Once, years ago, I stumbled off the road onto the verge, lost my footing, and fell into a steaming deposit that had been lurking under the ditch lilies for an hour or so, waiting for me. I was drunk of course, protected by a measure of charming indifference. But on balance it was the most disgusting thing I'd done that whole day, and I so grossed out the young tourist lady I was with, she ran away to the ferry docks and was gone, no matter that the devil-may-care sailor she'd just met (me) owned a sailboat and had promised to take her sailing around the island.
Where is her sense of humor, I thought.
Actually, the turd pile over the berm had come not from an animal, but from a friend of mine we used to call Grasshopper, a little fellow so named because he was bald and squinty-eyed and because he continually spat up a horrible brown juice, which was the waste product of a sick metabolic process as convulsive as worms. He's dead now, but yes, mother, he shat in public. And he did such a thing because he was a drunk. Like me.
I wonder now why the actual tactile load was so much more dense than the usual slimy water. He must've eaten a meal (hmm…). But as it happened, I put the heel of my hand into the squishy deposit, and slid for what felt like six-hundred yards, ruining my too small T-shirt and leaving a smear of orange-red wino trace on the strip of skin surrounding my navel. My performance angered the gods, awakened the blowflies and caused a positive reek of rottenness to swirl in the tropic air around me. Lucy (or was it Linda?) from So-Cal, raised her pink little hands to her cheeks and squeaked at me, "My God, what have you done?"
So I shouted at her, "Get back! There's shit here! Save yourself!" And when I began to laugh, she ran away, frightened at my manic explosion and my casual familiarity with things so vomitous. In the end, I had to go swimming alone to clean up. And If I remember correctly, there was a swell running that day. I almost drowned. Jimmy Duppy was just a kid then, but he must have saved me, dredging me up from the backwash.
Jimmy used to get embarrassed at my fuck ups in those days. And you'd think now that a few such awful episodes, coupled with Jimmy's pre-teen disapproval, would have led me to sobriety's doorstep. Sadly that was never the case. I considered my bilgy trips fun back then. Ten years later I was still knocking the rum down like water, like it represented life itself, like it was tied somehow to the fortunes of Jimmy and me and Oscar and Joop and the rest, left to us like an irresistible fruit from the garden (sigh).
I remember now what it was like to worship a full bottle of booze. I remember we'd move the weight of it from one to another and pay homage to it, bask in its glory and hold it up to the light for the sparkle and the column of refraction. It was power and comfort, an art of pureness and a well of promise. It was our perverse companion then, as it was mine in the beginning. Me and rum, on the sea, together on my little boat.
Until I sank my little boat in the shallows east of Goat Rock. I was drunk again, of course. I had to move into a box on the beach, and sleep in a hammock.
So there was rum, and there was my depressing reputation as a sailor and a rogue, and there was the island of St. Estes where I chose to live. And there was Jimmy Duppy, whom I instructed selfishly in the dissolute arts of excess.
It's time now, finally, for the federal government to release my adopted son Jimmy. He should be here by tomorrow afternoon. He'll ride over on the three o'clock ferry from Charlotte Amalie and step onto the dock, and I'll be there waiting in the crowd with stuttering Joop and big muscle-bound Oscar and the rest. And it'll be good to see him, but it'll be strange, too.
I'm afraid, really. After all this time, I won't know how to act or what exactly to expect. Will I even know him? His letters were few and disjointed. I hear he has put on weight.
There's going to be a party in town. It'll be a regular carnival jump-up. Reggae-bop steel drummin' an' all…Yee Haw….
But I won't be involved. Not like before.
These past two years haven't been easy. When Jimmy left, I stopped drinking and haven't had a drop since. And this long, sober island detention has been a penance for me and a wake-up call of sorts. I've cleaned up the mess that was my life, as best I could anyway, but I'm frightened that it could change at any minute. It was especially bad in the beginning—a punishing few months—and it was an education, too, because I know I'm not strong enough to do it again. The next time will kill me.
My name is Sean Jackson Riley and I'm a bum. And this is a bum's story. I'm the head bum, a behind the scenes bum mover, the leader of a bunch of bums who at times would look up to me.
Now, at this exact moment in time, I'm a sober bum. It's been a mantra to me—my soberness. A wonder. You have no idea how incredible it is that I'm sober and thoughtful and wise, and the blood that runs through my veins is clean. And now it's February again, the most forbidding month of the season that's called Winter in many parts of the world, but could be accused of indifference here on St. Estes, U.S. Virgin Islands. And on this February, tomorrow, Jimmy's coming home.
Joop and Oscar came by this morning. They brought Herman Chin from Herman's First & Last Disco Bar. We sat and laughed, waded in the shallows, threw shells at the gulls, and tried to decide what we should do, how we should approach this homecoming. No one knows anything about prison. No one can predict what he'll be like.
He should never have gone.
But if I piece it all together and tell the story, tell it as I know it and as Herman and Oscar and Joop know it, it will likely fatten you up with good cheer, and that would be an inaccurate reaction. This story is not about Jimmy. Not entirely, anyway. This story, first and foremost, is a story about staying high, getting drunk, falling down and losing control and sliding into an ever‑widening canyon of indelicacies. When I look back, I can't believe how driven we were to maintain such an edge of inebriation.
"Feed me, Seymour!"
---from Little Shop of Horrors.
ON MOST DAYS, Jimmy Duppy was a very cool rastafarian guy. He was one of those native attractions you can find on beaches, who seem to be supremely confident in their shoeless island charm, and who smile at your pinkness and offer help in all things local. He was the youngest of us all, the hardest to wake in the morning, but the most eager to embrace the day when it was time to be useful.
And I was his dad (Poppy, he called me), his caretaker since he'd been small and eager and mischievous and clever. I did a lousy job, of course, and a thoughtless job. Still, I took a mostly unarticulated pride in Jimmy. My boy. Jimmy Duppy of the islands.
What a crock of crap.
But logic has no underpinnings in the life of a drunk. I needed that family tie, no matter that it was a lie.
Jimmy was a charmer. He had cheekbones as prominent as bobbins, and the long thin nose of an ascetic or a rock star, the combination giving him an undeniable appeal with the ladies. Where muscle and sinew should have layered his body, only the sleek, pliant tubes of a layabout could be seen. To anyone from the north, his features were animated with an unmistakable regional burnish, the sun-cured color of teakwood. And knuckles, elbows, ankles and knees were as extreme and as knobby as nuts, the whole thing conveying a fragility, like a tinkertoy construction of twigs. He belonged in a watercolor as delicate as glass and light as wind ----except for his hair.
He'd never cut his hair, at least in anyone's memory, and the stuff was long, down beyond his waist, knotted like old mattress ticking, streaked with orange from the sun, and a peculiar shade of frosted brown from age and the natural friction of day to day wear. It was a hackled hat as old as he was and as large. The whole island agreed: it was magnificent. It was a nest of lanyards the size and shape of Tahiti, a Brazilian rainforest of hair which, in a resort town regularly invaded by camera carrying twinks, was a big-time money maker for his cause and for his disciples.
We all had our uses during those days, when it was so important to stay loaded. Jimmy's was to panhandle. And the more loaded he was, the better he became and the sweeter his smile and the more money we'd make from the visitors who'd never been face to face with a genuine rastafarian jungle guy. Teenaged daughters were the best. Captivated by his polychrome eyes, they'd badger daddy for dollars in order to hang out and earn a mysterious nod from Jimmy through the smoke of his spliff.
Jimmy, it must be said, was not shackled by any religious beliefs. He just liked lots of hair, and on that score was a Wailer at the extreme limits of nattydom. Standing on the street by the government docks, where the ferryboats disgorged a continuous sunscreen slick of freckled humanity, he'd sing out like some kind of exotic bird.
"Eee oooh, I am I an' ob de i-land, ground in de dust ob turd world pov-er-tee…" and his musical cadence and confusing syntax captivated them as he begged their dollars in rhyme. "Me fadder him gone, me mudder gone too, an I'm crush by de weight o' Babylon…" He'd point to his spare-ribbed, naked torso and waggle his skinny arms, and the bucks would come to us, gifts from the fatted lands of clocks and bother. We even learned the art of deferred rewards. On the scenic streets of Fynbourg, when the tour trolley would pass, he'd holler from the gutter: "Coom to me now, me white fren ob de pressed, an' gib soom ting for de kitty…." His huge head of hair was a magnet for the cameras, and later, when the folks from the tour passed him as they walked through town, they'd click their photos and pass out the dough, and the rest of us would get drunk as we sat under the big banyan tree in the park with some of the other bums and watched.
Sometimes Jimmy got mad. He had these towering rages which no one quite understood, but which frightened the white people. They would hurry away, concerned for their safety and unsure about the politics involved with dreadedout Negroes in the tropics.
"Ya mon, ya stink!" he'd scream. "Piggy piggy piggy piggy! Ya fookin piggys ever one! Eee's a fookin whitehead pressers, ya stink!" And a big opening would form around the skinny man who was so angry. Stomping his bare feet in the dust, he'd rant to the alarmed tourists: "I yam I, ya fookin piggys! dis my I-land from me fadder an me fadder's fadder! I goes me own way an I stand on de spot what I want, wit no downpresser mon, no downpresser mon in me eye, ya fookin piggy whitey! Me turd-world ting is me own…." and so on. The spittle flew and the ropy curls swung round his big yellow eyes, and all the local people knew that his rage amounted to nothing. One beer or a polite little puff of marijuana and he became the grinning, occasionally dribbling, good natured Jimmy Duppy that we all knew and loved. On an island which included a fair representation of Caribbean hucksters, Jimmy was one of the best at sucking money from vacationing secretaries and factory workers just arrived, whose piña colada patina of ignorance left them anxious to please. Guilt milking was Jimmy's gift to us all.
Of course, I was the most likely beneficiary—old Poppy Riley with the sickness. My mornings were bouts of boozy vertigo. My focus was lost to internal cataclysms, roiling guts, and lousy circuitry. The alchemy of liquor had rearranged my foundation. These old eyes were once gentle and round and blue, full of humor and touched by generosity. Now though, because of many years in the sun and under the spell of drink, they're marred by unscrupulous fissures, wickered with crosshairs, and surrounded by a skein of burst vessels. Many women on the island would say I wasn't the man I should have been. "You're only fifty," they'd tell me. But I had deflated with the passing of time, and I had been de-clawed by the bastings of the tropics.
It's a good thing I've got Jimmy, I remember thinking at the time.