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Mi nombre es Roberto, but most who know me call me Sorrow.  I used to be a joiner by trade, first in Habana and then in Miami, working on stores, homes and boats, and anywhere else a door or window might be appropriate.  It was a good job, a trade to be proud of.  I had money in my pocket and I often used it to help people.  Many times I was said to be foolish.  Still, as an orphan I’ve come to think little of names.  How wrong is it to lend a hand?  Like when Jimmy, El Pescadero,  went straight and got a job and a punch card in the textiles in Hialeah, his family– the wife and five kids– went broke quickly and would have lost their apartment.  I lent them enough for two months’ back rent and two months ahead.  I felt good helping even if it all went sour when Jimmy took the money and fled.  How was I to know?  He had a punch card.  He had five children.  He had a pretty wife, Lydia, a redhead and hermosa even after the fifth birth.  I went to console her for Jimmy’s abandoning them.  Soon after we were lovers.  Lydia cried often.  When I touched her she shivered and laughed.  The more intimate we became the happier she seemed, until she just disappeared one day, probably off to search out Jimmy.  After she’d left, I took her children in with me. They were the first of my odd, lost family.

Walking home from a library job near Le Jeune one evening, I heard a boy crying.  I am not a man to pass by the suffering without trying to help.  The sobbing boy was one of the local toughs.  He’d lost the money his mother had given him for groceries.  There would be a serious beating when his father found out, he told me between tears.  He showed me bruises and scars across his hard and narrow back.  “Ayudame,” he cried. I gave him the grocery money in cash.  He jumped up howling like a lottery winner, and ran across the street to his gang who had been watching all along.  They split the cash in front of me.  Folly?  Perhaps, but I believe that they earned the money.

I was something of a soft touch, and people had many needs.  “Sorrow, my abuelo is dying in Patterson and I haven’t got the money for bus fare; I’ve been demoted to boner at the slaughterhouse, Sorrow, and I can’t keep up my debt payments; my house burned down and my pet store beside it.  Oh, mi hermano, I am so alone.”  I gave what I could, not as a hero, but as a human in an oppressive world.  When I was twenty-eight, some distressed mother left her year-old infant at my door with a note to say I was a good man and she was an addict so please love her child.  I did.  Why not?  People are often in great pain.  They do bizarre things.  There is such suffering that even the lies eventually become true.  Besides, fatherhood was just fine with me.

Born the only son of a wealthy couple during the time of Bautista, I lived well until burglars broke into our Veradero apartment and killed mi madre y padre when I was seven.  The killers were caught and imprisoned but I was bereft nonetheless.  The state sought a ward for me and found my aunt Letty.  I now believe that it was my dear aunt Letty who then robbed me of my inheritance and sent me away to San Dolores.  Why else would she have, from the day I entered the gray walls of the orphanage until this very day of our Lord, whatever it is, sent me a stipend of twenty pesos/dollars a week?  I admit it was quite a sum for a young boy in an orphan’s uniform, but it has lessened in importance through the years.  Still, twenty weekly afforded me luxuries like books and desserts and these I shared gladly.  But there were other children with more specific needs who simply asked for money, and this is where my philanthropy began, I suppose.

Later in life, after I had made my way to America before Fidel took over everything, I was sometimes on the verge of losing my apartment or furniture, or my children went hungry, because I had given away too much and kept too little.  Some days depression overtook me.  Who was I to give my money away and put my family at risk?  But what was so morally wrong with giving?  I knew a lawyer in Miami Beach whom I could speak to.

He said “You are a good man.  It’s written that it is better to give than receive.  And even though you say these people are happy receiving without giving, you must be so much more happy giving since you keep giving even when it hurts unmercifully.  You will be rewarded a window in heaven,” he said, “from which God will let you look down on the sinners in hell to savor their punishments.”

“I wouldn’t want that,” I told him.

“Whatever, then,” he said, waving away the whole picture with his big,

manicured hand. “Maybe you’ll get endless supplies of ice cream.  Who can know?  At the moment you’re a joiner.  So go join.”

There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to pack up my family and leave, anywhere and quickly.  I was, in fact, doing just that, packing up, when my landlady caught me.  She had come to borrow more money, ninety dollars for plumbing repairs which I knew we tenants would never see.  I told her that as I was just packing to leave it would be impossible to lend her the cash.  The old lady rolled up her glaucomic eyes and keeled over onto my floor, wailed “Dios mio,” and fainted entirely away.  Two of my daughters attended her with light slaps to her cheeks and sips of water to her lips.  My six-year-old son walked up to the landlady’s peaceful face and flatulated over it with a deft squat.  My daughters left their patient and the room, but the old lady sputtered to consciousness soon after, sitting up from my carpet and pointing at me firmly, saying “You need a good woman.  One who will make you want to stay. No one leaves Calle Ocho if they are in love.”  She coughed once then gathered herself and rose from the floor.  “I know just who!” she sing-songed, and left the room.

The landlady brought Cordelia to meet me the next day.  A robust brunette, nearly voluptuous, with a wide, toothy smile, Cordelia was everything Shakespeare never intended.  The men could not tolerate her critical tongue, and she would surely be condemned to solitude, the landlady said, if I did not take pity and make her a bride.

“It seems my life has come so far as to be begged off into your arms, Sorrow,” Cordelia told me.  “I could do worse.  You have seven tax credits.  I can use them.  And together we can rent a larger apartment with a bigger back yard.”  Then she smiled.

I turned to my children and told them to unpack; we would be staying after

all.  The landlady was ecstatic and nearly fainted once again, but for my son’s rousing her, like one of Pavlov’s breed, by his presence and the sensations it recalled.

“You bring home a good paycheck I’m told.  I’ll take control of it,” Cordelia said.  “If you don’t trust me, then why get married, eh?  Tell me si o no.”

She was a successful cheese vendor.  She had an absurd but effective herd of milk cows and goats in the tiny back yard of her first floor apartment.  She sold a hundred pounds of cheese a week and lived off it.  How could I argue with her business acumen?  I was a simple joiner.  I had no other prospects.  Maybe there was some happiness in it for me.  I signed my paycheck over to her.

She smiled and said “If you don’t become any more of a cabron than to do what I say, perhaps we will do well.”

I was glad to hear her say that.

The wedding ceremony was inside a donut shop.  I had done framework for the owner.  He insisted on setting up the place with his bakery foil and decorations.  The men drank espresso in hot milk laced with scotch.

“She is a fine woman,” I heard one say.

“Yes,” another replied.  “She has sex a lot, with men and women.”

It was an odd, rocky moment for me.  Men, women, and a lot.  What was I to do?

We danced, Cordelia and I and everyone else.  When the scotch and coffee ran out we ate donuts and éclairs.  Someone brought a case of rum and a box of Cojibas fresh off the boat.  I danced with a young lady schoolteacher.  Cordelia danced with the county commisioner.  She held him close.  But she held me closer for the next dance.  She pushed her hips into my groin.

“Maybe I can make even you happy, Sorrow,” she said.  “I was huerfano, tan bien.”

We drank a toast to her parents, then we accepted the gifts: a coffee maker, a vibrating stick, towels, a coupon for piano lessons.  There were also three bolts of cheese cloth.  I laughed, though now I don’t know why, except that I was drunk and exhilarated.

Making love with Cordelia was like being the nail between a hammer and the wood.  She rode the bed with me just coincidentally involved.  Or she crushed me in leg locks that took my breath.  When I was wasted she would get dressed in the dark, turn on a soft lamp, and leave for the night, looking for more.  I would be sore and bruised the next day at work.  In short, I was happy for what I could get.

Four months later she gave birth to twins.  All her friends came to see.  My children loved the babies dearly.  Cordelia decided not to leave so much anymore, except for her cheese production, which my daughters had begun to take over anyway.  She told me she would be having her partners come to the house.  She said I could join in at any time, except when she was with Caramela.

I felt a need to go somewhere and pray.  I asked directions of an elderly woman to the Catholic cathedral.  Her thin finger poked my chest.

La iglesia won’t do you any good, mi hijo.  Every one of your thoughts is a prayer, every action a prayer answered.”

She walked away slowly.  When she was gone from my sight I started for home.  My thoughts were my prayers.  The elderly woman had given me something marvelous and precious.  But it was invisible, so I’ll never know exactly where or when I lost it.

As I entered the lobby of the Las Palomas building we had moved into since the wedding– with more grazing area in the back yard– the lanky janitor took me aside into the staircase tower.

“Your wife has been at it all afternoon, Sorrow, her rich friend, too, them wailing like alley cats.  And those cows mooing.  And the goats. There have been complaints.”  He asked “How do you live like this?”

What could I say to him?

As though he understood, he cuffed me across the shoulder.  “How do they keep it up?”

“I think they’re laughing,” I said.

“I asked her for sex myself once.  She turned me down flat.”

“My wife?” I said, facing him.

The janitor looked down on me puzzled.  “Yes, Sorrow, of course your wife,” he said.  “How can you take offense?  How can you live like that?”

People had begun coming out into the hall to watch.  “It’s your place, Sorrow,” one of my neighbors called out.  “You have the key.  Go on in!”

“Yes, of course,” I said, reaching in my pocket for the key.  The janitor tried to step into my living room with me but I closed and locked the door on him and the rest pressing behind from the hall.  I sat on the sofa.  By Cordelia’s order, the children were out of the apartment for the afternoon.

“Papaya!” I heard from the bedroom.  “It smells like papaya.”

Cordelia laughed a laugh that made me smile listening to it.  Five minutes later I stepped back into the empty hallway and left again.  I was an intruder, no matter the semantics of ownership.

One afternoon Cordelia kissed me on the cheek.  “Tonight you dress nicely, Sorrow.  Caramela is taking us to a supper club near the design district for dinner.  She thinks you’re the best husband on the planet.”  Her finger brushed my forehead.  “Who knows?  Perhaps she’s right.  Dame su dinero.”

I gave her the one hundred sixty three dollars in my wallet. And a spare quarter from my right pocket.  “I thought you didn’t want me to meet…”

“Well, now you interest her.  Go rent a tux,” she said.  “Charge it.”

The restaurant was bright and swank.  The waiters, in short tuxedos, were all women.  There were mirrors everywhere but I could always see only a part of me in reflection because of the crowd.  The supper show was glitzy and full of leg and breast.  The steak was rare, almost sweet.  And Caramela seemed to be the center of all things there.  A strawberry blonde with a strong build, she was wealthy in all the small things, the pearls and platinum.  She smiled with warmth and she seemed to like me.

“So many beautiful women in one room,” I said.  “It’s a little overwhelming.”

“You’d prefer another man by your side, then?” Caramela asked.

I smiled.  “It might help,” I said.  “But then it might also spoil everything.”

“This is heaven to you, Sorrow.  Admit it,” Cordelia said.  “Men are sluts.  You want every woman in this room.  And you probably do too, Caramela cara mia.”

Caramela laughed.  “Only the beautiful ones,” she said. Then she turned to me.  “Cordelia wouldn’t recognize heaven if she saw it,” she said.  “Anymore than she knows a good husband when she has one.”

I felt a shoe caress my pant leg beneath the table slowly.  I looked over and smiled at Cordelia.

“I know Sorrow’s worth,” Cordelia said.  “He’s worth so much that he gives my money away to total strangers.”  She looked at me.  “Yes, Sorrow, I saw your handout to that little girl yesterday. Derrochador.”

“Ah, but she needed…” I began.

Cordelia waved a hand.  “She needed,” she mocked.  “They all need.  You need.  But you don’t need them!”

“Who’s to say?” I asked.  “Even you have your good side.”

The shoe was snooping my thigh, but by the way she sat it couldn’t have been Cordelia.  I felt a tingle in the small of my neck.

Some weeks later I was helping an elderly woman unload her groceries from a taxi when Caramela strode up to us on the sidewalk.  She was wearing a black dress clasped at the waist with a thin gold belt.  She slipped a twenty-dollar bill from her small purse and handed it to the cabby.

“Take care of tia,” she commanded.  “Come on, Roberto.  She’ll be fine.”

“You called me Roberto,” I said.

She told me there was enough sorrow in the world already, then pulled me away as the cabby bent to pick up the brown bags.  The elderly lady’s face watched us go with a look of horror, like something awful would happen as soon as she was alone with the cabby.  I lost sight of her when Caramela led us to a recessed doorway nearby and pressed herself to me.

“Let’s do it, Robertico” she said as she tugged at my old leather belt.

She forced me on her there in the doorway standing up.  I got a splinter in my palm from leaning so hard against the worn wooden casing.

When we had done I asked what we were to do now that we had done it.

“Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do,” Caramela answered, “but I’m going to your place and tell Cordelia about it.”  She skipped away down the stairs swinging the gold belt from her hand saying “I tell her everything.”

On the sidewalk where the elderly woman had been were a dozen eggs broken and a wet piece of brown paper bag stuck to the pavement.

“So, if isn’t Sinful Sorrow himself,” Cordelia said when I got home later that night.  “You two-timing hijo de puta. I’ll tell you right here and now we can’t share her.  She’s mine or she’s yours. But she’s not ours.  If it weren’t for your tax credits, I’d throw you out right now.”

“What are you talking about?” I said.  “We had sex, that’s all.  We didn’t elope.  Who are you to get jealous?  You who have evicted my children from their own home in order to glut herself on sex.”

“Their home?  This is my home.  Esta es mi casa. You pay the bills, but the mortgage is in my name.  I own the cows y las cabras.   Even the furniture is mine.  Surely I love the twins and some of your children as much as you, but let’s not confuse love and ownership here.”

“But I don’t own Caramela,” I said.

“Good.  Then you give her up?”

“With whatever rights I own to do so,” I answered, thinking to end this.  “But you’ll have to allow the children to stay in their home from now on.  Even my youngest already knows what you are doing in there.  It is still their home to them and they don’t like being put out.”

Cordelia smiled and took my hand.  “They can stay, Sorrow.”  She tugged me forward.  “Now come to the bedroom and show me more of that tough guy hiding inside you.”

And so I did.

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