Two stories by John Robert Lee
You plunged down between a tyre-repair shop and a grocery, into the yard. Under a breadfruit tree, people lounged. Occasionally police appeared, asking for someone and looking under the house for weed, crack or guns.
They each rented a back room. He knew the boy was in, when the tapeplayer came on. Soul music or reggae. Always. Nothing else. He began to think of the youth as “Kinky.”
One night, his radio batteries dead, he heard the boy come with friends. He smelt weed, heard laughter, and then – a guitar. He listened as someone plucked strings and tried chords. It had to be the boy fingering awkwardly.
He sat up and scooped water from the bucket. Those sounds pushed his memory and he sighed. The tape came on, the guitar tried the rhythm, the boys started to sing, a little shakily, laughing, and coughing from the weed. He lay down, and when he opened his eyes it was to the sound of rain and the light under his door.
That night marked a new beginning for his neighbour. When he got home, the guitar plucked up, sometimes with a tape. Through the plywood, he heard the boy following the singer, fingers searching chords. The old man listened, over his radio, marking that the playing was improving. Sometimes, the friends would come with Kinky, and they would smoke, laugh and sing more confidently. He would listen for the boy’s high-pitched voice, laughing, arguing, sometimes swearing, always singing. He couldn’t say the boy never brought a girl, the guitar probing the quiet of the night, but that didn’t seem to happen too often.
One afternoon, he came early from his bench at the back of the tyre shop where he did odd jobs. He woke when Kinky’s door slammed. He couldn’t remember him home in the day. It was quiet for a while and he was dropping off again, when the guitar began to pluck clear notes, a melody.
The boy wasn’t bad.
Then the boy’s voice, rough-edged, moving into wailing. This came into the man’s guts, it seemed.
He reached for his enamel cup. Before he could dip into the bucket, the boy’s voice had held the harmony with a sweetness, sharper, more high-edged, not going flat, and he was riding his melody, the guitar singing under Kinky’s voice, and the old man straightened, aching, and he waited for the voice to break, but it went higher and truer, wailing more, and then suddenly, at its height, everything collapsed, and the boy began sobbing, it had to be, it was, sobbing, crying, wailing, and the guitar gone silent, and the boy drowning, and then, through a gurgling, the melody again, plucking, broken-voiced, sweetening but broken, broken sobbing, keening, and then going slowly to silence.
And the old man, upright, eyes wide, staring through the partition, cup empty.
There was another time, after the boy left— he didn’t hear the guitar again soon after that afternoon, and a fat woman with a crippled boy had moved into the room—he was listening to his radio one late night, and there, there on his broken little box, was that melody, the same one of that afternoon, and that gruff-sweet, high voice, wailing, and somebody on the radio, excited, and running the track again, and going on about ‘the king.’
“Didn’t I love you once?”
She wrote in the sand, looked over the water to the green hills, to the clear shape of the island on the horizon, at the children splashing, and looked up into his face.
“Like a postcard?”
“Yes, you know, with all the colours, of everything, so clear.”
She looked again, at the sky with the sea-gull gliding, silver, but her mind was full of his tendernesses and she did not know what she was going to do.
“You remember that postcard you gave me, of the little boy, with the straw hat?”
He stopped trying to see the gull against the sun and faced her. A small frown shaped between his brows.
“Which one was that?”
“You remember,” she pouted, “the first card you wrote me, the card you brought to wish me luck in my History test, you remember.”
He leaned back with a grin.
“Of course,” he replied, searching her face, “I remember, I remember now.”
They smiled at each other and she blushed, her dimples deep.
“I remember,” he said softly, looking out to sea again. An aeroplane appeared over the hills. They watched until it dropped behind the lighthouse on the promontory.
“It’s really nice today,” she said, “I should have brought my bathing suit.”
“True, and give that beautiful body some good sun.”
She laughed, her arms around his neck. He held her around the waist, his head on her breasts.
An old woman with a small pail came near, collecting almonds, and they moved apart.
“So you think you’ll take the job in the country,” he asked, leaning back.
“I haven’t decided yet. I don’t know what I’ll do. Housing is always a problem.”
“The country will be good. It will be alright, you’ll be okay.”
She shifted away.
“Mr. Optimism,” she said, a little roughly, “everything will always work out, eh?”
He watched the children playing football and lifted his gaze to the red and white lighthouse.
“ ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’” He looked into the sky. “I don’t see why I should worry.”
Distractedly, she drew a heart in the sand and added an arrow.
“So what you going to do, when you get home?” She was feeling that horrible emptiness in her stomach.
He caressed her foot.
“Me?” He frowned and sat up, pushing his heel into the sand. “Me? I don’t know yet, but it will work out.”
She stood up and shook out the leg of her jeans. She stepped on the heart and arrow and rubbed them out. She kept staring down, away from him. He watched her and then stood up, put his hand on the nape of her neck, and kissed her on the lips.
“I am glad you came here,” she said finally.
They picked up their shoes and walked down the beach, their arms around each other. A plane took off from the nearby airport and came roaring low over their heads. They watched it climb over the hills.
She took his hand and they walked where the water broke softly, letting it wash their feet and wet the cuffs of their jeans.
“Take good care, you hear?”
“You too,” she whispered, kissing his fingers, and coming close to him.
A football bounced near them, the group of boys came screaming after it, and surrounded them. He kicked the ball away, then they sat on the root of an almond tree and put on their shoes.
John Robert Lee is a St. Lucian writer who has published several collections of poetry. His short stories and poems appear in numerous international magazines, and his work is featured in World Poetry Portfolio #58, edited by Sudeep Sen for Molossus (2013).
His publications include: ‘Sighting and other poems of faith’ (2013), ‘elemental: new and selected poems’ (Peepal Tree Press, 2008), ‘Canticles’ (2007), a collection of poems illustrated with his photographs: ‘Artefacts’ (2000), ‘Saint Lucian’ (1988) and ‘Vocation’ (1975).
Readers wanting to know more about John Robert Lee’s work should take a look at our November Poet of the Month interview.
All photographs © John Robert Lee