Night of the Cuban Dead
Santiago Escobarde barely said a word anymore, and his family, having grown used to the idea of his passing, behaved as if he wasn’t there, until the evening the old man sneezed into his caldo gallego and Lucia screeched, “Hijo de puta!”
Everyone at the table—the wife, the son, the other daughters, Teresa and Beatriz—were shocked and dismayed at the youngest child’s disregard. Since Santiago’s demise last spring, they’d made a point to overlook the grunts, belches and noises of mastication from the old man’s end of the table during dinner. As well as his listless slogging from one end of the ramshackle home to the other, his inconsiderate messes in the bathroom, his lack of interest in books or music, his insistence on spending days and nights in his splintered rocker like a stone-faced paralytic.
I sat in my reserved chair, next to crumbling wallpaper facing the cracked mirror, thumbing through Lezama Lima’s tortuous Paradiso. Even from here I saw Santiago startled into recognition. He threw a glance at Lucia who, at eleven, already exhibited a mantle of dark hair on her upper lip. It was the first time Santiago appeared to acknowledge any of them in months. Now they braced themselves, seeing the old man’s lazy pupil rotate toward the center of his sclera. This typically meant he was readying to assert his patriarchal authority. Lucia, who normally struggled with imagination even on good days, girded herself.
However, when Santiago opened his mouth, the pupil of his good eye glazed over and the lazy one rocketed back to its corner. He lost interest in an instant and dipped his spoon into his bowl. Lucia began to weep. I understood. It must be difficult to eat with a dead man every day.
“There’s too much spoilage in this house,” Alejandro said.
“What?” Teresa, the oldest daughter, asked, adjusting her broken glasses.
“It’s time to bury him,” he said. “We’ve put it off long enough. Smell. The air hasn’t been fresh for a long time.”
It was easier to pretend the odors of rot sprung from the squalor and filth of Havana instead of the old man himself. I could nose him from here myself. The old man was a lack in a long line of lacks: food, hot water, electricity, medicine, comfort, purpose, meaning. Even ration books. Santiago’s malady was common in Cuba: he numbered among the nada men who stumble along in the streets or the fields or their own houses, bodies without logic, faces plastered with stupidity, waiting for the peace of rigor mortis to set in.
I’d brought more than usual: an abundance of food—caldo gallego, ropa vieja, ensalada, arroz blanco, frijoles negros, yuca, maduros, pan Cubano, cerveza, postres, including American apple pie, a nice, defiant touch—; dependable lighting; running water; a microwave; utensils; my books. It was all pretense, of course, sustenance made up of leftovers from imaginative daily living on this once-paradisiacal island, indigestible objects and carcasses found in alleyways, but everyone played along, and it was enough.
“Papi,” Teresa addressed her father directly.
The middle daughter, Beatriz, gasped. The most vocal, Teresa openly condemned the “stubbornness of machismo” behind the mandates, policies and periodos especiales under which they’d lived. She’d flout carelessly within earshot of the neighborhood watches how she wished the much-lauded dove had plucked out the bearded bastard’s eyes during his victory speech in Santiago, instead of providing a moment of apotheosis for his supporters and himself. That is, if the story was even true. She ran a thin hand over her ulcerous stomach. It was barren much of the time and boredom was ubiquitous. She bled a lot. “We are not dead!”
“Teresa!” Olivia shouted, voice husky like burnt sugarcane.
“Pero, Mami,” she insisted. “It’s not fair! He makes us ashamed for wanting to live!”
“Yes,” Alejandro said, “but you should never disturb the dead. Especially when they’re eating.” He pointed with his chin at Santiago, whose long, gray beard was spotted with yellow slime and braided yarn, like noodles, from a ratty mophead I’d found in a gutter.
“Yuca?” Alejandro asked, stabbing a chunk of faux-leather shoe, holding it up for everyone to see. I’d rubbed it with desiccated lemon peels and soaked it in seawater.
“Si, si!” cried Beatriz. “Gimme!”
Alejandro plopped it on her plate. He speared another and moved it to his own, before spooning a thick helping of stringy meat. I’d found a cat near one of the restaurants in the tourist centers. Here, even felines had only the one life just like the rest of us. Of course, the family turned a blind eye. What else were they to do? They didn’t press me for explanations as to how I procured their meals. They wanted me around. They knew I sharpened their ability to invent, and invention was key to survival.
“This is really good,” he said, lips smacking. I’d seasoned it with spices pilfered from trash bins near the Malecon, vestiges of paprika, cumin, salt, pepper.
“He’s not dead!?” Lucia coughed. She’d grown terribly ill the last couple of days. She suffered from headaches, and she no longer read El Edad de Oro. Santiago belched.
“Mami!” Beatriz said, exasperated. “He’s embarrassing!”
“He’s dead all right,” Teresa said. She was the scholar of the group, spending countless hours studying the blank screen of a computer I’d left here months ago. The cell phones I gave each of them were equally dead and pointless. She wanted to be a doctor somewhere else: Venezuela, Puerto Rico, maybe Honduras. Anyone could be a doctor here since there was nothing to doctor with. Other times, she wanted to be a poet, but no one understood poetry anymore. “I read somewhere that Cuban men continue to perform tasks for up to fifty-six years after death. Longer if the state has intervened and taken their property, name, wealth. A resurrection in reverse. If we gave Papi a crutch and wrapped him in bandages he’d look just like San Lazaro, I’m sure.” She crossed herself out of habit and stuffed soiled mattress padding into her mouth. I called it Cuban bread, having unearthed it from the rubbish of another building collapse. She chewed with determination. I was glad to provide for them. It kept me among the living.
“Please, Teresa,” Olivia said. She wrung her hands. “You talk as if it’s 1959 all over again. Nothing you say makes any sense.”
“It is 1959, isn’t it?” Teresa replied. “Look around. We are where time doesn’t move. If people didn’t die on a regular basis, we wouldn’t know the difference. Yes. It’s 1959. And 1989 and 2019 and 2039. We can go backwards and forwards. We are time travelers. There is no difference.”
“We seem to stay in place,” Olivia conceded.
“How long has he been dead?” Alejandro said, chewing.
“Since the sinking of the Maine?” Beatriz asked. “Since the Platt Amendment?”
“Since the Kennedy/Khruschev crisis,” Olivia said. “After the agrarian reforms.”
“That long?” said Alejandro. “I thought it was only since the Pope visited Cuba. For weeks he ranted in the backyard about the pope’s bereted head selling millions of posters.”
“That was Che,” Teresa corrected him. “Che’s image sells the posters.”
“Yes, even more ridiculous. Brought back from the dead, that one, with more swagger than when he was alive.”
“Our Christ,” said Teresa, “wiping away the sins of our revolution.”
Sometimes, they didn’t mind having Santiago around. He wasn’t fastidious or demanding. Olivia gave him rum in a dirty glass every morning that she replenished with the rainwater collection jar placed near the white mariposa. It never bloomed.
“That can’t be right,” said Beatriz. “I remember. Papi went to my graduation. He must’ve been alive for that.”
“High school graduation?” asked Lucia, sniffling. “I don’t recall that.”
“My graduation, estupida. In Miami, remember?”
“Don’t talk to your sister like that,” Olivia said.
“You’re estupida!” Lucia shrieked. “We’ve never lived in Miami!”
“No,” she said, “but we should have. Or Newark or Chicago or Nueva York. Gone to American schools like proper Cubans. Eaten fast-food burgers to the point of obesity. Talked like street thugs. If Papi hadn’t been so stubborn. His brother left, his sister left, his cousins left, even his mistress left, but no. Not Papi. He decided to ride it out. ‘The bearded bastard and his rebel government won’t last five years,’ he said.”
“Yes,” said Olivia, looking at her husband, his trembling hands reaching for empty air. “He always wanted to believe. I wish he’d died before any of you were born.”
“Mami!” said Teresa and Beatriz.
“Coño!” said Alejandro.
The radio suddenly came on, blaring a staticky speech from the nineties. An oldie but goodie. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah socialismoomuerte. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah patriaomuerte. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah socialismoomuerte.
The speech lasted a good six hours. They knew it by heart as they knew the voice. For as long as they could remember, the voice, like a malignant sun, had eclipsed every aspect of their lives. It burst into their home every day filled with fire and tobacco, sugarcane and brimstone through Tele Rebelde’s channel two.
“I know what he will say,” Alejandro said.
“Si, claro,” said his mother. “We all do.”
“The same mierda,” Teresa said.
“What else?” asked Olivia.
Beatrice said, “I was hoping for something new…”
“No, no,” Lucia broke in. “If Cubans don’t forget how to suffer, everything is as it should be.”
“It will be all right, Lucia,” her mother said.
Lucia sighed. “I’m tired of this.”
“What do we have for dessert?” asked Beatriz.
“Flan and natilla,” I said, perking up. I was stubborn in egotism. I wanted to matter. “And apple pie from New York.” They knew I worked hard to be creative.
“And helado?” cried Lucia.
“I’m sorry. I forgot the ice cream.” I stood up to bring the desserts. They were here somewhere.
“We have to bury him today.” Alejandro spat out a tooth. He’d bitten into a nail.
“What?” Olivia asked, wringing her fingers. “Don’t even think it!”
Alejandro grimaced. “We have to.”
The old man was pulling something long and onerous from his nose, his lazy pupil ricocheting from one side to the other.
“I can’t,” Lucia said. “He’s my Papi, no matter how disgusting he’s gotten.”
“Lucia, it’s natural to bury one’s dead.”
“Don’t,” she screamed.
I heard someone ask, “What does Arenas think?”
“Right. What does Arenas think?”
“Arenas! Arenas! Arenas!”
I’d hoped they wouldn’t ask me for anything more. I should have kept my eyes glued to Lezama Lima instead of talking out of turn. The situation was so difficult to read.
“I agree with Alejandro,” I admitted. “What you’ve done reminds me of a Faulkner novel about a dead woman and her pathetic family. Nothing good ever comes from living with the dead. We should get it over with.”
“Too many fathers and husbands get in the way,” Alejandro said, “with nothing to do and nothing to say. The island transformed itself into a George Romero film. What are you supposed to do when a man dies? You bury him. We need to bury them all. Not let them hang around, stinking up the place!”
Alejandro and I agreed. He was my moral center. Or I was his.
“Colon discovered la Perla de las Antillas in 1492,” Teresa said. Her glasses fell into her bowl of black beans, no more a mixture of lumpy oil and grease siphoned out of an old Lada. “And, ever since, we’ve been exploited by everyone and their abuelitas. Spain, America, the Soviet Union, Baseball.”
“Socialismo o muerte!” Lucia began to chant, mimicking the radio. “Patria o muerte.”
“Lucia!” Olivia screamed. “Por favor!”
“Socialismo o muerte! Patria o muerte. Socialismo o muerte! Patria o muerte.”
I imagined the face of the man in the olive cap making the speech. It was every Cuban’s—everyone I knew, everyone I didn’t—mothers, wives, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, fathers, husbands, sons, daughters, grandfathers, grandmothers, cousins of all shapes and ages, fishermen, doctors, friends, teachers, bums, black marketeers, priests, singers, poets, soldiers, farmers, artists, neighbors. And writers. Even the writers. Every face appeared, before quickly melding into the next and then the next until it morphed into the face and figure we knew like a lover’s, like a syphilitic sun. The bloated thing pointed, gesticulated, ranted, raved, pounded his fist into his palm like a colicky baby. I could sense the cruelty, the indignation, the anger seething like a deadly eel.
Santiago spoke words, from bloodless lips. I am defeated hovered above us, sick, swollen birds of disillusion. Teresa screamed, “This is too much!” plunging a fork into the old man’s forehead with ferocity. He didn’t howl, there was no blood. He looked at his daughter, questioning, the fork protruding like an obscenity in punctuation.
“That’s it,” Alejandro said snatching his father by the front of his guayabera with both hands. He lifted him from the chair as if he were nothing but skin. “Let’s go, Arenas. Help me.”
Sighing, I set Lezama Lima aside. Alejandro took him by his shoulders. I grabbed his legs. Trudging outside, we maneuvered down the broken steps, through throngs of dead men. They stood waiting—always waiting—to enter the house, gazing at us with the eyes of the defeated. I’d known some of them. They saw Marti fall from his white horse; saw the corrupt presidents, marching in one after the other; saw loved ones taken away, beaten, imprisoned, executed. Many saw what the many saw.
We set him down and retrieved shovels. When we returned, Santiago was shading his eyes from the rays of the moon. A scorpion was on his face, but he didn’t seem to mind. Night had descended upon Cuba. Cuba y la noche.
The digging was difficult, but we managed it. Olivia was resigned. Lucia was crying. Teresa read aloud from Versos Sencillos. Beatriz was dancing. On count of three we heaved Santiago into the hole. He landed with a heavy grunt. It surprised me because I didn’t think him capable anymore. We shoveled in the dirt, patted the ground, and plodded back.
The family reseated themselves at the table. I felt the ruse beginning to wane. The electric lighting was dimming, and the microwave had disappeared. Some of what was in their bowls was moldering and rotting, appearing as it was. My mind was failing them. They could see the barbaridades, the absurdities, we’d allowed them to live with. No one ate anymore. Lucia and Beatriz threw up. Olivia wrung her hands. Alejandro’s bottom lip was quivering. I couldn’t see my reflection in the cracked mirror anymore, so I jumped back into Lezama Lima’s myth-making.
We stopped thinking when we heard the creaking of the back door. We stopped thinking when we heard the shuffling feet. We stopped imagining a different outcome when we saw Santiago shambling clumsily back into the room. He was covered in dirt, the fork in his head pointing a different direction, his face smeared with something wet. Beetles crawled out of his nose and ears and mouth. He resembled a ghoulish Lazarus, come back to tell us…what? The zombie-men crowded the room behind him. Somebody shouted, “Come on, hombre! Do something!”
I threw Paradiso into the mirror, walked to pull out the old man’s chair. He made clacking sounds falling into it. Olivia genuflected. I refilled his bowl with nothingness. He dipped his spoon, and Alejandro, Olivia, Teresa, and Beatriz followed his example. In Cuba, you don’t stop eating just because you’ve lost your appetite. You just don’t. I went back to my place.
“I hear Cubans are protesting again,” Olivia said. “They’ve finally had enough.”
“Yes,” Alejandro said. “We certainly have.”
“Things will change now, you’ll see. This time it’ll be different.”
“South Florida is behind us all the way,” Alejandro said.
“Patria y vida,” Beatriz said. “It’s a song, I think.”
“This is a kind of life, don’t you think?” Alejandro said.
Teresa answered. “How long do we have to put up with this bullshit?”
“For as long as we want,” Olivia replied. I was looking at flies working a dead worm. I picked it up and put it in my mouth. I made it wriggle with my tongue. I still had that.
“Cuba will never be the same,” Beatriz said, finally.
“No. Probably not,” Alejandro said. “Not ever.”
“And we…,” Olivia added, “we will never be the same.”
“I can’t come back,” I said. I wasn’t sure they heard me. I wasn’t sure of anything.
Lucia asked, “How will we continue?”
I found my writing hand gone. They saw everything at once. Lucia whimpered. Olivia crossed herself again.
“One day, we will be free again,” Alejandro said.
“One day, we will have everything again,” Beatriz said.
“One day, we will have husbands and fathers again,” Olivia said.
“I want to die,” Lucia whispered.
Teresa caught my eye and blushed. I sat back, Paradiso lost, and marveled. It was easier to live like this, I thought. It was easier to be one of the dead.
Michael Garcia Bertrand is a Cuban-American educator, living and working in South Florida. His short fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Epiphany, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Coachella Review, storySouth, Fiction International, Zone 3, Wisconsin Review, Jelly Bucket, The MacGuffin, Kestrel, Santa Fe Literary Review, Concho River Review, and Your Impossible Voice.