November 20, 2020: “Without Inspection” by Edwidge Danticat

Friday’s here again, Story366!

Today has been a day of meetings, everyone trying to get everything in before Thanksgiving week. I had four Zooms today and will have a few on Monday, carrying me into the long weekend, to the turkey, the stuffing, and all the accoutrements of such a weekend. It’ll be a relief, even this year, when we’re not doing much of anything, just to have a few days where I’m not supposed to be anywhere, no one expecting anything. Of course, that leads into a tough couple of weeks, but hey, that’s the life of the academic. I kinda-sorta love it, how the pressure builds, then just like that, some extended time off before we start it all over again. It’s Sisyphean, but hey, I’m good at pushing that boulder up the mountain, so like I always say, if it ain’t broke, don’t Sisyphix it.

Today I got to read from Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat‘s latest collection, Everything Inside, out in 2019 from Vintage. I’ve read Danticat’s work before, including her first collection, Krik? Krak!, which was way back last century somehow. In-between, she’s put out a ton of other books and racked up all kinds of awards and nominations, making her one of our more distinguished writers. I remember liking Krik? Krak! way back when, I know I love the stories I read today from the new book. Let me share some of that with you here.

“The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” is set in Port-au-Prince in a hotel, run by the narrator and her husband. Their nanny, Mèlisande, suddenly gets sick, then goes to the doctor and discovers she has AIDS. She is put into quarantine in the hotel while our narrator and her husband pay for her medicine, two months’ worth of pills at two bucks a pop. Mèlisande is at first heartbroken, and also claims that she has no idea how she contracted the disease, that she’s a non-drug user and a virgin. Her mother, the hotel maid, doesn’t believe her, but still Mèlisande gets better with the medicine, both physically and mentally. Lo and behold, when she goes back for refills, they all find out that the doctor was a fraud, that the pills were placebos, and the crook has been chased off the island. This all leads to an admission on the part of Mèlisande, as well as the exposure of a oft-used con, luring people like Mèlisande into this very situation.

“Hot-Air Balloons” features Lucy as its narrator. She’s a college student down in Miami and at the outset, gets an email from her roommate, Neah, declaring that she’s dropping out. Neah just spent Thanksgiving break volunteering at a rape victims center down in Haiti and wants to dedicate her life to this effort, having seen some horrible things on her trip. Neah’s father, a prominent Haitian scholar, tasks Lucy with talking Neah out of her choice, so Lucy tracks her down at the charity’s headquarters, only to find Neah is absolutely set on her choice, explaining some of the awful cases she came across (they’re as bad as you can imagine). In the end, this mostly peripheral story lands on Lucy, who wonders when she’ll find her calling, when she’ll be as sure about something as good and just as Neah feels about her cause.

The last story in the book, “Without Inspection,” is what I’ll focus on today, as it’s my favorite. This story starts with Arnold, a construction worker, falling from an impossibly high platform, toward what will be his certain death. Danticat notes he has six and a half seconds until impact, which becomes, for Arnold, a lifetime.

And in fact, Arnold’s life passes before his eyes, (very similarly to what happens to the guy in the bank in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”), the key moments from Arnold’s existence played out as most of the rest of the story. We find out that Arnold crossed over to Miami on a boat, but the captain, not all that close to the beach, told everyone to jump in and swim to shore. Not all those refugees made it, all four women and some of the nine men drowning, oh so close to their goal.

Waiting on the beach for Arnold is Darline, a woman who doesn’t know Arnold, but rushes him off in her car, anyway, taking him to the restaurant where she works, feeding him and preparing him for what’s to come: He’s just become an undocumented illegal—the other surviving men were picked up by agents. Arnold doesn’t know why Darline was at the beach, waiting for him, but is grateful.

Danticat gives us Darline’s story, revealing that when she crossed over, her partner did not make it, drowning, his body never found. Ever since, she has combed the beaches early in the morning, looking for other souls like her partner, like Arnold, hoping to save someone else instead.

Darline also has a son, Paris, who crossed over with her. Paris took an immediate liking to Arnold, asking him if he was his papa the first time they met. Arnold replies, “Maybe,” looking coyly and hopefully at Darline, who looks coyly back. From there, the three are a family, and eventually, Arnold gets the fateful job at the construction site.

It should be noted that Arnold, when he reaches the earth on his fall, does not hit the ground, but instead falls into a cement mixer, which immediately, saves his life. I don’t want to go any further into what happens, though I’ll say that Danticat takes her story to a surprising place, one that moves well beyond the Does he make it or not? question.

It was a treat to read from Edwidge Danticat’s latest book, Everything Inside, her collection of stories about Haitian and Haitian-American people trying to make their way, overcome obstacles, and retain their identities, be they ex-pats or natives Haitians who never left. I was pulled through every piece by Danticat’s easy prose and compelling plot lines, but mostly by her fascinating characters, people who just want their own piece, but have to jump through hoops to get it. This is a really great collection and surely would have been on my top list for 2019.

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