A Rich Man
a story by
“Did you know, Pablo, that I am a rich man?” Damon stopped oiling the old man’s foot, and glanced up at the yellow eyes that were not looking at him. A rolled cigarette hung from Mr. Malcham’s white lips, the ash drifting listlessly onto the dirt floor. Damon had gotten used to the old man calling him Pablo, and garçon, and Felipe, and Juan. They were names caught in the filter of his decaying mind, while their context flushed itself into the rest of the melded mush. Damon picked up the glass bottle sitting next to him, and poured more of the yellow grease into his hands. He worked his fingers in between the old man’s toes. The nails were yellowed, cracked, long. The soles remained rough and calloused, no matter how much oil was applied. He stared at them, working his strong fingers over the translucent flesh, and wondered if the names were redolent of the days when Mr. Malcham traveled as a sailor. The old man often talked of crumbling societies, nameless European colonies no longer resembling their pasts nor acclimating to their proposed futures. But Damon held doubts that the old man ever sailed anywhere except to this island—their island, their nameless society—and that he was ever anything except the dying creature in front of him. He had gotten used to hearing strange things emanate from the old lips and cigarette smoke. The idea that Mr. Malcham had money peaked his interest, slightly. It was different from the other stories.
Damon adjusted his legs on the floor, ignoring the pins-and-needles that surged through his left foot all the way up his thigh. He looked out a small window which revealed nothing but a pink sky and fat purple clouds. He wondered if the rain would start again tonight. The fire in front of them was dying, but every once in awhile a flame would poke and lick the red ashes. They didn’t need the extra warmth it provided. The rains had not snuffed out the ongoing heat. It only seemed to make the hotness moist, and even more unbearable. Between the ashes and the cigarette smoke Damon felt as if there was no air to breathe. But the old people liked the fires, even in the hot weather. It took more and more to keep them warm the worse they became. Damon’s eyes fell on the fire and thought he saw a face. He blinked, trying to focus, but it was gone. It was not the first time he had seen a face there. Sometimes it was the face of one of his little brothers. Sometimes his mother. He tried to hold onto the face that was there now, but it was a fleeting vision, and it became the glowing ash again, moving and pulsating with heat. If Damon had been a few years younger he would have thought it was a ghost, but he no longer had a childlike faith in ghosts. He kicked his foot, trying to get rid of the awful sensation.
“I am a rich man, and everyone knows except for you.” The old man patted Damon on his black hair. Damon flinched. Mr. Malcham’s touch was odd and revolting. He visited all nine of the huts throughout the week, spending the night in several of the small rooms, and of the nine people he saw, Mr. Malcham was the only one who threw things at him, swore at him, swung at him with his walking stick, and denied him to sleep in his hut on the cot brought in for him by the nursemaids. The old man made it clear that Damon was to sleep outside his door, in the dirt, to keep out invisible intruders. A horrible smell filled Damon’s nose. He stifled the urge to gag. He had cleaned out the pot only minutes before, but this dirty man did not always find it necessary to use it. The smell and the heat were unbearable. Damon coughed and rubbed the cold fleshy foot harder, wishing he could crush it. He wished he could run. He would have run then, if there had been anywhere to go.
“Do you speak English, Pablo? Habla? Habla?” Damon could sense the rising irritability that lead to Mr. Malcham’s tantrums. He had found that usually it was better not to speak at all. He looked up into the yellow eyes, and shook his head ‘No.’
“Of course not.” The clouded eyes returned to the dying flames. “A man tells you he’s rich, and you continue to sit in the dirt massaging his feet, in a hut made for the poor, the old, the feeble…” Damon looked up from the nearly weightless foot. He watched as white spittle crept out of the corner of Mr. Malcham’s mouth and trickled down his chin. You’ll never know the difference between a rich man and a poor man because you’re beneath them all. You’ll never climb out of the dirt high enough to rid yourself of the stench of feet.” Damon clenched his teeth. He jumped to his feet, knocking over the bottle of oil. They both watched as the oil soaked into the floor, forming a dark mud stain. Damon looked into the old man’s face. He recognized the familiar rage. He was determined this time to meet it with his own, to finally stand up for himself, when he saw the anger melt away into a crooked smile. “Take it easy,” the old man said, though the yellow eyes still retained a remnant of the ire. “I tell you this, Pablo, because I am going to make you rich. All the money I have, all I own, I leave to you.” The aged lips twitched and the words began to slur. “When they take my body away on that boat, throw it to the sharks as if it never meant anything, you’ll own it all.” Damon continued to stare at him, his expression blank. His heart was still pounding from his new found rebellion. “But all the money in the world won’t teach you the difference,” Mr. Malcham said quietly, the smile still lingering on his white lips, the cigarette still dangling.
Damon’s mind raced, thinking if he should speak, when a heavy knock on the door interrupted them. “Come in!” said Mr. Malcham. As the words left his lips, he grabbed Damon’s hand with his arthritic fingers and shoved something warm and hard into his palm. Damon pulled away and saw that it was a gold coin. He froze. “Come in! Come in for God’s sake!” Mr. Malcham spoke loudly, but there was no malice in his voice. Damon saw that the smile had returned, curling at the edges of the white lips which were bubbling and pushing out the stub of the cigarette. Damon heard the lips mumble wordless somethings, but he couldn’t make them out. He thought the knocking was one of the nursemaids, bringing water, or logs for the fire. He was surprised to see a large body filling the frame of the bamboo door, blocking out the dying pink light. The man was unlike anyone Damon had ever seen on the island, though there was a vague familiarity about him. A broad nose and stern mouth. It was the lips, white and firm, that were familiar. The man’s eyes were a piercing blue, almost white, and cut through the shadowy darkness of the hut as if radiating their own sharp light. Damon was dazzled by the eyes which were so full of life. He had gotten used to the yellow eyes of the dying, and the glazed look of those lost in memory. The man walked into the room with a heavy step. Damon noticed that his feet were not bare. He wore thick brown boots that were covered in dust and dirt. It had been a long time since Damon had seen shoes of any kind. They were a luxury, nearly extinct. He would remember such a man if he had seen him on the island. Then he remembered that, after all this time, he had not seen much of the island. Since his arrival, he had been confined in the quarters for the separate community. He could not believe that there were other people here, other men, that were not weak and crippled and dying. The man’s light hair was swept back and wet-looking, though loose strands, beaded with sweat, hung in front of his eyes. His face was shaven, but stubbled. He was dressed in a button-down shirt that fell open at his chest, revealing tangles of blonde hair underneath. Dark, wet patches stained the shirt at his underarms. His desperate look made Damon nervous.
“Father.” The word fell out of his mouth as he dropped at the old man’s feet. As his knees hit the dirt, Damon backed away, not sure if the man had seen him standing there. He held onto the coin tightly. He had almost forgotten it. The weight of it sunk into his mind. He no longer cared who the stranger was, nor why he was here.
“Sebastian.” The old lips were no longer inhibited by the cigarette. “You’ve come.” Mr. Malcham’s words were quiet and solemn, his small smile replaced with inexplicable gravity.
Damon continued to back away into a corner of the room, giving the two men as much space as possible. The coin. He allowed himself to glance at it quickly. Damon had never seen a gold coin, but he recognized the type and the similar look it shared with the coins from his childhood away from the island. With his brothers and mother. Small coins wrapped in cloth thin as tissue and kept in a jar behind the bed. The island had no currency. No one on the island had coins, and yet this old man living in a filthy hut had given him one. It did not mean much on the island, but if Damon could leave… if he could find a way to get more, find a boat, find his way back…
“I’ve been away. It took them some time to find me, you understand that, but I’m here now.”
“Drifting at sea, among the hard-to-find.” The old man’s word were full of memory.
“Yes, I’ve been at sea, father. Things are… falling apart.” Sebastian’s words hesitated, paused, drifted. His mind was not here with the old man. Then he came back. The alert blue eyes searched frantically, trying to cut through the murk of the yellow clouds. “I needed to find more men. For protection. Just a few strong bodies to stop some of the trouble here. More… women, too.”
Damon allowed the words between the men float into his ears without thinking about their meaning. The coin occupied his mind, sat there like a heavy lump that needed tending. The old man said he was rich. He said that he would leave Damon everything. The stench returned to his nostrils, more potent than before, countering the idea that any semblance of truth could be uttered by that stinking, wrinkled body. If Damon wanted the old man’s money, he would have to search the hut and take it.
Sebastian held his hands in front of his face. “Bring more people, bring control. Outsiders, new faces, it helps sometimes, I know it does. I know you never believed that, but I wanted to prove you wrong. I had dreams for this place, too.” Sebastian took his hands away, and lowered his voice. “It’s done nothing but make the others angry. More mouths to feed.” His voice continued to drop until it was nothing more than a whisper. “There are talks of slavery. Of immoralities around every corner. They cannot see beyond themselves. They’re saying this place is Hell itself.”
Damon’s eyes darted, assessing the room. It was nearly bare. In one corner, a small bed with a thin rumpled blanket and a heron-feathered pillow. Next to the bed, on the floor, the metal pot crusted with a thin layer of rust. Off to the side, near the wall, a small wooden table where some flies circled and danced around the delicate fish bones on Mr. Malcham’s dinner plate. A bookcase sat near the bed, consisting of two driftwood shelves nailed clumsily into the bamboo. One shelf lay bare. The top one held four thin paperbacks, water-warped and yellow, and a thick hardcover, old and black, with traces of gold letters no longer legible. It was frequently touched, for it had no dust on its cover. There was the rocking chair where Mr. Malcham sat. It creaked with every slight movement as the air between the two men grew thick and intense. And there was the fireplace. It was more of a stone niche with a hole in the roof to ventilate the rising smoke. A flame flicked its pointed tongue. And there was the unused cot—a bare hand-stitched mattress on a bamboo frame—sitting blank in the corner. There was nothing else. There was nothing along the walls, not even a drawing or one of the berry paintings some of the hut-dwellers liked to collect from the nursemaids. He decided it would have to be the bed, or behind the books. It wouldn’t take long to search both. Damon began to move and then stopped. He heard a noise outside the window behind him.
“They’re coming, father.”
Damon thought it was the rain starting again, after finally stopping for a few hours. He cursed to himself until he realized it was voices. Many voices, muffled, rising and falling, sounding as if the ocean had made its way to the huts and was reaching for them. He held the coin tighter, and shifted away from the window.
“They want to hear it from your lips. What’s going to happen to this place. They tolerated it when you brought in orphans for labor.” Mr. Malcham coughed violently, and did not bother to cover the phlegm flying out of his mouth. Sebastian backed away with a disgusted look that quickly fell back into desperation. He dropped his head and closed his eyes. “They didn’t know if it was right, but they tolerated it. The new faces helped, and we needed the extra hands.” His eyes darted to Damon, then turned back to the old man. “They tolerated much more after that. But now, the community is hungry. The rain keeps coming. Only one of our supply boats has returned.” Sebastian stopped. The voices were getting louder, a dull buzz that began to permeate the walls around them. “People are… taking things. From each other.” The blue eyes regained their intensity. Damon did not know what was happening, but he knew that he had to stay focused. If Sebastian distracted Mr. Malcham long enough, he could make his way to the bed, sit down. Feel around. “The women… they’re not safe.” Sebastian stumbled over his words. Sweat fell off his hair onto his cheeks. “They want to leave, but I can’t allow it. There’s only one boat now. There’s too many of us, and we cannot leave people behind.”
“What is it you want from me, Sebastian,” the old man said, his yellow eyes blank and staring at the wall, seeing nothing.
“Tell them I’m in charge. They need order. They need a leader. They have to hear it from your lips.” Sebastian moved closer to the old man. He hesitated, and then put his hand on his father’s clenched fist. Mr. Malcham did not seem to notice. Damon sat down on the bed. “You are still the authority here. That never changed. Even though you’re here, in the… separate community, that never changed.”
Damon thought he heard a woman’s scream outside, among the voices. But it was muffled. Far away. His hand searched under the pillow as he kept his eyes on Sebastian.
“And what will you do to end the chaos?”
Sebastian said nothing, but stared at the old man with wide eyes, lingering on his lips the formations of words he wanted to say. Damon reached his hand under the mattress, careful not to let his movements show. He wished they would leave the room, but he knew Mr. Malcham rarely left his rocking chair. The voices sounded as if they were right outside the door now. They pulsated and cracked like the glowing ashes of the fire.
“Tell them. Please.” Sebastian rubbed sweat from his forehead with his palm. The tone of his voice made Damon look up, into his face, his eyes still glowing in the shadows. “There will be nothing left.”
“There is nothing left.” Mr. Malcham’s voice softened for a moment. “I know why you were out to sea, among the hard-to-find. The man grows, the man knows, but he cannot reap what the other man sows.” The old man practically spat the words into Sebastian’s face. “You want my money. You want this island.” Mr. Malcham coughed again, violently, more phlegm flying. “You want to take my beautiful dreams, and turn them into your lesser fantasies.” Sebastian backed away with a look of horror. “Let them die with me.” The old lips trembled. Spit dribbled down the prickles of the white chin. The yellow eyes widened, then squinted, as if there were thoughts or dreams of something far away. The voices faded, then grew, pulsated. “Let them all die.” Sebastian stood up and turned his back to his father, lowering his head to face the ashes. He ran both hands over his face.
Damon had his hand on the thick book on the bookshelf, the tips of his fingers touching the smooth black cover, when there came a pounding on the door. The moment held a thick silence. The banging resounded again, the door bending and threatening to shatter into pieces. Damon felt darkness descending on them, moving around them, as if something outside shifted around the hut, blocking the pink light coming from the cracks in the bamboo. Sebastian jumped with every knock, but did not acknowledge it. Instead, he turned to his father, his eyes pleading. Mr. Malcham did not look at him, but he nodded, his face bobbing loosely in the thick air. “I’ll see them. I’m ready.”
Behind the large book, Damon found it. A small leather bag, heavy in his hands. He pulled it fast behind his back. The jangling of the metal sounded deafening even though the men did not react. He waited a moment for his heartbeat to slow, then he felt around inside with his fingers. Coins. It was not the piles of riches that Mr. Malcham would have him believe, but it would be enough. Damon could not keep the smile from his lips. He would have to leave tonight—right now. As soon as Sebastian left, he would follow him to the supply ship, sneak on. Damon looked up and saw that the old man was walking out of the room, holding onto his son’s arm. They opened the door. A cacophony of voices reached their pitch. His heart jumped when he saw the pile of men’s faces, mean looking and yellow with firelight. He kept the bag behind his back as he walked towards the door, keeping a safe distance and peeking around the frame. Mr. Malcham had his walking stick in one hand and Sebastian’s arm in the other. His voice permeated the thick air, filled it slowly and deliberately, captivating the attention of the mob of men outside, silencing their crackling voices. Damon did not hear the beginning of Mr. Malcham’s speech, his ears and mind buzzing with excitement, but now the words were starting to come into focus and form meaning.
“I brought you comfort and new life. And I have lived long enough to see you all strangle the good out of this place.” Damon moved into the doorway, trying to hear better, trying to understand why everyone was listening to the old man, wondering what they wanted with him.
As soon as Damon took one step out of the hut, Mr. Malcham turned around. He gazed at Damon, his yellow eyes full of a strange vitality that made Damon’s heart pound. “I have found my replacement! His name is Pablo! He smells of you all! He smells of feet! He reeks of the feet of this island! His hands are coated in a permanent grease that can never be washed off!” The old man started laughing, a horrible screeching laugh. He turned back to the confused and shocked faces. “I leave everything to him, to cover everything in his grease, in his smell, in his stench! He is the rich man now! He is the one that I leave for you to strangle with your greed!”
The angry voices returned all at once. One man threw an object that hit Mr. Malcham on the shoulder. Sebastian seemed shocked, but before he could react, a rock hit Mr. Malcham’s forehead, knocking him to the ground. Sebastian tried to pick him up, yelling unclear things at the men, but the mob surrounded them. Damon could not believe how many men there were, and could not understand what was happening. A rock whizzed by his ear. It startled him and caused him to trip. He landed clumsily on the ground. All he could see were feet. Bare feet, glistening with oil and mud and sand, stampeding the old man, running over his sick body, kicking him, stomping him, bloodying their soles on the fragile-looking skin that tore like paper. Damon knew he should move, that he should run, but all he could think about was the shining oil on the feet. It glistened in the yellow torchlight and dying pink. It became more slick with blood. He wondered how something so smooth could tear skin like paper. He scrambled up and ran. He ran through the forest of palms, heading towards the dock he had seen many times before. There was a boat there. He and the other laborers would use it for fishing when the larger community denied them food, but mostly it was there to row out the dead, row them out to the reefs, to the sharks, not wanting bodies, or parts of bodies, to wash back up onto shore. He could hear feet behind him, running heavily, drunkenly. He would not look back, but he could see them in his mind, oiled and shining, covered in the old man’s blood, the grease catching the sand and dirt as they stumbled after him. The feet grew closer. Closer. Heavy, stomping, fast. He let a scream escape his lips as he came up to the dock, convinced in his mind that he wouldn’t make it. He could already feel the oiled flesh touching his skin, his face, his neck. Tearing his skin like paper. Greasy calluses stomping out what was left of this life. He fell headfirst into the fishing boat, a simple wooden row boat with two unmatched oars. He let himself look up as he pushed off the dock, his eyes searching frantically along the water and back the trees behind it, but whoever had been following him was not there. He felt eyes all over him. Flashes of the mob’s oiled feet covered in blood filled his vision until he could see nothing else. He rowed away with his back to the vastness into which he traveled. The island was in front of him, still immense though he wished it to be a speck. The boat sounded hollow and fragile as it scraped the top of the reef, reminding him that he had never rowed this far before. He laughed to himself. The laugh started small, and then grew louder and deeper until he had to drop the oars because his tight stomach and cheeks hurt from laughing so hard. I now own all that the old man had, and all that I see before me, he thought. His laughter convulsed his body again. “There is no difference,” he said aloud. His laughing slowly ceased. His hard feet, gritty and rough with sand and dried mud, knocked against the only item in the boat besides himself, the leather bag with Mr. Malcham’s coins. He picked up the oars and let his mounting sobs dominate all sounds of laughter. “There is no difference.”
Veronica McDonald received her MA in Literature from American University in Washington D.C. She grew up in New England, but now moves around the country every few years. She is currently working on short stories and a novel while wrestling two rambunctious toddlers.