Forbidden Games

It was a village of Indians. Dad, are you serious?’ I said. ‘He’s a bastard.’
‘But he’s the prime minister, Dad.’
‘Tsk tsk. ‘Ti, you wouldn’t believe this friend of Dad’s. ‘May I see?’ I asked. The hotel was booked with American military, Trinidadians and Cubans. And then I felt stupid because I couldn’t even react appropriately on my own behalf so what kind of person was I? He stayed in the lobby eating rancid popcorn. 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. Richard Burton is a spy because he wears a trench coat and no hat. I couldn’t take you kids there. 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. But then she giggled and offered us a drink. Ti and her brother. 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. And get one for me too,’ but I only sipped mine and it tasted like a sweetened palm tree. My brother and I were alone at the hotel pool except for a slim, pale English girl in a bikini who ignored us. This is the nicest house in Georgetown, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. Dad’s newly bought property was a 10,000 acre stretch of beige with a deep, narrow stream on three sides. Eh, my Ti? 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’. ‘Nothing. So I figure that whatever happened then in Cuba, it is eclipsed by what’s happening now. The snake stared for about fifteen full seconds. My favorite,’ in a fake British accent and then signaled to us that we were bugging out. 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. He’s gone already.’
‘Please come down, Ti.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Okay, then I’m staying with you.’ He bounced onto the bed. 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. This marine was different from any of the soldiers I’d met in Saigon. 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’. ‘The Indians walk over starving people and pretend they aren’t there. He cannot spell. Their breathing gave them away. Very romantic! ‘Anything. When we got to the bar it was crowded so we had to stand at the door. It came in snorts like dust storms. I don’t know what in the hell happened to Castro or to Burnham. My head was down and my vision blurred by water. At least he said he was a spy. 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. Cared about his people and now he’s all buggered up and corrupt as hell.’
‘So is he going to get elected again?’
‘No. At a small party she met a man who said he’d met my father when he worked in Georgetown. ‘Look Jack, I’ll try. He yelled, ‘Gordon’s! My father said he would meet us in the bar downstairs. They have to do with a CIA plan to assassinate Castro in 1973. ‘Never mind, ducks, if he’s gonna wave that thing around, we can’t stay. They listened until first light when they all bolted as if they’d heard a shot. After three years, if the soil lay as dead as presently, the land reverted to the government. So we fell within the constraints. 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. And the man said, ‘He carted the stuff out through Brasil on a US Government plane. 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. He meets more stable men in bars, tweedy and groomed, men of rank and steady income on whom his immediate life and prospects depend. 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. ‘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. 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? ‘So it had nothing to do with your Dad,’ she said. He had become useless. 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. 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. I could see he knew my father but not well. ‘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. From the center of the hut there was an unimpeded view in every direction. I wish to have this trait for drawing people to me. I wasn’t sure why he’d chosen Brasil except the land was a dollar an acre. ‘I shouldn’t credit Burnham.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Limestone,’ he said. I remember thinking Dad didn’t have a persona either. 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. 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. ‘Or our people. ‘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? These damn walls were the color of mud! ‘Jesus. The back window cracked and a man screamed ‘She naked!’ and they all laughed. ‘I was afraid of that bastard,’ he said. ‘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? 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. It was a dance for other marines. I ran back to the hut and told my brother and Dad. ‘Rags,’ Dad yelled. ‘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. ‘How cool!’
‘Jesus, I can’t stand the guy. The engine screamed and he rammed the gas pedal. ‘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. You couldn’t see past the surface. Everybody knows him. Only spies, renegades and remittance men set up digs this far north. But you guys eat and then we can play cards, okay?’
‘You’ll miss Castro if he comes in.’
‘I asked. ‘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. ‘FIRE!’ My brother woke first. Jesus, I’m out of rum. 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. His plate heaped with eggs and sausage grew cold because he held his fork in mid-air with such pleasure. She had black hair and pale skin and violet eyes so you’d have thought she’d have fried like an oyster. Then he said, nonchalantly, that so-and-so got shot and Dad looked like he was going to vomit with anger. Scraping the chair I noticed a bad smell like cigarettes in water for weeks under the sun and then he was gone. He cannot let go of the preschool shame attached to this. The second floor overlooked the gray sea and the concrete seawall so it felt as if we were on board a modest yacht. My brother and I overheard conversations between cab drivers and hotel clerks. He raised his chin and squinted. Hasn’t cashed one check the old fartskie   US gave him. 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. Top secret, duckies.’
When Dad went to the bathroom my brother said he’d already peeked. Fake, only because he’d learned it in post-war London and never went back to looking fully American. I was aware of a certain connectedness but an individual spirit, aware of the smells of curry and burnt sugar and the heat. ‘Who was that, Dad?’ my brother asked and Dad said, ‘That’s old Fidel himself. Ten thousand acres.’
‘That’s wonderful, Jack. No chirps, no trick tricks, no breeze rustling the thatch. Ha ha!’
‘What are you talking about over there, ducks?’ he yelled. My brother and I didn’t believe this by 1971. They cannot be hidden once drawn onto that sweet, unforgiving map. ‘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. ‘You ducks just wait and see what happens. Best house in all of Georgetown. ‘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. ‘Hey ducks!’ he yelled and waved us inside. These marks never go. He’s goin’ down with the ship.’
‘Was the man Guyanese?’
‘I guess. ‘He’s too obvious.’ My brother had said. ‘Dad?’ We finally saw him sitting at a distant table, nursing a beer alone. We’re going to Georgetown.’
I did not hear from Dad after Saigon. 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. ‘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. It was the sort of thing you’d have missed had children been diagnosed with manic depression in the late fifties. ‘Why?’
‘I think his real name is Cook or something. There was a live band that beat out current pop tunes and a revolving mirrored ball. Nobody else in the whole damn town has this color yellow. I didn’t really believe him about walking barefoot in the jungle but I liked him. He then made a fake yawning face behind the men’s backs but then suddenly raised his eyebrows and his face softened. And that madras print was back in fashion. And I have been forever grateful for the lag in psychiatric punctilio. The horses had every right to come and look. They held up their drinks as if blocking a strong sun. ‘Well, it all fits,’ I said to my brother. He was wearing a dentist’s uniform. Voting and all that sort of thing. 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. 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. ‘I’m sure he’ll be gone by now,’ I said. I went into his car with him. If my father saved us, we saved him. My brother whispered, ‘Look! ‘What!’ The marine shrugged his shoulders. Ha ha! I remember being stunned that someone could have a feeling on my behalf that was even stronger than my own. Water.’ Dad’s voice broke. ‘You mean, he can’t get out? ‘Who are the worst rotten eggs in the whole world, Dad?’
Dad actually thought about this, which was rare. 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. About forty people had jammed themselves into the room. Then he and Dad left. It had no color except that of an old leather wallet. ‘Here. We avoided one another and aimed or fled, respectively, and did no harm. I think it was KBR or Parsons. 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. The Richard Burton spy is handsome, irrational, intelligent, desperate, solitary and looking for work. There was a second when we saw one another. 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. It’s too late. Thousands of stars gave out a faint cool light. How did you come by soybeans?’ The man had stopped eating. The only thing that gave him away was his skin color. He could ride a unicycle, and dismantle and restore any conglomerate from a watch to a chemical formula. I think it was cocaine. ‘Your daughter is very pretty,’ he said. My father bought ten thousand acres of this land in South America after Saigon,   where my sister and I thought he had died. ‘But the Richard Burton spy is stealthy.’
‘What’s that?’ He had just been expelled from Pomfret. There was a boy there a few years younger than I. But then, I knew after Saigon that something was wrong. In Brasil I was a stripped, blanched nut. I love it here,’ I told my brother. He makes me laugh. He looks like he pulls teeth to get people to talk! 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. What you may not know is that an anaconda is all white inside. I listened. ‘Yeah. I thought someone had found this in his belongings. I call him Doctor Hook.’ Graham made a face. ‘God, Jack, you’ve got it made. 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. We’re free. Well, that is truly something. I thought he was dead. 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. Ti! He drinks all the time and fights with shopkeepers about his overdue account. He was not clever. 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. Maybe he decided too big or stinks but I had the sense he hesitated despite a terrible hunger. I don’t care about those bastards. ‘Nobody cares about America here.’
‘But I think my Dad’s in the CIA.’
‘No he’s not. Graham objected to the cross. About a week after we got back to Brasil, we found an anaconda in our bathing spot. It was no big deal, except your husband raised hell. A quiet man with a simple face, not expressive but open. The Indians and the Americans are both pretty bad.’
‘But you like the Indian Party here.’
‘Finest people going in Georgetown. I could mix in.’
‘And what are you going to say?’
‘Hello Mr Castro.’
‘In English?’
‘And if he says, “Where are you from?”’
‘I’ll say the KGB.’
Dad laughed, which made me feel inexpressibly happy. It was why that night, three weeks in, we saw the fire before it reached us. I knew he was the sort of person you ate with when others avoided you. Smoke rose from the garbage piles and a heavy blossom smell fought with the rot. When I saw him by the pool, I knew he’d been looking for me. 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. He said I love you, ducks so often I grew bored and didn’t know its value. ‘Dad said it was once a slave colony.’
This shut me down momentarily. Dad went back alone the next day and waited for his mate and shot her. We walked the three blocks from the hotel in the dark. 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. 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. I did not actually see them. 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. They actually liked each other. The losing party. But he said he wanted a soybean farm where we might live out our days drinking cool drinks on a veranda at dusk. How interesting that the effect of the climate was only to show how I would look forty years hence. It was the laugh I recognized when he’d a hole in his shoe and was job hunting. 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. There is no turning back after one is scarred about the face. 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. He’d already risen. Then he said, ‘Why do you really think they call Dad Havana Jack?’ and I said that someday we’d probably find out. How many people in the world eat with gold knives and forks! He sold real estate. Go talk to your nice English friend at the pool.’ She was annoyingly beautiful. 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. Your dad’s an engineer. You kids have never seen anything like it.’
‘What was it like Dad?’
‘The way parts of Florida used to be. I just feel like reading. Guinness is nice.’
‘I don’t think we should drink beer in the morning without Dad. And they tried, they strained, I could see it, to avoid us. And then there was his natural all-weather radiance. ‘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. He got drunk and punched rich people and brought homeless people to the house for meals. Doctor HOOK!’ Graham wrenched an imaginary tooth from his mouth. We’re not all meant to succeed. Dad knew one of the three marines who lived there. 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. But Dad said, no, the snake will wait because he had caught a scent. The Amazon rainforest was a green line on the horizon. We did this all day every day then flopped into our hammocks at night. I mean not safe for you kids. It was a personal sigh. I suppose it gave up trying to burn her. So I whispered all sorts of things I couldn’t say to my father or brother. We’re losers like your Dad. 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. And he said, ‘Yeah, I know,’ with an expression like a baby bear’s. I stole this yellow from the post exchange and they can go screw themselves. Their wives, five or six women in summer frocks, had ranged themselves along the couch and two overstuffed chairs. This is like Paris, Hun-bun. He was thin with skin and hair and eyes almost the same darkish gold color. There was some reference to ‘getting the things on the flight’. 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. 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. And there I would have drowned in a string of bubbles. I thought the man was going to cry. The restaurant was cheap, and cheerful with locals. Dad stretched the skin against the side of the whitewashed hut and asked me to pose for a photograph. Without missing a beat, Dad said, ‘Oh Ti’s my duckie, but you should see her two sisters back home. ‘I hope I can find those gold knives and forks Zia gave me. And they’d been pushed out of Georgetown by Burnham’s party anyway. But then I read about Harry Lime and was afraid that Dad was just an American spy. 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. I loved them instantly. The hammocks were hot and scratchy, infested. 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. ‘When do you expect him back?’
‘He’s got a meeting with Burnham. 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. He wouldn’t watch the screening. It was a nice, old repertory theatre in Montreal. 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. This is South America and people have ties that don’t include us. My brother bought her a gin and tonic and I heard them giggling. To reflect. Palms grew forty feet high on both banks. It might take ten years. The new Pan-American Highway cut straight through the village, past its environs, down to the Rio Branco and then south. He woke cursing at sunrise, then willed his aches away with the aid of his daily rum ration, the cheap Demerara brand. But we were allies. 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. Neither my brother nor I would have survived an early psychotropic dosing. So we thought about Cuba. I said I didn’t know. Because he was not lonely for that brief twenty minutes. HA HA! ‘He sounds like the Count of Monte Cristo.’
‘Or Dostoevsky,’ I said, very loudly. 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. ‘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. 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. He grabbed two buckets and made for the stream. Most beautiful place in the world. But people sensed a boom. 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. The property owner had three years to make a working farm. Then that Easter I got a small white, embroidered purse with a red tag stitched inside. A let-down, skunked in a foxhole sigh. I really did and I just couldn’t see that it was that big a deal. ‘What will you have?’
‘Well, I don’t know.’
‘It’s my treat. ‘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. Dad said something like, ‘Well, are you in?’ and the man mumbled, ‘No, Jack, I really have to decline. We told Dad a wild animal had carried off the carcasses. ‘Look at us. 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. But best of luck,’ and then he vanished. 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. Your sister will like that, eh, duckies? It was only after I rubbed my face with a towel that I saw the snake’s head. ‘Really?’ She put the book in front of her face. He makes terrible mistakes and cannot patch them because he hasn’t the inclination to look behind or ahead. It is a triangle of land in northern Brasil wedged between Venezuela and Guyana. Just ask for the Americanos because we’re the only ones. well… ‘You don’t wear polish?’ one woman asked. I’ll see what I can do but please don’t go near Johnson.’
‘Thanks buddy. ‘Well, that’s not the important thing, Ti.’
I think I said my friend’s name in my sleep that night. 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. I was annoyed that she’d kept her strange Mexican meeting a secret. 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. There was an actual calculation in his movement if not his eyes – which were simply too foreign and slant for me to discern. ‘Smartest cat going. It’s very important. We couldn’t reconcile his being in the funny business with his grins and frailty and humor, with his politics so determinedly left. The men in their own ring pretended not to notice. He knows better.’
‘Fidel Castro! ‘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. ‘No, no. Someone from Burnham’s party.’
‘Maybe an American?’
‘Someone with the CIA?’
He just said I was crazy. I fixed this place up didn’t I? This KBR – Kellogg, Brown, Root   – is this the one associated with the woman soldier who was gang raped and locked in a shipping crate? ‘What’s that?’
‘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. Dad’s traits offered no coin in that particular realm. I didn’t tell anyone and hid the purse and wrapping in my closet. It was about 2 a.m. 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. Well, he got fired. Fair, strongly built, with heavy brows and a full mouth, we looked most alike of the family. Old Paree.’
My brother shouted, ‘That’s French!’ and we heard a man in the kitchen below sing. 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. Where there’s fire there’s fire. A boy got killed.’
‘Do you think that’s why Dad’s here?’
‘I don’t know. ‘What about America?’
‘Oh. 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. He’d only have had to grab and wind for me to tumble forward into the water. 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. 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. It’ll take, oh, two years. It looked like a crushed bird. 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. He was up and out before us. That the ‘Havana’ has something to do with a woman or love. 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. 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. Now, can you see your Dad selling real estate? Dad said, ‘Shit, it was goddamn Burnham’s people,’ and his face was purplish red so his blue eyes popped. Lots of people think I’m pretty so I’m not funny looking.’
My brother turned away. 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. 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. It read Saigon in gold thread. He shouted, ‘Put in a word for me with Johnson. Rise and shine. I said, ‘You mean our age?’ and he said ‘Yes.’ I asked him if Burnham had done it and he said, ‘Everybody thinks so. She was a wreck like the rest of these damn ugly barns you people live in until I fixed her up. But the sun was no more to her than a gnat, or than me or my brother. And raw affect disqualified him. Whoever grew up in Ohio, raise your hand!’ He opened a drawer under the bar then slammed it shut. She thinks there is a good chance that someday I may find out what ‘Havana Jack’ means. It’s only now that I’m old that I look the way I did in Brasil. 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. I mean who needed the Indians once they lost the election? He is a nameless, formless white glue with frail bones that holds its shape once the patterned skin is ripped off. My father and I went out to eat a late breakfast. And they kept saying Hey old Burnham’s in trouble. Mailed in coarse brown paper with no card. ‘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. So I am sure this is his Cuba picture. He watched Dad drink the entire vat of scotch. 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. A very nice woman loves him and makes sensible meals. The men ringed the bar and chatted of ‘projects’, which I took to mean construction. Beneath this was the sound of perhaps a thousand crickets. 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. I wanted to buy into his place but that didn’t pan out. ‘They laughed when the man said I was naked.’
‘Don’t tell me.’
‘Am I funny looking? There is also a picture of a woman standing in the same spot. My brother and I listened as if to a transatlantic account of the Titanic going down. I was comforted and depressed the night I saw this film when I was nineteen. ‘They were talking about somebody. It’s good to see you.’
‘Doing great. Parkie pointed at Dad and made a glug glug, stretching his neck and holding an invisible glass over his mouth. The next day my brother and I did nothing but sit at the pool and try to engage the English girl in conversation. I think they’re discussing election things. From the diet, I suppose – canned and powdered – my thighs grew and my rib cage and breasts dwindled. And that we were to meet a man in a restaurant in the centre of town the following day. Then I had a nervous breakdown which no one knew about. They only wanted to escape the flame and we to drown it. Flat savannah land stretches for miles in all directions. And there, at rubble’s end, home: a small hut with four burnt-toast walls and a rattan hat. 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. He talks too much.’
‘What’s he doing here?’
‘This isn’t the old US of A, you kids. 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. My brother, Gray, too, is alive. I remember vague talk about two parties, one predominantly black and the other Indian. They were thin and smelled bad. Dad went down and waited all day behind some brush until the snake reared his head again and then shot him. Generally, for American military in a warzone, it’s not a question of where there’s smoke there’s fire. I do not remember what Burnham said. And this man and Dad were all buddy-buddy. He told my mother that my father had created an ‘international incident’ in Georgetown. I knew you wouldn’t let me down. What is the crop?’
‘Really? Now this yellow and that green in the kitchen are my favorite colors! At least Castro’s trying to get rid of that damn naval base. We said ‘Hello’ twice, and she raised one translucent knee to block us out. He had a bad temper. He was not attractive so much as imposing. Dad didn’t like him. The snake was about twenty-seven feet long. Dad had yelled, ‘I’ll be back, ducks. 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.  
Image ©   Eduardo Duarte He never showed and we could hardly move the next morning. Oh please, I have said, please let it just be that. It shot, alien, above the old pink and green cottages at the end of the main street. One would have let us ruin the country and then the other one ruined it himself. I’ve set my ducks up with their own farm in Brasil. 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. 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 was crouched on the rickety platform. This man had waved. ‘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. Dad let me wear his watch.’ He jangled the timepiece like a lure. It gave my friend time to twist the key in the ignition. The hut had been empty for ten years. ‘Nope. 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. He’d bought the land for one US dollar an acre. Now that’s balls or nuts if you ask me. 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. But I did regain my hair, its color – reddish brown – and my body, once I returned to Montreal. They’re both dunderheads. We need a vacation. I felt a bit sick from hunger and standing so still. And what else is a spy if not a well-developed persona or two? We put a cross on the grave. 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. 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. Perhaps they came that first night to warn us. My brother made the batter with sour milk, three eggs, sugar and white flour begged from the kitchen staff. And then when I was bathing alone, an anaconda showed its bullet head from the black glass. I correct his writing. I whispered to my brother to listen for Burnham’s name. The red clay sprouts with low shrubs and clumps of straight-up razor grass. We drove to what was the town dump, a desolate flat sandy area with rising garbage mounds high as small hills. Without his skin he is vulnerable. I’m holding it in.’
‘Sneeze right now and get it over with.’
‘No. The next morning my father said, ‘For garsh sakes. That he must have been terribly hungry. ‘Well, how are you, Jack. I waited for months for a letter and none came. My Dad was a spy and a renegade. We’ve discussed Burnham.’
‘Where is your father, by the way?’ I saw her eyes close for a second too long. I did find a photograph of my Dad, young, in his army uniform, resplendent beneath palms. 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. ‘If he comes in, can I go up and say hello?’ I said. 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. ‘See?’ They returned to a discussion of whether red was too strong for a hot climate. Around 1946 or ’47. He was really creepy. They only eat three or four times a year. My brother had been sent down from school for drugs. He’ll be outskie   pretty soon.’
‘And Castro?’
‘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. I knew he said it because he was so happy. It filled his soft face anonymously. He could have got me. She told me this a few days ago when she heard about the release of some CIA documents. He brought him back and skinned him. My brother came back alone and said Dad was waiting in the bar. ‘I bite my nails.’ I held my hands up. I have thought often of the wild horses. And when they fired him the locals got together and gave him a bunch of stolen vases, old ones from the Dutch era. Later that day I heard Burnham’s voice on the radio. And how did my brother know anything about a gin and tonic? And we’d have stayed if he hadn’t been waving that thing around. Dad really likes him!’
When my brother went back to the bar, I snuck outside to the pool. ‘Would you trust Dad with a secret?’
We had seen the film, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. ‘Chow down, duckies.’
‘Aren’t you going to have some?’
‘Greatest thing in the world, crêpe suzette by pipe embers. I had never seen anyone so smooth, all of a piece, radiant. He’d wanted to move there later, in the fifties, with Mom and us kids. He sure gets around.’
‘Well, never mind. He has so many friends. He expected us. 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. 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. Imagine that.’
‘So I don’t get it Dad,’ I said. Don’t tell me any more.’
Then he asked me to go for a drive. I stared at him and he stared at Dad. 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. ‘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. Now, they say this never happened. 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. 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. ‘Um… Just to get the hell out. ‘Very pretty,’ he said again. The poor dumb things are more frightened than you guys.’
‘What things?’
‘You’ll see.’
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. ‘Now, you ducks get up right now. ‘He said to come on down and we’re going to have dinner.’
‘I’m not really hungry. My father slept on a rusted bed frame pushed against the wall facing east. But they just stood there, not doing anything but breathing so gently you’d have thought they were lonely. I knew instantly I hated Brasil. 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. ‘He started all right but I’m sure your father’s explained that he’s bunged up everything.’
‘Oh, yes. He smelled of cheap scent and had tiny straight lips. 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. Graham found the English girl by the pool but she said, ‘You’re only sixteen,’ and wouldn’t speak to him. 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. She has dark hair. Don’t worry so much, Hun-bun. I wished he would not say Dad’s name so often. ‘God, you mean Jonestown?’ my Mom had said. 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. 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. We dug holes, jammed in posts and stretched barbed wire. It’s because of the election. We fell asleep to the BBC on a cracked fifties radio. But the locals thought he was a damn hero because he told Burnham to go fuck himself. He waved a pistol in the air. nail polish.’
‘Jesus Christ! We bolted. He looked at me and tilted his head and sighed. Burnham’s going down.’
‘Don’t you care who wins?’
‘I do, but it’s complicated. I’m pretty sure the Indian party will get in. 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. Dad said, ‘Oh hell,’ and clapped me on the back as a kind of apology. There were no banks leading to the water’s edge. They showed old films and sold old popcorn and flat drinks. I was most angry that it had taken only a single, clear drink that looked as inviolate as she. 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. 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. In 1989, my Mom went to visit a friend in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Standing at the bar was a very tall man, taller than anyone in the room, with a crowd around him. 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. Like you, Dad?’
‘He was a smart cat too. Old Baldy needs a job.’ The men in the small room were all Americans working in Georgetown for the same Halliburton-style company. He was all raw affect. ‘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. 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. He told me my problem was that I had no persona and couldn’t protect myself in the world. We were going to make a run for it. He would never look at me directly so I could stare at him without worrying about being impolite. Ended up in Miami. 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. The backward teeth could have grabbed a limb because I had bent my head to rinse my hair. 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. 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. My father was annoyed. It was too dark to see details but I could make out four or five man-shapes wielding bats or pipes or sticks. His breath smelt of damp wool. 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. ‘You won’t get close enough, ducks.’
‘But he had a crowd around him. I wonder what Burnham’ll do.’
‘Who?’ My brother said and squashed his face up for me to be quiet. He wishes to be closer to our mother. ‘I left some things here in November and I’m going to take them now. All was sand, more sand, and clay dotted with green sprouts close to the soil. Dad had had a proper soil study done, which seemed out of character. They crossed their legs fiercely and did not move except to sip at drinks. ‘I saw it in Les Jeux Interdits,’ I told him. And that this sort of snake always had a mate. Americans generally went further south. I learned this term raw affect from a psychiatrist when I had to go to the hospital after my brother Chris died. My brother held his nose. 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. That it was too late now, he would have to kill him. 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. He took some money from Robert Parson or something. You could see the way things were going politically. The first night, through the palm branches and bamboo poles of the hut, between the mud and stick brush, I saw horses. I’d met him the first day and then could never find him again. I forgot. 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. Innovative, Jack. I know. But then all hell broke loose and Batista skedaddled and it wasn’t safe anymore. All the poisonous horned scaly things and us. ‘I never want to go back. When he’d gone, I said, ‘Did you hear that man call Dad Havana Jack?’
‘I know. He was rough, crotchety, in his thirties but looked fifty, with bleached hair. This was the usual savannah night, palely lit, but it was dead silent. My brother and I fell from our hammocks, took the last two buckets and followed. ‘The prime minister. And we don’t have any money,’ I whispered to my brother. Look at this yellow wall. Either way, there is now, whenever one thinks of Castro or Cuba, Guantánamo. She is doomed and lonely. Bags? An entire army along the front. ‘Could you not do that, please?’
‘I have to or I’ll sneeze.’
‘Just sneeze then.’
‘No. Anonymous, sad, unidentifiable, and he rotted quickly in the sun. Read that book by Hemingway.’
‘Which one?’
‘The Old Man and the Sea. That this wasn’t America. 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. I held up my overdue library copy of David Copperfield to impress her and block her out.