International Writers Magazine: Cuba Story
Before he reached
Cuba he stopped in Ottawa and there he played a small steel string which
made his fingers very tough. However after three months in Cuba
and only occasionally playing a guitar his fingers had become soft and
he was drinking a lot of rum.
Perrita, The Darkest Man
J Alan Billstrom
The Yuma did
not bring a guitar with him to Cuba because he wanted to buy a Cuban
guitar. He had four in Canada. His favorite was a cut
away made in the 'States however most of the time he played a Mexican
mariachi guitar because it was smaller and made a fine sound and
he bought it while on a trip with his daughter.
Havana was a relief to him after four weeks in Veradero and Cardenas where
he'd fallen in with a band of hustlers with whom he could barely communicate.
The rum; the girls; the heat; the Malecon; the Prada, and more tourists
with whom he had less and less in common with.
One day a perrita followed him home along the Malecon. His friend
had told him it was infirm but after a kilometer under the late morning
sun the Perrita was still with him so he wrapped it in his towel and carried
it across the Malecon to the Casa Particular where he had a room upstairs.
There was no one around when he opened the metal gate and rosewood
door. The small living room was dark and the kitchen quiet. He
took the Perrita upstairs to his room and washed it in the shower with
a foaming antiseptic then fed it some milk.
The Perrita was exhausted. Another couple of hours and she would
have perished and been nothing but another bundle of dead matter cast
aside in the busy city. He lifted its head and looked into its eyes
which focused on him in passive fear. After the washing the Perrita
shivvered in the air conditioned room which was hardly chilly at twenty
two or three degrees. When the Perrita finally drank some milk he
was satisfied it might live so he took some newspapers and hid her in
them under the bed.
Later that day he told his friend he had taken the Perrita home. They
bought a package of hotdogs for it. His friend told him the right
words to say to the landlady. "I want to have a dog. I
need affection." When he said this to the landlady she agreed
he could have a dog. Later she changed her mind, but for the moment
he was glad to have the Perrita there. He didn't need affection
so much, but the landlady, who reminded him of the Matt Dillon's girlfriend
on Gunsmoke, had noticed his girlfriend seldom showed up on time
and for the last couple of nights, not at all. This was seen as
somewhat of a tragedy in the casa.
He had decided his girlfriend was a jinatera who only saw him as a Yuma.
He quit phoning for her and stayed a few days with the Perrita,
feeding her hotdogs and washing her with anteseptic. Later he put
cortisone cream on all her sunburns and she licked it, spreading it evenly
over her tiny body. He felt very happy for a momentico watching
her do this. He looked at her from time to time, appraising her.
A puppy perhaps only five or six months old; her paws the paws of
a dog a foot and a half at the shoulder.
When the Landlady told him she could lose her license if it was found
out she had allowed a street dog into the room of an tranjero, he was
disappointed and relieved at the same time. Caring for a puppy in
a small room was almost a full time job and when his girlfriend came he
had to mop the whole place with soap to get rid of the odor.
He appealed to his friend and he helped him find the Perrita a new
home in Havana Vieja. She told him there was an old fruitseller
who lived in a doorway who said he would care for the Perrita. The
man sold fruit that looked like tiny limes but was sweet. He heard
a girl who decided not to buy from him call him a 'criminal' but to the
Yuma this sort of petty hustler was only pathetic.
When the fruitseller saw the Perrita, however, he changed his mind. The
Yuma had carried the Perrita there in a plastic grocery bag with some
newspaper on the bottom so that the Perrita only peeked out from the bags
handles. His friend told him that the people were
afraid to refuse his request for a home for the Perrita because of santeria
as San lazaro was the Saint who cared for lost children and animals and
might be displeased by such behavior. Not to mention the African
gods which were worshipped in the place of the saints at night. The
Yuma waited for a quite a long time as his friend went from one abode
to another. In one place the family said they would take care of
the Perrita for one CUC per day however without explanation they changed
their minds. The Yuma made a joke in Spanish then, saying that he
was going to sell it for meat in the Chinese barrio. They laughed
but it was not a comforting laugh.
At last it seemed, the fruitseller changed his mind. He beconed
the Yuma to follow them across the street to a workshop where there were
some old cars locked behind a metal fence. The Yuma tied the Perrita
to an hulking, half-rotted Dodge and fed her the remainder of the hotdogs.
Then he left with his friend. Over the next two days the
Yuma returned to pay the man first ten pesos of national money then
thirty for two more days more. Room and board.
One night the Yuma's novia showed up and he made love to her. She
was very inexperienced and the whole ffair was a tender thing and when
he saw her this time he didn't think of her as a jinatera. He presumed
a jinatera would know a lot more about the needs of a man. And what
of it anyway? She was strict about missionary position and only
during the most vigorous thrusting did any sound escape from her at all.
And only then came a subdued sound that escaped from her broad sculpted
nose like air squeezed from a punctured foursquare ball. He loved
that sound. And she had a most marvellous body. Work strong
arms, buttocks shorn of fat by years of strenuous acrobatics and dancing.
And those kisses that spoke sweet nothings to him and a smile that
lit up her eyes with a youthful, joyous spark. Her breasts, however,
were small and pancake like, the nipples large and too narrow for their
length. And worse of all she would not lend him access to them.
She protected them as if she were being groped by a stranger on
That night as they smoked she saw that he was reflective. She asked
him, "What is the problem", and he told her what had happened.
One night he had shown up to pay for more nights for the Perrita. The
last couple of times he had arrived the Perrita was not in her usual place,
tied to a car behind a gated parkage. He'd assumed the fruitseller
had finally seen the Perrita's true nature, so very cute and smart as
she was, and taken her inside. However this time he noted a shifting
of the fruitseller's eyes which compelled him to look further. He
inquired, politely at first, to see the Perrita. The fruitseller
looked regretfully at the small wad of nation money in the Yuma's hand
and admitted she had escaped. His girlfriend let out a quick laugh
but it did not bother him as he had realized the Perrita was a street
dog after all. However, at the time, the Yuma had become furious
and left with an accusing demeanor that cast a pall in the ether.
The next day the Yuma, numbed by morning rum, was making his way down
the Malecon. He was not thinking about the Perrita now but enjoying
the gentle buzz of Havana at ten in the morning. Three musicians stopped
him. Two of them were quite black and the other mulatto. When
the Yuma told them he played guitar as well, the older man, the darkest,
handed him his guitarra. The Yuma played well and the darkest musician
asked him if he had a guitarra in Havana. The Yuma told him he did
not and the musician asked him if he wanted to buy his for one hundred
and one CUC. The Yuma foolishly agreed as he liked the guitarra
and was somewhat seduced by the timing and the energetic welcome he had
received. They went back to the casa particular and the musicians
played. They were very good. The Yuma paid the darkest man who said
he would return later to teach him some salsa but this never happened.
The Yuma had a guitarra and the darkest man had rum said his friend on
hearing the story.
But the darkest man was a baracho and while the Yuma had thought the darkest
man would buy a nice new guitarra for himself he did not. He drank
up the money. He drank up his guitarra. And later, when he
and his friend were walking on the Malecon the musicians beckoned him
and had to tell them he had no time for them as he had been warned about
The Yuma thought about this when his friend later told him the darkest
man had taken advantage of him. The darkest man had lost his guitarra,
however, and this was a shame as he was a very good player. Sixty
years old and no guitarra. Who had taken advantage of whom? However,
as this had not been the Yuma's intent he did not feel the full weight
of guilt for this transaction.
And it would have been badly placed guilt as sometime later he saw
the darkest man again, adorned with a new guitarra, perhaps donated by
one of the other Yuma's or won by hard fought days on the Malecon, shaking
peas in a plastic bottle with the others of the trio. Who knew?
The Yuma congratulated the darkest man and carried on with the Artista
to her Saturday showing on the Prado and there he saw the Perrita curled
up in the shade on a marble walk. She shook herself and looked up at him.
He was enchanted again.
Jinatero is a word that loosely means 'hustler' but somewhat defies
that strict a definition. 'Jinete' means jockey. The implication
is interesting n'est pas? It is also not very clear about what 'yuma'
means. Havana's king of the yuma's had to be Ernest Hemmingway,
however a king is immune to such labels. Oops. The Malecon, built
in the early part of the twentieth century by Americans to shield the
stately colonial homes and an eight lane motorway, is often referred to
as the 'couch of Havana'. In the night the gente sit on its edge,
wide enough to comfortably seat whole families who lounge on their chosen
strip like they were in their own living room. Tourists and joggers;
fishermen, police and artists; and occassionally a heartbroken drunk
or two, street dogs, musicians, lovers, and the lonely drift along it's
expanse. In the daytime it is cleaned of the night's debris and
is just a seawall again.
© J. A Billstrom December 2007
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