Joyland

Consulate |

Macho Grande In The Balcony

by René Vázquez Díaz translated by Sandra Kingery

Restituto was the most emaciated and inscrutable of all the boys in our group. Evasive like a majá snake and given to great meditative silences, he would gaze at people through immense eyes that were initially reminiscent of a sweet little girl’s but that quickly resulted menacing because they resembled those of a psychopath. The little old ladies from the surrounding barrio said he had the expression of a funeral director, and there was something to that. Restituto always seemed to be gauging the size and weight of people as if mentally designing a customized coffin for them. Our teachers said he possessed a prodigious intelligence. We were convinced he couldn’t be right in the head. Even though it’s been years since we were kids, I still remember him performing macabre scientific sessions in the shed in his yard. Scrawny, obsessive and wrapped in a shit- and blood-stained apron, Restituto spent a good deal of time dissecting live animals there. The apron, which had originally belonged to the corner baker, enveloped Restituto’s body like a shroud. His surgical tools at that time were razor blades, exquisitely sharpened penknives, some electrical clips, a coping saw for cutting bones and an outlandish arsenal of small scissors. “Here’s its heart,” muttered Restituto, referring to a chameleon that was splayed open on the shed’s sinister table. “Look at how fast it beats. And there’s the liver and small intestines.” Our friend, the miniscule little know-it-all, claimed that the creatures that fell into his grasp never suffered. He said he anesthetized them with Ron Caney rum that his father gave him or with a mixture of barbiturates, sleeping pills and anti-depressants he stole from his Aunt Blasina, who truly was crazy. Restituto injected his victims with a tiny little insulin needle and carried out comparative studies of the weight and length of their intestines. He would disembowel tadpoles one after another in an attempt to establish the exact moment of their metamorphosis and observe their transformation into frogs. When the May storms came, Restituto operated on the toads that invaded streets and yards. It was impressive to see the care with which he sliced the weak little creatures open to perform a methodical inspection of their nauseating entrails. Then, with revolting dexterity, he would sew up their monstrous wounds. That’s when his victims’ true martyrdom began because, rather than letting them die, he lavished all kinds of intensive care on them, using peroxide, mercurochrome and antibiotics to see how long they’d last and what the cause of death would be. But perhaps his most reprehensible scientific activity was his investigation into the mice whose intestines he weighed over and over again with who-knows-what sickly objective. It goes without saying that Restituto maintained meticulous statistics about the proceedings and the animals’ postoperative complications, noting the course of any infection from his surgeries in the even handwriting of an obsessive notary. We called that revolting notebook The Martyrology of the Animals. So it wasn’t surprising that Restituto made money docking the tails of neighborhood dogs in accordance with the millimetric desires of their owners. For one peseta, he would mutilate the most hair-raising tarantulas or the most venomous scorpions, turning them into harmless living toys that you could put on your face so they would traipse around submissively and terrorize all the girls. One time during a fishing expedition, I got a hook stuck in my back when I was trying to cast. Luckily for me, Restituto was out there with us, and he took it out of me in no time at all, only needing one graceful, efficient slice. When they took me to the first-aid station to get a tetanus shot, the nurse was astonished by the beauty of Restituto’s operation. Another time, one of our neighbor’s puppies was tragically hit and killed by a bus. Restituto, by begging in the name of friendship and the needs of science, managed to get them to hand over the remains of that poor little creature. His mother, who was a perceptive and good-looking guajira, a country girl, with the spirit of a combative field marshal, shouted at him furiously that if he “got up to his disgusting tricks” with the dead dog, she would kick him out of the house for good. Restituto dug around as much as he pleased in the mysteries of the anatomy of the half-flattened puppy, while his mother shouted that she was going to call the police before it was too late, because she was convinced she had given birth to a degenerate. In the meantime, we were squirming with curiosity and disgust beneath the August sun, without daring to enter the disembowelment shed. Restituto’s parents were rural folks who had moved to Villalona from a town that was even more remote and brutal. They raised chickens, rabbits and pigs in their new yard, and Restituto was always the one in charge of sacrificing them when it came time to eat them. But as was to be expected, the slaughter was performed in a disturbing fashion because of the boy’s investigative instincts and icy lack of emotion. The sophisticated precision with which he slit throats, bled and carved up the bodies was unacceptable to the covetous, rustic and superstitious people of Villalona. Restituto’s manner of slaughtering the animals took on nearly clinical overtones and possessed the virtue of mysteriously satisfying the scientific appetites of the precocious surgeon. His father, defying his mother’s wishes, allowed and even encouraged those sordid training sessions. When the time came for our group of friends to move on, a far-sighted teacher managed to get Restituto a full scholarship to one of the best pre-college programs in Havana. At that point, his sharp-tongued mother finally understood that her son was a genius, not a degenerate, and that his talents promised him a future greatness far from the wretchedness of Villalona. This made her very afraid she would lose her only son forever, and in order to avoid that eventuality, she organized a fright campaign in order to undermine the boy’s self-esteem so he would stay put inside the decapitation shed. Restituto’s mother didn’t care if her boy remained in the village, reduced to a state of eternal mediocrity. Her dream was to keep him close at hand her whole life. “You’ll never amount to anything,” she sprang on him every day at breakfast. “You’re distracted, no one likes you and you’re too weak. You’ll never be able to deal with living all alone in Havana. Do you know what it means to have a scholarship, Restituto? Getting up at five in the morning to bathe and to iron your own clothes and never seeing your parents. You’ll come back home as repentant as a dog with its tail between its legs.” Restituto ignored these greetings with a calmness that left his good mother with the bad tongue on the verge of exploding: “If you go, I want you to know you’ve signed your own goddamn mother’s death sentence, you ungrateful piece of mierda. Because I’m going to kill myself. We gave you everything, and I’m going to just keel right over out of frustration.” Restituto simply stared off into space, or he’d focus his funeral director gaze in an attempt to classify the dust particles that were floating by. The more the boy remained silent, the cruder his protective mother became: “It’s obvious you’re never going to make it, you shit-for-brains! Because who in God’s name is going to trust anyone named Doctor Restituto? It might as well be Doctor Rest-in-Peace!” In spite of his name, Restituto graduated as a surgeon from the School of Medicine at La Universidad de La Habana with the highest grades in his class. He immediately began working in the best hospitals in Cuba, spent a few years becoming a specialist in what used to be East Germany and, almost everywhere he went, fascinated his professors and colleagues with his outstanding skills. Before he turned thirty, Restituto already enjoyed a solid reputation as a brilliant specialist. Restituto enlisted in the Angolan Civil War for two simple reasons: he wanted to prove to himself that he could do it, and it gave him pleasure to go against the wishes of his mother and his work collective (as one of the best surgeons in the country, his death would have been a monumental waste). He directed a field hospital for two years, and the people who saw him say he always tried, with his habitual straightforwardness, to serve wherever the danger of shrapnel was at its worst and the battles the bloodiest. With the same terrifying efficiency he displayed in his dissection of chameleons and toads in Villalona, Restituto stood out in Angola for the bloodcurdling serenity with which he operated and amputated and saved lives. Only that this time, he was surrounded by explosions and gunshots beneath a camouflage canvas. He came back from the war draped in medals, and his parents—who could no longer stand living in Villalona, so far away from the fame and good fortune of “the family surgeon”—moved to Havana. But deep down, his parents were still country folks, and life in a tenth floor apartment in the Vedado neighborhood with a balcony facing Havana’s splendid coastline began to make them feel homesick. His mother continued talking with the rudeness of a foul-mouthed military commander while his father began to settle in to his new life. The first thing he did was buy an elegant yarey hat in a tourist boutique. They began to “work on” Restituto so he would let them raise chickens in the balcony overlooking the coast, the Malecón and the blue river of the Gulf Stream. But since the doctor usually brought his wife, his children and his friends from Havana’s medical establishment to visit his parents every weekend, the revolting idea of raising chickens on the balcony was simply unthinkable. “Well, we’ll raise rabbits then,” said the old man. “They multiply fast, and they’re delicious.” “If you even think about raising anything, I’ll never come back to this apartment again,” threatened Restituto, with a self-important air. However, with the advent of the economic hardships euphemistically labeled The Special Period in Times of Peace, the question of raising domestic animals in the Vedado seaside balcony also entered into a period of special reflection. Supplies, which used to be hard to come by, now began to disappear. Cooking grease. Meat. Milk. Vegetables, fish, beans, rice. Everything vanished, and Restituto, who had connections at all levels, tried to dodge the ups and downs of scarcity and shortages as well as possible. He not only had to bike to his operations beneath heavy rains or withstanding the very predictable Cuban sunshine; it also wasn’t easy to guarantee a minimum of culinary security for his own family and for his parents. But when they had to spend a New Year’s Eve not only without beer, but without pork, they weren’t able to keep their guard up for Fidel’s customary January 1st speech. The situation kept getting worse, and the doctor’s parents started complaining about it: “You can say whatever you want,” muttered his father, half hidden behind the brim of his yarey hat, “but when Grau San Martín and Prío Socarrás were president, at least there was pleasure enough to go around.” “Who would have thought that with Fidel there suddenly wouldn’t be anything for anybody?” responded his mother in the tone of voice of someone whose relative has just died. “Those jackasses have fucked everything up,” grumbled his father. “Now it’s the tourists who drink the beer, and the streets are full of whores who sell themselves off in exchange for a steak and fries.” “I suppose I’m too old to go out there with them. But what I wouldn’t give for a steak and fries!” “What hurts me most,” mused the old man, humanizing his sudden negativity a little, “is that some guy who parks cars over at the Hotel Nacional makes more than our own Doctor Restituto with all his surgeries.” One Sunday afternoon, when Restituto went to visit his beloved parents, he was confronted by an enormous bathtub sitting on the balcony bathed by a Northwest breeze. It was pretty beaten up but still in one piece. His father had gotten it on Paseo del Prado in exchange for a tape recorder, also pretty beaten up, that Restituto, in turn, had gotten one day in exchange for brown sugar at Luanda’s black market, the candonga. Dozing inside the tub on the balcony, there was an extraordinarily hairless and already rather obese little piglet. His father had gotten it in San Antonio de los Baños in exchange for a Seiko wristwatch and some soap that a patient bought Restituto in Miramar’s Diplotienda, a store that only admits foreigners. “Look here,” his father said, as if he were going to introduce a colleague, “I want you to meet Macho Grande.” The doctor looked at the pig with incredulity and then with disgust. His mother anticipated his objections, applying the bandage before the wound was even exposed: “You don’t have any goddamn idea what’s going on out there.” “It’s true!” added his father. “Things are really tough.” “Have you seen how people are throwing themselves into the sea on anything they can get their hands on? It’s getting worse and worse. And you, like an idiot, going to the hospital on your bike, out there in the sun and rain, suffering power outages and barely eating, while all those lazy slobs in the tourist sector are scooping up cash by the bushel basket.” Restituto, like always, didn’t say much. The only thing he insisted on was that they keep Macho Grande’s tub as clean as possible so it wouldn’t stink and bother the downstairs neighbors. “All the balconies have chicken coops and goats on them now,” proclaimed his mother with a triumphant air. “I don’t know what good came out of this Revolution,” his father said, putting on his hat. “It’s true,” concluded his mother. “The reality is that The Special Period started in 1959.” That’s when Restituto totally lost his composure. “Without this Revolution, I would have been the village butcher, cojones!” And he slammed the door, nearly twisting it off its pre-Revolutionary hinges, which were disintegrating in the salty sea air. It was as if Restituto’s parents had gotten young again. They fed their charge, Macho Grande, with a villager’s zeal, and the pig was gaining weight “as quick as a conga line,” as the doctor’s mother told him. She was in charge of cleaning the pig’s shit and washing him every day as her son insisted. Macho Grande’s baths were chaotic, taking place in the midst of furious shouting during which the older generation recriminated each other for trivialities and supposed negligence. In the end, they always made up and were happy again. The culprit for the whole thing was the rationing of water that, in this section of Vedado, was turned off every other day at three in the afternoon, not to return until the following morning at ten. When there was no running water (Restituto’s mother had a hose that went from the bathroom to the balcony), they had to haul it in buckets from the roof where they had a fifty-five gallon tank. Once they soaped and rinsed the pig, they had to get the dirty water out of the tub and throw it down the toilet, which often clogged, and then they had to lower the excremental buckets down to the Malecón so the Gulf Stream would carry all that pestilence off to Norway. Restituto’s wife, the beautiful, curvaceous daughter of one of the generals of the Eastern Army, was fascinated by how fast Macho Grande was gaining weight and even more by how clean they kept him. “He doesn’t even stink,” she said. “He must be the most civilized pig in the whole Caribbean,” joked the surgeon, while looking depressed. “I don’t know how a man as dull as Restituto,” mused his father with brutal sincerity, “can interest a dame like that.” “Because she’s even duller than he is,” responded the doctor’s mother. When the grandchildren visited on Sundays, they played with the pig on the balcony and brought him bananas or whatever they could get their hands on to see how Macho Grande devoured the food between the gnashing of tusks. When the cloudbursts that tend to shroud Havana began, accompanied by strains of thunder and lightning, the doctor’s father installed a zinc shelter that was supported by a complicated system of wires, ropes and nails to stop the tub from getting flooded. His mother, for her part, lit candles to Santa Bárbara to ask that Macho Grande not be struck by lightning. In the days of the fiercest, tropical midday sun, they covered the pigsty with an olive green canvas that Restituto had brought home from the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. That’s how they avoided having Macho Grande be roasted alive by the Cuban sun. But the holidays were fast approaching. The parents looked at each other silently during their morning coffee, and even if there was no coffee to be had, neither of them would dare say the word slaughter. At the beginning of September, without previously uttering a single word about the matter, the doctor’s father called his son at the hospital and, awash with mystery and nearly panting with excitement, he told him he had something very important to talk to him about. Restituto came to see him, and the old man, putting a bottle of rum, the yarey hat and two shot glasses on the table, said with a smaller than normal voice and without looking him in the eye: “I want you to operate on Macho Grande.” The surgeon didn’t understand. He took a shot of rum, and a sweet smile crossed his lips when he suddenly realized, as sometimes happens to children when they catch a glimpse of their parents, that his father was getting old. Then Doctor Restituto made an affectionate face that, in his language without words, meant: “Are you crazy, Papá?” “No, I haven’t lost my mind,” continued his father. “You’re going to have to operate on Macho Grande. It’s already September; we need to decide. The operation’s going to be in December.” “What’s Macho Grande’s problem, Papá?” “The problem is that he’s my friend.” “OK, I know, but is he sick?” “No, not at all! He’s strong as an ox.” “So then . . . ?” “So then you’re going to have to operate on him in December.” “I don’t understand.” “There’s no rice or chicken or cooking oil.” The doctor said: “It’s OK. We’ll have Macho Grande for dinner on Christmas Eve.” “Look, Restituto,” declared his father, “I’m the type of person who says it like it is.” “I know.” “So that’s it.” “That’s what, Papá?” “Your mother and I have decided to have you cut off one of Macho Grande’s legs. That way we’ll have pork for the holidays, and he won’t have to die.” Restituto wondered if he could possibly have heard correctly. He focused his butcher eyes on his father and his gravedigger gaze on his mother, but he didn’t say a word. His perplexity lasted a few seconds, and then he burst out laughing. “Stop laughing,” snapped his mother, circling the kitchen. “Have you forgotten when you were hacking up all those little animalitos in Villalona?” “Or when you ripped a leg off every toad you captured?” interjected the old man. “You were roasting those things alive out in the yard.” “We ended up with tons of one-legged toads out there!” “So we’ll do the same thing with Macho Grande,” concluded his father with his finger up in the air, like Fidel giving a speech. “Papá,” responded the doctor, who no longer felt like laughing, “Macho Grande isn’t a toad.” “That pig’s my brother, goddamit!” “Even worse,” argued the doctor. “What kind of person would be capable of eating one of his brother’s legs and then keeping him alive?” The two old people looked at each other, demoralized. “We only need one leg, mijo, not four,” begged the old lady, with impeccable logic. “OK, look, you guys,” bargained Restituto in a persuasive tone. “In December, we’ll kill the pig off like normal, we’ll have a good party and end of story!” “No way. I want Macho, one-legged but alive.” “I’ll buy you a new piglet, Papá.” “Are you crazy? There aren’t any! This whole Socialist disaster has left us as naked as the day is long!” His mother continued down a smoother path: “Help us out, mijo . . . . This way, we’ll have meat for New Year’s too, but not only that, we’ll still have the rest of the pig live and well, in reserve, in case things continue to be difficult.” “The Americans,” Papá declared, as if he were a soapbox orator, “want to conquer us with hunger. But they’re not going to succeed!” “All you have to do is take your scalpel and do it,” urged his mother. Restituto never thought he would find himself in such an absurd situation. The worst of it was the militant intransigence with which the two of them wanted to mutilate the pig. The country’s situation was tragic; that was true. People were openly showing their weariness, and even the best comrades said one thing at meetings but pondered other things when they were alone later on. Still, this whole situation was so grotesque that he wondered if his parents might not be going senile. He decided to simply pretend not to hear them and not answer yes or no. They would eventually come around . . . . But his silence was correctly understood as an emphatic no. Then his mother told him she was ready to do anything, anything, to eat roast pork during the holidays while preserving Macho’s life. And without the slightest scruple, she decided to nail the poisonous arrow into her dear son’s Achilles’ heel. Restituto was an exemplary son, an exemplary doctor, an exemplary member of the Party, an exemplary husband and, as a father to his children, he was even more exemplary still. But he had a twenty-year-old lover named Sonia Calatayud, a nurse who lived in Old Havana with her parents and who was, likewise, an exemplary lover. Restituto was as in love with Sonia as with his wife but, in the difficult times in which they lived, when there weren’t any comfortable hotels available to Cubans who didn’t have American dollars, Restituto didn’t have any place to go where he could spend some loving time with his Sonia. For that reason, the moments he shared with her were at the apartment of his dear old parents. His parents loved and respected their daughter-in-law, but they didn’t find it too immoral for their son to have a lover. Because, in the end, men are always men. And they didn’t have the heart to deny their boy the use of their place a few hours three days a week for his love-fests with his comrade, Sonia. “Look, Restituto, starting today, you shouldn’t expect our help. We can’t keep letting you use the apartment for your thing with that Calatayud woman. This isn’t some cheap hotel or brothel or any other goddamn thing.” No sooner said than done. At first, Restituto didn’t take it very seriously. He tried to take Sonia to a hotel, one of those state dives where horny couples make up for the lack of privacy generated by overcrowding. They didn’t even get undressed. Because when they finally got a room, after standing in line for four hours alongside couples who wanted to rip their clothes off on the spot (and who were also brazenly staring at everyone else), the unacceptable filth of that hovel almost made the neat and refined girl throw up. There were semen-, shit-, and blood-stains on the sheets, and some reddish-gray mold was drawing fanciful archipelagos on the walls. There was no water to wash themselves, and they could hear a booming voice outside their room begging: “Just do it one time and be on your way, Comrades. We’ve already been waiting for over two hours here!” In the room next door, a woman was begging, as if trying to save herself from terrible danger: “Ay, Juani, no, don’t pull out yet!” Sonia refused to make love with Restituto until they found a dignified alternative to that unfortunate situation. “Leave your wife and marry me,” she said and turned her back on him. For poor Restituto, who was an honest man, it was as if his own sweet Soviet Union were collapsing. Without Sonia’s loving support, the doctor’s life began to teeter dangerously. For the first time in his life, he stopped working. He wandered about the city aimlessly. He became dictatorial and unjust with his own kids. In the end, he went to see his parents, determined to make an unforgettable scene, accusing them of disloyalty and cruelty. But Restituto didn’t know how to make a scene. He didn’t know how to transform his tantrum into invectives and shouting and gestures, so what he did was beg them for mercy. Unruffled, they remained faithful to the cause of the leg of pork. “Just grab your scalpel and do it.” “But, Mamá, Papá, we can freeze the rest of the meat. Killing a pig is no crime.” “Freeze? I want my Macho alive.” Doctor Restituto was overcome by impotence and anxiety. “But how can you be such animals?” He felt ashamed as soon as he said it. How could he denigrate them in that way? After all, his parents were a product of the inhumane pre-Revolutionary capitalist society. Then he asked them to bring him rum, ice . . . “And Sonia Calatayud’s glass,” concluded his mother, sagely. “Here it is.” It was the revered cup in which the young woman drank Spanish wine in the Floridita Bar on that warm night when they first met. It was a legendary dinner in which Restituto spent handfuls of dollars that would, in fact, have been enough to feed his family for a couple of months. As a consolation and as a memory of that evening, he stole the beautiful woman’s cup and hid it, like an unwashed relic, in the cupboard at the home of his understanding parents. The cup still conserved a seductive trace of Sonia’s lipstick and, below that, her fingerprints were recorded in a sweet little everlasting smudge of frijoles stew. From the second glass of rum, the young man seemed practically trapped in heavy storm clouds. He began caressing the edge of the storied glass with one finger while his parents, knowing they needed to let the boy meditate in silence, realized that victory was growing near. “Professional ethics forbid this kind of thing,” the surgeon finally said. “Ethics, my ass,” replied the old man, his crudity seeming to justify the animalistic label his son had just pinned on him. “With the hunger we’re suffering!” Four rums later, his willpower now very diminished, Restituto said: “I’d have to bring an anesthetist, Papá.” “Well, bring him. And have him and his family come celebrate Christmas Eve with us.” “We’ll have to administer a round of antibiotics to prevent infection.” “So do it. I have fifty-some bottles of tetracycline saved up.” “No, there’s no way . . .” the doctor said, talking to himself. “The wound could get infected. With all these flies. . . .” “I’ll put mosquito netting around the tub,” his mother said with unusual excitement. Restituto suddenly stood up with an almost military gesture and, startled and in unison, his parents did the same. The doctor began to walk back and forth as if he were being tortured. From the table to the balcony and from the balcony to the table. Suddenly, he stopped in front of Macho Grande. It wasn’t clear if he was observing the pig, if he was looking at the couples who were kissing each other languidly on the wall of the Malecón down below or if his gaze was lost somewhere out in the sea that sometimes seemed prepared to come crashing through the windows. Without turning around, he asked: “Is this what we’ve become?” “It is,” stated his father quietly. “After so much glory?” “After so much glory, mijo,” confirmed his mother, and she crossed herself, nearly crying. Then Restituto, still not looking at them, asked: “Do you think we’ll get enough from the leg to take Sonia and her parents some pork pastries?”