It starts with vous. That is, instead of simply telling her what he wanted, the young man phrased his statement in the form of a question and, more importantly, ended it with s’il vous plait. The question she didn’t mind, because questions, especially polite ones, are innocent enough. No, what Charette Cadet took offense to was his use of vous. She never understood why the blans [foreigners] always did that, but luckily, she had been warned about this one. If she hadn’t, she would have told him to go to hell, told him to either tu-te-toi her, or call her by her first name, or otherwise not speak to her at all. And after pointing out the way to the bathroom Charette found herself quickly scuttling away, if only to prevent herself from blurting out how another vous could earn him the special surprise of a cake with ground-up glass in it.
Yet this was no ordinary blan, someone she could brush aside with a sucking of teeth and a deliberate head-toss of disapproval. The young man was the American cousin of her employer, and so she, like the rest of the staff, had been instructed to give the lavil blan [city slicker] a little leeway. He was new to Haiti, they were told, and would need time to adjust, and they were each expected in their own little way to help him do so. Nevertheless, she thought, quietly voicing a—Bon Dieu, while descending the steps back down to the more comfortable environs of the kitchen, he too, had to learn, and quickly: She could get lose her job because of vous.
Vous was unacceptable. No servant was ever to respond when addressed as vous, no matter what was said, no matter how he or she was spoken to. Before her very first day, le chef de maison had made this point extremely clear. He had taken Charette aside to lecture her about the primacy of vous, how it helped to preserve both the larger civil order and, more importantly, an orderly house. And it was so disheartening, le Chef continued, confessing with a gravity that underscored his sense of personal turmoil, that he had had to sack good people, once a girl much younger than she, in fact the girl who had previously occupied the position Charette wanted, solely for the reason that some people thought the rules of the house existed only to be flouted, broken at the first available opportunity. But Charette, he confidently told her, he had a good feeling about her. He knew she was one to be trusted, one mature enough to respect the subtle power of conventional, conversational grammar. He knew she was one to follow the very simple rules he had long since set. To vous servants was bad form, le Chef insisted. It invited anarchy; it simply wasn’t done. And he, as chef de maison for none other than Richard G. Plantagenet, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Exterior, as Chef he was hell bent on maintaining a maison tout propre and bien classique for his boss.
Charette, he cautioned, in the kindest of ways, if she could or would not submit to the authority invested in the house, let alone the power of a Minister, well, then she’d be better off living on the streets, not working at all….
So then, turning the corner and unconsciously ending her reflection with the mildest of pious swears, although the American seemed nice enough, she would be forced to correct him next time. And she would, too, because she had a husband who just couldn’t seem to find his place in the nouveau regime, and therefore had taken to complaining about a lack of sustained work more than he did real attempts at working. It had been the source of many late night fights and arguments between them, but Charette understood that all was right in the world, and if the Bon Dieu wished for her to support her husband, then she would support her husband. She was, after all, a servant girl from l’andeyò [the peasant countryside] who had worked her entire life, grace à Dieu, to achieve a very prestigious position in the house of a Minister. She would never, ever, ever let herself get sacked for something so stupid as a vous.
But sacked she will be, a scant two years later. Charette will
be made redundant on a whim, a fancy, a wish by the Minister to
show that his social goals and intentions are nothing but positive
and altruistic. Like the rest of the employés de maison,
Charette will be let go with precisely enough wages to sustain her
for six months, but without any pledges to help her obtain a discernable,
viable source of income after said length of time. This act of positive
austerity will soon rise in fashion, and others will follow the
young Minister’s lead. Shortly thereafter it will almost be unheard
of for anyone to hire a permanent bonne [maid] on the island,
and unable to find employment, Charette’s life will become a hard
one. Six month’s wages go by fairly quickly when one’s husband possesses
the skill-set and worldview of the perennially unemployable, and
rather than choose to live constantly dependent upon the dwindling
wages of his wife, her husband will
instead discretely abscond with the remainder of her money and pride.
Destitute and desperate for work, Charette will then agree to employment in a biscuit factory, only to find herself generally disliked and already one step removed from redundancy due to her past proximity to a governmental system partially set in place by the Minister; a system that claims to reinforce social parity as much as it promotes economic inequality. Thus one day, during the latter half of her 12-hour shift, she will not notice a loose lug nut on the tiny piece of machinery she is assigned to watch, and this loose nut will cause a screw to slip, which will cause a plate to drop, which will cause the entire assembly line to become stalled. The halt in production will cost the company exactly 2966 US dollars to repair, an amount that is more than she received in severance from her previous job, and more than she could ever hope to earn in a year at her current occupation. She will again be sacked, this time for negligence, and further burdened with a legal injunction from a bribed judge that any future earnings she receive be garnished in order to pay off her debt.
Therefore with no employment and no possible way of securing credit, Charette will be evicted from her flat and forced to relocate to La Nouvelle Cité, new government housing built on the old site of Cité Liberté, a slum leveled by fire during the coup. Unbeknownst to Charette, her husband will have long since died of gout, a horrifically curable disease, and through a mis-filing in the Bureau of Public Records, a confusion between her maiden and married last names will result in her being declared deceased as well, a victim of the fire that ravaged the original Cité years before. This stroke of luck will draw the attention of the Bureau of Public Housing, which does not enjoy providing shelter to fraudulent individuals, and after several brief and unproductive, day-long waits for short, dismissive interviews, she will finally, unequivocally be told by the very logical Assistant Administrative Undersecretary in charge of Shelter and Assistance what is so, so frighteningly obvious to everyone but herself: She is not who she claims to be. It is simple, the Undersecretary will assert: If she is indeed Charette Cadet, then she is quite dead; and if she is not, but still persists in believing that she is, then she is either a liar, or completely mad, or possibly a unique combination of both. Still, given that the new government makes allowances for those aging individuals not totally recovered from the strain of political upheaval, she will be able to keep her subsidized flat. Provided, of course, that she immediately register with the Ministry of Health so that she may receive the proper medicines and job training appropriate to one of her sensitive "condition."
Charette will register, if only for the sake of having a place to huddle and hide from the next hurricane, but she will receive no medicine and she will not work. Because of her injunction and housing troubles, she will be made a pariah, unable to find someone willing to hire her. For the remainder of her days she will struggle to prove that she really is who she claims to be, and her fidelity to her officially dubious identity will quickly become somewhat of a cause célèbre in the small circles of her housing unit, earning her the neighborhood nickname, "La folle de la Cité" [the madwoman of Nouvelle Cité]. Eventually, she will come to respond to even her neighbors’ calls of la folle quicker than she will her given name, and as for the persistent tales of her madness, will wonder if perhaps there is some truth to it.
It should be noted that in the interests of national security, the Minister will have had all records containing the names and backgrounds of all his past servants falsified, and all contact between them and the individuals of his office permanently severed. It was necessary, a state necessity, done to protect their safety more than his own.