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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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Before he’d left Ville Rose ten years ago, Max Junior had spent countless afternoons and evenings in the company of leaner, more attractive versions of these people. He had attended birthdays, weddings, and funerals, watched soccer matches, and played epic games of cards and dominoes after countless Sunday dinners. Aside from the children in his school and the occasional girlfriends he was rumored to have, these were the only kinds of people whose company his father enjoyed.

Things had been different when Max Junior was younger. Before his mother had divorced his father and moved to Miami, Max Senior had taken the time to attend conferences and lectures with Max Junior and his mother at the Alliance Française
or the foreign embassies in Port-au-Prince. By the time he was nineteen, and his mother had left, Max Junior had already completed his primary- and secondary-school studies and had also gotten a U.S. mail-order bachelor’s degree in education. He had attended École Ardin for primaire; once he was too old for the school, his father had become his sole instructor.

It had always been Max Senior’s dream to have his son help him run his school. But at nineteen years old, Max Junior wanted to be a radio deejay. So Max Senior used his connections to help, arranging for his son to host his own program on Radio Zòrèy. Max Senior had also encouraged his son to continue his studies in Miami. He’d never lost the hope that one day Max Junior would return and take over École Ardin. But instead Max Junior chose to stay in Florida, to manage the sandwich shop his mother had opened in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

Max Junior had met Jessamine at the sandwich shop, where she’d come to interview for a part-time job. He was even heavier at that time, bulky, a sloppy nineteen-year-old with a neglected Afro, but she still seemed to like him. He’d done the entire interview with her in Creole, which had won her over. Jessamine, a college senior, was looking for a way to support herself while continuing her studies in nursing. She was lively and confident, but what struck him most about her were the two gold studs she wore on either side of her cheeks. Until she finished her schooling and started working full-time as a pediatric nurse, she was his best hire, his mother’s favorite employee. And she was still his best friend.

But where was Jessamine now? he wondered, as he mingled and exchanged pleasantries with his father’s friends. Could she be lost? In the bottleneck traffic that snaked through potholed Route Nationale Numéro 2? Had she been robbed? Kidnapped on the way out of Port-au-Prince?

They had parted ways before his father could see her at the airport. She told him that she had to go see her aunt, after which the cousin who’d picked her up at the airport would see that she got to his father’s house in time for the party. He hadn’t taken the cousin’s phone number. He had been dialing the number at her aunt’s house all afternoon, but no one had answered. Maybe her aunt’s phone wasn’t working. Could the cell phone that Jessamine had brought with her from Miami not be working either?

Max Senior’s firm hand was pressing down on his son’s shoulder as Max Junior attempted absent-minded small talk with Albert, his father’s closest friend. These two men were so close, in fact, that sometimes it seemed as if they were living the same life, following, if not the same career, the same emotional path.

“You’ve been gone too long,” Albert told Max Junior, his hands shaking, as they always had, even when Max Junior was a boy. The fedora that Oncle Albert—as Max Junior still liked to think of him—always carried with him was meant to shield his shaky hand, but it only brought more attention to it, especially when it fell and he had to bend down and pick it up.

Rumor had it that the shaking was the reason Albert’s wife was living near their fifteen-year-old twin son and
daughter’s boarding school in Massachusetts, while he was running a funeral parlor that had been in their family now for four generations.

“Where’s your girl?” Max Senior asked his son.

“My girlfriend?” Albert interrupted, laughing. “She and my wife don’t get along so I didn’t bring her.”

Max Junior remained quiet, feeling out of step now with the two men’s long-standing comic banter.

Albert’s tall and elegant wife, younger by two decades, was indeed in town. She was standing in the back of the living room, by the bookshelves, chatting with a small group of expatriate wives, as his father liked to call them, women who lived in different countries than their husbands did, and when they returned for visits, were never quite at ease or appropriately dressed, wearing leather boots in May, or shorts in December, or any other time of the year. Katya Vincent looked like she had gained only a few pounds since Max Junior had seen her more than ten years ago, but he recalled his father saying of the so-called expatriate wives that they came back each time fatter and reeking of citronella, every mosquito and salad and untreated glass of water suddenly their mortal enemy.

Max Junior remembered being the ring bearer at Katya and Albert Vincent’s wedding. His parents had hosted one of the engagement parties. His father had been the best man. It was a time in his life that he sometimes wished he could have back. But as he later came to realize, his mother—and perhaps Katya Vincent too—had never been happy here.
His mother, particularly, had always considered her life elsewhere, in the countries that the foreign embassies and cultural alliance organizations represented, and, unlike Katya Vincent, his mother couldn’t both escape Ville Rose and hang on to her husband at the same time.

“How is running the town?” Max Junior asked Albert.

“I’m told that some executioners cross themselves before they shoot their victims,” Albert said. He had a gentle, melodious voice, almost soothing to Max Junior’s ear. Max Junior had always liked his voice. Unlike his father, who sounded like he was fighting back a stutter, Albert spoke like a singer, a singer of seductive boleros or love songs, which would be great, Max Junior thought, for his new political career. “I wish I had seen all the voters cross themselves before they cast their ballots for me,” Albert said. “When something goes right, the national government takes credit. When something goes wrong, I get the blame.”

“That’s politics, isn’t it?” Max Junior said.

“That’s life,” his father added.

“In the end, I see them all, though,” Albert said, “both victim and executioner.”

“Does that give you the right to insert this type of death talk into every conversation?” asked Max Senior.

“I wanted to talk about wives and girlfriends, but you wouldn’t let me,” Albert said, once again laughing his generous, melodious laugh.

“Do you have bodyguards now?” Max Junior asked Albert. “Security?”

“Why would I?” Albert said. “If someone wants to kill me, they’ll just shoot the bodyguards first, then me. I’m saving the town money and the criminals bullets.”

Albert then started across the room, heading for his wife. Max Junior watched his father’s friend place his arms around a woman who many believed had married him only for his money. She had even taken his children away from him, his father liked to say, locking them up in that boarding school, where they must spend their time mostly hating their country. Indeed, the twins didn’t like to return to Ville Rose, choosing winter excursions with their friends and summer camps in France over visiting their father, whose obligation it was always to visit them. One day they would return, Max Junior was certain, when it was time for them to cash in the funeral parlor or take it over.

“Why didn’t you send the chauffeur for your girl?” Max Senior now asked his son.

“I don’t know about chauffeurs and girlfriends,” Max Junior cracked. He imagined the punch line coming out of Oncle Albert’s mouth. “I’ve lost many good ones that way. Many good chauffeurs, that is.”

Later in the evening, Max Junior was moved when his father stood at the top of the stairs in front of a room full of his friends and delivered a brief welcome.

“I’m glad my son is back,” his father said while raising his
Champagne glass clear above his head. “I don’t know how I have survived here so long without him.”

He had run a school most of his life, but public speaking was not the old man’s forte, which made his gesture that much more meaningful to Max Junior. When it was his own turn to speak, he followed his father’s example and kept it brief. Standing stiffly at the old man’s side, he said, “It’s good to be home, if only for a while.”

“Only awhile?” his father shouted, feigning surprise, as a room full of Champagne glasses clinked once more.

But between all the talk and casual chatter with his father and his guests, all Max Junior could think of was the reason he’d had to leave Ville Rose and Haiti in the first place and whether or not he would ever see Jessamine again.

That night, after everyone had left and his father had gone to bed, Max Junior kept calling Jessamine’s Miami cell phone, only to get a busy signal. No matter how late it was, he would have gone to look for her, except he had no idea where her aunt lived in Port-au-Prince. How stupid of him not to have asked her in advance!

He’d been too nervous about this trip to think all the details through. But could his carelessness mean that he would not need Jessamine here as much as he’d thought? In Miami she was the only person to whom he could speak openly about everything. Too damaged herself to be judgmental, she
listened to all his confessions with a blank face. She was the only girl he’d told, for example, that he’d fathered a child ten years ago, a child whose name he didn’t even know, a child whom he had never met.

As he lay on his back in the same room he’d slept in since he was a boy, Max Junior hit the redial button for Jessamine’s cell phone number again and again. His bedroom felt unbearably hot, so he got up and opened the shuttered terrace door that overlooked the peanut-shaped pool and screened gazebo and the maid’s quarters for both his father’s house and the house next door. Looking up at the sky, he took in the glow of a cluster of stars, something he was never able to see in Miami.

He should be driving all over Port-au-Prince looking for Jessamine, he thought. Isn’t that what he should be doing, instead of dialing her number every five minutes while watching the sky? He should be looking for her. Just as he should have been looking for Bernard Dorien a decade before. He should have at least come home for Bernard’s funeral. Bernard’s parents had probably taken his body to the mountains and buried him there. He felt burdened by the thought of Bernard being suspended somewhere in a hillside grave. To fight so much to live in town, then to return to a mountainside grave? What was the use of sacrificing so much to leave a place, only to end up exactly where you’d started? But wasn’t he doing the same thing now, in returning home, looking back when he should be moving forward?

He thought of going for a late-night swim to calm himself, then nixed the idea. Instead, he went back to bed and called Jessamine’s number, only to get the same busy signal. The generator had already been shut down for the night. The ration of electricity allowed for their part of town had expired. So he had no choice but to lie in the dark, in his swimming trunks, his eyes seared open.

When he woke up midmorning the next day and got the first busy signal from Jessamine’s phone, he thought of borrowing his father’s Jeep and heading out to Port-au-Prince. But then he heard a knock on his bedroom door.

Before he had a chance to collect himself, his father walked in, wearing the gunmetal-gray sweat suit in which he practiced his judo, alone, against a star fruit tree in his garden every morning.

“You have a visitor,” his father said.

“Jessamine?” he asked, grabbing a pair of khakis from the back of a nearby chair and throwing them on.

“Who did you say?” his father asked, moving closer to help him into his pants.

“Is it Jessamine?”

“The one who didn’t come last night?”

“Is she down there?”

Max Junior then threw on a red T-shirt that Jessamine had given him long ago, as a gift for hiring her at the Little
Haiti sandwich shop. He had promised her that he would wear the shirt when he returned to Haiti since it was half the color of the Haitian flag.

Both the khakis and T-shirt were a bit wrinkled, but he didn’t care. He was about to run out the door when his father grabbed him by an elbow and held him back. Though the old man’s salt-and-pepper hair had grown grayer and he had become thicker and slower with each visit to see his son in Miami, and though the old man occasionally complained about his achy shoulders and back, he was still pretty strong. If they ever got into a tussle, Max Junior thought his father could easily throw him.

“Listen to me,” his father said. “Hold still. Calm. Are you supposed to be in love with this one, what’s her name, this Dessalines woman?”

“Jessamine.”

“Anyway, are you in love with her?”

“Papa,” he said, both plea and protest. “What are you asking me?”

“You liked Flore too, didn’t you?” the old man asked.

His father’s grip tightened on his biceps. He would have to shove the old man aside to get past him and out the door. He was not of the proper mind-set to think this through in any kind of detail. “Papa, this is no time,” he said, trying hard not to raise his voice.

“Yes, actually it is a good time,” his father said, “because Flore is down there right now. And she’s with your son.”

“Flore?”

“In the flesh,” the old man said, releasing him. “En chair et en os, with your son.”

Max didn’t remember climbing down the stairs. He simply felt his feet skipping over them two at a time until he was at the bottom. From where he was standing, on the other side of the room, he could first see the back of a woman in an off-the-shoulder mango-colored dress. The woman’s hair was short but meticulously curled, as though each strand had been separately attended to. When she finally turned around, he saw that she was wearing lipstick that made her lips look as red as cherries.

It was Flore, but not really Flore. It was Flore, but no longer a skinny teenage girl who wore the same beige maid’s uniform that was sometimes stained from food and dirt she picked up in the kitchens and bathrooms of his father’s house. It was Flore, but not really Flore, who was now a fierce, older-looking sienna-brown woman. The whole series of incidents—his having had sex with her, her having gotten pregnant—were all in this woman who was standing a few feet from him now.

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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