, not dirty— it was harder to push his mother and father away. He thought of them seeing his face on the cover of a magazine, on TV, on a huge billboard somewhere important, like New York. Would they contact him then? Say they were sorry? Ask him for money? Had they died, in the four years since he had last seen them? He sometimes read the death notices in discarded newspapers, looking for their names.
The model agency’s photographer came up to Persephone. “Damn foolishness, eeh?” he said, and she knew it was rhetorical. She shrugged. “So you don’t recognize him?” he said.
“No. Should I? You know him?”
“I don’t know him. But him was on TV with the others. Him so tall, him hard to miss. Him is one of them batty bwoy the police run outta the house on Millsborough Avenue. You don’t memba? How all the homeless batty bwoy them move inna the uptown house and carry on with them nastiness and the police run them and the owner send a bulldozer and lick down the house clean-clean?”
Madison handed the new clothes to Will. The shirt was still in its plastic wrapper; the jeans were ripped and faded— and brand new. He dropped the towel and turned his back to the American woman, showing her the fading sunset of his most recent bruises. He slid his arms into soft short sleeves and left the shirt unbuttoned. He held the jeans but did not put them on. Then he faced her and saw the lick of desire in her eyes.
“We’re gonna make you rich and famous, Will,” she said.
Image credit: Street. Annie Paul
An earlier version of this story appeared in Eleven Eleven Journal.
Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican writer and environmental activist. She has written four published novels and numerous short stories. She was the Caribbean regional winner for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story prize in 2012. Her forthcoming novel, Daylight Come, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in 2020.