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“The next day we flew to Havana and the crew on the flight was the most serious crew of stewardesses I had ever seen. Attentive, but serious, like they didn’t care if you ever flew their airline again.
But when we landed and they opened the cabin door and I started walking down the steps and the Caribbean breeze hit my face and the smell of Cuba hit my nostrils like the aroma of an attic full of memories that you haven’t visited in a decade, I found myself crying and the emotion I felt wasn’t one of sadness or joy either, it was a mixture of the two, almost in equal proportion. I looked around and I saw tears rolling down my father’s face and the other passengers were no different and I saw a black stewardess pretending that she had something caught in her eye but I suspected that, forgetting the instructions she had received, she was caught in the enormity of the moment for a group of returning members of a dysfunctional family searching for meaning, and connections and some peace under the blue of tropical sky.
“The same tension we had felt in Mexico followed us through customs. The fact that most people we came in contact with wore the olive green of the Cuban law enforcement apparatus –- which had not been the case in Merida -– was a stark reminder that we were back, voluntarily, in the island-prison everyone had fought hard to escape. I noticed how the older members of our traveling party grew more apprehensive, especially when it was time to open up the bags to be inspected before proceeding. Again, the demeanor of those responsible for examining the contents was striking in its seriousness. Not a smile, not a word, except the very necessary, not even a look into our eyes as if we were all dangerously contagious and a friendly exchange of any sort would be fatal.
From a work in progress currently titled From Mountain Road to Easy Street, a brief passage:
I walked towards my neighborhood up the Fourteenth Street Viaduct, its steep angle rising towards Union City matching the increasing elevating effect the pot had on my mood, as I walked on. When I reached the traffic light at the top of the bridge I turned around to look at the island of Manhattan below me, the live version of a black and white photograph from the nineteen fifties, taken around the time I was born, pressed into my memory. The skyline had grown new skyscrapers since I had arrived, like the newer trees in a jungle, they had sprouted, changing the outline but the basic premise remained. She was lit up from the edge of the water to the highest penthouse, permanently awake, as alluring still as the first time I had seen her. On this night, my existence, with all of the unconquerable problems it owned, was dwarfed by the magnitude of the man-made landscape before me. . .
I took the photos of the New York skyline on the slideshow above over the last few years. These are just a few of the hundreds of images I’ve taken since arriving in Hudson County, New Jersey, in 1970. It’s impossible to ignore the view when you’re on this side of the Hudson. To some of us who, as kids, imagined living here, it’s the physical manifestation of dreams realized.
The interior of the corridor felt familiar. I knew my way around the darkness. I held my breadth listening for any signs of the music that I had heard before but the silence was as complete as the lack of light.
The threads and risers of an ascending stair were on the right side of the space. I walked past it, letting my fingers caress the walls until my hands came upon a door handle. This was the door to the basement. I remembered it locked from a previous visit. I pushed lightly and the hinges groaned as the door opened. Another set of steps started right underneath the door, these going down to the basement level. The steps were illuminated by the reddish glow of a lighting fixture from below, similar to the type used in dark rooms.
I unscrewed the bottle of rum and took a drink. I held on to the door handle as I took a first step down. The wooden thread creaked and I waited until I could verify that no one was aware of my presence. The silence reassured me. I walked down, holding on to the railing with one hand and to the bottle of rum with the other. They both held me up as I went down. I lowered my head to avoid hitting the red plastic illuminated exit sign at the bottom of the stair. Pass the metal shelving and pass the meters, I sat on the floor. Near me, I could hear the flames heating the water inside the tank, their amber glow reflecting off the concrete floor. I stretched my legs and rested my back against the bluestone foundation wall. I closed my eyes, holding the bottle with both hands.
I felt a pressure against my buttock as if I was sitting on a pebble. I felt in the dark, dusting my bottom. I felt inside my back pocket and pulled out my daughter’s sailboat. I brought it close to my eyes to make sure. Bathed in the reddish glow of the exit sign I saw it, its silhouette reminding me of the sailboats returning home against the fiery sunsets of Punta de Carta and I was just a child that loved looking at sailboats in the sunset.
The mast was broken. I had cracked it when I sat on it. I could glue it in the morning, make it sea-worthy again. Bathtub-worthy. I held the bottle against the setting sun. It was half empty. I had enough. Then the bottle slipped out of my fingers and it smashed against the concrete floor, scattering the shattered glass between my legs. I felt the wetness of the rum soak through my pants.
I began banging my head against the stone wall, holding on to my daughter’s sailboat. Then came the sobbing and then the desire to lick the floor.
I could get most of it before it was sucked into the concrete slab. If only there weren’t so many pieces of broken glass…
An excerpt from a work in progress.
Another excerpt from a work in progress:
I opened the small metal cabinet where all the painting materials were stored and moved it all into the cage area. I went looking for rags and asked the electrician’s employee to raise the volume on the radio. He refused and cocked his head in the direction of his boss and said: “The owner…” in Spanish.
I finished the beer before entering the small space behind the bar that had been designated for the live bird enclosure. A real conversation piece, I had heard. I had never needed a conversation piece to draw me to a place to drink. A drink was all that was necessary for me to show up. I wondered how many beers I had since I had arrived. Was it three or seven? I was feeling fine and in a mood to paint, to loose myself in the Amazon jungle scene I was creating for the birds. I wanted them to feel at home, even if it was a two-dimensional representation of the ancestral home they had been plucked from. Someone had captured these birds somewhere — or their ancestors — and had brought them to fucking Union City New Jersey so that they could be a fucking conversation piece in the middle of a smoke-filled watering hole where strangers gathered to smoke and drink and avoid real conversations and stare at the birds and drink some more…how many beers? Was it seven or three and some cigarettes…was the fresh air supply working inside here or was the smell of oil paint and turpentine mixing with smoke making my head feel light and heavy, very heavy at the same time or the spotlights to highlight the colorful plumage against the fake jungle background and the birds flying high, against the blue sky that was out of reach of the nets and the warmth of the breeze and the soft sunlight filtering through the very high branches and my eyelids feeling heavier as I looked up at the sky and the birds flying above and I closed my eyes and only the sound of the breeze was present in my consciousness and there were thousands of birds flying in my dreams, high above and the sky was an ever changing patchwork of primary colors, like a quilt of feathers covering the sky until a loud bang, like that from a high-powered hunting rifle went off by my head and I expected to see the stricken birds plummeting to the ground and I looked around but I saw no fallen birds and then the sound went off again and I opened my eyes and I saw Mike and the electrician and the electrician’s employee that I had asked to raise the volume of the music looking into the cage and they were laughing, pointing their fingers and laughing because I had fallen asleep — passed out is the correct term — inside the cage.
I closed my eyes again and they disappeared and as long as I kept them closed I could not hear their laughter. With my eyes closed, I looked around for the birds, but they were gone. They had flown away and they had taken their colors with them.
For my good friend Andy Marino’s 60th birthday, his wife Dianne asked that his friends bring artistic presents to the celebration. There were gifts of songs, heart-felt testimonials, music, love and friendship.
I read from a work in progress, FROM MOUNTAIN ROAD TO EASY STREET, a novel I hope to complete soon.
Thanks for watching.
There was silence in the bus as we drove towards New York City. The full morning got on like any other passenger right after the Bear Mountain Bridge. The Hudson appeared out my window every so often, my traveling companion going in the same direction.
My father, his eyes closed and his head resting, was seating next to me. He was wearing the same light blue, short-sleeve shirt in which he had been buried.
I got closer to see if he was breathing.
“I’m just resting my eyes. I’m awake, if you want to talk.”
“Where were you coming from?”
“What were you doing up there?”
“I wanted to see if Tony Oliva was going to get in this year. It was the first year he was eligible since he retired.”
“No. This was also the first year for Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson. Those two sucked up all the votes.”
“Maybe next year.”
“Yeah, there’s always next year. How about you, where you coming from?”
“What’s the matter? Why did you stop in mid-sentence?”
“I don’t know why I’m talking so much. I sound like a crazy person.”
“It’s understandable. I like listening to your story. I have a chance to catch up with your life for the last ten years. So, please go on.”
“Well, if you start feeling dizzy from me talking too much, tell me to shut up. After the trip was over, if Dad missed California and his cousins, he never mentioned it, but he did miss the car that we left behind. Dad had wanted to drive us to New Jersey. We had a 1962 Chevy Impala — by then it was like eight years old — but he thought it was a great car. Lando had to talk him out of it, telling him that if it broke down somewhere, it would cost us a hell of a lot more to tow it and repair it in the middle of nowhere. Well, I think that Dad was glad that he had listened to Lando when he saw the desert that first night, because it looked so damn scary. I am sure that it crossed his mind, breaking down there. It would have made Mom absolutely crazy. I think it would have been hell for all of us. My poor old man. He did get a chance to drive an Impala across the country years later, though. This was a Chevy they bought brand new, with their savings and their credit. It was avocado green with a beige top that was the love of his life. He thought Chevrolet made the best cars in the world. We drove down to Miami from New Jersey to see family and friends. It was Seventy Four or Seventy Five, I don’t know for sure. It was Mom, Dad, Elena and Sonia my girlfriend. Dad even let me drive parts of the way….”
“Why are you smiling?”
“I just remember something about that trip that was funny.”
“What? Tell me.”
“You can take the peasant out of the countryside but you can’t take the countryside out of the peasant. Mom insisted on cooking pork chunks to take on the road the day before we were to travel south. I don’t know if she thought there would be no food joint open between Union City and Miami but she brought, along with her espresso maker, the pork chunks in the oil in a pot and she stored it in the trunk, neatly packed next to our bags and all the crap we were taking for our vacation.
“Well, we were driving along, happy as can be but the smell of frying pork was trailing us from state to state and we couldn’t figure out why the smell was so strong. So in one of those rest-stops that they have on the highways over there, Dad popped the trunk just to see what was going on. When I saw him shaking his head, I knew something was wrong. The summer sun hitting the car for hours at a time most have sent the temperature inside the trunk to a thousand degrees because it made the oil hotter than a deep frier. It splashed oil over everything. Dad was furious about the mess and we spent an hour cleaning the car. We did eat the pork in the rest-stop with Cuban bread and Coca Colas but the aroma inside the car, that followed us all the way to Miami.
—Image: My 1962 Chevy 283 engine with stick shift in front of 11430 S. Yale 1961 © 2010 by James Voves. Please visit his Flickr Page