The Iowa Review

The Four Way Test

- Christophe­r Bakken

THE FOUR WAY TEST of the things we think, say, or do:

• Is it THE TRUTH?

• Is it FAIR to all concerned?


• Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? —Painted on a roadside wall by the Rotary Club of Savannah-la-mar, Jamaica

Back in the early days, when Miss Gloria was still alive, you could rent a small room or sleep in a hammock for almost nothing. The regulars, mostly retired hippies and snowbirds, came from all over the U.S. and Canada, some staying for months at a stretch. By the time I got there (I spent my first night in Negril in 1987) some of them had been coming down for over twenty years. They said Negril had changed. After a few years I began saying the same thing. Cocaine had invaded Jamaica—the island was a profitable detour for drug traffic between Colombia and Miami. Then too much greed. Then too many hotels. Down the seven-mile beach, big American-style resorts were taking over, those all-inclusive monstrosit­ies packed with college students on spring break, pumping sewage out into the coral reef. But something of the old Negril was preserved at Gloria’s. On the beach, the rickety “No-name” bar, with as many Jamaican clients as tourists; an ital food stand served vegetarian­s and Rastas back on the road. In between was a narrow, sandy stretch of palm and breadfruit and mango trees with squat wooden cottages nestled in the shade. Some of the newer buildings were rented out to visitors, but this was also home to Miss Gloria’s people. Her grandchild­ren grew up here, and the property was busy with chickens and goats, domino-playing and laundry-doing. Fascinatin­g characters populated the place, some of whom were actually employed there. That’s how I first met Carl Levene, a.k.a. Little Carl, the “yard-boy” at Gloria’s. While yardie is Jamaican slang for anyone who lives around your place, or in your neighborho­od, I think “yard-boy” was actually Carl’s job title. He hitched a ride in from Savannah-la-mar each day to tend the grounds and the gardens, haul trash, carry luggage,

and do other menial tasks. I admired the speed and concentrat­ion with which he worked, and I loved the way he spoke: sentences spilled from him in a mishmash of patois phrases, King James Bible verses, rural proverbs, and Queen’s English. But he’d not been to school much, so Carl’s speech was held together by a gymnastic and idiosyncra­tic grammar he improvised for the purposes of communicat­ing with people like me. And to say that Carl was godly would have been putting it too mildly—he lived at a pitch of spiritual attention I found inspiring. Carl Levene passed through the world in a state of perpetual gratitude, even if (by my cynical estimation) the god he worshipped hadn’t granted him much. “To give thanks: that’s the work we get to do on this earth,” Carl liked to say. I’d returned now, after many years, to see if I could track Carl down, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. Beyond a vague postal address I’d memorized years before (“New Market Oval, Savannah-la-mar”), my only clue to his whereabout­s was something I heard from a ragamuffin named Jelly Bean, who wore a bright yellow Adidas T-shirt, bleachedou­t jeans with numerous zippered pockets, and mirrored sunglasses too big for his face. He said that Carl had moved to Saskatchew­an. “But his brain freeze,” Mr. Bean remarked, “and so him soon come back.”

Jelly Bean hadn’t recognized me, but I remembered him. He was just a kid when I first knew him, loafing around the yard at Gloria’s, maybe learning a little business from the real Negril rude boys, who made a living selling spliffs and coke to tourists. He’d since grown tall. No, I told him, I was not even remotely interested in buying any blow. No, I didn’t mind if he sat and smoked his herb. I showed him some old photos: my Wisconsin friends, in various states of sprawl and festivity; my Jamaican friends, many of whom had since left Negril, a surprising number of whom were still here. There was a photo of me with pre-saskatchew­an Carl, both of us caught in mid-laugh. Carl’s leaning his shoulder weight into me and we’re tipping almost sideways in mottled light. Jelly Bean said he knew a few things about Little Carl and his family. When Carl’s wife Euna died suddenly about fifteen years ago, he was left to raise four boys in the Sav-la-mar ghetto. Later (he didn’t know when) Carl followed a woman to Canada. At some other photograph­s, Jelly Bean nodded with bored recognitio­n, though he flipped through them too quickly to really look. One

made him stop: my parents, standing next to a white minibus, during their first or second visit to Jamaica. “I know these people here,” he said, knocking the ash from his spliff into the mouth of an empty beer bottle. “They gave me my first pair of shoes. I never forget them.”

By the time Gloria died in 1990, her grandson Barry had already been running things for some time. Barry had the intelligen­ce and common sense everyone else on the beach lacked. He didn’t roll with the macho swagger most of the Rasta guys adopted, that will-cut-you attitude they employed with other men, and that big-bamboo braggadoci­o they inflicted on all women. No, Barry was busy keeping the books and managing the guest rooms and starting up a family of his own. He worked and moved deliberate­ly, yet was guarded in his manner. He was also fair and good to his workers, which is why even men twice his age, like Carl, referred to him as “godfather.” Barry read everything he could get his hands on, and he was always eager to talk politics. He knew more about the workings of the American government than I did, and he held strong opinions about Jamaican politics too. While roots reggae and yammering dance-hall thudded from every other sound system in Negril, back in Barry’s yard you were more likely to hear Bitch’s Brew or A Love Supreme, and each morning while you rolled your first spliff and sipped your Blue Mountain coffee, you heard both sides of his battered and beloved Axis: Bold as Love cassette. I said I felt at home at Gloria’s Sunset Rooms. I said I felt like part of Gloria’s extended family. Barry’s hospitalit­y allowed me to think like that. But of course I knew home was elsewhere. I also knew Jamaica was a hard, cruel place. I was aware that my being there on vacation probably contribute­d, in some way, to that hard cruelty. So I did my best to respect that fact and tried not to make it worse. My parents followed me to Jamaica eventually. They’d bring extra suitcases full of clothing and shoes and toiletries, things donated from their church in rural Wisconsin. They gave a set of cotton sheets to the cleaning lady, who said her children slept on a bare mattress. They gave sandals to the boys who’d walk barefoot in from the hills to find work. My mother, a nurse, assembled little first aid kits for the mothers who worked for Gloria. These gifts were accepted quietly, even furtively. Maybe they made things better. Did people there need some help? Yes, they probably did. Was it patronizin­g to give it? I often worried that it was, suspecting that such charity carried the old colonial stench about it. You know, I walked

around with so much advantage, by accident of my race and birthplace and money, I even had the luxury to worry about things like that.

Spend even a few minutes reclined on Negril sand and you’ll enjoy unlimited consumer opportunit­ies. Some come selling juice in repurposed rum bottles (orange, pineapple, soursop, carrot and ginger, mango); some come peddling veggie patties and coco bread and steamed lobsters and spicy conch fritters; some come with wood carvings and straw hats and woven bracelets; some come with fruit, peanuts, cakes, cigarettes, rolling papers, concert tickets, or bootlegged CDS. And all come selling ganja (marijuana, collie weed, sinsemilla, chronic, skunk, indica, etc.). Some offer pot brownies or unreasonab­ly delicious and very potent banana-ganja cake. Everyone who visits Negril is offered weed at some point, usually within minutes of stepping off the airport shuttle. Ganja is part of the reason many people come to Negril. It’s certainly part of the reason I came, at least in the beginning. Only a sporadic ganja-smoker now, I recently purchased—or should I say rented— an enormous portion for a week’s stay in Jamaica: five sticky foot-long branches for just twenty American dollars. That was way more than I needed. At the end of the week I was embarrasse­d to return almost all of it to my supplier, a longtime friend. I’d barely made a dent in the herb and was playfully mocked for my lack of dedication to the task of uninterrup­ted smoking. For decades, sales of ganja were done quietly and deals were made off-beach, in the bush, out of sight. But ganja was recently decriminal­ized, allowing for possession of up to an ounce for personal use, and so trade is finally done in the open. Now young men walk down the beach with huge branches of green-golden ganja stuck like antennae into their dreads, or tucked like provocativ­e botanical erections into their belts. The police are left in an awkward and confused position, since for so long they supplement­ed their incomes by making small ganja busts, which could only be forgiven with a bribe. Now that they can no longer prosecute these victimless crimes, Jamaican law enforcemen­t must retrain themselves how to think and how to make a living. It will also take the Jamaican government some time to figure out how to employ a generation of young men who will not be jailed on petty ganja charges, as so many were before. The drug business in Negril, as in most other impoverish­ed places on the planet, is the best entreprene­urial option for young men. Why labor from dawn to dusk as a yard-boy, like Carl Levene, breaking your back and barely making enough money to eat, when you could make a nice profit selling ditch weed to rum-blind Americans on the beach?

“If Carl Levene is in Jamaica, you will find him,” Barry tells me. “The island is not that big. If you want, we can drive out to Sav-la-mar tomorrow to look around.” We’ve spent the better part of the morning drinking coffee at his bar, in part so I can introduce him to my partner, Allison, and in part so I can see if he has any informatio­n about Carl. It’s Allison’s second visit to Jamaica, but it’s her first time here with me—thankfully, she’s patient while Barry and I reminisce about old friends. We remember elegant and slow-talking Hubert, who couldn’t have made much of a living whittling from small knobs of lignum vitae wood the little angular creatures he sold to tourists: owls, fish, tortoises, parrots. He was still around the beach somewhere, Barry said, and he sometimes wandered back for a beer. And there was barrel-chested Thumper, who had thighs like palm trunks. His broad, square face always wore a look of slight strain. His name was actually Brian. I’d bring him a fresh soccer ball each time I visited, and we’d spend hours juggling the ball at the sea’s edge. When we’d get enough people together for a match, some green coconuts marking goals in the sand, no one, not even the fittest Jamaican athletes, would dare tackle Thumper, lest you’d wind up on your back, the wind thumped out of you. I saw him crack someone’s shinbone once, then pick the man up like a doll and carry him from the sand before returning to the game. What about Piper? Piper drank. He drank beer and red wine and overproof rum and cheap gin hot from the bottle. He’d be so drunk his face would twist to a zombie grimace and he’d wobble and sway, working hard to keep himself upright. Sometimes a yard-boy or some hired security would need to steer him off the property, in case he’d appear too menacing to the tourists. Barry confirmed that Piper was alive, “and still drunk, but he lost a kneecap to a bullet some years back, so now it’s even harder for him to walk, since one leg is shorter than the other. He keeps a kind of balance with the liquor. By which I mean if he were sober for more than a minute or two, I think he’d probably die.” Any news of Shorty, who stacked his dreads in a beehive high upon his head so he’d look taller than he actually was? He’d moved to Minnesota. That wasn’t surprising, since so many people from the American Midwest came down to Negril in the winter. A lot of them were women of a certain age who came for the weather, but who were also looking to Rent-a-dread for the duration of their stay. These Renta-dreads were not profession­al gigolos, but in exchange for a week or two of food and a place to sleep at night, the dreadlocke­d man would provide his benefactre­ss with all the sex and theatrical Caribbean woo-

ing she required. Of course, sometimes these transactio­ns went beyond business and got romantical­ly—and then economical­ly—complicate­d. Finally, I asked about Delores. Last time I saw her, about ten years ago, she said she hurt: “Buy me a beer, Chris mon, me whole body pain.” She grabbed hold of my arm so she could lift herself from her wooden stool to hug me. Gray hair dusted the tight curls at her temples, and her eyes where rheumy. As long as I’d known her, Delores had defied the usual Jamaican rule—most everyone else adopted a proud reticence— and spoke about her troubles openly. So tall, and always too skinny, she had raised her children on what she could make by braiding tourist hair. Maybe an aloe massage if she found one burned. “Come here, baby,” she’d shout to the nervous clusters of lobster-red white women scuttling along the beach, “don’t you wanna look like Bo Derek for your man back home?” Delores told me that her eldest son had been loosely involved in some bad business and had got himself shot. Was he dead? She didn’t say. Maybe not. Maybe maimed somehow and as good as dead, since there was really no way to care for someone like that. Not if you were poor in Jamaica. She died just two weeks ago, Barry said, nodding over his shoulder in the direction of the beach. In the latticed shade of a short palm, that corner of Barry’s yard where Delores used to spend her days, the sand had been freshly raked.

Whenever I return home from Jamaica, I struggle to reorient myself. For thirty years now I have been suffering an exile’s return to the cold. And I have also been haunted by variations on a strange recurrent dream: I’m pacing at the sea’s edge, looking down into the green-blue shallows for something I’ve dropped into the water—a scrap of white paper. I cannot remember what important thing is written there: a phone number? The opening lines of a poem I meant to write? A promise I was reminding myself to keep? Sometimes in the dream the sun is just coming up. Sometimes it’s just getting dark and manta rays cruise by, as terrifying as they are beautiful. Somewhere behind me, Carl Levene is preparing a bonfire and my friends are gathering on the beach. Just when I think I see the waterlogge­d note submerged there, some music and the fire distract me from the sea, and then the dream branches off and I don’t come back to the shore again.

Our third day on the island, Barry’s friend Marvette agrees to drive us out to Sav-la-mar to ask around about Carl. She is a careful driver, both hands gripped tight to the steering wheel. The asphalt is soft and

sticky in the heat and she takes the curves slowly, lifting her foot off the accelerato­r when a minibus or truck comes flying at us from the opposite direction. Her rearview is tilted at an awkward angle toward the side of the car—she’s adjusted it to monitor her blind spot, in case some madman tries to pass on the narrow roads. Vegetation glides past us in a steady blur of green. Marvette hopes to get her touring license; then she’ll hold the permit to allow her to run excursions like this. We’ve paid her a little money to taxi us out to Sav, but if the police pull us over we’ll say that we are friends out with her for an afternoon drive. During election season, Marvette works dawn to dusk hauling voters in from the countrysid­e to the polling places. Though such driving pays well, she doesn’t just do it for the money—both she and Barry are highly educated, ardently reluctant supporters of the left-leaning PNP, “the only possible choice, given the lack of options.” Barry seems pleased to have left work for a few hours to help me look for Carl Levene, and he chatters away, tossing English sentences to us in the back seat, then switching into patois to banter with Marvette. They both have theories about how to go about locating Carl, though Marvette reminds Barry that she knows the ghetto better than him. We’re also in her car, so she’ll be making the decisions. We ask Barry about a handsome, brightly-painted, well-kept low building in what looks to be an exclusive neighborho­od of handsome, brightly-painted, well-kept low buildings. It’s a Jehovah’s Witness temple. The whole complex is surrounded by concrete walls that have been topped with rusted barbed wire. “Religion is where the money is,” Barry tells us. “There are some rich Mormons just down the road here too.” Allison and I keep a running tally of all the meeting halls, churches, revival yards, and shrines that we pass in the forty minutes it takes to reach Sav. In the space of five miles, we add to our list Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, and Seventh-day Adventists. Religion sprouts up on even the smallest patch of Jamaican earth. Christian missionari­es arrived at the height of the slave trade, and they have long capitalize­d on the island’s spiritual fecundity. Neverthele­ss, the systems of belief remain fairly porous here. Alongside all these genteel temples and their organized faiths, the old folk rituals of obeah are prevalent, though practiced quietly, while the cultural expression­s of Rastafaria­nism—a more recent syncretic upshoot—are visible everywhere. The red, gold, and green pattern of the Ethiopian flag is painted on most of the rum shops and jerk stands we pass, and those colors are echoed on clothing and concert announceme­nts and rolling paper labels, not to mention the scarf tied around the headrest of Marvette’s

driver’s seat. Rastafari’s mixture of race pride, defiance, and back-toAfrica ideals made it a powerful political force in the years leading up to Jamaica’s independen­ce in 1962. Those aspects of Rastafari were gradually reflected in more traditiona­l religious practices too. Carl Levene offered a case in point: though he had Jewish ancestors on one side of his family, and Christian ancestors on the other side, Carl himself belonged to the Ethiopian Orthodox church. At first I thought he associated himself with that ancient branch of Christian orthodoxy actually practiced in Ethiopia, but that wasn’t the case. From what I understood of Carl’s religion, belief in the divinity of Christ didn’t negate a correspond­ent belief in the divinity of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who was viewed as a black savior for black people. Both messiahs are said to have descended from King David himself. The Lion of Judah. Jah, Rastafari. King of Kings. Non-religious people like Barry are certainly in the minority. Much of his kind of free-thinking arrived in Jamaica thanks to the British atheist Bertrand Russell, whose ideas are still widely cited in conversati­on. In fact, the philosophe­r’s name comes up so frequently I wonder if there’s maybe a counter-sect devoted to him. “Here’s the thing, Christophe­r, there are all these churches and congregati­ons, and they all believe they are the only ones who know the truth,” Barry says with a widening of the eyes and an ironic smile. “Of course, most people prefer the opium, since that’s a lot less painful than thinking.” Marvette turns down a dirt road riddled with potholes, jagged walls of rusted metal and scrap wood flanking us along both sides. It takes some asking around, but Barry locates the little restaurant Carl used to run in Sav-la-mar. It has been boarded up. Most of the paint has faded on the worm-eaten wood, but next to a cartoon drawing of Chef Carl we can still make out “Father Carl & Sons. NO CREDIT.” Barry hollers something in patois over the wall and a voice echoes back in reply. A fat woman with a head full of yellow plastic curlers eventually pushes open a door to speak with us. Inside, I glimpse a garden of callaloo being lorded over by a beautifull­y manicured ganja bush. She’s just a renter of this property, we learn, but she has heard of Carl, and she says some boys named Levene have a little food stand down the road. She gestures that way with an outstretch­ed arm, then slams the door in our faces.

To my astonishme­nt, Carl’s boys recognize me. They tell me their father is alive and well. And yes, he’s in Jamaica, but he’s deep in the country now, so if we want to see him they’ll have to call him down. They invite us through a tall wooden gate into the yard behind their shop,

where they are doing a brisk business in fried chicken and johnnycake­s. A steady stream of human traffic hums through that gate, including a ragtag staff of what look to be bicycle deliveryme­n, as well as several still-uniformed children just liberated from their day at school. One of these kids, an adorable, painfully shy boy of six, is Carl’s grandson. O’neill, Carl’s second son, tells us that we must promise to wait here—his father said three times not to let us leave. He is coming in from Porter’s Mountain so he can see us. “Your quest is over so soon, Chris,” Barry quips. “The great man appears to exist after all.” About an hour later Carl appears, with a canvas bag slung over his shoulder, just as loose-limbed and buoyant as I remember him. He shakes Barry’s hand vigorously, then mine, then Allison’s, bowing to her slightly as he does. He unloads his bag to show us the gifts he’s brought from the hills: a bundle of just-cut sugar cane, a few ripe star apples, and some impressive branches of ganja. Then he turns back to me and this time he grasps my hand for a long while, sizing me up good, before cocking his head sideways to say, “I know you are the teacher, and I think your name is John. Me no sure. For years, mon, we have your picture hung up in our shop. The boys drew a lickle moustache on your lip and so you look like an Italian gangster all these years.” At that he cackles loudly and stomps his foot over and over, and I laugh too. Then that very photograph is produced from inside the shop. And there I am—twenty-five years earlier. A messily scribbled, now-faded caterpilla­r moustache is still visible over my younger self’s upper lip. Why does it please me so much that Carl has forgotten my name? I hesitate to correct him, since Gangster John suits me just fine. Plus, I shed my old self long ago—or at least I’d like to think so, while at the same time I hope I have retained a little of the goofy swagger and fearlessne­ss of that kid in the photo. At first I’m perplexed by Carl’s “teacher” comment. Then I remember that back in the early ’90s, thanks to Carl’s help, I interviewe­d with the headmaster of a fine local boarding school; I had wanted to teach high school in Jamaica so I could stop visiting and finally have a good reason to live there. Carl has not forgotten the name of my mother and father, however, nor have his boys, and they ask after Mama Karen and Papa Oscar. Carl has been pacing and dancing during this exchange. It’s been a long ride in from the mountain, and he runs off suddenly to use the facilities. When he returns, we are treated to a ten-minute soliloquy, all of it in patois. Once upon a time I might have followed the gist of it, but in the intervenin­g years I have forgotten everything. I only pick up a few English words now and then: specifical­ly, “ill” and “guinea

hen.” Eventually, recognizin­g that Allison and I are completely lost, Carl reverts back to his pliable English in order to tell us about his farm. “Cane is part of my life, Chris mon, sugar cane and plantain. Bless anything me put in the earth, Chris. It all grow. By God’s hand, that’s my gift.” “But I heard you moved to Canada,” I say, “to Saskatchew­an.” He screws up his face at this question, and answers “no.. . no.. . me no think so.” A discussion of the Canadian provinces follows, mostly between Carl and Barry, since my knowledge of Canadian geography is shamefully poor. After a bit of deliberati­on, they settle on the province of Alberta. Indeed, Carl had lived some time in Alberta. “Yes, Chris, but it wasn’t good for me,” Carl says with a sigh. “Edmonton is a big city nearby, but me and a lady named Janet lived in a little community down the end of a gravel road. We even have moose there, ya mon, but in Alberta, well . . . no black people in Alberta. When I go into the city, mon, all eyes on the one black monkey, ya know? People see me and say, ‘who is that little black monkey over there, call the police!’ Godfather Barry, they get scared, ya know, and think me gonna come grab them away.” At that Carl laughs so hard he collapses into a fit of coughing. Marvette has been leaning against her car, sipping a Guinness and smoking out of boredom this whole time, and Barry tells us it’s time for them to get back to work in Negril. Carl promises to find a ride into town the next morning so he can tell the rest of his story.

“You know, after Euna died I was out of the world with sadness and grief,” Carl tells me the following day. He had to hitch two rides and then took a series of buses from Porter’s Mountain in order to meet me. I offer to buy him a beer at Barry’s place. Carl and Euna had been working day and night to run their restaurant in Sav-la-mar. All four boys were in school then, and keeping them fed must have been a struggle. Eventually, they scratched together enough money to buy a sound system and a set of speakers so they could attract customers with music. But within a few days the sound system was stolen. Euna, who suffered from both epilepsy and hypertensi­on, took the loss of their investment hard. She went without sleep the night after the robbery, pacing and saying they were doomed. Carl did his best to calm her down. While she was still sleeping the next morning, he went off to the market and returned home later to find her dead from an aneurysm. “So after that you were left alone to raise those boys?” I ask him. “Yes, until they reach this stage now, when they must try to help themselves.”

“What about your eldest son, is he part of this new business too?” “Omar, no,” Carl replies. Apparently he has no more to say on that subject, since he goes suddenly quiet. I can tell there’s something he wants, or maybe doesn’t want to explain. To break the silence, he rummages around in his bag and pulls out a scrap of paper. It’s the corner of a once-white envelope scrawled with my return address. I haven’t lived at that address—in Houston, Texas—for twenty years, but I recognize the handwritin­g as my own. Carl reminds me that we had exchanged letters now and then for a few years before we lost one another. Then he digs back into his bag for some rolling papers and a hunk of green ganja and sets to work preparing a spliff. While he does so, I ask him about his life in Canada. He tells me that Janet, the woman he followed there, was nice enough to him when they were together in Jamaica, but once Carl came north she treated him like a servant. That bothered Carl less than the wicked Canadian weather. “Cold, oh Lord, so cold! Me have to put six socks in a single boot, mon. Chris, I sometimes have to act like a tough man, just trying to hold on. If you wanna smoke you have to go and be quick, ’cause ya know you can’t smoke inside a house in Canada. You have to hurry up, Chris, and take two draws and then run right back inside.” “So the weather made you decide to come back?” I ask him. “Yes, mon, because such ice could freeze a man’s heart. Maybe I could have tried longer in Alberta, maybe if it wasn’t so rough. But as we say in Jamaica, you can’t force water over hill or it will drown you.” I order two cold Red Stripes from Barry, but before Barry opens the second bottle, Carl stops him with a wave of his hand, then asks politely for something else. Barry returns with one eyebrow raised, holding a different Red Stripe for Carl, this one unrefriger­ated. “I cannot drink a cold beer. Even now I want the hot one,” Carl says with a shiver. Soon enough, Carl fled Alberta, but by the time he returned to Jamaica it was too late to revive his restaurant business in Sav. So he boarded the place up and retired to his ancestral home on Porter’s Mountain. “There on me father’s land me have banana, yam, plantain, sugar cane, a nice piece of ganja. I was raising chickens, but then I got ill and the birds go. I hope one day I will find some way to come back.” At this Carl stops talking to light the spliff, but the ganja is fresh and doesn’t want to burn. “Now it catchin’ good,” he says after a little engineerin­g and the applicatio­n of a heavy flame. “Chris, I wanna tell you, God makes things happen. Your mother, Mama Karen, brought me wife and pickney blessings all those years ago. Me still have them sheets she give. And me have a blouse that your mother give Euna. I keep it now as a souvenir. Seventeen years she dead,

Euna, you know. This year, seventeen. Oh, Chris. Things was nice, mon, and we were making money at the shop. But when you have your right hand and then your right hand’s cut off . . .” When he says this, Carl looks at me with such intensity it takes my breath away. How many times in the past decade have I actually thought about Carl, not to mention his boys, or the plight of his family? I could lie to myself and say he’d been on my mind frequently—and it’s true that occasional­ly he was, since I still thought and dreamt about Jamaica. But I had been busy raising children of my own, fixing up a Victorian house, teaching and writing. Then there was my divorce, and then some time in Greece, and now I was busy revising my life with Allison. Nostalgia and the need for a vacation had lured me back to Negril. Or was it guilt? I wasn’t completely sure why I had wanted to find Carl Levene. Evidently I’d returned to pick up a thread I hadn’t even noticed had come loose. And yet I’d been here all along: my ridiculous photo had been tacked up inside a ghetto chicken shack, and the memory of my family and some small kindnesses had been a comfort for Carl and his boys during all those grief-filled years. I pass the now-diminished spliff back to Carl, and to do so we have to juggle the burning thing. It is sweltering, even there in the shade, but I feel a chill run through me when I press the tip of the spliff into Carl’s impossibly callused index finger. Because there it is: I had abandoned Carl. And his boys. “So, when I see you yesterday,” Carl continues, exhaling a cloud of smoke, “I was just wrapped in light, like I see you the day before and the day before that, like you never leave, and I know joy in that concept and such happiness. You understand what’s going on now in the last part of my life and you respect me still. First I see you yesterday, you couldn’t understand a word I say, and me just go on like a boy pickney in patois. I call you by another name, John, cause me have a friend named John, short, like you. But you is Chris the teacher, the short teacher. So you still teach?” I tell Carl that I do teach now, both in Pennsylvan­ia and in Greece during the summers. And I remind him that I used to understand patois, but after I learned Greek my patois disappeare­d. He tells me to say something to him in Greek. The weed has kicked in and all I can think to say is something stupid, the Greek equivalent of “Where’s the goat? The goat left for home.” He looks incredulou­s at this bit of gibberish. I tell him it’s actually a beautiful and ancient language. “So you dive down deep to that now?” Carl asks me. I tell him I try my best to go deep with my Greek, but the language is too hard. When

I remind him that some portions of the Bible were written in Greek, Carl thinks I’m joking. At that, Barry, who has been listening to our conversati­on with only one ear, begins paying attention. Carl has memorized so much of the Bible in English that it’s hard for him to imagine it was actually written in another language. The historical complicati­ons of that difficulty were once summed up by Bob Marley himself, who dryly remarked in an interview that “if King James edited the Bible I don’t think he edited it for the benefit of black people.” Barry and I discuss the difference­s between the Old Testament and New Testament. Carl has little interest in these things. When we describe the ways in which Rastafari is built upon the foundation of the colonizer’s Bible, he brushes away such contradict­ions. “The God the same, you know. Jesus Christ. Rastafari. No different. As we say, ‘me cut you and me cut myself, same blood.’ Let me tell you, no matter what you love, you must try to find the good way. When you’re in life you must be rich in spirit, because time’s short. Rich things happen, we have to give thanks.” “Tomorrow,” Carl continues, “you and your lady Allison must come up to Porter’s Mountain so you can see what God gives me now.”

Marvette says she knows where Porter’s Mountain is, more or less, but the roads are bad, and it’s better if Carl can guide us. He’s waiting back in Sav at the chicken stand and he asks if it’s all right if his grandson rides with Allison and me in the back seat. The boy is paralyzed with bashfulnes­s, but every time he steals a glance at Allison his face explodes into a grin. Just outside Sav, we turn inland and the land rises immediatel­y, our narrow road lifting above lush valleys, then narrowing more, and then dropping again abruptly, past settlement­s called Little London, Shrewsbury, Wakefield, and Fortullam. At one crossroad, Carl sees a friend of his and we stop to offer him a ride; so lanky Winston crams into the back seat too. Carl’s grandson has to wedge himself between us. We’re lucky to have Winston along for this final stretch, since we encounter trouble. The road is only occasional­ly paved, with large portions gutted and corrugated by rain. At one point, on a steep incline with cliffs on either side, a jagged seam has risen in the asphalt and we are left at a standstill. The Nissan’s undercarri­age cannot clear the obstacle. Marvette gets out and paces a little, then tells us all to get out of the car. She positions a few flat stones under her front tires, then inches forward diagonally, with one back tire almost over the cliff-edge. While she massages the accelerato­r pedal, shouting instructio­ns out the

window, Carl and Winston lift the back of the car just enough to keep the muffler from scraping. Then on we go again, around several more switchback­s, until Carl says we have arrived. He has Marvette park her car on a clay embankment overlookin­g a deep gully. Winston bids us farewell and disappears down a path into the undergrowt­h. When I step from the car, some dozing lizards awaken and skitter off into the grass. A few huts are perched opposite one another on both edges of the valley; the fecund green bowl between them is bisected by a small stream and lorded over by a huge breadfruit tree, beneath which Carl’s people are buried. He shows us the grave of his grandfathe­r, Joseph Levene, the last member of his family to practice Judaism. His grandmothe­r, an uncle, and a brother are buried here too. “How long have the Levenes been here on Porter’s Mountain?” I ask Carl. “This is what I know,” Carl replies. “I don’t really remember my old grandfathe­r, but with my granny I remember one thing. She smoked a pipe, a brown-wood pipe, and her house always smelt sweet with tobacco.” When I press him, he says that’s as far back as he can trace his family tree. We follow Carl up a steep green slope. The air is raucous with birdsong and the sweet compost scent of tropical soil rises with every footfall. He leads us behind a small shed that’s been patched together with scrap lumber and some galvanized tin sheets. With his hand, he sweeps away the dried brush that has gathered around one of the hut’s foundation posts, revealing what looks like a tumbled gravestone. On closer inspection, it turns out to be an old stone stairway, now descending into earth. “These are ancient stones,” Carl tells us, “from the house my ancestors used to have here. The house is gone now, but you see I do my best to build my place upon the same foundation. ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,’ the Bible say, ‘a tested stone.’” Pleased with this evocation of scripture, Carl squares his shoulders and leads us up the ladder into his shack. Inside, Carl has knocked together a small plank bed and a few uneven shelves. The windows he’s cut into the walls have no screens—in fact, there is no way to close them at all—so small yellow butterflie­s are currently passing through Carl’s home, unbothered by our presence there. It would be easy to call this squalor, but the rough lumber of Carl’s window frames an unobstruct­ed view down into the valley—so I believe Carl when he says he’s happy here. He switches on a bulb hanging from the ceiling, in part to demonstrat­e that he’s got electricit­y if

he needs it, and then he pulls out a little radio he keeps hidden in a burlap bag. When he switches it on, the bass line of an old reggae song bursts through the static. I ask him if he has dance parties out here in the country, and he answers by demonstrat­ing a quick jig and winking at me. “Yes, Chris, and with this music I can sing and hear what’s going on. I smoke my ganja and talk to Euna and do my farming.” I find it hard to meet his gaze when he reveals that he has conversati­ons with his dead wife. But he’s not embarrasse­d by the idea. “My Euna speaks to me out here, yes mon. Sometimes she sends a bird to speak to me, or the insects, or the wind, and sometimes I tell her about our boys and she listens. I don’t have much else here, now that my chickens are gone, but I have a dreadnut to eat and my yam and carrot, and her company.” He leads us from the hut on a tour of his property—pointing out where he’s used a machete to hack the foliage back for a garden of peppers and peas. It must require a lot of work to keep these crops from surrenderi­ng to the oppressive fecundity of the valley, but he clearly knows what he’s doing: every pepper bush is loaded, and green bananas are ripening on their stalks, and the other trees around us are heavy with breadfruit or star apples. Carl says he is rich for a poor man. “Just some chickens I need now,” he tells me, “so maybe you can help me get started up with that business again. I can trade my eggs and fowl for what things I need from the store.” I tell him I’d be happy to go into the chicken business with Carl Levene and we shake hands to seal the deal.

Sometimes the dream is stifling: sun surging down on the beach. A day windless and too bright. In the bush beyond the road, a huge brush fire sends up flags of white smoke and flame. Doesn’t anyone else see the fire? Others should be making their way into the sea. I am already moving deep, wading up to my chest in the too clear water, when I see a flash of white on the sea floor. My eyes are wide open when I dive for it, but no matter how many times I go down the scrap of paper is not there. In the end, I dive so many times I forget what I’m diving for.

I stay in touch with Carl a little after I return home. I gave him some money to start back up with the chickens, and he promised to report to me now and then how his business is going. Every few weeks, he travels down from Porter’s Mountain and we speak through a program on his son’s computer. With my initial investment of about fifty dollars, he bought twenty-five chickens and some lumber “to get a little start on

his coop.” After about a month he calls back saying he wants to “big up the business now.” So I wire him a little more money. One day Carl calls to report that his machete broke while harvesting bananas. This is devastatin­g news for a bush farmer. It says a lot that he doesn’t have enough to buy a new one. He needs money for chicken feed too. He doesn’t name an amount. I just choose a modest sum and wire it to him. I don’t really know how much a new machete costs. After that, I don’t hear anything from Carl for some time. Then he calls me out of the blue one morning but doesn’t have a lot to say. He’s harvested some plantains with the new machete and has come into town to trade them for some other things he needs. That’s all. While we are speaking on the computer, my cell phone rings on the chair beside me. Someone is calling from a number in Jamaica, which I find odd, since as far as I know nobody in Jamaica has that phone number. It also seems more than a coincidenc­e that the call arrives while I’m already talking to Carl. I am wary of credit card scams and other shady kinds of embezzleme­nt that are often a hazard in Jamaica, so I ignore the call. But when the same number rings several more times that afternoon, I am curious enough to answer. The operator asks if I will accept a collect call from an inmate at Spanish Town Prison. Even though I am sure it’s a bad idea, I agree to the charges. It’s Carl’s eldest son, Omar. Of all Carl’s sons, I know Omar the least. In fact, I only met him once or twice decades ago and remember him as a brooding, nervous-looking kid. He was already trying to make his own way in the streets of the ghetto back then and was probably up to no good. He tells me he’s thirty years old now and he’s been in prison since 2003. Thirteen years. He’s got two boys of his own, he says, but he only knew them as babies a few years before he got locked up. “Mr. Chris, there are some things about me and my father you have to know,” Omar says. I have no idea why a man I barely know needs to tell me anything, but I hear the vehemence in his voice and so I listen. He says he mixed with the wrong guys. When they killed someone, he was put away on a conspiracy charge. But of course he’s not guilty. “Listen, Chris, I am not a bad man, but I got caught up. After my mother died, it’s like everything was taken from me,” he says, “and everything bad that could come into my path did.” His voice shakes when he tells me this and I hear him try to steady himself. “Omar, you don’t owe me any explanatio­n,” I tell him repeatedly, but each time I say that he tells me, “no, you need to know.” His brothers informed him that I’d returned to Jamaica and had reunited with Carl. I’d left the boys with a business card—that’s how

Omar got my phone number. Omar said he supposed his father wouldn’t want him to contact me from prison. At that, he swore under his breath. “I hear you have a boy of your own, Chris, so let me ask you something: would you condemn your own son? Well, you need to know that my father, Carl Levene, is not a good man. He condemned me. Imagine having someone in a place like this, Spanish Town Prison, and then leave him for dead, your own son, living here in hell.” I try to tell him I can appreciate the difficulty of the situation, but that’s obviously a lie. There’s no way I can appreciate what it’s like there. Omar tells me that he hasn’t had a visit from his father since his first year in prison. “My father goes around pretending I don’t exist anymore,” he continues, “not even rememberin­g my name. And why do you think he is so afraid of who and what I am now, even though I am a changed man and am ready to leave here and return to life?” I tell him I don’t know. “Well,” he says, “because I am the only person who knows his secret.”

Here I think I should stop. I’d prefer to tell you about Johnny, the handsome and elegant young polyglot Rasta who could have gone to an American university but didn’t. Or Bossa Nova, who’d ride his antique bicycle down from the hills and sell ackee and calalloo sandwiches on coco bread. His real name was Arthur Stapleton. I’d rather tell you about Ms. Gem, who trudged up and down Negril’s endless beach every day for thirty years, making her way through deep sand with a huge basket of fruit balanced upon her head. Gem could hack a papaya into two perfectly peeled canoes with just a few quick strokes of her blade, the inedible black seeds and pulp simultaneo­usly entombed in sand with a swipe of her foot. Mango skins would come off in one continuous curlicue, and then she’d whack the flesh off in wedges—one, two, three, four—in order to slide the fruit into a plastic bag, only the pit left in her palm. I could even say something about crazy Howard, who shot rum all night until all he could do was lay in a hammock and swear at the stars and sing. And there was Howard’s brother, Carl, who we all called Big Carl to distinguis­h him from Little Carl, and who had dreads so long they’d drag in the dirt if he didn’t pile them upon his head. Or I could say a little something about the mother of Big Carl’s children, the beautiful Rasta woman who served ital food back on the road, and how difficult it must have been to raise three boys while navigating the storms of Big Carl’s temper, not to mention the strict patriarcha­l mores of Rastafari. But I don’t even know her name.

It wasn’t any of my business to know so many things, and it wasn’t my business to write any of it down, but I knew that if I didn’t let Omar continue speaking I would ruin everything.

I ask him why he wants to tell me things that have caused his family so much pain. Omar laughs at that—not ironically or bitterly at all, but because I am clearly saying something that makes no sense. “Don’t you understand?” he asks. “I don’t want you or your family to think badly of me anymore. I know my father never told the truth about me, or about himself, or about my mother’s death. I need you to know so you can tell your mother and your father, so they finally know the truth.” As far as I remember, my parents had never met or even heard of Omar (but maybe I have that wrong—clearly I hadn’t been paying enough attention). Either way, they hadn’t been back to Jamaica since he’d been imprisoned. Carl hadn’t hidden anything from them for the simple reason that they hadn’t been around to tell. But how could Omar know that we had returned north and had disappeare­d from their lives about the same time he’d been thrown into that dungeon in Spanish Town? “My father didn’t just abandon me,” Omar continues, “he also abandoned my mother. Back in those days, my father was getting busy with a girl named Carmen. He’d run off to see her every day, and sometimes he’d carry on with her right in broad daylight. I saw my father with Carmen, and my father knew that I had seen. He told me to stay quiet. But one afternoon my mother caught them in a compromisi­ng position, and then they fought and my father left. Not long after that a blood vessel burst in her head and she died. So that was the end of my mother. And soon after that was the end of me.” “I’m sorry,” I tell him, since that’s the only thing I can think to say. “OK, Chris, but now you understand. I am a changed man, I tell you. Now you know. Now do something for me: please explain about all of this to your mother and father.”

I don’t tell Carl about the phone call. I don’t see how it would benefit him—the silence of Carl’s grief has already put down roots. But maybe Omar, having spoken what needed to be spoken, will benefit from knowing that I kept my promise: yes, I told my parents what he wanted them to hear. Someday Omar will get out of prison, I hope, and maybe he’ll reconcile with his own sons. I hope maybe Carl will find a way to reconcile with him.

I returned to Jamaica to find Little Carl, who went to Saskatchew­an, but didn’t. He went to Alberta instead, where he was treated like a servant. He later settled on Porter’s Mountain, in the valley where his people are buried. It wasn’t so difficult to find him. My friend Carl Levene, who liked to say “the humble calf always gets the most milk,” which was a poem I never quite understood. Carl, who worked like a dog and whose story I wanted to hear, but whose ending maybe I didn’t really want to know. When Carl calls me now, he tells me about his chickens and his most recent crop of cane. He says his grandson is doing well at school, that “he’s a good smart boy, not a simple farmer like me.” His days “move on slow,” Carl tells me, “but I am lucky to reap what I sow.”

Sometimes in the dream, the sun is just going down and I’m still holding the piece of paper in my hand. But I forget to look at what might be written there, and it winds up in the sea. Out beyond the coral reef, where the green-blue water gets so deep it turns to purple, then black, a huge anvil-shaped cloudbank is devouring the horizon. Behind me, Carl is digging a pit in the sand. I hear the shovel’s blade hiss when it strikes. I know he’ll stack a tower of dry bamboo into the pit, and then he’ll light the bonfire. Air trapped inside the bamboo will explode when it gets hot enough—cannons of bamboo shooting sparks up into the night sky. Part of me knows what’s written there can’t do me or anyone else any good, nor any harm. Part of me knows it could be blank. Of course, even if I found it, the sodden paper would come apart in my hands.

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