Image Courtesy of Gee Double You. Shared via a Creative Commons license.
We met in the park under a neem tree. I attributed the fact that I was swallowing the urge to vomit on the particularly pungent smell of the flowering neem.
Luxury Bean – a Caribbean lifestyle brand – or more accurately a lifestyle brand trying its darndest to penetrate the Caribbean market – knowing how soca music tended to put Caribbean people in a fugue, was taking a gamble on the singer, and, by extension, taking a gamble on me. This would be my first solo project, making me a fattened scape goat in the event of the inevitable backlash and possible failure.
Who me? Nervous?
“So who you be? Where Mr. So and so?” the man, his father and mentor, and apparently mouthpiece, demanded.
“I’ve been assigned.”
“You? You barely…”
“My age is irrelevant Mr…”
“But eh-eh and you have cheeks.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from blurting certain truths: that he was lucky any company was willing to give his son, so fresh from jail you could see the shiftiness in his eyes, the time of day.
“We don’t need no disrespect, nuh. We can just call halt and everybody go home now.”
“We could,” I agreed. I turned my eyes to the singer. “Is that what you want?”
He didn’t say anything at first, wouldn’t quite meet my eyes either. In addition to shifty eyes, he had what my mother would call suck-een cheeks, probably a result of his five year prison diet. He licked his lips constantly. I wondered if that was nerves or a seduction ploy, drawing attention to what were, objectively speaking, succulent lips.
I could see those lips on billboards in close up and, as a result, in hundreds of women’s fantasies. I knew the woman too. She’d be about my age, 23, driven, too driven to settle or settle down just yet, but in possession of a working vibrator and an active imagination. I wonder if that’s why my boss chose me. The singer’s father wasn’t lying when he implied that I was too young, too fresh for such a big, and tricky, account.
I was prepared to kill it.
I had nothing but nerve and my marketing degree; but all else failing, I would lead with bravado.
Fake it, then celebrate it, if by some miracle, you managed not to fuck it up.
“So, you don’t have anything to say for yourself? You going let your daddy do all the talking?”
I used the word “daddy” deliberately.
He was old enough and young enough to chafe at the infantilization. I ought to know, I had the same “mommy” issues.
“Now look yah…” the singer’s father sputtered even as the singer finally looked me in the eye.
He always insisted on meeting in wide open spaces. Today it was the beach, Fort, around rush hour, before the sun set and the lovers came out. We were both wearing shades against the sun’s glare. We were alone. I was slowly weaning him from his side-kick.
I had to be slick about it, too, insisting on meetings when I knew his dad would be unavailable, calling the singer, during the odd times when I knew he would be alone. His father made sure he wasn’t alone much.
“He mean well, you know,” he said, and without even looking at him, I could see the way he kept his head straight, facing the sea as we leaned against my car, picture his eyes skittering sideways at me and away as they always do. “He don’t want me going back there.”
I pursed my lips, non-committal. That might be so, but his father, I had no doubt, was also looking to re-ignite his own might’ve been glory on the back of his son.
The singer’s family was as close to musical royalty as you could get on our little Caribbean rock. It was one of the reasons Luxury Bean was interested in spite of his heavy baggage.
An accessory to a violent robbery and murder who’d turned Crown’s witness for a reduced sentence was no body’s idea of Justin Beiber. Especially when you were a company trafficking in the things people didn’t need but, through marketing, you convinced them they couldn’t live without. Over priced coffee and now coffee liqueurs…and cake. Luxury Bean’s customer base was the staycation crowd, the locals who had convinced themselves that they, too, deserved to live like a tourist. Who told them that? Luxury Bean whispered it in their ear every freaking day.
“So, I have some stuff I need you to listen to,” I said and pulled out my phone.
He tensed up. “My father…”
“Dude, no disrespect, but your dad was a trumpet player for the police band; the only time he’s ever played the Recreation Grounds is on Independence Day.”
His face hardened, and I wondered if that was the face Bretegne Fields had seen before she died. An ex pat who ran a fancy wine bar, hers was the kind of death that attracted headlines here and abroad. Someone had had to pay. Someone – several someones had. And here one of them was getting a second chance. Anger stirred in me, too.
“Look here,” I said. “You need to recognize this for what it is and grab on with both hands. No more of this waffling. What you want do, sit down in a corner jumping at your shadow, looking for daddy to hold your hand the rest of your life, or jump back in to life?”
His face slackened. He stayed staring ahead. And I let him. Content to listen to the rush of the water doing its you can’t catch me thing, running in and out, kissing the sand then dancing away. Fort was one of our more popular beaches being in easy reach of the city and most homes here on the north side of the island, but today we had it mostly to ourselves. A bar had opened up at the far end, built in to one of the old British forts for which the beach got its name. The music that reached us was faint. No voices. They wouldn’t have much of a crowd at this time either.
“I don’t know if I can,” he said.
Which was what I figured; re-building him would be a big part of my job. Re-building him in the eyes of the public as someone worthy of a second chance would be a bigger part still.
“Just listen to the music,” I said. “That’s all you have to do right now.”
And he nodded.
There were three tracks in all. All submitted by writer-producers. I could only guess at their motivation for daring to even desire the infamy of working with one so reviled by God loving people – the money was good. I could only be grateful that some people could still be bought.
He bopped his head and hummed along instinctively. I tried to gauge his reaction to the demo tracks but got quickly distracted by the sweet tone of his humming. He still had it.
Of course, we already knew he did. We had all seen the leaked video of him singing at the prison Christmas talent show, the one that had caused such consternation and condemnation among locals and the family of the deceased overseas and the international media they complained to. Prison was not for talent shows; there was to be no joy there. My mother agreed. And, in fact, when he had been one of the ones to earn early release under the government’s pardon to reduce overcrowding programme, or whatever they called it, she had grumbled to herself for a good half a week. My mother was very eye for an eye; he killed someone, he was supposed to die in there at 1735.
Truth was, he hadn’t killed anyone. But he had been present and had seem bewildered as to how he’d ended up there from his arrest all through the trial, if the five years old newsprint was anything to go by. Semantics. Truth was, he didn’t make the government’s list because of any kindness on their part. His grandfather, the country’s first and most crowned calypso monarch, a Caribbean bandleader who had travelled the region, and was especially popular in the Virgin Islands, where so many of our people could be found, was a cultural icon who carried considerable pull from the grave.
“I saw your grandfather perform once, you know,” I blurted.
He startled. His humming abruptly cut off.
I wasn’t sure what had fly up inna me as my brother would say, but, well, it was already out there.
“My mother used to sell tray at the grounds when I was little, used to send me and my brother in the stands with the peanuts, was where I started to learn marketing…” and I smiled though he just looked bemused.
I hadn’t volunteered anything personal before; had just treated him like the project he was.
“I was up in the stand waiting on some change when he came on,” I said. And I remembered being in no particular hurry. When we returned, mommy would just send us out again. It was maybe 11 at night but child labour laws didn’t apply to single mothers trying to catch their hand as industrious people did every Carnival season. My brother and I would be hustling for as long as the show dragged on.
When Lord Calypso – the only man daring enough to claim the whole genre for himself – took the stage at that point between the calypso competition and the judges’ decision, everybody perked up. He sang his hit song of the season, the devil in me, a blues-infused-ribald song that he’d determined required him to dress as a cross between a be-horned jambull and a big bottomed lady of the night. People laughed their belly full, including me and my brother. We didn’t properly understand the meaning of the song, not then, but the sight of Lord Calypso wining so his bottom rolled and charging others on the stage like a raging bull was enough to make us forget our sleepiness and put us in high spirits.
The meaning of the song hit me full bodied then though.
Lord Calypso insisted that the mischief he got up to wasn’t his fault; after all whatever gods watched over wayward calypsonians had given him his Anansi-spirit. Wasn’t his fault if he had to swindle his way through life. And then, too, the song was about women and how they had to become the chess masters of this patriarchal world to keep from being used and abused. Lord Calypso, I reflected, had the unique ability to be both a sexist and a feminist ally in a single go.
No wonder he had been beloved of the people; he had everybody’s side.
I found myself wondering what the singer had, apart from pretty lips and a sweet voice. Did he have that je ne sais quoi that his grandfather had had; only time would tell. He hadn’t yet broken in to the arena when he went to prison. He was just a boy then, between school and going nowhere, not yet seeing a future for himself.
“I just went along for the ride,” he’d told the judge, according to the court reports. “I didn’t set out to hurt nobody.”
If this was going to work, he couldn’t be a passenger in his life anymore.
“Ari, how’s it going?” my boss asked.
Well, Zane was my boss’ underling, my boss boss was a character I could take in only small doses. Ironically, he was Caribbean born and Zane was from somewhere over the big water. Wherever he was from they made them mild with a lilt to their accent. I could almost imagine us as friends.
I sat in one of the chairs across from his desk. I’d been walking past his open doorway when he called out to me.
I sipped my coffee, buying time.
What to say?
“Well, he’s chosen a collaborator,” I said, beginning with the positive.
“Yeah, who’d he go with?”
And I smiled.
“What you know bout Linxx?”
“What you think cause I’m a white boy from Sweden I don’t know reggae?”
“Well, it’s not all Bob Marley, you know,” I teased.
And he put me in my place by singing a bit of Linxx – a popular local deejay and toaster now segueing in to producing’s – Outta Order.
Which, of course, brought Patsy from the front office running to add her two piece, with a little bubble and wine to accentuate the rhythm.
I made my exit.
Truth be told, Linxx, being more from the dancehall world, was an odd choice for a calypsoul artiste, and that’s how I planned to style the singer. But I can’t say I minded. His demo track had been an emphatic and enthusiastic choice from a man who was still too skittish for the spotlight we were preparing to thrust him in to, whose father I still had to fight several weeks into the signing of our management and brand ambassador deal with the singer.
“What you mean I can’t be at the sessions?!”
Another day, another beach. We had a year’s worth of them.
The singer was down the beach with Linxx, one of their getting to know you sessions from which, fingers crossed, good lyrics would come.
I had managed to keep the father close and away from the pair; would’ve been better if I could’ve dissuaded him from coming altogether.
“They need time together, alone,” I said.
“Wha you ah try do, tun he inna auntie man?” and he watched them walk the length of the beach, pace slow, conversation, I could only hope, deep. There was no way of knowing for sure if Trev would open up to Linxx. Most times, he was like a closed book in a dusty library with its door rusted shut. But he’d responded well to Linxx’s music. That day at Fort, Linxx’s demo was the one he asked me to play over and over, about six times.
He spoke then, more than I’d heard him speak before or since.
“Tun Tun” that’s what he’d called his grandfather Toonie Cuffy, Lord Calypso. “Tun Tun used to say, ‘music is more than words and melody, more than the bass and the guitar, the piano, the drums, more than the cowbell and the voice, but you have to listen good’…’listen for what, Tun Tun?’ I ask… ‘meaning’ he’d breathe like it was life… and he right, otherwise is a whole ton ah vocal gymnastics but no body, whole ton ah jumping round but no grounding.”
And that’s when I knew Luxury Bean was right about him, albeit for all the wrong reasons. He wasn’t just the jail bud son of a musical legacy who’d caught a lucky break. He had a soul that had not been broken by his bad choices and circumstances.
And maybe that was wishful thinking on my part, but I’d take it.
“Ah who you face dress up so for?” and between one blink and the next my Neanderthal brother was standing behind me in my bedroom mirror. No disrespect to Neanderthals.
“Boy, you na knock?”
He rolled his eyes. “Wha you hab ah hide that me nah dun see?” he wanted to know. “Apart from whoever you ah dress up so for?”
I looked at my image. Was I more made up than usual?
My baby hair softened my Rihanna-sized forehead and decidedly angular face. The rest of my waves were wrapped in an upswept bandana, red, blue, yellow, high like one of those fruit baskets Carmen Miranda used to wear. My lipstick – red with a hint of tangerine – was a shockingly loud match to the red in the headkerchief. My long lashes were made longer with falsies on top and liberal application of mascara on the bottom, my foundation was pancake coloured, and thick.
“Do I look like a clown?” I asked, honestly.
I didn’t usually wear this much make-up.
“Precious,” he said. And I swatted at him.
He backed away, stopping only when he was at the door.
“Make sure he know a diamond he hab and not glass, and that your brother have a cutlass that can shatter both,” he said before leaving.
“There is no he!” I shouted in his wake.
They were smoking weed out behind the beach bar. I lost it.
“What the fuck are you doing? Are you determined to throw your life away?” I hissed. It took effort to keep my voice down.
“Cool nah, sis,” Linxx said.
“Cool? Are you fucking kidding me? He is six months out of prison. My company is investing tens of thousands into his singing career…”
“And wha you feel that ah money? You feel you own me?”
I recoiled from his aggression. I’d never seen this side of him. Despite the allegedly mellowing effect of marijuana, he was like a barely contained direwolf when its human is threatened.
“Cool, cool, cool,” Linxx said, pulling him back from me.
And I realized I was shaking as they retreated further in to the shadows.
Linxx came back alone.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“He nervous. Me sure you can understand that.”
“No, what’s going on with you two?”
He didn’t answer.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me!”
And all I could think was I was proving his father right. There would be no end to his griping about how prison didn’t turn his son but six months in my company and here he was linked up with a man named Linxx.
Could be I was trying not to think about how foolish I felt with my Carmen Miranda headwrap and tangerine red lipstick and pancake make-up.
When I came back to myself, Linxx was there, warm brown eyes watchful, waiting for me to take it in, to react.
“Look, I don’t give a fuck who he fucks, but this society is not ready for that,” she said.
“Nobody’s fucking, okay, sis. Mi boy just waan make music. Me waan help he do that. Me waan chase away the shadow an’ dem in he eye too. Subben wrong wid that?”
And I breathed and shook my head because, no, of course not, there was nothing wrong with that. And if anything, my attraction in spite of all I knew, just proved his appeal among the women folk. And perhaps the men folk. Folk was folk.
“Okay, let’s do this,” Linxx said.
And he collected the singer, who offered me a hit off of what was left of his joint and mumbled an apology for scaring me.
He hit the stage like a canonball. I captured the whole thing on my phone, uploaded it to snapchat, to vine, to Instagram, to youtube, to facebook, everywhere. The response was enthusiastic. One good thing about music … it was a game changer.
And as I watched the girls and guys fan out, I began to consider the possibility that this bad boy gone good just might be a game changer, too.
Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of the novellas The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight; the children’s picture book Fish Outta Water; and the Strebor/Atria/Simon & Schuster novel Oh Gad! Her young adult manuscript, “Musical Youth,” placed second for the inaugural Burt Award for YA Caribbean Literature in 2014. Her writing has appeared in several Caribbean and international journals and anthologies includingPepperpot: Best New Writing from the Caribbean, In the Black: New African Canadian Literature, and others. She won a 2004 Honour award from UNESCO, the David Hough Literary Prize from the Caribbean Writer in 2011, and was shortlisted for the Small Axe fiction prize in 2012 and 2013. For more, visit Jhohadli.wordpress.com or Facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse; and WadadliPen.wordpress.com is the online home of the writing program she manages in Antigua and Barbuda.