UNITED STATES—The harshness was candy-coated by money, which was for people what meat was for dogs. The mere scent whipped folks into a frenzy. The businessmen from Alabama, always left a little more meat on the bone, so as to traumatize Bananaland via the zone of “good” jobs in the Canal Zone, and the better banana jobs between the Costa Norte and the equator to the south. Antonio and Juana were caught right in the middle between hope and despair.
These sent Antonio headlong into the narrowness of the irrevocable dirt road, the goat path in and out of the valley. On the flatlands down from the river, squat the long, wide barracks built up on stilts, lacerated by the sun. There lay on a hammock in the shade of the cuzul, a blue-grey man a toiling sweater mopping a barrage of dense sweat off his face, he lay on a cot in reality, but in the pall fever he fancied he was swinging in a hammock. His emaciated chest, above a sackcloth shirt, revealed a fretwork of ribs and cartilage, his eyes glowed yellowly, and the acidic blue sputum oozed out of his infected throat.
In the next cubbyhole down, Juana and Antonio reclined in the warm sepia shadows, “The baby has diarrhea,” poor little Joaquin was soiling the bed covering and Juana dress. For while you think everything is fine in the world and God in heaven, and then the baby’s diarrhea throws it all to the wind. That was last night, though, now was better, but they still heard the keen moans of the man next door, any time now, the tropical sprue. A woman kneeled at the side and muttered rusty prayers in the dense air.
The comandante glared at Antonio, two agate coals in that brown, round, cholera-congested face.
“The workers have rights…”
“Rights?” the comandante trounced on Antonio’s unfinished mouthful. “The right to breathe. The right to sweat.”
“The workers are people. You are treating us as beasts. I’d rather be a mule under your ass that to have to kiss it.”
“I don’t give two radishes for your palaver of rights.”
“We are starving. I can count the beans at lunch. Hunger blinds. When hunger afflicts all the live-long day, it has to be dealt with. You wake hungry—it monopolizes your every thought. You think of that roasted iguana. We are turned into beasts.”
“Simmer down,” said the comandante. “Fret not about hunger. What has got our attention is your little scheme to make money from the commissary coupons. Which shows cunning and naked greed.”
Behind the partition covered by butcher paper, agonized the poisoner who sprayed copper sulfate on the banana stems had soaked up a fair amount of the toxic blue spray through his pores. He was in the throes of death every night and just didn’t die.
“I’d be better off dead. Kill me. Why don’t you kill me, señor.”
Thanks to chemistry, the lively and animated improved shoot and root developed in the banana’s evolution. Beautiful Listerine-blue liquid led to eye irritation, ingesting it led to nausea and vomiting and damage to body tissues, liver, kidneys, nose, mouth and eyes.
“Let us eat iguana. Chicken of the trees. I can taste it when I’m cutting the banana trees with my machete. There is support sweeping through Latin America for the other guys who are not in office now. We’re like the Americans. Almost a two-party system. Alternating from strongman to democratically elected strong men who turn weak out of survival instinct.”
There was silence. Antonio gazed out the window that had no glass in it, but waxed paper. The grounds around the camp were barren of every blade of grass or weed. A variation on the copper sulfate used to spray the banana trees ensured the perfect barrenness. That company planned it that way, like they planned everything millimetrically. The bamboo partition of the cuzul was lined by yellowing newspaper, and on it was an advertisement for the white cruise ship line—they were all brilliant cadmium white so the precious cargo of banana bunches would remain cool for the voyage northward.
To be continued…
Grady is the Wizard of Fiction.