Ulises A. Garces
"Hand it over, viejo de mierda, and donít give me any trouble," the burly man with a beehive hairdo demanded, grabbing Don Manuel by his coat collar and pulling his diminutive figure up from the floor. Experienced as he was in this situation from previous muggings, the ninety year old man turned his pant pockets inside out and handed his attacker about five dollars and change.
"Youíre really making me mad, cabron.", the man growled as he pushed Don Manuel, making him fall like a half-full sack of potatoes.
He searched the pockets of the old manís suit jacket while he was still on the ground and found only a handkerchief and a chain with three keys and a miniature pocket-knife, but no additional money, not even a wallet. The bully kicked him once and started to pull his leg back, ready to kick again. But suddenly a man appeared at the entrance to the alley, and he yelled out:
"Hey, whatís going on there? Stop it! Donít worry, old man; Iíll take care of this guy."
The attacker stood there for a few seconds, in a fighting stance, with his right hand reaching for something in the back pocket. The young man bent over and picked a scrap of lead pipe from the ground and walked toward the attacker, who watched him approaching with the pipe up high, ready to strike. Suddenly he turned around and fled. Don Manuel tried to lift himself while moaning in pain and humiliation. The young man helped him up, practically lifting him bodily, noticing that the old man was as light as a small child. Don Manuel thanked him as he dusted off his rumpled white suit with the handkerchief and began taking tentative steps. Between pain stabs he negotiated with difficulty the steps leading to the entrance of the apartment building where he lived.
The young man introduced himself, "My name is Paco Rodriguez. Do you need anything? Do you want me to take you to the emergency?"
"No, I think I better go upstairs, wash myself and get some rest. Thanks, young man; my name is Manuel Lopez. Whatís your name, again?"
"Francisco Rodriguez; they call me Paco. I live nearby and know most of the folks in the neighborhood. Take care of your bruises. Iíll check back with you tomorrow, to see how youíre doing. Hasta la vista."
Don Manuel, Cuban expatriate, Professor Lopez of yesteryear, entered the lobby of his building and walked past the tall mimosa plants that adorned the L-shaped hallway leading to the elevator. Arriving at the eighth floor he entered his apartment, where the furniture consisted of a worn reclining chair, a stuffed couch whose springs were outlined through the checkered cloth, and a black and white television of "I love Lucy" vintage. Opposite the television was a bookshelf that covered the whole wall, and in it hundreds of scientific and literary books of every type.
An hour later Don Manuel, with haphazard bandages on his left arm and forehead, had his supper consisting of some chicken soup that the next-door neighbor had brought over to him that morning in return for helping her grandson with some high school math problems. His head and arm were afire with pain. He resisted going to bed early because he knew he would only toss and turn for hours from his pain, so he opened the screen door leading to a five by six feet balcony, and sat on his secondhand lawn chair. From this vantage point he had a view of South Beach, the area that once had been the Art Deco capital of the world. Now, in the early eighties, the view from Don Manuelís balcony displayed a series of dingy, small mala muerte hotels. These were the residences of many middle-class northerners who had worked all their lives in large cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago dreaming that some day they could afford to retire in "dreamland", not knowing the downturn of that section of Miami Beach. Toward the right he could see the gravel-encrusted, flat rooftops of some of the beach-front businesses and apartment buildings, but beyond he could see an expansive stretch of sand that framed a sea of a thousand hues of deep blue and aquamarine.
He closed his eyes and let himself be transported back a quarter of a century, to the time when he and Marta traversed those seas to reach destinations such as Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. The memory of his departed wife and the life they had had together overcame him. He went to bed, to a virtual rotisserie of pain, and although he hoped to see another day, he could not have guessed that this was not the lastóor the worstótime he would see the evil face of that attacker.
At daybreak, three blocks from the retirement building where Don Manuel lived, in a dingy apartment that smelled like rags unearthed at an excavation, Paco Rodriguez tiptoed to avoid making any noise, gathered his clothes as he left the rented room he shared with three other exiles like himselfóstill asleep in their cots. "Marielitos" they called them, after the port of Mariel where they had ventured to sea two years before, in 1980, during the unexpected opening of the US ports to Cuban exiles thanks to President Carterís intervention after 10,000 Cubans sought asylum in the Peruvian embassy in Havana.
After dressing in his white guayabera shirt and faded denim pants Paco went to the corner store where he had his "cortadito", strong ink-like coffe with some milk, to set him off for the day. Paco stood there, a man in his early twenties, with shining, dark brown hair and bronze skin, while nervously tapping an unknown rhythm with the fingers on the left hand. When he stood up he appeared taller than his 5 feet 10 inches, but this was due to his build: you could miss him if he stood behind a street lamp-post. He went to a restaurant on Ocean Drive, then another, asking whether there was any work for the day as a substitute bus-boy or dish-washer. The head waiter in the latter establishment told him to check back around four, in case his dish-washer did not show up in time for the dinner crowd. Around nine that morning he went to Don Manuelís building and watched the entrance door, hoping to catch Don Manuel when he left the building. After half an hour he decided to ring him on the intercom.
Over the static noise of a defective intercom Paco heard the old manís voice.
" Paco who?" "Please speak into the box."
"Itís Paco Rodriguez, Don Manuel; I met you yesterday when you were getting mugged, remember?"
"Ah, yes, Rodriguez, sure I remember last night. I got a few bumps to remind me, but thanks to you it wasnít worse."
"With his mouth almost touching the speaker box, the young man said with
concern in his voice, "I was worried about you last night and would like to make sure that you are all right. Can you buzz the door open so I can come upstairs?"
There was a pause, then Don Manuel cleared his throat and said, "I tell you what: Iím coming down to take my morning walk before lunch. Can you wait about five minutes and Iíll be down?"
"O.K., Iíll be waiting for you at the entrance, Don Manuel."
A few minutes later, Don Manuel appeared at the front door of the building, his white suit-coat more wrinkled than ever, a bandage adhering precariously to his forehead, his back a little more bent than it had been the night before. He took a deep breath and broke into a smile as he felt the sunís warmth and breathed the morning air.
The two men shook hands across a chasm of sixty-odd years, and started walking slowly towards Lemmus Park, at the beach-front near Ocean Drive. They found something in common, since they were originally from Cienfuegos, the elegant city in southern Cuba. Some reminiscences of that city gave them common ground: the beautiful ocean-front malecon, the historic Tomas Terry Theater, where Don Manuel had a minor role in a play by Calderon de la Barca. Then there were their experiences in Havana, particularly in the University, where Don Manuel had been a professor back in the forties and where Paco had been a student barely two years back. They sat on a bench in the wide stretch of sand facing Ocean Drive, in front of the dilapidated Victor Hotel, and continued their nostalgic conversation through lunch, at Don Manuelís invitation.
"When did you leave the Island, Don Manuel?"
"Ah, many years ago, before your parents were born, perhaps. When Batista came back into power in fifty-two, I joined a group of intellectuals in the University that opposed the corruption that was infecting the government. Many of us were expelled from our teaching posts, and we were blackballed everywhere. Two of my colleagues in the Science Department were jailed and nobody heard from them again. Things were really bad then. And to think that Cuba was heading toward a worse period. What our country has gone through!"
The young man leaned forward and asked, with great intensity in his voice, "So what did you do, Don Manuel?"
"Well, when they started to threaten my wife and meólife threats, mind youówe said basta, and decided to pull out. We left by way of Santiago, sailing at midnight in a fishing boat from a distant marina. You see, if I had left through a legal port they would have put us in jail and confiscated the little money that I had managed to accumulate and my coin collection."
"Oye, qué casualidad!" said Paco, "Thatís almost the same way I left, from the port of Mariel. My mother and I and the rest of the people in our escape group had to hide in a warehouse near the docks for three days, waiting for a the fishing boat that the family had hired to show up, and when I finally boarded it was so full that we had to throw some of the provisions and water overboard so we wouldnít sink. What a time! And the worse of it was that at the last minute my mother became ill and insisted on staying behind, that she would die in that boat. She made me leave without her. It was a nightmare. The boat left port on a moonless night, so the Cuban coast guard wouldn't catch us and replace some of us with their jailbirds and inmates from the insane asylum."
Don Manuel took his eyeglasses off, looked down at the checkered tablecloth, and said in a trembling voice, "Yes, Paco, Iím afraid we are exiles from very different eras; two exiles among millions in this turbulent century." After a pause he continued: "After Marta died, while I was a professor at Rice University in Houston, my career came to an end. I gave away most of the money Marta and I had accumulated and moved to Miami Beach."
Paco wanted to ask about his spent fortune, but Don Manuel changed the subject. They walked back to the apartment building in silence. When they reached Don Manuelís residence he took a deep breath and turned to Paco:
"You know, sometimes when the breeze is from the south I inhale deeply and imagine I can smell the steaming arroz con pollo they used to serve in the restaurants by the sea in Cienfuegos, you should close your eyes and try it sometimes."
Paco looked toward the south and sighed, wondering if the old man realized how much his beloved island had changed during the last decades.
The next day when Paco called Don Manuel on the buildingís intercom the old man buzzed him into the building. Don Manuel was indisposed; his side hurt him so he had decided to stay inside. Paco went out to the corner store, La Cubanita, and bought a couple of Cuban sandwiches, the tasty emparedados with "the works", and two cups of guarapo, the sweet juice of sugar cane. They ate in the little balcony overlooking Collins Avenue, and Paco told him how he was expelled from Havana University because of some bad blood between him and the faculty, which was overly compliant with the overseeing authority. After a scuffle with the police during a student demonstration, he was arrested and thrown in jail. He was among the lucky ones who were released within a few months; others were not as fortunate. That was when Pacoís family pulled the money together and decided he and his mother had to leave the island.
Paco brought up the subject of his mother. With remorse in his voice he said, "I should have stayed with her and waited for a next opportunity, but she would not hear of it. You know how forceful these Cuban mothers can be." He looked towards the sea and started tapping on the folding chair.
"I'm sorry," Don Manuel said. "It must have been a tough decision. But you have your whole future in front of you. What are your plans for the future?"
Paco hesitated a while and then said, "I applied for a job at the local hospitals like Cedars, hoping the science credits I earned in Havana would enhance my chances of getting a job working in the lab doing analyses, but they said that they did not need any help at this time. So Iím in a rut. Iím doing odd jobs, filling in at the hotel restaurants when Iím needed; stuff like that. At this rate Iíll never get my mother over here."
"Maybe if you take some courses at the University. you could get a degree or a certificate and go from there. In this country things are competitive, and you have to get your foot in the door."
Paco nodded, while Don Manuel looked at him intensely, thinking that this fine young man could have used some of Martaís cooking to fatten him up a bit. Recalling Marta reminded him how much they had hoped and tried to have a child, but it never came to be. How different it would have been, he thought, if he had a son like Paco. Then he added:
"Look, if youíre serious about continuing your studies, I can help you with the expenses, but you have to keep your grades up and also stay out of trouble. Of course, thereís one more condition: you would have to continue bringing me succulent emparedados like this once in a while.
Don Manuel dozed off for a few minutes, as he often did. Paco tiptoed to the living room and started searching. He found some old letters and receipts, but did not find what he was looking for. He rushed back near Don Manuel when he heard the old man groan, awaking. He said good-by and promised to return soon.
At one-thirty in the morning, after his assistant bartending shift, Paco sat at a corner booth to drink a bottle of beer. He looked up and down several times, and a few minutes later a tall burly man with a beehive hairdo joined him in the booth, bringing over his daiquiri.
"So the first phase went according to plan. When is the action coming down, Paco?"
Paco looked at him and tapped the table with his hand. "Depends, Fuete, I could come up with some excuse about going to college and get something out of him, but I think the stuff about the old man being loaded is bull. Why the hell should he live in this part of town if heís rich? Your sources must have him mixed up with somebody else. Besides, this old guyís not dumb, and heís not going to just sit down and write me a blank check or anything like that."
"So, how much can you squeeze out of him?"
Paco thought a while, then said, "About two grand or so."
"Two grand! Thatís chicken feed. Look, I know from the janitor who works at the bank that this Lopez guyís got some gold stashed away, although he does not act like it. You set it up and Iíll force this guy to hand over what heís got. I wonít pussy-foot with him."
"Oye, Fuete, you beat up and torture the old man and heís bound to keel overóheís on his last leg, man. You think itís worth the risk of us frying just to make a bigger score?"
"Bullshit. Youíre just soft on the old goat. Iíll take care of him," Fuete said. The discussion became an argument, with both men grabbing each other and upsetting the table. The manager and a helper forced them out of the restaurant and threatened to call the police. Once outside, they resumed their fight, but when they heard an approaching police car siren they began to run while the tall man warned, "You make this happen or Iíll take care of you both, te lo juro. It will be a thrill to take you both out."
The next day Paco spent hours walking on the beach, looking at the sand in front of him, thinking of a way out of his predicament. Around sunset he went to visit Don Manuel. The old gentleman noticed Pacoís somber mood, but he did not want to pry into affairs. Perhaps he has money problems, a gambling debt or he lost his girlfriend, he thought.
The young man finally said what he had decided during his long meditation:
"Don Manuel, I didnít want to burden you with my problems, but Iím in a fix. My mother wrote to me telling me that the people who own the boat that brought me over have a chance to bring her to the US by way of Key West, so she can live with her brother in Tampa. The problem is they are demanding six thousand dollars, and the family canít raise that kind of money. I can scrape two hundred, maybe, and Tio Joaquin can scrape four or five hundred, but six grand is out of reach. Iíd have to wait until I win a lottery, or find a fortune under a coconut tree on the beach. What can I do, Don Manuel?"
The old man looked deeply in Pacoís eyes, then turned pensively towards the view of the ocean through his living room sliding door.
Don Manuel had a very serious face when he said, "Listen, Paco, you must be in a fix, maybe you really need the money to bring your mother over, maybe not. From your demeanor, I suspect youíve got deeper problems than just bringing your mother over here. Whatís really going on?"
"I donít want to bother you with this, Don Manuel. Forget that I mentioned it; itís my problem."
"No, this is our problem now, but I want you to think about this and tell me the whole truth. I may be close to the grave, but there is not a stupid bone in my body. Sleep on it and when you are ready with the truth Iíll help you, if Iím able."
Paco felt ashamed and trapped. He left the apartment without uttering a word, then walked along Channel Avenue, contemplating the boats in the marinas with their masts swinging back and forth, and the still waters leading to the bay. He thought of his beloved Adriana, waiting in Cuba, his fiancee to whom he had promised that they would be reunited soon. The dream of having her with him again had consumed him since he fled the island.
Adriana, my love, I need you, he thought.
It was almost daybreak when he returned home after a long night walking and thinking. Earlier he had considered just leaving town, perhaps going to Tampa, but he knew that would be a death sentence for Don Manuel, and he could not accept such a violent end to this old guy, perhaps the only true friend he had found since he landed in this country. He made a decision. If Fuete would not accept whatever Don Manuel could hand over to Paco in friendship, he would ask the old man to escape with him, to go to Tampa and live with his uncle until Fuete got caught in one of his many crimes and sent back to jail. If the old man would not leave town, he would go to the police, even if it meant incriminating himself. That night he called Fuete from a booth at Lemmus Park and proposed a new plan:
"Hereís the deal: I told Lopez a story about needing money to bring my mother here, so I think I may be able to get three or four grand from the old man, thatís the most we can hope for. If I can swing it you can have the whole loot, just so you leave us alone."
An angry voice answered, "When the hell are you going to get it through your head, you yellow-bellied coward? Iím going for bigger stakes, no matter what you want to do. Get it?"
Paco answered, "And you, stubborn ass, when will you realize this is a dry well, that youíre targeting the wrong guy." He slammed the receiver down.
It was afternoon when Paco finally went to see Don Manuel, after mulling over his narrowing options and knowing that the threatening situation was nearing a showdown. He got down to business right away.
"As you suspected, Don Manuel, I lied to you about the six thousand dollars for my motherís escape. The truth is, my mother insisted that I leave Cuba, but she did not feel that she could start a new life with all the uncertainties of living in a new land. It pains me to say this, because you have been like a father and Iíve behaved like a rotten thief, preying on you for your money. I hope someday youíll forgive meÖ The other nightÖthat attack on you was staged, and I was an accomplice, faking your rescue so I could gain your confidence."
There was a long silence, and Paco never felt so low as he did at that moment, seeing nothing but deep disappointment and dismay in the old man's face.
After a moment of dark silence, Don Manuel said with difficulty in his voice, "So what is your decision?"
"Well, the problem is that this guy has threatened both our lives and vowed heíll torture you and probably worse, unless you hand over the gold you have in the bank Maybe you should get out of town until this guy is caught in one of his many criminal activities and is put back to jail. My uncle can put you up in Tampa until this blows over."
Don Manuel paused, smoothing out his white hair with his hand, as if getting in contact with his countless years of experience, then said: "Listen, young man, you cannot spend your life running away from all your tormentors. You and I fled our land in hopes of a better life; we cannot give up that hope of freedom because of the threats of some bum. On the other hand, if we go to the police with hearsay evidence of the threat, they may just write a report and wait until one or both of us is found dead in the gutter. I know how it works, believe me. Letís think about this."
The two men went to the balcony and leaned over the railing, looking for an answer in the panorama before them--the palm trees, the sea, and the clouds, a reality and a beauty that seemed to be eternal and independent of individual lives and their vicissitudes. Later they sat in the parlor and talked until the old man fell asleep on the easy chair. Paco placed a light blanket over Don Manuelís torso and legs, and left the sliding door ajar to let the evening air freshen the house. The young man got a pillow and went to sleep on the living room couch. They had come up with a plan.
At nine-thirty the next morning Paco and Don Manuel went to talk to the bank manager, to let him know the time when they would be making a visit to the bank in connection with the removal of the contents of his safe deposit box, and they made sure the janitor overheard their conversation. Next they went to see police Lieutenant Cardozo, who knew Don Manuel from accounts by the detectiveís relatives of this famous scientist who lived in the precinct. Cardozo reluctantly agreed with the plan, but cautioned them to be careful, that Mr. Fuente Ratosos, a.k.a. Fuete, was known as a dangerous criminal with a record as long as a freight train and dating back to his childhood.. The next step was to talk to Fuete over the phone, so Paco placed the call to the same bar that the criminal frequented. He did not want to discuss details of the plan over the phone, so he suggested that they meet in a deserted alley near Jefferson Avenue. Paco wore a hidden tape recorder taped on the small of his back. He was relieved that Fuete did not want to frisk him and that he agreed to play his part in the plan to rob Don Manuel.
The next morning Don Manuel, carrying a leather briefcase, went to the bank where he held his account, accompanied by Paco, posing as his "protector", and grandnephew. They requested access to the safe deposit area, where Don Manuel had a large box. He pulled out the contents and placed them carefully in the briefcase. Paco was astonished to see six panels containing a gleaming collection of Spanish gold coins from the last century.
Don Manuel saw his expression and explained, in a hushed voice: "When the Spanish troops were retreating from the attacking Cuban and United States soldiers during the Spanish American War they had to hide the treasure they had accumulated, hoping to come back and recover it after winning the war. So they buried it near the river in Baire. After the war my brother, Pancho, who had served as a Cuban revolutionary during that war dug for months in his farm until he found the treasure he had heard about. Youíre looking at my share of that family treasure, which I carried with me when I sailed away from Santiago. It has been my sentimental link to the family I lost."
Don Manuel closed the briefcase and asked the younger man to carry it. As they crossed the street on Washington Avenue, they saw Fuete get out of a í77 Buick and walk towards them. They stopped, as if looking for a good escape. Fuete caught up with them and faked a struggle with Paco, then snatched the briefcase from his hands. The bandit started running towards the getaway car, with the door open and the motor still on. He entered the car and barely closed the door before he floored the accelerator, making the tires skid.
At that moment two police cars appeared, blocking the escaping car in both directions. Unexpectedly, Fuete made a U-turn and drove over the sidewalk, aiming his car at Paco and Don Manuel. He crashed into a light post and left the auto, still carrying the briefcase, and ran in the direction of Paco and Don Manuel. He was carrying a revolver and aimed it at Paco, who tried to evade the line of fire.
A second before pulling the trigger, the desperado said, "You miserable pig, hereís what you deserve for double-crossing me."
A bullet caught Paco on his right shoulder and he fell down, in pain. Fuete grabbed Don Manuel by the neck and dragged him as he ran. Don Manuel was struggling to breathe, but he managed to fumble through his keys until he found the miniature pocketknife. He opened the knife and stabbed his abductor in the elbow with surgical precision, breaking the skin and hitting a nerve at the joint. Fuete screamed in pain and held his elbow, letting his hostage loose. The police took advantage of the momentary distraction and shot the fugitive in the left leg. Fuete shot Don Manuel in the back, causing him to fall sideways and roll on the sidewalk. People were running and screaming all around, and the policeman in the other patrol car was directing people to get out of the area, to avoid stray bullets. Fuete tried to run, shooting at the police cars. When his bullets were depleted, the police overcame and handcuffed him.
Paco, bleeding from the shoulder wound, knelt down to see if Don Manuel was still alive. He was unconscious and barely breathing from the wound that had pierced one lung and shattered two of his ribs.
Paco and Don Manuel were rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital in an ambulance. Paco was released two days later, but Don Manuel remained in critical condition. The first thing he asked when he recovered consciousness was:
"Paco, where is Paco? Is he all right?" When the old man recovered sufficiently the doctor allowed the two friends to talk briefly. Afterwards, Paco stayed by his side all the time, and was half-crazed with guilt that he had been responsible for this old friendís demise. He kept repeating to Don Manuel how sorry he was about the way things had turned out.
"Paco, donít blame yourself," Don Manuel whispered, "We just became victims one more time. You saved me from loneliness in my last days, and Iím leaving you some of the proceeds from the sale of my coins so you can finish your education. Adios, my son". That night Don Manuel fell asleep, never again to awaken to the warmth of the tropical morning and the caress of the sea-breeze.
Fifteen years to the day have passed since that farewell at the hospital. Sitting at a table in a South Beach sidewalk café are a biochemist, Doctor Francisco Rodriguez, and his wife, Adriana. South Beach has been transformed into the new Riviera. Percussion-rich tunes from the hottest Caribbean musical ensembles permeate the evening. The couple faces the ocean and Don Paco raises his glass to the southern breeze: "To Don Manuel, who opened for us a new life."
Adriana raises her glass and adds, "No longer in exile."
© 2000 Ulises A. Garces
Ulises A. Garces was born in Oriente, Cuba and was educated in the United States. His writing, which began early in his career as an engineer and scientist, encompasses topics such as atmospheric and oceanic environmental monitoring and future planetary vehicles. He has written short novels, essays and stories, some of which have been published on the Internet. He and his wife Pat reside in the historic Valley Forge area in Pennsylvania.