Authors: Bob Shacochis
ALSO BY BOB SHACOCHIS
Easy in the Islands
The Next New World
Swimming in the Volcano
The Immaculate Invasion
Atlantic Monthly Press
Copyright © 2013 by Bob Shacochis
Excerpts from this novel have appeared in
Artful Dodger, The Darfur Anthology,
Snake Nation Review, Conjunctions,
Jacket design by Royce M. Becker; Jacket photograph © Sam Diephuis / Getty images
The author wishes to thank Florida State University for
its grant support in the writing of this book.
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e-book ISBN: 978-0-8021-9309-4
Atlantic Monthly Press
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Distributed by Publishers Group West
For Helen For Liam
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize them in myself . . .
Great was the chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world . .
Enter my dreams, love.
Fuzzing It Up
Haiti 1998, 1996, 1998
It is no secret that souls sometimes die in a person and are replaced by others.
In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard
During the final days of the occupation, there was an American woman in Haiti, a photojournalist—blonde,
young, infuriating—and she became Thomas Harrington’s obsession.
Why have you never told me the story of this girl? Harrington’s wife asked, dumbfounded
but curious. They stood in the kitchen of their gardenia-scented home in South Miami,
finishing the vodka cocktails she had mixed to celebrate his reinstallment into her
landscaped domain, its calibrated patterns, everything perfectly in its place except
her husband. Why have you waited until now? A pained crinkle etched a border of mystification
around the brightness of her eyes.
Expecting an answer, she followed him through the house, upstairs to their sun-scoured
bedroom where he began unpacking his filthy clothes. Here, he said with a hopeful
trace of enthusiasm, this is for you, and he gave her a gift he had brought from Port-au-Prince,
a small but moderately expensive painting by Frantz Zephirin.
And what should he tell her? That he had become too involved with a woman, and too
involved with the greater infidelities of the world? And would rather say nothing
If he told her everything, he imagined, correctly, she would want to leave him, or
she would pray for the salvation of his distant heart, which was the salvation of
a man in a time and a place and a country and not the salvation of an immortal self,
because when Americans pray, they pray first that history will step aside and leave
them alone, they pray for the deafness that comes with a comfortable life. They pray
for the soothing blindness of happiness, and why not?
But history walks on all of us, lashed by time, and sometimes we feel its boot on
our backs, and sometimes we are oblivious to its passing, the swing of sorrow and
triumph through humanity, sorrow, and then, finally, crippling grief fading to obscurity,
which is perhaps why Americans want little to do with history, why perhaps they hate
it, why prayer comes easier than remembrance, which is how history knots its endless
endings and measures the rise and fall of its breath. And when history swirls around
you and passes on and you inhale its aftermath, the bitterness of its ashes and the
bygone sweetness of time, and excrete history into memory, you never quite believe
you had once heard its thunderous God-like whispering, that you had trembled in the
face of its terrible intimacies, and you fell silent.
Against this silence, Harrington understood it was possible only to speak to other
silences. Why would you choose to expose such ugliness, if not in yourself then in
For two years Tom Harrington did not tell his wife, but now she would hear this story,
enough of it anyway, that had so abruptly leaped far, far beyond his ownership, his
private collection. And would she know him better afterward? Would she know him as
he knew himself? And then what? Would she know him at all?
His own story of this woman in Haiti was a fragment at best, it’s important to say,
but his silence was not meant to spare his wife from a betrayal, at least not of the
sort she suspected, but there are many, many betrayals we visit upon one another,
their forms infinite, some beyond comprehension, some no more serious than a quick
sting. He had kept the story from her simply because he had gotten nowhere with it
in his own mind, and did not understand his role in its events, nor the meaning of
its elements, and he suspected that somehow this story would always slip and tumble
into the hole of self-indictment. Yet what had he done that was so wrong, what had
he done that was not justified by the behavior of others? What was his sin? He could
not grasp it, but in the recesses of his soul he knew it was there.
There were things you might say, stories you could tell, that would leave you diminished,
that might outrage one’s sense of conscience or morality with their failings and audacities,
their reckless disregard for the well-being of others. Perhaps not in every life,
though Tom rejected the very nature of innocence. But yes, some stories diminished
the teller, or shamed him in the eyes of honorable people, and often these stories
were never told���or only half-told, rife with omissions, as Tom’s would be with his
wife. They lay quiet yet unpeaceful within the black cave of secrets that was part
of anyone’s soul, and perhaps their silence was as it should be, the last asylum for
propriety, for decency.
It’s extraordinary, his wife said, admiring the canvas.
The gallery on Rue Petion had obtained another Zephirin, larger, more fanciful in
its circus of cruelties, that he had wanted to buy for her but never had the chance.
Why he told her this he couldn’t say because it wasn’t true, it had simply fallen
from his mouth, part of another story he was making up.
She looked at him sideways, measuring what she must have imagined to be the careful
implication of his voice. Oh. Do you have to go back? she asked, and he knew that
because this was a busy time of the year for her at the office she’d be unhappy if
he was leaving again.
I can’t. I seem to have been declared persona non grata.
Tom? She was absently pulling clothes from his small canvas bag and tossing them into
the laundry hamper and she froze, gasping, her eyes wide and a hand raised to her
mouth. Oh, my God, she said. What’s on these pants? Is this blood? Her sweet, earnest
face, becalmed by the gentle tides of a comfortable life, filled with a look of mortification.
Dutiful wife, instinctive mother, she sniffed at a patch of the stains, repulsed.
They’re covered with blood! There’s so much of it. Tom, what happened?
Yes, that. What happened. He would have to tell her something but he did not know
where to begin or where to end and he did not know if she should ever, ever know him
so well, or how he spent his days when he was away from her.
He had been home a month, after a month’s assignment in the Balkans, and had just
begun to reestablish himself in the routines of daily life as husband and father,
enjoying the pleasant drudgery of the supermarket, cooking meals for his wife and
daughter, exercising the dog at dawn on the beach, afterward the newspaper with coffee
in the morning, a novel with cognac at night, videos on the weekend, all of them in
the same bed, the dog wedged between like a flatulent pillow, a suburban middle-class
tableau repeated endlessly in his life, and endlessly interrupted by his restlessness—the
phone rings and Tom Harrington is gone. He and his wife had constructed a life in
South Miami that made sense to everyone else but him, though its comforts were undeniable.
In fact, they were precious, and at constant risk of going stale, so he had made them
exotic novelties, these pleasures, sucked them to near depletion, then ran off to
hunt the nearest white whale, that thing we need to do to keep us from our disappointment
or lethargy, to jolt ourselves back to feeling. But always, inevitably, he would trudge
home, and give himself over to the icing down.
A month away, a month at home, the whiplashed schedule of a humanitarian yo-yo, a
perpetual routine of domestic guess who.
Honey? I’m home. Maybe. Hope so. Sorry to have missed the kid’s birthday.
He was sitting on a bench outside the quad of his daughter’s small private school
nestled within a grove of banyan trees and palms, a cigarette in his mouth, waiting
for classes to end. The school offered no bus service or, rather, discontinued it
when over-involved parents made the convenience superfluous, and it was Tom’s duty
to relieve his wife of this chore whenever he was in town. That day he was early;
usually he was late. Other parents began arriving.
I never see you, someone said, a woman’s voice, behind him, and he swiveled around.
This woman lived in the neighborhood but worked in an office downtown for a nationwide
private security firm, doing what he could not tell. She was tough and brusque and
solid and it was strange to see her in a flowery dress and not in the jeans and motorcycle
boots and fringed leather jacket she wore when he would bump into her in the South
Beach bars. Her daughter had been the first in seventh grade to wear makeup to class;
Tom’s wife and daughter were still warring over lip gloss and eye shadow.
She propped her sunglasses into her streaked hair and squinted. Do you know?—and she
named a man, Conrad Dolan.
Doors banged open and the children came in streams of ones and twos into the courtyard.
No, he said. Was he supposed to?
Without saying why, she explained she had spoken with him a few days back, up in Tampa
where he lived. A journalist had been kidnapped last month in Peru. Dolan was the
hostage negotiator brought in on the case.
Harrington’s interest rose. How does one become a hostage negotiator? he asked.
Twenty-one years with the Feds, fluency in Spanish and Portuguese, she said. He was
private sector now, retired from the Bureau of Investigation.
One of your guys?
I wish. He works alone.
Tom had never heard of him. He did not personally know many people like this, although
they were always there in the background of his world; their days were different than
his, more exclusive, circumscribed by their respective loyalties and institutions.
Wherever you encountered them, there was less oxygen in the room for the uninitiated.
You see them around, you talk with them when you have to. You stay out of their way—they
keep you out of their way.
What happened to the journalist?
Dolan got him out.
Their two daughters marched toward them, pretty faces sullen and pinched as if they
had spent the day in court litigating their grievances. His at least knew to mumble
a greeting before she slipped past to fling her books into the cab of his truck. The
other one narrowed her eyes at them and kept walking toward the parking lot and her
What do you suppose that’s about?
Being twelve. Being girls.
Jingling her keys, she said she had to run. The sunglasses fell and locked back over
her eyes. So look, she said. Can I give Dolan your number? He wants to talk to you.
Their seemingly idle conversation had taken an unexpected turn—Harrington’s working
days were often spent seeking out authorities or tracking witnesses, knocking on the
doors of strangers in search of the texture of lives under pressure or suddenly inflated
into crisis, forming ephemeral intimacies with people never quite sure of his identity
beyond the fact that he was in their eyes a foreign representative of a monolithic
Ah, he has come to find me justice. Ah, he has come to challenge my power. Ah, he
has come to help. Ah, he has come to ruin me
Why would he want to talk to me? Tom asked.
The answer was at once familiar and tedious and he thought nothing of it. Dolan loved
to follow the news, he had seen Harrington’s work on establishing a Truth Commission
in Haiti, he liked to talk. Tom thought to himself,
What was there left to talk about?
After two hundred years Haiti had remained an infant and still required breast-feeding,
but he said,
ure, give him the number,
and they separated, each to their spoiled child, for a recitation of the day’s unforgivable
crimes of pubescence.
Three days later Dolan telephoned. Before Tom even had a chance to say hello, the
person on the line had announced himself—
—and for a moment Tom paused, unsure of who this was.
I sawr what you said about those bastards in Warshington
. . . It was a voice, a type of nasal tone and run-on pattern of speech, that he
associated with the cinema, the urban repertoire of the eastern United States, make-believe
cops and make-believe robbers, Irish heroes and Italian villains, an accent resonant
of both ivy and whiskey, upward mobility and the working-class neighborhoods of South
Boston. It was not a voice he could listen to without smiling and if his wife had
been in the room he would have cupped the mouthpiece and held out the phone and said,
Get a load of this
. But the abrupt specificity of his questions made Tom tight and serious: Dolan had
connected with the right source. Tom was valuable, Tom had the answers. He knew what
Conrad Dolan wanted to know.
Say, what can you tell me about the condition of the Route Nationale One between Port-au-Prince
and that town up the coast, what is it? Saint-Marc?
In the earliest days of the invasion, weeks before the American military ventured
out onto the road they would instantly name the Highway to Hell, Route Nationale One
from Port-au-Prince to its terminus on the north shore was a six-hour-long gauntlet
of axle-breaking misery, slamming boredom, heat, and fear. The tarmac had been carpet
bombed by neglect, its surface so pocked and corroded that only a sharp-edged webbing
of the original asphalt remained, so that the highway resembled a hundred-mile strip
of Swiss cheese, many of the holes the size of a child’s wading pool. In September
of 1994, it was empty except for
and bandits, or impromptu checkpoints that provided the opportunity for extortion
to gangs of boys with machetes. Regardless of its disrepair, you drove Route Nationale
One at top speed to reach your destination by nightfall, for it wasn’t a good place
to be after the sun went down.
What else do you want to know? he asked Dolan.
The section of the road by the big quarry, across from the swamp, what the hell’s
the name of it?
There were stretches of the highway, especially outside of the capital along the coast,
where if you focused deep and hard on the game you could rocket up to 120 kilometers
per hour for five or ten minutes, slaloming around the hazards, making everybody with
you carsick and terrified. Graveyards of wrecks dotted these stretches; pedestrians
and livestock were occasionally killed by swerving drivers. About nine months into
the occupation, a Haitian company was awarded a contract, funded by foreign aid, to
resurface the highway. The requisite embezzlements ensued and a thin scab of rotten
asphalt was rolled over the newly graded roadbed. Within a month, though, the pavement
had festered and bubbled, the holes began to reappear where they had always been,
and if you needed a quick metaphor to sketch the trajectory of American involvement
in Haiti, Route Nationale One was there for your consideration.
And this other quarry. There’s supposed to be another one, right?
That’s right. Up the coast, on the water.
Good place to run and hide?
What do you mean?
If you’re in trouble. Trying to get away from somebody.
And what about this place on the coast, Moulin Sur Mer? asked Dolan. You ever been
Lovely. Clean. Expensive by any standard. Good restaurant. Ruling-class getaway. Well-connected
owners. The only reliable R & R between the capital and the north coast. Are you planning
a trip? Tom wondered aloud.
This Moulin Sur Mer, Dolan said. Would you say it’s a nice place to vacation, you
know, take your wife?
The answer was yes, within a certain twisted context of circumstance and impulse.
If you had to be in Haiti, the resort was as good as any place to reinvigorate yourself.
A qualified yes, if you were the sort of naive, half-cracked traveler drawn to the
edge of the abyss, someone whose rum sours were that much more quenching when consumed
at the panoramic center of extreme malice and human suffering. Not to be self-righteous
about the attraction; Harrington had always found the sours at Moulin Sur Mer to be
memorably tart and bracing when he straggled in off the road like a legionnaire from
the desert. And yes, he had even taken his wife there on her brief and unpleasant
visit to the island.
What else? Tom asked. What are you looking for?
I have a client, Dolan began, and out came the story.
For the third or fourth time in a year, an American couple, husband and wife, were
on holidays in Haiti, booked into the Moulin Sur Mer.
That can’t be right,
Tom thought. Undoubtedly the man had business in Haiti and for some reason kept inviting
his wife along, or she refused to be left behind. Perhaps she was an art collector,
or perhaps a nurse, someone with a skill to share, an altruistic streak.
The couple checked out of the resort late on a Saturday afternoon, Dolan continued,
put their luggage in the sports utility vehicle they had rented for the week, and
began the hour-and-a-half drive to the airport in the capital to board a return flight
to Miami and on to Tampa, where they lived. At some point along the road south of
the hotel—Conrad Dolan was imprecise about the location although he named the second
quarry as a landmark—the man slowed the vehicle to a crawl to maneuver through a series
of potholes. By now the sun had set, and although it was dark, very dark, and the
road seemed empty, without headlights in either direction, the couple was overtaken
from behind by two men on a motorbike who, after blurring past the SUV, swung sharply
in front of it, stopped in a blocking position, and hopped off. The husband attempted
to steer around them but the shoulder seemed to drop away and somehow he had trouble
with the manual transmission and stalled the vehicle. What happened next was unclear,
except for the results.
The men had guns. Dolan’s client was pulled from the driver’s seat and pistol-whipped,
and although he never lost consciousness he had the sense knocked out of him and scrambled
away into the darkness on the opposite side of the road, finally crashing into a boulder
and slipping down to hide, bleeding profusely from a wound in his forehead. A gun
had been fired several times, he assumed at him, to prevent his escape. When he regained
his senses and came out from behind the rock, the SUV and the motorcycle were gone,
and at first he couldn’t find his wife but then he stepped on her where she lay on
the shoulder of the road, faceup, shot to death.
Disoriented, the man stumbled around until finally a car came up the road from the
direction of Port-au-Prince and he flagged it down. As luck would have it, the driver
turned out to be a staffer from the American embassy who used his cell phone to dial
the local emergency number and the response was unexpectedly quick; before long a
pickup truck carrying uniformed officers from the police station in Saint-Marc arrived
on the scene. The police spent a few minutes glancing around with flashlights, asked
the man some basic questions using the embassy staffer as translator, and then put
the body in the bed of the pickup truck and drove off, telling him to wait there because
someone else was coming to ask more questions. Some time later, another car arrived
from the direction of Port-au-Prince, driven by a detective from the National Police
Conrad Dolan paused in his narrative and Tom took advantage of the moment to ask him
the obvious question: Why was this unfortunate man, clearly the victim of assault
and robbery, his client?
I’m closing in on that, said Dolan. Assault, yes. Robbery, no. Would you say, he asked,
that such incidents are commonplace in Haiti?
Aid workers, missionaries, the rare tourist—the ambushes weren’t everyday occurrences
by any means, but they happened. The roads were dangerous. You stayed alert, practiced
prudence, of course, and hoped you were lucky.
Okay, said Dolan, and continued. The detective from Port-au-Prince was fairly vexed
that the body had been spirited away to the Saint-Marc station before he could survey
the crime scene, an examination he performed hastily because there was nothing left
to see other than a blot of jellied blood in the dirt by the side of the road.