But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
On 9 April, 1958, the general strike is repressed, and about 80 revolutionaries or suspected revolutionaries are arrested, interrogated in the usual manner, and variously put to death.
Leonora Christina’s hair is light as straw, and she’s wearing a dress which leaves her shoulders bare. A gold wristwatch.
She stretches out her legs, sitting at an umbrella table in the outdoor courtyard of the restaurant, in the shade of a palm tree, smoking a cigarette. Lucky Strikes. She orders a hamburger, french fries, and a Coke.
Her father, who was a chemist, thought that Pepsi would pay him a million dollars if he could figure out the secret formula of Coca-Cola. A couple of times he came close, close enough so that his blindfolded family could not tell the difference, but the Pepsi people turned him away again and again. “Keep trying,” they told him, but in the process he went crazy. On the way to the doctor’s office, his wife made the mistake of letting him drive, and he turned into the oncoming lane when he saw a big enough fast truck. The head-on collision left Leonora an orphan, but since it couldn’t be proven suicide she collected insurance money, which well-tempered whatever grief she might have felt. She thought that her father must have known all along about the affair her mother had been having with Diego, the shoe salesman who lived just down the street. Her father hadn’t been so crazy that he’d also gone deaf and blind.
Coca-Cola remains Leonora’s favorite drink. She sips it through a straw. The sun, above is hot, bright as an atomic dime. The ice in the drink is nearly all melted. The only respite from the heat comes from a fitful breeze that blows in from Havana harbor, cooling and soothing one now and then, the more now than then as the afternoon goes on. She could have waited until Justo arrived before ordering, sure, but she doesn’t like this habit he has of always being fifteen minutes late. He has many faults, she thinks, and she would not put up with any of them if her real boyfriend, Lieutenant Santamaría, would get rid of his North American mistress. Leonora picked up Justo to get even, to make Angel jealous. So far, though, the strategy has not worked.
She says to the waitress, “I don’t like sweet pickles. Would you bring me some dill?” She’s starting to feel cross.
Then Justo arrives, wearing sunglasses, a white shirt, light blue pants, the scraggly beard he’s been trying to grow for more than a month without success. He acts like he’s in a hurry, like he’s just come from some important errand. She thinks he’s probably made up some lie to explain why he is late.
“I’m going to the Sierra,” he announces, dramatically, temporarily removing the sunglasses to reveal the courage in his eyes.
“I’m going to join Fidel.” “Oh, I see. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No, I’m not kidding. I’m going to join the guerrilleros.”
“Why? What for?” She’s scornful, widening her eyes.
Justo shrugs. “Ask your lieutenant,” he says.
“He’s not ‘my’ lieutenant. I told you all about that.”
“I wish you’d never have anything more to do with him.”
“It’s not your business. Besides, he’s never done anything to you.”
“He’s a Batistiano,” Justo says. “He’s done things to my brothers. That’s as good as doing things to me.”
“Your ‘brothers.’ That’s such shit.”
Justo doesn’t really want to argue with her. She should have acted like she took him more seriously when he said he was going to join Fidel. He smokes a cigarette, sunglasses on again, and then, after a sufficient pause, he changes the subject.
Saying, in a lighter tone of voice, “I heard that Batista paid a witchdoctor to throw the seven shells for him … you know, to tell the future. He thinks his voodoo might be changing, going bad on him: he needs to sacrifice some more chickens or something. Hey, just wait—in about a month there’ll hardly be a chicken left in all of Cuba. They’ll all have run to the Sierra; Fidel will be the only one on the whole island who’s able to make chickenhead soup.”
Leonora laughs, and Justo is happy. He’s smitten with her. He tries to resist it because he’s so afraid of Santamaría. He only said that he was going to the Sierra to see if Leonora’d be impressed. He doesn’t think she respects him enough as a man.
The North American woman is insatiable. After hours of lovemaking she remains avid; orgasms do not seem to tire her or drain her in the least.
Angel wonders if he’s being slowly devoured. In order to demonstrate, even if only to himself, that he’s the one in control, he enacts small cruelties and perversions so that she must bend, even if only superficially, to his will. It’s not a question of love. It never has been.
She’s ten years older, 38, but still tender and firm. Her husband, an executive in the United Fruit Company, married her for her looks. To Angel, of course, the idea of cuckolding such a Yankee is delicious. All he had to do was snap his fingers: there she was, spread for him, wanting him, needing it bad.
“You’ve got such beautiful skin,” she says, caressing him, and he takes the compliment for granted, although once upon a time, growing up in Santiago de Cuba, he had been thin and awkward and shy.
His mother, Elena, who was widowed at 19 (through the agency of a knife fight over dice), had had a difficult time of it for a while, until she met a susceptible mafioso named Gino, a simple heart, who worked at one of the big casinos in Havana. He fell for her hard. If it had not been for Gino, with his money and influence, Angel and his brother Miguel might well have ended up, like so many others, cutting cane out in some hellishly hot field, having nothing to look forward to but more of the same.
Even after Gino was killed, falling prey to the ubiquitous machine-gun, his boss and friends continued to look out for Elena, to help her with her boys. When he was of age, Angel got a commission in the army, impossible without influence, while Miguel was given a job as a school teacher—the best deal of all, because he’s never actually had to teach a class. Since teachers appointed by the Minister of Education have lifetime tenure, he can never be fired. All he has to do is kick back a portion of this salary they pay him to do nothing. Miguel is supposed to be a math teacher: the only numbers he knows are the ones on money or dice.
“Roll over, Romeo,” says Sally. “I want to see what you’ve got there. Are you hiding something from me? You’re a bad boy, aren’t you?”
“Don’t call me Romeo.”
“Yes sir. Is that how I should address you from now on, Lieutenant-sir? Shall we keep things military?” She speaks to him in a babyish ‘love-voice’ that Angel finds unsympathetic. That last daiquiri has made her drunk.
He sighs. His fingers are in her hair. He shuts his eyes tight, and thinks of Leonora Christina. Then Brigitte Bardot. Then Leonora Christina again, helpless, in distress. It excites him. He doesn’t know why, but it does.
He opens his eyes. Sally seems lost, her own eyes closed, in a devotion that Angel, rightly or wrongly, identifies as greed.
“Pancho Villa was drunk all the time,” says Fidel, drinking from a bottle of white rum. “And look what he got done.”
Che laughs, and says then maybe they too should be drunk all the time—who knows? He’s only kidding, he hastens to add. Fidel laughs again, in another of his unpredictable moods.
Next to the campfire, they talk about the French Revolution of 1789. It’s interesting because of all the actions and reactions, each victory lasting only a couple of months before the next coup and associative purge.
Che speaks of Robespierre’s ‘Republic of Virtue,’ which he admires as the first big attempt to found a secular religion. Fidel interrupts him by making a joke, he can’t resist.
“In Havana, we already have our Virtue Street. It’s where all the whores hang out, you know, waiting for gringos.”
Che laughs, but he wants to continue with his point.
Justo goes to see his friend Ulpiano, who makes bombs. Some of these don’t do any damage or kill anyone, they just make a lot of smoke and noise. Ulpiano, who is black, offers Justo a warm bottle of Coke. They talk for a long time then about all of the things they’d like to see changed.
Betting eleven eleven eleven, eleven eleven eleven, seven and then six, always red, according to a system based on the astrology of the Mayan Empire, I lose again and again, in the black of bluest night, trying to hang on to the shreds of my cool.
“It’s painless,” I say to myself, only the briefest flicker of disappointment betraying me, as I watch some American woman bet on zero, like an asshole—and win.
I can read a sign. I turn away from the baize and go to the bar.
I order a drink, mentally calculating my finances. It would not be cool to take my money out and add it up in public, so I try to remember all off my bets. Obviously, I missed noticing an omen.
Behind me, the bitch shrieks again, as if having an orgasm. I wouldn’t be surprised.
“Tell me, is there anything worse than a Yankee?” I say to the bartender, who gives me a slow-developing, collaborative smile.
“Two,” he says, and I agree.
The music, that music … echoes and is magnified inside of Lieutenant Santamaria’s head. His body is flushed with warmth. He’s high.
The air-conditioning isn’t working very well, and Leonora Christina is perspiring, in her blue x-ray dress. Tan nylons that Angel knows are held up by a garter belt, lacy panties, and—oh, he wants her, there’s never been any doubt about that. But lately their lovemaking has been contaminated and corrupt. Something is wrong. Where they used to share secrets, now they conceal them.
The saxophone shrills, like some kind of exotic talking bird. In black and white and then, in a spurt of musical blood, the deepest of reds.
The moment passes. Some girl begins to sing, in English, “Fly Me to the Moon.” She was hired for the size of her breasts; her dress is made to show them off.
“Look,” says Angel. “See that guy with the little mustache? He’s the biggest pusher of reefer in the world.”
“Does he pay protection?”
“What’s your cut?” asks Leonora, looking at Angel half-mockingly, as though she knows the score but will put him through his paces nonetheless.
“Three reefers a week,” he says, keeping a straight face. “Sometimes four.”
Fulgencio Batista is having a hard time getting to sleep. He can’t stop thinking about the horror movie he saw tonight. It really scared him. The woman in his bed, who looks like a mulatto Rita Hayworth, complete with luxurious dark red hair, tries to console him.
“Sweetie,” she says, “You worry too much.”
“I’m just thinking,” says ‘El Hombre’.
“Tell the truth, will you? Do you believe in vampires?”
Yes, she does. To reassure him, however, she says no.
Oh Jesus the bomb goes off so loud it breaks the windows of the shops across the street: all you can see is smoke, all you can hear is the big echo of the explosion and then the screams of the wounded, horrible cries—or maybe you’re deaf, and it’s all inside your head. Maybe your screams are the loudest, the most abandoned of them all. Or you’re dead and you don’t know it. Come on then, amigo. Try to run away.
Mariarosa and her friend Leonora Christina go for a drive down Fifth Avenue, looking at the surf off to the right. The car is a Thunderbird, given to Mariarosa as a gift by her lover, a 53 year old vice president of some American company that imports or exports something, she never listens to him talk … His wife finds Cuba too humid, she’s always tired. While he likes to have some fun.
“One week Justo wants to be a poet,” says Leonora, “And then the next week he wants to play the trumpet in some band. If he can ever decide what he really wants to do, and stick with it, I think he’ll be okay. He’s not so complicated as Angel, but Angel’s too complicated for his own good. He’s moody; he won’t talk about what’s on his mind … “
Mariarosa frowns. She’s only met Justo once, but she was not impressed. Angel is so handsome: to her mind there’s no comparison.
“At least,” she says, remembering an intimate confession, “Angel knows how to make you happy.”
“Yeah, that’s true. Justo gets too excited. He wants to please me so bad … Maybe I can teach him. I don’t know.”
There’s nothing she can teach Angel.
Jagged streaks of theatrical lightning tear apart the sky, followed closely by several basso profundo roars of thunder, which some people mistake for explosions. The rain attacks the island in a fury, only gradually losing its concentration and getting lazy, slacking off.
Ulpiano Gutierrez answers the front door, expecting someone else, and is arrested by the SIM. He looks surprised: he’s been betrayed. He knows that he’ll be tortured, but maybe they’ll let him live. You never know. Maybe they only suspect him a little. A ‘little’: that means they just take off his fingernails and put an electric wire around his balls, then give him some juice
“Why do you go with the blancos?” asks one of them, as the others are searching the house, alluding to the fact that almost all of the island’s blacks are pro-Batista—because El ‘Hombre’ himself is mulatto, with an unmistakably Negroid face.
“You make a mistake,” says Ulpiano. “I stay out of trouble; I just take care of myself.” He’s decided to play dumb.
“Oh, I see,” says the SIM man, with a knowing smile. “You’re a comedian. We’re gonna have some good laughs together, aren’t we? We know some excellent jokes, you’ll see; we’ll make you laugh and laugh.”
Ulpiano’s heart falls like a brick inside his chest. He thinks maybe they suspect him a lot.
In a dream it’s 100 years ago and he’s a soldier on some smaller island, Martinique or St. Kitts or Barbados, wearing a blue fancy jacket with a wine-colored diagonal sash, a gold medal, and soiled white pants. He is supposed to arrest his mother, a singer who has fallen in debt.
“Why don’t you just kill me?” she says, in her hoarse, seductive voice, smiling, not seeming to care one way or the other.
Angel feels he has to let her go. The alternative appalls him. He tells her of a ship that is sailing before dawn: she must hurry to harbor. He’s bribed the captain; it’s all arranged.
She takes his sword and suspends it between them, butt against his chest, point pricking her between her breasts. “Kiss me,” she says, reaching out to draw him into an embrace.
He jerks back, and the blade clatters to the rocky ground. Elena picks it up, bending over in the dark, and then, as he steps forward to help her, she stabs him, pushing the entire length into his upper abdomen, so that perhaps the point comes out his back.
He is shocked, but feels no pain. Neither does he bleed. Elena laughs again, beguilingly, and says that as long as he doesn’t move he won’t be hurt.
“If you stay still, you’ll be all right.” She leaves him then. He doesn’t dare call out after her. He scarcely dares breathe.
He wants to sob, but he is too afraid. Slowly, numbly, he contemplates his position, unable to measure the passage of time. He doesn’t move.
Then he awakens, alone in his bed at daybreak. He groans, and groans again. He’s paralyzed with pain, the phantom sword still piercing him through and through and through.
Everything is owned by the North Americans. The Cuban Electric Company is a subsidiary of the Electric Bond & Share Company of New York; the Cuban-American Telephone Company is a monopoly owned by IT&T. The United States controls the deposits of chrome, nickel, and manganese, and these are mined only when the Yankees are in a war. During peacetime, the U.S. wants to keep these deposits untouched, in reserve for when they need them.
Although you can grow almost anything in Cuba, which has fine soil, plenty of rain, and virtually no winter, more than half the food consumed here is imported from the United States.
All Cuba is good for, they say, is sugar. But even here the North Americans have control. They have a deal to buy almost all of our sugar, every year, at a fixed price. They need to eat a lot of Butterfingers, Baby Ruths, and Almond Joys.
“Where’s Leonora?” asks Lieutenant Santamaría, looking past Justo to the interior of the house. He’s wearing his uniform, and sunglasses, and Justo is very frightened. He has dreaded such a meeting for some time.
“She’s not here. She went out to get some food.” He elaborates, nervously: “She wanted to get some peppers, you know, and a squid.”
“Are you living here then?”
“No, not really. I’m just visiting today.”
Angel barely smiles. “How long do you expect to be in Havana?”
“I don’t know. I’m looking for a job.”
“I thought you were a student, studying music or something …” “
Not anymore. I’m looking for a job now.”
“Unless you know someone, a job can be hard to find. You need connections. Do you have some friends or relatives here to help you out?”
“Nobody with any pull.”
“Well, I’ll ask around for you. If I hear of anything that sounds good, I’ll let you know.”
“That’s very generous of you.”
“No trouble at all. Will you tell Leonora Christina that I was here?”
“Yes, of course,” says Justo, smiling with a desire to please that does nothing to disguise his fear. He watches Santamaría go down to his car; when the officer turns his back to look at him one last time, just before getting in, Justo feels panic in his belly like a fish is trying to swim out of his mouth.
There is no treachery that Santamaría might be above, no evil that he might not do. The day turns dark with danger; danger is like a black spot on the sun.
The plan for the attack is very simple. They surround the small barracks at El Uvero on the three sides away from the sea—and then open fire. Fidel fires the first shot, using his prized rifle with the telescopic lens. Che Guevera operates a machine-gun.
After about four hours of sporadic firing, Fidel gets tired of waiting, and makes the decision to storm the barracks. They are in somewhat of a bad position, due to lack of cover, for such an advance.
Nevertheless they prevail.
“What are you going to do?” asks Leonora, and Justo cannot say. He’s at a loss for words. He just sits there, looking at the wall, through with talking, ashamed of his naked fear.
Leonora’s blouse sticks to her skin. It’s hot out, and she feels impatient and annoyed. She wishes that she had been here to talk with Angel. She wants to call him up and talk to him, but not in front of Justo. Justo will have to go.
Ulpiano is taken out for a ride in a speedboat, and when they reach a certain point, his friends throw bleeding fresh fish into the bright, cobalt-blue water, until some sharks become interested, fins crowding around the gently drifting craft. Ulpiano, already having been extensively abused, is set upon with a razor until he’s once again bleeding freely. He is still, it seems, in possession of a voice. Inside the black skin he is red, a communist.
One guy takes him under the shoulders, another by the feet. They swing him back and forth, one two three, on the last count flinging him into the teeth of the sea. Some of these men have gotten drunk, and they want to laugh, but the ensuing show is decisive and brief. Next time they come to feed the fish, they’ll have to bring more food.
Santamaria gets word that he’s supposed to be transferred to the Sierra Maestre, to serve under the command of General del Chaviano. It’s well-known that the two generals directing the campaign against the rebels, del Chaviano and Cantillo, hate each other: it’s impossible to conceive of them coordinating an effective strategy together. More likely, each will pursue an independent course of action, answerable to Batista only in the case of obvious disaster.
Angel thinks it’s a farce. He knows all about it. Too many lazy, corrupt officers, without combat experience, who bicker among themselves with far more seriousness than they are ever able to bring to bear against Fidel. They take it out on the peasants they come across, raping and burning and looting, all the while sending back communiques that proclaim yet another successful action, coming in time, perhaps, to believe in this themselves. 50 rebels dead today, 100 tomorrow; thousands after that. No mention of such escapades as the time that Fidel got hold of a code-book and radio and talked the air force into napalming their own troops. No; just fictional victory after victory. Angel wants no part of it.
He speculates that his affair with Sally may be the underlying reason for the transfer. Her husband, or maybe somebody else in the United Fruit Company, someone with power, found out about it and didn’t like it. Angel must have flaunted her once too often.
If it’s a matter of a simple favor, and no money has changed hands, he may be able to have his orders rescinded. Of course, this service won’t be performed for free.
The best thing may be to go directly to General Tabernillas, the greedy Chief of Staff. Or, perhaps, better yet, to his son, who serves as Batista’s private secretary, and whom Angel has met once or twice in the Sky Club late at night.
He wonders which one might be less expensive. He doesn’t think he has enough cash on hand: he’ll have to ask Sally for some money. She’s bought him all kinds of presents, but this will be different. He despises the thought of it. No matter what he does, though, he will be lowering himself. It’s inescapable. Every alternative is bad.
Just thinking about all of this exhausts him. Life is too complicated. He feels like he’s found some dirt from a graveyard in front of his door—which, if you believe in voodoo, is a very bad sign.
A devilfish swims round and round in the big, lighted aquarium with turquoise water that serves as the only ‘floorshow’ in this sleepy bar. The tourists assume that it’s the same one all the time, but I know that they frequently languish and die and are always being replaced. However, they all look the same, ugly bastards, and I too admit I can’t tell the difference between this guy and the one who was here a month ago.
Lately, I’ve found myself drinking early in the day; it seems to help me write. I point with particular pride to a piece I did about the elections ‘El Hombre’ has had to postpone (yet again) until the fall.
You can’t write about Castro. He was interviewed on North American television, on CBS, right there in his camp in the Sierra, where the army can’t seem to find him, and everybody found out about everything he said—but as far as the papers here are concerned, he doesn’t exist. The North Americans have made him into a star.
She’s cooking rice and listening to a samba on the radio when they break down the doors, coming in swiftly through both the front and the back. She understands immediately that they’re looking for Justo, who has been gone for several days.
They handcuff her wrists behind her back. A man on either side of her: they walk her down to one of those dreaded black cars. She is driven somewhere, and then taken into a room, where she is instructed to sit down on a bare wooden chair. Her wrists are chafed by the steel of the too-tight, American-made handcuffs, which are shiny and seem brand-new.
Once they realize that she’s Lieutenant Santamaría’s girlfriend, she thinks, they’ll say that it s all been a mistake and let her go. She says something, and is slapped and told to shut up, not to open her mouth until she’s asked. Her questioners sit behind a long table, as if they’re a ‘panel of experts’. A mean, fat, very black woman is the one who pulls her hair and hurts her, presumably on cue or according to some prearranged plan.
“Where’s is Justo Domínguez?”
“I don’t know.”
“Please try to think. He was with you: now where has he gone?”
“He didn’t tell me. I didn’t know that he was in trouble.”
“Then why did he leave?”
“I told him to.”
“Because I didn’t want him around.”
“Tell us about his friends.”
“I never knew them.”
Repetition. They ask where Justo got the bombs.
What bombs? They ask her if she has ever thrown one.
Repetition. She is ‘stubborn’.
The big black woman knocks Leonora off the chair onto the floor. Kicks her in the ass as hard as she can.
Repetition. Back on the chair. Leonora is slapped, yelled at, threatened, and hit with a fist. She doesn’t know, she repeats, sobbing, tears falling freely, thinking at the same time that it could get much, much worse.
There is a mirror on the wall to her right, a very large mirror, and she wonders if it might be one of those ‘whorehouse mirrors’ that Angel once told her about. Anyone could be back there looking at her, enjoying the show.
They start all over again.
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a model.”
“I don’t think you model very much. Try again.”
“I modeled for Bacardi Rum.”
“No you didn’t. Tell the truth.”
Could Angel be back there, in an impassive mask, watching her in her torment? Is it possible? And yet he loves her, she knows this beyond all doubt.
She doesn’t know a thing. She insists she doesn’t know a thing.
Justo and Felipe have marched from the cactus on the lower slopes to the rainforest of treeferns, and at last they have found a peasant in a bohio who will sell them some food. Hot black beans and rice. The peasant charges them at least twice what it is worth.
“You’re asking too much,” says Felipe.
“Then don’t eat it,” says the peasant. “How do you know what things cost?”
Justo doesn’t want to argue about it. He thinks they should pay the guy whatever he wants. The bohio has an earth floor and a palm leaf roof. They sleep, and the next day they find Raul Castro, who’s not very glad to see them because they haven’t brought him any guns or ammunition. He might not let them stay. If he has no use for them, he certainly won’t feed them, and this is made perfectly clear.
The American woman is tanned, with white flesh where her bikini would protect her from the sun. She looks to be about 30 years of age. Her breasts are large, with big nipples and pink aureoles. They attract the roving eye.
She lies on her back, one leg entangled in the lemon-yellow sheets. There is makeup on her face. The mascara is smudged. Her lipsticked mouth is open, as are her eyes, which are as blue as the blue on the American flag.
The entry wound is not much to see. The exit wound, which is not visible as long as she lies undisturbed, is something else. It is from this latter wound that almost all of the blood has come. Most of this blood is turning brown; but when they lift her from the bed they find some relatively fresh, wet red.
There is money strewn around her, some of it bloody. The detectives chatter with animation about this curious facet of the case. They walk all over, flashbulbs flashing: nothing is concealed from their eyes.
The other body is on the terrace. There is a pistol in his hand. The bullet seems to have entered at the right temple and exited from the rear left-hand side of the skull, taking with it a good portion of the brain.
His eyes are open. They look afraid. It’s hard to get the gun out of his locked fingers so that the scene of the crime may be rearranged.
Colonel Sanchez Mosquera, advancing, has Fidel virtually surrounded, but does not realize this fact. Due to faulty map-reading, he does not know where he is. He has no idea that his force outnumbers that of the rebels by more than three to one. His men are tired; morale is low. They are not used to this terrain.
During the next three days of occasional fighting, Sanchez Mosqueras battalion is decimated. The High Command then panics, exaggerating to themselves the extent of the defeat. The advance is halted; the army begins to withdraw. Desertions are heavy.
She goes out to the Sky Club with somebody, a journalist named Enrique, and gets drunk.
Mariarosa’s sugar-daddy got her released, in return for which Leonora has been showing extensive gratitude to one of his friends, another fat American in his fifties, most of whose desires she dislikes. He thinks she’s stupid because of her accent when she speaks English. He’s set her up in a new apartment. Her old home, her father’s house, was completely vandalized, nearly demolished, in the time she was away.
The last colors of a bruise on her cheekbone are covered up by makeup.
She thinks that things will change, she says, and that there will be all kinds of reforms after Batista is gone. She talks about Fidel.
Enrique is much more pessimistic. But he doesn’t contradict her, because he wants to take her to bed.
Todd Grimson’s novel Within Normal Limits was published by Vintage Contemporaries in 1987. His short fiction has appeared in Between C and D and The Quarterly. He is presently working on a new novel.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.