You can learn more about the novel HERE.
ESPERANZA FARM: A Novel
by JESUS MARIA ALVAREZ
(Final Editing in Progress)
ACT I~CHAPTER I
The hardest part was controlling my nerves, not to telegraph the play. Bottom of the ninth inning, game tied, two outs. I took a long stride forward with my toe barely touching third base as my cousin Tobi stepped up to the plate and the outfielders moved back toward the palm trees along the edge of the dirt road. I had my eye on the pitcher, watching, watching, watching, until the very instant the ball left his fingertips.
Then I broke for home.
Tobi bunted and ran, laughing out loud, while I threw myself on my stomach and slid hard through the dirt with my eyes closed, right past the catcher, as he lunged away from home plate after the bunted ball.
“Safe!” Tobi yelled from first base.
The winning play of the game—a perfect suicide squeeze.
I lay on the ground, screaming up at the sky, while my teammates yelled, and a cloud of dust hovered over me. When we heard the rumble, everyone looked toward the tobacco fields jt beyond the fence. The sky was empty. Only a moment later, the jet narrowly cleared the palm trees and was flying toward us. The pitcher on the mound covered his ears. Tobi stood on first base, his hands shaped like they were holding a rifle aimed at the plane, tracing the flight path, as it zipped in less than half a second over the outfield. Then Tobi pretended to fire away. Shirts on a clothesline outside the left foul line flapped in the tailwind. Then the engine roar dissipated and the drying shirts stopped swaying.
“The Americans are going to bomb the shit out of us,” one of the guys said, in a clear voice, over my head. “The world is going to end!”
The moment I was able to break free, I started running towards home. I looked to my right to find Tobi running next to me, laughing as he ran.
“If the world is going to end, what’s the point of running?”
“I just want to go home and tell Dad and Grandpa Lino about our crazy come-from-behind win and my part in it.”
“What about my part, Paco? You have to tell them that without my perfect bunt, you’d still be lingering on third.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t too bad, your bunt.”
“Not too bad? That was the best bunt you’ve seen in your entire life.”
“What about that slide? Perfection. And the fact that I had gotten on base and then stole second? I was amazing!”
“Fine. I got it. We both won the game. You and me.”
“That’s right. We did.”
“Good thing I taught you how to slide…”
“Shut up, Tobi.”
We laughed as we ran, side by side, up the road from San Pedro to Esperanza Farm.
“Are you coming to my house? You can help me tell the story.”
“No, you tell it. Just make sure you give me the credit I deserve.”
“So where are you going then, if you’re not going home?”
“Cousin Herman’s. I’m not going home until later. Maybe by the time I get back, he’ll be passed out on the sofa and I won’t have to deal with him.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Who else? My drunken father!”
As we reached the one-kilometer marker on the road, at the point where it cut through the center of the farm, Tobi sped up until he reached Uncle Sergio’s house. A moment later, when Aunt Felicia opened the door, he turned and waved at me and then he was gone.
My mind returned then to the baseball field and the pileup at home plate. I couldn’t wait to tell Dad and Grandpa Lino the story.
Once at the farm, I ran past my grandparent’s home and kept going towards our house. I entered through the side door and found my father listening to the radio. My mother was pacing from one side of our kitchen to the other.
“Dad, you’re not going to believe this.” I stopped to catch my breath. “I was on third base and…”
“Not now, son. I am busy. You can tell me later.”
Dad was adjusting the radio dial, trying to improve the reception. At the same time he was trying to calm Mom down. Neither effort was working. Mom couldn’t keep still. She was shaking, on account of her nerves, she said. She kept looking up at the sky through the window, mumbling over the radio static.
“But Dad, you won’t believe…”
“Paquito, leave your father alone! We need to find out what’s going on.”
“Going on with what?”
“We need to know the truth about the bombing!”
“We don’t know what’s going on. That’s why we’re trying to find out!”
I had just put my glove down on the kitchen table when my mom pulled me by the arm. She dragged me to the area by the garden next to our house, and once there, gave me a small shovel and some pillowcases.
“Hurry up and fill these with dirt, now!” Mom looked up at the sky again, shielding her eyes from the brightness of the October sun. “We need sandbags, just in case—and be careful not to rip them—”
“Just in case…what?”
“Don’t ask me any more questions, Paquito! I don’t know. Nobody knows, and if they know, they’re not telling us. Hurry up, I said!”
“But, I don’t understand…”
“Cuba has become a country of ignorants and mutes!” Mom turned around and headed back towards the kitchen, but stopped before reaching the door. She turned around to face me. “I was just telling your father that I can’t accept that you have to grow up here, in this country, Paquito, in the middle of so much fear and under the constant threat of an attack. Your life is not really your life in this country. It belongs to the government. They tell you what to do, what to study, what to read, what you can listen to—then the moment you turn 15, you’ll have to join the army. That’ll kill me, worrying whether you’ll be called up to defend, with your life, someone else’s idea of paradise.”
“What are you saying, Mom?”
“I swear your father and I will find a way to take you away from here, so that you can grow up breathing freely, without the need to look over your shoulder to see who’s watching who you talk to or what you do in the privacy of your home—just like Ester and Ramiro, your father’s cousins. They applied for an exit visa, and now they’re living in the land of freedom, the United States.” Then she said to herself, almost in a whisper, on the way back into the house, “We will find a way to get out of this nightmare, mark my words.”
I often heard my parents talk about our relatives who had left Cuba, and when they did, Dad always said that those who had left for the “North” were only going to be away for a few months, a year or two tops. Just enough time for things to get back to normal. He’d say, “Think of it this way: when a house is damaged by a hurricane, you have to stay with relatives until it’s repaired.”
Those relatives he spoke about had arrived in Miami as part of the first wave of emigrants spilling out of Cuba right after Castro admitted to being a Communist. Some stayed there, but others had later moved to California and New Jersey. They were the first tear in the family fabric.
Dad read out loud a letter we received from his cousin Ester and her husband, Ramiro, written after they had settled in the United States.
“Ramiro and Ester have found a good life. They are free to go where they please and speak freely about any subject without fear of being ratted out,” he told Mom and me afterwards.
“And they can take care of their families. I know there’s abundance over there. They probably don’t go into details so that we don’t feel bad. They know we have nothing here,” Mom added. “Nothing!”
When most products sold at the bodegas and the clothing stores were rationed, some emergency situation was the reason given by the government. That, and the American embargo, which banned all trade between the two countries.
Counterrevolutionary groups were also blamed for the shortages. No matter the reason, the scene was the same: as soon as the delivery truck appeared on Calle Real bringing stuff to any store in San Pedro, people dropped whatever they were doing and ran to get in line. We had a ration book like every family, and when we could go shopping, the storekeeper marked the purchases for the month. I was always very scared each time my mom sent me to the store because I worried so much about losing the damn book. Anyone who lost it had to go through all kinds of interviews and approvals to get another one. It was worse than losing your dentures if you were a senior. At least without dentures you could still drink soup or yogurt. But if you lost your ration book, you couldn’t even get soup until they replaced it.
“I’m sure the Castro family doesn’t have a ration book,” Mom joked.
But Cuban TV and the lessons at school described the reality across the Florida Straits much differently than what we read in letters from relatives.
“In school, they showed us cops with mean dogs and water hoses attacking a crowd of black people. The cops were hitting the people with their sticks,” I told my father, after he had read the letter.
“They just show negative news to deter those who want to leave Cuba. And they make getting an exit visa a very long, complicated process. The whole island would empty out if they didn’t do that. I’m sure the United States isn’t perfect, but at least in the United States people risk protesting when they feel unfairly treated, even if they sometimes get beat up in the process. No one dares do that here.”
“But the teacher said that in the North sometimes old people freeze to death in their homes in the winter and that no one finds out for months, because nobody ever comes to visit them.”
“Don’t pay attention to their lies, Paquito—it’s just propaganda. Freedom is more important than anything. Your mother and I experienced a little bit of freedom here and there, growing up, before that bastard Batista forced his way into the democratic process, took over the Cuban government and screwed it up for everybody. He got the army to back him up when he saw that he couldn’t win an election the regular way. It was 1952, just a couple of years before you were born. It was another dark day in the history of this country, and there have been plenty of those since we began as a nation. But a little freedom is better than no freedom at all, and no freedom at all is what we now have in Cuba. We remember how good it was to be free. Once you taste it, you’ll always crave it. But we’ll never have that here. That’s why we’re going to apply for a visa for the three of us. For now, we’re not telling anyone about this stuff, you understand? Nobody.” Dad took a deep breath. “If freedom can’t come to us here, we’ll go to where freedom is.”
I started shoveling the soft, reddish soil into the improvised sandbags, trying hard not to rip them with the edge of the shovel. Then I heard a growing chorus, like someone turning up the volume on a huge radio, coming from the road. I stopped my work to listen. A large crowd—more like a mob—was marching up the road towards San Pedro. I could make out the words, as they got closer. They were chanting, “Firing squad! Firing squad!” They marched, raising their clenched fists, carrying large Cuban flags and signs calling for the heads of the enemy and the traitors to the Revolution. I was afraid that they were talking about people like us.
When the crowd passed the house and the chanting dissipated, I went back to my shoveling, and as I shoveled, I wondered what color the soil was in Florida. I didn’t know if free soil came in another color or if it felt different from the soil I was shoveling.
When I had filled the last of the pillowcases, I asked my mother what to do next.
“Take them into the bathroom. Stack them by the edge of the bathtub.”
I carried the bags into the house, one by one. There were a total of four. These were all the pillowcases we had.
“What a rotten government this is, where a family can only own four pillowcases no matter how hard they work.” Even with the impending attacks, Mom found the time to criticize the Communists.
I had no idea why she felt that the bathroom was the best location for the sandbags—if she had heard it on the radio or if Uncle Wilfredo, had suggested it or if she had seen it done in an old war movie—but that was where I put them.
“I’m going to see Grandpa. I want to tell him about the game.”
“How could you be thinking about baseball at a time like this?”
Her words echoing in my head, I ran back towards my grandparent’s home.
I ran through the small orange and mango grove that separated our houses rather than go out to the road. This was a more direct route, even if I had to jump a couple of fences.
The house on Esperanza Farm, where my grandparents lived, was too big for them now that their “kids” had married and moved out. The house, with its raised front porch, was a tall wooden structure in need of a coat of paint.
There was a bedroom on each side of the living room, which was off the front porch. Behind the living room was a room where the radio and two old chairs kept each other company when my grandparents were not occupying them. The dining room and the bathroom were to either side and immediately behind them was the courtyard. The kitchen was on one side of the courtyard, and another room—my Aunt Zoila’s bedroom at one time, but now used by Grandpa to hand roll cigars—was on the other. Most windows and a couple of screen doors opened to the courtyard, exhaling into it all the sun-generated heat.
The bedroom I slept in when I stayed at my Grandparent’s house was the one that had been Dad’s. He slept there until he got married to Mom and built a home of his own on Esperanza Farm.
At night, when everyone went to sleep and the lights were turned off, the weird noises of the farm came alive right outside the windows. But Grandpa Lino’s loud, rhythmic snoring kept my thoughts off the disturbing night sounds and I never had any trouble falling sleep.
Further out, past the edge of the backyard, the tobacco fields slept. They extended, interrupted only by the railroad tracks a couple of hundred yards away from the house, to the edge of the green and gray mountains rising to the north.
The vegetable garden was the first thing that you saw as you approached my grandparent’s house on Esperanza Farm. A juniper grew on either side of the stone walk that led to the garden. Roses and gardenias calling attention to themselves, depending on the season, bordered the walk. The rich vegetation looked like it was crawling, climbing and dancing all around the house. Facing the garden, there were large windows which Grandma always kept open so that the air could come in to play with the soft, white drapes, bringing into the house the sweet smell of the fruit trees that grew everywhere on the property.
At the end of the stone walk, I found Grandma Rosa, kneeling in front of her vegetables as if she was communing with them. She looked up at the sun, her eyes squinting a bit, and she then looked at me, reflecting the smile of the sun to her oldest grandson. She gathered the gardening tools she had been using and threw them all inside her basket. In a gray water pail she had collected potatoes, peppers, cucumbers and onions. She reached for me.
“Give your grandmother a hand.”
She got up with some difficulty, and after slowly straightening up, she hugged me so hard she squeezed the breath out of me. Her skin felt cold even though she had been working under the early summer sun. Four or five small drops of sweat sat above her upper lip. Her knees were full of dirt and her hands had deep, dark, green stains in between the fingers.
Then I heard the sound of Grandpa Lino’s radio coming through the window, the static making it hard to hear the announcer’s voice. I worried the minute I recognized the station. Grandpa Lino’s radio was tuned to Voice of America. I knew listening to this station was not allowed since it broadcasted from the United States. My parents and some of our neighbors listened to it anyway. They didn’t believe the Cuban radio station, and the American one was supposed to tell the truth.
As Grandma finished gathering her things, I got closer to the window and listened:
In Washington, President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba, designed to prevent additional supplies from the Soviet Union from reaching the island. There are 20 to 30 ships en route believed to be carrying nuclear components. The Organization of American States at the request of the United States, approved a resolution calling for the removal of the missiles. Last night in his live address to the nation and the world, President Kennedy spoke for the first time about the escalating crisis. He said that the government of the United States had, and we quote: “maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere,” end of quote. We will continue to bring you the latest news and information as events continue to unfold.
“What’s Grandpa Lino listening to, Grandma?”
“I don’t know, Paquito…some trouble with the Americans over something. I’m not sure. Maybe I don’t want to know. People are worried, but I just came out here to do a little weeding and get some stuff for lunch.” She dried her forehead and turned towards the house. “Nothing like getting your hands dirty when the world is going a little crazy.”
I picked up the pail and followed her into the house where my father was born. We entered through the kitchen. After Grandma Rosa placed her basket on the floor by the Frigidaire, she took the pail from me and dumped all the contents on the white cast-iron sink.
“Hey, Lino, look who’s here!”
“Your oldest grandson came to visit us.” She waved me over. “He’s right in there, Paquito, in the small room. You can go in…why are your clothes so dirty?”
“I slid into home plate…you know…playing baseball.”
“Oh…well, go in and tell your grandfather. He’s the baseball fanatic. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Yes, thanks. Do you have lemonade?”
“Cold lemonade coming up!”
I found Grandpa Lino rolling cigars on his small table, the radio playing on the small cabinet by the window. The moment he spotted me, his face softened, and his head tilted slightly to one side as he took a deep breath. A gentle smile followed and I walked into it.
“Paquito,” he said, his voice almost a whisper, “won’t you give me just one minute, son? I just have to finish putting the wrapper on this cigar I had started. Then we can talk.”
Grandpa Lino folded a leaf lengthwise, exposing the underbelly, over the worn surface of his table. He applied a couple of cuts from his curved blade to remove the center vein. He placed the two half moons on the side of the table and he wiped the table. He then laid one of the halves on the clean surface. When he picked up the already bound cigar, he looked up and smiled at me. Starting at the edge of the wrapper, Grandpa rolled the cigar until it was all covered. Again he picked up the blade to cut off the excess wrapper at the end. He dipped his finger in the small glass jar containing his homemade glue, attaching the small leafy flap to the tip.
He placed the finished cigar on top of a small pile he had completed before I got there. He wiped his table one last time and then looked up and smiled again.
“What are you listening to on the radio, Grandpa?”
“Oh, nothing.” He turned down the volume.
“Please, tell me…”
“Well, there’s some trouble brewing between the Americans and the Russians, and the Cubans are in the middle. But don’t you worry.”
“Mom and Dad are worried. What is it about?”
“Who knows? They will sort it out, you’ll see. Don’t let it worry you. What did you want to tell me?”
“The game was tied in the bottom of the ninth and I was at third base and Tobi bunted me home. I scored the winning run on a suicide squeeze!!!”
Grandpa turned off the radio, as he looked at me, eyes wide. He slapped the table with his open palm. His smile returned.
“Do you know, Paquito, that in all my time playing baseball—and that’s a pretty long time—and all of my time watching the Tabacaleros play their home games, I have never, ever, seen a successful suicide squeeze play. Never, not once…so this is an amazing thing.”
Grandma came in with the lemonade and placed two glasses on Grandpa’s rolling table.
“Rosa, Paquito scored a run on a suicide squeeze! Can you believe it?”
“Of course I can believe it! I just don’t know what it means.”
She laughed as she went back to the kitchen. Grandpa rolled his eyes.
“Did your cousin Tobi roll it down the third or the first base foul line?”
“I wish I had been there to witness this, Paquito. You will never forget this game…”
“Never? Is there a game you remember…you know, from when you were a kid?”
“Sure. I’ll never forget the time I broke a no-hitter my brother Sergio had going into the eighth inning. It was not a clean, solid hit. More like a blooper, but I got to bother him for a long time about it. His kid brother messed up the best game he ever pitched. With that swing I got even for all the times he’d struck me out.”
Grandpa sipped from the lemonade. He was smiling at the memory when I picked up my glass.
“Let’s toast, Paquito.”
We raised our glasses.
“To the mystery and the glory of baseball. May we live long enough to witness a perfect game being pitched and may that game not be against the Tabacaleros or the Occidentales. And may the baseball gods continue to smile down on you and guide your actions in the field and off. And may our lives go into extra innings together. Here’s to your victory today!”
Our glasses clicked.
A toast to baseball, sanctified by Grandma’s lemonade.
Grandpa Lino gently placed his glass down on the rolling table. He was looking at me with some concern.
“You still look worried. Want to let me know what’s on your mind?
“When we were playing this morning a plane flew by, very low above the field. My friends said it was an American jet.
“I see. Well, let’s go for a walk, you and I. The cigars can wait.” He drank the little bit of lemonade left in his glass and carried both glasses towards the kitchen. I followed him. “Rosa, I’m going for a walk with my grandson. We need to talk and stretch our legs. See you in a few minutes.”
Grandma took the empty glasses from him and she smiled at me as we went out the kitchen door. When we were almost at the stone walk, Grandma called out.
“Lino, don’t forget your hat. The sun is pretty strong already.”
I ran back to get it and then ran back to catch up. Grandpa kept on walking, past the vegetable garden and the rear yard, where you came upon more fruit trees and a tin-covered little structure without walls where Grandma did her washing. When it rained, the big round drops played a heavenly symphony on its metal roof. I had grown used to falling asleep listening to the musical racket on many rainy nights.
Behind the washroom there was a fence and a wooden gate and past that gate, the tobacco fields began. The harvest had been done on this part of the fields. Only the naked stalks remained, and the ground showed a tired color after its most recent effort.
Grandpa waited for me to catch up, and when I was by his side, he spoke in a low voice:
“This thing that everyone is talking about is a serious thing, but I wish you would not worry too much. A few days ago I was out by the river checking on a turbine that wasn’t working and I saw a plane, like the one that flew over the field this morning, flying close to the ground. They’re spy planes that the Americans are flying over all of Cuba trying to keep tabs on what the Cuban government is doing in cahoots with the Russians.”
“What’s the government doing?”
“Well, they’re not telling. But the Americans say that the Russians are installing missiles somewhere in Cuba that could be fired at Washington. That makes the Americans very nervous.”
“Are the Americans nervous because they have no missiles?”
“Oh, no, they have plenty of missiles. The argument is about something else, I guess. But there’s no need to worry. What’s going to happen will happen, and no amount of worrying is going to change that. I’m sure the Russian and the American and maybe even the Cuban governments are talking to see how they can get us out of this mess. I’ll let you know what I hear on the radio, OK?”
“OK. It sounds like a big mess.”
“Yes, it is. I think that if people played more baseball they’d have less time to be messing things up. Which reminds me, I once heard that the Senators—they are not in Washington anymore, you know, and Pedrito Ramos, San Pedro’s pride and joy, is not pitching for them…I think he’s with Cincinnati now. Anyway, the Senators, it’s rumored, had offered Fidel a contract to pitch in the majors. If Castro had been signed instead of Pedrito…things would be very different today in Cuba…” He paused in our walk, to catch his breath. “But things are what they are—no point in wishing they were different.”
Grandpa shook his head before continuing.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes here at Esperanza Farm over the years. And change is not easy. But I try to accept the way things are today. One of the things that hasn’t changed is that we still grow the best tobacco in the world. At one time, most of this area was owned by Bartolome Rios, the richest man, not only in San Pedro, but in all of the nearby municipalities combined. He was a smart businessman, and what made him so rich was the quality of the tobacco he cultivated at Esperanza Farm. What made the tobacco so special here was the rich soil and what made the soil so rich was the water from the stream that wraps itself around two-thirds of the farm’s edge.”
Grandpa spoke of the soil at Esperanza Farm with the same reverence people express when speaking of their dead ancestors.
“I grew up here on the farm. I was taught reading and writing in that single-room building over there, the one that is now the office of the government’s land redistribution program, Agrarian Reform. All of the workers’ children were taught there.”
“I worked all of the different jobs here as a young man. And after I married your Grandma, we built our house on the farm—on a parcel we bought from Don Bartolome.”
“My parents’ house was only a few hundred yards from my grandparents’ house, and my Uncle Sergio and his wife Felicia’s house was across the road from Grandpa’s.”
“When the farm was taken over by the government and it became part of the Agrarian Reform a few months ago, I continued working the land, but it wasn’t mine anymore. It is now owned by the ‘masses’.” Grandpa cleared his throat. “I guess the masses decided to let us stay in their house.”
His eyes drifted to an oddly shaped tree, sitting apart from other trees across the dirt road. Grandpa Lino pointed to it, without looking at me.
“That’s a majagua tree,” he said, changing the subject, “and there’s no better wood in the whole world for a baseball bat. The wood is very strong, but not too heavy. The thickness of the branch should be very close to the final size of the bat and the straighter the branch the better. If you want to make your own, you should leave it out in the yard so that the rain and the fog of one full year falls on it. That will make the lumber stronger, almost unbreakable.”
“All the guys will be jealous that I have a custom bat, Grandpa.”
“Great! Let’s cut a good, straight piece for you.” Grandpa pulled out his machete and started hacking at the dark, hard wood.
“Wow! A bat made from Esperanza Farm majagua. It sounds special.”
He smiled as he cleaned the branch and handed it to me.
“We’ll say that it’s a special edition, issued to commemorate today’s win on account of your suicide squeeze play.”
I carried the lumber back home, taking short practice swings as we walked.
We were about a hundred yards from the house when we heard Grandma screaming.
“No, no, nooo!” She sounded desperate.
Grandpa Lino turned around and started running, retracing our steps. I followed him, not knowing what was going on, but sure it couldn’t be good news.
Grandpa was running in front of me as fast as he could. I slowed my pace. I didn’t want to pass him. When we were a few paces from the gate, we saw Grandma Rosa running in our direction.
“Rosa, what is going on?” Grandpa yelled, his shortness of breath making it difficult to hear him clearly. Grandma didn’t answer. Instead, she made a sharp right turn.
We saw a tractor towing a mowing attachment, cutting down the old tobacco stalks to clear the fields for the new planting. I saw Grandma run after the tractor, trying to get the driver’s attention. Her apron was getting caught in the swing of her arms as she ran.
“Rosa, what is it?” Grandpa stopped, gasping for breath.
Grandma didn’t look back at us. Either she didn’t hear us or she had more pressing business ahead of her.
“Stop, you moron…stop! The noise of the engine prevented the driver from hearing Grandma’s screams. He just kept on driving. Grandma screamed louder as she ran towards the tractor and the driver. “STOP, YOU SHIT EATER!”
“What’s going on, Grandma?” I yelled.
I had never heard Grandma Rosa swear. Never, until that morning, and not once since. She kept on running over the freshly cut plants. “That idiot, son of a bitch is mowing over my chicks….STOP…STOP!”
When I saw her stop and bend down, I thought Grandma was just out of breath or was going to throw up. Instead, I watched as she picked up as many members of her small flock as she could get her hands on. Next, she began throwing some of the injured birds—or what was left of them—back in our direction as she desperately kept trying to get the driver to stop.
She then began to wail. Grandpa Lino joined in the yells for the driver to stop.
When a young, stricken chicken landed about three feet from me, I could see that, in spite of the spastic moves of the wings and legs, the eye of the bird, looking up at the cloudy morning sky, had no life in it anymore.
I lifted my eyes to avoid the sight at my feet. I could see the tractor turn at the end of the field and head toward us. I saw Grandma standing in its path, a dead chicken dangling from each hand. I couldn’t see the driver’s face, but I could make out the letters on the nose of the tractor. It read Agrarian Reform and it kept driving towards Grandma. Grandpa Lino was running after the surviving chickens, trying to corral them.
“STOP THIS GODDAM TRACTOR, YOU IDIOT!” Grandma Rosa’s voice got louder as she raised her arms, a dead chicken dangling from each hand, like blood-stained white surrender flags.
When the driver was forced to stop his tractor to avoid running over Grandma, she unleashed her anger and frustration on him:
“Didn’t you see my chickens? You son of a bitch!”
“Listen, lady, I didn’t see anything…I have a job to do…” then he turned off the ignition and it looked like he was getting off the tractor, but when Grandma moved around the front of the tractor towards him, he decided to stay on his seat. “Like I said, I have a job to do. Get out of my way!”
“Get out of your way? You’re not only stupid but insolent as well.” Grandma shook the one dead chicken in her right hand, gesturing as she screamed. “Get out of your way? You won’t even apologize for this? I will report you to your supervisor, you heartless, insolent son of a bitch!”
The driver looked at me, and with a quick glance towards my grandfather, he spat on the ground. He turned the tractor on. “This isn’t your farm anymore, lady,” he screamed. “This is government property now…so get your miserable chickens out of here. I’m done with you!”
Grandma stared at the driver. She didn’t move out of the way until after she spoke these words: “I pity a man who can’t even apologize about a mistake he’s made. Unless you saw them and purposefully drove over them, then I don’t pity you…I curse you!”
The last words were almost a whisper but they didn’t lack any of the intensity of her earlier ones. Grandma turned towards me, tears in her eyes. The man put his foot on the accelerator, and the tractor started moving towards Grandma. A few feet away from her back, the driver turned his wheels and drove away.
I helped Grandma pick up all her dead and wounded chickens and place them in her apron. As she cried over them, she apologized to me for cursing at the driver. Grandpa had collected the few chickens that had survived. He was shooing them into the backyard and trying to console Grandma at the same time. I followed them both into the garden area. Then I looked back at the tobacco field, and I could see that the driver had gone back to his mowing and clearing. He didn’t see when Grandma gave him the finger, just before she entered the house, followed by my grandfather.
I walked back towards my house, wiping the chicken blood off my hands.
As I walked by his window, I heard Grandpa Lino turn the radio back on. He was at his table again, rolling cigars.
After I reached our house, I could hear my parents’ voices coming from the kitchen. I walked around the side of the house instead of going in, and when I got to the edge of the porch I sat and looked out. On the road in front of our house, people came and went, no one saying much. I didn’t see anybody smiling or hear anyone talking loudly either. An eerie feeling of expectation—like the moment in the forest when a tree that’s been cut hasn’t yet hit the ground—had come over the farm.
It was approaching three o’clock when I stopped by Uncle Sergio’s house and asked Aunt Felicia about Tobi. He had gone back home, she told me.
As I started walking towards San Pedro, I wondered what Tobi might be thinking about the threats on the radio.
The sun had covered two-thirds of the sky on its way west. The shadows of the palm tree trunks that lined one side of the road into town hung over the asphalt, evenly spaced like ladder rungs. There was barely any breeze, and the fan-leaved fronds were all pointing to the ground. The fields on either side of the road had been cleared. Only a few tobacco stalks remained here and there, mostly around the areas near the edges where the tractors could not get close enough to mow them down. The aroma of freshly disturbed earth spilled over the fences onto the road, keeping me company as I walked.
A pickup truck traveling in the same direction I was appeared to slow down as it drove past me, as if the driver, whom I didn’t recognize, was pondering whether to offer me a ride. I slowed my pace and looked away, in the direction of the stream where some cattle were grazing, ignoring the driver. When I heard the engine pick up speed again, I continued walking. A dog barked in the distance.
A man on horseback crossed the road ahead, moving in the direction of the cattle. He looked toward me and waved. As San Pedro came into view, the pastel colors of the masonry structures became more defined against the afternoon haze. In the distance, towards the middle of town, I could make out the Catholic church’s bell tower, taller than the utility poles on either side of the road.
I crossed the small concrete bridge that spanned the stream at the entrance to the town. On the left side of the road, at the gas station that had been a Sinclair before the government did away with private property, I saw the pickup that had passed me on the road. The driver was carrying on a conversation with the attendant under the small concrete canopy covering the two-pump island.
I walked up the paseo that divided the Calle Real in two, under the full trees sheltering the benches that alternatively faced each side of the street. A timid breeze, like it didn’t want to disturb the afternoon heat, moved about the paseo.
When I got near the small plaza shared by the church on one side and the park on the other, I crossed over. In front of the thick wall that supported steps going up to the church, the sidewalk narrowed. It was quieter there.
There were a few vehicles traveling in each direction and enough people walking around to give the town an air of almost business-as-usual. Under the apparent normalcy, I suspected that each small group of people I saw—whether on the sidewalks or gathered under the covered porches that lined, on both sides, the full length of San Pedro’s Calle Real—was discussing the conflict brewing off the island, on the Caribbean waters surrounding us. Certainly the jet flyby was on people’s minds and, as I walked on, I could hear fragments of conversation referring to it. Everyone wanted to know if the rumors were more than just rumors. I imagined those with TVs—and there were only a few families that had a TV—were probably watching the station from Havana, the only one we got, searching for any helpful information.
I turned the corner to Tobi’s house and I found his dad, Uncle Wilfredo, standing inside the low wooden fence that surrounded their house, a drink in his right hand. A group of people was there, outside the gate, listening to him.
I spotted my cousin Tobi then, as he was coming out of the house. I waved at him but he ignored me. When he saw his father, he turned around in disgust and went back inside. Less than a minute later he came back out following his mother, my Aunt Zoila. She approached Uncle Wilfredo and whispered something in his ear. My uncle waved his arm violently at her, pushing her back on her heels. Tobi stood defiantly in front of his mother, as his father raised his hand, ready to strike him. My cousin didn’t move. He didn’t even blink.
Uncle Wilfredo stopped his turned hand in midair.
“Take your son inside, Zoila, right now! Leave me alone…I am talking to these people…”
Uncle Wilfredo marched towards them. “Go inside!”
Tobi put his arm around his mother. He gave one last burning look over his shoulder towards his father and, before they turned towards the house, he spit on the ground.
Wilfredo Blas, who was married to my Aunt Zoila, my dad’s sister, was saying that an attack on Cuba by the United States could come at any minute. The people gathered in front of Uncle Wilfredo’s house were paying close attention to his words. They all knew he had fought at Playa Giron defending the Revolution during the Bay of Pigs invasion. He told everyone he met. Grandpa Lino teased him about the fact that he had never fired a shot, because the invasion was over so quickly. But he was the only one of my relatives that had any military experience and, on this occasion, Uncle Wilfredo loved playing the expert.
Most times no one paid attention to him because he was usually drunk. I had seen Uncle Wilfredo call out to neighbors passing by, but if he was drunk, they just ignored him, shaking their heads like they felt sorry for him. Even when Uncle Wilfredo yelled at them or screamed their names from behind the fence, they kept on walking.
This time was different. People wanted to know what he thought. Even a few communists were asking Uncle Wilfredo questions, and they were interested in his predictions. People were desperate for information, and Uncle Wilfredo wasn’t that drunk yet.
I stood by the fence, listening in on the conversation, not wanting to think about what had happened with my cousin and my aunt.
“The Americans are really upset over missiles that our allies, the Russians, are donating to the Cuban Armed Forces for the defense of the country. The United States has threatened to do whatever is necessary to get rid of the missiles, even if it means getting rid of Cuba. I’m afraid it appears certain that the Americans will attack Cuba. The jet that flew by this morning was an American reconnaissance plane. They’re checking out the terrain. It was on the radio this morning.”
“It wasn’t the Cuban radio that said all that. You can’t get any information from the station here,” a young man standing up front interrupted, “like they don’t want you to know what’s going on.”
I got closer. The young man turned out to be my oldest cousin, Herman, Felicia and Sergio’s son. His father, Sergio, was my grandpa Lino’s older brother. Uncle Sergio managed a pharmacy on the Calle Real that he had once owned. The Serrano Pharmacy had a Cuban flag over the main door and a large painting of Fidel behind the counter, next to one of Lenin and of Marx. Uncle Sergio had been a communist practically his whole life, according to Grandpa Lino. At a rally against one of the previous governments, when he was a pharmaceutical student at the University of Havana, my uncle met and fell in love with Felicia Martinez. She was the daughter of the woman who rented my uncle a room near the University. On their first date Sergio took Felicia to a baseball game—a love of his older than his love of communism. She took him to a Santería ceremony on their second date.
After he finished his studies, Sergio and Felicia stayed together in Havana, and that’s where my cousin was born. They named their baby Herman, after Babe Ruth’s middle name. George Herman “Babe” Ruth was Uncle Sergio’s idol and the greatest baseball player that ever lived, according to him. Uncle Sergio loved the promise of the Revolution, and Felicia loved Uncle Sergio, but baseball was the one true passion they shared. He was forced to move to New York for a while, a few years before I was born because members of the Batista police had threatened his life on account of his antigovernment activities and political views.
He went into exile when Herman was five years old and didn’t return until Batista fled the country in 1959. Herman was 17 when he next saw his father.
When Uncle Sergio returned to San Pedro from New York, after the Revolution, Felicia and Herman came with him to Esperanza Farm. Sergio was dressed in the green fatigues of the Cuban Armed Forces, Felicia was dressed in the all-white attire of the Santera and Herman wore a tie-dyed T-shirt, jeans that were ripped at the knees and a red bandana. They looked quite different from each other, like each had their own stylist. They moved into Uncle Wilfredo’s house on Esperanza Farm across the road from ours. Two other boys were born there within a couple of years, my cousins Nicolas and Emilio.
My cousin Herman wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps, both in his career and his travel choices. He even wanted to visit New York during his first year at the University, maybe live there for a while like Uncle Sergio had done. But when he applied for a visa, it was denied. Herman was of military age—the years between your 15th and your 25th birthdays—and could not travel outside the country. And when Uncle Sergio started traveling to other communist countries on behalf of his work for the government after my cousin Emilio, his youngest, was born, Herman quit his pharmaceutical studies at the university. He moved back home and lived with his mom and his two younger brothers at Esperanza Farm.
Growing up, Herman was very comfortable with his homosexuality. He was the one guy in the neighborhood who knew all the latest fashions, the coolest sayings and the hippest artists. He painted beautiful pictures on anything he could get his hands on, T-shirts, jackets, lamp shades. He wrote poetry and straightened his hair, and it looked like he plucked his eyebrows too. Once he had turned a pair of regular jeans into bell-bottoms for me when they were in fashion. Herman never hid the fact that he was a homosexual, and no one ever dared to tease him about it either. It wasn’t because people around San Pedro were understanding or respectful. It was because the one time someone had made fun of Herman’s feminine walk, the guy went home with two missing teeth. Herman was in great shape and very strong. He could kick anybody’s ass. That was the way he had earned respect in the neighborhood. The other was because neither Uncle Sergio nor Aunt Felicia took any shit from anyone when it came to sticking up for their son. They actually defended their kid’s right to live his own life. And I never heard anyone in the Serrano family make a negative comment about Herman or his sexuality.
On one of the trips Uncle Sergio took out of Cuba on behalf of the government, one when he was away for almost six months, Herman was picked up by the police at a private party. He was sent to a youth detention facility far away from home, somewhere in Matanzas province. As soon as Uncle Sergio returned from his trip, he traveled to Matanzas to get Herman. I never knew how he managed it, but he brought Herman back on his first try. Grandpa Lino said that Uncle Sergio had a lot of friends in the government.
As soon as Herman came back to San Pedro, he went back to being his old self—as if the camp had had no effect on him. He appeared angrier and, if anything, he was even more daring about his lifestyle than before he was sent away. Grandpa Lino told me once that all those years without his dad and not getting permission to visit New York had really messed up Herman’s thinking. And as if that had not been enough, the time at the detention center had not helped much either. He started making his living as a car mechanic and he rode around town in a motorcycle that had been Uncle Sergio’s.
All of this came back to me, as I watched him talking with Uncle Wilfredo.
“I’ve heard it all before and nothing happens. If they wanted to invade, they could.” Herman looked around before adding, defiance in his tone, “Some folks here might even welcome the Americans…”
“Yes, we’ve heard it before, but this time the stakes are much higher. This may be for real, you know—the situation is getting out of control. And when you add nuclear weapons to the mix, nobody knows how the argument will finally be settled,” Uncle Wilfredo said as he sipped from his glass, “but, nuclear weapons sound redundant. I think that just one missile equipped with a decent-sized nuclear warhead would be enough to wipe out San Pedro and most of Cuba.”
Uncle Wilfredo looked in my direction and winked. I saw that he was enjoying the conversation. He saw some of the people who had ignored him in the past now looking for answers. His gloomy words were scaring the shit out of them—and me—but it looked like he was getting a kick out of it.
“Booooom!” he yelled into the crowd, out of the blue, “the world’s going to end, you fuckers!”
Two ladies in the front of the group jumped back, holding on to each other’s arms.
Uncle Wilfredo howled in delight.
“You’re crazy, Wilfredo,” one of them said and started to walk away, “just plain crazy!”
“Call me crazy, if you like! But here’s the good news for you: no one, except the cockroaches, will survive a nuclear attack. So, don’t worry, you don’t have a thing to fear!”
Just then, an olive green jeep pulled up to the sidewalk, a little distance from where we were standing. A man in a white guayabera shirt and dark glasses stepped out of the passenger side and walked right up to the group. The driver got out a moment later but he stayed behind. He lit a cigarette and leaned against the Jeep.
“Hey, Serrano, we have to talk,” the man said to Herman as he got closer.
Without looking at him, Herman turned and started walking away. The man pulled Herman by the hair and shoved him towards the Jeep.
“I said, we have to talk!”
The glass slipped out of Uncle Wilfredo’s hand and shattered on the concrete walk. I saw his finger tremble as he pointed it in the direction of the man in the white guayabera. Uncle Wilfredo opened his mouth, like he was going to scream something, but no words came. Not even when the man slapped Herman with the back of his hand.
“Are you deaf? I said, we have to talk, you fucking fag!”
He pushed Herman against the Jeep.
The second man looked at the rest of us, “Go on, go home. All of you!” Then he looked at Uncle Wilfredo, “And stop listening to a drunken old fool. Go on, get out of here!”
We all began walking away, not one of us daring to look back. As I got closer to the corner, I heard two thumps behind me, like a catcher’s fist pounding a mitt, calling the location for a pitch. When I looked, I saw the two government guys on their backs and I saw Herman jump on his bike and speed away, rounding the corner at full speed. Uncle Wilfredo, having finally found his voice, started screaming for Herman to go faster.
That night I walked back and forth, waiting in the darkness of my room for a nuclear attack to light up the sky. The next night, the same thing, and for many nights after, the waiting in fear continued. Each night, it felt like the terror followed me into my sleep and showed me pictures of limbs falling off of men, women and children. And birds trying to fly away, but they couldn’t escape because their wings were on fire. I’d wake up a few times each night, my eyes staring into the black air around me, looking for the victims of the horror.
On the fourth night—I’m sure it was a Saturday—sometime around midnight, a woman’s scream woke me up.
At first, it sounded like her cry had come from a place deep inside my own nightmares. But the echo of her pain was still floating all around me when the second scream came; this one was broken into pieces, like shards, and I realized that this was happening nearby, outside my window somewhere. Silence followed the screams. Then the night turned a sinister shade and sleep left me for good.
On that night in October, Felicia learned that Herman’s motorcycle had been found mangled up, lying on the side of a dirt road, behind some bushes by the river. No word on Herman’s whereabouts, but the guy who found the bike told Felicia—after she swore up and down not to repeat a word to anyone—that there was what looked like blood stains on the bike and the ground beneath it. Of course her promise went out the window when she heard her son’s name and blood in the same sentence. Uncle Sergio was on a government trip through Romania and the Soviet Union, so Felicia was alone with her two younger boys and the unbearable grief and horror.
Earlier that same night, a Cuban radio announcer sounded happy when he gave the news of the shooting down of an American spy plane flying a mission over Cuba. The announcer mentioned that the American pilot had died.
Death was reminding people that it was around.
When I heard the news, I wondered if it had been the same pilot that had flown over the baseball field earlier in the week. After he saw us playing ball, did the pilot wish he was playing, in a field somewhere, instead of flying a stupid spy plane?
You can learn more about the novel HERE.