Read The Boiling Season Online

Authors: Christopher Hebert

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Political

The Boiling Season

The Boiling Season

A Novel

Christopher Hebert

Dedication

for Margaret and Elliot

with whom I share everything

Epigraph

Green fields convulse golden sugar,

Tossing rain, outgrowing the sun,

. . .

The reapers come at noon

Riding the cutlass-whip;

Their saliva sweetens

In the boiling season.

“SUGAR CANE”

—FAUSTIN CHARLES

Chapter One

I
was nineteen the year I came into the service of Senator Marcus. At the time he was still just a lawyer, the legislative elections three months away. But at the urging of his wife the staff had already begun to refer to him by his future title, so that by the time of the election the results seemed to us a foregone conclusion.

Like everyone else of their class and standing, the Senator and his wife owned a home high in the hills of Lyonville, a suburb east of the capital. In Lyonville one saw the figurative divide between the upper and lower classes made geographically literal, the dusty roads at the lowest altitude lined with the wasteboard bungalows of laborers and petty merchants, their skin invariably black; as one wound one's way up the hill, complexions grew lighter, the houses larger, and the garden walls higher. And as the walls generally shielded the houses from view, allowing only the spillover of bougainvillea blossoms, one was forced to judge the relative wealth of neighbors by the strength of their gates and the freshness of the tar on their drives.

The Marcuses were mulattoes, their families among the oldest and wealthiest on the island. From the Marcuses' house, perched atop a bluff on the southwest corner, it was possible to look down upon the houses below and see everything the lesser residents were able to hide from the rest of the world: blooming terraces and swimming pools and verdant gardens, all of it just a little bit less lush and blue and vibrant than the Marcuses' own.

The Marcuses' house was a marvel of mahogany and marble. The only metal they believed in was gold. The art they collected was unlike anything I had ever seen, heavy oil renderings of ballerinas and landscapes that seemed cold and lifeless compared to what one observed daily in the tropics. Every room boasted rugs and vases from the Orient and books in half a dozen foreign languages, English the only one I understood—and that just barely.

The staff consisted of a gardener, a cook, a maid, and myself, but only the maid and I lived in the house. My room was on the very top floor, in a corner just below the eaves, a tight space with a sloped ceiling, furnished with a small iron bed and a side table with a drawer barely large enough to accommodate my two handkerchiefs.

The room was by no means luxurious; despite the cool air that chilled the hills even on days when the city itself was sweltering, my room stayed warm and stuffy. Nor had Mme Marcus entirely removed the items she had long stored there. Boxes of hats and linens and old correspondence leaned crookedly up against the wall by the door, looking as if they had been placed there for just a moment, before being permanently forgotten. None of these flaws, however, meant anything to me. The room was the first I had ever had to myself.

The room's sole window was the size and shape of a dinner plate. Given its position, a half meter above the floor in the shadow of the overhanging roof, it allowed only the suggestion of light. In the evening, when I had completed my tasks, I liked to lie on my stomach, my chin atop my folded arms, and look out the window, feeling like a hawk observing the world from an alpine nest. High as I was above the trees, I could see not only the spires and rooftops of the city but, to the west, sixty miles of green, stippled cane fields slashed into lopsided rectangles by irrigation ditches—and beyond the plain, a line of patchy, mostly barren mountains that on hazy days appeared blue. Far down below, at the very base of the Lyonville hills—where as in a gutter the grime inevitably settles—was the home where I had grown up, where my father lived still. From this distance, the place looked almost welcoming, its filth and decay undetectable to the naked eye.

Senator Marcus had hired me as a footman, but I quickly became more than that. Among his staff of four I was the only one who had been to school; unlike the others, I had aspirations to live in a world better than the one I had grown up in. This difference was not lost on the Senator and his wife. Even from early on in my employment, Mme Marcus entrusted me with signing for any deliveries that came to the house. Occasionally in the evening, after a long day at the office, Senator Marcus called me in to his study to dictate a letter. On one such occasion I recall presenting a finished letter for him to sign, and as the nub of his pen touched the paper, he looked up to me and said, “I have rarely seen such clean and assertive lines.”

“My father thought penmanship extremely important,” I said, feeling the heat simmer at the base of my neck, trapped there by a stiff, high collar.

Senator Marcus added his name and spent a moment regarding it. “Your father was wise.”

Caught off guard, I did not know what to say. “Thank you,” I offered after allowing an awkward silence to elapse. “He was a good man.”

The Senator was elsewhere as he nodded his assent.

Only as I passed into the hallway, closing the door behind me, did I realize we had been talking about my father as though he were dead. By then it was too late to turn back.

By profession my father was a shopkeeper. His store—a term far grander than the premises deserved—was a single room about the size of the Marcuses' pantry, with a pitted concrete floor he could not keep clean no matter how often he swept. A warped, distended curtain in the back corner poorly concealed his sleeping quarters—a nook barely larger than his pallet. The sum of his worldly possessions—aside from his meager stock—fit on a pair of shelves at the foot of the bed, which he kicked every time he rolled over in the night. I knew my father would jeer at the notion of Senator Marcus thinking him wise. Nevertheless, it was true that, after my mother died, the most important thing in his life was to get me through school. He had gone as far as to sell our old house to pay for tuition.

I had learned about the job with the Senator from my friend Paul, whose mother's cousin knew the Marcuses' cook.

“My mother wants me to take it,” Paul told me after church one Sunday, as he ground his heel in the dusty street. The other parishioners were wobbling out around us, piously rigid in their least ragged clothes, which they habitually straightened and brushed at with the backs of their hands, as if such gestures could make the rest of us overlook the bloated knees and tattered lace. We were waiting for Paul's mother and my father. They had both gotten held up somewhere along the way.

“Are you going to?” I asked.

Paul looked at me cockeyed. He had been practicing this look on me all our lives.

“Where's the future in it? You think I want to be somebody's servant the rest of my life?”

“You have to start somewhere,” I said, toeing a crushed can half buried in the dirt. Time and the traffic of countless feet had flattened it into an almost perfect disk. It bore no mark of its former contents. “It has to be better than this.”

Pushing me aside, Paul picked up the compacted can. With a sidearm fling he sent it sailing. Like a bird caught in a headwind, the can banked suddenly upward, and then just as suddenly swooped back down, crashing into the side of the nearest house with a forlorn-sounding clank.

I spun around to make sure no one had noticed.

Paul had already moved on. “At least here,” he said over his shoulder, “no one's always ordering you around.”

Across the street, several guys I knew from the neighborhood—all of them just a few years older than me—squatted in their accustomed positions along the concrete wall of the depot, lazily passing back and forth the one lowly cigarette they had among them. This was not their well-earned Sabbath leisure; it was how they spent every day of their lives. I did not bother saying so to Paul, but it was hard not to think that someone to give orders was precisely what the place needed.

Paul had dropped out of school when he was fifteen, intending to get an early start on making his fortune. His ambition was no different from that of any other boy in the neighborhood; the guys pressed up against the depot wall all talked the same way. But Paul set himself apart with his determination. His plan had been to go into business for himself, and although he never specified what type of business, it was clear he would never settle for the life of a shopkeeper like my father. Instead, for the last three years, Paul had spent his nights loading and unloading unmarked cargo at a windowless warehouse by the docks, where sleek speedboats slipped in after dark without running lights, escorted by a pair of overweight police officers everyone in the neighborhood feared. Paul spent his days playing dice, trying to build up capital. At the time his mother told him about the job working for Senator Marcus, Paul had already begun a modest operation of his own, bringing in cases of name-brand toothpaste from the States, which he passed on to upscale drugstores downtown. His mother knew nothing about his side business. Although I knew little about it myself, I knew more than I wished. Paul was also making connections in the world of bathroom tissue and had his sights set on athletic socks. It was just a matter of time before he would run a warehouse of his own, but until then he made do with an empty closet in the basement of the telephone exchange, guarded by a blind man he paid in watered-down bottles of rum.

What Paul liked best about the work—more than the money—was having to keep it secret. What he liked best about secrets was breaking them, the awe they earned him among less adventurous boys, who knew no better than to believe Paul a major underworld operative. That Paul was in this regard his own worst enemy seemed to trouble him far less than it did me. He talked often of what might happen if his boss ever caught on to his entrepreneurship. The bigger his audience, the more elaborately he spun the repercussions.

“It's not a joke,” I said whenever he let his imagination loose. “You could really get hurt.”

He inevitably rolled his eyes. “You're worse than my mother, Alexandre. I don't know why I tell you anything.”

Paul and I had grown up together, fewer than a dozen houses apart, and when I reflect upon our friendship I wonder if it was precisely because we had so little in common that we became so close. No doubt my timidity had a way of making him feel all the more daring and fearless. And for me Paul was a window into the wider world outside the neighborhood. His was a path I would never follow, but at least it was a path. The other boys I knew were content to idle on street corners until their fates caught up with them. Chasing schoolgirls. Always the same story. Not until it was too late did they see how it would end—that they would be trapped here forever, doing whatever desperate things they could to feed their unexpected families. Over the last several months, more than one of them had been discovered at dawn twisted in a ditch, face all but unrecognizable.

Like virtually every woman in the neighborhood—except those too sick or too old to do anything at all—Paul's mother cleaned houses higher up in Lyonville. And just as the altitude of a house on the hills signaled the status of its owner, in the neighborhoods down below we measured a woman's family by the houses she dusted and swept. On this scale, Paul's mother was toward the bottom, her clients ranging from factory foremen to low-level government functionaries.

Paul's father had disappeared when we were young. Seeking fortune and a new life somewhere else, no doubt. In doing so, he had followed a familiar route. But even though I was young, I remembered being surprised when I learned he was gone. It would be foolish to claim I knew him well, but in the few memories I retained of him he was always smiling, the most joyful man I had ever known. Whenever he came to see my father, he would squat down to talk to me about whatever I was doing, as if clacking together a pair of sticks were a vital occupation.

Like his son, Paul's father had been fond of schemes; he always had something to sell. And I can still remember the awkward sight of him pitching his ideas to my father. The thing I recall most vividly is the two of them sitting side by side on the stoop of my father's shop, Paul's father grand-marshaling a parade of impossible utopias, while my father stared off at the horizon, as if at any moment something might appear there to add interest to the endless blue. Paul's father was the only indulgence I can remember my father entertaining, and even now I have no idea why he did.

As a rule, the men in our neighborhood—at least those who managed to find work—enjoyed a greater variety of jobs than the women, but their wages were scarcely better. Some of them labored up on the hills with their wives, as gardeners or handymen or house painters or pool cleaners. Others worked in the few factories scattered across the capital, assembling imitation leather shoes and handbags for export. From what I had seen, few of them wasted time dreaming of anything better.

My father sold candles and oil and flour and thread and whatever else the people around him appeared to need. In theory it was a lucrative profession for a man of his class, but even though my father had little competition, he never made much money. As a matter of principle, he insisted on buying his goods from unreliable small suppliers, rather than the larger wholesalers. The costs were higher, and doing it this way meant more work, but none of that mattered to him.

“I'd rather go broke,” he never tired of saying, “than give my money to those pigs.” A pig, to my father's mind, being anyone of wealth. If ever a car—for he believed only a rich person could own one—stopped in the street outside his shop, he barred the door and pretended to be closed. In this way my father succeeded in being the only adult in our neighborhood making his living without ever having to consort with the mulattoes living above him in Lyonville, whom he contemptuously referred to as “the hill people”—which had a curious way of making them sound like primitive cave dwellers rather than millionaires.

Unlike my father, my mother had never discriminated when choosing her clientele. Until she died, when I was eight, my mother had been a seamstress, one of the finest in the city. There were others who worked more quickly or whose clothes were more practical, but no one could match my mother's eye for beauty. For weddings and funerals, rich and poor alike sought her out, and my mother turned no one away. The rich she overcharged; the poor she charged next to nothing. But since there were far more of the latter than the former, in actuality she barely broke even.

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