- Bitter in the Mouth
When my father is going out, the entire household knows it. Not because he announces it but because we can first hear the water splashing in his bathroom, and we can smell the soap streaming down the gutter outside.
Then, minutes later, we hear the “clip clip” of his toenail clippers as he grooms himself on the edge of the tub. It sounds the same as when he tests and cleans his revolver without bullets in the chamber. I imagine crescent-shaped nails flying everywhere. There is still time. My mother rushes to the steps of the kitchen and calls out orders to the help in Creole. “Pote asyèt yo ban mwen.” Bring me the plates.
Then we smell my father’s cologne from where we stand in the kitchen. My mother dashes from stove to counter, chopping and garnishing. The waft of Drakkar Noir seeps under the wooden doors. I know my father’s prepping habits, step by step, from the rigorous alchemy of Nivea cream and water he lathers on his leathery skin, to the Afro Sheen gel he rubs all over his wooly hair, and the way he combs it with the Afro pick, from the root up, gripping the clenched-fist handle as water mists around his black, beautiful face. My father is going out, definitely, when he adds the finishing touch. Drakkar Noir.
When we smell it, the servants usually rush outside and remain on standby, to open the gates quickly before he loses patience, before his temper flares. It doesn’t take much for him to blow a fuse, so we’ve all learned to organize the world the way he likes it. The way it should be.
My mother adds the finishing touches on the table, and I watch her. Sometimes I run to the bedroom to check on my father. I’m seven years old, and I’ve learned very early the meaning of his various stages of preparation. [End Page 137] “Il met sa cravate,” I’ll report to my mother. If he’s indeed putting on his necktie, dinner should be served. Then before he leaves, my mother will occasionally adjust the knot and dust the lint off his lapel.
My father is an attorney, and he must always be well dressed, Monday to Friday. In his armoire, he has neckties on racks organized by color, many of them featuring red to match his pocket square. His suits, hemmed and pressed, take up most of the rod and remain encased in the plastic sheath from his favorite dry cleaners on Chemin des Dalles, near my school. The bottom of the armoire is lined with his American import shoes, all smelling of lanolin and shiny like a mirroir des anges, as Haitians say. Mirror of the angels. On Saturday mornings, he picks out the scuffed and dirty ones, and I take them out to the verandah where our servants wait for the shoeshine boy’s bell. But he still keeps bottles of German-made Collonil Brill’Omatic Self-Shine liquid in the corner to add an extra coat of shine. On the box, a pale-faced woman with coiffed red hair holds up a shoe, smiling. There are two boxes in the armoire. One of them is “negro.” The other is “incolore.”
But today is Saturday, and on Saturdays my father doesn’t wear a necktie. On Saturday nights he usually wears a tennis shirt tucked in his jeans, a belt, Keds or loafers, and he grabs his European brown leather clutch where he keeps his wallet and cards, and he heads out the door after dinner. There’s always a game of bezique, always a friend waiting somewhere around a table with more cards, more chips, more friends, more drinks, and maybe women.
This particular evening, time seems suspended in our kitchen. The blue frying-pan-shaped clock on the wall ticks backward. It needs new batteries.
My mother’s not ready. Dinner takes a long time. She’s pushing the envelope today as she does on weekends: she’s making griyo, fried pork. It’s a favorite Haitian dish and...