A Pint for Mr. DeFreitas
By Richard Rupnarain
Blood! Its in you to give! So says the slogan. And truth be told most of us have no problem sparing a pint for those in need of blood transfusions. In fact, given the option, most of us will gladly part with our blood than our other liquid assets. At least, such was the case with the employees at the Lithographic Company on La Penitance Road.
The printery was home to nearly two hundred employees, most of them employed on the factory floor, working the presses, sorting and packaging the finished products newsletters, brochures, pamphlets, labels, bulletins and small booklets for commercial and industrial customers. The upper level of the building housed the executive, accounting and estimators offices. The Chief Estimator and his staff occupied the northernmost section of the open floor while the Chief Accountant and his team filled in the remaining floor space. The two chiefs were housed in adjacent glass-encased offices from whence they kept an eye on each other and on their rows of workers.
With the temperature outside hovering at a constant ninety degrees all year the heat inside the concrete structure was at times unbearable, and that despite the presence of ceiling and floor fans that whirred with hypnotic monotony but obviously doing nothing more than blowing hot air at a faster rate on the suffering servants. The male employees, forced to keep their ties properly affixed to their sweat stained collars, suffered the worst and could be seen grimacing and tugging at their cravats as if they were being strangulated by an invisible foe. The younger women were a little better off, as their dress code was not as defined, and they took advantage of the loophole to wear thin armless blouses and mini skirts, much to the delight of their male counterparts. The older women were more conservatively attired and to combat the heat they chose to be more creative, either fashioning corrugated fans from letter size paper or purchasing Chinese fans from the bazaar across from La Penitance market.
Robert DeFreitas, a leftover of the Azorean diaspora in Guyana, was one of the tenured estimators, having succeeded his father and his grandfather in the science of computing the cost of sizable production runs. He was also the only one who knew how to use the slide rule, much to the envy of the others who depended on their ability to multiply long hand, and the chief estimator, the possessor of the sole calculator, an eight-digit machine that looked much like a small typewriter, which he punched and cranked with annoying frequency all day as he checked the accuracy of job cost computations.
Robert was a reticent man, of whom little was known, other than he was a devoted Catholic who lived with his sister somewhere on Hadfield Street. He was frail, no more than a hundred and ten pounds on his five feet nine frame, light brown hair, deep set eyes and an aquiline nose that loomed prominently on the cratered surface of a severely acne face. He was so skinny that a keen observer could actually see the outline of his skeleton protruding under the thin layer of pale skin. Day in and out he wore the same ensemble, a crinkled white long-sleeved cotton shirt, black tie, and black Tetrex pants held to his waist by a tatty cracked alligator skin belt.
Unlike his colleagues who were up and about the office to stretch their cramped legs and who frequented the water cooler to stave off dehydration, he hardly ever left his desk not for the washroom and not even for his lunch. When the clock on the wall struck noon he would simply put down his pencil as though he had heard the voice of an invigilator at the GCE exams and then he would reach for his thermos, filled with the same food every day chicken noodle soup and salted biscuits. Everything he did was with calculated precision, as though he had to concentrate on each aspect of the activity. He would spread a white cotton handkerchief on his desk, carefully remove the cover of the thermos and upturn it to serve as a bowl, then he would measure the soup and pour it in to the cover, after which he carefully wiped the spoon with the edge of the handkerchief and examined it with the fastidiousness of a jeweler checking a suspect gem. Every spoonful of soup was carefully measured and the intervals between bowl to mouth were timed with quartz-like precision. But unlike his colleagues who also ate lunch at their desks while catching up on the daily news, his eye was single, not so much because he had no interest in the news, but mainly because he was not very good at multi-tasking. So he kept his head straight, as though his face was vised by an invisible bridle, and he looked straight ahead, focused on nothing in particular, as he swallowed each spoonful of soup. In fact, he ate so slowly, and so deliberately (which he explained was done in order to avoid congestion in his constricted esophagus) that one could literally track the movement of the soup as it snaked its way along his Adam's apple.
When he was finished with his meal there was neither mess on his desk nor a trace of soup on his lips. This impressed the women to the same degree that watching his Adam's apple inflate and dilate disgusted them. Then he would simply reverse the procedure. The bowl was returned to its former role as cover, the handkerchief was neatly re-folded along pre-existing seams, and the thermos was returned to the lower right drawer. Then he would just sit there, indifferent to the chatter, laughter and other activities around him; and he would wait, hands clasped in front of him as he watched the second hand on the clock go round and round until it was 1:00 pm. This he did every day with rigid steadfastness, like a religious duty, as though fearful that any deviation in routine would set his life spiraling into a course of chaos and confusion.
That particular Wednesday however it was clear to those who knew him that he was apprehensive about something and when Looknauth Singh, the affable East Indian teenager who sat behind him, asked him if he was all right he simply cracked a half smile and said he was fine. But deep down he knew he was not and he alone knew the cause of his anxiety. That Wednesday was blood donation day for the Lithographic Company staff and the Red Cross personnel were already on the site setting up their cots and other apparatus in a vacant area to the left of the stairs. At 2:00 pm everyone would be rolling up their sleeves to give a pint of blood, including him, as he had listed his name on the donor sheet, more out of concern that he might be deemed selfish if he abstained, but aware that losing an eight of his blood supply could have deleterious consequences on his health and well-being. That was the reason for his anxiety.
For reasons unknown to him he simply could not gain weight. As a kid he never had much of an appetite and he ate Continental brand biscuits with salted butter and a cup of tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner just in varying quantities. When he was twelve his mother took him to Mercy Hospital to see the nutritionist and was told that the boy was healthy and that there was no reason for concern about his diet. She however remained convinced that something was wrong with him and continued her quest for answers. On advice from a friend who had the same problem with her son, she took him down the East Bank to Grove to visit an old bush medicine lady named Mrs. Garnett who lived with her granddaughter, Carmen, a sinewy young woman of about fifteen years of age. Carmen was Mrs. Garnetts main advertisement for the efficacy of bush medicine. After a cursory examination of the boys eyes and skin she concluded that he was bilious with jaundice and needed a systematic dosage of karila bitters to clear up his eyes and clean out his liver and bowels.
So for the next month Mrs. DeFreitas made her son a cup of karila bitters tea and forced him to drink it at the threat of cutting off his supply of salt biscuit. Every morning before he left for school the scene was the same. He cried, vomited, groaned, and spat as he was being forced to consume the bitter potion. But his shenanigans only made things worse as his mother would refill the cup with more bitters than he had spewed on the ground and on his clothes. When he did muster the gumption to ask her to sweeten the bitters with a spoonful of sugar she asked him if he was her father to give her orders, and in the same sentence reminded him of Mrs. Garnetts granddaughter, Carmen, who ran faster than a cheetah and who won all the track and field events every year because she drank karila bitters without sugar.
With speedy and bright-eyed Carmen in his mental periphery he endured the bitters until his taste buds had yielded to the taste and he even learned to love it, just as he did Red Rose tea and salt biscuit. True to Mrs. Garnetts prediction the bitters had cleared up the jaundiced color of his eyes and he looked healthier than before the treatment. But to his mothers disappointment he still had no appetite and no desire for any food other than salt biscuits and butter. So she returned to Mrs. Garnett who, refusing to admit defeat and jeopardize her reputation, performed some visual examinations of his eyes and mouth and determined that he might be infested with a tapeworm.
Tell me, Mrs. DeFreitas, you eat pork? she asked, eyes alight as though she was on to something.
Yes, we eat a lot of pork. Me husband like he roast pork. Why? What happen? she asked.
Tell me how you cook the pork.
Well, I cut it up and season it with salt and pepper and eshallot and when it soak in good then I fry it.
Where you buy the pork from?
Sampson butcher stall in big market. Why?
Because some of them pig farmer dont have sanitary conditions and the pigs get tapeworm and if you dont cook it properly they dont die. It look to me like the boy might have tapeworm. You better take him to the hospital.
So she took him to the local dispensary and Dr. Singh told her that the boy did not show any indication of being infested with tapeworm but that if anything he might have ascaris. After sticking a gloved finger up Robert's rectum the medic confirmed his suspicion.
I could feel the worms moving and it look like the boy got a lot of worms, he concluded.
So Robert was forced to swallow a dosage of roundworm medicine and to add to his embarrassment his mother had him defecate on a sheet of newspaper so she could test the feces for worms. Day after day he did his work and she did hers but still she could not find traces of roundworm infestation. The days went by and his appetite remained unchanged and so did his passion for salt biscuits and butter. But faced with the taunts that her son was a maga dog and the implication that she might be starving the boy, she continued her desperate quest for a cure. Her last stop was an obeah man at Mon Repos, named Ramjitsingh, made famous for his ability to tell if someone do you something bad, and especially so if they were in consort with malicious spirits.
Both Robert and his mother were shocked when they first laid eyes on Ramjitsingh. He was unshaven and unkempt, his dingy shirt partially hanging out over his waistband and the buttons on his fly were unfastened. He had just made an egress from the latrine at the back of the yard. With bloodshot eyes and a few twisted yellow teeth trapped behind chafed and unhealthy looking lips he looked more like the person who would do one something rather than liberate them from evil. Nevertheless, they had made the long and arduous journey and decided to seek his counsel. After ogling the boy from a distance Ramjitsingh made his diagnosis.
Old higue a suck tha bai, he remarked with the nonchalance of an expert, take off you shirt bai.
Go on, take off your shirt, his mother repeated, sensing that her son was fearful of what the obeah man was going to do to him. Reluctantly, he complied.
Look here! See this bluish mark on his left arm? That is where suckantie suck him, Ranjitsingh said, moving his head back so Mrs. DeFreitas could see the mark of the beast.
Robert was afraid to speak but he knew the diagnosis was incorrect as he had been accidentally hit with a cricket bat on the ball field a couple days ago but was afraid to let his mother know as the offender was his best friend and he did not want to cause any trouble. So he held his peace and listened to the seer who at time appeared to be the lesser of two evils.
I will give you a tabage to put around his neck. This gon keep away the old higue, he said as he folded a small piece of paper with some scribbling and tied it around Roberts neck. They paid the obeah man and left, his mother apprehensive but hopeful, and he, completely miffed at the chicanery of the fraudulent old man and at the notion of having to wear a ugly trinket around his neck.
As expected, the bluish mark went away after a few days and his mother was delighted. But her delight was short-lived as Roberts appetite for food other than salt biscuits never wavered. She finally accepted the fact that there was nothing wrong with her son, that he was healthy, and that he was just meant to be skinny. He, on the other hand, was happy that all the visits to the dispensary, the obeah men, and the bush doctors were a thing of the past and that he was no longer being harangued about his looks and his appetite. That is, until he turned nineteen and succeeded his father at the Lithographic Company.
When he joined the Company he was the butt of jokes among workers. The girls commiserated about what he looked like naked and even teased obese Mabel that the two of them should get married if they wanted normal sized children. The guys on the other hand had little to do with him, not because of his thin frame, but because he was never interested in any of their activities. When they finally forced him to come to practice for the cricket team, he arrived late, did not know what to do when the ball came to him and, for want of strength, had to relay the ball to the bowler underhand, as in the fashion of girls playing rounders. When it was his turn to bat he complained that the Rohan Kanhai signature bat was too heavy, and when he fluked an outside edge pass third slip and his teammates shouted for him to run he ambled so slowly that he was run out and did not get to his crease before the umpire had started lining up the next batsman. Finally, they gave him a try-out as a bowler after he claimed he was a good leg spinner in primary school days. In his very first over he was struck to the boundary three times, over the fence twice, and with his final delivery he knocked poor Billy down from his perch in a mango tree that grew ten yards left of the wicket. That day his cricket career began and ended. After that they tried to encourage him to be more sociable and, one Friday afternoon after work, they invited him for beers at a rum shop across from the Guyana Pharmaceutical Company. Reluctantly he went and after one beer he began to puke and writhe and hold unto his belly in pain as though he was poisoned. Since that time he walked alone. He was now twenty-three and they had grown accustomed to him and accepted him with all his idiosyncrasies.
It was approaching two oclock and with each tick of the second hand his anxiety level rose, to the point where he could hear the blood pumping in his ears and in the veins along his temple. But how could he back out at the last moment! Had he felt this way before leaving home he might have called in sick, but he was already at work and to leave now would raise suspicion. Realizing he was caught in an inescapable trap he concluded the only way out was to stand up like a man, even if it was going to be his last stand.
Just then the noise of drawers being closed, doors being locked, and cabinet drawers being pushed shut intensified as workers began to wrap up the days work. They were told that they were free to leave for the day after they had donated blood and, for men like Ramballi, who would otherwise smirk at the idea of giving blood, the prospect of being able to retire to the rumshop earlier than usual was incentive enough for him to wax philosophical about the virtues of blood transfusion. As expected he was the first in line, his sleeves already rolled up and, before the nurse could say a word, he was already in the cot with arm extended and a wicked smile on his face. They all knew that within minutes he would be back at the rum shop to replace his depleted blood supply with a healthy dose of high wine.
Robert, on the other hand, was not pushy and did not wish to get involved in any form of jostling, so he waited patiently until everyone had joined the line and then he walked slowly to the back. Besides, he had an ulterior motive for wanting to bring up the rear. He hoped secretly that by the time he reached to the front of the line the Red Cross nurses might declare that they had enough blood and that the others could give at some future blood drive. Failing that he hoped that being the last person in line there would be no witness if anything embarrassing were to happen. And from the slow pace at which the line was moving it seemed like he would have his wish. From two oclock to two-thirty the nurses were finished with only eight donors and, according to his rough estimate, which incidentally he calculated without the aid of his slide rule, there were at least fifty people in line. He clasped his hands, unaware that he had done so and, for a brief moment, felt that fate was on his side. But he soon realized that fate is harsh, rigidly legalistic and faceless and that it makes no alliances.
Unaware that there were so many willing volunteers at the Lithographic Company the Red Cross office had commissioned only two nurses to the site. But upon learning of the higher than expected numbers they sent five more nurses and cots to join the team. Robert watched with resignation as the orderlies fetched in the stretchers and, for a moment, the thought of him being carried out on one of those cots crossed his mind. Within minutes the line began to move faster than he computed, again without the use of his slide rule, and he recalculated that there was no way he could escape without giving his pint of blood.
And so, slowly but surely, he shuffled his way forward, feeling like a man on his way to the gas chamber, unable to keep the beads of sweat from forming on his forehead and hands, and from betraying his inner fears. But when the nurses decided to take a count of persons remaining to determine whether or not they would be able to get through with everyone or if they should be rescheduled for another day, he felt a final surge of hope and mumbled a note of praise to the God of mercy. The head nurse then undertook the job of counting the donors and, when she approached him and saw him dripping sweat, she paused for a moment, speechless and mystified.
Twenty-five! she shouted to a nurse up front, I think we might have to come back tomorrow. Robert exhaled a sigh of relief, so deep that the nurse heard and turned back in his direction.
Say, sir, you come with me, she said, softly and discreetly.
Why? he asked, shivering with fear.
Come! Come! Dont be afraid. I wont eat you.
He stumbled behind her into a corner of the room where she took a seat and pulled up a chair for him.
Sit here, sir! she said, patting the seat of the chair. He complied. Tell me, sir, what is your name?
Robert DeFreitas, he replied.
Mr. DeFreitas, it is nice that you want to give blood, but you know you dont have to give. It is not mandatory.
Was that made clear to you?
Yes! Oh, yes! The staff nurse told us that last week.
And you still wish to give blood?
What is you weight?
One hundred and ten.
Do you have any illness?
No, maam, I am not sick, never was.
Okay, I tell you what, I dont want you to wait. I gon draw your blood. As you weigh only one hundred and ten I gon just draw out half pint. Come, lie down on this cot, she said as she pointed to an empty cot beside her.
I could wait, maam," he protested, "there are people ahead of me, let them go first before they get vex. I dont mind waiting. I don't have anything to do after work.
Then she shocked him when she lifted up her head and called out to the others in line. Okay people, anybody mind if I take Mr. DeFreitas before y'all?
Before he could lift up his finger to raise another objection the men gave their approval, not out of generosity but out of a wicked curiosity to see his reaction to the needle and the effect of blood loss on his body. Like mischievous boys they watched as the nurse wrapped a velcro strip tightly across his arm and snickered when he grimaced and contorted his face as though stung by a red maribunta. But the real outburst came when the nurse kept sticking the needle into his arm in search of a vein and could not locate a single sanguiniferous stream. With each jab he winced and she sighed. Eventually, exasperated and desperate to find the elusive stream, she broke the needle on a bone and elicited from his lips a cry that mimicked Tarzans kreegah bundolo jungle call, much to the annoyance of the women, many of whom had by this time become fearful over the procedure. The men, on the other hand, led by Looknauth Singh, began to keel over in laughter, holding their bellies and wiping their eyes, on the one hand embarrassed at their outburst, but on the other, unable to contain their emotions. The laughter only subsided when the attending nurse looked crossly in their direction and shook her head in obvious annoyance at their puerile behavior. In the meanwhile she continued to attend to Robert and sensing that he was feeling faint she asked him if he still wanted to go through with the exercise and, of course, he, aware that he was being observed by snickering men and women, and that he would never hear the end of it if he quit, allowed the torture to continue. After a few more prods, winces and Tarzanic outbursts the nurse finally tapped into a vein and watched, almost mystifyingly, as blood trickled, one drop at a time, into the plastic tube. After an agonizing few minutes Robert finally mustered the courage to open his eyes but, when he noticed the blood in the tube, he felt nauseous, then light-headed, then he saw stars and darkness, and then he fainted.
Unknown to him the nurses went into a state of panic and placed an emergency call for one Dr. Ramsingh, a practitioner, down the road by the defunct Barclays bank building. In the meanwhile, suspecting that fear had gripped several of their potential donors, especially the women, the head nurse asked them not to panic and, that if they wished, they could give blood another day. Several of the women left but most of the men remained, some out of morbid curiosity, and others out of genuine concern for the welfare of their colleague.
Robert was still unconscious when Dr. Ramsingh arrived. The experienced doctor quickly concluded that his patient had gone into a state of shock from the loss of blood and when the head nurse asked what must be done he removed the stethoscope from his ear and said simply, "Give Mr. Freitas a pint of blood."
When Robert returned to consciousness half an hour later he was taken to the hospital for observation and then released on two weeks sick leave. During his period of convalescence he received a few visits from his colleagues and learned from them, at his insistence, that the rumor in the Company was that he had given half pint and had to get back a pint of blood. Sadly, Robert had no way of knowing whether or not there was any truth to the story as he was comatose during the incident, but being as sensitive as he was and aware that he would not be able to handle the embarrassment, he chose not to return to work and mailed in his resignation.
A year later he was seen, surprisingly much heavier and much more gregarious than he was when he left the Company. Even more surprising was the pastime he enjoyed and the company he kept. He had kept in touch with Ramballi and, after completing his probationary period as a supervisor at the Guyana National Printers, where he continued to ply his trade and impress his colleagues with his proficiency on the slide rule, he recruited Ramballi as a senior estimator. Since then two of them had become close friends and yes, drinking buddies.
One midday, on his way to Demico House for a fried chicken meal, Looknauth Singh was taken aback to see the two men together in DIH rum shop by the car park. When he asked them what they were doing there, Robert simply raised a near empty Banks beer bottle, cracked a smile, and replied, "Just having a pint, comrade, just having a pint!!"
Richard Rupnarain formerly from LBI, Guyana, lives in Toronto, Canada. He likes to write short stories.