The first night, through the palm branches and bamboo poles of the hut, between the mud and stick brush, I saw horses. I did not actually see them. Their breathing gave them away. It came in snorts like dust storms. I thought the next day they were emissaries, curious and tactful, welcoming my brother and my father and me to the bare savannah grasslands of northern Brasil, in the territory of Roraima – a dry plane near the Amazon rainforest. The horses had every right to come and look. The hut had been empty for ten years. Americans generally went further south. Only spies, renegades and remittance men set up digs this far north. My Dad was a spy and a renegade. So we fell within the constraints. At least he said he was a spy. My brother and I didn’t believe this by 1971. We couldn’t reconcile his being in the funny business with his grins and frailty and humor, with his politics so determinedly left.
‘He’s too obvious.’ My brother had said. ‘Would you trust Dad with a secret?’
We had seen the film, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Richard Burton is a spy because he wears a trench coat and no hat. He drinks all the time and fights with shopkeepers about his overdue account. The Richard Burton spy is handsome, irrational, intelligent, desperate, solitary and looking for work. He meets more stable men in bars, tweedy and groomed, men of rank and steady income on whom his immediate life and prospects depend. A very nice woman loves him and makes sensible meals. She is doomed and lonely. He makes terrible mistakes and cannot patch them because he hasn’t the inclination to look behind or ahead. To reflect. I was comforted and depressed the night I saw this film when I was nineteen. ‘Well, it all fits,’ I said to my brother. He wouldn’t watch the screening. He stayed in the lobby eating rancid popcorn. It was a nice, old repertory theatre in Montreal. They showed old films and sold old popcorn and flat drinks. ‘But the Richard Burton spy is stealthy.’
‘What’s that?’ He had just been expelled from Pomfret.
‘I mean Dad’s not sneaky enough.’
‘You mean he laughs to loud and everybody in a bar can hear him?’
I decided if my father lived most of his life out in the cold, he was not a real spy in one important way: he laughed and made other people laugh. He was not clever. He had a bad temper. He said I love you, ducks so often I grew bored and didn’t know its value. He got drunk and punched rich people and brought homeless people to the house for meals. He was all raw affect. And raw affect disqualified him. I learned this term raw affect from a psychiatrist when I had to go to the hospital after my brother Chris died. He told me my problem was that I had no persona and couldn’t protect myself in the world. But he was cold so I told him that in that moment I felt like I could not protect myself from him and could he please leave me alone so he put a mark on my chart that meant ‘non-compliant’, of which I was proud and worried. I remember thinking Dad didn’t have a persona either. And what else is a spy if not a well-developed persona or two? Dad’s traits offered no coin in that particular realm. But then I read about Harry Lime and was afraid that Dad was just an American spy. Americans are naturally adept at looking innocent and doing terrible things in other peoples’ countries; at least once their terrible impulses are denied them in their own.
I have thought often of the wild horses. They were thin and smelled bad. I loved them instantly. Perhaps they came that first night to warn us. ‘Look at us. We bolted. We’re losers like your Dad. We’re free. We’re not all meant to succeed. Some are meant to fail miserably, then make a run for it.’ I only remember waking on my first night at the farm and hearing their snorts, like alien kisses, not knowing if they meant to run us down or ram their heads against the rickety poles until the hut collapsed. But they just stood there, not doing anything but breathing so gently you’d have thought they were lonely. So I whispered all sorts of things I couldn’t say to my father or brother. They listened until first light when they all bolted as if they’d heard a shot.
In the summer of 1971, when my brother, Graham, was sixteen, and I was nineteen, my father took us to a patch of red clay and sand in the territory of Roraima. It is a triangle of land in northern Brasil wedged between Venezuela and Guyana. Flat savannah land stretches for miles in all directions. The red clay sprouts with low shrubs and clumps of straight-up razor grass. Dad’s newly bought property was a 10,000 acre stretch of beige with a deep, narrow stream on three sides. Palms grew forty feet high on both banks. The Amazon rainforest was a green line on the horizon. He’d bought the land for one US dollar an acre. The new Pan-American Highway cut straight through the village, past its environs, down to the Rio Branco and then south. Still a broad dirt road, rutted and bumpy, the idea was that if you bought land on either side of the new highway, it would turn a profit once paved and clogged with traffic. It might take ten years. But people sensed a boom.
My brother had been sent down from school for drugs. I think it was cocaine. He could ride a unicycle, and dismantle and restore any conglomerate from a watch to a chemical formula. Fair, strongly built, with heavy brows and a full mouth, we looked most alike of the family. At the age of six, on warm days, he’d worn, exclusively, dirty white underwear, which made him something of a hero among his peers. One Sunday in July he raced down the back alley to the neighbor’s house, ate their five plates of steaming SpaghettiOs, a staple in the fifties, (while the resident family dawdled over hand-washing) sped home, jumped through the low, open dining-room window where we now sat for our early supper, beat his chest, bellowed the whole Tarzan bellow – no small vocal feat for a child – shouted the word SpaghettiOs, laughed hysterically, sat, and cleaned his plate. It was the sort of thing you’d have missed had children been diagnosed with manic depression in the late fifties. And I have been forever grateful for the lag in psychiatric punctilio. Neither my brother nor I would have survived an early psychotropic dosing. So my brother was sent down from school and I had run off to Paris a year earlier, fallen in love with a shallow, married Sicilian, made an LP of folk songs and sung, once, at the Vieux Colombier. Then I had a nervous breakdown which no one knew about. But then, I knew after Saigon that something was wrong.
I don’t know what we expected but the ‘farm’ looked like a refugee camp the inhabitants had abandoned under fire: a trunk, spools of barbed wire, a gun, burlap bags of corn and onions, boxes of tinned goods lay abandoned on the road. And there, at rubble’s end, home: a small hut with four burnt-toast walls and a rattan hat.
My father bought ten thousand acres of this land in South America after Saigon, where my sister and I thought he had died. I wasn’t sure why he’d chosen Brasil except the land was a dollar an acre. But he said he wanted a soybean farm where we might live out our days drinking cool drinks on a veranda at dusk. ‘Soybeans,’ he said, ‘are the future of Brasil.’ He had assurances the local government would provide trucks and tractors and limestone and seed to anyone willing to cultivate the land. The property owner had three years to make a working farm. After three years, if the soil lay as dead as presently, the land reverted to the government. Dad had had a proper soil study done, which seemed out of character. ‘Limestone,’ he said. ‘You ducks just wait and see what happens. It’ll take, oh, two years. We mix in limestone and stick in the soybean and the stuff’ll grow like crazy.’
We spent our first three weeks in the little hut on the hill. The hammocks were hot and scratchy, infested. My father slept on a rusted bed frame pushed against the wall facing east. He woke cursing at sunrise, then willed his aches away with the aid of his daily rum ration, the cheap Demerara brand. We dug holes, jammed in posts and stretched barbed wire. We did this all day every day then flopped into our hammocks at night. We fell asleep to the BBC on a cracked fifties radio.
From the center of the hut there was an unimpeded view in every direction. All was sand, more sand, and clay dotted with green sprouts close to the soil. Periodically a strange twisted tree, stunted, with gnarled, coarse leaves stood from the flat, or a mud mound, gray, shaped like a giant arrowhead poised on its tail, an impenetrable ant skyscraper. There was nothing else on the plain except a dense stand of tall palms and a row of bamboo close to the front door opening. It was why that night, three weeks in, we saw the fire before it reached us.
‘FIRE!’ My brother woke first. It was about 2 a.m. Thousands of stars gave out a faint cool light. This was the usual savannah night, palely lit, but it was dead silent. No chirps, no trick tricks, no breeze rustling the thatch. First we smelled then saw an orange line marching toward us, a low necklace of flame stretching until it reached the natural breaks, a mile apart, of highway and stream.
‘Jesus. Water.’ Dad’s voice broke. He was up and out before us. He grabbed two buckets and made for the stream. My brother and I fell from our hammocks, took the last two buckets and followed. ‘Rags,’ Dad yelled. ‘Anything. Bags? Yeah.’ His two buckets sloshing, he ran past us to within two meters of the fire wall, dropped the buckets, ran back to the hut and dumped the onions from two twenty pound burlap bags. ‘Here. Soak the bags and then slap at the fire.’ He dunked the bags and threw them at us, grabbed his sheet, dunked it and said, ‘Don’t be scared at the stuff jumping out. The poor dumb things are more frightened than you guys.’
There are two significant things I learned about fire on an open plain: it is weak – one swat with a wet burlap bag doused it, which meant it was starved already – and it democratizes. It took some moments to realize the stinging on my legs was not flames but animals: hundreds of them: creatures – panicked, a jumble of shapes and sizes – leapt crazily in a line inches before the flame like retreating troops. An entire army along the front. Beetles, spiders, toads, roaches, snakes, lizards of every color and size glimpsed for a millisecond – as shards of treasure, silver, gold, bronze – coiled and sprang then banged against my calves before reforming instantly to spring again. But we were allies. All the poisonous horned scaly things and us. They only wanted to escape the flame and we to drown it. And here is what I learned about friendly fire or civilian deaths: time slows in battle, in the fraction it took to recognize and avoid smashing the bag onto a frail form running from death, we did it. And they tried, they strained, I could see it, to avoid us. And if one of these creatures smacked his head or mouth or tail on the flesh of an ankle or foot, it almost said ‘Excuse me’. There was a second when we saw one another. We avoided one another and aimed or fled, respectively, and did no harm.
The next morning my father said, ‘For garsh sakes. Jesus, I’m out of rum. We need a vacation. We’re going to Georgetown.’
I did not hear from Dad after Saigon. I thought he was dead. I waited for months for a letter and none came. Then that Easter I got a small white, embroidered purse with a red tag stitched inside. It read Saigon in gold thread. It looked like a crushed bird. Mailed in coarse brown paper with no card. I thought someone had found this in his belongings. I didn’t tell anyone and hid the purse and wrapping in my closet.
My brother and I didn’t know Dad had worked in Georgetown, Guyana the previous year for a US government-based firm like Halliburton. I think it was KBR or Parsons. This KBR – Kellogg, Brown, Root – is this the one associated with the woman soldier who was gang raped and locked in a shipping crate? Now, they say this never happened. Generally, for American military in a warzone, it’s not a question of where there’s smoke there’s fire. Where there’s fire there’s fire.
My father and brother and I came into Georgetown for four days just as my sister and I had gone into Saigon for four days, during or near an election. My brother and I overheard conversations between cab drivers and hotel clerks. The hotel was booked with American military, Trinidadians and Cubans. I remember vague talk about two parties, one predominantly black and the other Indian. There was trouble between them and a man named Burnham – Oxford-educated, brilliant, but who’d gotten mixed up with the CIA – Burnham was credited with this best and worst of times.
‘He’s a bastard.’
‘But he’s the prime minister, Dad.’
‘Tsk tsk. HA HA! Started out okay and then let his people down.’
Dad booked the cheapest room at the hotel, a tiny space above the kitchen on the second floor in the tall steel and glass cylinder wrapped in balconies. It shot, alien, above the old pink and green cottages at the end of the main street. It seemed all right because the population itself was so mixed that there could be no person and no thing out of place: There were East Indians, Asians, blacks and whites. I was aware of a certain connectedness but an individual spirit, aware of the smells of curry and burnt sugar and the heat.
I knew instantly I hated Brasil. ‘I never want to go back. I love it here,’ I told my brother.
‘Dad said it was once a slave colony.’
This shut me down momentarily. ‘What about America?’
‘Oh. I forgot. Dad let me wear his watch.’ He jangled the timepiece like a lure.
Later that day I heard Burnham’s voice on the radio. My brother and I were alone at the hotel pool except for a slim, pale English girl in a bikini who ignored us. We said ‘Hello’ twice, and she raised one translucent knee to block us out. I do not remember what Burnham said. My brother and I listened as if to a transatlantic account of the Titanic going down.
‘He sounds like the Count of Monte Cristo.’
‘Or Dostoevsky,’ I said, very loudly. ‘Remember, Dad reads Dostoevsky, not a dumb old fifth grade book about sword fights.’ The English girl hid a smile and my brother yelled, ‘Yeah, but Dad says Doasterevsky,’ so I did not look at her.
But then she giggled and offered us a drink. ‘What will you have?’
‘Well, I don’t know.’
‘It’s my treat. Guinness is nice.’
‘I don’t think we should drink beer in the morning without Dad. And we don’t have any money,’ I whispered to my brother.
‘I’ll be seventeen in three weeks and I’m having a piña colada.’
‘If you want to drink that’s fine with me.’
‘You drank at sixteen.’
The English girl sighed and slammed her book shut. My brother whispered, ‘Look! It’s a murder mystery, one of the kind like Mom reads!’
‘Oh well, all right then,’ I said very happy and loud, ‘go on and have a piña colada. And get one for me too,’ but I only sipped mine and it tasted like a sweetened palm tree.
‘I shouldn’t credit Burnham.’
‘Okay,’ I said.
‘He started all right but I’m sure your father’s explained that he’s bunged up everything.’
‘Oh, yes. We’ve discussed Burnham.’
‘Where is your father, by the way?’ I saw her eyes close for a second too long. ‘When do you expect him back?’
‘He’s got a meeting with Burnham. It’s very important. I think they’re discussing election things. Voting and all that sort of thing.
‘Really?’ She put the book in front of her face.
‘Yes, and I expect he’s there right now.’
‘Well, when he returns, tell him Helena asked after him.’
‘That’s Helen with an “a”,’ my brother thought this hysterically funny.
‘How do you know my dad?’
She lowered the book and looked at me straight on for the first time, ‘Darling, every woman in Georgetown knows your father.’
That evening we went to a cocktail party in Dad’s old house on the main street. We walked the three blocks from the hotel in the dark. I asked him about Burnham who he said had gotten mixed up with the Funny Business right from the start, that he was in it and it was too late now.
‘You mean, he can’t get out? Like you, Dad?’
‘He was a smart cat too. Cared about his people and now he’s all buggered up and corrupt as hell.’
‘So is he going to get elected again?’
‘No. I’m pretty sure the Indian party will get in. It’s too late. Burnham’s going down.’
‘Don’t you care who wins?’
‘I do, but it’s complicated. Don’t worry so much, Hun-bun. Your old Dad is thinking.’
I could see my father cared deeply about only one thing in that moment: the reception we might get at the cocktail party we moved toward for a night reconnaissance; his face was red and he laughed too loudly. It was the laugh I recognized when he’d a hole in his shoe and was job hunting.
‘Oh Jack, nice to see you,’ everyone cried in unison when Dad banged on the door and said, ‘Open up, it’s the KGB!’ Then they moved away as a group, which was difficult in a small room, like crowding onto the last meters of a sinking ship. I whispered to Graham, ‘Let’s go,’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ but then I saw Dad make himself a drink in a flower vase, emptying the entire bottle of scotch. He shouted, ‘Put in a word for me with Johnson. Old Baldy needs a job.’ The men in the small room were all Americans working in Georgetown for the same Halliburton-style company. Their wives, five or six women in summer frocks, had ranged themselves along the couch and two overstuffed chairs. They matched the decor, a new, pale chintz, and I remember thinking they looked like painted ducks in a shooting gallery at a county fair because they had assumed their seats as if predetermined, mechanical and metal. They crossed their legs fiercely and did not move except to sip at drinks. They smelled strongly of lacquer and sprays and lotions and soaps and this made me unaccountably sad so I could not think of anything to say and this was taken for rudeness. My brother held his nose.
‘Could you not do that, please?’
‘I have to or I’ll sneeze.’
‘Just sneeze then.’
‘No. I’m holding it in.’
‘Sneeze right now and get it over with.’
‘No. I’m doing a test.’
‘You’ll embarrass Dad in front of his friends.’
‘He doesn’t need me for that.’
I sat on the arm of a wooden chair within the women’s group but it cracked under my weight so I stood quickly and hoped no one had heard the sound. I listened. I felt a bit sick from hunger and standing so still. I did not know that women actually talked of their fingernails in whole paragraphs, with many sentences whose sole subject was a particular shade of polish, and I remember being fascinated and feeling that this talk was probably code for a subject too personal and secret to address directly. ‘You don’t wear polish?’ one woman asked.
‘I bite my nails.’ I held my hands up. ‘See?’ They returned to a discussion of whether red was too strong for a hot climate. And that madras print was back in fashion. I whispered to my brother to listen for Burnham’s name. He made a face, then gestured that he was too busy monitoring Dad’s drink, its size and contents, and reluctantly agreed to spy on the men’s side of the room. The men ringed the bar and chatted of ‘projects’, which I took to mean construction. Parkie pointed at Dad and made a glug glug, stretching his neck and holding an invisible glass over his mouth. He then made a fake yawning face behind the men’s backs but then suddenly raised his eyebrows and his face softened.
He watched Dad drink the entire vat of scotch.
‘I left some things here in November and I’m going to take them now. Best house in all of Georgetown. I fixed this place up didn’t I? She was a wreck like the rest of these damn ugly barns you people live in until I fixed her up. Ti! Look at this yellow wall. Now this yellow and that green in the kitchen are my favorite colors! These damn walls were the color of mud! Nobody else in the whole damn town has this color yellow. I stole this yellow from the post exchange and they can go screw themselves. Ha ha!’
‘What are you talking about over there, ducks?’ he yelled.
‘Um . . . well . . . nail polish.’
‘Jesus Christ! Whoever grew up in Ohio, raise your hand!’ He opened a drawer under the bar then slammed it shut. The men in their own ring pretended not to notice. They held up their drinks as if blocking a strong sun. ‘I hope I can find those gold knives and forks Zia gave me. How many people in the world eat with gold knives and forks! Ha ha! Zia, that old bastard!’ My father leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘They’re really gold plate from a catalogue,’ and then roamed about the room piling a painting, some silverware and a few linen napkins into a cardboard box he’d found in the kitchen. He said, ‘These are mine,’ to which no one protested, so he added a bottle of gin – which he didn’t really like but which was full and unopened. He yelled, ‘Gordon’s! My favorite,’ in a fake British accent and then signaled to us that we were bugging out.
‘Now, Jack,’ said a man at the door, when we were half in, half out, and the man reached to shake my father’s hand, ‘I heard about the business with Johnson and we’d like to have you back but you know you’re with an outfit here, you’re not a lone operative. You take things into your own hands and you can’t expect to keep your jo—’ and didn’t finish because I came quickly to stand behind Dad and smile. The thing about me and my brother is this: we had perhaps two of the nicest smiles you might find among white Americans in a country they shouldn’t be in. Neither guile nor cynicism nor any worldly nor biblical experience had as yet traced itself into our rather soft, full features, so if I did not understand the shift in the man’s features then, I do now. If my father saved us, we saved him. ‘Look Jack, I’ll try. I’ll see what I can do but please don’t go near Johnson.’
‘Thanks buddy. I knew you wouldn’t let me down. I don’t care about those bastards. This is the nicest house in Georgetown, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. It is.’
‘Have you ever seen a nicer yellow and green?’
‘It’s very nice, Jack.’
And when we left it was handshakes all round with promises of invitations to come.
When we got back to the hotel, Dad decided we would make our own pancakes and syrup on a hot plate he always stored in his briefcase. My brother made the batter with sour milk, three eggs, sugar and white flour begged from the kitchen staff. The sugar-water syrup, after an hour of stirring over low heat, was still smelly-sweet tap water and the socket blew so we ate the dried pancakes by the light of Dad’s pipe.
‘Chow down, duckies.’
‘Aren’t you going to have some?’
‘Greatest thing in the world, crêpe suzette by pipe embers. Very romantic! Your sister will like that, eh, duckies? Eh, my Ti? This is like Paris, Hun-bun. Old Paree.’
My brother shouted, ‘That’s French!’ and we heard a man in the kitchen below sing. Beneath this was the sound of perhaps a thousand crickets. It was the first time since we’d come to South America that I did not feel like a zoo animal, trapped and irrevocably apart.
In Brasil I was a stripped, blanched nut. From the diet, I suppose – canned and powdered – my thighs grew and my rib cage and breasts dwindled. I was all orange skin with yellow troll’s hair, my face covered in boils, carbuncles of medieval proportion; I was unrecognizably ugly in four months. There is no turning back after one is scarred about the face. These marks never go. They cannot be hidden once drawn onto that sweet, unforgiving map. But I did regain my hair, its color – reddish brown – and my body, once I returned to Montreal. It’s only now that I’m old that I look the way I did in Brasil. How interesting that the effect of the climate was only to show how I would look forty years hence. An ugly old woman, dried and yellowish, happier than I expected, living in no man’s land, the middle of nowhere, on memories, war stories, like my father, and unlike my father and two of my brothers, somehow, still alive. My brother, Gray, too, is alive. We do not understand why, nor did we covet such long life, but here we are, our respective addictions and madness with us to the end. He makes me laugh. I correct his writing. He cannot spell. He cannot let go of the preschool shame attached to this. He has so many friends. I wish to have this trait for drawing people to me. He wishes to be closer to our mother. Humans, so full of hope, all attachment and violence, such love and brutality, is it any wonder we can never let go of or hold on to anything?
The black book was new and Dad worried over it like a hen who cannot find her eggs and smells human sweat in her nest. ‘May I see?’ I asked.
‘Nope. Top secret, duckies.’
When Dad went to the bathroom my brother said he’d already peeked. ‘It’s a bunch of stuff like “tomatoes, lumber and wire”.’
Dad’s toilette was his usual: army, wartime, literally spit and polish, and the annoying thing was he gleamed in his radiant, fake-English way – jacket and flannels, smoothed hair, wingtips – inside of thirty seconds. Fake, only because he’d learned it in post-war London and never went back to looking fully American. He thought it frivolous to have more than one winter and summer suit and coat and when one set wore out, he simply stole another, preferably from an English friend with a good tailor. And then there was his natural all-weather radiance. I remember thinking it unfair and ironic that a gale couldn’t ruffle his outer order when my brother and I tended to the shabby end of things, at least when near the jungle.
My father said he would meet us in the bar downstairs.
When he’d gone, I said, ‘Did you hear that man call Dad Havana Jack?’
‘I know. It’s a cool name, don’t you think?’
‘Yes,’ I said, but then changed it to, ‘maybe,’ which hesitation I was relieved my brother ignored.
When we got to the bar it was crowded so we had to stand at the door. About forty people had jammed themselves into the room. ‘Dad?’ We finally saw him sitting at a distant table, nursing a beer alone.
‘Hey ducks!’ he yelled and waved us inside.
Standing at the bar was a very tall man, taller than anyone in the room, with a crowd around him. He was not attractive so much as imposing. He would have been attractive but his eyes looked as if they’d been circled with a child’s gray crayon and they lacked depth. He waved a pistol in the air.
‘Never mind, ducks, if he’s gonna wave that thing around, we can’t stay. Can you imagine, waving a gun around inside a hotel?’ Dad laughed and ushered us outside to the pool where there was another bar, a small one, empty, with four stools.
‘Who was that, Dad?’ my brother asked and Dad said, ‘That’s old Fidel himself. And we’d have stayed if he hadn’t been waving that thing around. He knows better.’
‘Fidel Castro! Dad, are you serious?’ I said. ‘How cool!’
‘Jesus, I can’t stand the guy. He talks too much.’
‘What’s he doing here?’
‘This isn’t the old US of A, you kids. This is South America and people have ties that don’t include us. I wonder what Burnham’ll do.’
‘Who?’ My brother said and squashed his face up for me to be quiet.
‘The prime minister. He’ll be outskie pretty soon.’
‘He talks too much.’
‘You already said that.’
That night we asked Dad to tell us about Burnham and what Havana Jack meant and he didn’t answer directly but said he’d been to Cuba after the war. He’d wanted to move there later, in the fifties, with Mom and us kids. ‘Well, you’re mother was pregnant with you, ducks,’ he said to my brother, ‘or no, I guess it was after your brother was born, but we’d been talking about Cuba for years. We were going to make a run for it. Just to get the hell out. And we’d been down to Mexico and met a nice Englishman who ran a place out in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains. I wanted to buy into his place but that didn’t pan out. He sold real estate. Now, can you see your Dad selling real estate? So we thought about Cuba. But then all hell broke loose and Batista skedaddled and it wasn’t safe anymore. I mean not safe for you kids. I couldn’t take you kids there. Most beautiful place in the world. You kids have never seen anything like it.’
‘What was it like Dad?’
‘The way parts of Florida used to be. Read that book by Hemingway.’
‘The Old Man and the Sea. Your old Dad could have been a fisherman and you kids and your Mom would have lived like real people, in a shack on the beach; you wouldn’t have had to grow up with all that money of your stepfather’s.’
‘But he didn’t leave Mom anything.’
‘Heh heh. I know. Imagine that.’
‘So I don’t get it Dad,’ I said. ‘Who is worse, Batista or Castro?’
‘Well, hmm, now, let’s see, which is worse: an old rotten seagull egg smelling up the whole beach or someone who started out good and then became an old stinking rotten chicken egg? They’re both dunderheads. One would have let us ruin the country and then the other one ruined it himself. I don’t know what in the hell happened to Castro or to Burnham. At least Castro’s trying to get rid of that damn naval base. Hasn’t cashed one check the old fartskie US gave him. Heh heh.’ Then he sighed and tsked the way he did when he used to say, ‘I don’t know why your mother married that old man,’ meaning my stepfather. It was a personal sigh. A let-down, skunked in a foxhole sigh. ‘Smartest cat going. Loved his people, but then buggered the whole thing up.’
‘Who Dad, Castro or Burnham?’ my brother asked, but my father was wiping his face and sighing so he hadn’t heard.
‘Who are the worst rotten eggs in the whole world, Dad?’
Dad actually thought about this, which was rare. He raised his chin and squinted. ‘The Indians walk over starving people and pretend they aren’t there. The Indians and the Americans are both pretty bad.’
‘But you like the Indian Party here.’
‘Finest people going in Georgetown. Another culture will bring out the best or worst in people.’
‘But who’s the absolutely worst rotten egg?’
‘An American with some bucks in his pocket in someone else’s country.’
‘But that’s us, Dad,’ my brother said.
‘Yeah. But only a few bucks so we can’t do too much damage.’
Later, when I had read my book for a half hour and my brother gave up waiting for Castro in the downstairs lobby and it was bedtime, Dad went in to the bathroom and I called, ‘You still didn’t tell us why they call you Havana Jack.’
He laughed and said, ‘Cuban cigars!’ and my brother said, ‘See, I told you!’ which wasn’t exactly accurate.
The next day my brother and I did nothing but sit at the pool and try to engage the English girl in conversation. Dad had yelled, ‘I’ll be back, ducks. Go talk to your nice English friend at the pool.’ She was annoyingly beautiful. She had black hair and pale skin and violet eyes so you’d have thought she’d have fried like an oyster. But the sun was no more to her than a gnat, or than me or my brother. I suppose it gave up trying to burn her. I held up my overdue library copy of David Copperfield to impress her and block her out. My brother bought her a gin and tonic and I heard them giggling. I was most angry that it had taken only a single, clear drink that looked as inviolate as she. And how did my brother know anything about a gin and tonic? When my father got back around six, he took us to a small house in a nice section of town, its rooms done up in rattan with muted rugs and sconces. The second floor overlooked the gray sea and the concrete seawall so it felt as if we were on board a modest yacht. Dad knew one of the three marines who lived there. This marine was different from any of the soldiers I’d met in Saigon. You could tell this one actually would have liked a real war zone; you could tell he was miffed to be stuck in Georgetown where there was no identifiable Hamburger Hill. He would never look at me directly so I could stare at him without worrying about being impolite. He was rough, crotchety, in his thirties but looked fifty, with bleached hair. He smelled of cheap scent and had tiny straight lips. He chain-smoked – but sucked the smoke back inside his mouth like he wasn’t going to let even smoke get away – and he spoke minimally, ‘Yep’, ‘Nope’, ‘Uh-huh’ and ‘We’ll git it for ya’, was the extent of his conversation. There was some reference to ‘getting the things on the flight’. And that we were to meet a man in a restaurant in the centre of town the following day. Then he said, nonchalantly, that so-and-so got shot and Dad looked like he was going to vomit with anger. ‘What!’ The marine shrugged his shoulders. Dad said, ‘Shit, it was goddamn Burnham’s people,’ and his face was purplish red so his blue eyes popped. ‘Or our people. Was it our goddamn people?’ But the marine just said something like, ‘Who gives a crap,’ and I knew Dad was mad because he said, ‘Goddamn it, don’t say “crap” in front of the kids.’ Then this marine drove us in a pristine jeep to a party in a big warehouse kind of place. It was a dance for other marines. When we got inside I saw that Dad’s friend was already drunk and he too waved a gun, just like Castro, and Dad told him to put that goddamned thing away, for Christ sake. Then he and Dad left.
‘Don’t leave here even for one second, got it kids?’
‘Because it’s too dangerous.’
‘When are you coming back?’
I remember my brother and I standing in the centre of this warehouse-sized room packed with soldiers in white shirts and khakis but I didn’t see many women. The men were healthy and well fed and agitated like members of some sport team who may or may not get to play this innings so they were perpetually pissed and primed. There was a live band that beat out current pop tunes and a revolving mirrored ball. It sent out shrapnel to the darkest dead corners and I remember the feeling was that of a rural high school dance for angry wallflowers.
‘Let’s go outside, Graham.’
‘Dad said not to leave here.’
‘Let’s wait by the door.’
I remember thinking why did the US need soldiers here, in Georgetown? It made no sense and I wanted to escape the depressing group who had plenty of drink and grub but nowhere to go and who looked so wired they’d have done cruel things just to keep themselves occupied.
Thirty minutes later Dad showed up and took us back to the hotel and we all three drank too much waiting in the bar for Castro to come back.
‘If he comes in, can I go up and say hello?’ I said.
‘You won’t get close enough, ducks.’
‘But he had a crowd around him. I could mix in.’
‘And what are you going to say?’
‘Hello Mr Castro.’
‘And if he says, “Where are you from?”’
‘I’ll say the KGB.’
Dad laughed, which made me feel inexpressibly happy. ‘I can see I’m going to have to watch you like a hawk.’
My brother and I drank too much waiting up for Castro. He never showed and we could hardly move the next morning.
My father was annoyed. ‘Now, you ducks get up right now. Rise and shine. If you can’t hold your liquor, you can’t drink with your old Dad anymore.’
He sent my brother off on some useless errand. My father and I went out to eat a late breakfast. The restaurant was cheap, and cheerful with locals. I never got the sense of any ‘tourists’ in Georgetown, and I was happy to sit with a man Dad seemed to know, as much for company as to offset my father’s lingering grump. This man had waved. He expected us. I could see he knew my father but not well. A quiet man with a simple face, not expressive but open. I had the sense this man was vaguely unpopular, not because he’d done anything wrong, but he was just one of the people who held no power or interest so you might say ‘Hello’ cheerfully enough but would otherwise avoid him. I knew he was the sort of person you ate with when others avoided you. I noticed he did not speak with any marked accent, so I thought he might be an American who had lived here long enough to blend in. The only thing that gave him away was his skin color. It had no color except that of an old leather wallet. It filled his soft face anonymously.
‘Well, how are you, Jack. It’s good to see you.’
‘Doing great. I’ve set my ducks up with their own farm in Brasil. Ti and her brother. Ten thousand acres.’
‘That’s wonderful, Jack. Well, that is truly something. What is the crop?’
‘Really? Innovative, Jack. How did you come by soybeans?’ The man had stopped eating. His plate heaped with eggs and sausage grew cold because he held his fork in mid-air with such pleasure. I wished he would not say Dad’s name so often.
‘We haven’t got the seeds in the ground yet but those government trucks are lined up waiting to help us.’
‘Well, congratulations.’ Then the man’s face showed something like happiness. He looked at me and tilted his head and sighed. His breath smelt of damp wool. ‘God, Jack, you’ve got it made. Every woman in Georgetown falls for you and then you’ve got nice kids and a farm going in Brasil.’ He smiled so sweetly and I noticed his neck was thin and his cheeks showed stubble that he no longer noticed. ‘Your daughter is very pretty,’ he said. I knew he said it because he was so happy. Because he was not lonely for that brief twenty minutes. And because in the order of things, in a place where Americans stationed troops for no other reason than to control a patch of land they considered their own and needed for some reason and which might be slipping away, he had been one of the people hired to quell the slip and his days were numbered, not in terms of life, but in terms of worth. He had become useless. And I think he felt ashamed, which was rare for someone in his capacity, an expatriate American who knew his countrymen’s limitations and who was no more patriotic than a tick. ‘Very pretty,’ he said again.
Without missing a beat, Dad said, ‘Oh Ti’s my duckie, but you should see her two sisters back home. They’re the beauties.’ All the sound dropped away and then I saw what might have been the first complex expression in many years on the man’s face. I stared at him and he stared at Dad. He looked like a man who’s had a knife shoved in his gut but counts two three four before the sensation of pain begins and he looks down in wonder. Then he said, ‘Oh,’ through an almost closed mouth, in a whisper, as if he’d actually said ‘Oh no’ on hearing that someone, an acquaintance, not a friend, had died. I remember being stunned that someone could have a feeling on my behalf that was even stronger than my own. I thought the man was going to cry. I really did and I just couldn’t see that it was that big a deal. And then I felt stupid because I couldn’t even react appropriately on my own behalf so what kind of person was I? Dad said something like, ‘Well, are you in?’ and the man mumbled, ‘No, Jack, I really have to decline. But best of luck,’ and then he vanished. Scraping the chair I noticed a bad smell like cigarettes in water for weeks under the sun and then he was gone. Dad said, ‘Oh hell,’ and clapped me on the back as a kind of apology. ‘You okay duckie?’
‘How’s my ducks?’
‘You know you’re the best looking cat around, duckie.’
‘It’s okay Dad.’
‘What’s wrong, Ti?’ my brother said back at the hotel.
‘Nothing. I just feel like reading. You two go and I’ll see you later.’
‘See you later alligator.’
My brother turned and said softly, ‘You’re supposed to say in a while crocodile.’
‘In a while crocodile.’ He waited until I smiled before closing the door.
My brother came back alone and said Dad was waiting in the bar.
‘He said to come on down and we’re going to have dinner.’
‘I’m not really hungry. But you guys eat and then we can play cards, okay?’
‘You’ll miss Castro if he comes in.’
‘I asked. He’s gone already.’
‘Please come down, Ti.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Okay, then I’m staying with you.’ He bounced onto the bed. ‘Ti, you wouldn’t believe this friend of Dad’s. He was really creepy. I call him Doctor Hook.’ Graham made a face.
‘I think his real name is Cook or something. He looks like he pulls teeth to get people to talk! He was wearing a dentist’s uniform. Doctor HOOK!’ Graham wrenched an imaginary tooth from his mouth. ‘They were talking about somebody. A boy got killed.’
‘Do you think that’s why Dad’s here?’
‘I don’t know. It’s because of the election. And this man and Dad were all buddy-buddy. They actually liked each other. And they kept saying Hey old Burnham’s in trouble. He’s goin’ down with the ship.’
‘Was the man Guyanese?’
‘I guess. Dad really likes him!’
When my brother went back to the bar, I snuck outside to the pool. There was a boy there a few years younger than I. I’d met him the first day and then could never find him again. He was thin with skin and hair and eyes almost the same darkish gold color. I had never seen anyone so smooth, all of a piece, radiant. Dad didn’t like him. Dad called him the Great White Hunter behind his back because the boy said he’d grown up in Guyana and had walked barefoot through the jungle and across the Takutu River into Brasil many times and that he’d come visit me if I liked. I didn’t really believe him about walking barefoot in the jungle but I liked him. When I saw him by the pool, I knew he’d been looking for me. We talked a long time and when I asked him about the elections, he said two Indian men had been killed, and one of them was very young. I said, ‘You mean our age?’ and he said ‘Yes.’ I asked him if Burnham had done it and he said, ‘Everybody thinks so. Someone from Burnham’s party.’
‘Maybe an American?’
‘Someone with the CIA?’
He just said I was crazy. That this wasn’t America. ‘Nobody cares about America here.’
‘But I think my Dad’s in the CIA.’
‘No he’s not. Your dad’s an engineer. Everybody knows him. He took some money from Robert Parson or something. He sure gets around.’
‘Well, never mind. Don’t tell me any more.’
Then he asked me to go for a drive. I went into his car with him. We parked near a streetlight a few blocks away and kissed but an entire army of stray dogs surrounded us and barked so we had to move. We drove to what was the town dump, a desolate flat sandy area with rising garbage mounds high as small hills. Smoke rose from the garbage piles and a heavy blossom smell fought with the rot. We had kissed for a few minutes and I had taken off my dress when suddenly four men, perhaps five, I couldn’t see, jumped at every door of the old car and in the same second I saw them my friend slapped the locks of all four doors. It was too dark to see details but I could make out four or five man-shapes wielding bats or pipes or sticks. The back window cracked and a man screamed ‘She naked!’ and they all laughed. It gave my friend time to twist the key in the ignition. The engine screamed and he rammed the gas pedal. I remembered later, when I told my brother, when Dad wasn’t around, wasn’t it lucky the windows had been shut and my brother said Don’t ever do that again, but I only regretted that my friend and I had not had time to make love.
‘They laughed when the man said I was naked.’
‘Don’t tell me.’
‘Am I funny looking? Lots of people think I’m pretty so I’m not funny looking.’
My brother turned away. ‘Well, that’s not the important thing, Ti.’
I think I said my friend’s name in my sleep that night.
‘Where’s the Great White Hunter?’ Dad said the next morning,
I told him we knew about the boy who got shot by Burnham’s people and Dad said ‘Jesus, don’t say that here!’ Then he sent us upstairs to pack. I left a note with the hotel clerk with instructions to give it to my friend: Please come visit me and walk barefoot through the jungle. Just ask for the Americanos because we’re the only ones. Graham found the English girl by the pool but she said, ‘You’re only sixteen,’ and wouldn’t speak to him.
About a week after we got back to Brasil, we found an anaconda in our bathing spot. Dad had built a wooden platform that spanned the stream’s width – about twenty feet – where we soaped and then poured buckets of water over our heads. There were no banks leading to the water’s edge. It was as if someone had come along with two great knives and cut a black channel, mysterious as a black hole in space, one of those places where if you got sucked in you wouldn’t die, but you’d be in a parallel universe and never get home. You couldn’t see past the surface. And then when I was bathing alone, an anaconda showed its bullet head from the black glass. The snake stared for about fifteen full seconds. Maybe he decided too big or stinks but I had the sense he hesitated despite a terrible hunger. There was an actual calculation in his movement if not his eyes – which were simply too foreign and slant for me to discern. He could have got me. The backward teeth could have grabbed a limb because I had bent my head to rinse my hair. My head was down and my vision blurred by water. It was only after I rubbed my face with a towel that I saw the snake’s head. He’d already risen. I was crouched on the rickety platform. He’d only have had to grab and wind for me to tumble forward into the water. And there I would have drowned in a string of bubbles. And it would have been a waste because I do not think anacondas find humans palatable and it was only an indication of his hunger that the snake made his attempt. They only eat three or four times a year. I ran back to the hut and told my brother and Dad. ‘I’m sure he’ll be gone by now,’ I said. But Dad said, no, the snake will wait because he had caught a scent. That he must have been terribly hungry. That it was too late now, he would have to kill him. And that this sort of snake always had a mate. Dad went down and waited all day behind some brush until the snake reared his head again and then shot him. He brought him back and skinned him. The snake was about twenty-seven feet long. What you may not know is that an anaconda is all white inside. He is a nameless, formless white glue with frail bones that holds its shape once the patterned skin is ripped off. Without his skin he is vulnerable. Anonymous, sad, unidentifiable, and he rotted quickly in the sun. Dad went back alone the next day and waited for his mate and shot her. Dad stretched the skin against the side of the whitewashed hut and asked me to pose for a photograph. He said, ‘This will make the cover of Life magazine, duckies.’
My brother asked me that night if there was actually still a Life magazine. I said I didn’t know. Then he said, ‘Why do you really think they call Dad Havana Jack?’ and I said that someday we’d probably find out. And he said, ‘Yeah, I know,’ with an expression like a baby bear’s. When Dad was sleeping, my brother and I took the skin and the dried white goo and the female snake and buried them together down by the steam. We put a cross on the grave. Graham objected to the cross. ‘I saw it in Les Jeux Interdits,’ I told him.
‘It’s a French movie where the kids bury everything and put crosses on the graves because it’s wartime and they’re traumatized.’
He seemed satisfied with this explanation and made no further comment. We told Dad a wild animal had carried off the carcasses.
In 1989, my Mom went to visit a friend in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. At a small party she met a man who said he’d met my father when he worked in Georgetown. ‘I was afraid of that bastard,’ he said. ‘He scared the hell out of me.’ My mother said that this man scared her, that he was small and odd, intense in the way of caved bears after a too-long winter, but she wanted to hear what he had to say. She went home with him to his small, dark flat and ‘stayed longer than I should have so I hope you know what this information cost me’. He told my mother that my father had created an ‘international incident’ in Georgetown. He’d stolen water pipes from the US government and got a crew together and laid them to an outlying village that had gotten ignored by Burnham once Burnham’d got re-elected and distanced himself from the Indian party. ‘God, you mean Jonestown?’ my Mom had said. ‘No, no. It was a village of Indians. The losing party. And they had no running water and Burnham and the US pretty well dumped them and never followed through on the promise to provide water and sewage. And they’d been pushed out of Georgetown by Burnham’s party anyway. I mean who needed the Indians once they lost the election? You could see the way things were going politically. It was no big deal, except your husband raised hell. Well, he got fired. But the locals thought he was a damn hero because he told Burnham to go fuck himself. And when they fired him the locals got together and gave him a bunch of stolen vases, old ones from the Dutch era. And what do you think the son of a bitch did?’
My mother said what and she said she had her hand on the door latch ready to bolt. And the man said, ‘He carted the stuff out through Brasil on a US Government plane. Ended up in Miami. Now that’s balls or nuts if you ask me. Shipping the stuff out on a government plane.’ Mom said, ‘Is that it?’ and the man said, ‘Well, isn’t that enough?’ and Mom said, ‘Yes,’ and ran. She told me this a few days ago when she heard about the release of some CIA documents. They have to do with a CIA plan to assassinate Castro in 1973. ‘So it had nothing to do with your Dad,’ she said. I was annoyed that she’d kept her strange Mexican meeting a secret. She understands why it means a lot to put these pieces of my father together but she’s afraid I will lift up one final stone and there’ll be vermin and crap that I’ll never be able to shake it off. She thinks there is a good chance that someday I may find out what ‘Havana Jack’ means. I did find a photograph of my Dad, young, in his army uniform, resplendent beneath palms. So I am sure this is his Cuba picture. Around 1946 or ’47. There is also a picture of a woman standing in the same spot. She has dark hair. Oh please, I have said, please let it just be that. That the ‘Havana’ has something to do with a woman or love. Either way, there is now, whenever one thinks of Castro or Cuba, Guantánamo. As an American you can say that word over and over again and pray all you like to reach some guiltless solution but the only images that come up are bloody, piss-filled, hooded, like in Abu Ghraib. So I figure that whatever happened then in Cuba, it is eclipsed by what’s happening now. There will come a time, very soon, when we’ll have no way of writing ourselves out of all the places we’ve ruined or tried to ruin or all the people we’ve harmed. When the Guantánamo prisoners will – one hopes, alive and free – be on the cover, they will have their own cover, and tell everything, at last, on some version of Life magazine.
Image © Eduardo Duarte