Synopsis: Two friends drop out of school and slowly realise that they’re not as gangster as everyone around them.
I’ll start this one off by telling you that I was born and raised along a backroad that always seemed slightly more Trinidadian than the rest of the country. Settlement 4 is that old-timey, grassy, care-free type of Trinidad the illustrators adore. Open any Caribbean primary school reading book and you’ll see it there. We had the little black boys bathing by the standpipe. We had the no-teeth man whose rock-hard gums could cut through cucumbers like butter.
We had it all.
Take a walk down this mucky stretch of asphalt and look to your right. You’ll see young, pregnant Khadijah combing the lice out of the locks of her first-born. To the left, you’ll see a sun-burnt savannah where children still fly mad bull kites next to a posse of nomad goats. Walk further down and you’ll find a rusted sedan with weeds growing out of the glove compartment and chipped bricks for wheels.
But then there was the features that our colourful illustrators would omit. Features of boys like me and Foster who had plans to spend the better part of our teenage years sitting on a crate and paintbucket. Makeshift lookout points, you could say.
Foster was two years older than me, and when school wasn’t cutting it for him no more, I decided to sever my ties with free education too.
I hope you know, I’m no fool. I could speak proper when the time come. I could even solve an equation or two. Free education was a nice concept, but it seem that free paychecks was a better one. When the teacher absenteeism rate seemed higher than the students’, it was time for me to try to even the game. It seemed to be a wise decision. It was much quieter out here on the backroad than that classroom of unsupervised wolves.
Foster got out for entirely different reasons, though. Less articulate reasons. At school, you see, it was very hard to gargle a cloud of marijuana smoke every two hours or so. Despite this, he seemed to have it all figured out. I looked up to that boy. I never knew what I was doing and always fell in line with those who did. It was all simple to him. Dropping out of school was just a nervous impulse to him. Snatched right out of the vapours one evening. For me, I had to convince myself that I was teaching the damn Ministry of Education a lesson.
I was letting the system know.
I had to feel like I was showing them.
Foster never had to show nobody nothing. Never had to prove he could be a big man without a father’s upbringing. Never had to put his chin up to nobody. He never had to answer to anybody.
Except one person: The King of Settlement 4.
And so did I.
And I think, so did everyone else, if the time came.
He was the King, after all. And when the war finally breaks out, what better company to be in than amongst all the King’s men? What better place to be than on the winning side?
He lived at the top of the highest housing project (which was just four stories up). Scattered and radiating out between there and the shadows of the galvanized perimeter of the complexes were all the King’s men. Each one strategically placed at corners and blind spots, like rooks and bishops.
There was a reason this place was filthy. Why the walls was always stacked the hell up with garbage bags, waterlogged wood palettes and old steel pipes. There was a reason the planks seemed to be loose along the dog kennels. And that the lawns weren’t mowed. The more pockets to hide the kush, the better. There was a detailed, painstaking scheme behind the unsightliness, the repulsiveness of Settlement 4.
It’s why when every Thursday morning, the men in grey roll up in trios, they always go back home with jack. They blare their sirens and flash their revolving bright blue lights under the bright blue sky and the entire settlement doesn’t miss a beat. Because we all know, as determined as any man is, a policeman’s salary ain’t paying enough to sift through a dozen eighty-pound piles of tetanus-laden rust and steel at seven in the morning.
At seven in the morning, no man jack knows nothing about no kush or local. Everyone in the settlement develops a case of spontaneous laryngitis when the questions drop, I’d say.
So, as I said—when the war breaks out, what better place was there to be than the winning side?
Our jobs were to sit. Sit and keep our eyes open. Not much change in scenery except the cars passing back and forth. I imagined the drivers shaking their heads behind their window tints. Saying to themselves, “Look at them young fellas wasting them life.” But for me, it was always the opposite. Them people behind their tints was on their way to cubicles and screens and dusty storage rooms. To tap away, lift til their backs bend, and get paid in shillings.
To me, they was the suckers.
Unfortunately, even with easy money, a lack of challenge quickly tunnelled into boredom. Foster had already predicted this, so he began bringing his dog with him. A small, brown, fluffy dog named Bodie. Foster always looked funny playing with the dog and combing its fur, but he didn’t care much what people said. The dog meant more to him than anybody else. So, it was the damn best treated dog in the settlement.
It looked like a prince among the mange-ridden, matted-backed pothounds. It was probably one of the only dogs in the settlement that had a collar, even, and probably the only one to ever taste an American dog treat.
I asked him one day. “What’s the story behind that dog and you? You like to spoil it bad.”
“Well, this was actually Bailey dog—you remember Bailey, right?” He scratched Bodie’s ears.
“How you mean—remember? Yes, damn right, I remember.”
“God rest his soul.” He scraped his rubber slippers against some loose gravel. He reminded me of a little boy all of a sudden, sulking over a schoolyard brawl. He then said, “Don’t get me wrong, eh, boy. The dog is the dog, and Bailey is Bailey. I don’t keep the dog around to remember the boy or anything. I just like the dog.”
“Word,” I say.
At first, Foster used to chain him to an old fridge at the side of the road where we used to sit. But eventually, he figured that he didn’t need to. Bodie never roamed far. All Foster did all day was smoke weed and pet that dog.
When the evenings came, the other boys came by and rallied at Foster’s sitting place. They pulled out the cards, dragged up stools and wooden boxes. They played wappi and all fours under the streetlights for hours. I never stayed for long.
One of Foster’s good friends was another corner boy one street down named Bone. He was in Foster’s year. But about two years back, he got expelled for sticking a shiv into another boy’s leg. It was in all three major newspapers, but was quickly dwarfed by other blood-red headlines. Bone’s only regret was that he was too young to have his name printed in the articles.
“I coulda be a big name in these parts, boy!” he lamented for a month.
Bone always went on and on about meeting with the King. When just knowing somebody is being flashed like a badge of honour, it says that you have to rely on someone else to give you character. The way he mumbled his words—everyone coulda tell he had the morals of a red-eyed sewer rat.
“Lookin like you fellas doing some good work here,” Bone said, grinning. “Maybe I could put in a word with the King. How that sounding?”
I wanted to say no, just because he wanted me to say yes. But Foster quickly agreed for both of us. Bone put his arm around my neck and jabbed my side with his finger. I recoiled. He laughed and said, “Maybe not you. You soft as fuck, young’n.”
Foster shook his head. “Give the boy some time, Bone.”
Bone lifted his chin up and said to me, “When I stop seeing the milk on that cherry-boy face, and start seeing some blood, we could talk.”
When I went home, I was greeted the same way as every evening since I dropped out. My mother puffing smoke at the clock, saying that I was just as worthless as my father. “One day, you ain’t gone come home,” she said to me, shaking the cigarette at my face. “You long gone, boy. Your ship done sail!”
You know, for the first week that I was absent from school, I always looked out to see if someone from the staff would bother to come see me. The Principal. The Dean of Discipline. Maybe Ms. Simmons from English class. But nobody ever came. The energy wasn’t worth it for a couple of lowly boys at Settlement 4.
The Principal always dropped his mantra at the beginning of every boring opening assembly for the new school year. “You ain’t have to fraid the storm if you learn to sail the ship.” I used to suck my teeth everytime. Sailing ships always get caught in the storm if they’re out there in the damn water, you know.
So, how would I put it?
You ain’t have to fraid the storm if you could be right in the storm. It have no place better to be than the eye. And that was where I was. So whenever I remember the teacher’s cautionary tales, I thought about that. No matter how big the storm gets, how far it stretches, the eye is better than anywhere else.
A few days later, it seemed that Bone actually pulled through for Foster. He got him moved to the snack kiosk at the intersection near the tail of the backroad. “You moving up in life, dog!” Bone said, patting Foster’s back.
When Foster left, I was alone. The sun stung a little more. The dust trails rose a little higher. The car parts strewn across the grass rusted a little faster. I had a radio, but the radio was never something that you actively listened to. You listen while you drive, while you cook, while you do homework, while you getting through with your girl. Not like this.
I used to play a game. I used to try to predict when the deejays would interrupt the song to yell something stupid like, “BOOM!” or, “BLA-DOW!” or to make their trademark tongue-rolling guttural zulu chant.
A little girl walked past me one day. I didn’t know her. But she had the gall to tell me, “My mammy say you corner boys is slaves who ain’t know they is slaves. She say, why you ain’t get a job?”
I told her, “Tell your mammy she better watch out when a black car roll up in front she house.” That shut her up.
When the evenings came, I walked over to the snack kiosk at the end of the backroad. The weed smelled strong as I stepped up. I half-joked, “You lucky the police ain’t come to buy no soft drinks, boy. They gone sniff you out in no time.”
He stepped out of the kiosk and patted my shoulder. He untied Bodie from a metal pipe and let him wander about with the other dogs. Bone was there with him. Bone said to me, “Fuck away with that. Let the man blaze in peace. It was a hot day today.”
I ignored him. Foster laughed and said, “The evening hot too.” He removed a board from the base of the kiosk and pulled out a crumpled ball of aluminum foil. He unfolded it and rolled up another spliff.
I crinkled my eyebrows. I chuckled nervously and asked, “You could take from there?”
Foster smiled at me. “The deal is, we cut it from the next pay slip. You need to calm yourself, Bug.”
“You is the man mother now?” Bone said. “This is perks of the job, young’n.” He took the spliff from Foster and took a long drag on it. He then blew the smoke in my face. I tried my best not to cough, but ended up choking still. He then handed it to me.
“Take the t’ing,” he said to me. I just stared at his hand. He pushed it towards me again. “You too good for it, young’n? What kind of man you gone make?”
I shook my head and walked off. On my way home, I passed by the King’s building. You always knew which one it was. It was the one populated with gangsters with shirts wrapped around their mouths like niqab veils. They had cutlasses hidden in the bushes and guns stashed in hollowed planks of wood, long discarded and forgotten by the Ministry of Housing.
As I made my way, my mother said, “The Principal call for you today, boy. He want to know why you skipping school.”
I said, “What you say?”
“I say, if you want him, mister, you gone get him by that backroad he so fond of. I ain’t have time to deal with your shit, Bug. How long I ask you to help me clean this house? Shit, man, at least help me clean. But you too big for that, ain’t it so? Me, I’m an old lady and you’se a big man. Ain’t that so? You’se the big man of the house.”
I inhaled hard and scowled. “You’se a bigger man than me.”
She got up from her recliner and flicked her cigarette at me. Sweat was pouring down her puffy cheeks. The veins in her yellow eyes throbbed. “Don’t pull that shit with me, boy. You want to fuck with me? You want to try shit with me? You done gone and drop the fuck outta school and feel you could say something to me? Boy, don’t let me—”
She took off her slipper and pelted me with it. As she took off her other one, I braced. I thought she was going to chase me with it. But she was suddenly calm. She grasped her nightie and rubbed the middle of her breasts slowly. Then she sat down, facing away from me.
She spoke slowly now, hoarse from the yelling, “I gone let you walk away. You getting too old for me to beat your ass. You walk away. Because you’se the big man now. You do what you want, but not under my fucking roof, Bug.”
I left the house and slammed the door. I decided to go back to the snack kiosk. On my way back, I noticed that the men outside the King’s building were chatting with Bone. I kept walking to the kiosk and saw Foster still there. Foster was sitting at the heel of the shack, scratching his dog’s neck.
“You pulling a double shift tonight, boy?” I asked him, faking a laugh.
“Just manning the front before Bone take over,” he said. “He coming back just now. I thought you was going home?”
I smiled at him. “Moms work she damn self up into a fury.”
“Waiting for the old lady to breathe out the fire?”
“I don’t want to be in the house when she burn it down, is all.”
Foster laughed. “Right, right.”
“She better be careful. The fire hydrants this side don’t work so good. But I ain’t fraid no fire,” a man said, appearing behind us. His voice was like a cold wind. We both turned our heads to him and gasped when our eyes fell upon his.
It was him. It was fucking him.
He was wearing a tattered vest and cargo pants that had rips near the waistline. His clothes looked as old as he did. His elderly smile was cloaked in a scrim of cigarette smoke. He blew two symmetrical snakes of smoke out of his nostrils. Oddly, the smoke also smelled like sea salt. The slanted sinks along his cheeks tightened and sharpened like knife wounds from some Amerindian rite of passage. Straggly grey hair lined his jaw. The horseshoe pattern of hair stippled his bald head. He radiated tropical heat and his left eye restlessly twitched.
We had no words to say. There was nothing to say. He extended his hand to us. He accepted our limp handshakes with glee. “Boys, I am the King of Settlement 4. Nice to meet you,” he said. His voice was strong, but smooth. It didn’t crinkle like brown paper, like most other men his age.
He then said, “As I was saying before, me, I fraid ice more than fire. Sadly, no way it all going to go down except with ice. Everything preserved in its naturally ugly state—when the end of days come, know what I’m saying? Everything becomes a mirror. Ice mirrors reflecting off each other. The frozen people in Australia would be able to see all the way over here in Trinidad, through the mirrors.”
He paced around, kicking gravel as he did. He continued, “Everyone going to be frozen in their sins. Men frozen with knives to the necks of their fathers. Some men frozen with their little pricks in their daughters. Some women frozen with their fists to their son’s teeth. All for the world to see.”
He scraped the back of his heel with his shoe. This motherfucker’s eyes cut right through me. I didn’t want to look. He turned to Foster and asked, “What sin you think you’ll be frozen in?”
“I don’t know, sir.” Foster trembled.
“You don’t know?” The King furrowed his brow. “You believe me to be a fair king?”
“Do you know how long I’ve been King?”
“I’ve been King of Settlement 4 before there was a Settlement 4. Before there was buildings here to speak of. I claimed this place long time. So, I have experience.”
He took another drag and then asked, “What you think the other kings back in the day would do if you stole from them?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
The King turned to me. “What you think, boy?”
I spat out, “Chop off their hands, sir.”
Foster looked at me. His eyes widened. The King laughed. “That’s a good start. But you see, I am a merciful king.”
His eyes jumped to Bodie. Foster knew.
“Sir, please.” Foster’s voice cracked.
The King’s calm expression contorted into intense fury. His upper lip curled and twisted as his eyes flashed sharp like mirror shards. He grabbed Bodie’s leash and curled it around his fist. Foster started breathing hard. I opened my mouth to say something, but I just couldn’t.
My teeth chattered. My muscles were all jelly. My spit grew sour.
The King lifted Bodie from the ground. He started kicking and barking wildly, until his voice winded down to a muffled grunt I never heard any animal make. “Sir, sir, sir,” Foster kept pleading, dropping to his knees. He began to sob. “Please, please, please!”
The King swung the dog like a clock’s pendulum. The dog let out a shrill shriek with each oscillation. The King then finally tied the leash to the top of the kiosk and let Bodie hang there. His scruff was pushed over his mouth as his neck tilted and began to slowly fracture. His mouth hung open like a carite caught on a fishing hook.
We couldn’t tell exactly when he died. He was kicking long after the life in his eyes disappeared. The King then took out his gun and shot the dog once in the head.
I spent a while trying to figure out why. And it was only when Foster cradled his dead dog, I knew. It was just to make a mess. Just to get blood on his clothes. I looked around. No one came out of their houses. There was nothing to see and nothing to say. There was nobody to call. And even if some fool decided to, there was no policeman who was going to hold the King on charges of stringing up and shooting a dog.
Foster pressed his forehead against the asphalt. The King knelt beside him and rubbed his back gently. He asked him, “What’s your name?”
“Foster.” He managed to say it through the hyperventilating snivels.
The King then said to him, “Next time I catch you taking my supply, Foster, it’ll be your ass. That’s how things work round here. Don’t be fuckin with the program, young’n. Because I can do anything, you understand? I can do anything to unfuck it. That’s why I’m King.”
The King hobbled past me without even a glance. No acknowledgement. He stepped over my feet like I was shit. As he approached the corner, he grabbed his side and hunched over. For a moment, I thought he was going to fall over and die. I tried not to keep my eyes on him. He quickly regained his stance and kept walking. I hoped to never see that face ever again. Not even in a dream.
Foster sat in the road, sobbing still. Tears collecting in a pothole. First time in my life I ever saw that boy cry. I didn’t know what to say. What was there to say? Shit, man. I never had no training for this. I tried hard to find words, but they never came.
A week has passed and man, I’m still trying.
We never spoke after that night.
As soon as I got back home, I cleaned that fucking house from top to bottom. Crack to crevice. I swept every dead cockroach under from every mat. You coulda make a bonfire with them. I was on my knees, scrubbing every floor. My kneecaps had dents, I swear. I exfoliated that bathroom. The Virgin Mary woulda be proud to come take a shit in it. Three o’ clock in the morning, I was still sandpapering muck from the walls.
I’ll tell you something—housekeeping ain’t no joke.
My mother didn’t thank me. She didn’t apologize either. And neither did I. That’s just how things are. I don’t care.
The next day, I didn’t go back out to my point. I wasn’t going to fuck with that no more. But Foster was right back at his. I walked right past him. He didn’t look up at me as I did. That’s how it’s been. A mutual feeling of defeat and shame. The difference is, I could admit it. He’s still dealing with it. Shame is a hell of a thing to feel in a place where there ain’t much to help unshame yourself but by shooting the motherfucker who made you feel it.
That evening, I noticed that Bone had moved up. He wasn’t a lowly lookout or dealer anymore. He was a soldier of the fortress, now with a cutlass buried in the bush and a gun hidden in a plank. He saw me looking at him. He barked like a dog at me, and started cackling like mad. I kept walking.
There was nothing nobody could do to him now. No revenge. No comeuppance. Not when he had all the King’s men on his side. Not one fucking thing. If you valued your life, anyway.
There ain’t much of a conclusion to this story. It’s still to come, I’d say. There ain’t much else to tell. I guess I’ll end by telling you what happened yesterday. There’s this old broken-down playpark at the edge of the savannah. It’s a depressing collection of pee-stained slides, wobbly swings and a decapitated rocking horse. But the see-saw was tip-top.
Two boys were trying to use it. One was much fatter than the other, and they couldn’t figure out how to balance it. The smaller boy was yelling and cussing at the fatter one, and a fight erupted. I rushed in and held them back from each other.
Then I told the fatter one to sit nearer to the pivot of the see-saw, and the smaller one to sit farther away. It finally balanced and they were able to have fun. I learned that when we were doing levers in school.
Now, brother, if you can derive some meaningful, symbolic shit in that scenario I described, then shit— maybe there’s a solution for all this nonsense.