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A boy of nearly thirteen was following a beautiful woman. He didn’t concern himself with why he was trailing the woman; she had emerged from a building and began walking in the boy’s same direction a little ahead, perhaps twenty feet. This alone placed him in the position of a follower. Yet he had passed his original goal, the magazine stand between the corner bar and the Cuban market on Flagler Street, in order to continue on this new path. The magazine would be waiting for him another time but the beautiful woman would be gone any moment, perhaps into another building, perhaps into an automobile, apartment house, restaurant, anything, and she would be gone probably forever. So he took up the trail.

Of the woman personally, he knew absolutely nothing. She was a complete stranger. Even the attraction which he felt for her was a novel thing. Sexuality was still an obscure curiosity to him, not a driving force, and the word sex itself never entered his head. Yet the attraction was surely physical if he did not know her any other way. The young man accepted this to himself, but more in the way that a traffic accident is a physical attraction, or dogs mating.

She held her face aloft in the slight breeze which danced on the golden brown hair and produced a lion’s mane effect as it swept the shoulders clean, then regilded the blue collar and back. It was a heart-shaped face with a straight nose and slightly flaring nostrils, dark, perhaps brown eyes and clear, tanned skin. She was dressed in a royal blue skirt and short-coat with a light blouse beneath. The blue skirt was long, stopping inches below the knee, with a lengthy but not at all indecent slit which allowed leeway for her legs nearly to the middle of her thigh. Her heels were of medium spike with delicate straps. This much the boy took in on the first sight and accepted just as quickly. The clothes were probably expensive but it made little difference to him. Her left arm swung freely with her steps while the right was kept curled about a small, black, clutch bag. Her demeanor was confident in the passing crowds. She at least knew where she was going, the boy at one point thought.

At times he became possessed of the notion that the skirt held the woman quite snugly. It was the snugness of fit that enticed on these occasions where he found himself wishing to know the feel of such snugness, to be that close to her moving body. The impetus moved him sometimes so much that he would hurry his steps to come within ten or twelve feet of her  and remain so until he suddenly felt he might be invading her space and cause her to turn upon him as though an intruder. Then he would slacken back to a safe twenty feet and wonder at this boldness with such an utter stranger.

At one point the woman stopped altogether near the end of a block and began reading a colorful wall poster announcing the upcoming Calle Ocho festival where El Espuma would be headlining. The boy was at a loss what to do, for to pass her was unthinkable and to simply stop and wait was a potential embarrassment. People were coming and going when he paused and, with a sudden inspiration, fell to one knee and rapidly snatched the string of his shoe in order to retie it. This he did, tying slowly and with one eye on the woman glimpsed between the movement above him. She started forward again unexpectedly and he was forced to hurry the knot and chase through the crowd a bit to catch up to his twenty-foot distance. He became impatient with himself now and began questioning his motives.

What would he gain by all this? What could he gain? Was gain what he intended or was he merely following something mysterious as he had when he used to play at being a spy in the street? Would he tell anyone of his lark or would he keep it secret? What was there to tell? Why was he following her this way?

It never occurred to him to wonder who the woman was; she was simply there before him. Perhaps knowing that she was a local secretary or bank clerk or salesgirl would have changed things. Then he could leave off the chase and pick it up whenever it was convenient for him to wander past her place of occupation. But she had no occupation as far as he knew, and no existence beyond this moment. The feelings of confusion and attraction were not unpleasant but were bewildering nonetheless. He would have to quit soon anyway as he was getting too far from home. Still, he kept on.

It was growing later and later in the day and the woman was moving further and further away from where the boy should be, and he was moving with her. His feet moved faster or slower, placing him closer or at more of a distance from her without his considering the process of walking. At one point they passed a churros y café wagon where medics were loading an old man on a stretched into the ambulance. The rolling red and blue lights seemed celebratory somehow to the boy. He had been a pedestrian his entire life and there were still years of walking ahead before he became empowered with the horses of an automobile. So walking came naturally and unthinking. Except that he considered how far he had walked this day and how similarly far he would have to go to return.

It had been a long straight stretch along Miracle Mile and the hypnosis of he walk, the personality within he movement, held him deep in transport, when she stopped again, this time at a bus bench. He slowed to a crawl and forced his gaze down to the sidewalk to await this new development. The woman stood behind the green bench while the young man covered ten feet of the distance between them. She peered down the road then at the bench, as though inspecting the planked seat, and finally stepped from the back of the bench to sit upon it, crossing her legs to the knees then smoothing the cloth of the skirt in her lap. The slit of the material inched along the muscle of her left leg and seemed to draw the boy on. He came forward slowly, uncertainly, but decidedly. He stepped toward the bench and stopped alongside, flinging nervous, watchful glances about the thinning crowd and down the busy street. Then he looked at the woman.

She met his eyes with an indifferent but pleasant nod, perhaps a slight movement at the sides of her glistening lips was even a smile. The young man smiled nervously and looked at the bench seat beside her. She slid to the side without changing position to allow room for his small body. He sat, mute. At least, he thought, this bench was for buses going back home again. He decided at that moment no matter what the woman did, whether she rose and continued walking or remained, he would await the bus home.  He was so close to her now that the faint odor of her scent wafted into his nostrils. It was a scent perfectly matched to his image of her. He kept his head down, as though scrutinizing the pavement, and only with quick, uncontrollable snatches did his eyes examine the cloth and skin of her legs. He felt a little stunned by her nearness. Her elbow touched him as she searched within her bag and he started as though from a nap or trance. He drew every breath as though it were important to savor the air around. His hands lay limp and clammy on his lap. The traffic hurried past.

When the bus appeared he was again startled. She rose to meet it and waved the driver down with her free arm. She was standing so close he could have reached out and touched her hips. She was so close that his breathing stopped, then started in rapid succession. They were a snug pair at that moment and he would have been willing to sit there a good long while. But the bus pulled up and the doors folded apart and the woman stepped up the first, second and third steps, the space between him and her expanding. He was so dazed by it all that he nearly forgot to get on the bus. It was not until the woman was seated that the boy jumped up and over the entrance steps, paid his fare and recovered himself standing with one hand on the cold, chrome rail to absorb the pull of the vehicle’s acceleration. In another few seconds he moved down the aisle, passed the seated woman toward the front of the bus and found a seat for himself well to the rear, some twenty feet back, beside an elderly gentleman.

The young man sat with a bare notice of the old man, who greeted the new passenger with a warm though not forward smile.

Buenos dias,” the man said.

Buenos,” the boy replied without meeting the man’s eyes.

The air of the bus was cool and smelled somewhat of diesel. The scent of the woman was gone from his nostrils but its effect lingered like liquor. He strained occasionally to see the back of the golden brown head, then settled his body for the ride. He glanced at the old man beside him who peeped over the top of the small newspaper he was reading and nodded to the young rider. The old man was all right, he decided. It was all right. Everything was all right now and he would be home soon. He even still had the woman with him in a way for now. How long she would be with him he couldn’t say, nor did he care to ponder it.

Things remained quiet in him for a short while. He was calm in his thoughts as if resting from the experience of being so close to the beautiful woman. Soon, however, he began feeling somewhat lost, not physically but emotionally. He was tangled, as though the future might be unpleasant. His eyes returned to the older man for assurance and found it in the folding away of the newspaper and the open “Hello, young man,” which the elder offered with a Spanish accent as an invitation to chat. The boy nodded and said “Hello,” almost in a whisper.

“What’s new in your world today?” asked the gentleman.

“Nothing,” replied the young man as though he were perhaps hiding a truth.

“Oh, my,” said the elder. “This can’t be. In the life of a young man like you every day must bring something new. You wait and see if it doesn’t, verdad?” With this, the man chuckled and passed his eyes along the street beyond the bus window. A minute went by between them in silence before the man added, “Yes. It is an old world full of new things. There are novelties enough for the ages.”

It was old people’s talk, what the man was saying, little sentences with big, unfathomable ideas behind them. To the young man it was dull rhetoric. But for the fact that something new had happened to him this day. Having the old man ask about it made the boy want to speak of it like an adult.

“I was going to buy a magazine,” he offered.

The old man turned another smile to him. “Were you?” And what kind of magazine would it have been?”

“Space stories. But I didn’t buy them.”

“Oh, ho, a change of heart?”

The young man smiled now. He felt he could trust this elder. It would be safe. Without pointing he said “Did you see the lady who got on with me?”

“The pretty one? Yes. Is she your sister?”

Blushing, the young man shook his head. “No. I don’t know who she is but I’ve been following her nearly all afternoon. That’s why I didn’t get the stories.”

“Been following her all afternoon, have you?” Why, may I ask?”

The young man said nothing a moment, then answered. “I don’t really know. She is so pretty. I mean, maybe I’m in love with her.”

He had expected the old gentleman to laugh at this, to snatch the boy’s innocence and devour it with laughter as so many grown ups would. But this did not occur. Instead, the elder nodded with a serious expression, almost solemn, and his eyes moved along the heads up front to the full golden hair.

“It is a serious thing, this love. You have chosen a beautiful woman and that in itself could be disastrous.” Then he chuckled good-humoredly and tapped the folded Diario de las Americas against his leg.

“Why do you say that?”

“Oh, I mean nothing by it. El amor is a ticklish subject, like religion. We can approach them but we cannot directly address their essence. One must be careful what one says. Just you be sure that I know what you are feeling. I am old but I’m not dead. And you don’t recover from love, like religion, until you are well dead.”

The young man blinked at the words of old philosophy and wondered if he shouldn’t now remain silent. The old man was in a world of his own. The old eyes betrayed a new, restless inwardness and the young man would just as soon end the conversation before being eased out of it by the deep thoughts of the grown-up.

“Oh, I loved a beautiful woman once. She was nothing like your lady, but she was a beauty even so. Hermosa. Carinosa. Bellisima!” His eyes grew small, making his face look even older. “That was a long time ago now, in another land, mi pais, Cuba. But through time and distance, she’s still with me.” He turned his face fully to the young man. “I hope you recover from yours sooner than it has taken me with mine.”

The young man smiled and said “Oh, I’m going home now and everything will be all right. I’ll probably never see her again. I’ll be all right.”

Again the newspaper tapped the old leg. “I’m sure you will be. The world is full of new, wonderful things for a young man to become immersed in. Surely, you will forget her in no time at all. No time.”

“Yes,” the boy continued. “And I can get the magazines I wanted tomorrow.”

“Yes. Tomorrow, certainly. Back to the routine like nothing ever happened.” The old man’s words seemed no longer directed to his companion but to himself, with a soft tone of sadness in them. “You will be alone again, without her, and you will be all right. She will be nothing more than a pleasant memory. You will have loved her and lost her as they say. And none the worse for it.”

The two sat in contemplation for some minutes, so deep that they almost missed the woman rise at a stop and step to the curb from the idling bus. The boy looked up first through the window past the old man.

“She’s going,” he said with a groundswell of emotions he had not expected: longing, fear, surprise, relief and other strong but not fully formed feelings.

The bus pulled away from the beautiful woman with the golden hair and the old man nodded.

“Yes. She’s gone now. Ella se fue. Se ha ido. Forget her,” he said, drawing a crooked finger across the edge of his glistening right eye.

 

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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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There was once a young Marielito with wondrous olive skin.  His eyes were jet black and burned with an inner fire.  His shoulders were broad and his waist narrow.  His teeth were large, white and straight.  He was tall and stood with a pride some whispered bordered on arrogance.  But this was a slight misrepresentation. El Rey de los Marielitos, as he was called, lived on the side of Hialeah west of Palm Avenue.  His followers, La Pandilla Oeste, gathered offerings from local businessmen, and dealt in illicit powders and herbal medications, carnal social services, and the occasional wagers and loans.  El Rey and his cadres as one worshiped a scar-faced god of local legend, a product of cinema based loosely on the Capone of Chicago mythology.

An older but nearly as regal man led a following with similar interests in the land east of Palm Avenue.  They worshiped an ancient God spoken of only in the dark shadows of night.  The god’s name was Bautista and his central concept was flagrant consumption.

The Chief of Police in Hialeah, Chief Juevosagre, was fond of chasing the two groups around and shaking them down for remuneration.  He presented the activity to local businessmen as crime control and enlisted their money and time in his pursuits.

The businessmen were not ignorant, having seen many of these same activities in pre-Castro Cuba.  So they decided upon a plan to limit their losses.  They hired a bounty hunter of their own to track down as many members of both sides of the Palm Avenue syndicates as humanly possible and deliver them to the Chief, thus effectively emasculating the Chief’s protection racket.

The bounty hunter was ex-CIA and very well-connected and good at his commissioned job.  In a matter of weeks he had locked up in various warehouses across the city a great number of both of the pandillas.  He then went to the Chief and invited him to visit at any time to take in as many or few criminals as needed for that week’s news media release.

The Chief, delighted by the convenience, visited often, gathering huge numbers of suspects one day for a front page spread, and deciding upon fewer arrests other days to maintain a plausible balance.  As time passed this new system came to cost both sides of the Avenue a great amount of money in bail and bribes to release their followers from holding cells.  In this way, the Chief recovered and even surpassed the money lost to the no longer necessary protection of the businessmen. This new arrangement hurt both pandillas deeply financially; but more importantly the great pride of the criminals was injured. So the two powerful leaders decided to meet to talk things over.

On a beautiful, breezy day at the now-defunct Hialeah horse track, El Rey de los Marielitos and his counterpart met over mojitos and contraband Cojiba cigars.  “Padron,” El Rey said. “Many of our people are being incarcerated at great expense to us both. We look bad and recruitment is down. Que pena! Suppose we break through this bounty system and work directly with Chief Juevosagre?  We can offer him as many people as he needs to perpetuate the myth of his greatness, be rid of this hideous bounty hunter, and reduce cost overall, with greater control over our own affairs which have been so disrupted by unexpected arrests.”

The leader of the east side syndicate agreed. “Es una idea con cojones, Capo,” he noted. So a lottery was set up to serve the needs of the Chief and cut out the bounty hunter who was found one night with a mint leaf sprouting from a hole in the side of his head.

El riesgo da vida as it was called continued flawlessly for a long time with the names of all involved in either organization in the lottery box and at risk for being chosen. One day, however, the name of the mistress of the east side leader was chosen at random and she was to be offered up.  Chief Juevosagre had always had an eye for this young beauty and he was eager to take her into his protection for at least one night.  The woman pled her case to her lover who, unbeknownst to her, had taken another mistress more resembling his own wife when she had been younger.  Thus was the innocent woman surprised to hear her lover say “Your number is up.  You go as the rest. Es el riesgo da vida, mi amor.”

Shocked, the woman rushed to the west side and begged El Rey for mercy.  “You are a victim of Latin passion,” he told her.  “I will take your place in the lottery for the sake of divine mercy.” Here is the mysterious wonder of the wicked. In his heart he felt he carried many of the dark scars of sins against his own wife.  He was, after all, un Latino con machismo. This noble gesture of personal sacrifice gave him the illusion of contrition, compensation and repentance.

And so, on the appointed night, Chief Juevosagre was duly appalled to find El Rey and not a beautiful and vulnerable young woman waiting for him in a motel room beside the Miami River off Okeechobee Road.  El Rey, tired of the abuses of the Chief and feeling he could work more effectively with a certain Captain Caribineros who could easily be promoted through election to Chief, dispatched Juevosagre with a single blow from a sugar cane machete.

A controlled war erupted between local law enforcement and the two syndicate groups.  One day the pandilla leaders met again for umo y refrescos.  The leader from the east said “I never saw such kindness and mercy as you showed my ex that night.  Nor such gall and blood-lust you presented the old Chief. You have revealed to me a softer and more subtle side of leadership. Suave, muy suave.”

“Until now,” replied El Rey, and promptly shot his rival between the eyes with a small bore .38. “The good deserve better,” he told the corpse, tapping gently the long ash of his cigar to drop it in the gathering pool of blood.  “And the bad deserve much worse than they get.”

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Once upon a time in Hialeah, as is the custom in most of the cities throughout America, blacks were cordoned off into enclaves in areas generally deemed to be financially without promise.  This process began on slave plantations, and was carried through the Jim Crow era and on into the years of legal segregation.  Once the Civil Rights movement overturned racist laws, prejudice and simple bigotry seemed to do well in general to maintain the philosophy of urban groupings generally by race if not by wealth. Native Americans have felt this spurning by the federal government particularly harshly, bordering on genocide, but termed in American history books as reservation treaties.  And with the Native Americans, so with the African Americans, that if a property they were permitted to dwell in grew to have some promise of increased value, the government brought pressure to have the unwelcome population removed, either forcibly or by coercion.

So did Overtown, an enclave of ill-maintained, low-rent apartments and ramshackle houses that had once been thriving and vibrant and played host to the greats of African American culture and philosophy but had been cut in half and eviscerated by the construction of the I-95 expressway, through the turning wheel of fortune find itself once again newly in the path of an expansion of expensive condominiums pushing outward from downtown Miami with a newly funded initiative of downtown vitalization.  Property values skyrocketed overnight, forcing the Overtown apartment landlords to reconsider their business plans to decide whether outright sale would be the correct decision to take in the face of a quick profit, and worse, rising property taxes that would cut sharply into rental revenue profits.

The residents, having no real say in the process, feared for their futures, having no clear alternative to their present housing arrangements.  They sent representatives to the mayor of Miami but found their efforts rebuked.  They decided to turn to the great mayor of Hialeah, His Honorable Myland.  And here they put forth their most heartfelt entreaty.  Please turn the direction of this condominium movement, they pled, and we will remember you when the time is needed. The great mayor was a butcher by trade, and he had deep pockets that held many favors.  He was sure to have room for one more favor owed him.  He would do what he could, and in Hialeah, that means the thing is done.  What behind-closed-doors negotiations were made history does not specify, but soon after the mayor’s decision one hundred acres of Everglades buffer zone were drained and leveled for development at an infinitesimal cost to the developers, thus sparing Overtown.  It was a lucky thing that the mayor himself had held the deed to the parcel of swamp land and was able to turn a tidy sum, encourage growth, and assist the Overtown folk all at the same time.  It was this knack for arranging things for the general good that made Myland such a great mayor.

Years passed and the 100 acres was developed and sold to incoming Latin immigrants who thrived in a Spanish speaking city.  Overtown meanwhile was left to its own devices, a poor lot but better than most alternatives America offered.

One night the mayor’s son had an accident.  A young black woman, daughter of the mayor’s maid, was killed in the son’s car.  It was an ugly piece of pr for the mayor, and a story for another fable.  Suffice to say that the mayor needed damage control to his image of a non-prejudiced man if he was to be able to get away with manipulating the police records in order to exonerate his son.  Here is where he reached into his deep pocket and pulled out the debt owed him.  On the day of official exoneration of his son of any responsibility in the woman’s death, a day of tight racial tensions throughout the city, the mayor met with and had his picture taken with the most prominent black figures in the area.  The photo on the front page of the newspaper pushed his son’s case to the third page of the newspaper and relieved the political pressure the mayor was facing.  The debt paid, the mayor and the African American community returned to their particular daily lives, one of wealth in a wealthy land, the other of hard scrabble in an unwelcoming land.  But even hard scrabble hands can grab hold and pull a manicured man from trouble.