Impasse Tempête

He’d lived in Port-au-Prince his whole life, and when I first knew him he liked to mock the Macoutes and their country ways, their bumbling attempts at urban cool. “Macoute guy, he dance like this,” Pierre would say, stomping and lurching around like a man trying to fling a crab off his foot. “But you born in Port-au-Prince, you from the city, you dance like this,” and now he’d ease into a fluid shuffle and glide that made you thankful for your eyes. But that was years ago, and now he never left his house except to see the doctor. One of his legs was always numb, and the high blood pressure often made him dizzy, and with his cataracts he felt lost on the streets.

“I can see far,” he told me, “I can see the mountains, but I can’t see your face. Your face just look all dusty to me.”

People kept wandering through the room where we sat, his wife, kids and grandkids, nieces, nephews, stray children from the neighborhood. It wasn’t a big house, four cinderblock rooms next to the massive gulch that cut through the heart of Martissant. When he’d first shown me where he planned to build his house, this part of Martissant had looked like a demolition site, a dead landscape of scorched rubble and debris. But a bidonville had grown up around Pierre’s house, and the unpaved alley that led through the neighborhood had an official name now, Impasse Tempête.

I can see the mountains, but I can’t see your face. He brought out a plastic shopping bag filled with medicines and described each one for me, going by feel, recognizing them by the shapes of the bottles. Yesterday’s storm had almost flooded his house, a spectacular lavalas that roared down the mountains and overflowed the gulch, spilling into the ant-heap network of alleys and paths. Nou la, Pierre said when I asked about the storm. Grâce à Dieu, nou la anko. We’re here. Thanks to God, we’re still here. The gulch held five or six feet of standing water today, a thick, sludgy roux slowly roiling in spots where jets of methane gas bubbled up from below. From the looks of the sky there would be no storms today, only the sun beating down like a punishment.

We sat in the soft gray light of the room, sweating and drinking warm 7-Up. As always, he wanted to talk politics, although his mind kept wandering, shuffling past and present like a deck of cards.

“You see Aristide up there?” he asked, pointing at the ceiling.

“He’s sort of hard to miss.” Whenever that big black helicopter screamed across the sky, the entire city knew their president was on the move. Aristide in his helicopter, far above them all; that story had turned bitter a long time ago, and as we talked Pierre seemed to get the priest and Papa Doc confused in his mind. But soon enough he came back to the present.

“That thing in Iraq,” he said now, “everybody in Haiti know they only want the oil.”

“Then you guys are way ahead of Americans,” I said.

“Mohammed Atta, you know that guy? He marry a Haitian girl.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“CIA all over Haiti looking for that girl, they take her away. Take her to Cuba, people say. Nobody see that girl again.” He took a drink of 7-Up and shook his head, faking a long look at me. “That guy Bush,” he asked with a plaintive, wondering break, “what does he want?”

It was a fair question. “Like you said, Pierre, I think he wants the oil. And whatever else Cheney tells him to want.”

Pierre smiled, looked down at the palms of his cracked hands. He knew how it worked, he had a veteran’s highly developed feel for the personal aspects of blood politics, the vast range of psychoses and ecstatic delusions from which the grand-scale mischiefs spring. He’d spent his life on the receiving end of such things, and here in his cinder block house, next to that latrine of a gulch, he could smell the sickness three thousand miles away.

I’d brought a few gifts—some scarves for his wife, a boom box for the kids, a fancy silk shirt for Pierre himself. “Next birthday I have sixty years,” he said after I’d handed out the gifts. “I make sixty, then I finish.”

“Oh Pierre, don’t talk like that.”

But he shook his head. “I work too hard when I was young, I hurt myself. Now,” he said, and paused, trying to find me through the haze of his milky eyes, “I make sixty, then I’m done.”

I argued, but suspected he was right; in fifteen years I’d never heard him speak a false or foolish word. There’s something surreal about seeing an old friend when we know it’s for the last time, a shameful gap between the reality right before our eyes and the kinds of facts our minds can absorb. I’d come here fifteen years ago wanting to learn the country, hoping to understand something of how the world works, and had met Pierre on that first trip. He’d been my keeper, tutor, and guide ever since, going along on all my trips into the boonies and slums, never complaining, talking us out of tight spots, patiently schooling me in the business of life in this place. To say he was the Virgil to my Dante would be stretching it—just a little—and yet he did show me something of hell, and where to look for grace and mercy in the midst of that.

If he ever thought badly of me for needing something from Haiti, this place where so many people already needed so much, he never let it show. He gave me permission to keep coming, and in my own way, the American way, with money, I tried to keep some semblance of balance in the exchange. This last visit was part of what was owed from my side; it was a stiff, awkward hour for both of us, but necessary, or so it seemed to me. When I left he insisted on walking me to the car, and so we made our way down the path with Pierre dragging his bum leg, one hand on my arm, the other propped on the shoulder of his oldest grandson. Where the path intersected Impasse Tempête, we stopped, and he solemnly accepted an embrace from me.

“Only God know everything you do for me,” he murmured, clutching my arm, strangely desperate to speak this last piece of news. “Only God, and me.”

He and his grandson stood on the path as I made my way to the car. Some children were gathered on the steps of a nearby doorway, and now I noticed a girl of ten or eleven sitting among them, leaning over the plastic bucket between her legs. In her hands she held a bird, a dove or a small chicken, and she was plucking the animal alive, shredding clumps of bloody feathers into the bucket. I had to look twice to understand what I was seeing, this lump, this glistening liverish thing jerking and twitching in the girl’s hands, and then I couldn’t stop looking. She was almost finished, the girl, stripping the last downy patches off the bird’s back, its delicate black eyes bright with shock. I suppose that humankind’s most enduring hope is for the suffering here on earth to serve some purpose; we have to hope, otherwise we’d all go crazy, but the sight of that miserable bird just disgusted me. I scolded the girl in my bad Creole, then turned to Pierre to share my disgust, to have my little fit of revulsion confirmed. I think I wanted him to scold the girl too, but Pierre hadn’t even noticed us. He’d lifted his head and was looking beyond us, far beyond the intricate warp and sprawl of Martissant, his pale gray eyes testing the distance for what was left of the world for him to see.