M. Hustead Lorenzo


FALSE FIRES

 

I told you it was a robbery because that was the easier story to tell. And all these years later, what does anyone care about our little tragedy? What does anyone care about the truth?

After we fled Spain—no, not Spain, but a demon called Fascism who had possessed her … no, not only a new demon called Fascism but an old one in the shape of a scorned husband—after we fled to Havana I would lie awake in the dark while Ana and my brother Simón slept and look for the plains of Castilla. I’d squeeze my eyes shut against the dark and try to see: olive orchards baking in the midday sun, two burros pulling a cart full of grain sacks up the dust road from Villaconejos, the arched wooden door of our house with the knob in the center. Sometimes I saw nothing, as if that thick Caribbean night had drawn like a curtain over my eyes. Then I listened for it: the orange-seller’s call in the morning: naranjas! Naranjas frescas pacomprar! Hooves on the village stone streets, clop-clop, clop-clop, clop-clop. Strings of guitar-picking from the corner bar, and the groan of the gaita, the Galician bagpipe. Our mother’s family came from Galicia, and one of our uncles always brought out the gaita at weddings and funerals.

But no one had played the gaita when they took mamá and papá. There was no funeral because no one was certain they were dead. That’s how it is in a country that lives in fear: no one sees what they’re not supposed to. Back then I thought a dictatorship was one man, the Caudillo, as if Franco sat on a throne in El Pardo and oversaw the entire country from his window. Ha! No man commands power alone. The Dictatorship is a many-headed beast, with millions of eyes and ears, clubs and guns and boot-heels, stomachs that fatten while others starve. And it has millions of eyes that don’t see, tied hands, and silent tongues. But the worst is this: of all the histories those tongues hold, the Dictatorship tells only one.

We thought we were safe from that beast in Havana. La Habana, the Haven! Who wouldn’t trust such a name? It began as a haven to Taíno fishers, and millennia later, to those who followed a Genoese merchant sailing under the crown of Castilla. Yes: Spain. Others thought Columbus was deluded, but Queen Isabel believed and sold her jewels to pay for his journey past the edge of the world. He returned with a jewel of a different kind: the Indies, those jewels that would crown the Spanish empire and finally sink her under the weight of their administration. The wheel of Karma turns slowly, but ay, how it turns!

Patience! “One who would be certain, waits.” Soon I’m getting to the robbery that wasn’t. The storyteller chooses the beginning, and if I am to be the storyteller, this is where the story begins. You want to hear about a vendetta that was made to look like a robbery, no? Fitting that we should begin in the Indies, where the heist of the millennium was first cast as a mission for souls. Watch, in time-lapse photography, as this glittering sapphire harbor with its tiny fishing village—the magnet—draws men in boats like so many iron-filings. Its shores clutter with docks, shacks, mansions, palaces! Streets crawl further and further into the jungle. And still the ships can’t resist its pull: stinking Portuguese slavers slide into port, packed with chained Africans who will break their backs cutting cane. New Orleans cotton traders turn back heavy with sugar and the new cane-liquor that the slaves will never taste. Seven years: after you stepped off the slave ship, that’s how long you could expect to survive in the sugar plantations. No time for rum. I’ve never cared for it, myself. But look! The Spanish galleons unload their supplies and sail back to the Peninsula with the New World’s gold and silver, and with an invisible load on board: a karmic Trojan horse that will trample generations of Spaniards. Or is it the joined forces of humiliated gods—I’m sure you know of some, Atabey, Yúcahu, Kukulcan, Quetzalcoatl from the New World, Inti, Eshu and Iku from West Africa—is it the wrath of these gods that will curse Spain’s people with poverty, hunger, Napoleon, civil war, fascism, bureaucracy, and unemployment for the next five hundred years?

That I can’t answer. But this is the port that, in December of 1948, three young Spaniards watched grow like a mirage from the deck of the Gloria Caribeña. As the palms sharpened into focus and the ants that scurried over the docks became longshoremen, Simón and Ana and I shouted, laughed, kissed each other. We were safe! The Generalísimo, we were sure, couldn’t see across the ocean. But it wasn’t the Generalísimo we had to fear.

The first thing we did when we got off the ship in Havana was to find Óscar. He was a cousin of our father’s who had left Spain before the war. After the iron mines in Santiago de Cuba closed, Óscar came to Havana, opened a restaurant, and within a few years had enough money to expand it into a club. By late 1948, when we arrived from Spain, he had businesses all over Havana, with the club as his headquarters. In the afternoon locals and tourists alike followed their noses into the restaurant for the menu of the day, the ropa vieja, the roast pork with plátanos maduros, ham croquettes and ceviche, mmm…yes, and at night American businessmen, of all varieties of business, came in to sip rum and Cokes and play poker and practice their Spanish with the lovely Cuban girls who sat at the bar looking over their shoulders. “¿Kee-air-ay Usted by-lar, señorita?—Yes, sir, I will like to dance, sí.” No, don’t misunderstand: Óscar’s was a classy establishment. But who left with whom and what they did and whether or not they paid for it was not the owner’s problem, no, señor, not as long as he got his cut.

At first, I washed dishes at the restaurant at night. Then I found more work at a cigar factory during the day. Simón started out unloading ships. Soon word got around that he could fix cars and most evenings you could find him on his back under Chryslers, Fords, Cadillacs, Chevys, in the light of a kerosene lamp, Ana handing him tools. She felt useless at first, I think. She was expanding by the day then, and who wants to hire a woman seven months pregnant? So she started taking in laundry. The customers asked for mending, too, but she could only sew on buttons and fix small holes. “If only I had my sewing machine,” she kept saying. One day Simón came home wheeling a used Singer. He replaced the motor and soon the run-run sound of people’s clothing being mended and tailored was always in the background of our lives. We were living in a room above one of Óscar’s stores then, but the cigar-rolling and ship-loading and engine-fixing and skirt-hemming paid off. After two months, we got our own flat, just in time for the baby. She was a beautiful baby girl—she looked just like Ana.

It’s ridiculous to imagine I was in love with my brother’s new wife. I would say we kept each other company. After the baby was born and I had quit the cigar factory, I would sleep late, hours after the sun came up and Simón had gone off to the repair shop where he worked. I would wake to the sound of the sewing machine. Ana took in work for a tailor then, and like most women, she never stopped moving. But when I came out of the bedroom in the morning, she’d always hop up and put a pot of coffee on the stove, slice some bread and tomato or jam for me. That’s how women were back then. It was trained into them to serve men. Ana, sit down, I’ll do it, I’d say, but she never listened. Perhaps she was right … I make terrible coffee. But often I bought a newspaper on the street and read to her, and we would discuss the news. I remember some headlines from that summer: Soviet Union lifts Berlin blockade. Mao’s Communists march up Yangtze. North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington, DC. Treaty of London creates Council of Europe. I remember when I read that, Ana finished the seam she was sewing and stopped. “The world moves on, and España stays still,” she said. I was surprised to see tears in her eyes. What did this dry bit of news have to do with España? Later I understood that for her, it had everything to do with España. She loved our country the way you were supposed to love your patria: like family. I suppose I had never thought to love a country like that. My mother and father had, and you see what it did to them. They disappeared into it. And Ana, she grieved the España we had left behind. The España the world had left behind.

Was she happy? We didn’t use the word happy, feliz, so much those days. The word would be contenta. She should have been content, no? She had escaped a miserable marriage to Chema, a cruel Falangist who was ugly inside and out—and those were the Years of Hunger, the worst of Franco’s rule. Whatever women had done before the war, now they were expected to take care of the home and obey their husbands and bear children for the Patria. I can’t say I blame her for putting the horns on Chema. What is that funny English word? Cockold, yes. She was young and her father had pushed her into the marriage, and I can’t blame him either, because at least with Chema his daughter would eat well. Now she had left all that, left behind the dusty village for a musical city on a tropical sea. She had a beautiful baby girl and a handsome young husband who took her out dancing, out for walks on the malecón, who brought her flowers. Although once she said to me, “I don’t like cut flowers. They make me think of death.” Well, flowers or none, she should have been happy! No? But after that day I began to notice her. She was doing her best, but a sadness stalked beneath her constant motion, behind her smiles, smooth and quiet as a cat. And I tell you, even sadness looked good on her. I can’t explain, but I will try.

Her being was a contagion. Everything that touched her, any old garment she threw on, any word she spoke, became beautiful by proximity. When she dressed in black, as she often did in those days—you see, she was mourning España, and her sister—it only made her hair redder, her eyes more brilliant green. She would cover her head and kneel before the little altar our neighbor Maribél had built in the corner of our flat and pray, and there before my eyes she became la Piedad, only more beautiful than Michelangelo could ever have carved from stone. I teased her sometimes: “Ana, what do you pray for?” She would only smile and say, “For you, that Nuestra Madre save your wicked soul.” Everything she touched, I tell you, even me. I was an ordinary boy, but in her glow I became kinder and nobler of mind. My thoughts became real because she listened to them. I had seldom felt that way before. Perhaps that was the first flicker of my vocation, talking about books and the news with her in that Havana flat.

Oh yes, I read everything I could get my hands on. But school was outside the realm of possibility. As Simón always said, we were immigrants now, and we had to sink roots into this new land. So individual ambitions, especially idle ones like study, were subordinate to our family’s common welfare. My brother was the arbiter of that welfare. And sometimes he was just a bastard under its pretense. One day I had come home from the cigar factory, tired, and at the door realized I had left my house key inside. So I walked six blocks to the repair shop to get Simón’s key, and he shook his head. “Hermanito, this is the third time. You need to learn responsibility.” He made me wait an hour until he was done to walk home together. There I was, in dirty work clothes, stinking like a cigar, and the girls walking by laughing at me sitting on the steps outside the garage. I hated Simón then. The next day at the restaurant, I told Óscar. “I was the youngest brother too,” he said. “Give me the key and I’ll have my friend the locksmith make a copy. We’ll keep it here at the club for you.”

One day I came in for my shift at the restaurant and cousin Óscar looked at my hands, stained brown with tobacco. “What’s this,” he said, and he held my hand up to the light. I told him about the cigar factory and he shook his head and laughed. His was a hearty laugh that shook his round panza, like Papá Noel, you can imagine. Only Óscar had a neat little waxed black mustache, and a less wholesome twinkle in his eye. I was about to become one of his elves. He put his hand on my shoulder. “Come with me,” he said.

“But cousin, I have work to do.” There was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink.

Óscar snapped at the boy sweeping the floor. “Arturo! You’re a dishwasher now.” The boy let the broom fall where it was, ran to the sink and started scrubbing. “Jefe, who will sweep the floor?” I heard the manager complain as Óscar led me away. We went out to the garage, past his office, to the blue Cadillac with the gleaming whitewalls. “You can drive, no?” I nodded. It was a little bit true. I had driven a tractor, taken a few spins with Simón in our uncle’s car, ha ha! “Of course. I’m a pro.” Cousin Óscar clapped me on the back. “You’re going to drive this. I’ll pay you twice what they pay at the cigar factory. No, three times!”

Three times what I was earning? To cruise around Havana in a Cadillac? I couldn’t believe my luck. I nearly fell to my knees thanking him. “No family of mine needs to work in a factory,” Óscar said. Our cousin was a hedonist, yes, money, drink, and women, but I believed I had found a friend in him. A line from Macbeth comes to mind now: “Where we are, there’s daggers in men’s smiles, the nearer blood, the nearer bloody.”

That fateful day? I’m getting to it. Endings, endings! All we care about these days is how a thing ends. “All’s well that ends well,” fools say, as if anything ever truly ended. First I must explain what happened a few days before.

The sun was a ripe apricot over Havana bay when I began my afternoon driving, and when I finished it, the moon was a thin white slice of onion, enough to make a man cry. But I was not a man, not yet. I had dropped my charges off at a nightclub, and I had several hours free. I could have gone for a drink, I could have gone home, but this is what I did, as was my custom then: I parked the Cadillac in the cool roomy garage next to cousin Óscar’s restaurant, got my book from the glove compartment, and lay down in the wide leather backseat with a flashlight. Of all the things a sixteen-year-old could do in the backseat of a Caddy, this was the pleasure I chose. I was reading a new collection of bizarre stories by an Argentine named Jorge Luis Borges. You may have heard of him.

Why had I taken to reading in a dark garage? Because there, the circle illuminated by my flashlight excluded the world I would not think of. Things inside the circle: quiet, the smell of leather, the fresh unread pages of my book. Things outside the circle: Óscar’s gold-tooth grin, and the way it made me uneasy in a way I could not attend. My narrow cot in the living room, next to Máribel’s altar. What Simón and Ana might be doing in the bedroom behind that thin wall. The look of concentration on Ana’s face while she was sewing, the curses she flung out when she had trouble. Qué cabrón! If this fatty needs to let these pants out any more he ought to just buy a skirt. I had begun reading stories to her. She laughed in the right places, the places where I would laugh, made an mmmm when something was profound, an ehhh when she saw a twist coming, an ayy when something went wrong. Simón, he had no patience for stories. He once came in while I was reading and said, “Hermanito, are you boring my wife with your stories again?” Of course, we continued as if he weren’t there: she didn’t miss a stitch, I didn’t look up from the page. And when he stomped off, we looked at each other with a smile, because then he was the one outside the circle. That look might have been mere conspiracy, or a clue to something more—but now that perplexing question too fell outside the circle of my flashlight. Only the world of the book existed. Except that night, in the middle of a fantastic passage—I had just begun “Emma Zunz”—I heard voices in the corridor to the garage, and I switched my circle of light off and held my breath in the darkness.

I ducked down in the backseat of the Cadillac. Technically, I was doing nothing wrong, but that seemed irrelevant. I heard the lock click and the door open through the open windows of the car. Then the bare bulbs at the back of the garage flicked on. That was where Óscar had his office. I heard heavy footsteps and the scrape of a chair on the cement. Óscar and one other man, I guessed. “Sit,” Óscar said. I knew about the bottle of Kentucky bourbon in Óscar’s desk, beneath the map of Cuba and the Marilyn Monroe calendar. He had shared it with me before. I do enjoy a good bourbon, despite this early association. I heard the drawer open and shut, the clink of glass. In the silence I imagined Óscar unscrewing the cap and pouring two glasses. A chair creaked as Óscar settled into it and then a flywheel sparked and sweet cigar smoke reached my nose where I lay in the backseat.

Óscar spoke first. “We want it to look like a robbery.”

Who was “we,” and what should look like a robbery? I thought it must have something to do with the police. I often ran errands to the police station, dropping off packages, picking up fat manila envelopes. I never took the blue Cadillac for those: as Óscar said, there are times you want to be seen, and those you don’t. That moment, in the back of the Cadillac, was one of the second.

“I understand,” the stranger said. He had a voice like the edge of a saw and I pictured him tall and narrow, with a sharp nose and hard eyes.

“Now,” Óscar began, “my cousin would prefer to have both of them. But he’s asking the favor, see, and I’m doing. So he doesn’t get both. Es que …” He paused as if he couldn’t find the words: “The younger one is useful to me.”

Do I sound bitter now? That came later. There in the backseat, I was only confused. What cousin? Both what? I knew Óscar was involved in horse racing, maybe horse fixing, as they call it, but for some reason I pictured two bulls stamping about.

“So make sure he’s out of the way,” said the stranger.

“That’s easy,” said Óscar. “Now the payment we agreed on…it’s cash on delivery. You know I’m good for it.”

The other man laughed, sawlike and ugly. “Óscar, Óscar, my friend…of course you’re good for it—” he said, “nobody stiffs a sicario.”

I didn’t know what a sicario was then. I wasn’t into detective stories. They laughed together then, and even there huddled in the back of the Cadillac, I heard the metal ring of fear in Óscar’s laugh.

What did I do then? Patience, patience. I recall now that night’s dream, of bombs falling on Havana. When I was small, and the Nationalists were bombing Madrid, we saw lights in the sky and heard explosions, even in our village in the hills. My mother held me close and told me they were just fireworks. So in my dream the bombs were terrible fireworks that rained down sparks in the night, tore craters into the streets and splashed into the port like meteors, hissing. I ran and ran, searching for Ana and Simón and the baby. When I finally found them, they were sitting in a plaza, eating ice cream. “We have to get out of here,” I screamed, but they just stared at me as if I were crazy. “We’re watching the fireworks,” they said. En español: fuegos artificiales. False fires.

So what did I do after Óscar and his guest finished their whiskeys? We know what I should have done, right? The moment the door closed behind them and left me there in the silent garage. I should have sneaked out and run all the way back to our flat, from streetlamp to streetlamp, past men playing dominoes, past children tossing baseballs, past mothers chatting, over steps, through plazas, and I should have told my brother and Ana that we had to leave before daybreak, telling no one, not Maribél, not the owners of the repair shop, not the tailor, and especially not cousin Óscar. Simón should have thanked the saints that I had indulged my penchant for literature in a quieter place than our flat. We should have thrown what we could carry into the same bags we’d packed out of Spain and caught the next bus to Santiago de Cuba on the eastern coast of the island, and argued over where to go from there—Miami? Buenos Aires? Panamá? Many times I’ve pictured us all on the bus to Santiago, duffel bags between our knees, Ana pointing out the window for the baby. I’ve watched us rent an apartment in Miami. That was how this story should have gone.

Why did it not, then, when the chill in my stomach told me something bad was afoot? Because I was still a child who wanted to believe in false fires. I was also proud of what I thought was rationality. I had nothing rational to act on. I knew Óscar was into some shady business, but in Havana, in 1949, that was not exceptional. I decided to drive to our flat and talk to Ana.

Instead, when I got there, Simón came out of the bedroom tying his robe. “What are you doing here?” he hissed at me. “I thought you were working tonight!”

I didn’t want to talk to him. He wouldn’t understand anything. Of course I imagined Ana naked, waiting behind the door, and I felt that sick feeling, as always when I thought of them together. So I just said, “Something is going on with Óscar.”

My brother crossed his arms. “What?”

I said something vague. “I don’t know. I heard him talking about some things … maybe something illegal.”

And Simón just snorted. “Don’t kid with me, hermanito. That tío is more rotten than an old fish, and I’ve warned you. Do you have news, or no?”

He made me feel like an idiot, and ashamed of Óscar, who was one of my only friends. I wanted to punch him. Instead I said, “At least he’s not …” And I pointed at the bedroom door behind my brother, where Ana surely sat listening. Simón knew what I meant, of course, and he grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me against the wall.

He should have been ashamed, but instead he was laughing, and he spoke under his breath so Ana wouldn’t hear. “At least he’s not what? At least he’s not doing what you wish you could do? What you’ll never, ever get to do?”

That was enough for me. I spat at his face and twisted away from him. I wanted to leave and never come back, to hell with all of them. I headed for the front door but he blocked me: “Are you crying? Isn’t one baby around here enough?”

I pushed him, said, “Get out of my way, you hijo de puta!”

Ana called from the bedroom then, said, “Simón, leave him alone.” All these years later I can hear her sweet voice.

Simón stepped out of the way. But I remember what he said, verbatim: “Sabes lo que te falta, chico? Véte a echarte un polvo, por una vez, hermanito.” Translation: “You know what you need, kid? Go out and get yourself laid for once, little brother.”

Now, what would the rational, noble young man have done? He would have ignored the insult and repeated that conversation for his unworthy bastard of a brother. But I wasn’t that. I was a child, an overgrown weed of a child with sweaty palms and a heart that stung with my brother’s taunts, and I stalked out of that flat and tore off in a blue Cadillac. As evening turned to night, did that impetuous sixteen-year-old regret the argument? The aspersions cast on his brother, thief of wives? Did the flawed adolescent replay the mysterious conversation in his mind, trying to make sense of it? I don’t recall if there was regret and consideration that night, although I fear that there was not. What I know for certain is that there was a pickup of Americans at a nightclub and their delivery to a posh hotel. Then there were rum and Cokes, and a pretty curly-headed girl who looked nothing like Ana, trying to teach that tall awkward boy to dance the mambo. There was a strong little hand guiding his and kind laughter at his clumsy steps. There were soft and then urgent kisses on the dance floor, and finally a race up the stairs to her one-room flat and a thing that boy had never done before but took to better than the mambo, the strong fine-boned hand steering the small of his back.

I did exactly as my bastard brother told me to. I went out and got laid.

Well, now we’re there, as I promised. I’ll keep it short. I’m an old man, and I don’t have all night to tell stories. That day I came home for dinner and siesta. I had been running errands for Óscar that morning. He had asked me to pick something up at the racetrack at three, but I was tired and I paid Arturo to do it. At the flat, before I even opened the door, I smelled smoke, and heard the baby screaming. When I stepped in a man with a gun told me to put my hands up. My brother already had his hands in the air. He tried to take out his money clip. And then suddenly I recognized the man’s voice and the pieces fit together in my mind. We were the bulls, and we had walked right into the arena to be slaughtered. “Chema’s found us,” I said to my brother, and he put his money away. The gunman asked which of us was Simón. I tried to tell him that I was, but Simón would have none of it. He told me to go, and I did.

What do you mean, details? It was a traumatic event. And it was more than half a century ago. You want details? Joder. I’ll give you goddamned poetry. The gunshot rang out like a…like a shot! What else? The sky was azure over Havana on the day they finished murdering my family and cursed me with staying alive. My brother told me to go and I went. I ran without seeing street names, ran and ran across that city and vomited right into the sea that had once saved me. When I came back to the flat, after it was all over … blood has a smell, you know. I got back just in time to hear Ana take her last breaths…let’s see, details, it sounded like she was drowning in her own blood. Does that satisfy you? No, no, you said you wanted details, by God I’ll provide them! I raced into the bedroom, and the neighbor Maribél was sitting on the floor with Ana, holding her hand. The baby was finally quiet. Her blood was everywhere—Ana’s blood—and her eyes were fixed. Fixed, I couldn’t fix her. I couldn’t fix her. No podía. Ana, Ana, wake up, estoy aquí, I’m here, por favor, no, no, no. Shaking her, and Maribél clutching at me, saying, ya se fue, ya se fue, déjala, la bebé se asusta, she’s already gone, she’s gone, let her go, the baby is frightened. I couldn’t fix her. I could fix anything. I couldn’t fix her. Dios es cruel, there is no Dios, no podía.

                                                     Simon Silva  

                                                   Simon Silva  

 

Marleen Hustead Lorenzo lives with her husband and three dogs in South Philadelphia, where she teaches English and finds any excuse to be outdoors in the sun when it’s available. She is a graduate of the Rosemont College MFA program.