“Roached” by Julia Thomson: read the story that won the 2016 OWT Short Fiction Competition 6

Julia Thomson_CR Katrina Afonso (30)Clarence had a thief in the invasive way that some people had ants or termites or roaches. Little, forgotten things had started disappearing, right under his nose, soon after he was abandoned by his longtime girlfriend, Vernice.

“Vernice, what you done with my shirt?” he cried out to his empty house. He stomped through his bedroom and across the breezeway to the clothesline. Ghostly silhouettes rippled in the light evening breeze, but his blue shirt wasn’t there. Gone as if he’d never hung it up that morning.

Call her, he thought. Just ask if she got the Coming to America DVD. But as soon as he heard her curt “hello”, he blurted out: “Vernie, you know my blue shirt, the one you got me that time in Miami?”

“You calling me ‘bout your shirt?”

“I can’t find it.”

“What you expecting me to do? Fly to Eleuthera and find your shirt that you got in a ball on the floor?”

“I keeping the place nice for when you come home.”

“Don’t call me when you find it.” She hung up.

Clarence sank down in Vernice’s chair and threw one of the cushions across the room. You fool, he thought. You can’t even ask how she doing?

*

He hadn’t laid eyes on Vernice since she had left him at the Governor’s Harbour Airport two months ago. His plane had just landed back on the island and, through the scratched window of Pineapple Air, he had first noticed his cousin Prime with the empty luggage cart, ready to unload and load the bags. Then his eyes were pulled over to the boarding line where he saw a familiar feisty stance. Vernice was thin, reedy like a stork, but it was her force field rather than her figure that he recognized.

Clarence got off the plane before the propellers stopped screeching and he pointed his round body to the line, forming his fingers into a zero. It was his joke with Vernice that she was the one and he was the zero but together they were a ten. He could usually get a smile out of her even though he wasn’t sure what her smile meant, but that day at the airport she wouldn’t look at him.

“Vernie?” He couldn’t keep the question out of his voice. She was dressed like she was going to church, with her perfumed hair all straightened and curled, but her expression didn’t match. “Why you going to Nassau? I just reach home.”

The boarding passengers stared but didn’t encroach. The disembarking passengers pushed past his bulk with their large bags and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Vernice fixed her eyes on the yellow plane.

“Come on, Baby: let’s go.”

She fixed him with a look he’d seen her give others but he felt it for the first time. “You gonna play the fool. Now?”

Clarence had chosen to ignore the signs of an offshore storm. “Clarence,” she had said, “you working too much off the island, hear?” He hadn’t wondered why she was so often working late at the restaurant.  He had decided to sit in the sun, oblivious to the thickening clouds and the kick of the wind.

Now, the boarding passengers pushed past him and made their way onto the tarmac. Prime wheeled his searching face past him as he went to load luggage onto the plane.

“Let’s talk.” He tried to grab her hand but she escaped his reach like a stealthy fish. “Please don’t go, Vernie.” Prime stopped loading to look at him. He had left three very large and familiar suitcases on the tarmac.

“Leave the bags.” Clarence nodded at Prime.

“Mind your business and load the bags,” the attendant ordered Prime.

Vernice took advantage of this distraction and strode across the tarmac.

Clarence, with his wet eyes, had already made enough of a scene but still he ran after her until she climbed the steps. He knew she wouldn’t look back but he stood his ground on the tarmac until the attendant took his arm.

“She gone now, Clarence. Move inside.”

He drove home through Governor’s Harbour, noting the sailboats anchored in the calm turquoise water. The beach had been peeled open by the tide and marooned sea creatures, garbage and boats were trapped until the tide snaked its way back. He slowed to a crawl at the Palmetto Points causing cars to bleat their annoyance. At his Savannah Sound house, he sat in his driveway, reluctant to enter the void.

*

It might take days for information about an international event to arrive on the island, but almost everybody heard about Vernice’s departure before the sun had set. Relatives in Nassau were consulted and, through Prime, Clarence learned about the Nassau man who had “roached” Vernice.

“He got a nice Mercedes, I hear.”

“What he do to afford that?” Clarence asked. In Vernice’s absence, Prime seemed newly at ease in their home, and Clarence watched as his cousin helped himself to a Kalik. Prime took advantage of Clarence’s thirst for information and slowly dispensed what he knew over two more beers.

“He with the government.”

“A corrupt thief then,” Clarence said. Prime’s mother had wanted her son to get involved in politics; he was christened Lynden after the first Prime Minister of the Bahamas. After Clarence had overheard his auntie bragging about how Lynden was destined to be a Prime Minister, he had started calling his cousin “Prime”. Prime stayed well away from politics but the nickname had stuck. Clarence felt a duty to dis politicians on behalf of his cousin.

 *

It took weeks for Clarence to even detect he had a thief. There were already so many holes in his possessions, their possessions. He shifted furniture around in his hollow home re-colonizing the space. He bought a huge television and pulled his sofa right in front of it. “You like that, Vernice?” Put his shoes on the ottoman. “Relax. They clean.” Placed all the extra cushions on her side of the bed. It didn’t occur to him that, without Vernice, his house was vulnerable.

Their home was in Savannah Sound, one of the settlements spaced out like holiday flags along the skinny island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. It hung on the northern edge of the settlement, before it became South Palmetto Point off the Queen’s Highway – the one road that curved and connected the island. It was not a house that would attract the attention of a thief – a sherbet-orange bungalow with a low cinder-block fence around the perimeter. Dense bush grew in tangled knots between him and his neighbours. He wondered whether his thief navigated its spaces like the feral cats and dogs.

 *

“Errol, you seen anybody hanging round these parts?” he asked his neighbour when he drove by.

“Why you ask?”

Clarence had to explain about the pineapple pie, which was what had finally tipped him off. Vernice’s cousin Donna was known for her sweet pineapple pie and she had been selling her pie at the church fundraiser in the parish hall at Governor’s Harbour.

“So, when I reach home, looking to eat my pie, it was gone.”

“You’re telling me your pie was thiefed? And nothing else?”

“Maybe some other things was taken.”

“They break a window?”

“No.”

“You lock up?”

“I ain’ fool.”

“They knock stuff around?”

“No. Just my pie was gone.” Clarence could hear how his story sounded watery.

“That’s a strange thief,” Errol said, looking at Clarence’s stomach.

“Just keep an eye, hear?”

“I’m going to lock up my pie,” Errol said with a laugh and drove off, his tires chomping the chalky white gravel.

 *

Clarence thought his TV box might have attracted the thief. His cousins in Nassau had told him that when they bought a new television, the cardboard box had to be broken up into small pieces and dumped elsewhere. A TV box in the garbage was an advertisement for “the new owners to come get it.” But Eleuthera was a small family island, where people knew each other. Besides, his TV hadn’t been taken. Why I got such a strange thief? Clarence wondered.

At home, he started to speak to his thief. “You a Haitian, hey? Come off of that boat down in Double Bay?” His skin bristled and his nostrils flared as he noticed subtle changes: the dent in the sofa; a chair pushed back; a mingling of odours; a resettling of dust; the reshaping of air where the thief had stood. “You know I see you? You hungry, I think.”  In his stillness, he also noticed the dried cotton pods in a vase, the echo of conversations nestled in the chairs, the aroma of past meals on the stove, the hole on the left side of the bed. It was like living with two ghosts – both beyond his realm.

Clarence set out to prove he had a thief. He nailed down one of his windows but they were all a little wonky from the last hurricane. He swore his thief was messing with him because, one week, he scoured the house for his pirated Skyfall DVD. A few weeks later, it reappeared – like it had never been missing. He was grateful that the pie didn’t resurface. Each time he was off-island, he laid traps: $10 by the phone; a new People magazine on the sofa; beer and food in the fridge; new pirated DVDs. With each new theft, he pumped his fist, nodded his head. “I know about you.”

He began to call Vernice frequently to keep her voice in his head: “Would bleach take out the ketchup stain on my shirt?” “Where you keep the Drano?” “Do lizards leave all those droppings?” She was easy to bait and they fell into relaxed conversations as she harangued him about his carelessness.

 *

About four months after Venice’s departure, Clarence drank a brown-bagged beer on the bench outside the airport with Prime. The sun was a heavy ball of heat. There was no breeze and Clarence could see the tourists, who were waiting for the last flight out, brushing away the no-see-ums. He was immune to their invisible prick, but he knew the tourists would scratch itchy welts for weeks wondering when they’d been hit.

“Vernice’s car been sitting a while,” Prime said.

“I forget about her car.” He knew it hadn’t moved an inch; it was a dim beacon signaling to him and everyone that she was still off-island. In one gulp, he finished his beer and wandered over to her little Ford Focus.

Employing all his hunting senses, he slipped in. He inhaled for her scent and fingered her lipstick, receipts and water bottle. He felt large and intrusive – like he was snooping in her purse. He sped north to James Cistern hoping to escape the feeling.

At the fishing wharf, he stopped for a drink when he saw a friend there.

“Vernice ask me to keep her car charged up.”

“She got some nerve. I’d let her car rust out,” his friend said. The statement stung Clarence like a swat across the ear.

“Can’t never get it right,” he muttered and went across the street to get another beer. People laughed at him because he had a pie thief and he was supposed to hate Vernice because she had left him. He didn’t know where the reefs were in these waters.

When he returned her car, the airport was deserted with only the private jets anchored on the tarmac. Like a strong undertow, Clarence found himself drawn to a black Mercedes. He wondered whether Vernice would have left him if he also had a Mercedes. This car commanded respect. His fingers flowed along the door and pulled the handle. With the same fluid motion he reached under the mat. No keys. Panting slightly, he paused and then pulled back the visor. The keys dropped into his hand.

The leather embraced his back and he felt like a little kid gripping the steering wheel. He helped himself to the breath mints and revved out onto the Queen’s Highway.

The shaded car gave him the illusion of invisibility as he veered around potholes, hugged the corners, and roared up the inclines he knew so well. However, each time he saw another car, it deflated his excitement. There was no escape. He had the impulse to crash through the wave barriers, ram the car into the ocean and let the sea invade. That was the movies.

He turned around. The moon shone like a searchlight into the car. He recalled a story his grandmother had told him about the moon and a thief. A priest had given the thief the shirt off his back and then he wished he could give him the moon.

“Why? Nobody can take the moon,” he’d said.

“Exactly. The priest know that people want what ain’ theirs to take. You remember now that some things just can’t be stole. And I’ve counted these cookies.” She had shooed him out to play.

Clarence gazed at the moon and slouched low in the Mercedes. He thought about what had been stolen from him, what he was stealing, and about things that could not be thieved.

Back at the airport, he replaced the keys and removed his beer. Leave no trace. That was how it was done. But before he exited the car, he switched the radio, loud, to the gospel station. Nobody should feel immune.

 *

“Roach,” Clarence called out to his thief for the last time one week later. “Roach, what you thief this time?” He opened his refrigerator. “I know you like Donna pie, hey? Me too.” The bait was gone. He marched over to the kitchen shelf, put his nose beside the stack of plates and whispered “gotcha” into the security camera.

Clarence hadn’t given any thought to what he’d do with his thief, once he captured him on tape. He had just wanted solid proof. Now, he couldn’t stop watching. Play. Stop. Rewind. Play. Pause. Clarence’s head buzzed and his ears throbbed with heat. Why would Prime come round his house? He paced around looking at everything Vernice and now Prime had touched. Most of the holes of the stolen, missing or eaten items had been easy to fill. Now, something else had been stolen.

He needed to talk to Vernice, to hear her outrage.

“I didn’t tell you about someone who been coming by the house lately,” he said.

“Why you think I care?” Her voice was tight and coiled.

“It’s your house too.”

“Who she is?”

Clarence let the misunderstanding hang in the phone’s static void. It wouldn’t hurt to let her think about that possibility for a few seconds. He had heard that the Nassau roach had moved on. Vernice was back at her sister’s.

“No, I had a thief,” Clarence said. “You remember I was asking ‘bout my blue shirt? And those DVDs?”

“How’d he get in?”

Clarence thought back to the airport parking lot when he had taken Vernice’s car for a ride. Her house key had been absent.

“He that Haitian gardener Errol hired?” Vernice asked.

“No. It’s never who you expecting. I’ll take care of it, don’t you worry.”

Clarence understood now why people attacked vermin with such vigor. He would have let the lizard live in his house; the droppings weren’t much of a nuisance. Prime was a harmless lizard; he could control him. It would stay between the cousins, no need to involve the mothers. But by allowing one roach in, other vermin thought they could invade also. He felt exposed and stupid.

“Vernice, do people think I’m a big fool?”

“No, Clarence.”

“Thank you for that.” Clarence could count on her for the brutal truth. He would fortify his house.

“Clarence? You know what I’m doing right now?”

“You’re going to have to tell me.”

“I’m holding up my finger to show the number one.”

Clarence started to smile and then stopped. His joke didn’t fit them any more. He couldn’t hold up his fingers in a zero. They were no longer a ten. He didn’t know when it had disappeared but he recognized the hole.

 

 

 

Julia Thomson_CR Katrina Afonso (30)Julia Thomson is a storyteller, essayist and creative writing student at University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, Canada. In her courses, Julia has been writing short stories about the Bahamas where she grew up. This is her first published short story since primary school. After writing “Roached”, which is about someone having a thief, Julia caught a thief red-handed at her cottage in northern Ontario—so she is currently writing a story about winning the lottery.

 

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