I know when Kervin is going to visit: the muffler on the old Honda is the first clue. He parks his in the alley by my living room window, a narrow one-lane street with high stone walls on either side. What that means to whomever is in the house is an amplification of the slightest sound: I can hear people breathing heavily as they climb the hill. I overhear every cell phone conversation, every grunt and curse. In the case of Kervin’s muffler, the amplification effect is that of a platoon of military tanks stationed under my window.
The next announcement of his presence comes in the form of the screech of the hinge on the gate—better (and louder) han any doorbell. And finally, the bellowed command, “Miss Judith!” followed by the pounding of a large fist on the front door.
“Hey!” I answer back.
“Whatchu havea car for?” is today’s demand.
“Driving,” I answer.
“Why? You don’t never go noplace. Why you pay for a car?”
I open the door and he enters, dripping rain water on the tile floor.
“Why you waste your money when you never drive?” he asks again, since I haven’t answered the first time he asked.
“Kervin,” I say, “It’s been pouring rain for two days. Where am I going to go?”
“Then why you have it, Miss Judith? You be wasting your money. Could be buying other things wid it!”
“Food. Steaks, maybe. Stuff like that.”
“But if I buy a steak, then I need a car to go get it. “ (I suspect Bert’s for the Best doesn’t have a big inventory of sirloins.)
“No ma’m, Miss Judith. People delivers. You don’t need no car.”
“Kervin, I want a car so I have a choice of whether to drive or not. Choice, Kervin! That’s what it’s all about.”
Although I know he’s been teasing me (at least in part) through this whole exchange, at this point he looks truly puzzled, and it occurs to me that Kervin probably doesn’t understand the word ‘choice’. In this island world, choice isn’t an option: there’s no money, no jobs, limited education opportunities, and The Boat with fresh food only comes once a week. Choice isn’t in the vocabulary of a rocky world surrounded by ocean and ruled by weather.
Which reminds me: I have a load of freshly washed laundry in the machine, ready to hang out to dry.
“How much longer will this rain keep up?” I ask.
I got my rental car yesterday. I hadn’t wanted one during the first week. I was happy here: once inside my little cottage I’m perfectly set for everything—Bert’s for the Best Grocery is a few steps in one direction, Barbie’s Restaurant a few steps in another, and the beautiful Caribbean a half block down the hill. Not much need of a car, really.
But I thought maybe a road trip or two might be in order while I was here and so I texted George Major that I needed a rental, and he texted back that he was on his way. Now, I could probably holler “Bring me a car, George” out my front door and he’d be right on my doorstep, but hey! This is the twenty-first century, even on a remote Bahamian island. So text, already.
Don’t get the wrong impression: George’s rental cars are no prize, even on an island where an automobile is expected to take abuse from bad drivers, salt, unpaved roads, mangrove swamps, sand, and US tourists. George never was much good with engines, and even worse at staying sober, but his mother likes me so I always get my cars from him no matter how questionable the quality. The car he brought me this time was on the cusp of junker-dom: a cream-colored Honda with a menacing groan in the gearshift region and throat-burning aroma of gasoline.
“Roll down the windows, Miss Judith,” George advised. “She’s ok. Just smells a little bit is all.”
What I had forgotten was how useful somebody with a car can be in this village, and within minutes of taking delivery of mine, my phone rang. Brenda was in need of a shopping trip to Rock Sound, our nearest ‘metropolis’. It seems that Shandera was in need of some school supplies—immediately, the next day, for a big exam, just a few things, please?
Shandera’s in the ninth grade, and in the Bahamian education system, the ninth grade is the time students take the BJC exams. Brenda wasn’t sure what BJC means, but she knew the exams were important, and Shandera was studying and studying, and her BJCs were going to be held all week. My friend Google told me that BJC stands for ‘Bahamas Junior Certificate’ examination, which consists of ten subject areas: Art, Craft, General Science, Health Science, Home Economics, Language Arts, Math, Religious Studies, and Social Sciences.
(Before Bahamians graduate from high school they take the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGSCE) usually written at the end of grade twelve. This education system exam structure is British in origin).
Shandera’s exam was in Home Economics, apparently a skill-based demonstration and she needed to take materials to school, Brenda explained. Help, please.
“OK, Brenda. You drive.”
“ME? It be your car, Miss Judith.”
“Yeah, but remember that I haven’t driven on this side of the road for a couple of years, and I really don’t want to hear you say “Thank you Jesus” every time we pass another car.”
“I says ‘Thank you Jesus’ when I’m driving too, Miss Judith.”
“I know, but for some reason when I’m driving I take it personally.”
Shandera’s test in Home Economics was to prepare a ‘party’. Brenda explained that this project involved food, drink, and a decorative table setting. This included a homemade Key Lime pie, a punch, some sparkling cider, fruit and chocolates, champagne glasses and a centerpiece table decoration—none of which were staples in Miss Brenda’s kitchen, I might add.
So off we went, Miss Brenda driving, (Thank you, Jesus.) Champagne glasses and tissue paper first: not an easy list for a remote Caribbean island. After a couple of circles around one block (“I know’d there used to be some kinda party store here once, Miss Judith, but I sure don’t see it now.”) we end up at the Rock Sound Supermarket which had everything: plastic stemware, pie shells, condensed milk, lime juice, chocolates. I bought a portion of the preparations (a girl only takes her JCEs once, doesn’t she?) and $46 dollars later, Brenda and I were prepared for Shandera’s Home Ec exam.
“I do say, Miss Judith, that I don’t know what these education people be thinking. I could feed my fambly for a week on what we’ve spent on just tomorrow,” Brenda grumbled as we shoehorned ourselves into the tiny Honda.
Silently, I agreed. How did the Bahamian Ministry of Education come up with such a wildly impractical idea for an exam question for a girl in a village where every resident barely squeezes out a subsistence living, and then only can do with the generosity of numerous friends and relatives?
Life (and a party) takes a village.
Thank you, Jesus.
“Don’t go to the grocery, Miss Judith,” Kervin warns me. “It ain’t Tuesday yet.”
While that warning may not mean much to anyone else, to the whole Bahamian island of Eleuthera it’s common sense, and if the truth be told it’s one of the things I did remember: it’s why a half-dozen protein bars and a package of Starbucks coffee singles are taking up precious room in my suitcase—so I can last until Grocery Day.
You see, the boat–referred to as ‘The Boat’ by the people who live here (you can hear the capital letters in their voices)—arrives on Tuesday morning bringing supplies to the small mom-and-pop groceries scattered throughout the island. What that means is that there’s one day a week islanders can be sure to have fresh bread and milk and eggs, assuming they’ve planned their shopping trips and limited finances accordingly.
It also means that the tiny market next to my house will do a frantic amount of business for the next 6 hours. And it means that Lord Street will be filled with rusty pickups and junker cars belonging to the patrons of “Bert’s for the Best”, who use Tuesday afternoon not only for this important opportunity to stock up for the week, but also loiter on Bert’s concrete front stoop greeting friends and relatives.
Relatives? On an island this word takes on a new dimension. Kervin is a Culmer, and related to pretty much everybody, it seems. My cottage was built by his great grandfather and is rumored to be the first concrete house in the village. He was delighted when we bought it, roofless and with a large coconut palm growing up through the middle of the kitchen area, and then hired him to remodel it. Since then he’s taken it upon himself to be our caretaker, guide, friend, news source, termite exterminator, and airport pickup taxi whenever we come to Tarpum Bay.
Kervin is also married to Brenda, my closest island friend, and together they are a nucleus for a family unit consisting of Brenda’s grown children, Kervin’s grown children, various aunties, uncles, and cousins, and two grandchildren whom they are currently raising. Like most of the families on this island, they subsist on pick-up work: building, cleaning, cooking, and fishing. And like most of the families on the island, money means very little to them, except as a means of filling immediate needs.
In this world, nobody has any money and nobody ever expects to have any—it’s an almost meaningless commodity. If you have a toothache, pull the tooth. If you need food, go to a relative who has some to spare. If you need company, go sit on a street corner—the weather is always nice.
It’s a friendly world on this Eleuthera—not idyllic, certainly, but welcoming and comforting, a place where people are indeed family, literally and figuratively. It’s a place to which I’m always happy to return, and for which I will gladly eat protein bars and drink instant coffee, waiting until The Boat arrives.
The man had promised them an easy walk. “Only three days through the desert, and we will walk at night, when it’s cool.” It seemed easy enough: the seven men were, after all, young and strong from years of farm labor. And they were used to the heat of Southern Mexico. “Just bring plenty of water and wear hats and shirts with long sleeves”, he told them.
They were eager to cross the border, no matter how difficult the journey. They had dreams: jobs, money to send back home, reunions with friends and loved ones who already lived in America. A few days of their lives were worth it.
Of course it was more difficult than any of them dreamed possible, and the three days he promised them stretched into five. The men left the town of Altar, Sonoma, after a quick stop to offer a prayer to St. Jude, and for $50 a truck took them to the crossing place. They carried backpacks stuffed with water bottles and food which the eager merchants of the border town had been eager to sell at outrageous prices.
The ‘Coyote’, their travel guide, met them at the crossing. Each man paid him two thousand dollars cash, and they set off through the Sonoran Mountains. “I am glad we are all men,” the Coyote told them. “One thing to worry about is the bandits in these hills. They like groups with women and children because such groups move more slowly, and the women are good for sex. Women are given free contraceptives in Altar because everybody knows they will be raped.” He continued, “But even without women, you must still watch for the bandits. They will come after your money if they think you have any.”
The daytime heat was brutal, but the men were used to that. It was the freezing temperatures at night that was the difficult part: because of the thieves they didn’t want to light any fires and their fingers and toes grew numb and icy. By morning they were eager for the sun to rise and the temperatures to climb back up to one hundred degrees. Hunger, too, was always with them, and constant thirst. At one point they found a nopal cactus plant. Their guide showed them how to scrape away the spines and feast on the deep red fruit. It was filled with seeds, but it refreshed them and gave them nourishment.
They slowly trudged north. Sometimes the Coyote would walk behind them and brush away their footprints with a branch, and at other times the helicopters would swirl overhead, and the men would crouch under whatever cover they could find. At night, distant headlights on the two-track surveillance trails would send them to the ground, flattened and shivering, pressed hard against whatever depression or slope was near.
The obstacles continued: nosebleeds from the extremely hot and arid daytime temperatures, scorpions and snakes, and ‘jumping cactus’ with spikes that seemed to travel through space and attach themselves painfully to bare flesh.
The foothills of Baboquivari Mountain had been their first land mark; now, five days later, they spotted the lights of the radio tower which marked the presence of Arizona State Route 86 and the pickup point located several hours beyond the two-lane highway. The Coyote warned that Route 86 was the last and most dangerous obstacle, under constant watch by the authorities. Silently, the men slipped to the other side of the road by wiggling through the corrugated metal storm water sewer pipe underneath it.
The rusty white pickup came for them shortly after sunrise of the sixth night, and they climbed into in the blazing hot truck bed to lie covered with dusty tarps which smelled of chicken droppings. Two hours later they were at last in Phoenix in a secluded parking lot, and their lives had changed.
As if in welcome, the Arizona sun disappeared behind a swollen gray cloud and they were dancing in the cleansing, life-giving rain.
(This writing prompt was furnished by Patricia Ann McNair)
“I haven’t been down here all that long, just a couple of months. The problem was with my Mom’s new boyfriend. He didn’t much like me to begin with, said I was always getting in the way. Problem was, he got pissed off when I called the cops because he was beating on her. I can’t sleep when he’s hollering and she’s screeching and they’re breakin’ stuff in the house. And then every now and again he wants to beat on me too, or get me in bed with him.
“I mean, I gotta get sleep so’s I can go to my job, don’t I? It’s a good job, working at the hotel. Pays good, and I get some leftover food from the kitchen when they got a big convention or something.
“Anyways, one night Mom and him was carrying on like forever, so I just got mad and left. Took my stuff and went to the park down by the river behind the hotel. Nobody bothered me that night, though later I found out that the bushes I was in was a regular spot that some old guy usually takes over, but he wasn’t there that first time.
“I tried to find me an apartment or a room, but I didn’t have enough cash except for a couple of really bad places and I decided I’d rather be on my own. Some guy told me about a way down into the storm water tunnels under the street and I came down here and found this place and I’m really liking it. I got this corner back in here, see, and it’s raised up off the floor so nothing gets wet when it rains real hard, which it don’t all that much out here in Vegas.
“I lucked out, finding this place. There’s a couple hundred people down here and some of them is real private and get mad when you get in their space. But the old whore that had this before me died, and everybody picked the place clean within an hour after they dragged her out of here, I came by and got it, and it’s just fine. It’s out of the weather, don’t get too hot down here, not like outside anyway. I mean when it’s over a hundred degrees on the street, it’s only about eighty underneath it. I got this old sleeping bag, and some blankets and a pillow from the hotel, and a flashlight. I go to MacDonald’s before work to put myself to rights and get some coffee. I don’t need much else.
“Biggest problem is getting in and out of here: I wear heavy boots because there’s snakes and spiders and broken glass and lots of needles. Then the big storms come and this water can rise about a foot an hour and that’s scary too, plus it brings all the crap off the streets, butts and bottles and whatever else the rains bring down here.
“I got friends in this neighborhood. Some of them are druggies, crystal meth mostly, and almost everybody gambles, or used to. Now they’re just silver miners, checking the slots for cash that got left behind, dumb tourists. Most of them are like me: just want to be left alone, do their thing.
“I like being one of what they call the mole people, and I got no plans to leave right away. It’s peaceful down here, not much to worry about. I clean up for a work day, go to a tunnel entrance, walk a few steps, and I got food and a little money. No debts. No nasty boyfriend beatin’ on my ass.
“What’s not to like? As long as I stay on my toes and watch out for Number One, I don’t have any complaints.”
She had waited for hours for him, followed his directions exactly. He had been so precise about what he wanted, so very specific. Bring the old boat, he said, and pull it in behind that spit of land on the south end of the beach. Get as far back into the inlet as you can so that you’re hidden from anyone passing by.
He wanted to meet early, just before dawn, and so she had slept lightly, awakened in the dark, silently slipped into shorts and a sweater, and left the house carrying the blanket and a bottle of water. The boat was a problem: she pushed away from the dock and paddled it out into the dark, waiting until she was far past the neighbor’s beach before starting the engine.
Dawn came in a soft light, and gradually the dark shape of shore rose out of the water. She maneuvered the boat into the cove and by full daylight it was tucked safely back into the shelter of the cove, silent but for the tiny licks of waves against the port side. She waited, huddled under the heavy wool blanket, motionless as stone.
By noon he had not come. The sun was warmer now, almost hot, and her heart was pounding. Did I mistake the time? The place? Could he have meant somewhere else, or some other day?. Did he change his mind? Is he injured or ill? If I wait any longer, how will I explain where I’ve been? She climbed out of the boat, stretched cramped legs and waded into the water for a better look, fear catching her breath and binding it tight in her chest.
It’s going to storm, she thought. He’s not coming. She splashed her cheeks with the cold water and climbed back into the boat.
I will not cry, she promised herself, more in anger than in sadness. I won’t.
She pointed the boat north toward home.