Suddenly Doctor Cox
riving to work I saw the most beautiful road-kill. It was a carpet of iridescent blue butterflies, squashed
but flashing on the highway. Wings twitched and glinted in the heat, making me want to stop and collect them. But under the sparkle were only dead insects. Like suicide-butterflies they swarmed out of the jungle to die under mini-vans throbbing drum and bass; or when the traffic was light to lie twitching in reggaes that floated down the mountain like fog. Even in death the butterflies were stunning. What a start to a day, to a season, this carpet of beauty and needless death; if any death can be needless, or beautiful. I tried not to run over the things but it was impossible. The drive made me think: whatever gave the creatures their shine in life was still active after death. Beauty survived them, was even framed and made meaningful by death.
I’ll never forget them, nor the feelings they inspired.
It was my first day at work on the island. When I arrived at the office I found that a guy lived in the dirt under the building. A young guy, I discovered he was there when a colleague went to a place on the office floor and jumped on it hard.
‘Cox,’ he said.
This man shuffled into the office. He was crinkled with sleep, like he’d slept in his clothes. David Cox was his name. His fly was open. He shuffled because his boots had no laces. He took instructions from the colleague for an errand, in a hangdog kind of way, and I noted that his voice lacked the full lilt of Trinidad; instead it had a drawl that tapered to quiet at the end of his words, making them somehow sad. Plus he mushed them in the way of Sean Connery. Cox shuffled away on the errand, probably to find food. I watched his head move past the window, up the road into Port-of-Spain. Sunbeams smacked the gulf opposite our building, swallowing him up in the gleam. Manatees and mud-crabs must have stirred outside – but it didn’t matter if they did, in the languid haze you didn’t have to see them to know they were there.
I first came to Trinidad for a cricket match. Now it was my first day at work in an air-conditioned office with a guy living under it. Don’t ask me. Granted: I’d had beer, and met fine new comrades. Suddenly I was with them on a Monday morning, not many more than a dozen. They were a sample of the island’s blood: Afro-Caribbean, East Indian, Syrian, French Creole, Anglo and Chinese, a culture so bright that my biggest workload wasn’t in the office but in local customs and patois, in wining, grining and liming, in doubles, roti and parlour-juice, in macajuels, mapipires and pommes-cythere, in play-whe, soca, chutney and parang. And threaded through it, between a scent of intimate sweat and waiting to hear boa-constrictors fall out of trees – I learned more about the guy under the building.
‘He fast,’ someone said. ‘Watch out.’
He presented himself most mornings looking sheepish. Understandable, I thought, if someone jumps around over your sleeping head.
Cox was supposedly the building’s security guard, though he was absent most of the day, and seemed to roam at night as well. One morning as he shuffled around the office a colleague said there had already been two break-ins during Cox’s career – and Cox had committed them both.
I watched his lip drop low in the background.
David Cox had been a street kid before fetching up at the building. At first he’d been allowed to spend his nights indoors; but he was banished outside after something went missing. Our wooden single-storey office was raised off the ground, with a planked skirt around its base that hid the pillars and foundations. The front faced a busy road along the gulf, but at its side was a residential cul-de-sac partly shaded by a coconut palm, and with a ruin across the road that dated back to the coup d’état, now reclaimed by leaves, flowers, and posing herons in the sun; then out back, behind hibiscus and bougainvillea, a dirt corridor ran between the building and the neighbour’s fence. Cox had scraped a hole under the planks there, and made a nest of old clothes.
Cox never seemed to wear the same outfit twice. Over time his fashion choices showed that he was a man of drifting spirit – some days he’d appear in an old lady’s gardening hat, other days dressed as a pimp, or a child, or a country gent. I was told all his clothes came from a charity bin. He had the biggest wardrobe in Trinidad, and it was also his bed.
‘Good morning Sir, I’ll carry your bag,’ he’d appear out of nowhere when I arrived in the morning.
‘Thanks Cox, I can carry it. And never mind “Sir”, it’s only me.’
‘Yes Sir Mister Sir.’
There was a creeping feeling on the island, like many post-colonial places, that a good turn was a token the bearer expected to redeem one day in cash. With this in mind, and with everything I’d been told about Cox, I tried to keep things cool.
‘Sir, Mister Sir Sir – ’
‘Cox,’ I stopped to face him once: ‘you’re not my servant.’
‘Just testing,’ he said.
As weeks passed I saw that Cox was a man on the move, with quick smarts, the wits of a child. As time went on I stayed back later in the office, and as he got used to me being there he would come around. After a while two things would happen at night: at a certain time, late, a shadowy car would pull up outside. Figures would come to the door and hand me foam tubs of food and drink. Cox would show up soon after and claim them. We chatted, he made coffee, used the bathroom. The building’s masters didn’t want him coming in at night, but he was good with me, and had a good mind. I liked Cox.
‘Lend me fifty dollars,’ he’d say.
‘I’ll lend you the sharp end of a pineapple.’
‘I was only kidding.’
‘The sharp end of a pineapple.’
‘What! I was only kidding!’
‘But do you have ten? I’ll pay you back…’
So it went with Cox, who could launch philosophical arguments if you were slow to see his logic.
‘Listen to me,’ he’d say: ‘have you, in your life, given a total of more than ten dollars to beggars?’
‘But you never saw that money, nor probably the beggars, ever again, right? So here on the one hand you’re capable of throwing money clean away – and on the other of resisting to lend to a sort of colleague who you know you’ll see every day, and whose life you can make hell until you get paid.’
‘Cox – it’s a beg. A high-functioning beg because you know I don’t want to make your life hell. You’re trading on sympathies.’
‘What! Do I look like a beggar? Like a man who’d trade on sympathies?’
‘Well. Maybe a technical beg.’
‘And don’t do the stereotype where I’m rich just because I came from outside, or owe you in a cultural sense because of the colonial past. Everyone has their roll of the dice in life – for now I get paid on the same day as you, by the same people, and until then am in the same condition.’
‘Wow. Like you really got out of the wrong side of the bed.’
I look at him.
‘Wow,’ he shuffles away in his gaping boots. ‘Like – at least you have a bed. At least you have – ’
‘Cox – I’ll give you five dollars. Okay? Give them to you.’
‘No, no,’ he dismisses me over his shoulder. ‘Far be it from me to jeopardise the harmony of our interrelationship.’ Cox really had a golden tongue, who knows from where.
‘Coxy – we’re starting to sound like an old married couple. Just take the fiver.’
‘Yes Mister Sir thank you Sir.’
‘And don’t be like that.’
‘Okay but I’ll pay you back.’
‘You don’t have to, that’s the idea.’
‘But only a beggar wouldn’t pay it back. Only a beggar – ’
And so it was, playfully but firmly, that Cox reeled me in. We alternated the roles of mentor and pupil; he with tips from the streets, me with the overworld that was bizarrely out of his reach. For instance one day he watched me get landed with an extra hour’s work after taking a generous stance with a colleague:
‘You need to master mood swings,’ he sidled up to me. ‘Don’t be so predictable. Get a reputation for moodiness and nobody will hit on you for favours.’ He winked and shuffled away.
Then there was a time Cox started coming in with an old briefcase full of documents. One day he asked if I could read one to him. I wasn’t sure if it was because he thought I’d find it interesting – but it turned out he couldn’t read or write. He was too shy to ask anyone else. Alongside a small kitchen in the office was a cubby with table and chairs, and Cox would sit there with the briefcase, shuffling papers, furrowing his brow, sighing like a big cheese. Sometimes he’d pace importantly up and down, muttering to himself. You couldn’t watch without feeling it in the chest. He had a shine that would have taken him anywhere in life, given only the most basic chances. Instead his energies were turned to grinding small wins on the street. I could relate to Cox. He had some competition in the capital though, the beggars were the best talkers I’d seen, each with a trademark style. One with a Moses beard who’d reach out to you like a toddler, whimpering ‘My lord, my lord.’ Snappy beggar, who’d sing for a burger; and Fat Beggar, who’d saunter past busy food stalls demanding ten dollars, or three breakfasts. Threats as loud as parrots always flocked around Fat Beggar, ‘Ten dollars? I’ll crack you down with the door of this car!’ Then we had a well-spoken white man who claimed to be Hitler’s brother, giving lucid speeches on the fall of the Reich. And there were genuine ragamuffins, who never spoke but scavenged in the gutters of the town; some could only walk on all fours. Where Cox roamed in this sweltering arena, and what he really did, was a mystery to everyone.
One day I scraped through the bushes behind the building to see where he lived. I saw cables running from his burrow, up over the fence into the neighbour’s yard.
Cox had cable TV.
I didn’t have a TV at home, but Cox had cable. In the dirt. He’d rigged a line from the neighbour’s pole. The hibiscus behind the office flickered colours in the night.
Sometime after this though, I noticed Cox was more anxious. He was more attentive to his errands, but in a distracted, bumbling way. He forgot about his case of important papers for a time. Then one day I heard his television was gone.
He'd sold it to an old lady, under a sudden crushing debt.
‘But how stupid he is,’ someone told me, ‘he only had it on hire purchase – who knows how he talked them into it. Now he sold it for less than he owes the shop, and he already spent the money.’
Cox sharpened his wits as this weight bore down. The energy of miracles came to him, as it can to certain people whose pressures blaze persistently inside them. One night after colleagues finished work they sent him up the road for a six-pack. Cox went for the beers, came running back with the bottles; but he was careless crossing the avenue, and a car hit him head-on. It tossed him into the air, tossed the beers up over his head.
Everyone watched from the window.
And in the slow-motion reserved for sudden death, we watched him catch the beers on his way back down. Not one hit the deck.
He got up, dusted himself off, and limped to the door.
‘Here you go.’
A legend was born in Port of Spain.
But even with the power of miracles upon him – or perhaps because of it – the season wasn’t all plain sailing. It saw Cox taking a more vigorous interest in security work, which is a job calling for judgement. Now he called himself Chief Of Security. The nights I was there he prowled more noticeably, and came to the door every so often to check on me. He lurked, those days, shifting his gaze around like a spy. He’d be prowling outside when I finished at night, holding up a hand while he scanned the shadows for villains.
This was Cox’s spirit the night he spied a man on a nearby rooftop. He got a posse of vagrants together, and with a hail of sticks and rubble they brought the intruder down and bashed him on the ground. But when the police came the man turned out to be the security guard for that building.
The posse vanished into the night, and Cox went to jail. Our bosses didn’t bail him out till they’d stopped laughing, which was a full day or two later. After this Cox went back to his sheepish, shuffling self. He came to the office at night with important papers he couldn’t read, scrutinising and sorting them with grunts, frowns and sighs. He shaved his head and started wearing these granny-glasses he’d found. Suddenly Doctor Cox, with his glasses, and his case of papers. Not long after this next of his little lives kicked off, I saw him by the avenue with a mobile phone. He paced up and down in earnest conversation, looking this way and that behind his glasses. Cox didn’t want to show us his new phone; but I found it one night and it was a rubber toy. One that squeaked when you squeezed it. It also had a little antenna that went up and down.
At his table in the cubby, next to his papers, he sometimes extended the antenna to listen for incoming calls. One time he handled the phone too roughly and it squeaked. He flinched, looking around to see if we’d heard.
After that it stayed in the briefcase.
Everyone reckoned Cox was about twenty-three. He actually carried a birth certificate in his back pocket, and it showed his mother’s name. But nobody had put his date of birth.
Cox’s mother was long dead.
One night I watched through the window as he sat with a respectable-looking girl. She came from a workplace, in a suit, and Cox met her in dazzling white trousers. They sat on the ledge under the coconut tree. It seemed like a first date. He frowned and smiled and frowned, and his hands framed notions and wonders and surprises for the girl. Occasionally he stepped away to take a call on his phone. I lurked behind the window praying it didn’t squeak.
As I began to lock up that night, Cox rushed to meet me on the steps. When he was nervous or frightened his eyes grew round, and he clenched his teeth so you could see them clenched. I didn’t want to make eye contact, I knew his position; all he felt he could offer the girl was a pantomime of worth, a first date on a ledge under a tree. I wondered if maybe that’s all any of us can offer.
‘Mister Sir, Sir…’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. And as I passed the girl: ‘See you tomorrow Doctor Cox.’
The girl didn’t come around again. I suspect she might have liked to; but Cox only had the ledge under the coconut tree to entertain her. He’d lit what might have been, and that was all he felt he could offer. Plus eventually the phone would’ve squeaked.
He went back to his paperwork at night, shuffling and sorting it in and out of his case. He used to ask if I had any official-looking papers I could add to his collection, and I gave him some bank statements and bills. But after reading the occasional letter for Cox I started noticing some were addressed to him. They were from businesses and civic groups; statements of support for a charity.
Cox had started a charity. With his glasses and briefcase, and maybe his phone, he’d been trawling the town raising support for a children’s charity. A charity for kids like him. Businesses were offering to host bins on their premises where people could leave Christmas gifts. Then at Christmas Cox would deliver the gifts to poor children and orphans. The image brought howls of laughter in our building. Hilarious speculation as to how Cox would fit all the toys in his burrow, and where he would fence them for cash; but then came a shout from the directors’ office. We crowded at the door, where we could see his TV – and there was Cox.
Cox was on TV with Miss Universe.
Trinidad & Tobago with her neighbour Venezuela have more than a fair share of Miss Worlds and Miss Universes; one of the most recent to that time was Trinidadian. There she was with Cox. He wore his glasses. They laughed together. Later that day he passed by the office to a hail of jeers, taking a bow before going out to find call-girls for some Chinese seamen off a rusty freighter. Later he stole coconuts from the office tree, was discovered, punished, and retired to his hole under the building.
That was Cox’s day in the sun.
When Christmas came the office turned into a distribution centre for gifts. Things looked up for Cox, for a while at least. Then he rattled the door one night and asked if he could use the phone. I let him in, paying no attention to his call. But strangely for the time of night, a second line started ringing. I took it on another phone and it was the boss calling from home. He wanted to know how Cox was using the office phone.
Cox had called a live radio phone-in and accused a government minister of being a racist. The boss was listening to the show. That ended Cox’s nights in the office. His timing could’ve been worse though; carnival season approached, and the island soon became a whirl. Carnival was prime season for Cox and the beggars, the place filled with strangers, streets were awash with flesh, beer and rum. Occasionally his face would appear like a light-bulb here or there around town – at the back of a party, on a carnival float, running with tourists. Afterwards, Carnival hangover seemed to last months. The office was slow to cure.
When I next saw Cox he had mange growing on his skin, and lumps in his neck. The mysterious car still delivered food most nights, but now it went mostly uneaten. I ate some, I confess.
I soon heard Cox had AIDS.
He’d met a tourist one carnival a few years earlier, as a teen. They ended up at the tourist’s hotel. I never found out if the tourist was male or female, if the sex was consensual, or sold. When you knew Cox it was as fucked-up an idea as a child abduction. Cox wasn’t a waster, he wasn’t a druggie, he wasn’t true street crew. Hell, he giggled like a little girl the night we goaded him into half a bottle of beer.
He knew things were uncertain. Apparently his HIV was diagnosed years before. Now it was full-blown AIDS. Everyone had kind of known; they just let me figure it out for myself. Our boss was a cool and clear-hearted man. He made no big deal of Cox’s ups and downs, he bantered and sparred with him as much as he ever had; but there were doctors in his family, and through him Cox was treated for free all those years.
Now his lip hung lower than ever. He started to dribble. He started to lose his height and build. His skin lost its shine. Even so he’d rally from time to time, young Doctor Cox would emerge with his spectacles and his crucial business dealings.
But Cox knew he was sick.
One night he asked if I thought there was anything after death. I told him plenty of intelligent people think so. The shadowy car that delivered his supper turned out to be from one of the finest restaurants in town, not far around the corner. The pair of formidable women who ran it had been reeled in like the rest of us. As Cox slowed down and grew more dazed, as the glands on his neck swelled, and his body showed its bones, these connections in his life quietly appeared.
One day Cox was rushed to Accident and Emergency. My colleague Kirtlee and I put on ties and strode into Port of Spain General Hospital to find him. He was on a big ward.
‘It’s nothing,’ he said, ‘just a cough. Tell them I’m coming back.’ And he did come back for a while. But he soon disappeared again.
This time it was to a place on a mountainside with a view over jungles. A misty place where bird cries echoed. It felt like a place you didn’t come back from. I had to leave the island for a few weeks and before I left I made the trip to find him. He was on a bed next to a prisoner in chains. He spread out his hands and grinned with clenched teeth at the colossal joke of it all.
‘I’m dying,’ he said.
It was a scrape his wits couldn’t help him out of. I brought him food, and a wallet stuffed with official papers for his collection. But seeing him there wide-eyed I knew his spirit had flowered and shrunk away, his time had come and gone. I hugged him, and told him to wait for me, I’d bring him something back from my travels.
But Cox couldn’t wait.
He told his last visitors I was coming back. But I heard on the phone from them that he was dead. They buried him in La Peyrouse cemetery, on his home patch near the office. His friends came from the building, the restaurant, and an unexpected number out of the woodwork of gingerbread houses, palms and shadows.
I don’t know if Miss Universe was there.
By then it didn’t matter.
Mist hung over Port of Spain when I got back. It was butterfly season again. The highway was spattered with needless victims.
They hadn’t lived long.
But they flashed fire and colour from where they lay.