Máximo sat all night at the pine table in his new efficiency, thinking about the green-eyed girl and wondering why he was thinking about her. The table and a narrow bed had come with the apartment, which he'd moved into after selling the house in Shenandoah. The table had come with two chairs, sturdy and polished--not in the least institutional--but he had put one of the chairs by the bed. The landlady, a woman in her forties, had helped Máximo haul up three potted palms. Later, he bought a green pot of marigolds that he saw in the supermarket and brought its butter leaves back to life under the window's eastern light. Máximo often sat at the table through the night, sometimes reading Martí, sometimes listening to the rain on the tin hull of the air conditioner.
When you are older, he'd read somewhere, you don't need as much sleep. And wasn't that funny, because his days felt more like sleep than ever. Dinner kept him occupied for hours, remembering the story of each dish. Sometimes, at the table, he greeted old friends and awakened with a start when they reached out to touch him. When dawn rose and slunk into the room sideways through the blinds, Máximo walked as in a dream across the thin patterns of light on the terrazzo.
The chair, why did he keep the other chair? Even the marigolds reminded him. An image returned again and again. Was it the green-eyed girl?
And then he remembered that Rosa wore carnations in her hair and hated her name. And that it saddened him because he liked to roll it off his tongue like a slow train to the country.
"Rosa," he said, taking her hand the night they met at the La Concha while an old danzón played.
"Clavel," she said, tossing her head back in a crackling laugh. "Call me Clavel." She pulled her hand away and laughed again. "Don't you notice the flower in a girl's hair?"
He led her around the dance floor lined with chaperones, and when they turned he whispered that he wanted to follow her laughter to the moon.
She laughed again, the notes round and heavy as summer raindrops, and Máximo felt his fingers go cold where they touched hers. The danzón played, and they turned and turned, and the faces of the chaperones and the moist warm air--and Máximo with his cold fingers worried that she had laughed at him. He was twenty-four and could not imagine a more sorrowful thing in all the world.
Sometimes, years later, he would catch a premonition of Rosa in the face of his eldest daughter. She would turn toward a window or do something with her eyes. And then she would smile and tilt her head back, and her laughter connected him again to that night, made him believe for a moment that life was a string you could gather up in your hands all at once.
He sat at the table and tried to remember the last time he saw Marisa. In California now. An important lawyer. A year? Two? Anabel, gone to New York. Two years? They called more often than most children, Máximo knew. They called often and he was lucky that way.
"Fidel decides he needs to get in touch with young people."
"Ay ay ay."
"So his handlers arrange for him to go to a school in Havana. He gets all dressed up in his olive uniform, you know, puts conditioner on his beard and brushes it one hundred times, all that."
Raúl breathed out, letting each breath come out like a puff of laughter. "Where do you get these things?"
"No interrupting the artist anymore, okay?" Máximo continued. "So after he's beautiful enough, he goes to the school. He sits in on a few classes, walks around the halls. Finally, it's time for Fidel to leave and he realizes he hasn't talked to anyone. He rushes over to the assembly that is seeing him off with shouts of 'Comandante!' and he pulls a little boy out of a row. 'Tell me,' Fidel says, 'what is your name?' 'Pepito,' the little boy answers. 'Pepito, what a nice name,' Fidel says. 'And tell me, Pepito, what do you think of the Revolution?' 'Comandante,' Pepito says, 'the Revolution is the reason we are all here.' 'Ah, very good Pepito. And tell me, what is your favorite subject?' Pepito answers, 'Comandante, my favorite subject is mathematics.' Fidel pats the little boy on the head. 'And tell me, Pepito, what would you like to be when you grow up?' Pepito smiles and says, 'Comandante, I would like to be a tourist.'"
Máximo looked around the table, a shadow of a smile on his thin white lips as he waited for the laughter.
"Ay," Raúl said. "That's so funny it breaks my heart."
Máximo grew to like dominoes, the way each piece became part of the next. After the last piece was laid down and they were tallying up the score, Máximo liked to look over the table like an art critic. He liked the way the row of black dots snaked around the table with such free-flowing abandon it was almost as if, thrilled to be let out of the box, the pieces choreographed a fresh dance of gratitude every day. He liked the straightforward contrast of black on white. The clean, fresh scrape of the pieces across the table before each new round. The audacity of the double nines. The plain smooth face of the blank, like a newborn unetched by the world to come.
"Professor," Raúl began, "let's speed up the shuffling a bit, sí?"
"I was thinking," Máximo said.
"Well, that shouldn't take long," Antonio said.
"Who invented dominoes, anyway?" Máximo said.
"I'd say it was probably the Chinese," Antonio said.
"No jodas," Raúl said. "Who else could have invented this game of skill and intelligence but a Cuban."
"Coño," said Antonio without a smile. "Here we go again."
"Ah, bueno," Raúl said with a smile, stuck between joking and condescending. "You don't have to believe it if it hurts."
Carlos let out a long laugh.
"You people are unbelievable," said Antonio. But there was something hard and tired behind the way he smiled.
It was the first day of December, but summer still hung about in the brightest patches of sunlight. The four men sat under the shade of the banyan tree. It wasn't cold, not even in the shade, but three of the men wore cardigans. If asked, they would say they were expecting a chilly north wind and doesn't anybody listen to the weather forecasts anymore. Only Antonio, his round body enough to keep him warm, clung to the short sleeves of summer.
Kids from the local Catholic high school had volunteered to decorate the park for Christmas, and they dashed about with tinsel in their hair, bumping one another and laughing loudly. Lucinda, the woman who issued the dominoes and kept back the gambling, asked them to quiet down, pointing at the men. A wind stirred the top branches of the banyan tree and moved on without touching the ground. One leaf fell to the table.
Antonio waited for Máximo to fetch Lucinda's box of plastic pieces. Antonio held his brown paper bag to his chest and looked at the Cubans, his customary sourness replaced for a moment by what in a man like him could pass for levity. Máximo sat down and began to dump the plastic pieces on the table as he'd always done. But this time, Antonio held out his hand.
"One moment," he said, and shook his brown paper bag.
"Qué pasa, chico?" Máximo said.
Antonio reached into the paper bag as the men watched. He let the paper fall away. In his hand he held an oblong black leather box.
"Coñooo," Raúl said.
He set the box on the table, like a magician drawing out his trick. He looked around to the men and finally opened the box with a flourish to reveal a neat row of big heavy pieces, gone yellow and smooth like old teeth. They bent in closer to look. Antonio tilted the box gently and the pieces fell out in one long line, their black dots facing up now like tight dark pupils in the sunlight.
"Ivory," Antonio said, "and ebony. They're antique. You're not allowed to make them anymore."
"Beautiful," Carlos said, and clasped his hands.
"My daughter found them for me in New Orleans," Antonio continued, ignoring Carlos.
He looked around the table and lingered on Máximo, who had lowered the box of plastic dominoes to the ground.
"She said she's been searching for them for two years. Couldn't wait two more weeks to give them to me," he said.
"Coñooo," Raúl said.
A moment passed.
"Well," Antonio said, "what do you think, Máximo?"
Máximo looked at him. Then he bent across the table to touch one of the pieces.
He gave a jerk with his head and listened for the traffic. "Very nice," he said.
"Very nice?" Antonio said. "Very nice?" He laughed in his thin way. "My daughter walked all over New Orleans to find these and the Cuban thinks they're 'very nice?'" He paused, watching Máximo. "Did you know my daughter is coming to visit me for Christmas? She's coming for Christmas, Máximo, maybe you can tell her her gift was very nice, but not as nice as some you remember, eh?"
Máximo looked up, his eyes settled on Carlos, who looked at Antonio and then looked away.
"Calm down, hombre," Carlos said, opening his arms wide, a nervous giggle beginning in his throat. "What's gotten into you?"
Antonio waved his hand.
A diesel truck rattled down Eighth Street, headed for downtown.
"My daughter is a district attorney in Los Angeles," Máximo said, after the noise of the truck died. "December is one of the busiest months."
He felt a heat behind his eyes he had not felt in many years.
"Hold one in your hand," Antonio said. "Feel how heavy that is."
When the children were small, Máximo and Rosa used to spend Nochebuena with his cousins in Cárdenas. It was a five-hour drive from Havana in the cars of those days. They would rise early on the twenty-third and arrive by mid-afternoon so Máximo could help the men kill the pig for the feast the following night. Máximo and the other men held the squealing, squirming animal down, its wiry brown coat cutting into their gloveless hands. But god, they were intelligent creatures. No sooner did it spot the knife, than the animal would bolt out of their arms, screaming like Armageddon. It had become the subtext to the Nochebuena tradition, this chasing of the terrified pig through the yard, dodging orange trees and the rotting fruit underneath. The children were never allowed to watch, Rosa made sure. They sat indoors with the women and stirred the black beans. With loud laughter, they shut out the shouts of the men and the hysterical pleadings of the animal as it was dragged back to its slaughter.
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