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Detour

To Nadève

At first Eléonore had been amused.  Why had she taken this detour?  A whim, a random impulse, and seemingly not such a bad one.   But she began shaking her head in commiseration and mild indignation.  How could anyone let people live in such conditions?  Soon her hands grew moist with unease. She shouldn’t have chanced those unfamiliar roads, those broken traffic lights with their pitifully leaning poles, those faces that looked more and more sullen, those smells that reached her even through the closed windows of her Honda.  Noise infiltrated the car despite the voices of ‘70s pop singers coming from her favorite CD compilation.  By the time she realized her uneasiness, it was too late to turn back.  She found herself in the midst of chaos.  Trucks laden with bunches of plantains stamped with the names of their owners, goats trussed up and bound together, and, in the rear, human cargo with clothes and faces stained with dust and yellow-brown mud.  Between the enormous trucks, dilapidated little cars, the kind that always seem crammed with poor families en route to weddings or the cemetery; the huge, rattletrap buses salvaged from Florida, their grimy windows broken or laced with cracks, their exhausted, ravenous passengers vacantly gazing out, all in single file and all moving at the pace of resigned and  overburdened snails.  The metallic blue of Eléonore’s Honda gleamed like a doll dressed for a fancy ball amid a crowd of hobbling beggars.  She would have liked to hit the gas pedal, veer left or right, make a U-turn, but escape was impossible.  No way to turn the car, not to mention the  mess that would result if she even tried:  the infrequent cross streets were blocked by vendors’ stands, the hulks of giant buses, and pedestrians clumped together in wait for a van or a motorbike.  She could only follow the others, bumper to bumper, until the next big intersection.

         

Slumped behind his hardware stand, Jonas was surveying the scene, seemingly indifferent to the familiar disarray.  The clunking shock absorbers, the vendors’ guffaws and insults, the screeching axles of wheelbarrows pushed by scrawny men whose upper bodies strained with effort, the women with the pungent body odor that neither soap nor perfume would ever totally eradicate or mask.  He couldn’t afford to treat himself to a cigarette today, at least not if he wanted a hot meal before the day ended.  The craving gave him a sudden urge to smash his fist against his hodgepodge of merchandise and send it rolling onto the filthy, noxious roadway.  Half-rusted locks, electrical cords, packets of pens and lead pencils, assorted screws of all sizes, slot-heads and Phillips heads thrown together, a jumble of trash in a pathetic semblance of order.  He associated the junky supplies with poverty and despair and sold them with reluctance.  Peddling them to the outcasts who made up his clientele sometimes wore him down, but most often it provoked his rage, directed against himself and others.  Against everyone.  He didn’t give a damn who was or wasn’t responsible for this state of affairs, he would have liked to bash someone, kick their butt.  Anyone. He felt a strong desire to dump everything onto the cars that were lined up in front of him with no prospect of moving forward or backward,  prisoners like him of this nauseating street.

When his eyes fell on the blue Honda, his face remained impassive, but he sneered inwardly. What was this woman doing here?  Her pampered appearance was an affront. With automatic resentment he eyed the car that was too flashy, too pristine, despite the splatterings of mud it had accumulated since daybreak.  He knew perfectly well that Madame had started her journey at the wheel of an immaculate car, that some poor guy like him, who’d migrated at great risk from his province or from a shantytown perched on a hillside above the city, had buffed her car at the crack of dawn, hosed down the wheels, shaken out the floor mats, polished the windows until they gleamed.  He knew because in a life that had swung between keeping his head above water and sinking beneath the waves, he had once washed up at a villa in Thomassin as a custodian and handyman.  His employers talked about all sorts of things in front of him, sometimes switching to English when they discussed the salaries of the employees at their restaurant in Pétion-Ville.  He knew enough to understand that they were afraid of being robbed by those poor men and women, whose meager wages squelched any feelings of loyalty. 

His employers’ stinginess did not particularly surprise him.  Everything in their villa was under lock and key.  Mme Gertrude, the head housekeeper, an old hen who had toiled for decades in their employ, oversaw everything with a laughably misplaced pride, totally unaware that they treated her like a domestic animal.  Not as well, in fact, as Safran, the little dog they regularly drove to the veterinarian.  Safran slept in the villa, in the vast recreation room where the children gathered to watch TV and where relatives and regular visitors were entertained.  The old woman slept in an outbuilding, in a little room that was tidy enough, it’s true, but not in the main house like Safran.  For his part, Jonas slept in a storage room, just like the cleaning lady who the local shopkeepers said was replaced by the owners every six months.  The temperature plummeted at nightfall on the heights of Thomassin, and they shook with cold in their unheated rooms.  Finally, after five nights of shivering in the penetrating February fog, he requested a blanket from Mme Gertrude, who referred his plea to the mistress of the house.  Three days later, the old woman presented Jonas and the cleaning lady with worn-out, threadbare blankets, which she admonished them to treat with care.  The blankets were to be given back when the employees left their jobs.  Before returning his eight months later, he deliberately made large holes in it.  He’d become fed up with rising at dawn, immersing his hands in the bitterly cold water to beautify Madame’s car, then doing the same for Monsieur’s 4x4.  After that, he was expected to sweep the courtyard, play the apprentice gardener, and finally to mop the floor and wash the windows, while remembering never to show his annoyance or  reveal the  pent-up resentment that was growing in him.  He sensed the same bitterness in the often agitated movements of the domestics and in the fleeting scowls of the fruit peddler forced to haggle over a few coins for her basket of oranges.  All those bourgeois fools ensconced in their air-conditioned cars, in their villas surrounded by trees and flowering plants—how could they think that everything was all right, that the well-behaved population didn’t hate them, that they could count on apathy and passivity indefinitely? That none of that would ever change, that they would be forever insulated from the wrath of the downtrodden? 

Through the car window, Eléonore’s gaze met his.  The woman’s raw, runaway fear met the man’s wild, scathing contempt.

Eléonore tried in vain to prevent her expression from reflecting the panic that gripped her guts.  Where could she run?  Where could she hide?  Clutching the steering wheel, she no longer felt the cool gusts of air-conditioning.  Beads of sweat were running from her temples, but she hesitated to wipe her face.  As if such a gesture would call attention to her.  She suddenly felt exposed, vulnerable, and isolated.  One day, a somewhat cynical friend had reproached her for being too attentive to other people:  “You can’t go on living in this country if you care about everybody; you have to learn to close your eyes to certain things.  It’s like when you’re driving: almost all the roads are bad, if you try to avoid every little pothole, you’ll never get where you’re going.  If you fret about every petty vendor in the road, you’re finished before you’ve even begun. You just have to plow straight through and not worry about splashing mud on them. After all, you’re not responsible for the state of things.”  She wondered whether her failure to notice these people had made them invisible.  She had trained herself not to look at them, as if they could exist only in relationships she controlled, where they were always in positions of dependence and inferiority, where their nonexistence stemmed from inexorable forces.  In doing so, had she reduced them to mere shadows?  Could she in turn become invisible by the strength of her will?  Could she disappear in this environment where she felt herself so different, so removed from her own class, attracting suspicion and resentment?  The car windows failed to block the noises, odors, and stares.  Though she had always refused tinted glass, she now wished she had bowed to the pressure of her family.  She would have had at least the illusion of being sheltered from the increasingly hostile attention that surrounded her.

To his great astonishment, Jonas was much more amused than indignant as he observed the woman.  Maybe that was because he felt her discomfort, because he could imagine her inner thoughts, her habits, the aroma of the perfume she might be wearing. Perhaps the same fragrance that had permeated the private rooms of his former employer while he was mopping the floor, followed by a more intimate scent filtering down to his groin. To hide his growing erection he would purposely knock over the disinfectant bottle, earning a rebuke from Mme Gertrude.  No doubt the interior of the blue Honda gave off the opulent smell of a new car.  She was probably listening to her CDs instead of relying on the local radio stations and the bumbling remarks spouted by ambitious announcers.  Had she perhaps changed her heels sandals for flip-flops that matched her dress?  Before she removed them with a nervous gesture, he had noticed her glasses; had she realized the crowd would guess that what she paid for them could feed a family of six for a week?  She probably didn’t give a damn what went on outside of her courtyard, beyond the wrought iron enclosure bordered with flowers and climbing plants, her cobbled drive and her barred windows.  Too bad if she could only get there by traveling down rutted roads, squeezing past shacks surrounded by children with ravaged faces, who were playing outside to escape the privation of their one-room dwellings and the hunger that gripped them nightly on the narrow straw mattresses where they lay huddled together.  She couldn’t care less about the stands that the vendors were shoving aside to make way for her vehicle.  She would lean on her horn so that her helper—that poor guy Jonas refused to become ever again, even if it meant constant hunger—would come running to open the gate.  He knew in his heart that he had quit his job for that very reason: because he couldn’t get used to the unpredictable whims of an employer returning exasperated from the office and to accusations made by a cleaning lady irked at her husband or by a crotchety old aunt wanting to prove that she still wielded some power over the hired help.  He had resigned with no explanation, and his employers had immediately suspected him of some sort of larceny.  Jonas had let them search him without batting an eyelid.  He had even very casually opened his old satchel and silently spread out his few belongings.  Then he had left, inwardly rejoicing at the foolish look of astonishment on Madame’s face, at Monsieur’s suppressed rage, and at the envious gleam in the eyes of the house staff.  Today, this sense of satisfaction returned to him more strongly than ever as he saw this woman on his turf, completely adrift, ignorant and precarious outside her stone walls and unprotected by her guard dogs.

More than all the other wary, irritated, or simply defeated glances that she sensed around her, the gaze of the man slumped behind his jumble of hardware troubled her.  She didn’t dare turn her head toward him, since she knew that he was following her slightest movements, that she was stranded like a fish out of its bowl and that she was at his mercy.  If he decided to pelt her with stones or to puncture one of her tires with a cheap screwdriver or chisel from his stock-in-trade, what could she do, what could she say?  She could only scream, or else stifle her fear, shrink down to disappear from the others’ view and hide cowardly.  Even if afterward she could be sure of taking her revenge, even if afterward she could resume her usual dominance and make him pay for his misdeeds.  For the time being he was the stronger one.  They both knew it, and the windows of the Honda could not shield her.  They both knew that, too.

Absorbed in her fear, her unchecked imagination giving free rein to the most violent scenarios possible, Eléonore felt a warm, steady stream of urine gush out and flow down her legs.  The liquid made its way into her pale yellow flip-flops, the ones she always kept in the Honda for driving, and created an unpleasant sensation between her toes.  The odor quickly reached her nostrils, and burning tears surged from her eyes.  She thought at first that she was too frightened to be ashamed, and yet her lips suddenly quivered in embarrassment when she realized that her courtyard helper would be shocked by the stench of urine hanging over the passenger compartment.

Jonas didn’t even realize that he had gotten up from his rickety bench studded with protruding nails that sometimes tore his pants.  With a robotic gesture, he pushed aside the objects that were blocking his path and advanced toward the blue Honda.  No one paid any attention to him, each one preoccupied with handling his own problems, with holding onto his tiny share of well-being.  Some pedestrians were hurrying along, stepping over the murky puddles, jostling the stalls, barely catching up with a van and hoisting themselves aboard in muddy, sweaty desperation.  Others refused to run and instead trudged along as if they were already beaten down by the surrounding brouhaha.  Drivers called to each other between vehicles and hurled insults at the pedestrians weaving their way between cars and trucks, risking annihilation at any moment.  The Honda hadn’t moved an inch in ten minutes.  When Jonas reached it, he saw the woman start and cast a frightened look toward the doors, which of course were already locked, and slouch in her seat.  He placed himself directly against the driver’s side door and leaned toward the window, his face separated from the woman’s by a mere pane of glass.  It seemed to him that their breaths were mingling.

Eléonore had held her breath as if she could conceal herself by being as quiet as possible, as if the man couldn’t see her through the glass, as if his vicious, mocking eyes were not fixed on her defiantly and provocatively.  She curled up in the seat.  In spite of herself, her eyes met the man’s for an instant and found themselves captive.  She understood that she would never forget that face.  He was pressing his fingers lightly against the pane, and she stared mesmerized at the roughness of his palms, a still-fresh scar, the crookedness of his index finger.  She thought she could hear his voice, but was he really speaking, or had she imagined it?  She seemed to detect a murmur reaching her, like a clumsy touch brushing her neck.  She was unable to look away, her eyes locked onto that hand.  Her clammy buttocks were stuck to the damp seat cushion.  She moistened her lips.  A suddenly intimate, muggy odor had invaded the space.  Between them, only the pane where he had set his fingers.  When the vehicle in front of her began to move, she remained immobile for several seconds.  A disruptive chorus of car horns finally drew her out of her trance.  Jonas had let go of the door and was backpedaling toward his stand, a strange smile on his lips.                                                  

"Le Detour" © 2013 by Evelyne Trouillot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Paul Curtis Daw.  All rights reserved.