The short tropical dusk was settling. “Almos’ there, sah!” the driver said over his shoulder. Not for the first time, he reminded us that he wanted to start back to Montego Bay as quickly as possible.
The road, pavement barely two cars wide, led through a tiny hamlet. Bright Red Stripe beer signs identified a few roadside shops–of weathered wood, none bigger than a large closet–as stand-up bars. None seemed to have any customers. A dozen cement block houses lined the road, all with corrugated metal roofs but each painted a different color, like blobs on an artist’s palette. All had small porches close to the road, suggesting that people must usually neighbor of an evening. No one was out.
A red sports car parked by the roadside was totally out of character, an open-topped late model, perhaps a Mazda Miata.
Before I could remark on it, the driver turned into a driveway toward the sea. A man in khakis and a loud tee shirt swung open a gate, and we had arrived. The housekeeper, Miss Maizie, was in the yard before the car stopped, smiling a warm greeting. The gate man came with the faintest of smiled greeting to carry our bags into the bedroom. I paid off the impatient driver, and he was gone.
A few days before we left home, the owner of the place had phoned to say we should expect some tension in the village. The son of his caretaker, Glenford James – surely the man who opened the gate — had been shot to death. A case of mistaken identity, we were told. We could cancel and have our money back, but he thought the village grief wouldn’t impinge on our vacation: His villa was on a big beachfront lot, buffered by plantings of trees and flowers. No one would intrude if we chose to ignore the village behind us.
Sally and I decided to come, resolving not to ignore the village, sorrowful or not. In forty years of marriage, we’d usually chosen to vacation far from tourist meccas thick with Americans. While seeking sun and sea, we looked for out-of-the-way places where people still made their living the way their grandparents had.
The funeral would be the day after we arrived, our host said; if we arrived in good time, he would have his next-door neighbor come by and fill us in. Howard Stanley, a Canadian long resident in Jamaica.
We did a little unpacking, washed up, and went out to the patio for a rum with lime juice (“off our own tree,” Miss Maizie said) and sat watching the magenta remnants of sunset fade to black over a silent sea. A faint sound, surely hymns, reached us from the village behind.
Mr. Stanley knocked just as we finished a refreshing lobster salad dinner. “Not too late, I hope? You’ve had a long day’s travel.”
“Not at all,” I assured him. “Good of you take the time. Come out on the patio. Tell us about that red car in the village.”
“Belongs to Byron James. Belonged, rather. The young man we’ll bury tomorrow. Your caretaker Glenford’s youngest son. A longish story, but if you have time . . . .”
We did. This was the story:
That red roadster was obviously beyond the means of a young man who between fishing trips sold beer from a roadside shack whose customers stood or sat outdoors on rickety wooden stools, listening in the crepuscular heat to overloud reggae. People began to talk about that car, but not to Byron; he was not a man who invited questions.
He went to sea regularly, though, and neighbors assumed he had caught a windfall out there. Everyone remembered a man up the coast who had such a stroke of luck just last year: A drug-courier plane, mistaking him for a waterborne mule, dropped a packet almost into his boat.
That man went miles inland to sell the cocaine, and for long months spent none of the money. By the time he let his new wealth show, the drug dons had forgotten about that packet, and didn’t retaliate.
Byron and the men who went to sea with him were not so discreet. Lloyd started on a new house, Conroy bought a pickup and Byron bought that swaggering sports car. The neighbors assumed they had not exhausted their sudden wealth.
The whole story came out later. One morning they’d encountered a man whose outboard was bobbing silent in the water; he begged for a jerry can of gasoline. They guessed why the boat carried had no fish or gear: He was a mule, a stranger from far down the coast. Persuading him it would be foolhardy to take his packet to its intended destination in full daylight, they led him a half-mile down the coast to an isolated cove where they helped bury the illicit packet at the back of the beach.
When the man came back for his stash that night, it was gone. He had to go to the drug don empty-handed, triggering a scenario notorious in the Jamaican trade. Who did it? the big man demanded. The poor mule had no idea even where they lived. So the don sent his lieutenants searching, two men in a black Toyota sedan who stopped for a beer at every bar-shack for miles along the coast, asking if anyone knew where to buy cocaine.
When they reached Byron, he sold them a kilo, and gave the money to his wife to wrap in plastic and bury in the back yard after dark. He was suddenly afraid. He told Lloyd and Conroy to be cautious for a few days, that perhaps he’d made a mistake.
Two nights later, a neighbor sitting on his porch next to Byron’s grog shop saw the black car pull up and a man get out. There were two gunshots, and the car sped into the night. Byron’s brains were splattered on the plank wall. The police took his body to the coroner.
For a time, it seemed he might have to be buried without ceremony. The drug dons, when crossed, had a reputation for wreaking vengeance on the entire family – “down to the dog in the yard,” it was said – to intimidate anyone else who might dare interfere with their trade. There had recently been such a shooting at a Kingston funeral. Byron’s brothers feared being pallbearers, recognizable as kin.
Eventually they screwed up their courage, though, and would manage a proper service tomorrow, having everyone on the lookout for strangers among the mourners. Byron would be laid to rest beside his grandparents’ graves in a corner of the family’s little yard, as was the custom.
His fishing partners, Lloyd and Conroy, were not expected at the service. They and their families had abruptly left the village. Byron’s widow left, too, in the red car, leaving a hole in the back yard, but had come back for her husband’s burial.
Cocaine? I asked Mr. Stanley, surprised. I knew something about drugs, although I don’t like to talk about it; that had been my route out of the little town where I grew up. In my experience in the Caribbean, people used marijuana – the locals call it ganja – and I hadn’t encountered hard drugs.
“Yes,” he said. “Our government began cracking down on ganja. Your government flew over the island taking pictures to identify the fields, and our soldiers burned them down. The trade turned to things easier to hide. We never had cocaine here, nor heroin, until recently.”
We thanked him and sent him home. Miss Maizie had finished the dishes and turned back our beds. I asked if I might walk her home to get the feel of the place.
She seemed reluctant. “No, sir I don’t think that’s a problem,” she said finally. “I be leaving now. You can walk me partway, if you’d like.”
It was an unproductive stroll. Everyone was already at home behind closed doors, glimmers of light showing through the windows. The bars were closed; no one was in sight. The village was cowering. We walked the length of the street – not more than a block, by city standards – and she declined an escort the rest of her way.
“No, sir, thank you. You go on back where Miss Sally is waiting. No one goin’ to trouble you.”
And no one did. I don’t usually lock the doors in places like this, but I did this night. It was a little spooky, but we slept well, undisturbed.
We’re early risers. We both love the tropical dawn, the puffy little drab clouds taking on shades of pink as the sun edges close to breaking the horizon; then suddenly the waves against the reef bathed in slanting bright light, the dark sea taking on shades of aquamarine as the sky overhead deepens into blue. We walked the beach down to the little fishing harbor – still no one out — and then back to the low coral headland at the other end of a half-mile scallop of strand. Finding the promised sandbar that marked a break in the reef, we went for a swim.
On our way back to the house I caught sight of Mister Glenford, finishing his early chores of pumping water. “He enjoys chatting with guests,” the owner’s notes had said; “take him a cup of coffee – one sugar and a dash of salt is the way he takes it – and you’ll enjoy his company.” But he disappeared, and Miss Maizie was ready to serve us breakfast.
How about the funeral service? I asked. Would he mind if we attended? Should we dress up as though we were going to church?
She hesitated. “I’m sure Mist’ Glenford would appreciate you paying your respects, and I guess most folks will be in church clothes.” A long pause. “I guess it’s safe enough. I be going over, and you can go with me, but maybe you ought to stay nearer the house. To be perfectly safe.”
We went over with her, taking her advice to stand where we could retreat to the house if need be. There was funereal music from a boom box, and then the choir from the local church sang: sweet, mournful.
Howard Stanley, the Canadian, was there videotaping the service – purportedly so our host could share the sorrow at a distance. He aimed his camera more at the mourners than at the service, though. Of course: That might deter any gunmen who came to shatter the peaceful laying to rest.
A hearse arrived, and Byron’s brothers stepped up after all to carry the casket to the concrete-lined burial crypt. A parson in black said a prayer, the choir sang and the coffin was lowered. A few more prayers and hymns, and it was over. There was no gunfire. We came back to the house, and Miss Maizie produced a lunch of thick bean soup, a somber meal. We had the beach to ourselves for the afternoon.
We skipped our beach walk next morning so I could be sure to catch Mister Glenford. I woke before dawn and padded out to the kitchen to switch on the coffeemaker Miss Maizie had left primed. I brushed my teeth and shaved, keeping an eye out for him, and when he appeared I went down with two mugs of coffee, his with sugar and salt.
He was, it turned out, eager to talk. The owner had called him several times on his cell phone – modernity had reached this little village – but he still needed to unburden himself of the story.
I have to confess that it made me think: There but for the grace of God go I.
“Seems like the shooters were looking for my son, ba’as.” I cringed at the ‘ba’as’; it sounded too South African. But he meant it as informal respect, a bit more personal than ‘sah’.
“Me and my wife and her mother was watching television,” he went on. His little house was set back from the road. He didn’t think he’d ever heard gunshots before, but he knew immediately it wasn’t firecrackers. He ran out to the road – not to Byron’s bar, but to the house next door, where a neighbor, Mister Arthur, sat late into the evening.
“What was that?” he asked.
“They just shot your boy.” Byron’s local customers had all started home, Mister Arthur said, and he’d been locking up. The car came, “someone called his name,” and Byron turned to face the assassin.
“I ran over next door,” Mister Glenford told me now. His son was on the floor, the blood still oozing from a bullet hole through his head. A second bullet, unneeded, was later found lodged in the boards. He ran back to intercept his wife. “It would have killed her, ba’as, to see her son like that.” Byron was her favorite. “She couldn’t have stood the shock. I saved her life.”
“How are you holding up?” I asked.
“I guess I’m the strong one in the family, so I have to bear up. My wife, she stays in the house, crying.”
Most of the remaining cocaine, he said, had been taken to the police, who somehow arranged to get it—most of it, at least–back to the drug don, hoping to put an end to the killing. The police here have a reputation for corruption; maybe some money had changed hands.
Put yourself in their place, I told Sally later. A bloodthirsty drug trafficker is. looking for vengeance. If he gets his stash back, maybe he’ll let well enough alone. What would you do?
Draining the dregs of the coffee, Mister Glenford handed back the mug. “Thank you, ba’as, for the coffee, and for listening. It helps to talk, I guess.”
Maybe I should have let it go at that, but I had to say – guardedly — what had been running through my mind:
Dealing drugs is dangerous back home, too, I told him. A generation ago, the Mafia might beat a man up, or kneecap him; nowadays guns are everywhere, and fights over turf or bad debts end up with someone dead on the floor like your son. But our drug dealers haven’t reached the point of going after the rest of the family, innocents who had nothing to do with the offense.
A young man who stumbles into a big haul can take the money and run, I told Glenford James. It’s a big country, a lot bigger than here. A man can get far away, take a new name, use the money to get a college education and a good job, and never look back.
He looked me in the eye. “I guess you’re lucky, ba’as,” he said at last.
I shook his hand, took the mugs back to the kitchen, and went with Sally for a swim.