Louis solemnly marched back and forth between the pharmacy at Number 10 and the tobacconist at Number 14, eyes right, with a deep sigh each time he passed Number 12, the Cafe Victor Hugo. Unlike the doors at Numbers 10 and 14, the door to the small bistro at Number 12 remained unopened, even though it would normally have been open for twenty minutes by now. And by now, Louis would have reached page two of Le Monde, would have finished his jus de pampelmousse, and would be settling into his cafe au lait and croissant. These things were seemingly trivial but they characterized his morning ritual, and rituals should not be kept waiting.

“Where is that infernal Jacques?” Louis demanded of the locked door, of the brick facade, of the sidewalk. Agitation hardened the wrinkles of his face and turned his blue eyes steely. Jacques had operated the Cafe Victor Hugo for twelve years now, succeeding his father who had operated it for as long as it had existed on the boulevard from which it took its name. Jacques was a little young, but he was a good man who ran a good bistro, because he properly ran it the way his father ran it. And he was properly deferential to the old men who sat so often at the corner table, the men he had inherited when he inherited the bistro.

Of the old men, only two remained on this earth. Francois and Emmanuel had both died within the past year, Bertran two years before, and Jean was in an institution unable to move or speak — quite a change, since, for 73 years, he had hardly ever refrained from speaking. Of the group who held sway night and day at the corner table, only Louis and Albert remained. And one day, Louis mused, Albert would be sitting at the corner table without him, or he without Albert. “Such is life,” he said aloud, then caught himself with a little laugh. “Life? Such is not life; such is death. Where is that man? I have so few needs, and yet he would deprive me of them.”

Weekday mornings, the Cafe Victor Hugo was as deserted as the cathedral down the street. The few patrons who sat within silently worshiped their morning papers and sipped their holy morning liquids. In the corner pew, the church elders did not just read their newspapers; they scoured them in a search for indiscretions and transgressions, breaking the silence as necessary to castigate the sinners with a healthy dose of hellfire and brimstone. “That jackal so-and-so has done it again” or “just like the Americans” would occasionally thunder through the bistro, and the simple blessing “merde!” was voiced as frequently as “amen!” at an American Baptist get-together.

Evenings, on the other hand, were not the least bit silent. After a hearty cassoulet or leek pie and several rounds of drinks, a smoky haze would envelope the corner, tongues would be loosened, and the jackals of the morning and anyone else who had crossed the old men during the day would be vilified in earnest.

“Andre the butcher is a criminal of the worst sort,” Albert would say. “The moneychangers driven from the temple were not nearly the usurers that Andre is. Fifty francs for a sausage of less than a kilo.”

“And one must question the parentage of Andre’s sausage,” Louis would add, always ready to goose along a good tirade. “Only God knows what he stuffs into them.”

“Maybe he’s like that Englishman who ground up other Englishmen and stuffed them into sausages.”

“A sausage stuffed with Englishmen wouldn’t be worth half a franc.”


And then Louis might drag poor Jacques into the fray: “And what’s in your sausage, Jacques. Any Englishmen? Or worse still, Americans?”

“Non, non,” Jacques would playfully protest. “One hundred percent French. And only children. Plump ones.”

But even such a conversational detour into the contents of sausage would not let the poor butcher off the hook. No matter how far the old men wandered, they would eventually return to Andre. “That wife of his cheats on him, you know.” A fairly simple formula controlled the debasement of the day’s villains, for the villains shared certain qualities that must inevitably be addressed. Their credentials as Frenchmen were suspect. They consorted with foreigners, particularly English-speaking foreigners — and possibly shared their blood. Their wives invariably cheated on them, their daughters were wanton, and their sons effeminate.

“Where is Jacques?” Louis shouted at the tobacconist as though he were the man’s guardian. The tobacconist merely answered with an insulting gesture as he always had since the day Louis called him a Vichy whoremaster. “Can the French do nothing on time anymore?” He turned back toward the pharmacy.

In the evening, once the villains had been dealt with, the old men mellowed out on cognac and grew nostalgic for better days. They were prodded on by the old songs that Jacque’s father had first put on the juke box that no longer took money. The great war evoked many of their best memories. Even though they had hated the war when they were young and in it, it had, over the years, become a thing of beauty and pleasure. Their individual little experiences, trivial at best and nasty at worst, had been melded into one unified grand history, one that became grander with each retelling, now a sweet dream of youth rather than the nightmare of carnage it had actually been.

They revered the past, but every day a little bit of it disappeared. Change came without being invited. And with each change, something good was gone forever, until the world had changed so much that it was no longer their world. It was someone else’s world and as foreign as the most remote world in a science fiction story. “Perhaps it’s the way of preparing us to die,” Louis would say. “Making the world a place in which we no longer care to live.”

“Just look at this cafe. Look at the empty tables. People today are too healthy to eat cassoulet, too aloof to share an aperitif. If they go anywhere at all, they go to discos where the music destroys all hopes of conversation. They go to shopping centers where everyone is a stranger. They buy their food to take home, to eat alone. And they watch television or tap those silly little phones. Nobody talks. Nobody relaxes with friends.” And nobody paid much attention to Louis’ lament, except Albert who would nod sympathetically and try to stay awake.

Forty minutes, and still no Jacques. Louis paused at the door to the Cafe Victor Hugo once more, and for the first time he noticed the sign. It was the same sign that had always been there — the one that said the bistro was closed. The other side, the side that should have been displayed, proclaimed the bistro to be open. But something had been hastily printed beneath the word closed. Louis looked closer and saw that the words until further notice had been added.

The sign took his breath away, weakened him. How could this be? Without telling us? This was terrible. He must speak to Albert. A fear suddenly gripped him, and the closing of the bistro took on an even greater and more fearsome significance. He knew everything about Albert, every intimate detail about Albert’s life — everything but what mattered now, his last name, his address, his phone number.

Louis continued to pace, again to the tobacconist, again to the pharmacy, and back to the darkened bistro. He would wait. Maybe Albert would come.


This is one of ten stories in the collection Naughty Marietta and Other Stories.  See more here.


Island in the Sun – Conclusion

Read Part One

Several days passed before the bulldozer arrived.  During that time, Santo kept a constant vigil at the olive tree.  During the day, tourists passing by would sometimes stop to talk to Santo.  Most had already heard of the crazy man and his olive tree, but Santo’s disarming smile and his bullfriendliness would make them wonder whether he were crazy or merely a man with a cause, which is hardly so crazy.  Knowing that he remained night and day at the tree, some would bring him food and would sit and talk with him while he ate.

The young couple from the south of England shivered as Santo told them about sleeping on the dock in Trinidad after loading a banana boat and awaking to find a fat tarantula sitting on his chest staring at him.  The three ladies from California gushed over his tales of Spain during the last days of Generalissimo Franco.  And the young Montrealer listened until well after midnight as Santo talked of his time in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion.

The bulldozer arrived early the next morning.  Santo had to shake himself awake, and for a moment, he thought he was awaking from a nightmare in which he was about to be eaten by a huge yellow monster.  But even with his eyes open, the yellow monster remained, growling at him.

“Go away, crazy one,” shouted Luis Jordan from atop the chugging beast. Luis was a young man who had come to the island to do construction work; he didn’t belong on the island.  He was an angry, combative young man, frequently picking fights, and Santo didn’t like him much.  “You don’t think I’ll plow you down, do you, crazy man?”

“I am not crazy,” answered Santo.  “Go away.”

“Don’t be smart with me, crazy man.  You won’t stop me.  I don’t care if you live or die.  You’re trespassing.  I can plow you under and nobody will say anything.  I’ll take down that damn tree, and I’ll take you down with it.  Believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“As you should,” boasted Luis.  “Now stand aside.”

“I can’t stand aside.  This is my place.  It was my mama’s and my papa’s, and it was their mama’s and papa’s.  Go away and leave me alone.”

“I warned you,” said Luis, grinning as though he were really happy that Santo would not move, that he would have the pleasure of plowing him under.  “Good riddance to your lunacy.”  The bulldozer’s engine whined, and the beast lurched forward.  Santo stood his ground as the yellow monster bore down on him, it’s driver laughing.  Santo closed his eyes.

The Crystal Coral Beach Club was a magnificent place.  It straddled a mile’s worth of white sand beach and bathed it in grandeur and opulence.  Open for the first time this season, it was an unqualified success, drawing tourists from throughout the world and remaining fully occupied.  Hopes were high that it would bring years of prosperity to the tiny island.

On this day, the first anniversary of groundbreaking for the beach club, a large throng of tourists had gathered together.  The story of the Beach Club’s shaky beginnings had traveled from the swimming pool to the tennis courts to the lounge and to the bright blue water and back.  This was to be a celebration of that day of confrontation.

The olive tree had grown to nearly ten feet and was beautiful to behold; looking at this tree, it was hardly surprising that so many people considered olive trees holy.  Santo emerged from the modest house just beyond the tree, a house flanked by hibiscus, bougainvillea, and the beach club’s 156 luxury rooms.  Santo the celebrity beamed as he joined the others at the tree and shared a toast with the couple from the south of England, the three ladies from California, the Montrealer, and the others who had been here last year, the ones who had ignored the metallic whine of impending doom to suddenly join Santo in front of his tiny tree, linking their arms with his in defiance of the bulldozer.

With a grin, Santo pointed to where, even though it defied all the rules of horticulture and all the laws of botany (but didn’t surprise Santo or his friends one little bit), a single olive clung tenaciously to a branch of his olive tree.

 Listen to Island in the Sun

“Island in the Sun” is one of 15 stories in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Island in the Sun

“Have sense, Santo,” said Max-Anthony, the engineer.  “You are only delaying the inevitable.”

“It is inevitable that my tree should grow,” answered Santo, refusing to budge from where he stood in front of his tree.  “Grow to maturity and bear fruit.”

Santo was quite proud of his tree.  It was the only such tree on the entire island.   People told him an olive tree would not grow here.  Actually, they told him that it might grow very well, but that without chilly nights, it would never produce olives, just leaves.  Santo didn’t believe them.  His tree had been growing for two years now, and it was a handsome tree.  Such a handsome tree was bound to grow olives.

The tree was as tall as his three-year-old son.  He wondered which of the two would grow faster, but now he would never know because Claudine had taken his son, had left him and returned to Provence.  Now he had only the olive tree.

“You’re a fool, Santo,” said Max-Anthony, a man with little patience.  “This hotel will be good for the island.  It will create many jobs.  Perhaps a job for you.”

“I do not need a job,” said Santo.  “I have retired.”

He had brought the olive tree here from Provence when it was just a tiny sapling.  He had kept it hidden because it was probably an illegal thing to do.   Did that make him a smuggler?  Provence was a very pretty place, a place he had liked very much.  And he had particularly loved the olive groves.  It was under the canopy of an olive tree, that he and Claudine had spent their first time together.  They delighted in the imperfection of its twisted trunk, the way the light played through it’s shivering gray-green leaves, creating impressionistic patterns of light on the ground beside them.  Their son had been conceived under that tree.

Pulled by the strings of young love — Claudine was young, Santo not so young — she had agreed that the three of them could return to the island, to the village of Santo’s parents and grandparents, to that stretch of beach that had for a hundred years been theirs.  But Claudine soon found that she could not tolerate island life; she needed more than it could give.  She yearned for Provence, needed cities like Arles and Avignon, needed to be just a high-speed train ride from Paris.  She begged him to return with her, but he couldn’t. He belonged here, just as Claudine belonged in Provence.

The officials from the hotel company had come from their air-conditioned offices to plead with him as well, but Santo refused to go.  “You are trespassing,” said a Mr. Alexander through pursed lips in a pallid face.  He wore a suit.  “This beach belongs to the Caribe Development Corporation.  We will have you removed.  Forcibly, if necessary.”

It had become important for Santo to be somewhere he belonged.  So much of his life had been spent in places he didn’t belong — first moving from one island to another, each one bigger and more indifferent  — Statia, St. Vincent, then Trinidad — cutting cane and loading banana boats until finding work as a bartender.  He was a good bartender; he knew how to charm the tourists, particularly the ladies, whom he flattered unabashedly.  He moved on to Caracas, then Madrid and Barcelona, Algeria, and finally to southern France —  to Provence, to the olive groves and to Claudine.

He had lost Claudine and his son, and now, in the name of progress, they wanted to take his tree.  But this beach was his; they would not move him or his tree.

“This beach belongs to me; it has always belonged to my family.”

“You’re mistaken.”

“I’m not mistaken,” shouted Santo.  “I have the papers.”  Santo waved the papers at Mr. Alexander.

“Those papers were issued by a government that no longer exists,” said Max-Anthony, joining Mr. Alexander.  “They are worthless, and you know it.”

“Can you have him removed?” asked Mr. Alexander.

“Don’t worry,” said Max-Anthony.  “He will move when the bulldozer comes. No more games, Santo.”

 Listen to Island in the Sun

“Island in the Sun” is one of 15 stories in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Read conclusion.

Stone Cold Dead in de Market – Part III

Read Part I

Read Part II

stoneAt one-thirty, a native woman and her young daughter joined Upton Swann on the love seat.  The woman looked straight ahead, minding her own business just as though he weren’t there, but the little girl looked inquisitively up at Upton’s face.  “Mama, he’s so white,” she said.

“Hush,” said her mama, quickly standing and pulling her wide-eyed daughter away with her.  Wilma Dexter squirmed in her chair.

At three, a young boy asked Upton Swann for a dollah and, when Swann didn’t answer, made an obscene gesture and scurried off.  Phil Pomeroy sighed, stood, went inside, and mixed a pitcher of martinis.

At 4:15, a shaggy, rather ragged, man carrying a bottle-shaped paper bag weaved unsteadily through the crowd and plopped down on the love seat.  By 4:30, he was engaged in a lively conversation with Upton, laughing, gesturing broadly, and occasionally slapping him on the knee.  The somewhat one-sided conversation lasted until 5 o’clock when the man stood, said “See you around, buddy,” and wandered off.

Adele groaned, Phil went for more martinis, and Wilma growled at her husband:  “This is all your fault, you know.”

“Me?” said Howard with a look of disbelief.  “I didn’t kill him.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Wilma.  “It would be just like you.”

“Stop, stop,” said Adele.  “I’ll go tell them I did it.  You all think I did it, anyway.  I’ll confess and go to the stinky jail.  At least it will all be over.”

“No you won’t,” said Myrna.  “We don’t all think you did it.  We’ll just wait.  It was a stupid plan, but we’ll just have to wait.  Everything will be all right.”

“It will,” seconded Howard.  “And now it really doesn’t matter who actually killed him.  We’re all equally guilty.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Phil.  He raised his glass toward the market.  “To the corpse.”  They all downed martinis.

At 6, they thought maybe their vigil would finally end.  Upton was leaning to the left, barely noticeable at first, but before long with a decided tilt.  They watched, five chins on the railing, as gravity took hold, and Upton rolled to his side, lying across the love seat.  And he had not been horizontal for three minutes when a policeman appeared.  The gang of five looked at one another excitedly, then sat back in their chairs so as not to draw the policeman’s attention to the terrace.

The policeman approached the slumped over Upton Swann and said in a firm voice:  “Hey mon, no sleeping here.  You take yourself home now.”  He gave Upton a couple of taps with his nightstick.  “Get along now.  If you’re not gone when I get back, you’ll do your sobering up in a jail cell.”  He sauntered away, and spirits flagged on the terrace.

The policeman didn’t return, and darkness enveloped the market square with Upton Swann still lying on the love seat.  Adele Swann went to bed and sobbed herself to sleep.  The others found sleep in various positions on the floor, except for Phil Pomeroy, who technically passed out while dressing down the sleeping Howard Dexter.

They were back on the terrace before dawn, straining eyes to determine whether Upton Swann still lay there in the darkness.  As the sky lightened, the darkness slowly dissipated and, to their great disappointment, they were able to discern a familiar shape on the love seat.  But with the steady brightening of the dawn, they became aware of a marked difference down there in the market — Upton Swann was still there all right, but he was stark-naked.

The man who had gone unnoticed in the market for a full 24 hours would not go unnoticed another day.  By 7, a crowd had formed around the naked body on the love seat, and by 7:30, the police had whisked Upton Swann away.

The relief on the terrace was short-lived, as apprehension quickly whisked it away.  A naked American tourist has a heart attack in the market – it didn’t have quite the air of authenticity they sought.  Finally, late that afternoon, Adele was summoned to the police station.  Her friends accompanied her to act as chorus.

“Do you have any idea why your husband would be naked and dead in the market?” the police chief asked tactfully.

Adele sobbed and grew flustered.  The others were certain she was going to say something stupid that would send them all to jail.  “Didn’t you tell us, Adele,” said Howard, stepping in to save the day, “that Upton had a sleepwalking prob — ?”

“I do have an idea,” said the police chief, ignoring Howard.  “Actually, it’s more than an idea; it’s an iron-tight conclusion.  Our coroner made a careful examination, did tests.”

The five culprits were sweating now, and it wasn’t from the tropical warmth.  “He had,” Howard recited, “a history of heart — .”

“Naturally, when we find a naked dead man, reeking of alcohol, we are suspicious.  We sometimes even suspect foul play.  That’s why we were so thorough.  But we found no evidence of foul play whatsoever.”

“No foul play,” Adele repeated mechanically.

“No foul play,” said the police chief in a tone that suggested he would prefer no further interruptions.  “As it turned out, he had a massive heart attack.  Sat down on the bench and died.  We caught the thief who stole his clothes.  You can pick them up at the desk.”

“A heart attack,” said Howard, dumfounded.  “Are you sure?”


As they filed out of the police station, Howard continued to mumble.  “A heart attack.  But I was so certain it was poison.”

“No, Howard, just a heart attack,” said Adele, with a little smile.  “The police chief said so — a heart attack.  Poor, poor Upton.”

But nothing gets by the children who sing calypso in the market square:

Stone cold dead in de market, stone cold dead in de market,

Stone cold dead in de market, I killed nobody but me husband…

Listen to Stone Cold Dead in de Market performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan.

This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine for American Airlines.  It is one of 15 stories featured in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Stone Cold Dead in de Market – Part II

Read Part I

One of us killed him,” said Howard.  “No other answer.  We had the stoneopportunity, and nobody else on this island even knew him.”

“But why?” asked Wilma Dexter, looking at her husband who knew a lot of things.

“Why not might be more the answer,” said Howard.  “Did any of us really like him?  Even Adele?”  No one answered.  “I, myself, as his partner, gain full control of the business.  Adele stands to inherit a tidy sum, I imagine.  And she’s earned it, the way he’s treated her.”

“He has my promissory note for $200,000,” offered Phil Pomeroy, looking surprised, even as he spoke, that he was throwing himself in.  “A so-called loan between friends, but at a very unfriendly rate of interest.  The man was a shark.”

The conversation quickly became a group confessional.  Wilma Dexter, giving her husband, then Adele, quick sheepish looks, said quietly:  “He put the moves on me more than once.  He was fairly disgusting.”

“Oh dear,” said Adele.

“Me too,” said Myrna.  “Just this afternoon.”

They all looked at the corpse, as though seeing the totality of his corruption and vileness for the first time — although he didn’t look all that corrupt and vile at the moment with his face twisted into a silly little grin and a tumbler of Scotch in his lap.  Then they began to look suspiciously at each other, sizing each other for murderer’s shoes. “Would anyone care to confess?” said Howard.  No one volunteered.  “I guess we’ll have to call the police.”

“Do we have to?” asked Adele.  “They’re… they’re foreigners.  They’d be happy to just throw one of us in a stinky jail and be done with it.”

“Or all of us,” added Wilma Dexter.

“Does it really matter who did it?” asked Phil Pomeroy.  “I mean, when you really get right down to it, there’s no great loss.”  Adele sobbed again, and they all weighed Phil’s words.

“I guess Phil’s right,” said Adele.  She shivered.  “He was brutish, and I’m well rid of him.  It’s just… just so ghoulish to be talking about him this way.  And he’s sitting right here.”  She looked at her dead husband and suddenly giggled.  “Wouldn’t we all be terribly embarrassed if he were just pretending to be dead?”  They all studied the body once more just to be certain, and it gradually dawned on each of them that just not telling the police didn’t solve their problem.  Their problem was sitting on the couch.

The eventual plan was, of course, Howard’s, and it centered on the theory that if the body were found in a crowded public place, like say the market, with hundreds of people around — but not a certain fivesome — the police, who were probably incompetent anyway, would assume he died of natural causes, especially when they brought the bad news to his wife and friends and learned of his history of a bad heart.

Howard’s idea came under fire, however, as the morning wore on and nobody paid any attention to the dead man on the love seat in the market.  What few words were spoken on the terrace during that tense morning were given toward characterization of, first, Howard’s idea, then his know-it-all attitude, and, lastly, his parentage.

Read Part III

Stone Cold Dead in de Market

It’s cold out there.  Perhaps this story from the collection Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean will warm this cold January up just a bit. 

Part One

Upton Swann sat all alone on the ornate cast iron love seat that had been stonepainted white sometime in the distant past, shaded by a spreading Poinciana, surrounded by chattering merchants with piles of bananas to the right, piles of coconuts to the left — fruits, vegetables, fish and tourists everywhere.  Activity swirled around him, but he didn’t seem to care.  It was noon.  He’d been sitting there since 7 a.m.

On a second floor terrace of the Hotel Vieux Habitant that overlooked the market square, five people sat in a row, leaning over the railing, staring down past the frenzied activity at Upton Swann.  They, too, had been sitting there since seven.

Upton Swann and his audience of five had all been together on the terrace the previous evening, enjoying the serenity of the market square, abandoned in the early evening hours by merchants and tourists alike.  And they enjoyed the soft warmth tempered by the steady breeze off the ocean – at least five of them did; Upton Swann did not.  He found the climate foul ­- too hot — and that was just the tip of his iceberg of complaints about this island in particular and the Caribbean in general.  Unlike the others he could not wait to get back to the sensible climate of New York in March, a desire he did not endeavor to keep to himself.  “What if I get sick here?” he lamented.  “My god, they’ve probably got chickens wandering through the hospital.”

By 8 p.m., he had enjoyed just about as much of the tropical night as he intended to enjoy.  With a harrumph, he marched inside, revved the air conditioner up to its maximum, and sat down on the couch with a tumbler of Scotch.  Within minutes, he would complain no more.

The beginning of Upton Swann’s journey to the great beyond went unnoticed.  In fact, he was about two hours along before the Dexters — Howard and Wilma — came in and thought it odd that the tumbler lay in his lap in the center of a large Scotch stain.  (Later, they would recall that his last words were:  “This is a wretched place; I need Scotch.” Not eloquent enough for his tombstone, but certainly better than Myrna Pomeroy’s first husband’s last words:  “Five minutes on the toilet and I’ll be just fine.”)

The Dexters sounded a general alarm, and Myrna, her current husband Phil Pomeroy, and Upton’s widow Adele all came running in — although Adele didn’t yet realize that she was a widow, not until Howard Dexter said:  “He’s deader than a doornail.”

Adele sobbed, and the others looked on with bewildered expressions.  Howard wasn’t a coroner or a doctor or anything, but he knew a lot of things, and the others accepted his diagnosis.

“Do you suppose he had a heart attack?” asked Myrna Pomeroy.

Howard Dexter picked up the bottle of scotch and ceremoniously sniffed at it.  He might have been selecting a wine for their dinner.  Then he poured a few drops into his palm, wetted a finger and touched it to his tongue.  The others watched in silence.

“Poison,” Howard proclaimed.  “Not a doubt of it.  This Scotch has really been laced with it.”   Howard wasn’t a pharmacologist or detective either, but he knew a lot of things.

Adele sobbed again, and Myrna Pomeroy said:  “How could it be?  We were all here.  How could someone have… no, you’re not suggesting…?”

Read Part II