Since starting high school, every morning at half past six, Samantha waited for the maxi taxi by the blinking orange traffic light at the corner of the main road and Pommerac Trace. Every morning, she faced Bronze Hotel and contemplated its saffron yellow sign. The hotel was surrounded by high concrete walls spiked with broken glass. At the front, there was a steel gate with a lion painted on it. The animal’s cartoonish eyes usually made her smile. What she didn’t know was that Bronze Hotel was one of the most notorious brothels on the island.
But now, in her third year, something was making her nervous. A man had started waiting on the corner too, whistling and swinging a thick metal pipe in his hand. She turned away from him and looked at the speeding cars, her heart drumming in her shoes. She knew he was barefoot — his feet unwashed, the soles cracked and ingrained with dirt. On some mornings, he wore a sun-bleached, short-sleeved cotton shirt. He never buttoned it, leaving his chest naked, the pale sun dancing off his ebony chest. His stained cut-off jean shorts hugged his muscled thighs. In her head, she called him Pipe Man. She looked at her Casio watch and edged away from him.
“I wonder if Hannah Maharaj really know about she student them. Gyal who does pretend to study book but who only studying how to take man!” Pipe Man shouted, twirling the pipe in Samantha’s direction like an expert cheerleader.
She stared into the lion’s surprised eyes and winced, afraid that Pipe Man would raise his weapon and slam it on her head.
Pipe Man approached her with broad, surefooted steps. She held her breath and looked at the lion. The man reeked of stale sweat and dirt. He stared at the school uniform clinging to her shape, her bare face, her hair scraped back in a ponytail.
She waited for the crash.
“Huh!” he uttered and sauntered away.
She deflated inside, relieved that the morning had passed without incident. The maxi taxi arrived. Most of the students were asleep, resting their heads against the windows. They didn’t see Samantha’s eyes jumping with fright. She stepped into the air-conditioned interior and collapsed on the seat.
At three o’clock, the maxi taxi dropped her off at the same corner and she started the long walk home. Along the way, she skipped over empty juice cartons and plastic bags. She held her breath when she passed the clogged drains. On rainy days, she walked around flooded potholes, motor oil rainbows shimmering on their surfaces. On hot days, the asphalt road boiled and bubbled. No matter how many times she avoided stepping on the bubbles, the pitch always stained her white sneakers. Even after she scrubbed her shoes with Breeze washing powder, the asphalt left behind Lipton tea-brown marks.
On afternoons, Pipe Man was surprisingly absent. However, there was another stalker. This one she called Coke Man. Like Pipe Man, his shirt was also weathered, sweat soaked, and unbuttoned. His ribcage pressed against his coconut brown chest and his legs were long and hard like dry bamboo. His face was all angles from digging dirt, sniffing too much coke, and starving. Razor-sharp chin. Razor-sharp nose. Razor-sharp cheekbones. His hungry yellow eyes sank deep in their sockets, gobbling up Samantha’s behind.
Coke Man usually stayed some distance behind her, muttering, “Beautiful, what you learn in school today?”
Even though the question seemed innocent enough, his tone made her feel slimy. She gripped her backpack and pulled it closer to her body. Oh, how she wished she could just snap her fingers and arrive home but the asphalt road snaked ahead, fat and unyielding like a macajuel.
She remembered her mother’s warnings. “When the maxi drop you on the corner in the evening, just walk straight until you reach home. Even if the sun hot or the rain falling, come home. Don’t stop and lime nowhere.”
Twenty minutes to go.
In the afternoon heat, doors and windows were locked tight. Behind a low wall, a pompek spotted her and Coke Man. It started yapping. When she saw its needle-sharp white teeth, she swerved away from the edge of the road.
Coke Man stopped to taunt the pompek. He cursed the dog, his voice tight and hot like scorpion pepper. Then, something glittering in the drain caught his eye. Temporarily, he forgot Samantha and the pompek and jumped in. She exhaled and wiped the sweat trapped in her eyebrows. Her heart pounded as she scuttled along the asphalt snake under the white-hot sun.
Halfway down the road, a third man, the color of molasses, spotted her. Every afternoon, he stood in his front yard, waiting for her. She called him Nasty Man. He stood with his hands on his waist, his paunch pressed against his dirty white singlet.
When she passed, he licked his lips and said, “Good afternoon, family. It steaming today, eh sweet ting? Yuh shouldn’t have that beautiful face in the hot sun.”
Nasty Man’s words dripped with a poison she couldn’t understand. She hastily wiped her sun-scorched cheeks.
A little girl with pigtails trundled around the front yard on a tricycle with pink tassels. Samantha bristled. She turned away from Nasty Man and hurried along. He smirked. The child fell off the tricycle and wailed. Nasty Man rushed to the little girl crumpled on the concrete.
“Baby girl! You get a boo boo? Come let Dada kiss it! Bah!”
So Nasty Man was a big hardback man with a child and he was hitting on a schoolgirl? Disgusting! Samantha shuddered under the sun but sped off. She soon broke the corner.
Her house opened its arms, calling her.
Only fifty metres to go.
This afternoon, however, she had a new stalker. A grizzled old man sitting on a lady’s bicycle appeared on her right, hemming her against the road edge and the smelly drain. She called him Old Man.
Old Man’s mildewed eyes burrowed under the pleats of her school skirt.
“Hey beautiful. Nice day to…”
Samantha steupsed. Today was not going to be like all the other days she had walked home. She averaged the distance between herself and her house and gritted her teeth. She faced Old Man directly, her back ramrod straight, her feet more than a shoulder-width apart. She looked him in the eye and cursed him left, right, and centre, the words bouncing off her tongue like the jagged glass that lined Bronze Hotel’s perimeter fence. Old Man gasped and almost fell off his bicycle. With every curse, he shrunk little by little. When she stopped for breath, the lanky old man looked pitiful. Then she ran home. While she struggled to open the front gate, Old Man stopped, his mouth hanging open.
“You is Charlie daughter? I didn’t know…”
She looked at him, her eyes stinging with rage. Old Man bowed his head and pedalled away like a cockroach on two wheels.
Inside the cool house, Samantha told her mother that she was not going to walk home ever again. Her mother noticed her daughter’s red face, clenched fists, heavy breathing, and the molasses-like stains on her white sneakers. The next morning, she gave Samantha some money and told her to take a taxi home from the nearby town instead.
Suzanne Bhagan is a storyteller from Trinidad and Tobago currently based in Japan. Her fiction has been featured in We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the Descendants of Indenture, Moko, and Akashic Books’ Duppy Thursday series. Her travel essays have appeared in Caribbean Beat. She worked briefly at the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian and freelanced for GaijinPot, Savvy Tokyo, and other outlets.