posted Jul 19, 2016
The Cuban refugees landed at Palisadoes at midnight. Black nurses in bright white, stiffly starched uniforms took their temperatures and administered quinine injections. Passports were inspected. A tall young man in a crumpled two-piece glen check suit, carrying a battered brown rectangular case, assured the immigration official, in correct English, that he had money in the Kingston branch of the Royal Bank of Canada and could support himself until his American visa came through. Covered camions of the Caribbean Defense Forces transported them to Nissen huts on a hill at Up-Park Camp. The men were separated from the women, even the married men from their wives. The smell in the huts was bad. They had waited in isolation areas at Havana Airport for several days. Near the gates of the camp was a cinder-block office with a clapboard sign that read: Decedent Affairs.
The young man, Adán Majella, had purchased the expensive suit in Havana at El Encanto department store from a rapidly dwindling stock of luxury goods. He’d used money that he’d stolen from his father’s safe. Adán had also purchased a Tudor Oyster Prince watch and a silver belly Stetson Open Road, but a militiaman at Havana Airport had confiscated them, dropping the watch into the pocket of his fatigue pants and replacing his green patrol cap with the soft fur felt hat. The hat was too small and sat ridiculously high on the militiaman’s head. He walked around in it, exclaiming: “Look at me! El sheriff!” The other militiamen laughed. “I’ll give it to my son,” the militiaman said. He almost took the Martin Committee trumpet in the battered case as well, asking Adán whether he played Cuban music or el yatzz gringo. “Cuban,” Adán said, to keep his horn.
Now, in his cot, Adán couldn’t sleep. He stepped out and started smoking his last Cuban cigarette, an Edén Superfino. It had cost Adán some significant bribery to have the money wired via Canada to Jamaica. His father had surely found out by this point but could probably do little about it. Cuba had become a rogue state. Still, Adán would feel better once he reached Miami. Then he would be completely free. He wouldn’t stay in Miami, though. He’d go immediately to New York, to the heart of the jazz world.
He felt shabby in his ruined suit, like a hobo, though his Florsheim shoes were still relatively clean. He thought of the things he would buy once he withdrew money from the bank in Kingston: a couple of fine Sea Island Cotton shirts; a Sheffield pewter flask; a new watch—maybe one of the latest Tudor “Advisors” with the alarm function; a Panama hat or a Lock & Company Trilby to replace his Stetson; and a carton of Senior Service cigarettes—he’d heard that they were almost as strong as Cuban cigarettes. He wanted to arrive in the United States in style. Once there, he’d purchase a good phonograph and rebuild the collection of Harry James records that he had left behind in Cuba, especially his favorites, Harry James in Hi-Fi and Trumpet After Midnight.
The door of the women’s hut opened. By the light of the carbon arc lamp in the guard tower, Adán saw a figure emerge, quite short, barely five feet if that. Her legs were swollen, almost elephantine, and her belly resembled a big calabaza or Cuban pumpkin. He’d seen this woman at the airport, except now her white maternity dress had a wide sweat stain around her buttocks, and her black shoulder-length hair was matted. Only one of her eyes was visible; a tangled bang of hair hid the other. It was a dark eye, yet it shone in the night with fury and daring.
She wore tattered house slippers and guided herself with her left hand along the rusty sides of the Nissen hut. She faltered several times and stopped to take a breath. The humidity of Jamaica was more oppressive than Cuba’s. She kept looking down at the ground with apprehension. Adán tossed his half-consumed Edén away, thoughtlessly and wastefully, and crossed over to help her.
“Shall I get your husband?” he asked in Spanish.
Startled, she fell back against the hut.
“Tranquila,” Adán whispered. “Can I help you?”
She was twenty at most, not much younger than he.
“No, no gracias. My husband will be coming in a few days. We couldn’t get seats on the same charter flight.”
“Can I help you in the meantime?”
She saw Adán glance down at her legs. “I know. They’re monstrous. They’re retaining water.”
“How much longer?” he asked.
“At any moment, but I hope not before we reach Miami. I know it’s a boy. I told them only three months at the airport so they’d let me fly. I didn’t want my son born under Communism. Better he die, that we die, in flight. I don’t want him born here, either.”
“Oh, but if he’s born here, he’ll be a British subject! A gentleman!”
She glared at Adán with the same look she had certainly given the militiamen at the airport to keep them from challenging her about her pregnancy.
A fat cockroach flew into the wall of the hut with a dull thud.
“What was that?”
“Una cucaracha,” Adán said. “Nothing. Don’t be afraid.” He touched her sticky arm lightly.
She raised her chin suddenly as if to fight, that one visible, furious eye fixed on him. Her high, pronounced cheekbones, her strong aquiline nose, and her full, sensual, yet defiant, even ruthless mouth took Adán’s breath away. He had sought such a mouth in the brothels of Havana but had only found broken, blistered, and sad mouths that made him want to remain in the foyer, amid the cigar smoke, listening to slow boleros on the scratchy house Victrolas, instead of climbing the stairs for love.
“Don’t touch me. Atrevido! What are you, anyway? American? British?” She had noticed his accent in Spanish. “What are you doing here among us?”
“Cubano,” he said, softly, taking a step back and raising his hands in a placating gesture. “I studied in the United States for a long time.”
He told her his Spanish name but not the new name he planned to rechristen himself with in the United States: Buddy Maxwell, a good name, he thought, for a jazz trumpeter. He could already envision the posters outside the great jazz venues in Manhattan: BUDDY MAXWELL, STAR TRUMPETER, THIS WEEK ONLY, and a photo of him in profile, in a tuxedo, his black hair shiny and slicked back, pointing his Martin Committee up at an acute and triumphant angle.
“I am Bojana Aluyevich de Gutierrez,” she said haughtily.
“Bo-ya-na. A very nice name.”
“Croatian. My parents settled in Cuba before the war. My father is a chemist. He worked for la Téxaco until the Americans left.”
Adán did not tell her that he was, or hoped to be, a jazz musician. Musicians were considered lowlifes by Cubans of her class. Riffraff. Lazy men. Chusmas. So he told her that he was an architect.
“Oh? What buildings have you designed?”
“A Masonic Temple in Santiago,” Adán said unflinchingly. He made a mental note to always fold his pocket square straight across from now on, in the so-called “Architect Fold” that he’d read about in Gentry.
“And where will you go in the United States? Will you start your own architectural firm?”
“Yes, in Chicago. I have friends there. Frank Lloyd Wright.”
“How lucky that you speak English already. My husband speaks a little. He is an electrical engineer.”
She told him that she had studied at the Academia Baldor and had intended to pursue mathematics at the University of Havana, but then la maldita revolución came. She looked into the distance and laughed bitterly. Her face, raked by the arc light, glistened with perspiration and tears.
“And your husband? How did you meet him?”
She looked at him suspiciously, but then shrugged.
“I was still only una niña, going to the Carmelo café after school for sweets. I met him there, Ricardo Gutierrez, taking his afternoon cafecito. He is much older than I, closer to my father’s age, but a good man, and a fine mathematician too. We began to meet every day to review my algebra homework over eclairs and chocolates. We married when I graduated, only a year ago.”
Adán imagined Bojana before her marriage, thin in a pastel green blouse with a round collar and a blue beret, fresh from her classes at Baldor, dreaming of a future in mathematics as she walked the streets of Havana—Obispo, O’Reilly, Neptuno, Galiáno, Calzada—past mysterious old buildings, some from the time of Columbus; or sitting on the terrace of El Carmelo, in one of the rattan chairs, her mouth already arrogant, selfish, but the lower lip still childlike, pink and more of a pout. If only he’d met her before Ricardo Gutierrez. What would their son have been like? Moments ago he’d felt ecstatic about his freedom. Now, he felt a hollowness in his stomach.
“I’m glad,” Adán said, “that your husband will be arriving soon.” Adán knew that it was anybody’s guess, a matter of luck: Ricardo Gutierrez might be allowed onto the plane all right, but then for little or no reason pulled off by some militiaman, imprisoned, shot.
Bojana winced suddenly and grabbed her belly with both hands.
“Por favor,” she said. “Can you help me get to that door and keep the spiders away? I’m afraid of them.” She pointed to the outhouse near the barbed-wire fence. Sweat ran down her tense neck like raindrops down a windowpane.
Adán was surprised that she was afraid of anything. Yet he sympathized with her. In addition to a big hardware store in Havana, his father ran a stud farm outside of the city, in El Cotorro. As a child Adán had been terrified of the enormous hairy spiders that emerged at night. His father seemed to purposely choose the nighttime to send him out on spurious errands to the stables, and if the boy cried and begged not to go, he’d shake him roughly and tell him to be a man.
The hirsute star of a tarantula crawled up the corroded door of the outhouse, the shadow it cast in the light of the arc lamp making it appear bigger than it was.
“Look!” Bojana gasped.
Adán picked up a rusted metal bar he found in the grass.
“Don’t be afraid. It’s just a little spider. I’ll get it.”
He was going to strike it with the metal bar. He didn’t feel any fear until he got close. The sight of the bristly hairs and horrible jointed legs and the big, fat, obscene abdomen, raised almost sexually, invitingly, filled Adán with revulsion. If he had had anything in his stomach, he would have vomited. The metal bar slipped out of his sweaty hand.
“I can’t hold it any longer!” the woman screamed. “Please kill it so I can go!”
Adán turned and saw her clutching herself between her legs. A pungent ammonia odor overtook the jasmine-scented Jamaican night. Liquid coursed down her swollen legs.
“Mierda!” Bojana cried. “You good-for-nothing shit of a man!”
Adán banged on the door of the women’s hut until a haggard woman in her fifties opened it. She wore a sleeveless red Balenciaga dress with a dulled metallic shimmer, the skirt hopelessly crumpled, probably her last precious possession.
“Some towels, quick. Anything. She needs help.”
The woman in the abused Balenciaga sighed but came out, as well as a younger woman in shorts. They guided Bojana, doubled over, back into the hut.
“Está bien,” the Balenciaga woman said to the young man. Her face was cracked and dirty with makeup applied several days ago in Havana. “We’ll take care of your wife.” She shut the door before Adán could speak.
Adán went back to his cot, ashamed, without so much as a cigarette left for consolation. Yet he had to laugh. After all that his father had done to make him a man, this had happened. His father had thought him too soft, too close to his mother, so when Adán turned eight he’d packed him off to a Catholic military school in Bristow, Virginia. Adán did not return to Cuba, not even for holidays, until he was eighteen, the year his mother died. He had forgotten almost all of his Spanish and had had to start relearning it with a tutor, an old Pallottine priest with bad breath who his father had found in the parish of El Cotorro.
But Adán hadn’t come back empty-handed. The nuns at the military school had taken pity on him, allowing him to listen to the Philco radio in the refectory during the long, empty Christmas and summer breaks. That is how he first heard the great trumpeters, Howard McGhee, Louis Armstrong, Harry Freistadt, Jack Purvis, Roy Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, and his idol, Harry James. The nuns encouraged him to learn the bugle. He became so proficient so quickly that he took the place of the head bugler of cadets, who’d contracted rheumatic fever and had had to be sent home. Adán’s talent made up for his poor grades, especially in mathematics, as well as for his occasional fibbing and tardiness and his lack of interest in sports. The bullies among the cadets left him alone, now that he was somebody distinct and important.
Before returning to Cuba, Adán, with his accumulated spending money, bought the used and dinged-up Martin Committee trumpet and a Parduba mouthpiece—the kind that Harry James used—at a music store in Manassas, not far from his school. His father hated that trumpet. He had expected his son to return a disciplined soldier, a man of rectitude and responsibility, a hard worker. Instead, as he told the Pallottine, what came back was a shirker who took no interest in the family business, an entertainer who thought he was Hari Yaymz, keeping everyone on the farm awake at night with his Arban exercises. The father considered suing the nuns. One day, he caught Adán practicing in the stockroom of the hardware store, where the acoustics were excellent because of the wall tiles. Adán was trying to match Harry James note for note on “Just a Mood.” The father at first simply stood there, listening. His son’s deep blues frightened him. How could he save him? He knew no other way except to hit him with a ferocious right hook. The trumpet clattered across the floor and lost two of its pearly finger buttons. The father was a big man with huge fists and almost ruined his son’s embouchure permanently.
“Get back to work!” he’d shouted. “That’s not what I’m paying you for! Maldita trompeta! You will end up in a circus or living among the Negroes.”
At seven in the morning, a Jamaican military policeman wearing a pith helmet began striking the metal sides of the huts with a truncheon. Adán rose and rubbed his eyes, crusty with dried rheum. He pulled his trumpet case from under his cot and carried it in his arms instead of by the worn leather handle as he shuffled out with the other men down the hill toward a large tent. A Jewish relief group had set up a table with coffee, milk, ackee and saltfish for breakfast, and its staff was busy finding lodgings for the refugees, Jews and non-Jews alike. Warnings were given to avoid Trenchtown and to beware the Rastafarians, who sympathized with Castro and targeted Cuban exiles to steal their passports and money. Through the closed chain-link gates, he saw an attractive young woman in a tight pencil skirt and white blouse. She was from the Cuban Jewish committee, waiting to cram as many refugees as she could into her tiny British Hillman Minx and transport them to guest homes throughout Kingston.
Everyone had to pass the six or seven available mugs from mouth to mouth. Some of the women found that too disgusting and went without coffee or milk. Only a few of the refugees tried the ackee and saltfish. They complained that this was Negro food, unfit for Cubans. Most already felt contempt for the country, without even leaving the confines of the camp. Adán remembered how hard it had been for him to grow accustomed to the American food at the school, the sickening odor of the old ovens in the refectory and the fecal-brown gravy stains on the big white protective cuffs that the nuns would button around their sleeves when they cooked. Now he ate the ackee and saltfish hungrily.
He looked for Bojana. He wanted to apologize and tell her that he had money in the bank and could take care of her until her husband arrived. He went and spoke to the relief workers. They let him know of a house on the Newport Road, halfway between the Palisadoes and the center of Kingston, where a retired nurse rented rooms to refugees at modest rates. The nurse would know how to look after Bojana. Adán couldn’t wait to tell her about the house he had found for them. He hoped it would make up for his cowardice last night. But he didn’t spot her anywhere. She was probably still back at the hut, exhausted by the terrible night. He wondered if he or one of the women should take her some milk. He was readying one of the mugs with milk for her, dipping it first in a pail of water to clean it, when the woman in the Balenciaga rushed up to him, followed by the pith-helmeted policeman.
“Your wife did not survive,” the woman said, tears burning furrows through her thick, stale makeup. “But your boy, sí…”
Adán dropped the cup into the pail of water and grabbed his belly with both hands. He swallowed the bitter remnants of his regurgitated breakfast. He was sure that he had caused Bojana’s death with his cowardly ineptness. He struggled to take in the humid air.
“Your son is at the hut up the hill, señor arquitecto,” the woman said.
What had Bojana told them, for the child’s sake, before she died? He felt too weak to deny the lies. What if Ricardo Gutierrez didn’t arrive, what then? He thought of the boy. No, impossible, he couldn’t adopt him: there were the endless, lonely American highways, the long bus trips between gigs, the late night bars, the irregular meals… Buddy Maxwell kicked inside of him, jealously and selfishly, desperate to be born, reminding Adán that one son was enough. He remembered the ruthlessness about Bojana’s mouth. She would understand if he chose his own son over hers. He stooped and picked up his trumpet case. How heavy it felt. Pain pulsed up his back, as if he had aged several years since boarding the plane in Havana. The antediluvian gates of the camp were creaking open. The woman from the Cuban Jewish Committee was waving refugees over to her car. He began to walk toward her.
“Hey! Pupa mon!” the Jamaican policeman shouted.
Adán turned. The policeman and the woman in the Balenciaga were staring at him, open-mouthed. The policeman pointed in the direction of the huts with his truncheon.
Adán stood there with his battered brown case. He watched a military hearse pull away from Decedent Affairs. Sweat ran down his legs like blood. Then, faltering several times, stopping to take a breath in the dense tropic morning, he climbed the hill.
© 2016 Alfredo Franco