Bloody Tuesday was the term used to describe this infamous day in June 1966 in a little town of Haiti when Marcel, a well-to-do retired accountant, let loose his pit bull, Polo, against school kids who had been throwing stones against his delicious mangos, attempting to steal them. The dog maimed many of them. At the sight of bleeding and injuries, “This will teach you not to steal my fruits and throw stones,” was his observation with his gruff voice and mean mien. The deed went unpunished but his reputation suffered immensely.
Marcel, bald, paunchy, jowled, a recluse almost, taciturn, dour, muttonchops, café-au-lait tint, peppercorn but white hair. He lived in an imposing gingerbread house with wrap-around veranda, a large yard and an adjoining field that he used for fruit planting. He had a large collection: mango, neeseberry, sweet and sour sop, guinep, avocado; his herbs were just as numerous. Ever the clever man, he used vetiver as a natural mosquito repellent.
He walked with a limp and even to the casual observer, his paunch mirrored a bulge in his crotch, the result of a large hydrocele, commonly referred to as maklouklou in the local vernacular. That this esthetic challenge didn’t faze him remained a mistery. He pretty much lived in a cocoon, impervious to others’ inputs. He was financially self-sufficient and was successful at siloing his life.
That he neither related to nor shared with his neighbors were sins in this environment where people valued fellowship and mutual cooperation, surviving skills passed down from slavery days. How he came to be this persona was an interesting dénouement. His life was a riches-to-rags-to-riches epic. Son of an affluent coffee planter, destitute from age seven till nineteen, after his father’s sudden death. His uncle who took over the business was a lousy manager and heavy gambler.
Marcel tasted first hand the humiliations brought on by deprivation. Many a day he had to stay home due to late payment of tuition and or go to bed on an empty belly, a situation writ torture for a youngster with a ravenous appetite. Nonetheless he was a brilliant student. The school headmaster offered him a full scholarship. As expected Marcel was a laureate in both parts of the National Exams, bringing prestige to the school. A math ace, he liked numbers so much he went into accounting, again on scholarship abroad, thanks to his academic record.
Once he returned to the country, an accounting firm hired him, he went on a fast track and he reached a senior position. Due to infighting, he quit and founded his own firm and he became very successful. Unfortunately, he saw life through the prism of accumulation of dollars and cents. Spending became a bête noire without exception causing his wife and children to seethe. Finally tired of fighting with him, she left him and married another man but drowned a few years later.
After her death he had custody of his kids to their disappointment. His topsy-turvy life experience made him conclude that since he pulled himself by his own boot straps (forgetting the help he received along), he had no intention of helping others. Needless to say, his children didn’t enjoy his parenting skills. He imposed strict rules, among others, a superlative academic performance. His kids did well in school but fell short of his expectations. Hence he decided not to send them abroad pretexting they had no scholarship offers while he certainly could afford to pay their expenses. That started a chasm that reached a boiling point when his daughter, Germaine, decided to marry six years earlier.
“A wedding needs not be extravagant. I want to spend no more than one thousand dollars.” Such directive historically is cast in stone and not subject to discussion or change.
Incensed and fed up by his stinginess, “Keep your money and do whatever you wanna do with it, let me assure you I will never again ask you to spend a penny for me in life.” His daughter hissed while sucking her teeth. Hence the bridges were burned. Brother and sister pooled their meager savings and had a modest ceremony without him. Marcel felt insulted and robbed of the privilege of walking his daughter down the aisle. They haven’t talked since.
Demanding and overbearing, Marcel grated on Raynette, his dark, rotund, middle-aged maid. He had exacting standards for his passion: epicurean devotion to eating. Any meal had to taste great each and every time and had to come in sizable portion. A three-course dinner was de rigueur on weekdays and a five course on weekends. He counted every penny when he would send her to buy grocery. Quick to criticize any deviation from perfection in the execution but literally stingy with incentives, be they compliments or tips. Tips? Not part of his lexicon. “I pay you on time without missing a beat. I don’t have to add anything for you performing the agreed-upon service for which you were hired.” Of course such comment would not endear him with her loyalty.
“Ok, be a tight-fisted pest and I will show you.” Such response became swift. She retaliated in small ways just to needle him. She would purposefully take her sweet time coming back from the open-air market knowing full well he would be hungry and angry and every now and then, she would buy overripe merchandises and have him spend more money or cook less food. Yet what never stopped was her incessant gossiping on him. Unbeknown to him, he became the butt of derision in the neighborhood, especially at the barbershop. His gluttony, avarice and limp were constant fodder for animated conversation. Gongolo, the name of the earthworm in the colloquial idiom, constantly feeds, a characteristic of his also and therefore the folks chose it as a nickname for him. “Eating like a Gongolo” also became part of the local lingo.
“He has never met an expense he likes. He eats enough for three!”
His limp was due to a large hydrocele, a fluid-filled accumulation in the testicle, an intoxicating fixation among the local men. Maklouklou, perhaps an African word, but no matter, it captivated people’s imagination about its cause.
“This is a source of manhood. He has a young lover and needs every help he can get!”
“No, he is too damn cheap to have it operated on.”
“You have it all wrong. It is due to a big worm and that is why he has to eat, otherwise it would suck him dry!”
There you have it. Folks speculating about a maklouklou and each one claiming to have the ultimate insight about it.
“This bulge of mine isn’t a matter of life or death, hence I don’t see a necessity to spend money to have it removed.” His housekeeper Raynette had heard him confide to his girl friend as she was eavesdropping. Raynette quoted him verbatim and the word spread like wildfire to everyone’s delight. Besides Bloody Tuesday, this month of June 1966 included another milestone in the local lore.
June 1966 was the time of World Cup games in football (soccer). Pelé was the then reigning king and an iconic symbol among local rabid fans. A new star from Angola, Eusebio, also of ebony hue, as part of the national team of Portugal was the new rage. Sole owner of a stereo system and a long antenna, Marcel had good reception of the games’ broadcasts. Folks resented not being able to come and listen. However they had become dependent on him at night playing Mexican, Cuban or French crooners.
Marcel’s girl friend next door, Gina, a childless widow, was the principal of the local all-girls Catholic school at the nearest town. Pear-like both in hue and shape, ten years his junior with wavy silvery hair, aubergine tinted lips, heavy brows, the epitome of the gracious belle. A pious but conflicted woman, she long resisted premarital sex but after a long courtship, she gave in. She wanted to keep this a secret, impossible in a small town where snooping on anybody’s private life was fair game. She missed married life but Marcel was reluctant to commit.
“My hand feels naked without a ring,” cocking her head with left hand on her waist, an ingénue pose bordering on the flirtatious.
“Why rush into anything?”
“Are you worried about the cost?”
“Well, there would be a cost all right, but-”
“You make me sick,” and she left, slamming the door.
A few minutes later, “Help, the dog is hurting me!” hollered Gina. Marcel ran fast to discover Polo, on Gina’s chest, growling and blood coming from her calf. Marcel had some difficulty restraining Polo and “Raynette, please call the neighbor to come for help.” Albert, a lithe but strong young fellow, a freelance bus or truck driver came to the rescue, all surprised for being sought. He immediately secured Polo against a post. Marcel stood, haggard, in submission rather than in control, observed Raynette. “Albert would you drive us to the hospital?” handing him the car keys. Albert was incredulous. Marcel rarely spoke to him. Raynette made a tourniquet to stem the blood flow. During the ride, Gina kept groaning in pain while Marcel kept sweating profusely and remained silent. Halfway along, he passed out. “Please hurry up and get to the hospital,” implored Gina who now became primarily concerned with Marcel’s health, forgetting her own searing discomfort.
At the hospital, the physician, a graying, husky man promptly met them. He quickly sutured Gina’s wound after checking on Marcel. “His blood sugar is very high,” he announced and “he is lucky to be alive.” Marcel had to stay and remained unconscious till the following day. Gina stood by him and slept on a chair next to his bed.
“I don’t want to die,” Marcel whispered to Gina while holding her hand firmly, “Don’t leave me,” he besieged.
“Don’t worry, I have your back,” passing her palm gently on his forehead and with her index finger, she traced a line from there to the nose and stopped at the upper lip. She bent over to touch hers against it. Marcel wept. “What happened? All I remember is you were angry at me and everything else is a blur.”
“Relax for the time being.” A reassurance that meant the world for him.
The next day when she returned, “Darling I had the most inspiring dream. You were my guardian angel and promised me to help me physically and emotionally if I change my ways,” and holding his left palm on his chest, holding her hand and squeezing it, he searched her eyes and murmured, “Yes I want to change my ways,” and without missing a beat, “which ring did you have in mind?”
“Get better first. Once you ask me properly then we can get the ring together,” while butterflies were running across her chest. She sensed that a tailwind was providing the propitious lift and thrust for a ride into unchartered but emotionally-charged territory. A destination her pent-up feelings couldn’t wait to reach but her self-control was fighting to keep in check. Pride and love in their usual showdown trying to establish an equilibrium aka happiness.
Marcel stayed at the hospital for a few days. He never knew before he had diabetes and this was a new realm for him. Changing his ways meant wholesale undoing and mending fences. Once he reached back home, he started doing just that. “Albert, you saved my life. I owe you,” in a handshake he slid a wad of bills. Next was Raynette, “I have been hard on you and I have never thanked you for all the hard work you perform. Thank you,” as he put in some money into her palm, a first, to her amazement. Marcel’s new lease on life came with his realization he needed to open his eyes, become aware of others’ feelings, opinions and needs. He learned the hard way that we all need one another. This seminal admission was a game changer.
His first night back, Marcel had a nightmare, with vivid images in succession. First, Bloody Tuesday, Gina’s catastrophe, a collage of scenes of his children at different stages, cooing, saying “dada” for the first time, drooling on him while smiling, and at different milestones such as first day of school, first communion… He awoke in the middle of the night with cold sweats. He felt lonely, empty. His soul was now wallowing in muck, a mire as undesirable as navigation in quicksand. Nothing short of regurgitation of his bilge accumulated over time would do. He also realized he would miss out on being a grandparent, an elder’s obstinate fancy.
Two items merited his immediate attention, a new dietary menu and repair of his frayed relationship with his son and daughter. Either was a tall order with the second one so remote as to almost be impossible. He thoroughly discussed the matter with Gina. She knew that she was witnessing an epiphany. “Let me see what I can do. I know your daughter is also a teacher and there is an upcoming meeting with the bishop. Let me approach her,” Gina volunteered, as she rubbed his arm.
“You resemble my neighbor Marcel a lot. He is your dad, right?” Gina said to Marcel’s daughter.
“He is somebody I chose to exclude from my life. He was a Grinch, very hard to please and so tight fisted,” his daughter Germaine retorted, as she looked straight into space with her face drawn.
Gina felt awkward. Not being “Dad’s little girl” was an alien concept to her. Her own dad spoiled her and they remained close till his death. She lost her mom during childbirth. Her dad never remarried. Her two grannies helped with rearing duties. A silence followed and Germaine defused it, “Of course you didn’t know and have nothing to do with that,” with a forced smile. Germaine was almost a copy of her dad’s facial features, nub nose, cheeked, same skin hue. Her lips and chin must have come from her mom. She had thick, coarse hair well braided; a buxom with well-chiseled rump, dressed in style.
At the end of the meeting, on their way out, Germaine said to her brother who had come to pick her up, “ Jr., this teacher lives next door to our father.” Jr. was a dark and short fellow with uncanny resemblance with Marcel but with broad shoulders, large ears and hands. He was an impeccable dresser. Grimacing, “Forget it. This man used to whip me all the time. I don’t care about him. In fact he can go to hell!”
The first two words carried Germaine into a torture chamber and the rest described the awful experience, or dreadful sentence, of a sharp knife twisting into her entrails at a slow pace. Sensing Gina’s discomfort, Germaine intervened, “Keep doing the excellent work at your school. Take care.” The raw words expressed were suffocating, the situation surreal. The whole scene disturbed Gina. She knew at the very least it would be a Sisyphean task cum a stress test of her avowed commitment to Marcel.
“You have to make an overture. Your children are angry with you. Let them know you care,” was Gina’s suggestion to Marcel. In his newfound humility, he painstakingly wrote a letter to his daughter.
I awoke this morning with a heaviness across my chest as I realize it has been years since you and I have seen each other. I have myself only to blame. It was not supposed to be this way. When I first laid eyes on you, you were like a ray of sunshine that crossed my universe. Somehow I let it dissipate for selfish reasons that I now regret so much. I beg for your forgiveness, the type that only a daughter can extend to a forlorn and possibly dying father. Yes my health is no longer as good as it once was and I would hate to think that I could close my eyes and not see you before and just as importantly, I am dying to play the role of grandpa.
I don’t remember the last time I said to you that I love you. Let me say it now with all the force my vocal cords can muster to produce. No matter what, you will be my daughter and I will be the only father you will ever know. I hope this counts for something. I miss seeing you and I miss hearing your voice.
With all my love,
To his son, he wrote the following:
As I approach the sunset of my existence, I have been able to gauge events with a better understanding and I have reorganized my priorities in life.
I am the first to recognize I was not the best father I could and should have been. For this I apologize. I was reminiscing about the days when you were a little boy and I used to take you kite flying and we both had a good time. How I allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point we live like strangers is not one else’s fault but my own.
Not too long ago I came close to not making it as I had a close broach with death. I hope I can see you again before I die. I sincerely hope if you have any child I would have a chance to kiss his/her forehead the way I feel like doing to you now.
Despite it all, you shall remain my son and I your father. This type of lifelong bond is indelible. I want you to know that I love you my son and I miss talking to you.
With all my heart,
Marcel asked Gina to hand deliver them. The role of peacemaker appealed to her. She also wanted to latch on his offspring, as she was not so lucky to have had any. She made a special trip with Albert who had volunteered to drive whenever needed.
“I made this trip especially to deliver these two letters to you,” Gina said with her hands shaking. Germaine hesitated and Gina pursued, “I want you to know he is someone I care a lot about and he wants to repair his relationship with you and your brother. Give him a chance, you may not regret it,” Gina pursued in as sotto voce as she possibly could with a gentle touch of Germaine’s hand.
Germaine was very perplexed, trying to gauge the situation, not willing to embarrass Gina and not yet willing to go down the path of rekindling a bond with an absent father, a reality she had learned to accommodate her life with, however painful that was. Finally, “Thank you kindly but I am not sure I want to go there,” she replied and her hands were trembling as she accepted the letters and inserted them in her purse.
“I miss my own dad so much, you have no idea,” Gina murmured as she departed.
Germaine’s pride prevented her from opening the letter in front of essentially a stranger, though Gina seemed to be a nice person that the bishop always congratulated for the excellent work she was doing at the school. That more than anything else swayed her to accept the letters. She kept them in her purse and her instinct forced her to relegate them to the far recess of her memory and priorities.
A few days later at mass, the bishop preached about the prodigal son who returned home and by extension the need for reconciliation among estranged family members. Germaine took it as a personal advice, if not an omen and decided to take a look at the letter later. She kept wondering why on earth her dad would make that step and also speculating about the nature of his relationship with Gina. Once she reached home and tired of the yin and the yen of the internal debate, she opened the letter, her heart galloping, her hands shaking uncontrollably. It didn’t take long for her eyes to become misty as she read the first sentence. It didn’t take long for tears to well them up and not long at all before sobbing at the lecture of the very words she had been longing for as a child growing up. Words she also missed as a teen who missed her mom and who needed a father to lean on. And even as a grown woman whose three-year old daughter kept asking about grandpa; she felt a void that needed filling.
Her husband, average height and weight fellow, ebony-colored, got a hold of and read the letter and “At least he recognizes his flaw and wants to make amends. You ought to give him a chance,” while rubbing her back as she sat at the kitchen table of their modest but plants-filled house. Her husband hand delivered her brother’s letter that same evening.
“As one man to another, look at it with an open mind and give your dad a chance. I did the same with my own years ago and it was worth it,” he counseled Jr. on his way out. Jr. did read the letter and kept fighting tears, not willing to come to terms that indeed he also loved his father despite it all. His ego got in the way and it took him the whole night tossing and turning in bed before deciding that in lieu of a reply, he needed to go and discuss the matter with his sister. He was still single. He was a successful civil engineer and owned a construction firm. He realized he and his dad needed each other more than either had acknowledged in the past.
“What is going on? Is he dying? Is he truly sorry? What do you think, sis?” asked Jr. with his arms akimbo and a perplexed mien. He usually depended on his sister’s read of a person. He wanted to make sure they were on the same wavelength.
“He sounds sincere. This is so painful but yet we can’t remain enemies for life. This is not healthy.” That sealed Jr’s decision. He wouldn’t fight Germaine’s.
“What do we do next?”
“He sounds sick. It would be best to go visit him but I need a few more days to let the idea sink in.” Germaine’s shrewdness could always be counted on, thought Junior.
Marcel Jr. and Germaine did take the trek to the father’s home the following Saturday morning, on Christmas eve. It was raining on the way and like magic, it stopped when they reached his door. The sun came out, auguring a pleasant outcome.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” an elated Marcel stated. He embraced both. They all shed tears of joy and turning toward Raynette, “Please go get Gina.”
“Let me introduce my fiancée, Gina,” with a noticeable glow on the face rivaling the sun’s brightness. Marcel gently kissed Gina and she in turn extended her hand to Marcel Jr.
Bowing, “Let me kiss your hand,” Jr. announced, thawing any ice and making everyone at ease. Not to be outdone, Germaine extended both arms, “Welcome into the family” and both embraced.
Marcel felt in heaven, “Gina saved my life twice. She was with me when I fell sick and helped to nurse me. She made this meeting possible and that feels like a piece of gold,” while looking at Gina with the tenderest gaze.
“You guys look so much alike, it is just amazing. I wish I had a child that looks like me. You are so blessed!” These words felt like music to the listeners’ ears.
Marcel was beside himself. The first and most gratifying development was his encounter with Yvette, his granddaughter. She was a handful to manage. Barely three years of age, “Where have you been hiding grandpa?” or “Why did it take so long for us to meet?” or even better, “Will you be like all grandpas and spoil me?”
Yvette, cheeked like grandpa, same body shape of mom, same tint of dad, was as happy to meet grandpa as he was. They gravitated toward each other. In Yvette, Marcel found the pleasure of giving, and in return, he received unconditional puppy love, the best warmer of a heart’s cockles.
Marcel made peace with his neighbors and especially the school kids. He had his hydrocele corrected. His yard was the place to be for his neighbors to come and listen to football games being broadcast live.
He mended his relationship with his children. With Germaine, he found a soul full of pent-up love, while with Jr. it was the reverse, a dad expressing his long repressed feelings to a son who never had any inkling of his value to his father. It was therapeutic to all and in the best outcome possible, they consummated closure with a checkered past.
Marcel’s circle now included Yvens, his son-in-law with whom he clicked from the first meeting. The social event of the year was Marcel’s wedding on his birthday. No less than the local bishop officiated the ceremony; conciliatory, Marcel didn’t flinch about the expenses. In fact he gave carte blanche. “Do the best you deem fit,” became the new consign, like a theme ringing like music to every one’s ears. No less than Jr., the dandy, helped him pick an outfit and Germaine’s seamstress sewed Gina’s dress. Marcel’s house was elegantly decorated with flower arrangements thanks to Germaine’s flair and touch; she also doubled as maid of honor. Gina’s cousin was the best man and Yvette was the flower girl. Gina insisted on having Jr. walk her down the aisle as her son in lieu of her departed father. Symbolic acts foreboding positive family dynamics and no one benefited from this well of goodwill more than Marcel.
Marcel did weep during the wedding ceremony. That sight was stunning to Jr. and Germaine who had never seen it before but quizzical to Yvette who pulled her mom’s dress while fidgeting, “Why is grandpa crying?” a spontaneous, somewhat loud, innocent query that adults responded to by chuckling.
Marcel’s new quotidian regimen started with a brisk walk. He still had to indulge in his elaborate breakfast, “a pleasure I can’t give up.” His battle with his appetite was a losing proposition. “A good meal is such a delight that life won’t be worth it to exclude such activity from mine.” No matter how much he genuinely tried, he would revert to having sizable portions on his plate to feel satisfied. But to his credit, he accomplished far more than clinging to his foible of being a foodie.
Just as important, he would then spend time with his gardening. However a new activity filled his afternoons: tutoring. He either went to Gina’s school or students came to his house in an alternating pattern. Long were the halcyon days of treating them as nemeses. He buried the hatchet and sealed it with massive concrete resistant to exhumation. Once a week, he had a class for adults, either teaching or improving reading and writing capacity. He was able to transfer his years of knowledge in a seamless way, gaining unexpected personal satisfaction.
Notwithstanding Marcel’s persistent weaknesses, life with him was a bundle of joy for Gina who had plenty of leeway on financial matters. She resigned herself to the fact that better to have a happy husband, dieting be damned, than a moody companion.
Gina bonded with Jr. and Germaine; she related to them as a surrogate mom and it was a mutual love fest. Yvette started calling her grandma. De jure and de facto, Gina became Marcel’s alter ego and irreplaceable.
Family gathering entailed activities with the clan, be it a picnic in the yard, daylong trip to a beach resort, courtesy of Marcel, visits to town on Sundays for dinner with Germaine. Life had taken the ho-hum of the average family living in harmony.
Reynald Altéma, MD.