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Fiction

Habaneros

Eduardo del Valle

The dead woman once lived on Los Pinos and Rio, in Cojimar, but that was before she moved here, where she lived upstairs from her daughter, Vivian, and Henry, the son-in-law, on 49th Street, about halfway up the block between Bergenline and Palisade, in the last bastion, as she’d say, of their kind in this town.  Over the years, she’d grown fragile; her bones were brittle, so brittle she broke a few before she gave up the ghost.  A couple of weeks ago she fractured her hip but not before breaking the left tibia, and even before that, just about a month now, she would’ve broken a rib or two had it not been for her withered breast.  And there was that other time, too, when she broke her left arm; no one knows exactly how Carmita, the old woman, broke it, she never said; that was the first mishap and it happened a few days after the bereavement of her beloved husband.  Yet in spite of these mini-cataclysms she took each form of affliction as nothing more than another step on the sequence towards the inevitable, oftentimes managing, in the process, to prompt enough of those unintended perceptions—of haughtiness or moral narcissism—which others had so readily taken the liberty to assume. 

Clearly, she understood the meaning of these little calamities, for it wasn’t like the old woman had two left feet; she’d always been careful and never suffered bodily injury, not before she broke her arm.  It was she, the catta, Reina, the olive-eyed tabby who for each mishap had bore her part, yet Carmita had never mentioned it, wouldn’t say a thing to anyone.  Not even to Vivian, her only and childless child, did she ever say a thing. 

Reina had seldom ever bothered with anybody but Manolo, who was Carmita’s husband and Vivian’s father.  And since the old man passed away several months ago, Reina hasn’t been the same.  “I swear that cat’s in mourning,” Vivian had said one day. “Or possessed,” was Henry’s retort. 

It had always been very obvious: the only creature Reina ever loved, as far as feline love goes, was Manolo; Carmita could’ve sworn she’d once heard her meow “Manolin.”  It was he who had brought her home from the shelter.  She was a sickly-looking kitten, less than a pound, eyes covered with gummy pus when he picked her out from behind the pane of the glazed-in pen, in the feline section.  The attendant at the shelter had mimed the sign of death, his strong brown fingers stretched, shaped like a blade, razor-sharp fingernails shimmering, moving side to side across his throat.  Manolo held her, coiled in his big arthritic hand, Carmita and Vivian standing beside him, anxious to get out of that pee-stinking place.  “Manolo, mira, he says it’s going to die, look at him, viejo,” Carmita had said.  “Bobería.  We’ll take her.”  He knew it was a catta, somehow and without looking.  And he nursed her to health, administering medication with an eyedropper, cleaning her eyes of the oozy stuff at least twice a day for two weeks, his gouty fingers trembling but steady with purpose. 

She would purr; sing her song of seduction only when Manolo was around, sleep on his side of their bed, curled in the crook of his legs, watch the Yankees—Manolo had been a lifelong fan, idolized DiMaggio to the end—on top of his belly, forelegs stretched, squint-eyed, pawing and kneading the tiny pillow he’d place on his groin, just for her.  Playing dominoes she would sit on his lap, her olive eyes peering above the edge of the table, attentively behind the two rows of chips.  When he wasn’t home she would vanish, and then she would reappear, rematerialize out of nowhere just as he stood at the stoop unlocking the kitchen door, keys jingling, and she would sing and camber in cattish happiness as he’d come in.  There were times when Carmita felt jealous of Reina, of her splendiferous and youthful fidelity, that form of devotion which, after five decades of marriage, the old woman was no longer able to so readily dispense, which is not to imply that feelings for her husband had withered away, but Reina had her ways, the power to wake that green-eyed monster in her. 

After the old man passed Reina was rarely seen around the house, eating and drinking from her dual chromed bowl in the dark; pouncing from her hiding places and startling Carmita and hissing at Henry more than once; doing bad things she had never done while Manolin was alive.

“Stop!” said Carmita, standing at the threshold of the living room archway; palm of her hand on the jamb she bent and pulled the furry hot-pink slipper from her left foot.  “Stop!  Stop it!  ¡Te mato, cabrona!” the old woman hollered, as Reina sharpened her claws on the couch, tearing with feline gusto into the plastic covering that covered the purplish-red fabric.  (Manolo wouldn’t have it, refused to have her de-clawed.  He’d found a wooden spool by the abandoned cable factory, where he used to work, stapled a remnant of low-pile moss-green carpet around it, and this contraption Reina had used for clawing until the day her Manolin passed away.) 

The old woman hurled the slipper and Reina whisked away, over the round glass tabletop by the couch, grazing the mauve tassels dangling from the lower rim of the plastic-covered lampshade, knocking down the porcelain matador, a figurine Carmita had bought over thirty years ago at El Encanto, which used to be on Bergenline and 34th Street, before the place was sundered into a remittance shop on one side and a pupusería on the other. 

Into the dining room the old woman went, ambling after the catta, but couldn’t find her without ado; she saw the tip of the tail, squirming, quivering on the slate-blue rug, out from underneath the chair—Manolo’s chair—at the head of the table, which had only been used for traditional dinners and special occasions (always Noche Buena of course, and eventually, after Vivian’s first year in grade school, Thanksgiving, and a few special times thereafter, such as late afternoon dinners on occasion of Vivian’s first communion and confirmation; or the evening after Cacho, Carmita’s brother, and his wife Elena and Cachito, their mongoloid son, arrived from Havana, and three years later on the evening of Cacho’s funeral; all other times they’d eat at the kitchen table.)  Calmly and quietly, Carmita approached the catta’s hideaway, underneath Manolo’s chair.  Reina didn’t move, her tail jiggling, inveigling; it was then Carmita sprung a swift kick.  But Reina was too fast.  Carmita’s tibia broke on impact, on the front stretcher of Manolo’s chair.  This was not an unprovoked attack, and yet, later, Carmita couldn’t tell her daughter why she had been so inclined as to aim a kick at the cat, “Don’t know…I was suddenly taken over by an impulse…y así fue, ¡fuacata!”  Nor did the old woman ever tell her daughter that it had been Reina, less than two weeks earlier, who’d caused her to trip from the third step as the catta zoomed by, flying down the stairs from the attic between her feet.  She broke the fall on her breast, bashing the newel. 

“Mima, cuántas veces have I told you?”

“Told me qué?”

“Not to chase her—”

“Aaaah.”

“—or go upstairs or downstairs or outside, don’t do nada así when you’re home alone.  Haven’t I—”

“Mi casa is not a prison; tu padre had enough of that for all of us.” 

“Why won’t you ever listen to me?”

“You’re my daughter, y yo tu madre.  Mi casa is not a prison.  You’re not my jailer.  Tú no me dices what to do.”

“A few months back you broke an arm—”

“La izquierda.”

“Few weeks back you break a leg…kicking the—”

“La cabrona wouldn’t listen to me.”

“—and now you’ve got stainless steel pins in your hipbone—” 

“¿Y qué?”

“¡Vieja cabezona!—that’s que.”

There were two beds in the hospital room, sockets and buttons on the walls; it was cold and Vivian twined her arms, trying to keep her plum nipples warm.  The other bed was vacant, the curtain drawn.  A nurse came in and they cut the talking; she made some chitchat in her Marinduqueño lilt.  “Comemierda,” Carmita mumbled as the nurse left the room.

“Te lo dije when you called.  I was in the middle of a class and still took the call y te lo dije, didn’t I?”

“Don’t know what you mean,” the old woman said. 

“I had already fed her that morning, like I do every morning.  ¡Te lo dije, carajo!” 

“So you did, ¿y qué?”

“There was no need for you to feed her again, that’s what; no need for you to bother with her at all.”

“I had no intention of feeding her.”

“Why then—”

“I wasn’t looking for her to feed her.  I was looking for her because…” and like a child Carmita bunched her shoulders, glanced at the cast on her leg.

“And now look at you,” said Vivian, “mirate, less than—just weeks after breaking that leg, you go on the stairs, lugging that cast.  ¿Por qué, coño, por qué?  Give me a good reason, Mima,” she paused, took a deep breath.  “No, espera, no, come to think of it, olvidalo—there’s no good reason—”

“I heard noises upstairs.”

“Noises—?”

“Scratchy noises.”

“Probably squirrels, pero afuera, they’re not in the attic, not anymore they’re not.”

“Those rodents are devouring my house; they’re in the walls the roof the attic, and that good-for-nothing husband of yours no hace un carajo—”

“Please Mima don’t try to change the subject.”

“Had our tree chopped down, that’s what he did—nada más.  If your father were alive he would’ve fixed the squirrel problem, and he would’ve nunca, jamás, taken down our tree, because he knew how much we loved it...and the garden—they trampled all over our garden…”

It’d been their garden for years, of course, a strip of dirt on this Union City homestead which for so long had held them in a state of suspension—there’d always been, for years, next year, the year things would change and they’d go back to their real home, Cojimar, on Los Pinos and Rio—but, unknowingly, inevitably, this town had already become home—and was it too late?  Did she still feel habanera?  It was easier for Vivian because she had never known the difference, and even easier for Manolo because, even as he lay under frozen New Jersey mud, he could’ve never been anything but what he’d become, an habanero, by chance or circumstance, it didn’t matter, that’s who he was, had always been—just another Santiago.  But at some point she’d said to herself, And what difference does any of this make any anymore?  This is just how things are here, in Union City, a place in flux now, of cha chas and nacos and cholos (Ay, Mima, please!); de extremos, mhija, que te digo: too cold, too hot, too far, too close; of things in obverse, of freedom and solace, compulsion and affliction; of front yards drowned in concrete and blacktop, backyards but a strip of dirt. 

“I told you, no hay ningún problema, nothing needs fixing, Mima.” 

“That was a man, tu padre.  Always there, to fix it all, sometimes even before things broke, on top of everything, taking care of the manly business all hot-blooded—”

“We don’t have squirrels in the attic, ¡ya no más!”

“I heard the scratchy noises, Vivy, no me digas what I heard or didn’t.”

“Squirrels aren’t coming in the house anymore.  Henry resolvio el problema.  Don’t you remember when—”

“He did nothing of the sort, te lo dije ya, that useless husband of yours, all he knows how to do is delegate.  Delegate, delegate—”

“Y ahí va—”

“The exterminator trapped the critters and that drunkard from Santa Clara, tu sabes perfectamente quien, the one who lives around the corner—coño, no me mires así—ese mismo, he patched the hole on the wall, and then he got those pintsized Ecuadorians to chop down the tree—” 

“Okay, okay, ya está bueno—”

“—and they trampled all over our garden, and the amaranths.  ¡The amaranths, carajo!”

“—pero Mima, ¿qué—”

“Tu padre would’ve done everything himself, but never chop down our tree, nunca, jamás—”

“Mima, Henry hasn’t got the time—”

“No es cosa de tiempo.” 

“No?  Okay, fine—”

“It takes red-blooded temperament to be the type of man que tu padre fue.”

And this was true for it’d been he who, having braved the high seas for three-and-a-half days, later reclaimed them, to their new homestead; it’d been he, the olive-eyed Creole, el isleño as some of his factory chums used to call him, who for fourteen years before that had survived on little more than the stuff of his mettle.  He made it through these years because he had it, “red-bloodedness,” as Carmita would, whenever the opportunity came up, say so herself.  His manliness was a thing of legend among friends and acquaintances and even strangers, and yet none but Carmita and Vivian knew he’d once dreamed of a pride, licking and rubbing, on the coral reefs of Cojimar.  Manolo’s story had been told in one of the Union City weeklies; Congressman Menendez, who was eventually elected Senator, met him once at a patriotic event at El Club Cubano, shook his hand; “La gran puta,” Manolo would say later to friends, wiping his hand on the lapel of his jacket.  Pride oozing out of her eyes, Carmita always said her husband was, owing to the things she knew he’d intended to do before he was jailed, the greatest of ex-prisoners-of-conscience in this whole world of exiles, greater even than Matos himself, for that one too was a whore.  And when he was finally let out of prison on that Thursday morning, in August of 1977, everyone thought Manolo would die within a day or two; the only reason those cabrones at La Cabaña had pardoned him, Carmita had oftentimes said, was because the prison doctors were sure her Manolo was already practically dead and they didn’t want him dying in the infirmary.  So near was he to the gates of the grave, she was shown the completed death certificate sans the signature of the chief medical officer, who, she was told, was on vacation in Moscow and due back on Monday.  So she was told to take Manolo home and come back on Monday afternoon with the local director of her CDR, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, who was to attest to Manolo’s death before the release of the death certificate. 

But Manolo had gone off for four days and five nights and, on the brown banks of the Lethe, had made a pact with the angel of death.  And on the sixth day, the CDR director set out to report el gusano’s miraculous recovery, only to find his wife screaming, her back flat on a desk, legs clasped and thighs quivering around the nape of the district politburo patrón.  Love-wounded, the CDR director never reported the miracle of Manolo’s revivification, and so it was by the power of love’s umbrage that Manolo was saved, and he went into hiding for a couple of years, before sailing away from the glow of Havana, alongside the galanos and across the Florida Straits.

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