by Ana Ortiz
Disclaimers: Not written for profit. The lead characters often look and sound like THEM. This is an ALT story, and several languages are used profanely.
Mirando un album de fotos Escuchando a Matamoros
de la vieja capital desde un lejano lugar
desde los tiempos remotos La Habana guarda un tesoro
de La Habana colonial que es difícil olvidar
mi padre dejó su tierra y los años van pasando
y cuando al Morro llegó y miramos con dolor
La Habana le abrió sus piernas como se va derrumbando
y por eso nací yo. cada Morro de ilusión.
si bastara una canción
para devolverte todo
lo que el tiempo te quitó
Habana mi Habana
si supieras el dolor
que siento cuando te canto
y no entiendes que es amor.
Carlos Varela, -Habáname" (Used without permission.)
Chapter One: Heroes in the Hood
January 1990 La Habana, Cuba
He has packed so lightly, observed Chela, with an emptiness that made her stomach ache. We must not weigh very much in his heart. She watched her father take the last of the stairs two at a time and then disappear out the front door of their apartment building and down into the street. She heard an enthusiastic roar from the assembled neighbors, signaling his arrival before the crowd, and she knew that she should hurry down to join them. She couldn't move. Perhaps if she were very still, the wrinkles on her shirt from where his hands clutched her shoulders in a desperate hug goodbye would not straighten out, and if she stayed in the stairwell a breeze would not come to violate the residual warmth left by his cheek upon hers. Then a hunger for one more look at him got the better of her and she dashed up into the flat, across the large common room and threw open the windows of the balcony.
The street was overflowing Chela could see that the bordering blocks of Chinatown had joined with the neighbors of El Monte to see off Cuba's delegation to the Winter Games at Albertville, Asian faces punctuating the mulatto and dark-skinned tapestry of the throng. In the middle of the pulsing celebration a flatbed truck was paused, its side graced with a gaudy banner emblazoned with one of Che Guevara's favorite sayings: -Let us be realistic! Let us do the impossible!" The impossible for a Caribbean country to medal in the Winter games had already been attempted by the Jamaicans in the previous Olympiad. Now Cuba would try its luck. On the back of the rusty vehicle rode four smiling young men in red athletic suits, and their newly painted bobsled, the Alma de Marti. They waited before the residence of their trainer, Martin Stevens, while the older man bent down to hug and kiss his three young sons before throwing his tote bag onto the bed of the truck. As the athletes reached down to pull Martin up, the crowd began to applaud, and soon the chant of -Bala Blanca!" reverberated up and down the street, echoing between the row of crumbling buildings.
Chela cried quietly upon hearing her father's nickname taken up by the multitude. The name -White Bullet" had been applied innocently enough to the blonde man in his privileged youth in the United States when he had excelled in the two-man sledding events, then the moniker took on an ugly turn as it appeared on the FBI's -Wanted" posters during the heyday of the Weathermen's bombing campaigns in the turbulent late 1960s. Chela knew that the name was about to take on still more deadly accuracy for - like a projectile suddenly set free - Martin Stevens would not be returning from the Winter Games in France, and he would be leaving a gaping wound in her heart. She saw him turn from the crowd to look up to her and gaily wave, and suddenly conscious of the many eyes dissecting the exchange between the national hero and his firstborn, she quickly wiped away her tears, forced her chin and chest forward and smiled at her father. I can make it look good. I can do this for you, just as you have given me life and when you remember us, don't let it be the bitterness of last night.
Chela knew she had stumbled upon a worse fight than usual because her parents were battling in the quiet, quickly hissed English they reserved for mortal combat, the better to protect their privacy given the thin walls and the insatiable curiosity of the neighbors. She started to back out of the common room, the need for a bedtime drink quickly dampened, but her mother snaked out a hand and grabbed her roughly by the elbow.
-No! Don't go! This concerns, you! Go on, Martin. Here is your daughter who is to start university next year. But of course, once you leave, that will be over for her, won't it? Just as it is for the children of all the worms who turn their backs on their country no more school, no more jobs ....."
Her voice became a litany of incoherent explosions in Chela' mind. He's leaving us. Then her father's voice broke though her gathering panic.
-There are people with university degrees cutting cane and whoring themselves, Maritza. If I can establish myself in France and start sending for them then they might have a future but it is over here. Maybe my family can help, my trouble was so long ago..."
-Your family who was so happy that you married a Spic and gave them brown grandchildren that they have never answered my letters."
He's leaving. Chela felt a strange tingling crawling up her knees and into her thighs. I'm going to faint, she thought woodenly. She shook off her mother's hold and hurriedly sat on the floor.
-It's not about you and the children, it's about me. They need to hear me beg for forgiveness and I will do that if it will give us another chance, because Maritza you have to accept it this is over. The Russians are leaving and we are fucked."
-What kind of a man leaves his family..."
-Don't start with me! How many times did I beg you to take us all with you when you traveled on your Party delegations to Latin America and Asia? All the other compañeras took their families! And many of them jumped ship, the whole family together. You were so stupid..."
Crack! Chela looked up in shock. In all her seventeen years, she had never seen her parents strike each other. Now an angry red mark bloomed on her father's fair skin from where her mother had vented her shame and frustration.
-I was not stupid, I was grateful. Grateful to the homeland that took us in and made us welcome when that other place started killing its children and other people's children in Vietnam, and when it was clear that there would never be justice there for the poor and for people who weren't white. And now you turn your back on the Revolution we have worked for all our lives together..."
Green eyes met each other tentatively, and in sorrow.
-I want a better life for our children."
-The only way I can secure that is to turn you in to the authorities. Then they won't punish us for your treason."
Martin sighed. -If you think that is what is best, Maritza, go ahead. I'm tired of arguing." He nervously pulled down on his sweater, softly patted the crumpled girl on the floor in passing, and ambled off to the bedroom without a backwards glance at his wife.
-I'll be sleeping with you and the boys again tonight."
Chela silently nodded.
Later that night, as the older woman carefully measured the blanket in half between the two of them, Chela thought about what the future held for her impossibly mismatched little family. The twins weren't even out of primary school yet, and already most of the neighborhood children wore bruises from encounters with the young bullies. Eight year old Tomás, meanwhile, was already garnering taunts because of his mannerisms and delicate ways. Her father had always been the nurturing presence in the household, emotionally present in a way that her mother had never been, her energies expended on the household's behalf in other ways. Now Chela would have to step up to provide some of the direction and balance that the family required.
She shook her mother's shoulder.
-Who could sleep?"
-Don't do it. I know it will be terrible for us once they find out that he's defected, but if you turn in your own husband then we really don't have a future. Because then we will be waiting for the day that I turn you in, or that Pedro turns in his twin, and then we really will be lost in a way you can't fix with a job or a university slot. If you don't think you can keep your temper around him, don't even go outside. Stay right in here. I'll tell people you're sick."
Chela turned away from the street and shut the balcony windows. In the distance the truck's engine could be heard protesting as it climbed the steep hills of El Monte towards Chinatown on its way to Old Havana. At the family table sat Maritza, quietly cutting fruit for the family's breakfast. Chela sank into the chair next to her, as her mother took up the sole apple in the fruit basket. The older woman rotated her wrist, making the golden fruit turn like a small world in her brown hand. She sighed heavily.
-Look at this carefully, my daughter. This will probably be the last apple we will see. The Bulgarians aren't going to trade us sugar and medical products for the fruits of the north anymore. The want cash they want dollars. That is the new currency of the so-called 'liberated' Europe."
My father is leaving us and she is going on and on about apples, thought Chela despondently. He is leaving for the North, but I am being left behind in the cold.
It was that night that she began to write in a thick spiral lined notebook that she kept under her mattress. Over the next three years, the notebook would be joined by many siblings, forming a large family of bound memories, desires and musings.
Love has left for the North.
To the South are bequeathed razors and socks
A broken mandolin.
Love has fled into snowdrifts to make snow angels.
The warm sands lie unmarked
Denied the kisses of his feet.
Love's voice echoes against mountaintops
Bringing down avalanches that kill with surprise.
In the South the palms wave in a silent breeze
And death reaps her bounty with no fanfare, no wonder.
Love, I would have the messiness of tossed ashes and spilled cups
The tumult of the fall, the cross word and then the healing,
I would have my pleasures in a raging stream of imperfections,
Than remain in safety on this sterile shore of paradise.
December 1992 Boston, Massachusetts
-Listening to you I get the music. Gazing at you I get the heat. Following you I climb the mountain. I get excitement at your feet! Right behind you I see the millions...." Whoops. Missed my turn again. -On you I see the glory..."
The train conductor pumped his horn frantically as the white T-Bird careened across two lines of tracks, missing the front of his lead Green Line car by a scant four feet as it wheeled round into a highly illegal U-turn. The deep warning bleats blended seamlessly into the volume and intensity of the music spilling from the car's open windows. Bombastic 70s anthem rock, gotta love it. Good morning, Mission Hill! Come on, come on... where's my spot? I will not be late. I will not be late. Sigh. I will only be ten minutes late. Barbara was particularly impressed with herself as she managed to play virtuoso air piano on the T-Bird's dashboard while simultaneously parallel parking at the broken meter she had been using for three straight weeks. Still, she did not want to push her luck, so she carefully sifted through the collection of parking tickets in her glove compartment until she found one that at least matched the month and municipality and carefully tucked it under the wiper after exiting the car. She heard the screech of brakes as a vehicle pulled up tight against her, literally brushing against her white coat.
-Saw what you did to that T car you fuckin' bitch. Where did you fuckin' learn to drive?"
Ah, yeah. I can place that voice. Little piddly world. Well this was always such a little piddly world. She turned to look directly at the red-faced cab-driver who had appointed himself the guardian of Boston's streets.
-From the same good sisters who taught you that if you jacked off too much you'd start seeing things, Frankie, like things that aren't your motherfuckin' business when you total more cars in one year than those dummies they use in crash tests."
The man half-snorted, and averted his eyes.
-You have outta state plates... and I didn't know you were back in town. I mean I knew you were a doctor now and all. Still.... You wanna be careful. They're letting more and more of the niggers and the Spanish drive the trains these days Barb, and you don't wanna trust your life to their knowing how to handle a driving situation."
Groan. Temper. You're not the one to judge, are you?
-I gotta run Frank, I'm late for a meeting." She grabbed her briefcase, a large paper sack, and a cardboard container holding two large coffees and rushed towards the old Huntington Avenue brownstone that housed the Department of Social and Community Medicine. She noted with satisfaction that a lesser woman would have jettisoned some of the precious cargo perhaps the bag of chocolate orgasm brownies in an effort to negotiate the building's impossible triple lock security door. But I am now twenty minutes late. Thanks Frank. Well, this is what all that time at the gym is for. She effortlessly ran up the stairs two at a time. On the third story was the faculty office of Dr. Eladio Torres. The hallways of the old building were narrow: they had been built to serve as conduits within one of Boston's finest homes, not as arteries within the busy and populated organism that was Harvard's medical campus. A stranger observing the laden woman catching her breath against the wall of the tiny ill-lit passage might have mistaken her for a servant delivering refreshments to a scion of a Brahman family of old. Geez. Twenty minutes. I'm gonna have to give him all the brownies.
Eladio Torres was well-known in the Department for his ability to consume massive quantities of sugar, a characteristic he shared with his tardy protégé, Barbara Murphy. Here ended the physical and temperamental similarities between mentor and student. The diminutive elderly Cuban psychiatrist was dwarfed by the energetic young woman, whose irreverence matched her imposing stature. His fading brown eyes were often charmed into laughter by her wicked blue ones, and colleagues had noticed that decades fell off the professor's frame when he stood engaged in impassioned discussions with her, with his unruly long white hairs shaking and excitedly trying to make his points for him. At the Departmental Halloween party they had surprised everyone by escorting each other, with Barbara playing a regal and heart-stopping Cleopatra (her jet-black mane saved her money on the wig rental) to Torres' charmingly shy Albert Einstein. In the brief five months of their acquaintance, the pair had left aside the formality of their unequal structural relationship to take up the beginnings of a true friendship. Thus Barbara's discomfort upon hearing the crispness and immediate nature of the summons on her answering machine when she came in from her morning run. However, as she peered into the open office, she noted that the old man was as delighted as ever to see her in his doorway.
-Come in," said Eladio warmly, in his mother tongue. -I see you have brought everything that is necessary." A lifetime of embodied chivalry propelled the old man to stand and -help" his strapping guest to one of two swivel chairs facing the small desk which served as his office coffee table.
-The best ones," answered Barbara, revealing the chocolate orgasms. -And this is from the Cuban restaurant in Hyde Square." She gestured towards the coffee. -I still think they put too much milk in it. I always heard Cuban coffee put hair on your chest." She unbuttoned the top of her shirt and pretended to look down. -Five months now, and nothing."
Eladio smiled and shook his head. He stood and moved slowly towards the door. -I want to shut this, Barbara, because I think we need some time to talk and I don't want anyone to bother us. At my age I should be so lucky they think I am doing inappropriate things in here with a goddess like yourself."
Coffee shot ungracefully out of Barbara's nostrils, and she was grateful that she had anticipated a high-spill meeting and covered herself liberally with napkins. Despite the bawdy humor of Eladio's words, her body tensed a little as she observed him fishing a sheet of paper from his atop his bookshelf before rejoining her. He set it down carefully next to the brownies, and she recognized it as the leave of absence request she had filed the day before.
-You are doing some shift work with the Brigham's community clinics?" he asked neutrally, shifting back into English for the formal part of the meeting.
-A few times a week. It's not for the money, Eladio. I don't know how to just be a student anymore. I can't be a doctor without patients, even though I know the other Fellows manage it fine." We're not really on topic yet. I need chocolate. Brownie, come to me. Good chocolate orgasm.
-I understand that, Barbara. You know that I support you. People come here with very specific plans. Or worse we have very specific plans for them. And then the world opens up. And things can become very exciting. I worry, however, that I have unleashed a teenage girl in a very large mall with an American Express Card. I bring you here on a three year commitment with the primary purpose of interfacing with our ethnicity and health projects. Granted there was a self-serving dimension to your selection: unpacking -whiteness" and class is the sexy topic in medical anthropology right now, and the Africa of white ethnicity is Southie. You are a precious commodity, my dear. A native fieldworker in an area we want to mine. In my heart, I am very glad that you have refused to simply be the good little token here and have pursued your own interests beyond the Southie studies."
Breathe. Temper. He understands. He did not diss Southie. I hate Harvard. Have some more coffee.
-However. Multi-drug resistant TB in Massachusetts prisons with the Boston University team. More effective domestic violence interventions in ER settings with Herbert's Boston City team. Investigations into coercive administration of Norplant to juveniles in the corrections system with Hammond's MIT team. The utility of narrative analysis in identifying elders who need extra intervention post hip fracture..."
-OK! OK! I see where this is headed. Eladio, you need to understand that my brain was starving the three years I spent down in Farmington doing that residency. The only way that I survived was going in to Hartford when I should have been sleeping and volunteering at the free clinic." Barbara dropped her eyes. -I'm so sorry I interrupted you. That was uncalled for," she mumbled.
-Is that how you kept your Spanish up? Going to Hartford?" he asked quietly. She nodded. He smiled. -And where you got a decent meal, no doubt." Now she managed a smile. And an indecent woman on more than one occasion, but he really doesn't need to know that. -Those deadly suburbs of your residency: they did prompt you to write those haunting essays about anomie and the meaning of community that The New Yorker published. The ones that made us take a chance on you despite your unusual background. I am just concerned about you and how you will be perceived by the Department." He picked up the leave of absence request. -Please help me understand the sense of this." Eladio picked up three of the chocolate orgasms and leaned back into his chair, clearing space in the conversation for his friend and student to make her case. Barbara leaned forward, realizing that she had found an invaluable gift in the old man's candid reading of her situation, and his willingness to be bewitched by her sense of excitement and her passionate approach to life.
-I gave you a bit of the background in the letter. For me personally - Eladio, you know that many people believe I don't belong here. I'm not just the only Fellow without a background in anthropology - I've never left the United States. I've never traveled. If I'm really going to be a legitimate presence for the next three years here, then a few months away getting some cross-cultural experience is a good investment." Not content to let her voice and eyes carry the weight of her need, Barbara's hands moved gently in the space before her chest, ticking off reasons and making imaginary boxes that surrounded her arguments. Eladio noticed this with amusement. This one is so much like a Cuban in many ways. -Then there's the fact that they really can use me. The Tufts team is top heavy with ophthalmologists and nutritionists, but they have no general run-of-the-mill family practice docs. And worse, they are almost completely translator dependent. Can you imagine doing research on a potentially sensitive topic and having all your info coming in through government translators?"
-And it's really that bad?"
-Getting worse exponentially, Eladio. There were just 39 cases this spring. But now the Cubans are reporting over one thousand people suddenly gone blind, with no treatments proving effective and with no identified etiology. People are thinking virus, they are thinking mass poisonings like that nasty cassava root blindness that hit Jamaica in the 1940s, but so far they haven't been able to nail anything."
-Let me guess how they are doing at nailing," snorted Eladio, as he wiped the last of the chocolate on his napkin. -They threw interferon at this mysterious blindness, the same way they threw it at schizophrenia and at AIDS. Here is our hammer! Everything is nails! And if they are reporting one thousand cases, there must really be ten thousand."
-Actually I wouldn't be surprised if there were by the time I get there... if you OK this," answered Barbara softly. -I feel sorry for them, Eladio. They have no resources and they don't have a clue about what's going on." She paused, re-catching his eyes. -This is a real opportunity for me and it's a real mystery to be solved...and it is Cuba. That is a big mystery for an American right there, even without an epidemic to be hunted."
Eladio slumped into the chair and closed his eyes, knitting his fingers together on his lap. I must break her spell. She must understand why this is a bad idea. He sighed and rocked himself up to pull open the side drawer of the little table before them, extracting a half-full bottle of dark rum.
-You are working today?"
-Yes," replied a disconcerted Barbara. The old man retrieved a single shot glass, filled it and emptied it with one decisive upwards snap of his head. He refilled the glass.
-You know Barbara, I am not one of these crazy people in Miami who would put a bomb in your car if you traveled to Cuba. I think it's terrible when those of us in exile shut people up who want to see things there, or who have a different opinion about politics."
-But," helped Barbara.
-But," sighed Eladio. He took a sip of rum before moving close enough that their knees were touching. Barbara was surprised to see the sheen of moisture in the old man's eyes as they bored intently into hers. -You are not just anybody. I have sat at your family's table and I have seen your mother's satisfaction at the path you have taken, at your becoming all of a professional. You have made something of yourself after a difficult start. But you are a free spirit. Cuba is not a safe place for free spirits. I know this is true. When I was growing up I was part of a group of friends, all artists and intellectuals. True brothers because we accepted in each other what our families could not. I did not care about their homosexuality and they did not care about my psychiatry. I know it doesn't seem a shameful thing but the Torres are all great financiers I was such a disappointment to them. We were socialists, all of us, and we were happy to see Batista fall. But in the end I was too frightened by the magnitude of the change we were creating with our Revolution and I left. They stayed behind. One of them arrived here in 1980, when the prisons were emptied during the Mariel boatlift.
My dear, they had all been broken by the Revolution. Several had taken their own lives rather than endure the torment and shame of being sent away to the UMAPs, the special military camps where homosexuals and other social offenders were assigned to do hard labor. Brilliant minds and great heroes, and they were cutting cane for years, shoveling manure and digging ditches, all the time being humiliated and treated worse than dogs. And they tortured them, Barbara. My friend Gustavo who came during Mariel they applied a cattle prod to his testicles in trying to get him to change. But he had always been that way. I know they don't have the UMAPs anymore, but I cannot believe that so much can have changed over the years. And part of me simply does not believe they deserve your help."
Eladio paused long enough to down the remainder of his shot, and Barbara looked on worriedly as the distressed old man filled the glass for a third time. He took a few more sips, then set the glass down, his hand shaking a little as he reached to tap the last surviving brownie.
-I know how you are. You distinguish yourself in many ways. People will notice you. And there are things you are used to having. These... and the ice cream you eat like going to Mass every day. You know there is no ice cream left in Cuba." Barbara could see that Eladio was no longer focused on the pressing matter that had to be decided, and she moved to restore some direction to their conversation.
-Eladio, this research and my success at this post-doc are more important than my having ice cream every day," she evenly began, betting that switching languages would draw the man into the present. -And I am truly sorry for what happened to your friends but I am a doctor, and these people who are being blinded every day are not responsible for what happened to them, and they deserve..."
-You would not be a doctor in Cuba," angrily hissed the old man, suddenly coming to life. -You would not be a doctor. You would be in prison for life already a delinquent! A no good trash person! They would never have given you a chance to change and to be more than this." Barbara sat frozen in shock as Eladio stretched over to tug at her already unbuttoned shirt, and drove his index finger into the fist-sized tattoo that graced the skin between her breasts. Oh yeah. He knows all that. Thanks Ma. At Thanksgiving you should have just showed him the naked baby pictures, or the video of me barfing up my first communion. Is it time to sing the Officer Krupke song yet? I want some ice cream.
-SOUTHIE DON'T NEED NO GOO-HOOKS"
-SOUTHIE DON'T NEED NO GOO-HOOKS..."
The large crowd gathered outside the most central of the Bayside Housing Authority's squat complexes was already dangerous before they found their voice and vision in the person of Barbara Murphy. Like a headless giant it had made numerous clumsy ineffective swipes and abortive forays into the front stoop and yard of the first floor apartment where three Hmong families miserably huddled together, incredulous that they had traded the known dangers of the Thai refugee camp for this American madness. Occasionally, some small dark heads would warily peak out the front window to look upon their new neighbors and what was obviously not the Fourth of July celebration they expected to experience that day, but they quickly retreated when their appearances were met with loud hoots and flying garbage. On the outside of the building, two lonely figures held the giant at bay: crazy old Irene the Communist her wheelchair parked defiantly at the end of the walkway limply held her -No to Racism!" sign in one hand and the leash to her ancient handi-dog Rufus in the other. Irene was a Communist but she was Southie's crazy old Communist, and thus untouchable.
-SOUTHIE DON'T NEED NO GOO-HOOKS"
"SOUTHIE DON'T NEED NO GOO-HOOKS..."
-Love and sex and hope and dreams and still survivin' on these streets. And look at me! I'm in tatters. Uhuh. I'm a shattered...," Barbara stopped singing as she and the rest of the Crying Shamrocks turned the corner and stepped into the turbulence of the Bayside Housing Authority parking lot. She wheeled around to face the two dozen youths, the irritation showing plainly on her chiseled features. -Holy Christ Jesus, can you believe this is still going on? Where the fuck are we supposed to find a quiet place to get stoned off our asses and listen to some tunes if the adults in this community can't solve their own problems? Fuckin' A. We have to do everything around here." Barbara really didn't need for her lieutenants to cut through the crowd for her, but she appreciated the effect it caused and the respect it conveyed. The Crying Shamrocks were a homegrown gang associated with the P Street neighborhood that Bayside formed a part of: it was a small-scale and familiar operation that didn't really frighten people the way the new, high fire-power mega-gangs infiltrating Boston's streets did. The charismatic Barbara Murphy was their captain: the tall fifteen year-old was an unusual package of abilities in the community's eyes. An honor student at South Boston High School and the leading scorer as a freshman for their varsity women's basketball team, she was also Father's designated soloist for -O Holy Night" every year at St. Vincent's Midnight Mass. And over the past two years, her new-found gift for leading local youth many quite older than she was - in the arts of leisure, recreational drugs and petty crime had earned her considerable attention from Boston's finest as well.
-SOUTHIE DON'T NEED NO GOO-HOOKS"
-SOUTHIE DON"T NEED NO GOO..."
The chant died down as Barbara strode confidently up the apartment's front walk to Irene, with her thirteen year-old cousin Jeffrey at her heels. She unceremoniously ripped the sign from Irene's hands and spoke to her in a voice loud enough to carry beyond the two of them.
-I know this seems rude, Miss Irene, but I'm doing you a favor. Look at you depending on Rufus for everything, and you know what? These friggin' gooks eat dogs. Is that what you want happening in our neighborhood? People that are gonna fuckin' steal our cats and dogs in order to have a little taste of home? No fuckin' way, Miss Irene. It hasn't been easy here in Bayside. They've put in some niggers. They've put in some of the Porto Ricans, which is another way of saying they've put in some niggers. And all of these people have come to understand that it's best when people live where they are wanted. That's not racism, Miss Irene. That's sticking up for keeping the neighborhood together."
Calls of -That's right!" and -Not my cat!" could be heard over Barbara's words and the sounds of cardboard tearing. Pieces of Irene's sign fluttered in the wind as Barbara turned away from the old woman and climbed up the front stoop to address the crowd. She noticed the patrolmen at the edge of the lot, and wondered how far she should take it. Well, they understand how it is and better to deal with a little scare now and accept how things are, than let all of us get fucked over. How long until even none of the cops are Irish? Shit.
-You know who I am."
-Hell, yeah!" -We do!" -Brian's youngest!" -That's right!" And they did know who she was. Brian and Theresa's youngest was the last Murphy girl left on the street. Bridget, Cecilia and Constance were no longer known by their birth names: all had fulfilled their mother's greatest prayer and had taken their permanent vows, choosing a strict cloistered contemplative order in which to serve as Christ's brides. Wilhemina and Ruthie - twins - were serving time at Framingham State for grand theft. But more important than locating her position within the Murphy genealogy, the crowd knew that Barbara Murphy was their child, she was what they stood for, and what these godforsaken outsiders thrust upon them by the Housing Authority stood against. -This is my cousin, Barbara Murphy!" yelled Jeffrey proudly, raising his fist and walking over to stand beside her. Barbara rolled her eyes. What a moron.
-And I know who you are, all of you. Even you, Miss Irene. I know you lost two boys in Nam and I just don't understand how you can stomach having these fuckin' gooks in here. I've been listening to everyone be very clear about what we need and what we don't need and Southie don't need no gooks!"
-Southie don't need no fuckin' gooks or niggers coming in here!" yelled Jeffrey excitedly. - We don't need no Spanish or no fuckin' queers or..." The back of Barbara's hand abruptly impacted on the bridge of boy's nose and painfully silenced him.
-Stick to the goddam point, you fuckin' moron. We're talkin' about gooks here," Barbara angrily hissed at her cousin. Jeffrey pulled his hand away and found blood. She always does that. And I always forget we ain't supposed to say peep about the queer stuff cuz Her Highness herself likes to play hide the soap and bend over Mary in the showers after basketball practice.
From her wheelchair at the base of the stoop, Irene plaintively called out to her young adversary.
-Barbara! Don't do this! About Vietnam.... the Hmong fought on our side Barbara. That's why they're here. They got kicked out of their country because they fought with us. We can't do this to them."
-Goddammit, that is not our problem! Why does Southie have to fix it? Why can't they live in Newton or Belmont or Roxbury? Southie fixes all the nigger and Spanish and gook problems for all the fuckin' world. People think we are a bunch of suckers. Well, ladies and gentlemen of Southie and of the Bayside, I believe you know the Crying Shamrocks..."
-Whoo hoo!" -Shamrocks rule!" Cheers and laughter erupted. The waiting policemen started making their move from the edges of the crowd, pressing in from both sides but they stopped when they saw Barbara march down the apartment steps with Jeffrey in tow and resolutely wheel Irene back towards the crowd.
-Well the Crying Shamrocks are not suckers and we, along with everyone else in this neighborhood, have waited patiently for these gooks to get a fuckin' clue about how the suburbs are a better place to live if they want to really learn about America. I mean if they stay, they're just gonna learn about Southie, right?". There were more cheers as the crowd responded to its chosen leader. -Fuck it all! Admit it! We should just issue our own passports! I love my country! This is kind of a loud message for our gook friends here, but they just aren't getting the quiet ones."
And with those words she reached into her bulky sweatshirt, pulled out the home-made pop-bottle mini-bomb that she routinely carried for such occasions, lit it, and lobbed it in front of the apartment door. That is one friggin' long wick. We're gonna be here all day. And for nothing, cuz there's just enough powder in there to do the door if I'm lucky. The door suddenly opened, and Barbara looked on in horror as a Hmong man happily pointed at the soda the beautiful American woman had left for his family. She thought fortune had turned against her and her stomach cramped.
But it was a very luck day for Barbara Murphy. The greatest respect in the gang was for those whose tears were black. On the chest of every member was tattooed the bloom for which the group was named, with three hollow drops framing the shamrock's stem in a loose triangle. Inevitably some of the membership would find its way to the inside of Massachusetts correctional facilities, where Crying Shamrock kindred awaited them, ready to ink in the tears in a rite of passage that granted them an aura of dangerous mystery and hardness once they returned to the streets of the old town. By earning herself six months in juvenile detention for malicious destruction of property, Barbara evened the score among the Murphy girls to stand at Crying Shamrocks with black tears, 3 to nuns, 3.
She was also lucky because she did not carry any injury to another human being upon her conscience from that fateful afternoon at the Bayside, beyond having inflicted a gash in Irene's heart as bad as any of the holes left by the loss of her sons in Vietnam. The property that Barbara served time for maliciously destroying was Rufus. Trained impeccably and with his sense of smell dulled by age, the arthritic golden retriever had pushed himself to promptly respond to Irene's frantic -Take" and -Trash" commands, tracking her pointed directions first to the bottle, and then to the dumpster at the edge of the parking lot. The burst mercifully took the old dog by surprise. When the Shamrocks were able to catch three of the Hmong men in an alley later that week and forcefully persuaded them to move their families out of the housing complex, they congratulated themselves on having done it -for Rufus, who was worth more than any fuckin' gook, goddammit!"
-...The shot rings out in the Memphis sky. Free at last they took your life, they could not take your pride...In the name of love. One more in the name of love..." Oh my, the lateness of the hour. Let me take the concert private. Barbara rolled up the windows, which she kept open even in the frigid New England December evenings.
The craving for ice cream had kept up with her throughout the interminable day. After obtaining his signature for her leave of absence paperwork, Barbara discretely took Eladio home early from work and put the drunken man to bed, explaining to the Departmental secretary that the old professor had taken ill. Then she had put in a very solid shift. It was flu season, and the community clinic where she had just spent ten hours had been overflowing with impoverished and sneezing humanity. It doesn't help that half of them don't have the heat on. Crap. The other half have those stupid little space heaters that turn on you in the night. Heat. Hot. Hot fudge. And maybe I can work it so I get an extra cherry tonight. I need some more fruit in my diet.
Barbara pulled the T-Bird up in front of Flanagan's Supermarket, and affixed a -blocking hydrant" ticket to the front of her car, then crossed the street to enter her favorite ice cream establishment, JP Licks. It was fifteen minutes to closing in the middle of winter, and she found that she had the place to herself. A teenage clerk ambled up, smiling broadly, his lip piercings flashing in the store's bright lights. Eyebrows, check. Lips, check. Ears, check. The brother's got the baloney done for sure. Heh. Keep that sucker clean, pal. I don't wanna see it in clinic.
-I'd like a double scoop hot fudge sundae, one scoop coffee, one scoop butter pecan, extra nuts, real whipped cream, and an extra cherry."
-I'm sorry, Doc," answered the young man pleasantly. -But I'm under strict instructions to get the boss if you come in. We kinda need you tonight." He turned to a small figure huddled up against the back sink washing silverware, and called out. -Jesús! El jefe!" Jesús looked up, his brown face creasing with mirth as he wiped his hands on his smock and started towards the back room.
-The lips of gold," he brightly exclaimed. -I get el Donald." He returned followed by a tall spectacled man with thinning blonde hair, who cradled a bowl in his arms as he sped like a missile towards the store's lone customer.
-Oh, yes, yes, yes, and here you are!" crowed Donald as he firmly pulled Barbara over to a booth and sat her down. -Now I want you to be perfectly honest here. That is what has been saving us these past months, because you have been one hundred percent right on all the hits and on all the misses. I ate crow big time on that pumpkin prune surprise. Ok. You ready?" Barbara nodded. She moved her head forward slightly as Donald inserted the spoon. At least he ain't takin' my temp. And at least I know where that spoon's been. Jeez. I have got to improve on separating my oral and anal thermometers. Concentrate. The man is counting on you. -It's crème brulee, Barb. None of the other stores have attempted it yet."
Barbara closed her eyes and swirled her tongue. Magic and deep pleasure. Good. Very good. But not perfection. -Almost there, Donald. A bit less on the burnt sugar flavor and a bit more on the nutmeg." Donald sighed. -Did you have a lot of it made?"
-I have company staying with me who are good for cleaning up a few practice gallons," answered the ice-cream maker good-naturedly. -Oh, well...thank you." He looked up to the clerk. -Timmy, her order's on the house tonight. Barb, don't feel like you have to rush. You can stay while we clean up." He got up to return to his labors.
-I really appreciate the breather, Don." Barbara stretched her long legs onto the bench opposite her. -Don, could you send Jesús out to me for a minute?"
The little man was so quiet that she jumped when she looked up to find him standing inches away from her.
-You are looking for me."
-Yes." She fumbled in her pockets, pulling out a prescription bottle and a larger liquid container. -This one is for you. It is an antibiotic and both you and your wife have to take two pills twice a day until it is gone. It is for that problem we will not speak of again. It is for you to decide what to tell her." Jesús would not look at her. Her voice softened. -I know you were very lonely while you were waiting for her to join you. I'm just sorry that she also was affected. The pink liquid is for the infection in your little girl's ear. Two tablespoons twice a day until it is finished. Any of you get sicker send a message to Donald. I will be here every day until I travel to Cuba next month. I hear there is no ice cream there, so I have to save it up." She smiled and patted her belly.
Jesús looked at the medicines and shook his head.
-Doctora. There is no way I will ever be able to pay you for these medicines or for treating my family. Even after we get our papers fixed so we get legal we won't have enough."
Barbara pushed the items towards him, and reached out to pull on his smock. She waited to speak until he met her eyes.
-Jesús, do you remember that weekend when I was newly arrived and put all my money and bank cards in the washing machine and I was like an illegal person and had nothing, and you -lost" those two quarts of mountain strawberry ice cream for me?"
The man smiled at the memory.
-I will never forget that. There is something wrong in this country when not having the right papers means no medicine and no ice cream. I can lose things too." As if illustrating the point, she disappeared both the sundae she originally ordered, and a quart of defective crème brulee.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Translation of -Habáname" by Carlos Varela
Looking at a photo album/ of the old capital/ from the old days/ of colonial Havana/ My father left his homeland/ and when he arrived at el Morro (the Castle)/ Havana opened her legs to him/ and for that reason I was born.
Listening to Matamoros/ from place far away/ Havana guards a treasure/ that's difficult to forget/ and the years go on passing/ and we look on in pain/ as each Castle of dreams crumbles.
Havana, Havana/ if only a song were enough/ to give you back everything/ that time has taken from you/ Havana, my Havana/ if you knew the pain/ that I feel when I sing to you/ and you don't understand that it's out of love.
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