Omar sat in the front seat of the maxi-taxi minivan with his face puffed-up like a country crapaud. He was pissed. He’d been pissed when he left his mother’s house in the quiet, turtle-watching village of Matura about an hour ago, and he was pissed now as the maxi neared the bustling hub of Pleasantview Junction. He didn’t want to be back in Pleasantview – but his mother, Josephine, wouldn’t listen. He didn’t want to return to the tiny, suffocating room with the chicken-wire window where he rented from the Jagroops. He didn’t want to spend another day of his life bagging groceries at the Save-U Supermarket. And to make matters worse, he didn’t want the old, fragile picture-frame in his duffel bag – but, this morning, Josephine had made him take it anyway.
The usual buildings, poui trees and grasslands whooshed past, but Omar sat tense. He winced every time they bounced through a pot-hole, gripping the duffel’s strap, bracing the bag with his knee to keep it from falling. He resented having to caretake this stupid, old picture of him and his father on Matura beach with a leatherback turtle. The photo had long ago faded to brown and it was now welded to the glass, time and heat making them one.
One 8x10 booby-trap.
Its only purpose was to enmesh Omar in unwanted thoughts of what was missing – what had been missing –for the past eleven years. Jacob van der Zee: high-and-mighty turtle scientist, dashing Dutchman, runaway. He’d abandoned Omar and Josephine when Omar was six, leaving the boy confused as to whether the paralyzing feeling he got every time he looked at the picture was raw hatred or, merely, sour love.
About two miles from Pleasantview Junction, the maxi-driver suddenly swerved. Came to a screeching stop. A grating, straining noise followed as he retried the engine. Then, there was nothing. The driver twisted around to face the passengers and barked, “Allyuh come out, come out. We shut down.”
A collective steups went up – everyone, including Omar, sucking their teeth. The twelve passengers in the back of the maxi hunched over and began turtling out. Omar took a moment to slow his heartbeat and rotate the shoulder that had been yanked by the bag, then he hopped from the front-seat.
On the pavement, the passengers had encircled the driver, demanding a refund. As Omar eased his bag out, he noticed a short, black rasta-man watching him cut-eye.
“What you say, Tall-Boy? Ain’t the man should give we back we money?”
Omar couldn’t believe his bad luck. To be suddenly in the cross-hairs of this muscular rasta. Today, when he was so anxious to get to his room. Today, when the sole challenge of his journey was to keep the picture frame unbroken.
With a deep sigh, Omar swiveled out of the jittery mob and crossed the road. He began speed-walking toward the Junction. He just wanted to get to his room without any run-ins with these Pleasantview people. He didn’t know how to cuss like them and he’d never learned how to fight. Behind him, the rasta called out, “You l’il bitch, you!” But Omar had heard that one before in high school, along with “Lonesome Dove”, “Big Pussy” and countless other names only the quiet boys got called.
Two miles. With this heavy bag, in this nine o’clock sun. Omar set off walking, wondering if the maxi shutting-down was some kind of supernatural punishment. For the fights he’d had with his mother this weekend; for the way he’d stormed out this morning: slamming the door extra hard, so Josephine’s beloved crucifix above rattled and fell.
His nostrils picked up the rankness of the deep, rubbish-filled drain running alongside the pavement. And his ears registered a rising chaos: horns, engines, exhausts; they clashed with voices, sirens, reggae. Every time Omar set foot in Pleasantview he felt overwhelmed, like a lost tourist. It was so hard to tell music from noise, the good places from the bad places, the good guys from the bad guys. Take that rasta, for instance: he could’ve been joking, but he could’ve just as well been picking a fight.
Omar squinted as, up ahead at the corner of Evans Street, his landlord, Mr. Jagroop’s fruit-and-vegetable stand, “The Horn of Plenty,” came into sight. Sunlight shimmered on its white, glossy walls in a way that reminded Omar of inside a conch-shell. Mr. Jagroop was another Pleasantview person Omar found confusing. He cussed out his wife every single day, called her “cunt” and “bitch” like it was her first-name, and yet the man was the best father to his lazy, rum-guzzling son, Manohar. A couple months ago, when Omar had just moved in, he’d noticed Mr. Jagroop loading-up the produce truck every day with no help. One morning, Omar had summoned the courage to offer; but Mr. Jagroop had grunted, “Nah. It should be Mannie helping. That boy over-lazy! Is he mother have him so. But what I go do? Is my son.”
Since then, Omar had become almost obsessed with Mr. Jagroop. He waited every morning to hear the old man cussing, then his rubber-slippers on the stairs; then Omar spied on him. First, puja, Hindu prayers by a little shrine in the yard. Then Mr. Jagroop washed and loaded both trucks: his, as well as his son’s; then he and Mannie left for work together. He was, to Omar’s eyes, exactly what a father should be. Omar wished he could know the old man better, study him up-close like a rare species, solve the mystery of how one man could have such different sides. Josephine had said, “You is the newcomer, Omar. You have to try again with your landlord-and-them.” But Omar couldn’t think of how to make a fresh approach.
He came alongside The Horn of Plenty and peered in.
The place seemed deserted except for disgusting Mannie, who sat at the cash-register chewing his nails and spitting them into a crate of grapefruit. Then, the hammock at the back of the shed moved. Omar glimpsed Mr. Jagroop. He swung gently, stroking his pumpkin belly and humming the mournful Indian music of a nearby radio. In his hand, he contemplated a mango.
“Morning,” Omar bleated with a timid wave.
Father and son startled. Mannie merely grunted while Mr. Jagroop called out, “Morning, Omar. Where you toting that big bag this hour?”
“Home, Mr. Jagroop. But the maxi shut-down. I hustling to the Junction to get a car.”
The old man shot from the hammock like a stone from a sling. He shoved the mango into one pocket of his khaki shorts and pulled a bunch of keys from the other. With a big grin, he walked toward Omar saying, “Come, come, I go give you a drop.”
Grateful, Omar folded himself into the truck’s tiny cab and balanced the duffel on his knees. Mr. Jagroop raised a bushy eyebrow and said, “Humph! Is gold inside there, or what? Put that beast in the tray, nah.”
“No, is just…” Before Omar could say, “something that could break,” Mr. Jagroop cut-in.
“So, you busy, son? Or you have time? I have a few stops to make first.” Pulling away from the curb, he added, “Plus, I feel you is the man to help me with something. You don’t mind?”
A few stops? Omar wanted to get to his room as quickly as possible. To unload the picture, get it off his conscience and stow it away somewhere safe, where he’d never have to see it. But Mr. Jagroop had asked him a favour, made it clear that Omar was the man to help. Omar wasn’t sure what was involved but he knew he couldn’t say no. He’d been wanting an inroad with Mr. Jagroop for too long.
Their first stop was quick: the Bank, in the same shopping plaza as the Save-U where Omar worked. While he waited in the truck, he thought of how Josephine had reacted yesterday when he’d said he would stay in Matura, find a job there, where he felt comfortable and understood the rules, where he had a few friends. To hell with Pleasantview, he told Josephine. Packing groceries like a maniac – but never fast enough for the Save-U Manager – twelve hours a day, Monday to Saturday. It made Omar feel he was on a five-day delivery deadline, like a pregnant turtle. Work, work, work – but for what? To unload his dirty laundry and crisp salary in Matura every Sunday. Then, every Monday, to slouch back to Pleasantview and begin the cycle all over again. Seventeen years old and wasting life, Omar had complained.
Josephine had straightened slowly, swiped the suds straight down from her elbows, back into the wash-tub, before turning to Omar. “You mad or what? It ain’t have nowhere in Matura that paying what you making in Pleasantview.”
Sitting there in Mr. Jagroop’s truck, Omar still believed she was wrong. He could easily be a tour guide at some eco-resort. Nobody knew Matura beach like him; nobody knew turtles like him. Jacob had shared so much during their walks, Omar had never forgotten any of it – not even the sound of Jacob’s voice. And so many midnights, when Josephine was snoring in her bed, Omar had snuck out to the beach to learn more, to watch the mama-turtles in nesting season.
There, though, Omar’s argument snagged.
Nesting season. Tour guides in Matura only had work in nesting season.
He glanced across at Save-U where he worked now, and would always have work, every day, all year round.
Yes, but he still had no friends. Yesterday, Josephine had scolded him when he’d said that Mannie and the neighbour, Dev, had once invited him to an All-Fours lime but he’d refused because he couldn’t drink like them and had no money to gamble. “Listen, Matura can’t do one-ass for you,” she’d said, “so you better start treating Pleasantview like is your future. Put your whole self in it, son. Try again with them people.”
Just then, Mr. Jagroop’s grinning face reappeared in the driver’s-side window holding two sno-cones – he handed one to Omar. A perfect globe of crushed ice, soaked with red syrup and wearing a white Pope-hat of condensed milk. As the old man climbed into the truck, Omar noticed an envelope, thick with money, jutting from his pocket. It would’ve been rude to keep staring at it, so Omar looked away and licked his sno-cone.
They swung out of the parking lot and back onto the Main Road. Between bites of ice, Mr. Jagroop chatted as if they took road-trips together all the time. It made Omar feel school-boyish again.
“So you hear the news? Your landlord might be a Member-ah-Parliament soon, son. They ask me to be the UNC candidate.”
“But that real good, Mr. Jagroop!”
“Yeah, only the background checks now. They does real dig-up in your past, you know? By the time they finish, they know everything about a man – down to what size jockey-shorts he does wear.”
“That’s why I have a li’l favour to ask. A errand. I can’t send Mannie. But I need somebody I could trust as much. I was there in the hammock thinking, ‘Lord, who?’ and then BAM! You walk up. You is the quietest fella I ever see. I know I could trust you.”
In his head, Omar repeated Mr. Jagroop’s words, “…somebody I could trust as much…” As much as Mannie? Or as much as a son? There was a difference. Omar wouldn’t want to be equated with Mannie – lazy and always reeking of rum. But, for Mr. Jagroop to trust Omar like a son – well, that Omar didn’t mind. He answered, “For sure, Mr. Jagroop. But what it is?”
Jagroop patted his pocket. “I just need you to run inside and hand the Boss-Lady this. You think you could manage?”
Omar was still nodding as they turned onto clogged Evans Street. On one side, the University campus sprawled, bounded by their neighbourhood of East Pleasantview.
“So Omar, is which village you from again? Matura, ain’t?” Mr. Jagroop asked, gearing the truck down to a crawl.
Omar nodded distractedly, “Mmmhmm,” taking advantage of the traffic to macco inside the University fence. Boys and girls, no older than him probably, reclining on the lawn. Some read fat books. Others chatted. Under a samaan tree, a couple kissed. If Jacob had stayed, maybe Omar might’ve been among them, studying something – anything – related to the sea; and maybe he would’ve had a girlfriend too, somebody pretty – but quiet like him.
“All them North Coast villages is the same. Turtles, turtles, turtles. Not so?”
“Mmmhmm.” Omar noticed another couple wiggling the triangles of a sandwich at a skinny, black dog.
“The Mrs. tell me your father was a white man. A doctor or something. That’s true?”
“A turtle scientist,” Omar corrected, as the dog inched closer to the couple, ears bent. Mr. Jagroop was trying with him and, for the briefest moment, Omar considered offering Josephine’s nancy-story in return: how Jacob had been “serious about the environment” and had come to Matura to open an eco-resort; how she’d worked there as a cleaner; how after six years Jacob had gotten fed-up with Trinidad; how he’d left for Dutch Guiana “to help save the Amazon.”
But Omar didn’t want to talk about his parents. Especially after the things Josephine had said this morning when she’d slid the picture-frame across the kitchen-table to Omar.
“Ma, why you giving me this thing?” Omar had asked, pitching his spoon down as if a lump of shit had surfaced in his porridge bowl.
“Because you is a big man now, but you turning-out just like your father: selfish and ungrateful. Take this, put it up in your room in Pleasantview and watch it good every day. Tell yourself you will be better than him, son. That you will be a real man, the kind that does sacrifice and mind his family. All these years, I do my best for you; now is your turn to work. Now, get your bony backside up and go.”
Omar looked away as the stray dog finally nuzzled the bread.
“Scientist, eh?” Mr. Jagroop warbled, through a big lump of sno-cone. “I is a nature-lover myself, you know. I always say one day me and Mannie go drive up, like big-time tourist, and do some turtle-watching. But work, Omar. Work is a bitch.”
Omar felt a tiny flicker of superiority. He had seen the famous leatherback turtles a million times. He had proof right there in his bag. He felt generous, like a quick glimpse was – at last - something he could gift to Mr. Jagroop. Omar unzipped the duffel and began feeling for the square edges of the picture frame. He drew it out, peeled away the white cotton T-shirt he’d used as padding. The picture frame was unbroken. The photo was intact.
“Look, Mr. Jagroop. Look a leatherback.”
Mr. Jagroop glanced down at Omar’s lap and almost choked on the ice. “Waaaaay!” he said, “That thing real fuckin big! And who’s that with no front teeth there?”
Omar smiled, “Me.” There he was, a grinning six-year-old, tiny beside the turtle.
“And that’s your Daddy?” Jacob knelt on the other side, glaring at the camera.
Omar’s smile hardened to plastic. Without answering, he tried to shove the picture back into the bag before there were any more questions about Jacob.
But Mr. Jagroop grabbed his wrist, still marveling. “Watch how you kneel down there like you ain’t even frighten!”
“I wasn’t frighten,” Omar snapped.
“Humph! Well, you better than me, son.” Mr. Jagroop patted Omar’s hand, then released him with a promise, “When we ready to make that North Coast trip, you is the first man we calling.”
Omar softened. “Anytime, Mr. Jagroop, anytime.”
He re-wrapped the picture frame. Maybe it had been a good idea to show it. Maybe Josephine was right about that too: you have to put out some of yourself, show some of yourself, if you want people to like you.
The truck lurched to a stop.
Omar listened carefully to Mr. Jagroop’s instructions, then cracked open the door and slid himself out from under the duffel bag.
Mr. Jagroop called after him, “Don’t stay long, eh. I waiting.”
Omar had no trouble finding the pink bungalow. Its casement windows were spread wide, as were its teak double-doors, which were the colour of healthy, tanned skin. Bougainvillea blossoms quivered to the tock-tock of wafting Latin music, and the aroma of boiled rice – sticky and warm – embraced Omar.
He let himself into the yard. By the time he reached the doorway, a wrinkled Chinese woman was standing there, arms akimbo. She wore a white house-dress so thinned by washing Omar could see her yellow panties and could tell she had no breasts. She picked her teeth with a matchstick and asked, “Who you come for, li’l boy?”
While he wiggled the envelope from his jeans, Omar explained he’d been sent by Mr. Jagroop to Ms. Lee Loy. The lady snatched it, then swung her face toward the open door and screeched, “Consuela! Your man really send the thing, girl! Like he desperate.”
Omar heard furniture shifting and heels hitting the wooden floor inside the house.
The Chinese lady licked her thumb and began counting notes. Three women appeared in the doorway, cluck-clucking among themselves. They all wore make-up and party clothes. But the one who caught Omar’s attention was tiny and had the whitest skin he’d ever seen – as white as his father’s – paper-white, making the bruise around her eye seem like the imprint of an ink-bottle. She prattled– bad English with lots of rolling r’s - just like the Venezuelan fishermen who docked at Matura from time to time.
Omar guessed this was “Consuela.” He stared at her damaged face while Boss-Lady counted the thousands, and the women watched the envelope as if they expected it to turn into a dove and fly away.
Mr. Jagroop barely uttered a syllable for the rest of the drive. He seemed to sink into a private pool of worry, his face taking on that look Omar had glimpsed earlier in the hammock. And there was another face on Omar’s mind - Consuela’s; her blue-black eye - Omar couldn’t forget it. Who had hit her? Was the money for that? Omar stared out the windscreen, puzzling. Ever so often, though, he stole sideways glances at Mr. Jagroop. Was he the one?
When they stopped in front of the house on Mungal Trace, the old man finally spoke. “Thanks eh, son. But let we keep this between weself, nah? She don’t bound to know.” Mr. Jagroop flicked his eyes toward the upper flat, making it clear he was referring to his wife.
Omar made to get out of the truck but, at the last moment, swiveled and shut the door. He needed to confirm what had just happened, what he’d just been a part of. He could only think of one delicate way to pry. “That place, Mr. Jagroop. The pink house. What they does there?” He hoped Mr. Jagroop would say something like “hairdressing” but, at the same time, Omar knew if Mr. Jagroop said that, he wouldn’t believe. There was a similar house in Matura – whole day, the women just sat on the porch, all dolled-up, waiting. Omar knew what went on there because Josephine had threatened to chop off his legs if he ever set foot on that porch. What would she think of him now?
Mr. Jagroop lowered his voice as if someone else was in the truck. “Boy, Mannie get he-self in a li’l problem, nah. With the Colombian girl working there. He was only looking for a li’l fun, but he have a temper when he drink. He hit she, I know it wrong. But…is my son.”
Mr. Jagroop’s eyes seemed to be pleading with Omar to spare him further explanation. It was like seeing the old man naked. Too embarrassing; and, in the truck’s cab, they were suddenly too close. Omar stuttered, “Is ok, Mr. Jagroop. I wouldn’t say nothing. I understand,” as he cranked the door handle. He jumped down and watched Mr. Jagroop driving away. The truck left a trail of black, diesel smoke tentacling backwards to the gate. It filled Omar’s nostrils and reached down his throat, making him hawk and spit into the drain.
Reaching for the latch, he heard the explosive Hiss-ss-ss! of Mrs. Jagroop throwing something into hot oil – a better smell: curry powder, onion, garlic and pepper – and then the rhythmic clang of metal on metal, spoon on pot. Omar used the noise as a cloak to get to his room, unnoticed. Did Mrs. Jagroop know what a brute her precious son was?
Inside, Omar eased the duffel from his sore shoulder and felt as if he’d been travelling for years to get to this moment. He removed the picture frame and slid it onto the dresser. The Jagroops evaporated from his thoughts as Omar peered into the photo. He clawed at some red welts the bag’s strap had left on his shoulder and felt like his body was itching everywhere, somewhere he couldn’t quite reach.
“Now what?” he mumbled, as if daring an invisible opponent.
Through the patchwork of greasy little fingerprints on the glass, Omar tried to see something, feel something positive about the picture. Josephine had always kept it in the secret depths of her wardrobe. She’d take it out on his birthday and allow Omar to study it and ask as many questions as he liked. But three years ago, on his fourteenth birthday, Omar had told Josephine not to bother. His questions had deepened over time, and her thready answers - “I don’t know…I not sure…Your father never said…” – could no longer span the gap in Omar’s mind. Was Jacob alive or dead? Did Omar show up in his dreams the way he did in Omar’s? Did he wake-up crying too? Or did he have a new family to love him?
The vapours of a painful – but familiar, unnameable – emotion began to rise inside Omar. He abandoned the picture and belly-flopped onto the bed. He reached across the nightstand for a half-eaten pack of peanuts and a half-empty Coke that didn’t even fizz anymore. He poured both down his throat, sat up in bed and looked around. It was barely midday but the tiny room was stifling due to the thick, red curtains Mrs. Jagroop had hung over the chicken-wire window. He wanted to tie up the curtains – but then he’d have no privacy. He wanted to turn on a TV, a radio – something loud, louder than his thoughts – but he had nothing.
Omar couldn’t stop his eyes; they returned to the photo. Ha! There was one good thing about it: it had helped him make friends with Mr. Jagroop. A fresh wave of disgust for Mannie swept over Omar. It wasn’t fair: big, black Mannie had hit that tiny, perfect, white doll; and Mr. Jagroop was cleaning up the mess. Shelling out big, big money. On one hand, Omar couldn’t blame him; that’s what a father should do: protect his son. But Mannie didn’t deserve such a father. And furthermore, Consuela didn’t deserve to be treated like her bruise was just a chalk circle that money could erase. Mannie would never have gotten off so easy with a local girl – they had brothers, fathers, people of their own kind. The whole thing was so unfair.
Omar swung his feet to the floor and covered his face with his hands. This weird feeling overtook him sometimes – more and more since leaving school. His skin was scorching and he felt something was crawling underneath. Palms upturned, he examined his forearms. Veins stood out, thick and blue, and he thought he could see them throbbing. It felt like Life. So much Life. And Energy. And Power. Power, blue like electricity. Power searching for an outlet or a route to ground. Too much for him to contain. It made his eyes bulge. It made his temples pulse. It made a crackling noise in his ears and it made his heart hurt. What to do with all this Life? Some days, like today, it all backed up inside of him and Omar felt he would explode.
He was seventeen years old. Six months ago he was a school-boy swinging a lunch-bag and moving in a huddle. Now, he was alone. His mother kept saying he was “a big man now.” But a man was powerful and did things with his power – things he wanted to do, not what other people made him do. Omar sprung up and began pacing the room, berating himself: he should have stood up to Josephine this morning; he shouldn’t have let her force him into coming back here, or bringing the picture; he shouldn’t have lingered at Mr. Jagroop’s store, or let himself be pressured into doing that favour – into ganging up against someone with no one on her side.
Then, Omar had a thought that made his stomach even more queasy: what if Mr. Jagroop didn’t really like him? All that talk in the truck: about trusting Omar; saying they would call him one day to show them around the North Coast. What if Mr. Jagroop was only mamaguying him to drop off the money?
Omar rushed to the dresser and, before he could even stop himself, he’d punched its side. The cardboard panel flexed, wobbled, then fell out. That wasn’t enough for the force moving inside Omar. He lunged toward the bathroom and felt a woosh! through his veins as he struck the hollow bathroom door, heard the crunching of the thin plywood, felt the shock to his knuckles and the bright, red satisfaction of his fist emerging through the other side. Omar removed his arm slowly and inspected the splinters in his hand. No pain. Just relief, and a kind of pride, as he noticed the hole he’d made was so much bigger than his fist.
A voice. It reached Omar as if he were underwater. Then an impatient sound – blam, blam, blam – fishermen pushing off, knocking the side of a pirogue. Omar startled awake. Someone was banging on his door.
It had become dark outside. Through the chicken-wire, under a low-swinging bulb, he saw Mr. Jagroop, Mannie, Dev and his father, Mr. Singh. They sat on crates, crouched over a small table, eating.
When Omar opened the door, Mr. Jagroop dumped a big dollop of curry onto a plate and pointed to the roti they were using to cradle the bony pieces of meat and sop up the sauce.
“Boy, come sit down,” he ordered. “You from the country; you must like wild-meat.”
Omar remained in the doorway, crusty-eyed and slack-jawed until Mr. Jagroop beckoned again. Only then did Omar peel himself from the doorframe and accept the plate. He didn’t know what else to do. Everyone was staring at him.
He popped a morsel into his mouth and chewed slowly, assessing the meat: iguana. In Matura, they were everywhere, like chickens. Silence seemed to hum around the table and Omar knew the men were waiting for him to show some manners, to compliment the food.
“In Matura we does curry ‘guana,” he half-whispered, “but it don’t taste nice so.”
Everyone nodded and Mr. Jagroop credited Mannie and Dev for catching the animals.
“You does hunt, Omar?” Mannie asked.
Omar took time clearing his teeth as he calculated how to reply to this nasty woman-beater. Was he really sitting here with these four men? Had they really sought him out? Mr. Jagroop must’ve told them how he’d helped earlier that day.
“Hunt?” he answered finally. “Yeah. I used to go in the forest with them fellas. Catch we li’l wild-meat. Do we li’l fishing and thing.”
Everyone grinned and swapped looks that Omar couldn’t read. He’d only ever been on one job interview – at Save-U – but this felt very similar. Eventually, Mr. Singh blurted out, “Well all these months we watching you – quiet, quiet; going home every weekend; avoiding everybody. We say you is a born-again-Christian. Judgey, nah. Ain’t Jagroop? But we ain’t know you is a real man – a hunting man.”
One by one, the men stretched across: Mr. Jagroop clapped Omar’s back, Mr. Singh his knee, Mannie and Dev fist-bumped his shoulder. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, the mood lightened and the men all started chattering at once.
Omar found himself in the middle of a lime.
At some point, Mr. Singh drew a flask of puncheon-rum from his pocket and said, “Let we finish this.” They passed it around and, when it reached Omar, the group fell silent again, watching. Omar hated rum, but he wanted them to see he wasn’t “judgey” so he tipped the tiniest bit into his cup, then drowned it with coconut water. The men roared with laughter. “Good one, good one,” they said, slapping him on the back again. But they skipped over him the next time the flask went around. They understood him now, Omar thought. He was a quiet fella but would never stop anybody else from having their fun. It made him wonder, maybe he’d read them wrong as well. Except Mannie, of course– that jackass who’d hit Consuela and jeopardised his hardworking father. Omar would never like Mannie, but maybe he could tolerate him – for Mr. Jagroop’s sake. Plus, Josephine had said, “Try.”
“Omar, bring the picture, nah?” Mr. Jagroop asked. “I was trying to explain these fellas ‘bout that turtle, but is best you show them the real thing.”
Omar sprinted to his room and returned with the picture-frame.
The group ooh-ed and ahh-ed as it made the rounds. Then they asked stupid questions, like whether turtles have teeth; if they bite people.
Omar’s answers were brief at first, but every time he spoke, he felt a strong current – pulling something from them to him - making swirls and eddies inside him. He was winning the men’s attention and, he suspected, their respect. This kind of power was new to Omar and it rippled through the curve of his belly like a new hunger. He leaned forward on his plastic crate, tapping the picture as he talked and talked. He shared all he knew about turtles - anatomy, habitat, seasons - everything.
When the lecture ended, there was a pocket of silence as every man contemplated the floor. Then, Mr. Jagroop slapped his thigh and said, “Well, I ready to go Matura!” He pointed around the table and everyone else agreed. “It settle then. Saturday night, we turtle-watching. And Omar, you go be we leader.”
Omar was dotish for the next five days, as if Mr. Jagroop had uttered an obeah spell instead of a mere promise. At night in his bedroom, and by day at Save-U, Omar relived the high points of the lime – the way he’d taught the men, their admiring looks – and he imagined further ways he could impress them on Saturday’s excursion.
On Tuesday, Save-U was in the usual mid-morning lull when Omar decided to fix the most important item for Saturday: a turtle-friendly torch. From the “Home Goods” lane he got a flashlight and some duct tape, from the stand with gift bags and wrapping-paper he got a red cellophane sheet, and from his cashier, Cindy, he got some batteries. While she prattled on with the neighbouring cashier, Omar sat on his stool rigging the torch, taping and testing to make sure it would only emit red light – enough for the men to see the turtles, but not so much as to harm the animals. He was engrossed until Cindy banged the counter and said, “Customer.” When he looked up, Consuela was standing there at his register, waiting for her yogurt, deodorant and maxi-pads to be bagged.
Omar dropped the torch and began fumbling for a plastic bag.
“Sorry,” Cindy said, “this one does move slow.”
“Is OK,” Consuela answered, “I know him.”
At that, Omar’s head jerked and he finally met her eyes. She was as white and as beautiful as he remembered; the bruises were almost invisible – except to him, maybe. A red blouse partially covered her breasts and she wore red leggings topped with a thick gold belt. The belt had been pulled so tight it made her exposed mid-riff look like one of the corn muffins made at the in-store bakery. Omar dropped his head again and fussed with the yogurt.
“You did went to the house,” Consuela said, her voice loud in the quiet of Save-U.
It was an accusation and Omar was sure his co-workers heard. The tips of his ears and his neck felt like they were on fire; he guessed they were red enough for everybody to see his guilt. He picked up the deodorant and felt himself grow even redder at the thought that this was how Consuela smelled: Powder Fresh. Omar had been taught to be discreet with feminine products, to first put them into a black bag, then into a grocery bag. But, as he handled Consuela’s maxi-pads, his prick began inflating and unfolding itself like a life-raft. And because he didn’t understand why, when all he really felt for her was pity, Omar shoved the bags across the counter and turned away.
“Pobrecito,” she said, “You es no a very nice person. Just like tu Papa, Jagroop.”
The week passed and Omar never told Mr. Jagroop about that incident. Instead, on mornings, he helped the old man load the trucks. On evenings, Mrs. Jagroop came downstairs to hand Omar a plate of roti-and-talkari, a home-cooked meal. And on Thursday night, after she’d left, Mannie appeared at Omar’s chicken-wire window, head bent like a timid stray.
“I just come to say thanks, nah. For helping Daddy. You save he ass, there.”
Omar was tempted to say, “Is your ass I save! Stop hiding behind your father,” but something about Mannie’s sheepish face made Omar hold his tongue.
They were almost the same age. Boys. Boys made mistakes.
Besides, it was stupid to keep holding a grudge against Mannie. And even more stupid to mention seeing Consuela. That whole mess was over and behind them. In one week, Omar had moved from no-man’s-land to tottering on the fringe of this family, and he was determined that, after Saturday, he’d be ushered in.
Mannie parked the truck along a dirt road which they would never have found without Omar. Then came a sloping embankment covered in thorny bushes. Their bare arms and legs would’ve been shredded if Omar hadn’t walked ahead, swiping the long cutlass Jagroop kept in his truck. When the bush cleared, they stepped out onto a deserted beach which stretched for miles in either direction. Everything was blue-black, making it difficult to distinguish between sand, sea and sky. There was a moon, peeking out behind a buttress of dense clouds, but the ocean was at full, angry volume.
“This way,” Omar said. He led them past a crowd of coconut trees, shifting in the night breeze, as if uneasy at the sudden appearance of the men. Like a good host, Omar pointed to some fallen nuts and promised that, on the way back, he would chop some so they could have fresh coconut water before driving back to Pleasantview.
For a long time, mostly in silence, the men trudged behind. Then, Mr. Jagroop caught up to Omar. Panting and wheezing, he whispered, “Ahhm...you see that thing you drop off the other day? It looking like every week, boy. You don’t mind?”
Omar felt himself cringe and then stiffen, as if he’d collected a basketball to the stomach. So it wasn’t over: the whore-house; the hush-money. Every week? No way. He couldn’t do it. And he had no good reason except that it made him feel as if he were right there, watching Mannie hit Consuela and then handing him a towel to wipe his knuckles. Plus, he didn’t want see her again, couldn’t bear her accusing eyes. He would only go to Consuela again if he could be her white knight. But how? He was just a boy.
“Well, I …” Omar’s Adam's apple bobbed, but he didn’t have the words to refuse Mr. Jagroop. He squinted into the blackness ahead, searching, desperate now for some sign of a turtle. Anybody could carry an envelope but only he could give Mr. Jagroop a turtle, up close. This, he could offer him this; maybe it would be enough.
There! Omar stopped everyone and pointed to a dark blur in the distance, midway between the tree-line and the water. He hurried to investigate and then scampered back, waving for the men to follow. A cluster of rocks. Omar climbed and picked his way, on all fours, along the theatre-like curve. He took the torch from his pocket, aimed it at something on the sand below.
Dev snickered, “W’happen Omar? Like you carrying we in the red-light district, or what?
Omar shushed him and continued tracing an outline with the torch till their eyes adjusted and the men recognized what it was.
There, resembling a big rock itself, was a leatherback turtle.
At least six feet long, almost as wide, with white specks lining its dark brown skin. Under the red light, it appeared buffed and polished for this big reveal. Its head looked about two feet. Its giant flippers sloshed back and forth, making a sand angel. Omar explained that the animal had finished covering its eggs and was now heading back to the ocean.
For the next few minutes, the group sat spellbound – even Omar. For him, something was different this time. Maybe he was seeing the turtle through the strangers’ unaccustomed eyes? Or maybe he was different? Not just the scientist’s son anymore, but an expert in his own right – a teacher of other men. He watched the animal’s head poking in-and-out, hesitant. The creature seemed less powerful than he remembered; more vulnerable, lonely. If poachers came up on this beach, nobody could help it. Nobody. The damned thing was driven by this instinct to return to the beach where it was born, to lay its eggs in the same place. But that was all just a memory that might not even hold true anymore. What a foolish bet to make!
Eventually, the spell wore off. The men came to terms with the turtle’s proportions. It lost all its wonder. Mr. Singh suggested, “Pictures, pictures,” and the group began scrambling down the rocks like children on a field trip.
“No, no. Stay behind it,” Omar called, but nobody listened.
Dev dug a video camera from his backpack and handed it to Omar with a few cursory instructions and an order, “Film we.”
Omar felt a bit uneasy. Still, he stabbed the cutlass into the damp sand, took a few steps back, pointed the torch and began filming.
At first, the men knelt around the turtle at respectful distances. Then they edged closer. When Mr. Jagroop touched the creature’s back, a competition started: Mr. Singh patted the head; Dev held a flipper, trying to wave it at the camera. Mannie sat on the turtle; Dev pushed him off and lay down. The young men began a war of poses atop the turtle while their fathers applauded and flicked away hysterical tears.
Omar wanted to say something: leatherbacks didn’t have hard shells; the men might be hurting the animal. But he kept thinking it would be over any minute now, that it was just a little harmless fun. Soon, the men did run out of clever poses and Omar was relieved that he hadn’t made a big deal. He would’ve risked the whole night over a few thoughtless antics.
He needed to play his cards right tonight. If he did, it wouldn’t matter so much when he told Mr. Jagroop he couldn’t be their bag-man anymore. He would help at the store, around the house, even; but he couldn’t help with that other problem anymore.
The men began circling the turtle like they were at a car show. Omar decided that this was a convenient moment to capture the full scenery. He panned the camera left, to the water; up, at the moon; then, a slow three-sixty: mountains, coconut trees, rocks; then he was back at the group. Mr. Singh and Dev were at the front of the turtle, Mr. Jagroop and Mannie were behind. The four men were struggling for a grip on the creature, attempting to move it in some way.
“Aye! What allyuh doing? Stop! Stop!” Omar cried, running toward them.
They straightened, chests heaving. Dev said, “Boy, put down the camera and come help we.”
Mannie said, “Nah, we can’t lift this. Not even with Omar. This thing had to be about five hundred pounds. Let we just forget it.”
“Not a fuck of that!” Mr. Singh argued, “I hear turtle is the sweetest fish-meat you will ever eat. I ain’t come so far, this hour in the night, to go back without a li’l piece! Is only two flippers we need – look how they big.” He kicked one for emphasis. “We could chop them off just so.”
Omar’s heart raced. “Mr. Jagroop,” he pleaded, looking to the old man to thwart Singh.
In a stern voice, Mr. Jagroop said, “Singh, I is a nature-lover. We can’t do the animal that.”
“Exactly!” Omar said.
Then, Mr. Jagroop continued, “We have to put it to sleep first. I think we could get a clean lash from here. Pass me the cutlass. In fact, give Omar. He is the turtle man. He go know where the jugular is.”
Mannie plucked the cutlass from the sand and inclined the handle toward Omar.
Omar took it, shivering with the unwelcome understanding that he’d reached the end of something – everything - and the beginning of something else –what?
He saw himself raise the cutlass to the heavens and throw back his head. He saw it as if he wasn’t doing it. He saw himself lowering the cutlass toward the turtle. He saw a single dark line. But then midway, at shoulder level, he saw silver: moon, glinting on the blade’s edge. A simple rotation of the wrist and now the cutlass was no longer aimed at the animal, but slanted toward Mannie.
Omar let out a guttural noise – surprising, even to him - and began swinging the cutlass wildly. “Nah! Nah! Not tonight! Nobody touching this fuckin turtle tonight! You hear me! No-fuckin-body!”
Mr. Singh and Dev leapt in one direction, Mr. Jagroop and Mannie in the other. And, as Omar advanced, they hopped backward, saying things like, “Aye! Cunt-hole, relax nah!”
“Noooo! Allyuh have to pass through me first!” Omar kept screaming. “Through motherfuckin-me!”
Mannie made to challenge Omar with a piece of driftwood but, with one chop, the branch split. At that, the men turned and ran.
Omar chased them clear past the rocks and out onto the open beach. He would’ve gone further too, but he fell – his body going one way, cutlass the next. He staggered up, found it and began to hack at the sand. Needing to damage something, he ran to the nearest tree and began to chop at the nuts underneath. But they mostly rolled away, evading him.
He took a mighty swing at the tree, and shuddered as the blade imbedded itself.
All energy drained from him. He had none left to remove the cutlass. He backed away, crying, and sank to his knees.
They’d tricked him. Made him believe he was bringing them turtle-watching, when all along they’d planned a hunt. Made him believe he could belong to them. He hated the men. For raising his hopes. And he hated Mr. Jagroop most of all. For not being the man he expected him to be. For being the kind of man who asked a boy to do his dirty-work. For being the kind of man who could kill a defenseless leatherback turtle. A mother that had just layed eggs. If Mr. Jagroop could do that, what else could he do?
Omar decided he was never going back to the Jagroops, to Pleasantview. Not that night, not ever.
Then, he remembered the picture-frame.
He shut his tired eyes and saw it there, face-up, in the tomb of his bottom drawer. He knew the photo by heart, all its details: his face, innocent and open; Jacob’s, closed against the world. Maybe he should go back for it? Maybe Jacob had been a better man than Jagroop all along. A worse father, yes; but maybe a better man.
These were Omar’s watery, receding thoughts, as his eyelids succumbed to fatigue, and a clump of sand rolled from his slackening fist.
He spent the night there, next to the rocks, just another blue-black mound between the tree-line and the Matura sea.
Celeste Mohammed is a mother, lawyer and emerging fiction writer residing on the island of Trinidad. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass. Not everybody lives in Standard English, she says; and it is her ambition to tell those people’s stories. Celeste’s work has appeared in The New England Review and The Rumpus.