The International Writers Magazine:
Dangling from the ceiling, stirred by the gentle morning breeze, is a crystal chandelier. No glitter though; just dust and dead moths hanging from its arms in place of the missing stones.
‘Precious, ‘ Manolo says.
‘19th century Bohemian crystal. That’s what you were looking for, right?’
‘And it’s from here? From Trinidad?’
‘Yes, it belonged to one of those sugar mill magnates before it found new, these here, owners.’
The man named Gayos, the middleman; though he likes calling himself an expert, an art dealer, points at the family – black: a mother, a father, two daughters – all scrawny, famished.
‘How on the earth did they get it?’
‘It came with the flat, they say.’
‘That’s the thing. They won’t sell it.’
‘They say they have all they need. Anyway, they won’t take money.’
‘They say they could use a fridge.’
‘A fridge? Where the fuck do I get a fridge.’
‘And that’s the thing. Leave it up to me.’
‘You know,’ Manolo says, ‘This island is screwed up.’
Manolo is Mexican. He is here on business. He has, he says, some wealthy American clients.
‘And there is the business of taking it out, right?’
‘Right,’ the man says, ‘Stuff like this can’t leave the country. Not legally.’
‘And you’ll help me with that?’
‘If we agree on the price.’
Manolo spits on the floor. He is annoyed. The place is dark, dirty; and there is this stench that is coming from outside.
‘Bottom line,’ he says, ‘Can you get the fridge too?’
‘I can. The same way,’
‘Which is?’ Manolo asks.
‘Know a few salts. They travel to Jamaica and back. Do contraband.’
‘And they can get the fridge?’
‘And the TV. Color TV.’
‘Won’t you take, like we said, US dollars?’
‘No, I will take the TV. I found the chandelier.’
‘You’ll talk to the smugglers too?’
‘Marineros, no smugglers.’
‘Right.’ Manolo says.
He paces the room back and forth. He assess the entire household: decrepit, ruined. Trashed furniture, broken and badly repaired chairs, beds (five beds – four for the family; one extra for an unexpected guest) clutter the square windowless space with stiff air. And there is a table – large, covered with junk, made of dark wood, heavy wood. That too could be old, worth something, a relic of the town’s once glorious past. Yes, Trinidad had once its glory. You could buy or sell a slave here when elsewhere the whole thing, slavery that is, was banned.
How the hell they can live like that? Manolo wonders. All four see his disgust. Their embarrassment is obvious. Their eyes, white against the dark cavernous surroundings, follow him mechanically like a pendulum Manolo saw once in a museum, museum of technology he thinks; he isn’t sure though.
‘Somos jente pobre, onesta,’ the old man, the father, mumbles.
‘What is it that he says?’
‘He says they are poor but honest.’
‘Funny. Theirs doesn’t sound like Spanish.’
‘They’re poor Negros. They don’t have an easy life.’
‘Nobody does. But this is a pigsty,’ Manolo says and spits again.
‘Still, they have the chandelier.’
‘Senor, it’s no right to spit on the floor. Here in Cuba that’s a bad custom,’ one of the daughters says, a young girl, very young.
‘Caja te! her mother hisses.
‘Let’s get out of here and think the whole thing over,’ Manolo proposes. He ignores the young girl, but won’t spit again. Not on the floor anyway, not in their household.
They, Manolo and the middleman, sit now on the doorstep. It is almost noon. The sun is getting high. It is hot.
‘Sorry, just couldn’t stand them looking ...’
For a moment they both sit in silence. They don’t talk. Don’t look at each other.
‘The piece is incomplete,’ Manolo says.
‘It’s a bargain.’
‘It is and it isn’t. The piece misses things. Stones, it misses. It’s incomplete.’
‘It’s worth more than a fridge.’
‘And the TV?’
‘The TV is for the transport.’
‘And how sure is that?’
‘It isn’t. You do it at your own risk.’
‘Fuck it! I need some guarantees.’
The old woman appears at the door. She offers them coffee. She says nothing; won’t look at them. She moves noiselessly, like a shadow. She retreats into the dark room. A pig is being slaughtered a few houses away; it squeals, but then it stops. It snorts faintly. It gave up. Life’s leaving its body with its blood. The animal sees it, but cannot help it.
‘No guarantees. Perhaps one; these people risk as well. And maybe even more than you do. They can’t sell these things, you know it.’
‘You said I have to pay the marineros upfront, right? And what if they get caught? I lose both money and the chandelier.’
‘And they go to jail.’
‘Maybe you’re right.’
‘I know I am. Done this before.’
‘We shipped once the whole front door, complete with frame, out of Havana. Excellent workmanship. They don’t make doors like that anymore. Colonial style and all, a masterpiece.’
‘Yeah. And from there he shipped it home, to Miami, and then to Canada.’
‘Someone has a nice door there, in Canada.’
‘I’m telling you … if Fidel allowed it, there would be nothing left on the Island. The whole city, at least the old part, La Havana Vieja, would be taken apart.’
‘Been to Canada?’
‘Yeah, once’ Manolo replies.
‘I bet you froze your ass off.’
‘Went there in the summer. Haven’t seen any nice doors. How much is the fridge they want?’
‘I don’t know. Three, four hundred dollars, that’s it, no more. It’s a bargain this chandelier.’
‘And the marineros will get the fridge from Jamaica?’
‘Don’t they have a war there or something in Haiti?’
‘Always some. But my friends know some people on both ends. You agree on the price, they’ll do the thing. Drink your coffee. It’s getting cold.’
‘Won’t touch it.’
Manolo dumps the coffee onto the pavement. Some of the dark liquid trickles into the cracks in-between the uneven cement slabs; the rest dries out quick leaving behind but a wet stain.
There is a gutter a few feet away. It smells bad. The narrow street winds up towards the hills, lush with greenery. A belfry, once a part of a nunnery, sketches against that green. The tops of the hills are invisible, hazy. Vultures hover over the town’s shingled roofs. There is a goat’s carcass down by the river edge. The animal had drowned and is now awash, partly decomposed, bloated. Manolo saw it on his way to the house. The birds sense it, but cannot see it through the thick foliage. There are rows of trees on both sides of the river. It is the swarm of flies, their buzz, that betrays its presence.
Manolo is engrossed in his thoughts; he adds up figures, subtracts costs. The middle man sips on his coffee. He is patient. A man passes by. He is obese. He sweats. He wears no shoes, has to place his steps carefully onto the hot cobblestones. He wears large pants, too short, and a soiled tank shirt. He grins. He would like to sell some cigars; Manolo’s a foreigner, but the man knows the middleman. He thinks he’s with the secret police and cannot be trusted.
‘Hola,’ he says, that’s all, and vanishes behind the nearest corner. A emaciated horse wanders into the street. It stops in the shade; grazes on patches of dry, discolored grass sticking out of the ground by the curb. The animal is blind; a milky veil sits on its large eyes. Its head bowed, it wanders away.
‘Should we go inside and talk the deal through?’ the middleman asks.
‘You want the girl for the night? Just to make up, you know, to teach her manners.’
They get up and proceed into the dark room. Within a few hours the chandelier will be taken down. It will get a little polish and, wrapped, it will be transported to Santiago. From there, within the next few days, a man posing as a sailor will pick it up. Monies will be offered upfront – 300 dollars on the account of the purchase of a new fridge; 250 more dollars will be paid for the color TV. Manolo will be arrested in the hotel lobby while on the phone with his US client, a trader as well. Someone, allegedly, needs a Harley-Davidson from the 50's. He is prepared to pay good money. Cops used to ride hogs here on the island before the revolution. Manolo knows that. He will say yes I can get it just before he will be handcuffed and taken away.
‘You see, Manolo. Fidel did this: things have no material value here, not for this people. Things cannot be sold and be taken away. And because they cannot be sold and shipped out of the country …. well, a chandelier is a chandelier, and nothing more. What if it belonged once to a magnate, an earl, or a count? Or if it’s made of crystal or gold? It has no monetary value, you see. All this worth, in the end, is invented, futile, irrelevant.. San Francis taught this and failed even amongst his disciples. So did Gandhi. But Fidel made it happen. You see. Utopia? No, Manolo, mi companero, that’s the spirit of the revolution.’
‘Nice work,’ Manolo says; he doesn’t conceal his sarcasm. ‘So your name isn’t ….’
‘It is. My name’s Gayos, Inspector Gayos.’
Manolo will leave the country two weeks later. Persona non grata will be his official status in Cuba; a stamp stating that will be stamped in his Mexican passport. Charges will be laid but later dropped - attempting to smuggle a part of Cuba’s cultural patrimony is an act punishable by law; the sentence may vary from three to four years, but diplomatic implications will be considered. The Trinidadian family were warned; they never got the fridge and they lost the chandelier. It was never theirs, they were told.
© P Weslowski Feb 2010
The ticket came in on Monday; it indicated the stadium, the row and the seat. It was delivered by registered mail.
Tonight, again, he was humiliated.
‘Go! Go! Don’t waste my time!’ Sirelis said.
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