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In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd

In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd

4.3 3
by Ana Menéndez

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Pushcart Prize winner Ana Menendez landed firmly in the literary landscape last year with the hardcover publication of In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd. Reviewers overwhelmingly agree that she is an important new voice in American fiction: hers is "a bright debut that points to even brighter accomplishments to come" (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times), a tour de


Pushcart Prize winner Ana Menendez landed firmly in the literary landscape last year with the hardcover publication of In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd. Reviewers overwhelmingly agree that she is an important new voice in American fiction: hers is "a bright debut that points to even brighter accomplishments to come" (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times), a tour de force that is "poignant and varied, emotionally vivid and hauntingly melancholy" (San Francisco Chronicle), and "a Cuban odyssey that conjures up Eugene O'Neill-like drama" (Kirkus Reviews). In these linked tales about the Cuban-American experience and the immigrant experience in general, Ana Menendez has instantly established herself as a natural storyteller who "probes with steady humor and astute political insight the dreams versus the realities of her characters" (Elle). From the prizewinning title story -- a masterpiece of humor and heartbreak -- unfolds a series of family snapshots that illuminate the landscape of an exiled community rich in heritage, memory, and longing for the past. In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd is at once "tender and sharp-fanged" (L.A. Weekly) as Ana Menendez charts the territory from Havana to Coral Gables with unforgettable passion and explores whether any of us are capable, or even truly desirous, of outrunning our origins. "Achingly wise." -- Richard Eder, the New York Times Book Review "Menendez taps into [a] wellspring of broken promises and unfulfilled desires and gives us a ... peek at ... the Cuban-American experience." -- Ariel Gonzalez, The Miami Herald "Menendez offers a lilting narrative that sways soulfully between past and present, longing and regret, joy and tragedy." -- Donna Rifkind, The Baltimore Sun "Superb ... The community that emerges in these pages is one of humor, acute grief, and gifted storytelling." -- Fionn Meade, The Seattle Times "The first work of a young writer with a bright future." -- Jay Goldin, Fort Worth Morning Star-Telegram "A tender and occasionally sharp-fanged portrait of Miami's Cuban-exile community ... Brave and funny and true." -- Ben Ehrenreich, L.A. Weekly "A raucous, heartfelt debut...Deft, talented and hilarious...." -- Junot Diaz

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
[A] powerful debut collection of stories: stories that not only convey the bittersweet mood of exile but also give us a wonderful gallery of idiosyncratic characters whose lives overlap to create a sense of shared history, shared losses.
New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Here in America, I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German shepherd," Máximo explains in the first of these 11 short stories. His words are the punch line to one of countless jokes he tells to his cronies at Miami's Domino Park. The group of Cuban and Dominican immigrants gathers regularly, mostly ignoring the tourists who come to gape at the colorful old men playing dominos only M ximo feels victimized, as if the onlookers are trivializing his life and culture, treating him like an animal in a zoo. The mixed sentiments of pride and frustration that come with adjustment to American society are common threads in this moving collection by a Cuban-American, Pushcart Prize-winning author. Many of the tales have related themes and characters, and while some are more abstract than others, all speak of the attempts of immigrants to create new lives in the U.S. In "The Perfect Fruit," Menéndez portrays Matilde's despair and jealousy when, as she contemplates what has become her own loveless marriage, her son Anselmo announces his engagement to his American girlfriend Meegan Matilde deals with her dejection by throwing herself into a cooking frenzy. But like Máximo's jokes in the first tale, her culinary storms are merely a thin mask covering a dark reality: that even in the safe haven of America, ethnic ties are strong and assimilation is something that is not necessarily easy or even desired. These stories are perhaps best not consumed all at once; read separately, they offer a telling yet bittersweet perspective on immigrant life. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This delightfully rich collection of interrelated short stories focuses on Cuban immigrants in Miami. The title story, also featured in the 2001 Pushcart Prize anthology, tells of four elderly men playing dominoes and talking about their past mostly apocryphal glories, while an Anglo tourist, dressed in pink, snaps photographs. In "The Perfect Fruit," the reader almost inhales the overripe bananas a middle-aged woman cooks night and day in her battle to conquer the fruits she sees inundating her home and her sanity. The 11 stories in this author's first collection focus on family relationships and immigrants' nostalgia for a past beyond recovery; the moods proceed from light, playful, and humorous to dark, passionate, and frantic. Menendez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, grew up in Miami and has worked as a journalist there and in southern California. Highly recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/01.] Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A debut collection from Miami Herald reporter Menéndez: interconnected stories about Cuban exiles' feelings of displacement in Miami. In "In Cuba," four elderly men, two Cuban and two Dominican, meet in a Miami park to play dominoes. As the Cuban Máximo tells his jokes and chafes at the stares of tourists, the narrative of the long Cuban odyssey unfolds, resulting in an exile both angry and poignant with longing. Menéndez captures the weight of these forced exiles' frustrations and misbegotten dreams-the dreams of middle-class and professional Cubans whose lives are haunted by the fear that they may lose, indeed may have lost, the memory of what life was like back in Cuba. By the time she reaches the last story, Menéndez is conjuring up Eugene O'Neill-like drama. "Her Mother's House" concerns a journalist who returns to Cuba and tracks down the house that's the source of her mother's nostalgic suffering. The journey finally forces the daughter to let go of those dreams and the losses they have wrought to try once again to clear the slate. The opening (title) story, which was included in the Best New American Voices 2000, and the closing tale frame a certain number of pieces that are considerably weaker. Menéndez's stronger moments, nevertheless, allow her to make the Cuban exile ordeal come alive and pluck the chord of universal feeling. A pointed rendering of the human need to idealize what was in order to live with what is.

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Chapter One

The park where the four men gathered was small. Before the city put it on its tourist maps, it was just a fenced rectangle of space that people missed on the way to their office jobs. The men came each morning to sit under the shifting shade of a banyan tree, and sometimes the way the wind moved through the leaves reminded them of home.

    One man carried a box of plastic dominos. His name was Máximo, and because he was a small man his grandiose name had inspired much amusement all his life. He liked to say that over the years he'd learned a thing or two about the physics of laughter and his friends took that to mean good humor could make a big man out of anyone. Now Máximo waited for the others to sit before turning the dominos out on the table. Judging the men to be in good spirits, he cleared his throat and began to tell the joke he had prepared for the day.

    "So Bill Clinton dies in office and they freeze his body."

    Antonio leaned back in his chair and let out a sigh. "Here we go."

    Máximo caught a roll of the eyes and almost grew annoyed. But he smiled. "It gets better."

    He scraped the dominos in two wide circles across the table, then continued.

    "Okay, so they freeze his body and when we get the technology to unfreeze him, he wakes up in the year 2105."

    "Two thousand one hundred and five, eh?"

    "Very good," Máximo said. "Anyway, he's curious about what's happened tothe world all this time, so he goes up to a Jewish fellow and he says, 'So, how are things in the Middle East?' The guy replies, 'Oh wonderful, wonderful, everything is like heaven. Everybody gets along now.' This makes Clinton smile, right?"

    The men stopped shuffling and dragged their pieces across the table and waited for Máximo to finish.

    "Next he goes up to an Irishman and he says, 'So how are things over there in Northern Ireland now?' The guy says, 'Northern? It's one Ireland now and we all live in peace.' Clinton is extremely pleased at this point, right? So he does that biting thing with his lip."

    Máximo stopped to demonstrate and Raúl and Carlos slapped their hands on the domino table and laughed. Máximo paused. Even Antonio had to smile. Máximo loved this moment when the men were warming to the joke and he still kept the punch line close to himself like a secret.

    "So, okay," Máximo continued, "Clinton goes up to a Cuban fellow and says, 'Compadre, how are things in Cuba these days?' The guy looks at Clinton and he says to the president, 'Let me tell you, my friend, I can feel it in my bones. Any day now Castro's gonna fall.'"

    Máximo tucked his head into his neck and smiled. Carlos slapped him on the back and laughed.

    "That's a good one, sure is," he said. "I like that one."

    "Funny," Antonio said, nodding as he set up his pieces.

    "Yes, funny," Raúl said. After chuckling for another moment, he added, "But old."

    "What do you mean old?" Antonio said, then he turned to Carlos. "What are you looking at?"

    Carlos stopped laughing.

    "It's not old," Máximo said. "I just made it up."

    "I'm telling you, professor, it's an old one," Raúl said. "I heard it when Reagan was president."

    Máximo looked at Raúl, but didn't say anything. He pulled the double nine from his row and laid it in the middle of the table, but the thud he intended was lost in the horns and curses of morning traffic on Eighth Street.

* * *

Raúl and Máximo had lived on the same El Vedado street in Havana for fifteen years before the revolution. Raúl had been a government accountant and Máximo a professor at the University, two blocks from his home on L Street. They weren't close friends, but friendly still in that way of people who come from the same place and think they already know the important things about one another.

    Máximo was one of the first to leave L Street, boarding a plane for Miami on the eve of the first of January 1961, exactly two years after Batista had done the same. For reasons he told himself he could no longer remember, he said good-bye to no one. He was thirty-six years old then, already balding, with a wife and two young daughters whose names he tended to confuse. He left behind the row house of long shiny windows, the piano, the mahogany furniture, and the pension he thought he'd return to in two years' time. Three if things were as serious as they said.

In Miami, Máximo tried driving a taxi, but the streets were a web of foreign names and winding curves that could one day lead to glitter and another to the hollow end of a pistol. His Spanish and his University of Havana credentials meant nothing here. And he was too old to cut sugarcane with the younger men who began arriving in the spring of 1961. But the men gave Máximo an idea, and after teary nights of promises, he convinced his wife—she of stately homes and multiple cooks—to make lunch to sell to those sugar men who waited, squatting on their heels in the dark, for the bus to Belle Glade every morning. They worked side by side, Máximo and Rosa. And at the end of every day, their hands stained orange from the lard and the cheap meat, their knuckles red and tender where the hot water and the knife blade had worked their business, Máximo and Rosa would sit down to whatever remained of the day's cooking and they would chew slowly, the day unraveling, their hunger ebbing away with the light.

    They worked together for years like that, and when the Cubans began disappearing from the bus line, Máximo and Rosa moved their lunch packets indoors and opened their little restaurant right on Eighth Street. There, a generation of former professors served black beans and rice to the nostalgic. When Raúl showed up in Miami one summer looking for work, Máximo added one more waiter's spot for his old acquaintance from L Street. Each night, after the customers had gone, Máximo and Rosa and Raúl and Havana's old lawyers and bankers and dreamers would sit around the biggest table and eat and talk and sometimes, late in the night after several glasses of wine, someone would start the stories that began with "In Cuba I remember." They were stories of old lovers, beautiful and round-hipped. Of skies that stretched on clear and blue to the Cuban hills. Of green landscapes that clung to the red clay of Güines, roots dug in like fingernails in a good-bye. In Cuba, the stories always began, life was good and pure. But something always happened to them in the end, something withering, malignant. Máximo never understood it. The stories that opened in sun, always narrowed into a dark place. And after those nights, his head throbbing, Máximo would turn and turn in his sleep and awake unable to remember his dreams.

Even now, five years after selling the place, Máximo couldn't walk by it in the early morning when it was still clean and empty. He'd tried it once. He'd stood and stared into the restaurant and had become lost and dizzy in his own reflection in the glass, the neat row of chairs, the tombstone lunch board behind them.

* * *

"Okay. A bunch of rafters are on the beach getting ready to sail off to Miami."

    "Where are they?"

    "Who cares? Wherever. Cuba's got a thousand miles of coastline. Use your imagination."

    "Let the professor tell his thing, for God's sake."

    "Thank you." Máximo cleared his throat and shuffled the dominos. "So anyway, a bunch of rafters are gathered there on the sand. And they're all crying and hugging their wives and all the rafts are bobbing on the water and suddenly someone in the group yells, 'Hey! Look who goes there!' And it's Fidel in swimming trunks, carrying a raft on his back."

    Carlos interrupted to let out a yelping laugh. "I like that, I like it, sure do."

    "You like it, eh?" said Antonio. "Why don't you let the Cuban finish it."

    Máximo slid the pieces to himself in twos and continued. "So one of the guys on the sand says to Fidel, 'Compatriota, what are you doing here? What's with the raft?' And Fidel sits on his raft and pushes off the shore and says, 'I'm sick of this place too. I'm going to Miami.' So the other guys look at each other and say, 'Coño, compadre, if you're leaving, then there's no reason for us to go. Here, take my raft too, and get the fuck out of here.'"

    Raúl let a shaking laugh rise from his belly and saluted Máximo with a domino piece.

    "A good one, my friend."

    Carlos laughed long and loud. Antonio laughed too, but he was careful not to laugh too hard and he gave his friend a sharp look over the racket he was causing. He and Carlos were Dominican, not Cuban, and they ate their same foods and played their same games, but Antonio knew they still didn't understand all the layers of hurt in the Cubans' jokes.

* * *

It had been Raúl's idea to go down to Domino Park that first time. Máximo protested. He had seen the rows of tourists pressed up against the fence, gawking at the colorful old guys playing dominos.

    "I'm not going to be the sad spectacle in someone's vacation slide show," he'd said.

    But Raúl was already dressed up in a pale blue guayabera, saying how it was a beautiful day and smell the air.

    "Let them take pictures," Raúl said. "What the hell. Make us immortal."

    "Immortal," Máximo said like a sneer. And then to himself, The gods' punishment.

It was that year after Rosa died and Máximo didn't want to tell how he'd begun to see her at the kitchen table as she'd been at twenty-five. Watched one thick strand of her dark hair stuck to her morning face. He saw her at thirty, bending down to wipe the chocolate off the cheeks of their two small daughters. And his eyes moved from Rosa to his small daughters. He had something he needed to tell them. He saw them grown up, at the funeral, crying together. He watched Rosa rise and do the sign of the cross. He knew he was caught inside a nightmare, but he couldn't stop. He would emerge slowly, creaking out of the shower and there she'd be, Rosa, like before, her breasts round and pink from the hot water, calling back through the years. Some mornings he would awake and smell peanuts roasting and hear the faint call of the manicero pleading for someone to relieve his burden of white paper cones. Or it would be thundering, the long hard thunder of Miami that was so much like the thunder of home that each rumble shattered the morning of his other life. He would awake, caught fast in the damp sheets, and feel himself falling backwards.

    He took the number eight bus to Eighth Street and 15th Avenue. At Domino Park, he sat with Raúl and they played alone that first day, Máximo noticing his own speckled hands, the spots of light through the banyan leaves, a round red beetle that crawled slowly across the table, then hopped the next breeze and floated away.

* * *

Antonio and Carlos were not Cuban, but they knew when to dump their heavy pieces and when to hold back the eights for the final shocking stroke. Waiting for a table, Raúl and Máximo would linger beside them and watch them lay their traps, a succession of threes that broke their opponents, an incredible run of fives. Even the unthinkable: passing when they had the piece to play.

    Other twosomes began to refuse to play with the Dominicans, said that tipo Carlos gave them the creeps with his giggling and monosyllables. Besides, any team that won so often must be cheating, went the charge, especially a team one-half imbecile. But really it was that no one plays to lose. You begin to lose again and again and it reminds you of other things in your life, the despair of it all begins to bleed through and that is not what games are for. Who wants to live their whole life alongside the lucky? But Máximo and Raúl liked these blessed Dominicans, appreciated the well-oiled moves of two old pros. And if the two Dominicans, afraid to be alone again, let them win now and then, who would know, who could ever admit to such a thing?

    For many months they didn't know much about each other, these four men. Even the smallest boy knew not to talk when the pieces were in play. But soon came Máximo's jokes during the shuffling, something new and bright coming into his eyes like daydreams as he spoke. Carlos' full loud laughter, like that of children. And the four men learned to linger long enough between sets to color an old memory while the white pieces scraped along the table.

    One day as they sat at their table closest to the sidewalk, a pretty girl walked by. She swung her long brown hair around and looked in at the men with her green eyes.

    "What the hell is she looking at," said Antonio, who always sat with his back to the wall, looking out at the street. But the others saw how he returned the stare too.

    Carlos let out a giggle and immediately put a hand to his mouth.

    "In Santo Domingo, a man once looked at—" But Carlos didn't get to finish.

    "Shut up, you old idiot," said Antonio, putting his hands on the table like he was about to get up and leave.

    "Please," Máximo said.

    The girl stared another moment, then turned and left. Raúl rose slowly, flattening down his oiled hair with his right hand.

    "Ay, mi niña."

    "Sit down, hombre," Antonio said. "You're an old fool, just like this one."

    "You're the fool," Raúl called back. "A woman like that ..." He watched the girl cross the street. When she was out of sight, he grabbed the back of the chair behind him and eased his body down, his eyes still on the street. The other three men looked at one another.

    "I knew a woman like that once," Raúl said after a long moment.

    "That's right, he did," Antonio said, "in his moist boy dreams—what was it? A century ago?"

    "No me jodas," Raúl said. "You are a vulgar man. I had a life all three of you would have paid millions for. Women."

    Máximo watched him, then lowered his face, shuffled the dominos.

    "I had women," Raúl said.

    "We all had women," Carlos said, and he looked like he was about to laugh again, but instead just sat there, smiling like he was remembering one of Máximo's jokes.

    "There was one I remember. More beautiful than the rising moon," Raúl said.

    "Oh Jesus," Antonio said. "You people."

    Máximo looked up, watching Raúl.

    "Ay, a woman like that," Raúl said and shook his head. "The women of Cuba were radiant, magnificent, wouldn't you say, professor?"

    Máximo looked away.

    "I don't know," Antonio said. "I think that Americana there looked better than anything you remember."

    And that brought a long laugh from Carlos.

Máximo sat all night at the pine table in his new efficiency, thinking about the green-eyed girl and wondering why he was thinking about her. The table and a narrow bed had come with the apartment, which he'd moved into after selling their house in Shenandoah. The table had come with two chairs, sturdy and polished—not in the least institutional—but he had moved the other chair by the bed.

    The landlady, a woman in her forties, had helped Máximo haul up three potted palms. Later, he bought a green pot of marigolds he saw in the supermarket and brought its butter leaves back to life under the window's eastern light. Máximo often sat at the table through the night, sometimes reading Martí, sometimes listening to the rain on the tin hull of the air conditioner.

    When you are older, he'd read somewhere, you don't need as much sleep. And wasn't that funny because his days felt more like sleep than ever. Dinner kept him occupied for hours, remembering the story of each dish. Sometimes, at the table, he greeted old friends and awakened with a start when they reached out to touch him. When dawn rose and slunk into the room sideways through the blinds, Máximo walked as in a dream across the thin patterns of light on the terrazzo. The chair, why did he keep the other chair? Even the marigolds reminded him. An image returned again and again. Was it the green-eyed girl?

    And then he remembered that Rosa wore carnations in her hair and hated her name. And that it saddened him because he liked to roll it off his tongue like a slow train to the country.

    "Rosa," he said, taking her hand the night they met at La Concha while an old danzón played.

    "Clavel," she said, tossing her head back in a crackling laugh. "Call me Clavel."

    She pulled her hand away and laughed again. "Don't you notice the flower in a girl's hair?"

    He led her around the dance floor, lined with chaperones, and when they turned he whispered that he wanted to follow her laughter to the moon. She laughed again, the notes round and heavy as summer raindrops, and Máximo felt his fingers go cold where they touched hers. The danzón played and they turned and turned and the faces of the chaperones and the moist warm air—and Máximo with his cold fingers worried that she had laughed at him. He was twenty-four and could not imagine a more sorrowful thing in all the world.

    Sometimes, years later, he would catch a premonition of Rosa in the face of his eldest daughter. She would turn toward a window or do something with her eyes. And then she would smile and tilt her head back and her laughter connected him again to that night, made him believe for a moment that life was a string you could gather up in your hands all at once.

    He sat at the table and tried to remember the last time he saw Marisa. In California now. An important lawyer. A year? Two? Anabel, gone to New York? Two years? They called more often than most children, Máximo knew. They called often and he was lucky that way.

* * *

"Fidel decides he needs to get in touch with young people."

    "Ay, ay, ay."

    "So his handlers arrange for him to go to a school in Havana. He gets all dressed up in his olive uniform, you know, puts conditioner on his beard and brushes it one hundred times, all that."

    Raúl breathed out, letting each breath come out like a puff of laughter. "Where do you get these things?"

    "No interrupting the artist anymore, okay?" Máximo continued. "So after he's beautiful enough, he goes to the school. He sits in on a few classes, walks around the halls. Finally, it's time for Fidel to leave and he realizes he hasn't talked to anyone. He rushes over to the assembly that is seeing him off with shouts of 'Comandante!' and he pulls a little boy out of a row. 'Tell me,' Fidel says, 'what is your name?' 'Pepito,' the little boy answers. 'Pepito—what a nice name,' Fidel says. 'And tell me, Pepito, what do you think of the revolution?' 'Comandante,' Pepito says, 'the revolution is the reason we are all here.' 'Ah, very good, Pepito. And tell me, what is your favorite subject?' Pepito answers, 'Comandante, my favorite subject is mathematics.' Fidel pats the little boy on the head. 'And tell me, Pepito, what would you like to be when you grow up?' Pepito smiles and says, 'Comandante, I would like to be a tourist.'"

    Máximo looked around the table, a shadow of a smile on his thin white lips as he waited for the laughter.

    "Ay," Raúl said. "That is so funny it breaks my heart."

* * *

Máximo grew to like dominos, the way each piece became part of the next. After the last piece was laid down and they were tallying up the score, Máximo liked to look over the table as an artist might. He liked the way the row of black dots snaked around the table with such free-flowing abandon it was almost as if, thrilled to be let out of the box, the pieces choreographed a fresh dance of gratitude every night. He liked the straightforward contrast of black on white. The clean, fresh scrape of the pieces across the table before each new round. The audacity of the double nines. The plain smooth face of the blank, like a newborn unetched by the world to come.

    "Professor," Raúl began. "Let's speed up the shuffling a bit, sí?"

    "I was thinking," Máximo said.

    "Well, that shouldn't take long," Antonio said.

    "Who invented dominos, anyway?" Máximo said.

    "I'd say it was probably the Chinese," Antonio said.

    "No jodas," Raúl said. "Who else could have invented this game of skill and intelligence but a Cuban?"

    "Coño," said Antonio without a smile. "Here we go again."

    "Ah, bueno," Raúl said with a smile stuck between joking and condescending. "You don't have to believe it if it hurts."

    Carlos let out a long laugh.

    "You people are unbelievable," said Antonio. But there was something hard and tired behind the way he smiled.

* * *

It was the first day of December, but summer still hung about in the brightest patches of sunlight. The four men sat under the shade of the banyan tree. It wasn't cold, not even in the shade, but three of the men wore cardigans. If asked, they would say they were expecting a chilly north wind and doesn't anybody listen to the weather forecasts anymore. Only Antonio, his round body enough to keep him warm, clung to the short sleeves of summer.

    Kids from the local Catholic high school had volunteered to decorate the park for Christmas and they dashed about with tinsel in their hair, bumping one another and laughing loudly. Lucinda, the woman who issued the dominos and kept back the gambling, asked them to quiet down, pointing at the men. A wind stirred the top branches of the banyan tree and moved on without touching the ground. One leaf fell to the table.

    Antonio waited for Máximo to fetch Lucinda's box of plastic pieces. Antonio held his brown paper bag to his chest and looked at the Cubans, his customary sourness replaced for a moment by what in a man like him could pass for levity. Máximo sat down and began to dump the plastic pieces on the table as he always did. But this time, Antonio held out his hand.

    "One moment," he said and shook his brown paper bag.

    "¿Qué pasa, chico?" Máximo said.

    Antonio reached into the paper bag as the men watched. He let the paper fall away. In his hand he held an oblong black leather box.

    "Coñooo," Raúl said.

    Antonio set the box on the table, like a magician drawing out his trick. He looked around to the men and finally opened the box with a flourish to reveal a neat row of big heavy pieces, gone yellow and smooth like old teeth. They bent in closer to look. Antonio tilted the box gently and the pieces fell out in one long line, their black dots facing up now like tight dark pupils in the sunlight.

    "Ivory," Antonio said. "And ebony. It's an antique. You're not allowed to make them anymore."

    "Beautiful," Carlos said and clasped his hands.

    "My daughter found them for me in New Orleans," Antonio continued, ignoring Carlos.

    He looked around the table and lingered on Máximo, who had lowered the box of plastic dominos to the ground.

    "She said she's been searching for them for two years. Couldn't wait two more weeks to give them to me," he said.

    "Coñooo," Raúl said.

    A moment passed.

    "Well," Antonio said, "what do you think, Máximo?"

    Máximo looked at him. Then he bent across the table to touch one of the pieces. He gave a jerk with his head and listened for the traffic. "Very nice," he said.

    "Very nice?" Antonio said. "Very nice?" He laughed in his thin way. "My daughter walked all over New Orleans to find this and the Cuban thinks it's 'very nice'?" He paused, watching Máximo. "Did you know my daughter is coming to visit me for Christmas, Máximo? Maybe you can tell her that her gift was very nice, but not as nice as some you remember, eh?"

    Máximo looked up, his eyes settling on Carlos, who looked at Antonio and then looked away.

    "Calm down, hombre," Carlos said, opening his arms wide, a nervous giggle beginning in his throat. "What's gotten into you?"

    Antonio waved his hand and sat down. A diesel truck rattled down Eighth Street, headed for downtown.

    "My daughter is a district attorney in Los Angeles," Máximo said after the noise of the truck died. "December is one of the busiest months."

    He felt a heat behind his eyes he had not felt in many years.

    "Feel one in your hand," Antonio said. "Feel how heavy that is."

* * *

When the children were small, Máximo and Rosa used to spend Nochebuena with his cousins in Cárdenas. It was a five-hour drive from Havana in the cars of those days. They would rise early on the twenty-third and arrive by mid-afternoon so Máximo could help the men kill the pig for the feast the following night. Máximo and the other men held the squealing, squirming animal down, its wiry brown coat cutting into their gloveless hands. But God, they were intelligent creatures. No sooner did it spot the knife than the animal bolted out of their arms, screaming like Armageddon. It had become the subtext to the Nochebuena tradition, this chasing of the terrified pig through the yard, dodging orange trees and rotting fruit underneath. The children were never allowed to watch, Rosa made sure. They sat indoors with the women and stirred the black beans. With loud laughter, they shut out the shouts of the men and the hysterical pleadings of the animal as it was dragged back to its slaughter.

* * *

"Juanito the little dog gets off the boat from Cuba and decides to take a little stroll down Brickell Avenue."

     "Let me make sure I understand the joke. Juanito is a dog. Bowwow."

    "That's pretty good."

    "Yes, Juanito is a dog, goddamn it."

    Raúl looked up, startled.

    Máximo shuffled the pieces hard and swallowed. He swung his arms across the table in wide, violent arcs. One of the pieces flew off the table.

    "Hey, hey, watch it with that, what's wrong with you?"

    Máximo stopped. He felt his heart beating. "I'm sorry," he said. He bent over the edge of the table to see where the piece had landed. "Wait a minute." He held the table with one hand and tried to stretch to pick up the piece.

    "What are you doing?"

    "Just wait a minute." When he couldn't reach, he stood, pulled the piece toward him with his foot, sat back down, and reached for it again, this time grasping it between his fingers and his palm. He put it facedown on the table with the others and shuffled, slowly, his mind barely registering the traffic.

    "Where was I—Juanito the little dog, right, bowwow." Máximo took a deep breath. "He's just off the boat from Cuba and is strolling down Brickell Avenue. He's looking up at all the tall and shiny buildings. 'Coñoo,' he says, dazzled by all the mirrors. 'There's nothing like this in Cuba.'"

    "Hey, hey, professor. We had tall buildings."

    "Jesus Christ!" Máximo said. He pressed his thumb and forefinger into the corners of his eyes. "This is after Castro, then. Let me just get it out for Christ's sake."

    He stopped shuffling. Raúl looked away.

    "Ready now? Juanito the little dog is looking up at all the tall buildings and he's so happy to finally be in America because all his cousins have been telling him what a great country it is, right? You know, they were sending back photos of their new cars and girlfriends."

    "A joke about dogs who drive cars—I've heard it all."

    "Hey, they're Cuban super-dogs."

    "All right, they're sending back photos of their new owners or the biggest bones any dog has ever seen. Anything you like. Use your imaginations." Máximo stopped shuffling. "Where was I?"

    "You were at the part where Juanito buys a Rolls-Royce."

    The men laughed.

    "Okay, Antonio, why don't you three fools continue the joke." Máximo got up from the table. "You've made me forget the rest of it."

    "Aw, come on, chico, sit down, don't be so sensitive."

Meet the Author

Ana Menéndez is the daughter of Cuban exiles who fled to Los Angeles in the 1960s and married a few months after meeting at a Cuban social club in Glendale. Menéndez worked as a journalist for six years, first at The Miami Herald, where she covered Little Havana, and later with The Orange County Register in California. She is a graduate of NYU's creative writing program, where she was a New York Times fellow. In Cuba I
Was a German Shepherd has been translated into eight languages.

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In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
MDTuck More than 1 year ago
I bought this book of short stories because I was enthralled with Ana Menendez's novel, Loving Che. The short stories do not have the same intensity or appeal. I hope that she will write another novel as her writing is very good.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a fascinating look into the Cuban-American culture. Menendez's language is gentle and flowing, almost like poetry. The chapters are individual stories, but somehow all connected. I enjoyed trying to figure out who was who and even went back through the novel to take notes. Challenging but gentle, thought-provoking but familiar, and highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago