Island Medicine


I just got back from an amazing week in the Virgin Islands! Here’s a bizarre, short story based on the last half hour we were there:

It had just started raining as we drove around St. Thomas, looking for a vacuum service to avoid the rental car’s $50 sand-damage fee. The car bounced over the pot holes of the sketchier side of the island, a far cry from the touristy, pristine beaches of St. John, where we had just spent a week drinking Pina Coladas and burning our noses. After trying several gas stations with attendants who looked at me like I was speaking gibberish when asking for a vacuum, a man behind me in line pointed toward a car wash down the street. The rain was starting to pour down at this point and we could hardly see through the blurry droplets on the windshield. My flip flop-clad feet rubbed against the gritty floor mat as I looked at the clock on the dashboard. Not much time left before we’d have to return the car and catch our flight.

We drove past the car wash, thinking it was an abandoned dump. After turning around we parked the jeep by the vacuum stand and saw that it only accepted tokens. I opened the door and braced myself for the cold rain. The handmade signs for tokens led me around the car wash stalls, up the squeaky, metal stairs and around the covered porch that was housing several years’ worth of decaying car parts and rotting plant matter.

The vacuum needed one token. I had a bag of quarters and a twenty dollar bill. The machine wouldn’t take coins and it wouldn’t exchange tokens for money, so if I used the last of my cash I’d end up with nineteen useless tokens.

While I contemplated wasting nineteen dollars in order to make our flight on time, an old man sauntered up the stairs. The top of his blue coveralls was left open, revealing a buff chest covered with white curls. Although he was much shorter than me his thick dreadlocks piled high on his head made him appear much taller.

“You need da tokens?” he asked. His white mustache was yellow above the unlit cigarette that dangled from his lip.

“Yeah, but I don’t have any singles,” I told him. I was aware that he was eyeing my white t-shirt made transparent by the rain. The outline around his brown irises had blurred into the yellowing whites of his eyes.

“You have to ring da bell,” he repeated four times before I could process his low voice and his thick, island accent.

The ticket counter had a tinted window and looked closed. The old man leaned against the banister as I rang the doorbell.

“You vacuuming dat car?” he asked me.


“You vacuuming it?” he repeated.


You vacuuming dat car over dere?”

“Yes!” I said, unable to hide my annoyance that time. I rang the bell again, thinking that if I had to wait one more minute, I’d accept the fifty dollar charge from the car rental office.

“I can vacuum it for you,” he said, chuckling and tucking his hands into his elastic belt that was meant to avoid back injury.

The window of the counter slid open to my relief. “Can I have one token, please?” I asked.

“Four quarters,” the cashier said, looking like I woke him from a nap.

I handed him the quarters and instead of a token he slipped me a dollar bill.

“Don’t you have any tokens?”

“Use da machine,” he told me, then closed the window.

Once I got my token and moved toward the stairs. The old man shook his arthritic finger at me. “You’ll get sick if you go back out in dat rain. It’ll stop soon ‘nough.” In that moment he looked like the old, black sage in so many movies I grew up watching. I leaned against the corrugated steel side of the building, expecting to hear some wisdom.

“My sister got sick when she was walking in da rain. She couldn’t get out of bed,” the man started.

“Oh?” I said.

“She went to dat medicine shop right over dere.” He pointed to a blue, stucco building across the street. “They told her to take 500 milligrams of da Centrum Silver. “

My husband was walking up the stairs now. “What’s the hold up?” he asked.

As if he didn’t notice the interruption, the man continued. “She couldn’t get out of de bed. Her eyes they swell up and when de doctor listens to her chest it sounds like crying. We stayed at her bed and made her da soup.”

“Well, I hope she’s all better.”

“No, no, no she’s dead.” He looked at me like I hadn’t heard a word he said. “It was da cancer.”

“Oh my god, I’m sorry,” I said, touching my chest.

He looked down at the ground. “You need to take da stinging nettle for da cancer not da Centrum. Da stinging nettle has the good dings for the mens and de womens. It shrinks da postrate,” he said winking at my husband then taking his hand. “You come wid me. Dis is for men’s ears only.”

“We really have a flight to catch,” I called after them, but the man waved me away. I walked through the last heavy drops of rain to get to the car and began vacuuming.

Mike came down the stairs with a huge grin on his face.

“What did he say?” I asked, getting into the car.

“He said if I took stinging nettle my penis would look like his forearm. He said it would give me hydraulic power down there.” Mike laughed.

I rolled my eyes, wondering how the man could make the leap between his dead sister and natural Viagra.

The man leaned against the banister and called out “I only tell you ‘cause I’m never gonna see you again.”

Mike saluted the man and then backed out onto the road, still laughing about the medical advice.

“Maybe we can get some stinging nettle at the duty free shop,” I said with a wink.