The guard stood at the kitchen counter, breaking apart cloves of garlic. Ernesto watched as she lined them up in a straight line like soldiers. She picked up a broad knife, placed it flat over the first clove, and smashed it with her fist, crushing the innards. Then she squashed the next one. Ernesto jumped a little each time. She scooped up the pulp with the blade and dropped it in a pot. He’d observed her carefully when she came in tonight—watched her lock the thick door, and put the keys in the back of a drawer where she worked. She was new, but there was something familiar about her. Ernesto watched her silently.
The smell of garlic reminded him of watching Regla cook when he was a child. He’d cross the breezeway that separated the main house from the kitchen to join her. He never felt lonely when he was in Regla’s kitchen. Ernesto thought the warm, square room was more alive than the rest of the house even though they were the only two there. Regla was tall and lean; her tidy hair always held up by a white scarf. Ernesto can’t remember a day of his childhood without her cooking a meal for him. You’ve been eating my food since you were in your mother’s womb. Sometimes she said it as an endearment, sometimes as a scold. She always had something bubbling, simmering, or steaming on the large, black stove that owned the wall to the left of the entrance door. On the right wall, he remembered, were shelves. On the top one sat a circular, oscillating fan, on the bottom one a radio; both where always on. The fan cooled the room and spread the smells of onions, roasted meats, fried fish, eggy flans and custards. On the radio, Regla listened to las novelas—stories of love and bravery—or to music. When she wasn’t singing along to songs, she was whistling to melodies.
She had taught him to whistle.
Whistling had kept him sane when he was in solitary. He’d paced the four-foot length of his cell back and forth until he made himself dizzy. He stared at the blank, gray walls, discovering that if he stared without blinking, his vision blurred, and his mind projected scenes—the Calle Central of his town, the shore of his favorite beach, and the kitchen of his childhood home—he saw himself young, and safe, and never hungry. Then he whistled “El Manicero,” “Guantanamera,” all the Benny Moré songs that came to mind, and anything else he could remember—tune after tune after tune until his lips were parched and cracked, and his cheeks ached.
The guard placed a plate with a plump chicken thigh and a serving of yellow rice before him. “Eat.”
He was hungry, and it smelled like Regla’s cooking, but he pushed it away.
“Look,” she said. “Está bien.” She picked up a knife and fork, cut a small piece of the chicken, and scooped up some rice.
He watched her chew and swallow.
“It’s safe. It won’t hurt you.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten, but he’d learned to be cautious. Two, three times, his plate of rice and beans had been tainted with laxatives—enough laxatives to leave him writhing in pain on the floor of his cell, unable to control his bowels, no toilet, no one responding to his pleas for help, soiling himself, left with his own unbearable mess and stench for days.
Ernesto followed the guard’s example; he, too, cut a small piece of chicken and scooped a bit of rice. His hand trembled from a combination of age and fear as he brought it to his mouth.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
Ernesto nodded. He chewed slowly and took another forkful.
“It’s your favorite. Just like Regla used to make it.”
Ernesto dropped his fork. “How do you know about Regla? Do you have her here, too?”
“No. Regla has been gone a long time now.”
“Then Regla is safe,” Ernesto said.
The woman poured him a glass of water. “Regla has been gone for a very long time, and you’re safe. Look, your water is also safe.” She took a sip of water. “Now, drink.”
Regla was gone. Had they arrested her when they arrested him? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember if she had been at the house when they came for him. They’d burst in with rifles, the militiamen in their green fatigues. One hit him on the temple with a rifle butt when he tried to shield Eugenia. Where was Eugenia? His beautiful Eugenia.
She hadn’t been to visit in a long time.
“My wife’s name is Eugenia,” he said. “They must be prohibiting her from seeing me.”
The guard smiled and said nothing.
“Maybe she’s had trouble with transportation. The buses don’t run the way they used to from our town to La Habana. Las Palmeras. Do you know it? It’s right on the coast.” Ernesto carefully cut a piece of meat away from the bone, and ate it. “That’s where I first met my Eugenia—by the water.” He reached for his glass and drank.
He’d gone with his friend, Benito, to the boardwalk that curved along one side of the bay. Fried fish and cold beer—that’s what they’d wanted that Saturday. He’d worn a crisp white linen guayabera Regla had ironed for him that morning. It smelled of starch. Benito wanted to eat at El Paraíso Verde because he liked the outside tables with green canvas umbrellas. Besides, they had the best fried grouper in town. They’d sat down and ordered beers, when Eugenia and two other women—one young and one old—sat at the next table. The old one was Doña Amparo, the dentist’s wife. He and Benito greeted her cordially, commenting on the pleasantness of the day. Doña Amparo introduced her nieces, visiting from the mountains, she said. Eugenia and her sister planned on spending the entire summer with her, enjoying the salty sea air. He remembered how Doña Amparo’s voice had said aire salobre, as if she’d been waiting, practicing for just the exact moment to let the words fly from her lips, like flower petals cast to float in the breeze.
Eugenia wore a yellow dress and a white straw hat trimmed with a ribbon of the same yellow. She looked like a daisy, Ernesto thought. A perfect, beautiful, happy daisy.
He asked for Eugenia’s hand in marriage at the end of the summer. It was 1955. Two years later, his daughter Eugenita was born.
“I have a daughter,” he told the guard. “She was seven when I was arrested. She comes to visit me with her mother. She’s a good girl. Eugenia says she is a big help, standing in the lines when the rations come. Eugenia is thin. I don’t think she’s eating enough. I think she saves her rations to bring to me.” Ernesto dropped his fork. “Did Eugenia bring this chicken? I ate it all. Poor thing is probably going hungry, and look what I did?” Ernesto covered his mouth with his hands. “I ate my family’s chicken. I ate my family’s chicken.”
“No, no. I brought the chicken. I came in with it. Remember? I brought it in a bag.”
“You came in with a bag.”
“That’s right. I had the chicken in the bag.”
“When you killed the garlic?”
“With your knife. Like this.” Ernesto pounded the table with his fist.
“Crushed. I crushed the garlic. I didn’t kill it.”
“They were going to kill me,” Ernesto said. “The milicianos. When they took me. They wanted to know where Benito was. You see,” Ernesto whispered, “I can tell you now because I know he’s dead. I know because Eugenia told me. They wanted to know where Benito was. If they could find Benito, they could find the rest of the group. Benito was involved with a group of counter-revolutionaries.” Ernesto brought a finger to his lips, letting her know they had to be quiet. “He wanted me to work with him. But I was afraid. Not for me.” He sat up straight and pounded his chest with his palm. “For my family, of course, for my wife and my daughter. He was my best friend. They didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe I didn’t know where Benito was. They covered my eyes like this.” He placed his napkin over his face. “They ask me again, ‘Dónde está Benito?’ Again, I say, ‘I don’t know.’ I hear them say: ‘Aim!’ I hear the rifles cock. I brace myself. I hear: ‘Fire!’ The bullets don’t hit me, but I fall to the ground anyway. The soldiers, they just laughed. The one in charge tells them to put me in a cell to think, because the next time, they won’t shoot the bullets over my head. That was my first time in solitary.”
“Let’s not talk about that anymore. That was a long time ago. Finish eating.”
“We have to talk about it. You have to know because—”
“I already know.”
“You have to know, because, I see. I see you bring me good food, therefore, you must be a good person in your heart. You have to be careful. You can be innocent, like me, and still be locked up. The way I am, for no reason. There is no justice. Do you believe in justice?”
“I try to believe in justice.”
“Then, please, you must let me out. Do what is in your heart. Think of my daughter, my Eugenita. Imagine the struggles of my wife. I ask for them, not for me. The soldiers took my freedom. They took my right as a man. What kind of man can’t take care of his family? What kind of man leaves them unprotected? They try to crush me.” Ernesto pounded the counter with his fist. “Out! Let me out! Let me out!” He pounded the counter harder and harder.
“Viejo, stop! Stop. You’re getting agitated. Vamos, stop. Come, Papi, ven, come sit over here. I’ll turn music on. How about the boleros, eh? The boleros are soothing. You like the love songs. Right, Papi?”
“Sí, Papi. Eugenita. We’ll go out tomorrow. The weather wasn’t good today, but tomorrow, there’s no rain. I’ll take you out. Do you want to drive to Clearwater? We can walk the beach. You always like the beach.”
A thump awakened Eugenita—a soggy tree limb falling on the roof—it had rained all day, and yesterday, and the day before. The summer rainstorm had left the neighborhood littered with oak and pine twigs, small branches, strands of Spanish moss. She’d dozed off reading the closed captions on the TV while Benny Moré songs played in the background. The music calmed her father, but she’d grown sick of it; the same old songs over and over again. It played at a doctor’s office level, just loud enough to silence the silence. Eugenita uncoiled herself from the corner of the couch, placed her feet on the carpet and sat up. Her vision suddenly went dark and cleared up just as quickly. When the head-rush passed, Eugenita rubbed her temples. She was exhausted.
Bad-weather days were the worst. On days when she could take her father out of the house, even if only for a short time, he was calmer. Where to take him was becoming more of a problem. Interacting with non-Spanish speakers frustrated him. Her father had lost his ability to speak English, word by word. He used to enjoy walking around the mall, window-shopping, stopping for coffee or a smoothie, but now the crowds made him anxious and nervous. Parks were fine, but only during school hours when they tended to be mostly empty. Her father was comfortable as long as there weren’t too many children playing sports, laughing, or squealing. She’d learned from experience that she could always take him two places: the beach, because even when crowded, he became mesmerized gazing at the water, and the cemetery, with its stillness that prompted visitors to whisper. But, while the cemetery brought her father serenity, it made her melancholy.
His mind had been slowly deteriorating for several years, but it had taken a precipitous downward spiral fifteen months back with her mother’s death. She had been his grounding force; the anchor that kept his anxiety at bay when he forgot things, confused people, and finally, became unable to venture out alone because he got lost.
Her mother, mi bella Eugenia, as he called her even on the rare occasions when they argued, had always been the stabilizing presence in her father’s life. It was she who had kept him alive during the six years he’d been unjustly imprisoned in Cuba, never missing a visitation, bringing him supplies even if they had to do without at home; it was she who, as if by the sheer force of her presence, imbued him with the spirit to survive. After those six long years, when he was released, thin and hollow-eyed, it was her mother who calmed his sweaty, screaming nightmares with cool towels and herbal teas. And it was her mother who hustled, scrambled, bribed, and made sure that in 1980, when hundreds of boats departed Mariel, they were on one.
Eugenita turned off the television and made herself get up to check on her father. Days like today, when he was particularly distressed and his mind lost its weak grip on reality, exhausted him. They exhausted her, too. At first, she’d tried to correct him, bring him back to the present, attempting to keep him grounded. But often that distressed him further, and it taxed her patience and her nerves. Sometimes she wished his brain worked like the old radios—when they failed to tune in to the correct frequency, a couple of whacks on the side tended to do the trick. Not that she ever wanted to hit her father. Coño, obviously—just that maybe a small whack that took him back to reality would be a blessing compared to the countless times she listened to his repeated stories, or the countless times she repeated herself trying to bring him back.
In the dim living room, Eugenita picked up the newspaper that had fallen from the couch to the carpet, folded the green throw she’d wrapped around her shoulders, and turned off the music. She made her way upstairs, in the narrow house where she’d lived for most of her adult life. She’d moved back in three years ago to help when her mother became ill. It was time. Her mother had asked repeatedly, when she was strong and healthy, not because she’d wanted Eugenita’s help, but because she wanted to help Eugenita.
Years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, while on their way to catch a movie matinee, Eugenita and her husband, Paul, had been plowed into on the driver’s side by a pickup truck that ran a red light. Eugenita walked away with broken bones: three ribs, a clavicle, and an arm that still bothered her on damp days like today. Paul hadn’t walked away at all. Against her parents’ urgings, Eugenita continued to live alone in the home she’d shared with her husband. She’d married late—very late, according to her culture. She had been well into her thirties when she’d met her shy husband at an evening computer class at the community college. Eugenita was shy, too, especially around men. She was twenty-three when she arrived from Cuba. She’d found the pace of her new country fast—everything was fast—fast food, fast traffic, fast checkout. At the time, she couldn’t comprehend why everyone was in such a hurry any more than she could understand the language. Paul was soft-spoken, and gentle. He liked the way she made café con leche in a pot on the stove, heating the milk slowly so it wouldn’t boil over before adding the steaming dark coffee. He liked that she was a helpful daughter who still lived at home with her parents.
After her bones healed, Eugenita returned to her job, and eventually learned that what people said was true—that crushing grief ebbs to a dull ache. She established a peaceful routine that worked for her quiet ways, surrounded by the memories of her husband. She continued to sleep in the bed where he’d taught her how to make love, and to shower in the bathroom they’d wallpapered together.
All the lights were on upstairs. It was her father’s habit; he’d come to hate the dark. At the top of the landing, Eugenita toggled down the dimmer switch she’d installed to provide her father with sufficient light if he awoke in the middle of the night. She’d done the same in her parents’ bedroom. She entered it now, automatically reaching for the light switch, and was stunned to find her father’s bed empty and unslept in.
“Papi!” Eugenita rushed to the bathroom adjacent to the master bedroom. Like the bedroom, its lights were on, but it was empty.
Calling for her father, she checked her own room, and the third one: the combination guest bedroom, sewing room, and office that stored suitcases, the vacuum cleaner, and an ironing board.
Eugenita headed downstairs, calling for her father. The front door was still locked. She went to the side door that led from the kitchen to the carport and to the backyard. It, too, was locked. She rattled the door, muttering, no, no, no. She’d had interior/exterior, key-locking bolts installed months ago, the second time her father wandered out alone and got lost. The first time, he’d left the house midday while she’d been preoccupied at the computer. A neighbor, two streets down, had found him and walked him back before she’d even realized he was gone. The second time was at early evening, when she’d gone in for a shower after dinner, and came out to find him missing. She’d circled the neighborhood in her car and found him a few streets away.
Eugenita went to the kitchen drawer where she kept the key, and it was gone, as she suspected. She thought she’d been careful. She hadn’t realized he’d seen her hide it. She kept it there for easy access, for herself and for Arnold, the home care assistant who came for a couple of hours every day to help her father shave and bathe, and to watch him when she needed to do errands around town. Running upstairs to retrieve the duplicate key she kept in her nightstand, Eugenita didn’t know what surprised her more: that her father had paid attention to her stowing the key, or that he’d remembered it after the fact.
The wet roads glistened under the streetlights as Eugenita drove slowly around the neighborhood. From the open car window, she called for her father as if calling for a lost pet. Silently she prayed to find him okay. How far could he have gone? How long had he been gone? How long had she been asleep? Damn it. The last three days he’d been worse. When he started rambling about his youth, she marveled at the details that he remembered. And when his mind drifted to his imprisoned years, his fear and despair were palpable. Paranoia and fear of persecution came with the dementia, but that was amplified by her father’s history. The horrors he’d endured were real. Now, he insisted on keeping the living room window curtains, which opened to the front lawn, closed at all times, and peered through the edges of the drawn curtains routinely to make sure no one was watching the house. If he heard people talking on the front sidewalk or on the street, he was certain they were looking for him. Her father kept a small duffle bag in his closet packed with a change of clothes, a flashlight, matches, and cans of Libby’s Vienna Sausages—survival essentials.
After one cruise around the neighborhood proved fruitless, Eugenita decided that if she didn’t find him after one more go-around, she’d call the police. She hated to do that. Uniforms terrified him now. When a bank security officer had opened the door for them recently, she’d seen her father cower in fear.
“Where are you? Where are you?” Eugenita whispered between loud calls of “Papi!”
On impulse and out of desperation, she called Arnold. Ten months ago, he’d been a godsend. He was strong enough to be forceful, and gentle enough to appease her father’s anxiety. Arnold, born to a Cuban mother and a Puerto Rican father, also spoke the right dialect to coax her father into doing what he needed.
“Papi, stay still so I can trim those nails of yours. What? You planning on digging boniatos for dinner with them? Vamos, chico, chin-chan, and I finish.”
“I told you,” Arnold said. “I told you he’s much worse.”
“It’s the rain.”
“Ay, mija, it is not just rain, chica. Seriously, he needs to be in a facility full time. His doctors told you. I told you. And why do you think? Because I like talking myself out of a good gig? Por Dios.”
A faint cry escaped Eugenita.
“Okay, chica, never mind now. Look, you keep driving around. We know he’ll do better if you find him. Keep calling out for him, but call the police. I’ll head for the house in case he comes back. I can be there in fifteen.”
Eugenita called 9-1-1 as Arnold insisted. Then, she drove the neighborhood again, going up and down each street slowly. She ventured farther, to the park adjacent to the nearby elementary school, where they sometimes went for walks. Nothing. By now he could be anywhere. She circled back around.
This was her fault. Arnold was right. The doctors had said months ago it was time for a full-time care facility. She hadn’t wanted to do that to her father. She hadn’t wanted to hand him over to the care of strangers. But was what she was doing any kinder? Keeping him locked in his own home? If she was honest with herself, she had to question if she was doing this for her father or for herself.
Eugenita started when her cell phone rang. Two police officers in a cruiser had spotted her father about two miles away from her house. He was unhurt but distraught. They didn’t want to force him into the cruiser. Did he speak English? He didn’t seem to understand.
When Eugenita approached them, she saw the police car with its lights on, and her father sitting on the sidewalk curb, clutching his duffle bag.
Her father stood up when he saw her. “Eugenia! Run! I escaped and they found me. Run! They will arrest you, too.”
Eugenita decided the fastest way to calm him was to follow his lead. “It’s okay, Ernesto. They’re friends. Counter-revolutionaries in disguise. On a secret mission,” she whispered in Spanish. “And they’re going to let you come with me.”
Eugenita took her father by the elbow. She showed her identification to the officers. Yes, her father had spoken English at one time, but now it was all gone. No, taking him to the hospital tonight wasn’t necessary. Yes, she had the name of his doctor for the report. Yes, she was looking into full-care facilities. Yes, a social worker could follow up with her. Whatever was necessary. The important thing was to get him home. His pants were wet from sitting on the ground. His shoes were soaked from walking through puddles.
Arnold was waiting at the house when they returned. He helped Eugenita get her father cleaned up and ready for bed.
“My wife is very brave,” her father told Arnold as they got him into bed. “She saved me from the milicianos.”
“Yes,” Arnold said. He pulled a blanket from the foot of the bed over her father’s legs, up to his chest, and then, as if crimping dough around the rim of a pie, he tucked the fleece snugly beneath the outline of his body. “Sleep, now.”
Eugenita nodded agreement and patted her father’s head. “That’s right, sleep now. You’re safe.” She turned off the lamp on the nightstand.
“Don’t turn off the lights,” her father said.
“No, not all. I’ll just turn them down a little, just enough to help you sleep.”
Eugenita dimmed the overhead lights as she left the bedroom.
Downstairs, Arnold followed Eugenita into the kitchen.
“How about some coffee?” she asked.
“No. It’s pretty late. I’d better—”
“Wine? A glass of wine?” Eugenita reached for glasses before Arnold could answer.
He sat at the table in the same spot where, earlier that evening, she’d fed her father.
She poured a couple of inches of wine into a glass and placed it before him. “Thank you, for everything, de veras, Arnold, thank you.”
“No sweat, chica. I’m just glad he was found okay. Your father thinks you are your mother. You must be a lot like her to remind him of her this much.”
Eugenita didn’t respond. She was nothing like her mother. Her mother faced the world head on and did whatever needed to be done. Eugenita had closed herself off after Paul was gone. She’d made her world smaller still when her mother became ill. She’d retired early. Eugenita had felt comfortable in the cocoon of her parents’ house. Taking care of one and then the other, she’d convinced herself, was enough. She hadn’t kept her father home for him; she’d kept him home for herself.
“I’ll start looking into full-care facilities tomorrow,” she said to Arnold. “I’ll arrange to check them out in person when you’re here with him.”
When Arnold left, Eugenita locked the door behind him, and put the key in her pocket. In the quiet kitchen, she picked up the empty wine glasses, wondering what and whom she’d remember when she got to be her father’s age. A few drops of wine had fallen on the pinewood table. She thought it looked like blood and wiped it off with the palm of her hand. She rubbed one hand with the other, and the trace of wine was gone. Then tears came to her eyes because she knew when her father died, there wouldn’t be anyone to remember her.