Nowhere Slow: An Introduction to Some Ghosts on the Road

Memories of family, murderers, and rust haunt Jonathan Gourlay.

The first thing you see, and smell, after you leave the Pohnpei airport is the garbage dump. The dump is just past the “Welcome to Pohnpei” banner on your right. In the center of the dump you might notice the fuselage of an airplane. This is the airplane that lost its landing gear and was beached on the runway for two weeks, waiting for FAA inspectors to arrive by boat to supervise its cutting up and disposal.

There is only one runway at Pohnpei International Airport and only one plane arrives per day. While this wayward tuna-hauling plane enjoyed a two-week stay on the tarmac, I was stranded in Hawaii on my return from a conference while my wife was pregnant on Pohnpei. Was she pregnant with my daughter or was it one of the miscarriages? My memories, like the plane, have been chopped up bit by bit and moved to the dump to rust. Some day I will recapture the words I wrote to our two dead children and slipped into their caskets. One child was really a nothing, a mere splotch; the other was nearly formed, a misbegotten doll with a doll’s curious stare. Each week I go to the dump and make my offering to the feral cats that live in the hacked-off fuselage of that plane. I try to remember the timeline of births and deaths, but one memory eats the tail of the next and they all swirl together.

Past the dump, you find the only stretch of straight road on Pohnpei, a road built on a man-made jetty. Here I try to coax my used Japanese rust-bucket past 30 miles an hour, just to give it an airing. You might notice a stubby little tree on the jetty. This is where my wife crashed our car, drunk driving with her lover — a sociopath who was either her half-brother or cousin, depending on whose family history you follow. The only thing separating the car and the ocean was this little tree where the car sat half-perched until I dragged it out with a rope and a friend’s pick-up. Continue straight on this road.

You’re now in Kolonia town. There’s the dock where the tuna is unloaded. There’s the German-built Protestant church. There are banners over the street announcing the latest “fun runs.” For the diabetes run, the theme is [sic] “Your Foot: Love It or Loose It” For the nurses run: “Nurses are Power of Care.” For the AIDS day run: “AIDS Men Make a Difference.” As you pass under the banners, note the Ace Hardware store where I stood in line behind a man, an officer in the Salvation Army, who murdered his wife. He was buying a large metal chain, as I recall. There’s the three-screen movie theater, a little slice of suburban America plopped down in the tropics. The dirty and sprawling one-story building on your left is the hospital. Stay away from the hospital unless you want to die. The hospital is where I chased rats from the maternity ward where my daughter was born, where I dressed corpses, where I listened to the death rattles of my father-in-law, Adidos. Keep driving.

There’s the Last Stop Store. The owner of Last Stop took pity on my father-in-law and gave him a job as a night guard. Every night my sickly father-in-law slept in his minivan (called a “Bongo”) in front of Last Stop. An assortment of grandchildren and other relatives slept in the backseats of the Bongo or else disappeared down the road to find alcohol or sakau. The money Adidos made for this nightly duty generally amounted to a debt because his grandkids were prone to getting drunk and breaking the store windows, thereby rendering his position as “guard” somewhat ironic. The store owner was a shrewd businessman and hired as guards the people he knew would break his windows anyway. At least he had a paycheck to garnish. Adidos would have made more money sleeping at home. And while he was asleep in the Bongo… out in the tall grass, next to the store, is where fifteen-year-old Q-leen was impregnated by her uncle and nobody knew she was pregnant until she decided to give birth in the back of my Isuzu Trooper that had rusted through on the bottom — then it was back to the hospital and the surprise birth of an innocent little boy with funny ears.

I named the baby after a cat I had when I was a kid because that’s the kind of thing that might happen: you might wake up one day wondering how to fix your already beaten-up truck that fills with black exhaust from the many holes in the floor and then you might notice your niece lying in the back of it giving birth, apparently. Then you take her to the hospital and suddenly she wants you to name the baby and the only thing that comes to mind is “Patches” because that was your cat many years ago and, anyway, you’re kind of joking. But nonetheless Patches is brought home the same day and introduced to her grandfather who doesn’t know that Patches is also his half-brother…. so just continue past Last Stop Store where Adidos slept in his last days. The store where I bought cotton balls to put in his corpse; flies were going up his nose and, well, it seemed like a kindness to put cotton balls in his nose.

There is a skinny bridge here, just past the store. It barely fits two cars. As you cross you might be struck by the beauty of the little bay you’re crossing and beyond it, the towering green mountains. If you’re lucky you’ll see teams in traditional outrigger canoes in the bay, practicing for an upcoming competition. More likely than not you’ll spot rain clouds casting dark shadows across the water. It’s a gorgeous scene, but watch the road. The bridge ends and you’re back in the swamp and jungle. You’re now passing into a neighborhood known as Pahnimwensahp — it’s here that you might notice an overgrown tin shack that was once my small store. I called it “Buddo’s Friendly Store,” and it left me in massive debt. Next to that shack (and up some hills, and around some corners) is where I lived for many years. If you dig around in this area you may find some things I left behind when I ran away — a little plastic train from my childhood that I brought from the U.S. for my children, a wealth of Dickens books now used to balance poorly made plastic chairs, even a car that has since been overcome by mold and swamp-growth.

It’s a maddening road with a pestering accumulation of ghosts.

Each bend and incline of the circle road holds some memory of past joys or past terrors. My hands on the wheel of my car instinctively know each pothole as well as each memory. I try to avoid both, but on Pohnpei there is no choice. On a circle road, you’re always going over old ground: that stretch of ocean that I jumped into fully clothed and crying, willing myself to drown in the shallow water, is also the stretch of ocean where my daughter used to lie on a little pier, her ice cream dripping down to the darting yellow and blue fish — she giggled at the ice-cream-eating fish and I was amazed to be the father of such a beautiful creature. I was the happiest of single fathers in those days we spent together — just us against the world. I slept each night with her on my bed near the wall. I slept next to her, a machete perched nearby in case someone came to steal her from me. I was sure that someone in my wife’s family would try to take her. I had gone feral.

Adidos took his last, painful breaths in the hospital. Something was wrong with him, but the hospital was out of X-ray paper and there would be none on-island for at least two weeks. So the most we can say is that he was awfully sick: he was bleeding internally and his breaths were tortured. His only help was a valiant, happy Filipino doctor. This doctor’s girlfriend, a nurse, sat on his lap while we talked to him about the case. So add Adidos’s smiling, toothless ghost to the many wandering the circle road. He was a good man, or at least he became one in old age. He built the road. The first major paved road on Pohnpei and he helped lay the asphalt and steamroll it and now there it is. We can go in circles very effectively thanks to men like Adidos. He held his family together, his thirteen children — some natural born, some adopted, some adopted out to other families, his tangled web of grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Things could get crazy, but they would get crazy around him. He kept the circle from chaos and when he died, everything, including my marriage, broke up and dissipated.

So when I drive my car on the circle road, eleven years after arriving in Pohnpei, I imagine Adidos in his hard-drinking and chain-smoking middle age. There he is, building the road that will one day contain my memories. His children and grandchildren, acknowledged or unacknowledged, pounding the pavement in thin flip-flops.

Most evenings I sit on the side of the road and stir infinity patterns in a Styrofoam sakau cup. Shards of sakau root breach the gray surface of the drink then sink down into the narcotic sludge. The sakau sinks into my bloodstream, and the accretion of memories fades. My daughter is on my lap. Nobody likes to see this. It upsets the natural order of things, but try to pass her off to a woman and my daughter will let loose an unholy screaming. A loud noise is a worse offense to a sakau drinker than a man with a kid, so they leave us alone. If there’s one thing I learned from Adidos, it’s “Fuck ‘em.” I really don’t care about traditional Pohnpeian gender roles.

Just as I begin to get full of myself — the foreigner single father of a Pohnpeian girl who ran from one side of the island to the other when things got crazy and screw you if you have an opinion about it like how I should have beaten my wife and it’s my own fault if I didn’t — my daughter’s babysitter arrives and takes her, asleep, back to my house.

A shirtless old man with shaggy black hair and a fishy smell is sitting across from me, drinking sakau and sitting on a cement block. He looks at me, says “get on top!” in Pohnpeian and then gulps down his entire cup of sakau. We laugh. His “get on top!” is a sexual innuendo that refers to the woman-on-top or “coconut grating” position.

It’s the sort of thing Adidos used to laugh at, and likely is still, somewhere on that circle road.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.