This paved roadway veers off the south Shore Road and leads up over the dune, down through the village and on beyond, ending at the north Shore Road over on the far coast. This thoroughfare is called Christophe Road. It bisects our little world from the north to south. Although it’s never more than ten feet wide at its’ very broadest, it’s amusingly called Christophe Boulevard as it passes through Heartbeat. There in the village it serves as the principle north-south street connecting Back Street, Dutch Elm Street and Front Street, all of which run from east to west. Dutch Elm extends on eastward to become Robert Johnson Way. I’ve never been able to ascertain why it carries that name. This roadway wanders across the eastern half of the island and leads on to Dub City where it ends at Skank Harbor.
Gunn’s Creamery is about a half mile north of Front Street just beyond the village. It sits out on Christophe, about where the boulevard once again becomes a road. The small dairy supplies milk, cream and butter for residents of the island and for all the commercial concerns. At least a dozen dairy goat herders like Raymoan and Willie sell milk to Gunn, as do a handful of island farmers with dairy cows. On windless days, which are thankfully quite rare here, you can smell the dairy all the way from Heartbeat to the north coast. Sand Hill serves as something of an olfactory buffer for us here on the southern shores. The few times when I’ve stepped out of Irie Tracks studio in town on a steamy windless night in dead summer the odor was all but overwhelming. When there’s no breeze and the humidity makes you think first of dog-paddling rather than walking, I can assure you, then the creamery’s pungent bouquet can be both bracing and stomach churning.
Gunn’s Creamery has been a mainstay on the island for well over a half century, I’m told. It employs a half dozen locals. The ancient owner is a wizened little Scotsman whose chief reason for owning the creamery is to make cheese, his passion. They say he once sailed these waters, then lived on a nearby island for a period. Supposedly he somehow become fabulously wealthy, returned to the United Kingdom , and went through his entire fortune in only 18 days, gambling on the commodities market investing in cheese futures. Luckily he’d retained enough cash in reserve to travel back here, buy the creamery and began making his beloved cheeses. His residence and the dairy share a ramshackle building along the west side of Christophe Road as you travel out toward our north coast. You can often see the old man sitting on his porch swing eating a bit of cheddar. He always waves. He produces several fine varieties of cheese in the caves behind the creamery’s sprawling building. He loves cheese. He also loves Chihuahuas.
Not all that far beyond Gunn’s is a curious earthen hut set so far back from Christophe Road it all but goes unseen by most. The house is virtually invisible for the property is most distinguished by its’ large seriously overgrown yard.
The small dwelling is easily overlooked amid a thicket of native rosewood, cedar, logwood, palmetto palm, ebony, allspice, wild lime, Jamaican dogwood, a few live oak, an ancient dead mahogany and a stray coconut palm or two. A mad tangle of vegetation overlaid with orchids and creepers hides the curious house itself. Besides stands of partridge pea and Spanish needle, there’s desert cassia, brilliant scarlet swamp hibiscus, lovely bunches of yellow passionflower, broomwood, blue blackbead, turkey tangle, fragrant sunshine mimosa, beautiful wild petunia along with porterweed, doctorbush, fogfruit, swamp twinflower, and scarlet sage. The plant clustered courtyard is further distinguished by a small green statue of Godzilla standing atop a large stump alongside a half scale gallows with a plastic sailor-suited Donald Duck figurine hanging from a serious looking noose.
This is the residence of Mad John, the conqueror root/the warrior artist and his sometimes incoherent cohort, Dr. Tuskaloosa, the unorthodox unlicensed orthodontist. Although to be precise, this is only one of the residences of Mad John, as he has another somewhere deep in the miniature rain forest on the island’s wild west end. Few ever seem to have been there, but periodically he’ll disappear for a few days and that’s where Tuskaloosa maintains he’s gone.
Dr. Tuskaloosa, although unlicensed and often under indictment on foreign shores, keeps an office above a haberdashery on Back Street in Heartbeat. His very existence is sad mute testimony to the somewhat lax approach to certain laws here. Few, if any, locals patronize him. On the wall of his tiny establishment hangs a diploma ostensibly from the Miskatonic School of Dentistry, but were you to look closely, you would see the original recipient’s name has been covered with a thin coat of white paint and the name ‘Dallas Tuskaloosa’ would seem to be filled in with colored pencil. Were you to look even closer, you might note the very word ‘Dentistry’ is also a forgery and covers whatever was originally in its’ place.
The supposed doctor maintains something akin to regular office hours, generally between 10 and 2-ish when any number of our island’s less reputable citizenry seem to pass in and out of his office door on non-dental monkey business. In spite of his highly questionable dental credentials, Tuskaloosa somehow keeps a small practice afloat and seems to exist primarily by severely over-charging any unfortunate tourist who might be so accursed as to suffer tooth distress while visiting here. He also claims to be an herbalist. Besides that, he occasionally ventures to actually straighten teeth, but this usually entails a wooden mallet, furniture clamps and pairs of vice grips. Most patients run from his practice screaming in pain and abject terror never to be seen again.
Tuskaloosa is an unusually tall gangly fellow, well over six feet, who always dresses in loose fitting slightly tattered three piece brightly colored suits. Year around it’s always the same. He must have over a dozen of them in his gaudy polyester rainbow. Threadbare, they all look as if they once belonged to a very much larger man. It should be noted that in spite of his height, the doctor can’t possibly weigh more than 125 pounds. The suits hang limply from his wire thin frame giving the unlicensed practitioner the appearance of a wayward suit of circus duds blown free from a clothesline and prancing about willy nilly in the breeze. Never more so than when he rides his bike.
The questionable doctor rides about our island on a small moped of unknown Italian or possibly French extraction. There are many bikes of varying size and make here. Far more than there are cars. But Tuskaloosa’s is unique. Even Dinkus, the village mechanic, is uncertain of the bike’s exact bloodlines. He estimates the bike’s tiny engine to be less than 25 cubic centimeters. But too many coats of cheap paint, most of which looking like they were applied with a broom, and far too many substitute parts have blurred the little vehicle’s true birthright and approximate vintage. Tuskaloosa paid Trader Haney forty dollars US for the roughly used bike a dozen years ago. Haney had gotten it from Raggedy Man. Raggedy Man, another island trader, thought he bought it from a widow over in Dub City, but couldn’t remember her name.
It’s pedigree doesn’t really matter to the unlicensed doctor. All he cares is his little bike runs very well in spite of its’ raggedy appearance, just not very fast. To start the tiny power plant requires the rider first pedal to get the motor bike up to about 10 miles an hour when a hand clutch can be released, then the tiny motor coughs a smokey belch and usually catches hold the first time. It clatters like a rather noisy sewing machine. The bike can eventually almost double its’ starting speed and ranges up to 18 or 19 mph. And that’s about it. The racket of the exhaust belies the transport’s slow speed or small shaky frame. It clatters and backfires tiny firecracker farts while issuing forth huge billows of oily smoke in its’ wake. The little two cycle engine goes through far more oil than it ever uses gas. His odd transportation serves the doctor well though Tuskaloosa’s gaily coloured suit pants all are bespotted from the knees on down with burnt oily Rorschach blots.
As I noted before, old man Gunn loves Chihuahua dogs. It began with old Parsnip, his first Chihuahua, who must now be as old as Gunn himself in doggy years. I remember Parsnip as a pup. It’s wasn’t all that long after I arrived on L’ile de Battemont de Coer Rythmique when I first saw the chubby diminutive puppy sitting on Gunn’s front porch. He yapped at me and I smiled. Parsnip was first, but certainly not last. Now there are many Chihuahuas at the creamery. Very many. Gunn ordered several more from various stateside breeders over the next year after Parsnip’s arrival. It seemed every freighter that put into Skank Harbor had a delivery of pups for old Gunn. He got puppies of both sexes and nature took its’ course.
I have no idea how many of the tiny dogs he actually owns now, but I’m certain there must always be at least a couple dozen dozing on the porch with another score sleeping beneath low spreading bushes and another ten or so in the untended flower beds. Prominently centered in the creamery’s yard is an ancient urinal rescued from the ruins of a bar in Dub City destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert. Plumbed and bubbling, it lies on its’ back serving as a doggy water fountain. At any given time you can easily spot at least fifty Chihuahuas wandering contentedly about the dairy grounds. All matter of Chihuahua dogs. Fat ones and scrawny ones. Hairless and fuzzy. Fawn, red, cream, chocolate, white and black. Solids and spotted. Pinto and brindle. Multi-colored and almost plaid. All well fed, loved and happy. Spotted and single shades. Short and tall. Well, as tall as the tiny Mexican breed gets. The little dogs are everywhere. And most are quite friendly. Well, as friendly as these tiny dogs ever get.
Oh, they bark their tiny annoying barks at everything and most everyone who passes by, but essentially that’s it. Even when the smallest child passes the dairy, they don’t venture beyond the creamery’s front porch. A car or truck passing will send them scurrying to security beneath Gunn’s porch swing. Most motorcycles pass without them even raising their heads. Should a passerby offer them a friendly pet or chin scratch, a few would venture forth to receive the affection yet most would either scurry away or cower behind the old man. They’re generally just that timid. They never do anything but bark their irritatingly high pitched barks at anyone. Anyone, that is, except Dr. Tuskaloosa.
Some say it’s the raucous putt-putting of his transport that causes it. Some believe it’s his colorful flapping wardrobe. Natty Bumppo suspects it might be that dentist office smell of sterility overlaid with adrenaline, fear drenched in oil of clove. I think Tuskaloosa may once have offended Parsnip. I just don’t think old Parsnip forgives.
Each morning, as if by some unseen siren’s call, it’s Parsnip who sounds the alarm and begins the ritual. The ancient pudgy little dog lies in his own well-worn grassy patch just in front of the porch and stares northward. This begins shortly after sunrise. He’ll stand, or rather lay, his vigil for hours. Though his old eyes are clouded, he maintains the long distance stare of a sniper. He keeps his tiny head slightly tilted upward to sniff the air. Suddenly his nose will twitch. He then yipes out a short note. And that’s the clarion call for the great number of tiny dogs who then know the time has once again arrived for them to begin gathering in the center of Christophe Road. First there’s just one young Chihuahua standing in the middle of the road facing the north. Then another. Soon a few more join in. They softly whine and shiver in anticipation. And then within mere moments it’s as if it all erupts. There are dogs rushing madly from every direction. Salivating and panting, they all face expectantly to the north with a single primal purpose. A very strange sight indeed.
Workers at the dairy generally take a break in their morning creamery tasks long enough to walk out to the road to watch. Old man Gunn sits swinging on his porch swing, grinning his two tooth grin while nibbling bits of extra sharp cheddar. Neighbors, children, passerbys, tourists and local dilettantes (of which we have never had a shortage) often gather to witness this wholly unique island ritual. Any passing traffic comes to halt. There’s no moving or dissuading the tiny dogs from their appointed mission. No one would dare. The world must await the conclusion.
The little dogs continue to appear from everywhere, scampering out of the shadowy cheese caves and from within the doors of the creamery’s many out buildings. They come running from beyond the thicket and from behind the rambling dairy and they squirm from beneath the old building’s sagging front porch. Each knows their place in the assemblage. Tiny dogs en mass hurry to their appointed spots like foot soldiers falling out for inspection. But these animals are assembling not for inspection but rather for combat. Why? How many? Who knows? Their legion surely must exceed a hundred. It’s virtually impossible to assess their actual number as once they reach the center of the road they press so very closely together, they’re quite indistinguishable from one another. Their’s is a single purpose.
They become an unnatural undulating mass of canine fur and quivering dog flesh. They move about like quick silver. A growing canine amoeba of anger. No longer separate Chihuahuas, but a living wave of tiny razor teeth and seething hatred hovering there in the middle of Christophe Road. Hundreds of tiny legs prancing in place. All of one mind, the dogs in this ever enlarging pack lose their very individuality to become part of a much greater surging entity of pure doggy wrath. They’re like dozens upon dozens of teams of rabid rugby ruggers readying themselves for a drunken scrum of pure unfettered hatred, blood-letting and malice.
Parsnip doesn’t deem to join his battle troops. His fighting days are behind him, but he calls the cadence. By this time he’s climbed to the porch and the old man has lifted him to the porch swing. Like any good field marshal, the fat little dog is now positioned where he can observe the spectacle along with old man Gunn.
Some 400 yards to the north at about 9:50 a.m. Tuskaloosa emerges from his green sheltered abode in his baggy bright polyester three piece suit-of-the-day and rolls his small mottley bike to the center of Christophe Road. Whenever he rides he affects a well worn leather flying helmet, a soiled white silk scarf tied loosely about his neck and the defiant air of the fool. It’s time for his gauntlet run to the office. Heartbeat lies to the south, but like the waiting dogs, he and the bike first face toward the north.
The unorthodox orthodontist pushes off. In slow steady determined strokes, his rangy legs pedal the little motor bike up to starting speed. His visage all but disappears from the seething Mexican dog pack’s lowly view as he rides further away from them. The younger dogs whimper. As the bike gains the appropriate speed, the doctor releases the clutch and a hiccough of greasy black smoke poots from the exhaust as the engine catches hold. A quarter mile away toward the village a decided shimmer runs through the expectant dog pack. The seldom witnessed gnashing of hundreds of tiny teeth can be heard.
Where a service road to an abandon sugar mill widens out narrow Christophe Road, Dr. Tuskaloosa steers his chugging bike about in a broad half circle. Then heading back south he begins his daily run. Racing toward his destiny, he accelerates, gunning the little engine ever onward toward the village of Heartbeat. He again enters the dogs’ field of view. As his speed climbs to over 15 miles an hour, old Parsnip let’s go another bark and the dogs start edging out to meet the doctor. First slowly and then faster and faster until they are in a maddening steeplechase charge. They come running headlong at top pace with their little mouths all agape.
His tawdry scarf and brightly colored coat tails flowing out now behind him, the old bike’s engine races and begins to whine. The doctor flies past his own home at a blinding 17 miles an hour. He leans low over the handlebars. His speed approaches its’ zenith as the charging dogs’ high pitched whines strangely rise to mingle and merge with the shrill whine of the laboring engine. Together in unison they form an unearthly hair raising banshee cry, so tauntly tuned it’s more felt than heard by the gathered crowd. The weird whining noise is acknowledged by virtually every dog on the island as hounds from Dub City to Spivey Point throw back their heads and howl their approval.
When he’s about 10 yards from the dog’s angry onslaught, Tuskaloosa raise his spindly legs as much out of harm’s way as possible, placing his twin wingtipped feet on the bike’s handlebars between the tight grip of his hands. The bike wobbles. His baggy trouser legs immediately catch the flowing air and instantly bellow out like great cloth bags of colors unknown in nature. The flapping pant legs rise above his droopy argyles. They flair out over his scrawny hairless ankles and pale calves rising above his trailer hitch knees as the unstable bike reaches its’ absolute top speed of 19 mph.
With the practiced grace and agility of NBA point guards, the tiny dogs suddenly pivot and spin about. They attack with a ferociousness seldom seen in domestic pets. Like a school of landlocked piranha, they snap at everything. They snap at the tires. They snap at the bike. They snap at the very air itself. And as if projected from unseen air cannons, they fly upward time and again, springing to attack the rider. And each day some are successful. Again and again they fly upward trying to bite the doctor. Suddenly Tuskaloosa will find a stray wriggling Chihuahua hanging from his flapping coat sleeve or bunched trouser leg. Dogs dangle from his droopy argyles. Mostly their tiny sharp teeth snag in great polyester flaps and loose fabric. Tuskaloosa brushes them aside and the tiny dogs are sent rolling and yapping to the pavement. But sometimes the wee jowls find their mark. Then the strange scrawny man howls out in pain and consternation. Their little jaws locked, the doctor winces as he tears them away.
With feet still raised high to handlebar, he tries desperately to avoid hitting any of the little angry beasts. His motorbike whining, winding and wobbling its’ way through the maze of angry bloodthirsty pets, he struggles constantly to retain control. He wiggle waggles his route through the ever moving obstacles. He mustn’t hit any one of them. Not out of any kindness on his part toward the animals, mind you, but rather out of pure fear he struggles to steer clear of crushing the tiny creatures. For he knows it would be like the front wheel suddenly hitting a lumpy oil slick should he run over any of these raging Chihuahuas. It would be a catastrophe. For then the unstable bike would immediately slide out from beneath him, sending the unlicensed doctor spilling down into the maw of a living meat grinder.
This curious contest between man and animal rages on to reach it’s fevered peak just in front of the Gunn Creamery. The smoke clouds roll. The litte engine screams. The dogs yap. The crowd cheers. Old man Gunn grins and waves. Old Parsnip stands and barks his approval. And most of the dogs then give way the chase as they pass by their own home. They trail off panting and return to their own yard for laps of water from their fountain and a midday nap. For most, but not all, the race is concluded.
But there are those others who persist. Some of the younger and more aggressive of the dogs will continue their mad pursuit clear through Heartbeat. They’ll chase Tuskaloosa all the way to his office there above the haberdashery on Back Street. He’ll dismount while screaming, swearing and stamping his feet at the few remaining yapping little beasts. They bark back. Then Dr. Tuskaloosa will climb the stair to his office, paint his fresh wounds with iodine and wince.
Back at Gunn’s Creamery old Parsnip now lies facing toward the village. He waits.