Mrs. Blanco has always known she had a smile, sensed it even before she became aware of it. When nothing else would do, her education, her figure, her presence, that simple pull at the ends of her lips spoke with a language of its own. This morning she knows she’s going to need it. So sure she is, in fact, that after brushing she restrains from flashing her teeth at the mirror to preserve her smile’s full strength.
Outside the window is dusky gray. She reaches for her floral dress, something to brighten up the Monday morning that awaits her. She closes the closet door softly, so as not to wake up her son who’s still asleep in the bed they share. From on top of the night table, she picks up her reading glasses next to the Selecciones delReaders Digest magazine and slips them on. She wears them all the time now when it’s dark.
The long hallways of the boarding house are gloomy silent, her roommates either asleep or gone to work. In the kitchen, she greets Rita, the owner of the casa de bordantes.No need to start shining her smile yet. The radio is buzzing the local Spanish news. Mrs. Blanco has her breakfast in between Rita’s comments. They’re mostly about the weather getting colder. Where Mrs. Blanco comes from el tiempois not much of a subject. It’s either raining or it isn’t, and usually too hot. Not here, in the city of long coats. The first thing out of people’s mouths here, friends or strangers alike, is the weather, how cold is it going to get or what’s going to fall from the sky today.
Mrs. Blanco finishes putting on her face by the front door. She reaches into the bottommost of her purse for the keys and locks every lock before she steps away.
It all begins in the elevator, with the simple act of pressing the call button on the wall brass plate. The doors open on their own and she steps inside the mirror and metal box. Her belly shivers as the floor drops, a combination of dread and excitement she’s still acquainting herself with since she arrived in New York. Part of the luxury trappings of a past future time, an aging modernity, she is only now catching up to.
For better or worse, everything is temporary. If she is certain of anything it’s that. Exile with all its heartbreaks, the same as the guilty enjoyment of a New York elevator ride, is only provisional. The bearded atheists who had forced her and so many to flee her homeland would not keep her forever from the life God had meant her to live.
Outside, it’s colder than it looks. She buttons up the winter coat Rita sold her for five dollars and tightens Amelia’s red scarf around her neck. As she walks past the store windows in her stiff overcoat, her reflection isn’t all that unappealing. It not only conceals her long-lost silhouette and keeps her warm; it also makes her feel part of the landscape, like another New Yorker.
At the bus stop, everyone climbs in one at a time, each dropping a token, unrushed. It is at moments like these too that she’s reminded how far she is from home. Tokens instead of money, no one hustling to the empty seats, no conductor to collect the fare. The efficiency of it makes her wonder, though. In her town, buses had a driver and a conductor, and when they’d seen her a few times, she didn’t need to signal her stop. Everyone was more in touch with each other, less orderly, sure, but more normal. She wonders how the americanos, as smart as they are, could have missed that, the simple human touch.
The downtown bus travels in the shade of Broadway’s architecture, a sightseeing show for Mrs. Blanco—and the reason she preferred them to the subway. She presses her forehead on the icy glass window. She grins at the bright storefronts along the way, with their window displays projecting out to the street like movie screens with views of domestic scenes, gleaming kitchenware, and elegant mannequins wearing the latest styles. There’s a kind of musical play choreography in the way New Yorkers march across the streets, in the stop-and-go of the vehicle traffic. The grandeur everywhere moves her, the polished sheen of rotating doorways, the assembly lines of yellow taxis, the sheer abundance of affluence. Her faith in the infinite might and wisdom of the americanosis reaffirmed at every intersection.
The bus stops at a red light.
When she left Havana, all she and her boy were allowed to bring was $120.00 and — as she liked to say — all the hope and Kleenex they could carry. And, of course, the fervent belief that the United States of America would never allow a Communist nation to take root just ninety miles from Key West. This wasn’t only her opinion: everyone she knew was of the same mind. The end of the bearded revolutionaries was only a question of when — maybe a year at the most before she’d be back with her family around her again, back to where she was born and married and had her children, home until three weeks ago.
Today is a particularly difficult day for Mrs. Blanco. It’s her first day out looking for a job, in search of employment, something she’s never done or needed to do before. At forty-six, the only job she ever had was that of housewife and mother, work that had prepared her for just about anything except to look for employment — much less in a foreign land. The task does not intimidate her as much as the idea of having to ask for it in English, a language she loves to hear but she’s incapable of articulating without embarrassing herself.
Mrs. Blanco looks at the note her exiled friend, Marta, had given her. “Get off on 34thStreet. Walk to 8th Avenue, Garment Center. They’re always hiring sewing machine operators in the factories around there,” it says.
In Havana, she had a Singer machine with a wrought-iron foot pedal her husband bought her. She’d fashioned dresses and shirts for her children with it when they were younger, even sewn a camping tent for her son’s Boy Scout troop once. Sew? Mrs. Blanco could sew just fine.
From the bus, she keeps watch of the street signs at every corner. “Get off when you see the Macy’s store and walk around the area looking for Sewing Operator Wanted signs on building walls,” Marta’s note says.
Many things she never needed before or thought she ever would are needed now. Only a few weeks ago she still lived at home with her husband of twenty-two years and her two children. She’d known the comforts of a well-off existence, which had come with much struggle and only in recent times. But in less than a year of the communist takeover, it was all torn apart, beginning with the seizure of her husband’s business, the family house, even the cars. Then came days of desperate rushing around like on a ship in the storm, throwing everything overboard, trying to sell, trade, and hide whatever remained of the family’s assets. But the idea of seeking asylum didn’t come until later when talk of an even more horrifying law was proposed. The enactment of what they called ‘Patria Potestad.’ The law that gave the communist government parental rights over un-emancipated children. Once the rumor took hold, the question of whether or not to leave the country was settled.
The communists could take everything she owns, she decided, but not her son.
Almost overnight, she found herself thousands of miles away, confined to a bedroom in an overcrowded boarding house in New York City with her twelve-year-old son, starting her temporary life of ‘political’ exile, a refugee — a ‘worm,’ how the fidelístas called the likes of her.
Although the hardships of her younger days now seem like something to look forward to, Mrs. Blanco doesn’t allow herself to wallow in her misfortune as some of her fellow exiles do. Hope is fresh yet. Still, the day-to-day is far from easy. Rooming in an apartment full of political refugees is like living with a big wounded, grieving family. Rare is the night that she is not awakened by the muffled sobs of some of her roommates. Exile is the same as living in a permanent state of emergency, ever hanging to a single hope. Every rumor, every word printed or heard on the radio about the homeland has to be dissected, reinterpreted for hidden meanings, every piece of news a new topic to argue about. The one thing the entire exile commune agrees on, though, is, with God and the americanoson their side, everything thecomunistashave stolen from them would be theirs again. And this was something Mrs. Blanco believes with all her heart.
Across the street, on the northbound side of Broadway, Mrs. Blanco notices a sign written in English and Spanish. It speaks of union, employment, and brotherhood. Compelled by a sudden impulse, Mrs. Blanco pulls the cord and gets off the bus, and then doubles back up the street.
The sweet smell of recently baked dough stops her on her tracks. She rests one hand on the shop window and stares at the trays full of happy-looking donuts arranged in rows. Mentally, she counts the change she has in her purse, hoping. But she knows all too well how much she has, or rather how much she doesn’t have, then walks away thinking of all the weight she still could stand to lose — once again looking at the positive side so as not to weep.
She stands under the sign she saw from the bus and takes up the dark and narrow staircase. At the top landing, she halts by the opened smudged glass door. The stale air in the gray-walled office reeks of cigarette smoke and indifference. Facing a long counter dividing the room, a handful of people are lined up by a faded yellow line on the floor.
Mrs. Blanco steps in and surveys the women working behind the counter and at the desks beyond, pecking on their typewriters. A couple of suited men sit behind glass-partitioned cubicles.
She stands demurely at the end of the line and listens to the English-speaking voice of the bespectacled woman behind the counter, concentrates on it.
The person at the counter walks away and Mrs. Blanco moves up a step.
In front of her, there’s a tall black lady and a Latina-looking one who’s at the counter now. She’s speaking to the bespectacled woman. The harder Mrs. Blanco listens to what they’re saying the less she understands.
A minute later, she hears “Next.” She remembers what next means. In English, every word sounds so much nicer to her, like in the subtitled movies, the voices of Doris Day, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn, so musical even when uttered in anger. Yet she’s just unable to articulate the words, as if her mouth isn’t put together the same way as theirs.
The tall black lady steps up to the counter. Mrs. Blanco places the tip of her shoes on the yellow line on the floor. The tall lady seems upset. Something in the document the bespectacled woman handed her has set her off. Her voice is getting louder. She reminds her of those powerful-voiced Protestant preachers in the movies. Mrs. Blanco tries to decipher what each is saying. The noisier they get the less she comprehends them.
The tall woman starts to shake her finger at the impassive bespectacled face behind the counter. Suddenly she wheels and stomps away, hollering menacing at the entire place. When she reaches the door, she balls-up the insulting document, hurls it in the general direction of the wastebasket, and storms out the glass door.
Now the office staff is up, bunched in groups around their desks, ruffled by the irate lady. Mrs. Blanco is up next.
The bespectacled woman waves from the counter. “Come on up.”
Mrs. Blanco approaches with a tentative smile: she didn’t hear ‘next.’ Her throat tightens up. “Pleese, laydee, S-peak S-panish?”
The bespectacled woman turns around and with a cigarette between her fingers waves at someone and walks away.
Spanish Carmen comes to the counter: “How can I help you?”
Mrs. Blanco lets out a sigh of relief and broadens her smile. “Aaayy,” she sings out. “Thank God you speak Spanish, mi hijita. What a relief.”
Spanish Carmen almost smiles.
“Well, the truth is I am looking for work,” she says leaning closer to the counter. “Let me explain: I have only been in this country for three weeks, yes. But I am a hardworking person and a fast learner, and I am willing to do whatever work that is being offered.”
Carmen gives her a squint-eyed look. “OK, let’s see your book.”
“Libro?” Mrs. Blanco, unsure whether Carmen has understood, starts again. “Maybe I should tell you, I am a married woman. I have two children, yes, two. My oldest, my daughter, she’s in Cuba with my husband, los pobrecitos … I’m sure you must have heard how terrible things are over there now with those communists taking over, my God. But my son, he’s with me. We had to bring him out right away before the communists start taking the children to Russia. Yes, that’s another thing those communists are doing. But he’s in school now, thank God. And God willing, my husband will be coming to join us very soon. Now, my daughter, we’re not too worried about her. She’s already eighteen and engaged, yes. She’s going to marry a boy we know, a good boy. But in the meantime, well, my son and I have to stay here, you understand, until we can return. So you can imagine how difficult it’s been for me to find a job without any English —”
“Excuse me a moment, Mrs. Blan-co, right?”
“Yes,” she answers, reaching into her purse for her passport, her ID. “In Cuba, married women get to keep their maiden name, not like here. Yes, it is Blanco.”
Carmen, assuming the walk-up is looking for her book, says as she flicks through the Rolodex, “Let’s see . . . We have a few openings for iron operators today. Would that be something you’d want to do?”
“Ironing? Oh, sure. I can iron. My husband tells me no one, not even his mother, can iron his shirts as well as I do.”
“All righty, then. Give me your book and I’ll send you right out.”
Mrs. Blanco hands her passport.
“Not this, your union book, or your card, whichever you brought with you.”
“I am sorry señorita. I don’t have a union book. I could get one if you tell me how—”
“Oh, oh. How can we send you out on a job, if you’re not in our union? This is an employment office for our union members. This is not for anybody. I mean you have to be a member.”
“No problem, I will join the union. Just tell me how.”
“It’s not like that. I’m sorry, the jobs we have are for our members in good standing only.”
“This is no problem for me. No problem at all. I want to be a union member. Just tell me what I have to do and I will join your union. You see, we just arrived in New York and I need a job—”
“You’ve already told me, Mrs. Blanco. But I can’t send you out unless you’re in our union. It’s just how it is.”
“But I will be very happy to be a member of your union. What is it? Is there a fee?”
“Yes, well no, it’s not just a fee. To join our union, you must first work in a union shop for at least three months before you can apply.”
“You’ll have to pardon me, Carmencita, chica. It’s a beautiful name, Carmen. I almost named my daughter Carmen, yes. I have a cousin named Carmen too. She’s my favorite cousin—”
“Forgive me, Carmen, I will not bore you with it. But listen, if you give me the ironing job, I promise you I will come back in three months and ask for you personally and I will join your union. A promise is a promise.”
Carmen looks over Mrs. Blanco’s shoulders at the line. “Look, I’d love to help you —”
“But Carmen, my girl, how can I work for three months and then join the union if you don’t give me the job first?”
“These are the rules. I’m really sorry.”
“You mean you can’t give me a job unless I already have a job?”
“Not really, but in your case, I’m afraid so.”
“Why would I come to ask for employment if I am already employed? I’d be too busy at work!”
“I’m sorry. Take this brochure with you. Read it at your leisure. There’s nothing else I can do. Next . . .”
Mrs. Blanco buttons up her coat. “Ay, Carmencita, really. I’m afraid it’s going to take me a long time to understand this country.” She straps her purse on her shoulder. “To have an employment office for people already employed—” She finished her comment with a silent headshake of disbelieve.
As Mrs. Blanco walks toward the glass door, the heat of emotion wells in her eyes. She halts next to the wastebasket. She looks down at the balled-up paper the screaming lady had shucked with such disdain. Quickly, she lowers herself, picks it up, slips it into her purse and walks out.
Two blocks away, she stops to decipher the words on the paper. It’s a printed form filled out with ink but without a bearer’s name on it.
“… Jane Holly Blouses … West 61stStreet … Steam iron operator … Salary: $1.25 an hour… attention: Mr. Weinstein.”
Her face lights up. She has no reservations in applying for a job a disgruntled member of Carmen’s union didn’t want. Unions, what are they good for anyway? In Cuba, they called them sindicatos, like the one the communists first organized in her husband’s factory and then abolished after they confiscated it. But if unions is how the Americans choose to call them, it is fine with her.
On Columbus Circle, Mrs. Blanco runs into a crowd of people waving signs of ‘JFK for President.’ She works her way around them and hurries down 60thStreet, crosses West End Avenue, and turns on the corner. The Hudson River is just down the road.
A cold wind blows on her face, clean, crisp American air.
61stStreet is solid with parked cars. She finds the address. A sign above the doorway says Jane Holly Blouses. She enters the building. Out of the biggest elevator she’s ever seen, she encounters a pretty girl at the desk by the door. Mrs. Blanco switches on her smile and hands her the wrinkle-creased but now straightened flat employment form.
The receptionist, chewing gum, picks up a telephone, says one phrase and hangs up, then says something to her and points at a metallic door. The stained sign on it says ‘Employees Only.’
“San-cue,” Mrs. Blanco says.
She enters a high-ceiling workshop with long tables. Mr. Weinstein, a thirty-something, pleasant-looking man in a tie and dress shirt, comes walking from behind a stack of rolls of fabrics. The out-turned toes of his shoes are shiny but dusty . . . a man who doesn’t mind getting dirty at work. Mrs. Blanco approves.
She holds out the paper.
Mr. Weinstein doesn’t look up at her smile. He scowls at the paper. “Where’s your union booklet?”
She answers with her brightest smile something that sounds like this to Mr. Weinstein, “Chess, I lie to goo-erk bery mosh.”
He releases a long sigh, steps back, and shouts over the machine noises “Josefina,” then waits, glancing at Mrs. Blanco, sizing her up.
Spanish Josefina, short, with a round cheerful face, races over obviously pleased to be the boss’s interpreter.
“Ask Mrs. Blanco if she has her union book or her ID card.”
Josefina translates the question.
Mrs. Blanco takes a deep breath and is about to explain why she doesn’t yet have a union card when Mr. Weinstein with the out-turned toes cuts her short. “Never mind,” he says with a dual expression of pity and mirth on his pale face. “Tell Mrs. Blanco not to worry. Tell her to come back tomorrow at eight in the morning ready to start training. Ironing.” He gestures as if waving an iron. “And tell her she’ll be starting at a dollar an hour, not at a dollar twenty-five as it says in the form. OK?”
Then Mr. Weinstein adds without the need for translation, louder as if his Spanish would be better understood at a higher volume. “Ma-nya-nah worky on time. OK?”
The message is translated anyway and Mrs. Blanco, beaming, almost curtsies at her new boss. “San cue, bery bery mosh.”
Walking back to the subway, Mrs. Blanco’s eyes overflow with tears. She can’t believe her luck. To have achieved what only twenty-four hours before seemed like a monumental impossibility feels nothing short of a miracle, as though the Virgin herself was watching over her.
Suddenly, she remembers how hungry she is and picks up her gait. Back in the rooming house, there are hot dogs and a can of Campbell soup waiting for her. Tonight, she announces to herself, she will take her son to the pizzeria on Broadway and celebrate. She slows her pace as she approaches a tumult in Columbus Square.
The crowd is so thick she can’t see the end of it. Dozens of JFK for President cardboard signs are up all over the street and over people’s heads. Motorcycle policemen are cutting off the traffic. Red lights are swirling. A sudden upsurge of voices and motor noises breaks out and she is dragged by the rushing human tide toward the edge of the sidewalk. A slow-moving black convertible as long as a yacht comes sailing slowly through the mass of bodies. And there, over the sea of outstretched fluttering hands, the figure of John F. Kennedy appears in a royal blue suit, his face under a crown of impeccable chestnut hair, and a smile of perfect white. Drawn by the delirious multitude, Mrs. Blanco reaches out to him as if attracted by an invisible magnet, and their skins clasp together for a magical instant. Then just as quickly, the candidate’s caravan floats away.
Mrs. Blanco extricates herself from the mob. She walks away toward Broadway unaware of the importance she would later give to the event. A half-block up 61stStreet, she begins to feel faint. She leans on a wall to wait for it to pass. Beside her, there’s the tangle of tubes of a scaffold on the side of the building. On a tall windowsill behind her, she sees a neatly folded white paper bag. She takes it and peeks inside. There are two jelly donuts wrapped in wax paper, a capped coffee cup still hot, two sugar packets, a plastic stirrer and paper napkins. She looks around her at the busy sidewalk of incurious New Yorkers passing by. She sighs and puts it back, and walks away.
She halts abruptly, turns back, picks up the paper bag and rushes up the street with it.
On Broadway, she finds a bench in the median promenade.She sits down, pours the sugar into the steaming coffee, and stirs it. Slowly, she takes out a donut. Up by her lips, she breathes in its baked aroma and bites the sweet soft dough filled with even sweeter jelly as though performing a delicious but sinful act. Pigeons start gathering nearer. The November sun shines with a silver glow through the overcast Manhattan sky. She savors the donut unhurriedly until is gone except for the white sugary dust on her fingers. She looks into the paper bag, and summoning the phenomenal strength only motherhood could give her, Mrs. Blanco saves the remaining donut for her son.
She gathers herself up and takes the subway uptown.
In her room, she finds her son with his heavy white-sox feet resting on the radiator. He has the transistor radio up by his ear. She drops the groceries on the small table by the door and gives him a kiss on the cheek. He’s busy mouthing along with the song playing, mimicking the singer. He’s singing in English.
Mrs. Blanco doesn’t fool herself thinking if she ever went out job-hunting again that she’d be hired the same morning, shake the hand of a presidential nominee, and find a bag with fresh donuts and coffee. But it had happened. And she had done it all on her own. She knew her exiled roommates were going to ask her how her day went, they always ask about everything. She’d have to be watchful of how she told it. Measure her elation, soften the magical aspect of it. Tragedies bring people together, but personal good fortune, not so much. To be an exile, to be forced to flee one’s homeland and seek refuge in a foreign country, is no different than living with an open wound, hurting part of every moment.
Mrs. Blanco approaches her son. His head is bobbing in time with the music. She lets the sweet-smelling paper bag fall on his lap. He drops everything when he sees the donut.
“How did this get here in one piece?” he says, amazed.
“Son, you wouldn’t believe the day I had even if I told you.”
“Did you find anything?”
Mrs. Blanco smiled.
When Nelson el Raro walked out of his house the morning heat had settled on the cobblestone. Breakfast was sitting nicely in his belly now and his second day without sleep was but a faint unpleasantness under his skin. Most of all, he felt lucky today, an altogether unfamiliar sensation for him.
Down by the bay, the Emboque plaza and the launch docks were bustling with people and buses in the warming sun. Even the sky above it was full of activity with red-and-yellow kites swooping in the saline breeze and all the birdlife over the harbor—the loud screeching gulls, the fast-moving sparrows, the high-hovering buzzards with their long wings flat and still up near the clouds.
He stopped a moment to watch a frutero building a pyramid of oranges on his cart, while he listened to the other vendors hawking their goods for the people coming and going on and off the harbor launches. Each vendor had his own distinctive personal rhyme. His favorites were those of the tamalero and the peanut vendor because theirs were the most musical. Nelson would always know precisely what others meant when speaking of their hometown, their homeland, by simply focusing his thoughts on El Emboque docks on a windswept morning like this one.
He browsed his way through the hectic plaza to see Cheo Calandro, the old blind man who had been selling lottery bills at the same spot ever since he could remember. He thought the ancient numbers vendor had a soft spot for him because whenever he stopped by for a casual greeting, Cheo Calandro would become very talkative and engage him in long, preposterous conversations on subjects that, although interesting, he could not take seriously coming from an illiterate son of African slaves.
But Cheo Calandro was not just anybody. He was considered one of the town’s landmarks, worshipped by many because of the countless winning lottery bills he’d sold to people who became rich overnight with the prizes. And yet, despite all the good fortune his lottery bills had brought to so many, the old man was back there every day, sitting with his colorful rack of bills at his side in his nook in the rocky wall where the church stands.
As Nelson left the plaza behind, he decided that if the old lottery vendor sold him the winning number, he would give him half the prize.
Cheo Calandro was sitting on a wooden Coca-Cola crate, his brown, sinewy forearms resting on his knees. “Who’s there?” he asked, straightening up his back.
“Nelson Vargas. Remember me?”
The blind man’s cloudy eyes wandered. “Ah yes. You are the son of Raul El Bolitero. How is he these days?”
“Good. Working,” said Nelson unnecessarily loud.
“¡Muchacho!” the blind man let out, covering one ear. “I’m blind, not deaf.”
His eyes again moved awkwardly. “Tell me one thing: are you anything like your father? I ask because your father told me he doesn’t believe in luck anymore. How am I going to make a living if people stop believing in luck?”
“That’s a good question. But I’ve come to take a chance on the thirteen,” Nelson said, feeling for his wallet in his back pocket.
“You?” The blind man nodded his head in approval.
“Yes, well, today is the thirteenth of March,” Nelson told him. “I’ve decided to make it my lucky number from now on. I know people think it’s an unlucky number but—I’ve got my reasons.” He shrugged, then realized body language was wasted on the blind man.
“Well that is a very important decision you have made,” Cheo Calandro said with a scowl.
“Not a trivial thing like people say.”
“No, of course not,” Nelson said, humoring the man. He pulled his wallet out of his pocket.
“The thirteen, huh?” Cheo Calandro scratched his hairless, sweaty head. “You do know this number is very popular among my regular buyers, don’t you?”
“Truly?” Nelson sounded curiously surprised. He looked at the three pesos in his wallet and pocketed it.
“Oh yes. But you know what?” Cheo Calandro said. “After a lifetime of selling lottery bills, I know this much: this numeral is not a lucky one by itself.”
“What? Do I have to buy something else with it?”
The blind man slapped his thigh, laughing. “No, nothing like that.”
“I don’t get it.”
“It’s simple, chico. The numeral thirteen, on its own, brings luck to no one.”
The blind man waited for Nelson to say something; when he didn’t, he went on. “That is unless that someone is naturally akin to its influence. You must be the type of person it likes—if you know what I mean. Then and only then will this number bring in the goods. The thirteen has to choose you. It’s not enough for you to choose it.”
The blind man paused with a mischievous grin on his thick lips. “But you probably think this is all nonsense.”
“No, no, I’m listening,” answered Nelson with a superior smile. How could he begin to explain to the lottery vendor of all he already knew about numbers, or of the many hours he had spent alone in the university’s library while the riotous demonstrations were taking place outside, hiding in the section for the Occult Sciences with those forbidden volumes of ancient secrets all to himself? What could this old man know of Ramon Llul and the endless combinations that can measure the cosmos . . . ? When out of nowhere, as if for the sole purpose of shattering his mental self-assertions, eight carefree seagulls swooped down over his head and alighted on the wooden frame of the lottery display rack, each flying down and landing with such an uncanny precision and grace that it left Nelson feeling an itchiness in the pit of his stomach.
He informed the blind man of the gulls on his rack, but Cheo Calandro discarded it with a nod of his head. “They’re new around here,” he said, half-covering his mouth so as not to be overheard. “They come around when I talk about these things. They only want to see if I really know what I’m talking about.”
The blind man had to cover his whole mouth not to giggle aloud. When he got over it, he raised his brown head and looked at Nelson as if making eye contact. “The truth is that all numbers are of good fortune. Some obviously more than others. But that is simply because people make them that way.”
“I don’t understand,” Nelson said. More gulls were landing on the lottery display and the floor of the niche. The ones already by their feet were walking around as if someone were feeding them. It occurred to Nelson that perhaps the blind man was in the habit of feeding the birds around this time. Why else would these wild dockside gulls be behaving like this?
“How could that be?” Nelson said.
“Simple,” the blind man replied as if very glad to have been asked. “All things are affected by the pull of people’s fixation on them. For example, the numeral thirteen is recognized throughout most of the world as an unlucky number, as you have well said.”
Cheo Calandro let out a grunt intended to mean, Who knows why? “Personally,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with it. But right or wrong, mistakenly or not, it’s been fixed on people’s minds that way and this causes a big pull. The result is clear: an endless set of repercussions, an unlimited chain of effects affecting the numerology in all living things and material things. Curiously enough, it’s not the same with inorganic beings. They’re another story.”
Nelson was too distracted to listen. A flock of seagulls was now all over the niche’s floor, and he could have sworn they were indeed listening to the blind man.
“What I’ve noticed about the thirteen,” Cheo Calandro went on, “is that it is a most faithful numeral. The more you conduct your life within its domain, the more your luck increases. In this aspect, it’s no accident this number is the favorite of so many people. It can be generous to a fault.”
Cheo Calandro drew a long breath. “The truth is I’ve caught myself wondering about these things once or twice before, but it’s a waste of time.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I am no good for the thirteen. And I’ve got a sneaking suspicion this number is not good for you either. Something tells me you should not interest yourself with it too much.”
“Does that mean you’re not going to sell it to me?”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” the lottery vendor responded, shocked. “Clearly I would sell you this bill with pleasure. Who am I to make such a decision for you? The problem is I’m all sold out.”
Cheo Calandro burst out laughing with the abandon only a blind man can.
Spooked by the man’s laughter, Nelson took off across the sun-beaten plaza. The itchiness in his stomach had turned into a painful fluttering, which for some reason he thought he could soothe with cold coconut water.
The vendor fished a coconut out of the iced water in a cut-off oil drum, chopped the top off with a machete, inserted a straw into the opening and handed it to Nelson. It cost five cents.
Nelson leaned on one of El Emboque’s pillars in the shade and sipped the coconut water. He peered at Cheo Calandro on the other side of the steaming plaza. A woman with a black veil over her head was inspecting the lottery bills on the old man’s rack now, but not one gull was anywhere to be seen. They must have flown away while he was looking away, all thirty or forty of them. Hard to believe, he thought, though not impossible if you’d seen their choreographed aeronautics.
Nelson threw the empty shell on the pile. The hot midday sky was as still as a picture now, nothing moving in it but the rising black smoke from the departing number 6 bus he’d just missed. He headed to the docks and hopped on the next ferry launch across the harbor. In Havana, he was bound to find a vendor with his number. He felt that lucky.
Sometimes you look at the world and you can’t understand it for all you try. They tell you the trick is to adapt, to get used to it, to conform. I know that much already. What other choice is there? Well, sure, there is something else you can do but you don’t do it because, first of all, you’re not that crazy. You have your health, your desires, your ambitions; you are made for living. It’s what you do. And dying, death, going down with the ship might be all that they say it is but I am not built for it. I will not argue about it, either. I have friends who love talking about it. Not me. You want to die? You go ahead. Leave me out of it. What’s the hurry? It’s not just the dying. It’s all the time they expect you to stay dead.
This is why I will not go out there in an inner tube like those lunatics did. I’d rather wait for the right moment, the right tide. I am tired of arguments, opinions debates. Talk, talk, talk, a black-market of endless verbalizing. I want work that I can do with my hands, in silence. I want to make things, useful things. I want to go to work, come home, pay the rent, eat, make love and go to bed. At least I’d like to try it for a while. Maybe it’s not for me. Maybe it’s too late for me. But as I sit here covered in dust and sweat, watching the sea turn from emerald to lead, I wish I could float away like a paper boat on a flooded gutter after a downpour. Float out of sight into that liquid desert and wake up in the world, in the real world. The one you see on television, in the movies, the world of those people who look at us and smile those strange smiles. People of the real world. True, sometimes I don’t understand them, but I think that comprehension is overrated anyhow.
I have a friend who says, “Roberto sleeps on the beach on Sundays because he thinks a bunch of mermaids is going to pop out of the water and carry him to Key West.” What he really means is I sit here on these night sands waiting for some benevolent rafter to ask me to join them. “Está loco,” they say. But I don’t argue anymore. Mermaids . . . I wouldn’t even know how to make love to one.
Who’s not a little loco on this never-never island, anyway? This water-locked madhouse where nobody calls anything by its real name, unless you’re talking to a foreigner, or to your saints. I used to tell my friend, “You’re mistaken. I don’t spend the night on the beach waiting for some imaginary rafter to give me a ride to freedom. Aren’t we supposed to be freer than anyone has ever been?” But I don’t argue anymore. What for? But—just between you and me—it got me thinking. Sometimes I think that is exactly what I come here to do.
Like a child with a wet butt, playing with a toy shovel night after night, hoping for a ghost rafter to take me away.
Granted, I’ve been accused of being a dreamer. But I have my moments of lucidity, too. I’ve been known to wade waist-deep in the heavy waters of reason and see things and faces for what they really are. If not, then why would I be sitting here breathing that dead fish smell and watching the sea stir like boiling crab soup in front of my starving eyes? I do not long for freedom, maybe just a better prison.
I don’t mind confinement. What’s so bad about having a cell of your own? How much space or things does a dreamer need? Look at me. I wouldn’t take too much space in any raft. Hey, brother, just give me a little corner there out of everybody’s way. Nobody will even notice me. Freedom, what is it anyway? I’m not sure I’d recognize it even if it slapped me across the face . . . Until we hit land, that is.
The real world. The New World. The world of my forefathers. At least half of my genes, the white ones, originated there. Well, maybe in Europe but by way of El Norte like the charros call it or Yankeelandia as the gallegos say. Call it what you will, half of me belongs there. Still, they keep saying the same things about me. “Leave Roberto alone, the poor man has gone loco. Thinks he’s half-American.” But, as I’ve said, I don’t argue anymore. I have the two things I need to prove them wrong. One is inside me: my indisputable certificate of authenticity. The other is inside the wall of my bedroom—my mother’s bedroom before she died.
When I think of her, the surf, the sound it makes becomes a form of silence. And the moon . . . Where is it? It’s gone out of sight again, taken the light of the world with it.
Moon-face. That was what my mother used to call me. “God,” she would lament between peals of laughter. “You don’t look a thing like your Papa.” But it doesn’t matter, the looks, I mean. I have the DNA and the manuscript. My DNA will prove what the manuscript cannot and vice versa. You say I don’t look anything like my Papa? OK, check my DNA. You say, OK, my DNA confirms the bloodline and such, but it’s of no consequence because I was born out of wedlock, an illegitimate child, a quickie in the shed, an unlucky bastard. OK. This is when I will swagger forward and pull out the envelope and slip the script out like a gunslinger draws his six-shooter, and say, “Here, feast your eyes.” And I will unveil the manuscript — Papa’s autobiography, a work no one knew it existed — and they would fall on their asses in absolute awe.
“Could it be the real thing? It looks real enough . . .”
Sure, they will rush it to the experts. Only to find out the truth. And I’ll become an instant celebrity, rich, privileged. Then, when I get tired of all the attention, I will move to a farm and spend the rest of my days as Papa did in Ketchum, far from the sea, where I can work with my hands and create things. Things that no one needs but maybe some people might find useful, as with Papa’s work.
Why Papa ended it the way he did, I’ll never understand. No one called him loco when he stuck that double barrel in his mouth and blew his head off. That head so loaded with wonder and prose, so ripe for the picking, all the knowledge and insight it contained splattered all over the wall.
The pain, they say, the pain was too much. In his case, it was the sane thing to do. Me, they called loco when I tried it. It wouldn’t be the same with me. Even with his genes swimming within me, it wouldn’t be the same. Those certifiable genes he passed on to me by way of a sixteen-year-old mulatica who became the co-author of me do not make it the same thing. Why? I’m not sure. But as you know by now, I don’t argue anymore. What’s the use?
Sure, you might have his genetic matter and his pen — oh yes I have his pen. His famed fountain pen, a Parker 61 prototype with stainless steel cap and gold-filled trimming, a beauty. The one he used on who knows how many historic literary documents. Except it has no ink. Can’t get ink for it anywhere. They refuse to give me any because they say I’ll drink it down. I only did it as a joke, a juvenile prank. Twenty years later, I’m still without it. Yes, I do have his pen. But it’s dry, dry like this island.
I would never forget that day mother pulled me aside and said with an air of nostalgia and wonderment but not of love, “This here pen belonged to your Papa. He gave it to me the day he gave me the manila envelope with the papers and said to me with his bad yanki accent, ‘Mirta, I want you to have this. You may not think it’s much now, but you wait a few years and see.’ He was right. To me, it was just a pen and a pile of papers.” Then she let out one of her African laughs of joy and pain. “How was I to know those papers contained his most secret secrets? One of humanity’s greatest literary treasures. I was only a stupid girl then. You were still in my belly, smaller than a mouse. Then he disappeared forever aboard his Pilar, sailed away into literary martyrdom. All he left me was you and those yellow, dog-eared pages. Better than nothing, no?”
A pale light spreads over the beach like silver dust. It is in that strange moonlit instant that I first see her coming. Her boyish body and Olympian long and lean legs striding toward me out of the foaming surf.
She is gorgeous, a miracle bathed in moonlight. She sits beside me on the sand, her casual, languid movements in rhythm with the breaking waves. I take a good look at her long legs to make sure they are not covered with green scales. No, this one is no mermaid. She’s all caramelized flesh and blood.
“You are Roberto el Loco, no?”
“Roberto, yes. Loco, I’m not so sure—”
“Well, whatever, my cousin Chicho told me to come and ask you—you know Chicho, no?”
I nod yes.
“Anyway, he told to me to tell you that the raft he was building is finished and he’s ready to push it out,” she says, pointing away at the other end of the beach. “So he sent me over to offer you a place on it if you want it.” Her singsong voice is sweet, nothing like her Amazonian physique.
I laugh. “Yes, yes, of course. When are we sailing?”
“Look, cousin Chicho says the raft fits eight people. And he told me to tell you there’s space for one more if you want to come.”
“Is this a joke?”
She snaps her lips in that sassy way only habaneras can. “Coño, chico, do I look like I’m joking?”
No, she didn’t. Still. “Why me?”
“Look, man, I’m just here to give you this message. You can come or you can stay. But you’ve got to decide now. They’re getting the raft ready, ya,” she says, looking away
“Over there.” She extends her arm and points at a single light at the end of the curved shoreline. “Near the fish plant.”
I had to laugh again. “Come on, what’s this all about, really? Your cousin and I don’t even know each other that well.”
“Everybody knows you on this beach. Everyone knows you’ve been wanting to escape for months—”
“For years,” I correct her.
“Whatever.” She starts to get up as if she’s already done her duty and now cares little whether I come or not. “Well?”
I look up at her statuesque silhouette towering over me. Was this my ride to freedom? “Is this for real?”
She gives me a sideways look. “It’s now or never.
I hesitate a few seconds too much. “Mira, chico, so what’s it going to be? You’ve got to tell me now. Plenty of others are dying for that space on the raft.”
The realization shot through me like a heatwave through my veins. I jumped to my feet. “OK, OK, but first I have to go home and get some things, you know, my documents . . .”
“Wait. There’s no space for bags or anything. You can bring your documents and whatever in a plastic bag and the clothes on your back, but that’s it. Not a thing more: Chicho’s orders.”
What would it all mean without Papa’s manuscript? “Yes, yes, of course,” I said, knowing I wasn’t going anywhere without it. “Just let me run home a moment and be right back. OK?”
“How long will you be?”
“Sing a song and I’ll be here by the time you’re finished. Don’t you move. Wait for me . . .”
I took off running, her voice behind me like a mermaid’s song telling me to hurry. I couldn’t believe it. I ran as fast as my feet could go over powdery sand, transported the magical quality of the moment.
A minute later, I’m at my door. My home of a lifetime, a two-story beach house my abuelo had built with his lottery prize in Santa María del Mar before the Revolution, of which I was only allowed to occupy two rooms on the second floor.
I fly up the cold granite stairway. The other three families in the house are asleep. I tiptoe into the kitchen, pick up the crowbar and head to my bedroom—mother’s old bedroom. I stand before the wall that contains the family treasure. I remove the ancient mirror with the baroque gilded frame. My heart is racing. With the crowbar, I start poking into the plaster around the nail where the mirror had been hanging, the X spot.
I try very hard to keep it as quiet as possible. But how do you open a hole in a brick wall quietly in the middle of the night? I placed a bedspread on the floor but the ancient brick and plaster crumbles down loud anyhow. Sweat is dripping down the side of my dusty face. My hands start to burn and tremble. I can’t believe what is happening or what I’m doing. Some part of me is already looking back at this moment as though it happened long ago.
For the first time in my life I am going to hold the manuscript in my hands, actually see the family treasure, three decades after my mother left it concealed in the hollow of the wall awaiting this moment. The idea of it is even more incredible to me than Chicho’s offer of freedom. Liberty or death, I say mockingly to myself as I pound harder on the wall.
Suddenly, I hear shouting in between swings and hits.
“Hey! What the hell you’re doing up there, Roberto?” The voice feels like iced water down my back. “It’s two o’clock in the damn madrugada. Some of us got to go to work in a few hours, cojones!”
It’s my downstairs neighbor, a paladar owner—the last guy who wants the law coming anywhere near here these days. I keep swinging the crowbar, going as fast as I can.
“Roberto! Loco de mierda.” Now it’s the upstairs neighbor, the Committee Delegate, doing the yelling. “This is insupportable.” I hear his wife joining in. “I’m calling the police. Oh yes, this time I am . . . I’ve had enough of that lunatic.”
I’m tearing into the wall like a gold miner swinging his pickaxe into a newfound gold streak. I know the manuscript has to be in there. Mother would not lie to me. “The family treasure, son. The master’s last words. Your Papa’s gift to us.” My ticket to paradise.
My arms and my face are covered with plaster dust. I taste it on my lips. Where is the damn manuscript? I can already see through into the next room. Where is it? Mother, you told me it was here. Dig right behind the mirror, it’s what you told me. Start where the nail is.
The shouting starts to multiply throughout the house, louder and angrier, like a gathering lynching mob. “Roberto! You crazy maniac. I’m going up there and kick your ass, I swear. Stop that banging already . . . Yes, Robertico, por favor . . . I will call the police this time, I’m warning you.”
Almost half the wall is gone but I can’t stop now. Mother, where is it? My fingers are bleeding . . . Wait. What is that? I hear a series of hard blows that shake up the house to its foundations. It isn’t my hammering. I hear it again. It’s my door coming off the hinges.
“Roberto, hijo de puta . . . the police are here . . . you son of a bitch.” The doorframe cracks and splinters off the frame.
I keep pounding on the wall with all my might. Then, through the dusty brown light of the ceiling lamp, I notice something wrapped in green canvas. Is that it? Is it? It’s the manuscript rolled up inside a piece of olive green tarpaulin. I reach for it—
It is here when I feel a flash of lightning, like a streak of moonlight rippling on choppy waters; it always comes at this exact moment. It never ceases to take me by surprise despite the countless of times it has happened before, a lightning across a starry night. And again, I savor the blood, the plaster on my lips, and the all-consuming numbness sets in. It starts in my legs and works its slow death up my body until my life ends again.
And again, it is midnight. And I am sitting on the night sands under the same battered moon over the same ocean of ink. The same sweat-soaked Saint Augustine emptying the ocean into a hole in the sand, pretending to grasp the incomprehensible, waiting for the future to let me in.
Nick Padron’s short stories have appeared in publications and collections in the United States, Canada, Spain, and Japan. He is the author of two novels, Gabriel Hemingway’s The Cuban Scar and Missing Symphony, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist. His novelette, Sylvia’s Island, (RW Press) will be in bookstores everywhere, July 2020.