I was smoking on the veranda when Quammie returned from his day trip to Berbice. Everyone pronounced it Borbeace, bending the vowels while digging deep into the first syllable. He had gone out with Uncle Koffi, Auntie Shanice, and Calvin, the driver. They went to visit our cousin Calib, who had spent decades in a state-run asylum. They packed clothes and chocolate for him, and since the other patients might try to steal both the clothes and the chocolate, they brought enough chocolate to share with everyone.
When Auntie Shanice asked if I wanted to go, I declined. I spent the day in downtown Georgetown. I wandered. I got my hair faded at an open-air barbershop. I absorbed the heat and the compressed cacophony of the city. I spent an hour and the equivalent of a hundred US dollars at a bookstore that had a large collection of Caribbean writers, the kind of collection that can’t be found in Canada. I returned just after dusk and sat outside, leafing through Mittelholzer, Nichols, and Walcott. The humidity softened my cigarette, and the smoke thickened in my throat.
It was too early to drink, so I read and waited for the others to return. I’d stayed back because I didn’t know Calib. I didn’t want him to feel embarrassed by his circumstances, but I was curious. When the electric gates creaked open and the car rolled into the drive, I stood and motioned for Quammie to join me on the veranda. He came up, sat back on one of the mahogany deck chairs, closed his eyes, and let out a long sigh. I balanced my cigarette on the ashtray.
“How was the visit?”
He kept his eyes closed and his head tilted back. His face was greased from the heat. I waited. Finally, he spoke without opening his eyes. “It was disturbing, actually. I don’t want to talk about it.”
He stood up and went inside. I heard some bumping around, a door closing, and he reemerged with a Banks beer. “Mostly it was flat, brown, yellow, green. We spent a lot of time in a hot car.”
“Is that why you didn’t come?”
“No. I figured it might be overwhelming for him to see so many people. I didn’t want to intrude.”
“What did you do?”
“Got faded. Explored Georgetown.” Quammie motioned for me to turn my head. I did.
“Very nice. Tomorrow you’ll show me where. Did you get anything?”
I pointed to the books on the table. “What about you, any tourist souvenirs from Berbice?”
He laughed. “No.” Then he pointed to his head and said: “Just up here. I don’t know how I’ll sleep tonight.”
“Was it that bad?”
“I don’t want to talk about it yet.”
“Okay. Uh, did the rally start before you left, or did you get out of Berbice before it started?”
“The rally,” he groaned. He leaned his head back and looked up at the silhouette of a tree. “We got out just fine, no traffic, but on the way back we passed the president’s motorcade.”
“Whoa. You saw Ramotar?”
“No, I just saw his car.”
It was rare that a Guyanese election made international ripples. Uncle Koffi had been feeding me copies of the local paper, the Stabroek News, and I’d gleaned that oil had been discovered in the ocean. Guyana and Venezuela were debating whose waters the deposits were submerged in. Exxon had planted an offshore rig outfitted with a helipad. Venezuela was seemingly preparing to mobilize troops along the border. Ministers stood to grow rich, and the temperature of the debates rose. Many people feared violence if the election adhered to the country’s racial divides. Several shops downtown had already boarded up, and the challenger David Granger’s Georgetown headquarters was under armed guard. He’d been nicknamed “Danger” in an attack ad that flashed an image of rolling dice. Jimmy Carter, ninety years old, was expected in Guyana to advocate for a peaceful electoral process. The polls were predicting a narrow loss for Ramotar, who had decreed a state-media blackout on all ads and coverage for his rival. That very night, one week out from the election, Ramotar was holding a large rally in Berbice.
“As we were leaving the area, we noticed cars pulled to the shoulder and people and bicycles and goats all standing still, and then a cop stepped into the middle of the road and flagged us, so we pulled over as well. He didn’t give us any explanation, so Uncle Koffi leaned out his window and asked another driver what was going on, and they said: ‘Ramotar. E comin troo.’
“We sat in the car for five minutes. Nothing happened. The sun started going down, and across the savannah you could hear those night sounds start up, but quietly, all of the whistles and chirps, and then the crickets hissing. We got out of the car and waited, and more cars were flagged over to the shoulder, and then a murmur ran through the crowd, and as it approached us people turned and said that Ramotar’s motorcade was on its way, it was coming. We squinted as far up the road as we could, stood on our toes, and sure enough there was a black speck vibrating in the distance, and it got closer, louder. The single speck divided into multiple vehicles, motorcycles in the lead, then a series of black vans, then more motorcycles. We were on something of a low hill, so as they approached, we could see their entire file. Behind the first group of motorcycles was a long black SUV with Guyanese flags flying from the front headlights. That must have been Ramotar’s car because behind it were smaller SUVs and sedans.”
Quammie slid one of the Matinées out of the pack and lit it. It was dark on the veranda and the night was breathing around us. I saw a thin yellow lizard on the wall above my brother’s head, but I didn’t say anything. I could see its narrow flanks pulsing to the sounds of crickets and frogs. The odd street dog barked in the distance, and I thought of going to the fridge and grabbing two Guinnesses, but Quammie interrupted the thought.
“I mean, we could see the motorcade approaching, and it was going fast, like over 120 fast. A goat wandered into the road and stopped, with its head down, licking at something.”
“Yeah. A fucking goat. The same scrawny goat we saw in New Amsterdam, the kind we saw on our way in from the airport. The kind of tough goat we see browsing in a ditch or tied to a stake in someone’s yard. It was yellowish white, and it just wandered out into the road. An old Indian guy started shouting at the goat, but he didn’t go into the road because there was a cop in front of him. He kept shouting at the goat, then speaking to it and pleading with it, then making these soft kissing noises and beckoning in a gentle voice like: ‘Come ere, come, come ere, come, come . . . ’ and then cooing like a pigeon while gesturing fiercely, but the goat was preoccupied. It kept its head down and licked at the road. I don’t know if it was a stupid goat or not, but at one point it noticed the motorcade. It twitched. We could all feel the vibrations through the road, we could feel the speed of the engines. It stood still and looked up, its ears perked, and seconds later two motorcycles roared past it, one on either side, and I swear I saw the goat’s body shake with the speed of the bikes. It stood and blinked for a second, and then—as if it hadn’t noticed anything—it took a few lazy steps and stopped again, put its head back down, and licked at the road. The Indian guy intensified his cooing, and everyone by the roadside seemed to collectively cringe. The goat looked around just as Ramotar’s SUV appeared.”
I fell into an old memory of when we were kids. The car radio was playing. Quammie was asleep. My father reached for the volume knob as the car slowed. Chaka Khan’s voice faded down into the engine’s hum. My mother strained to see above the line of cars stretching ahead of us. We inched along, two slow lanes of traffic, until a Parks Canada ranger in his green-and-khaki uniform waved the cars over to the right.
“It must be an accident.”
“I don’t see any construction signs.”
My brother groggily came to as I looked out my window. The shoulder dropped off into a shallow ravine, and beyond that a curtain of evergreens rose.
The cars rolled in stops and starts. We passed another park ranger who was standing next to a brown pickup with yellow lettering, and then my father said “ooh” under his breath, and my mother inhaled sharply through her teeth. They were looking ahead and to the left. My mother twisted in her seat and told us not to look outside.
I wanted to look, so I ignored the instructions and pressed my face to the window. It was cool and dotted with raindrops. Our Oldsmobile advanced along with the sedans and station wagons ahead of us.
We approached a mass of contorted metal immobile in the left lane. As we crept past, its form seemed to twist and lengthen until it resembled a blue BMW. Its side windows were shattered. The front and rear doors on the passenger side were driven inward, into a V shape. The back wheels looked thin and unsteady, as if they might collapse. Two children sat in the back seat, grimacing. Their faces trembled, as if they had tensed up so suddenly in anticipation of impact that their bodies still clung to that tension and would not release it. I was close enough to see their mouths. Their lips were drawn back and their teeth looked like they were about to chatter. The mother was in the passenger seat, turned all the way around, restrained by her seatbelt but reaching out to her children. The father was in the driver’s seat, with both hands still on the steering wheel and his head leaning limply forward, a gash along his hairline.
Our windows were up, and the highway scene rolled by like a silent movie. The BMW’s windshield was crushed inward, with a hole larger than a human head in front of the passenger seat. I think my dad slowed down as we passed their car, or maybe the images just appear to me in slow motion now, but I wouldn’t put it past my father to slow down and take a long look, wincing while trying to absorb every detail.
The front end of the car was crumpled, and a few metres from the car, which looked like it had been launched backward by the impact, lay a moose. It shivered, and one of its legs twitched. Its legs were spindly, its neck was corded with muscle, and its face was long and sloping, a solid mass of bone covered in coarse fur. Not an ounce of superfluous flesh quivered along its thighs or flanks. As the moose lay there, its massive ribs lifted and fell quickly.
Its glazed eye stared up as the clouds changed shapes and lumbered along.
Quammie continued, “I mean, the van didn’t even slow down. It didn’t swerve, it didn’t brake, nothing. It kept straight on course, and when it hit the goat—”
Neither of us blinked. Our expressions were mirrors of incredulity. Then we guffawed. Our laughter grew louder and rolled down the veranda. We laughed until we were bent over in our chairs, until our sides ached, until tears squeezed out of our eyes and our breaths came in pitched wheezes, and then we settled back and I said: “Fucking Guyana,” and we started laughing again.
“When the SUV licked the goat, I swear it seemed like it was happening in slow motion, but the van was going fast. It hit the goat’s hind leg, like high on the ass, and the goat flew up in the air and flipped—”
We both nearly fell off our chairs laughing, and again our voices tumbled the length of the veranda and disturbed the night. My brother’s eyebrows were raised and he was sitting forward in his chair.
“It fucking flipped up in the air,” here he drew a quick flipping motion in the air with his fingers, “and then it fell back down and landed just off the shoulder of the road, but it landed on its feet, and I swear to fucking God it started running while it was still in the air, its legs pumping, because the second its feet hit the ground it bolted into the bush,” here he shot his hand forward, holding the cigarette. The ash shook but didn’t fall, “and it vanished, like it was swallowed by the bush. The leaves shook behind it and then went still, as if nothing had disturbed them. Then the rest of the motorcade passed. It passed so fast that the little flags on the cars were stiff.”
The frogs’ high, nocturnal whistling grew louder and seemed to encircle us. I glanced down the drive and noticed that the streetlights had come on. Mosquitos sizzled around the porch light, and a large moth spread its soft, oil-tinted wings on the white ceiling of the veranda.
“As we drove back, at intervals Calvin would start shaking his head and would bang a fist into the steering wheel and exclaim: ‘Man! They ain’t even slow the damn car! Straight through! They ain’t swerve, nothing! Man!’ Koffi and Shanice sighed these painful sighs every time Calvin exclaimed. They hardly said anything all the way back.”
The night settled around us, its sleeping trees and leaves breathing slowly to the crickets. Beyond the bushes in the yard was the concrete fence, the spool of razor wire atop it, the electric gate. We heard a muffled, thudding music approaching, and a car crept by, its lights prowling the semipaved street, its suspension creaking with the unevenness of the road. We watched the car as we smoked, then Quammie stood up and asked me if I wanted anything. He disappeared inside, and moments later I heard dub music, a record called Vital Force Dub by a Nigerian artist. The music was sparse and ominous, with heavy low end and sounds delaying and echoing in stereo, but true to its genre, it was buoyed by its rhythm. I listened, feeling a curious sensation of being in two places at once.
Quammie stepped back onto the veranda and placed two bottles on the table. He then slid a photo out of his shirt pocket and pressed it down next to the bottles. He pointed and said, “That’s him.”
It was an old photo. Calib stood in a brown field in front of a long building. The building was low, concrete, institutional, with cracks running up the walls. He was wearing an oversized white T-shirt, and beneath it, he looked gaunt. In his narrow face I recognized my own. We must have inherited it from the same distant ancestors, a face in which the African, Chinese, and Portuguese were mixed in equal proportions and each was visible in a different feature. He had tight red curls, almond-shaped eyes set at an angle, wide lips and flared nostrils, freckles across the bridge of his nose, bronze skin, and a stretched smile that looked like it was unsuited to his face, an expression he rarely made but recalled from an earlier period in his life. His teeth were long and yellow, and his smile seemed too genuine. I had only seen such unreserved smiles on children or on elderly people who had languished in care facilities and who, removed from regular social interaction, had forgotten themselves.
I listened to the whistle of the frogs as it rode above the cicadas. Quammie exhaled and stubbed out his cigarette. “When we were leaving, a group of inmates—or patients, whatever—swarmed us and demanded chocolate. At first I didn’t know what was going on and I tensed up. Calvin was tense too, but Auntie Shanice was like, ‘Be cool, be cool, here, here you go,’ and she shared out the extra chocolate while talking to the patients. The asylum staff stood by, watchful.” He leaned over, took the photo from the table, remarked, “That’s an old picture—he doesn’t look like that anymore,” and slipped it back into his pocket.
“Once the chocolate was gone, Uncle Koffi gave us a discreet nod and pointed toward the parking lot. Calib had hung back during the chocolate rush, but while the staff was preoccupied with dispersing the patients, which really meant barking at them and handling them in a way that was just rough enough to command respect but not rough enough to bruise anyone, Calib slipped away. We found him at the edge of the grounds, out by the parking lot, pacing. He hugged each of us and insisted that we bring out our phones and take more snapshots. Several minutes went by, and no one wanted to break off the engagement, until one of the employees strolled past and noticed Calib. The employee sternly called him over. Calib didn’t budge. The employee called for support. Calib backed away just as two more employees appeared, their faces seized with concern. None of us could stand to watch Calib rebuked and manhandled . . . ”
Quammie stood up and turned toward the door, then he stopped. The last thing he said before he went to sleep was that, when our cousin was hovering at the edge of the grounds and no employee had yet noticed his absence, he felt a surge of excitement, and he knew his cousin Calib felt the same thing, a realization that they could rush him into the car and drive off. Quammie looked at Uncle Koffi, at Auntie Shanice, and at Calvin. Their eyes all confirmed the same thought, and they froze.