Key West Story | A Novel

 (The scene: Havana. The time: today. The characters: blocked and destitute Key West writer Con Martens; a young Ernest Hemingway, a.k.a. Nick Adams, sent from Writers Heaven to get Con back on track; Ricardo, a Cuban Navy scuba diver; his sister, Aurora.)

When the rain stopped they left the bar and walked back down the hill into Old Havana, the damp-smelling streets dark and quiet, the only light coming from open doorways and windows where an occasional electric fan turned. The fragrances of frying garlic and jasmine came on a sudden breeze from the sea. Distant thunder made Ricardo look up at the black sky.

“Rainy season. Showers are normal. But I am worried about a storm off Jamaica. But it should not strike until late tomorrow.”

“We’ll beat it out.”

At the bottom of the hill light fell onto the cobbled street from an old building where recorded music wafted out an open door and windows. Ricardo led them through the doorway to the right of which, inlaid in the stucco, a plaque read “Casa de Tango.”

An older woman in black silk dress, high heels, and costume jewelry showed them to a rustic table in a crowded cabaret. After they ordered more beer from her, Ricardo turned to Con. “How do you pass your time in the United States?”

“I write novels and help other writers.”

“One must always give back.”

“Y tú, Ricardo, what do you do?”

Ricardo flicked his eyes at Nick.

“Está bien,” Nick said. “We’re all comrades here.”

Ricardo turned back to Con. “I am an officer in the Cuban Navy.”

“On a big ship?”

“No. Special forces, like your Navy Seals.”

“You sound dangerous.”

“I could be if we had enemies other than ourselves. For now, the Navy employs me as a salvage diver.”

Three gray-haired men mounted a low stage where rested an upright bass, accordion, and guitar. The recorded music died, lights dimmed, and a single spotlight focused Con’s attention on the combo. At once they began playing a slow, rhythmic song. Soon the woman in the black dress stepped to the stage and began to sing, projecting a clear voice throughout the room without aid of a microphone. After a few seconds couples rose from their tables and gathered on the small dance floor before the bandstand. They moved to the music with sensual dignity, elegant and erect. An Argentine invention, the tango, Con knew. A way to dance out your eroticism and sadness, which fit Cuba. His beer tasted bittersweet and he felt like he had time-traveled to a purer place.

The song ended, the dancers applauded. After another song and more applause the old woman stepped forward bowing. She introduced the musicians and thanked the National Council for Culture for its support of traditional music and the Casa de Tango.

“Permit me to introduce the petite cantante with the big voice, Aurora Avila.”

Ricardo leaned toward Con as they clapped. “My sister.”

Sweeping from the dark wings of the cabaret in flowered skirt and black strapless top came a slender woman with curling black hair and flaring nostrils. She looked like a dark goddess, fluid and formidable. She bowed to acknowledge the applause and turned to the accordion player, who counted aloud, “Uno, dos, tres,” and the combo broke into a lilting Latin song. When she turned back and Con gazed upon her face fully for the first time, he started and felt his pulse quicken. For it was the woman from his dream, seemingly, the dark mermaid with Gulf Stream-blue eyes.

He sat hypnotized. Aurora: goddess of the dawn. Her voice came confident, strong, and penetrating. He felt it infecting and warming him like a fever, and told himself that he was a fool, that after all the beautiful women he’d known, here he was reacting like a schoolboy. But he couldn’t help it. He felt as if he’d been stung. Worse, it wasn’t honest lust but something weird and buzzy, as if he’d always carried an image of her inside him.

Others began again to dance. The previous singer came to their table and Nick rose to escort her onto the dance floor. But Con couldn’t take his eyes from Aurora, who sang of great passion, lost love, and loneliness. She moved near their table to touch Ricardo’s shoulder as she sang, and her scent, jasmine and musk, came to Con. On her pulsing throat he saw a necklace of cowrie shells. He watched as she moved away and sensed Ricardo’s eyes on him.

She sang three songs during which Con spoke not a word. Then she bowed and came to sit.

“Cantas más melodioso que los pájaros,” he said without calculation—you sing more sweetly than the birds.

“Gracias. But it is such old-fashioned music. Do you really like it?”

“En serio. Qué bella.”

Ricardo introduced first Con then Nick. When she heard the latter’s name, Con saw her tense.

Nick ordered beer all around. “This is the way Habana used to be: Clubs everywhere where you could hear good music and dance.”

Aurora turned to him. “Ricardo has told me of you, Señor Adams. I know why you have returned.”

Her brother reached across to lay a hand on hers. “No te preocupes, Aurora. It will be well.”

“Claro. I know this is right.” She returned her gaze to Nick. “But Ricardo is the only family I have.”

What with the surreality of Havana, being stung by Aurora, and sensing that Nick had been far less than forthcoming, Con felt at sea. He figured it showed, for Nick looked at him and said in English: “I’ll tell you everything, Conman, soon. I ain’t taking you where you don’t want to go.”

*

The four of them finished their beers and walked down the middle of the dark street, the other two men ahead, Con and Aurora following side-by-side. No cars passed. The night air lay warm and quiet around them.

“I have heard that Key West is beautiful.”

“Sí, in places. But noisier and more dangerous than Havana.”

“Here we have safe streets. There is that.”

At a dark corner Aurora led them through the doors of a decrepit hotel. Over the dim doorway embossed on the crumbling Italianate façade Con could read “Palacio Vienna.” Inside, a lone bulb hanging by its cord lit an unswept lobby where an ornate brass elevator cage, once no doubt an elegant conveyance, sat disused, the metal now pitted and covered with dust. They followed Aurora up a bare wooden staircase, paint long ago worn away, banister gone.

They ascended as if climbing circles of Hell. Water dripped from a broken skylight in the center of the build ing. In the hallways women sat and smoked disconsolately; men played cards, eyeing the foreigners with suspicion. Above, a child twirled about a wooden column where the banister had rotted or been looted, unconcerned with the possibility of dropping three floors to her death. Smells of garlic and dust rose to Con’s nostrils. All was gray except for the brightly colored cotton dresses and unitards of the smoking women.

On the third floor another group of shirtless men played cards at a low table. One sat up straight on his overturned plastic bucket when he saw them. He yelled at Aurora:

“¡Sácate! It is against regulations to carry yumas to your home. You will pay.”

Con looked to Nick. “‘Yumas’?”

“Foreigners. The guy’s likely the local Party snitch.”

The other card players joined in the admonition. Con heard “pepes,” Cuban for “johns.” Aurora ignored their taunts and kept climbing but Ricardo stopped to cast them a hard look and they quieted.

Nick leaned toward Con. “Orwell would love this.”

On the fourth floor Aurora stopped before a door secured by two padlocks. Soon she stepped through it and flipped on a light. A solitary room with cooking ring, kitchen table, and single bed. The artwork on the peeling walls consisted of pictures cut from magazines—the Alps, Paris, Madrid. Aurora turned to him.

“I have tried to grow plants but there is no sun.”

She offered them tea. While the water heated on the burner, Con overheard Ricardo question Aurora about her visit that day to the clinic. She nodded and laid a hand on his. “My health is good.”

Ricardo went to the narrow bed, bent and pulled from beneath it a black plastic sack. From it he withdrew long rolls of yellowed paper, which he spread on the table, us ing books as paperweights. The men bent over the top one, which, Con saw, was a nautical chart.

“Aquí, por ejemplo,” Ricardo said, pointing, “is a wreck we worked for two months, finding a number of Spanish coins before being ordered to another site. But the manifest indicates gold bars. They are still there.”

Con looked to Nick, who squinted at the chart. Now at last it was making sense. The human cargo they were to liberate came with charts that could lead to another Atocha. Treasure. Exactly what he needed.

When the tea was ready Ricardo pushed the charts aside. He and Nick sat on the only two chairs, whispering. Con sat beside Aurora on the bed as she gazed at the rolled charts on the table.

“You are close to your brother?”

“When our mother died he took care of me, ever since I was eight.”

“Y tu padre. ¿Dónde está?”

“Ricardo’s father died in prison. My father returned to Moscow. I did not know him.”

Con sipped his tea and studied her, feeling stirred by her nearness. She asked: “Do you know Cuba?”

“This is my first trip.”

“Havana is not Cuba. To know my country you must see the countryside.”

“I wish I had more time to do so.”

“You will return. When you do I will show it to you.”

Nick called, “Conman, bring me your backpack.” Con retrieved it from the floor beside him. Nick and Ricardo folded the charts flat and placed them inside.

They thanked Aurora for the tea, and Ricardo grabbed his raincoat. Con shook hands with Aurora, who stood on tiptoe to plant a kiss on either cheek, her scent again cutting through him.

“Buena suerte,” she whispered. “Vaya con dios.”

They found a taxi on the Malecón and dropped Ricardo a few blocks from his barracks. “Pues, hasta mañana,” Nick said. “As planned.”

*

Back at the Marina Hemingway Marcos lay curled on the dock before the Pilar’s gangway. Nick shook him, paid him, and sent him home in the cab. Once on board, Nick stowed the charts beneath the bunk below and on deck poured them each a shot of rum while Con opened two beers.

“You got the drift, Conman?”

“We’re taking him and the charts with us.”

“Should be easy.” Nick lowered himself into a deck-chair. “Tomorrow after dark we check through customs to head back. Tell them we’re having engine trouble and may stop to make repairs offshore if it acts up. Half mile out we throttle down at the channel marker that Ricardo has swum to. We pull him aboard—your job—while I watch for Commies and keep the Pilar purring. You stow him below with the charts. Once outside the twelve-mile limit we’re home free.”

Con moved his jaw laterally, taking it all in, feeling his blood run cold despite the rum and warm evening. He nodded. “And if we get caught?”

“Cubans would confiscate the Pilar and arrest me for smuggling.”

“Not to mention stealing government property.”

“But you get off the hook: Claim ignorance and I back you.”

“If they swallow it. Otherwise I land in the bote with you.”

“I can use you, Conman. But if you say ‘No,’ I won’t hold it against you. I wasn’t square upfront.”

Con paced the deck, eyes moving side to side. “Fucking A. Let’s see: five gees for five years in Cuban prison. You think I was that desperate?”

Nick looked at him. He opened his mouth to speak then checked himself. Finally he said: “You can find someone at the marina to run you back. Lots of American and Canuck boats off for the Keys every day.”

“Let me sleep on it while you count doubloons in your dreams.”

“Some treasure in it for you as well, Conman. But whatever you decide, I pay you the other four gees tomorrow.” Nick drank down the rum and chased it with beer. “Yet more to it than money. Particularly for Ricardo.”

“I’m listening.”

“Neck’s in a noose. Tried to blow the whistle on politicos skimming treasure. But apparently The Beard’s helping himself as well. Nothing Ricardo can do. No free press, nothing. He’ll end up in prison if he stays.”

“So it’s a charity gig?”

Nick’s eyes shone in the cockpit light as he poured himself another rum. “No, Conman. I’m doing it for me and you. Trust me.”

“The Key West mantra, commonly translated as ‘bend over.’ What’s the Cuban phrase for that so I’ll know it when I get to prison?”

“Overdramatic, Conman. All will go well.”

“Yeah: ‘Trust me.’”

“One more thing.”

“Can’t wait to hear.”

“We’re running against American law too. But my lookout not yours. Even if we dodge the Cubans I could lose the boat on the other end if caught and pay a stiff fine. But I got it fixed.”

“Do tell.”

“U.S. Customs uses the honor system. Easy to slip in, drop cargo, then call Immigration. Ricardo lies low for a few days with Boosty then surrenders to the nearest cop, saying his boat sunk offshore, and asks for asylum.”

“Jesus.”

“Do pray, Conman. Órale.”

A warm, airless night, too hot to sleep below. Con pulled the mattress from the cabin bunk and placed it on deck portside, opposite Nick’s hammock.

He figured to lie awake half the night thinking on what to do. But after a long day of drinking, he was asleep within minutes, dreaming of tropical storms, confused waters, and the woman with the Gulf Stream-blue eyes.

 

Death in Mexico / Excerpt / Prologue

Prologue

Nicholas Petrov stood with hands clasped behind him looking out from his glass bubble. That’s how it seemed at times. Glass walls on two sides running floor to ceiling, no windows that would open, filtered air. 

On the desk behind him glowing white words clung to a black screen and a telephone buzzed periodically. Twenty floors below, microscopic men scurried about and toy boats steamed down a gray river. A miniature freight train inched up a trestle to cross a bridge over the river, its black diesel smoke joining that of the boats and the chemical plants on the far bank. When the telephone fell silent a voice came from a speaker in the ceiling.

“Mr. Petrov, call the operator.”

As the voice, too, quieted only a faint hum remained in the air, as though high voltage passed through the metal walls. No sounds from the ground came up through the glass.

“There you are, Nick.”

He turned. A young woman in an efficient black dress stood in the doorway of his office.

“Why didn’t you answer your page?”

He shook his head. “Didn’t hear it.”

She nodded toward the telephone and its dot of blinking white light. “It’s your wife.”

As he paced toward the phone the woman shook her head, pulled a half smile, and moved off down the hallway.

“Hello?”

“Nick. I’ve only got a minute. Don’t forget we’ve theater tickets tonight.”

“I thought that was Friday.”

“Today is Friday.”

When he made no audible response she said, “You’re still thinking about him, aren’t you?”

Phone in hand Nick turned back to gaze on the dismal scene outside the glass walls.

“What time?”

*

The river now shone silver-black and kept moving. Nick looked down at it through similar glass walls, those of his apartment. Reflected movement in the glass caused his eyes to focus there. He saw his wife sitting at the desk rolling cut leaf in a cigarette paper. She lit it, took a long pull, and held in the smoke. Nick refocused his eyes on the river and moved back into his own thoughts.

“Nicholas…”

He turned.

“You never did answer me.”

When he wrinkled his brow and tilted his head slightly she added: “About beginning a family. It’s time.”

He studied her: thin, almost blonde, desirable. She didn’t look near thirty though she was. Nick saw her glance at her watch, suck in one last stream of smoke, and carefully roll the ember from the half-­burnt joint. She grabbed her purse.

“Half hour till curtain.”

*

Nick wore the same gray flannel suit from the office. She wore black. The play was Strindberg, The Father. He watched the characters intently, allowing himself to be drawn into the drama of the stage household.

But then a line spoken by the wife to her officer husband made Nick turn to look at his wife sitting next to him. The woman in the play had planted a seed of doubt in her husband’s mind as to whether he was the father of the child he had known for years. Nick studied his wife, not wondering whether he would be the true father of any child she might bear but, more broadly, whether he might trust her. Whether he might unreservedly entrust her with his child.

At that moment he noticed a thin, almost imperceptible line—just the slightest crease in her smooth, elegant face—running downward from the corner of her mouth. The precursor of an age line, he realized, unimportant in itself. But he also saw it as the beginning of a permanent, indelible sneer. An ever-present emblem of her distaste for life. A sneer at which Nick—and any child he might sire—would forever gaze. He turned back to the stage.

However, Nick now no longer saw there the captain and his wife but merely two actors plying their trade. The willful suspension of disbelief required to feel the emotion manufactured by the actors had been broken in him. And the line that ran downward from the corner of his wife’s mouth seemed now to crisscross busily the glass bubble in which he lived.

Christmas at Long Lake / Excerpt / The Lake

[Read Extras Christmas at Long Lake] [Rick Skwiot on writing Christmas at Long Lake]

I come through the back door to the aroma of onions and bacon frying.  As I remove my coat I hear my father’s voice.

“Maybe something closer will turn up.”

“It’s a good opportunity, Ed.”

“I’m not sure it’s right.  Besides, it won’t go away.”

“But it’s been two months now.”

“I know how long it’s been.”

When my father sees me standing in the kitchen doorway, a wide smile comes to his dark, lank face.  His voice, deep and resonant, calls out:

“There’s my little soldier.  Come over here.”

I point toward the window as I approach.  “R-r-rabbit,” I stutter, as I do when excited.

“Where’s the r-r-rabbit?” says my father, wrapping me in his arms and pressing coarse black whiskers into my cheek.

The smell of my father—man scent and tobacco—comes to me.  My mother and the other women I know smell like roses or lilac, but the men—my father and his friends who come from the city to hunt and fish—each has a distinct animal smell that I could distinguish blindfolded.  I answer:

“The trap in the garden.  Can we get him?”

“After breakfast.  Then we’ll get him and skin him,” he says, running his fingers up my ribs.  He calls to my mother, “What do you say, Veta?  Hasenpfeffer tonight?”

She does not turn to respond but speaks looking out the window to the gray fields.  “Wash your hands,” she says, which brings my brother running into the room.

I dig into my meal.  The salty bacon comes from the farmer with the bad-smelling sty at the crossroads, the orange-yolked eggs from the Suttons’ dark hen-house, where the fearsome spurred cock roams the yard and, screeching, chases me.  The potatoes and onions come from our own garden, the bread from dough my mother has kneaded and baked, the plum jelly from the tree by the lake.

My father asks us what we learned in school the previous day.  Eddie tells about his fourth-grade Christmas program, which I had witnessed, where he played the old toy-maker who falls asleep and whose dolls and toy soldiers come to life, singing, dancing, and reciting poems.  When it’s my turn I shrug.

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean ‘nothing’?  Didn’t you pay attention?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, what did you do?”

“Reading and addition and drawing Christmas trees.  But I knew that already.”

My father leans back raising black eyebrows.  “If they can’t teach you anything there, maybe you’re ready for college.”  He turns to my mother.  “What do you think, Veta?  Should we send him away to college next year?”

The thought of being taken from my home, my lake, and my family leaves me speechless.  I study my father’s face to see whether he is earnest.

“Don’t tease him, Ed.  No, Son, we won’t send you away.”

My father goes on:  “Well, maybe you’re not ready for college.  But you must have learned something there by now.”

I think, trying to remember what might have been new to me.  Then I strike upon it:  “Atom bomb drill.”

My father shakes his head.  “Is that where you put your head between your legs and kiss your…”

“Ed!”

“No, we go away from the windows and sit under our desks and put our arms over our heads like this.”

“That’s good.  That’s real good.  I’m glad to see my boys are getting an education.”

My father drains off his coffee and says:  “Who’s ready for rabbit?”

I slide off my chair to run for my coat and cap.  My father turns to my brother and tousles his blond hair.

“Don’t you want to help?”

Eddie winces behind eyeglasses, shakes his head, and moves off to the front room to play with the electric train under the Christmas tree, a train that my father—who never had a train as a boy—bought him for his first Christmas nine years earlier.

My father and I pace together across the frozen garden, his hand resting on my shoulder.  At the cabbage patch we sit on our haunches side by side.  He hooks the hinged door of the rabbit trap and sets it on end to study the animal inside.

“He’s a big one,” he says.

He carries the trap to the garage and retrieves from his workbench red rubber gloves, an iron bar, and a hunting knife in a leather sheath.  Then back outside to the gate in the picket fence and down wooden stairs to the boat dock, me following.  On the shore near the dock stands a sturdy but crude homemade table stained with blood and littered with fish scales.  He sets the trap on the table, pulls on the rubber gloves, and releases the hook on the door.

I fix my eyes on my father’s hand as it reaches in and pulls out the rabbit by the scruff of its neck.

“Want to pet him?”

I pull off my mitten, nodding.  I reach up to where the rabbit sits on the bench and stroke its back, feeling its flesh quiver beneath the warm fur.

Then my father takes the iron bar in his right glove and taps the creature’s neck at the base of the skull.  It falls limp on the table.  He unsheathes the hunting knife and makes incisions around the neck and up the stomach.  With the red rubber gloves he reaches inside to pull out blue and purple guts, organs, veins.  I hear the sound of rubber squishing in blood, and a raw fecal stench comes to me.

Holding the animal by the head, my father skins the rabbit bare, cuts off its feet and head, and then carries the rabbit and the offal to the lakeshore.  He kneels and, using the iron bar, cracks a hole in the ice.  He washes the carcass in lake water and lays it stretched on the ice.

I stand transfixed over the red flesh of the animal, staring at its lean haunches and recalling the sharp taste of marinated rabbit and vinegary sauce spooned over mashed potatoes.

My father pushes the innards and the rest into the opening, washes the rubber gloves there, and removes them.

“Want to skate?”

At the sound of my father’s voice I look up from the blood-red rabbit.

“Can you pull me?”

“Okay.  Take these things to the garage and put them where they belong.  Then get your sled.  But stay at the shore till I’m back.”

We move together up the wooden stairs to the picket fence.  As my father disappears inside the house with the rabbit, I carry the rubber gloves, iron bar, and hunting knife into the garage.  I return them to their proper places and retrieve a sled of worn brown wood and black steel hanging from a nail on the west wall of the garage, my father’s boyhood sled but now my own.  Careful not to let its runners scratch the black Plymouth, I carry it out into the daylight and down the stairs to the lake.

The lake looks more like a river than a lake—and once was.  It sits on the American Bottom, the wide Mississippi flood plain.  And although the Mississippi now lies twelve miles distant, some claim this once was a channel of that great river, perhaps thousands of years ago.  But the river changed course and left behind this dead river called Long Lake, which runs from Mitchell five miles southeast to Pontoon Beach and Horseshoe Lake, and is only a hundred yards wide on average.  The same Indians who built the giant Monks’ Mound a few miles south also built mounds along Long Lake.

The first Europeans to come to Long Lake were French trappers, who found forests of walnut, elm, hickory, oak, and cottonwood; great prairies; and ample wild game—deer, rabbit, turkey, bear.  But the first permanent white settler on Long Lake was James Gillham, who came upon the area while searching for his wife and children, who in 1790 were abducted by Indians from his Kentucky farm.  After five years he found them at a Kickapoo village on Salt Creek, near present-day Springfield, Illinois.  After ransoming them he eventually settled his family on Long Lake, whose grassy prairies, fertile black earth, abundant timber, and pure water had impressed him.  I love it too.  It seems abundant to me as well.

My father has not yet returned from the house so, lying belly-down on the sled, I push myself along the ice near the shore, pressing my wool mittens against the leaf-ridden ice and lunging forward.  I move away from the dock, eyes trained on the ice passing beneath me, sliding out from the shore to where the ice lies smooth, and the going gets better.  Then a black image flashes past.  I drag my boots to stop, roll off onto the ice, and scurry back on all fours to it.

There, a half-foot below the surface in clear, rigid water, lies a black cat with white boots—the Suttons’ missing cat Boots, her last breath now bubbles captured in ice.  I lie on my stomach gazing at the creature trapped within the hard lake, imagining its creeping unawares over thin ice, falling through to the frigid water, and struggling vainly to free itself.  I lie on the ice as if frozen, staring, puffs of white breath hovering over me in still air.

I hear a footfall and turn to see my father coming down the wooden stairs to the lake with ice skates tied over his shoulder.  I retreat toward the shore where I was ordered to remain.  Walking ahead of my sled, pulling it by a clothesline tied to its frame, I approach my father, who sits on the boat dock lacing up his skates.

He wears a wool cap, burgundy letter jacket, and gray wool socks with a red band at the top, into which he tucks his charcoal-gray trousers.  A cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth, the good-smelling smoke wafting to me.  He lifts the cap from his head, smoothes back his straight, black, widow’s-peaked hair, and places a hand on my shoulder.  Without a word he tosses his cigarette aside hissing on the ice, rises, and glides off across the lake, skates clanking against the ice then cutting an arc on it when he turns.

I watch his trim figure moving over the lake as if pulled along by an invisible hand, like a leaf blown across the sun-lit ice.  Now he returns, racing toward the dock, coming faster and faster.  My heart quickens.  I’m afraid he won’t be able to stop in time and will crash into the wooden pier.  But at the last instant he turns his skates to the side and shushes to a stop, sending a spray of shaved ice into my face.

Squinting and smiling, I brush the ice from my eyes.

“Hop on and let’s go.”  His voice comes to me higher and lighter than usual.

Lying flat on the sled’s slats, chin touching the cold metal frame, mittens clutching the wooden steering bar, I look up to him and nod.  “Okay.”

Its taut pull-rope in my father’s hand, the sled begins to rumble across the lake.  His skates glint in momentary sun and pound the ice.  Soon the sled is skimming the lake, me hugging it like a lifesaver, my father bent forward, legs straining.

A quarter-mile down the lake we begin a wide turn.  I feel the centrifugal force urging me from the sled and hook my ankles in the runners.  Now the sled is moving sideways, too.  I glance up to my father with a mix of fear and exhilaration as the far lake-bank approaches, trying to see if he recognizes the danger and can keep the sled from plowing into the thick-trunked cottonwoods there.  The bank comes closer and closer, the trees come faster and faster.  Then suddenly the sled lurches forward and skirts the shore as we complete the turn and move on a line back home.

Ice kicked from my father’s skates blows stinging into my face.  The slick shining surface slips by beneath.  The sound of metal on ice comes to me muffled by my earflaps.

“Faster!” I call, “Faster!” and imagine the day I will skate there beside him.

But that day will never come.  This December day with my father and me gliding over the frozen lake in tandem is the last time I remember seeing him move so gracefully.

 #

Sleeping With Pancho Villa / Excerpt / “The Gift”

The Gift

He had just started across the zócalo, moving under the elms with white-painted trunks, where boat-tailed grackles were screeching noisily and settling in for the night, when he heard a voice calling through the din of the birds:

“Amigo…Amigo…”

Then another:

“Hey, Jake!”

A green-and-white cab circling the town square counter­clockwise pulled up to the curb on the other side of a low wall. Guillermo was at the wheel, looking wan and translucent, and beside him in the front seat was Jordan. Jake stepped over the wall to shake Guillermo’s cool, limpid hand and squatted down to peer across to Jordan, who said:

“We’ve got problems, man. Get in.”

Jake slid into the back seat, and Jordan handed him a fifth of tequila—the cheapest sort, Jake saw, which came in a clear bottle that looked like glass until you picked it up and squeezed it and realized it was plastic. He took a pull from the bottle and handed it up to Guillermo, who gazed at him in the mirror with woe­ful eyes, and Jake feared the worst. Guillermo was dying, and the local doctors were doing their best, but that wasn’t enough. What he needed was to get to Mexico City or some place where there was a real hospital. Jake could tell from his skin, the way it almost glowed, that he didn’t have long to go. A wife and four kids, too.

But that wasn’t it at all. As Guillermo moved the taxi from the curb, Jordan turned to Jake, took a slug from the bottle, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“The landlord, Don Pablo, needs my place. His niece is getting married, and he wants to set up house for them there.”

“What about the mural?”

Jordan stared at him, and Jake saw a scared look in his eye. “We’ve got problems, man.”

Guillermo locked the cab as Jordan opened the thick, old wooden door to his home, and they followed him through it into the patio. The sun had just set, and the vine-choked patio looked like a jungle. Guillermo and Jake waited just inside the door until Jordan had picked his way through the foliage and turned on lights under the veranda. Then they too moved for­ward through the jungle, and as they did the Mural of Fear became visible to them behind the columns of the veranda. They stopped before it, and Jordan brought chairs for them from inside.

Jake sat, lit a cigarette, and studied the mural. It was a good, yet stupid, work of art by a man who lived off a government check barely adequate even for Mexico, a hungry artist who needed to sell some canvases. But he spent his time painting a twenty-foot-long mural on the wall of a rented house. The mural appeared to consume him, like some seemingly benign but ultimately voracious cancer.

Jordan picked limes from a tree in the patio and passed them to his two guests along with the plastic tequila bottle. Guillermo and Jake drank and bit into the limes.

“¿Quién es este?” Guillermo asked, gesturing with the bottle toward a figure of a man.

“Es Mao Zedong,” Jordan explained, “el jefe comunista de China y la Revolución de Cultura. For gringos, the commu­nists are evil spirits, like the devil.”

“¿Y estos?”

“Those are sinners being fed to the fires of Hell, the flames of eternal damnation that puritans fear.”

Jordan began pointing out to the cabbie other elements in the mural that manifested American fear: Negroes, terrorists, and foreign hordes; serpents, darkness, disease.

Guillermo shook his head. “Gringos are fools to fear such things. It only invites death.”

Jake caught Jordan’s eye, but neither said a thing.

Fodder for the mural came in part from American newspa­pers and magazines, which Jordan read whenever he could find them, since he himself hadn’t been back to the States for twenty-­five years—a seeming manifestation of his own fears. But the best aspects of the mural, Jake thought, came not from Time or Newsweek but from deep inside Jordan. Such as his father, a stern, menacing presence looming over the left half of the mu­ral like a wrathful black God. Beneath him a scroll with Gothic lettering read: “My eye is on you, boy.” Or the trio of comely yet malevolent witches at the bottom right who stirred a living, yonic cauldron filled with mementos of childhood: toys, kit­tens, and Mother Goose.

Yet at the center of the mural was bare white wall. That was the part Jordan couldn’t seem to finish, the one unifying ele­ment that would hold it all together.

“When does Don Pablo want the house?” Jake asked.

“By next month. His niece won’t be married till fall, but the workers need time to repair the garden and to plaster and paint.” Jordan looked at his mural. “The sons of bitches will come in with rollers.” He took a drink of tequila, pulled a lime from the tree behind him, and bit into it. “Why now, after all these years? And just when I’m about to finish it.”

Jake looked at Jordan and saw that it was just wishful think­ing. He still had no idea what went in the center.

“Do you know this niece of Don Pablo?”

Jordan shook his head and asked Guillermo. Guillermo said, “I know who she is.”

“Does she look like Don Pablo?”

“No. She is young and beautiful and could marry anyone.”

“And what about her fiancé?”

“An asshole called Pancho.”

“That narrows it,” Jake said.

“He is a mere asshole of a sculptor,” said Guillermo. “Not a true artist like you, Jordan.”

“Tamayo, Orozco, Siqueiros, Rivera,” Jordan said, holding up four fingers. “The four great Mexican revolutionary paint­ers, and”—he stuck up his thumb—“I’m number five. I’m go­ing to finish the revolution.”

Jordan saw Guillermo staring at him intently and realized he had lapsed into English. “Do you know these men, the greatest of your artists?” he asked in Spanish.

Guillermo shook his head.

“Orozco’s fresco at Guadalajara is the agnostic answer to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.”

Guillermo again shook his head. Jordan explained:

“Many years ago, on the ceiling of the Pope’s chapel at the Vatican, Michelangelo painted a fresco of the Creation. In it God reaches out to touch Adam’s fingertip, investing man with life and establishing the relationship between God and man.”

As he spoke, Jordan stretched out his arm, first as an all­-powerful yet benevolent Creator then, turning around and as­suming a meek and innocent demeanor, as Adam.

“Then, at Guadalajara,” Jordan went on, “Orozco created a similar painting on the ceiling of the rotunda of El Hospicio Cabañas. But instead of God and Adam touching, two men reach out for one another—but never touch. They are forever frozen in a godless solitude.” And Jordan stood at the center of his mural, caught in the bright spotlights he’d arranged so he could work on the wall both night and day, his long, dark fin­gers outstretched, grasping at air, a look of existential pain on his smooth, mahogany face.

“And in the capital, at the Fine Arts Palace, is Rivera’s Man in the Time Machine. Not the original. That the Rockefellers destroyed out of fear. This is Rivera’s replica.”

Taking on a cow-like look of stupidity, Jordan told of the blond gringo astronaut in the center of the mural at the con­trols of the time machine. Then he emulated Lenin, Trotsky, and the enraged workers on the right half of the mural and the symbols of capitalism and repression on the left: the indifferent sophisticates sipping champagne, the mesmerized middle class, the gas-masked armies and looming bombers, Jordan diving fiercely at Guillermo, arms spread as wings. He described, too, the forces of nature—ice and fire, the heavens and earth, the flora and amoebic fauna—over which the time machine was superimposed.

Jordan went over to Jake for more tequila, and Guillermo stared fixedly at the white space in the center of the mural as though he saw Rivera’s masterpiece reflected there.

“God must allow you to finish your work,” Guillermo sud­denly said. “Your picture must be preserved.”

Jordan handed him the tequila bottle. Guillermo took a swig and went on:

“There are three things a man must do before he dies: plant a tree, father a child, and write a book. In this picture, Jordan, you have done all three. It is your seed, your child, your story.”

Jake glanced at Jordan and saw him looking back, thinking the same thing: Guillermo was a goner. He talked like a dead man.

Jordan asked him, “When did you last see the doctor?”

The Mexican shrugged. “Yesterday.”

“And what did he do?”

“He examined me here and gave me some medicine.”

Guillermo lifted up his shirt and pressed the area just below the armpit. He had cancer of the lymph glands and had gone for help too late, and the help he got was not so good.

“What did the doctor say?”

“He said to rest and to stay away from the curandera.”

“Why would he say that?”

“Only because he is afraid she might cure me and then the town find out, and he would be out of business as a doctor.”

“So you went to her.”

“Sí.”

“What did the witch do?”

“She chased the evil spirits into an egg and spilled the blood of a rooster and gave me this to take.”

He took a vial from his shirt pocket and passed it to Jake.

Jake pulled out the stopper and sniffed. “Turpentine,” he said, and handed it to Jordan.

“What did she say to do with this?”

“To put a spoonful in water and drink it three times a day. It is tonic.”

“It is turpentine,” Jake told him in Spanish. “Poison.”

Jordan poured out a bit on the stone floor and lit it. It burned a short, blue-green flame. Then he got a bottle from the table where his paints and brushes lay and carried it to Guillermo.

“Smell. Now this. It’s the same. Turpentine. I use it to clean paintbrushes. Don’t drink this shit, hombre.”

Guillermo nodded obediently, but Jake could tell he was going to take it anyway. It was all he had.

Jordan made a torch out of an old paintbrush doused with Guillermo’s turpentine, and they all lit cigarettes off it. Then they passed around the tequila and stared quietly at the Mural of Fear.

After a silent minute—silent except for the noise of crick­ets in the jungle behind them—a shape suddenly appeared at the center of the mural, a small, dark shape moving across the bare white wall.

Guillermo stood, strode to the mural, and plucked a scor­pion off the wall with his fingers. Then he dropped it to the stone floor and crushed it beneath his boot.

“Asshole of an alacrán,” he said and sat down with a look of satisfaction.

*

For the next few weeks Jake saw very little of Jordan and nothing of Guillermo. Jordan did not drop by the Café Cristóbal Colón mornings to mooch breakfast as he often did, since his landlord, Don Pablo Martínez, was always there at his corner table, drinking coffee and cutting deals. Similarly, Jordan was not answering the door for fear it might be Don Pablo with his strong-arm men to put him on the street. But after three weeks Jordan showed up at Jake’s place.

Jake rented a small room on the roof of an old colonial house and was in his hammock on the terrace taking the sun when he heard a knock at the door. Below he saw the maid moving from her washing to answer it, and soon Jordan was coming up the concrete stairs to the terrace. He spread his arms like a crucifix and proclaimed:

“I am saved! Resurrected!”

Jake looked at him from the hammock and waited for an explanation.

“I saw Don Pablo in the street. He no longer needs the house. He says it’s mine as long as I want it. ¡Híjole!”

Jordan began shadowboxing, ready to take on the world.

“What made him change his mind?”

Jordan clapped his hands and did a dance. “The fiancé died!”

Jake later realized he should have asked then how the fiancé of Don Pablo’s niece had died, but it didn’t occur to him at the time. People were always dying in Mexico. All he knew was that by the grace of God, Jordan’s mural had been spared.

*

But Guillermo soon followed the fiancé to the grave, and his death seemed to affect Jordan strangely. He sprang for a big spray of flowers for the casket and afterward did whatever he could to help Guillermo’s widow and children. And whenever Jake met him on the street he seemed agitated.

“I’m working, man. Catch me later.”

That was all he would say.

Most odd was the day Jake saw Jordan going into the cathe­dral. He followed him in and found Jordan, an avowed atheist, kneeling in the front pew with hands folded, as though praying. Jake stepped back behind a thick stone column and watched. After a minute Jordan crossed himself and rose then moved to a small altar on the right side of the church where he lit a red votive candle and dropped a coin in the poor box.

Jake slipped out without being seen but couldn’t figure it. Perhaps Jordan had made some sort of promise to Guillermo, he reasoned.

Then, one afternoon the following week, the maid brought an envelope upstairs to Jake. His name was written on the out­side in an elegant hand, and beneath it was a black thumbprint. Inside he found a note from Jordan:

“Come tonight at eight.”

*

It was nearly eight-thirty by the time Jake arrived at Jordan’s house and found that the outer door had been left ajar. Sounds of music and conversation poured through it into the street.

He slid through the door into the patio and saw perhaps two dozen people under the veranda—some dancing to a mariachi band in the corner, others chatting and drinking, and still others admiring the Mural of Fear.

As Jake emerged from the jungle-like patio, Jordan spied him and waved him over to a makeshift bar he had set up on his work table. He poured a brandy for Jake, who asked:

“What’s the occasion?”

“The mural—it’s finished.”

“Then you found what you needed for the center?”

Jordan did not answer but put his arm around Jake’s shoul­der and led him toward the wall:

“Perdón. Permítame, por favor.”

The crowd parted for them, and as they stood before the completed mural, Jake felt a sudden coldness, as though glimpsing some dark and secret ritual. For enwombed at the center of the mural sat Guillermo with his pale, translucent skin, curled like a mustached fetus in a black egg of death, and on his face the certain knowledge of that death, a horrible awareness of its com­ing. He sat cut off from the surrounding jungle of fear, be­sieged, alone in his fortress, forever waiting.

Jake turned to Jordan, and their eyes met, and Jake knew that Guillermo had done it, that he had killed the future hus­band of Don Pablo’s niece. Jordan shook his head and whis­pered:

“I knew nothing about it, Jake. It was a gift.”

#

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico | Excerpt | “De Efe”

By Rick Skwiot

Excerpted from

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico:
Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing

Contact: publisher@antaeusbooks.com

De Efe Mexicans call it, D.F., El Distrito Federal, or simply México. Licha was a chilanga, a native of the capital, a choking city of twelve million then, in 1983. I had agreed to accompany her there one weekend, hoping to get my tourist visa extended in the capital. (I should have known better. That Friday morning at the Gobernación, the department of the interior, I learned that the sole person in charge of tourist visas for the whole country had begun his weekend early.)

Licha had come to see her son, Alejandro, who lived with his lawyer father. That the father would get primary custody of a child in a Mexican divorce was not uncommon among her class. The daughter of an army general, she had married at nineteen into a wealthy family of lawyers and judges and into a life of suffocating ease and scrutiny. Servants did all the housework, cooking, and gardening. Licha was expected to travel by chauffeured car each morning to take coffee with her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Then she was free to do as she pleased: to shop, to visit her mother and married (but not unmarried) girlfriends, or to see a movie. But always escorted, purportedly for her safety in the teeming city, by the chauffeur, who’d sit two rows behind her in the movie theater. Licha spent a lot of time alone, reading. She suspected that her husband, like many men of his class, kept a mistress at a casa chica somewhere in De Efe.

I never doubted Licha’s accounts of her married life, which she gave only reluctantly and with an anger in her eye that I would not have wanted focused on me. Further, she was so clueless about household chores that I figured she had to have had servants her whole life. Also, I had heard stories of marital malpractice from Mexican women of all classes. Women whose husbands would not let them smoke. Wives who, like Licha, were not allowed to travel un-chaperoned or attend classes. Women who were required to devote themselves to the maintenance of rigid traditions, fulfilling endless social obligations—christenings, quinces, birthday parties, saint’s day celebrations, weddings, and funerals—with a dizzying number of in-laws. Nor was physical abuse uncommon. All this with macho husbands who often were having sex with other women or men.

As a result, many educated and independent young Mexican women like Licha, informed and emboldened by feminist movements in Europe and America, opted out of ossified Mexican marriage. But with few educated and non-traditional men about, some turned to lesbianism. Others sought out less tradition-bound European and American men.

That Thursday afternoon I had met Licha at the hotel when she got off work, and we walked down the hill to the dusty San Miguel de Allende bus-plaza. There we caught a grimy, smoke-spewing Flecha Amarilla headed for De Efe, some five hours distant, and settled back amid campesinos and workers on their way to San Juan del Río and Querétaro.

I tried to sleep, but the lowering sun came streaming through the window of the stuffy bus. Licha and I had been out dancing the night before, locals’ night at the disco, when the usual cover charge was lifted. We’d met Martina at La Fragua at nine-thirty for drinks and near midnight walked down the hill to Laberintos. There we danced and drank until four, leaving then only because both women had to work in the morning. As a result I was, typical of Thursdays, tired and hung-over.

I tried to open the window, but the latch was missing, and I thought of The Man with the Steel Teeth. I’d heard his legend from a friend who claimed to have met him. An American CIA operative who had lost his real teeth in Vietnam, he traveled about Mexico ferreting out information on radical groups. But he had seemingly lost more than his teeth in Vietnam, for he always carried in his coat pocket a miniature tool kit of screwdriver, pliers, hammer, wire, screws, nails, nuts, and bolts. With it he tried to fix Mexico, which had been left in disrepair. He leveled beds in hotel rooms, tightened legs on restaurant tables, and reattached handles in taxis. If he had been in my bus seat he would have likely gerry-rigged a latch and opened the window that I could not.

It had been dark for hours when our bus pulled into the capital’s Terminal del Norte. We bought a taxi voucher and queued for a cab. Then, since we were headed to the far south side of the city and taxis were scarce, we were shoved into a small cab with four other passengers, along with their plastic sacks and paper-wrapped packages.

We sat in the back seat, Licha pressed against the left door, me against the right. Between us sat two stoic mestizas clutching bolsas on their laps. The taxi moved silently through the cool night. I lay my head against the glass and finally dozed. But then a raucous yelp broke inside the packed cab. I woke with heart thumping, turned and saw the woman next to me tucking the head of a rooster back inside the plastic sack on her lap. Licha looked away, hand over her mouth, trying to stifle her laughter and turning dark red from the effort. A minute later when she had regained control, she got my attention and mouthed the words: “Only in Mexico.”

After an hour in the cramped cab we arrived at the home of Licha’s ex-sister-in-law Griselda, who lived in a new two-bedroom apartment with her husband Armando and their son Armando Junior. Though no doubt considered luxurious and commodious by the millions of Mexicans ringing the capital in shantytowns, the building seemed flimsy and a potential hazard in earthquake territory. And, like many Mexican structures, it stood uncompleted. The hallways were but partially painted and light bulbs there dangled from wires. I learned that Griselda and Armando had moved in three years earlier.

But more bothering was the smell. Somewhere in the darkened valley stood a paper mill that spread a putrid cloud across the sky day and night. I supposed one got used to it after three years.

However, once inside the apartment I forgot about it. Griselda was beautiful and charming and soon pulled me aside conspiratorially to share a flattering letter that Licha had written her about me. Armando, a mechanical engineer, brought out drawings of an invention he was working on, a wind-resistant bicycle. Armandito, just six, sat on my lap smiling and holding my hand. It was like coming home for the holidays but without all the family baggage.

Since I had not eaten since lunchtime and the women wanted to talk, Armando took me to a nearby restaurant in a new shopping mall. I guess he thought that as an American that’s what I’d want. He ordered us beer and shots of tequila and began telling me of his recent business trip to Los Angeles.

Armando could not speak English. Yet, for the benefit of the middle-class Mexicans seated around us who perhaps had not noticed that he was in the company of a gringo, he did so anyway. At least on occasion he threw in a few English words, the most Anglo-Saxon he could muster.

What he found most amusing on his American trip he had encountered at a sex shop. With tears of mirth he related his discovery of inflatable American “party dolls.”

“Primero, they inflar,…” Armando made a pumping motion. “Then…then they fook it! Ha ha ha ha! They fook it!”

Armando was nearly falling off his chair in delight over this bit of Americana. I glanced at two prim women seated next to us, but they seemed not to hear Armando or be offended by his four-letter words in this land of five-, six-, and seven-letter expletives.

While I ate, Armando drank, patting a premature paunch and stating he was on a diet. He talked more of his invention and laid out our plan for Saturday: Licha would visit her son. Armandito would go with his aunt for his piano lesson. Griselda would clean house, as was her custom on Saturdays. And Armando and I, under the guise of attending the horse races at the Hipódromo, would go to a brothel near the Plaza Garibaldi and get laid.

“Yes,” he said winking. “We go fooking.”

*

Next morning Licha went to visit her son, Alejandro, as planned. Armandito’s aunt picked him up for his piano lesson. Armando and I walked downstairs to his car, ostensibly on our way to the Hipódromo, Griselda following.

I had no great desire to go fooking as Armando had plotted. I was still hot for Licha. But as a writer, or at least as someone striving to become a legitimate one, I saw this as valuable research. I figured to get a short story or magazine article out of an afternoon in a De Efe whorehouse. But Griselda acted suspicious. Maybe she sensed something in Armando’s manner, or maybe she knew him only too well. Even after he and I were seated in the car and he’d started the engine, she lingered, leaning an arm on the roof and making idle chatter.

“It is such a beautiful, sunny day. I hate the thought of being inside.”

“Then why not come to the Hipódromo with us, mi amor, as I suggested.”

“No, you men want to be alone. We agreed. I would only intrude.”

“You know you are always welcome, wherever I go,” said Armando. “To the ends of the earth.”

She stepped away from the car. “No, no, no. I should stay home and work.”

“Well, whatever you think is best, my kitten.”

Griselda glanced down to Armando in the idling automobile and frowned as if she had just gotten a whiff of the paper mill. Then she looked up and squinted at the sun. “Well, it is a nice day. Maybe I will go with you after all. If you two don’t mind.”

“Of course not. We are overjoyed. Come, my sweet.”

As she walked around the back of the coupe to get in on my side, Armando looked at me and shrugged complacently. “Ni modo,” he sighed.

At the racetrack Armando insisted on getting a table in the open-air clubhouse overlooking the final turn. We ordered cocktails and la comida from a white-jacketed waiter. Another came to take our betting slips and place our wagers. For a railbird like myself it was quite luxurious, with bleached tablecloths, crystal, and polished silverware. And the track was beautiful, with pink flamingos strolling about a lake on the infield. I suspected it to be somewhat beyond Armando’s means, though he insisted on paying.

But luck was with me, and I was able to put him onto some winners going off at two-to-one and better, which more than paid for the outing. It had been the same on my previous trips to the Hipódromo. I suspected the Mexicans to be emotional, not scientific, bettors, playing lucky numbers or fetching names. Maybe some could not read The Form. Whatever, I saw to it that Armando came out in the black even after picking up the tab. Which was considerable given what he consumed.

He had apparently come off his diet. Before dinner he drank three tall cubalibres. Then he ate a meal consisting of soup, salad, roast lamb, fried potatoes, and dessert, a piece of flan, with coffee and brandy. But he was still hungry. He looked to his wife, holding his forefinger and thumb a millimeter apart.

“I’ll get just a little more, my dear. I still feel a bit empty.”

Griselda sat smoking. She glanced at Armando with heavy eyelids and went back to gazing at the flamingos and nursing a vodka-tonic. Armando called over the waiter and ordered a piece of chocolate cake. As he was finishing that we won another race. Feeling celebratory he ordered us more brandy and himself another piece of cake, lemon this time. Griselda sat and smoked.

The waiter returned with our drinks and placed the piece of golden cake, Armando’s third dessert, in front of him. Eyeing it with obvious lust he lifted his fork. As he did Griselda took a final puff on her Marlboro, reached in front of him, and pressed the cigarette out atop his cake, the red tip hissing in the yellow icing and turning black. Then she turned again to the flamingos.

Armando looked at his cake, fork frozen in midair. Then he lowered the utensil, pushed away the dessert as if uninterested, and, turning to me, shrugged. Ni modo.

*

That evening Licha returned to the apartment in a black mood. Her ex-husband had done his best to undermine her plans with their son, having arranged a children’s party that left her little time alone with Alejandro. She paced from kitchen to dining room as if searching for an object on which to vent her frustration. I vowed that I would not be that object and hunkered with Armando in the living room. I had seen Licha angry before, had seen her blister those who crossed her with hot harangues, eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring, the trilled double Rs of her rapid Spanish sounding like machine-gun fire. Further, I had just awakened from a brandy-induced siesta and wanted to return to full consciousness in peace, with a mild kick-start from the coffee I sipped and some dark-chocolate toffee I’d bought at the track.

But just as I was reaching for the toffee, Licha stormed through the living room. She stopped abruptly before me and gazed down with eyes wide. “Chocolate toffee!” she exclaimed. “That is my favorite!”

I froze, momentarily speechless. But then I felt Armando’s light touch on my sleeve.

“¡Sí! ¡Exactamente! That is what Rick said when he bought it for you: ‘This is Licha’s favorite. I will buy it for her because she too is so sweet and delicious. I have missed her so much all day.’”

Licha gazed down at me, tears welling in her eyes, a smile playing on her lips. “¿En serio? No, you didn’t really say that, did you, Rick?”

Again I heard Armando’s words sliding over my shoulder. “I swear to God, Licha, those were his exact words.” Armando sat erect, right palm raised as if taking an oath.

I felt his hand release my sleeve. I grasped the chocolate, stood, and presented it to her with a kiss. She stared into my eyes and caressed my cheek.

As she devoured the toffee I glanced toward Armando. He winked and surreptitiously made a brief yet obscene gesture with his fist.

#