Tom Wolfe's first novel in eight years focuses on Miami's Biscayne Bay with its swirling stew of race, class, and sex. The author behind The Bonfire of the Vanities and I Am Charlotte Simmons had not lost his gift for panoramic presentation; Back to Blood surges with its large ensemble cast of Floridians and immigrants with mixed histories and conflicting agendas. This sun-bronzed band of sailors, crack dealers, art enthusiasts, porn addicts, insomniacs, and love-struck romantics keep the fiction bristling with meaning even as the action moves forward. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.
Back to Blood: A Novelby Tom Wolfe
As a police launch speeds across Miami's Biscayne Bay-with officer Nestor Camacho on board-Tom Wolfe is off and running. Into the feverous landscape of the city, he introduces the Cuban mayor, the black police chief, a wanna-go-muckraking young/strong>
A big, panoramic story of the new America, as told by our master chronicler of the way we live now.
As a police launch speeds across Miami's Biscayne Bay-with officer Nestor Camacho on board-Tom Wolfe is off and running. Into the feverous landscape of the city, he introduces the Cuban mayor, the black police chief, a wanna-go-muckraking young journalist and his Yale-marinated editor; an Anglo sex-addiction psychiatrist and his Latina nurse by day, loin lock by night-until lately, the love of Nestor's life; a refined, and oh-so-light-skinned young woman from Haiti and her Creole-spouting, black-gang-banger-stylin' little brother; a billionaire porn addict, crack dealers in the 'hoods, "de-skilled" conceptual artists at the Miami Art Basel Fair, "spectators" at the annual Biscayne Bay regatta looking only for that night's orgy, yenta-heavy ex-New Yorkers at an "Active Adult" condo, and a nest of shady Russians. Based on the same sort of detailed, on-scene, high-energy reporting that powered Tom Wolfe's previous bestselling novels, BACK TO BLOOD is another brilliant, spot-on, scrupulous, and often hilarious reckoning with our times.
"Wolfe is one of the greatest literary stylists and social observers of our much observed postmodern era....A rich, wise, absorbing, and irresistible novel."
Bonfire of the Vanities (1987):"
A big, bitter, funny, craftily plotted book that grabs you by the lapels and won't let go."New York Times Book Review"
A superb human comedy and the first novel ever to get contemporary New York, in all its arrogance and shame and heterogeneity and insularity, exactly right."Washington Post Book World
A Man in Full (1998):"
The novel contains passages as powerful and as beautiful as anything writtennot merely by contemporary American novelists but by any American novelist....The book is as funny as anything Wolfe has ever written; at the same time it is also deeply, strangely affecting."New York Times Book Review
I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004):"
Wolfe is one of the greatest literary stylists and social observers of our much observed postmodern era....A rich, wise, absorbing, and irresistible novel."Lev Grossman, Time"
Wolfe's dialogue is some of the finest in literature, not just fast but deep. He hears the cacophony of our modern lives."Los Angeles Times"
Brilliant...I couldn't stop reading it....Tom Wolfe can make words dance and sing and perform circus tricks, he can make the reader sigh with pleasure."Michael Dirda, Washington Post
"The novel contains passages as powerful and as beautiful as anything written--not merely by contemporary American novelists but by any American novelist....The book is as funny as anything Wolfe has ever written; at the same time it is also deeply, strangely affecting."
Wolfe is one of the greatest literary stylists and social observers of our much observed postmodern era....A rich, wise, absorbing, and irresistible novel.
New York Times Book Review
Boston Sunday Globe
Christian Science Monitor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Daily Beast
New York Times
San Francisco Chronicle
"Wolfe is one of the greatest literary stylists and social observers of our much observed postmodern era....A rich, wise, absorbing, and irresistible novel.
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Read an Excerpt
Back to BloodA Novel
By Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Tom Wolfe
All right reserved.
We een Mee-AH-mee Now
You… edit my life… You are my wife, my Mac the Knife—the witticism here being that he may edit one of the half-dozen-or-so most important newspapers in the United States, the Miami Herald, but she is the one who edits him. She… edits… him. Last week he totally forgot to call the dean, the one with the rehabilitated harelip, at their son Fiver’s boarding school, Hotchkiss, and Mac, his wife, his Mac the Knife, was justifiably put out about it… but then he had sort-of-sung this little rhyme of his to the tune of “You Light Up My Life.” You… edit my life… You are my wife, my Mac the Knife—and it made her smile in spite of herself, and the smile dissolved the mood, which was I’m fed up with you and your trifling ways. Could it possibly work again—now? Did he dare give it another shot?
At the moment Mac was in command, behind the wheel of her beloved and ludicrously cramped brand-new Mitsubishi Green Elf hybrid, a chic and morally enlightened vehicle just now, trolling the solid rows of cars parked side by side, wing-mirror to wing-mirror, out back of this month’s Miami nightspot of the century, Balzac’s, just off Mary Brickell Village, vainly hunting for a space. She was driving her car. She was put out this time—yes, justifiably once more—because this time his trifling ways had made them terribly late leaving for Balzac’s, and so she insisted on driving to that coolest of hot spots in her Green Elf. If he drove his BMW, they would never get there, because he was such a slow and maddeningly cautious driver… and he wondered if she really meant timid and unmanly. In any case, she took over the man’s role, and the Elf flew to Balzac’s like a bat, and here they were, and Mac was not happy.
Ten feet above the restaurant’s entrance was a huge Lexan disc, six feet in diameter and eighteen inches thick, embedded with a bust of Honoré de Balzac “appropriated”—as the artists today call artistic theft—from the famous daguerreotype by the one-name photographer Nadar. Balzac’s eyes had been turned to look straight into the customer’s and his lips had been turned up at the corners to create a big smile, but the “appropriator” was a talented sculptor, and a light from within suffused the enormous slab of Lexan with a golden glow, and tout le monde loved it. The light here in the parking lot, however, was miserable. Industrial lamps high up on stanchions created a dim electro-twilight and turned the palm tree fronds pus-color yellow. “Pus-color yellow”—and there you had it. Ed was feeling down, down, down… sitting belted into the passenger seat, which he had had to slide all the way back just to get both his long legs inside of this weeny-teeny grassy-greeny Green-proud car of Mac’s, the Green Elf. He felt like the doughnut, the toy-sized emergency spare wheel the Elf carried.
Mac, a big girl, had just turned forty. She was a big girl when he met her eighteen years ago at Yale… big bones, wide shoulders, tall, five-ten, in fact… lean, lithe, strong, an athlete and a half… sunny, blond, full of life… Stunning! Absolutely gorgeous, this big girl of his! In the cohort of gorgeous girls, however, the big girls are the first to cross that invisible boundary beyond which the best they can hope for is “a very handsome woman” or “quite striking, really.” Mac, his wife, his Mac the Knife, had crossed that line.
She sighed a sigh so deep, she ended up expelling air between her teeth. “You’d think they’d have parking valets at a restaurant like this. They charge enough.”
“That’s true,” he said. “You’re right. Joe’s Stone Crab, Azul, Caffe Abbracci—and what’s that restaurant at the Setai? They all have valet parking. You’re absolutely right.” Your worldview is my Weltanschauung. How about if we talk about restaurants?
A pause. “I hope you know we’re very late, Ed. It’s eight-twenty. So we’re already twenty minutes late and we haven’t found a place to park and we’ve got six people in there waiting for us—”
“Well, I don’t know what else—I did call Christian—”
“—and you’re supposed to be the host. Do you realize that? Has that registered with you at all?”
“Well, I called Christian and told him they should order some drinks. You can be sure Christian won’t object to that, and Marietta won’t, either. Marietta and her cocktails. I don’t even know anybody else who orders cocktails.” Or how about a little obiter dictum riff on cocktails or Marietta, either one or both?
“All the same—it’s just not nice, keeping everybody waiting like this. I mean really—I’m serious, Ed. This is so trifling, I just can’t stand it.”
Now! This was his chance! This was the crack in the wall of words he was waiting for! An opening! It’s risky, but—and almost in tune and on key he sing-songs,
“You… edit my life… You are my wife, my Mac the Knife…”
She began shaking her head from side to side. “It doesn’t seem to do me much good, does it?”… Never mind! What was that creeping so slyly upon her lips? Was it a smile, a small, reluctant smile? Yes! I’m fed up with you immediately began to dissolve once more.
They were halfway down the parking lane when two figures appeared in the headlights, walking toward the Elf and Balzac’s—two girls, dark haired, chattering away, apparently having just parked their car. They couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty. The girls and the trolling Elf drew close rapidly. The girls were wearing denim shorts with the belt lines down perilously close to the mons veneris and the pants legs cut off up to… here… practically up to the hip socket, and left frayed. Their young legs looked model-girl long, since they also wore gleaming heels at least six inches high. The heels seemed to be made of Lucite or something. They lit up a brilliant translucent gold when light hit them. The two girls’ eyes were so heavily mascara’d they appeared to be floating in four black pools.
“Oh, that’s attractive,” Mac muttered.
Ed couldn’t take his eyes off them. They were Latinas—although he couldn’t have explained why he knew that any more than he knew that Latina and Latino were Spanish words that existed only in America. This pair of Latinas—yes, they were trashy, all right, but Mac’s irony couldn’t alter the truth. Attractive? “Attractive” barely began to describe what he felt! Such nice tender long legs the two girls had! Such short little short-shorts! So short, they could shed them just like that. In an instant they could lay bare their juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms… for him! And that was obviously what they wanted! He could feel the tumescence men live for welling up beneath his Jockey tighty-whiteys! Oh, ineffable dirty girls!
As Mac trolled past them, one of the dirty girls pointed at the Green Elf, and both started laughing. Laughing, eh? Apparently they had no appreciation of how upscale Green was… or how hip the Elf was, or how cool. Even less could they conceive of the Elf, fully loaded, as it was, with Green accessories and various esoteric environmental meters, plus ProtexDeer radar—they couldn’t conceive of this little elf of a car costing $135,000. He’d give anything to know what they were saying. But here within the Elf’s cocoon of Thermo-insulated Lexan glass windows, Fibreglas doors and panels, and evaporation-ambient recyclical air-conditioning, one couldn’t begin to hear anything outside. Were they even speaking English? Their lips weren’t moving the way lips move when people are speaking English, the great audiovisionary linguist decided. They had to be Latin. Oh, ineffable Latin dirty girls!
“Dear God,” said Mac. “Where on earth do you suppose they get those heels that light up like that?” An ordinary conversational voice! No longer put out. The spell was broken! “I saw these weird sticks of light all over the place when we drove by Mary Brickell Village,” she went on. “I had no idea what they were. The place looked like a carnival, all those garish lights in the background and all the little half-naked party girls teetering around on their heels… Do you suppose it’s a Cuban thing?”
“I don’t know,” said Ed. Only that—because he had his head twisted around as far as it would go, so he could get one last look at them from behind. Perfect little cupcakes! He could just see the lubricants and spirochetes oozing into the crotches of their short short-shorts! Short short short-shorts! Sex! Sex! Sex! Sex! There it was, sex in Miami, up on golden Lucite thrones!
“Well,” said Mac, “all I can say is that Mary Brickell must be writing a letter to the editor in her grave.”
“Hey, I like that, Mac. Did I ever tell you you’re pretty witty when you feel like it?”
“No. Probably just slipped your mind.”
“Well, you are! ‘Writing a letter to the editor in her grave’! I’m telling you. I’d hell of a lot rather get a letter from Mary Brickell from six feet under than from those maniacs I get letters from… walking around foaming at the mouth.” He manufactured a laugh. “That’s very funny, Mac.” Wit. Good subject! Excellent. Or hey, let’s talk about Mary Brickell, Mary Brickell Village, letters to the editor, little sluts on Lucite, any damn thing, so long as it’s not I’m fed up.
As if reading his mind, Mac twisted one side of her mouth into a dubious smile—but a smile, nevertheless, thank God—and said, “But really, Ed, being this late, making them all wait, it’s really so-o-o-o bad. It’s not nice and it’s not right. It’s so trifling. It’s—” she paused, “it’s—it’s—it’s downright shiftless.”
Oh ho! Trifling, is it? Godalmighty, and shiftless, too! For the first time on this whole gloomy excursion Ed felt like laughing. These were two of Mac’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant words. In all of Miami-Dade County, all of Greater Miami, very much including Miami Beach, only members of the shrinking and endangered little tribe they both belonged to, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, used the terms trifling and shiftless or had a clue what they actually meant. Yes, he, too, was a member of that dying genus, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but it was Mac who truly embraced the faith. Not the Protestant religious faith, needless to say. Nobody on the East or the West Coast of the United States who aspired to even entry-level sophistication was any longer religious, certainly not anyone who had graduated from Yale, the way he and Mac had. No, Mac was an exemplar of the genus WASP in a moral and cultural sense. She was the WASP purist who couldn’t abide idleness and indolence, which were stage one of trifling and shiftless. Idleness and indolence didn’t represent mere wastefulness or poor judgment. They were immoral. They were sloth. They were a sin against the self. She couldn’t stand just lolling about in the sun, for example. At the beach, if there was nothing better to do, she would organize speed walks. Everybody! Get up! Let’s go! We’re going to walk five miles in one hour on the beach, on the sand! Now, that was an accomplishment! In short, if Plato ever persuaded Zeus—Plato professed to believe in Zeus—to reincarnate him so that he might return to earth to find the ideal-typical White Anglo-Saxon Protestant woman, he would come here to Miami and pick Mac.
On paper, Ed was an ideal-typical member of the breed himself. Hotchkiss, Yale… tall, six-three, slender in a gangly way… light-brown hair, thick but shot through with glints of gray… looked like Donegal tweed, his hair did… and of course there was the name, his last name, which was Topping. He himself realized that Edward T. Topping IV was White Anglo-Saxon Protestant to the maximum, to the point of satire. Not even those incomparable nobs of snobbery, the British, went in for all the IIIs, IVs, Vs, and the occasional VI you came across in the United States. That was why everybody began to call their son, Eddie, “Fiver.” His full name was Edward T. Topping V. Five was still pretty rare. Every American with III or higher after his name was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant or had parents who desperately wished he were.
But Jesus Christ, what was some White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, some last lost soul of a dying genus, doing editing the Miami Herald with a name like Edward T. Topping IV? He had taken on the job without a clue. When the Loop Syndicate bought the Herald from the McClatchy Company and suddenly promoted him from editor of the editorial page at the Chicago Sun-Times to editor in chief of the Herald, he had only one question. How big a splash would this make in the Yale alumni magazine? That was the only thing that took hold in the left hemisphere of his brain. Oh, they, the Loop Syndicate corporate research department, tried to brief him. They tried. But somehow all the things they tried to tell him about the situation in Miami wafted across his brain’s Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas… and dissipated like a morning mist. Was Miami the only city in the world where more than one half of all citizens were recent immigrants, meaning within the past fifty years?… Hmmmh… Who would have guessed? Did one segment of them, the Cubans, control the city politically—Cuban mayor, Cuban department heads, Cuban cops, Cuban cops, and more Cuban cops, 60 percent of the force Cubans plus 10 percent other Latins, 18 percent American blacks, and only 12 percent Anglos? And didn’t the general population break down pretty much the same way?… Hmmmh… interesting, I’m sure… whatever “Anglos” are. And were the Cubans and other Latins so dominant that the Herald had to create an entirely separate Spanish edition, El Nuevo Herald, with its own Cuban staff or else risk becoming irrelevant?… Hmmmmh… He guessed he already knew that, sort of. And did the American blacks resent the Cuban cops, who might as well have dropped from the sky, they had materialized so suddenly, for the sole purpose of pushing black people around?… Hmmmh… imagine that. And he tried to imagine it… for about five minutes… before that question faded away in light of a query that seemed to indicate that the alumni magazine would be sending its own photographer. And had Haitians been pouring into Miami by the untold tens of thousands, resenting the fact that the American government legalized illegal Cuban immigrants in a snap of the fingers but wouldn’t give Haitians a break?… and now Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Russians, Israelis… Hmmmmh… really? I’ll have to remember that… How does all that go again?…
But the purpose of this briefing, they tried to tell Ed in a subtle way, was not to identify all these tensions and abrasions as potential sources of news in Immigration City. Oh, no. The purpose was to encourage Ed and his staff to “make allowances” and stress Diversity, which was good, even rather noble, and not divisiveness, which we could all do without. The purpose was to indicate to Ed he should be careful not to antagonize any of these factions… He should “maintain an even keel” during this period in which the Syndicate would be going all out to “cyberize” the Herald and El Nuevo Herald, free them from the gnarled old grip of print and turn them into sleek twenty-first-century online publications. The subtext was: In the meantime, if the mutts start growling, snarling, and disemboweling one another with their teeth—celebrate the Diversity of it all and make sure the teeth get whitened.
That was three years ago. Having never really listened, Ed didn’t get it right off the bat. Three months after he was installed as editor, he published part one of an enterprising young reporter’s story on the mysterious disappearance of $940,000 the federal government had allotted an anti-Castro organization in Miami in order to initiate unjammable television broadcasts to Cuba. Not a single fact in the story was ever proved wrong or even seriously challenged. But there arose such a howl from “the Cuban community”—whatever that actually consisted of—it rocked Ed clear down to his shoe-shriveled little toes. “The Cuban community” so overloaded the telephone, e-mail, website, and even fax capacities at the Herald and at the Loop Syndicate offices in Chicago, they crashed. Mobs formed outside the Herald building for days, shouting, chanting, hooting, bearing placards emblazoned with such sentiments as EXTERMINATE ALL RED RATS… HERALD: FIDEL, SI! PATRIOTISM, NO!… BOYCOTT EL HABANA HERALD… EL MIAMI HEMORROIDES… MIAMI HERALD: CASTRO’S BITCH… An incessant fusillade of insults on Spanish-language radio and television called the Herald’s new owners, the Loop Syndicate, a virulent “far-Left virus.” Under the new commissars the Herald itself was now a nest of overtly “radical Left-wing intellectuals,” and the new editor, Edward T. Topping IV, was a “Fidelista fellow traveler and dupe.” Blogs identified the enterprising young man who wrote the story as “a committed Communist,” while handbills and posters went up all over Hialeah and Little Havana providing his picture, home address, and telephone numbers, cell and landlines, under the heading WANTED FOR TREASON. Death threats to him, his wife, and their three children came at him thick as machine-gun fire. The Syndicate’s response, if read between the lines, labeled Ed an archaic fool, canceled parts two and three of the series, instructed the fool not to cover the anti-Castro groups at all, so long as the police did not formally charge them with murder, arson, or premeditated armed assault causing significant bodily wounds, and grumbled about the cost of relocating the reporter and his family—five people—to a safe house for six weeks and, worse, having to pay for bodyguards.
Thus did Edward T. Topping IV land in the middle of a street brawl on a saucer from Mars.
Meantime, Mac had just trolled the Green Elf to the end of the lane and was heading up the next one. “Oh, you—” she exclaimed, stopping short, unsure precisely how to insult the malefactor right in front of her. She found herself on the tail of a big tan Mercedes, that classy European tan, maybe even a Maybach it was, glistening in the diseased electro-twilight… trolling the lane looking for a parking place. Obviously, if one came up, the Mercedes would get to it first.
Mac slowed down in order to increase the interval between the two cars. At that very moment they heard a car accelerating insanely fast. By the sound of it, the driver executed the lane-to-lane U-turn so fast, the tires were squealing bloody murder. Now it was coming up behind them at a reckless speed. Its headlights flooded the interior of the Green Elf. “Who are these idiots?” said Mac. It was just short of a scream.
She and Ed braced for an impending rear-end crash, but the car braked at the last moment and wound up barely two yards from their back bumper. The driver gunned the engine two or three times for good measure.
“What does this maniac think he’s going to do?” said Mac. “There’s no room to pass anybody even if I wanted him to!”
Ed twisted around in his seat to get a look at the offender. “Jesus Christ, those lights are bright! All I can make out is it’s some kind of convertible. I think the driver is a woman, but I can’t really tell.”
“Rude bitch!” said Mac.
Then—Ed couldn’t believe it. Just ahead a pair of red taillights came on in the wall of cars to their right. Then a red diode brake light on the back window! Up so high, the brake light was, the thing must be an Escalade or a Denali, some behemoth of an SUV, in any case. Could it be… someone was actually going to depart those impenetrable walls of sheet metal?
“I don’t believe it,” said Mac. “I won’t believe it until it actually backs out of there. This is a miracle.”
She and Ed looked ahead like a single creature to see if the competition, the Mercedes, had spotted the lights and might be backing up to claim the space. Thank God, the Mercedes—no brake lights… just kept on trolling… already near the end of the lane… missed out on the miracle entirely.
Slowly the vehicle was backing out of the wall of cars… a big black thing—huge!… slowly, slowly… It was a monster called the Annihilator. Chrysler had started manufacturing it in 2011 to compete with the Cadillac Escalade.
The harsh light from the car on their tail began to withdraw from the Elf’s interior, then subsided sharply. Ed looked back. The driver had put the convertible into reverse and was executing a U-turn. Now Ed could see it more clearly. Yes, the driver was a woman, dark haired, young, by the look of her, and the convertible—godalmighty!—it was a white Ferrari 403!
Ed started pointing toward the rear window and said to Mac, “Your rude bitch is leaving. She’s turning around and going back up the lane. And you’ll never guess what she’s driving… a Ferrari 403!”
“That’s a $275,000 car! It’s got close to five hundred horsepower. They race them in Italy. We ran a story about the Ferrari 403.”
“Oh, do remind me and I’ll be sure to look it up,” said Mac. “All I care about the wonder car at this moment is that the rude bitch has gone away in it.”
From behind them rose the wonder car’s omnivorous growl and then the screaming squeal of the tires as the woman burned rubber in taking off back the way she had come.
Ponderously… ponderously… the Annihilator backed up. Heavily… heftily… its gigantic black rear end began to turn toward the Green Elf in order to straighten up before heading down toward the exit. The Annihilator looked like a giant that would eat up Green Elves like apples or whole-grain protein bars. Evidently sensing precisely that, Mac backed up the Elf to give the giant however much room it needed.
“Did you ever notice,” said Ed, “that the people who buy those things never know how to drive them? Everything takes forever. They’re not up to handling a truck.”
Now, at last, they laid eyes on what had become a very nearly mythical piece of geography… a parking place.
“Okay, big boy,” said Mac, referring to the Annihilator, “let’s pull ourself together and move.”
She had no sooner said “move” than the thrashing mechanical roar of a high-speed internal-combustion engine and an angry scream of rubber rose from the exit end of the lane. Godalmighty—it was a vehicle accelerating almost as fast as the Ferrari 403 but coming up the lane the wrong way. With the hulk of the Annihilator blocking their view, Ed and Mac couldn’t tell what was going on. In the next split second the acceleration became so loud, the vehicle had to be practically on top of the Annihilator. The Annihilator’s horn and brake lights screeeeeaming red—shrieeeeeking rubber—the oncoming vehicle veeeeering to keep from hitting the Annihilator head-on—blurrrring white surmounted by tiny blurrrrring blaaaaack streeeeeaks to Ed’s right from in front of the Annihilator—hurtled into the miracle parking slot—laaaaaying down rubber as it braked to a stop right in front of Ed’s and Mac’s eyes.
Shock, bewilderment—and bango—their central nervous systems were flooded with… humiliation. The white blur was the Ferrari 403. The small black blur was the hair of the rude bitch. It hit home faster than it would take to say it. The moment she realized a parking spot was opening up, the rude bitch had made a U-turn, sped up the lane the wrong way, swung around the walls of cars, sped down the next lane the wrong way, swung around the rows of cars at the exit end, sped up this lane the wrong way, cut in front of the Annihilator, and shot into the parking place. What else was a Ferrari 403 for? And what was a passive do-gooder like the Green Elf to do other than good works for the desperately wounded Planet Earth and take everything else like a man… or an elf?
The Annihilator gave the rude bitch a couple of angry blasts of the horn before heading down the lane and presumably the exit. But Mac remained. She wasn’t heading anywhere. She was furious, livid.
“Why, that bitch!” she said. “That brazen little bitch!”
With that she drove the Green Elf forward and stopped immediately behind the Ferrari, which had come to rest on the Elf’s right.
“What are you doing?” said Ed.
Mac said, “If she thinks she’s going to get away with that, she’s got another thought coming. She wants to play games? Okay, let’s play.”
“Whattaya mean?” said Ed. Mac had a definitely White Anglo-Saxon Protestant set to her jaws. He knew what that meant. It meant that the rude bitch’s transgression was not merely bad manners. It was a sinful act.
Ed could feel his heart kicking into higher gear. He was not by nature one for physical confrontations and public exhibitions of anger. Besides that, he was the editor of the Herald, the Loop Syndicate’s man in Miami. Whatever he got involved in out in public would be magnified a hundred times.
“Whattaya gonna do?” He was aware that his voice was suddenly terribly hoarse. “I’m not sure she’s worth all—” He couldn’t figure out how to complete the sentence.
Mac wasn’t paying any attention to him anyway. Her eyes were pinned on the rude bitch, who was just getting out of the convertible. They could see only her back. But as soon as she started to turn around, Mac hit the button that opened the passenger-side window and leaned across Ed and lowered her head so she could look the woman squarely in the face.
As soon as the woman turned about fully she took a couple of steps and stopped when she realized the Elf was all but penning her in the wall of cars. And then Mac let her have it:
“YOU SAW ME WAITING FOR THAT SPACE, AND DON’T YOU STAND THERE LYING AND SAYING YOU DIDN’T! WHERE DID YOU—”
Ed had heard Mac yell before but never this loud or with such fury. It frightened him. The way she leaned over toward the window, her face was only inches from his. The Big Girl had gone into the full WASP righteous attack mode, and there would be hell to pay for one and all.
“—LEARN YOUR MANNERS FROM, THE HURRICANE GIRLS?”
The Hurricane Girls were a notorious gang of mostly black girls, formed in a tent city for refugees from Hurricane Fiona, who had gone on a rampage of assaults and robberies two years ago. That was all he needed. “Herald Editor’s Wife in Racist Rant”—he could write the whole thing himself—and in that same moment he realized the rude bitch hadn’t come from a girls’ gang or anything close to it. She was a beautiful young woman, and not just beautiful but stylish, chic, and rich, if Ed knew anything about it. She had shiny black hair parted in the middle… miles of it… cascading straight down before going wild in great wavy spumes where it hit her shoulders… and a bit of a fine gold chain about her neck… whose teardrop pendant brought Ed’s eyes right down into the cleavage of two young breasts yearning to burst free from the little sleeveless white silk dress that constrained them, up to a point, and then gave up and ended halfway down her thigh and didn’t even try to inhibit a pair of perfectly formed, perfectly suntanned legs looking a lubricious mile long atop a pair of white crocodile pumps whose to-the-max heels lifted her heavenly while Venus moaned and sighed. She was carrying a small ostrich leather clutch. Ed couldn’t have given any of this stuff a name, but he knew from the magazines that it was all à la mode right now and very expensive.
“—OR HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT A CHEAP LITTLE THIEF YOU ARE?”
Ed said, sotto voce, “Come on, Mac. Let’s just forget about it. It’s not worth the trouble.” What he meant was “Somebody might realize who I am.” As far as Mac was concerned, however, he wasn’t even there. There was only herself and the rude bitch who had wronged her.
Under Mac’s onslaught the beautiful rude bitch didn’t recoil an inch or show so much as a twitch of intimidation. She stood there with her hips cocked, the knuckles of one hand resting on the higher hip and her cocked elbow flung out as far as it would go, plus a suggestion of a smile on her lips, a condescending stance that as much as said, “Look, I’m in a hurry and you’re in my way. Kindly bring your little tsunami in a teacup to an end—now.”
“—JUST GIVE ME ONE REASON—”
Far from shrinking from Mac’s attack, the beautiful rude bitch came two steps closer to the Green Elf, leaned over to look Mac in the eye, and said, in English without raising her voice, “Why you speet when you talk?”
“WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?”
The rude bitch took yet another step forward. Now she was within three feet of the Elf—and Ed’s passenger seat. In a louder voice this time and still drilling her eyes into Mac’s, she said, “¡Mírala! Granny, you speet when you talk como una perra sata rabiosa con la boca llena de espuma, and it’s getting all over tu pendejocito allí. ¡Tremenda pareja que hacen, pendeja!” Now she was as angry as Mac and beginning to show it.
Mac didn’t know a word of Spanish, but even the English part coming out of the rude bitch’s sardonic face was utterly insulting.
“DON’T YOU DARE TALK TO ME LIKE THAT! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? A NASTY LITTLE MONKEY IS WHAT YOU ARE!”
The rude bitch snapped back, “NO ME JODAS MAS CON TUS GRITICOS! VETE A LA MIERDA, PUTA!”
The raised voices of the two women, the insults whizzing like bullets past Ed’s pale, blanched face from both directions, petrify him. The furious Latina looks past him as if he’s nothing but thin air, a nullity. This humiliates him. Obviously he should rouse his manhood and put an end to the whole confrontation. But he doesn’t dare say, “Both of you! Stop!” He doesn’t dare indicate to Mac that she is in any way in the wrong, behaving like this. He knows that all too well. She would cut him to ribbons for the rest of the night, including right in front of their friends, whom they are about to join inside, and, as usual, he wouldn’t know what to say. He’d just take it like a man, so to speak. Nor does he dare remonstrate with the Latin woman. How would that look? The editor of the Miami Herald dressing down, thereby insulting, some fashionable Cuban señora! That’s half the Spanish he can utter, “señora.” The other half is “Sí, cómo no?” Besides, Latins are quick-tempered, especially Cubans, if she’s Cuban. And what Latin woman in Miami could be this obviously rich other than a Cuban? For all he knows, she is about to meet some hotheaded husband or boyfriend in the restaurant, the sort who would demand satisfaction and thereby humiliate him even more. His thoughts whirl and whirl. The bullets continue to whiz back and forth. His mouth and throat are dry as chalk. Why can’t they just stop!
Stop? Ha! Mac starts screaming, “SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU PATHETIC IDIOT! YOU’RE IN AMERICA NOW! SPEAK ENGLISH!”
For a second the rude bitch seems to understand and goes silent. Then, she reverts to her calm, haughty self and with a mocking smile says rather softly, “No, mía malhablada puta gorda, we een Mee-ah-mee now! You een Mee-ah-mee now!”
Mac is stunned. For a few seconds she’s unable to speak. Finally she manages to come up with a single strangled hiss: “Rude bitch!”—whereupon she gunned the Green Elf and got out of there with such a lurch, the Elf squealed.
Mac’s lips were compressed to the point where the flesh above and below them ballooned out. She was shaking her head… not in anger, it seemed to Ed, but something far worse: humiliation. She wouldn’t even look at him. Her thoughts were sealed in a capsule of what had just happened. ::::::You win, rude bitch.::::::
Balzac’s was packed. The babble of the place had already risen to the maximum we’re-out-at-a-smart-restaurant-and-isn’t-it-great level… but Mac insisted on recounting the whole thing loudly, loud enough for all six of their friends to hear it, she was so enraged… Christian Cox, Marietta Stillman… Christian’s live-in girlfriend, Jill-love-Christian… Marietta’s husband, Thatcher… Chauncey and Isabel Johnson… six Anglos, real Anglos like themselves, American Protestant Anglos—but Please, God! Ed’s eyes were darting frantically this way and that. Those could be Cubans there at the next table. God knows they’ve got the money! Oh, yes! There! And the waiters? Look like Latinos, too… bound to be Latinos… He’s not listening to Mac’s rant any longer. A phrase pops into his head from out of nowhere. “Everybody… all of them… it’s back to blood! Religion is dying… but everybody still has to believe in something. It would be intolerable—you couldn’t stand it—to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.’ But believing in by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it. So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds—Back to blood!” All people, everywhere, you have no choice but—Back to blood!
The Man on the Mast
SMACK the Safe Boat bounces airborne comes down again SMACK on another swell in the bay bounces up again comes down SMACK on another swell and SMACK bounces airborne with emergency horns police Crazy Lights exploding SMACK in a demented sequence on the roof SMACK but Officer Nestor Camacho’s fellow SMACK cops here in the cockpit the two fat SMACK americanos they love this stuff love it love driving the boat SMACK throttle wide open forty-five miles an hour against the wind SMACK bouncing bouncing its shallow aluminum hull SMACK from swell SMACK to swell SMACK to swell SMACK toward the mouth of Biscayne Bay to “see about the man on top of the mast” SMACK “up near the Rickenbacker Causeway”—
—SMACK the two americanos sat at the helm on seats with built-in shock absorbers so they could take all the SMACK bouncing while Nestor, who was twenty-five, with four years as a cop but SMACK newly promoted to Marine Patrol, an elite SMACK unit, and still on probation, was SMACK relegated to the space behind them where he SMACK had to steady himself against something called a leaning pole and SMACK use his own legs as the shock absorbers—
A leaning pole! This boat, the Safe Boat, was the opposite of streamlined. It was uuuuuuug-lyyy… a twenty-five-foot-long rubbery foam-filled pancake for a deck with an old tugboat shack stuck on top of it as a cockpit. But its two engines had 1500 horsepower, and the thing went across the water like a shot. It was unsinkable unless you took a cannon and blew twelve-inch-diameter holes, a lot of them, through the foam filling. In tests, nobody had even been able to tip one over, no matter what insane maneuver he tried. It was built for rescues. And this shack of a cockpit he and the americanos were in? It was the Ugly Betty of boatbuilding—but soundproof. Outside, at forty-five miles an hour the Safe Boat was kicking up a regular hurricane of air, water, and internal combustion… while here inside the cockpit you didn’t even have to raise your voice… to wonder what sort of nutcase you were in for up on top of a mast near the Rickenbacker Causeway.
A sergeant named McCorkle with sandy-colored hair and blue eyes was at the wheel, and his second-in-command, Officer Kite, with blondish-brown hair and blue eyes, was in the seat next to him. Both of them were real sides of beef with fat on them—and school-of-blond hair!—and blue eyes! The blond ones!—with blue eyes!—they made you think americanos in spite of yourself.
Kite was SMACK on the police radio: “Q,S,M”—Miami Police code for “Repeat”—“Negative?” SMACK “Negative? You saying nobody knows what he’s doing up there? Guy’s up on top of a” SMACK “mast and he’s yelling, and nobody knows what” SMACK “he’s yelling? Q,K,T?”—for “Over.”
Staticky crackle staticky crackle Radiocom: “Q,L,Y”—for “Roger”—“That’s all we got. Four-three’s dispatching a” SMACK “unit to the causeway. Q,K,T.”
Long stupefied SMACK silence… “Q,L,Y… Q,R,U… Q,S,L”—for “Out.”
Kite just SMACK sat there for a moment, holding the microphone in front of his face and squinting at it as if SMACK he never saw one before. “They don’t know shit, Sarge.”
“Who’s on Radiocom?”
“I don’t know. Some” SMACK “Canadian.” He paused—
—“I just hope it ain’t another” SMACK “illegal, Sarge. Those dumb fucks are so crazy they’ll” SMACK “kill you without even meaning to. Forget about negotiating, even if you got somebody who can” SMACK “speak the fucking language. Forget about saving their fucking lives, as far as” SMACK “that goes! Just get ready for some Ultimate Fighting under water with some” SMACK “mook who’s a mile high on adrenaline. If you wanna know what I think, that’s the nastiest” SMACK “high there is, Sarge, adrenaline. Some biker on crank—he’s nothing compared to one a these scrawny little” SMACK “mooks jacked up on adrenaline.”
The two americanos didn’t look at each other when they spoke. They looked straight ahead, eyes pinned on the prospect of some dumb fuck on top of a mast up by the Rickenbacker Causeway.
Out the windshield—which slanted forward instead of back—the opposite of streamlined—you could see the wind was up and the bay was rough, but otherwise it was a typical Miami day in early September… still summer… not a cloud anywhere… and Jesus, it was hot. The sun turned the whole sky into a single gigantic high-blue-domed heat lamp, blindingly bright, exploding bursts of reflection off every shiny curved surface, even the crests of the swells. They had just sped past the marinas at Coconut Grove. The curiously pinkish skyline of Miami was slowly rising at the horizon, scorched in the sunbursts. In strict point of fact, Nestor couldn’t really see all that—the pinkish cast, the glare of the sun, the empty blue of the sky, the sunbursts—he just knew it was all there. He couldn’t really see it, because naturally he had on a pair of sunglasses, not dark but the darkest, magno darkest, supremo darkest, with an imitation gold bar across the top. That was what every cool Cuban cop in Miami wore… $29.95 at CVS… gold bar, baby! Equally cool was the way he kept his head shaved with just a little flat helicopter pad of hair upstairs. Even cooler was his big neck—cooler and not easy to come by. It was now wider than his head and seemed to merge with his trapezius… way out here. Wrestler’s bridges, baby, and pumping iron! A head harness with weights attached—that’ll do the trick! The big neck made a shaved head look like a Turkish wrestler’s. Otherwise a shaved head looked like a doorknob. He had been a skinny five-foot-seven kid when he first thought about the police force. Today he was still five-seven, but… in the mirror… five feet and seven inches’ worth of big smooth rock formations, real Gibraltars, traps, delts, lats, pecs, biceps, triceps, obliques, abs, glutes, quads—dense!—and you want to know what was even better for the upper body than weights? Climbing the fifty-five-foot-high rope at Rodriguez’s “Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Qué Gym!,” as everybody called it, without using your legs. You want dense biceps and lats—and even pecs? Nothing like climbing that fifty-five-foot-high rope at Rodriguez’s—dense!—and defined by the deep dark crevasses each mass of muscle dropped off into at the edges… in the mirror. Around that big neck he had a fine gold chain with a medallion of the cool Santería saint, Barbara, patron saint of artillery and explosives, that rested on his chest below his shirt… Shirt… There you had the problem with the Marine Patrol. On street patrol a Cuban cop like him would make sure he got a short-sleeved uniform one size too small that brought out every bulge of every rock formation… especially, in his case, the triceps, the big muscle on the back of the upper arm. He regarded his as the ultimate geological triumph of the triceps… in the mirror. If you were truly cool and Cuban, you had the seat of the uniform trousers taken in—a lot—until from behind you looked like a man wearing a pair of Speedos with long pants legs. That way, you were suave in the eyes of every jebita on the street. That was exactly the way he had met Magdalena—Magdalena!
Suave he must have looked when he had to prevent this jebita from passing the barricade across 16th Avenue at Calle Ocho and she put up this big argument and the anger in her eyes only made him crazier for her—¡ Dios mío!—and then he smiled at her in a certain way and said I’d love to let you by—but I’m not going to and kept on smiling in that certain way and she told him two nights later that when he started smiling she thought she had charmed him into letting her have her way but then he stood her up rigid with but I’m not going to—and it turned her on. But suppose he had been wearing this uniform that day! Christ, she wouldn’t have noticed anything other than he was in her way. This Marine Patrol uniform—all it was, was a baggy white polo shirt and a pair of baggy dark-blue shorts. If only he could shorten the sleeves—but they’d notice immediately. He would become the object of hideous ridicule… What would they start calling him… “Muscles”?… “Mister Universe”?… or just “Uni”?—pronounced “Yoony,” which would be even worse. So he was stuck with this… uniform that made you look like a grossly overgrown retarded toddler in the park. Well, at least it didn’t look as bad on him as it did on the two fat americanos right in front of him. From here, leaning back against the leaning pole, he got all too close a look at them from the rear… disgusting… the way their flab blubbered out into love handles where the polo shirts tucked into the shorts. It was pathetic—and they were supposed to be fit enough to rescue panicked people in the water. For an instant it occurred to him that maybe he had become a body snob, but it was only that, an instant. Man, it was weird enough just going out on a call with nothing but americanos around you. This hadn’t happened to him even once during his two years on street patrol. There were so few of them left on the police force. It was double weird being both outnumbered and outranked by a couple of minorities like this. He had nothing against minorities… the americanos… the blacks… the Haitians… the Nicas, as everybody called Nicaraguans. He felt very broad-minded, a nobly tolerant young man of the times. Americano was the name you used with other Cubans. For public consumption, you said Anglo. Curious word, Anglo. There was something… off… about it. It referred to white people of European ancestry. Was there something a little defensive about it, maybe? It wasn’t all that long ago that the… Anglos… divided the world up into four colors, the white, the black, the yellow—and everyone left over was brown. They lumped all Latinos together as brown!—when here in Miami, in any case, most Latinos, or a huge percentage, a lot anyway, were as white as any Anglo, except for the blond hair… That was what Mexicans were thinking about when they used the word gringo: the people with the blond hair. Cubans used it for comic effect now and then. A car full of Cuban boys see a pretty blond girl on a sidewalk in Hialeah, and one of them sings out, “¡Ayyyyy, la gringa!”
Latino—there was something off about that word, too. It existed only in the United States. Also Hispanic. Who the hell else called people Hispanics? Why? But the whole thing began to make his head hurt—
McCorkle’s voice! jerked him back into the here and now. The sandy-haired sergeant, McCorkle, was saying something to his blondish second in command, Kite:
“This don’t sound like an illegal” SMACK “to me. I never heard of an illegal coming in on a boat with a” SMACK “mast. You know? They’re too slow; they’re too obvious… Besides, you take Haiti… or” SMACK “Cuba. There ain’t no more boats with masts left in places like that.” He turned his head to the side and tilted it SMACK back to speak over his shoulder. “Right, Nestor?” Nes-ter. “They don’t even have” SMACK “masts in Cuba. Right? Say ‘Right,’ Nestor.” Nes-ter.
This annoyed Nestor—no, infuriated him. His name was Nestor, not Nes-ter, the way americanos pronounced it. Nes-ter… made him sound like he was sitting in a nest with his neck stretched straight up in the air and his mouth wide open waiting for Mommy to fly home and drop a worm down his gullet. These morons obviously never heard of King Nestor, hero of the Trojan War. Yet this idiot sergeant thinks it’s funny to treat him like some helpless six-year-old with this Right? Say “Right,” Nestor crack. At the same time, the crack assumed a second-generation Cuban like him, born in the United States, would be so absorbed with Cuba that he might in some stupid way actually care about masts or no masts on Cuban boats. It showed what they actually thought about Cubans. ::::::They still think we’re aliens. After all this time they still don’t get it, do they. If there’s any aliens in Miami now, it’s them. You blond retards—with your “Nes-ter!”::::::
“How would I know?” he hears himself saying. “I” SMACK “never set foot in Cuba. I never laid eyes on” SMACK “Cuba.”
Wait a minute! Bango—right away he knows that came out wrong, knows it before he can sort it out rationally, knows that “How would I know?” is hanging in the air like some putrid gas. The way he hit the “I”… and the “foot” and the “eyes”! So dismissive! Such a rebuke! Impudent and a half! Might as well have called him a stupid blond retard straight out! Hadn’t even tried to hide the anger he felt! If only he had added a “Sarge”! “How would I know, Sarge” might have given him a fighting chance! McCorkle is a minority, but he’s still a sergeant! All he has to do is file one bad report—and Nestor Camacho flunks probation and gets blown out of the water! Quick! Throw in a Sarge right now! Make it two—Sarge and Sarge! But it’s hopeless—too late—three or four interminable seconds have gone by. All he can do is brace himself against the leaning pole and hold his breath—
Not a sound from the two blond americanos. Nestor becomes terribly conscious of his heart SMACK hammering away beneath the polo shirt. Idly idly idly so what so what so what he is aware of the skyline of SMACK downtown Miami rising still higher as the Safe Boat speeds closer, coming upon more and more “lulus,” as the cops call pleasure boats owned and aimlessly navigated by clueless civilians sunbathing SMACK too fat too bare too slathered with thirty-level sunblock SMACK ointments, and passes them so fast, the lulus seem to whip by them SMACK backward—
Jesus Christ! Nestor practically jumps. From here right SMACK behind the man’s chair he can see Sergeant McCorkle’s thumb rising above his shoulder. Now he’s SMACK motioning it back toward Nestor without moving his head—he keeps looking forward—and saying to Officer Kite, “He wouldn’t” SMACK “know, Lonnie. He never fucking set foot in Cuba. He never fucking laid eyes on it.” SMACK “He just… wouldn’t… fucking… know.”
Lonnie Kite doesn’t respond. He’s probably like Nestor himself… waiting to see where this is all leading… while downtown Miami rises… rises. There’s the SMACK Rickenbacker Causeway itself, crossing the bay from the city over to Key Biscayne.
“Okay, Nes-ter,” McCorkle says, still giving Nestor only the back of his head, “you wouldn’t know that. Then” SMACK “tell us what you would know, Nes-ter. How about that? Enlighten us. You would” SMACK “know what?”
Get the Sarge in right away! “Come on, Sarge, I didn’t” SMACK “mean that the way—”
“Would you know what day this is?” SMACK
“Yeah, Nes-ter, this is a particular day. Which particular day is this? Would you know that?” SMACK
Nestor knew the big fat blond americano was fucking with him—and the big fat blond americano knew he knew—but he, Nestor, didn’t dare say anything indicating that he did SMACK know that, because he also knew the big fat sandy-haired americano was daring him to say something else smart so he could really hang him.
Long pause—until Nestor says as SMACK simplemindedly as he can: “Friday?”
“That’s all it is—Friday? Would you know if it was maybe more than just” SMACK “Friday?”
Sergeant McCorkle’s voice runs right over Nestor’s: “This is fucking José Martí’s fucking birthday,” SMACK “is what it is, Camacho! Why wouldn’t you know that?”
Nestor feels his face scalding with anger and humiliation. ::::::“Fucking José Martí” he dares say! José Martí is the most revered figure in Cuban history! Our Liberator, our Savior! “Fucking birthday”—filth on top of filth!—and the Camacho to make sure Nes-ter gets the filth right in the face! And this is not Martí’s birthday! His birthday is in January—but I don’t dare fight back even with that!::::::
Lonnie Kite says, “How did you know that, Sarge?”
“Know this is” SMACK “José Martí’s birthday?”
“I pay attention in class.”
“Yeah? What class, Sarge?”
“I been” SMACK “going to Miami Dade, nights and weekends. I completed both years. I got my certificate.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Sergeant McCorkle. “Now” SMACK “I’m applying to EGU. I wanna get a real degree. I ain’t planning on making this a career, you know, being a cop. If I was a Canadian, I’d consider it. But I ain’t” SMACK “a Canadian.”
“Look, I don’t wanna discourage you, Sarge,” said the blondish-brown-haired Officer Kite, “but what they tell me is” SMACK “EGU is more than half Canadian itself, the student body, anyway. I don’t know about the” SMACK “professors.”
“Well, it can’t be as bad as the Department—” The Sergeant suddenly broke off that line of thought. He kept his hands on the controls, lowered his head, and thrust his chin forward. “Holy shit! Look” SMACK “up there! There’s the causeway, and you see up there up top a the bridge?”
Nestor had no idea what he was talking about. Being this far back in the cockpit, he couldn’t begin to see the top of the bridge.
At that instant the staticky voice of Radiocom: “Five, one, six, oh, nine—Five, one, six, oh, nine—what is your” SMACK “Q,T,H? Need you soonest. Four-three says they got a bunch a tontos, they’re out a their cars yelling” SMACK “at the man on the mast in a disorderly fashion. Traffic on the causeway’s” SMACK “stopped in both directions. Q,K,T.”
Lonnie Kite Q,L,Y’d that for Five, one, six, oh, nine and said, “Q,T,H. Just” SMACK “passed Brickell heading straight to the causeway. See the sails, see something on top a the” SMACK “mast, see the commotion on the causeway. Be there in, uhhh, sixty” SMACK “seconds. Q,K,T.”
“Q,L,Y,” said Radiocom. “Four-three wants the man down and out a there A, S,
Canadians! There was no way Canadians made up more than half the student body at EGU—Everglades Global University—but Cubans did. So that was their not-very-clever little americano game! And they were so stupid, they thought it would take a genius to catch on! He ransacked his brain to try to remember how they had used Canadians just a few minutes before. And what about mooks? Were they supposed to be Cubans, too? Latinos? ::::::How much of an insult is it if an americano uses Canadian to mean Cuban… right in your face? Boiling, boiling, boiling—but get hold of yourself!:::::: Cuban? Canadian? Mook? What did all that matter? What mattered was that the Sergeant felt so insulted, he was now resorting to sarcasm, by the ton, even to vile stuff like “fucking José Martí.” And why? To goad him to the point of outright insubordination—and then have him thrown out of this elite unit, the Marine Patrol, and bucked back down to the bottom—or expelled from the force! Canned! Kicked out! All it would take would be for him to start an insubordinate confrontation with his commander at a crucial moment of a run—at the moment when the entire department was waiting for them to get some idiot down off the top of a mast in Biscayne Bay! He’d be finished! Finished—and with Magdalena, too! Magdalena!—already acting odd, distant, and now he’s a piece of garbage, expelled from the police force, terminally humiliated.
The Sergeant was easing back on the throttle. The SMACKs became less violent and less frequent as they closed in on the huge white sailboat. They were approaching it from the rear.
Officer Lonnie Kite leaned down over the instrument panel and began looking upward. “Jesus Christ, Sarge, those masts—I never saw masts that high in my life. They’re tall as the fucking bridge, and the fucking bridge has a mean water level clearance of eighty-fucking-two feet!”
Busy easing the Safe Boat in alongside the sailboat, the Sergeant didn’t so much as glance up. “That’s a schooner, Lonnie. You heard a the ‘tall ships’?”
“Yeah… I think so, Sarge. I guess so.”
“They built ’em for speed, back in the nineteenth century. That’s why they got masts that tall. That way you get more sail area. Back in the day they used to race out to shipwrecks or incoming cargo ships or whatever to get to the booty sooner. I bet those masts are tall as the boat’s long.”
“How do you know about all that, about schooners, Sarge? I never seen one around here. Not one.”
“I pay attention—”
“—in class,” said Lonnie Kite. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Sarge.” He pointed upward. “I’ll be damned. There’s the guy! The man on the mast! Up on top of the forward mast! I thought it was a clump a dirty laundry or canvas or something. Look at ’im! He’s up as high as the tontos on the bridge! And, man, looks like they’re yelling back and forth…”
Nestor couldn’t see any of it, and none of them could hear what was going on, since the Safe Boat cockpit was soundproof.
The Sergeant had the boat throttled way down in order to sidle up against the schooner. They came to a stop just inches away. “Lonnie,” said the Sergeant, “you take the wheel.”
When he rose from his seat, he looked at Nestor as if he had forgotten he existed. “Okay, Camacho, do something useful. Open the fucking hatch.”
Nestor looked at the Sergeant with abject fear. Inside his skull he said a prayer. ::::::Please, Almighty God, I beseech thee. Don’t let me fuck up.::::::
The “hatch” was a soundproof double-paned sliding door on the side of the shack that opened onto the deck. Nestor’s entire universe suddenly contracted into that door and the Olympics-level test of opening it with maximum strength, maximum speed—while maintaining maximum control… now! Immediately!… ::::::Please, Almighty God, I beseech thee—here goes—::::::
He did it! He did it! With the fluid power of a tiger he did it!… Did what? Slid it! Slid a sliding door open! Without fucking up!
Outside—all was uproar. The noise came crashing into the sacrosoundless cockpit, the noise and the heat. Christ, it was hot out here on the deck! Scorching! Enervating! It beat you down. It took the wind kicking up the bay to make it bearable. The wind was strong enough to create its own whistling sound and SLAP the hull of the schooner with swells and FLAP the huge sails, two masts’ full of them—FLAP them until they blew up into clouds of an unnatural white brilliance—Miami summer sun! Nestor glanced up toward that ball of fire—burning itself up—and even with his supreme darkest sunglasses he didn’t try that again—looking up into that hellish heat lamp, which was the entire sky. But that was nothing compared to the roiling SURF of human voices. Cries! Exhortations! Imprecations! Ululations! Supplications! Boos! A great bellowing and gnashing of teeth a mile from shore out in the middle of Biscayne Bay!
The Sergeant emerged from the shack without the slightest flick of the eye toward Nestor. But as he disembarked, he made a jerking signal with his hand down by his hip indicating that Nestor should follow him. Follow him? Nestor followed him like a dog.
Once the Sergeant and his dog boarded the schooner and were up on the deck—a regular rubber room, this deck was! Passengers, if that was what they were, were hanging over the railing and gesturing and jabbering at Nestor and the Sergeant… americanos, the whole bunch… light-brown and blondish hair… half of them, girls—all but stark naked! Wild blond hair! Wisps of thong bikini bottoms that didn’t even cover the mons pubis!… Tops consisting of two triangles of cloth that hid the nipples but left the rest of the breasts bulging on either side and beckoning, Want more? Nestor didn’t. At this moment nothing could have interested him less than making moves on lubricas americanas. They disintegrated in his prayers, which boiled down to Please, Almighty God, I beseech thee, don’t let me… fuck up!
The Sergeant walked straight to the forward mast. Nestor walked straight to the forward mast. The Sergeant looked up. Nestor looked up. The Sergeant saw the roost of the mysterious man atop the mast. Nestor saw the roost of the mysterious man—a silhouette against a killer heat lamp dome, a black lump the equivalent of seven or eight stories above the deck. A regular storm of raw-throated voices was caterwauling down from above amid a cacophony of outraged vehicle horns. The Sergeant looked up again. Nestor looked up again. The two policemen had to cock their necks all the way back to see where the commotion was coming from. Sheer murder, looking up like this to the topmost arch of the bridge… An angry crowd was leaning over the railing, two deep, three deep, God knows how many deep. They were so far up, their heads looked the size of eggs. Even Nestor behind his darkest supremos couldn’t stare at them for more than a moment. It was like being in the street at the foot of an eight- or nine-story building with a mob unaccountably yelling at you from a roof set afire by the sun. And up there!—practically eye level with the mob, at practically the same height above the deck, was the man. The Sergeant was looking at him from directly below. Nestor was looking at him from directly below. By shielding their eyes with their hands they could see he did look like a clump of dirty laundry, just as Lonnie Kite had put it… no, he looked worse than that… he looked like a clump of filthy, sodden laundry. He was soaking wet. His clothes, his skin, even his black hair—what they could see of it—everything about him was now the same sopping slurry gray-brown color, as if he had just crawled out of an unpumped sump. It didn’t help that he jerked his head about spastically as he shouted to the crowd on the bridge and appealed to them by reaching out with his hands contorted, palms up, into the shape of a pair of cups. But how could he stay up there without holding on to the mast? Ahhhhh… he had found a little bucket seat—but how did he get up there in the first place?
A great lubberly lulu, no more than thirty years old, had planted himself in front of Sergeant McCorkle. He kept jabbing his forefinger up at the man on the mast. There was fear on his face, and he was talking so fast, his words seemed to be leap-frogging one another, falling over one another, tumbling, stumbling, ricocheting, scattering hopelessly: “Gotta get no business here him like down from there, Officer, I never don’t know him like saw him before that you know mob up what do they he’s so angry there want who’ll him attack my boat like that mast alone destroy it cost a fortune you know that’s all I need—”
The guy was soft—look at him!—but in such a luxurious way, was Nestor’s immediate verdict. He had full jowls but jowls so smooth and buttery they had reached the level of a perfect flan custard. He had a paunch but a paunch that created a perfect parabola from his sternum to his underbelly, the paunch nonpareil of Idle Youth, created, no doubt, by the dearest, tenderest, tastiest chefs in the world. Over the perfect parabolic arch of a gut was stretched an apple-green shirt, of cotton, yes, but a cotton so fine and so right-out-of-the-box, it had a perfect apple-green sheen—in short, a real pussy, this guy was, a pussy whose words kept coming out of his mouth in a tangle of pussy attitude shot through with fear.
“—killer nutball I’m fucked sue me! The liable sucker who gets sued’s me! Raving maniac never saw before picks me!—”
The Sergeant brought both hands up to his chest, palms up and out in the Whoa, back off mode. “Slow down! This is your boat?”
“Yes! And I’m the one—”
“Just hold it. What’s your name?”
“Jonathan. The thing is, like, soon as I—”
“You got a, like, last name?”
The great lubberly pussy looked at the Sergeant as if he, the Sergeant, had lost his mind. Then he said, “Krin?” It sounded like half a question. “K, R, I, N?” Being a member of the first generation that used no last names, he found the notion archaic.
“Okay, Jonathan, whyn’t you”—the Sergeant gave his palms three little pumps down toward the deck, as if to say, Calmly, without getting all excited—“tell me how he got there.”
It seemed that this portly, but perfectly portly, young man had invited his mates to come along for a cruise up Biscayne Bay to the house and marina of a friend on a celebrity-heavy waterfront enclave aptly known as Star Island. He saw no reason why he couldn’t ease the schooner’s seventy-five-foot mainmast underneath the eighty-two-feet-high bridge on the causeway… until they got close to it and it began to look maybe dangerous, what with the wind and the choppy water and swells that were causing the schooner to pitch a bit. So they dropped anchor sixty feet from the bridge, and all eight of them went to the bow to study the situation.
One of them happened to turn around, and he said, “Hey, Jonathan, there’s some guy back there on the deck! He just came up the ladder!” Sure enough, there was this thin, stringy, soaking-wet, sodden mess of a little man, breathing heavily… homeless, everybody thought. He had somehow come up the ladder on the stern used for slipping into and out of the water. He now stood still, dripping, on the aft deck, staring at them. He started toward them slowly, warily, gulping for air, until Jonathan, in his capacity as owner and captain, yelled at him, “Hey, hold on, whattaya think you’re doing?” The guy stopped, began gesturing with both hands, palms up, and jabbering, between gulps of air, in what they took to be Spanish. Jonathan kept yelling, “Get offa here! Go! Fuck off!” and other unfriendly commands. With that, the bum, as they all took him to be, started running jacklegged, stumbling, careening, not away from them but straight at them. The girls began screaming. The bum looked like a wet rat. Half his hair seemed to be plastered across his face. His eyes were bugged wide open. His mouth was wide open, maybe just because he couldn’t get his breath, but you could see his teeth. He looked psychotic. The guys started yelling at him and waving their arms in the sort of crisscross pattern football referees use to indicate that a field goal kick is no good. The bum keeps coming and is only a few yards from them, and the girls are screaming, making a hell of a racket, and the guys are screaming—by now their yells have turned into half-a-screams—and flailing their arms over their heads, and the bum wheels about and dashes to the forward mast and goes up it, to the top.
“Wait a minute,” says Sergeant McCorkle. “Back up a second. Okay, so he’s on the deck back there, and then he comes all the way from there to up here. Did you try to stop him? Did anybody try to stop him?”
Jonathan averted his eyes and took a deep breath and said, “Well, the thing is… he looked like a psycho. You know? And maybe he had like a weapon—you know?—a revolver, a knife. You couldn’t tell.”
“I see,” said the Sergeant. “He looked like a psycho, and maybe he had a weapon, you couldn’t tell, and you didn’t try to stop him; nobody tried to stop him.” He said it not as a question but as a recitation… in a form of deadpan mockery cops like.
“Uhhh… that’s right,” said the great Idle Youth.
“How did he climb the mast?” said the Sergeant. “You said he was out of breath.”
“There’s a rope you can see right here coming down the mast. It’s got a pulley at the top, and there’s a bucket seat. You get in the seat down here, and you get somebody to hoist you to the top in the bucket seat.”
Sergeant McCorkle pointed overhead. “Who hoisted him up?”
“Well, he—you can use the rope and pull yourself up, if you have to.”
“That must take a while,” said the Sergeant. “Did you try to stop him? Did anyone try to stop him?”
“Well, as I said, he looked—”
“—looked like a psycho,” said McCorkle, finishing the sentence for him. “And maybe he had a concealed weapon.” The Sergeant nodded his head up and down in cop mockery posing as understanding. Then he cut his eyes toward Nestor with a certain lift of the eyebrows that as much as said, “What a bunch a pussies, hnnnnh?”
Ah, Bliss! To Nestor, at that point, that look was the equivalent of the Medal of Honor! The Sergeant had acknowledged him as a member of the courageous brotherhood of cops!—not just a probie in the Marine Patrol adept only at getting in his way.
Radiocom transmission… “Guy claims to be an anti-Fidel dissenter… Bridge full of Cubans demanding that he be given asylum. Right now that don’t matter. Right now you gotta get him down from there. We got eight lanes a traffic on the causeway, and nothing’s moving. What’s your plan? Q,K,T.”
That was all it took. For any Miami cop, especially one like Nestor or the Sergeant, that was enough to account for… the man on the mast. Undoubtedly Cuban smugglers had brought him this far, just inside Biscayne Bay, aboard some high-speed craft such as a cigarette boat, which went seventy miles an hour at sea, had dropped him off—or thrown him off—into the water near shore, made a U-turn, and sped back to Cuba. For this service he probably had to come up with something on the order of $5,000… in a country where the average pay for physicians was $300 a month. So now he finds himself floundering in the Bay. He sees the ladder on the rear of the schooner and climbs up, possibly believing it’s docked, since it isn’t moving, and he can just walk off onto the shore, or else that the boat will take him as far as the bridge. That’s all a Cuban has to do: set foot on American soil or any structure extending from American soil, such as the bridge, and he will be granted asylum… Any Cuban… No other refugees were granted such a privilege. America’s most favored migration status the Cubans enjoyed. If a Cuban refugee set foot on American soil (or structure), he was classified as a “dry foot,” and he was safe. But if he was apprehended on or in the water, he would be sent back to Cuba unless he could convince a Coast Guard investigator that he would face “a credible threat,” such as Communist persecution, if he had to go back. The man on the mast has made it out of the water—but onto a boat. So when Nestor and the Sergeant arrive he is technically still “in the water” and is classified as a “wet foot.” Wet foots are out of luck. The Coast Guard takes them to Guantánamo, where they are, in essence, released into the woods, like an unwanted pet.
But at this moment the police high command isn’t thinking about any of that. They don’t care if he’s a wet foot, a dry foot, a Cuban alien, or a lost Mongolian. All they care about is getting him off the mast—right now—so normal traffic can resume on the causeway.
The Sergeant looked off, and his eyes focused on… an imaginary point in the middle distance. He remained in that stance for what seemed like forever. “Okay,” he said finally, looking once more at Nestor. “You think you can climb that mast, Camacho? The guy don’t speak English. But you can talk to him. Tell him we have no interest in arresting him and sending him back to Cuba. We just wanna get him down from there so he don’t fall and break his neck… or stay up there and break my balls.” That much was true. The Department openly instructed cops not to get involved in the whole business of illegal aliens. That was the federal government’s problem, the ICE’s, the FBI’s, and the Coast Guard’s. But this was Nestor Camacho’s problem, or problems: climbing a seventy-foot foremast… and talking some poor scrawny panicked Cuban into descending the goddamned mast with him.
“So can you do it, Camacho?”
The truthful answers were “No” and “No.” But the only possible answers were “Yes” and “Yes.” How could he possibly stand there and say, “Well, to tell the truth, Sarge, I don’t actually speak Spanish—certainly not well enough to talk anybody out of anything.” He was like a lot of second-generation Cubans. He could understand Spanish, because his parents spoke only Spanish at home. But in school, despite all the talk about bilingualism, practically everybody spoke English. There were more Spanish-language television and radio stations than English, but the best shows were in English. The best movies, blogs (and online porn), and video games, the hottest music, the latest thing in iPhones, BlackBerries, Droids, keyboards—all created for use in English. Very soon you felt crippled… out there… if you didn’t know English and use English and think in English, which in turn demanded that you know colloquial American English as well as any Anglo. Before you knew it—and it always occurred to you suddenly one day—you could no longer function in Spanish much above a sixth-grade level. That bit of the honest truth shot through Nestor’s mind. But how could he explain all this to these two americanos? It would sound so lame—and maybe even craven! Maybe he just didn’t have the stomach for an assignment like this. And how could he say, “Gosh, I don’t know whether I can climb that mast or not”?
Utterly impossible! The only alternatives he had were… to do it—and succeed… or to do it—and crash and burn. Making things still more muddled was the temper of the mob on the bridge. They were booing him! From the moment Nestor and the sergeant boarded the schooner, they had become steadily louder, uglier, more hostile, more raucous. Every now and then Nestor could make out a discrete cry.
“¡Comemierda, hijo de puta!”
As soon as he started up that mast, they would have it in for him—and he was Cuban himself! They’d find that out soon enough, too, wouldn’t they! He couldn’t win, could he! On the other hand… he went out to lunch for a moment… staring at the man on the mast without any longer seeing him. It came to him like a revelation, the question: “What is guilt?” Guilt is a gas, and gases disperse, but superior officers don’t. Once they sink their teeth in, they’re tenacious as a dog. Possible disapproval of a mob of his own people wasn’t remotely as threatening as the disapproval of this blue-eyed sandy-haired americano, Sergeant McCorkle, who was already just one button away from canning him—
—and to whom he turned and said, “Sarge—I can do it.”
Now he was in for it, whether he could pull off this stunt or not. He sized up the mast. He tilted his head back and looked straight up. Way… way… way up there—Jesus! The sun was burning up his eyeballs, darkest extremos or no darkest extremos! He had begun to sweat… wind or no wind! Christ, it was hot out here, grilling out on the deck of a schooner in the middle of Biscayne Bay. The man on top of the mast looked just about the size and color and shapelessness of one of those turd-brown vinyl garbage bags. He was still twisting and lurching about… way up there. Both his arms shot out again, in silhouette, no doubt with the fingers once more crimped up into the supplicant’s cup shapes. He must have been rocking pathetically in his bosun’s chair, because he kept protruding and then withdrawing, as if he were yelling to the mob. Christ, it was a long way up to the top! Nestor lowered his head to size up the mast itself. Down here where it joined with the deck, the damned thing was almost as big around as his waist. Wrapping his legs around it and shimmying up would take forever… inching up, inching up, pathetically hugging a seventy-foot boat mast… all too slow and humiliating to think about… But wait a minute! The rope, the lanyard the turd-brown boy had used to hoist himself to the top—here it was, rising up along the mast from out of a puddle of slack rope on the deck. On the other end was the illegal himself, smack up against the top of the mast in the bosun’s chair. ::::::I’ve climbed fifty-five feet up a rope without using my legs, :::::: it occurred to him, ::::::and I could have climbed higher, if Rodriguez had a higher ceiling in his “Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Qué Gym!” But seventy feet… Christ!… No?—I got no choice.:::::: It was as if not he but his central nervous system took over. Before he could even create a memory of it he leapt and grabbed hold of the rope and started climbing up—without using his legs.
A foul cascade of boos and slurs pounded down on him from above. Real slime! The cops were going to arrest a poor refugee on top of a mast and send him back to Castro and they were using a Cuban, a turncoat Cuban, to do the dirtiest work, but none of this quite reached the rational seat of justice in the left hemisphere of Nestor’s brain, which was fixated upon an audience of one—Sergeant McCorkle ::::::and please, O Lord, I beseech thee, just don’t let me fuck up!:::::: He is aware he has climbed practically halfway up hand over hand—still without using his legs. The very air is noise choked with madness… Jesus, his arms and back, his chest are reaching the edge of exhaustion. Has to pause, has to stop… but no time… He tries to look about. He’s engulfed in clouds of white canvas, the schooner’s sails… He glances down… he can’t believe it… The deck is so far below… he must have climbed more than halfway up the mast—forty, forty-five feet. The faces on the deck all tilted straight up, toward him… how very small they look. He tries to pick out the Sergeant—is that him?… can’t tell… their lips aren’t moving… might as well be in a trance… americano faces americano faces… fixed on him. He looks straight up… at the face of the man on the mast… his filthy clump of a body has shifted way over so he can look down… he knows what’s happening, all right—the mob on the bridge… their deluge of slime… directed at Nestor Camacho!… such filth!
“Dirty traidor peeg!”
Oh, the filthy clump of laundry knows. Every time his hunter grabs the rope to pull himself up higher, the filthy clump can feel a little jolt in the bosun’s chair… The jib and spinnaker start FLAP FLAP FLAPPING in the wind… the clouds of canvas blow aside for a moment… there they are, the mob on the bridge… Christ! They’re not far above him anymore… their heads used to be the size of eggs… now more like cantaloupes… a great mangy gallery of contorted human faces… my own people… hating me!… I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t flashes through his central nervous system—but bucked back down to patrolman—or worse—if I don’t. Oh, shit! What’s that setting off sunbursts? A television camera lens—and shit! There’s another—and shit! One over there, too. Please, O Lord, I beseech thee… Fear hits him like a massive shot of adrenaline… Don’t let me… He’s still climbing up, hand over hand, without using his legs. He looks up. The man on the mast is no more than ten feet above him! He’s looking him right in the face!… What an expression… the cornered animal… the doomed rat… drenched, dirty, exhausted… panting… barely able to utter a cry for miraculous salvation.
::::::Ay, San Antonio, ayudame. San Lazaro, este conmigo.::::::
Now Nestor—has to stop. He’s close enough to the top to hear the man’s entreaties above the noise from the bridge. He wraps his legs around the rope and stops still.
“¡Te suplico! ¡ Te suplico!” “I’m begging you! Begging you! You can’t send me back! They’ll torture me until I reveal everybody! They’ll destroy my family. Have mercy! There are Cubans on that bridge! I’m begging you! Is one more such an intolerable burden? I’m begging you, begging you! You don’t know what it’s like! You won’t be destroying just me, you’ll be destroying a whole movement! I beg you! I beg you for asylum! I beg you for a chance!”
Nestor knew enough Spanish to get the sense of what he was saying, but he couldn’t think of the words that might calm him and coax him down. “Credible threat”… That’s it! He’ll tell him about “credible threat”… A refugee like him gets a Coast Guard hearing, right there on the deck, and if they believe he was endangered by a credible threat, he would get asylum. The word for “credible”—what’s the damned word for credible? maybe the same as English?—cray dee blay? But “threat”… threat… What was the damned word for threat? He knew he once knew it… There it went!… Right through his brain, before he could catch it. It had a z in it a z in it a z in it… Almost had it again!… but once more it was gone. For that matter, what about an official hearing?… He had to say something—anything—and so he ransacked his brain and looked up at the man’s face and said, “La historia—” He caught himself just in time! What was happening to him? A famous quote from Fidel Castro was what his poor desperate brain had almost blurted out!
Boos, taunts, every known loud expression of vilification rained down from the people packed against the railings of the bridge.
The man looked down at him in an anxious way and said, “¿Como?” trying to sort out what Nestor has said.
Maddening was what it was!… climbed sixty feet up a rope without using his legs—but he couldn’t make himself understood. He needed to get closer. He started climbing the rope again, hand over hand. He glances up at the poor drowned rat. His face is… aghast. How can he tell him he’s not coming up to arrest him? He can’t think of the words! So he stops climbing and wraps his legs around the rope to free his right hand to give a reassuring signal. But what signal? All he can think of is the peace sign… He spreads his index finger and his middle finger to form a V. The man’s face, now no more than four feet above Nestor, changes from aghast… to terrified. He starts to rise from the bosun’s chair. Jesus Christ, what does he think he’s doing? He’s up on top of a seventy-foot mast with nothing to support him but a tiny bosun’s chair—and he wants to stand. He tries to anchor his feet on the pulley housing. Now he’s out of his seat, teetering in a crouched position atop a mast that’s pitching on a choppy sea… Nestor can see the worst about to happen. He climbs seventy feet up a rope—hand over hand, without using his legs—only to cause a poor refugee to fall to his death—and whose fault is it? Nestor Camacho’s! Who has made the Miami Police Marine Patrol—hell, the entire force—look like the brutal, heedless persecutors and killers of a poor man whose only sin was trying to put one foot on American soil! Who has committed this heartless crime? Nestor Camacho, infamy incarnate!
With two furious hand-over-hand hoists he reaches the bosun’s chair and tries to catch the man’s leg—or even his foot—too late! The man pitches forward—to his death! A ferocious fire erupts inside Nestor’s skull… No! The man has pitched forward onto the cable. He’s trying to slide down it backward… This poor skinny emaciated gray-brown slurry rat—he’ll kill himself! The cable runs at a steep angle from the mast to beyond the bow to the bowsprit… more than a hundred feet. Nestor crouches in the bosun’s seat… For an instant he can see the mob on the bridge. He’s level with them now… three, four, five deep… Sunbursts! Sunbursts! Sunbursts! Sunbursts! They’re exploding off cameras! Heads are jumping up to get a better view of the show… a sign! One of them has a crude sign—from where?… written how?… COPS FIDELISTAS TRAIDORES… never been hated by so many people. He looks down… makes him dizzy… like standing on the edge of the roof of a ten-story building. The water’s a sheet of blue-grayish steel with sunbursts dancing all over it. Boats!… small boats around the schooner… from out of nowhere!… bloodsucking bugs… a boat—a sign. Can it really say what he thinks it says?… ¡ASYLUM AHORA!—
—all of this in an instant… Guilt! Fear! Horror!… but the greatest of these is Guilt! Must not let their hero die before their eyes! He swings down onto the cable… no use trying to catch up with him by sliding… Instinctively, in the mode they used in training camp, he starts swinging from the cable by his hands, heading down swing by swing, keeping his eyes on his slurry gray-brown quarry… His arms, his shoulders, the palms of his hands—agony! He’s going to tear apart… only two swings away from the guy. The guy’s body is still on top of the cable, but it’s yawing this way and that… so scrawny… not strong enough for this… lifts his head, looks Nestor right in the face… worse than terror—utter hopelessness comes over the poor bastard… he’s had it!… the poor devil yaws so sharply he can’t stay on top of the cable… feebly hanging by his hands for one final moment. Now or oblivion! For the poor bastard! For Nestor Camacho! He reaches the poor bastard with two swings—to do what?… Only one thing possible. He wraps his legs around the scrawny rodent’s waist and locks them at the ankles… the poor little bastard lets go of the cable and collapses. The dead jolt shocks Nestor… the dead weight! ::::::My arms torn off my body at the shoulder sockets!:::::: Can’t believe he’s still here—an organism composed of sheer pain from his burning hands to the sartorius muscles of his locked legs… sixty feet above the deck… to support this much weight by one hand while he swings the other to descend the cable… impossible… but if he doesn’t—¡Dios mío!—he’ll be fucking up! And not just fucking up… fucking up on television… Fucking up before thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions… might as well be billions… since one is all it would take, one officious mierda-mouth americano sergeant named—bango!
¡Caliente! Caliente baby
Got plenty fuego in yo caja china,
Means you needs a length a Hose put in it,
Ain’ no maybe—
It’s his iPhone ringing in his pocket! ::::::What a fool! I’m one slip from death, holding a man up with my legs and hauling him down a hundred-foot cable by hand—there’s nothing I can turn the goddamn thing off with! A goddamn song by Bulldog—not even the real thing, Pitbull!—and I still can’t keep the words from penetrating my head—::::::
Hose knows you burnin’ up wit’out it.
Don’tcha try deny it,
’Cause Hose knows you dyin’ a try it—
—when he needs every neuron, every dendrite, every synapse, every gemmule in his mind to concentrate on the horrible fix he’s gotten himself into. If he falls seventy feet onto a boat deck because his iPhone is singing
Hose knows all!
Knows you out tryin’ a buy it,
But Hose only gives it free
—then he damn well better die!… He damn well better not wake up gorked out in an electric-motor-powered hospital bed in some morose intensive-care unit listed as “critical but stable”… the mortifying ignominy of it! But—no choice! He’s got to do it! Both hands still grip the cable, his legs grip what?—maybe 120 pounds?—of panicked-out little homunculus, and here goes! He releases one hand—and that’s it—no turning back! The downswing—the centrifugal force—::::::I’m done for!:::::: One hand! Unbearable, the centrifugal force ::::::pulling my rotator cuff apart, pulling my arm out of the socket!—my wrist away from the arm! my hand away from my wrist! nothing left but—
To his fav’rite charity,
Hose’ favorite cha-ree-tee, see?
Hose’ fav’rite cha-ree-tee,
An’ ’at’s me.
—one hand clutching a cable! I’ll crash on the deck from seven stories up, me and the gnome:::::: but a miracle! He grabs the cable with his other hand on the upswing—yes, a miracle!—it redistributes the weight! Both shoulders, both wrists, both hands are whole again!—kept intact only by the slimmest steely cord of unbearable agony!—only that cord to save him and the slurry-brown elfin man from falling seven stories and winding up as two shapeless bags of ecchymotic-purple integument full of broken bones! Below, down in the Halusian Gulp, the deck is covered with turned-up faces the size of marbles. From above rain the insults, boos, and disgusting yaaaggggghs of the animals on the bridge—but now he knows! has the power to persevere in a state of morbidly horrifying pain!—already into another swing—and he makes it—fury from
’At’s me, see?
An’ ’at’s me.
above—gawking by the spectators below—but he thinks of only one soul, the minority Sergeant McCorkle, a mindless americano but a sergeant all the same—another swing—and he makes it—the damned phone is still ringing. ::::::Idiots! Don’t you know
An’ ’at’s me, see?
An’ ’at’s me.
you are pumping toxins and messing up my mind? Oh, the hell with it!:::::: Another swing—he makes it. ::::::Dios mío querido, together we look into the web of blood in their eyes, and into the affectless red eyes of the television cameras!:::::: Another swing—he
makes it… another… another… another… ¡Dios mío!—no more than ten feet above the deck—that sea of eyeballs and open mouths—what the!!?? The slurry little ecchymotic sack of panic has come to life—he’s bucking like a fish in the vise grip of Nestor’s legs—a regular forest of hands
“Yo yo yo yo yo.”
reaching upward from the bow, but the cable extends beyond them to the bowsprit beep beep beep beep beep—a text message!—and the two of them, Nestor and the slurry—brown homunculus—he’s free of the leg lock!—not now you don’t!—too late! he does! In the next instant the two bodies, his and the gnome’s, hurtling off the end of the bowsprit and into the water. They’re under water—and it’s just as Lonnie Kite said! The little maniac has broken free of the leg lock and is… attacking him! kicking him! pulling his hair! craaaaacking his nose with his forearm… Kite had it right! Nestor wards off the little man’s increasingly feeble blows, moves in, clamps him in a police neck lock, and that does it! The little creature goes limp! Done for! Ultimate Fighting under water!
When they reach the surface, Nestor has his slimy little quarry in a police lifesaver’s grip… gnome is coughing up water. Two feet away—the Safe Boat! Lonnie’s at the wheel. Nestor has reentered the world from a distant cosmos… Lonnie’s pulling the slurry-brown homunculus up onto the rubbery pancake deck… and then Nestor—who the hell are these people? Nestor finds himself right by the schooner. He twists toward the deck… the sun bursts off two big eyes of glass—TV cameras—and right there, leaning over the railing… the sandy-haired Sergeant McCorkle.
Sarge doesn’t have to say a word—it’s all right there in his face. Nestor Camacho is now… a cop… a real cop… as real as they make ’em… Nestor Camacho enters Heaven.
Sergeant McCorkle turned the drowned rat over to the Coast Guard right out there in the middle of the bay, and Nestor and the Sergeant and Lonnie Kite took the Safe Boat back to the Marine Patrol marina, which stuck out into the bay on the Miami side. All the way over, the Sergeant and Lonnie Kite lavished praise on Nestor in the accepted cop fashion, as if it weren’t praise at all. Lonnie Kite’s saying, “Jesus Christ, man”—he’s a comradely man now!—“the way that little fucker was jerking around at the end there, after you’ve saved his ass—what was that all about? You kick him in the balls to see if he was alive?”
Nestor went coasting, coasting, coasting into euphoria.
The other guys at the marina were excited for Nestor. In the eyes of cops, Cuban and non-Cuban alike, he had pulled off a super-manly feat of strength, above and beyond… way over the top.
Sergeant McCorkle was now his pal—his pal! “Look, Nestor, all I told you was to bring the guy down from the fucking mast! I didn’t say put on a high-wire act for the whole fucking city of Miami!”
Everybody laughed and laughed, and Nestor laughed with them. His cell phone went beep beep beep beep, signaling a text message. Magdalena! He averted his eyes ever so briefly—Magdalena!—but it wasn’t from Magdalena. It read, “Disobeying unjust commands is the test of character.” That was all; that was the whole message. It was signed, “Your teacher once, your friend no matter what, Jaime Bosch.” Mr. Bosch taught composition and reading comprehension at the Police Academy. He was everybody’s favorite teacher. He had tutored Nestor one-on-one outside school hours, purely as a favor and out of a love of teaching. “Disobeying unjust commands is the test of character”… Nestor couldn’t figure it out. It made his head hurt… a lot.
He looked up at the rest of them, trying not to show his dismay. Thank God, they were all still in a merry mood, chuckling and laughing. Umberto Delgado, who had been in Nestor’s class at the Police Academy, said, in English: “What was all this scissor grip shit with the legs, Nestorcito? That grip’s for immobilizing the fuckers when you’re rolling in the dirt—not for hauling ’em down a fucking hundred feet of jib sail cable!”
Everybody laughed and laughed and rollicked and rollicked, and Nestor loved it!… but the three text messages that remained… had to read them… came in while his life was literally on the line… while he held the man on the mast between his legs and was descending hand over hand down the jib line. He began burning with curiosity and an apprehension he avoided giving a name… and a hope—Magdalena! Once more he averted his eyes for an instant. The first one… “y u Nestor y u,” it read—and it wasn’t from Magdalena. It was from Cecilia Romero. Oddly, she was the girl he had been going out with when he met Magdalena. Wacky… what did she mean “y u Nestor y u”? Baffling… but he didn’t show it… he rejoined the exhilarating Marine Patrol tide of manly laughter… but a tiny doubt germinated.
“How’d you like that little creep going into the Ultimate Fighting mode soon’s he’s under water, Nestor?” said Officer Kite. “Didn’ I tell you those little fuckers turn into monsters as soon as they’re under water!”
“I should a listened to you, Lonnie!” said Nestor. Thirty minutes ago he would not even have considered addressing Officer Kite by his first name. “That little prick—” he said, feeling very manly, “he’s a dead weight all the way down the fucking cable and soon’s we’re five inches under water, he decides to come to! Before I know what’s happening, he’s breaking my fucking nose with his bare hands!”
And everybody laughed and laughed, but Nestor—had to read the two remaining text messages. Curiosity and anxiety and a last spurt of hope—maybe one is from Magdalena!—compelled him. He dared flick his eyes down to the cell phone once more. Dared to—had to. The first text was from J. Cortez. He didn’t know any J. Cortez. It read, “OK u r a big latingo celebrity. Now what?” What the hell did “latingo” mean? All too quickly he got it. A latingo had to be a Latino who had turned gringo. And what was that supposed to mean? Mirth reigned in the room, but Nestor couldn’t help himself… had to dive to the very bottom. The last text was from Inga La Gringa. It read, “You can hide under my bed anytime, Nestorcito.” Inga was the counter girl and waitress right around the corner from the marina. She was sexy, all right, a big Baltic blonde with amazing breasts that she managed to tilt upward like missiles and enjoyed showing. She had grown up in Estonia… sexy accent, too… a real number, Inga was, but she was forty or so, not much younger than his mother. It was almost as if she could tell exactly what he was thinking. Every time he walked into the place, Inga would come on to him in a flirtatious but comic way, making sure he got a good, long look down the crevasse between her breasts… or was she really merely fooling around? “Nestorcito” she called him, because she had once heard Umberto call him that. So he called her Inga La Gringa. He had given her his cell phone number when she said her brother could help him fix the overhead cam on his Camaro… which he did. Inga and Nestor teased each other… sure, “teased,” but Nestor never took the next step, although he was sorely tempted. But why had she said, “You can hide under my bed”? Hide from what? She was just kidding around in her Inga La Gringa lubricious come-nestle-in-my-loamy-crevice way, of course, but why “You can hide under my bed”?
Somehow this hit him harder than a crack like “latingo.” “Hide,” says friendly, flirtatious Inga?… He felt his face fall… This time the rest of them were bound to notice—but the Sergeant stepped in and saved the day, saying, “But you know what gets me? Those kids on the boat were such pussies. They were scared shitless because some frightened-out-of-his-mind little guy looking like a drowned rat, maybe a hundred and ten pounds after a Big Mac, shows up on their fucking sailboat. Some a those pussies weighed fucking two hundred pounds, half of it fat, but they’re big kids. There’s no reason on earth why they had to let that poor little bastard climb their fucking mast and almost get himself killed… except they’re such fucking pussies! Do they have any clue they got no business taking a boat that big out on the fucking water… being such pussies? ‘Oh dear, we didn’t know if he had a gun or a knife or something’… Bull-shit! That little bastard barely had clothes on his back. And so we gotta send Nestor here up a fucking seventy-five-foot mast and play Superman and risk his ass hauling the little bastard down off a bosun’s chair about this big and down a goddamned hundred-foot jib cable.” The Sergeant shook his head. “You know what? We should a booked all those pussies and sent them to Cuba and kept the drowned rat here. We would a come out ahead on that one!”
Hey! Who are those two, just joining the cluster of Marine Patrol cops? They sure as hell don’t look like cops. It turns out they are a reporter and a photographer from the Miami Herald. Nestor had never heard of a reporter coming all the way out here in the bay. The photographer was a swarthy little guy wearing some sort of safari jacket, pockets all over it, wide open. Nestor couldn’t tell what he was… but there was no doubt about the reporter. He was a classic americano, tall, thin, pale, wearing a navy blazer, a light-blue button-down shirt, khaki pants with freshly pressed creases down the front… very proper-looking. Over-the-top proper. Who ever heard of a newspaper reporter wearing a jacket in Miami? He was soft-spoken to the point of shy, this reporter. His name was John Smith, apparently. How much more americano could you get?!
“I can’t believe what you just did,” said the classic americano. “I can’t believe anyone could swing hand over hand down that thing holding another person between his legs. Where’d you get the strength? Do you lift weights—or what?”
Nestor had never spoken to a reporter before. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to. He looked at Sergeant McCorkle. The Sergeant just smiled and gave him a slight wink, as if to say, “It’s okay, go ahead and tell him.”
That did it. Modestly enough, Nestor began, “I don’t think it takes strength exactly.” He tried to continue on the modest path—but he just couldn’t tell the americano enough. He didn’t believe in weight-lifting for the upper body. It’s much better to climb a, say, fifty-five-foot rope without using your legs. Takes care of everything, arms, back, chest—everything.
“Where do you do that?” said this John Smith.
“At Rodriguez’s ‘Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Qué Gym!’ they call it.”
The americano laughed. “Como en ‘Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Que barata’?”
::::::This americano not only speaks Spanish—he must listen to Spanish radio! That’s the only time you can hear the “Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Que barata!” commercial.::::::
“Es verdad,” said Nestor. That was a linguistic handshake for John Smith’s speaking Spanish. “But you have to use weights and do squats and everything else for your legs. I don’t know what you do for carrying some little guy like that with ’em… except try to avoid the whole thing.” Light touch of modesty there… or self-mockery… or whatever. Nestor looked down, as if to check out his uniform. He tried to tell himself that what he was about to do was unconscious—which of course made it self-fraudulence per se.
“Dios mío,” he said, “this shirt is soaking wet and fucking filthy! I can smell it.” He looked at Umberto, as if this had nothing to do with the two guys from the Herald, and said, “Where’s some dry shirts?”
“Dry shirts?” said Umberto. “I don’t know, unless they keep them in…”
But Nestor had already stopped listening. He was busy pulling his wet shirt up and off his torso and his arms and his head, which involved lifting his arms almost straight up. He winced as if in pain. “Awwwguh! Hurts like a sonofabitch! I must a pulled something in my shoulders.”
“That figures,” said Umberto.
Just like that John Smith’s swarthy little photographer had his camera up to his eyes and was pressing that button over and over.
Sergeant McCorkle stepped in and took Nestor by the elbow and pulled him away. “We got shirts inside, not at the Miami Herald. You know what I mean?”
He marched Nestor off at a good clip and pulled him close enough to say in a low voice, “You can talk to the press on the spot like this, as long as you don’t talk strategy or policy. But not so you can show off your fucking physique. You know what I mean?”
But he was chuckling about it. This was not a day when he was going to get hard-ass toward Officer Nestor Camacho… who remained in Heaven.
The Hero’s Welcome
Todo el mundo had watched his heroics on television… “Todo el mundo!” Nestor told himself at the peak of his euphoria… But of his tens of thousands, if not millions, of admiradores there was one whose awe he most longed to have shining ’round about him. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what she, his Magdalena, his Manena, the nickname he loved, was thinking and feeling as she sat—or perhaps the intensity of it all brought her to her feet—riveted, awestruck, before a TV screen, rapt by the sight of her Nestor climbing up that seventy-foot rope hand over hand, without using his legs… then carrying the man on the mast, with his legs!… while going hand over hand down a 100-foot jib line… electrifying the city.
As a matter of fact, his Magdalena was utterly unaware of this high-wattage hero’s triumph. The entire time she had her hands full with… the mother of all mother-and-daughters. This one was a real catfight. Magdalena had just announced that she was leaving home.
Her father had a ringside seat, an easy chair beside the couch in the living room of their casita, their little house, in Hialeah, barely two miles from the Camachos’ casita. Magdalena was standing up belligerently—her fists on her hips and her elbows winged out—as Mother and Daughter traded hisses and growls and eyetooth glowers. Mother was sitting forward on the couch with her elbows winged out—this seemed to be an instinctive stance of both combatants in their mother-and-daughters—and the heels of her hands pressed down on the front edge of the frame, a veritable feline, ready to spring, claw, rip guts out, eat livers whole, and bite heads off by sinking both sets of incisors into the soft centers of the temples. Her father, if Magdalena knew anything about it, was possessed by a fervent desire to evaporate. Too bad he had sunk so far down into the easy chair. He’d have to be an acrobat to slip away unnoticed. Their fights mortified him. They were so vulgar and common. Not that he had any great delusions of gentility. He had been a threshing-machine mechanic in Camagüey when he and his wife met. Both had grown up there. He had been a truck mechanic in Havana for five years when they left Cuba in the Mariel boatlift… and he was a truck mechanic in Miami now. Nevertheless he had his standards. He hated these goddamned mother-and-daughters… but he had long since given up trying to control his two cats.
Mother was thrusting at Daughter. “Isn’t it bad enough I have to tell people you’ve gone to work for a pornographic doctor? For three years I tell them you work for real doctors at a real hospital. Now I tell them you work for a fake doctor, a pornographic doctor, in some dirty little office?… and you moving away from home to go live with God only knows who in South Beach? You say it’s a blan-ca. You sure it’s not a blan-co?”
Daughter made just a flick of a glance at the five-foot-high baked-clay statue of Saint Lazarus up by the front door before parrying: “He’s not a pornographic doctor. He’s a psychiatrist, a very well known psychiatrist, and it just so happens that he treats people who are addicted to pornography. Don’t keep calling him a pornographic doctor! Don’t you know anything?”
“I know one thing,” riposted Mother. “I know you don’t care if you ruin your family’s name. There is only one reason girls move away from home. Everybody knows that.”
Magdalena rolled her eyes up into her cranium, extended her neck, leaned her head back, stiffened both arms straight down past her hips, and made an unngghhhhummmmmmmm sound in her throat. “Listen, you’re not in Camagüey any longer, Estrellita! In this country you don’t have to wait until you can marry yourself out of the house.” Gotcha… Gotcha… twice in the space of eight words. Her mother always told people she was from Havana, because the first thing every Cuban in Miami wanted to know was your family history in Cuba—history, of course, meaning social status. Being from Camagüey was synonymous with being a guajira, a hick. So Daughter managed to work Camagüey—gotcha—into practically every mother-and-daughter. Likewise, every now and then she liked to call her mother by her first name, Estrellita, instead of Mami—gotcha—for the sheer impudence of it. She liked to dwell upon the y sound of the double l. Es-tray-yeeeee-ta. That made it sound old-fashioned, Camagüey and a half.
“I’m twenty-four years old now, Estrellita, and I have a nursing degree—you were there, as I recall, when I got it—and I have a job and a career and—”
“Since when is nurse work for a pornographic doctor a career?” Mother loved the way that one made Daughter wince. “Who are you with all day?—perverts! You told me that yourself… perverts, perverts, perverts.”
“They’re not perverts—”
“No? They watch pornographic movies all day. What do you call that?”
“They’re not perverts! They’re sick people, and that’s who nurses try to help, sick people. There are people with all sorts of unpleasant diseases, like… like… like H,I,V, and nurses have to take care of them.”
Uh-ohhh. As soon as “HIV” passed her lips, she wanted to snatch it back from out of the air. Any example was better than that one… pneumonia, tuberculosis, Tourette’s syndrome, hepatitis, diverticulitis… anything. Well, too late now. Brace yourself—
“Hahh!” Mother barked. “Everything is perverts with you! Now it’s maricones! La cólera de Dios! Is that why we paid all those tuitions? So you can chill up with dirty people?”
“Chill up?” said Daughter. “Chill up? You don’t say ‘chill up,’ it’s ‘chill out,’ or just chill.” Magdalena immediately realized that given the totality of her mother’s insult, “chill up” was the least of it. The only thing to do was to rub it in harder. So she resorted to the E-bomb: English. “Don’t try to speak English colloquially, Estrellita. You always get it wrong. You don’t get the hang of slang, do you. It always makes you sound clueless.”
Her mother went silent for a few beats, her mouth slightly agape. Gotcha! Magdalena knew that would get her. Answering her in English almost always did. Her mother had no idea what colloquially meant. Magdalena didn’t, either, until not all that many nights ago when Norman used it and explained it to her. Her mother might know hang and possibly even slang, but the hang of slang no doubt baffled her, and the expression clueless was guaranteed to make her look the way she did right now, which is to say, clueless. When Magdalena let her have it in English like this, it made her crazy.
Magdalena took advantage of the additional milliseconds the hiatus granted her and cast a real glance at Lazarus. The clay statue, almost life-size—not stone, not bronze, but ceramic—was the first thing you saw when you came into the casita. What a miserable saint to have to confront! He had caved-in cheeks, a scraggly beard, a pained expression, and a purply biblical robe—hanging open, to better exhibit the leprosy sores all over his upper torso—plus two clay dogs at his feet. In the Bible, Lazarus was about as low as they came, socially… a beggar with leprosy sores all over his body… begging for crumbs of bread at the gates of a swell place belonging to a rich man named Dives, who didn’t give him the time of day. The two of them, Lazarus and Dives, happened to die at about the same time. To make a point—namely, that in Heaven the last shall be first and the first shall be last—and that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God… Jesus sends this poor devil Lazarus to Heaven, where he dwells in “the bosom of Abraham.” He packs Dives off to Hell, where he burns alive eternally.
Magdalena was baptized as a Roman Catholic and had always gone to Mass with her mother, her father, and her two older brothers. But Mother was a real Camagüey country girl. Mother believed in Santería—an African religion that slaves had brought to Cuba… replete with spirits, magic, ecstatic dancing, trances, potions, ground roots, divination, curses, animal sacrifices, and God knows what other hoodoo voodoo. Santeríans began to match up their hoodoo gods with Catholic saints. The god of the sick, Babalú Ayé, became Saint Lazarus. Magdalena’s mother and father were light skinned, as were many believers by now. No way, however, could Santería ever shake loose of its social origins… slaves and simpleminded country guajiros. This had become a handy needle for Magdalena in the mother-and-daughters.
It hadn’t been like this when she was a little girl. She was a beautiful, irresistible creature, and her mother was very proud of that. Then, at age fourteen, she became a very beautiful, irresistible virgin. Grown men would sneak looks at her. Magdalena loved that… and how far were they going to get with her? Not one inch. Estrellita watched over her with the eyes of an owl. She would have loved to revive the role of the chaperone. It hadn’t been all that long since Cuban girls in Miami couldn’t go out on a date without Mother coming along as chaperone. It could become a bit… off. Sometimes the Mother-chaperone was pregnant with Daughter’s soon-to-be sibling. Bursting with child herself, she would be superintending Daughter’s first prim lesson in how to lead, in due course, with due propriety, young men down the path to the portals of the womb. The swollen belly made it obvious that Mother had been doing precisely what she was on duty to keep Daughter from doing with her young beau of the moment. Not even Estrellita could insist on prior approval of a boy Magdalena was going out with. But she could and did insist that he pick her up here at the casita, so that she could get a good look at him, and insist on asking him some questions if he seemed at all shady, and insist that he bring her home by eleven.
The only “older man” in Magdalena’s life was someone who was all of one year older than her and had a touch of glamour, since he was now a police officer with the Marine Patrol, namely, Nestor Camacho. Estrellita knew his mother, Lourdes. His father had his own business. Nestor was a good Hialeah boy.
Mother regained her wits and her voice. “Are you sure your little blanca roommate in South Beach isn’t called Nestor Camacho?”
Daughter went, “HahhhHHHH!”—so loudly and at such a coloratura soprano pitch, it startled Mother. “That’s a laugh! Nestor is such a good, obedient little Hialeah boy. Why don’t you call up his mother, and she can have a good laugh, too? Or why don’t you settle it right here? Why don’t you get your coconut beads and throw them in front of old Lazzy-boy there? He’ll tell you! He won’t steer you wrong!” She thrust her arm and forefinger at the statue of Lazarus like a spear.
Estrellita was speechless again. Something was happening to her face that went beyond the boundaries of a mother-and-daughter. It was black anger. Estrellita already got it when Magdalena made references to Santería. It was an indirect way of calling her an ignorant, socially backward guajira. She knew that. But now Magdalena was uttering outright blasphemy. “Lazzy-boy” she dared call Saint Lazarus. She was indulging in mockery of the faith’s powers of divination, such as throwing the coconut beads. She was ridiculing her faith and her very life.
With a cold fury that came from deep in her throat, she hissed out, “You want to leave home? Then do it. Do it now. I don’t care if you never set foot in this house again.”
“Good!” said Magdalena. “Finally we agree!”
But her voice had a tremor in it. The look on her mother’s face and the rattlesnake tone of her voice… Magdalena didn’t dare say another word. Now… she’d have to get out… and that set off a quake in the pit of her stomach. As of now, no longer would her new life among the americanos be the exotic, exciting, naughty adventure of a free spirit… As of now, she would be dependent upon an americano for a place to live, her paycheck, her social life, her love life. The only things she’d have going for her would be her good looks… and something that had never failed her… not yet… namely, her nerve.
Euphoria! was the name of the bubble that enclosed Nestor when the shift ended and he drove his aged Camaro north across the Miami line into Hialeah. Superman! was the name of the hero within. Superman lit up that bubble like a torch held aloft.
The Chief himself, Chief Booker, had driven all the way to the marina at midnight to give him an attaboy!
Hialeah… at the midnight hour… a silhouette in the dark of row after row after row after row after block after block after block of little one-story houses, the casitas, each nearly identical to the one next door, all of fifteen feet away, each on a 50-by-100-foot lot, each with a driveway going straight back… chain-link fencing fortifying every square inch of everybody’s property… front yards of rock-solid concrete adorned with little concrete Venetian fountains. But tonight the Camaro’s rolling flow made all of Hialeah luminous. This was not the same Nestor Camacho—you know, Camilo Camacho’s son—driving home anonymously from the same old night shift—
Not at all—for the Chief himself had driven all the way to the marina at midnight to give him an attaboy!
Nestor has arisen, radiant, from the ranks of Hialeah’s 220,000 souls. He is now known throughout Greater Miami, wherever the TV digit-rays have reached… the cop who risked his life to save a poor panicked refugee from the top of a towering schooner mast. Even now, at the midnight hour, the sun shone ’round about him. He entertained the idea of parking the Camaro two or three blocks from home and walking the rest of the way with a calm, measured pace, just to offer the citizens a glimpse of the radiant one… and to watch them nudge one another… “Look! Isn’t that him!” But the fact was, there were damned few pedestrians to be seen, and Hialeah didn’t have a nightlife worthy of the name. Besides, he was so damned tired…
His block was just as dim as the rest of them, but he could spot La Casita de Camacho immediately. A streetlight, weak as it was, was enough to create a reflection in the slick, glossy, almost glassy lettering emblazoned upon the side of his father’s big Ford E-150 van parked right out front: CAMACHO FUMIGADORES. His old man was proud of that lettering. He had paid real money to have a real commercial artist do it. The letters had black shading that made them seem to pop out of the side of the van in three dimensions. CAMACHO FUMIGADORES!… Camilo Camacho’s own bug-and-vermin-killer company… Strictly speaking, FUMIGADORES, plural, was not accurate. The firm had exactly one fumigator, and one employee, period, and his name was on the side of the van. For three years Camilo had “employed” an assistant, his son Nestor. Nestor couldn’t stand it… spraying Malathion into the dark, dank recesses of people’s houses… inevitably inhaling some of the shit… and listening to Camilo saying, “It won’t kill you!”… smelling Malathion every day in his clothes… smelling it on himself… getting so paranoid, he thought everybody he met could smell it on him… When people wanted to know what he did, he would say he had been working for a population adjustment firm but was looking for another job. Thank God he finally got accepted at the Police Academy! His father, on the other hand, was proud to have a firm that adjusted populations in people’s homes. He wanted todo el mundo to see HIMSELF parked in big letters in front of his house. Nestor had been a Miami cop for only four years but long enough to know there were plenty of neighborhoods… Kendall, Weston, Aventura, the Upper East Side, Brickell… where any man who parked such a vehicle in front of his house would be regarded as a cockroach himself. Likewise, his wife and the set of grandparents who lived with them, and the son who was a cop. The whole nest of them would constitute a regular infestation. There were parts of Coral Gables where it was against the law to park a commercial vehicle like that in front of your house. But in Hialeah it was a point of pride for a man. Hialeah was a city of 220,000 souls, and close to 200,000 must be Cubans, it seemed to Nestor. People were always talking about “Little Havana,” a section of Miami along Calle Ocho, where the tourists all stopped at Café Versailles and had a cup of terribly sweet Cuban coffee and then walked a couple of blocks to watch the old men, presumably Cubans, play dominoes in Domino Park, a tiny plot of parkland placed right there on Calle Ocho to lend a rather drab neighborhood a little… authentic, picturesque, folklórica atmósfera. That done, they could say they had seen Little Havana. But the real Little Havana was Hialeah, except that it was hard to call it little. The old “Little Havana” was dreary, worn out, full of Nicaraguans and God knew who else, and the next thing to being a slum, in Nestor’s opinion. Cubans would never sit still in a slum. Cubans were by nature ambitious. So every man who had a vehicle with commercial lettering on it, proving that he was an entrepreneur, no matter how small, parked it importantly in front of the house. CAMACHO FUMIGADORES! That plus the Grady-White cruiser in the driveway proved that Camilo Camacho was not a working-class Cuban. One out of maybe every five casita owners in Hialeah had some sort of cruiser—cruiser meaning it was too big to be denigrated as a “motorboat”—elevated up, way up, upon a towing trailer. The prow usually extended out beyond the facade of the casita. The towing rigs were so high, they were like pedestals… to the point where the cruisers dwarfed the casitas themselves. Here in the darkness, to Nestor their silhouettes made the boats seem like missiles about to take off above your head. Nestor’s old man had paid the same commercial artist to do the same sort of glossy, glassy lettering on the Grady-White cruiser’s hull. LAS SOMBRILLAS DE LIBERTAD, it said, “The Umbrellas of Liberty.” The name stood for the great life-or-death adventure of the old man’s youth. Like Magdalena’s family, Camilo and his father, Nestor’s grandfather, were country boys from Camagüey. Nestor’s grandfather had visions of getting away from a life of cutting cane and mucking out stables and humping plows. City Life he craved. He moved, with his wife and son, to Havana. No longer a guajiro! Now a full-fledged proletarian! Free at last, the new prole got a job as an inspector in the raw-sewage-filtration section of the Malecón waterworks. “Inspector” meant he had to put on rubber boots and carry a flashlight and hunch over like a gnome and walk through drainage pipes in the darkness while rivers of shit and other vile excrescences flowed and occasionally gushed over his boots. It was not perfumed, either. That wasn’t the City Life he had in mind. So he and Camilo stealthily built a crude dinghy in the cellar of their proletarian apartment block in Havana. They stole two big café umbrellas to use as sails… and shields against the sun. Camilo and his parents and Lourdes, Camilo’s girlfriend (in due course, his wife and Nestor’s mother), set out one night for Florida. They nearly died a hundred times, at least as the old man told the story (many more than a hundred times), from sunstroke, dehydration, starvation, storms, towering waves, currents gone amok, winds gone dead, and God knows what else, before reaching Key West twelve days later, all four at the point of death.
Well, now Nestor had a heroic saga of his own… to relate to them. He could hardly wait. He had called home three times from the marina. The phone was busy each time, but maybe it was better this way. They would hear it all from his own lips… with their young hero standing before them, watching their faces go from aglow to agog.
As usual, he parked the Camaro upon the little stretch of driveway between the sidewalk and the boat.
The moment he steps inside the house, his father is there waiting with his arms crossed over his chest and his I, Camilo Camacho, Lord of This Domain look on his face… his lordly demeanor somewhat compromised by the fact that he’s wearing a T-shirt that hangs outside his Relaxed-Fit blue jeans… The crossed arms bear down on his paunch from above, and the belt of his low-cut jeans hoists it up from below, causing it to swell out like a watermelon underneath the T-shirt. Nestor’s mother is one step behind I, Camilo. She looks at Nestor as if he, her third child, her last-born baby, were a little flame sizzling down a fuse to—
—Ka-boom!—I, Camilo Camacho, explodes:
“How could you do that to a man of your own blood? He’s eighteen meters from freedom, and you arrest him! You condemn him to torture and death in Fidel’s dungeons! How could you do that to the honor of your own family? People have been calling! I’ve been on the phone all night! Everyone knows! They turn on the radio, and all they hear is ‘Traidor! traidor! traidor! Camacho! Camacho! Camacho!’ You drag us through shit!” He cuts a glance back at his wife. “It has to be said, Lourdes”—turns back to Nestor—“Through shit you drag the House of Camacho!”
Nestor was stunned. It was as if the old man had smashed a baseball bat against the base of his skull. His mouth fell open, but no sounds came out. He turned his palms upward in the eternal gesture of baffled helplessness. He couldn’t speak.
“What’s the matter?” said his father. “The truth cut your tongue out?”
“What are you talking about, Dad?” It came out at least an octave too high.
“I’m talking about what you done! If some cop had done to me and your grandfather”—he nodded in the general direction of Nestor’s grandfather and grandmother’s, Yeyo and Yeya’s, room in the back—“what you just done to one of your own people, your own blood, you wouldn’t be here now! You wouldn’t be a big cop in Miami! You wouldn’t be nothing! You wouldn’t exist! Not even exist!”
“You know what we had to do so you could even exist? Me and your grandfather had to build a boat by ourselves at night, down in a cellar so the block warden wouldn’t come nosing around. And we set out to sea at night, too, with Yeya and your mother—and all we had was food and water and a compass and two outdoor café umbrellas we had to steal at night and rig up as sails. Café umbrellas!”
“I know, Dad—”
“Twelve days it took us! Twelve days of burning up all day and freezing all night and getting thrown this way”—he pantomimes the boat pitching up and down—“and that way”—pantomimes the boat rolling—“and this way”—yawing—“and that way”—climbing waves—“day and night—and bailing out water day and night, too. We couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t hardly eat. It took all four of us bailing out water around the clock just to keep the boat afloat. We coulda died a hundred times”—he snapped his fingers—“just like that! For the last four days we had no more food and one bottle of water for the four of us—”
“We were four skeletons when we finally reached land! We were half out of our minds! Your mother was having hallucinations, and—”
“Dad! I know all that!”
He, Camilo Camacho, went silent. He took in a breath so deep and twisted his face into such a grimace, complete with bared upper teeth and popped veins, he was either going to bite someone or have a stroke—until at the last moment he found his voice and rasped out:
“All that you call it? All that? All that was life or death! We almost died! Twelve days on the ocean in an open boat! There wouldn’t be no Officer Nestor Camacho without all that! He wouldn’t exist! If some big cop had arrested us eighteen meters from shore and sent us back, that woulda been the end of all of us! You woulda never been nothin’! And you call it all that! Jesus Christ, Nestor, what kind a person are you? Or maybe you not a person! Maybe you got claws and a tail like a mapache!”
::::::A raccoon he calls me!::::::
“No, you listen! You don’t know what it is to suffer! You arrest a guy eighteen metros de libertad! To you it don’t matter that the Camachos came to America in a homemade—”
“Dad, listen to me!”
Nestor said it so sharply, his father didn’t try to finish his sentence.
Nestor said, “This guy didn’t have to do”—he started to say “all that” but caught himself just in time—“do anything like what you and Yeyo had to do. This guy paid some smugglers three or four thousand dollars to take him straight to Miami in a cigarette boat. Goes seventy miles an hour on the water, a cigarette boat. Took him what—maybe two hours to get here? Three at the most? In an open boat? No, in a cabin with a roof. Starving? Probably didn’t have time to digest the big lunch he had before he left!”
“Well—that don’t matter. The principle’s the same—”
“What principle, Dad? The Sergeant gave me a direct order! I was carrying out a direct order!”
A derisive snort. “Carrying out a direct order.” Another snort. “So do Fidel’s people! They carry out direct orders, too—to beat people and torture people and ‘disappear’ people and take everything they have. You never heard of honor before? You don’t care about your family’s honor? I don’t wanna hear that pathetic excuse again!… Carrying out a direct order…”
“Come on, Dad! The guy’s up there screaming to the crowd on the bridge and throwing his arms around like this”—he demonstrates—“Guy’s lost it! He’s gonna fall and kill himself, and all six lanes of traffic are backed up on the causeway, Friday rush hour, the worst—”
“Oh ho! A traffic jam. Why didn’t you say so?! Whoa, a traffic jam! That’s different… So you’re trying to tell me a traffic jam is worse than torture and death in Fidel’s dungeons?”
“Dad, I didn’t even know who the guy was! I still don’t know! I didn’t know what he was yelling about! He was seventy feet up above me!”
In fact, he had known, more or less, but this was not the time for fine distinctions. Anything to bring an end to this tirade, this terrible judgment—by his own father!
But nothing was going to stop I, Camilo Camacho, Lord of This Domain. “You said he was gonna fall and kill himself. You were the one who nearly made him fall and kill himself! You were the one crazy to arrest him, no matter what!”
“Jesus Christ, Dad! I didn’t arrest him! We don’t arrest immig—”
“Everybody saw you do it, Nestor! Everybody knew it was a Camacho who did this. We saw you do it with our own eyes!”
It turned out that his father and his mother and his grandparents had been watching the whole thing on American TV with the sound muted and listening to it on WDNR, a Spanish-language radio station that loved to get furious over sins of the americanos. Nothing Nestor could say would calm his father down in the slightest. I, Camilo Camacho, threw his hands up in the air as if to say, “No hope… no hope…” and turned and walked away.
His mother stayed put. Once she was sure that I, Camilo, had gone into another room, she threw her arms around Nestor and said, “I don’t care what you’ve done. You’re alive and home. That’s the main thing.”
Don’t care what you’ve done. The implied guilty verdict so depressed Nestor, he said nothing. He couldn’t even croak out an insincere Thanks, Mami.
He went to his little room exhausted. His whole body ached, his shoulders, his hip joints, the sartorius muscles on the inner sides of his thighs, and his hands, which were still raw. His hands! The joints, the knuckles—it was agony if he so much as tried to make a fist. Just taking off his shoes, pants, and shirt and getting up onto the bed—agony… ::::::Sleep, dear God. Knock me unconscious… that’s all I ask… sail me away from esta casita… into the arms of the Sandman… Take away my thoughts… be my morphine… ::::::
But Morpheus failed him. He’d doze off and then—jerk alert with his heart beating too fast… doze off—jerk alert… doze off—jerk alert!… all night, fits and starts… until he jerked alert at 6:00 a.m. He felt like a burnt-out husk. He was sore all over, sore as he had ever been in his life. Moving the joints of his hips and legs was so painful, he wondered if they would ever support his weight. But they had to. He had to get the hell out of here!… Go somewhere… and kill time until his Marine Patrol shift began at four o’clock. He edged his feet off the bed and slowly sat up… sat there groggily for a minute… ::::::I feel too awful… I can’t get up. So what are you going to do, hang around here waiting for more abuse?:::::: With straining willpower he made himself get sheer torture! up. Gingerly, warily, he tiptoed to the living room and stood at one of the two front windows of the little house, watching the women. They were already out hosing down their concrete front yards up and down the block, this being Saturday morning.
No man would be caught dead with one of those hoses in his hands. That was a woman’s job. That would be the first thing his mother did when she got up: power-spray their fifty-by-twenty-foot rock-hard sward. Too bad water didn’t make concrete grow. By now their front yard would be fifty stories high.
As far back as he could remember, Nestor’s picture of Hialeah was of thousands of blocks like this one, endless rows of casitas with little paved front yards… but no trees… studded here and there with vehicles that had writing all over them… but no trees… boats that said Conspicuous Leisure… but no trees. Nestor had heard of a time when all over the country the very name Hialeah summoned up a picture of Hialeah Park, the most glamorous and socially swell racetrack in America, set in a landscaper’s dream, a lush, green, wholly man-made 250-acre park with a resident flock of pinkest flamingos… now a shut-down, locked-up relic, a great moldering memento of the palmy days when the Anglos ran Miami. Today a bug-gassing van parked out front with your name on it was enough to make La Casita de Camacho socially swell in Hialeah. He had admired his father for it. Every night the old man came home with his clothes giving off whiffs of Malathion. But Nestor took that as a sign of his father’s success as a businessman. The same father now turns on him when he most needs his support!
Christ! It was getting on toward 6:30, and he was just standing here letting his thoughts run wild… The whole bunch of them would be up soon… Camilo the Caudillo, the Caudillo’s ever-worried, hand-flensing wife, Lourdes, and Yeya and Yeyo—
It had completely slipped his mind! Today was her birthday! There was no way he could finesse Yeya’s birthday. There was always a pig roast… a pig big enough for a hundred people or so… all the relatives… innumerable, here in Hialeah alone… plus all the neighbors from the wet concrete yards. His parents and Yeya and Yeyo and even he himself knew the neighbors so well, they had come to call them Tía and Tío, as if they were real aunts and uncles. If he went AWOL from this party, he would never be forgiven. Celebrating Grandmother’s birthday was a very big thing in the Camacho domain… it was practically a holiday… and the older she got, the more sacred it got.
There were grandparents living in the same house as their middle-aged children all over the place in Hialeah. Until his brother and his sister married their way out of the house, this casita was like the YMCA. There was one bathroom for seven people from three generations. Talk about people getting into each other’s hair…
Oh, Magdalena! If only she were beside him right now! He would have his arm around her… in front of everybody… right now… and she would be joking about all the concrete front yards and all the put-upon wives of Hialeah. Why didn’t everybody get together and water just one tree? That was what she’d be saying. She’d bet there weren’t a dozen trees in all of Hialeah. Hialeah started out as a dirt prairie, and now it was a concrete prairie. That was the kind of thing she would say, if only she were here… He could feel her body leaning against his. She was so beautiful—and so smart! She had this… way… of looking at the world. How lucky he was! He had a girl more gorgeous, quicker, brighter than—than—than a TV star. He could feel her body against his in bed. ::::::Oh, my Manena.:::::: His body hadn’t touched hers in that way for almost two weeks. If it wasn’t the hours he worked, it was the hours she worked. He never knew that nurses for psychiatrists had to work so long and so hard. This psychiatrist was a big deal, apparently. He had patients practically stacked up at the hospital, Jackson Memorial, plus the ones who came in to his office all day long, and Manena had to tend to patients at both places. Nestor never knew psychiatrists had so many hospital patients. Oh, but he’s very prominent, very much in demand, Manena explained. She was working day and night. Recently it had become so hard, there was no time to see her at all. When he finished his Marine Patrol shift at midnight, she would be in bed asleep, and he didn’t dare call her. She had to start work at 7:00 a.m., she had explained, because first she had to go by the hospital for a “pre-check” and then to the office for a full day of patients that ended at 5:00 p.m., but Nestor’s shift began at 4:00 p.m. Just to make things worse, they had different days off. The whole thing had become impossible. What was to be done?
He had called her cell phone not all that long after he got back to the marina. No answer. He texted her. She didn’t text back… and she must have known about it. If his father was right, everybody knew about it.
He had to see his Manena!… if only on Facebook. He rushed back to his room, got dressed as fast as he had ever gotten dressed in his life, and sat down at his laptop, which he kept on a table that only barely fit into the room, and went online… Manena! There she was… It was a picture he had taken of her… long luxurious dark hair streaming down to her shoulders… her dark eyes, her slightly parted, slightly smiling lips—that promised… ecstasy didn’t even begin to say it! ::::::But stop fantasizing, Nestor! Go to the kitchen and get some coffee… before you’re afflicted with company you don’t want to have.::::::
He sat in the kitchen in the dark, drinking a second cup of coffee, trying to wake up… and thinking… thinking… thinking… thinking… He couldn’t very well call her this early, 6:45 on a Saturday morning… shouldn’t text, either. Even the beep beep beep of a text message might wake her up.
A light came on, and he heard a familiar flush and glug-glug-glug of a toilet. Damn! His parents were getting up… Camilo the Caudillo would be heading right here… A wisp of hope!… His father had had a chance to sleep on it and wanted to make peace—
Click—the kitchen light comes on. His father is in the doorway… He has his eyebrows flexed downward, creating a ditch between them. He’s wearing his Relaxed-Fits, an XXL T-shirt whose short sleeves droop down below his elbows… yet it’s barely big enough to cover his watermelon belly. He hasn’t shaved. The undersides of his jowls are grizzly. He still has sleepers in his eyes. He’s a real mess.
“Buenos días…?” ventures Nestor. It starts out as a greeting but winds up more of a question than anything else.
His father says, “Whaddaya doing sitting here in the dark?” Don’t you even know how to sit in a kitchen?
“I… didn’t want to wake anybody up.”
“Who the hell’s this little light gonna wake up?” Don’t you know anything?
He brushed past Nestor without another word and fixed himself a cup of coffee… Nestor kept his eyes on Him, Camilo the Caudillo, Lord of This Domain. He feared another detonation. I, Camilo Camacho, downed his cup of coffee without lingering over a single sip. Then he marched out of the kitchen like a man with a job to do. He didn’t acknowledge Nestor’s presence in any way as he left… didn’t so much as glance at him out of the corner of his eye…
Nestor turned back to his coffee, but by now it was cool, too black, too bitter… and beside the point. He thought and thought and thought and thought… and still couldn’t figure out where he stood…
He asked himself, “Do I exist?”
The next moment… every manner of grunting, moaning, panting, and gasping for breath known to backbreaking labor commences just outside the kitchen.
It’s his father—but what the hell is he doing? His body is tilted to the right because he’s carrying an enormous thing on his right shoulder. It’s long, it’s bulky—it’s a coffin. His father is wrestling with it and staggering under the thing… It seesaws up and down on the old man’s shoulder… lurches sideways against his neck… It’s about to flip out of his grip… He wrestles it back on top of his shoulder… One arm battles the lurches… the other one tries to stop the seesawing… He’s red in the face… He’s gulping for breath… He’s making every inarticulate sound known to heavy labor…
“—messh… cinnghh… neetz… guhn arrrgh… muhfughh… nooonmp… shit… boggghh… frimp… ssslooosh… gessssuh hujuh… neench… arrrgh… eeeeeooomp.”
The old man’s legs are buckling. It’s not a coffin—it’s the caja china they always use to roast the pig—but when did anybody ever try to carry the damn thing by himself? There—the metal slots on the end where you insert handles for carrying it, one man on this end, one on the other… What fool ever tried to carry it over the shoulder? I, Camilo, built it himself years ago… an inch-thick plywood coffin-shaped box lined with roofing metal… must weigh seventy pounds… so long, so big, nobody could get an arm around it and hold it steady—
Nestor cries out, “DAD, LET ME HELP YOU!”
With that, the old man tries to move away from him… you mustn’t lay a finger on it, traitor… “Arggggh”… That one little move—that does it! Now the caja china calls the shots! The damned thing is a huge raging bull riding on top of a little rider… Nestor can see it happening… it’s like slow motion… but is in fact happening so fast, he’s rooted to the floor… inert… the caja china is going into a spin. His father goes into a spin to try to keep up with it… his legs get wound around each other… he’s keeling over… “Arrrggh”… the raging caja china is coming down on top of him… “Errrnafumph”… one end of it hits the wall—
C R A A A S H!
—sounds like a train wreck in a little casita like this—
“Dad!” Nestor is already crouched over the wreck, starting to lift the huge box off his father’s chest—
“No!” His father is looking straight up into Nestor’s face. “No! No!”… has the full grimace now… eyes aflame… upper teeth bared… “You—no!”
Nestor lifts the caja china off his father anyway and puts it down on the floor… To someone with lats, traps, biceps, bracs, and quads like his—pumped up to the max by adrenaline—it’s nothing… might as well be a cardboard box.
“Dad! Are you okay!?”
I, Camilo Camacho… lying on his back… glowering at his son, growling at his son, “Keep your hands off that caja china,” he says in a low but clear growl.
His dad isn’t injured… he’s perfectly lucid… the wall absorbed the momentum of the caja china… it just toppled over on I, Camilo Camacho… he’s not indicating any pain… Oh, no… he only wants to inflict it… Something close to despair sweeps through Nestor’s central nervous system… He has been helping his father carry the caja china out for the pig roasts ever since he was twelve… His father lifted it by the handles on one end, and Nestor lifted it by the handles on the other end… since he was twelve! It had become a little ritual of manhood! Now his father wants no part of him.
I, Camilo Camacho, doesn’t even want his son to lift a crash-stricken coffin off his prostrate form. You really know how to hurt a son, don’t you, Caudillo Camacho… But Nestor can’t find the words to say that or anything else.
“What happened!? What happened!?”
It’s his mother, running from the bedroom. “Oh, dear God—Cachi! What happened? Cachi!” That’s her loving nickname for the Master. “Are you all right? What was that terrible noise? What fell?”
She dropped to her knees beside him. He looked at her in an expressionless way, then put his tongue in his cheek and gave Nestor a baleful—and with his tongue in his cheek, accusing—stare. He held it like a laser beam… causing Nestor’s mother to turn to him… wide-eyed… baffled… frightened… fearing the worst… as much as asking, “Did you do this—to your father?”
“Dad, tell her! Tell Mami what happened!”
I, Camilo Camacho, said nothing. He just continued with his sinister beam fixed on Nestor.
Nestor turned to his mother. “Dad tried to carry the caja china all by himself, on his shoulder! He lost his balance—and it crashed into the wall!”
Nestor began hyperventilating… He couldn’t help himself, even though it cast a doubt upon what he was saying.
“Tell her why,” said the Lord of This Domain in his new soft, low, mysterious voice… implying that much remained unsaid.
Mami looked at Nestor. “What did happen?” Then at her husband. “Cachi, you must tell me! Are you injured?”
In a voice that rose an octave, a shaky octave, Nestor said, “I swear! Dad was trying to carry that thing by himself! Look how big it is! He lost control, and when I tried to help him, he jumped away, or sort of jumped—and he lost his balance, and the caja china crashed and ended up on top of him! Right, Dad? That’s exactly what happened—right?”
Down on her knees, Mami began crying. She pressed her hands against both sides of her face and kept saying, “Dear God… Dear God… Dear God… Dear God!…”
I, Camilo Camacho, maintained his stare at his son, pushing his tongue inside his cheek so forcefully, his lips parted on that side, showing teeth.
“Dad—you’ve got to tell her!” Nestor’s voice was becoming shrill. “Dad—I know what you’re doing! You’re playing Patience on a Monument, Smiling at Grief!”… Magdalena had introduced him to that expression. Somehow she picked up these things. “You’re playing Look What You Made Me Do!”
Same low soft voice: “You don’t talk to me that way. The Big Cop—but everybody knows what you really are.”
Mami broke into sobs, great blubbering sobs.
Nestor’s own eyes began to fill with tears. “This is not fair, Dad!” It was all he could do to keep his lips from trembling. “I’ll help you up, Dad! I’ll take the caja china out to the yard for you! But it’s not fair—you can’t treat me this way! It’s not right! You’re playing a game! Patience on a Monument, Smiling at Grief!”
He rose up from his crouch… He was getting out of here! Fighting back tears, he made his way into the little passageway that led from the extension to the rooms in the front of the house. A door opened behind him… a light… He knew immediately… Yeya and Yeyo—the last people on earth he needed at this moment, in the middle of all this.
Yeya, coming up behind him, said in Spanish, “What was that noise? Practically knocked us out of bed! What happened?”
Got to think fast… Nestor stopped, turned about, and gave Yeya the biggest, sweetest smile he could come up with. What a pair of guajiros stood before him. Keep them away from their son, I, Camilo Camacho, that was the main thing… Yeya was short and stout, with a sort of flowered muumuu covering her considerable bulk. But mainly there was her hair. It was the blue ball, the Blue Ball of Hialeah for ladies of a certain age. Old ladies didn’t dye their white hair in Hialeah, at least not in the usual way… Forty-eight hours ago, getting ready for her big birthday party, she went to the hairdresser. He cut it suitably short… for a woman of a certain age, added some—“blueing” in English—to give the gray a blue cast, and then blow-dried, back-combed, and teased it until it became a gossamer blue ball, a Hialeah crash helmet, as it was called. Hers was flattened a bit on one side from sleeping on it, but re-fluffing and reviving the helmet seemed to be no problem, as long as it hadn’t been pulled apart. Just above her brow her hair was wound about a pair of rollers. Yeyo, right behind her, was a tall man. He had once been big and meaty and strong. He still had a tall wide frame, albeit slightly stooped. By now he was more like a wide but bony rack for the old-fashioned pajamas and bathrobe he had on. At this moment he looked like someone who had just arisen unwillingly from a pleasant time with the Sandman. His gray hair was marvelously thick. God must have nailed down every hair upon his head for the duration. He had been a really handsome man, who fairly rippled with confidence and strength—not to mention an overbearing nature… But at this unwilling moment his hair was sticking out every which way, like a broken broom—
All of that Nestor took in instantly… that, and their expressions. This morning they were not his loving abuelo and abuela. Not at all. If he read those faces correctly, they resented his breathing the same air they were…
How to distract them. That was the idea.
“Hap—feliz cumpleaños, Yeya!”
Damn. Kind of blew it there. Almost said “Happy birthday.” Things like that truly rubbed Yeya and Yeyo the wrong way—the next generation using English instead of Spanish for something as traditional as Feliz cumpleaños. Yeya gave Nestor a look. Was he simple? A booby? Was he firing blanks? She glanced at his intentionally too-small shirt.
“Ahhh, the strongman,” she said. “Our TV star. We saw you, Nestorcito. We saw a lot of you.” She began nodding her head repeatedly with her lips drawn together and scrunched up beneath her nose like a little pouch with its string pulled tight… Oh, yes, Nestorcito, we saw all too much of you…
Before Nestor could say anything, Yeyo said (in Spanish), “Why did you tell them your name?”
“Tell who, Yeyo?”
“I didn’t tell them.”
“Who did?” said Yeya. “A little bird?”
“I don’t know. They just got it.”
“Do you know it’s my name, too?” said Yeyo. “And your father’s? Do you know we care about our name? Do you know we Camachos go back many generations? Do you know we have a proud history?”
::::::Do I know you added to that proud history by defying the raging shit-flow in the Havana waterworks? Yes, I know that, you overbearing old crock.:::::: Real anger, not mixed with hurt, was now rising up Nestor’s brain stem. He had to get away from them before the words actually popped out.
His mouth was so dry, and his throat was constricted. “Yes, Yeyo,” he managed to say. “I know that. I have to go now.”
He had turned around to leave the house when… clop-groan-squeak thump… clop-groan-squeak thump… clop-groan-squeak thump… in the rear of the passageway… Oh, for God’s sake… his mother was trying to support his father… I, Camilo’s elbow rested on top of Mami’s forearm, which was trembling from the weight of the invalid. He was gimping along as if he had hurt his leg… clop—he took a step, putting all his weight on his “good” leg, causing the jerry-built wooden floor of the passageway to groan and squeak… then the lighter thump of the “bad” leg gingerly… “painfully”… trying to come along… What an outrageous faker Patience was!
Yeya screamed. “Camilito—oh, dear God—what’s happened to you?!”
In an instant she was at her Camilito’s side, trying to give him more support by jacking her forearms up under his other arm.
“It’s all right, Mami,” he said. “You don’t have to do that. I’m okay.” How courageous he sounded! How stoic! thought Nestor. In fact, it couldn’t have been very pleasant, having the heels of her hands jacked up into the soft spot of his armpit.
“But Camilito! My Camilito! There was such a crash! Oh, my God!”
“It’s nothing, Lourdes.” I, Camilo’s new soft, husky voice. “Just a little family… disagreement.” With that he pinned Nestor again with his ironic, tongue-in-cheek, teeth-baring stare, interrupting it only long enough to say again, “Just… a… little… family… disagreement…”
Now all four of them had their eyes pinned on Nestor. Yeya had become hysterical.
“What did you do to your father?! Your own father! It wasn’t enough, what you did to that poor boy yesterday? Now you have to turn on your own father?!”
Nestor was bewildered… couldn’t get a word out… just stood there with his mouth open. His mother was looking at him in a way she had never looked at him in his whole life! Even Mami!
When he found his voice, he was almost as hysterical as Yeya. “Tell her the truth, Dad! Tell her what really happened! You’re—you’re—twisting it all around! In the name of God, tell the truth! Dad, you’re—you’re—”
He didn’t help his own cause by breaking it off right there, wheeling about, showing them his back, rushing to his room to pick up his car keys—bolting for the front door without so much as glancing at the rest of his family.
Bang—he slammed the front door of La Casita de Camacho behind him.
The Daring Weak Man
Barely two hours later appeared an Edward T. Topping IV no one in the Miami Herald city room had ever seen before. Usually straight down the middle of his forehead, from his brow to his nose, ran a crevice… a crevice in the flesh of a man worrying about just how many people on the editorial staff, what was left of it, resented him. But this morning he was grinning… grinning a grin so broad, it raised his eyebrows as high as they would go… popped his eyes wide open… made his rosy cheeks well up atop each cheekbone, like Santa Claus’s. The ditch had disappeared. The eyes glittered.
“Take a look at it, Stan! Take a look at it, a really good look. You know what you’re looking at?”
He was standing in the middle of his office, which opened out into the city room. Standing, he was, not sitting halfway hidden within the cocoon of a high-backed Contract Modern swivel chair up against a kidney-shaped Contract Modern desk, the way he usually was. Not only that, he stood with his back to the wall of glass that provided him, as editor in chief, with the View… of all that was glamorous in Miami… the royal palm trees, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the royal palm trees, Brickell Avenue, the royal palm trees, Biscayne Bay, Brickell Key, Key Biscayne, the Venetian Isles, Indian Creek, Star Island, Miami Beach, and beyond that the Atlantic Ocean’s great parabolic curve at the horizon, 180 degrees’ worth of sun-bleached light-blue tropical sky, and the royal palm trees. No, at the moment he only had eyes for this morning’s Herald, which he held before him the way one might display a painting, full length, top to bottom, showing off the front page.
“Here it is! You’re looking at real journalism! Real journalism, Stan!”
Stan, namely Stanley Friedman, a thin, bony man in his forties, six feet tall but with atrocious posture that made his chest look concave and him six inches shorter—City Editor Stan watched this performance from an armchair barely four feet away. Stan had a squint-eyed look on his face. Ed Topping took it to be the look of a man in a state of wonder over what he has helped create: this!… this morning’s Miami Herald! If the truth be told, Stanley Friedman had no room in his heart or on his face for Topping’s “real journalism.” All he wondered about was how long he would still have a job. Two weeks ago the Mob, short for Chicago Mob, as everyone in the city room now referred to the six men the Loop News Corporation had dispatched from Chicago to take over the Herald, had fired another 20 percent of the paper’s workforce, bringing the total to 40 percent. Like City Editor Stan, everybody who remained felt as if he were hanging on to his job by his fingernails. Morale was—what morale? Everybody heeded Edward T. Topping IV’s words only to detect signs of impending doom. Impending Doom was what City Editor Stan’s eyes were squinting at. In fact, he was in no danger. The Mob had to have a local as city editor, someone whose memory bank was already stuffed with information he knew by heart about the entire metropolitan area, the street layout in detail, all fourteen police jurisdictions and their boundaries—very important, knowing the cops—the players, very much including all policy-making political officeholders, all of them, plus the celebrities, particularly the minor ones who felt more comfortable in Miami than in Los Angeles and New York… and… the nationalities and their turfs… Little Havana and Big Hialeah… Little Haiti, Little Caracas, also known as Westonzuela, Mother Russia (Sunny Isles and Hallandale), the Hershey Highway, that being the cops’ nickname for the Anglo enclave of South Beach otherwise known as “gay”… There was no end to it, and a city editor had to know who hated whom and why—
“Just look at that makeup, Stan!” Ed was saying, eyes still bright as lightbulbs.
He was referring to the front page. An inky black headline ran the width of the paper—ROPE-CLIMB COP IN “MAST”-ERFUL RESCUE. On the far right was a lone column of type. The rest of the top half of the front page consisted of an enormous color picture of a white schooner with two towering masts and clouds and clouds of white sails… floating upon the aquamarine vastness of Biscayne Bay… beneath the pale-blue dome of the sky… and way, way, way up there, the equivalent of six or seven stories above the deck, no bigger than a thumbnail against such gigantic expanses, two tiny living creatures, two men whose lives depended on one man maintaining his one-hand grip on a jib sail cable… two specks popping out amid these overwhelming dimensions, two little human beasts this close to plunging to their death… all captured in a photograph by an old Herald photographer named Ludwig Davis, whose talent had spared him the axe. Down below was a two-column picture of a bare-chested young man with muscles on top of muscle, all highly defined, “cut,” “ripped” to the point of looking shrink-wrapped. That picture on page one was a veritable male nude in chiaroscuro, school of Michelangelo.
Ed Topping couldn’t hold back the sublime joy the big color picture of the schooner gave him. He thumped it with the backs of his fingers. “There you have it!” this semaphore said.
“No other medium could have come close to that image, Stan!” the suddenly animated editor in chief was saying. “Newsprint is great for color as long as you have big shapes of uniform value, such as the sky, the bay, the schooner, the hull, those huge sails—all white—and you know what? The poor resolution of the newsprint makes the color blocks more uniform. It’s like a nineteenth-century Japanese print, the uniform blocks of color. The defect turns into an advantage!”
Ed opened his eyes wide… and turned them up brighter and brighter and brighter like a rheostat, as if to say, “Now you see what I mean, right?”
City Editor Stan stretched his neck upward and twisted his mouth and lower jaw in an odd way.
“No other medium could come close to this,” Ed went on, explaining in some detail why television couldn’t, why film couldn’t, why videotape couldn’t, why the internet couldn’t… why not even a great print of the original photograph could come close. It would have “too many values in the color blocks.”
City Editor Stan once again did that odd twisted contortion with his neck, mouth, and lower jaw.
::::::What inna nameagod is that all about?:::::: But Ed was too enchanted by his learned disquisition on color imagery… nineteenth-century Japanese prints, no less!… to linger upon old Stan’s tracheal twisting. In his heart Edward T. Topping IV took credit for this fabulous front page—or page one, as real newspapermen called it. During the tremendous excitement of putting the paper to bed last night—another Real Newspaperman expression, putting the newspaper “to bed”—he had left his office and gone out into the city room and stood by the shoulder of his managing editor, a fellow Chicago Mobster named Archie Pendleton, who was in turn leaning over the shoulder of the makeup editor, a local survivor who needed to be led like a pony on a lead line—all wondering what to do with this remarkable photograph by the old guy, Lud Davis… and Ed had said to Archie, “Go all the way with it, Archie. Make it big. Make it jump out at you on page one.”
And it was done. How was one to explain the immense satisfaction it gave him? It was more than being the big man, the editor in chief, the Power. It was being creative, but aggressive, too… daring to let it all out when it was time to let it all out. It was what was meant by the expression “He’s a real newspaperman.”
Ed turned the newspaper around so that he could look at page one more closely.
“What can you tell me about John Smith, Stan?—the guy who wrote the story.”
Stan’s whole expression changed. What a relief! What a relief to get a break from Grim Reaper IV giving a long-winded lecture! What a relief not to have to swallow yawn after yawn whole in strangulating gulps! He dearly hoped his contortions had seemed like nothing more than strenuous hiccups. What a relief to answer a simple question… and score a few status points by providing information you have and he doesn’t.
“John’s not a quick study,” said Stan. “He’s a long study. He’s one of these twenty-eight-year-old kids—incidentally, he hates nicknames, hates Jack, hates Johnny, Jay, or anything else anybody comes up with. Won’t fucking respond to them. Yeah! Refuses to hear them! He’s plain John Smith. Anyway, he’s one of these kids with blond hair and a baby face who’s twenty-eight and looks about eighteen. I don’t even know if he shaves or not, but I’ll tell you something he does do—he blushes! He blushes all the time! I don’t know another grown man who can still do that… blush. And polite? These days it’ll—” As Stan burbled on, Ed turned to his computer and summoned up John Smith in the Herald’s internal directory.
“Keep talking, Stan. I’m just looking up Smith here.”
::::::Well, I’ll be switched:::::: thought Ed, as soon as it came up on the screen. ::::::John Smith went to St. Paul’s and Yale! We’re both Yalies… and St. Paul’s trumps Hotchkiss!::::::
To Ed this had the power of… revelation.
“—but you can point the kid anywhere,” Stan was saying, “and he’ll go there. He’ll go right up to anybody you want and ask him anything you want. You know the lead he wrote? The police brass were trying to keep him away from this young cop, Nestor Camacho’s his name—the cop who brought the guy down from the mast? They don’t like cops giving interviews without prior approval and briefings and so forth, especially in a case like this. But John won’t go away. If he could’ve handcuffed himself to the cop just to keep the interview going, I bet you he’d’ve done it. He describes that whole scene later on in the story.”
Ed read the lead again… “By John Smith, with additional reporting by Barbara Goldstein, Daniel Roth, and Edward Wong.
“ ‘Weight-lifting? Rope-climbing beats weight-lifting any day!’ Miami Marine Patrol Officer Nestor Camacho, adrenaline still pumping, told the Herald yesterday—after his acrobatics had saved a man’s life more than seventy feet above Biscayne Bay and electrified an entire city watching it live on television.
“ ‘That’s the way I train! I climb this fifty-five-foot rope at Rodriguez’s place, the “Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Qué Gym!,” without using my legs!’ he said. ‘Lats? Delts? Biceps? Pecs? Even pecs! It’s the best thing in the world for the upper body, climbing ropes is.’
“And now, who in all of Miami dared dispute the man?
“The twenty-five-year-old cop had just pulled off an astounding feat of strength—a high-wire act that saved a Cuban refugee from a fatal plunge, stopped traffic cold on the six-lane Rickenbacker Causeway for hours, riveted the entire city via live television and radio coverage—and drew the ire of Miami Cuban activists who called the cop a ‘traitor.’
“Shortly before three p.m., just south of the causeway’s William Powell Bridge—”
Ed stopped reading and looked at Stan, grinning once more. “You know, when this lead first started coming in, I said to myself, ‘What the hell is this? Pecs? delts? Ñññññño—or whatever it is—Gym? What’s this guy think he’s writing, a sidebar on bodybuilding in our time?’ It took a little bit before it dawned on me that this was the perfect lead. We have this constant problem. If there’s a big story, everybody’s already heard it on the radio or television or read it online. So by the time we come out, everybody’s saying, ‘What’s this? Yesterday’s newspaper?’ But we were the only ones who got to the cop and interviewed him, isn’t that right?” ::::::I’ll be damned… St. Paul’s and Yale.::::::
“Yeah,” said Stan. “The cops didn’t want to let the media near him, because this story cuts two ways. I mean, you remember all that booing, all those characters yelling down from the bridge—all the LIBERTAD signs and TRAIDOR? It turns out the cop is Cuban himself, Nestor Camacho. When he collars the guy, that makes the guy a Wet Foot. He never reached land or anything attached to land, like the bridge. So he can get sent right back to Cuba. Did you see the way El Nuevo Herald played it?”
Excerpted from Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe Copyright © 2012 by Tom Wolfe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Tom Wolfe is the author of more than a dozen books, among them The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lives in New York City.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- March 2, 1931
- Place of Birth:
- Richmond, Virginia
- B.A. (cum laude), Washington and Lee University, 1951; Ph.D. in American Studies, Yale University, 1957
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I've been a Wolfe fan since the 1960s. In BtoB, the author displays a wonderful condensation of his skills. Perhaps like good wine, age improves storytellers. I can't imagine a more engaging, enjoyable romp through the craziness of the colliding ethnicities and cultures of Miami. His characters are easily accessible. Folks you probably know. Their motivations may be convoluted and their accents a struggle, but at no time during my time with this book, despite some really creative situations, did I find myself saying, "No way!" As odd as some of the interactions get, none felt contrived or not true to the character. Back to Blood is a tale of expectations -- both the ones fulfilled, and the ones that slip away. It's loud, raw and absorbing. Mr. Wolfe treats this major city like one might treat an old friend, with lots of quirks and issues, but still someone to be loyal to. A great deal of research and time on the ground must have gone into this book and it shows. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Florida's sunshine, rum drinks and a skeptical sense when it comes to fine art and/or ethnicity.
Somehow couldn't stop reading this book, as I have read all of his. However, this one had repetitive odd words to indicate sound effects and odd punctuation. I found it completely took me out of the story and it was highly irritating. I don't know if I would have read it if I had known beforehand. The characters were also not very fully drawn, and most completely unlikable. I'm quite ambivalent about this book.
Tom Wolf is a great American author. Bonfire of the Vanities is my favorite book, Back to Blood is another great novel. I was upset when I finished because I wanted to read more. I couldn't put this book down, I'd fall asleep reading it & start reading again when I wake up at night. Wolf with his acurate portrait of our time is a modern day Dickens.
I love Tom Wolfe! His writing is so alive and descriptive. This book is no different. His use of written sound effects get you right into the action. And his character descriptions make you feel like you're standing right next to the person. I've read several of his books and they're always fun to read, but there are also social commentaries that bring it down to earth. I didn't find Back to Blood as biting as Bonfire of the Vanities, but there is still much to enjoy. And I did.
This book is irreverent, definitely not PC, tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the extremes of characters, but loads of romping fun. You just have to let yourself get into the excess that is the Miami he is writing about. You will either love it or hate it. For those who read Wolfe's "A Man in Full" and loved it, you will probably love this one too. Beneath it all are some characters who actually have morals and personal strength. Have fun!
I listened to the audiobook version of "Back to Blood" and, as long as it was, I was sorry when it concluded. Wolfe is a dynamite story- teller, and the narration by Lou Diamond Phillips added greatly to the book's appeal. Not only did Mr. Phillips perfectly capture the sardonic tone of Wolfe's third person description of events, each character's spoken words were delivered in a dialect and expression perfectly matching his/her ethnicity and personality. A delightful listening experience!
Good beginning then it drags. It gets moving again toward the end before falling on its face!
Wolfe's literary style varies with each book, and this one is no less unique than his earlier works. It is entertaining to the core and has his usual reflections on society's social problems, but the way he tells it is the glory of this novel. It is raucously funny and he doesn't fail to slam every hypocrisy in Miami. Truly a great read and another fabulous effort by one of America's great writers.
I've read all his books. This is not his best, but still very good.
I’m not certain Wolfe got this one right. The racial tensions in Miami are there but I think Wolfe might need to come out and talk one to one with Miami’s youth. This one lacked the authenticity of his other works.
Miami is a cauldron of ethnic groups for Wolfe to play with. It has wealth like no other city I have seen and it dangerously displays it. There is so much culture in Miami for a man of Wolfe’s caliber to draw upon too. Much of it he got right in Back to Blood, though some of the youth culture not so accurate. All in all though, it was a fun read.
What a waste of my time. Since I was dumb enough to buy this book I felt obligated to finish it. The book needs less wordy description, more story, and some attempt at editing, (wires holding up a sailboat mast are "stays" not "cables." ) The ending is weak; something you would expect from a first time novelist.
Like another reviewer I loved A Man in Full. This is dreadful. The characters are under developed. And although I was anxious to get to the end and quit reading the drivel, the ending totally left me hanging. Nothing was resolved. It was as if Tom Wolfe was as tired of writing the story as I was of reading it.