Excerpt from Nobody Owns the Rainbow

Nobody Owns the Rainbow

© Kristine Simelda, 2017, River Ridge Press

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PART ONE: THE HOOK 

Chapter 1: In Limbo

Johnny rolls the ancient Zemi stone around in his pocket as he stands in line at the island bank. He carries the artifact for good luck—and today he is going to need all the luck the small carving can bring him. In his other hand, between his thumb and forefinger, he strokes the check his cousin Stanford has written him for his portion of the family land. All his hopes for the future are pinned to that flimsy slip of paper. What if it doesn’t cash? Then what is he going to do? Strangle his double-dealing cousin? Dive into the sea and keep on swimming until he drowns?

He stares at the TV mounted in a corner near the ceiling while he waits for his fate to be decided. The BBC is flashing gruesome pictures of the latest war in Africa. An aging blonde woman with heavy makeup mouths words that he supposes corresponded to the text rolling silently along the bottom of the screen. In his mind, he substitutes the words of warning his father, John, had rung in his ears almost every day of his life for the captions. Out there is like a slaughterhouse, a human marketplace where downpression of the black man is still happenin every day. From what Johnny sees on the set, it looks like what John said is true.

But Stanford has assured him he won’t have a problem. He says the check is drawn on the offshore account of a real estate mortgage company that he himself owns, and that there is plenty of money in the main branch of the same bank in Canada. Johnny hopes his two-faced cousin is telling the truth. Jah knows he’s had enough problems in life already.

“Next,” a teller calls from window #5.

Johnny steps up to the counter. “I’d like to deposit this check,” he says.

The teller looks him up and down with eyes that Johnny suspects sense his unease. He is wearing a suit jacket that Stanford loaned him especially for the occasion. It’s a couple of sizes too small, and the young woman behind the glass must realize it isn’t his own. “Do you have an account with us, sir?”

Johnny clears his throat, and then he recites the lines he’s rehearsed with Stanford. “No, I don’t have an account as yet. But the party who issued the check, Stanford Baptiste, president of Snowbird Inc., banks with your main office in Canada.”

Tall with a smooth mahogany complexion, Johnny is a big man. He has even, white teeth and clear brown eyes. His nose is well shaped due to his mother’s Amerindian heritage, and his lips are full thanks to his father’s African roots. His neat dreadlocks are drawn back away from his face by an elastic band sporting liberation colors of red, gold, and green. He’s handsome in a rootsy kind of way.

“Pardon? I didn’t quite get you,” the teller says. As she leans towards him, her ample breasts test the buttons of her blouse the same way his muscles challenge the tight fit of his jacket.

“Mir-an-da,” he pronounces phonetically as he struggles to read what is printed on the plastic name tag pinned to her chest.

“That’s me,” she says. A little on the chunky side, Miranda has a pretty, round face. Her no-nonsense glasses frame dark, extravagantly outlined eyes. She wears copious amounts of jewelry, both silver and gold, and her hair is done up in a lavish pile of braids, which wind around the top of her head like a nest of sleeping serpents. To Johnny, whose senses have always been keen, she smells like a calabash full of exotic spices—not at all like the ordinary cinnamon and nutmeg that are so common in the local market—more like somebody destined to make her way in a distant, far-flung part of the world.

“Um, I’ve been told this island branch of the bank has good customer service, so I want to open an account with the money from this check,” he says, coming back to the task at hand.

Miranda snaps to attention. “That’s great!”

Johnny has never dealt with a check before. Up until now, all of his business has been in cash or trade. “What do I have to do?”

“Sign on the back on the endorsement line.” She hands him a pen that is chained to her window and smiles. “You can use my pen.”

“Thanks.” Printing his name in block letters takes every bit of Johnny’s concentration.

“John Baptiste,” she comments when he hands it over. “That has to be the most common name on the island.”

“It was my father’s name, too,” Johnny says, blushing. He has always been embarrassed by his ordinary name, always wished it was something grander.

“We’ll also need your legal signature, so we can put it in the file.”

Johnny takes up the pen again and scribbles hard and fast. The result is illegible. Miranda glances at the signature and raises a sculpted eyebrow. “And we’ll need to copy a picture ID.”

While he fishes in the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet with his National ID Card, Miranda turns the check right-side up and does a double take. “Oh! Wait here, Mr. Baptiste. I’ll have to consult with my manager!”

Just like having problems, waiting is nothing new to Johnny. He has been waiting for most of his life . . . waiting for a ride to town, waiting for the crops to mature, and waiting for his dreams to come true. And now he’s waiting for the damn check to cash, so he can pay off the vampires that are harassing his mother and get off this godforsaken island once and for all.

His father hadn’t believed in banks, let alone life insurance. He kept all the money he and Johnny’s mother, Alma, had managed to scrape together over the years hidden under a loose floorboard in the kitchen. But that was all gone now. The doctor and hospital bills ate up the little bit of cash like a joke when John fell ill with the stroke. Broke and humiliated, Alma was forced to move Johnny’s father back home ahead of time and try to care for him herself. Yet no matter what herbal remedies she tried and how much she prayed, John’s health hadn’t improved. Now, even though Johnny’s father was dead, the bill collectors continued to trouble his mother day and night. Bastards! Even the Catholic church in the village wanted to profit from his father’s funeral! What kind of world was it where a father, mother, and son had lived together in a peaceable manner on their own private property only to be hassled by bloodsuckers that had no respect for the pain and suffering they’d recently been through? The answer was simple. It was a world Johnny no longer wanted any part of. Best he set up his mother and moved on, and the way he saw it, the check in his hand was the only possible ticket out.

Johnny watches Miranda’s backside sway towards a row of office cubicles that line the far wall. Tiny sparks fly from her high heels as they brush across the pile carpet. Yeah, man. She is definitely hot. He takes a deep breath and turns his attention back to the TV. But instead of focusing on the screen, his mind goes streaming back to his childhood—to a simpler, happier time before his cousin Stanford got his hooks into him and his life was turned upside down.

*

They never had a television set at home. His father referred to the electronic box as Babylvision and had forbidden him to watch it. They played cards and dominoes and listened to old Bob Marley and Peter Tosh cassettes on a portable boom box connected to a 12-volt car battery they kept in the outside kitchen for entertainment. The reggae beat, which conveyed the message of the Rastafari movement and pulsed like the heartbeat of Africa, had echoed across the ridges and ravines and reverberated in the valleys of his childhood. Sometimes, especially during emancipation celebration, his father pounded out powerful rhythms on his drum, smoked ganja, and chanted along with the music. It was a good thing they didn’t live on the Caribbean side of the mountain; no doubt smoking marijuana was illegal over there. But no one on the wild side ever complained, since all their neighbors were Rastafari themselves.

Johnny’s immediate family owned half of a volcanic mountain called Morne Plaisance, Morne meaning “mount” in Creole, and Plaisance loosely translated as a “pleasant place,” which was located in the exact center of the island. Everyone agreed Plaisance was appropriate to the positive vibes it generated, but no one was quite sure why a mountain was sometimes called a morne in the Caribbean. In Johnny’s mind, it seemed almost contradictory: If a thing was mournful how could it be pleasant at the same time? In any event, the John Baptiste portion of Morne Plaisance stretched all the way from the mist-covered pinnacle down to the rocky Atlantic shore. From the time he was small, Johnny had been marched up to the top of the mountain by his father so that he could survey his magnificent birthright.

“Someday all this will be yours,” John told his only child, waving his hand expansively.

And for a short while it had been. But unfortunately things that delighted Johnny as a child were no longer enough to please him as an adult. His pleasures now were much more complicated.

*

Johnny tugs on the uncomfortable sleeves of Stanford’s ill-fitting jacket as he continues to wait for Miranda to return. Desperate to receive his money so he can free up his mother and get on with his life, he feels as if he is stuck in limbo, longing for something as yet unknown to replace the easy grace of being young and free. He is leaning on the counter when Miranda shimmies back to the window holding a folder bulging with papers. “Mr. Baptiste, could you please follow me? Our branch manager, Mr. Bidwell, needs you to fill out some forms for FINTRAC.”

“What’s FINTRAC?” asks Johnny, screwing up his face.

“The Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada. Mr. Bidwell says any large transaction that is drawn on an offshore account has to be reported. They want to know all about our special customers like you,” Miranda says sweetly.

He had been afraid something like this would happen. He was capable of scribbling a hasty signature, but oblivious to the technicalities of the banking industry. For all his brawn and good looks, Johnny had never properly learned to read or write.

“But I hurt my wrist last week on the job,” he lies. “So I won’t be able to fill out all those forms right now.”

“I can help you,” says Miranda. “I get bonus points for every new account I open.”

“No. I mean, no. It’s best I come back when my wrist is better, or, uh, maybe I could take the papers with me and bring them in later on.”

“Okay. It’s up to you. But the sooner you complete the forms, the sooner you can access the money. Here’s my card with my number. Call me if there’s any way I can help out.”

Johnny accepts the card and the papers then stands bewildered at the window rubbing his counterfeit injury.

“Hey! I’m next!” an impatient customer calls out from the line behind him.

Johnny brushes past the security guard and exits the air-conditioned bank through the automatic doors. His cousin Stanford is waiting on the blistering sidewalk. “How’d it go?” he asks, sliding his sunglasses to the top of his shaved head.

Stanford, a good-looking chap of thirty-four years, smells like a strange combination of Hugo Boss cologne and pizza sauce. But although he’s eight years older than Johnny, he’s smaller in every way. He wears a pink polo shirt, designer jeans, and boat shoes. He could be mistaken for a tourist except for the fact that he is loaded down with more gold jewelry than outsiders would dare to wear in public. His eyes glitter with an unnatural sheen as they dart nervously around the area where the two of them are standing, and his nose drips constantly as if he is fighting back a cold.

“It didn’t go too good,” Johnny says, handing him back his jacket. “They wanted me to fill out a bunch of forms. The teller offered to help, but I thought I’d better check with you. I brought along the papers, but first I need a fix.” His hands are shaking, and his head feels like it might explode.

Johnny’s cousin quickly leafs through the folder. “No problem, man. Let’s go back to my hotel room. You can smoke your shit out back while I fill out these forms, then we can head down to the Green Lantern for  pizza and a couple of cold ones.”

What choice did he have? “Okay,” Johnny mumbles.

Stanford’s overly air-conditioned room in the city of Newtown is an abomination of generic island décor. Badly framed prints, which depict scenes from some other hemisphere, hang cockeyed above the veneered headboard of the bed that is bolted to the wall. The shiny quilted spread is a gaudy print of overblown flowers that have never been known to grow in the tropics. Two Queen Anne armchairs with stained maroon ultra-suede upholstery flank the wrought iron nightstands. A beige tweed couch hugs the opposite wall, and a smudged glass-topped coffee table sits in front of it. Heavy drapes are drawn against any possibility of a sea view.

Every time he enters Stanford’s domain, Johnny feels like a fly trapped in a synthetic web. He catches his reflection in the gilded mirror over the couch, and he doesn’t like what he sees. There are dark circles under his eyes, and his jaw is set like a vice. “Inside here is like a cave. I don’t know if it’s day or night,” he says, flipping on the light switch.

Stanford accepts his pronouncement as a compliment. “It’s the most expensive suite at The Antilles,” he boasts, flipping the lights back off. “And totally secure.” He hands Johnny a plastic bag containing brownish yellow crystals.

Johnny hangs his head and shields his face within his hands as he leaves the room and positions himself behind the dumpster in the back lot. He should have tried to find a more secluded spot, but considering the stress he’d just been through, he can’t wait to get high. He extracts the glass pipe from his pocket, fills it, and lights up. But the cracking sound the crystals make as they ignite make him feel embarrassed. What if somebody finds him out? What if he goes to jail like his father did during the time of the Dread Act?

Rumor had it that his father had been one of the militant young bush men who had combined the spiritual beliefs of the Rastafari with the political jargon of the Black Power movement in the late seventies. Eager to join the crusade, John and his neighbor Solomon had rejected capitalism and designed to live off the land. They grew out their Afros and began to wear their hair in long matted ropes called dreadlocks while smoking copious amounts of marijuana, which they considered a sacred herb. Local people called them Dreads, and anyone who attempted to enter their plantations of illegal weed, including police, was shot on sight with guns that they had bartered for with the very same ganja. If food was scarce, John and Solomon would descend from the heights and raid adjoining gardens, sometimes confronting farmers, villagers, and tourists in the process.

“Babylon must burn!” was their battle cry as they terrorized innocent bystanders.

When the situation became intolerable, the island’s government had responded by passing the Dread Act, a law that made it illegal to be a Dread, support a Dread, or even wear dreadlocks. But John wasn’t the type of fellow who believed in the law. They threw him in jail for assaulting police, using indecent language, and resisting arrest. And then they cut off his locks. Fortunately for everyone involved, John emerged from detention a mellower man, no longer inclined to violent ways of thinking, talking, or acting. He met Johnny’s mother, and settled down to raise a family. But he still held on to the ideals of the Rastafari movement, which he preached to anyone who would listen, mostly Alma and baby Johnny.

But for Johnny, smoking marijuana alone was not enough to block out the pain and guilt he had suffered since his father’s death. Crack was an incredible high—a joy ride that instantly obliterated all the stumbling stones that he believed routinely blocked his path to happiness. Still, he couldn’t imagine living like Stanford, sleeping in rented beds, eating each and every meal in restaurants, picking up any woman who caught his eye, and never really feeling at home. How had he gotten mixed up in this mess, anyway? What was to become of him now that he’d sold his family land and deserted his mother? Then, suddenly, none of that mattered. The only thing that was important now was the pipe in his hand. From the very first drag, his concern disappeared in a puff of smoke, and he was sure everything was going to be just fine.

“Don’t worry,” Stanford reassures him when he drifts back inside. “I’ve had a lot of experience dodging the guys at FINTRAC. They like to blow hard, but when it comes down to multi-million dollar transactions like this, they know it’s in their own interest to keep their mouths shut.”

While Stanford finishes filling out the forms, Johnny paces the room impatiently. He is wired and ready to rock. Yet he can’t get over the feeling that he has been set up, tricked by his cousin into doing something that goes against every bone in his body, everything he has been brought up to believe in. Just because he couldn’t read and write so well didn’t mean he was completely stupid.

The Babylon corrupt and greedy. You overstand? his father’s voice reminds him.

Yeah, man. He overstands that when John was alive he had done his best to keep his only son sheltered from outside influences that corrupted the mind, body, and soul. But now that his father was dead, Johnny had turned his back on John’s version of Zion like a Judas and aligned himself with Stanford’s Babylon, big time.