the man sitting by the side of the road
the one where the island that isn’t quite what it seems
This time I caught sight of him from afar—the man sitting by the side of the road.
I had seen the man almost every day. He’d be busy painting a boat. Helping someone lift out their engine. Racing across the bay in one of several brightly colored pirogues.
Other days we’d pass each other along that one road to everywhere.
There were fifty boats anchored in the bay. A white sand beach bordered the water. Beyond the beach, there was a road that cruisers thought of as a promenade but residents insisted was a major highway.
Beyond that, there were an assortment of shops and bars that supplied people with, among other goods, enough liquor to keep the highway-promenade controversy going indefinitely.
Between 8AM and midnight, the men of the island gathered along the side of the road. Some plied their wares. Others drank and steadied themselves against coconut trees until long after the sun went down.
It was the month of elections and, as I walked toward the man sitting by the side of the road, I could hear that the talk was taking a darker turn.
People swore and spoke openly of revolution. To cruisers unused to the island dialect this must have sounded like ambient noise.
The grocery I passed looked to be empty. This was expected. Nothing grew on the island. So when the ferry arrived three times a week you’d see cattle, provisions, and people all rush out, like Noah’s Ark cracked open.
Stray dogs lingered outside. They were about the friendliest feral animals one could imagine. They had to be—the residents poisoned all of the bad ones. And some of the good ones, too. It was something I could never get used to.
As I passed the vendors, the ferry, the grocery, the stray dogs, and finally arrived at the man sitting by the side of the road, I remarked to myself that there was nothing at all unusual about the day.
So instead of getting in my dinghy and heading back to my boat as I normally would, I stopped to speak to him.
“You’re from the Caribbean aren’t you?” The man asked.
The man sucked his teeth. “Trinidad? Boy, I’m never going back to Trinidad.”
“Had a bad time?”
“You could say that.”
I sat next to the man in silence. Traveling had made me more sensitive to the moods of others and I was always in the market for a good story. I thought silence might do the trick.
“I’ve always had a boat. You’ve seen mine out in the bay, right?”
“I used to have one ten times as nice. She was a beauty. But I sailed her to Trinidad and the coast guard took it from me.”
“They robbed you?” I asked.
“They caught me with a boatload of illegal fuel. They didn’t lock me up. But they took the boat.”
“Yeah. In any case I don’t go to Trinidad anymore.” He paused and sucked through a cigarette. The light caught his thick black sunglasses and he smiled sardonically.
I didn’t laugh, so he saw fit to continue.
“Now I do all sorts of work on boats. Painting. Engine work. Caretaking.”
He stops smiling, “I used to do fiberglassing but … not anymore.”
“What made you stop?”
“Can’t do that kind of work for too long.”
He looks at me as if trying to decide whether I’m stupid or cruel. Realizing the former he spells it out begrudgingly.
“Cancer. The stuff is all toxic. It gets you eventually.”