gall and gumption

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

From the Notebooks

It was the man who claimed to have had this experience who told it to a group of people one Sunday afternoon at the beach bar. There is a village called C-- on the windward side of the island, just east of the airport. Once upon a time it was a way station for pioneers - the rich pioneers of the island’s tiny ruling class. They once lived in the capital, mainly on the heights at the west end of town. Then they moved to the Northern edge of town. Then they moved to an area a little further south of town, overlooking the east end of the harbor. They were driven on to C--, building new houses on the edge of the sea, their backs to the little village a half a mile inland. Here the sea-blast entered and got into everything, corroding metal, dulling varnish and leaving a fine grit of salt on every surface. But they might have borne with that, under the coconut trees, with the fresh air and the sea at their doors, at least until they were possessed once again with the need to move. What drove them out this time was not the advancing black middle class at their backs but the hurricanes that came roaring onto shore across their front yards and leveled their houses. So they moved to F-- Bay. They had been there for a few years when I arrived, but they were breaking ground on the steep, rocky, scrubby, arid hillsides at the very tip of the southeast peninsula, at the end of seven empty miles of winding road. After that, it was hard to see where they could go next.

The houses at C-- were never rebuilt--for one thing, it became the site of the new dump. It wasn’t a dump: it was a solid waste facility. South of the solid waste facility a new neighborhood was built, but set back a little bit further--only a little further--from the sea. But to the north, opposite dump, the rich never rebuilt. A dirt road ran between the fence and the abandoned ruins--sunbaked cracking foundations, the tree-lined driveways, a bit of balustrade separating one emptiness from another. There’s something about a ruin that draws people, or maybe it was the offchance that someone had balked at the dump fees and left something interesting or useful outside the fence. People liked to go poking around the ruins. Well, after all, who does not? They're like tide pools. I had a boyfriend once who, watching some people wandering among tide pools in California, said, "I'm always hoping I'll find a Rolex watch in one of those." At any rate this man, a taxi driver, mooching around the ruins at C--, and found a box. He opened it. Inside, he said, was a pile of American currency with a human head sitting on top of it. In fright and shock he flung the box from him. When he recovered his self-possession he looked in the box again and the eyes had popped open. At that he fled, not even taking the money, which he regretted because later, when he had had some time for reflection the box, the head, and the money were gone. The story was met with howls of laughter. It wasn’t true, and if it was he was a fool for not taking the money.
The taxi driver grew indignant; and swore it was true “A nice-looking Potegee man," he added, but the laughter got to be too much for him and he left in disgust.

Then there was the man whom I will call “Mr. Snuffalufagus” who paid a few visits. He was a returning national, one of many who retired to the island with a pension after years of working in the U.K. He lived alone in the house he had built with his savings, up in the hills somewhere.
He appeared at my office with a portfolio of documents and a strange story. While living in England he had worked as an agent for a rich Englishman who was interested in buying some land in F-- Bay. A piece of land had been found and the transaction was to go through but the seller’s agent, a person with political connections, had conspired to have the Englishman disappeared by a professional hit man whom Mr. Snuffalufaguss claimed to have seen in England - a handsome man in an expensive suit. Then they had altered the survey documents so that the piece of land was incorporated into a bigger piece that they owned, and destroyed all record of the existence of the Englishman’s piece as a separate parcel. It was a long complicated tale - which I have much simplified here - involving signatures and dates and stamps.
I promised Mr. Snuffalufaguss I would look into it, and I did. I went to the registrar’s office and spent hours with looking at land titles and surveys and transfer deeds related to the property but I couldn’t find anything amiss. When Mr. Snuffalufaguss appeared again in my office I told him so, and admitted that I was no expert in these matters and might have got a detail wrong or overlooked something. He seemed to think that that might indeed be the problem and he went over it all again. He was worried that the malefactors might be after him; a small plane had flown over his house. I went back to the registry office and looked at the documents again - again, nothing.
On his third visit Mr. Snuffalufagus told me, among other things, that he had passed some man digging on a road works project and knew that this meant that his pursuers and the CIA were about to act. He was sweating and in need of a bath. His shirt was rumpled and there was grime on the inside of his collar, and his eyes had a slightly feverish gleam. I realized at last that Mr. Snuffalufaguss was out of his mind. I got him out of the office somehow and never saw him again.
Now you can laugh at me for believing Mr. Snuffalufaguss for as long as I did, to the extent that I did. But the son of one prominent politician had famously disappeared years back. The killing of a police superintendent had never been solved; there were a couple of murder trials that dragged on for years in motions and countermotions with no prospect of any new evidence appearing to clear them up. There were skeezy land deals, then and now. There was the human hand, of unknown provenance, found in a bucket at the hospital. There were the people who told me stories of crooked share dealings, of Guyanese prostitutes, of shady offshore doings. Some of these stories were brought to me by people who had scores to settle, in the childlike conviction - true, probably, in retrospect - that the mere publishing of the story in the newspaper, without any kind of corroboration, would be a damaging blow to their enemies. But they always declined to be named as sources. Mr. Snuffalufaguss had at least brought me his bundle of incomprehensible papers.