Photo credit: Axel Hesslenberg
Helen Klonaris is this year’s British Council Small Wonder Writer in Residence. Helen will be attending all events in the Festival and writing a response to the experience. She is also joining us on Sat 30th September for our Welcome to the Caribbean event. To give you an idea of how great she is, we’ve managed to convince her to share one of her stories from her debut collection If I had the Wings, available now from Peepal Tree Press. ‘Cowboy’ is a fascinating, perfectly crafted short story which lays bare social and migrant community tensions in contemporary Bahamian society. Through the eyes of a young girl and her story of childhood guilt, the writing turns on a six-pence (or dollar bill at least) to set up a bold critique of the underlying myths of overbearing globalisation, which pervades the local society through exploitative tourism, rags-to-riches ideologies and the cultural diffusion of John Wayne-style Westerns… enjoy!
The first Saturday Mr. Lebreton came to work in our backyard I was in my room looking at a catalogue picture of the woodcraft construction kit my father said I couldn’t have because I was a girl. With the kit I could make four miniature wooden houses, and I thought I could sell them to tourists and make a profit. My father said I had a good head for business, but girls didn’t do that kind of work. Still, I wasn’t giving up.
I don’t know what made me notice Mr. Lebreton; maybe because he was so tall he had to duck to walk across the porch, or maybe you always remember what was there in front of your eyes in the moment you felt a certain longing. How the person –tall, lanky, brown skin– became confused with the feeling of wanting what you couldn’t have. I sat at the foot of my bed biting my thumb nail and imagined hammering wooden walls together, pitching the tiny roof, adding a border of picket fencing, and then painting each house in colours I thought tourists would like: turquoise like the sea, yellow like the sun, all the little fences white like every picket fence I had ever seen. I imagined my father would forget I was a girl and be proud of me instead; I felt if I couldn’t have that kit, I would never really know myself. And then I looked up and saw through my bedroom window Mr. Lebreton crossing the porch, something hesitant and gentle in his stride as he followed my father into the backyard. I had never paid much attention to the garden before. But now I wanted to be in it too. I left the catalogue lying on my bed and went to lean against the white porch banister.
My father was showing Mr. Lebreton around the garden, gesturing to the weeds, and the patchy grass that was already long and wispy and looked, my mother said, like people don’t live here. Mr. Lebreton watched my father’s hands and nodded yes in response. There had been two gardeners before him, but each had left one day and never come back. Police raids, my father had said; they round them up and send them back to Haiti. A shame. But since my mother believed that having a gardener meant we were coming up in the world, my father hired another Haitian without papers and hoped for the best.
When my father was done showing him around, he said so, your name, how you call yourself? Mr. Lebreton’s voice was raspy and soft and I couldn’t hear his reply, but I heard my father’s voice loudly, well, from now on, your name is Cowboy, understand?
Cow-boy, my father enunciated. Mr. Lebreton nodded, yes, yes.
I knew my father gave him the name Cowboy, just like he’d chosen new names for the first two gardeners, because it was a name he could pronounce, and a name, my father would have said, that might grow into something here in this new soil. My father took the name from watching John Wayne movies on American channels Sunday afternoons; we sat all three of us on the couch in front of the TV, me in between my father and mother, and when the movie got going, my father would repeat John Wayne’s lines, imitating John Wayne’s accent, the calculated drawl of his voice. Later, in the evenings after dinner, when he thought no one could hear or see him, Baba would walk the length of the back porch, his hips thrown forward, his legs turned slightly out, his arms loose and cocked at the same time. Watching from my window, sometimes I saw him pretend to draw a gun from a nonexistent holster and aim it at an invisible foe. When he came back inside, he would clear his throat and ask my mother if it was time for bed. To which she always replied, I don’t know, Van, is it?
Baba named the first two gardeners John and Wayne, and I suppose after a few futile attempts at fishing around for other names, nothing felt so right as Cowboy. After all, he had changed his names from Evangelos to Van, and Papagiorgiou to George, added a new first name, Simon, to the simpler syllables, Van George, making our particular strangeness less apparent to the English speaking world.
I pretended not to notice Mr. Lebreton, at first. Even though his arrival had inspired in me a new level of entrepreneurial yearning. If I could sell enough fruit, like the women selling dillies and carambola and sugar apples down at Potter’s Cay market, then I could make my own money and buy the kit from Maura’s Lumber Yard myself.
I sought out produce from the backyard: there were two mango, one sapodilla, one soursop, one key lime, and two coconut trees that had to be trimmed of their voluminous branches every June when hurricane season began. It was mid-July, and the air was sticky and still. Heat rose up from red dirt in murky waves. I harvested the fallen coconuts and sold them to passing taxi drivers and their carloads of tourists for a dollar each. When I ran out of coconuts, I gathered dillies; fifty cents for a bag of six. The taxis would stop in front of our house, and the tourists would file out, snapping pictures of the white local and her wares. I was learning how to follow in my father’s footsteps; I was on the road to becoming a good capitalist.
My father had left Greece thirty years ago, at the end of the Second World War, when communists wanted to take over the country. He said the problem with communism is that instead of only some people being poor, it gives everyone the freedom to be poor. At least with capitalism, you stand a chance at making something for yourself. Did he want to turn out like his brother? No. His brother who lived in a house the size of a bathroom and would never have a way of growing it any bigger? Communism makes you weak, he said, tapping his forehead. It makes you lose your passion to put something in the world that was never there before. Sometimes you have to take a chance, and in the new world, a man can take as many chances as he needs.
I took to watching Mr. Lebreton from a corner of the porch. He was the colour of Poinciana pods in summer, and had very large, graceful hands. Hands that might have played the piano or written novels, that paused for the briefest moment between moments, between tasks, as though some important thing had been forgotten and these hands were remembering. Hands that, in the aftermath of those brief pauses, stayed busy regardless of what Mr. Lebreton’s eyes might have been envisioning, and it seemed to me they were envisioning tasks I could not see, tasks other than the pruning of lime trees or the weeding of bougainvillea hedges.
I found excuses to get closer when changes in his dress caught my eye.
It was at first just a hat, a brown leather cowboy hat with a leather cord dangling below Mr. Lebreton’s chin, a red wooden bead at its tip. The following Saturday, Mr.
Lebreton showed up wearing a brown suede vest over a dark blue shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and around his neck a twisted swathe of red bandana. The week after that, beneath the frayed hem of Mr. Lebreton’s faded denims, I glimpsed the silver sheen of spurs, and at the other end, the thin filament of steel on the pointy toes of second hand boots. When I had sold all the coconuts I found lying under the tree that morning, I hurried to the backyard to fill a basket with dillies, and to take my time so I could steal glances at Mr. Lebreton. On my way, something glinting in the dirt caught my eye. I squatted to look more closely and saw that it was a silver spur like the ones on Mr. Lebreton’s boots. Finders keepers, is what I was thinking.
I pocketed the thing and hastened over to the dilly tree. Mr. Lebreton eyed me as I dropped my basket and surveyed the area for fallen dillies. I pretended not to see him as I fingered the spur in my pocket. I rubbed it between forefinger and thumb as if coaxing a new idea from an old one. I didn’t yet know what the new idea was, but I sensed it involved getting Mr. Lebreton to help me. Instead of gathering the fallen dillies, I set my sights on those in the branches above. Seeing that I was too short to reach some of the higher branches, Mr. Lebreton came over and began picking the ones he could reach and dropping them one and two at a time into the basket. When it was full and heavy, he offered to lift it out to the road for me.
I suppose what happened next had its beginnings in the rubbing of the spur as if it were a magic lamp; just as we arrived at my TV tray for a table, and Mr. Lebreton was placing the basket on it, a beige Mercedes taxi full of Americans – all of them sun-burned pink – stopped, opened its doors, and let out its passengers to take pictures and sample the exotic island fruit. Their eyes latched onto Mr. Lebreton: Look, they shouted, a black John Wayne! And without so much as a ‘May I…?’ and ‘Would it be all right if we…?’ motioned me aside and began to take photos of him, directing him to stand legs apart, smile, stop smiling, tilt his hat, and so on.
At first Mr. Lebreton was startled, a raccoon in headlights, but in a manner I would grow to become expert in myself, Mr. Lebreton took on each pose, became the face, the arms and legs, the body of the man they were looking for through the viewfinders of their Kodak and Nikon cameras. I stood in the grass, off the road, watching. When the tourists were done, they stuck US dollar bills into an empty jar I had left on the table. And when they pulled off, and the air settled around us, I looked over at the jar of cash, then at Mr. Lebreton. He stood there, his arms unusually still by his sides. He blinked then gazed uneasily at the pockmarked road. I picked up the jar, pulled out the crisp dollar bills; eight in all. They smelled of tobacco and tin. Rapidly, I counted off four, folded them in half and, without looking directly at him, passed the cash over to Mr. Lebreton. He took it. The rest I folded, and slid into my pocket along with the silver spur and a greasy feeling in my gut that I had crossed a line and could not go back.
In this way, and without any verbal agreement, Mr. Lebreton and I turned an accidental performance into a regular gig, with me as financial manager. I must have been aware that there was something wrong with this arrangement because I did not tell my parents. I found a shoebox and used it to stash my dollar bills, which I counted at night under the covers with a flashlight. I made sure my parents were nowhere in sight when Mr. Lebreton and I took to the front of the house, and the stretch of road that led to downtown.
Word spread amongst the taxi drivers and soon Mr. Lebreton and I became a regular Saturday morning stop on the scenic island tour, and our profits tripled. My parents lived on the outskirts of Over the Hill, in a pink concrete house on Virginia Street where other Greeks and a few Cubans had settled next door to whites who were not quite as white as the ones who lived out east and out west. We were an in between lot, a few city blocks of immigrants and light skin blacks in the lower crease of the ridge that divided the island north from south; the good beaches and coastal roads from the dense Over the Hill settlements and soggy grey marshes; the shops and hotels from the blacks who worked in them. Behind us and up the hill, houses were no longer freshly painted concrete with porches, but sagging wooden clapboards and dusty yards. Taxis driving west to east could detour from the coast and show the tourists where Bahamians lived, without making them uncomfortable.
Every Saturday morning Mr. Lebreton arrived wearing something new. “Salvation Army,” he’d mutter, a smile playing across his mouth when I glanced over in admiration of the new belt buckle in the shape of a horse, the shiny sunglasses that hid his eyes behind tinted plastic, the new gun holster that hung, gunless, at an angle around his waist. Word must have spread through the communities of clap board houses behind us, because people on their way to work, all of them brown skin people, instead of taking the bus, walked so that they could slow down and take a good look at the cowboy.
Among these onlookers were other Haitians who lived in patches of clapboards in the alleys in between and on the fringes of settlements. At times they stopped completely, on the opposite side of the road, their eyes widening, then hastily dropping their gaze. I didn’t know what to make of the heads bowed seconds later and the hurried steps across uneven asphalt. Mr. Lebreton’s eyes narrowed as he watched them flee.
Once, a group of women passing by yelled out to him. The only word I heard and remembered was ‘macoute’, and though I recognized it, I had no idea what it meant. The woman who had spoken this word glared at Mr. Lebreton. Her face shone with sweat and fear and something deeper: the particular texture of the presence of loss, how someone carries around the dead in their eyes, in the clenched rigidity of a jawbone, in the frayed edge of hysteria in a voice. The other women hushed her, pulled at her arms, patted her face, encircled her, reasoned with her in soft tones, and they too hurried past. A cloud descended over Mr. Lebreton’s eyes and took up residence there; his face hardened and I recognized the mask he had pulled on.
The mask was part of the costume Mr. Lebreton was wearing when a red minivan stopped in front of our stall, and a man whom I first took for a hacker, since there was no evidence he was a licensed taxi driver, got out and began talking with Mr. Lebreton in the same language I had heard yelled from across the street. Mr. Lebreton’s voice was low, stilted; his face and body, turned askance, had stiffened. The man’s voice rose, his hands gesturing urgently towards Mr. Lebreton, and then angrily at me. I took a step back. Mr. Lebreton crossed his arms and refused to look the other man in the eye. The man spoke again and waited, as if for an answer, but none came. He shook his head, got back into his car, and drove away.
I looked at Mr. Lebreton.
He nodded. Boss lady don’t have to worry.
Soon after, I began noticing more changes in Mr. Lebreton’s appearance. His clothes seemed larger, or he seemed to be shrinking inside them. His shirts ballooned around his waist, his pants bunched at the hips where his belt seemed pulled tighter. The leather cowboy hat hung too loosely on his head, swiveling left to right when he bent down to pull weeds or chop grass, so that he had to put his machete down, fix the hat straight again, tightening the drawstring under his chin. He saw me examining him and walked to another part of the yard. I followed.
Why do those women yell at you? Why did that man talk to you like that the other day? I sat cross-legged on the grass beside him.
Mr. Lebreton sighed, squatting opposite me, holding his machete in both hands.
They don’t like cowboy.
They used to be your friends?
In my country, cowboys pa bon. Very bad.
Were you a cowboy there too?
Mr. Lebreton did not answer. I looked at his hands. They held the machete reverently.
I wanted to know more, but the softness of his fingers against the machete’s blade made me stay quiet.
I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the spur. I handed it to Mr. Lebreton. He took it, rubbed its surface with his thumb, and this time it wasn’t a magic lamp, but a mirror that showed the past and the future; I could not tell which Mr. Lebreton was looking at, but for a moment the mask slipped and his brown eyes shone wet.
The following Saturday Mr. Lebreton arrived in full gear with an added prop that rounded out his attire: a black plastic revolver. Soon after, six taxis arrived at once, parking in single file all along the roadside. The tourists spilled out, their cameras eager and poised before they reached our stall. They jostled each other to get good spots in front of the main attraction. On the opposite side of the road a small contingent of Haitians gathered and seemed to have arrived at some decision; they regarded us with hard eyes.
The taxi drivers acted now as if they had set up the whole thing. They ordered Mr. Lebreton around.
Haitian, stand with your hands like so, they motioned for him to stand arms akimbo. That’s it, now go for your gun, yeah, you got it.
The tourists clicked, shutters opened and closed in rapid fire. And then one of the tourists, a large white man in a Texan hunting hat, hollered over at Mr. Lebreton: Get her. Get the girl. Go on, Cowboy, act like you gonna shoot her. Someone grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the centre of the crowd, next to Mr. Lebreton. The man in the hunting hat hollered to his companion, Joe, Joe, go on, you save the girl! Get in there Joe. Joe laughed, turning red in the face, and egged on by the others, jumped onto our makeshift stage.
Mr. Lebreton shakily aimed his gun at me, blinking; I froze, my hands half way between up and down, and then Joe, transformed into the protagonist, seized Mr. Lebreton from behind, his right arm around Mr. Lebreton’s neck, in a sleeper hold. You got this Dave? You got this?
The shutters flew – open shut open; the crowd pressed in on us, enthralled. The taxi drivers smiled, but the smiles did not reach their eyes. They put their hands in their pockets, fingered their keys, glanced at their watches and away from the scene playing out before them. I sought out Mr. Lebreton’s eyes. I wanted him to know I knew we were just acting. But when he did lock eyes with me, I looked away; I knew we were acting, but even so, I felt my heart skip and start, sweat bead on my upper lip. I was afraid of the man in the hunting hat, his loud drawl, the crowd snapping pictures. Still, there was something in this play acting that reminded me of the tone of my father’s voice when he warned me not to play in the streets after dark. The thin desperate texture of my mother’s voice when she ushered me out of the car after a night out, scanning the darkness before darting up the steps and unlocking the front door.
The hunter turned director yelled at Joe, now, knock the gun out of his hand!
Joe reached around and gripped Mr. Lebreton’s wrist, shook it hard till the plastic revolver clattered to the ground, cracking along its middle seam, so that it lay broken and useless on the ground.
When I found Mr. Lebreton’s eyes a second time, his mask had slipped and I saw him breathing shallow, as if inside the triangle of Joe’s fleshy arm, and in this space between me, the tourists and the taxi drivers, he felt himself trapped painfully in a too small place with no air. His hat drooped on his head, his shirt sagged, sweat-soaked across his narrow shoulders. He watched me watching him. Something like a spasm crossed his face. I gasped. And then Joe let go of him, and it was all over and Joe and Dave and their buddies were whooping and high fiving; Dave was slapping Joe’s back and the men and women from their respective taxis were shoving dollar bills and five dollar bills in the glass jar till it was stuffed. The men joked about Dave being the next up and coming Hollywood director. They said they’d come back and hire us for their first movie. Did we want to be famous? Their voices ricocheted off the pink and yellow walls of the houses. They put their cameras away. They dropped cigar ends on the road and crushed them with their sneakers and brown boat shoes. The taxi drivers left without hailing us, their heads bent as if deep in thought. The gathering of Haitian men and women across the road disintegrated, scattering in different directions as if the scene had confused them and whatever decision they had been certain of was no longer certain.
I counted out the money from the jar more slowly than usual. A yellow dog trotted past us and didn’t stop to look. Flies hovered over the sapodillas and limes. And a heaviness settled in my arms and legs that made me want to weep. I gave Mr. Lebreton his share, and did not look at him as I sank my hand and the wad of cash into the back pocket of my shorts.
That night the greasy feeling in my gut turned into ocean swells inside my belly and I knew I could no longer take from Mr. Lebreton the money he earned being Cowboy. The money I had collected, one hundred and sixty-five US dollars, lay secret and useless in the cardboard darkness of the shoebox inside my closet. I retrieved the box and by the glow of my flashlight counted the green and beige bills, turning all heads north, unfolding creased corners, straightening and stacking them into three neat piles. My hands felt hot. I smelled on them the slick residue of other people’s hands–the storytelling Texan, Joe the saviour, their camera-wielding believers all stuck to my clammy fingers like tar. I hid the money back inside the shoebox. I closed the lid. In the bathroom I scrubbed my hands with Ivory soap and a washcloth, patted them dry on a clean towel. In bed, I sank down and floated up, over the oily swells, so that by morning I awoke hunched and clutching my gut on the way to the toilet.
When I had relieved myself, I took the wad of dollar bills out of the shoebox and folded it into my back pocket. That was when I heard a knock at the door. Through the living room window I saw a dark blue van in the driveway. The knock came again. I opened the door. Two men in khakis were on the front steps. One of them stuck a form in front of me. He pointed to the second line. ‘Jean Lebreton’. You know this man? I shook my head. We have reason to believe he is your gardener.
Cowboy. I had never asked him what his real name was.
The men looked at me, waiting. I knew Cowboy–Mr. Lebreton–was already in the backyard; I had heard the chop-chop of his machete weeding the bougainvillea hedge. I did not alert my mother. I had a hundred and sixty-five dollars in my back pocket, enough now to buy the woodcraft construction kit from Maura’s Lumber. I felt the outline of the bills with my right hand, looked up at the men’s faces. I bit the inside of my lip.
Did I know him? Did he work here?
I shook my head, no.
They watched my face. You here by yourself?
And your name, Miss? They had the same dark skin as Mr. Lebreton. Their hair cut low to the scalp, like his. But their necks and arms were thicker, their shoulders square and straight.
Jamie. This was a lie. The name I was given was not Jamie, it was Maryann; but I had always preferred a boy’s name.
Their eyes narrowed, looked past me into the hallway, at the living room beyond. My father had left earlier, but my mother was in her bedroom dressing for church.
Before they could ask more questions, I stuck out my hand with the hundred and sixty-five dollars in a tight roll. I do not know how I knew to do this. Maybe I had seen it in a movie. Maybe I had seen my father do it. Maybe I already thought anyone could be bought or sold. My heart hammered against my chest. The tall one in front hesitated. I stood on one foot then the other. He reached for the roll. He studied me, then the roll, counting it out, measuring us both. He glanced over his shoulder at the shorter officer. He grinned; the shorter officer chuckled, pursed his lips and motioned towards me with a lift of his chin.
All right then, the shorter one said. Sorry for the trouble, pretty girl. And they turned and walked down the steps, across the driveway to the van. I shut the door and watched them leave through the open window, the hammering in my chest so loud I could barely hear the van’s engine whirring to life.
Who was that?
I spun around. My mother was standing behind me in her slip.
No one. I mean, they had the wrong house.
I shrugged. Just some people looking for Mrs. Taylor. I told them hers was the blue house farther down.
Oh, my mother said. Well, draw the curtain. I don’t want the sun fading the sofa.
The driveway was empty. I pulled the curtain to. I waited for her to head back to her room.
I rushed out to the porch searching the back yard for Mr. Lebreton. The cutlass was stuck in the dirt under the sapodilla tree. Yellow and black butterflies arced and floated in the air. Pigeons cooed in the eves over the porch. The air conditioner droned. And hanging from the branch of a mango tree like the shadow of a strange fruit was Mr. Lebreton’s cowboy hat, the silver spur swinging side to side from its leather cord and glinting in the sun.
A cold sweat broke over me. I ran back into the house, out the front door to the edge of the driveway. I stopped dead when I saw that a hundred yards away the immigration officers’ van had blocked the road, sideways, and up against it, arms twisted behind his back, wrists shackled, was Mr. Lebreton. He looked small and thin and breakable. For the first time since I’d known him, I wondered how old he was, and if he was married. I wondered if he was somebody’s father and who would worry about him not showing up for dinner. I had not thought about him having a family. I had not thought about anyone caring where he was when he wasn’t at home. I crouched behind a croton bush and watched as the officer who had taken the money walked around the van to the driver’s side, while the other roughly pushed Mr. Lebreton into the van and slammed the door. Behind the dark glass of the window, Mr. Lebreton’s bare head fell forward, his shoulders slumped. Then, for a brief moment he raised his head and I thought he looked in my direction; I felt he could see me. My heart fell and I didn’t know if I should turn and run, or stay behind the bushes, out of sight. I stood up instead, and walked towards the van.
Cowboy! I yelled. The officers looked over at me and laughed.
A crowd had gathered–neighbours and some of the ones who had congregated the day before. They whispered to each other, looking at Mr. Lebreton, then at me. I stood a few feet from the van, my legs suddenly trembling, my chest hot. Mr. Lebreton’s head was facing the floor of the van, but he looked up again, and our eyes met for the third time. I didn’t know what to say. I opened my mouth but nothing came. The van was reversing and taking Mr. Lebreton away, to a detention centre, back to Haiti, and I wanted to tell him I was sorry. Instead I said I know your name is not Cowboy.
Mr. Lebreton looked tired. He stared at me as if trying to see something very far away. He nodded, but I could not tell what he was nodding at, what he was saying yes to. Then he closed his eyes and the van lurched forward and it was too late. I watched the van until it had turned onto the main road and disappeared. I watched the sun fill the sky, and yellow and brown dogs wander away to find shade. I watched the empty road till my head ached, and my feet burned on the asphalt.
© 2017 Helen Klonaris. All rights reserved.
‘Cowboy’ is taken from Helen Klonaris’s debut collection If I had the Wings available now from Peepal Tree Press.
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