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Vol. 3, No. 1

In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd
by Ana Menendez

~

"Juanito the little dog gets off the boat from Cuba and decides to take a stroll down Brickell Avenue."
      "Let me make sure I understand the joke. Juanito is a dog. Bowwow."
      "That's pretty good."
      "Yes, Juanito is a dog, goddamnit."
      Raúl looked up, startled.
      Máximo shuffled the pieces hard and swallowed. He swung his arms across the table in wide, violent arcs. One of the pieces flew off the table.
      "Hey, hey, watch it with that, what's wrong with you?"
      Máximo stopped. He felt his heart beating.
      "I'm sorry," he said. He bent over the edge of the table to see where the piece had landed. "Wait a minute."
      He held the table with one hand and tried to stretch to pick up the piece.
      "What are you doing?"
      "Just wait a minute." When he couldn't reach, he stood up, pulled the piece toward him with his foot, sat back down and reached for it again, this time grasping it between his fingers and his palm. He put it face down on the table with the others and shuffled, slowly, his mind barely registering the traffic.
      "Where was I--Juanito the little dog, right, bowwow." Máximo took a deep breath. "He's just off the boat from Cuba and is strolling down Brickell Avenue. He's looking up at all the tall and shiny buildings. 'Coñooo,' he says, dazzled by all the mirrors. 'There's nothing like this in Cuba.'"
      "Hey, hey, professor. We had tall buildings."
      "Jesus Christ!" Máximo said. He pressed his thumb and forefinger into the corners of his eyes. "This is after Castro, then. Let me just get it out for Christ's sake."
      He stopped shuffling. Raúl looked away.
      "Ready now? Juanito the little dog is looking up at all the tall buildings and he's so happy to finally be in America because all his cousins have been telling him what a great country it is, right? You know, they were sending back photos of their new cars and girlfriends."
      "A joke about dogs who drive cars, I've heard it all."
      "Hey, they're Cuban superdogs."
      "All right, they're sending back photos of their new owners or the biggest bones any dog has ever seen. Anything you like. Use your imaginations." Máximo stopped shuffling. "Where was I?"
      "You were at the part where Juanito buys a Rolls Royce."
      The men laughed.
      "Okay, Antonio, why don't you three fools continue the joke." Máximo got up from the table. "You've made me forget the rest of it."
      "Aw, come on, chico, sit down, don't be so sensitive."
      "Come on, professor, you were at the part where Juanito is so glad to be in America."
      "Forget it. I can't remember the rest now." Máximo rubbed his temple, grabbed the back of the chair and sat down slowly, facing the street. "Just leave me alone, I can't remember it." He pulled at the pieces two by two. "I'm sorry. Look, let's just play."
      The men set up their double rows of dominoes, like miniature barricades before them.
      "These pieces are a work of art," Antonio said, and lay down a double eight.

 

~

The banyan tree was strung with white lights that were lit all day. Colored lights twined around the metal poles of the fence, which was topped with a long looping piece of gold tinsel garland.
      The Christmas tourists began arriving just before lunch as Máximo and Raúl stepped off the number eight bus. Carlos and Antonio were already at the table, watched by two groups of families. Mom and Dad with kids. They were big, even the kids were big and pink. The mother whispered to the kids and they smiled and waved. Raúl waved back at the mother.
      "Nice legs, yes?" he whispered to Máximo.
      Before Máximo looked away, he saw the mother take out one of those little black pocket cameras. He saw the flash out of the corner of his eye. He sat down and looked around the table; the other men stared at their pieces.
      The game started badly. It happened sometimes, the distribution of the pieces went all wrong and out of desperation one of the men made mistakes, and soon it was all they could do to knock all the pieces over and start fresh. Raúl set down a double three and signaled to Máximo it was all he had. Carlos passed. Máximo surveyed his last five pieces. His thoughts scattered to the family outside. He looked up to find the tallest boy with his face pressed between the iron slats, staring at him.
      "You pass?" Antonio said.
      Máximo looked at him, then at the table. He put down a three and a five. He looked again, the boy was gone. The family had moved on.
      The tour groups arrived later that afternoon. First the white buses with the happy blue letters WELCOME TO LITTLE HAVANA. Next, the fat women in white shorts, their knees lost in an abstraction of flesh. Máximo tried to concentrate on the game. The worst part was how the other men acted out for them. Dominoes is supposed to be a quiet game. And now there they were shouting at each other and gesturing. A few of the men had even brought cigars, and they dangled now, unlit, from their mouths.
      "You see, Raúl," Máximo said. "You see how we're a spectacle?" He felt like an animal and wanted to growl and cast about behind the metal fence.
      Raúl shrugged. "Doesn't bother me."
      "A goddamn spectacle. A collection of old bones," Máximo said.
      The other men looked up at Máximo.
      "Hey speak for yourself, cabrón," Antonio said.
      Raúl shrugged again.
      Máximo rubbed his left elbow and began to shuffle. It was hot, and the sun was setting in his eyes, backlighting the car exhaust like a veil before him. He rubbed his temple, feeling the skin move over the bone. He pressed the inside corners of his eyes, then drew his hand back to his left elbow.
      "Hey, you okay there?" Antonio said.
      An open trolley pulled up and parked at the curb. A young man, perhaps in his thirties, stood in the front, holding a microphone. He wore a guayabera. Máximo looked away.
      "This here is Domino Park," came the amplified voice in English, then in Spanish. "No one under fifty-five allowed, folks. But we can sure watch them play."
      Máximo heard shutters click, then convinced himself he couldn't have heard, not from where he was.
      "Most of these men are Cuban and they're keeping alive the tradition of their homeland," the amplified voice continued, echoing against the back wall of the park. "You see, in Cuba it was very common to retire to a game of dominoes after a good meal. It was a way to bond and build community. You folks here are seeing a slice of the past. A simpler time of good friendships and unhurried days."
      Maybe it was the sun. The men later noted that he seemed odd. The tics. Rubbing his bones.
      First Máximo muttered to himself. He rubbed his temple again. When the feedback on the microphone pierced through Domino Park, he could no longer sit where he was, accept things as they were. It was a moment that had long been missing from his life.
      He stood and made a fist at the trolley.
      "Mierda!" he shouted. "Mierda! That's the biggest bullshit I've ever heard."
      He made a lunge at the fence. Carlos jumped up and held him back. Raúl led him back to his seat.
      The man of the amplified voice cleared his throat. The people on the trolley looked at him and back at Máximo, perhaps they thought this was part of the show.
      "Well," the man chuckled. "There you have it, folks."
      Lucinda ran over, but the other men waved her off. She began to protest about rules and propriety. The park had a reputation to uphold.
      It was Antonio who spoke. "Leave the man alone," he said.
      Máximo looked at him. His head was pounding. Antonio met his gaze briefly then looked to Lucinda.
      "Some men don't like to be stared at is all," he said. "It won't happen again."
      She shifted her weight, but remained where she was, watching.
      "What are you waiting for?" Antonio said, turning now to Máximo, who had lowered his head onto the white backs of the dominoes. "Shuffle."

 

~

That night Máximo was too tired to sit at the pine table. He didn't even prepare dinner. He slept, and in his dreams he was a blue-and-yellow fish swimming in warm waters, gliding through the coral, the only fish in the sea and he was happy. But the light changed and the sea darkened suddenly and he was rising through it, afraid of breaking the surface, afraid of the pinhole sun on the other side, afraid of drowning in the blue vault of sky.

 

~

"Let me finish the story of Juanito the little dog."
      No one said anything.
      "Is that okay? I'm okay. I just remembered it. Can I finish it?"
      The men nodded, but still did not speak.
      "He is just off the boat from Cuba. He is walking down Brickell Avenue. And he is trying to steady himself, see, because he still has his sea legs and all the buildings are so tall they are making him dizzy. He doesn't know what to expect. He's maybe a little afraid. And he's thinking about a pretty little dog he once knew and he's wondering where she is now and he wishes he were back home."
      He paused to take a breath. Raúl cleared his throat. The men looked at one another, then at Máximo. But his eyes were on the blur of dominoes before him. He felt a stillness around him, a shadow move past the fence, but he didn't look up.
      "He's not a depressed kind of dog, though. Don't get me wrong. He's very feisty. And when he sees an elegant white poodle striding toward him, he forgets all his worries and exclaims, 'O Madre de Dios, si cocinas como caminas . . .'"
      The men let out a small laugh. Máximo continued.
      "'Si cocinas como caminas . . .' Juanito says, but the white poodle interrupts and says, 'I beg your pardon? This is America, speak English.' So Juanito pauses for a moment to consider and says in his broken English, 'Mamita, you are one hot doggie, yes? I would like to take you to movies and fancy dinners.'"
      "One hot doggie, yes?" Carlos repeated, then laughed. "You're killing me."
      The other men smiled, warming to the story again.
      "So Juanito says, 'I would like to marry you, my love, and have gorgeous puppies with you and live in a castle.' Well, all this time the white poodle has her snout in the air. She looks at Juanito and says, 'Do you have any idea who you're talking to? I am a refined breed of considerable class and you are nothing but a short, insignificant, mutt.' Juanito is stunned for a moment, but he rallies for the final shot. He's a proud dog, you see, and he's afraid of his pain. 'Pardon me, your highness,' Juanito the mangy dog says, 'Here in America, I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German shepherd.'"
      Máximo turned so the men would not see his tears. The afternoon traffic crawled westward. One horn blasted, then another. He remembered holding his daughters days after their birth, thinking how fragile and vulnerable lay his bond to the future. For weeks, he carried them on pillows, like jeweled china. Then, the blank spaces in his life lay before him. Now he stood with the gulf at his back, their ribbony youth aflutter in the past. And what had he salvaged from the years? Already, he was forgetting Rosa's face, the precise shade of her eyes.
      Carlos cleared his throat and moved his hand as if to touch him, then held back. He cleared his throat again.
      "He was a good dog," Carlos said, pursing his lips.
      Antonio began to laugh, then fell silent with the rest. Máximo started shuffling, then stopped. The shadow of the banyan tree worked a kaleidoscope over the dominoes. When the wind eased, Máximo tilted his head to listen. He heard something stir behind him, someone leaning heavily on the fence. He could almost feel their breath. His heart quickened.
      "Tell them to go away," Máximo said. "Tell them, no pictures."

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