Read Havana Noir Online

Authors: Achy Obejas

Tags: #Detective and mystery stories, #Noir fiction, #Anthologies (multiple authors), #Mystery & Detective, #Cuban fiction - 21st century, #Short stories; Cuban, #21st century, #General, #Havana (Cuba) - In literature, #Havana (Cuba), #Mystery fiction, #Cuban fiction, #American fiction, #Fiction, #Short Stories, #Cuban American authors, #American fiction - Cuban American authors

Havana Noir (3 page)

BOOK: Havana Noir
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“Travel tomorrow, folks.”

I decided not to go on. Nobody was paying attention to me anyway. I went back to the cashier and the same woman who’d boasted about an early departure now gave me a refund for my ticket. It barely totaled twenty pesos. At that moment, I reached a decision. I would not leave Havana. Maybe my destiny rested among the two million souls who lived facing the Gulf. If I died trying to make a go of it, nothing of value would be lost. Who would care about a cross-eyed guy? Who would cry for a cross-eyed guy? My mother would be the only one who suffered, but she’d get over it. It would be like when my father died. Days of grieving, days of mourning, and then Christian comfort.

I left the station, headed nowhere in particular. Since I’ve always been a dreamer, I convinced myself someone would take pity on me. But in the meantime, where would I go? Hunger kept tapping at my stomach. I thought that with my twenty pesos I might be able to buy one of those fish fritters they sell down by Puerto Avenue. I only had to go down a few winding alleyways and I’d soon be there. But as I was about to set off, I saw the same dwarf who’d given me the peanut brittle that morning, and he was now standing on top of a manhole cover sticking out of the street like a metal helmet. He recognized me and waved his corduroy cap. I went up to greet him, but he was muttering under his breath. He was saying something about young people, that it was impossible to recruit them these days, that the chosen few would be fewer each time, that the Grail would have to import creatures from another planet.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, “just an old dwarf’s crazy ramblings.” Then he gave me another piece of peanut brittle. I was grateful, but my hunger was calling for more. Nonetheless, I ate it with the same frantic appetite as before, and he asked me where I was headed. I told him what had happened and shared my determination to stay in Havana.

He immediately asked me, “Do you dare work for a dwarf?”

“Just tell me what to do and I’ll start right now,”

I answered. “I’m going to take a chance with you,” he said.

I was about to tell him I was a good man when he suddenly leaned down and removed the manhole cover, reached in, and—I don’t know how, through what act of magic—retrieved a package.

He looked both ways then spoke, pronouncing each word very carefully. “Someone I trust has to deliver this package to Aramburu 111. I can’t move from this corner, maybe you’ll understand someday. I trust you can complete this task; your future depends on it.”

He paused, took off his cap, scratched his head, and talked about the forces that govern the underground, about the palaces King Solomon had built after his death under the cities.

“Take it or leave it,” he said.

I grabbed the package and felt it rattle like an old treasure chest.

“Sausages! Inoffensive sausages!” the dwarf chanted, overcome by a strange giddiness. “Be very careful. At the first sign of trouble, just toss the package at the feet of the police; they won’t follow you then.”

That’s how the dwarf pushed me into my first black market venture, which I completed nicely. Of course, my nerves were on edge the whole time I moved along the streets. Whenever I saw a cop, I got ready to toss the damn sausages at his feet. But I arrived on Aramburu Street without any problems, rang the doorbell on number 111, and was received by an old couple. They grilled me about a password I didn’t know. I explained that it was my first day on the job. They said that whenever I visited them, I had to say, “Pontius Pilate!” Then they led me to the living room and opened the package. It held about thirty cans of frankfurters.

“Here,” the old woman said. I saw two twenty-dollar bills and two singles.

I headed back to the train station but there was no trace of the dwarf. One of the taxi drivers said he’d seen him getting into a blue car. I didn’t know what to do with the money. It was past noon and I wanted to sit down to a real meal, to sit at a table and stuff myself, like I hadn’t done since I’d left my hometown. With that in mind—more daydream than reality—I went back to Puerto Avenue, not via the Old Havana shortcuts but through Central Park and the Prado, which at that hour was burning with a heat that scorched every corner.

Once on Puerto Avenue, after some haggling with a woman in a colonial doorway, I was able to buy a fritter and a tamarind soda from an illegal vendor. From there I went window shopping at the tourist places around the cathedral and became enchanted by the lighters with little scenes of Havana on them, and by the pens which showed naked rumba dancers in oily seas when you shook them, and by the racks of fashion magazines from all over the world. I toured the Bodeguita del Medio and scrawled my name into the graffiti on the bathroom wall. Then I went back to Central Park and saw the Catherine Deneuve movie at the Payret.

When I got out, sunset was coming on, and I moved down to the docks again. With the little money that was left, I ordered a double rum at the Dos Hermanos Tavern. From the bar, I could see the ferries to Regla and Casablanca, their passengers coming and going. There was a lot of serious drinking going on in the bar. The stevedores drank bottles of that hellish rum as if it was water, the bartender shouted out orders in a lingo I couldn’t understand, and the women that came in and out resembled characters from a Japanese comic book, their tight dresses like badly rolled cigarettes.

“Take off those glasses,” one them said to me provocatively. She was a mulatta with Chinese blood who was supposedly about thirty-five years old, not at all unattractive, although tourists no longer looked her way; she was forgotten in the game of international flags of love. She’d put on weight and her hips were square.

“I’m cross-eyed,” I told her bravely. I lowered my glasses and she looked at my eyes, scrutinized them, and said that cross-eyed guys brought her luck.

She touched my head with an exorcist’s flair meant to transmit that luck, then turned around and shouted something like, “This guy’s cross-eyed!”

Two other women came and touched my head. The gentle bartender refilled my glass of rum. A black stevedore came up to me and told me about a blind virgin on an altar in a church near the outskirts of the village of Guanabacoa. “In the wilderness, right on the edge of the jungle, there’s a chapel with a virgin that’s said to be from Toledo who cures anything that’s wrong with the eyes,” he said.

The black guy left and the Chinese mulatta said he was a bullshitter. She ordered a drink and made the bartender fill my glass again.

“Does the virgin exist?” I asked.

“God only knows,” she said.

To make a long story short, I got the drunkest I’ve ever been in my life. At 10 o’clock, I left that hole in the wall with those wasted women and other port dwellers, arm in arm, everybody touching my head. Surrounded by so much alcohol, my only concern was those forty-two dollars that, if the dwarf never showed up again, would be my only salvation.

In that state, we strolled down Puerto Avenue, leaving behind the customs office and the old stock market. The Chinese mulatta shamelessly licked my eyes like a windshield wiper, then stuck her tongue in my ears, between my teeth; her tongue and my tongue parried…that mulatta’s tongue and that deadly alcohol. Right at the Point, with Morro Castle and its lighthouse before us, she stuck her hand in my pants, shaking me like a bottle of elixir; I practically overflowed in front of all of Havana.

“C’mon, fill me with your suds,” she begged me.

But her voice worked against her and made me bolt. I don’t know what lonely thoughts or fear caused me to dash toward the Prado and leave the mulatta behind, down to the Malecón, that barrier between the ocean and the city’s captive souls. I only paused when I got to the Hotel Sevilla. I took refuge in its doorway, next to the dwarf in the corduroy cap and his card table display of peanut brittle.

Right away, he saw the strange trance that had overcome me and said, “Hey kid, kid…”

But I was jabbering about the virgin who cures sick eyes, that virgin in Guanabacoa, the virgin from Toledo. Demanding to know if she existed, I kept moaning, “Hey, dwarf…that’s it, dwarf…c’mere, dwarf…”

Then he offered me the third peanut brittle in less than a day and I began to eat. “Did they pay you?” he asked.

I dug around in my pockets and I gave him his forty-two dollars. He took the bills, held them up to the moonlight, checked them closely, and handed me two dollars.

“Your pay…hee, hee, hee…your first pay as a man.”

I started to vomit and splattered the dwarf’s muslin pants; all life was draining from me, and in the midst of all that, he said, “They call me Pascualito, now don’t drink anymore—it’s not allowed in our business.”

I made my way to the bench that had been my first refuge when my Aunt Buza threw me out of the house, and I leaned on one of the laurel trees. I could hear the dwarf shouting at me from the Sevilla, saying we’d meet tomorrow at the station, and to be there. I spewed another bilious black stew between the roots of the laurel trees and detected a conversation coming from beneath the earth, and somebody shouting a song of praise to vegetables and grains. Glenn Miller and his impetuous music filled my head’s every nook and cranny. I finally lay down on that marble park bench, thinking about the crow’s shit that would surely awaken me at daybreak.

The next day, I found the dwarf at the station and he told he was expecting my approval at any moment. “The Grail meets at dawn to okay the permits,” he said very seriously.

We passed the time talking about my future. Pascualito insisted that I needed to get better clothes “and lose that air about you of peasant with nowhere to go.”

Someone under the manhole cover said something, which I guessed was the okay. Pascualito patted me on the back and bragged about his good eye with people. “I’m never wrong,” he said.

He gave me a ticket I was supposed to take to a woman named Carmen Rosa at the Hotel Inglaterra, who would supply me with new clothes. Then he gave me a letter of introduction so I could get a room in a crumbling building that had once been a hotel and a Packard dealership in the ’40s.

“You’ll live like a Christian there,” he said. “I’ll come by tonight and we’ll have a long talk about your future.”

This was the most radical change that had ever occurred in my life. I got some clothes at the store in the Inglaterra and then went to the Packard, where I was received by a very sad woman wearing a lace blouse with a monogram. She told me I’d share the room with Jeremías Batista. “He’s an absolute nut case,” she warned me. Also, the city housing authority was not responsible for lost articles and visits from women were strictly prohibited. “Here’s your key,” she said.

The room was nothing to write home about. It had two beds, a pair of nightstands, a tall armoire, a bathroom with a very big tub that stood on steel claws, and a towel rack which represented—or so they told me—the imploring arms of the goddess Minerva. The fact that the walls were cracked and the rain and noise came in from the busy street terrified me. But could I really ask for more? It had only been two days since I’d slept in the park and, I thought, today I had clean clothes, a bed, and I could even bathe. Happiness, I knew, was never complete. Water had to be hauled from six floors below. But it was better than the park, it was better than the crow that shit at daybreak.

“Five lights for Pontius Pilate,” Pascualito called from outside the door at 7 that evening.

As soon as I opened it, he shouted a heartfelt, “Hallelujah!” He praised my good taste in clothes and told me I had to work in the morning. He brought out a map of Havana and unfurled it over one of the beds. Cheerfully, he explained that the city was divided into business districts along the sewer lines, where there were manholes. He made marks at 23rd and 12th, the Falla Bonet mausoleum at Colón Cemetery, the corner of the Hotel Sevilla, the Esquina de Tejas, the taxi stand at the train station, the Virgen del Camino, the League Against Blindness, Rumba Palace in Playa, 70th Street in Miramar, the capitol building…then leaned back and said he was pleased I’d been approved as a messenger for the Congregation. He informed me that I’d been investigated, and that they knew everything about my mother, my Aunt Buza and her husband, my years in school, and that everything suggested I was trustworthy.

“From now on, you’re one of us,” he asserted. “You’ll be paid punctually, with bonuses for extra effort. You’ll rule the city and its needs; you’ll have Havana at your feet because you’ll become the link between the promises of the underground and the humans above.”

“And who are you?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said evasively. “Tomorrow you’ll begin your routes under the supervision of Jeremías Batista. Your password is,
Five lights for Pontius Pilate
. Every time you knock on a door or address yourself to me, you’ll say,
Five lights for Pontius Pilate!

I walked him to the door; we shook hands and he said, “The virgin who cures eyes does exist. Someday I’ll take you to her sanctuary in Guanabacoa.”

At 8 o’clock I went to the hotel dining room. The food was awful but I ate it gratefully. I thought about going to the movies, the América over on Galiano. But I soon reconsidered and thought it best to get some sleep. The city had given me a warmer welcome than I’d foreseen. It’s true that my new profession was illegal, but who can live off decency? I was a humble supplier of merchandise on whom God would take pity.

In the room I met Jeremías Batista. He was in his underwear, muttering, clipping his toenails. I introduced myself and he said he knew who I was. Then he tried to clear up a few things.

“All that glitters isn’t gold. I can’t say more than that, you’ll learn the lesson yourself. I carry out my orders without fail. Tomorrow we’ll initiate a meat delivery. In terms of our life as roommates, I’ll tell you up front that I like to bring women up here at night. When that happens, you can go for a walk. I don’t like farts. I don’t like snoring or people with long nails. One other thing: You’re going to have to get to know this fucking city inside and out or you won’t be any good to the business. I’m going to give you your wake-up call at 3 in the morning.”

BOOK: Havana Noir
8.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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