The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 3

Bouki and the Cocaine

by Ben Fountain

Bouki and the Cocaine

Syto Charles saw the go-fasts before anyone. They started coming in the spring after the peacekeepers left, always at night, always running very fast, spearing out of the south with a shrill, concussive roar that he didn’t take for anything but trouble. Soon every Haitian on the southern coast knew about the boats from Colombia, how they crossed the sea in ten bone-crunching hours with the payloads of cocaine and gangster supplies that their partners on the Haitian side needed to set up shop. Michelet, the police chief of Marigot, could be heard on the air six times a day denouncing this new and barbarous threat. “Anyone with information should please inform us,” he woofed on Radio Lumière, his voice deep but warbly, lacking tonal weight. “We need every citizen’s vigilance to help us fight this terrible scourge.” Planes came and went from Jacmel at all hours of the night, the planes, people said, that were hauling the drugs to America. Rival gangs were shooting it out in Port-au-Prince, while in the mountains above the capital Miami-style mansions were crowding out the farms.
           “Ah-ha,” said Lulu, watching a go-fast pass a quarter mile off their bow, streaking south through the soupy predawn light. Syto’s younger brother Louis was a strapping man in the prime of life, by nature both happier and more caustic than Syto. The same gracefulness that made him attractive to women also made him a first-class hand on the boat, though lately he’d been calling himself an artist and had grown increasingly slack about catching fish. “So those are the bums who are ruining the country.”
           Syto was kneading a piece of coral out of one of their nets. “In case you haven’t noticed, the country’s already ruined.”
           “They just come and go like that and nobody stops them?”
           Syto frowned at the net. “You’re welcome to try.”
           For a moment they watched the go-fast, an open-hulled flange with a low profile and three podlike heads tucked behind the windshield. Great rooster tails of foam vaulted off the stern; the boat was beautiful in the purplish-gray light, beautiful in a cold, cruel, luminous way.
           “Fout,” Lulu muttered, then with a bit more malice, “just look at that boat.” He glanced sourly over his shoulder at their own rig, a shallow-draft sloop with a bamboo mast and all manner of junk strewn about––nets, homemade oars, crumbling styrofoam buoys, a sack of rocks for throwing at the occasional thief. “So how do they do it?” he asked. “They meet their guys on shore and pass it off?”
           Syto shrugged. “Sometimes, I guess. Sometimes they just leave it there.”
           “They leave it there? They just dump it on the beach and hope their guys show up?”
           “Well, on the rocks over at Bois Rouge. Up inside the cove.”
           “You’ve seen it?”
           “Yeah, sometimes in the mornings. I’ll go over there for chévrét and see the sacks up on the rocks.”
           “Hell, man, why didn’t you pick them up?” Lulu was padding along the gunnel like a big cat. In a moment he had the tiller and was sheeting in the sail, the mast creaking as it cupped the wind.
           “Lulu, wait a second.”
           Lulu had swung the boat around and aimed for Bois Rouge.
           “Lulu, wait.” Syto’s fear had more to do with breaking safe, numbing habits than rousing the ire of some ruthless gang. “Lulu, come on. What are we supposed to do if we get the stuff?”
           “You have to ask? We’re going to give it to the cops, of course.”
           Bois Rouge was a narrow teardrop bay with a rind of beach packed into the heel, rock clusters flaring across the sand like the rusted-out hulks of old wrecks. They found three duffel bags draped across the rocks, a hundred kilos in each, each kilo triple-wrapped in thick, clear plastic. The brothers loaded up the bags and sailed for Marigot. By mid morning they’d landed on the mushy beach, hired a couple of kids with a wobble-wheeled bouret and carted the bags to the police station, the former pus-yellow barracks of the Haitian Army redone in searing white with a snappy royal blue trim. These were the new civilian, post-invasion police, recruited and trained by the Americans to be the guardians of the dawning democratic era, and as the brothers waited in an outer office Syto reflected that, yes, there was definitely a different feel about the place. It wasn’t just the paint job, the matching desks and chairs, the glossy validation of fax machines and computers. The old police used to shuffle and slouch around like a bunch of punks—until they wanted you, and then they moved pretty quick—but this crew carried themselves with the same crisp air as the people over at the tax office.
           And yet here was Michelet running the place, Michelet with his oblong, blunted head, like a coffee bean squeezed between your thumb and forefinger. A man of medium height, with brisk, officious eyes, he sported the same cinematic mustache he’d worn in the army, the pencil-thin wisp like an advertisement for how highly the world should think of him. As a soldier he hadn’t been known as one of the high-profile rapists or torturers, though he’d slap the odd chicken thief around now and then. He’d been clean enough for the Americans to recycle into the police, a professional who could brace the situation long enough for the blans to pound their chests and leave.
           “Well?” he said, stepping into the room, raising his chin at the scruffy fishermen. “Well? What is it?”
           Lulu laughed, wasting a little more of Michelet’s time. “We heard you on the radio,” he said to Michelet. Several policemen had gathered around. “About the go-fasts, you know? We heard you telling everybody you wanted vigilance. Well,” he kicked his bare foot against the sacks, “here’s your vigilance.”
           Michelet frowned, then nodded at the duffel bags. The youngest cop fell to his knees and cinched open one of the bags. He looked inside, pulled back for a brief, hysterical giggle, and looked again.
           “It’s cocaine.”
           “Bullshit,” said Michelet, but he dropped to his knees and peered into the bag, lifted out a kilo with both hands. “Where did you find this?” he barked at the brothers.
           “At Bois Rouge,” Lulu answered. Syto just watched. He remembered Michelet; the chef, of course, would not remember Syto. “On the rocks over at Bois Rouge. We saw the go-fast leaving and we went in and took it.”
           Michelet attacked the other two bags, wrestling each one open, raking out the top layer, then thrusting his arm all the way to the bottom. He was sweating when he sat back and looked at the brothers, as moist and trembly as a virgin on the cusp. “So tell me,” he said, simpering, practically gagging on his smile, “did you happen to see any more of these?”

Syto sailed out alone to do his fishing that night, as regular in his work as the seasons and tides. He fished during the full moon like everyone else, and he fished during the waning moon when no one else bothered, and under the new moon, which was even worse, and before hurricanes, which was sheer futility, but since his daughter died several years ago catching fish wasn’t so much the point. Most nights the only other boats he saw were go-fasts, and if he was working close to shore they’d aim for his boat, perhaps attracted by the light from his lampe-batterie. Syto would go on setting his hooks and lines and ignore the banshee shriek bearing down on him, and when they saw it was a fisherman they’d cut to the side, the hull flashing sleek and pale in the night.
           He baited his string of hooks with pisket and chicken guts, spotlit the water with his lampe-batterie, and then drifted, not so much thinking about things as biding with a certain awareness of his life. Réfléchi, that was better than direct thinking for the world of problems you could never really solve. The problem of contraband, for example, or the confusions of politics, or the trouble that came of needing to eat every day. Or the death of children, a cruelly regular thing in the village of Trois Pins. He and his wife had lost four, the first three as infants and the last, Marie-Lucie, when she was almost seven. That one was never far from his mind, a petite, clean-limbed, willful little girl who’d insisted on starting school at age five, nagging her father until he enrolled her at Marigot’s ramshackle École Supérieure. One day she’d been skipping rope and singing out her lessons, and the next she was shaking with fever on her mat, her ankle blanched and puffy as a rotten fish. By morning both legs were swollen, her eyes glassy and distant. Syto borrowed a neighbor’s mare, wrapped Marie-Lucie in a towel and cradled her across the saddle, and they didn’t climb down until the poky little horse had carried them all the way to Jacmel. On the road Marie-Lucie went out of her head with fever, talking and singing with such familiar exuberance that Syto thought he would go insane with grief. At the clinic the doctor shook his head––no antibiotics, the embargo had seen to that, there wasn’t so much as an aspirin to be had. They gave Marie-Lucie a bed and Syto a mat; that night the life poured out of her like water from a pail, and the next day, cradling her body again across the saddle, Syto didn’t so much want to die himself as to lie down in a ditch and wait for time to end. People walking along the road understood at once; they stopped, took off their hats, and bowed their heads, and many called him “brother” and offered a prayer. But just as he passed the avant-poste in Marigot the soldiers on the gallery had burst out laughing. A whole row of them lazing there in the shade, chairs tipped against the wall, rifles propped nearby; Syto remembered Michelet among them, Michelet with his sergeant’s stripes and prissy mustache, his trousers tucked smartly into gleaming boots. At that moment Syto had felt murder in his heart—how dare they laugh—and then he realized they weren’t laughing at him, they hadn’t even noticed him passing by. One of the soldiers had simply told a joke—it had nothing to do with him, and yet their laughter cut deep, rankling over the years, his mind playing the sound of it over and over as he rode the ocean swells at night.

Within a week all the Marigot cops were driving Landcruisers. Michelet himself had paid cash for one of the big fine farms near Cyvadier, or so the rumors went; eventually he went on the radio to defend himself. “All contraband has been sent to headquarters in Port-au-Prince,
           the chef declared, and he, personally, “God’s creature and servant,” was directing the local drug interdiction effort, “in concert with the American anti-druggists.”
           People shrugged; the truth was right before your eyes, but what could you do? “Our problem,” Lulu said on the boat one day, “is that we’re chumps. We just let those guys run all over us.”
           “Don’t talk like that,” Syto objected, reaching over the side for a handful of water to splash on his head. It was a hot, cloudless day; the water around them was the same dazzling blue as the sky, so that at times Syto had the unsettling sensation that they were floating free in space. “We’re fishermen, we earn ourselves an honest living. Have a little respect for yourself.”
           “Respect? Come on Syto, it’s like Bouki and Ti-Malice and we’re poor dumb Bouki, those cops are driving around laughing at us.” Every Haitian grew up listening to the old tales about dimwitted Bouki and sly Ti-Malice, an operator who was always taking Bouki to the cleaners.
           “Well, I don’t have any regrets,” Syto said. Though he was just as disgusted as Lulu, he wouldn’t admit it. “We tried to do the right thing.”
           “You try to do the right thing, that’s a good way to starve. Bouki starves while Ti-Malice gets nice and fat. But tell me this,” Lulu went on, mumbling now. He was using both hands to coil the pisket net, which required him to hold the pull line in his mouth; between the rope and the dangling cigarette there wasn’t much room for talk. “Does Esther know about the drugs?”
           Syto considered. “I think so.”
           “You think so? You mean you told her?”
           “Well, no.”
           “Did she start talking?”
           “You know she hasn’t.”
           Lulu spun the net outward with a twist of his arms, the net flaring, meeting the water like a soft kiss. “Well if you didn’t tell her and she isn’t talking, how do you know she knows?”
           “She may not talk, Lulu, but that doesn’t mean she’s deaf. She goes to the market, she listens to the radio. She knows what’s going on.”
           “Too much chagrin,” Lulu said. The net was sinking through the water as if drifting off to sleep. “Too much sadness, I really feel for her. I guess if you guys could have another kid . . .”
           Syto shook his head. The midwife said there would be no more children; Marie-Lucie’s birth had torn Esther too badly. Lulu fell silent for a time, watching the water, then he gave the net an exploratory tug.
           “How much do you think those drugs were worth?”
           “I don’t know,” Syto answered. “A lot, I guess. If you believe the radio.”
           For several moments the only sounds were the water’s slap and gurgle, the creaking of the mast like a bone out of joint.
           “She needs a change in her life, Esther,” Lulu finally said, and he began drawing in the net. “And you too, Syto, you’re in a major rut.” The net surfaced, a fistful of sardines clumped at the end. “But change is always hard, that’s a true fact. And speaking for myself, I’m a peaceful man.”
           For two weeks Lulu didn’t miss a day on the boat, and he talked about money so incessantly that Syto wondered if his brother had gone boujwa, money-crazy. “You know,” Lulu would say, “in a way it would be terrible to have a lot of money. All these people hanging around, all these women in your bed, you’d never know if it was you they liked or just your money.” Moneymoneymoney like an itch on his tongue, this from a man who claimed he could hear dogs chuckling to themselves and who the voodoo gods favored with frequent possessions and dreams. One day they were hauling in the lobster traps and Lulu said, “You know, Syto, I don’t think it was the devil who tempted Jesus. I don’t think the devil was out there with him at all, those forty days in the wilderness. That was just Jesus all by himself, oui. Nobody out there tempting Jesus but Jesus himself.”
           Syto was worried for his brother. He was worried for them both, but when they found another load of contraband—four duffel bags this time, in the shade of the trees that rimmed Pointe Boucan—Lulu studied the situation a moment, then said:
           “I don’t even want the shit.”
           “Well I sure don’t want it,” said Syto. “So what do we do?”
           A black and green dragonfly skittered past their heads. The sea snuffled against the rocks like a cow scratching its back. “No way we’re giving it to the cops,” said Lulu.
           “So is there any politicaille we halfway trust. Even this much.” Lulu flashed the tip-end of a finger.
           “How about Méreste?” Syto suggested.
           Lulu made a hacking noise.
           “He used to be a priest.”
           Lulu’s head tipped forward, conceding this.
           “He’s Lavalas,” Syto said, invoking the once-revered name of President Aristide’s party.
           “I thought he was MPP.”
           “Whatever, I can’t keep them all straight anymore.”
           “Okay, we might as well. He’s probably our best shot.”
           Senator Jean-Mario Méreste received Syto and Lulu in his walled compound on the outskirts of Jacmel. Dressed in a white guayabera and drapey linen slacks, he accepted the contraband with a furrowed brow, praising the Charles brothers’ steadfast patriotic spirit and respect for the law. Within days, as if by coincidence, the senator’s entourage was flaunting Uzi machine guns as they tooled around town in new Toyota pickups. Senator Méreste had acquired a Mercedes SUV and was being mentioned on the radio as a possible presidential contender.
           Well, what could you do. The evenings he wasn’t fishing Syto sat in his meditation place under the almond tree, and while the leaves dropped around him like exhausted birds he tried to put the whole Bouki business out of his mind. Neighbors came by to gossip and sympathize, and often Esther sat with him under the tree, silently stitching up the shredded nets he brought in. She never spoke—she’d had the pa-palé disease ever since their daughter’s death—but it wasn’t a surly or raging silence, Syto knew that now. At first he’d thought she was angry with him, which he understood—wasn’t he furious with himself? Though why that was he couldn’t exactly say. But with time he began to suspect that her silence had nothing to do with him, that she was performing an act of intense devotion like the nuns who pledged themselves to mindfulness of God, adhering to a passion so pure and strict that their lives amounted to constant prayer.
           It demanded respect, this kind of silence; he no longer tried to trick her into talking, though it was lonely, having a wife who never spoke. They were in their quiet mode under the almond tree one evening when their neighbors hustled up carrying Lulu in a sling. His eyes were swollen shut, his face resembled pulped fruit, and from the whistling in his chest Syto knew that several of his ribs were broken. The neighbors had found him slumped in the Jacmel town square, blubbering with pain and delirious rage. They got him into a tap-tap headed for Marigot, and on the way, revived by water and a couple of hits of rum, he told them how he’d stood outside Méreste’s gate, denouncing the senator in such vexingly frank terms that his thugs had no choice but to beat Lulu down in the middle of the street. Lulu’s strength seemed to return as he told the story; by the time the tap-tap pulled into Marigot he’d rallied miraculously, breaking away from his friends and dashing to the police station, where a confrontation with Michelet led to his second beating of the day.
           “I think the cops would’ve killed him,” said Alcide, one of the men who found him in Jacmel. “But we told them he was crazy, he didn’t know what he was doing.”
           Lulu grabbed his brother’s arm and pulled him close. “I knew what I was doing,” he hissed. “You go back there and tell those bastards I knew what I was doing.”
           “See what I mean?” said Alcide, rolling his eyes. “Totally nuts.”
           In the days that followed Lulu’s girlfriends worked in shifts and nursed him through the hell of his healing pains. They arrived according to some unspoken schedule, always carrying a pot of griot or fried plantain, and there was hardly any unpleasantness among them, at least until they were sure he was going to live. After several weeks he was strong enough to move back to his house; meanwhile Syto sailed out on the hot summer nights and grimly did the fishing for both of them. At this time of year the fish were always sluggish, the baret and snapper yet to make their runs; Syto had to sail out five or six kilometers to make a decent catch, out where wicked squalls whipped through several times a night and salvos of flying fish exploded from the dark, stinging like clusters of tiny whips.
           Late one afternoon he piled his gear into the boat and headed out to sea, rowing first into the cut at Cayes Caiman to pluck sea urchins off the rocks for bait. It was a hot, bright day, the sky a harsh actinic blue. He fetched his boat up on the scrap of beach, then hunted among the sluices and tidal pools for chadwon, the waves swatting the boulders with sharp, crackling sounds. He was picking his way along and not thinking of much when the duffel bags caught his eye, three of them laid in a row at the edge of the woods like cooling loaves. He scrambled up the beach and stood over them, blinking, swaying, strangely short of breath. Sunlight pulsed off the water in glittering barbs; cicadas rowled in the thick woods that skirted the beach, the big, solemn trees looming at his back like a congress of village elders. For several moments he thought about Michelet and Méreste, and Lulu’s savage beating, and the soldiers’ cruel laughter and the shame of being a Bouki, but there was really no need to convince himself. The second he saw the stuff he knew he was going to take it.

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