The days were small, pointless epics, long windups to punches that always drifted by cartoon-fashion, as if each simple task were meaningless unless immersed in more theater and threat than bad opera.
It was only Monday noon and already Tillman had been through the wringer. He had greased the trade commissioner to allow a pallet of Campbell’s consomm” to come ashore, fired one steel band for their hooliganism and hired another, found a carpenter he was willing to trust to repair the back veranda that was so spongy in spots Tillman knew it was only a matter of days before a guest’s foot burst through the surface into whatever terrors lived below in the tepid darkness, restocked on vitamins from the pharmacy, argued with the crayfish regulatory bureau about quotas.
And argued with the inscrutable cook, a fat countrywoman who wore a wool watch cap and smoked hand-rolled cigars, argued with both maids, muscle-bound Lemonille and the other one who wouldn’t reveal her name, argued with the gardener who liked to chop everything up, argued with the customs house, argued with the bartender Jevanee. And although he had not forthrightly won any of these encounters, he had won them enough to forestall the doom that would one day descend on Rosehill Plantation.
But now the daily defeats and victories were overshadowed by a first-class doozy, a default too personal to implicate the local population. The problem was to decide what to do about his mother–Mother, who had thought life wonderful in the islands. Now she rested stiffly in the food locker, dead and coated with frost, blue as the shallow water on the reefs, protected from the fierceness of the sun she once loved without question or fear, a sun that was never really her enemy, no matter how it textured her skin, no matter what it revealed of her age.
In her room on Saturday, Mother had died mysteriously. As Lemonille had said when the two of them carried her out after the doctor had been there, Mistah Till-mahn, it look so you muddah shake out she heart fah no good reason. Like she tricked by some false light, ya know.
His mother’s body had been strong and brassy, her spirit itself unusually athletic for a woman only weeks away from sixty. In her quick laugh was as much vitality as a girl’s, and yet she had died. In bed, early in the evening, disdainful of the bars and clubs, reading a book–Colette, rediscovered on her latest continental visit–her finger ready to turn the page. Tillman was astonished. Only after Dr. Bradley had told him that he suspected his mother was poisoned did Tillman begin to calm down, his imperturbable self returning by degrees. Such a conclusion made no sense. The terms of life in the islands were that nothing ever made sense, unless you were a mystic or a politician, or studied both with ambition. Then every stupidness seemed an act of inspiration, every cruelty part of a divine scheme. There was no dialectic here, only the obverting of all possibilities until caprice made its selection.
Dr. Bradley couldn’t be sure though. Neither he nor any of the other three sanctioned doctors on the island knew how to perform an autopsy with sufficient accuracy to assure each other or anybody else of the exact nature of death when the cause was less than obvious. Still, Bradley earned moments of miraculous credibility, as when the former Minister of Trade was brought into the hospital dead of a gunshot wound in his chest. To the government’s relief, Bradley determined the cause of death as “heart failure,” an organic demise, and unembarrassing.
“I will take your permission, mahn, to cut de body open ahnd look in she stomach,” Dr. B. had said to Tillman as they stood over his mother’s corpse in the sunny hotel room on Sunday morning, a breeze off the ocean dancing the curtains open, billowing sunlight throughout the room and then sucking it back outside. A spray of creamy rosebuds tapped against the louvered window, an eerie beckoning in the air silenced by death.
“For God’s sake, why?” Tillman had said. It sounded like an ultimate obscenity, to have this fool with his meatcutter’s stubby hands groping in his mother’s abdomen.
“To determine what she eat aht de time of succumption.”
“I told you what she was eating,” Tillman said, exasperated. ‘she was eating a can of peaches with a spoon. Look here, there are still some left in the can.” He shook the can angrily and syrup slopped onto his wrist. In disgust, Tillman wiped the sticky wetness on his pants, half nauseated, associating the liquid with some oozy by-product of dissolution. “Take the peaches if you need something to cut into, but you’re not taking Mother. This isn’t one of your Bottom Town cadavers.”
Bradley had reacted with a shrug, and a patronizing twist to his smile. ‘dis racial complexity–what a pity, mahn.”
How often Tillman had heard this lie, so facile, from the lips of bad men. “One world,” he said, biting down on the syllables as if they were a condemnation, or a final sorrow. “We all live in one world. What’s so goddamn complex about that?”
Tillman refused to let him remove the body from Rosehill. He wrapped his mother in the mauve chenille bedspread she had been lying on, restacked several crates of frozen chicken parts, and arranged her in the walk-in freezer until he could figure out just what to do. It was easy to accept the fact that you couldn’t trust a doctor in such circumstances. What was most unacceptable was that Bradley had told the police there was a possibility the old lady had been murdered. The police, of course, were excited by this news. They sent Inspector Cuffy over to Rosehill to inform Tillman that he was under suspicion.
“You’re kidding,” Tillman said.
He suggested the inspector should walk down to the beach bar the hotel maintained on the waterfront and have a drink courtesy of the house while he took care of two new guests who had just arrived in a taxi from the airport. “I don’t believe it,” the new man said in an aside to Tillman as he checked them in. “The skycaps at the airport whistled at my wife and called her a whore.” His wife stood demurely by his side, looking a bit overwhelmed. He could see the dark coronas of nipples under her white muslin sundress.
“Hey, people here are more conservative than you might think,” Tillman told the couple, and to the woman he added, “Unless you want little boys rubbing up against your leg, you shouldn’t wear shorts or a bathing suit into town.”
“But this is the tropics,” the woman protested in an adolescent voice, looking at Tillman as if he were only being silly.
“Right,” Tillman conceded, handing over the key. He escorted the couple to their room, helping with the luggage, and wished them well. Wished himself a dollar for every time their notion of paradise would be fouled by some rudeness, aggression, or irrelevant accusation.
He crossed back over the veranda out onto the cobbled drive, past the derelict stone tower of the windmill where every other Saturday the hotel sponsored a goat roast that was well attended by civil servants, Peace Corps volunteers and whatever tourists were around, down the glorious green lawn crazy with blossom, down, hot and sweaty, to the palm grove, the bamboo beach bar on its fringe, the lagoon dipping into the land like a blue pasture, Tillman walking with his hands in the pockets of his loose cotton pants, reciting a calypso and feeling, despite his troubles, elected, an aristocrat of the sensual latitudes, anointed to all the earthly privileges ordinary people dreamed about on their commuter trains fifty weeks a year. No matter that in a second-class Eden nothing was as unprofitable as the housing of its guests. Even loss seemed less discouraging in the daily flood of sun.
Jevanee was glaring at him from behind the bar. And the inspector sat grandly on his stool, satisfied with being the big-shot, bearing a smile that welcomed Tillman as if they were to be partners in future prosperity, as if the venture they were to embark on could only end profitably. He gave a little wink before he tipped his green bottle of imported beer and sank the neck between his lips.
‘Dis a sad affair, mahn,” he said, wagging his round head. Jevanee uncapped a second bottle and set it before the inspector, paying no attention to Tillman’s presence. Tillman drew a stool up beside Cuffy and perched on its edge, requesting Jevanee to bring another beer, and watched with practiced patience as the bartender kicked about and finally delivered the bottle as if it were his life’s savings.
“What is it with you, Jevanee? What am I doing wrong?” The bartender had come with Rosehill when he had inherited the hotel eight months ago. Somebody had trained him to be a terror.
“Mistah Trick!” Jevanee whooped. He was often too self-conscious to confront his employer head-on. Nevertheless he would not accept even the mildest reproach without an extravagant line of defense or, worse, smoldering until his tongue ignited and his hands flew threateningly, shouting in a tantrum that would go on forever with or without an audience, a man who would never be employed to his satisfaction. He turned his back on Tillman and began muttering at the whiskey bottles arrayed on the work island in the center of the oval bar.
“Mistah Trick, he say what him doin wrong, de devil. He say daht he mean, Jevanee, why you is a chupid boy ahs black as me boot cahnt count change ahnd show yah teef nice aht de white lady? He say daht he mean, Jevanee, why you cahnt work fah free like you grahnpoppy? Why you cahnt bring you sistah here ta please me?” Without ceasing his analysis of what the white man had meant, he marched out from the bar and into the bushes to take a leak. Tillman forced himself not to react any further to Jevanee’s rage, which appeared to be taking on a decidedly historical sweep.
The inspector, who had not shown any interest in Jevanee’s complaints, began to tap the long nail of his index finger on the surface of the bar. He made a show of becoming serious without wanting to deprive Tillman of his informality, his compassion, his essential sympathy, etcetera–all the qualities he believed he possessed and controlled to his benefit.
“Who else, Tillmahn, but you?” Cuffy finally concluded as if it hurt him to say this. “Undah-stahnd, is only speculation.”
“Who else but me?” Tillman sputtered. “Are you crazy?” The inspector frowned and Tillman immediately regretted his choice of words. Cuffy was as willfully unpredictable as most everybody else on the island, but in a madhouse, an outsider soon learned, truth was always a prelude to disaster, the match dropped thoughtlessly onto tinder. He should have said, Look, how can you think that? or Man, what will it take to end this unfortunate business? But too late. The inspector was pinching at his rubbery nose, no longer even considering Tillman, looking out across the harbor, the anchored sailboats bobbing like a display of various possibilities, playing the image of artful calculation for his suspect.
Tillman sighed. “Why do you think I would kill my own mother? She was my mother. What son could harm the woman who carried him into the world?”
The inspector pursed his lips and then relaxed them. “Well, Tillmahn, perhahps you do it to have title to dis property, true?”
The absurdity was too great even for Tillman, a connoisseur of island nonsense. “To inherit this property!” Now Tillman had to laugh, regardless of the inspector’s feelings. “Cuffy, nobody wants this place. In his will my father was excessively sorry for burdening me with Rosehill Plantation and advised I sell it at the first opportunity. My mother had absolutely no claim to Rosehill. He divorced her long ago.”
Tillman paused. As far as he could tell, he was the only one in the world, besides the government, who wanted Rosehill Plantation. It had been on the market for years, not once receiving an honest offer. Its profits were marginal, its overhead crushing. But the hotel was his, so why not be there. What he had found through it was unexpected–the inexplicable sense that life on the island had a certain fullness, that it was, far beyond what he had ever experienced back home, authentic in the most elemental ways.
Cuffy had become petulant, studying him as if he were spoiled, an unappreciative child. Tillman was not intimidated. “Why should I tell you this anyway? It has absolutely no relevance to my mother’s death.”
“Urn hmm, um hmm, I see,” the inspector said. ‘so perhahps you muddah take a lovah, a dark mahn, ahnd you become vexed wit she fah behavin so. You warn her to stop but she refuse. So “” He threw out his hands as if the rest of the scene he conceived was there before him. “Is just speculation.”
Tillman was tiring fast. Inspector Cuffy had no use for what was and what wasn’t; his only concern was his own role in the exercise of authority. It killed boredom, boredom amid the splendor. It created heroes and villains, wealth and poverty. No other existence offered him so much.
He discovered that he was grinding his teeth and the muscles in his jaw ached. Jevanee had slipped back behind the bar, and every time Tillman glanced over there, Jevanee, now bold, tried to stare him down.
‘my mother was an old lady,” he told the inspector. ‘she was beyond love. She liked books and beaches, fruit, seafood, and rare wines. Traveling. There was no man in her life. There never was. She was even a stranger to my father.”
“You just a boy,” Cuffy noted in a way that made Tillman think it was a line the inspector must use frequently. “Nobody beyond love, ya know.”
“So, nobody beyond pahssion, ahnd nobody beyond crime.” Tillman blinked. Damn, he thought, Cuffy’s starting to make sense.
“Even ahn old womahn need a good roll to keep she happy,” the inspector concluded.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Tillman said, standing up. “I have to get back.”
He couldn’t get away before Jevanee butted in. Ignore Jevanee and life might possibly go on. The bartender used his mouth like a gun, the words popping spitefully while he focused on whatever spirit he had summoned to witness his oppression.
“Daht ol boney-bag he call his muddah grabbin aht every blahck boy on de beach. I see it wit me own eyes.”
“Jevanee, shut up.”
“Oh, yes, massa, suh. Yes, massa.” He feigned excessive servitude, wiping the bar counter, the cash box, the bamboo supports with his shirt sleeve. The time would come when Tillman would have to face up to Jevanee’s vindictiveness. He had been steaming ever since Tillman had told him not to hand out free drinks to his friends from the village. Jevanee insisted no one but Rosehill’s tourists, who were not regular, would ever patronize the beach bar if it weren’t for him. Maybe he was right. Nobody was coming around anymore except on Friday nights when the band played. More and more, Jevanee wanted Tillman to understand that he was a dangerous man, his every move a challenge to his employer. Tillman was still trying to figure out how to fire the guy without a lot of unpleasantness.
“Don’t listen to Jevanee,” Tillman told the inspector. “He’s pissed at me these days because of a disagreement we had over a charitable instinct of his.”
“I give me bruddah a drink,” Jevanee said in a self-deprecating way, as though he were the victim and Cuffy would understand. Jevanee’s mood would only escalate if Tillman explained that the bartender’s “bruddah” was consuming a case of Scotch on his drier visits, so he refused to debate Jevanee’s claim. The inspector turned on his stool with the cold expression of a man whose duty it is to make it known that he must hurt you severely, that he may cripple you or make you weep, if you disobey him.
“Look now, you,” he said, taking moral pleasure in this chastisement. ‘doan you make trouble fah Mistah Tillmahn. You is lucky he give you work.”
“Dis white bitch doan give me a damn ting,” Jevanee snarled, shaking an empty beer bottle at Tillman. “I work in dis same spot a long time when he show up. Ahnd what you doin kissin he ahss?”
“Doan talk aht me daht way, boy, or I fuck you up. Hell goin have a new bahtendah soon if you cahnt behave.”
Jevanee tried to smile, a taut earnestness that never quite made it to his mouth. Tillman arranged chairs around the warped caf” tables, backing away. “Okay then, Cuffy. I’m glad we had this opportunity to straighten everything out. Stay and have another beer if you want.”
Cuffy looked at his gold wristwatch. “You will be around in de aftahnoon?”
“I wish to view de deceased.”
“Uh, can’t it wait till tomorrow?” Tillman asked. “I have errands to run in town. A shipment of beef is coming in from Miami.”
From his shirt pocket, Cuffy had taken a note pad and was scribbling in it. He talked without raising his head. “Okay, dere’s no hurry. De old womahn takin she time goin nowheres.”
Tillman nodded, now in stride with the process, the havoc of it. “Cuffy, you’re a thorough man. If anybody’s going to get to the bottom of this mess, it’s you.”
The inspector accepted this flattery as his due, too certain of its validity to bother about the subtle mocking edge to Tillman’s voice. His eyes were relaxed, hooded and moist. Tillman started up the footpath through the palms, kicking a coconut ahead of him, a leaden soccer ball, turning once to check what fared in his absence: and yes Cuffy and Jevanee had their heads together, the bartender animated, swinging his hands, the inspector with his arms crossed on his wide chest. Jevanee had too much energy today. Maybe his attitude would defuse if he were somewhere other than the bar for a while. He seemed to live there. Tillman shouted back down to them. “Jevanee, after the inspector leaves, lock everything up and take the rest of the day off.”
The bartender ignored him.
Tillman jogged up the perfect lawn along an avenue of floral celebration–tree-sized poinsettias, arrow ginger, bougainvillea, oleander–a perfumist’s tray of fragrance. On the knoll, graced with a vista of the channel, was the old plantation house, a stubborn remnant of colonial elegance, its whitewashed brick flaking in a way that benefited the charm of its archaic construction, the faded red of the gabled tin roof a human comfort against the green monotonous sheets of the mountains that were its background. Farther south, the cone shell of the windmill stood like a guard tower or last refuge. Tillman had huddled there with his guests last summer during a hurricane, the lot of them drunk and playing roundhouse bridge, the cards fluttering from the storm outside.
When he was a teenager Tillman had flown down to the island during a summer off from Exeter to help his father build the two modern wings that flanked the manor, one-level box rooms side by side, as uninspired as any lodging on any Florida roadside. Tillman’s father was a decent man, completely involved in his scheming though his interest invariably flagged once a puzzle was solved, a challenge dispatched. The old man had worked for J. D. Root, one of the big ad agencies in New York, handling the Detroit accounts. His final act was an irony unappreciated–he perished in one of the cars he promoted, losing control on the Northway one rainy evening. He had gone fishing up on the St. Lawrence, convinced this time he would hook a muskellunge. Rosehill Plantation was his most daring breakaway but he never really had time for the place. Throughout his ownership, Rosehill lost money and after his death the checks from the estate in New York flowed like aid from the mother country. When a lawyer’s telegram reached Tillman, asking if he wanted to pursue more aggressively the sale of the plantation, he decided to dump the Lower East Side loft where he had been sweating out the draft for two years since graduate school and make his claim on Rosehill. Nixon had just been reelected. The States no longer seemed like the right place to be.
Awash in perspiration, Tillman turned the corner around the east wing, his blood pressure a little jumpy, the skin on his face at the point of combustion, wondering if all the friction of a fast life could suddenly cause a person to burst into flame. Sometimes he felt as if it were happening. It wasn’t very easy to find peace on the island unless you hiked up into the mountains. Whereas it was very easy to catch hell.
In the exterior courtyard behind the estate house, the new arrivals, husband and wife from Wilmington, Delaware, were inspecting one of Tillman’s few unequivocable successes, the gazebo that housed his parrot aviary, in it seven of the last rainbow parrots on earth. The project was really the veterinarian’s at the Ministry of Agriculture, a man who hated goats and cows but spent all his spare time bird-watching or digging up pre-Columbian artifacts, storing them in his living room until the far-off day a museum would be built. Together he and Tillman waged a public campaign on the island, the parrots’ sole habitat, to prevent their extinction. A law was passed for appearances, its advantage being that it clearly defined for the bird smugglers who needed to be paid off and who could be bypassed with impunity.
After the crusade, Tillman decided to contact some poachers himself. They were kids, tough miniature bandits, the nest robbers. One was nine, the other eleven. Basil and Jacob, tree climbers extraordinaire, both as skinny as vanilla beans. They lived in a mountain village, a clump of wattle huts, one of the outposts before the vast roadless center of the island, all sharp peaks, palisades and jungle. When the hatching season had ended, Tillman and the boys trekked into the lush interior, camping overnight, Tillman’s neck strained from looking up into the canopy, his ears confused by the wraithish shrieks and skraws–skra-aaa-aw!–unable to pinpoint where the sound came from in the infinite cathedral of growth. But the kids knew their business. They were fearless, scaling to the top of the highest mahogany or madrone, indifferent to the slashing beaks of the females who refused to abandon the nest, shinnying down the trunks with the chicks held gently in their mouths, polycolored cotton balls, the fierce tiny heads lolling helplessly out from between the embrace of boyish lips.
Tillman thought he would tell his guests from Delaware the story. The woman was scrutinizing the birds rather sternly. She would cluck and whistle at them, tap the chicken wire wall of the cage, but she did so without affection. When he finished talking, she turned to look at him, her eyes obscured behind oversized sunglasses, her mouth in a pout. Tillman guessed she was a bank teller, something that had made her very sure of herself without placing any demand on her intelligence.
“It’s cruel,” she said.
“It is not cruel. It’s heroic. These islands have a way of forcing everything but the lowest common denominator into oblivion.”
“Hero,” she said sardonically. The husband looked skeptical. Light reflected off her glasses and sliced back at Tillman. He shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps he should bar Americans from Rosehill. Canadians made the better tourist. They allowed for a world outside themselves.
The Land Rover started painfully, a victim of mechanical arthritis. Soon it would take no more to the prosthetic miracle of wire, tin, and hardware junk. Spare parts appeared from across the ocean as often as Halley’s comet.
Onto the narrow blacktop road that circumnavigated the island, Tillman drove with reckless courage and whipping flair, showing inner strength when he refused to give way to two flatbed lorries painted up like Easter eggs, one named Sweet-fish, the other Dr. Lick, passengers clinging to everything but the wheel hubs, racing down the coastal hill side by side straight at him, Dr. Lick overtaking Sweetfish just as Tillman downshifted reluctantly to third and toed the brake pedal. Someday the lorries would spread carnage across this highway, Tillman thought. It would be a national event, the island equivalent of a 747 going down.
In the capital, a pastel city breathtaking from the heights above it but garbage-strewn and ramshackle once you were on its streets, Tillman honked his way through the crowds down along Front Street, inching his way to the docks. On the quay, three pallets of frozen steaks destined for Rosehill were sweating pink juice onto the dirty concrete. Beef from the island was as tough and stringy as rug; if a hotel wanted to serve food worthy of the name, it had to import almost everything but fish. He located the purser in one of the rum-and-cake sheds that filled every unclaimed inch of the wharves like derelict carnival booths. There was no use complaining about the shipment being off-loaded without anybody being there to receive it. That was Tillman’s fault–he had been too preoccupied. He signed the shipping order and then scrambled to hire a driver and boys to break down the pallets and truck the cartons out to Rosehill’s freezer before the meat thawed completely.
There were other errands, less urgent–to the marketing board in search of the rare tomato, to the post office, to the stationer for a ballpoint pen, to the pharmacist, who was disappointed when Tillman only bought aspirin. Most of his regular white customers spent small fortunes on amphetamines or Quaaludes. When Tillman had finished there, he drove over to the national hospital on the edge of town. Without a death certificate from Bradley, Mother was destined to be the morbid champion of cryogenics, the Queen of Ice in a land where water never froze in nature.
The old colonial hospital was a structure and a system bypassed by any notion of modernity. Someone yelled at him as he entered the shadowed foyer, but it wasn’t apparent who or why. The rough wooden floorboards creaked under his feet. The maze of hallways seemed to be a repository for loiterers–attendants, nurses, nuns, clerks, superfluous guards, mangled patients, talking, weeping, spending the day in rigid silence. One naked little boy asleep on the floor, hugging the wall.
He found Dr. Bradley’s office and went through the door without knocking. Bradley, chief surgeon, head physician of St. George’s National People’s Hospital, an agnostic operation if Tillman ever saw one, was reading a paperback romance, a man hovering over a fallen woman on its cover. The room smelled of sweet putrefaction and Lysol. The scent of jasmine wafted in through open screenless windows. Tillman sat down on a wooden bench against one bare wall. Flies buzzed along the ceiling. Bradley slowly broke off from his reading, dropping his feet one by one from where they were propped on the broad windowsill. His lab coat, smudged with yellow stains and laundered blood, sagged away from his middle. He recognized Tillman and smiled grudgingly.
“Mahn, I been callin you, ya know. I examine dem peaches you muddah eat. Dey was no good. I think we solve dis big mystery.”
Tillman knew this was his chance to end the affair but he could not forgive Bradley his smugness, his careless manner, the suffering he had sown.
“You’re sure? What’d you do, feed them to a chicken and the chicken died?”
“Mahn, Tillman, you doan have enough troubles, you must come make some wit me? Why is daht?”
“You’re telling me she died of botulism?”
“It seem so, seem so.”
Tillman was incited to fury. “Botulism, Doctor, causes vomiting and extreme pain. How can you not know that? My mother died a peaceful death.”
Bradley turned with eyes murderous. “If it’s so, de autopsy prove so. I cahnt know oddahwise.”
“You’re not touching her. Somebody else can do it, but not you.”
“Mahn, daht’s irrational.”
Tillman jumped up from the bench and stood in front of the doctor’s cluttered desk. “You’d be the last person on earth to touch her.”
“Get out, Tillmahn.”
Tillman was in no hurry to leave. ‘remember Freddy Allen?” he asked.
“Who?” Then Bradley remembered and his face lost its arrogance.
“He was a friend of mine, a good one. He helped me out at Rosehill whenever I needed it.”
“Tillmahn, consider I am only human.”
“Yes, you are. So was Freddy until he came to you. You gave him bromides for acute appendicitis. The damn vet can diagnose better than you.”
Bradley stood so fast, his eyes full of menace, that Tillman tensed to defend himself. “Get out,” he shouted, pointing his finger at Tillman. “You muddah now a permahnent guest aht Rosehill till you come to you senses. Get out.” The doctor came around from his desk to open the office door and then kicked it shut behind him.
Tillman, island hotelier, master of the business arts, student of impossibility, fond of weather that rarely oppressed, a man of contingencies and recently motherless–Tillman knew what to do. Whatever it took.
Whatever it took, Tillman told himself, back out on the streets, heedless in the late afternoon traffic. Sometimes that meant nothing at all, sometimes the gods spared you muckery, blessed you with style, and everything was easy.
At the airport he parked next to a single taxi out front, no one around to note this familiar island tune, the prolonged pitch of tires violently braked. Through the dark empty airport that always reminded him of an abandoned warehouse, Tillman searched for his friend Roland, the freelance bush pilot from Australia, a maverick and proven ace. Roland leapt around the warm world in his old Stearmann, spraying mountainsides of bananas with chemicals that prevented leaf spot and other blights. Tillman suspected the pilot was also part of the interisland ring sponsored by the most influential businessmen to smuggle drugs, whiskey, cigarettes, stereos–whatever contraband could be crammed surreptitiously into the fuselage of a small plane. He seemed to be able to come and go as he pleased.
Roland’s plane wasn’t on the tarmac, or in the hangar. Sunset wasn’t far away. Wherever Roland was, waltzing his plane through green, radical valleys, he would have to return before dark if he was coming in tonight. Tillman left a message with a mechanic in the machine shed for Roland to come find him at Rosehill.
Twilight had begun to radiate through the vegetation as he arrived back at the hotel, lifting the m”lange of colors to a higher level of brilliance, as if each plant, each surface, were responding to the passage of the sun with its own interior luminosity. Inspector Cuffy was on the veranda of the west wing, laughing with Lemonille, her eyes flirtatious. They clammed up when Tillman appeared beside them.
“You haven’t been waiting for me, have you?”
“Well, doan trouble yourself, mahn. I been interviewin dis pretty young lady.”
Tillman looked at Lemonille, who averted her eyes shyly. “Perhaps we cahn view de body of you muddah now.” Cuffy said this without the slightest conviction. Tillman understood that, for the time being, the inspector was only interested in chasing Lemonille.
“I’ve had a hell of a day. Can I ask you to wait until tomorrow?”
“Daht strike me ahs reasonable,” Cuffy said, allowing Tillman to experience his generosity.
“Besides, case solved, Cuffy,” Tillman said, remembering the doctor, the hospital. “Bradley says something was wrong with the can of peaches my mother was eating when she died.” If you want to believe such crap, Tillman added under his breath.
“I will study daht report,” the inspector said. From the way he spoke, Tillman knew the investigation would drag on for days, weeks–especially if Lemonille played hard to get.
“Mistah Till-mahn?” Lemonille buried her chin, afraid to speak now that she had drawn attention to herself. More woe, thought Tillman. More hue and cry.
“De cook say she fraid wit you dead muddah in de freezah. She say she not cookin wit a duppy so close by.”
“All right, I’ll go talk to her.”
“She gone home.”
“All right, I’ll take care of it.” He began to walk away.
“Mistah Till-mahn?” The big woman’s soft and guarded voice made him stop and turn around.
“De men come wit de meat, but dey won’t stock it.”
Tillman inhaled nervously. ‘my mother again, right?”
Lemonille nodded. ‘damn!” Tillman said, and scuffed the dirt.
Lemonille had one last piece of news. “Jevanee in a fuss cause you fire him.”
“I didn’t fire him. I told him to take the day off.”
“Cuffy was there. He heard me.” Cuffy looked into the trees and would not support or deny this allegation.
“Oh. But Jevanee tellin every bug in de sky you fire him. Daht mahn be fulla dread you goin put him out since de day you poppy die.”
“Well, it’s not true. Tell him that when you see him.”
Tillman took these developments in stride, closing the restaurant for the evening by posting a scrawled note of apology at the entrance to the modest dining hall in the manor. For an hour he shuffled the cartons of dripping steaks from the kitchen to the freezer, stacking them around the corpse of his mother as if these walls of spoiling meat were meant to be her tomb.
Event upon event–any day in the islands could keep accumulating such events until it was overrich, festering, or glorious, never to be reproduced so wonderfully. This day was really no different except that his mother had triggered some extraordinary complications that were taking him to the limit.
After showering in cold water, Tillman climbed the stairs in the main house to the sanctitude of his office, his heart feeling too dry for blood to run through it, another fire hazard. What’s to be done with Mother? On a hotplate he heated water for tea, sat with the steaming mug before the phone on his desk. Ministry offices would be closed at this hour and besides, the Minister of Health was no friend of his so there was no use ringing him up.
Finally he decided to call Dr. Layland. If Layland still were running the island’s medical services, the day would have been much simpler, but Layland, a surgeon who had earned international respect for his papers on brain dysfunction in the tropics, had lost his job and his license to practice last winter when he refused to allow politics to interfere with the delicate removal of a bullet from an opposition member’s neck. Although the case was before the Federation there was little hope of reinstatement before next year’s elections.
Frankly, Layland told him, his accent bearing the vestige of an Oxford education, your position is most unenviable, my friend. A burial certificate, likewise permission to transfer the corpse back to its native soil, must be issued by both the national police and the Chief Medical Officer. The police, pending their own investigation of the cause of death, will not act without clearance from the CMO. In cases where the cause is unclear, it is unlikely that the CMO will agree to such clearance, especially for an expatriate Caucasian, until an autopsy is performed.
“But Bradley said it was the peaches, a bad can of peaches.” Tillman jerked his head away from the telephone. How absurd and false those words sounded.
“Unlikely, but I see what you’re getting at. Any cause is better than none, in light of your problem. But you know what sort of humbug that foolish man is. And you shan’t have him on your side since you refused to have him do the autopsy.”
Layland further explained that there was no alternative to removing the corpse from the walk-in freezer unless he had another to put it in, or unless he committed it to the island’s only morgue in the basement of the prison at Fort Albert–again, Bradley’s domain. The final solution would be to bury her at Rosehill, but even this could not be accomplished without official permits. The police would come dig her up. Tillman asked if it was a mistake not to allow Bradley to cut open his mother.
“I’m afraid, Tillman, you must decide that for yourself,” Layland answered. “But I think you must know that I am as disgusted by my erstwhile colleague as you are. Well, good luck.”
Tillman pushed the phone away, rubbed his sore eyes, massaged the knots in his temples. He tilted back in his chair and almost went over backward, caught unaware by a flood of panic. Unclean paradise, he thought suddenly. What about Mother? Damn, she was dead and needed taking care of. Hard to believe. Lord, why did she come here anyway? She probably knew she was dying and figured the only dignified place to carry out the fact was under the roof of her only child. A mother’s final strategy.
Outside on the grounds one of the stray dogs that were always about began a rabid barking. Tillman listened more closely, the sounds of squawking audible between the gaps in the dog’s racket. The protest grew louder, unmistakable; Tillman was down the stairs and out on the dark lawn in no time at all, running toward the aviary.
There was some light from the few bulbs strung gaily through the branches of frangipani that overhung the parking area, enough to see what was going on, the wickedness being enacted in blue-satin shadows. In the gazebo, an angry silhouette swung a cutlass back and forth, lashing at the amorphous flutter of wings that seemed everywhere in the tall cage.
“Jevanee?” Tillman called, uncertain. The silhouette reeled violently, froze in its step and then burst through the door of the cage, yelling.
‘mahn, you cy-ahnt fire me, I quit.”
Tillman cringed at the vulgarity of such a dissembled non sequitur. All the bad television in the world, the stupid lyrics of false heroes, the latent rage of kung-fu and cowboy fantasies had entered into this man’s head and here was the result, some new breed of imperial slave and his feeble, fatuous uprising.
“I didn’t fire you. I said take the day off, cool down.”
“Cy-ahnt fire me, you bitch.”
The parrots were dead. Hatred exploded through Tillman. He wanted to kill the bartender. Fuck it. He wanted to shoot him down. He sprinted back across the lawn, up on the veranda toward the main house for the gun kept locked in the supply closet behind the check-in desk. Jevanee charged after him. A guest, the woman recently arrived from Wilmington, stepped out in front of Tillman from her room that fronted the veranda. Tillman shoulder-blocked her back through the door. She sprawled on her ass and for a second Tillman saw on her face an expression that welcomed violence as if it were an exotic game she had paid for.
‘stay in your goddamn room and bolt the door.”
Tillman felt the bad TV engulfing them, the harried script writer unbalanced with drugs and spite. Jevanee’s foot plunged through the rotten boards in the veranda and lodged there. An exodus of pestilence swarmed from the splintery hole into the dim light, palmetto bugs flying blindly up through a growing cloud of smaller winged insects.
At the same time, stepping out from the darkness of a hedge of bougainvillea that ran in bushy clumps along the veranda, was Inspector Cuffy, pistol in hand. Tillman gawked at him. What was he doing around Rosehill so late? Lemonille had been encouraging him or the investigation had broadened to round-the-clock foolishness. Or, Tillman surmised, knowing it was true, Cuffy apparently knew Jevanee was coming after him and had lurked on the premises until the pot boiled over. A shot whistled by Tillman’s head. Jevanee had a gun, too. Tillman pitched back off the deck and flattened out in the shrubbery.
‘stop,” Cuffy shouted.
What the hell, thought Tillman. Where’s Jevanee going anyway? He was near enough to smell the heavily Scotched breath of the bartender, see his eyes as dumb and frightened as the eyes of a wild horse. Another shot was fired off. Then a flurry of them as the two men emptied their pistols at each other with no effect. Silence and awkwardness as Cuffy and Jevanee confronted one another, the action gone out of them, praying thanks for the lives they still owned. Tillman crawled away toward the main house. He couldn’t care less how they finished the drama, whether they killed each other with their bare hands, or retired together to a rum shop, blaming Tillman for the sour fate of the island. There was no point in getting upset about it now, once the hate had subsided, outdone by the comics.
He sat in the kitchen on the cutting table, facing the vaultlike aluminum door of the refrigerated walk-in where his mother lay, preserved in ice, her silence having achieved, finally, a supreme hardness.
He wanted to talk to her, but even in death she seemed only another guest at the hotel, one with special requirements, nevertheless expecting courtesy and service, the proper distance kept safely between their lives. She had never kissed him on the lips, not once, but only brushed his cheek when an occasion required some tangible sign of motherly devotion. He had never been closer to her heart than when they cried together the first year he was in prep school, explaining to him that she was leaving his father. She had appeared in his room late at night, having driven up from the city. She tuned the radio loud to a big band station and held him, the two of them shivering against each other on his bed. For her most recent visitation she had not written she was coming but showed up unannounced with only hand luggage–a leather grip of novels, a variety of modest bathing suits, caftans and creams. Behind her she had left Paris, where the weather had begun its decline toward winter. Whatever else she had left behind in her life was as obscure and sovereign as a foreign language. He wanted to talk to her but nothing translated.
The pilot found him there sometime in the middle of the night, Tillman forlorn, more tired than he could ever remember feeling. Roland looked worn out, too, as if he had been stuck in an engine for hours, his cutoff shorts and colorless T-shirt smudged with grease, his hiking boots unlaced, and yet despite this general dishevelment his self-confidence was as apparent as the gleam of his teeth. Tillman remembered him at the beach bar late one night, yelling into the face of a man dressed in a seersucker suit, “I get things done, damn you, not like these bloody fools,” and the sweep of his arm seemed to include the entire planet.
Tillman smiled mournfully back at him. “Roland, I need your help.”
The pilot removed the mirrored sunglasses he wore at all times. “You’ve had a full day of it, I hear. What’s on your mind, mate?”
Like an unwieldy piece of lumber, his mother’s corpse banged to and fro in the short bed of the Land Rover, her wrapped feet pointing up over the tailgate. With a little effort and jockeying, they fitted her into the tube-shaped chemical tank in the fuselage of the Stearmann after Roland, Tillman standing by with a flashlight, unbolted two plates of sheet metal from the underbelly of the craft that concealed bay doors. You can’t smuggle bales of grass with only a nozzle and a funnel, Roland explained.
Tillman was worried that an unscheduled flight would foul up Roland’s good grace with the authorities. Man, Roland said, I’ve got more connections than the friggin PM. And I mean of the UK, not this bloody cowpie. He thought for a second and was less flamboyant. I’ve been in trouble before, of course. Nobody, Tillman, can touch this boy from down under as long as I have me bird, you see. Let us now lift upward into the splendid atmosphere and its many bright stars.
The chemical tank smelled cloyingly of poison. With his head poked in it, Tillman gagged, maneuvering the still-rigid body of his mother, the limbs clunking dully against the shiny metal, until she was positioned. Roland geared the bay doors back in place. The sound of them clicking into their locks brought relief to Tillman. They tucked themselves into the tiny cockpit. Tillman sat behind the pilot’s seat, his legs flat against the floorboard, straddled as if he were riding a bobsled.
The airport shut down at dusk, the funding for runway lights never more than deadpan rhetoric during the height of the political season. Roland rested his sunglasses on the crown of his blond head as they taxied to the landward end of the strip, the mountains a cracked ridge behind them, the sea ahead down the length of pale concrete. Out there somewhere in the water, an incompatibly situated cay stuck up like a catcher’s mitt for small planes whose pilots were down on their agility and nerve.
Roland switched off the lights on the instrumentation to cut all reflection in the cockpit. Transparent blackness, the gray runway stretching into nearby infinity.
Roland shouted over the roar, ‘she’s a dumpy old bird but with no real cargo we should have some spirited moments.”
Even as Roland spoke they were already jostling down the airstrip like an old hot rod on a rutted road, Tillman anticipating lift-off long before it actually happened. The slow climb against gravity seemed almost futile, the opaque hand of the cay suddenly materializing directly in front of them. Roland dropped a wing and slammed the rudder pedal. The Stearmann veered sharply away from the hazard, then leveled off and continued mounting upward. Tillman could hear his mother thump in the fuselage.
“Bit of a thrill,” Roland shouted. Tillman closed his eyes and endured the languid speed and the hard grinding vibrations of the plane.
Roland put on his headset and talked to any ghost he could rouse. When Tillman opened his eyes again, the clouds out the windscreen had a tender pink sheen to their tops. The atmosphere tingled with blueness. The ocean was black below them, and Barbados, ten degrees off starboard, was blacker still, a solid puddle sprinkled with electricity. Along the horizon the new day was a thin red thread unraveling westward. The beauty of it all made Tillman melancholy.
Roland floated the plane down to earth like a fat old goose who couldn’t be hurried. The airport on Barbados was modern and received plenty of international traffic so they found it awake and active at this hour. Taxiing to the small plane tarmac, Tillman experienced a moment of claustrophobia, smelling only the acrid human sweat that cut through the mechanical fumes. He hadn’t noticed it airborne but on the ground it was unbearable.
They parked and had the Stearmann serviced. In the wet, warm morning air Tillman’s spirits revived. Roland walked through customs, headed for the bar to wait for him to do his business. Two hours later Tillman threw himself down in a chair next to the pilot and cradled his head on the sticky table, the surge of weariness through his back and neck almost making him pass out. He listened to Roland patiently suck his beer and commanded himself up to communicate the failure of the expedition.
“Bastards. They won’t let me transfer her to a Stateside flight without the right paper.”
“There was that chance,” Roland admitted.
All along Tillman had believed that Barbados was the answer, people were reasonable there, that he had only to bring over the corpse of his mother, coffin her, place her on an Eastern flight to New York connecting with Boston, have a funeral home intercept her, bury her next to her ex-husband in the family plot on Beacon Hill. Send out death announcements to the few distant relatives scattered across the country, and then it would be over, back to normal. No mother, no obligations of blood. That was how she lived, anyway.
“Just how well connected are you, Roland?”
“Barbados is a bit iffy. The people are too damn sophisticated.” He left to make some phone calls but returned with his hands out, the luckless palms upturned.
“Tillman, what next?”
Tillman exhaled and fought the urge to laugh, knowing it would mount to a hysterical outpouring of wretchedness. “I just don’t know. Back to the island I guess. If you can see any other option, speak out. Please.”
The pilot was unreadable behind the mirrors of his glasses. His young face had become loose and puffy since he had located Tillman at Rosehill. They settled their bar bill and left.
In the air again, the sound of the Stearmann rattled Tillman so thoroughly he felt as though the plane’s engine were in his own skull. He tried to close his sleepless eyes against the killing brightness of the sun but could not stop the hypnotic flash that kept him staring below at the ocean. Halfway through the flight, Roland removed his headset and turned in his seat, letting the plane fly itself while he talked.
“Tillman,” he shouted, “you realize I didn’t bolt the plates back on the fuselage.”
Tillman nodded absently and made no reply.
Roland jabbed his finger, pointing at the floor. “That hand-gear there by your foot opens the bay doors.”
He resumed flying the plane, allowing Tillman his own thoughts. Tillman had none. He expected some inspiration or voice to break through his dizziness but it didn’t happen, After several more minutes he tapped Roland on the shoulder. Roland turned again, lifting his glasses so Tillman could see his full face, his strained but resolute eyes, Tillman understanding this gesture as a stripping of fear, tacit confirmation that they were two men in the world capable of making such a decision without ruining themselves with ambiguity.
“Okay, Roland, the hell with it. She never liked being in one place too long anyway.”
“Right you are, then,” Roland said solemnly. “Any special spot?”
“Better this way,” Roland yelled as he dropped the airspeed and sank the Stearmann to one thousand feet. “The thing that bothers me about burial, you see, is caseation. Your friggin body turns to cheese after a month in the dirt. How unspeakably nasty. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I never eat cheese myself. Odd, isn’t it?”
Tillman poked him on the shoulder again. “Knock it off.”
Tillman palmed the gear open. It was as easy as turning the faucet of a hose. When they felt her body dislodge and the tail bob inconsequentially, Roland banked the plane into a steep dive so they could view the interment. Tillman braced his hands against the windscreen and looked out, saw her cart-wheeling for a moment and then stabilizing as the mauve chenille shroud came apart like a party streamer, a skydiver’s Mae West. The Stearmann circled slowly around the invisible line of her descent through space.
“Too bad about your mother, mate,” Roland called out finally. ‘my own, I don’t remember much.”
“I’m still young,” Tillman confessed, surprising himself, the words blurting forth from his mouth unsolicited. Tears of gratitude slipped down his face from this unexpected report of the heart.
He looked down at the endless water, waves struggling and receding, the small carnation of foam marking his mother’s entrance into the sea, saw her, through the medium of refraction, unwrapped from her shroud, naked and washed, crawling with pure, unlabored motion down the shafts of light and beyond their farthest reach, thawed into suppleness, small glass bubbles, the cold air of her last breath, expelled past her white lips, nuzzled by unnamed fish. Now she was a perfect swimmer, free of the air and the boundaries of the living, darkness passing through darkness, down, down, to kiss the silt of the ocean floor, to touch the bottom of the world with dead fingers.
They had watched her plummet with a sense of awe and wonderment, as boys would who have thrown an object from off a high bridge. The pilot regained altitude and they continued westward. The realization came into Tillman, a palpable weight in his chest. I don’t belong here, he said to himself, and immediately resisted the feeling, because that must have been the way she felt all her life.
Then, with the rich peaks of the island in sight, the heaviness dissipated. “It’s beautiful here,” he heard himself saying.
“What’s that?” Roland shouted back.
“Beautiful,” he repeated, and throughout Roland’s clumsy landing, the jolt and thunder of the runway, ‘mother be at peace.”