by: Michelle Wilker
The extreme lengths a person will go to for a better way of life, and for a decent slice of pizza…
Frederico Villa de Bastardo waited patiently outside La Oficina de Emigracion clutching his rumpled papers. The bottle-necked queue was at least sixty people deep. Fred tilted his head northbound and counted all the cabezas, some topped with straw cowboy hats; others crowned with pastel parasols.
“Dios mío, que es esto?” he whispered as he fanned the papers just below his chin, pushing out a tiny breeze. It stunk of burnt plantains and sweat.
It was a blistering and humid day in Havana and it was only nine a.m. The sun had just begun to eke out its scorching fury, pelting an unbearable wrath on the back of Fred’s shoulders. He shrugged, attempting to knock the heat from his sizzling flesh and reshuffled his papers methodically, flipping through them to make sure they were in order, pausing on the letter of invitation and permiso from work. He patted his pants pocket secreting the cash for the exit permit and visa. It took nine months to save up from all his tips as a guía turístico. Fred had studied at Universidad to become a lawyer, but took a tour guide job with Transtur Havana. It was three times a lawyer’s salary so he did not return for the third year of school. A tour guide could make a good living in Cuba.
“Papi, where do you think you are you going?” asked a tiny mujer.
She tugged at Fred’s guayabera and indicated the papers he was still fanning. Her short grey hair was soaked from the heat and glistened when just the right amount of sunshine speckled at its apex.
“Roma!” Fred exclaimed.
“Fat chance of that.” She then spun around and waddled a few steps, dragging her sandals along the asphalt.
Fred clicked his tongue and shook his head. What did she know? Crazy old lady should mind her own business anyway.
“Don’t listen to her. This is her fifth time trying to get to Miami to see her grandchildren,” said the vaquero behind Fred.
The man towered a good three inches above Fred and his sombrero added a bumpy wave to the sea of straw. A thin leather band encircled it and a smoky feather jutted up. If Fred squinted, all the hats in line blended together into a spectacular golden haze.
“Gracias Señor.” Fred removed his baseball cap and bowed.
“El Comandante doesn’t grant visitation rights to madres of defectors.” The vaquero shouted his response, which was most certainly intended for the tiny mujer to hear, but she ignored his words and continued to hobble away.
Fred smiled. Three hours had passed since he had joined the queue and there were still fifteen people ahead of him. At least now he was able to glimpse the entrance to La Oficina de Emigracion with its large poster of Fidel and Raul saluting in their official military garb.
“La Revolución pujante y Victorisa sigue Adelante,” Fred read. “The Powerful and Victorious Revolution Continues.”
“Sort of,” Fred muttered as he read the posters text over and over to pass the time. He wasn’t much for propaganda, especially when it was shoved down your throat every two meters. Enough Fidel, we get it. It’s been fifty years.
Underneath the poster, Fred spotted all the layers of peeling paint. Some had remnant chips dangling by microscopic threads. The building was filthy, with flaxen water marks and soiled blemishes. He was surprised that it was still standing. An edifice practically crumbled a day in Havana. It would plummet to the earth in a thunderous crescendo like a concrete waterfall, kicking up plumes of dust and sharp pebbles in its wake. There was no mistaking the noise as it crashed with a reverberating thud. Fred was used to it. Everyone in Havana was.
“Roma? No te creo,” asked the vaquero. “Why?”
“Mi amigo Mario Biscotti lives there and I want to tour the Vatican and eat some good pizza,” Fred replied.
“Coño, que suerte!”
“What about you?”
“I’m heading to Miami, like the rest of these poor bastards. My great aunt has lived there since before la Revolución.”
“Wow. Not many of those left.”
“Asi mismo, eso es verdad.”
“Good luck, mi amigo.”
Fred had made it inside the building, just shy of the vestibule. The clerks were inspecting people’s documents and stamping them with a snap and whistle. It was just a matter of time before Fred’s turn would arrive. The butterflies skittered from one end of his stomach to the other like a swarm of daddy long legs. Fred had waited so patiently and saved for so long for this moment. It’s not like he was a doctor or professor. Fred’s job was of no consequence to el gobierno.
Mario had sent Fred countless letters and photos of the places they would visit in Rome. The Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum, each venue blindingly ornate, some of them encased in pearly marble. Roman architecture was so masterful and ancient and yet it did not crumble the way it did in Havana, a city littered in rubble and dotted with vacant casino high rises that haunted the Malecon with their loneliness. It was mortifying.
The clerk beckoned, flailing his hands skyward. Gracias a Dios.
“Buenos días.” He arrayed his papers onto the counter and shuffled them into a neat pile. The clerk was a lanky fellow with his head plopped on top of his thin neck like a child’s lollipop. A name tag identified him as PEDRO. The clerk pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and didn’t return Fred’s pleasantries. He went immediately to examining Fred’s documents. Fred tapped his index finger just outside the counter and peeked next door. The tiny mujer had tears streaming down her face. She gripped a wrinkly paper sphere, “Por favor” she bawled. Pedro stared at Fred annoyingly so he stopped drumming his fingers and instead clasped his hands behind his back. Was he supposed to make conversation or just be quiet? A friendly demeanor was always best, he surmised. Abuela had always insisted that there was no excuse for a lack of manners.
“It’s a beautiful day today, although it’s muy caliente,” Fred said, letting out a toothy grin, but Pedro just continued to flip each page with a rustling whip.
What a self-important ass, Fred thought. These civil servants had sticks shoved so far up their backside that they thought they were Fidel themselves. Rendering judgments and enforcing policies they knew nothing about. Fred continued to smile at Pedro.
The building’s room was serene despite how crowded it was. People were on top of each other like icing slathered all over a tres leches. Hats were flapping to circulate what little oxygen moved and a hushed murmur clung in the air, trickling down from the crown moldings in bits and drabs. Fred could feel the curls of his hair puffing out into a stout mushroom.
“Compañero Bastardo, your host in Roma is a taxi cab driver?”
“Did you bring the fee?”
Fred pulled out the cash and counted it carefully, laying out one bill at a time. Pedro seized the stack of money and banged it like it was a deck of playing cards.
The vaquero glanced at Fred and signaled a thumbs up.
Pedro’s silhouette reflected into the large windowpane, and Fred could tell he was gesturing with his pencil. He tried to inch closer, but as his head gained measure, the image dissipated into a blur. Oh well, he would find out his chances soon enough.
“Compañero Bastardo, thank you for your patience.”
“I’m sorry to say, but El Jefe has determined that a taxi driver from Roma cannot afford to sponsor you. You can reapply in six months and return with the proper documentation and requisite fees.”
Pedro stamped “Negado” on Fred’s application. The crimson ink from the stamp trickled out in bloody streaks.
“Por favor, Señor. Please reconsider. Mario makes quite a good living in Roma. I promise he can afford it.”
Pedro shoved the wounded documents under the plexi. The imprint smudged further into a gory-looking Rorschach.
Fred gripped at his denied travel documents. Woozy and heated he backed away from the line, trying to skate one foot ahead of the other. His left shoe affixed to the sticky linoleum and he stumbled. Cheap bastards couldn’t even manage to clean the floor, Fred fumed. He clenched his fists, curling them tightly into sticky pink mounds. He needed to get out of there before he punched Pedro in la boca. If he did that, then he would never make it to Rome.
It was still hot outside and sweat trickled off Fred’s forehead like a leaky faucet.
“Watch it asshole,” shouted a taxi driver in a maroon Lada.
The driver honked curtly. Fred gave the man the middle finger; he was in no mood. Brightly colored Buicks and Chevrolets paraded past. They were hauling tourists snapping photos. The tourists ate that vintage car shit up, especially the Yankees from the Estados Unidos. Little did they know that they were spackled together from Russian spare parts and that two blocks away tarnished cadavers rested in broken down heaps, abandoned in alleyways. Fred kicked the curb and scrunched up his rejection. What a fucking waste of time.
Fred found himself down by the Malecon. Oblivious sweethearts held hands and shared ice cream, basking in their shared delusional bubble, their feet dangling just a few inches off the sandy ground. The area smelled of salt and rotten pescado. Fred had spent close to six hours trying to get that visa and had turned down a visiting group from the United States, the biggest tippers by far. It would take him an additional nine months to save up for another travel application. What a fucking racket.
Abuela would be so disappointed. Fred had planned to bring her back a rosary from the Vatican. He looked out across the water. Surfers on ramshackle boards floated, awaiting that epic wave, but the heat and lack of wind had killed the current. He could see that the black flags had been taken down from the Embassy since George W. Bush had left office. That Obama fellow didn’t seem too bad. Hell, anyone was better than Jorge.
He rested against the sea wall, gravel tickling his spine. God, he hated Fidel. Fred’s face had swollen up with anger and blood percolated just below its surface. He wasn’t a whiney traitor; he just wanted to try a decent slice of pizza. Fred lived quite well, in fact. Abuela owned their house and Mario had given him an iPhone. He was lucky and he knew it. Fred witnessed the depths of Cuba’s squalor as he walked to work every day. Especially Tiny Mía, who clutched her colorful caged door, barefoot with dirt smudges lining her chubby cheeks and dressed in only white cotton underwear and a ripped t-shirt.
“Hola, Hola, Hola!” She sang out as he walked to work.
Her toddler image was branded into Fred’s psyche. He looked forward to and yet dreaded this daily visit. When was a revolution no longer a revolution and just a shitty way of life?
It was almost time for supper and Abuela was waiting. Fred took one last glance down the line of the Malecon. Fisherman cast their lines with lengthy swoops and baby waves lapped up the wall. Ah, fuck it Cuba.
“Mi vida. Tell me everything. When do you leave?”
Abuela was stirring beans from a mid-size metal pot. Smoke wafted from its base. She was grinning and clutching a large wooden spoon. Her hair twisted up into a neat snowy bun and she wore a baggy apron with grease marks peppering its hem.
“Oye Chico, but you are such a great patriot!”
“The Communists can eat my shit.”
Fred sank down at the kitchen table and glared at the scratched-up wood. It was mahogany, with ornate floral engravings on each leg. Abuela had inherited it from her mother who was quite the socialite in the 50s. He had seen pictures of her in slinky evening gowns, dripping in jewels, finger waves adorning her curls as she made her way to The Tropicana.
“Frederico, are you listening to me?” Abuela tapped Fred on the shoulder with her spoon. He could smell the lard starting to saturate. He wasn’t, but he nodded anyway. You will get approved soon enough. Fidel was testing him. El Comandante knew how to weed out the weak and unworthy. Only the strong prevailed so he must not give up. Abuela continued to spew out more bullshit as Fred pondered his future. After forty years, the propaganda had permeated into her deep.
“You are a nice young man, loyal. Not like Carlos De La Cruz. You deserve this.”
“Abuela, that was ten years ago. He was only nineteen.”
Carlos lived in their barrio and they were friends as niños, although Abuela never liked him. He disfigured gobierno propaganda and wrote nasty poetry about La Revolución. He spent eight months concocting a makeshift boat out of an old porcelain bathtub and lawn mower engine. He puttered that contraption all the way to Miami in the dead of night and Fred hadn’t seen him since. Abuela never forgot his treachery. She could barely muster a polite wave to his mother but always tried. A lady never forgot her manners.
“Don’t you worry, Mijo.”
Abuela scrunched up a handful of curls, patted Fred on the back, and continued to sauté clanking the spoon against the pan.
It had barely cooled down even though it was close to midnight and the moon casted a bright spotlight right across the center of his bed. Fred sweated all over his sheets and drifted in and out. Visions of Che and Fidel cackled at him as they slurped up long spaghetti noodles. The marinara sauce dripped from their chins and splashed all over the red-checked table cloth like a violent blood bath. They toasted clinking glasses of Chianti and swayed to the light tinkling of an accordion. Fred shot up. This was ridiculous. He had to get to Rome, no matter what.
Fred was exhausted by the time he awoke. The sun rose with its pinky glow and roosters let out their morning calls. La vecina De La Cruz was walking her new puppy down la calle. The little guy’s fur was freckled with coffee colored specks. He stopped every few meters to sniff random blades of grass focusing mainly on the weeds surrounding Fred’s mailbox.
“Hola, como estas, Federico.”
Fred turned to make sure Abuela was still inside. She didn’t usually get up this early, but you never knew with her.
“How is Carlos?”
“Bien. I got a letter from him last week. I miss him, but you know, he was going loco here. It’s for the best.”
“Sí, entiendo. I think of him often and wonder about that crazy boat he built.”
“You and me both. He went to the library and read a million books on mechanics and engineering. Que genio.”
“Es verdad. Well, I’m off.” Fred tipped his cap releasing his curly hair from underneath.
“Chao, say hello to your grandmother.”
Fred nodded and strapped on his backpack. He waved. How did Carlos fabricate a boat out of junkyard scraps by just reading at the library? He must have had help. Fred didn’t have a mind for engineering, and even if he did, it wasn’t like he could pilot a vessel all the way to Italy. Abuela would never forgive him if he left. It was just the two of them since Fred’s mother had passed on.
Fred’s tourist group for the week was from the United States, however he mainly guided Italians around Cuba. That’s how he had met Mario. Fred found the Yankees were always lively and full of questions.
“Does the government own the golf course? The Hotel Nacional?”
“Remember, when I said there are no stupid questions.” Fred rolled his eyes.
Sometimes it was difficult to have patience for their ignorance, but the tourists amused him with their opulence and brash nature. They were kind and offered to sponsor him to the United States, but he had no interest. It was Rome or nothing.
Havana’s perpetual heat wave had baked and roasted the Island. The Malecon was crowded with folks splashing off the humidity and La Biblioteca Nacional was nearly empty, even though it was Saturday. It was much cooler inside the library, so Fred wasn’t sure why the crowds didn’t all just march down from the Malecon and pretend to read like the rest of the library’s patrons. Fred had searched through the card catalogues for two hours to find books on boat engineering and Italian architecture. He needed to understand how Carlos did it, but none of it made any sense. It was like trying to read Chinese when you didn’t even know the characters.
Fred slammed An Introducción a la Ingeniería Naval shut and flipped through an architecture book. The colors of the Sistine Chapel were so vibrant. Their beauty made his blood crackle. Fred had seen their images a million times, but never became weary of them. He packed up the books and returned them to the librarian up front. She was on her tippy-toes re-shelving. A book at a time got slid in, plugging up the gaps like a gigantic puzzle. Fred loved La Biblioteca, especially as a boy, it was peaceful and the musty smell was intoxicating. He could escape to anywhere or be anyone within its walls.
He decided to take his work route home. An hola from Mía would be nice right about now, Fred thought. A cute pout and a tiny giggle. The cobblestones were shattered and poked straight up and Fred had to skip over a few. The last thing he needed was a broken ankle. Rusted automobile frames dotted the path, frozen in time and left for dead by a bygone era of grandeur. Two stray dogs trailed him. One was missing a leg but hobbled along, yelping occasionally. The street looked a bit odd, spacious yet vacant. An old garnet Pontiac rested on the curb with its front tires deflated and the PONT missing. Only the IAC remained and the street sign above read Calle San Ignacio. Yes, this was right. Fred shrugged as he walked. He was tired and needed a good nap. Fidel and Che still haunted him nightly with their Italian adventuring.
Fred turned the corner and halted. Exposed pewter beams rose above a tower of bulky rubble. His stomach plummeted to his knees and his mind spun until the landscape melded into a rainbow of chaos.
Fred sprinted back and forth, stopping to lift up chunks of the houses. Bits of filthy laundry and shattered furniture were buried as lilac petals and blades of grass fought their way to the surface.
Fred gasped trying to gulp in more oxygen. He then jumped on top of the Pontiac to get a better view.
The street was completely silent; a tumbleweed could have blown past. Fred leapt off the car.
“Jesus, por favor.”
Fred’s voice echoed and he froze, hands on hips, panting.
“Hola, hola, hola.”
He cupped a hand over his ear like he was eavesdropping on a seashell. “Hola, hola, hola.”
The voice was faint but high pitched. Fred raced, following its melodic tune, his footsteps pounding on the broken cobblestones.
Fred turned a corner and there they were, two streets over, walking barefoot and covered in filth. Sand kicked up as they made their way down the street. Mía clutched her mama’s pinky and skipped into a puddle. A bandage was wrapped around her frail wrist.
“Ay gracias. Dios mio. Que pasó?” Fred asked Mía’s mother.
“The house collapsed two days ago. We are living with my papa now and are on our way back to collect some personal items. I know, it’s a longshot, but…”
“Are you okay?”
The woman gazed upwards as a tear escaped. She quickly brushed it away, smearing her dirt stained skin further.
“Hola, Hola, Hola.”
Mía’s hazel eyes were wide and clear. She hopped and grinned.
“Hola, my sweet.”
Fred patted her matted dark hair. Hopefully, she wouldn’t remember any of this. She was so young and didn’t know any different. He envied her innocence. To not know who Fidel was or understand what La Revolución meant. To be able to enjoy a mud puddle and inhale sweet mariposas. To not comprehend that she no longer had a home.
Mía wrapped herself around his leg and hummed “Fred, Fred.” She never managed to squeeze out the ‘erico portion.
“C’mon Mía, leave Fred alone. We need to get back to papa’s before it’s dark.”
“Lo siento. Por favor, let me know if you need anything.”
She picked up Mía and propped her on her hip.
“Adios, Fred.” Mia sang. She raised her tiny hand and blew a filthy kiss.
Fred watched until they were two tiny specks dotting the horizon. He hesitated at what was once Mía’s front door then picked up a large chunk of debris and hurled it into the now vacant lot.
Nine months had passed since he had last seen Mía and her mother. Fred had never been on an airplane before and the daddy long legs scratched at his belly with jittery delight. José Martí International Aeropuerto was crowded with swarms of tourists and compatriots making their way to and from Miami.
“See, Mijo. I told you it would all work out in the end.”
Abuela smirked. Fred hated that she was right. Well, only half right. He had saved up his money again and waited. This time Mario’s brother, an employee of the Vatican, was his sponsor. The simple-minded clerk couldn’t argue with that profession.
“You are so strong Mijo and Fidel knew it. He is rewarding you.”
“Abuela, I don’t want to talk about El Comandante, ok?”
Fred’s grandmother fiddled with his necktie and smoothed out his sport coat. Fred looked so grown up and handsome with his curls combed down into a neat bundle, and his skin tanned. “Promise to send postcards and take lots of pictures,” she said. Fred nodded.
“Te amo, Abuela.”
Fred gathered up his duffel bag and tapped his jacket for his documentation and passport. He kissed Abuela on the cheek and shuffled into line. Passengers nudged and bumped, but it was okay. Fred was on his way to Italy. A propaganda poster hung from the wall just after the ticket agent, “Hasta La Victoria Simpre,” Fred read. “Ever Onward to Victory.” He wasn’t going to miss those posters.
Abuela dotted her eyes with a tissue. She had lost track of Fred in the mob. She climbed on top of a bench and scanned the terminal. There he was. It was her last glimpse of Fred. The ticket agent rifled through his papers and then returned them. Fred twirled and smiled. He walked towards the airplane with long strides filled with purpose and direction. He then poked his head around the corner and gave a final wave to his abuela before disappearing down the jetway.
Michelle Blair Wilker is a Los Angeles-based writer and TV producer. She is an approved Huffington Post Contributor and a published short story writer. Her work has appeared on whistlingfire.com and hollywooddementia.com. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s November 2012 contest for new writers and was short listed for the Fresher Writing Prize in 2015. At the end of this month she will attend DISQUIET: Dzanc Books International Literary Program in Lisbon Portugal and in August of 2017 will be featured in The New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles.