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The refrigerator was broken. Joanne held her hands on her hips. Her cousin Dimitri was standing next to her. They were alone in the kitchen. The children were following a trail of ants on the gallery outside and Wisner had just carried the last suitcase in from the car. The air was strong, blinding, although it was nearly four in the afternoon.
“Manman where’s my bathing suit?”
“I don’t want to go to the beach! Manman did you get the wifi?”
The children were hot. Joanne told them both to go find their bathing suits in their suitcase.
“But the wifi?”
“We’re in Haiti. There’s no wifi.”
Dimitri protested, “there is wifi in Haiti! All you have to do is to call Natcom and…”
Joanne glared at her cousin. The children turned to him with pleading eyes.
He chuckled, “hmm, I forgot, this house can’t get wifi. Something about the position. I’ll take you to La Colline later, there’s wifi there. Go, get changed and we’ll go swimming.”
Joanne turned back to the broken refrigerator.
“It was working last week. I don’t understand what happened.” Her cousin who was supposed to be managing the property sighed. “That fellow,” he indicated Wisner out on the gallery, who, having carried the suitcases in, needed to relax and was sitting on a wicker chair, balancing it on its back legs so he could recline while staring at the sea. “he’s no light bulb.”
She opened both the freezer and the regular refrigerator doors. It was already smelling bad like a dead appliance. They were holes in the back of the top compartment as if someone had shot a gun inside the fridge. It was definitely strange. She looked at the rest of the kitchen, it was the same as the last time she came, the valances above the window had gained a few new stains. She switched on the light. Nothing. She went to the door, “Wisner please come open the windows. I need to see.” She then turned to her cousin, “there’s no power?”
“We’ve only been getting about five hours a day for the past two months. And yes, I know we have the inverter batteries but the electric company’s been on the attack and they gave us a couple of power surges that blew up the inverter box.” He was a really nice guy her cousin, always in a good mood. Dimitri had moved to the beach from the capital about five years ago. After years of hesitation, he had come out in a city that was the human equivalent of a pressure cooker on mark five. People were consistently hot, broke and on the verge of violence. The fact that gays were still referred to as “ma sissi” and regularly described as deviants and perverts on the radio by fanatic preachers were part of what kept Dimitri in the closet for so long. At least at the beach he could have some peace. He was seen as an outsider by the local community and as long as he kept his ‘mores’ as they said to himself and didn’t try to seduce their sons, he was good. Of course the challenge in a Haitian province is to make a living, especially in greenback as the Gourde is only good for buying plantains, a rough spirit called Clairin (even rum, at least decent rum was denominated in US now) and little plastic bags of Fab, a local laundry detergent that is guaranteed to eat your clothes. So Dimitri started his own little Airbnb service, managing and renting out the five or six beach houses along the bay. As there were no tourists in Haiti, business consisted of people from Port-au-Prince looking for a weekend or a few days away, UN personnel and foreign aid workers. It wasn’t a bad business for Joanne and for Dimitri as it allowed the house to pay for itself and for Dimitri to make some money. The costs were simple, she had to pay the water, electricity (although there was no power), and gas cylinders for the stove. And she had to pay Wisner, the live-in watchman/gardener/cleaner/homme a tout faire that had come with the house. Although the quality of Wisner’s work was mediocre at best, Joanne liked him. He was a peaceful guy and anyway she could not fire him. Wisner represented something greater than himself, he was the price of Joanne’s acceptance in this seaside community, the proof of her willingness to share the spoils of her diaspora success with the local malheureux, her protection against envy and arson. In other words, Wisner was her property tax.
He came into the house. His plastic flip flops made a smacking sound every time he lifted his heel. A small man, slender, with the content expression of one who lives well and of whom not much is expected, he was of indeterminate age or like the light-skinned urbanites would say, he was too black to tell. To be fair, Wisner himself wasn’t sure how old he was. He was born in the days when people measured their lives according to the presidential cycle. When asked their age, it was common to hear answers like, I was born under President Estime, or he died under President Magloire. This way of framing human lives was as good as any when presidents were regularly overthrown, assassinated or sent into exile. Then Duvalier came to power, and stayed for twenty-two years.
Dimitri continued his account, “so I took the inverter to the guy who fixes them in Jacmel. He told me EDH had fried all the inverters in the area. He already had fifteen of them in the shop. It was supposed to be ready two days ago and I went yesterday to pick it up since I knew you were coming and I wanted you to find your house with power.” He shook his head, “you won’t believe this.”
Joanne smiled. A story. Of course. Is that how the world works, she wondered. Either you have a society that gets things done but somewhere along their way to efficiency they lose that color, that flavor that makes life in Haiti so infuriating but also so lovely. Because nothing works, the absurdity in trying to gain control over life is much more plain here. People enjoy stories when there are no results to be had.
“So,” Dimitri started, “I go there and I see the police and the owner of the business cursing and shouting. One of his employees broke into the shop during the night and stole all the inverter boxes that had been left for fixing. No one knows where he went but they are sure he left the region. But the guy told me he had hired a private investigator to find him and that he personally guarantees all the inverter boxes.”
“What does that mean?” Joanne was trying to figure out if Dimitri was just telling her what the guy told him or if he really believed him.
“He said he would buy each one of his clients a new inverter box if it came to that.” Dimitri shrugged, “it’s best to believe him until we have a reason not to, don’t you think?”
Joanne was already switching to Haitian mode. She made a mental list of how many things she could get upset about and started crossing out items. What she had to salvage above all was her precious holiday with her children. Did they really need power twenty-four seven? The whole idea was to be in nature, enjoy the beach, the sun, reconnect with family and friends. It was important for her, this yearly trip home. It reassured her, it gave her the courage and the energy to face the cold, the loneliness, the tiredness of her life abroad. If they had power in the evenings, they’d be fine. Even the fridge would keep the food fresh on five or six hours power provided they didn’t open the doors too much and added a bag or two of ice.
But the refrigerator had holes all over and smelled bad.
“That,” Dimitri pointed at Wisner who was still in the process of opening the wooden shutters, “you’ll have to ask your man here.” He switched to English, “I know you’re afraid of firing him but…look even the ice box, you know the one you bought last year? It’s gone. I saw him loading it into the trunk of some renters’ car last month who drove happily away with their new free cooler. I ran up to him and was like ‘Wisner what the hell man?’ You know what he said? He thought the cooler was theirs although he’d been looking at that thing sitting here for the past year.”
Joanne sighed. She thought of asking Dimitri if he at least called those people to see if they’d return the ice box but she remembered her mental list and decided that this one was a crosser outer. Also it would be very typical to leave the main problem, the refrigerator, and to focus on the minor problem, the ice box, and to confuse a bad compromise, a capitulation with a solution. So let’s pretend this thing here is some kind of smelly cupboard and focus on somehow getting the icebox back so we can use it for our food and forget we ever had a working refrigerator. Story of this nation since 1804. No, Joanne would not let the refrigerator go. “Don’t worry about the ice box Dimi, it’s hot, go to the beach with the kids, they’re dying to hang out with you. Let me talk with Wisner, I’ll join you right after.”
After Dimitri was gone with the children, Joanne called Wisner, “come tell me about this refrigerator please.”
He didn’t respond. He had just lifted one metal bar from the last window in the room and was about to lift the other one. Really, the only thing Wisner did with speed and efficiency was to cut trees. He could be a contender for Deforester of the Year, no small feat in the ecological disaster that was Haiti. Joanne had once asked him to trim the branches of the neem tree in the garden. She thought nothing of it and went about her business and had a shock when barely twenty minutes later, there was a stump and a scorching sun in the place where just a few hours before, she had been sitting in the shade. He had now lifted the other metal bar. He pushed on the shutters, no they swung back shut. He had to push again. “Wisner!” Joanne screamed this time.
“Oui Madame?” She had his attention.
“What happened to the fridge?” Joanne spoke with flowers in her mouth.
Wisner stood on one foot, then on the other. “Uh, eh…”
Joanne took a deep breath. “Because it looks like I’m going to have to buy a new refrigerator. We cannot rent the house without a refrigerator and if we cannot rent it, I will have to sell it.”
“Eh ben,” he started. He told her how Dimitri had made him uproot the beans from the garden in order to plant grass and he had been making good money with the beans and so to replace that income, he had started selling ice.
“From the freezer?” Joanne thought, ok, nothing wrong with filling some trays and selling little bags of ice. That’s not what destroyed the refrigerator.
Reassured by her demeanor, Wisner expanded. He said he couldn’t make enough with the little trays and so he had the brilliant idea of laying the refrigerator down on its back and, using the garden hose, filled up the freezer compartment with water and then once it was frozen, he broke up the block of ice with an ice pick.
Thus the bullet-like holes in the back of the freezer.
Dimitri was not surprised. “What did you expect from that Einstein?”
Joanne sat on the beach. She didn’t know what to say. As she watched her children playing in English on the sand, she overheard Dimitri tell the story of the freezer to an acquaintance from Port-au-Prince he came across on the beach. “A prime example of Homo Haitian in action. And they think we’re like the other Homo Sapiens, Ha! Now you see why this country will never get anywhere?”
They laughed at their own damnation. Joanne stood up, “Dimitri!” She was serious. “How many kids does Wisner have? Are his parents still alive? In good health?”
Dimitri frowned, he had never thought of asking Wisner anything about himself. Joanne patted him on the shoulder. “Ah, I’m as bad as you. I never asked either.”
The acquaintance, a portly trader type opened his icebox and took out a beer. “You look like you could use one,” he opened it and offered the cold bottle to Joanne.
She accepted with pleasure. A very old pick-up truck stopped on the side of the road. “Dimitri! Dimitri!” A man in shirt sleeves was shouting and waving at them.
Dimitri walked over to him.
“You know Wisner doesn’t expect you or Dimitri to ask about his news. He may think you’re a spy, that you’re trying to find out about his children or his parents in order to put a spell on them.”
“This is not a simple country. Haiti will surprise you. Sometimes when you’ve lived abroad for too long, you forget that. ” He opened a beer for himself and clinked his bottle with Joanne’s. They sat on his sunbed. A young man ran past them holding a surf board.
Dimitri came back. He looked pleased. “You won’t believe this.”
Joanne frowned. She had had enough of the ‘lovely’ side of Haiti for the day.
“No, really. That was Gus, the inverter man. They found the thief. He was in Ouanaminthe trying to cross the border. He had already sold all the inverters but they beat him until he returned the cash he’d made. So Gus can replace the stolen goods.
You see what I was saying, no reason to worry until there is a reason to worry!” He took a sip from Joanne’s beer, took off his shirt and ran into the sea, holding the children each with one hand, and encouraged them to shout out their joy “this is Haiti! Here you can scream as much as you want! Woohoo!” He shouted.
“Woohoo!” The children screamed from the top of their lungs as they all jumped together into a crashing wave.
Tinos, August 2016