A year ago a company back east converted old 35-milimeter slides from my first camera to digital format. Finally some art to go with old notes about the expatriate life just offshore…
Almost everyone who has visited the Bahamas will tell you the same thing about my people; Bahamians are very friendly, open and honest, always smiling and eager to please. Indeed, all of the travel guides depict Bahamians…as being amongst the most beautiful people of earth…the typical visitor might honestly believe that this nation of islands is at least a close approximation of Eden…The Bahamas, however, is not quite paradise…there are…often below the surface, aspects of Bahamian culture (barely hinted at in the travel guides). For instance, we are a little bit too willing to ignore rules that don’t quite suit us…Serial adultery, which is euphemistically called ‘sweetheartin,’ is something of a national pastime….”
— Virgil Henry Storr Journal of Caribbean Literatures
Nassau like Paris was one of those cities that stayed with you always. Over the years, saying I lived in Nassau seemed to create a pause in conversation, as others re-calibrated their view of me. Usually they expressed envy. Uniformly said I was lucky. I agreed. It was interesting how many women asked me if it lived up to its billing as Stud Farm of the Western Hemisphere.
Evidently the female telegraph was not deflected by tour book rhapsodies about white sand, blue-green water and trade winds. Focused instead on island sex and the alleged prowess of young Bahamian males. I admitted witnessing them slip over the fence onto the private Sheraton British Colonial beach downtown, shucking shoes, shirts and pants to reveal Speedos, inviting themselves onto the beach blankets of pale Northern girls. Sometimes they got run off, most times they got lucky and left with their new friends. Women hearing this story professed shock at their presumption — but sometimes with a covert gleam in their eye.
Virile native studs were not the only ones island languor and a supposedly aphrodisiac conch diet energized into serial “sweetheartin.’” The expatriate community played too. But our publisher, near as I could tell, was locked in his travel-guide world view with no interest in glorifying sexual riptides in Bahamian culture. He liked, for instance, the editor’s suggestion to expand the line to include a children’s coloring book, and a collection of West Indies folk tales. The staff artist already had the coloring book underway...
The publisher still was dithering about the book I was hired to write, so the editor took me along to research folk tales. I had traded the rental TR Herald for a Fiat 850; we took two tape recorders, a raincoat and umbrella in case of squalls, and drove out to Adelaide Village. He had located two storytellers, 65 and 71, to spin B’Boukee and B’Rabbi tales. He said B’Rabbi was Bahamian for the same Br’er Rabbit that Joel Chandler Harris made famous. B’Boukee was B’Rabbi’s perpetual fall guy. We convened beneath cedars on the lee shore. Light surf piled up on an offshore reef, a light hiss on the tape beneath their melodic accents. They did not confine their yarns to those two, spreading out to lie about encounters with mermaids — probably too sexual for the publisher — and an African tale about how dogs lost their tails.
The editor loved that stuff, and still was optimistic about new ventures. We ran out of tape before they ran out of stories. He gave each a dollar for beer. Back in the village the Fiat refused to start. Laughing boys too young to chase tourist girls circled us, offering to fix it for a dollar. The editor told me to pop the hood, and re-secured the distributor cap. The boys were unembarrassed he knew their trick. Our second visit, it was just the spark-plug wires. Twice irritated me but the editor thought it was fun. The weeks slipped by…
Nassau was a party town. Employee parties would start with island conviviality but devolve into wickedly sarcastic jokes about the publisher’s indecisiveness. Frequent expat-community parties included natives, boyfriend or girlfriend of an expat. Not infrequently the Bahamians would score an additional fuck off compliant foreigners. Skin tones from Abaco-white to Gold Coast-black and all between, males upheld their stud-farm legend. The legend was silent on island women — a form of gallantry? — but on party evidence, they were no strangers to sweetheartin.’
The running expat joke was no one drank the water, substituting gin. Tanqueray, my favorite, was almost the official lubricant. Bourbon was too heavy in the heat. Expats shared a wealth of arcane knowledge over endless drinks. A Dutch engineer confided for really long road trips English drive is better than American: you can rest your gas-pedal foot against the sidewall to avoid cramps…
Shooting in the Bahamas
Up at 4:30 a.m. to go to Lake Killarney. Still feels odd to drive on the wrong side of the road in the predawn wearing hunting clothes once out of Nassau and what serves on the island for a “country road. I have to be careful not to drift to the right lane in a kind of trance. No ducks. I talked to a Bahamian duck hunter wearing an electric green shirt. We talked about people building cities and dams and closing off all the duck ranges and not giving one damn about all of us from the Arctic Circle to the Tropic of Cancer on Long Island who kind of wish they wouldn’t destroy it all. Talked with some Italian croupiers from Paradise Island who came to shoot. They handled their guns with such good manners. The Italians admired my camouflage coverall. “What do you shoot — a 16?” Yes. “Aren’t those loads too light?” They do okay, when I have anything to shoot. “Didn’t you see that water hen go right over you?” I try to only shoot ducks. “Ohhh — he only shoots ducks…”
Shot my second Bahamian coot…walking back to the Barracuda in the dark, tracking its dim reflection in the lake from runway lights at Nassau International Airport. Night shooting is legal in the Bahamas. That little Spanish double with the straight grip comes up and points like my finger…missed my first Bahamian pintail and saw bluebills rafting on closed Lake Cunningham…heard the blood-accelerating rush of bluebill flights coming to Killarney from Cunningham on nights too dark to shoot and watched for them by moonlight.
One dawn I watched a man steer his small outboard boat up the lake, shooting an unplugged automatic one-handed as he chased them. None of this is illegal in the Bahamas. I talked on the dike with an Andros Islander named Saunders and four bluebills slipped right over our heads. Saunders works in the airport control tower across the highway, this is his first duck season away from Andros where “th’ duckin’ is quite good” and he’s homesick. I know the feeling…Saunders broke into uncontrollable shivering from wading thigh deep. His little British car didn’t even have a heater! Manufacturers apparently save a few bucks (or pounds, I suppose) by not supplying heaters in cars shipped to the islands…He reveled in the Barracuda’s heater…
I stood on the Barracuda roof on top of Gladstone Hill and watched hundreds of ducks on Lake Cunningham — and farther off, the pastel phantasmagorical superstructures of cruise ships in the harbour. They looked like some surreal and transient city that would vanish like Brigadoon at sunset, when they sailed. I posted an urgent airmail to Mama with instructions to use my stateside checking account to buy Saunders a pair of chest waders at Proctor’s Hardware on Jacksonville Beach and ship them immediately…
The Italian croupiers come straight out from their graveyard shifts at the casino, with their stylish bellbottom trousers stuffed into gum boots, and stylish tan or gray pullovers to cover the frilly white shirts that are part of their croupier uniforms. I purchased seven inflatable rubber decoys from the Bahamas Ironmongery where I purchased my shotgun. The proprietor who sold me these things is a giant, three inches taller than me and three times as wide, with what I understand is a white Bahamian accent. He keeps a 28-foot cabin cruiser gassed for bird-shooting trips to Andros Island at a moment’s notice. He had the only shop window on Bay Street with decoys and hunting gear displayed…
I went out to Shirrel’s yesterday. Gail, Kevin and he all had the flu. I went on to the Alburys, which is close to a country family as you can get on a 7x21-mile island. They remind me of Georgia rural couples, except Mr. Albury is white and Mrs. Albury is black. Mrs. Albury and I sat around with their old black maid and visited, Mrs. Albury cracking walnuts for me from a big pan in her lap, until Mr. Albury and their son got home. They helped me get down the little eight-foot duck boat he’s going to sell me for $B50…Mrs. Albury gave me a bunch of oranges to take back for Shirrel and Gail to make orange juice for Kevin. You do all this visiting without a single telephone call because working people, even people making Shirrel’s $235 a week, can’t afford phones if they’ve got other things to do like eat and pay the rent…
I told the Alburys that I would drop by for Junior Albury to show me that pond he talks about where the pintails come in. Shirrel said he’d like to ride along. Junior wasn’t there, so we went on ourselves and found the pond. It’s a nice area — I shot at pigeons, doves and woodcock in the bog, and missed, before I nailed a tobacco dove and a wild pigeon. I didn’t mind missing; it’s not getting to shoot I mind…We tramped the bogs and the untended banana-tree plantations and talked. It was very pleasurable. Shirrel carried his Model 37 Winchester for something to do, but never fired a shot. We waded one wide bog, stumbling on rock outcrops, enjoying the freedom from wife-and-walls. We discussed wives and lovers and routines, and walked as far as the Bacardi plant on the edge of the tidal marsh, closed and dark on Sunday…
Shirrel’s bright yellow nylon windbreaker blended better with yellow-green island vegetation than my canvas shooting vest, washed so much it’s almost white. I told him if I ever found a bog, screened from the sea wind by pine and hardwood, insulated from the ocean by wide duck marshes — I would be content to call it home. He appeared doubtful, and talked about the appeal of living in London and driving on the Continent for holiday.
“Yeah,” I said. “There’s that road that goes through the national forest at Fontainebleau, and you can take a picnic hamper, and a blanket…” And never find that home bog.
Trying to be a Writer
It was the twenty-sixth January of my life. I was almost halfway to twenty-seven. Twenty-six was my personal deadline for publishing my first serious novel before I was sidetracked into a stultifying job. Hemingway published Fiesta at twenty-six. He was living over a sawmill in Paris. I had escaped a civil-service job Stateside and lived next to a lumberyard in Nassau. Close, but no cigar. I knew I wasn’t going to make it.
It was cold that night by Nassau standards. The wind had backed into the north and came whistling in off the sea. It rattled jalousie windows and crept through cracks into our unheated flat. Electric guitars and Bahamian voices carried on the wind from dance clubs out by the harbor. Moron dogs the islanders called potcake hounds barked and barked beneath our windows. I thought it might be hunger that made them bark all night. Like people at the clubs talking under the heavy goombay beat, trying to say something meaningful about other kinds of hunger.
There the dogs went again. Maybe the throb of island drums in the distant music set them off. Here came that song again about where had all the flowers gone, long time passing. I wished Bahamian musicians would stick to island music and leave political folk songs on the U.S. mainland where they belonged…
Almost an Incident
We were living that year in a one-room garage apartment on a slight hill in the Oakes Field suburb of Nassau. The Bahamians called one-room apartments bed-sitters, from the British usage; they were still part of the Commonwealth and real Irish butter was cheaper than American margarine due to import tariffs. The odd things you remember. The company I worked for was right around the corner and I could walk to work and come home for lunch. The tiny bedsitter was plenty for the two of us and Junkanoo the cat, with built-in apartment-wide bookshelves for our several hundred books.
Perhaps strange as the things that stick in memory are the things that don’t: I can dredge up no idea of how garbage was collected. There was a place to deposit your trash down behind the defunct Playboy club at the foot of the hill, and somebody must have come and got it. Due to the subtropical climate and bugs, we took trash down daily; that’s all I remember about that. What I clearly recall is an incident involving that daily walk with trash that almost turned ugly.
When we moved in, water came into the faucets as a cold-water trickle. We were both spoiled by American hot-water showers but eager to stop paying hotel rates. The rental agent said limestone deposits had clogged the pipes and a crew would be dispatched to dig them up and ream them out. We had not learned yet how slowly things moved in the Bahamas. We heated water for instant coffee and for my morning shave on a wedding-gift hot plate before we bought a pot to heat water on the stove for sponge baths, telling ourselves this was all part of the expatriate experience. When the promised work crew finally showed up, they seemed to lean on their shovels more than they dug but it was so warm I couldn’t fault them. When they stripped off their shirts they revealed proof they could work hard: muscular black torsos gleaming with sweat as if oiled.
Days trickled by like our water supply. The ditch grew and revealed the pipes a little at a time. The workers became part of the environment, showing up late and leaving early. I would often be home for lunch before they showed up. Sometimes they would be gone before I walked back to work. They couldn’t see our entrance so they had no reason to know I lived in the apartment they were working on. All those things occurred to me later.
On the day of the incident I was home, almost dozing after lunch, when my wife decided to walk the trash down. A tall curvy redhead with pale Nordic skin and a glory of long auburn hair who wore the short skirts in vogue, I found her pleasing to the eye. So it appeared did the work crew.
I heard her ask about progress and them say “Comin’ right along, girlie.” She must have walked on because the next thing I heard was hoarse chuckles. “Got a fine ass on her,” one said. “I could use me some o’dat.” They weren’t whispering. I heard them plainly beneath our windows.
“Me too,” was the answer. “Y’ever notice she takes the trash when we gets our shirts off? Likes our muscles but she ain’t gonna make no move. Up to us.”
“You up for it?”
“Man, I’se born up for it.”
“Let’s put it to her den.”
“What if you wrong?” said a third voice. “She might let out a yell, get us in trouble.”
More chuckles with an ugly undertone. “Oh she yell all right when she sees what I got for her. Jus’ put a hand over her mouf till she likes it. Then your turn.”
“Yeah. We take ‘er upstairs outta the sun and show her ‘bout exposin’ pipe…Here she come. Get ready.”
Now it was a funny thing about the Bahamas: they followed the British model of antipathy for firearms with all sorts of prohibitions and restrictions. But when I purchased a Spanish sixteen-gauge double at the Bahamas Ironmongery on Bay Street I never had to show my face in government offices to obtain the required permit. The proprietor hired “layabouts” to take the paperwork in and bring the permit back for me. Customs didn’t bat an eye when I imported a trunk full of duck-hunting gear and shotgun shells for personal use. They certainly did not examine each shotgun shell.
From a near-doze I got into action so fast my wife hadn’t climbed half-way up the hill when I was ready. I broke open the little double, loaded it with two rifled slugs from my import trunk and slipped to the window. The three of them had their backs to me, focused hard on her as she climbed with bright flashes of knee and a subtle jiggle of breasts. She was watching her footing, totally oblivious. I held the open gun at high port-arms, unsure what Bahamian laws were on brandishing. I spoke loudly.
“Honey, did you get gun oil when you went to the store?” I emphasized gun.
A twitch went through them, a visible ripple. Other than that they froze. My wife peered up at me, annoyed. “What are you yelling about?
“Gun oil!” I replied.
That partially broke their paralysis and they looked look up at me. They saw a man holding an open shotgun, wiping it with his handkerchief. Their eyes were wide and round; like kids with their hands in a cookie jar. Not my cookie jar. Not today.
“Hello, boys,” I said. “Heard you tell my wife we’ll have water soon.”
They couldn’t take their eyes off the shotgun. They couldn’t seem to form words. My wife walked past them still oblivious and around to the stairs. She might as well have been invisible. Finally the one on the left found his voice. “Pretty quick now.”
His words identified him as the one who planning to demonstrate indoor-pipe exposure to my wife while his pals held her. I concentrated on him. Behind me, she came in the door grumbling about why I couldn’t wait to speak until she got back inside. I was thinking a sixteen-gauge slug would penetrate the screen with no deflection and punch a serious hole through his pipe-laying equipment. But my rational brain told me that his words would probably not be viewed by a court as inciting to gang rape — especially when only I heard it. It would be the survivors’ word against mine in a mostly black nation.
I could see their shock wearing off. So I named the rental agent who hired them. “I’d like to tell her you did a good job. But you keep interrupting my naps with your loud talk and I’m gonna complain to her about that instead. Got it?” I was still polishing my gun.
They ducked their heads. “Got it,” the ringleader said sullenly.
I turned my back on them and went to the thimble kitchen where my wife was pouring iced tea. “What was that all about?” she whispered. Quietly I told her. “They didn’t say any such thing!” Still whispering. “Anyway now they know you have a gun they’ll break in to steal it and trash the place.”
“Maybe.” I had installed a heavy-duty Masters padlock on the door against such all-too common incursions for when we were away. “But my bet is they finish up fast and go somewhere else.”
No one broke in and stole my shotgun. We had water the next day.