A Stay in Mayami
by Matias Travieso-Diaz
The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.
Eufemio Pérez Pérez was very unhappy with his name. As a youth growing up in Cuba in the nineteen forties, he rankled every time someone referred to him—whether in jest or seriously—as “un Pérez cualquiera,” a derogatory phrase that branded him a member of the lower classes, a pariah of society. The multiple “Pérez” in his surname tainted him even more—twice as common, cheapest among the cheap. Eufemio reacted to his perceived stigma by making his purpose in life to become a somebody, a man of fame, stature and accomplishment.
In High School Eufemio exhibited a decided lack of distinction. He flunked more courses than he passed, and ultimately dropped out without ever graduating. He was unemployed for a while until he was able to enroll in a trade school where he received training as a draftsman. He was hired by an engineering firm to help prepare technical drawings for a number of projects, and his performance was barely adequate. He was kept on the job mainly because he had learned to be obsequious with his superiors. Nonetheless, he saw no possibilities of advancement and bemoaned how his vulgar name kept holding him back.
Things took a turn for the better in January 1959. The country’s ruling gang fled and a new team of bearded rebels came to power. Soon, drastic changes to the Cuban society began to take place, and industries and commercial concerns were seized by the government. Nationalized enterprises were put in the hands of apparatchiks with no qualifications other than loyalty to the Revolution. The engineering offices that employed Eufemio were seized and a minor “comandante” was put in charge.
Eufemio saw the changes as an opportunity to advance himself. He proclaimed: “I’ve been a true revolutionary from day one,” and formed one of Havana’s first “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” (a network of vigilantes whose function was to spy on other citizens and foil potential anti-government activities). He marched in all the parades, attended all mass rallies, and went to the countryside on weekends to cut cane and help with the sugar harvest. He spied on his co-workers for potential counterrevolutionary infractions, and reported several people to the Interior Ministry for prosecution and incarceration. He was secretly branded by his co-workers as a “chivato” (informant) and universally despised. He defended his snitching on others by arguing: “It’s their fault for not getting in step with the Revolution. Al camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente” (The shrimp that falls asleep is carried away by the current).
By late 1961 he was well connected within the government and had become a promising low-level member of the ruling class. He was then offered a position as personal assistant to the manager of the Matahambre copper mines in the western province of Pinar del Río. The job required him to move to the village of Santa Lucía, a hamlet ten kilometers from Matahambre. Santa Lucía was nowhere: a shabby village of under a thousand inhabitants, mostly mine workers.
The town’s main attraction was a little harbor built for mined ore transport. When he was not busy helping the manager ride herd on the miners, Eufemio sat on the harbor’s pier to do a little fishing and coordinate contraband deliveries of copper ore to Mexican smugglers who resold the mineral in the American markets. He also went frequently to the only bar in Santa Lucía; there he met Cecilia, a buxom, good natured country girl who waited on tables and fraternized with the miners. Eufemio courted Cecilia and soon turned her into his common-law wife. He did not love Cecilia, who he felt was beneath him in every respect, but availed himself of her favors. He felt women were weak creatures whose only virtues lay in their orifices capable of receiving a male’s attentions.
In October 1962 a new face was seen in Santa Lucía. The man, one Miguel Angel Orozco, identified himself as a researcher from Oriente University, come to Matahambre to study the varieties of copper ore found at the mine for comparison with those from the El Cobre mine near Santiago de Cuba. Eufemio met Orozco by chance at the bar, and after a few beers concluded that Orozco’s knowledge of copper mining was not much greater than his own. Eufemio found it hard to believe that the government would allow someone so ignorant of mining matters to travel from one end of Cuba to the other analyzing ore.
As he had done to his some of his neighbors years before, Eufemio felt no compunction about turning the stranger in. He made a quick call to the security police to report potential counter-revolutionary activity. Agents arrested Orozco and another man, Pedro Vera Ortiz, who was Orozco’s accomplice. A large quantity of weapons and explosives was discovered in Orozco’s rented quarters.
The government said the captures smashed a plot to blow up the Matahambre and Nicaro mines in the Pinar del Rio and Oriente provinces. Under interrogation, Orozco admitted that he and Vera had landed clandestinely in Cuba, sent by the CIA to carry out acts of sabotage. For starters, they planned to destroy the aerial transport system at the Matahambre mine. Four hundred miners could have lost their lives if workers operating the aerial link cars had not seen the explosives that Orozco intended to detonate at the base of the towers anchoring the cable railway.
Eufemio was interviewed many times by the Cuban and foreign press and did not miss the chance to play up his alertness and revolutionary zeal. In the interviews, he proclaimed himself a revolutionary hero and stated for the record that his name was “Eufemio del Cerro,” a name under which he had chosen to be known in the future. His change in name was noticed by the state security but acquiesced to--it was not the first time that a revolutionary figure had found it desirable to adopt a new name to improve his image.
Thanks to his unmasking of the Yankee saboteurs, Eufemio del Cerro was promoted to assistant general manager of the Matahambre mine, and helped preside over an operation that, at its peak, produced 50,000 tons of ore a year and gave employment to more than 1,000 workers. Eufemio pocketed the proceeds of selling 1,000 additional tons to the Mexicans on the black market, an activity for which he grossed--after sharing with his partners in the enterprise--$100,000 a year. Half of this he had to kick back to his superiors at three levels of government to be allowed to continue with his scheme but the balance, $50,000 a year, allowed him to live as a prince in a country where misery ruled most of the population.
The good times at Matahambre came to an end in 1997 when the regime, citing increased costs of production and the drop of the price of copper in the international market, closed the mine and laid off all the workers. Eufemio was forced to return to Havana, but given his rank he was given the opportunity to move into a nice apartment in a building that had been the mansion of a now-exiled sugar baron. He left Santa Lucía one night, without saying goodbye to Cecilia. She was three months pregnant and the child was probably his; he never contacted her again.
Once in Havana, Eufemio was appointed secretary to one of the Vice-Ministers of the Ministry of Basic Industry, which oversaw the mining enterprises in the island. Since Matahambre was shut down, Eufemio was switched to support the nickel industry, one of the most important sources of foreign income for the country.
Eufemio was still working at the Ministry of Basic Industry when a negotiation was started in 2010 for the expansion of a major nickel and cobalt processing plant in eastern Cuba, the Pedro Soto Alba nickel facility —a joint venture between the state-owned nickel company Cubaniquel and Canadian mining company Sherritt International Corporation. Soon, several Government officials, including Eufemio’s boss, arranged to receive bribes in exchange for the timely deployment of qualified personnel and other project support. In a related scheme, the officials demanded kickbacks from contractors supplying equipment for the project. Eufemio received under-the-table payments from his boss for his help in carrying out these illegal transactions.
It was all fine and dandy until the government launched a corruption investigation in 2011, leading to the conviction a year later of three Vice Ministers and nine other defendants. Eufemio’s boss was among those given jail terms. Eufemio pretended he was not involved in the criminal enterprise of his superiors, and gave critical testimony at the trial about their “secret meetings” and “commercially unjustified actions.” This testimony was instrumental in the convictions of his boss and some of the other defendants. His cooperation with the investigation saved him from the same fate, and it was conveniently determined that there was no concrete evidence of his involvement in the corrupt schemes. But a file on Eufemio del Cerro (aka Eufemio Pérez Pérez) was nonetheless opened in the Interior Ministry. The Revolution welcomes Judases but does no trust them.
Given the Ministry of Basic Industry’s involvement in the Pedro Soto Alba plant scandal, the Castro government disbanded the Ministry and replaced it with a new agency, the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Eufemio del Cerro became an employee of the new Ministry and tried to keep a low profile, for he feared that sooner or later he would be called in to account for his past misdeeds.
The Canadian head of one of the companies involved in the supply kickbacks had been in prison without charges since 2011, but three years later he was brought to trial and convicted of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. Among the documents in the massive dossier used to convict him was a receipt for a payment in 2010 to Eufemio’s former boss, which was actually signed by Eufemio because his boss was on vacation.
Eufemio learned of the existence of this incriminating document from a contact in the office of the prosecuting attorney (who was a friend of Eufemio’s imprisoned boss), and was told that the prosecutor intended to initiate a new criminal proceeding directed at Eufemio, among others. Eufemio was irate at being “singled out” for punishment, decided he had no friends left in power, and felt things were becoming too hot for him. He had to get out of Cuba.
Finding a boat to take him out of the country was not difficult; several of the people he knew in the government had yachts moored at the newly refurbished Marina Hemingway, which they took on fishing and pleasure trips to Mexico and the Bahamas. However, he could not find anyone who was willing to risk prison to help him escape. Finally, one of his acquaintances, while refusing to transport him, offered to put Eufemio in contact with a fisherman who might be willing to take him to Florida. Eufemio contacted the man, who demanded an outrageous sum of money for the job, but Eufemio was not in a position to haggle. He emptied his bank account and turned most of the proceeds over to the man. The fisherman picked him up outside his building, drove him west to Pinar del Río, boarded him on an ancient shrimping boat, and carried him away in the dead of night. Just before dawn the following day, Eufemio was dropped at Smathers Beach, near the center of the city of Key West.
He had left Cuba not a moment too soon: he later learned that a squad from the Intelligence Directorate (the dreaded G2) had been to his apartment seeking to arrest him the day after his departure. “That will teach them” he told himself. “I’m too smart for those amateurs.”
* * *
Eufemio was reluctant to seek political asylum in the United States, for he was certain that the CIA was aware of his involvement in quashing the Matahambre operation. He decided to drop out of sight for a while and lose himself in the amorphous Latino community in Miami. As most Cuban government officials of rank, he had spirited thousands of dollars away from the country and deposited them in a Miami bank, with the account under his birth name to better hide the assets. Ironically, he had to become again a Pérez Pérez in order to retrieve his money. “I’ll get my good name back as soon as I am legit” he promised himself.
Eufemio was already in his mid-seventies and had intended to keep a low profile for the rest of his life. However, his need to restore his public image made him become involved with the Cuban Republicans in southern Florida, a motley group that included among its members individuals once associated with the pre-Castro Batista regime, former businessmen and property owners who had been dispossessed by the Communists, and people who still resented the failure of the Democrats under John F. Kennedy to provide military support to the Cuban expeditionary force that was decimated in the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster. Joining this group represented a complete reversal of Eufemio’s political allegiances, but he was never much of an ideologue and was able to adapt easily to the beliefs of his new friends.
In the presidential election of 2016, Eufemio did some campaigning for Donald Trump among the Cuban expatriate community and welcomed Trump’s victory. He was hoping to get tapped for some work in the new administration, but his being an undocumented alien was a major obstacle that had to be overcome.
He sought to enlist the help of the Florida Republican Party to regularize his legal status. He bragged: “I’m an expert on Cuban politics. If you can get me admitted legally into the United States, I’ll give you the Cuban vote, which is wobbly these days.”
The party leaders offered him a trade: they would get him political asylum and maybe even a “green card” if he would campaign widely among the general Latin population in South Florida, not just the Cubans. He would extol the virtues of the President and his administration and excoriate the deep state, the lying press, the corrupt intelligence agencies, the illegal aliens, and the liberals that wanted to keep the country on its knees.
In early 2018 Eufemio was invited to give an address to a group of non-committed Latins in the social hall of a Catholic church in Little Havana. His remarks were intended to sway the audience and bring them into the Republican fold. He defended the President, which “every patriot should do, no matter what who he is or where he comes from.” He acknowledged the man’s faults, but pointed out that the country had been brought down by his predecessors, and “he is the only one who can get us out of this mess.”
Eufemio had just finished giving his speech when there was a disturbance in the back of the room. A dozen burly men wearing black jackets that displayed the initials “ICE” burst into the gathering and ordered: “Everyone remain where you are. You are all under arrest!” The organizer of the meeting cried out in protest: “What’s this? Why are you breaking into a lawful meeting?” An agent responded curtly: “This church is known to give sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Anyone who is a U.S. citizen or a legal resident will be released as soon as his status is confirmed.”
Two buses were parked outside the church. Eufemio and several dozen people were herded into the buses, taken to a police station, and interrogated. Most detainees were released after several anxious hours; Eufemio and half a dozen Guatemalans and Salvadorians were kept in custody due to their inability to demonstrate their lawful presence in the country.
Efforts by Republican Party officials to free Eufemio were thwarted by the intelligence agencies. They leaked to the press Eufemio’s true identity and his role in defeating a covert U.S. operation to overthrow Castro. The attendant notoriety made Eufemio’s release a difficult public relations task for the politicians, who had little interest in protecting a tainted Latino.
At his deportation hearing, an FBI agent confirmed that the man who called himself Eufemio Pérez Pérez was in fact Eufemio del Cerro, a member of the Cuban Communist Party who had foiled efforts to restore democracy in the island and had infiltrated the United States for nefarious purposes. He was a prime candidate for deportation.
Eufemio was flown back to Havana on a cold February morning. Police and Cuban intelligence agents were waiting for him as he deplaned, for his deportation had been well covered in the media on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Three months after his arrest he was found guilty of corruption and multiple acts of theft of public property dating back to the sixties. He was given a thirty-year sentence and sent to a prison farm in a remote area of eastern Cuba. His enfeebled condition spared him the back-breaking work on the fields, but he was assigned to carry out sanitation duties throughout the camp. Watching his figure, bent with age and humiliation, as he mopped around urinals and cleaned filthy toilets, some of the inmates would question who the wretch was. The invariable response, accompanied by a shrug, was “bah, es un Pérez cualquiera.”
Matias F. Travieso-Diaz, is a Havana-born engineer and attorney, currently residing in the Washington, D.C. area. After over four decades of practice, he retired and turned to creative writing. His short stories have been published in numerous publications, including the New Reader Magazine; the Dual Coast Magazine; the Dream of Shadows MagazineCzykmate Productions - How HORROR-able Anthology; the New Orbit Magazine; the Clarendon House - Maelstrom: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Literary Anthology 2019; and Selene Quarterly Magazine.
To Grow Young
Old Simeón’s right hand was permanently clawed. His curled, yellowing nails converged towards each other in a longing gesture, as if he were trying to grasp the last strands of something long gone. Sometimes Vanessa wondered why such a particular fate had infested Old Simeón’s phalanges. She hypothesized that the clawing probably happened gradually, like the shrinking of a flower’s petals as water breathes itself out. But another, much more grim possibility had come to her one night as she was falling asleep on her unshared bunk bed. She envisioned that fatal agglomeration of blood obstructing Old Simeón’s left brain, and his extremities instantly recoiling at the evaporation of half a life.
Every morning, when Vanessa took it upon herself to massage Old Simeón’s wrinkly fingers, she felt a piercing worry that her body would betray her in that same way. She thought of all the inexcusable curses she had directed at her limited limbs when her feet couldn’t bear two days of walking after crossing the Venezuelan border. At the time, driven by impatience, she had collapsed on the side of a jungle-ridden highway, where only blades of dried grass had pierced her back into consciousness. She had asked God why none of the passing cars acknowledged her stretched out thumb, and jerking her damp sneakers out of her feet, she asked why her throbbing toes wouldn’t allow her to reach a couple kilometers further, where maybe she would find a hospitable town.
After many years, Vanessa found herself able to take pride in some things again. Small things. For instance, she claimed all credit for the slight tremble of Old Simeón’s fingers whenever his wife took his stiff hand in between hers. She took pride now, in his ability to juggle up a pair of dice and throw them on a parqués board, with the help of his left hand, which was spared by some impossible bifurcation of the brain’s connections.
The dice clinked against the glass board and showed a pair of six dots protruding from the white cubes.
“How much is that, Don Simeón?” Vanessa said, lifting his arm from the table to prevent him from accidentally pushing the pawn-shaped pieces off.
Old Simeón let out a brief growl and stared at the blank air behind Vanessa’s curls.
“Twelve,” she answered herself. She took Old Simeón’s red pawn and hopped through the boxed trail. “One, two, three, four…” Vanessa then took advantage of her turn and threw the dice on the board. They spun around until the odds settled for two and four dots.
A prolonged sigh coming from the other side of the room stopped Vanessa from killing one of Old Simeón’s red pieces. Doña Rosario’s glasses reflected the blue light coming from a box-shaped TV. The bulging screen showed footage of flooded streets and fallen palm trees, brown heads peering out of hills of roof tiles and window frames.
“Not one house is still standing, can you believe it?” Doña Rosario said, noticing Vanessa’s shared interest in the news report on hurricane Iota.
“The island will need a full reconstruction, they say,” Vanessa had been following the case from a blue radio that she kept in her room. The numbers were most astonishing. 1600 families, 98% of infrastructure. Still, she found it hard to sympathize with the victims. She couldn’t help but think that her people had probably gone through worse, just nobody had bothered to quantify it.
“Providence Island is a beautiful place,” Doña Rosario said, in her unusually high-pitched tone. “You know where my last name comes from? Abraham Robinson, my grandfather, immigrated from Britain to Providence Island.” The way Doña Rosario pronounced every one of those words with utmost pride kept Vanessa from coming up with any reasonable response.
Doña Rosario had a way of talking. When she had given Vanessa the keys to her recondite bedroom, Doña Rosario made it clear that she came from a long tradition of landowners who knew how to manage helpers in the household. “Your nursing title does not make a difference,” Doña Rosario had said. “I still expect obedience and respect in your care for my husband.” Throughout the many months that Vanessa had worked for Doña Rosario, she had come to realize that behind her harsh words stood her unconditional love for Old Simeón, but also her self-remorse for having married a man 15 years older in age. The old man’s life was coming to an end, and he was swallowing Doña Rosario’s own life along the way.
From beneath the open windows, not only moonlight leaked through the iron bars, but also the flickering lights coming from a neighbor’s balcony. Behind linen curtains, dark silhouettes danced to the congas in Rodolfo Aicardi’s La Colegiala. It was only late November, but the people of Acacías were already playing New Year songs over indecently loud speakers. At least in that respect, Acacías wasn’t all that different from back home, Vanessa thought. She had also noticed they had the same tradition of making a dummy filled with gunpowder and setting it on fire just as the clock struck midnight. Old Simeón and Doña Rosario never engaged in such activities though, because no matter what day of the year it was, they always went to sleep promptly at 8 p.m.
Old Simeón tapped Vanessa’s shoulder with a poignancy that disoriented her. He pointed at the color-lit balcony.
“They must be having a party, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, assuming that was the information that Old Simeón was requesting.
“And you?” Old Simeón responded, his words as clear as they ever got, carrying the rasp of an underused voice.
Vanessa was not entirely sure what Old Simeón meant. Perhaps he found it strange that someone of her age was playing parqués with an old man instead of curling her hips to tropical beats, or he was wondering why the neighbors had not invited her. Vanessa smiled at the thought of these possibilities.
“None of us are supposed to be partying,” she said. “There’s a very bad virus out there, so we have to stay home.”
In some corner of the world inside Old Simeón’s mind, he knew it was the pandemic that had insulated his days so much. But Vanessa was not aware of this. She was rather excusing her situation, considering that maybe once it was all over, things would be different for her.
“You heard that, Simeón?” Doña Rosario said, projecting her voice to make herself audible to Old Simeón’s almost deaf ears. “Our last years of life, at home.”
By the time the news broadcast was over, Old Simeón had already fallen asleep on his wheelchair. His nightly routine consisted of Vanessa and Doña Rosario collaborating to strip him of his clothes and tie his diaper around his waist. The diaper was rather an ornament, since Old Simeón would wet his bed sheets every night, and every day Doña Rosario would replace them with a new set.
Vanessa had little to complain about. Her salary, although less than legal minimum wage, was enough for her personal expenses. Since Doña Rosario and Old Simeón provided her with a place to sleep and three meals a day, she also had enough money to send to her family in Venezuela every month. She planned to keep saving up to bring her mother with her too, away from a dictator’s injustices and a husband’s infidelities.
There was a catch to her living arrangement, though. Some days, Doña Rosario would wake her up particularly early and ask her to make breakfast. Vanessa could tell that Doña Rosario did not like her cooking, as she always complained that she put too much salt on the eggs, or not enough cheese in the arepas. Therefore, Doña Rosario’s request took place only when strictly essential, like when she had to go get fresh milk at the plaza on Saturday morning, or when she attended early morning mass.
This time, Doña Rosario had woken her up with a phone pressed against her ear. Doña Rosario had learned to pick up calls, but never to make them, so when some relative or friend called her, she made sure to catch up with them for at least an hour. However, when Doña Rosario had tapped on Vanessa’s door, her furrowed eyebrows and trembling lips suggested that this was not one of her usual bubbly phone calls. Instead, she was quiet, while a female voice at the other end of the line spoke in mechanical shudders.
As Vanessa walked up to the kitchen, Doña Rosario took a seat on the adjacent dining table. Old Simeón, his eyelids still struggling to stay open, sat on his wheelchair in front of the TV at the end of the room. In between the whisking of eggs and the patting of arepa dough, Vanessa managed to catch some slivers of Doña Rosario’s conversation—“What do you mean?”, “Hmph,” “God Bless,” “Why don’t you come over?”
Judging by Doña Rosario’s choice of the pronoun Tú instead of Usted, the person at the other end of the line could only be her daughter, Nadia. She was Old Simeón’s and Doña Rosario’s only daughter, even after 60 years of marriage. Less often than Doña Rosario would’ve liked, she took her Chevrolet Swift down the narrow road between Villavicencio and Acacías to visit them. When Old Simeón’s pension fell short, her teaching paychecks would pay for the house bills, as well as Old Simeón’s medicine.
Vanessa knew rather little about Nadia, but what she’d heard pushed her to garner utmost respect. She heard that Nadia had been in the house when Old Simeón had gotten his first thrombosis attack. He’d fallen on the floor, shaking and salivating as if being possessed by an evil spirit. Doña Rosario had stood frozen, covering her eyes away from the sight of her convulsing husband. But Nadia had been the one to pick her father up from the floor and place him on a chair, before calling every relative in town in search for an after-hours doctor. She was the reason he was still alive.
Once Vanessa was done helping Old Simeón eat his breakfast, Doña Rosario gestured for her to sit at the dining table.
“Nadia is coming later this afternoon,” Doña Rosario said, but she wouldn’t meet Vanessa’s gaze. “Vanessa, I need your full discretion on what I am about to tell you.”
Before making breakfast, Vanessa had tied her black curls into the shape of an onion. The pull of the low-hanging bun tugged at her hair as she nodded.
“Simeón’s brother Alberto passed away last night,” Doña Rosario said in a soft voice. “He caught that damned virus.”
Even though Vanessa had never heard of said brother, she made sure to state her condolences as politely as possible.
“You know he can’t know, right?” Doña Rosario briefly glanced at Old Simeón. “He’s not in the proper state to hear this.”
In spite of the prolonged coexistence of the three members of that household, Vanessa was the only one who made an effort to converse with Old Simeón. Sometime after Old Simeón had become speech impaired, Doña Rosario had lost all her patience, seeing that her only companion could no longer reciprocate her interactions. Now she limited herself to short words, and the warmth of touch. Vanessa, instead, would talk to him about the warm weather, the dogs barking outside; anything that crossed her mind. His answers consisted of low groans, unintelligible mumblings, and the occasional phrase that one could judge as either gibberish, or the enigmatic findings of a mind sorting through an extensive past. Vanessa liked to think it was the latter.
Whenever Vanessa heard Nadia and Doña Rosario talking to each other, she couldn’t help but wonder how it was possible that she sounded so different from them. She was puzzled by their ability to give every syllable a distinct tonality. They seemed to have every unit of sound recorded in a dictionary, that they would parse through in every uttering. They took no shortcuts, unlike Vanessa, who could not find the time to bring her tongue to the roof of her mouth swiftly enough to whistle her words—her ‘s’ sounds would descend into brief sighs. However, she had learned to minimize her vocal sloth during her time in Acacías. Doña Rosario had told her that not everyone in that town would be as kind to her people as she was.
Nadia and Doña Rosario sat on the dining table, their short coffee cups steaming next to their fidgeting hands. Vanessa glanced at them intermittently through the windows, as she pushed Old Simeón’s wheelchair around the house. She could tell that at one point Old Simeón had made a habit of walking around the house, because he seemed to have picked favorite spots to glance at throughout the perimeter. At the back of the house, he liked to look at one of the columns that held up the clay roof where the white paint had peeled off in a shape resembling a trail of mucus left by a slug. At the right side of the house, the edge that faced a living fence which separated their neighbor’s house from theirs, he liked to look at a patch of red ground where grass had refused to grow. From the turning of the soil, Vanessa could only assume that a tree had once stood there, and she imagined it to be as high as the neighbor’s balcony.
At the front of the house, Old Simeón usually stared at the plastic bowls filled with brown cat food that sat next to the front door. They owned three cats who spent more time on the streets than at home and would only let themselves be petted by Old Simeón. Today, there were no cats to be seen, and Old Simeón was instead looking through the window, towards where Nadia and Doña Rosario were sitting. Vanessa could tell by the disparity between Nadia’s age and the number of wrinkles that crisped around her eyes that she had a tough disposition. Her downturned lips were unphased by both the taste of black coffee and Doña Rosario’s slow tears.
“You must’ve been a really good man, Don Simeón,” Vanessa said, pushing the wheelchair into motion away from the window. “You raised a very strong daughter.”
The feeble white hairs on Old Simeón’s scalp trembled with the gush of the wind. Otherwise, he remained motionless to Vanessa’s words. She continued.
“I think that’s what matters. Knowing that you’re leaving this world having created something good,” Vanessa said. “Is that more or less right, Don Simeón?”
This time, Old Simeón let out a deep mumble and twitched his head in a manner that could’ve been a nod, or an attempt to shake away a mosquito’s itch. Vanessa noticed that Old Simeón seemed particularly light on the wheelchair today. One of the reasons why Doña Rosario had hired her was because of her big arms and thighs. She could manage the weight of pushing Old Simeón’s chair down Acacías’ unpaved roads and steep bridges.
“I’ve got a lot to learn from you, believe it or not,” Vanessa continued, ignorant to Old Simeón’s droopy eyelids. “I’ve been thinking about what comes next. For me, you know. I’ve been thinking that maybe after all of this virus thing is over, I could move to the city. Work for a retirement home, maybe? And meet some people. Build something of my own. Wouldn’t that be good?”
Old Simeón’s clawed hand suddenly stiffened around the wheelchair’s armrest. He sat with his spine straightened out, fighting against a decade-old hunch.
When the clock struck 2 p.m., the designated time for Old Simeón’s daily stroll was over. Doña Rosario and Nadia were still sitting at the dining table, but their urgent whispering had stopped and transformed into vociferous complaining about why the chicken delivery had not arrived yet. Doña Rosario instructed Vanessa to heat up some of the leftover rice from the day before, so she wheeled Old Simeón’s chair to the dining table and secured the brakes before walking up to the kitchen.
She had just struck a match alight when the squeak of sliding wooden chairs called her back into the dining room. Back there, Old Simeón was still sitting in his wheelchair, and Nadia and Doña Rosario were kneeling at each of his sides. His expression was twisted so that every one of the creases that time had encroached on his skin were sunken in, and dense tears were running down the labyrinth of his face.
“You told him.” Doña Rosario said, turning towards Vanessa’s newcomer presence. She took a step back and kneeled to Doña Rosario’s height.
“I swear I didn’t. It must be something else that’s troubling him,” Vanessa said, the sighs in her speech as heavy as ever.
Doña Rosario stood up and the folds on her long skirt swirled wind at Vanessa’s face. “He fought in the military, for God’s sake. He doesn’t just cry.”
Vanessa continued to excuse herself while she picked herself up from her kneeling trance. Behind Doña Rosario, Nadia took a pack of Kleenex out of her bag and handed it to Old Simeón. He folded his once clawed hand around the tissue and groaned into the white cotton. But all Vanessa could notice was the tightness of the tendons on Doña Rosario’s neck, which pulled her entire face into a murderous stare.
“You Venezuelans can’t keep your mouth shut,” she said.
That night, Nadia left without saying goodbye to Vanessa, but she found a funeral invitation wrapped in violet ribbons sitting on her lower bunk bed. After writing down an event reminder on her phone, Vanessa turned on her blue radio and pulled out the long antenna to tune in to the nighttime news broadcast. She fell asleep to the sound of a clinical female voice announcing the hopes for a successful vaccine against COVID-19 in early December.
Laurisa Sastoque is a student of Creative Writing and History at Northwestern University. She was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and currently resides in Evanston, Illinois. Her poetry work has been previously published in Somos en Escrito and the Helicon Literary & Arts Magazine. She is the winner of the Mary Kinzie Prize in Nonfiction for her essay "Contradicting Home; Anecdotes and Aphorisms." She is excited to make her short fiction debut with "To Grow Young," a piece about complicated family dynamics in rural Colombia. In addition to writing and reading, Laurisa likes to spend her time researching Latinx and Latin American history, and taking pictures of her favorite cities.
An excerpt of Manuel Ramos' latest detective novel,