Copyright © 2015 Jerry Beller
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To everybody who ever made a difference in my life.
Joe Rivers, in his late thirties, stood on the grass in the National Mall and viewed the Capitol. His navy blue suit fit him nicely and his narrow tie rounded out his young, professional image. A man perhaps twenty years or more his senior walked up behind him and said, “Joe, why the hell are you staring at the Capitol like that?”
Joe turned to view the man. “Good morning, Senator. Do you think any of us matter?”
“Would it matter if any one of us disappeared tomorrow? For that matter, would it matter if everybody in Congress disappeared?”
Senator Bradford rubbed his slight beer belly. “Joe, what the devil’s gotten into you? You still peeved because the party didn’t support your Ten-Point Plan?”
“No, sir, I’m pissed because they don’t have a plan.”
“What the hell, Joe? I need to talk to you about something, so pull yourself together.” When Joe said nothing, the senator continued: “You’re needed on the presidential campaign.”
“I don’t want anything to do with the national campaign.”
“Give it a break, Joe. The party’s ready to elect you to Congress in two years. Stop trying to rock the boat.”
“Why would I want to get elected to Congress if not to rock the boat?”
“You’re too idealistic for your own good, son.”
Joe watched an old couple walk past, heading toward the Washington Monument. “I was idealistic when I arrived, too, but the process knocked it out of me, like it does every other idealist dumb enough to work in Congress.”
The senator laughed and motioned his head. “Come on. We’ll talk on the way to the office. What the hell’s gotten into you?”
Joe reluctantly joined the senator as they made their way to the Capitol.
“Just tired of pretending our side is the good guys just because the other side has a lot of bad guys. I’m starting to think both sides are bad.”
“Joe, you’re the fastest rising staffer in Congress. Don’t blow it by becoming a cynic.”
“Sir, I came to Congress to help get things done, but nothing ever gets done here. The Republicans spend all their time sabotaging worthy legislation, and you need a magnifying glass to find the balls on the average Democrat.”
“Just the same, you’re heading to Massachusetts.”
Joe stopped and flinched. “Senator, I work on your staff, not Governor Dukakis’.”
“The national campaign needs you.”
“They don’t need me, sir. The Democrats nominated the wrong candidate, and he hired the wrong people to run his campaign. Sending me, or anybody else, will accomplish nothing.”
The senator nodded toward the Capitol. “Come on, let’s get to the office. Why do you have to be so goddamned principled?”
They continued in silence until the senator pressed his point further. He wasn’t taking “no” from a staffer. “You’re heading to Massachusetts this morning, and that’s final.”
Joe looked as if he just swallowed something very sour. He felt even worse. “Why do they want me?”
“William wants you there.”
“Okay. So why does William want me there?”
The senator stopped and snarled his nose. “You’re perhaps the greatest rising political strategist in the party. William wants somebody with sense to help him reason with the others.”
“That doesn’t tell me why I should work with them.”
“Goddammit, Joe! Do you have to ask? We don’t want the bastard Republicans to have another four years in the White House. Don’t you feel the same way?”
Joe shrugged. “I don’t think there’s much difference between Bush and Dukakis. Both are decent men, middle-of-the-road kind of guys. I don’t expect anything great from either man. Remember, Bush correctly labelled Reaganomics Voodoo Economics when Democrats were trying to be Reaganomics Lite.”
“Yeah, and then he lost the primary and became Reagan’s lapdog vice president.”
They walked nearly a block without saying a word until Joe broke the silence. “Senator, I already tried to help. I sent them the Ten-Point Plan for the platform, and they failed to include any of it. I’ve gone to Boston four times now, and they didn’t listen to any of my campaign suggestions. Nor did they listen to any of William’s proposals. Honestly, Senator, it’s a campaign to nowhere. They blow it a little more every day.”
“Joe! The party is prepared to place you in Congress in two years. There’s no staffer on the Hill in better position than you. Don’t blow it by knocking heads with the governor’s campaign. Play along, bide your time, and in two years you’ll be one of the newly elected members of Congress.”
“Sir, the people running the governor’s campaign don’t listen to reason. That’s why he went from a big lead to a big mess.”
The senator checked his watch as if barely acknowledging Joe’s argument. “You leave in fifteen minutes. A driver is on his way.”
Joe exited the escalator onto the main concourse at the Boston airport. A man in a black suit and hat held up a sign with Joe’s name on it.
Joe held out his hand. “Good morning. I’m Joe Rivers.”
“Follow me, sir.”
As they stepped out of the airport, Joe said, “I don’t think I caught your name.”
“You have a first name?”
Walter stepped to the backseat of a large limousine and opened the backdoor. Joe stepped around and to Walter’s surprise, opened the passenger’s side front door. He said, “I’ll ride up here with you, if you don’t mind. I’m no big shot.”
Momentarily thrown off-guard, Walter said, “As you wish, sir.”
“You can call me Joe.”
Joe’s mind raced and cussed Democratic officials who used gas-hog limousines like this. He knew Democrats would never be taken seriously as long as they kept acting like Republicans.
They arrived moments later. Joe grabbed his briefcase and hopped out before Walter could walk around to open the door for him. Joe smiled and said, “Thanks for the ride. You giving me a ride back to the airport?”
“Good. When I see you next, call me Joe and treat me like a regular guy.”
Walter stood by the limo as Joe walked into the Michael Dukakis for President National Campaign Headquarters.
A woman ushered him to William’s office. The older man sprung to his feet and grinned. “Joe, thanks for coming on such short notice.”
“Hello, William. I’m a little puzzled about why you want me here.”
William cringed and said, “There is an important proposal within the campaign. I thought it might be beneficial to bring in another perspective.”
“Because I trust your instincts.”
William said no more, but he had said plenty. Joe recognized William as one of the brighter minds within the national campaign. If William had gotten his way more, the campaign would not have squandered a large lead in the polls.
William’s phone rang. He said “Yes,” paused and said, “Okay,” and then hung the phone back on its cradle. He looked up at Joe and said, “Looks like everybody’s here and ready to get started.”
When they entered the conference room, Joe saw not only the top operatives of this presidential campaign, but some of the biggest operatives in the party. He had worked with some in Congress, and campaigned with or against most of the others, but William was the only one he could count as a friend.
William said, “I think all of you recognize Joe Rivers. He engineered Senator Bradford’s marvelous campaign, as well as a few others. I’ve worked with him a couple of times. Great mind. Good instincts. We decided to bring him in to offer a fresh perspective on today’s discussion.”
Jennifer cleared her throat and did not look pleased to see Joe. She spoke perhaps a little too loudly when she addressed him. “We’ve been debating whether the governor should ride up in a tank at an upcoming visit to General Dynamics. It would be a priceless photo op.”
Joe’s winced, turned his head slowly toward William, and shook his head. Jennifer frowned at Joe, then said, “Everything is set up perfectly, and this could break the campaign open in our favor.”
Joe rested his head on his hand. This brought a smile to William’s lips, but a dirty look from Jennifer.
“So, Joe, what do you think of the plan?” asked William before anyone else could jump into the fray.
“Yes, Joe, what do you think of the plan?” said Jennifer with a smirk.
“I don’t think anybody really wants to hear what I have to say.”
Jennifer sneered. “You’re still upset because we didn’t implement your radical Ten-Point Plan.”
Joe chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. “The problem is not that my ideas were rejected, but that I don’t know what the governor’s tax plan is, or his healthcare plan, or his campaign finance reform plan, or his deficit reduction plan, or exactly what separates him from Bush on any of the major issues. There’s a reason the Republicans can spoof the Burger King commercial with the little old lady asking ‘Where’s the beef?’ It resonates with many Americans because they can’t find it either.”
William smiled while Jennifer sizzled. The others shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. Joe said, “Like I said, I don’t think anybody here really wants to hear what I have to say.”
Bernard looked at the others, then at Joe. “Yes, we do. At least some of us do.”
Joe rose from his seat and faced the twelve most powerful men and women in the Democratic candidate’s presidential campaign. “Then I request that you allow me to respond uninterrupted.” They all nodded their heads in agreement.
Jennifer sighed. “That’s not the way it works.”
William cleared his throat. “Jennifer, let him have his say. He interrupted his busy schedule in Washington to come when requested. Let’s hear him out.”
Bernard nodded. “Yes, Jennifer, I quite agree.”
She crossed her arms and formed a pinched expression. She opened her hands to relent, but then closed them, raised one eyebrow and gave Joe a glassy stare.
Joe rubbed his forehead and said, “Putting the governor in that tank is the dumbest idea in the history of American politics.” Mouths dropped open and the entire room viewed him with shock. Even William and Bernard, who opposed the idea, appeared stunned by the unsweetened candor. “You put him in that tank, the reporters will not only laugh in his face, but the governor becomes an instant and permanent national laughingstock.” He paused again, threw his hands up and laughed. He said, “Please tell me you were on drugs when you came up with that plan. Please don’t tell me ten of the top twelve people in this campaign support such a ridiculous stunt. I cannot stress how preposterous, desperate, foolish, and ridiculous this idea really is.”
Jennifer said, “You’re not giving the plan a chance. For all you know, it might be the greatest political idea ever conceived. It worked wonders for Margaret Thatcher.”
Joe scoffed. “The governor is no Maggie Thatcher. He’s often his worst enemy. If major changes are not made – and fast – Dukakis is destined to become just another series of Democratic embarrassments.”
Jennifer practically flew out of her chair. “That is a very negative view. Besides the tank idea, what would you have done differently?”
Part of Joe wanted to kiss her for asking the question, but it all seemed to be spinning out of control. “Look, I didn’t want to come here, and most of you did not want me to. I have little faith in this campaign, and most of you understandably don’t want people outside the campaign being called in to call you on the carpet. But you were gracious enough to listen, so let’s call it a wrap. Most of us will be working with each other down the road. I don’t want to build any ill will. You all know I think the candidate should take a bold stand on the issues. He should steer the news instead of being steered by it. Please let me conclude by saying I like the governor and believe he is a good man, and I hope I’m wrong about this campaign. Good luck.”
Joe smiled and nodded. He reached for his briefcase, stood up, and started for the door until somebody said, “Wait.”
Joe turned. Samuel Burton, the most conservative member of the national committee, locked eyes with him and said, “Please stick around for a while longer, Mr. Rivers.”
Joe turned to William, who nodded his head. Joe sat and re-established eye contact with Samuel Burton. What he would have given to read Samuel’s thoughts as they stared at each other without a break. Finally, Samuel said, “I opposed seven of your ten points.”
Joe smiled. “What did you most agree with?”
“Your idea to replace the federal income tax with a flat national sales tax.”
“You have no problem with the stipulation not to tax food and medicine?”
“Not at all. Nobody is taxed on those items, so it’s fair. It is the only tax reform idea I’ve seen that cuts out all the loopholes, and is fair to the rich and the poor, as well as the middle class.”
Joe turned to William again, who smiled. He turned back to Samuel and said, “Why didn’t the campaign implement the idea?”
Jennifer answered. “It was voted down by the committee, and the candidate thought it was too bold.”
Joe said, “Did you support it, Jennifer?”
Perhaps he had read her wrong. He resisted the temptation to ask which other ideas she supported. “Glad to hear that. Now, please don’t go through with that tank idea. If you do, it will be a disaster for the campaign and will tarnish your stellar reputation.”
Her high cheek bones rose and she spoke with a determined cadence. “It will work, Joe. I know it will.”
Joe exhaled and chewed the words rather than articulate them. Instead, he turned back to Samuel and said, “What do you think of this tank idea?”
Samuel grimaced and raised his shoulders. “Who knows if it will work? But the governor’s got to do something to show he’s not weak on defense.”
“Don’t you fear he’ll look like an idiot?”
“With the way things are going with those Willie Horton ads, we’re all going to look like idiots anyway. We have to do something.”
While Joe liked these people, most of them failed to grasp the big picture. He said, “All the more reason to be bold and go for it. Be the first campaign to take the issues to the people. Don’t water it down. Don’t spoon-feed them. Just tell them the way it is and trust them to be intelligent enough to understand. Educate and inspire the public, instead of wallowing in the mud with the Republicans.”
Jennifer sighed. “I would love nothing more, but it will never work.”
“How do you know? No major candidate has ever tried.”
Samuel cut into the conversation. “There are two problems. One, the people disagree on many of the most important issues. Two, Governor Dukakis would never go for it. The man is cautious by nature. For God’s sakes, we’re talking about a man who looks both ways before he crosses a one-way street.”
Everybody laughed at Samuel’s crack. Joe could not help but appreciate it all the more since it came from the most conservative member of the group.
William said, “Thanks for coming, Joe. We appreciate the senator giving you up for the day.” William stood and said, “I’ll walk you out.”
Joe viewed the diverse group of men and women. “Sorry if I offended anybody. Candor sometimes does that. I apologize if I’ve ruffled anybody’s feathers.”
He smiled and raised his hand, then followed William to the door. People said goodbye and thanks for coming. He felt relief that the meeting went much better than anticipated.
William patted him on the back once they exited the conference room. “Well done, Joe. I appreciate you coming.”
“Probably just pissed them off.”
“You rocked the boat a little, but I’m afraid it won’t change their minds. I agree with you on the tank bit. It will destroy any chance Michael has to become president.”
They exited the building and stopped to shake hands. Joe said, “Come and see us when you get back to Washington.”
“The senator and I already have a date on the golf course. Too bad you don’t play.”
“No golf, but I’m up for tennis or basketball.”
William cocked his head and chuckled. “Not on your life!”
“Good to see you, William.”
“Thanks for coming.”
William walked back in the building and Joe strolled toward the limo. Walter walked around the car and started to open a door. Joe said, “Hop in the driver’s side, Walter. I can open my own door.”
“But it’s my job, sir.”
“Not today. And my name is Joe. Save the sir for those other fellows.”
Walter frowned at first, but smiled by the time he reached halfway around the back of the car. Joe opened his own door and hopped in the passenger’s side.
Joe arrived back at the Capitol around midday and faced a full schedule. Father Kitchens shook his fist and said, “We’ve had nothing but trouble since politicians took prayer out of school.”
“Father, do you really think politicians can take prayer out of schools or anywhere else?”
“Yes, sir, they sure did.”
Joe sat back in his chair and stared across his desk at a man who commanded an audience of millions on television. “Come now, Father. Kids pray every time they take a test or face discipline.”
“Man law banned prayer in our schools!”
“No, Father, the law banned public prayer. Real prayers between an individual and their God are allowed anywhere, anytime, and there is nothing any politician can do to prevent it.”
Father Kitchens scratched his head. “Joe, what do you and the senator have against public prayers?”
“The problem with public prayer – whether in schools or government functions – is this: whose God? What religion? You’re all for public prayer until the Muslims and Mormons start praying to deities you don’t worship. See my point, Father?”
“All I know is if the senator wants my peoples’ support, he’ll support school prayer.”
“And what will you do when Muslims sue to get equal treatment?”
“That ain’t gonna happen. This is a Christian Nation.”
“Actually, this is a country where people are free to practice whatever religion they wish.”
“You pass along my message to the senator.”
“Yes, sir, I will.”
Joe rose and started to extend his hand, but Father Kitchens shot him a cold glare, turned, and scurried out the door.
Joe’s next appointment arrived at the door moments later. He rose and walked around his desk, extending his hand. “Hello, Mrs. Mildren. Come on in.”
They shook hands and each took their seats, though Joe waited until Mrs. Mildren sat first. She looked over her glasses and said, “Let me get straight to the point. The Teachers Union is concerned about the senator’s call for higher education standards.”
“We need higher standards. The current ones aren’t getting the job done.”
“So you’re blaming teachers exclusively for American children underachieving?”
“Some teachers are to blame, and we need to replace them with better teachers. However, we understand much of the problem is a parenting or societal problem. We don’t blame teachers. Rather, we view teachers as our country’s best weapon in combatting the educational gap in this country.”
Her face turned beet red until Joe thought her head might explode. She said, “We cannot back the senator if he does not withdraw his support for higher standards.”
Joe counted to ten in his head, searching for the most suitable response. “It’s your position that the Teachers Union will work against any politician who calls for higher educational standards?”
She stood and tapped on his desk with her index finger. “You can tell the senator that is a promise.” She sneered at him over her glasses, then blew out like the fellow before her.
Joe sighed and slumped back in his chair. Billy Resin arrived moments later to stick his turtle-like head around the corner. He cackled and said, “Joe Rivers, the man. How is my favorite man on the Hill?”
Joe knew Billy greeted everybody on the Hill the same phony way, but this was politics and so he stood and extended his hand. Billy shook it fast and firmly until Joe practically yanked his hand free. Joe sat down. “Have a seat, Billy. What can I do for you today?”
Billy twisted his long neck. “What is the senator’s position on the additional corn subsidies?”
“He’s looking it over.”
“Joe, we invested a lot of money in the senator’s campaign.”
“Yes, and the senator appreciates it.”
“Don’t you think it’s about time he shows it?”
“Don’t you think it’s about time the corn industry admit corn syrup and corn ethanol are bad ideas?”
Billy’s face contorted as if Joe stabbed him. The lobbyist’s voice rose to a high, unmanly pitch. “Anything good for corn is good for America, and anything good for America is good for the senator.”
Joe smiled and found comedy in the lobbyist’s basic reasoning, twisted to suit his own purposes. “Anyway you shake it, corn syrup and corn ethanol are horrible ideas.”
“Why would you say that, Joe?”
“Corn syrup is making Americans fat and unhealthy, and it takes as much energy to produce corn ethanol as it saves. All it will do is drive up food costs.”
“Is that your opinion or the senator’s?”
Bill stood and said, “Well, let’s hope the senator has a good bit better sense.”
Joe stood and extended his hand. “Just spoke candidly, Billy. No reason to leave angry. I will call you once the senator makes up his mind on the subsidies.”
Billy grabbed his hand and laughed like one of the yokels from the hills surrounding Mayberry. “It’s all good, Joe. I’m sure the senator will come around on the issue. Now, how about you?”
“Are you going to come around on the issue?”
“No, Billy, I already advised against more subsidies for the corn industry, largely because of my opposition to corn ethanol and syrup.”
“You know what your problem is?”
“You’re too honest to be a politician. You got to learn to play the game, Joe.”
Billy cackled up a storm on his way out. Joe sunk back in his chair and lamented about how he swam against the Washington current.
Booker T. Jackson stuck his head around the corner. A Harvard graduate and one of the country’s top attorneys, Booker stood well over six feet tall. To say he was an imposing figure did not do him justice.
Joe sprang to his feet and they engaged in a warm, firm handshake. “Hello, Booker.”
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.”
“No problem. Sorry it got moved to the afternoon. I had to fly to Boston earlier today.”
“Quick trip, huh?”
“Trying to help the national campaign?”
“Not sure I was much help.”
Booker sat down, less interested in the national campaign than the pressing business before him. “The NAACP is disappointed with the senator.”
Join the club, Joe thought. Every time the senator did something right, a firm wall of lobbyists lined up.
“I presume you refer to his answer on Crossfire?”
“Yes. How can he possibly think that all these black people belong in jail?”
“He didn’t say that.”
“What did he say?”
“He said we should remember that many, if not most prisoners, black included, belong in prison.”
“We demand he retract the statement.”
Joe wanted to get up and run out of the Senate Office Building, away from the Capitol, and out of Washington, never to come back. Once again he shoved his first thought into the back of his mind. “Booker, the senator has always fought for the end of profiling and more consistent sentencing, but who are the victims of the real black criminals in prison? Not the non-violent criminals that should have never been sent to prison, but the violent people who rape and murder?”
“I don’t follow.”
Joe stifled a sharp retort. “Who are their victims?”
“Again, I don’t follow.”
“Don’t follow, or don’t want to? Since you won’t answer, I will. The victims of almost every single one of the real black violent criminals in our prison system share one important feature.”
“What is that?”
“They’re poor and they’re black. The murderers, rapists, thieves, and drug dealers prey on poor blacks, especially poor black teens. I know it, you know it, and the NAACP knows it.”
“So, you and the senator don’t care about the innocent black people in prison?”
“Of course we care. That’s why the senator tries every single session to pass legislation that will prevent racial profiling. It’s why he’s a vocal supporter of making sentencing for crack consistent with the sentencing for coke. And, it’s why he supports my initiative to stop sending non-violent criminals to prison.”
“That’s not good enough.”
“What do you want the senator to do – pretend that every black person in prison is a victim? That’s never going to happen. While the senator supports freeing every last innocent person, he also understands that many of the people in prison are there because they pose a threat to society. He also knows that there are a lot of other criminals on the street that should be in jail.”
“Sounds like the Republicans.”
“I don’t hear the Republicans fighting to end racial profiling, or for equal sentencing.”
In a clear pattern for this afternoon, Booker stood and peered down at Joe. At six feet, Joe still had to look up to meet Booker’s eyes. Booker said, “It’s very disappointing when Democrats like the senator refuse to help get black people out of jail.”
“Do you really want every black person in our prison system set free? Sure, some of them are innocent or otherwise should not be there, but what about all the others? Some of them are just plain old murderers, rapists, and burglars that need to be locked up. I’m pretty certain you would not want these people dumped in your neighborhood.”
Booker shook his head and clinched his jaws. “Good day, Mr. Rivers.”
Joe felt like screaming. Having maintained a friendly relationship with both Booker and the NAACP for years, he thought they were now being unreasonable. He stood and followed him out of the office. Once in the main area, they shook hands. Joe said, “Take care, Booker.” Booker merely nodded and walked out of the office. Joe wished he could do the same, but if he did that, they would probably ship him back to Boston.
He turned to see yet another lobbyist waiting to see him. He viewed an afternoon spent with lobbyists as a bitter taste of what hell is like. Nonetheless, he walked over to Wally Shafer.
“Hello, Wally. Come on back.”
They took their seats and Wally pulled on his ear. “Joe, what’s this I hear about the senator supporting more banking regulation?”
“He fears the banking industry is spiraling out of control. He’s calling for certain reasonable safeguards.”
Wally now tugged his ear with one hand and rubbed his belly with the other. “Let me get to the point, Joe. We want to deregulate, not add more regulation. That’s what the Republicans are offering us.”
“I can’t believe anybody wants to abolish Glass-Steagall. The regulation has prevented another Great Depression for over fifty years. Caving in to banks will lead to more financial collapses like the thirties.”
Wally tilted his head and smirked. “We’ll deregulate it with or without the senator’s support. I don’t have to tell you that we’ll remember who supported us, and who didn’t, in the next election cycle.”
Joe stood and said, “Wally, I speak only for myself – not for the senator, not for this office. I’ve been threatened one time too many today. Take your threat, shove it up your ass, and get out of my office. On your way out, make another appointment to see one of the other staffers. If I receive one more threat about somebody pulling money today, I’ll come across this desk and rip somebody’s head off.”
Wally stood and squinted with one eye. “Wait until you’re running for Congress in two years. Everybody says you’re a shoo-in. We’ll see about that if we back your opponent. You know Oklahoma is turning into a red state. Entire South has in case you haven’t been paying attention. We’ll paint you as a liberal and dump enough money into your opponent’s campaign to run you out of Washington before you even get elected.”
Joe sat there for several seconds before responding. He and Wally both knew that Joe came from the most liberal district in Oklahoma. Whereas Wally and the right wing might make it difficult for him to win a state-wide race, or even most districts, they could unlikely block his election in his district.
Joe pointed toward the door. “Get out! Take your empty threat and get out!”
Wally turned and walked out with his middle finger raised. Joe exhaled, shook his head, and walked out of his office. He knocked on the senator’s door before entering. “Sir, I can’t play this game any longer. I resign.”
Caressa secured her beret as she followed the Indian guide up the trail that curved around this towering and mysterious Peruvian mountain. The guide was a dark man, his pigment almost as dark as hers. She said, “Were your ancestors really Incas?”
The man stopped and stared at her for several seconds. He nodded. “My ancestors roamed mountains. My people have always roamed mountains.”
“Will you take me to your artists when we climb down from the mountain?”
“I will take you to the art of my people. Are you artist?”
She shrugged. “I try. But I own an art store back in Jamaica. I am here to collect art and crafts for the store.”
“You brave woman. Come here by self. Most bring man.” He paused and tilted his head toward the sky. “We move. Must get up mountain before sun fall.”
Caressa peeked over the edge and did not feel so brave. Just up the path, pieces of earth fell from above. Her head leaned back and she scanned the steep mountaintop for potential danger. Staring over the edge again, she saw the clumps of dirt and rock still falling. She rushed away from the edge and almost grazed the rocky wall with her left shoulder. The guide appeared fearless, but Caressa remained tense enough for the two of them. She only wished she could muster even a little of the comfort the guide exhibited.
She pumped her fist when they hurried around the last curve and reached the mountain peak. Surveying the breathtaking valley below, she said, “This view makes the climb worth it.”
The guide nodded. “This is a holy place.”
Caressa nodded and marveled at the stunning view. Holy or something else, something moved her in a manner she would always remember. She felt alive and vibrant, but also light-headed. At last she sat on a rock because her lungs hurt struggling to adjust to the altitude. Still, she thought that she was now closer to heaven than ever before.
A chanting noise caught her attention, and she spun to her right. The guide kneeled twenty feet away, chanting in the ancient language of his people. She felt like a fly on the wall witnessing something wonderful. She felt certain generations going all the way back to the Incas had climbed this mountain and viewed it as sacred ground. How could they not? Part of her never wanted to come down off this mountain. Part of her wanted to remain here for the remainder of her natural-born days. She giggled as she imagined herself a member of the ancient Incas, a beautiful maiden on this mountaintop waiting for the holy man to finish his prayer.
In 1988, Ninjaman was the indisputable king of dancehall in Jamaica. On his tail was a group of younger artists hungry for success. Shabba Ranks stood as the top challenger, but Big Donkey viewed both as beneath him. He not only considered his own voice better, but the ladies reminded him constantly that he was the most handsome dancehall artist, a thought that made him chuckle. He turned serious when he shifted from the daydream to the three Colombians riding on the small plane with him. They carried machine guns and intimidating expressions.
In contrast to the armed men in their black T-shirts and camouflage pants, Carlos Lopez wore a tailored white suit and no doubt fancied himself as God’s gift to women. He twisted his face, ran a hand through his long, dark, straight hair and said, “Why do you call yourself Big Donkey?”
“Because me need a stage name, and that what the women call me.”
Carlos Lopez leaned his head back and laughed in that high-pitched Hispanic howl. He looked out the window. “If you look below, you can see the fields. This is where it comes from.”
Big Donkey leaned to view the coca plants below. “Cocaine come from that?” He did not know what he expected, but to him, coca plants did not look different from any other crop.
Carlos nodded. The small plane dropped at a steady descent. “We can make you a very rich man if you can open the market in Jamaica.”
Big Donkey’s mind ran wild with possibilities. Big house. Big car. Big sound system. Big studio. Big this. Big that. Adding money to his natural good looks and talent would knock Ninjaman off his throne in no time. Hell, he might even run for prime minister. If he felt inclusive, he might allow Ninjaman and Shabba Ranks to carry his bags. If they shined his shoes right, he might even let them open for some of his shows. If these crazy-looking Colombians did not shoot him, he was fit to be king. He chuckled again, but stifled it when the Colombians viewed him with piercing, squinty eyes. Carlos was a businessman and seemed friendly enough, but the other cats wore permanent scars and scowls on their faces. Big Donkey knew he must be careful.
Caressa stood in front of her canvas painting a mysterious mountainside with an area that looked like a door. As she painted, she spoke to the guide. “Masi, what does your name mean in Incan?”
“Masi mean companion.”
She smiled and continued to paint. “Please tell me again what this structure I’m painting is called?”
“Puerta de Hayu Marca.”
“What does it mean?”
“Gate of the Gods and Spirits.” He gritted his teeth and said, “Touch the door and you feel energy.”
She stopped painting as her head slowly swiveled between him and the door. She had always been the adventurous type wherever she traveled and today could be no different. With her mind made up, she walked over to the door and touched it. A surge of energy shot through her, different than adrenaline but just as invigorating. She turned and nodded, then walked back to paint with a new intensity.
A minute later, she asked, “What is the door supposed to be?”
“A portal. A gateway to the lands of the gods. Ancestors achieved glorious immortality by entering this door.”
“Did anybody ever enter and return?”
“No. My ancestors entered portal and never seen again.”
“Does it open today?”
“Only ancestors knew how to open. We today don’t know. We try. Maybe you can open it?”
She beamed as her hand swirled the brush across the canvas, each stroke bringing the mysterious door and the surrounding rock to life.
Masi stood and watched her paint a while longer, before he leaned in and said, “Painting nice, but we must go. We don’t want to get trapped here overnight. It take plenty time to climb down mountain.”
“Just a little while longer. I’ve almost got what I need and will be able to finish the rest later.”
“You hurry. I wait.”
She walked back over to touch the door for a few seconds, then strolled back to the canvas. She dipped her brush in the paint and stroked the canvas with a professional grace. Masi leaned in to get a look every few seconds. Normally, she would have shooed him away, but she would not be here without him and could never make it back alone. His head moved back and forth from the structure to the painting. From his expressions, she could tell he was impressed. Perhaps this was a good indication, for she suspected he would tell her in a heartbeat if the painting fell short of his expectations. He would never let her create something that would disrespect his ancient spirits or his ancestors. She liked and respected his apparent bluntness on all matters. She knew he was right – they should start back, but something about this door drew her to it. She felt not only its energy, but also a profound desire to open the portal and experience the other side.
The small airplane landed at a private airstrip. The drug dealers exited the airplane first. Big Donkey quietly scanned the area so as not to appear conspicuous, but he counted at least a dozen armed guards spread out to watch the perimeter. Carlos Lopez was a powerful man and obviously had his own army. This was not a man to cross.
They climbed into a waiting limousine, sandwiched between two jeeps full of armed men. Carlos spoke like the Latino equivalent of a Hollywood Italian gangster. “Big Donkey, we aim to expand our Caribbean market. If you help us accomplish that, we will make you a very rich man, perhaps the richest man in Jamaica.” Big Donkey grinned ear-to-ear, encouraging Carlos to continue. “But if you ever betray us, my people will murder you, your family, and anybody associated with you.”
The moon shined high in the night sky, the air frigid by Jamaican standards, but Caressa did not dare shiver or show in any way she was uncomfortable. Guilt wouldn’t let her. She stared across the fire at the mysterious door that captivated her and caused her to ignore Masi’s constant insistence for them to climb down the mountain while there was daylight. “Masi, I’m sorry I got us stuck up here. I should have listened to you.”
Masi moved closer. “If you can handle it, I can handle it.”
These were the first words spoken since darkness fell over the day, not long after Masi had chastised her for keeping them up there until they were stuck on the mountain. What kind of foolish woman does such a thing? she wondered. She had listened to her guides at the Grand Canyon and the edge of the Amazon rainforest, so why not Masi? Had the portal to the gods held such power over her that she had to finish painting it? Apparently so. She couldn’t pull herself away until the painting was perfect, but she had sacrificed one satisfaction for another. Happy with her painting, she was not happy with her current circumstances. Masi seemed like a trustworthy man, but she had no way to be certain. He led her up the mountain, and she followed. Now, they were stuck on the mountaintop on a night where the temperature dropped by the minute.
So high, a cloud passed and seemed like fog. In between drifting clouds, every star in the sky appeared like a bright beacon. Masi stacked sticks in a pile and used some kind of flint to catch the fire.
Masi said, “You are most unusual woman.”
“I’ve been told that a couple of times.”
“Why did you come here with strange man?”
She raised her shoulders and threw out her palms. “I think I was drawn to this place. Once I got here, I didn’t want to leave until I painted it.”
“You paint very good. That good picture.”
“You stay. I make you one of my wives.”
She smiled. “I have a daughter in Jamaica that I must return to.”
“Bring her here. I take care of both of you.”
Caressa smiled, chagrined. She had a feeling Masi might try to make Adele one of his wives, too. “How many wives do you have?”
“Six. Four that I take on my own, two that I take when my brother die.”
“You are a good guide. I appreciate your services.”
“You pay good money. I am happy to guide.”
Wind howled around the mountain and replaced their chatter. Wild animals roared, whined, or otherwise communicated through an assortment of noises. At this altitude, Caressa breathed with difficulty, but Masi had no such problem. The ground felt rocky and uncomfortable, but she tried to remain still. She rubbed her hands by the fire until the heat warmed her body and her circulation flowed better.
Caressa turned her attention to the door. “Think anybody will ever go through that door again?”
He stared at the door, but said nothing for several seconds. Finally, he said, “I hope. Our world is doomed if we don’t.”
“This door connects my people to the gods and our ancestors. When we lose our ability to open door, we lose contact with the gods.”
She stared at the door as if expecting it to open. “Masi, where do you think the energy comes from?”
“The other side. Wherever the portal leads.”
She stood and walked toward the door. She reached to touch it, but before her fingers made contact, a current surged through her from head to toe. A heat generated and pushed out the chill from her body. So intense, she walked wobbly-legged back to the fire. She felt pure, unadulterated exhilaration. All her thoughts were positive when she touched the portal – except one. She trembled at the thought that her daughter faced a terrible danger, a thought she could not shake. For the first time since she arrived in Peru, she wished she were back in Jamaica.
Carlos Lopez’s home stretched throughout the hill, with several wings rising five stories. Inside, they walked on a marble floor under crystal chandeliers. Big Donkey admired such elegance. One day he would build such a place in Jamaica.
They were greeted by the most beautiful woman in the world. She stood tall in a classy black dress that showed off her enormous cleavage. Her large lips begged to be kissed. Her beautiful brown skin called to be touched. Control yourself, Big Donkey kept telling himself, knowing it was probably a losing battle.
Without waiting to be announced, she extended her hand. “I am Sofia Nina Lopez.”
Big Donkey struggled to remain calm. He reached for her hand. “Pleased to meet you. I am Big Donkey.”
“The Jamaican dancehall artist?”
Big Donkey nodded. Carlos swept her into his arms and kissed her full lips in a way that reminded everybody that she was his woman. Big Donkey day-dreamed about Mrs. Lopez in the audience for one of his shows, smiling when he invited her backstage. Another part of his mind snapped to attention, and he scolded himself for such thoughts. Even looking at this woman the wrong way could get a man killed.
Carlos said, “We shall see you at dinner. Big Donkey and I have some business to discuss.”
Carlos led him into a large study with lots of bookshelves and books. He poured them each a shot of tequila. “Big Donkey, you must have your people in Kingston Harbor prepared when the shipments start arriving.”
“Don’t worry about my end,” Big Donkey said in a much more confident voice than he felt. This was all new to him and so much could go wrong.
“Big Donkey, I am placing much faith in you. We expect one shipload per month to enter the Kingston Harbor without incident. If there are problems, we will hold you personally accountable. You hear?”
Caressa’s airplane landed at Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport. Because of a brewing hurricane heading toward the Gulf, she had been rerouted to Baltimore. All she intended to do was catch a connecting flight back to Jamaica. Still, protocol forced her to retrieve all her bags, including the art and crafts she purchased. The customs official went through her bags with a cold demeanor. Without looking up, the official asked, “How long do you intend to be in the United States?”
“Just long enough to catch my connecting flight,” she said, hoping he gave her no trouble over the merchandise she purchased for her art store. She added: “They rerouted us to here because of the storm.” The man frowned a great deal and even grunted twice, but eventually tilted his head for Caressa to move on and called out, “Next!”
Having been away for several weeks, she felt anxious to get back to her daughter and the store. The trip to Peru was a remarkable experience, but there really is no place like home for a weary traveler.
Two lines later, she rechecked her bags and exited Customs. Tired from the overnight flight, she yawned as she flipped her wrist over. Not quite nine a.m., she had plenty of time to catch the next plane.
When she reached the correct concourse, she walked to the departure gate. Several Jamaicans sat in one section, but she chose to sit where there was nobody nearby, hoping to enjoy a little privacy. She glanced through the window. The airplane had not yet arrived.
She walked over to the counter and asked, “Excuse me. Can you verify this flight is still on schedule? I heard there is a hurricane heading towards Jamaica.”
The woman behind the counter smiled and said, “As of now, we’re still scheduled to take off without delay. The airplane has landed and should arrive at the gate in another minute or so.”
Taking her seat away from the smokers and noise, she pulled out a book and started to read The Women’s History of the World. She lost herself in the story, at least until she saw activity out of the corner of her eye. She turned toward the Jamaican crowd. They looked excited, standing and pointing at the tall man approaching them. Following their eyes, Caressa watched a young dancehall artist strut toward gate. A young woman, not out of her teens, stood in her halter top and hot pants and screamed, “Big Donkey! What go on?”
With a cigar hanging from his mouth, Big Donkey turned and raised his fist into the air. The Jamaicans cheered and screamed their approval. He took it in stride and surveyed the area before taking a seat next to Caressa. “What go on, baby?”
She searched for the right response. She wanted to tell him to buzz off – that every Jamaican female didn’t belong to him – but manners dictated a less aggressive response. “Just looking forward to getting back to Jamaica.”
“Where you from, chickie?”
“Kindly don’t refer to me as ‘chickie.’ And I am from Kingston.”
“You from town? Me from town, too. What wrong with chickie?”
“Why you roll your eyes when other people cheer? Surely, you don’t like Ninjaman better.”
“I’m not crazy about what either one of you write. You degrade women and talk up violence. Both of you are negative, egotistical, and bullies to the core.”
He laughed, but she could tell he was flustered. His face squeezed and replaced his happy-go-lucky smile with the celebrity smile that he could turn on and off at will. He said, “What do you say you and me go for drink?”
“No thank you.”
“You think you’re too good for me?”
“No, I think you’re a little young, but more importantly, you’re not my type.”
“Me know how to make a woman happy.”
“For how long? Three minutes? Some women are looking for something a little longer lasting.”
He laughed. “You not easy, chickie. What your name?”
“Get? What kind of name that?” She shrugged, so he said, “What your last name?”
He roared with laughter, drawing too much attention for her comfort. “Get Lost! That funny. You a funny gal. Bet you know how to make a mon plenty happy.”
“You will never know.”
“Already told you: you’re not my type.”
“We could find a place before the plane take off.”
She winced. “Go away! There are always plenty of little bimbos ready for some peon celebrity like you. Move yourself, boy. No good woman wants a mon like you.”
He pointed toward the group of Jamaicans. “If you change your mind, me be right over there. Think about it. If it not the best you ever have, me let you chop it off.”
“Maybe that young wife of yours back in Jamaica will do just that!” She wondered if marriage vows meant anything, as most Jamaican men seemed to think they could still lie with anybody they wanted. Men like Big Donkey made her angry at men in general.
He said, “When you ready for Big Donkey, me ready.”
The arrogant fool strolled toward the other Jamaicans, who welcomed him like he was Errol Flynn resurrected. He plopped down between two teenage females with low-riding blouses and high-riding dresses. The girls giggled, touched, and swooned over him. Less than a minute later, he walked out of the area with a girl on each arm. Caressa wondered which of the three disgusted her most. He turned toward her as they passed. She raised her eyes and told herself not to throw anything at him.
An elderly Jamaican couple sat down next to her. The man said, “Me not like that boy, Big Donkey. Him a pure bloodclaat, mon. Me not like him music and me not like him.”
His wife frowned. “Now, don’t start the cuss-cuss business.” The woman turned to Caressa, smiled, and said, “Hello, dear. Have you heard anything about the tropical storm?”
“I heard it turned into a hurricane.”
The man leaned across his wife and said, “It gonna strike Jamaica?”
Caressa turned over her palms. “The woman at the counter said we’re still on schedule, but I don’t think they know. We could be flying into a very bad situation.”
The man bobbed his head up and down. “At least we reach home before it hit.”
Caressa stood and said, “Would you be kind enough to watch my bags? I want to call my daughter again. I couldn’t get through earlier.”
She stepped away and turned down the concourse. A man in a black suit met her. He held out a badge and said, “Ma’am, I’m DEA Agent Mark Corbin. Please come with me.”
Her heart thumped and her mind raced. What did he want with her? Surely nobody packed drugs in the art she bought in Peru. This must be some kind of misunderstanding. The man led her into a small office. He sat behind the desk and nodded toward a small chair in front of the desk. “Have a seat, ma’am.”
She felt too nervous to sit, but did so anyway. She tried to think if she even knew a smuggler, but came up empty. “Sir, I cannot imagine why the DEA has any interest in me.”
“Ma’am, do you know Peewee White?”
“The name sounds familiar, but I don’t know why.”
“Peewee White, aka Big Donkey, was seen talking to you when he arrived at the gate. You were the first person he spoke to.”
She frowned. “What was I supposed to do? It’s a public place, and he walked up and plopped down next to me.”
“Why did he choose you first?”
“Ask him. I don’t know.”
“Ma’am, it looks bad.”
“What looks bad?”
“Peewee White and you were in South America at the same time.”
She grabbed one trembling hand with the other, hoping to keep them both still. “The first and only time I ever spoke to him was at the gate. I don’t know him. I don’t know anybody who knows him. And I’m sure not involved in anything the DEA would be interested in.”
Agent Corbin lit a cigarette, leaned his head back, and blew smoke into the air. “He seemed very interested in you.”
“Sure. Me. Those two girls he walked away with. I’m pretty certain there is not a woman in this airport he’s not interested in.”
Corbin drew on his cigarette and blew out the smoke in another burst of nastiness. “Ma’am, whether you know it or not, your friend spent his time in Colombia as a personal guest of Carlos Lopez.”
Again, the name sounded familiar, but she could not place it. “I’m not familiar with him either.”
“He’s the head of the Lopez Family cartel, who happen to be the largest drug smugglers on the planet.”
“I only spoke to Big Donkey for a minute or so. Otherwise, I only know what I’ve read and heard, but I can’t imagine the Lopez Family would turn to that idiot.”
The agent laughed. “I’m starting to think you don’t like the guy.”
“Of course I don’t like the guy. He’s vulgar. He insults my sense of decency, and I am only sitting here because he chose to hit on me.”
The agent leaned forward again. “I’ve seen enough drug mules to know that some had better stories than others, and the ones you never expected often made the best smugglers.”
“You’re barking up the wrong tree, mister!”
“The cartel has been trying to expand their operation throughout the Caribbean. We believe they are setting Peewee White up as a don in Jamaica for this purpose.”
She raised her eyes toward the ceiling. How could she not? Picturing that pompous, two-bit deejay as a drug don busted her gut. In no laughing mood, Agent Corbin said, “You find humor in somebody dumping cocaine on the streets of Jamaica?”
“No. I hope you guys stop that from happening. But the idea of that fool being a don is hysterical.” Noticing his scowl, she fought off another round of laughter.
“I suppose you think you’d make a better kingpin than Big Donkey?” Caressa stopped laughing. The agent was serious. “Every mule thinks their connection is a fool. I usually find out they both are.” He leveled his eyes at her as he crushed his cigarette in an ashtray half full of butts. He stood and said, “I’m going to let you go, ma’am, but I suggest you choose your companions more wisely.”
Steam flowed out her ears, or at least that is how it felt. She pinched her hand and attempted to contain her anger. “Once again, sir, I didn’t choose him for a companion. He walked up like anybody else and I shooed him away.”
“Might have been the wisest decision of your life.”
Joe sat across from the Senator Bradford in a limo, yet another piece of evidence that the party did not take President Carter’s energy message from a decade ago very seriously.
The senator winced. “Joe, why are you doing this? Just ‘cause of that tank issue?”
Joe forced a smile. He liked this man and did not want to tell him that he had lost faith in him, too. “Sir, I just don’t want to be part of party politics any longer.”
“Even though the party plans to make you a congressman in two years?”
“No, sir. I don’t want to be a part of Congress – not as a staffer, not as a congressman. I just want to step away from it all.”
The senator made a twisted, sour face. He just couldn’t understand this decision. “Joe, you come from a modest background. You’ve climbed high, and you’re in position to climb much higher. Are you really going to throw it all away?”
This conversation reminded Joe of conversations he had with his father over the years. There are certain people he never wanted to let down, but circumstances occasionally forced just that. “Sir, the party is going in circles. They spend half their time raising money, and the other half trying to explain why they fail to fight for what they campaigned for.”
Joe turned his watch over. He should already be at the gate, but felt obligated to hear the senator out. Even though he hated the limo, it touched him that the senator cleared his schedule to take him to the airport.
“Joe, I understand you’re going to write a book.”
Joe shrugged while trying to figure out who told the senator – not that it mattered. “I don’t know, sir. Maybe.”
“I trust it will not be a tell-all about your work with me.”
“Joe, go to Jamaica, but don’t sell your possessions. Go there for a few weeks, refresh yourself, and come back. We’ll work things out. You’re too important to the party and me for you to just drop out like this.”
“Sir, I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Damn it, Joe! Thousands of staffers come to Washington every year hoping to one day work into your position. You’re one of the stars of the party. You can’t just fade away.”
If not, his entire plan to go to Jamaica was a colossal mistake. He opened the door and choked back strong emotions when he turned to face the senator. “Sir, thank you for hiring me when you were a congressman. Thanks for letting me run your senate campaign. Thanks for all your faith and support. I will never forget this experience.” He reached out his hand and saw a tear roll down the senator’s cheek.
“No, Joe, thank you. Call me the minute you change your mind.”
Joe nodded, but knew he could never return to Congress in any official capacity without selling his soul. He closed the door to the limo and felt he was at last closing the door to the biggest chapter of his life thus far.
Big Donkey led the two girls into the bar. Even though the waitress was taking another table’s order, he shouted, “Hey, baby! Three shots of your best cognac. Move yourself.” He snapped his fingers. The three people at the table and the waitress viewed him crossly.
He walked to the table in the corner and sat. He said, “Me gonna pull it out. Which one of you want it first?”
The girls looked at each other and giggled. They shrugged and disappeared under the table. Seconds later, he squeezed his lips and closed his eyes. He moaned as the waitress arrived with the cocktails. She cleared her throat. He opened his eyes to see the waitress frown.
“Don’ be jealous, baby.”
She set the drinks on the table and handed him the bill. He tossed her twenty dollars American. “Keep the change, baby. You join us if you want.” He scrunched up his face and moaned again. He knew the waitress wanted to join in the fun, but had to hold herself back because she was at work. She only grabbed the money and walked away.
His expression changed and his face twisted in agony when several men in black suits entered the bar and walked toward him. Babylon boys act the same everywhere. They approached from different angles, but every one of them had a hand on his gun.
One boy held out his badge as if it were the World Cup and said, “I am DEA Agent Mark Corbin. Come with us.” He leaned under the table and said, “Come out from there. What is wrong with you two?” The girls came out wiping their mouths. The agent said to a couple of colleagues: “Take these two away and interrogate them.”
Corbin turned to Big Donkey and said, “Get up and zip your goddamn pants.”
Big Donkey stood and allowed it to dangle for a few seconds. He laughed after following most of their eyes back to it. He finally stuffed it in his pants and smirked. Two agents grabbed an arm each and yanked him away. He said, “Watch it, mon. Me can walk myself.” They continued to roughhouse him.
The agents led him down the hall to a room and pushed him into a hard, cold chair. Agent Corbin sat in the comfortable chair across from him. Two agents stood by the door while the others stood outside. Big Donkey snickered and said, “Why the DEA care about a blowjob?”
“Then why me here?”
“Does the name Carlos Lopez ring a bell?”
“Never heard of him.”
Corbin plopped several photos on the desk. He lit a cigarette and blew it in Big Donkey’s face. Big Donkey viewed the photos of him shaking hands with Carlos Lopez.
“Me not know who that man was. Me see him when traveling South America.”
The Babylon boy sucked on his cigarette and blew it in Big Donkey’s face again, smiled, and pulled out a cassette player. He pressed a button that played his most incriminating conversation with the Colombian drug lord.
Big Donkey slumped in his chair. He rubbed the area between his eyes, just above his nose. He perspired as he wiggled on the hard chair and attempted unsuccessfully to get comfortable. He wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. Finally, he said, “What you want from me?”
“You’re going to help us take down the Lopez Family.”
“He would kill me.”
Corbin butted one cigarette. He lit another one, took a big draw, exhaled, and said, “The way we see it, you don’t have much choice but to help us.”
On September 12, 1988, Joe did not walk into Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport – he strutted. He was journeying into the unknown, but for the first time in his life he felt in control. This was the first leg of what he hoped to be the greatest adventure and experience of his life. He aimed to escape the rat race like few Americans ever had, but his greater ambition was to discover who the heck Joe Rivers was. Life raced by until he thought this his last best chance to break from the mundane everyday American life that caught people like a trap does a rat.
A few minutes later, he reached the Air Jamaica gate. He stopped and read the gate information: “Air Jamaica Flight 794 to Kingston, Jamaica. 11:10 a.m. departure.”
He scanned the mixed crowd, about half American and half Jamaican. He strolled over to the window and peered out at the Air Jamaica plane that taxied up to the gate. That the airplane was there at all provided some hope.
He stepped over to an area where nobody was seated, set his bags on the floor, and sat down. Pulling a book from his book bag, he dived into a Ken Follett novel.
A cute Jamaican woman in a black beret and just a few years older than him walked by and grabbed his attention. She sat across from him by an elderly Jamaican couple. The elderly woman glanced down at the younger woman’s luggage tag. She asked, “Did you get through, Caressa?”
What a pretty name, he thought. He struggled to remember somebody he knew by that name. Perhaps it was a character from a book or a movie, but he was certain he had crossed paths with the name before. Besides the beret, she wore exotic bracelets and necklaces, and had the look of an artist. He felt guilty for eavesdropping, but could not help himself. The woman’s face tightened and she exhaled in a burst of air that Joe could hear from his seat. She said, “It appears the Jamaican telephone system has been overwhelmed with incoming calls.”
The older man leaned across his wife and said, “Try again, mon. You give up too easy.”
The man’s wife admonished him. “She’s a stranger. You can’t speak to her like that!”
Caressa sighed. “I’ve been trying ever since I heard about the storm.”
The man spoke in a naturally grouchy voice. “And you not get through one time?”
Caressa’s pretty cheeks slumped. “No.” Her eyes spotted something behind Joe. She scowled and turned away. Joe turned to find a tall, young black man wearing a flashy green, gold, and black outfit with the same color hat come to a stop, look over his shoulder, and scan the area. Four black girls in their late teens surrounded him and asked for his autograph. Joe felt ignorant not having a clue who this Jamaican celebrity was, but galaxy upon galaxy could be built with what he did not know.
Joe thought he would know more by this point in his life. Undergraduate school, graduate school, experience in Congress, books, and time were the blueprints to wisdom, but there was no pot at the end of the rainbow. You answer a question and reach the end of the rainbow only to find a bigger question waiting. On this day, Joe knew that he did not know much and saw that as the first step toward wisdom.
Still shaking from her ordeal with the DEA, Caressa viewed the white man across from her with suspicion. The young man, about ten years her junior, sat alone, unlike all the other white people. Perhaps he chose this seat to keep an eye on Big Donkey. She was surprised to see him reading a Ken Follett book and doubted a DEA agent would get lost in a book, Follett or otherwise. The white man had dark features, perhaps Native American blood. Something about him stood out, but she could not put her finger on it. If Big Donkey loved attention, this man eschewed it. He sat in the one stretch of seats where nobody else sat. A DEA agent would have to do a better job of fitting in, she thought, and dismissed her suspicions.
She laughed when a white couple in straw hats stumbled into the gate area and sat down next to the mysterious white man. The man who had attracted her attention viewed them as if they were aliens beamed down from a strange planet. He immediately returned his eyes to the book.
The man and wife high-fived. The husband said, “Jamaica, baby!”
“Can’t wait to shake my tits in the sun.”
The man nudged the mysterious white man with his arm. “Hey, bubba, you going to Jamaica?”
The man raised his head from his book and viewed the other man as if he were a mosquito, but remained polite. “If the flight does not get cancelled.”
The couple traded flinches. The woman said, “Thought the weather people said it was going to turn north.”
The man exhaled and looked up again from his book. “Apparently, they’ve changed their minds.”
Everybody heard static on the intercom system and turned toward the desk. The woman spoke into the microphone: “As you can see, the airplane is docked, fueled, and ready to go.”
Nine out of ten people pumped their hands and shouted in excitement. The airline official said, “However, Jamaican authorities have asked us to postpone the departure until the hurricane passes safely by the island.”
A chorus of moans erupted from all directions. To her left, she heard a man say, “Bumbaclaat.” To her right, the older man said, “Bloodclaat, mon.” Behind her, a child said, “Me want to go home.” The woman beside her said, “Oh my God. Mother is all alone.” In front of her, the female in the straw hat said, “All I want is to sunbathe my tits in the tropical sun. Is that too much to ask?”
The white man in the straw hat laughed from his belly and said, “Baby, I like it. That sounded real dirty.”
She talked like a little baby. “You know how I like to feel the sun on my naked body.”
He said, “I know, baby.”
The mysterious man looked up from his book and raised his thick eyelashes. He looked at them again as if they were some newly discovered but pathetic species. He frowned, shook his head, and dived back into his book.
Half the white people got up and left in a silent storm. The remaining white people, save the one mysterious loner, acted as if somebody took away their favorite toy. Jamaicans lamented the possibility of not making it home. Why now? Caressa agonized. Why could she not be in Kingston to do her best to protect her daughter? Feeling helpless, she desperately wanted to scream or cry. She did neither, sucking it up, and presenting a strong front.
The elderly man next to Caressa said, “We should be there.”
His wife turned to Caressa as if an explanation were in order. “He’s worried about our daughter and grandchildren.”
Caressa nodded. “I can’t stand that my daughter is all alone.”
The elderly woman said, “My mother’s in Treasure Beach by herself and I worry about her.”
“Are the two of you close?”
“Half the time we can’t stand each other. But she’s my mother, and I worry about her.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how old is your mother?”
The elderly woman giggled. “Had me when she was sixteen. She turns eighty next week. We’ve got a plenty big party planned.”
Caressa nodded, and they fell into silence.
The mysterious man stood and looked at the counter. He pointed toward the television monitors and said, “Can you give us some volume?”
The woman nodded and reached for the remote control. She aimed it at the monitors above the passengers. A weatherman pointed at satellite images and said, “As you can see, this is a large and powerful hurricane, and it’s headed straight for Jamaica.”
Wails rang out from around the area, and the elderly man said, “This a very bad thing, mon.”
His wife said, “We should pray.”
The man snarled. “Don’t you think God the one that send the hurricane? Bumbaclaat!.”
The images on the monitors showed the hurricane striking Jamaica head on. Trees ripped from their roots. Roofs lifted from homes. Entire structures destroyed. To the Americans, it told the story of a vacation that was not to be. To the Jamaicans, the images inflicted personal pain. Loved ones stood in harm’s way. The hurricane threatened their property. Their livelihoods hung in the balance.
The American newscaster said, “We have a satellite feed from Jamaica.”
The image of a Jamaican woman came on the screen. She said, “As you can see, Hurricane Gilbert struck the eastern side of Jamaica. The eye of the hurricane is headed directly across the center of the island. It disappeared when it slammed into the Blue Mountains, but we expect it to emerge on the other side in a matter of minutes. As you can see, Hurricane Gilbert is swallowing the entire island from east to west. No part of Jamaica is expected to be spared. Some are already declaring this the biggest and most powerful hurricane to cross the Atlantic this century.”
Joe watched the people react around him. The man in the straw hat said, “Shit.”
His wife said, “Damn!”
The elderly woman seated across from him shrieked, but he could not make out what she said. Her husband was much more clear, but no less impassioned. “God Almighty!”
Caressa clutched her hands together and rocked back and forth. Everybody in the room responded to the report. If ever one could cut the air with a knife, Joe thought this was it. A tear rolled down Caressa’s cheek, but she was not the only Jamaican to respond this way. Joe felt guilty because his mind remained on the tantalizing beauty reporting from Kingston.
The man in the straw hat turned to Joe and babbled, “It sucks. You know what I mean, pal? Just want to spend a week on the beach, get a full-body suntan, and drink cocktails with pineapple and cherries on those little plastic swords. Just ain’t right. Know what I mean?”
The man’s wife chirped in. “It’s such bad luck that it makes you think God is against us.”
Joe turned his head slowly toward the couple. “Not to mention two million Jamaicans in that hurricane’s path. You lost a vacation; they’re about to lose everything.”
The couple lowered their eyes in brief shame, but then both lit cigarettes and started whispering. Joe’s eyes dropped back to his book.
A minute or so later, the wife leaned over and said, “We’re going to Vegas instead. Come with us and we’ll have a nice threesome. My husband won’t mind.” She winked.
Joe smiled, but shook his head. Why marry? he thought, but kept it to himself. The couple lumbered away. All the other white people fled the area, except Joe.
Static interrupted the television as the airline official talked into the microphone: “We have just received word that the Jamaican airport suffered heavy damage. We do not expect any flights to Jamaica until at least tomorrow. We will get the Jamaicans home as soon as we get the okay. Flights for non-Jamaican are suspended indefinitely. I repeat: non-Jamaicans will not be allowed on the initial flights to Jamaica when the airports reopen.”
All eyes turned to Joe. He sat there and watched the monitor for a few minutes before he climbed to his feet and walked to the counter. “Excuse me, ma’am, did you say non-Jamaicans will not be allowed on this flight when it is approved for take-off?”
She viewed him as if he were a crazy person who stumbled in off the street. “Sir, why would you want to go now? Can’t you see the damage?”
Just like that, the official shot down the most daring adventure he ever embarked on. Was his escape to Jamaica really ending before he took one step onto the island?
It was the worst moment of her life. Caressa stared at the televised images of Hurricane Gilbert destroying Jamaica. Men, women, and children cried before the cameras. One woman screamed, “How is anybody supposed to survive that?”
How indeed, Caressa thought. The hurricane was larger than anything she had ever imagined. The images seemed more like a Hollywood movie than real life. Gilbert swallowed the entire island. Port Antonio. Port Royal. Kingston. The Blue Mountains. It swallowed them whole. Now, it marched like a sky full of locusts, destroying everything in its path. Her lovely, talented, intelligent daughter might be injured or—
A lump traveled up her throat and, with no effort, tears flowed down her cheeks. She forced her eyes away from the awful, graphic images on the monitor. Jamaicans cried or sat in shock and, for a talkative people, there was little or no chatter. The images even managed to shut Big Donkey’s big mouth.
All but one of the white people were long gone, having scattered like rats abandoning a sinking ship. Yet, one of them remained – the mysterious young man with the Ken Follett book. He returned with a glum expression after speaking to the woman at the counter and stared at the screen as if he were Jamaican himself. Perhaps, he cared about more than just a ruined vacation. Most the other whites had pouted and groaned, and then departed without giving a thought to how the Jamaicans in the room felt.
The elderly man leaned across his wife and asked, “Why is that white mon still here?”
Caressa stood and shrugged, and with nothing better to do, said, “I’ll ask.”
She strolled over to the man. “Hello. Why are you still here when even some of the Jamaicans are giving up and leaving?”
His head tilted and he lifted his cheeks to match her smile. He glanced out the window at the Air Jamaica plane with a homesick and worried expression Caressa understood. “Be it tomorrow or next week, when that airplane flies to Jamaica, I intend to be on it.”
She found humor in his determination and giggled despite her depression. “Why not just reschedule your vacation?”
“It’s not that simple. How about you? Why not wait to return?”
She choked back tears. “My daughter is there alone. I desperately wish to get back to her.”
He nodded and stood up. “I know we just met, but we’re stuck here at least until tomorrow. I know this area like that back of my hand. Perhaps I could take you on a drive of the area, or to my favorite art gallery.” When she hesitated, he added, “As friends.”
She observed the weary passengers and sighed, “I don’t even know your name.”
He extended his hand. “Joe. Joe Rivers.”
She reached for his hand and he gripped hers tightly, but not too tightly. “Caressa. Now why would I take off into an unknown city with an unknown man?” She thought the statement needed to be said, but also knew it preposterous, considering she had recently climbed mountains in Peru with a total stranger.
He laughed. “When you put it that way, I’m tempted to advise against it.”
Against her will, she giggled and pointed to the elderly couple seated behind her. “See that couple?” Joe looked over her shoulder and nodded. “I’m going to tell them your name, Joe Rivers, and if I don’t return, they will notify the authorities.”
He reached inside his bag and handed her his passport. “Just so you know I am who I say.”
She opened and examined it to find Joe’s picture and name. She handed it back to him. She stared into his eyes and said, “Don’t make me regret this, Joe.”
She walked over to the elderly couple and said, “I am leaving, but will be back. Are you staying?”
The woman nodded. “We don’t have anywhere to go.”
The man snarled. “You’re leaving with that whitie bumbaclaat?”
“His name is Joe Rivers, and as a matter of fact, I am. Why?”
He scowled and said, “Are you mad? He’s a murderer.”
The man’s wife raised her eyebrows. Caressa did not know whether to laugh or scream. With all that was going on, she did neither. Instead, she said, “See you later.”
The man said, “If they don’t find you in a ditch somewhere.”
“Well, if they do, please bring my body home, and tell my daughter that I love her.”
Joe and Caressa stopped at the payphone on the way out and she listened to one side of the conversation. Joe said, “Bert, Joe. . . Yeah, I still plan on going, but definitely not today. . . Yeah, I still want you to sell everything. . . You haven’t sold the bike yet, have you?. . . Good. Where is it?. . . No, I’m coming to get it, but I’ll have somebody with me. . . Thanks, Bert. I’ll contact you again before I leave town, but I’ll be using my place tonight and possibly tomorrow. . .”
When he got off the phone, he smiled and led Caressa down the concourse. With a half-grin and half-frown, she said, “Bike?”
He shrugged and flashed his teeth. “If you don’t have a good time, I promise to never ask you out again.”
She could not figure out if she came with Joe because she wanted to or simply because she had to get out of that depressing gate. She thought she might go crazy if she sat there watching the images and worrying about her daughter. In a desperate attempt to take her mind off Adele, she followed the mystifying American. While she might be inclined to embark on adventures with strangers as guides, the idea of taking off with a stranger like this unsettled her. Joe seemed nice enough, but a lot of guys are nice in the beginning. Experience told her to reserve judgment concerning this man. Something about him drew her to him in a powerful way, but he also frightened her with equal intensity. If she got back safe and sound, she would count it as a win.
They exited the DC Dupont Metro Subway Station with a wave of people. Joe noticed Caressa appeared worried, so he tried to keep the conversation going. “Caressa is a pretty name.”
They followed the sign to the Q Street exit and stepped onto the escalator. “You did say you like art and culture… right?”
She lit up and her brown eyes gleamed. “I love art and culture.”
They exited the subway station and were walking on Q Street toward 21st Street when Caressa asked, “Have you been to Jamaica before?”
“Only the tourist areas. I’m heading to Port Antonio this time.” He pointed to the right when they reached 21st Street, and they strolled that direction.
She said, “The Portland Parish is the most beautiful parish in Jamaica. It has every color and smell a tropical rainforest can produce. You’ll love it.”
He gestured toward the Phillips Collection Building. “I hope you like Impressionism.”
Her smiled told him she did. “I love Impressionism.” As they stepped toward the front door, she glanced at the payphone out front. “I know I can’t get through, but do you mind if I try again to call my daughter?”
Joe stepped over to purchase their tickets for the Gallery and gave Caressa her privacy as she tried to reach her daughter. With the power down in Kingston, they both knew there would be no phone service. Even if there was, the system would be overloaded and she would not get through. He voiced no such reservations, however, knowing she needed to do something. His heart hurt for her, but he could think of no better alternative. Until he did, he would not discourage the futile phone calls. At the moment, it represented her only hope of reaching her daughter, and he suspected hope is the only thing that keeps a mother going in these situations.
She hung up and used her hand to wipe her eyes. In a defeated voice, she said, “The system is still down.” To her credit, she attempted a smile, but he had seen her real smile before the hurricane struck Jamaica and this one didn’t measure up.
He reached to squeeze her arm. What would I do if I had a child in Jamaica? He dismissed the thought since it was unbearable to even think about, hypothetically.
As he handed their tickets to the person inside, Caressa already marveled at the paintings in view. Even in her current state, she could not help but appreciate quality art. He liked that in her. Anybody who liked art got points as far as Joe was concerned. One’s appreciation for art was only one consideration, but it was a good starting point. Whether he liked them or not, he found that most people who appreciated quality art were at least somewhat interesting. He thought you could tell a lot about a person by their interests.
They stepped into one of the rooms and she gaped at the art like a child surveying a store full of candy. Of all the people he saw at the gate waiting to leave for Jamaica, Caressa was definitely the right one to spend a few hours with. He thought it bizarre how they came together, but he found her enchanting.
He stood back and watched her until she locked in on one painting. She stared, then moved closer, as if she might have initially missed something. She stepped to the right, then to the left, close and a little back, and checked it from every angle. She tilted her head, squinted her eyes, and viewed the painting every way possible. After several minutes, she stepped gracefully over to him and whispered, “I love this painting.”
He nodded and whispered back, “It’s my favorite.”
They stood and admired The Uprising for a while longer, before they stepped out of the room into the hall. In an excited voice, she said, “It captures the spirit of the revolution. A mob of men in hats and color surrounding a man in white, with no hat, with his fist in the air. Brilliant!”
“Honore Daumier was my favorite impressionist. He told better stories in his paintings than most authors are capable of in a full book.”
She nodded and remained fascinated by the painting. “A friend of mine has a print of The Uprising. It really is a marvelous piece of Impressionism.”
“I’ve always loved the spirit and emotion the painting captures.”
“Oh, God, yes! What a collection, Joe. I’m blown away.”
He smiled. “I must confess that, for years, I have chosen art exhibits for first dates.”
She giggled. “How has that worked out?”
He shrugged. “Seems to be a good litmus test. If they balk or don’t like it, I know not to go on a second date.”
She threw her chin up and laughed again. “I thought I had seen every kind of man, and then came you.”
This time they laughed together. Caressa pointed toward the next exhibit and he nodded. She moved in quick steps like a cat, and in no time flat stood examining The Riverboat Landing. Normally, his total attention was on the paintings when he visited the Phillips Collection, but on this day he spent at least as much time watching his new Jamaican friend.
Then the inevitable happened. First, she sniffled, then she wiped her eyes. Finally, tears rolled down both cheeks. Joe stepped over and reached for her hand and led her out of the exhibit. In the hallway, he put his arm around her and said, “What’s your daughter’s name?”
Still crying, she said, “Adele.”
“Both of you have pretty names. What is she like?”
“She’s a first-year art student at the University of the West Indies.”
“She’s an artist?”
“Yes. She’s very talented.”
He motioned with his head for her to follow, and they headed toward the exit. “Are you an artist, too?”
She nodded. “Yes. We come from five generations of Jamaican artists.”
They stepped outside the red brick building, and Joe gestured left. “My old place is just down the street.” Leading her away, he said, “I feel honored to be in the company of a fourth-generation artist who has already produced a fifth-generation artist.”
She smiled. “You’re making fun of me.”
“To the contrary. I don’t think I could be more impressed. That is extraordinary. I would love to see some of your work. Your daughter’s, too.”
“If you end up going to Jamaica, you have to visit our store. We both have several paintings on display there.”
“It’s a second date.”
“I thought they said non-Jamaicans wouldn’t be allowed to fly to Jamaica for a while?”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m still working on it, but I’ll figure something out.”
“And if you don’t?”
He shrugged and tried to act unworried, but inside, his stomach churned. He pulled out his key and opened the door, and they walked into his old pad. Boxes sat everywhere, but there were still a couple of chairs in the living room. He said, “Excuse the mess. I’m giving up the place, but still have a few days left.”
She turned her head to view the high ceilings. “This is a nice place. Why did you give it up?”
“I’m moving to Jamaica.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. Maybe forever.”
She laughed. “You are a surprise. Where is the bathroom?”
“At the end of the hallway.”
He reached for a box cutter on the counter, then turned and cut the tape down the middle of the lid. He flipped the box open and reached inside to pull out two jackets. He set the jackets on the breakfast bar next to two matching black helmets with yellow flames and two pair of gloves.
Caressa stepped back out and viewed the items on the bar, but her eyes locked on the telephone. He smiled and said, “Try to call her while we’re near a phone. It should still be working for a few more days.” He held the receiver to his ear, nodded, and then handed it to her. “Yep, it’s working.”
Her hand shook as she grabbed the phone. He placed his hand on her shoulder and smiled when their eyes locked. He hoped for a different result, but he knew better. She dialed the telephone with watery eyes. Seconds later, she set the receiver on the phone base, grimaced, and shook her head. In a sad voice, she said, “Still the same message. The system is down.”
Knowing not what else to do, he held out his arms. She leaned forward and fell into his embrace as he patted her back. “Try not to think the worst.”
Her head tilted back, and she sniffled back more tears. “Thanks.” She looked to the counter and asked, “What are these for?”
He grabbed one of the jackets and handed it to her. “It is warm now, but might be cold by the time we reach BWI tonight.”
She pushed her arm through the opening in the jacket, then did the same with the other. Her cheeks pushed up and she said, “It fits.”
He nodded. “A friend visited from out of state and forgot to pack it when she left.” He handed her a pair of gloves. “These were in the pocket. Hopefully, they also fit.”
She stuffed one hand into the glove, then wiggled her fingers. Once both were on, she shrugged and said, “Like the jacket, they’re a perfect fit.”
He handed her the helmet. She looked apprehensive on the way to the bike, but he chalked it up to her hurricane worries. He knew he would be a nervous wreck if the situation were reversed and he was trapped away from his home with his loved ones in harm’s way.
When they reached the bike, he hopped on, but she hesitated. He asked, “Ever rode on a bike before?”
She fidgeted from one foot to another and scrunched up her pretty face. Either frightened of the idea or embarrassed to admit it, she shook her head and squeezed her hands together. He smiled, reached for one of the helmets and said, “Put this on, and we’ll do something about that.”
A moment later, she watched with wide eyes as he kick-started the large black bike with yellow flames. He twisted his hand on the handle and the motorcycle roared with power. He turned his head. “Get on.”
She climbed carefully onto the bike. “Where do I hold on?”
“Hold on to me.”
She reached around him. He squeezed the clutch with his left hand, stepped with his right foot to place it in first gear, and twisted his right hand. The motorcycle roared and bolted forward. She squeezed him much tighter now, holding on for dear life. He changed gears as the speed increased. He laughed. If anything could get her mind off Hurricane Gilbert, it was this powerful motorcycle. At the end of many long and frustrating days confronting lobbyists and stalled legislation, the bike had helped him free his mind and unwind with a great thrill.
Minutes later, Joe parked the motorcycle at the National Mall. He looked down at the exhaust pipes and said, “Step off carefully without touching the exhaust pipes.”
She nodded, stepped off, and stood on shaky legs, but she smiled. He pushed down the stand with his foot, and hopped off the bike. He pulled off his helmet, as did she. With her Jamaican accent, she said, “That was frightening. Fun. Crazy. Remarkable. Insane. Exhilarating. Wow!”
He laughed and watched as her eyes danced with excitement in every direction. She said, “I always wanted to come here.” They stood between the red brick Smithsonian Buildings and stared at the Capitol. She then turned to view the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. “It’s marvelous. Do you come here often?”
“Before, I came here every day. I worked and lived nearby, so I could.” He motioned for her to follow and stepped toward the Washington Monument. “For me, these buildings and the art inside represent the potential of this country. We talk about how great we are, but only refer to our potential – but the monuments, memorials, Smithsonian, and the architecture of the Capitol show what we are capable of when we fully engage ourselves, which I admit we rarely do.”
“You sound frustrated.”
He shrugged. He wasn’t one to share his troubles, even with close friends, but the last thing she needed with all her problems was to listen to his. As they walked around the Washington Monument, he said, “What do you say we start at the Lincoln Memorial?”
“I would love that,” she said while admiring the long, glittering reflecting pool that runs between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
She seemed more relaxed now, perhaps gaining some degree of relief through the combination of motorcycle and National Mall. “After the Lincoln Memorial, we’ll head to the National Museum of Art. It is one of my favorite stops at the Smithsonian.”
In a soft voice, she said, “Why did you ask me to come with you?”
He wondered that himself. “When you came over to talk to me, we seemed to click, and it was just spontaneous.” They climbed the first step leading up to the Lincoln Memorial. “It was too depressing to just sit there, and I’ve already told everybody goodbye here. Seemed like a better idea to kill some time with you.”
“Kill some time?” she said with a wry smile.
“Okay,” he admittedly a bit sheepishly. “I thought I’d enjoy your company.”
At the top of the steps, she froze and stared with opened mouth at one of the greatest sculptures in the world. A larger-than-life Abraham Lincoln sat in his marble chair overlooking the Capitol. She said, “Wow!”
He chuckled and wondered how many people had responded with the same wide-eyed wonder. Having spent up to an hour of his day for a couple of years at this memorial, he viewed her even more positively now that she fully embraced another of his favorites.
Caressa turned from the statue to stare back the other way at the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian, and the Capitol. She said, “It is even more spectacular than I had imagined. I am truly in awe.”
Dozens of tourists stared at them, as a white man and black woman still stood out in 1988. Joe could not decide if Caressa chose to ignore them, or if she was so engrossed in her surroundings that she did not even notice. He thought most of the people only stared out of curiosity, but not all. Some openly scowled, shook their heads, and mumbled God knows what. He enjoyed her company. He did not care if people thought she was his girlfriend or wife. Even if she were a few years older and black, she was a remarkable woman. People could think what they liked as far as he was concerned. As long as they did not pose a direct threat, he would ignore them.
They turned to the great walls in the Lincoln Memorial, and read the engraved Gettysburg Address. In books and on this wall, Joe had read Lincoln’s simple and clear message a thousand times, but once again goose bumps rose on his arms and his hair tingled. He felt a great connection to Lincoln, and could tell Caressa felt the same way.
She shook her head in amazement. “Joe, I admit being nervous about leaving with you, but I’m glad I did. I really appreciate this remarkable distraction.”
A white boy with blond hair and blue eyes around twelve drifted over to them. The boy said, “Hello, mister.”
“Hello, young man. Are you enjoying yourself in DC?”
“I like it just fine. There’s a lot of stuff here.” The boy’s face then twisted into a scowl. “But I don’t like being away from my girlfriend.”
Joe’s head tilted with interest. “You have a girlfriend?”
The boy leaned toward him and whispered, “She’s black like your wife.” The kid turned his head to his parents on the other side of the building. “Don’t tell my parents, though. They don’t approve.”
“I won’t tell.”
“Your wife sure is pretty. Well, just wanted to say hello.”
“I’m glad you did. Enjoy the rest of your vacation, and good luck with your girlfriend.”
The boy’s mother hollered for him. He said, “Remember, don’t tell my parents.”
Joe and Caressa traded smiles. The boy turned to Caressa and said, “You’re almost as pretty as my girl.” He trotted away to join his parents.
Joe and Caressa giggled with delight. She said, “What an adorable boy. That must be some lucky girl.”
Joe chuckled. “I guess there is hope for the next generation after all.”
She giggled again, but soon winced. “Do you think we can stop at a payphone when we leave here?”
“Of course. I need to make a couple of phone calls, too.”
Caressa hugged Joe with all her might as he steered the fast motorcycle through the Washington, DC streets. She still worried about her daughter in Jamaica and hated to think what this day would have been like without Joe stepping into her life. Thus far, he had been the perfect gentlemen, but he was a man, and therefore she would not be surprised if he felt he was entitled to sex for all he had done. Nor had she decided what she would do if he did. He was tall and handsome, and she liked the way he made her feel. He was intelligent and loved art. He was almost too good to be true.
He hopped the sidewalk when they again reached the National Mall. She thought for certain they would be arrested. He stopped the motorcycle in front of the Washington Monument. She leaned her head back as far as it would go and looked straight up at the brilliance of the lit obelisk. What were they doing here? Wasn’t the place closed?
A security man came out and said, “You must be Mr. Rivers.”
Joe nodded, pulled out his license and showed it to the man. The man nodded and opened the door to enter the building. He said, “Come on in.” As soon as they entered, the man locked the door. He said, “You can take that elevator up to the top. She’s all yours tonight.”
Caressa studied Joe as he led her onto the elevator and he pushed the button. On the way up, she continued to study him. Every new thing she learned about him suggested he was not the typical man. Unlike most men she knew, he did not seem to like talking about himself. While he obviously had strong feelings, she thought he lacked the oversized ego of most of his peers. He never boasted about anything, but she suspected he had far more to boast about than the average individual. The elevator stopped, and they exited onto the viewing deck.
She circled the place in awe. Lights illuminated the Capitol, outlining monuments and memorials everywhere. In the distance, the Potomac River snuck by, capturing the mirror image of the city. “Joe, it’s as magical at night as during the day, especially from up here.”
He drifted to one of the telescopes and focused one eye through the lens. With amazement, she asked, “How did you get us up here after closing time?”
In character, he lifted his shoulders in a modest shrug. “I know the elevator operator.”
She laughed quietly. “I don’t think you’re being very forthcoming, Joe.”
He lifted his head, smiled, and then returned his attention to what lay beyond the telescope. Be it modesty or something else, he offered no other explanation. She asked, “Why give this up and go to Jamaica?”
He raised his head and made eye contact, then stared off at the Capitol. “To get away from the rat race.”
“Even after all that damage from the hurricane?”
He shrugged, but said nothing, keeping his attention on the telescope.
“Have you ever lived without electricity and basic services?”
He stood up and gave Caressa his complete attention. After a second, he shook his head. She was starting to think she would be doing all the talking every time the subject turned to him. She said, “What are you running from?”
Joe shrugged, which by this point made her want to scream. She said, “For somebody willing to speak on any subject, you seem rather tight-lipped when it comes to you.”
He looked out the window, then back to her. “I don’t mean to be, at least not with people like you. It’s just that I come from a line of men who believe in speaking with actions, not words.”
He had finally lowered his armor, and she intended to peek inside. “Your father?”
“Yes. My father, my grandfather, and the best of my uncles on both sides of the family – they all taught me the same thing.”
“To work hard and remain humble.”
“Are they all still alive?”
His usual smile vanished. “Only a few of them.”
“Were you always close to them?”
He flinched, breathed deep, and at last exhaled just as deeply. “We got along perfectly until I got old enough to disagree on some issues. Up until then, their virtues were so strong that I had accepted everything they said as gospel.”
“And then… we argued over Vietnam, civil rights, long hair, and other issues.”
“I bet that was hard on you.”
He nodded. When he failed to say anything, she feared he was clamming up again. She said, “Sounds like the classic generational clash.”
He chuckled. “I see you’re well-read.”
“I try to be. Sometimes we go for hours between customers at the store.”
She wanted to say something else to keep the conversation going, but could not think of anything that did not sound stupid. She refocused on the spectacular night view of Washington and the National Mall.
He surprised her a couple moments later when he said, “Do you ever wonder where true happiness lies?”
“While a certain amount of power, wealth, and freedom helps, none of them guarantees, nor necessarily increases, the likelihood of happiness.”
On this dark day in her life, she had already experienced many “wow” moments, and this was the latest. “I find happiness in sunrises, sunsets, beautiful views, my daughter, and in relationships that genuinely stir my heart.”
“What makes one person happy makes another sad. What frightens one person thrills another. What enlightens one person causes another to close their mind. What inspires one person repulses another.”
“I think you’re a restless philosopher, Joe. You’re a man of logic, and the world doesn’t match up to your expectations, so you feel disappointed and lost.”
Joe offered no verbal response. He probably thought it fell under the category of boasting. When he finally spoke, he gave her much to think about. She chewed on what had already been exchanged and, unintentionally, fell into silence.
He stared out the window at the Capitol. A minute later, he said, “It just seems most people in this world are phony. Most appear obsessed with wealth, power, fame – and those who possess wealth, power, and fame. How can the world ever change if people are supposed to be superficial just to get along?”
She wanted to answer, but chose silence over the possibility, if not probability, of saying something stupid. It was a tough question, and she did not want to appear ignorant or stupid in his eyes. She liked him so much that she cared what he thought of her, and the last thing she wanted was for him to think she was foolish. Nothing frightened her like a single, worthy man. A man like Joe was capable of breaking down her walls and winning her heart. If she knew one thing about such things, it was that a man capable of winning her heart was also in a position to break it.
In silence, her thoughts drifted to Adele and Jamaica. She stepped to the other side, and once again tears flowed like rain. She did not believe she could ever be happy if her daughter was badly injured, or worse. With all the destruction, she wondered how the island would ever rebuild. Despite Joe’s magnificent effort to distract her, life seemed bleak. And it would be until she heard her daughter’s voice again.
She felt Joe’s arms around her from behind. Whatever strength she had left collapsed. She turned and bawled into his arms. He patted her back as he had done each time she broke down. All day long, Joe had been lifting her up, only so Hurricane Gilbert could knock her flat again.
When she regained control of herself, Joe’s chest was wet with her tears. She sniffled and felt embarrassed. “Do you regret spending your day with such a depressing person?”
He wiped the tears from her cheeks and stared into her eyes. “I think you have done extraordinary under the circumstances. I’ve enjoyed your company very much.”
“Joe, have you ever made love to anybody up here?”
He shook his head no. She reached for her top button.
Caressa and Joe had remained at the Washington Monument late into the night, and did not reach his place until about three in the morning. While at the top of the Monument the night before, she had mentioned she would love to paint this view. They only got three hours of sleep, as he brought her back at six. Unable to get her mind off Adele, Caressa carried on the best way she knew how – through her art. Joe got them back in the Washington Monument the following morning, and now she stood in front of her canvas and painted the spectacular city as it came to life. The sun rose majestically into the sky, brightening all that was grand. She worked on two paintings in one. On the left side, she painted the Capitol; on the other, the Lincoln Memorial. They emerged on the canvas like two competing forces, the decency and virtue associated with Lincoln, and the ego and corruption associated with Congress. She painted with the conflicted emotions she felt.
Nothing in her life shook her like the images of Hurricane Gilbert swallowing up Jamaica, yet no man had ever enchanted her on an outing quite like Joe. During the most terrifying event of her life, he managed to keep her entertained, if not entirely distracted. Despite his honorable effort, part of her heart still ached for Adele and her beloved island.
Joe stared through the telescope, lost in a world she would normally have loved to experience. She wondered how Joe happened to come along at precisely the moment she most needed a friend like him.
He stepped over to her around seven a.m. and said, “They will open the place for tourists in two hours.”
She nodded. “Give me forty-five minutes I almost have what I need. I can finish it later.”
He leaned in to view the painting. “It’s brilliant. I love the contrast, but you mean it’s not complete?”
“I still have a few color adjustments.” Caressa observed the painting and turned to examine the Capitol, the Smithsonian buildings, and the grassy mall, all key elements of one side. She turned the other way to take in the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial. She glanced back to the painting, loaded her paint brush, and worked feverishly.
Forty-five minutes later, she said, “Can I finish it back at your place while we get an update on Jamaica?”
He grinned and nodded. With her painting in its protective case, they boarded the elevator. She said, “Joe, I’ll never be able to thank you enough for what you’ve done.”
He flashed his innocent grin. “We both made a friend. Looks like a win-win to me.”
Another security guard was on duty when they got off the elevator at the bottom. He smiled and said, “Good morning, Joe.”
“Good morning, Bob. Have a good day.”
“You, too, sir.” The man then added, “Good day, ma’am.”
Once outside, she said, “Joe, is there anything you can’t do?”
“Lots of things.”
“For one thing, get us to Jamaica today.”
He did not elaborate, but she thought for certain he was working on it. Despite him downplaying it, he obviously had connections in high places. She climbed on the back of his motorcycle and held onto Joe with one hand and her painting with the other as he drove them out of the National Mall. Who was this man who could ride his motorcycle onto the National Mall without the police immediately showing up? How could he get into the Washington Monument during closing hours? She suspected there was much more to him than he cared to admit.
With a roar, the motorcycle came to a stop in front of Joe’s place. Now used to the motorcycle, Caressa found it much easier to climb off, even holding on to her prized painting. Joe secured the motorcycle on the stand and hopped off like a cowboy from a horse.
Once inside his place, Caressa immediately pulled out and set up the painting. She placed the paint on the counter and grabbed the brush. Not satisfied with the orange, she tried to make it more red and representative of this morning’s actual sunrise. She dipped the brush again and adjusted the ray of light to appear as if it burst from Abraham Lincoln instead of the other way around. She did the opposite to the Capitol, attempting to give the appearance that Abe was shining a bright light on Congress.
Joe pulled out a small television and hooked it up to the cable box. Seconds later, he pushed the power button and The Weather Channel came on. They focused on the continued path of Gilbert, and not on Jamaica, which caused her much agony.
Noticing her discomfort, Joe said, “It might take a while for them to gather new information on Jamaica.”
“I feel so helpless trapped here while practically everybody I know was in harm’s way.”
The Weather Channel looped back around to old images of flooding and great damage throughout Jamaica, but offered no update.
She dipped the brush one last time and made her final adjustment. She stepped back with Joe, and the two of them observed the painting together. Joe said, “It’s remarkable. You really have some talent.”
She shrugged and viewed the painting, searching for flaws or areas that could be done better. Even when others thought her paintings perfect, she always knew better. Anybody who paints the perfect painting, she believed, would give up painting altogether. They would have nothing else to shoot for. Achieving such perfection once would be a miracle, but doing so again would be as impossible as lightning striking the exact same place twice.
Having asserted her remaining energy into the painting, she collapsed in the chair. The television flashed images of Gilbert destroying other islands along its path of destruction. She said, “Joe, can we go back to the airport?”
“I want to check on our stuff and see what the airline is saying.”
Five minutes later, she squeezed Joe as he blasted the motorcycle onto the highway like a rocket. She knew not whether to be thrilled or frightened, so she experienced heavy doses of both. Joe leaned to the left and passed one car, then leaned to the right to pass another, and so it went. Not so much a daredevil, he did like speed – and speed along they did.
In record time, Joe turned off at the BWI exit. He pulled into the garage, but parked in a non-parking space close to the terminal. They carried the matching black helmets and practically ran across the street, dodging cars, until they entered the airport.
Fifteen minutes later, they stepped into the gate area. Big Donkey sat entertaining a group of young females. At least half the Jamaicans had left, presumably having given up on a flight leaving anytime soon. The other half probably had no alternative and was stuck there. The elderly couple guarding Caressa’s bags sat in the same seats as the day before. The old man hopped up and shook his finger at Joe. “Where did you take this woman? Me call the police on your rasclaat.”
Joe smiled and said, “Why?”
“Because you didn’t bring back this woman.”
Again, Joe smiled and took it all in good humor. “Here she is. Just brought her back.”
The man turned to Caressa and said, “Are you okay? What kind of foolishness made you run off with this mad mon?”
While she appreciated the man coming to her defense, she said, “Joe is a perfect gentleman.”
The man scoffed. “He’s a murderer.”
“No, he’s not a murderer.”
“How do you know? You just met the whitie bumbaclaat.”
She giggled. “Just met you and your wife, too, but I’m pretty sure none of you are murderers.”
She grabbed Joe’s hand and pulled him toward the man’s wife. The man twisted his nose and scowled at Joe. When they passed, Joe leaned over and whispered, “He’s full of piss and vinegar, isn’t he?”
She loved his sense of humor and laughed accordingly. When they reached the woman, she said, “We worried about you.”
“I’m sorry. We ended up staying in DC last night.”
The woman viewed Joe with skepticism, but not the hostility of her husband. She said, “I feared that something happen to you.”
Caressa watched the woman’s husband sit back down. She said, “No, I’m okay.”
The older man said, “You know what they say about a woman that takes off with a white mon?”
His wife raised her eyes. “No, and nobody wants to hear, either.”
The man seemed like he liked to raise a lot of hell, but he appeared to fear his wife. He might not have liked it, but he sat back in his seat and kept the earlier thought to himself. Caressa suspected the secret to any lasting marriage was how well a woman could corral a man when he got out of hand. This woman had obviously spent years perfecting this skill.
Caressa said, “Are they saying when we’ll be able to depart?”
The man answered for her. “The rasclaats said it might be a few days.”
Caressa turned to Joe. “Let’s see what the woman at the counter says.”
Joe nodded, and they walked over to the counter. She said, “Any news when this flight will depart?”
The woman calmly said, “It might be a week or longer. When the airports reopen, they say they’ll let in the relief workers first, and the natives next.” The woman turned to Joe and said, “Nobody else will be let in for some time.”
Joe wanted to argue, but instead just smiled and nodded. As they walked away, he snorted, “We’ll see about that.”
Caressa started to ask him what he meant, but he marched straight to the payphone. He reached in his pocket and pulled out some coins, fed them into the phone and dialed a number. Having stood back to afford him some privacy, she could not understand what he said. His demeanor, however, suggested the conversation was of utmost importance.
Perhaps a minute later he hung up the telephone and led Caressa back to the gate. He walked up to the elderly couple and surprised them both by taking a seat on the other end next to the old man. He crossed his legs and laced his fingers, sitting in silence, seeming to enjoy the man’s discomfort.
Finally, the man said, “With all the open seats, why did you sit here?”
Joe chuckled and said, “Isn’t it obvious?”
“What do you bumbaclaat say?”
“You gave me such a warm reception before, I hoped to engage you in further conversation.”
The man’s wife turned to wink, but Caressa watched the man for his reaction. He nearly broke his neck as he twisted to glare at Joe. “What do you and me got to talk about?”
“Seriously, it looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while. I know a nice little family restaurant in the harbor. Might be good for you and the missus to get away for a while.”
The woman turned toward Caressa and said, “It would be nice to get away from here for a while.”
Her husband grunted. “Bumbaclaat that.”
The wife said, “You just want to sit here all day?”
“Me not take off with no murderer.”
She shook her head, partly amused, partly annoyed. “Why do you keep calling the mon that?”
“Me know a murderer when me see one.”
She rolled her eyes and stood up. He asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going with the murderer to eat. You stay here if you want.” She turned and started walking.
Caressa said, “Let me try calling home again.”
The woman said, “They said the telephones are down all across the island. That and electricity won’t come back for some time.”
Caressa knew that, but still she said, “I know, but I need to try anyway.”
Caressa stepped over to the woman at the counter. “Do you have someplace where we can place our luggage while we go eat?”
The official pointed to the side of the counter. “Stack it over here.”
Caressa turned to the other woman and said, “She said we can stack our luggage beside the counter and she’ll watch it.”
The woman nodded. “I’ll make hard head set it over there.” She walked toward the counter while Caressa walked to the payphone. As she listened to the same message say that all circuits were down, she hung up the phone and responded with a curse under her breath befitting the old man.
Back at the gate, both men stood next to the elderly woman, waiting for Caressa. All the luggage was stacked neatly beside the counter. What surprised Caressa even more was that all the Jamaicans in the area were stacking their bags by the counter and joining the party by the edge of the gate.
When she reached them, the woman asked, “Did you get through, dear?”
Her husband said, “Of course she didn’t get through. Nobody get through.”
The woman admonished her husband with a world-class scowl. “I thought you was gonna stay here?”
“And let you run off with a murderer like a damn fool?”
Caressa smiled at Joe and he chuckled. She viewed all the other Jamaicans and said, “What’s going on?”
Joe shrugged. “Everybody gets to go.”
She smiled until she saw Big Donkey swagger over as if he were the king of England. Even worse was his giggly fans that hung on his every move. While Big Donkey had the little girls worshipping him, Caressa recognized Joe as the true star of the moment. The Jamaicans praised Joe with a sense of pride. Considering many of these people had been hostile to Joe’s continued presence after all the other white people left, she thought it was quite a turn around. Everybody was walking down the concourse when she leaned over to Joe and joked. “I don’t think everybody’s going to fit on your motorcycle.”
Ten minutes later, everyone exited the airport. To the group’s surprise, a bus awaited them. Everybody piled in and started thanking Joe for what they hoped to be a pleasant escape. He raised his shoulders, grinned, and said, “Thank the state of Maryland. They provided this for us.”
Even Caressa did not know Joe had arranged this. All she knew was things tended to happen every time he used the payphone. She sat beside Joe at the front of the bus and said, “Joe, how do you keep arranging things?”
“My friend, the elevator operator.”
“That’s one powerful elevator operator.”
“He sure is.”
She giggled. “But why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise for you, too.”
The bus was pulling out when men in black suits stepped in front of the bus and held up badges. Every Jamaican on the bus, including Caressa, thought the worst. Immigration officials were taking them to jail. It was the only logical answer. This escape was too good to be true. And Caressa felt she would finally see an end to Joe’s influence.
The bus driver opened the door. A man stepped onto the bus, nodded, and held out his badge for the driver to view. The man then turned and looked past us. She followed his eyes to Big Donkey, who had a girl on each side, and one on his lap. The man pointed and motioned with his index finger for Big Donkey to come.
The girls practically ran from Big Donkey, scampering away from him now that he might be in trouble. With all eyes on him, the dancehall artist climbed to his feet and said, “Bumbaclaat.”
Even in trouble, he walked past Caressa, made eye contact and said, “Hey, baby, check me later.”
She rolled her eyes as he exited the bus with the authorities. The man in the black suit turned to the driver and said, “You can leave now. He won’t be going with you.”
Behind Joe and Caressa, the old man breathed a sigh of relief and then said, “Me never like that ras anyway. Hope them lock him up and throw away the key.”
The man’s wife chuckled, and somebody close to them said, “Yeah, mon.”
The bus toured the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, and the Jamaicans seemed to enjoy the change of pace, not to mention the lovely scenery, though none more than Caressa. She could imagine capturing the harbor at night, the USS Constellation floating in its dock, or the lights of the National Aquarium sparkling against the water. “Joe, this is really nice of you.”
“Hey, we’re all in this together.”
His sincerity was obvious as he continued to impress her with his character and connections. He remained a mystery, but her impression of him grew loftier by the minute. The bus pulled out of the Inner Harbor, only to stop a short time later at a small restaurant that sat on the bay.
Everybody exited the bus except the driver, who remained seated. Joe looked up to him and said, “You, too.” The man smiled and hopped up from his seat like a child on Christmas morning.
They paraded into the restaurant. A little white woman with blue hair greeted them and hugged Joe on the way in. She said, “Joe, you’re looking handsome as ever.”
Joe gestured toward a bald man about her age walking in their direction and said, “If you ever get tired of Henry, maybe you and me will run off together.”
She blushed and swooned like a schoolgirl before turning her attention to the Jamaicans. In the friendliest of voices, she said, “Welcome” or “Glad to see you” to every last person as they entered the establishment and filled all but one table. Her husband walked over and said, “Welcome, folks.” He turned to shake hands with Joe and said, “How you doing, Joe? Good to see you. I thought you’d already left.”
“Hello, Henry. The hurricane delayed things. Thanks for getting things ready for us.”
“Are you kidding? Thank you for bringing us the business.” As they walked, Henry said, “So, how you think those Redskins are going to do this year?”
“You know me. I’m an optimist. I think they’re going to win the Super Bowl every year.”
Henry threw back his head and let booming laughter flow out. Joe and Caressa waited until everybody was seated before they joined the elderly couple at a four-top. Once they were seated, the woman smirked at her husband and said, “You still think he’s a murderer?”
The man scowled, perhaps out of habit. “Maybe he’s not; maybe he is. Me not even know if me like the food yet. It might be poisoned. The rest of you can crown him king, but me not ready.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open. Caressa gasped, while Joe laughed from his belly and said, “So, what’s your name anyway?”
“What do you want my name for? To put on your list of victims?”
The man’s wife exhaled in noisy fashion, then turned to Joe and said, “I’m Bunny.” Joe reached out to shake her hand. She then gestured toward her husband and said, “And my dear, grumpy husband is Peter.”
Joe extended his hand, and Peter sneered over his nose as if somebody tried to hand him a dirty rag. “What you want me to do with that?”
While Joe had seemed to win the affections of everybody else, Peter continued to view him with the contempt he obviously felt for white people in general. Bunny unrolled her cloth napkin and removed the steak knife. She said, “If you don’t shake this here mon’s hand, I’ll chop yours off.” She glared at him for several seconds, then continued. “You mean old John Crow. Cho!”
A feminine young man with blond hair and a nose ring walked over to the table. He spoke in a Marilyn Monroe voice: “Hello, peeps. Have you made up your minds? The alfredo shrimp ravioli is…” The waiter kissed his fingers as if he were blowing a kiss, and then added “…divine!”
Peter shook his head and muttered: “Bloodclaat. Take a machete and chop off my head.”
The waiter poured wine into Bunny’s glass. Joe stood and spoke loud enough for everybody to hear: “Excuse me. Order whatever you want. The state of Maryland is picking up the tab.”
People started clapping and cheering. Several thanked Joe. He looked embarrassed and said, “Thank the state of Maryland. I’m just along for the ride.”
Peter was still glaring at the waiter when Joe sat back down. The waiter filled Peter’s glass with wine and said, “You have a very bad aura, little man. Have you considered soaking in some salt water and mango juice?”
Peter wiggled in discomfort and contorted his face. “You batty—
Bunny jumped in to cut him off. “No. No. No. No. This isn’t Jamaica, so don’t be saying that stuff.”
Joe said, “Please bring them the seafood sampler. Tell the chef that I want my usual vegan plate.”
The waiter smiled and said, “Joe, you are a peaceful man, and I like that about you.” He then shot Peter a dirty look. He turned back to Joe, smiled, and glanced at Caressa. He said, “And your girlfriend is a very nice woman. I can tell.”
Peter muttered. “Of all the rasclaats in the world—”
The waiter ignored Peter and smiled at Bunny. “And her mother has the aura of an angel.”
Caressa started to correct him, but was enjoying the show too much. The waiter smiled at Bunny as if she were his delightful grandmother, rolled his eyes at Peter, and said, “How’d you get stuck with sourpuss? He must be your mission from heaven. If you can save that man, you’re an absolute angel.”
Bunny howled with laughter. Peter shifted around in his seat and scrunched his face again. He said, “I’ll sour you, boy.”
The waiter dismissed Peter with his hand and a hilarious expression. He said, “You are a delightful woman.” He glanced over to Peter and added: “But him. Hmm, hmm, hmm.” He puckered his lips and shook his head at Peter, shooting him a catty look mastered by years of facing such bigotry. Grinning at the others as if they were close family, he said, “I’ll turn in your order right away, and then bring your salads.”
Seeing Peter was boiling mad, Caressa attempted to lighten the mood. “That’s a great view of the Chesapeake Bay,” she said, and it was. She then quipped: “Do tell the elevator operator I said thanks.”
Joe grinned and nodded. Peter scoured his face and said, “Who the ras is this here elevator operator you keep yapping about?”
Caressa relished in the mystery and only half-joked when she said, “He’s a very influential elevator operator who apparently pulls half the strings in Washington.”
Joe chuckled, and Caressa giggled. Even Bunny joined in. Peter raised his thick eyebrows in protest. “If you ask me, he sounds like another one of those batt—
Bunny raised her index finger. “That’s enough of that.” She paused to give him a dirty look, then said, “You like trouble too much. Cho.”
The waiter soon returned with a large tray of steamy food. He said, “I did not know, but they already started cooking before you arrived. So, you will receive your entrees with your salads.”
Joe said, “Excellent.”
Caressa’s stomach growled and hoped nobody heard. Steam rolled off the food, bringing with it the aroma of the fresh herbs sprinkled over even fresher fish. The scent flowed through the air like a synchronized symphony.
The waiter placed a large plate of food in front of Bunny and said, “Seafood platters for the ladies. A marvelous combination of boiled and steamed crabs, clams, lobster, and shrimp.” He placed another plate in front of Caressa and said, “The platter is magnificently complemented by a baked potato and steamed asparagus. Delicious!”
He shoved a third platter in front of Peter and said, “And for Scrooge.”
Peter once again muttered under his breath, finally getting in the curse word his wife wouldn’t let him say outloud. The waiter traded dirty looks, then lit up as he turned to set a plate in front of Joe. “And for the gentleman, we have a lovely display of steamed broccoli, asparagus, baby carrots and cabbage over a magnificent display of bulgur wheat. The chef also included a vegan taco with blue corn that is to die for.”
Peter looked as though he might vomit. “Oh, boy, me already die and go to hell.”
Joe ignored Peter and said, “Please extend my gratitude to the chef.”
The waiter nodded and said, “If I can get you anything else, just signal. I will check on you often.” He turned to Peter and stuck out his tongue, before doing an about-face and walking away.
Peter wagged a knife in the air and said, “Me stab that boy if he comes back.”
Bunny chastised him right on cue. “You’ll probably frighten the waiter plenty with that butter knife.”
Joe laughed so hard that he nearly fell out of the booth. He would never have to confront Peter as long as Bunny was around.
The outing with the Jamaicans proved to be a great success. Joe attempted to deflect credit, insisting they only had the state of Maryland to thank, but they kept thanking him personally. This made him uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be perceived as one of the people who only did good to draw attention to themselves.
He stood with Caressa and watched the other Jamaicans back at the airline gate. The girls had rejoined Big Donkey, who the authorities apparently set free after apprehending him on the bus. It reminded him of American girls who served as groupies for rock stars. He hoped never to get trapped like that. He had seen congressional women attracted to the idea of power, and God knows he had drawn his fair share of them. But after finding out what they were all about, he always managed to escape.
Caressa broke his thoughts when she asked, “Are you going to tell me how you arranged that outing?”
“Wasn’t a big deal. As it turned out, the state wanted to help those stuck here because of the hurricane.”
“So, you insist you are a nobody who knows nobody important?”
“I am a nobody who’s just fortunate to have a friend with some great contacts.”
“You make me want to use several of the ‘claat’ words.”
“Happy to be an inspiration.”
She chuckled. “Will you answer one question?”
“Who is Joe Rivers?”
Joe rubbed his chin. Pinched his lips. Rubbed his hands together. Finally, he sighed and said, “Damned if I know. Let me know if you figure it out.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“Just some schmuck trying to get to Jamaica,” he said, being honest.
“Some schmuck that used to have everything figured out, but now finds himself back at square one.”
She scanned the room and smiled. “I think they really enjoyed themselves. Me, too.”
“I’m glad. Wish I could get everybody home.”
“You’re a good man.”
“What do you mean you hope?”
“I try to be good, but I have a temper and make mistakes.”
“You mean you have regrets?”
Joe hated when people focused entirely on trivial matters, and respected Caressa because she was no such person. Still, he felt uncomfortable talking about himself. They had grown close, as close as he could with anyone in such a short period of time, and she had gotten inside the wall that protected his comfort zone. He felt vulnerable whenever some rare person got this far with him.
He shrugged. “Yeah, I have regrets. If I didn’t, I suppose I wouldn’t be moving to Jamaica.”
Big Donkey walked up with three girls. He stopped, leaned toward Joe, and said, “Hey a whitie, this here me woman. You don’t get any fancy ideas with this one.” He turned to Caressa and smirked. “My woman this.”
Caressa didn’t give an inch. She had no respect for Big Donkey or his harem. “Move yourself, boy. Haven’t you already gotten yourself in enough trouble? Cho.”
One of the girls grabbed Joe by the arm and held it. She leaned close, too close for his comfort. With seductive eyes and an inviting voice, she said, “Me enjoy myself at the restaurant. The food nice, mon. You can come with us if you want.”
Joe ignored her as an image on the TV monitor grabbed his full attention. He stepped forward to watch and listen. A tank rolled across the screen. Joe slapped himself on the head and muttered, “Oh, my God.” The images on the screen tormented him. Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis stuck his head out of the tank and was greeted by uproarious laughter from the press corps. “Oh, shit, they’re laughing at him. Why couldn’t they listen to reason? Dammit to hell!”
Joe noticed everybody, including Caressa, staring at him instead of the monitor. He exhaled in exasperation, walked over to a vacant area, and plopped down. Yesterday, the hurricane struck Jamaica, and today this disaster strikes America, he thought.
Caressa sat down and reached for his hand. “Why are you so upset?”
He shook his head. “He just blew his chance to be president.”
“Did you know about that in advance?”
Before he could answer, the official working behind the counter walked over to him and said, “Sir, can you step over here with me?”
He followed her several feet, then they stopped. She smiled and said, “Sir, it’s very nice what you did for these stranded people, but I regret to inform you that you still will not be allowed to board this flight when it departs. My supervisors have made several inquiries on your behalf, but I regret to inform you that our hands are tied. I’m very sorry, sir.”
He forced a smile. “Thank you for trying.”
“You’re welcome. Have a good day, sir.”
His heart sank. He felt dispirited and defeated. So much for his grand idea to escape. And now, if he were forced to stay in the States, he would be spending another four years under a president whose policies he didn’t like while surrendering his own dreams. He wouldn’t return to work for a broken system – and that left him only one choice: finding another way to make it to Jamaica.
Caressa sat staring into the monitors that still showed images of Hurricane Gilbert. Occasionally, the loop returned to Jamaica, and she watched in horror as the reports showed new photos of damage. From the images, it appeared the entire city of Kingston had been destroyed. She wiped a tear and wished Joe was still here. He left after he got the news that he could not leave on this flight. And while he appeared upset, she definitely was. She had done nothing but worry about her daughter ever since.
Peter leaned across Bunny and said, “You’re better off without him.”
Bunny rolled her eyes. “Nobody ask you, sourpuss.”
“You can’t call me that just ‘cause that batty waiter got away with it.”
“You shut up, mon. If you don’t have something better to say, just shut up your mouth.”
Joe seemed to have won over every Jamaican there except Peter and Big Donkey. These two Jamaican men came from different generations, and obviously viewed the world very differently, but they shared a hard-headedness and a tendency to stick their foot in their mouth. She pictured the two of them as babies sucking on their big toes instead of their thumbs. Normally, she would have openly giggled at the thought, but now could not even manage to laugh on the inside. The situation seemed too hopeless. She had only been able to do so initially because of Joe. Now that he was gone, life seemed less whimsical and carefree.
She wondered what he was doing. Did he miss her like she missed him? Would she ever see him again? Her thoughts were interrupted when Bunny said, “They’ll probably move us to a room today.”
Caressa nodded. “Guess that would beat hanging around here another day.”
Bunny nodded. Peter gestured his head toward the airplane and said, “The plane’s still here, so maybe we’ll get out today.”
But the airplane just sat there. No engines roared. Nobody fueled the plane. Or worked on it. Or loaded it. Caressa sighed. “Guess that’s something.”
To her horror, Big Donkey plopped down next to her and said, “Hey, baby, you ready for me?”
Peter stood up and glared. He said, “Move yourself, Little Donkey. Me cut you if you come near this woman again.”
Big Donkey laughed. “Sit down. You an old mon. Me mash up your bumbaclaat if you take one step towards me.”
Caressa felt her blood pressure rising, which always fired up her sarcasm. “Oooooh, watch out – the big dancehall boy’s goin’ to beat up an old mon.”
Big Donkey only laughed. “Come with me, baby. Me show you what me all about.”
She pinched her mouth. “You’re a mon that wants to beat up old men and beds little girls. What else do I need to know about you? Cho! You’re a worthless mon.”
Bunny stiffened her posture and waved dismissively at her husband. “Sit down. You can’t help anything acting like a fool.”
Peter refused to back down. With a hard, distinctive jawline, he clutched his fist. “Me not afraid of this here dibby dibby ras. Me beat the boy like a drum if he don’t go away.”
Bunny smirked. “Sit down, you bloody fool.”
Peter hesitated as he scowled at Big Donkey, but he sat down as his wife directed. Big Donkey pulled his jacket tighter and twisted his wrists. He laughed loud and odd. He blushed and cleared his throat. “Baby, you and me could make magic. Come, baby.”
Before Caressa could reject him yet again, Bunny I don’t know who you think you are, but I don’t like you. I don’t like you at all. You got no respect for women. You got no respect for the law. You got no respect, period. Go on about yourself, or I’ll cause you plenty problems.” Bunny had a whole other side to her, Caressa realized. No wonder her husband listened when she pushed back.
Big Donkey waved his hand in front of his face and frowned. “Your breath knock me down, mon. Move back.”
Before anybody knew what was coming, Bunny lifted her arm and struck Big Donkey across the face. “I said go, you little bumbaclaat.” She cracked her knuckles, and her protruding eyes suggested she might kick his butt.
Some people nearby laughed. One of them said, “Bumbaclaat. She put some hard licks on the boy.”
Big Donkey shuddered, stood, and viewed Bunny with a downward gaze. “You ever touch or talk to me again like that and you a dead woman.”
Peter rose to his feet again and pumped his fist. Bunny stuck out her hand to his chest and stopped her husband in his tracks. She turned to Big Donkey and said, “Move your bloodclaat!”
Big Donkey sizzled and hesitated, but then moved away in slow, jerky steps. When Peter stepped after him, Bunny grabbed his shirt and said, “Sit down. You’re too old, or I’d let you beat him for real.”
“Me not too old to slap that boy around.”
Big Donkey staggered over to a chair, where he sat and licked his wounds. Bunny leaned forward to kiss Peter’s cheek and repeated, “Sit down.”
Peter grunted, but sat down. Bunny joined him and grabbed her husband’s hand. Caressa wondered if she would ever have somebody to grow old with. Peter might be a hard-headed man, but Caressa suspected he had done something right to win Bunny’s lifelong love.
Caressa asked herself why she was alone at her age. Adele’s father had cheated on her, then beaten her when she confronted him. He left, and neither Adele nor she had heard from him in fifteen years. At some point she began dating again, but only found frustration. Some men cheated, while others bored her to death. By the time Adele was a teenager, Caressa decided being alone beat being with the wrong man.
She wondered why she connected with Joe, a man ten years her junior. He treated her with a respect other men did not, but there was more. He held her interest and stimulated her with his intelligence. The intelligent men she knew possessed gigantic egos. Joe seemed as smart as any of them, but lacked the pompous regard for himself. For a young man, she thought he possessed great wisdom; a more evolved intelligence. She suspected something in life had humbled him. She might not ever see him again, but spending a little time with Joe provided her some hope for the opposite gender.
Before meeting Joe, Caressa had come to associate men with boasting, violence, war, and multiple crimes against women and humanity. If nothing else, she thought meeting Joe had at least softened her hardened view.
Something caught her eye out the window. Men worked around the outside of the airplane. She pointed toward the window. Bunny and Peter also viewed the activity, and Peter said, “Me tell you we get out today!”
Caressa hoped Peter’s optimism would soon be rewarded. She said, “Shouldn’t they be making an announcement?”
Bunny said, “I’m sure they will soon.”
Caressa felt her heart sink when the airplane backed out of the gate. All three of them frowned and watched with horror as it pulled away and taxied out of sight. Peter covered his face with his hands. Bunny’s mouth dropped open. Caressa pressed her hands to her temples.
The official at the gate said, “As you can see, the airplane has been reassigned. We are now receiving word from Jamaica that it might be a week or more before they allow any commercial flights into the country. Jamaican citizens will be allowed in first, but again, they are telling us that might be a week or longer.”
The remaining Jamaicans collapsed in their chairs, rubbed their necks, and with whispers of “No,” bit their lips. One man managed to say “Bumbaclaat.” Another mustered a “Bloodclaat.” Most only winced and settled into pained expressions. Every time Caressa thought the situation could not get worse, it did. She slunk her head away and fought back another round of sobbing.
Carlos Lopez bounced his four-year-old daughter on his leg. He swooped her through the air. She laughed and said, “Daddy, I’m an airplane.”
In a sweet, gentle voice, he said, “Yes, Silvia, you can be anything you want.”
He stood and lifted her high in the air. She said, “Now, I’m a rocket.”
Mrs. Lopez walked in, precious stones dangling from her ears and highlighting her Latino beauty and elegance. She giggled and said, “Carlos, you are such a sweet man.”
He pulled his daughter to him and tickled her while he walked over to kiss his wife. He said, “Have I told you today how much I love you?”
She swooned. “Yes, but tell me again.”
As he spoke, Silvia spoke along with him: “My darling Maria, you are the light of my day. I love you more than the stars, the moon, and the sun.” The girls roared with laughter as Carlos pulled his wife to him. He scooped her off her feet and swung his giggling wife and daughter around and around.
When he set his wife on her feet, she said, “I am the most fortunate woman in the world. My husband is handsome, rich, powerful, and the most charming man in the entire world.”
He kissed her. He had many women, but none like his wife. He ran his hands through her long black hair. He kissed her long neck, and then her thick lips. He reached around and squeezed her buttocks, and her beautiful face flushed.
He was worth billions and had an empire that stretched across the Western Hemisphere. He forgot it all sometimes when with his wife and daughter.
Maria said, “I almost forgot. Gabriel is waiting for you in your study.”
Carlos lifted Silvia high into the air. She whooped with delight, once again saying she was an airplane. He set her down, kissed her on the forehead and said, “I love you, Silvia.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
He hugged his wife, then kissed her long and deep. “You make my blood pump with the force of a white water river.”
“Will you be long?”
He shrugged. “I never know when Gabriel visits. I’ll let you know.”
Gabriel Rodriguez, his most trusted aid, sat smoking a Cuban cigar in the study. They shook hands and greeted each other. In his typical fashion, Gabriel got straight to the point: “Our source in the United States reports that our dancehall associate met twice with the DEA in Baltimore.”
Carlos poured himself a drink and shrugged. “Take care of it.”
The Jamaicans were huddled in one area of the gate when all eyes fell on Caressa. She held a notebook and pen. She said, “The airline asked me to determine how many rooms we need.”
Big Donkey thrust out his chest. “Me share room with you.”
She crossed her arms. One of his groupies elbowed him in the side. He said, “Cho, woman. You mash up me ribs.”
Caressa ignored the titters and said, “I am told we will get rooms close by, and that they will get us back here as soon as they clear commercial flights for Jamaican citizens to return.”
Bunny said, “I can’t wait to bathe.”
Peter said, “Me can’t wait to stretch out on real bed.”
Others made similar comments. Organizing Jamaicans – so spontaneous in character – was slightly more difficult than herding rabbits, Caressa thought. She raised her voice over the chatter. “Families, please step forward as a group. Each family will receive their own room.”
Several people stood up and Caressa said, “I need the head of each family to raise their hand.” Four men raised their hand. One woman raised her hand, as there was no man. In a sixth group, both the man and woman raised their hand. The woman narrowed her eyes and yanked his hand down. “You’re not the head of anything. You don’t even work.”
The woman’s husband pulled his Yankees cap down. Big Donkey looked up from his seat and said, “You don’t take that from your woman. Put her in her place, mon.” Big Donkey punched his fist for emphasis.
A couple of other men nodded their agreement. Some of the younger women giggled. A couple of the older women downturned their mouths and launched cold stares at the moron. Caressa said, “I need the heads of the families to step forward and give me your name and how many in your family. Everybody else in the families can return to where you were seated.”
The family heads stepped forward, and their other family members left the area. Caressa set the notebook and pen on a table and said, “One by one, please step up and write your full name, plus how many total family members are traveling with you.”
She stepped over to everybody else and said, “Couples who will be staying in rooms together, please get in line next.”
Big Donkey stood with the three girls, and said, “These girls with me. We share room.”
The average dancehall boy, Caressa thought, represented the absolute worst qualities of a Jamaican man. Rude. Egotistic. Vain. Untrustworthy. One-dimensional. Bob Marley had been an artist. The guys in the band Third World were artists. In contrast, the average dancehall deejay, like Big Donkey, were sexual predators and promoters of violence. Some of them even had talent. What a waste.
Caressa said, “They said not to include you on the list.”
He said, “They’ll probably give me a bigger room.” The girls giggled and swooned.
Caressa and Bunny traded glances as Big Donkey strolled toward the airline counter. Peter muttered: “Bumbaclaat. I swear that boy’s an idiot.”
Bunny said, “When did they say we’ll get to leave for Jamaica?”
All eyes once again locked on Caressa. She would have loved to offer them good news. Instead, she said, “They’re still saying it might be a week or longer.”
The people moaned and groaned. Peter said, “When me finally get to Jamaica, me kiss the ground, mon. And never leave again.”
Caressa rejoined Bunny and Peter after all the passengers had returned to their seats. Peter shuffled in his chair and snorted, “When will they move us to the hotel, mon? Me tired of this here airport.”
Caressa checked her watch. “They’re just a few minutes late.”
Peter stiffened his posture. “Me hate America.”
Bunny displayed a wide grin and chuckled. “You the one that wanted to come here.”
“Me not know it such a horrible place. Me not like nothing about America.”
Bunny looked her husband up and down. “But look at you. You like your American shirt, American pants, American shoes. And you think I forgot you like your American pizza, and that I didn’t see you eat American hamburger plenty times?”
Bunny cackled and turned to Caressa. “Peter likes plenty things about America. He likes American movies, American clothes, American music, American food. When we in New York, the boy even tried to talk like he’s from New York.” As Caressa laughed, she changed the subject, “So, are you going to see Joe since we stay longer?”
Caressa found it difficult to talk about Joe. Meeting him thrilled her, but it also left her confused and disappointed. When she did not answer, to her horror, Peter leaned across and said, “He ran off, mon, the first chance he got. She’ll never see that white mon again.”
Bunny rubbed the back of her neck as she turned her head and cleared her throat. “Why would you say such a stupid thing?”
He rolled his eyes, but otherwise ignored her. Bunny said, “Joe’s a nice mon. Why do you talk like that?”
“He’s a white mon. They’re all devils.”
Caressa felt a stiffness in her neck and jaw. “Not all white people are evil; not all black people are good.”
Bunny nodded. Peter hissed under his breath and crossed his arms. “Everything wrong with the black mon is the white mon fault.”
Caressa fought an urge to curse and tilted her head away. “Peter, my friend, you are a racist.”
“Me not a racist. Me black.”
Caressa’s did not mean for her voice to rise, but it did. “That’s a foolish thing to say. A racist is somebody who hates another race because they hate their race. You hate the white race. You’re a racist.”
“Me not a racist. Me a black mon.”
Bunny rolled her eyes at her husband. “You’re an idiot.”
If there is anything in the world worse than ignorance, it is stupidity, Caressa thought. She said, “You are every bit a racist as the worst of the whites.”
Bunny shook her head. “You just have to keep opening that big mouth of yours until you put your foot in it. I’m ashamed of your behavior, Peter. You’re an idiot, mon.”
Peter gave his wife a dismissive look, then bent his head and focused on Caressa. He said, “You just another foolish Jamaican girl that let some whitie bumbaclaat come along and turn you into a fool.”
Bunny glared at Peter, then turned to Caressa and said, “Let me tell you something about this here foolish husband of mine. When we first married, I came home from work and found the ras in bed with some white tourist woman. I should have killed him then.” Peter slunk in his chair and turned his eyes the other way. Bunny said, “These here racist black men, many of them would have a white woman if they could, but they don’t like a black woman mixing up with the white mon. They’re hypocrites.”
Bunny turned and slapped Peter’s arm. She said, “One more stupid word out of you, and I’ll kill you. You’ve given me plenty reasons to kill you over the years. Just give me one more reason.”
When Bunny turned around, Caressa noticed a vein in her forehead was twitching. Bunny said, “I hate white racists. They’re evil, but I don’t pretend all whites are evil. And I don’t like black racists either.” She turned toward Peter, then back to Caressa. “All I know is Joe’s the one person that tried to do something for everybody here. I like him. Right now, I like him much better than my husband.”
When everybody settled into a quiet solitude, Caressa leaned over and said, “You know what the funny thing is, Peter?”
“Me don’t see nothing funny.”
Caressa smiled. “Even though you treated him bad, Joe liked you. When I thought a couple of times that you were mean and unreasonable, he defended you.”
The airline official made an announcement: “Sorry, folks, for the delay. We will have an updated announcement within the next hour.”
Jamaicans shuffled and moaned in unison. What in the world went wrong now? Caressa wondered. A cute little girl with pigtails pointed at the window. Caressa turned to see what she was pointing at and her mouth fell open. Another airplane was pulling up to the gate. Jamaicans turned to each other as if to say “What’s this?”
While foolish to get her hopes up, Caressa wondered if they might board this airplane before the day was out. Bunny leaned over and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to go home today?”
Caressa nodded, but told herself not to get her hopes up. Caressa stood and walked to the window. She stared and, against her better judgment, grabbed onto the small hope that this airplane might soon lift off with her aboard.
Jamaicans moved to the windows and dreamed of leaving with a new hope. Whether founded or unfounded, Caressa had no idea.
If not for her daughter, Caressa would not want to board the airplane and fly back to Jamaica in the aftermath of Gilbert, but all she wanted was to see, hear, and hold Adele. Any relief until she verified her daughter was alive and well would be fleeting. Agony and despair flowed through her veins, as it did for the other Jamaicans stranded away from their loved ones.
The airline official announced: “We ask all Jamaican passengers to remain in the gate area. We have a special announcement coming.”
Bunny gawked at the airplane that was being fueled, but spoke to Caressa. “The suspense is killing me.”
Caressa nodded. She wetted her lips. Her heart pounded, and she tingled all over. She resisted the temptation to run to the counter and beg the official to tell her what the announcement was.
The other passengers were no different. Bunny clasped her hands to her chest while Peter paced back and forth. One of the girls hanging on Big Donkey closed her eyes and said, “Please, please, please, let this plane be for us.”
Big Donkey stood and tapped his hand against the wall. One of his little groupies stared into the glass to check and recheck her hair. One of her friends checked her makeup.
A cart rolled toward the airplane pulling two trailers of luggage. Caressa’s heart jumped a beat. She strained her eyes, but could not locate her own baggage.
Bunny said, “See your luggage?”
Caressa shook her head no. The cart stopped so that men could load the luggage onto the plane, but again, she could not tell if it was theirs. If nothing else, the airline had managed to capture their full attention. Other than a couple of children, and Big Donkey’s bimbos, everybody else’s eyes remained glued to the airplane.
The airline official announced, “Would the Jamaican passengers please come to the counter?”
At first, nobody moved. For some reason, they all looked at Caressa. She shrugged and walked over to the counter. The others quickly followed, hovering around her when she reached the desk.
The lady at the counter said, “Folks, we’re a bit mystified, but the word we’re getting is that the airplane docked to the gate will take off in forty-five minutes.” The Jamaicans hollered and danced and pumped their fists in the air. The woman smiled and said, “Apparently the State Department is ordering this one commercial flight to depart today. This will be your only chance to go to Jamaica for at least a week, as all other flights are still grounded.”
Another celebration broke out. The woman said, “Please have your passports, identification, and old tickets ready when you reach the front of the line. We will issue new tickets, and then start loading shortly after that.”
The Jamaicans celebrated behind Caressa as she pulled her documents out of her purse. The woman checked her identification and name, then printed out a ticket. Caressa nearly skipped back to the window to watch the airplane, half expecting it to pull away without them.
She thought it seemed strange for the State Department to okay this one flight and worried that they would discover their mistake any minute. Only Joe had produced this kind of action. She turned and expected him to come walking up, but saw no sign of him. Perhaps she would never see him again, a thought that made her sad. Why somebody she had only just met meant so much to her she could not say, but he did. Her heart ached that Joe would not be able to go to Jamaica on this flight as he so wanted.
She viewed her ticket. She had been upgraded to first class. She just knew Joe had something to do with this. He had to. Airlines just don’t upgrade you to first class. But where was he? If he could work it out for them, could he not work it out for himself? She was glad she was not a cat, for curiosity was attempting to kill her. How – if he had done it – had he done it? Who did this guy know? She turned to view her fellow passengers again. The only celebrity was Big Donkey, and she knew without a doubt he commanded no such attention. The fool even got yanked from the outing to the restaurant. Her eyes traveled from person to person. Nobody there held such influence. They were all a bunch of nobodies, including her. She could no more have pulled this off than she could produce a magic wand.
Not seeing Joe, she turned back around as if to guard the airplane. She wondered how she would handle the disappointment if it turned out to be false hope. If the airplane did not carry her to Jamaica today, she felt she would die. Denying them now, after rekindling their hope, would be nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment.
Bunny walked over wagging her new ticket. “Can you believe it? I had given up all hope, and now we get to go home.”
Caressa hoped this was true. “Yes, it is quite unexpected.”
Bunny leaned over as if discussing something top secret. “You suppose Joe had anything to do with this?”
“The thought crossed my mind, but you would think he would show up if that were the case.”
Bunny turned toward the concourse and said, “Maybe he’s on his way.”
“I hope so. He only has half an hour.”
“Who does Joe know that could make the State Department do this? Why is this the only commercial airliner they let go to Jamaica?”
Caressa stared at the men fueling the airplane. “I asked myself the same thing. I don’t know. He’s not one to brag. He took me to the top of the Washington Monument after it was closed. When I asked him who he knew who could do such a thing, he said the elevator operator.”
Bunny’s eyes widened. “Interesting. Very interesting.”
“I figure anybody who can make a phone call and take a girl to the top of the Washington Monument like that probably knows somebody at the State Department.”
“Has to be somebody important, mon.”
The airline attendant raised the microphone and said, “Everybody has been issued a new ticket, and we are going to start boarding. While we are waiting for final confirmation, we will load the handicapped and those with young children.”
A small group skipped over to the gate. Bunny giggled and fanned herself as if she might pass out. “Can you believe it? Can you believe it?”
The attendant said, “We are now boarding first class.”
Caressa felt guilty when she looked at Bunny and said, “They upgraded me to first class for some reason.”
Bunny squealed dramatically and said, “Look at you, girl. We’re going home, and you’re riding first class. Ain’t this turning out to be a great day?”
Caressa grabbed her carryon bag and walked toward the gate as if her ticket were about to expire. She frowned when she realized she was the only one who walked over. Surely she was not the only person in first class. Not even hotshot Big Donkey stepped to the gate. She handed the attendant her ticket, and then stepped through. She walked into the tunnel and pressed her palms to her cheeks. She hoped she was not dreaming.
A flight attendant stood at the door of the airplane, smiled, and said, “Welcome to Air Jamaica.”
Caressa stepped onto the airplane and turned to her right to enter the first-class cabin. Her eyes popped out and she nearly dropped her luggage. Seated next to where she had been assigned was none other than Joe Rivers. He sat there reading The Washington Post. She cleared her throat. He looked up and said, “Caressa, how nice of you to join us.”
She set her bag down and ran over to hug him. He hugged her back and said, “Looks like we’ll see Jamaica in a few hours.”
He stood up and grabbed her bag and lifted it to the overhead compartment. He closed the door and sat back down, then said, “Hope these seats are okay.”
She sucked in a quick breath. “How in the world did you do this?”
“I called the elevator operator, and he did the rest. Other than having good taste in friends, I really can’t take much credit.”
Just then, Big Donkey walked in and said, “Baby, what you doing with this here white mon?”
“None of your business.”
Big Donkey pointed to the back of the airplane and said, “You come check me. Me sit back there. Me not like it up here on the front of the plane. Me a man of the people.” He blew her a kiss and snickered as he disappeared into coach.
A Jamaican man walked in and saw Joe. He touched Joe’s fist with his own and said, “Me have a good time when you take us to the restaurant.”
The man walked on and another couple walked by and took notice of Joe. The woman leaned over and said, “Hey, white mon, that a good thing you do yesterday.”
“I can’t really take credit for it. The state of Maryland deserves all the credit.”
The man touched Joe’s fist and said, “Brethren, you check me in Jamaica. Me show you what some good, home-cooked Jamaican food taste like.”
“Thanks. I would like that.”
Bunny and Peter walked in and stopped dead in their tracks. Bunny let out a short squeal, dropped her bag, and leaned across Caressa to hug Joe. “Bless your heart. It’s so good to see you. You’re a good mon, Joe.”
“Good to see you, Bunny.”
Peter walked over and stood staring at Joe. Peter wagged his finger, and Caressa prepared to hang her head. Instead, Peter said, “Me always have a good feeling about you, Joe. Me tell Bunny when me first see you ‘that there a good white mon.’ Me know a good mon when me see one.”
Bunny raised her eyebrows, but Caressa, her adrenaline already spiked from being on the plane and seeing Joe, could only laugh.
The airplane circled Kingston, ready to land at the airport. Caressa gawked out the window at the destroyed buildings. She twisted her head to view the hill where her house sat. It looked like the entire neighborhood had been blown apart. She strained her eyes, but could not see her home. Her eyes moistened. She hoped Adele was somewhere on that hill, safe and sound.
Joe squeezed her hand. In his soothing voice, he said, “You’ll be able to give Adele a hug, soon.”
She had dreamed of that ever since those first images of Hurricane Gilbert striking Jamaica. The images on television had tormented her, but the images from the plane paralyzed her with fear.
The airplane circled the city again. Caressa frowned. “Something is wrong.”
Joe leaned over her to look down at the airport. He said, “Looks like they’re trying to clear the runway.”
The stewardess walked from the front with a weary expression hanging on her face. Joe spoke up. “Is anything wrong down there?”
The woman picked a piece of lint off her blue pants suit. “There are reports of gunfire in Kingston. Air traffic control has us circling until they know more.” The stewardess then huddled with two other attendants in the doorway leading into coach. They whispered amid animated gestures, before composing themselves and calmly walking down the aisle to see if the passengers needed anything else.
Caressa said, “You don’t think they’ll make us turn around?”
Joe shrugged and leaned to look out the window. She scanned the city, but saw no signs of trouble, other than thousands of crushed buildings and hundreds of thousands of fallen trees.
Caressa said, “Who do you think it is – looters?”
As the airplane completed the turn, Joe pointed out the window and said, “Look, smoke.”
Black smoke rose from the harbor. Most of the warehouses appeared badly damaged by the hurricane, but a stretch of them appeared to be on fire.
She forced a smile and said, “Still glad you came?”
Joe shrugged. “Didn’t have anything better to do.”
When she had thought it impossible, she laughed. Joe gazed at the fire and said, “A fire seems odd, does it not?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the entire area is soaked. Accidental fires typically happen when buildings and greenery are dry. Those warehouses were likely flooded.”
She nodded, examining streams of water on low-sitting roads. Everywhere she looked, she saw disaster. Hurricane devastation. Buildings burning. Her imagination, so stirred, could almost hear gunfire. She could not even be certain there was gunfire, but somehow she could hear it in her mind. She trembled with fright. “Joe, you are crazy to come here now. If not for my daughter, this is the last place I would want to be.”
Joe turned his head. The stewardess walked toward the cockpit. Having experienced nothing but frustration since the hurricane, Caressa now half-expected it. She said, “They will probably make us turn around.”
Joe smiled. “I will sleep in Jamaica tonight if I have to parachute out of this thing.”
She giggled and asked, “Did you bring a parachute?”
“It’s under my seat.”
The pilot said over the intercom: “We have received the green light to land. Everybody remain buckled up. We should set down in Kingston in just a few minutes.”
Joe pumped his fist. Caressa felt more reserved, not knowing if Adele was okay, or what to expect once they departed the plane. She said, “Joe, you should come to my place, if I still have a place, and stay a few days. Meet my daughter and stay until things settle down.”
“Thanks, but I want to leave for Port Antonio today.”
“Why are you so drawn to Port Antonio?”
“I don’t know. I just am.”
Whatever Joe was searching for in Port Antonio, she hoped he found it. She considered him a special friend and wished him the best, even though she preferred he stick around Kingston for a few days. This was no time to cross the mountain. Criminals would be active there, too. But despite being tempted, she did not try to talk Joe out of going. If nobody could talk him out of coming to Jamaica right now, it was futile to convince him to wait a few more days before going to Port Antonio.
“If I don’t get another chance after we land, thanks for all you did for me in Baltimore. And thanks for helping all us Jamaicans to come home.”
She gave him a soft kiss that served as her good-bye.
Joe felt breathless as the airplane touched down at the airport in Kingston. He tingled with excitement. Jamaicans, seated in coach, erupted in shouts of joy. Whatever awaited them, they were home. A few minutes later, Joe and Caressa led the other Jamaicans onto the concourse. He immediately heard steel drums and Calypso music as a five-piece band played to greet them.
A black car pulled up beside the airplane. Big Donkey climbed in and it pulled away. Caressa muttered, “Good riddance!”
Once inside the airport, they walked down a long hallway with white walls. Caressa said, “Joe, please change your mind and stay in Kingston for a couple of days. Adele would love to meet you. And it will be safer to travel then.”
“I want to get on over there, but I’ll come back to check on you as soon as I get settled.”
Caressa pulled a pen and paper out of her purse and stopped to write her number and address. She ripped the paper out and handed it to Joe. “This is my information. I don’t know when the phone will be working again, but I wrote the address, too. Just show up any time you want.”
They reached the immigration checkpoint. He soaked in her lovely face. “Caressa, it has been a great pleasure to get to know you.” He extended his hand to signal for her to go first, and she stepped forward.
Another immigration official stepped into the next booth. The man did a double-take when he saw Joe. He snarled, but then raised his hand to motion him forward. Joe stepped up to the counter and placed his passport, driver’s license, and duty declaration forms in front of the official. The man ignored the papers and asked, “What business do you have in Jamaica?”
“Then why did you come now? Are you mad?”
“No, sir. Just want to spend some time in Jamaica.”
“It’s mash up, mon. You must be crazy.”
Quite a contrast to the Calypso band, he thought. The man picked up the papers, examined them, and said, “How long do you intend to stay in Jamaica?”
“I got it approved for six months.”
The man snarled again and held the passport closer. He squinted at the photo, then shifted his eyes accusingly at Joe. “Why so long?”
“No reason. Just want to.”
“If you stay even one day over, we’ll arrest you and throw you in jail. We don’t play with those kind of things in Jamaica.”
Joe intended to find some way to stay well over six months, but he decided against telling this charming official. Instead, he smiled and said, “Thanks for the tip.”
The official grunted as he pulled out his stamp and pressed it against the passport. He shook his finger at Joe and said, “Move on to the next line. And don’t you forget what I said, you hear?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
Joe stepped through and turned down another hallway. It led to an area where lines of passengers normally would be. Today, only Caressa. A female immigration officer saw Joe, closed her eyes, reopened them, and acted as if she thought he would be gone. Joe smiled. She waved him forward. He set his documents in front of her. She shook her head and said, “What’s the purpose of your visit?”
Her eyes shifted to one side, then back at him. “Nobody comes to Jamaica right now for fun. Why are you here?”
“I planned to come before the hurricane, so I decided to come anyway.”
She shook her head. “How did you get permission? They said no foreigners. Until this plane, they didn’t even let any Jamaicans through. Why are you here?”
Joe raised his shoulders and cheeks. These immigration officials don’t play around. “Look, ma’am. I just want to be here. It doesn’t matter if things are not perfect.”
She frowned. “How long do you intend to be in Jamaica?”
“What will you do here for six months?”
He shrugged. “Maybe do a little writing.”
“What kind of writing?”
“I don’t know.”
She shook her head and tightened her jaw, but stamped his papers anyway. “You don’t want to overstay. You’ll be in plenty trouble if you do.”
He wanted to tell her that he intended to move here, but instead said, “Yes, ma’am.”
She shoved the papers back in front of him. “Move to the next line. You go to the line that says ‘Foreigners’.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
As he walked away, he heard her mutter, “Blood fire.”
Another turn, he walked down yet another hallway with stale white walls. He reached the end of the hallway and turned again. Caressa stood in the area to his left. He went to the right, to the line for foreigners. The man sneered at him and said, “So you’re the reason I had to come to work today.”
I’m making all kinds of friends in immigration, Joe said to himself. The man viewed his papers, paying particular attention to his declaration papers. He asked, “Did you bring any electronics?”
“Just my computer and a cassette player.”
The man viewed his computer bag and said, “The computer in that bag?”
Joe nodded. The man said, “Place it on the counter.”
Joe placed his first-generation Mac on the counter. The man viewed it with suspicion. He said, “Where is your cassette player?”
“I had some things shipped over ahead of time. Do you know where to pick them up?”
“Ask the information desk. You must pay a duty on the computer.”
Joe shook his head. “I was told I was allowed one personal computer.”
The man scowled, stamped the declaration papers, and said, “It’s a foolish foreigner who comes to Jamaica now.”
Joe shrugged, grabbed his papers, and walked out. If nothing else, he was out of immigration.
A black car with tinted windows pulled up to the airport. Big Donkey smiled, opened the door, and climbed into the backseat. Two men sat in the front, and one next to Big Donkey. The men intimidated with their dark glasses and suits they wore even in the tropical heat.
Big Donkey said, “Take me to Cudjoe.”
The man in the passenger seat turned and glared over his sunglasses. “Hey, dancehall boy, you think you can boss us around?”
“That’s why you here, to take me to Cudjoe, right?”
The man in the passenger’s seat pushed his glasses back up and turned away without saying a word. Big Donkey frowned. This is no way for gangsters to treat each other. He turned to the man seated in the backseat beside him and said, “What go on, brethren?”
The man turned to view him, but then looked away without replying. He would report their rudeness to this Cudjoe, whoever he was. He had never met the man, but Carlos Lopez said it was time.
Big Donkey felt honored that he would meet the mysterious Cudjoe. Rumor had it that not even most of the gang members knew the identity of the leader of the Creation Stepper Gang. Big Donkey looked forward to seeing the expressions on these men’s faces when they found out Big Donkey was now officially the second most powerful don in Jamaica.
Big Donkey daydreamed about his glorious future. He would destroy Ninjaman and become the next king of dancehall. His dancehall career and his secret life as a don would make him filthy rich. He intended to build the biggest house in Jamaica and bed every woman on the island. Any man who dared to cross him, he would order executed.
Nanny. Paul Bogle. Bob Marley. Norman Manley. Alexander Bustamante. One name would soon stand above them all. Big Donkey aspired not only to become king of dancehall, but king of Jamaica. Every kid in Jamaica for generations to come would know and cherish his name. When fools insisted Bob Marley was the greatest Jamaican celebrity ever, those who knew better would laugh and taunt them with Big Donkey’s achievements.
He leaned forward and said, “Listen to me now, brethren. You maybe not get the word, but me an important mon.”
The driver hit the brakes, and it threw Big Donkey back. The man in the passenger seat, and the man next to Big Donkey, laughed. Big Donkey twitched with anger. The nerve of these two-bit gangsters. They would be fortunate to survive this day. Big Donkey was a reasonable man, but enough was enough. These men had managed to get under his skin, and they would soon learn they had insulted the wrong person.
Big Donkey said, “Bloodclaat! You think this the end of this?”
The man turned and shook his head in a way that made Big Donkey nervous. It made no sense for them to treat him this way. He slumped back in his seat. He stared out the window at the destruction, but his mind remained on avenging their insults. Once he met Cudjoe, he would demand accountability for their actions. Maybe he would spare their lives, but he would demand they each lose a toe or a finger. He would serve notice to one and all that there were consequences for crossing Big Donkey.
The driver pulled the vehicle in front of a warehouse. The men turned to him, and the man in the passenger seat said, “Get out.”
Big Donkey expected to meet Cudjoe at some nicer place. He said, “Cudjoe inside?”
The man repeated, “Get out.”
The other men got out. Big Donkey climbed out and followed them into the building. He scoured the area. The building was a real dump, missing most of the roof and smelling like rotten fish. He said, “Where Cudjoe? Me not got no time to play around.”
All three men aimed their guns at him. Big Donkey felt confused. What was going on here? He said, “Hold on, mon. Cudjoe and the Colombian not let you get away with this.”
One of them laughed and said, “Cudjoe and the Colombian said to tell you they not like informers.”
“Me no informer.”
“They say you meet with DEA.”
“Me not tell them nothing. This a mistake.”
The man chuckled again. “You know, me not like dancehall or informers.” Guns blasted and Big Donkey flew backward into the wall.
Joe exited the last of the checkpoints in Jamaican Immigrations, and walked towards the information desk. Jamaica might be half or more destroyed by the hurricane, gangs might be shooting up the place, and he might even be crazy for coming here now, but his blood pumped with excitement.
Every day he had spent in Washington, he lost a little of himself. While he had thought a career in Washington was his vocation, it had turned out to be just another dead-end job. Not even the probability of becoming a U.S. Congressman compelled him to return. To succeed in Washington, one must sell their soul to one devil or another. Joe had no intention of selling his soul in pursuit of power, prestige, money, or anything else.
Joe knew not why he felt so strongly about coming to Jamaica, but he knew exactly why he had wanted to get out of Washington. No matter what hardships came with moving to the island after the hurricane, he desired to be here.
So many questions tormented him. Why had he been born? If not a politician, what was he intended to be? What is the purpose of life? What was his vocation? He could not be certain to find answers, but he had managed to escape the rat race. Against all odds, he had managed to get one commercial airliner to Jamaica, and himself a ticket on it. Far from certain about the situation in Jamaica, Joe possessed no doubt about his decision to flee the rat race.
I hope you enjoyed Escaping the Rat Race, book one in the Jamaica Series.
If you reached this point, you read the entire book. I worked hard on this project and want it to stand on its own two legs. I humbly request an honest review from actual readers.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading Escaping the Rat Race and taking part in the adventure.
All the best,
Escaping the Rat Race (Jamaica Series, book 1)
Thriller in Jamaica (Jamaica Series, book 2)
CONSTABLE BROWN (Jamaica Series, book 3)
First Lady (Jamaica Series, book 4)
Beyond the Rat Race (Jamaica Series, book 5)
The Decision (Jamaica Series, book 6)
Prime Minister The Decision (Jamaica Series, book 7)
Reporter (Jamaica Series, book 8)
Thanks to my wife Nicola, son Adonis, and daughter Alexaundrinia for your constant support. Thanks to John Briggs for your enormous editing skills. Thanks to all the people at the Author Alliance for dozens of major contributions. Thanks to everybody who assisted in the development of this book. Thanks to you, the readers.
Ever wondered how you got sucked into the daily grind? Joe Rivers does. On a rocket ride to power, fame and fortune, something is missing. He gives up his cushy job in Congress, determined to escape the rat race, move to Jamaica, and write the next great epic. With a hurricane and gangs waiting on him, what could possibly go wrong? Will Joe escape the rat race? Will Joe survive if he does? The background: Joe Rivers is the fastest rising staffer in Congress, and considered a shoo-in to become a U.S. Congressman himself in the next election. The problem is Joe no longer believes in the process. Lobbyists, unethical senators, congress-people, and the dirty under-handedness process make him want to get as far away from it as possible. Joe decides to move to Jamaica, resign his position on the Hill, and sell all his possessions. On the day Joe arrives at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) to catch his flight to his new country and home, Hurricane Gilbert strikes Jamaica. Joe ends up the only American at a gate full of Jamaicans trying to get home to check on their loved ones. Joe and the Jamaicans watch the monitors with horror as Hurricane Gilbert slams into Jamaica, seeming to swallow the entire island. All commercial flights to Jamaica are cancelled. Joe’s interaction with marooned Jamaican passengers is priceless. This is most apparent with a female artist who immediately commands his attention. Caressa is a talented Jamaican artist and businesswoman. On her way home from Peru, she gets rerouted to Baltimore. Caressa forges a friendship with Joe that provides her a much-needed distraction from her worries about her daughter and loved ones in Jamaica. Knowing the area like the back of his hand, Joe shows her some of the highlights. Do Joe and Caressa experience romance? A white man openly courting a black woman in 1988 is controversial to say the least, but Joe is a unique man. She finds herself alone with Joe at the top of the Washington Monument well after closing hours. The sparks definitely fly. In one of the more hilarious scenes, Joe takes the stranded Jamaicans on an outing full of colorful conversation. The cultures clash head on with Peter, the slightly bigoted Jamaican, and the gay waiter. Joe finds himself stuck in the middle of each one of these cultural exchanges that take place throughout the book. The airline informs the stranded passengers that all flights to Jamaica are cancelled for at least another week. The airlines inform Joe that only Jamaicans will be allowed to go then. Joe is not one to accept such rejections. Can Joe get himself and the Jamaicans to Jamaica when all other commercial flights are blocked? DOWNLOAD the Escaping the Rat Race.