Excerpt of Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, by Fabienne JosaphatBy TNB Fiction
March 01, 2016
He adjusted his visor and gazed at the photo tucked into the flap: a small boy with a melon-shaped head Raymond lovingly stroked and a little girl with red ribbons in every tiny braid. Both were flashing giant smiles. Enos was the spitting image of his father, his skin always glistening in the blaze of summer. Adeline favored her mother, with brown, bony cheekbones and a spear for a tongue. Raymond smiled. Just this morning, as he dropped them at school, she’d tried again to convince him he didn’t need to take the time off work to pick them up. “We can walk home,” she assured him, squeezing her little brother’s hand.
They could. He knew that. But he wanted to give this to his children: the gift of transportation, something he’d never had himself. Raymond had walked several miles to school in bad shoes, on harsh country roads of gravel and stone. Whenever he reminisced about his country days, his wife Yvonne would smile at the children. “See how much your father does for you?” But it was true. Now that he had a life and a family in the city, he wanted to afford his offspring the luxury of a car. Even if “luxury” was this old beat-up Datsun taxi, a red ribbon tied to the rearview mirror to signal that he was still on duty.
He smoothed a dog-ear from the photograph with a blackened fingernail and sighed.
“Pitit se richès malere!”
Raymond jumped and turned to peer out the window. Faton had snuck up to the car door, a gap-toothed grin on his boyish face. “It’s true what they say,” Faton nodded, pointing at the photograph. “Children are the wealth of the poor.”
Raymond turned the music down, surprised that he’d been too absorbed in his thoughts to notice the stench of leather and dye that signaled Faton’s approach. Ever since Fanon quit driving taxis—a trade he’d learned from Raymond—and started a job at the tannery, he carried the odor of decomposed cowhide wherever he went. Raymond covered his mouth and nose in exaggerated disgust.
“Quit busting my balls. You know it’s just the lime they use in the plant,” Faton said flashing another gap-toothed smile. “No big deal.”
“That’s what you think,” Raymond complained behind his fingers. “Hey, we all need to make a living. This,” he tapped the roof of Raymond’s old Datsun, “Just doesn’t cut it. Leather might stink, but it’s honest work, and there are perks.” Faton lowered his voice to whisper, “Whatever keeps the Devil off my back,” before breaking into loud laughter.
Raymond managed a weak smile. He could hear his wife asking: If driving a cab doesn’t pay enough for this single guy, what hope is there for us?
“You better stop worrying about bullshit details like the smell if you’re seriously thinking about coming to work with me. Five hundred gourdes a month doesn’t stink too bad, right? No more scouring the slums for customers, no more waiting at the wharf for tourists, or for these losers to get the job done.” Faton cast a disdainful eye at Chez Madame Fils.
“I’ve never said anything about coming to work for you,” Raymond said, looking again for his missing customer. But the truth was, five hundred gourdes sounded like a dream when he was still making twenty gourdes at the end of the day. Raymond hadn’t made that much money in a long time. Two years ago, after the Barbot Affair had threatened to overthrow Duvalier, nightly curfews were imposed in Port-au-Prince, decimating the taxi business. Especially with competition from the dirt-cheap tap-taps, with all that seating—however horribly cramped—in their covered pick-up truck beds.
“You have to survive, man!” Faton pressed. Raymond nodded. This was what people talked about now. Survival.
“Just say the word when you’re ready,” Faton said, adjusting the gold chain around his neck and hovering closer. “I’ll put in a word with the boss. It’s the least I can do.”
Faton’s thick Afro didn’t fit through the Datsun’s half-open window, and for this, Raymond was eternally grateful. Still, he wondered whether he stunk too now, and how hard it would be to wash off, especially when water had become a luxury for his family. Faton stepped back, grabbed a plastic pick from his back pocket, and ran it through his hair, checking his reflection in Raymond’s back window. Then, he gave Raymond an appraising look. “You know, I don’t understand you sometimes. Why are you still doing this?”
“I drive taxis. That’s what I know.” What in God’s name is taking this john so long? Raymond glared at the brothel. A Jeep caught his eye as it pulled up to the curb three blocks away. He changed the subject: “You grabbing dinner now?”
“Already did.” Faton lived a block west of Chez Madame Fils. He was in the habit of eating in the neighborhood after work. When times were better, Raymond sometimes took a break and joined him.
Five men hopped out of the Jeep. Three wore dark blue uniforms. Two, civilian clothes. Faces obscured behind dark sunglasses. Raymond squinted, trying to get a better look. His muscles tightened, and a chill wormed its way up his spine. The men began shouting, swinging their pistols and rifles around nonchalantly. One of them, in a soft hat and a red ascot, cradled something against his chest. Raymond squinted again and caught the outline of a Tommy gun, its barrel glinting in the late afternoon sun. The girls on the balcony disappeared, silently pulling the shutters closed behind them.
Faton followed his friend’s gaze. The shouting was garbled at this distance, but there was no question who the men were. And with each step they took, pedestrians fled. Raymond saw the distinct arch of a machete blade in one man’s hand. He clutched the steering wheel.
“Can’t they ever leave us alone?” Faton gasped. Raymond shook his head, checking the ignition to make sure his keys were still in place. He might have to get out of Cité Simone. If only the damn john would finish his business—
“This is bad,” Faton mumbled under his breath, “What the fuck do they want?”
Raymond shook his head. The Milice de Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale, known as the Tonton Macoute, didn’t need a specific reason for anything they did. They were the president’s “children.” Devil children of the gray-haired man who enjoyed dressing himself up like Baron Samedi—the Vaudou guardian of cemeteries—in a black suit and matching hat. A sinister figurehead for a sinister country.
“I’m out of here.” Faton took a quick step away from the Datsun, hissing, “I don’t like the look of this. M’ale!”
Raymond watched Faton sprint to his van, the words “Tannerie Nationale S.A.” etched on both its sides. He clambered inside and took off without a glance back. Raymond sank lower in his seat, praying for invisibility. The Macoutes disappeared into a convenience store, a blue building with its name painted in yellow letters: “Epicerie Saint Georges.”
The Datsun’s vinyl seat squeaked under his weight as he rolled up his window. Faton’s sour smell still hung in the air. From the radio, a familiar jingle filled the car. Nemours Jean-Baptiste’s Super Ensemble crooned a jolly tune. Our new song spreads joy all over the streets.
The sunset cast an amber glow inside the Datsun as Raymond shut his radio off. The shop owners rushed out to lock their doors, casting nervous glances over their shoulders before quickening their steps down the street. Small children, playing in stagnant puddles of rain and gutter water, lingered for a few minutes until their parents found them and hauled them off, one by one. The taxi and tap tap drivers stationed down the street chugged their bottles of cola, tossed their empty paper plates, and vanished. Street vendors picked up their blankets spread with candy and snacks and knick-knacks, hoisted them onto their heads, and ran. Raymond clasped his hands around his steering wheel. Damn it! He had to get out of here. Raymond glanced one last time at the brothel, but nothing stirred inside. The john wasn’t going to come out. Not now. Go home, Raymond, he thought to himself, even as he imagined the look on Yvonne’s face when she found out how little he’d made today. Forget the fare.
A scream pierced the eerie silence. He listened. Someone was shouting for help, and a familiar dread crawled under Raymond’s skin. Then a shot rang out somewhere, probably inside the convenience store.
“Screw this,” Raymond muttered. He was reaching for the keys in the ignition when a fist pounded against his window. Once again, he jumped and peered through the glass. Outside, a man, haggard, his eyes stretched wide, beat a wet palm against the glass.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, man? Get away from my car!” Raymond shooed the man like he would a stray animal.
“Help me, brother! Please.”
The man’s breath fogged the window. Raymond faltered at the sight of those bulging eyes, wide with terror, staring into his. Pleading. This was the face of despair. The man looked over his shoulder, and Raymond saw a woman on the curb in a house- dress and slippers. She was rocking a child in her arms, her hair loose under a turban. Raymond shook his head and averted his eyes as he turned the ignition and the old Datsun started up.
“I’m off duty, friend, and there’s a curfew.”
“They’re going to kill us.”
Raymond noticed the man’s shirt had been torn loose at the shoulder. Something wasn’t right.
“I don’t want any trouble,” Raymond stammered.
“My wife,” the man shouted, pointing at her. “My baby. They are innocent. Sove nou!”
Raymond’s fingers burned as he squeezed the steering wheel. The hot air was suffocating. From down the narrow street, he heard the Macoutes yelling as they spilled out of the convenience store. They were headed his way, clubbing the men and women who fled in fear, shoving them into the gutters, firing their revolvers in all directions.
The man slapped his palm again against Raymond’s window again. The woman squealed. “They’re coming. In the name of God, brother!” the man implored.
Raymond’s eyes went to the Macoutes. They’d paused to terrorize a woman on the sidewalk, but one of them was staring at his taxi. Suddenly, the man shouted, pointing directly toward Raymond, and the other thugs snapped to attention.
Raymond’s hand went to the clutch. He looked again at the window and saw large beads of sweat running down the man’s face. Saw the fear in the woman’s eyes. Saw the photograph of his children smiling back at him on the visor.
What kind of man was he?
A cold calm settled inside him, and without another thought, he swung his arm around and unlocked the back door.
“Get in!” Raymond aimed the car straight for the Macoutes. The men stopped short, uncertain whether to dodge the oncoming vehicle or stand their ground. At the last second, Raymond yanked the wheel right, hurtling the Datsun onto a narrow side street. He floored the gas pedal and the engine roared. He veered left to avoid hitting a woman carrying a large basket of bread on her head. Pedestrians yelped as they leapt out of the way, cursing angrily.
Raymond’s forehead burned with a sudden fever as he squinted into the rearview mirror. Among a melee of men and women darting for the sidewalk, he caught sight of the Macoutes’ Jeep, its silhouette gaining on him in the mirror. The barrel of a rifle glimmered in the dying light. Raymond stomped harder on the gas. In the backseat, the infant burst into tears as Raymond swung the Datsun to the right, tires screeching in protest. Raymond’s heart was pounding a tam-tam in his chest. His mouth and throat were parched. We’re all dead.
Behind him, the Jeep kept pace. A Tonton Macoute’s head popped out of the window, and Raymond saw his arms flailing in the wind like skeletal tree branches. The Macoute was resting a rifle against his shoulder, adjusting it, aiming. Boom!
Raymond hung a left, hurtling the wrong way down a narrow one-way street. A stray dog jumped onto the sidewalk just in time. Raymond swung down another narrow street. Behind them came a screeching of brakes and rending of metal against stone, followed by a howl. The dog’s fate was clear. He took another right, then two quick lefts down the tightest streets in Cité Simone, and then, finally, the little taxi burst out onto Boulevard La Saline. Raymond squinted at his mirror. No Jeep. The speedometer’s needle quivered at sixty, then seventy. The shadows of mango trees and traveling palms melted over his windshield. He hurtled past coral, salmon, and indigo stucco walls, plantation doors and shutters, swerving in front of a blue Ford, ignoring drivers’ furious honks. The Datsun hop-scotched from lane to lane, avoiding Vespas and tap taps, and following
the flow of Cadillacs, Nissans, and Oldsmobiles like a fish in water. Finally, the taxi lost itself in Port-au-Prince’s dense traffic and crowds, the streets clogged with merchants, business owners, and motorists. Everyone rushing to get home. The smell of diesel and muffler fumes hung thick in the air over Boulevard Harry Truman.
Raymond drove reflexively, brilliantly. In fact, all his adult life, Raymond had seen cars before seeing people. In his mind, life itself was like a fast car. He’d spent most of his waking time inside vehicles, bent over engines, fixing and oiling auto parts.
He shifted gears at the Bicentennaire road, leaving behind the wharf, the cruise ships, the monuments, art galleries, and empty tourist shops.
It was seven-thirty now, and the peddlers and street vendors had already packed up for the night. The Rue du Magasin de l’Etat was still and silent, save for a few stragglers flirting with the danger of breaking the fast-approaching curfew. Raymond picked up speed again. He wouldn’t make it home in time if he didn’t get these people out of his car. This was madness. Pure insanity. He had his own family to think of, and if he got caught in the streets past eight o’clock, he might never see his children again.
He leaned back and felt his sweat-soaked skin clinging to his shirt. “We lost them.”
The sound of his own voice startled him. He glanced in the rearview mirror—his mysterious passengers sat stiff as statues against the scorching vinyl, the child still crying and the woman patting his back to soothe him.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, or what you did, but we’re coming up on Portail Léogâne,” Raymond said, glancing over his shoulder. “That’s where you get out.”
“Thank you, brother,” the man said. Raymond caught a glimpse of the man’s face in the mirror. He was staring up at a slice of sky through the window. The man seemed almost sedated, his frightened eyes shrinking slowly as he took the time to breathe. Their eyes met in the mirror.
“Thank you.” Raymond looked away. That voice. Where had he heard it before?
FABIENNE JOSAPHAT received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Florida International University. Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow is her first novel. She lives in Miami.
Adapted from Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, by Fabienne Josaphat, Copyright © 2016 by Fabienne Josaphat. With the permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press.
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