••• The International Writers Magazine: Tales from the Balcony in Havana
He and his drinking buddy, Joel were small men, closely cut and simply dressed in pants and tee shirts. Estaban’s hands were small and expressive and he had no front teeth. Joel was the whiter of the two, a trigena as they said for the breed.
A Beautiful Girl
Esteban the artist came from Santiago de Cuba. He was a painter and painted anything that paid. Nobody knew what he liked to paint because he was such a liar. “Tell me what I like. Tell me what I think,” he said to Joel one day as he sifted his rum through his teeth from a planchao.
Joel, the younger, looked him over. Was he serious? He would play along. He told Estaban that he liked pretty girls and the rum sold in a juice carton.
“Oh yes, that is true,” agreed Esteban looking at the precious carton. “I like the planchao.”
“If you are going to paint, you should paint what you like.”
“You think I should paint a planchao?”
“No, paint yourself drunk in the malecon, up to your waist in water,” said Joel. His sarcasm was lost on Estaban who took people to be fools who were also insane. Therefore they could be relied upon to speak foolishly.
“How about I paint a mulata with a planchao in her hand. A pretty one like Maritza.”
“Maritza? Maritza is not pretty at all. I can walk down to the bodega and find five better right now.”
“Yes she is not that good.” Estaban fingered the corner of the planchao, torn off with his teeth so that a small hole let the rum out slowly. He raised the planchao to his mouth a squeezed a spray into his mouth then passed it to Joel.
“You agree too much, Estaban.”
“Yes I do agree too much.”
Estaban had been raised until he was fourteen in Santiago, the second largest Cuban city in the east side of the Island of Cuba. The pearl of the Caribbean is nearly the size of England and contains at last count some eleven million people. The east side of the island is also the most southerly part of the island and two or three degrees hotter. After Estaban’s mother died the family decided to send him to a boarding school in The Isle of Youth, a large Island previously known as the Island of Pines and purportedly Treasure Island, the same as described by Robert Louis Stevenson. On the Isle of Youth Estaban ran wild, escaping from the school to live in the tropical forest. He came upon some wild horses and coaxing a filly with some sugar, he finally gained her trust and mounted her using some vines for reins. The horse became a good friend and he rode her every day. Sometimes the authorities returned him to the boarding school but he was one of the very rare Cubans who never learned to read. He escaped and grew his hair into a great pendru (afro-style) and the people knew him as ‘the wild boy’.
He told Joel about it but his friend from Santiago de Las Vegas did not believe it. His neighborhood was a barrio of Havana.
“How did you eat?”asked Joel.
“I was thin,” said Esteban.
“Yes, but you couldn’t live in the forest with no food,” said Joel.
“If I needed some meat I would go into the city.”
“And then what? Was the food free?” mocked Joel.
“No food is free for a vagabond,” said Joel.
“It is if you steal it,” said flatly.
“And how did you do that? Nueva Gerona is a small town. “Everybody would know and they would catch your colita and you would go to the reform school where they would really lock you up.”
“Listen, Joel, I don’t like your tone. I will tell you this because you want to know.”
“Okay, tell me.”
“I went to the edge of town with the horse. I did not tie her because what would happen if I didn’t come back and she was tied to a tree? I really loved her. She was a beautiful girl.”
“She was a horse. With a tail and hooves.”
“She was a beautiful girl,” Estaban repeated. “And she was always there when I returned.”
“Did you make love to her?”
“Shut up. You say that I agree too much but you are too casual. You have no idea what love is either.”
“Love is a chemical reaction in your brain,” said Joel. He passed the planchao back to Estaban.
“I don’t need to know how a TV works to watch one,” said Estaban.
“I was really hungry sometimes but I always had that horse to keep up my spirits,” he lit a non-filter cigarette called ‘Criollos’ and reflected, all the while holding the planchao.
“And you stole food from poor peasants,” said Joel, goading him.
“Like I said, I left the horse on the edge of town. Sometimes I would find a kiosk sell soup from a vat. I noticed people had to bring their own cups but not everybody had a cup so I found some beer cans and cut off the tops. Then I sold them to people who want soup. I got a half a peso for each can. Then I could buy my own soup.”
Joel began to listen. He liked to hear logic. He was an atheist but he came from a family of Santeríans and was all the more cynical of romanticism of any kind.
“One time,” said Estaban, “I was very hungry. And I loved my horse too much to ever eat her.”
“God, no!” said Joel.
“People will do almost anything to survive, my friend,” said Estaban, pointing at Joel’s nose. Joel laughed nervously.
“I was watching them sell fried chicken at an outside kiosk. The chicken is boiled in a large vat of oil and the cook fishes out the pieces with a fork. I saw the whole operation while pretending to wait in the line. It took a certain amount of time to cook before he fished them out. When it got close to my turn, I let somebody go in front. I didn’t even have one peso. I walked away. I was a hundred meters away but I could not leave. I was too hungry and the chicken. It smelled so good.”
“You had no money so you gave up and ate your horse after all,” said Joel.
Estaban ignored him and raised the planchao like a scepter in front of him and bounced it from side to side as he told the story. “I turned and ran as fast as I could right at the kiosk. I was running so fast that my feet were turning in the air like a fan. There was a low access door made of thin planks next to the counter and I jumped over that. I remember the surprised squeals of some young girls in the queue. I went to the vat, reached in with my bare hands, and filled them with ten pieces of chicken and then I leapt like a panther over the counter and tore off down the road. The people who saw it said, “Did you see that wild boy? He must have been starving to death!”
“You are a crazy man after all.”
“Joel, I swear my hands were burned so bad I had to wrap them for two months but it was worth it. I found the horse and ate chicken in front of her.”
“You should paint the horse. That is my advice.”
“We are all mad, Joel.”
“How do you mean?”
“I am not even a good painter.”
What the Heck is a Yuma?
Tahimi told him that she had not called him a “Yuma” the night before. Somebody in that room sure as hell had. He hated that word. Why couldn’t the first Americans in Cuba have not come from Idaho?
Pips Wally and Dogman Jones meet Maradona
Pips Wally went to Cuba one year at last. He had heard about sun and fun, fishing and brown girls - all that he liked – but it took an invite from Dogman Jones and some harrowing circumstances to finally convince him to go.
The Bread Line
Jerry Alan in Cuba
Laurant and about three-hundred people were in a ‘cola’, which means ‘tail’ in Spanish. A line-up. They were waiting for bread
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