Alejandro Suárez Castro: Education for All

(Translated from Spanish by Hector Duarte Jr.)

 

August 2027. Saturday. 10 P.M.

 

A reporter with a thick moustache and serious glare announces during the news brief that Cuba is the winner of the Great Battle of Ideas and that we are officially a cultural power and influence. “Numbers speak volumes,” says the mustachioed man and cites several recent studies that have the island besting several first-world nations. In keeping with the tone set, the station runs Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The Italian dialogue sets my mind in motion and a serious craving for spaghetti hits my stomach. The movie ends after midnight so I decide to postpone the feast to Sunday’s lunch.

 

The Following Sunday. 10 A.M.

 

Pasta feast in mind, I call Renata and invite over for lunch. She accepts the invite but warns of running late. She needs the morning to fix a few cracks that appeared in the bathroom tiles. Her house is overrun by handymen. As soon as they leave, she’ll head over.

I have a box of spaghetti in the pantry. In the freezer, left over from another lunch, is some ground soy. I must go out and scour for cheese and tomato sauce.

First stop: Coralia, my retired neighbor, who scraps by selling homemade tomato sauce. She lives on the third floor but I spot her at the entrance of her building, dressed to impress. She is going out and I hurry to catch her.  With the right amount of discretion necessary for a transaction like this, I ask her if she has a bottle of “you know what.”

“I do but it has to be later. I’m going to the movie theater,” she says. “Cinemateca is showing The Seventh Seal. The restored version without subtitles. A Real gem, Papito.”

I sigh and my face must inspire sympathy. Coralia seems moved.

“If it’s life and death, you can ask my brother. He’s upstairs. That beast cannot appreciate good art. Tell him I sent you up. He knows who you are.”

She turns to look up at a balcony across the street and yells at her neighbor Caridad to hurry the hell up. Before leaving, she warns prices have increased. “The storm ruined the harvest, papito.”

I march up to Coralia’s apartment in search of her brother. A half hour later, I exit the building with a bottle of tomato sauce labeled with a dry wine sticker: El Mundo; half my mission is complete. Next stop: Tyson’s market, where Tyson sells cheese at his own profit.

“Too late, bro. Cheese flies out of here on Sundays,” Tyson tells me without looking up from a crossword puzzle.

On the floor behind the counter, next to a couple of sacks of unappetizing potatoes, is a huge stack of books. By a quick mental count, I figure there are about 300. Tyson tells me a Spanish press sent them two days ago with instructions to give them to customers who make legitimate purchases.

“Buy vegetables, get a book. Why only legitimate purchases?” I say.

“Instructions from the top; insures equity. Otherwise, people start to wonder. . . You know how it is around here.”

I tilt my neck to read the spines. Tyson saves me some work.

“Poetry from Spain’s golden age.”

“Anything by Quevedo?”

Tyson smiles. He knows what’s up.”

“That was the first one to go. People aren’t stupid, asere. I do have Gongora and Calderon.”

He pushes through my silence. “I also have potatoes. I’m supposed to sell them by the pound but can make an exception if you’re interested in a specific book.”

With a shake of my head, I say, “I just want a pound of cheese.”

“You’ll have to wait till tomorrow,” he says with a wave of his hand. He wants me to step aside for the paying customers behind me.

As I head out,I’m flanked by an older gentlemen who overheard our conversation. “I have a Quevedo anthology if you’re interested. I ask for a dollar or its equivalent in pesos.”

He looks like a retired office worker, not an entrepreneur.

“Do you by chance have cheese?”

He seems disappointed at not being able to fulfill the request but he provides options.

“Go to 74, ask for Felo the Trucker. He gets it in from Villa Clara.”

I thank him for the tip and leave quickly.

I pass the threshold into 74 and ask the first elderly lady I see about Felo.

“Second floor, third door on your right,” she says with tired voice.

I ascend the dark, humid stairs lined with tangles of cables. When I ring the bell, the door opens to a man I know must be Felo. He’s fifty, shirtless, wears a large but trimmed moustache, and has a rooster tattooed on his right shoulder. The design looks much too fancy to belong to a trucker. We’re neighbors and it’s the first time I’ve seen him. Maybe he’s lived here a while; maybe not. There are far too many doors. “Felo?” I ask.

“The very same. What do you need?”

“A pound of cheese.”

Without a word, he turns to disappear behind a screen separating the same living room from what I assume is the kitchen. After a couple of minutes, he returns with a hunk of cheese wrapped in a white cloth. “You got something to take it in?” he asks.

I pull nylon bag from my back pocket.

“Best to be discreet.”

I look at the rooster again. Felo notices.

“It’s a Mariano Rodriguez design,” he says.

Its detail is amazing. Clearly the work of an expert. Does someone out there really make a living tattooing classic Cuban works?

“Interesting,” I say and make motion to leave.

“You haven’t paid,” Felo says, deadpan.

“Sorry, I got distracted by the tattoo talk.”

I pull a dollar from my wallet. Felo takes it and holds it to the light before rubbing it between his index and thumb. After a few strokes, he’s contented.

As I descend the stairs, I hear the opening of Flight of the Valkyries. It’s coming from the street and I have no doubt what it is: the water truck that serves this part of Habana. The calm of the building starts to wane. Doors open and voices become louder. Two small boys run by my side, smacking my legs with empty jugs. In the street, twenty neighbors file in line, all of them falling in with Wagner’s rhythm.

The driver is in charge of making sure the process runs smoothly and little water is wasted. “Two jugs per person,” he shouts just to be sure. I am grateful to leave in one of the few buildings with running water, even if it is only in the morning.

 

Just after noon, the ground soy is ready. I made sure to plenty of salt, garlic, onion, and tomato sauce to kill the God awful taste of soy. Renata arrives as the water for the spaghetti starts boiling. She holds a bottle of beet wine. Given the rough taste, it’s not too bad. We pour the spaghetti in the water and make a mental note: seven minutes.

While we wait, Renata dances over to the record player and pops in NG la banda. The drums and the horns chime as the chorus affirms, “Soy de La Habana, soy habanero, Jesus Maria, Belen, y los Sitios entero.” Renata keeps time with the rumba and watch every step. She loves the classics no one listens to anymore. She shakes her shoulders and hips, swaying her sexy waist like a hypnotic flame. This is why I like her. She is sensual, unpredictable, different.

***

Alejandro Suárez Castro was born in Habana, Cuba in 1971. He has lived in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, since 1998. He has published the short story collections, Desayuno en la cama (Winner of the 2001 Santa Cruz National Literary Prize, short story category); El mundo de José and Irina, el sexo y la nueva izquierda (La Hoguera). His first novel, El perro en el año del perro (Editorial Universitaria Gabriel René Moreno, 2012), won the writing contest commemorating de Santa Cruz de la Sierra’s 450th anniversary.  His work has appeared in the anthologies:Domingos por la tarde:Cuentos bolivianos de fútbol (Editorial El Cuervo, Bolivia, 2014) and De la tricolor a la whipala (Editorial Santiago Arcos, Argentina, 2014). As well as the digital presses Suelta, Círculo de poesía y Otro cielo.

Alejandro Suárez Castro

Alejandro Suárez Castro

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