The pothole was an open sore on the scabbed road. Justin walked around it and hitched his book bag high on his shoulder so the trailing ends of the straps wouldn’t drag in the pool of mud and stain his crisply starched school shirt and pants. He had spent half an hour ironing his uniform that morning. He was careful, too, to step where his clean black suede Clarks would stay store-fresh, away from the orange-brown sludge left by rain on the roughly paved ground. It was 8:15 and he wouldn’t have time to clean the boots again before he got to school. The first bell had already gone, he knew. Lichelle was lagging; he gave her hand a little tug and she sped up behind him.
“Way, faddah,” called a clean-shaven boy leaning on a mango tree a few feet down the street. “I have it nice this morning, eh!” He plucked a cigarette from behind his ear, holding his other hand loosely clenched, palm up, at waist height. His Clarks were just as pristine as Justin’s, but he was wearing an NBA basketball uniform, not school clothes. The bright white of the silky vest dazzled Justin’s eyes; the sun had come out and dappled the other boy through the spears of lush green leaves.
“What happen now, faddah,” Justin replied. He and Lichelle didn’t break stride. The other boy grinned as they passed him. A thin black puppy ambled across Justin’s path and he focused on the fluffy hair sheathing its protruding ribs. A patch of mange was spreading across its bony hips.
Lichelle giggled. “Pedro, bathe your dog, nah. Look he getting minge.”
Pedro pursed his lips and made a kissing noise; the puppy turned to look at him but swiveled back its wolfish head and made to follow the boy and girl walking down the street. “Like Mackie going to school with you today or what, Lichelle?” The boy called the dog again and it halted, looking with longing at Justin as he walked away. Justin shook his head and went on. “Check me when school done, nah, faddah. If I not here I inside. Wake me up if is anything.” But Justin was nearly out of earshot already.
Justin liked Mackie. He wished he could stop and tickle his pointed ears and snout. When he had the time he liked to sit under the mango tree on a makeshift seat of cardboard stacked on an old beer crate with Mackie’s head on his lap or his paws on his chest. He never let the other boy see it when Mackie licked his face with a soft, wet tongue, his shaggy tail wagging so hard his whole body snaked after it. Justin glanced back at Mackie and saw the puppy lapping water from the pothole behind him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Pedro lick the end of the joint he had finished rolling.
Pricking his ears at the rumble of an approaching car, Justin hurried to the corner, pulling Lichelle behind him. He flagged down the black sedan and they ducked inside the back seat when it pulled to a stop in front of them. Justin caught the gaze of the driver and raised his chin in greeting. “Morning, Ben.” The driver grunted a response. Music boomed from speakers as big as buckets embedded in the car’s interior; Justin bobbed his head and sang along with the song. It was one of his favourites: Money, money, money, ha ha! My money money money, ha ha! chanted the singer in Jamaican patois. Me have money in a jug, money in a paint pan . . .
Lichelle’s voiced piped up, interrupting Justin’s singing. “Jussie, why Pedro does treat Mackie so?”
“Because Mackie is a pot hound.”
“So,” he said in a slow voice, “Mackie mother is a pedigree pit bull. Pedro vex because a boy pot hound come in the yard and breed she when she was in season.”
“What is ‘in season,’ Jussie?”
He rolled his eyes but continued to answer without impatience. “That is when lady dogs does be ready to have babies.”
“Oh. But Mackie nice. Why Pedro does treat him so bad?”
“Because Pedro find Mackie not as good as a real pit bull. That is why Mackie does have to thief food from the mother dog and Pedro doesn’t feed him. And that is why Pedro does let Mackie run in the road so. All the other puppies in the litter, Mackie brothers and sisters, done get bounce down in the road already and dead.”
“They dead?” Her eyes were shiny and wide. “I don’t like Pedro. Ent that is Mackie mother tie up by the side of Pedro house? Why Pedro don’t tie up Mackie like he does tie up the mother dog?”
“You want me drop she in school, star?” Ben interrupted, again meeting Justin’s eyes in the rearview mirror. The car was paused at the entrance to the lane leading to Lichelle’s school.
“Yeah, me ain’t ’fraid that,” Justin replied. It would save him a few minutes if she were taken right to her school gate, otherwise he’d have to get out, walk her to the gate, walk back out, and take another taxi to his own school—although, since he was already late, it didn’t really matter either way. The driver jerked his head in acknowledgement. Sunlight bounced off his gold-rimmed sunglasses and the gold sticker on the brim of his baseball cap.
As she was leaving the car, Lichelle hesitated. “Mammy didn’t give me the money for the book, Jussie. Miss say I have to bring it today or I go get licks.” Her small bottom lip trembled. Justin wordlessly handed over a twenty. She beamed as she took it, her tears and fears drying up.
“Don’t lose it, eh, Lichelle!” Justin called through the open door to the child as she gamboled to the gate clutching the bill in a tiny fist. She waved goodbye. Justin, alone in the back seat, closed his eyes and leaned back into the plush leather, humming to the music. Heavy black tint on the windows kept the car’s interior cool and dim in the back.
As the shiny car pulled up outside the school gate, Justin grabbed five dollars from his book bag and passed it to Ben. “Nah, don’t worry,” the driver said, waving the money away. “I see how you handle your sister with your lunch money. Buy a corn curls or a Chubby or something with that. I was coming right here anyway.” On the sidewalk, Justin squinted at the spinning glittering chrome rims on the car’s wheels as they whirled away from him. He hoisted his bag again and squeezed through the small gap the security guard left open for latecomers. As he hustled past the guard booth, he heard a gravelly voice call his name and skidded to a stop.
“Morning, Sir,” Justin mumbled to the tall, fat teacher stalking towards him.
“You’re late again.” The teacher stood in front of him with arms crossed and a sneer on his face. “What is your excuse this time, Huggins?”
“Sir, my mother wasn’t home and I had was to give my little sister she breakfast, Sir.”
The sneer deepened. “Eh heh? And where your mother was?”
Justin didn’t answer.
“Cat got your tongue, boy?” The teacher’s eyes bulged under a sweaty forehead. Justin kept his head down and looked at the ground but in his peripheral vision he could see damp blossoms of dark perspiration at the teacher’s armpits. The boy focused his gaze on the teacher’s shoes, scuffed brown loafers badly worn at the heels. The teacher’s shadow fell sharp and black between their feet.
In the waiting silence, the shadow on the ground disappeared. The air grew chilly. The sun had gone behind a cloud.
Sucking his teeth, the teacher shoved Justin to the office and waited while he signed the late book. “Miss Jones,” he said to a pretty young secretary who was slowly typing at a bulky computer behind the counter, “could you check how many lates Huggins has had this week?”
“Yes, Mr. Peters,” she said. Her high voice was a reedy whisper. Justin, his head still down, saw her saunter from her chair to flick through the foolscap pages of the ruled notebook. “Ahhhmmmm . . . six, Mr. Peters.”
“But, Miss,” Justin protested, his eyes boring into hers, “how I go be late six times in one week when it only have five days in the week?”
Mr. Peters wrapped a massive hand around the top of Justin’s arm and shook him hard. “Boy, stop talking back.” He turned back to Miss Jones, his snarl turning to a purr. “Are you sure? Double check it, please.”
Miss Jones giggled, whipping her head to one side to flip the long bangs of her weave from her eyes. “Oh, gosh, I make a mistake, yes! Is three this week and three last week, Mr. Peters. Huggins? Yes, three last week and three this week. And today is only Wednesday!”
The teacher gave her a toothy grin that vanished when he wrenched Justin around to face him. “You know three lates is a detention, Huggins.”
“Yes, Sir, but I can’t stay late today, Sir, my sister—”
“Don’t argue with me, boy. You boys always have an excuse. Don’t you know that without an education you have no future?” The hand on Justin’s arm was a vice. “You have detention. Come by the courts as soon as the last bell rings. Don’t be late. If you don’t come I’ll have to call your mother in. Maybe I’ll finally get to meet this mystery lady.”
Justin’s sleeve was wrinkled when Mr. Peters let him go. The boy brushed at the wrinkles but it was no use; he sucked his teeth softly and left Mr. Peters leaning on the office counter in front of the slender girl.
The rain was falling again. He ran to his classroom, dodging drops as solid as bullets.
Lichelle’s screams pierced his ears. Justin eased through the back door, silently slipping off his boots before tiptoeing through the kitchen and whisking aside the curtain over the bedroom door. He could hear his mother shouting and the crack of a slap that made Lichelle scream even harder. He took off his bag and threw it aside. It fell next to a cardboard barrel, the only object in the room other than a sagging double bed, and Justin left it there. The barrel overflowed with clothes; he shucked his shirt, khaki pants and socks and snatched up a pair of football shorts entangled with a sequined brassiere. He tossed the bra back, dragged the shorts over his hips to the relentless sound of Lichelle’s wails and slithered through the window, landing palms first in the cold muck outside. Dusk was falling.
Razor grass as high as his head edged the track he took to the mango tree. Pedro was still there, now wearing skinny jeans and a slim shirt glinting with diamante studs. “I say you forget,” Pedro drawled. “It nearly done. A man come and buy a whole pound, yes.” He offered Justin a miniscule plastic bag of marijuna.
“Nah, I good,” muttered Justin, shaking his head. He sat down, shifting the layers of cardboard under his bottom until they were marginally more comfortable. Mackie toddled up to him, wagging his tail in swift, wide arcs.
“If is money you ain’t have, you know that is not a problem, faddah.” Pedro slipped the bag backing into his pocket and flicked away a seed from the handful of weed he had been cleaning as he leaned against the mango tree. “You know you’s my boy. Ent we play pitch together? Ent I give you them Clarks you does wear to school? A ten dollars ain’t nothing, faddah.”
Justin silently rubbed the hard ridge of the pup’s spine, ruffling the hair on the wriggling animal. Mackie yipped for joy. But when Justin touched the bald patches of scabrous skin at his hips, Mackie backed away and threw a nip at his fingers.
“Boy, forget that pot hound, nah,” Pedro said with a laugh. “That dog going and dead just now, faddah. He only thiefing he mother food. She go done he just now. Nyam nyam!” In the twilight, Pedro’s teeth gleamed white in his brown face.
Still, Justin said nothing, shifting his touch to the puppy’s furry belly. Mackie quickly lay on his back, his tongue lolling from an open mouth, eyes glazed with pleasure.
Sweet, acrid smoke curled in the darkening air. Shifting on his seat, Justin rocked the plastic case back so he could lean against the tree’s massive, scarred trunk. The bark dug into his bare back and he lurched forward a bit, jerking the case. Justin heard something fall to the soft ground with a low thud. Mackie left him, wedging his wet, black nose between the tree and the case.
“Aye, move from there, Mackie!” shouted Pedro, continuing to smoke his joint while leaning on the tree next to Justin. “Eh, faddah, move that dog from there before he shoot off he stupid head.”
Easing forward, Justin reached for the puppy, which whined and started licking his hands.
“Pick up that thing and put it back for me, there,” Pedro instructed him. Looking down, Justin saw the dull sheen of a gun’s metal barrel in the damp dust. He bolted to his feet and whirled around. Mackie tumbled to the ground with a yelp. Pedro laughed again. “It ain’t go bite you, faddah. Just pick it up and put it back.”
Justin bent at the waist and leaned low in the gathering dusk to watch the black steel gun resting in the dirt. He glanced back at Pedro. Pedro looked at him with shining, hard eyes above a brilliant smile. Justin looked back at the gun. He could barely see it in the shadows.
There was nobody in the street. The pit bull bitch slept at the end of her chain next to the house behind the mango tree. Sunset had turned the muddy pothole to a kaleidoscope. No breeze blew.
Extending his right thumb and forefinger like pincers, Justin picked up the gun. It was heavier than he had expected and it slipped from his fingers. He crouched, looking over his shoulder as he wrapped his hand around the barrel and withdrew it, swiftly shoving it back into the beer bottle crate.
“You ain’t want to look at it, faddah?”
Crouched beside the case, Justin shook his head. Mackie stuffed his nose into his hand, but Justin pushed him away. “Go on, nah, dog.”
“It not going and do you nothing, faddah. You could watch it. Just don’t pull the trigger.” Pedro was still laughing through the smoke.
His hands suddenly frigid and trembling, Justin cautiously reached for the gun. He placed it flat in his palm and with his other hand gingerly stroked the bumpy plastic grip of the stock.
“Hold it good, nah.”
Justin folded three fingers around the stock and slid his index finger next to the trigger.
“Don’t shoot me, eh!” Pedro, choking on his mirth, began to cough violently. The rhinestones on his shirt twinkled like stars.
Justin removed his finger from the trigger. He wished there were more light so he could read the letters and numbers he could see etched into the side of the rectangular barrel. Hefting it in his hand, he thought it was about the weight of his sister’s bottle, which he still had to make her every night even though she was going on six. No, it was heavier than that. Maybe the weight of the pot he made her porridge in, a battered old iron pot with fat, round handles on either side. The gun’s barrel was smooth. He had never felt anything like it.
“Jussie, I hungry.” Lichelle’s voice was hoarse. The white tracks of tears and crusted snot covered her face. Justin leapt from his narrow bed and pulled her by the hand to the galvanized steel shower stall outside the kitchen. “The water cold, Jussie,” she complained in her croaking voice. He ignored her and stripped her to her panties, turning his back while she lathered up and rinsed her body with water he dipped from a barrel in the yard. Bundled in a threadbare towel, she disappeared into the bedroom to start dressing while Justin plugged in the iron and pressed her school clothes on the drawing room couch. Handing them to her around the curtain, he bustled to the kitchen. The bucket next to the sink was empty; he filled it outside and returned to wash her porridge pot. As he took up the pot he stilled. Meditatively he weighed the pot in his hand, and then shook the moment off to continue making breakfast.
Lichelle emerged from the bedroom dressed in her pressed pinafore, shirt and knickers. “Where Mammy?”
Porridge steamed on the stove. He washed a bowl for her to eat from. “You know she work last night,” he said.
Lichelle shrugged and went to sit on the couch. Justin scraped the sugar pan to sweeten the dish, and then blew on the bowl until it cooled. Tasting it, she asked for more sugar.
He brushed her hair and tied her ribbons on straight before she cleaned her teeth. “You not going to school?” she asked, still croaking a little, as he slipped her backpack over her shoulders. One strap was frayed so he hunted for a safety pin to hold it secure for the time being. He took her hand and they walked out the door. A black, furry lump lay next to the pothole on the roadside. Lichelle gasped. “Mackie! Jussie, look Mackie! What happen to him?”
Justin walked past without looking at the dead pup. “He get bounce down. Stop crying, Lichelle. Is time to go.”
Lisa Allen-Agostini is the author of The Chalice Project (Macmillan Caribbean, 2008) and coeditor of Trinidad Noir (Akashic Books, 2008). She founded and chairs the Allen Prize for Young Writers, a nonprofit organization that holds competitions, seminars, and workshops for teen writers living in Trinidad and Tobago.