Earl Lovelace’s Joebell and America

Novelist Earl Lovelace's short story, both funny and sad, pokes gentle fun at the Caribbean's American dreams

Illustration by Sally DaviesIllustration by Sally DaviesIllustration by Sally DaviesIllustration by Sally Davies

Joebell find that he seeing too much hell in Trinidad so he make up his mind to leave and go away. The place he find he should go is America, where everybody have a motor car and you could ski on snow and where it have seventy-five channels of colour television that never sign off and you could sit down and watch for days, all the boxing and wrestling and basketball, right there as it happening. Money is the one problem that keeping him in Cunaripo; but that year as Christmas was coming, luck hit Joebell in the gamble, and for three days straight he win out the wappie. After he give two good pardners a stake and hand his mother a raise and buy a watch for his girl, he still have nineteen hundred and seventy-five Trinidad and Tobago dollars that is his own. That was the time. If Joebell don’t go to America now, he will never go again.

But, a couple years earlier, Joebell make prison for a wounding, and before that they had him up for resisting arrest and using obscene language. Joebell have a record; and for him to get a passport he must first get a letter from the police to say that he is of good character. All the bribe Joebell try to bribe, he can’t get this letter from the police. He prepare to pay a thousand dollars for the letter; but the police pardner who he had working on the matter keep telling him to come back and come back and come back. But another pardner tell him that with the same thousand dollars he could get a whole new American passport, with new name and everything. The only thing a little ticklish is Joebell will have to talk Yankee.

Joebell smile, because if is one gift he have it is to talk languages, not Spanish and French and Italian and such, but he could talk English and American and Grenadian and Jamaican; and of all of them the one he love best is American. If that is the only problem, well, Joebell in America already.

But it have another problem. The fellar who fixing up the passport business for him tell him straight, if he try to go direct from Trinidad to America with the US passport, he could get arrest at the Trinidad airport, so the pardner advise that the best thing to do is for Joebell to try to get in through Puerto Rico where they have all those Spanish people and where the immigration don’t be so fussy. Matter fix. Joebell write another pardner who he went to school with and who in the States seven years, and tell him he coming over, to look out for him, he will ring him from Puerto Rico.

Up in Independence Recreation Club where we gamble, since Joebell win this big money, he is a hero. All the fellars is suddenly his friend, everybody calling out, “Joebell! Joebell!” some asking his opinion and some giving him advice on how to gamble his money. But Joebell not in no hurry. He know just as how you could win fast playing wappie, so you could lose fast too; and, although he want to stay in the wappie room and hear how we talk up his gambling ability, he decide that the safer thing to do is to go and play poker where if he have to lose he could lose more slow and where if he lucky he could win a good raise too. Joebell don’t really have to be in the gambling club at all. His money is his own; but Joebell have himself down as a hero, and to win and run away is not classy. Joebell have himself down as classy.

Fellars’ eyes open big big that night when they see Joebell heading for the poker room, because in there it have Japan and Fisherman from Mayaro and Captain and Papoye and a fellar named Morgan who every Thursday does come up from Tunapuna with a paper bag full with money and a knife in his shoe. Every man in there could real play poker.

In wappie, luck is the master; but in poker skill is what make luck work for you. When day break that Friday morning, Joebell stagger out the poker room with his whole body wash down with perspiration, out five hundred of his good dollars. Friday night he come back with the money he had give his girl to keep. By eleven he was down three. Fellars get silent and all of us vex to see how money he wait so long to get he giving away so easy. But, Joebell was really to go America in truth. In the middle of the poker, he leave the game to pee. On his way back, he walk into the wappie room. If you see Joebell: the whole front of his shirt open and wiping sweat from all behind his head. “Heat! ” somebody laugh and say. On the table that time is two card: Jack and Trey. Albon and Ram was winning everybody. The both of them like Trey. They gobbling up all bets. Was a Friday night. Waterworks get pay, County Council get pay. It had men from Forestry. It had fellars from the Housing Project. Money high high on the table. Joebell favourite card is Jack.

Ram was a loser the night Joebell win big; now, Ram on top.

“Who against trey!” Ram say. He don’t look at Joebell, but everybody know is Joebell he talking to. Out of all Joebell money, one thousand gone to pay for the false passport, and already in the poker he lose eight. Joebell have himself down as a hero. A hero can’t turn away. Everybody waiting to see. They talking, but they waiting to see what Joebell will do. Joebell wipe his face, then wipe his chest, then he wring out the perspiration from the handkerchief, fold the kerchief and put it round his neck, and bam, just like that, like how you see in pictures when the star boy, quiet all the time, begin to make his move, Joebell crawl right up the wappie table, fellars clearing the way for him, and he empty out everything he had in his two pocket, and, lazy lazy, like he really is that star boy, he say, “Jack for this money!”

Ram was waiting. “Count it, Casa,” Ram say.

When they count the money was two hundred and thirteen dollars and some change. Joebell throw the change for a broken hustler, Ram match him. Bam! Bam! Bam! In three card, Jack play “Double!” Joebell say. “For all,” which mean that Joebell betting that another Jack play before any Trey.

Ram put some, and Albon put the rest, they sure is robbery.

Whap! Whap! Whap! Jack play. “Devine!” Joebell say. That night Joebell leave the club with fifteen hundred dollars. Fellars calling him The Gambler of Natchez.

When we see Joebell next, his beard shave off, his head cut in a GI trim, and he walking with a fast kinda shuffle, his body leaned forward and his hands in his pockets and he talking Yankee: “How ya doin, Main! Hi-ya, Baby! And then we don’t see Joebell in Cunaripo.

“Joebell gone away,” his mother, Miss Myrtle say. “Praise God!”

If they have to give a medal for patience in Cunaripo, Miss Myrtle believe that the medal is hers just from the trials and tribulations she undergo with Joebell. Since he leave school his best friend is Trouble and wherever Trouble is, right there is Joebell.

“I shoulda mind my child myself,” she complain. “His grandmother spoil him too much, make him feel he is too much of a star, make him believe that the world too easy.”

“The world don’t owe you anything, boy,” she tell him. “Try to be decent, son,” she say. Is like a stick break in Joebell two ears, he don’t hear a word she have to say. She talk to him. She ask his uncle Floyd to talk to him. She go by the priest in Mount St Benedict to say a novena for him. She say the ninety-first psalm for him. She go by a obeah woman in Moruga to see what really happening to him. The obeah woman tell her to bring him quick so she could give him a bath and a guard to keep off the evil spirit that somebody have lighting on him. Joebell fly up in one big vexation with his mother for enticing him to go to the obeah woman: “Ma, what stupidness you trying to get me in! You know I don’t believe in the negromancy business. What blight you want to fall on me now? That is why it so hard for me to win in gamble, you crossing up my luck.”

But Miss Myrtle pray and she pray and at last, praise God, the answer come, not as how she did want it — you can’t get everything the way you want it — but, praise God, Joebell gone away. And to those that close to her, she whisper, “America!” for that is the destination Joebell give her.

But Joebell ain’t reach America yet. His girl Alicia, who working at Last Chance snackette on the Cunaripo road, is the only one he tell that Puerto Rico is the place he trying to get to. Since she take up with Joebell, her mother quarrelling with her every day, “How a nice girl like you could get in with such a vagabond fellar? You don’t have eyes in your head to see that the boy is only trouble? They talk to her, they tell her how he stab a man in the gambling club and went to jail. They tell her how he have this ugly beard on his face and this ugly look in his face. They tell her how he don’t work nowhere regular. “Child, why you bringing this cross into your life?” they ask her. They get her Uncle Matthew to talk to her. They carry her to Mount St Benedict for the priest to say a novena for her. They give her the ninety-first psalm to say. They carry her to Moruga to a obeah woman who bathe her in a tub with bush, and smoke incense all over her to untangle her mind from Joebell.

But there is a style about Joebell that she like. Is a dream in him that she see. And a sad craziness that make her sad too but in a happy kinda way. The first time she see him in the snackette, she watch him and don’t say nothing but, she think, Hey! Who he think he is? He come in the snackette with this foolish grin on his face and this strolling walk and this kinda commanding way about him and sit down at the table with his legs wide open, taking up a big space as if he spending a hundred dollars, and all he ask for is a coconut roll and a juice. And then he call her again, this time he want a napkin and a toothpick. Napkins and toothpicks is for people who eating food; but she give them to him. And still he sit down there with some blight, some trouble hanging over him, looking for somebody to quarrel with or for something to get him vex so he could parade. She just do her work, and not a word she tell him. And just like that, just so by himself, he cool down and start talking to her though they didn’t introduce.

Everything he talk about is big: big mountains and big cars and race horses and heavyweight boxing champions and people in America — everything big. And she look at him from behind the counter and she see his sad craziness and she hear him talk about all this bigness far away, that make her feel too that she would like to go somewhere and be somebody, and just like that, without any words or touching, it begin.

Sometimes he’d come in the snackette, walking big and singing, and those times he’d he so broke all he could afford to call for’d be a glass of cold water. He wanted to be a calypsonian, he say; but he didn’t have no great tune and his compositions wasn’t so great either and everything he sing had a kinda sadness about it, no matter how he sing it. Before they start talking direct to one another he’d sing, closing his eyes and hunching his shoulders, and people in the snackette’d think he was just making joke; but she know the song was for her and she’d feel pretty and sad and think about places far away. He used to sing in a country and western style, this song: his own composition:

Gonna take ma baby
Away on a trip
Gonna take ma baby
Yip yip yip
We gonna travel far
To New Orleans
Me and ma baby
Be digging the scene

If somebody came in and had to be served, he’d stop singing while she served them, then he’d start up again. And just so, without saying anything or touching or anything, she was his girl.

She never tell him about the trouble she was getting at home because of him. In fact she hardly talk at all. She’d just sit there behind the counter and listen to him. He had another calypso that he thought would be a hit.

Look at Mahatma Ghandi
Look at Hitler and Mussolini
Look at Uriah Butler
Look at Kwame Nkrumah
Great as they was
Everyone of them had to stand the pressure

He used to take up the paper that was on one side of the counter and sit down and read it. “Derby day, ” he would say. “Look at the horses running,” and he would read out the horses’ names. Or it would be boxing, and he would say Muhammed boxing today, or Sugar. He talked about these people as if they were personal friends of his. One day he brought her five pounds of deer wrapped in a big brown paper bag. She was sure he pay a lot of money for it. “Put this in the fridge until you going home.” Chenette, mangoes, oranges, sapodillas, he was always bringing things for her. When her mother ask her where she was getting these things, she tell her that the owner of the place give them to her. For her birthday Joebell bring her a big box wrapped in fancy paper and went away, so proud and shy, he couldn’t stand to see her open it, and when she open it it was a vase with a whole bunch of flowers made from coloured feathers and a big birthday card with an inscription: From guess who?

“Now, who give you this? The owner?” her mother asked.

She had to make up another story.

When he was broke she would slip him a dollar or two of her own money and if he win in the gamble he would give her some of the money to keep for him, but she didn’t keep it long, he mostly always came back for it next day. And they didn’t have to say anything to understand each other. He would just watch her and she would know from his face if he was broke and want a dollar or if he just drop in to see her, and he could tell from her face if she want him to stay away altogether that day or if he should make a turn and come again or what. He didn’t get to go no place with her, cause in the night when the snackette close her big brother would be waiting to take her home.

“Thank God!” her mother say when she hear Joebell gone away. “Thank you, Master Jesus, for helping to deliver this child from the clutches of that vagabond.” She was so happy she hold a thanksgiving feast, buy sweet drinks and make cake and invite all the neighbour’s little children; and she was surprise that Alicia was smiling. But Alicia was thinking, Lord, just please let him get to America, they will see who is vagabond. Lord, just let him get through that immigration, they will see happiness when he send for me.

The fellars go round by the snackette where Alicia working and they ask for Joebell.

“Joebell gone away,” she tell them.

“Gone away and leave a nice girl like you? If was me I would never leave you.”

And she just smile that smile that make her look like she crying and she mumble something that don’t mean nothing, but if you listen good is, “Well, is not you.”

“Why you don’t let me take you to the dance in the Centre Saturday? Joey Lewis playing. Why you don’t come and forget that crazy fellar”

But Alicia smile no, all the time thinking, wait until he send for me, you will see who crazy. And she sell the cake and the coconut roll and sweet drink and mauby that they ask for and take their money and give them their change and move off with that soft, bright, drowsy sadness that stir fellars, that make them sit down and drink their sweet drink and eat their coconut roll and look at her face with the spread of her nose and the lips stretch across her mouth in a full round soft curve and her far away eyes and think how lucky Joebell is.

When Joebell get the passport he look at the picture in it and he say, “Wait! This fellar ain’t look like me. A blind man could see this is not me.”

“I know you woulda say that,” the pardner with the passport say. “You could see you don’t know nothing about the American immigration. Listen, in America, every black face is the same to white people. They don’t see no difference. And this fellar here is the same height as you, roughly the same age. That is what you have to think about, those little details, not how his face looking.” That was his pardner talking.

“You saying this is me, this fellar here is me? Joebell ask again. “You want them to lock me up or what, man? This is what I pay a thousand dollars for? A lock up?”

“Look, you have no worry. I went America one time on a passport where the fellar had a beard and I was shave clean and they aint question me. If you was white you might a have a problem, but black, man, you easy.”

And in truth when he think of it, Joebell could see the point, ’cause he ain’t sure he could tell the difference between two Chinese.

“But wait! Joebell say. “Suppose I meet up a black immigration ?”

“Ah,” the fellar say. “You thinking. Anyhow, it ain’t have that many, but if you see one stay far from him.”

So Joebell, with his passport in his pocket, get a fellar who running contraband to carry him to Venezuela where his brother was living. He decide to spend a couple days by his brother, and from there take a plane to Puerto Rico, in transit to America.

His brother had a job as a motor car mechanic.

“Why don’t you stay here? ” his brother tell him. “It have work here you could get. And TV does be on whole day.”

“The TV in Spanish,” Joebell tell him.

“You could learn Spanish.”

“By the time I finish Spanish I is a old man,” Joebell say. “Caramba! Caramba! Habla! Habla! No. And besides I done pay my thousand dollars. I have my American passport. I is an American citizen. And,” he whisper, softening just at the thought of her, “I have a girl who coming to meet me in America.”

Joebell leave Venezuela in a brown suit that he get from his brother, a strong-looking pair of brown leather boots that he buy, with buckles instead of laces, a cowboy hat on his head and an old camera over his shoulder and in his mouth a cigar, and now he is James Armstrong Brady of the one hundred and twenty-fifth infantry regiment from Alabama, Vietnam veteran, twenty-six years old. And when he reach the airport in Puerto Rico he walk with a swagger and he puff his cigar like he already home in the United States of America. And not for one it don’t strike Joebell that he doing any wrong.

No. Joebell believe the world is a hustle. He believe every body running some game, putting on some show, and the only thing that separate people is that some have power and others don’t have none, that who in in and who out out, and that is exactly what Joebell kick against, because Joebell have himself down as a hero too and he not prepare to sit down timid timid as if he stupid and see a set of bluffers take over the world, and he stay wasting away in Cunaripo; and that is Joebell’s trouble. That is what people call his craziness, is that that mark him out. That is the “light” that the obeah woman in Moruga see burning on him, is that that frighten his mother and charm Alicia and make her mother want to pry her loose from him. Is that that fellars see when they see him throw down his last hundred dollars on a single card, as if he know it going to play. The thing is that Joebell really don’t be betting on the card, Joebell does be betting on himself. He don’t be trying to guess about which card is the right one, he is trying to find that power in himself that will make him call correct. And that power is what Joebell searching for as he queue up in the line leading to the immigration entering Puerto Rico. Is that power that he calling up in himself as he stand there, because if he can feel that power, if that power come inside him, then nothing could stop him. And now this was it.

Mr Brady?” the immigration man look up from Joebell passport and say, same time turning the leaves of the pass-port. And he glance at Joebell and look at the picture. And he take up another book and look in it, and look again at Joebell; and maybe it is that power Joebell reaching for, that thing inside him, his craziness that look like arrogance, that put a kinda sneer on his face that make the immigration man take another look.

“Vietnam veteran! Mr Brady, where you coming from?”

“Venezuela.”

The fellar ask a few more questions. He is asking Joebell more questions than he ask anybody.

“Whatsamatta? Watsa problem?” Joebell ask. “Man, I ain’t never seen such incompetency as you got here. This is boring. Hey, I’ve got a plane to catch. I ain’t got all day.

All in the airport people looking at Joebell ’cause Joebell not talking easy, and he biting his cigar so that his words coming to the immigration through his teeth. Why Joebell get on so is because Joebell believe that one of the main marks of a real American is that he don’t stand no nonsense. Any time you get a real American in an aggravating situation, the first thing he do is let his voice be heard in objection: in other words, he does get on.

In fact that is one of the things Joebell admire most about Americans: they like to get on. They don’t care who hear them, they going to open their mouth and talk for their rights. So that is why Joebell get on so about incompetency and missing his plane and so on. Most fellars who didn’t know what it was to be a real American woulda take it cool. Joebell know what he doing.

“Sir, please step into the first room on your right and take a seat until your name is called.” Now is the immigration talking, and the fellar firm and he not frighten, ’cause he is American too. I don’t know if Joebell realise that before he get on. That is the sort of miscalculation Joebell does make sometimes in gambling and in life.

“Maan, just you remember I gotta plane to catch,” and Joebell step off with that slow, tall insolence like Jack Palance getting off his horse in Shane, but he take off his hat and go and sit down where the fellar tell him to sit down.

It had seven other people in the room but Joebell go and sit down by himself because with all the talk he talking big, Joebell just playing for time, just trying to put them off; and now he start figuring serious how he going to get through this one. And he feeling for that power, that craziness that sometimes take him over when he in a wappie game, when every bet he call he call right; and he telling himself they can’t trap him with any question because he grow up in America right there in Trinidad. In his grandmother days was the British; but he know from Al Jolson to James Brown. He know Tallahassee bridge and Rocktow mountain. He know Doris Day and Frank Sinatra. He know America. And Joebell settle himself down not bothering to remember anything, just calling up his power. And then he see this tall black fellar over six foot five enter the room. At a glance Joebell could tell he’s a crook, and next thing he know is this fellar coming to sit down side of him.

TWO

I sit down there by myself alone and I know they watching me. Everybody else in the room white. This black fellar come in the room, with beads of perspiration running down his face and his eyes wild and he looking round like he escape. As soon as I see him I say “Oh God! ” because I know with all the empty seats all about the place is me he coming to. He don’t know my troubles. He believe I want friends. I want to tell him “Listen, man, I love you. I really dig my people, but now is not the time to come and talk to me. Go and be friendly by those other people, they could afford to be friends with you.” But I can’t tell him that ’cause I don’t want to offend him and I have to watch how I talking in case in my situation I slip from American to Trinidadian. He shake my hand in the Black Power sign. And we sit down there side by side, two crooks, he and me, unless he’s a spy they send to spy on me.

I letting him do all the talking, I just nodding and saying yeah, yeah.

He’s an American who just come out of jail in Puerto Rico for dope or something. He was in Vietnam too. He talking, but I really ain’t listening to him. I thinking how my plane going. I thinking about Alicia and how sad her face will get when she don’t get the letter that I suppose to send for her to come to America. I thinking about my mother and about the fellars up in Independence Recreation Club and around the wappie table when the betting slow, how they will talk about me, “Natchez”, who win in the wappie and go to America — nobody ever do that before — and I thinking how nice it will be for me and Alicia after we spend some time in America to go back home to Trinidad for a holiday and stay in the Hilton and hire a big car and go to see her mother. I think about the Spanish I woulda have to learn if I did stay in Venezuela.

At last they call me inside another room. This time I go cool.

It have two fellars in this room, a big tough one with a stone face and a jaw like a steel trap, and a small brisk one with eyes like a squirrel. The small one is smoking a cigarette. The tough one is the one asking questions.

The small one just sit down there with his squirrel eyes watching me, and smoking his cigarette.

“What’s your name?”

And I watching his jaw how they clamping down on the words. “Ma name is James Armstrong Brady.”

“Age?”

And he go through a whole long set of questions.

“You’re a Vietnam veteran, you say? Where did you train!”

And I smile ’cause I see enough war pictures to know. “Nor’
Carolina,” I say.

“Went to school there?”

I tell him where I went to school. He ask questions until I dizzy.

The both of them know I Iying, and maybe they coulda just throw me in jail just so without no big interrogation; but, America. That is why I love America. They love a challenge. Something in my style is a challenge to them, and they just don’t want to lock me up because they have the power, they want to trap me plain for even me to see. So now is me, Joebell, and these two Yankees. And I waiting, ’cause I grow up on John Wayne and Gary Cooper and Audie Murphy and James Stewart and Jeff Chandler. I know the Dodgers and Phillies, the Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and the Vikings. I know Walt Frazier and Doctor J, and Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Really, in truth, I know America so much, I feel American. Is just that I ain’t born there.

As fast as the squirrel-eye one finish smoke one cigarette, he light another one. He ain’t saying nothing, only listening. At last he put out his cigarette, he say, “Recite the alphabet.”

“Say what?”

“The alphabet. Recite it.”

And just so I know I get catch. The question too easy. Too easy like a calm blue sea. And, pardner, I look at that sea and I think about Alicia and the warm soft curving sadness of her lips and her eyes full with crying, make me feel to cry for me and Alicia and Trinidad and America and I know like when you make a bet you see a certain card play that it will be a miracle if the card you bet on play. I lose, I know. But I is still a hero. I can’t bluff forever. I have myself down as classy. And, really, I wasn’t frighten for nothing, not for nothing, wasn’t afraid of jail or of poverty or of Puerto Rico or America and I wasn’t vex with the fellar who sell me the passport for the thousand dollars, nor with Iron Jaw and Squirrel Eyes. In fact, I kinda respect them. “A, B, C … ” And Squirrel Eyes take out another cigarette and don’t light it, just keep knocking it against the pack, Tock! Tock! Tock! “K, L, M … ” And I feel I love Alicia … “V, W … ” and I hear Paul Robeson sing Old Man River and I see Sammy Davis Junior dance Mr Bojangle’s dance and I hear Nina Simone humming humming Suzanne, and I love Alicia; and I hear Harry Belafonte’s rasping call, “Daay-o, Daaay-o! Daylight come and me want to go home,” and Aretha Franklin screaming screaming, ” . . .

“Y, Zed.” ”

“Bastard!” the squirrel eyes cry out. “Got you!”

And straightaway from another door two police weighed down with all their keys and their handcuffs and their pistols and their nightstick and torchlight enter and clink their handcuffs on my hands. They catch me. God! And now, how to go? I think about getting on like an American, but I never see an American lose. I think about making a performance like the British, steady, stiff upper lip like Alec Guinness in The Bridge over the River Kwai , but with my hat and my boots and my piece of cigar, that didn’t match, so I say I might as well take my losses like a West Indian, like a Trinidadian. I decide to sing. It was the classiest thing that ever pass through Puerto Rico airport, me with these handcuffs on, walking between these two police and singing,

Gonna take ma baby
Away on a trip
Gonna take ma baby
Yip yip yip
We gonna travel far
To New Orleans
Me and ma Baby
Be digging the scene.

Earl Lovelace’s novels are While Gods Are Falling, The Schoolmaster, The Dragon Cant Dance and The Wine of Astonishment. His plays have been collected under the title Jestina’s Calypso. This story is excerpted from A Brief Conversion and Other Stories, published by Heinemann, by permission of the author.