This landing was even more abrupt than his last one. His free fall ended as his body slammed into the drum of the cement mixer. He was being tossed inside a dark blender full of grout. Every few seconds, his face would emerge from under the wet, pounded sand and pebbles, and he would keep his mouth closed, trying to force air out through his nose and push away the grainy mix that his body was trying to inhale.
He pretended that he was swimming and tried to flutter-kick, just as he had when the speedboat stopped in the middle of the ocean and he was told to swim ashore. He attempted arm strokes, but couldn’t move either his arms or his legs. Still, his body was in constant motion, because the mixer continued to turn. He reached for the shaft, what in a more stable space, in a house or a temple or some other holy place, you might call a poto mitan, a middle pillar. He used what was left of his strength to propel his body toward the shaft and wrap his hands around it. He was able to hold on only briefly before he was pulled in another direction.
He felt lighter now, even lighter than he had when falling. His bones were melting, his blood evaporating, and he was now like parchment or something porous—tulle, or the white eyelet lace Darline adored. He had not been paying attention to the alternating hum and jangle of the mixer. He hadn’t noticed that there were streaks of blood polluting the cement, or that he was feeling no pain. Then the mixer stopped spinning and he heard the stillness, which was soon replaced by screams and grunts and “Oh, my God”s. Then he heard the sirens, which took him back to the beach, to the gray sand and Darline’s sable face, her indigo jogging suit, Paris’s red shirt, and his own orange-and-green-speckled vomit at the fast-food place.
From where he was lying inside the cement mixer, he saw an airplane cut across the clear blue sky. And that was when he realized that he was dying, and that his dying offered him a kind of freedom he’d never had before. Whatever he thought about he could see in front of him. Whatever he wanted he could have, except what he wanted most of all, which was not to die. He had wished for something with wings to pluck him out of the cement mixer, and there it was up in the sky now, in the shape of an airplane. He and Darline had been putting money away to take Paris on an airplane. It was either a trip or a ring, and they were essentially already married, Darline had told him. Paris was their ring. They loved each other and they loved him. He was their son.
He wanted to see Darline and Paris again. If only one last time. He wanted to see their faces. He wanted to hold their hands. He wanted to kiss them in the different ways he often had, her on the lips and him on top of his head, where his fontanel would be if he were still a baby.
The plane was slipping out of view, and he heard himself whisper, “Rete la”—“Wait”—“Quédate.” He meant to tell the airplane to stay, or Darline and Paris to stay in his mind, but the fat pink face of his foreman was blocking the sky and he heard the usually gruff man say, “Don’t worry, Fernandez. I’m not going anywhere. Help is on the way, bud.”
Oh, yes, the papers he’d used to get the job said that he was Ernesto Fernandez from Santiago de Cuba. No one on the site, not even the other Haitians, knew his real name. They didn’t believe he was “Cuban Cuban,” as they’d said, but since he spoke Spanish they thought he’d spent some time there and had taken the name.
He did not know how long this half-consciousness would last, his being able to think and remember, so he wanted to keep pushing, to see how far he could take it. What if he made himself float out of the cement mixer? What if he travelled through the city and visited the only two people he loved? He wanted them to see him or, if they could not see him, sense him. He wasn’t sure how this would work. Maybe they would feel a hot wind or a cold breeze. Maybe something near them would move. A picture frame might slip, a drinking glass shatter. Might they notice his shadow out of the corner of their eye, sniff for his pungent after-work smell, or hear his favorite song? Would their palms itch? Would they feel the flutter of his kisses? Or would he appear in their dreams?
Paris might be more susceptible to receiving signs from him. The boy was already “touched.” His mind had been partly lost somewhere between the sea and the beach.
Arnold felt the time growing shorter, so he would not be going all the way back to his childhood in Port-de-Paix. It was a time he’d been trying to forget anyway. He had never met his parents, never knew who they were. He had been raised as a child servant in a household, given away by whoever had brought him into the world. He knew only that he shared neither blood nor a surname with the woman in whose house he grew up. Nor did he have any biological link to her two sons, whose clothes he washed and ironed, whom he walked to school and cooked for, even though they were a few years older than him. Maybe his parents were dead. The woman who raised him had never mentioned them, except to say, whenever he messed up her food or didn’t clean her house properly, that he was worthless and didn’t deserve to have parents.
He had escaped her and her sons as soon as he could, moving to the border, where he slept in a warehouse from which he hauled bags of flour, sugar, and rice to Haitian venders and merchants. It was one of those merchants who had told him about a boat leaving for Miami. Her brother was the captain, she said. He gave her all the money he’d been saving up so that he could go back and show his cruel owner and her sons that he’d made something of himself.