Remembering H.G. Carrillo, and His Marvelous Recounting of Cuban History

Manuel Muñoz Introduces the Late Author's Novel, Loosing My Espanish

From
Loosing My Espanish

by H.G. Carrillo

Well you know sometimes you no know you no going to like something until you right in the middle of no liking, Amá will say whether things are good or bad. She’ll say it at the start of something, or in the middle, or long after it’s finished, which makes it difficult to tell when you’ve gotten to the moral of the story. Will things get better? Are they about to get worse? You never know if her eye is fixed on a distant horizon or clouded in some memory right in front of her.

She said it when Joaquín-Ernesto—the Santiago Boy—went through the ice that winter after we moved up from Miami. And again as he began his ascent into sainthood here in what little there is of Cuba in our tiny community in Chicago.

None of us in Troop 227 had seen it happen. It was after Christmas, bright and cold. On the bus ride out Father Rodríguez and our scout leader, Mr. Sáenz, said that the older boys were to keep an eye out for us younger ones, but the moment the doors opened to the wide expanse of Starved Rock, we ran and shouted and shoved at each other like rams; like wild banshees, Father Rodríguez said. All that morning we followed raccoon tracks as they appeared and vanished under dustings of snow. There had been lunch at the lodge and the discovery of an abandoned hummingbird’s nest.

We had been sent to trace the flight patterns of nonmigratory birds when Mr. Sáenz began yelling for us to divide up in twos and look for him. ¡Vamos! ¡Vamos now, goddamnit! Father Rodríguez was yelling.

And later, when we all got back to the city, Mr. Sáenz was crying he never, never, never, never, never lost a boy in all his years.

The wind stood the few long hairs across his bald head on end.

The rose thickets have come up so high over the back fence, and the smell of garbage and urine we had all grown used to over the years has been overwhelmed by the fragrance.

Other than the murmuring that continued long after the Santiagos were led home, the only sound was the icy clatter of leafless trees. Forever after that—because the body had not been found that day—it was easier to focus on the bald spaces on Mr. Sáenz’s head. Somewhere in his eyes he had brought back a jagged hole in the ice just big enough for a boy to slip through, and by the time night closed around those twenty or so blocks where we all lived, we all knew that any one of us could fall into it.

And she said it again, Amá, just last week when she set fire to her kitchen, an act that took with it almost all of what little of Cuba we had here.

Nearly everything saved, wished for, prayed for in that tiny little casa blanca just off of Ashland Avenue that she had said was always and forever in the back of her mind seemed to willingly take to the flames, become unrecognizable, until nearly everything Amá had ever wanted was either altered or gone.

This morning, after spending hours at the insurance office, Amá and I went to her house. And even though we had spent the past two hours itemizing objects and appliances and books and glassware that had been lost or damaged, neither of us expected to walk into the kitchen of Román, Julio and my childhood, where we all had eaten the meals and told the stories and sang the songs and mucked the boots and did the homework, gone. Clear through the upstairs, all had given way to a crow caught in a hot gust of air above us.

The wooden back porch has been burned away and the sky comes in so now we might as well have been sitting in the garden. Amá took her place as always at the head of the table and gestured for me to sit next to her. The table’s aluminum frame is still intact, though the linoleum top has melted into itself a little so that the blue and yellow and gray colors now all converge kaleidoscopically. Ay, Amá said smoothing her hand over the surface; it was the first thing she bought when we—just Amá and me then—were still living, just surviving in a small apartment off Logan Boulevard.

She apologized there was no coffee, and then laughed saying that it was something she had as a girl dreamed of: being the lady of the house who always had coffee and silver to serve when family or company came to visit. We laughed until we just sat looking through the hole that had been eaten through the wall to the garden.

The delphiniums are so lush, plentiful and purple for this time of year you can’t see more than a foot into the yard. The rose thickets have come up so high over the back fence, and the smell of garbage and urine we had all grown used to over the years has been overwhelmed by the fragrance. They encroach so far—as if to make a canopy—there would be no way of telling there was anything else there, if from where we sat you couldn’t see the peaks of three or four elephant ears, gigantic, seven or eight feet tall, in the air.

She told me, like always, all she did was set the rice on to boil. And then, like usual—Dios mío—she began to pray. She included the names of all of the saints she could think of; the week’s numbers for the loteria; and the soul of Abuelita; and the pope who she swears must have at least a little Cuban blood; and the dearly departed Madre Teresa; and the world’s starving children; and for her only sister left, tía María-María, and her husband, tío Néstor, and their daughters—cousins I only remember meeting once when we were all small children—Julia y Wilma in Santa Fe; and for the sisters that Amá has always said that she has had the good fortune to adopt and be adopted by since leaving Santiago for La Habana, and then La Habana for La Habana Pequeña, and then leaving Miami for Chicago; said she has always considered herself lucky to have had two of the most magnificent mujeres to walk the face of the earth—las doñas Liliana y Cristina—as friends without whom life in this country would simply be unbearable; and for the three boys they all raised together—Román—El Blanco—who she said they would all see on the television one day, y Julio—El Negro, Román’s gemelo, doña Liliana’s sons though they have different last names—who she said she wasn’t sure what it was he did but however she was quite sure whatever it was would one day change the course of the whole world; and then of course for me; she always prayed for me, her own whom she could not be more proud of; and, she said lowering her eyes, she even prayed for Juan Ocho, who did nothing for her—she reminded me even though she said she was certain that I already knew—that Juan Ocho and his trumpet playing did nothing at all—nothing for her and certainly nothing to her—except give her a boy with the same castellano hair that any woman—no matter how good— might have fallen into, which is why, she said, when she prays she never includes herself; it just wouldn’t be right.

And maybe today I’ll know something, maybe I’ll be able to say something like: But you see, señores, this is how myth is made—from just these shards—this, this is historia . . .

Gone now are the pictures of the sea-green dress—the one made with the exact color fabric as doña Liliana’s eyes— that Amá and another girl had to sew her into; no zippers, so that her attendants at a coming-out party would say that it felt like they were holding an angel, they say, like a cloud, like nothing in their arms. Singed, after years under gilt and leather covers. Their edges and centers melted into the plastic sheets leaving behind a gloved hand and the famous swan ice sculpture that stood nine feet high and the fountain that sprayed pink champagne.

Gone too is the picture of Juan Ocho and his wavy castellano hair and his shirt opened to his trim waist and his ojos malos the color of asparagus water that no woman could resist no matter how good.

Left is the lady’s hand door knocker: her fingertips gently resting on her tambourine, placidly, calmly, as if nothing happened, merely caught in una siesta between fiestas. Also, the aquamarine brooch in the shape of a dragonfly doña Liliana is said to have thrown away because the clasp was loose that Amá or another of the girls working in the grand house in El Vedado is said to have pulled out of a wastepaper basket. And the gold-rimmed plates doña Cristina managed to get on the plane with her—a setting for seventeen and a quarter—though mostly broken. The credenza and buffet in the dining room stand steadfast though warped into blackface caricature. Though gone too are the photos of tío Néstor y tía María-María at the Santiago bar where Néstor and Juan Ocho’s band played: Los Americanos—merengue, rumba, samba, jazz, boleros of heartbreak, loneliness and betrayal—everyone used to wait all week just to hear them play; Amá says they were so good they almost had a record contract, says they were set to tour South America before Castro.

Upstairs a charred box still holds the silver cuff link doña Cristina says Amá stole from Juan Ocho with the hope doña Liliana could find someone who could put a spell on him that would bind his feet and keep him from straying.

Fisted into a cinder was the packet of letters addressed to Amá, but meant for all of us, from my prima Carolina, still in Cuba. Like plaintive songs caught in an ever-constricting throat, they once read of long-ago and far-away: Mireya, you know I haven’t had a new dress in an age; Mireya, you have no idea what it costs to get any lipstick, let alone a good one and you know the closer I get to thirty chances slip by me; Ungüento, Mireya, send ungüento in a hurry, with a quickness; Send the one like the one like we see in the ad that comes over fuzzy from America on the tiny little television a girl down the hall from us has . . . send the one that cools the burn and eases the pain like they say, for I work now, we all do . . . in the fields all day with a machete, like a man or an ox . . . no, querida tía, like a burro . . .

The gutters lay skeletal around where the back of the house has been eaten away, though every math test Julio, Román or I had ever taken, every paper we had written was preserved by a fallen mirror.

The baby shoes doña Cristina had bronzed when Román must have been all of thirteen were steadfast, though the door we had stopped open with them—the door to what had been the room Román, Julio and I had shared—looks as if it had been snarled and slathered by a toothless black mouth.

We both sat there, Amá and I, wishing for cafecito in perfectly crafted, painted china cups with matching saucers. Amá looked around at what had been what for so long she told everyone was the reason we had left Cuba and said, Well you know mijo, sometimes you no know you no going to like something until you right in the middle of no liking. And although we were staring at smears that trace the carpet along the hall to the sewing room that Amá y las doñas had fixed so nice, I knew that she was talking about both that moment then as well as when we first came and lost the Santiago Boy; and the moment we set foot in La Habana Pequeña, as well as the first sentence that I heard Amá say in English. Sometimes you no know you no going to like something until you right in the middle of no liking.

And maybe today I’ll know something, maybe I’ll be able to say something like: But you see, señores, this is how myth is made—from just these shards—this, this is historia . . .

H.G. Carrillo
H.G. Carrillo
H. G. Carrillo’s work has appeared in The Kenyon Review and Glimmer Train, among other journals and magazines.





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