“I am the best pimp. Did you know that?” Landy asked, raising his eyebrows and tilting his head toward me.
I didn’t know that. The babbling water and drone of the crickets seemed magnified by the lull in our conversation. We sat on the banks of a rushing river under a bridge, an arc of steel and concrete that connected the road running through the rural Belizean village of Big Falls. It was dark all around expect for what light reached us from the street lamps on the bridge above.
I realized then that the only thing I knew about Landy was that he rented cheap rooms at the back of town: the only rooms I could afford as a broke college student on Spring break. I’d come home to Belize for two weeks in an effort rediscover my Belizean roots.
“I always treat my girls well. They love me,” Landy continued at length when I did not respond. “Years ago, I started to bring them in from Honduras and Nicaragua and put on shows. That’s when I decided to build the rooms. Wooh!” He smiled and waggled his hand as if he’d touched something hot.
My mind started racing. The rooms. Cheap rooms at the back of town.
The room I rented from him was tiny, and spartan at best: a single bed, a toilet, a light bulb, and a pipe coming out of the wall over a drain hole was the shower. There was no other furniture or wifi. It was one in a connected strip of 4 single rooms constructed from cement blocks and steel and painted light on the outside.
Earlier that evening, I’d been sitting on my bed with the door open to stave off the baking heat. Like many evenings that week, I was writing in my journal, feeling utterly alone in the world. A stranger in my own “home town” of Punta Gorda.
Landy had walked by my open door and saw me, hunched over the empty notebook.
“My friend!” He’d boomed. “A pretty girl like you hiding in this old room.” He shook his head. “Let me take you for a drink, no?
In my short interactions with Landy he’d seemed warm, easy to laugh. He must’ve been in his late 40s. He had large brown eyes and a round face that was perpetually on the verge of a smile like he was in on an eternal joke.
I got in his old silver Honda civic, the door was loose and there was a big dent in the side. He started driving, and he kept driving until we were far out of town and I started to wonder where we were going. He said he “knew a place”.
He stopped in Big Falls, sleepy jungle village that was home to more trees than people. He parked in a grassy place on the side of the road. We got out and he led me down a rocky slope, under the bridge to the river’s edge.
He opened a bottle of “Belizean Gold” the cheap local rum of choice, and a bottle of sprite and mixed them in plastic cups he’d brought. He offered me a cup and I took it, taking only tiny sips. He joked about Punta Gorda town being so small that everyone was a celebrity whose personal business was fair game for gossip. We laughed and I started to feel warm from the sips of rum and at finally having some company after a lonely stretch of days.
His broad silhouette was outlined against the backdrop. He wasn’t tall or especially fit, but he had the sturdy body of an ex-American football player. I could feel his eyes on me. I froze, fixing my gave on the water.
I imagined I was an actress in a scene from a movie. Drinking rum from plastic cups on the riverbank in a jungle village 20 miles outside of the town with a pimp who was a veritable stranger. I dipped my feet, flip flips and all, into the water to wash off the dust from the streets. The water rippled by in the pale lamplight and it was cool and soothing on my feet.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark I could see rocks along the bank placed flat to serve as washboards for women in the village who did laundry in the river.
Landy was silent for a while, and when I did look over at him, he was staring blankly into the water. It seemed he was recovering and old memory.
“This is where I met my wife.” He said at length. “She was thick and chocolate like you. And she always wore shorts but she would try to cover up her legs with her hands if I looked at them, like she was shy. I was 17 and driving a motorcycle for UNICEF.
At first she said she would never bother with anyone like me—too rough and wild. But I would pick her up from work and we would eat lunch right here on these stones. She said I would never be her love, so I started leaving her alone. But that’s when she started to bug me. ‘Landy! How you never call? How you forget about me?’” That’s how women are, they want what they can’t have.
He looked at me. “You look frightened,” he said. “Relax. You remind me of my daughter. Sweet.”
That’s how women are, you know. Never miss the water ‘til the well runs dry. So, that’s how it started. We’re still married today. We’ve been separated for years, but why get a divorce? Why should I waste five hundred dollars on something like that?”
He paused and the sound of the water replaced his voice for some minutes. Then he continued. “I wore cologne called Denim. Have you heard of it? ‘For the man who succeeds.’ That was the slogan. Anyway, it smelled nice.” He looked around slowly and shook his head. Although the hint of a smile remined, a sadness seems to round his posture. “This river,” he murmured.
Suddenly I was startled by a timid voice in the darkness behind us.
“Who is there?” the voice called.
Landy turned quickly, suddenly jolted from his memories. A figure was approaching, a man’s frame that looked slight next to Landy’s.
“Lando?” The approaching man’s voice went up in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“This is my land,” Landy said, moving towards the man. “What are you doing here? What if we were having sex? Would you still walk up on us like that?” He laughed a deep, laugh from his belly.
The man stepped back and stumbled in the dark.
“I’m just fucking with you my friend!” Landy clapped the startled man on the back. “Are you Mr. Bol? Are you drunk? Well enjoy yourself.”
“Yes,” The man nodded rapidly then stopped. “No, I no drunk.”
“Ok, I don’t judge you. You are a free man! Emancipated! Goodnight my old friend,” Landy and I started walking back to the street where the car was.
A shaky “goodnight” was returned from the dark as we walked away back up the bank toward the street. I looked back but the drunk man’s figure was swallowed in the darkness under the bridge.
We got back in his small dented Corolla. At first the engine didn’t start but he kept turning the key until it did. He mumbled something about needing a battery, but seemed unbothered. We drove down the road further into the village. The looming hills sloped down towards the road, dark with the tangled branches of trees and vines, the layered canopy of the rainforest. Every now and then, there was a light near the roadside from slanted board houses with Spanish songs melting into the soupy air tropical air.
We stopped at one such house, which turned out to be a bar: a wooden building tucked into tufts of verdant jungle. The house seemed damp from the rain, like the wood was old and spongy and soaked up the water. A faint smell of mildew mixed with beer as we entered.
Inside was a small room with a bar counter. Behind the bar, a round woman with long curly hair and big eyes was staring intently at her phone. She grunted a greeting when we entered without looking up, her fingers busy on the phone’s small keypad.
“My cousin!” Landy boomed. His voice seemed to shake the soggy walls and served a jolt to the slow Spanish music as it rolled out of speakers somewhere to the back of the place.
The woman looked up from the phone briefly and smiled in a slow bored way. “Hi Lando.” Them back to her phone.
There were two men slumped at the bar, their eyes red from smoke, drink and fatigue. “Lando that your wife?” One of them managed through slurred speech.
“My wife! You think she looks like my wife?” Landy burst out laughing again. “No, cousin, this is my daughter.”
“You have a big daughter,” The other man said, pulling a cigarette from a mashed looking pack. “My daughter is big like her now, too. Twenty-two.”
Landy turned to the bartender and proceeded in the local creole. “Mek I geh wa two bag a chips, no?”
She took a small pair of scissors that was laying nearby and cut two of the small corn chip pouches off the string. The contraband kind, smuggled in across the border from Guatemala
“Gimme wa sprite too.” He put three dollar coins on the bar and she slapped the change down in front of him like a reflex.
“You all right?” she asked.
“I love my life,” Landy answered. “I am a free man. Ask my daughter. I do what I want.”
We left the bar and he handed me the two tiny bags of cheese flavored corn chips. I opened one immediately and finished it before I got to the car. We sat in the car and drank sprite, and I crunched away until all the chips were gone.
“You told me you liked chips but now I believe you do.” He said. “Let’s go sit out here.”
He led me around the back of the building to the bar’s open veranda covered by a thatch roof. We sat at a wobbly table near a tattered jukebox that threw it’s light forward, its screen was the only thing lit in the dark space.
Landy sat down and leaned back as if to admire the place. “The shows I put on here. The girls!” He remised.
Then he jumped up and went over the juke jukebox. An Enrique Iglesias song came on. Slow and sad, it seemed to make the air heavier. Landy was now slow dancing around the space with an invisible person, rocking and stepping to the beat. “Can you dance? He asked, still moving in make-believe unison with the air.
“No.” I said.
But he came over and pulled me up anyway and I made a show of not knowing how. I intentionally stumbled over his feet and became stiff to avoid any ideas of romance.
Then there were footsteps and a tall rangy man approached the jukebox. He wore long loose jeans tucked into thick black rubber boots and an army green t-shirt with a fading image of Bob Marley on it. His face was ruddy and rough with pocs from old scars and his hair and eyes were wild. He looked tired but strong, and weathered from the sun. At one time, long ago, must have been handsome.
“He is my cousin, too,” Landy said, letting me go after my awful attempt at dancing. “Everyone in this village is my cousin.”
“Lando.” The man nodded as he stepped in front of the jukebox. “It’s my birthday today.”
“It is! Well right now it’s after midnight.” Landy offered the man a drink. The bored bartender came out and delivered. “It’s my birthday too,” She said.
We drank to their birthdays and I stifled a yawn. Landy asked the bartender to get more chips. I was revived a bit while eating them.
We left then and drove a half hour through the bush back to the town. He dropped me off at the room I rented from him and told me to take what was left in the run bottle. It was white Travellers rum and had a harsh flavor, but I took it anyway.
“Thanks,” I said, and stepped out onto the wet muddy road and walked up to the small driveway to the room that was my temporary home.
I saw Landy two days later. He was working on the room adjacent to mine with a teenager he introduced me to as his son Daniel. A number of tools were out and strewn about the concrete landing in front of the place.
“My friend!” He said when I opened my door and stood looking out. “Kids these days don’t know how to complete a job. I told my son to pick this up.” Daniel, his son, disappeared around the corner of the building.
“Now where did he go? He needs to stop chasing girls and smoking weed.” He said the last part louder so Daniel could hear.
Landy perched on the cement block partition between the door and the street. “Can you guess how many kids I have?”
“I don’t know.”
He didn’t respond.
“Twelve? Thirteen? Fifteen?”
He nodded. “Fifteen.”
“You have fifteen kids?”
“No. I had no kids. Zero,” He said suddenly with a sly smile. “The women had them. I didn’t.”
Landy was also a politician. At least a self-proclaimed one. He was running as an independent candidate in the upcoming town council election. He and our mutual friend, Wil Maheia, teamed up on some political action in the town to gain votes.
When a white pick up rolled by, Landy shouted. “Just wait until Wednesday Mr. Usher,” He was referring to election day. “Don’t worry I won’t rub it in after your beating.”
“Lando, I will buy you a bottle of rum if you get more then five votes.” A voice replied from the truck. The voice was of an old man in the front seat with sunken, dark eyes and rounded shoulders. The window rolled back up.
“Well at least if I lose I still get a bottle of rum.” Landy said with a smile, unphased. “Win lose or draw, either way, I win.”
He leaned back on the opposite wall and propped his feet up on some cement blocks. “I feel like panades. Do you want some? I will get enough for us both.” He said before I could reply.
“Boy!” He shouted. Daniel, his teenage son, appeared around the side of the building.
“Will you run to the shop please and get me 8-dolla-panades. And get something for yourself.” He leaned forward and handed Daniel twenty Belize dollars. Then he sunk back again with that eternal smile that seem to come from his eyes. He heaved a deep sigh.
“I’m a free man,” he said. “I do as a please. If I feel like work, I work. And I work hard. If I feel like rest, well, I rest. And I provide for all of my kids. I love my kids. I love all my women. I am emancipated.”