Sometimes the mists of time seem to thin, and to part like the curtains of a play, affording an intriguing glimpse of the past. Intriguing, yes, but disturbing as well. I had a very strange and personal encounter with the past in Cuba. Not because they’re still driving cars produced in the Fifties. The experience I had was unnerving and so weird that I still can’t believe it happened. And yet, I know it did.
I was in Havana on the first day of a two-week stay. My liquor-importing company, High Spirits, Inc., sought new, less expensive sources for the importation of rum. We had been importing rum from Puerto Rico and Jamaica, but the recent relaxation of restrictions on dealing with Cuba looked promising. Rum prices in the Cuban economy were appreciably lower than those of the rest of the Caribbean.
I arrived on a Monday. Since my first appointment with a liquor manufacturer had been arranged for Tuesday, I took a bus tour of Havana the morning I arrived. Later I simply wandered around town, trying to acclimate myself to the heat and the local pace of life. I enjoyed strolling lazily along the streets of the older part of town, La Habana Vieja, listening to, actually feeling, the rhythmic music issuing from every doorway. I felt as though I were in a Hollywood film with a musical soundtrack. I would stop to converse with street musicians and sometimes one of them would allow me to use his guitar and join them in making music.
After several hours, my face felt flushed and I was perspiring profusely. My shirt stuck to my skin as I wandered down to the waterfront. There I saw merchant ships from around the world. I leaned against the railing and dreamily gazed at Morro Castle on the opposite side of the Bay of Havana. That greyish-brown fortress, a solid, tangible remnant of the 16th-Century, brooded over the entry to the harbor. Strange, I thought, that structure, built by men who’ve been lying in their graves for centuries, was visible to me in the present. If I want, I can even walk through that fortress constructed by hands long since turned to dust.
Sounds of automobile motors, horns, music, human voices –all muted by distance, dreamlike—rolled across the water toward me. I felt completely relaxed just standing there, leaning on the railing, gazing at the lime-colored water of the inner harbor as it swayed back and forth, hearing its rhythmic slapping against the concrete pier. The effect was hypnotic. The heat and humidity were tempered at this spot by cooler air intermittently wafting in from the sea. The draughts of fresh ocean breezes were in combat with the sultry atmosphere and the land-smell of raw tobacco leaf, exhaust fumes and tropical vegetation. I would have liked the airstream to be stronger, more sustained.
There was another struggle taking place: I was torn between the desire to stay where I was, dreamily observing the bay, and a desire to keep moving. More than a desire: an urge. After fifteen minutes, I forced myself to snap out of this lethargy and to explore some more. I thought I was aimlessly wandering around the city –that’s how it felt at the time—yet I later realized that it wasn’t really aimless. Something I can’t explain was leading me in a definite direction.
I came to a rounded corner that followed the curvature of a very wide road on the opposite side of which was a massive stone building. This gray edifice housed the Museum of the Revolution that I was told used to be the Presidential Palace in the days before Castro. I could also glimpse the sparkling blue ocean in the distance. Immediately a refreshing breeze issuing from the sea swept over me, caressed me. The salty tang in the air was exhilarating. A sense of anticipation arose in my chest. But, anticipation of what…?
There was a restaurant/café, El Gran Hemingway, on the corner, with tables and chairs on the sidewalk as well as inside. A large sign in the window proclaimed this was the coolest, breeziest spot in all Havana. I wouldn’t doubt that at all. The powerful urge to walk suddenly dissipated. I took a seat outdoors and ordered a bottle of Hatuey beer. For some reason I didn’t want to go inside. Simply looking at the dark interior of the café produced a feeling of uneasiness. I can’t explain it. Anyway, before I took my first sip of the beer, a man came to my table and said something to me in Spanish.
I said, “Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. No hablo…”
He laughed and said, “Okay with you if I sit here?”
The other tables were occupied, so naturally I acquiesced. Besides, here was someone who spoke English. We could socialize.
The man was wearing faded jeans and a white guayabera, a long Cuban shirt with four front pockets, worn outside the trousers like a jacket. White hair protruded from his panama hat. A panama hat? I had seen those only in movies from the 1940s in which Americans or Brits were in the tropics. It struck me as odd for someone to be wearing it today. And yet, it reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on. That old déjà vu feeling again. Maybe it was because of seeing all those cars from the 1950s in the streets of Havana. And now this man with the Panama hat. For a moment, it all gave me the strangest feeling that I had traveled backward in time.
My new companion called the waiter and in Spanish ordered a bottle of rum. When the young waiter heard the brand name the man specified, his smile disappeared. He narrowed his eyes and growled, “I’ll see if we have any, señor.” I didn’t like the waiter’s tone.
The man raised an eyebrow and scratched his white stubble. “Yeah, you do that, chico.”
My new acquaintance looked to be in his mid-seventies, but had a vigorous air about him. He looked at me appraisingly. “American?” he asked.
I nodded. “From New York.”
“Ah, the Big Apple, eh?” He then looked around and said, mostly to himself, “Now, where the hell is that waiter?” He glanced at me and grumbled, “The service here used to be a lot better in the old days.”
At this point, the waiter emerged from the murky interior of the café and sauntered over to our table carrying a glass and a bottle labeled Ron Antillano. He raised the bottle as though he were going to pour from it for my companion, who quickly said, “Just leave the bottle.”
The waiter scowled, turned and disappeared into the gloom of the café.
The elderly American poured two fingers of rum into his glass, and closed his eyes as he drained the contents. He wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm, looked at me and said, “My name is Bill, son, originally from Chicago.”
I clearly remember that when he spoke, his breath carried the pungent aroma of that bottom-shelf rum, sort of like molasses mixed with a cheap after-shave lotion. It wafted over me again when he said, “So, you got a name, kid?”
“Just call me Arnie,” I told him.
He broke into a friendly smile, chuckled, extended a massive hand and said, “Welcome to the Pearl of the Antilles, Arnie.”
I grasped his hand. He had a crushing grip.
I said, “You seem at home here. You live here?”
He cocked his head, grinned as though something amused him. “You mean right here at the Hemingway?” He laughed and continued, “I know, you mean in Havana. Well, yeah. I was in the Merchant Marine for twenty years, you see, met a local girl here, name of Vikki, actually Victoria, but I always called her Vikki.” He sighed. “That was, oh, so many years ago.”
He closed his eyes and paused. “I fell in love.” He shrugged and sheepishly glanced at me for a moment. I got the feeling he hated to admit he had ever been in love. Like it was a sign of weakness. “Married her and settled down here in Havana. Still sailed on freighters, mind you, and spent a lot of time at sea, away from Vikki.” He exhaled heavily. “I regret that.” He poured himself another shot of what must have been the worst rum in the world, and immediately downed it. He added, “She died about two years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
He nodded. I didn’t know what to say after that, so just to make conversation, I asked if he liked it in Havana. The old merchant sailor downed his next shot of rum in one swallow. He didn’t bother to look at me, but mumbled, “Yeah. Liked it better when Vikki was around, of course.” He looked up and said, “But, yeah, I’m used to it. I don’t have any family in the States, I can speak the local lingo, so yeah, it’s okay.” His eyes misted over and he stared past me.
“How did you meet Vikki?”
Bill looked at me for what seemed like a whole minute, waved his hand in front of his face, and said, “Not important.” Suddenly he shifted gears and said, “Hey, you like music?”
“What kind? Elvis? Little Richard? Buddy Holly?”
Elvis?” I thought. Is he kidding? And who the heck are Little Richard and Buddy Holly? I was confused. I said, “No, not really. I like Beethoven and Mozart… You know: classical.”
“Well, blow me down, as Popeye used to say. That’s a surprise.” His eyes opened wider, he looked at me and almost managed a smile. Then he cleared his throat and said, “You like Cuban music?”
“Yes, Salsa’s good to dance to.”
“Huh, Salsa. I don’t really know salsa. It’s probably like mambo, which is good for moving fast, letting off steam, working up a sweat, especially in the tropics.” He closed his eyes for a bit, and then, “Listen, kid. You know what’s real nice? I’ll tell you.”
Then he launched into a long description that really impressed me. He said, “I met Vikki the first time I was in Cuba. I didn’t know a thing about Cuban music, so when I heard it, it made a deep impression. We were sitting there, at a table at some joint at the corner of Pajarito and Peñalver, when I heard it.” Bill suddenly became animated, kind of agitated, I’d say, waving his hands around as though trying to swat a hornet.
He said, “It broke over us like a tidal wave. That’s the way it felt to me, anyway. It flooded us, submerged us. I felt like I was being towed out to sea in a kind of riptide made out of a driving rhythm, a current of melody.”
This man had a dramatic streak in him. He spoke in a way that sounded sort of poetic. He stared at me, no, right through me. His face took on a kind of glow.
He downed some more of that vile rum, then continued, “There were these deep-voiced drums… They sounded, felt, like a thunderous pounding of surf booming and bursting on top of you. You didn’t only hear it. You felt the vibrations in your gut, in your bones.” He paused, then in a calmer tone, said, “The drums were in different pitches, keeping up a kind of –what do you call it? –counterpoint., I think musicians would say.”
He looked at me, not past me this time, but at me, and explained, “There was the bat-a-bat of bongos over the click of claves, and the deep boom of the drum they call the conga. Some call it the tumbadora. And the set of drums called batá, which the Santería people consider sacred. This is Afro-Cuban music, you see. It really stems from the religious ceremonies of West Africa. You know?”
He continued, “In their Santería ceremonies –Americans call it voodoo— they still call on the pagan gods, the Orishas: Changó, Yemayá, Ogún, Obatalá, Ochún, Babalú-Ayé… But they disguise those African gods as Catholic saints. I think the santeros have them all mixed up in their minds.”
He looked at me, cocked his head and said, “Tell me, son, am I boring you?”
The truth is he was not boring me. He was starting to worry me. Because of his loud voice and his agitated movements. I said, “No, no, not at all, Bill.”
“Absolutely.” Actually, I found his descriptions enchanting. But I was somewhat uncomfortable with his passion, his excitability. I felt he was making a spectacle of himself. Of himself and me! I was becoming self-conscious, and looked around to see if the other patrons were gawking at us. But no, oddly enough, they were completely oblivious of me and the overwrought old timer. For all the attention he was attracting, he might as well have not been there.
Bill looked at his bottle, saw it was half empty. He looked at my beer glass and noticed it was entirely empty. Raising his bottle, he said, “Hey, kid, you want some of this?”
I placed my hand on top of the glass. “No, thanks.. I’m good.”
He nodded, then continued, “Okay, forget the Santería music. Then you hear these strident, acid trumpets in a minor key that feel razor sharp. They slash right through any alcoholic stupor you might be in. And the strum of guitars, the chic-chic of maracas, the rasping of the güiro… I used to like to dance those fast ones, like mambo. But when I met Vikki…’
His eyes misted over. He wiped them with his forearm. “Well, when I was with Vikki, we didn’t feel like doing those fast dances. We sat there and waited for boleros. Yeah, bolero, that slow dance of the tropics, serene, unhurried, tender. You could be close, very close, to your partner, cheek to cheek, body to body, as you moved in unison. I guess you could say it was romantic. And it was never just instrumental. There were always lyrics, loving words, or words sorrowing over the loss of love.” He looked at me and smiled. It was a wan smile. He continued, “Vikki used to say bolero was a feeling. Yes, a feeling you could dance to. And she said it’s a dance in which one plus one makes one.” He looked down at his hands and sighed. He repeated in almost a whisper, “One plus one makes one.” He chuckled. After a moment, since I hadn’t uttered a word, he looked at me and said, “You understand what she means, uh, meant, right? One plus one makes one?”
I nodded. I caught the waiter’s eye and pointed to my empty glass. He came back with another Hatuey. I poured it into my glass and drank about a quarter of it in one gulp.
The old sea dog stared at me, possibly wondering if I really did understand. He took another swig of those foul spirits, wiped his mouth and said, “Yeah, the bolero music is calm, loving… It felt like the music was created for us, Vikki and me, just us, no one else.” He smiled and added, “Ridiculous, I guess. What I’m saying.”
“No, no, I get it.”
He glanced at me, then nodded. “And I still feel that way, kid. When we danced to that music, I felt like we were alone in the world.”
Bill abruptly stopped talking. I think he was embarrassed by his colorful descriptions. He blinked, took out a pack of cigarettes, pulled a book of matches from his pocket and tore out a match. The old mariner lit the cigarette and took a deep drag. After exhaling a stream of grey smoke, he jutted his chin toward the matchbook left on the table and said, “Hey kid, take the matchbook; it’ll be a nice souvenir.” I looked at it: It was larger than most, and had black matches with red sulfur tops. Fancy. The cover was emblazoned with the name of what seemed to be a nightclub, Heat Wave, and a colorful picture of scantily-clad chorus girls.
Bill looked at me, smiled and said, “Look, kid. I know my descriptions are over the top. Must sound weird to you. I know, I know. Maybe it’s the rum talking.”
His depth of emotion when talking about music really surprised me. Besides, it struck me that this old seadog was more than a sailor drinking himself into a stupor. I was impressed by the language he used to express his feelings. I said to myself, This man is really some kind of sea-going poet. A primitive, untutored one, of course, but a poet, nevertheless. A poet in the raw with a sensitive soul.
He turned away from me, closed his eyes for a few moments in silence. And then, leaning back, his misty eyes unfocused, he sat gazing through the cigarette smoke at… what? The shadowy interior of El Gran Hemingway? Or beyond…
After some moments he turned to me. “Hey, kid, you really think I sound like a poet?”
I was stunned! I sat there, staring at him in disbelief. Finally, I found my voice and mumbled, “But I never said that out loud….”
“Sure you did.” He grinned. “How else would I know it? You probably just didn’t realize it.”
I thought I was losing it. I was too young not to know the difference between my unexpressed thoughts and actual speech. Maybe it was walking for hours in the heat. I just stared at him.
“Hey, come on, kid. Been in the sun too long? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He laughed, and picked up his train of thought. “Now, where was I?” he said. After a few seconds he said, “Oh, right…” At this point, he seemed to choke up. His eyes were glistening with moisture, maybe from the smoke, and he couldn’t speak for some moments. He finally looked at me again and said, “You’re probably thinking I’m a nut case, eh? Well,” he shrugged, “who knows…”
He looked away again, closed his eyes for a moment, then stared straight ahead But once more he had that that unfocused gaze that seemed to indicate he wasn’t actually seeing what was in front of him, but was seeing, or hearing, or feeling, something very far away. He remained in that state for what felt like five minutes but was probably only one minute, sixty full seconds.
He peered at my face to see if I was still paying attention, if I showed any sign of comprehending him. That overly aromatic rum wafted into my face more pungently, as if it were a visible, solid object. I can still smell it today when I think about Bill.
His voice had been getting louder, but then he paused to calm down. He continued almost in a whisper. “You know, even today, when I hear bolero music, I feel like my soul is rising up and out of me and drifting away on the ocean breezes.”
That was really too much. I said, “Your own soul… Drifting away? Really?” I realize now that I sounded cynical. I was immediately sorry I had said anything. It just wasn’t right for me to question the poor old guy’s feelings.
He blinked a couple of times, looked at me as though recovering from a trance, and said, “I’m telling you this, boy, and I know you don’t believe me. That’s okay. It’s not your fault. You really can’t believe it. Nobody who hasn’t heard that music, danced to it with a lovely girl, could believe it.” He choked up and once more had to pause. Then he added, “You have to experience it yourself. I know that.”
He shrugged, looked down at the table and added, “Or maybe you have to experience life, live it deeply, with all its joys and sorrows, and only then hear the music –that bittersweet, sentimental, heart-melting music… You need to move with it, your arms around the woman you love, to believe it, to feel it in your own person. But you’re too young…” He flapped his hand dismissively in front of him, as though he were wiping something out of the air. “Anyway,” he said, “it’s something akin to love.” He thought for a moment and added, “Love. Yeah. And the loss of it.” Then, as though validating the thought to himself, he nodded and murmured, “Yeah… The loss of it.”
Then he paused and took a deep breath, held it for a couple of seconds and let it out. He seized the bottle of Ron Antillano, poured himself another shot and immediately knocked it back it in one gulp. He closed his eyes and pounded the metal table with his fist, making the bottle and glasses dance, as the drink went down. He exhaled sharply, and looked at me for only a couple of seconds before he folded his arms on the table, closed his eyes and rested his cheek on his arms.
That was the end of the conversation, obviously, so I finished off the rest of my Hatuey, and stood. I considered walking into the dark interior of the Gran Hemingway out of curiosity, to see what it looked like in there. But something, a feeling, deterred me from entering. Who knows why. I slipped the souvenir matchbook into my pocket, left the price of the beer on the table with a tip and headed back toward my hotel.
# # # #
Two weeks later I had finished my business in Havana and in Santiago at the other end of the island. My return flight to New York was scheduled for the next day. So, back in Havana I headed for El Gran Hemingway, expecting to have a cold beer at that blessedly breezy corner, and hoping to run into that old seadog named Bill. The table we had occupied two weeks earlier was taken, so I sat down two tables over. A different waiter, an older one, greeted me with a welcoming smile and a courtly manner. He had a sparkling white towel over his forearm. He was a welcome change from that surly younger waiter. I looked around, hoping to find the scruffy old sea dog. But there was no sign of Bill.
“Excuse me,” I said to the waiter, “has an elderly American named Bill been here today?”
“An elderly American? Bill?” He cocked his head and seemed to appraise me.
I nodded. The waiter said, “Ah, so you’ve seen him. Speak to him?”
“Yes, about two weeks ago.”
“Well, you’re not the only one.”
Why would he say something like that? I wondered. I just stared at him.
The white-haired waiter nodded his head. Then, “Sí, señor, quite a few people have seen don Guillermo, uh, Bill, and spoken with him. Mostly Americans.” Then he jerked his thumb in the direction of the table I had shared with Bill. He continued, “If they sit at that table. That was his favorite table. If you look carefully, you will see that he had scratched into it the words Vikki, te quiero, which means Vikki, I love you. Vikki was the name of his deceased wife. If that particular table was occupied, he would just turn around and leave. Or, as he would say, shove off.
“Well, do you think he’ll be back today?”
The waiter smiled indulgently. He then chuckled as he wiped down my table and said, “Who knows?”
“Well, when does he usually show up?”
He shrugged. “It’s unpredictable, señor.”
“Does he live in this area?”
“Live?” The waiter put his hand to his black bowtie, then once more tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. “I wouldn’t use that particular word, señor.”
“What on earth do you mean by that?”
The elderly waiter stopped wiping the table and, placing his hands on it, leaned closer to me. He seemed to study my face. His smile had vanished. In a very matter-of-fact tone, as though he were giving me directions to a specific point in the city, he explained, “Don Guillermo, Mr. Bill, doesn’t exactly live anywhere.”
I gazed dumbly at the waiter.
He realized I was confused, and clarified, “I mean, he is no longer among the living, sorry to say.”
I was speechless for a few moments, digesting this information. Trying to digest it.
He straightened up, flung the towel over his shoulder, and solicitously asked me, “Are you all right, señor?”
Finally, I found my voice. “Do you have Scotch whiskey?”
“Certainly, señor.. Dewar’s, Johnny Walker…?”
“Whatever. Uh, Dewar’s.”
“How do you want it, señor?”
“Huh? Oh, straight up. Make it a double. With a big glass of cold water to chase it.”
When he returned from the perennial dusk of the interior and placed the drinks in front of me on the table, I downed the Scotch in one gulp, and followed it by chugging the cold water.
The waiter wrinkled his brow and scrutinized my face. When he observed that the alcohol had performed its mission of relaxing me to some extent, and that I regarded him expectantly, he spoke. “The elderly American sailor, I’m sorry to say, passed away when I had been working here for about five years, which would be maybe forty years ago. I was just a kid then. His wife preceded him by two years. She was just as nice as she was pretty. Lovely girl…” Suddenly lost in thought, the waiter stopped talking and stared into space for a moment. He looked back at me and sighed. The man then cleared his throat and resumed speaking. “She had worked at a nightclub called Heat Wave.”
“Heat Wave,” I repeated. “Where is that located?”
“Located? Well, nowhere.”
Seeing the puzzled look on my face, he explained, “I mean it’s not located anywhere today. It used to be located at the corner of Pajarito and Peñalver. It closed down way back in 1959. The year the Revolution triumphed.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the Heat Wave matchbook. The waiter saw it and said, “Ah, you have a matchbook from the very place.”
I examined it carefully. Inside, the year 1957 was imprinted. How could a man be carrying this old matchbook around in his pocket for more than half a century? And it wasn’t worn; it still had its glossy finish and seemed brand new. For a few seconds, I had the feeling that I was falling down an elevator shaft. Too much information was flying at me from all directions. I didn’t know what to say, and, if I remember correctly, I simply blinked at him.
He continued, “I remember him well. I liked him. He was always polite, even friendly to me. I mean, after all I’m just a waiter. Anyway, that day — two years to the day since his wife’s funeral… As usual, he sat at that table, steadily imbibing that inexpensive rum, which between you and me, señor, is what you Americans would call rotgut. Please never quote me on this, señor, I implore you.”
I just nodded, and waggled my fingers toward my face to signal for him to continue.
He pulled out a vacant chair and sat down beside me. He let out a long sigh, then said, “One evening, the tables were filled, both inside and on the street, because we had a famous conjunto, a small musical group, entertaining here. They were called Los Sublimes de Matanzas. This conjunto was from the city of Matanzas and were touring the whole country from Pinar del Río all the way to Santiago. So that night the interior of the place was all lit up so people could clearly see the performers. And I didn’t mind working inside that time…” He turned his head to face the doorway. “Because when it’s dark…”
“Yes,” I said. When it’s dark, what?”
“Oh, I don’t know…” He closed his eyes for a second and shook his head. “Anyway,” he continued, “they were playing this really beautiful, haunting bolero. Yes, it was truly haunting. I remember the guitar, the güiro, the maracas and especially the singer. Her voice was mellow but strong, like the finest coffee, and she was putting her soul into it.” He stopped to add, “And when she sang the words, Amor, me has dejado, which in English means, Love, you have left me, she sang it with, I don’t know… great power, deep passion, total concentration. I remember it gave me… goose pimples, I believe you Americans call it. And that’s when it happened.”
“When what happened?”
“Just then, sort of blending with her voice, the old sailor called out, practically howled, in a voice so filled with pain and longing, ‘Vikki, mi querida Vikki!.’ Then he fell from his chair and sprawled onto the floor.”
I stared at the waiter in silence.
He added, with a shrug, “They say it’s a common thing, coming back from the beyond. I don’t believe in it, myself. Though who knows? But they say so.”
“A common thing? Who are they?”
The waiter looked thoughtful. Then, “Do you know about the Society of the Abakuá, the Santeros?
It struck me that Bill had referred to them. But since I still knew almost nothing about them, I shook my head.
He explained, “The Abakuá people of Cuba are the ones whose ancestors were brought as slaves from West Africa. They practice what we call Santería. It’s kind of like a religion blended with magic and singing and dancing. Of course, I really don’t know much about it. After all, it’s supposed to be a secret society. But the Abakuá say there are those who have a very strong personality, and who have found favor with the goddess Yemayá, the Queen of the Seas, mother of all living things. These people often return from that other world to frequent their earthly haunts. The santeros of the Abakuá people would say that Yemayá probably approved of Bill especially, since he was a sailor. And because of his true love, his fidelity to Vikki…”
My head was swimming. The waiter must have noticed my confusion, because he stopped speaking for a moment, then, “I see it strikes you as strange, señor. I find it strange, too. But so many of the santeros believe it, so who can say?”
# # #
When I returned to New York, I purchased CDs of boleros. Some of the selections, certainly not all, had the qualities that Bill, that old sea dog, had described to me. I now understand to some degree what that old merchant sailor meant, though I think I’ll understand it more deeply as I experience life. And if I’m in love and dance it with that special girl. But to this day, whenever I smell rum, or even molasses, I think of Cuba and that old seafarer. But I try not to…
Clark Zlotchew has published an award-winning short-story collection (2011) and has had newer short fiction published in 2016 by e-magazines. He is relatively new to poetry, but two of his poems were published in The Fictional Café in December 2016 and 5 poems appeared in Baily’s Beads, literary magazine of U. of Pittsburgh, on January 25, 2017. His poem, “The Inexorable Lion” was published at Sick Lit Magazine on March 21, 2017. His story “Man of Adventure” was one the winners in the 2017 Baily’s Beads contest and was published in the same issue of that print magazine. Zlotchew is a recent emeritus professor of literature in Spanish language with SUNY. He and his wife Marilyn live in rural Western N.Y. State.