Even in the shadow of war, the friendship of children is the most effective melting pot.
At seven years old I was already more of a soldier than they would ever be. A better secret agent. A real stand-up guy, even. Like, Aunt Maeve would start smoking and reaching for a bottle in her handbag, and I loved her, so you’re not hearing it from me. My neighbor from across the street was inside his front door with some man when I was on the sidewalk. Mr. Fessente told me he had to teach that man a lesson was all, and no need to tell anybody, OK? The man left looking sick and afraid, and that was good enough to lock that up in my memory vault. My friend Hermie from Cuba told me it was his father who got so mad about the news on TV and drank too much and that was why his dog Moochie got out the door and down the stairs and hit by the car right in front on their block. He limped now, but he was fine. Moochie, I mean. And I would hold onto that secret, too. I knew what Hermie was talking about with his dad.
I misheard most of the invective the first time around, not speaking the language, but Mr. Montero would get broken-record drunk and then unleash the needle-skip-repeat over-and-over screeching assonant violence of the hell-black bottom soul-dredging in his voice–well, I became a quick study in the phonics version of Cuban epithets, like pop singers do with lyrics in German and Japanese and Mexican Spanish without ever crossing a border, or even eating the food.
If Enrique was home, he’d be in the other room, door closed to little effect in stanching the oily spew, and at a ripe-aged fourteen have a few pops and share the mighty curses with his father Orlando and the uncle and the union hall roughnecks, all truck drivers and waterfront dock guys, who dragged themselves away from an open bar tab at the shot-and-a-beer joint around the corner over to the Montero apartment for even more free beers from Orlando’s “mi frigi es su frigi”, and tumblers of cheap rum, and a sacramental communal loaf of balled-up Wonder Bread, each slice rolled and molded around salted butter and white sugar centers. No; it was not an attempt at a poor man’s candy truffle. It was, in its useless excess, somehow very American.
Like a trailer truck air horn, “… poner su mierda en mi polla!”
“What’s your dad saying, Hermie?”
Enrique’s little half-brother told me about “your shit”, and this time, for once, we didn’t laugh at the wildly vicious “my dick”. We barely understood it, what it meant, really, both of us still plowing through the third grade.
Blaring like an ocean liner powering through the harbor, “Voy a cagar en la boca de su madre!”
Herm had taught me a few things during recess at school. I knew “boca” and “madre”, and after the first blast’s translation I could guess a couple things he wanted to do in somebody’s mother’s mouth.
Laughing and growling leaked from the door jamb, while slapping glasses and bottles clacked in ominous toasts to some agreeable vileness.
“Jesus, Herm. Who are they talking about?”
“The man on the TV, President John.”
“Sorry, I don’t pay that much attention. What is it? Kenny?”
“Yes, right, they say, fucking Kennedy.”
His mother was all over him. “Herminio, no, don’t you be like that, don’t say those things. Do not talk like that, about the president, about anyone. Nothing is so simple to just swear at it.”
Could have fooled me.
The Cubans had started showing up in big numbers the year before, in 1961, my parents explaining that freedom to do the things we did every day was not a priority of a new government run by someone named Fidel Castro. Not that the guy he replaced had been any party, either, my dad said. There was a lot of U.S.A. drum-beating around town about this, that it showed just how great the United States was, with so many people coming here to live with us. I hadn’t formulated any major complaints myself. So I figured people coming from other countries, “refugees” I was told they were called, would be more than happy to be here and join right along in being “Americans”, as I was told we were called, until I got the idea that northeast New Jersey was sort of a waiting room for the return flights to Cuba, once the deal with this Castro person was straightened out. Which seemed to pretty much be killing him and anyone close to him and not being too concerned who took over, according to the Cuban families in my neighborhood, most definitely including the Monteros, meaning the men of the house, Orlando and Enrique. By the start of the school year back in September ’61, a lot of the Spanish and English spoken by the new neighbors, most of the adults, anyway, centered around the words la Playa Girón, Bahía de Cochinos, Fidel al infierno, and U.S. invasion, Bay of Pigs, hero prisoners of war, and, in the most sainted tones of all, Brigada Asalto 2506, with the numeral vente cinco cero seis given, like Sinatra reading a lyric, the rich rubato care and respect it apparently deserved.
Oh, and, of course, fucking Kennedy.
Late October the next year me and Hermie and everybody else spent two weeks slumping off to elementary school, looking at the sky over us and over the river to New York City, expecting that on one of these crisp autumn days, one of the blue-pretty sunshiny mornings that in our minds’ eyes got darker hour by hour, we were going to be blown up and burned and our ashes dissolved like salt in boiling water, our insignificance subsumed into giant atomic bomb blasts, like we’d seen on TV destroying whole islands in the ocean and in pictures in magazines of cities in Japan, exploding on us for some reason we wouldn’t even be able to understand fifty years later. Russian rockets in Cuba, American rockets aimed at everybody, missile launching sites we drove by on the way to visit my dad’s friends or go to the shore, or to the forests and parks up north, or to Long Island, seemed like everywhere, fenced in with warnings about law and trespassing and shooting, all of it making us think we were going to die, soon, whatever dying really was, as we pushed toward our ninth birthdays.
I’ve heard about the “duck-and-cover” exercises they performed in schools with classroom desks and chairs shielding kids from nuclear holocaust, but we enacted the equally legendary controlled exit to the brick and concrete hallways, where, in strictly enforced life-saving ascending size order, as we marched and then squat-sat, we lined up along the wall with hands clasped over our bowed heads to protect us from the broken glass, the jeweled radioactive shards our keepers expected to be flying at sound-speed and letting our blood flow after the blinding million-billion-degree fireball blasted out the windows; the death of a thousand cuts versus the sun exploding.
Yes, we were taught to fear the windows breaking.
And as I recall, it was Jimmy Daley who spoke for us all when he cracked, “Breaking glass? What about the melting glass?” Jimmy managed to get in “and melting bricks, even” along with a howling “nothing left but glowing dust” as they hauled him away toward the principal’s office, keeping him low to the floor to minimize the kicking. His kicking, not theirs. I hoped they’d bring him around to the nurse’s office, since they were whacking him like it was Catholic school. I guess practicing for war is hell, too.
And when after two weeks it was all over, and we were certainly, just like that, going to shift right back to normal little kid life, the Montero men were weirder than ever, like they wanted a war. Maybe not the war we almost got, but some kind of war. Perhaps they were unclear on the details. But they expected something to happen that didn’t, and the execration and threats and fury redoubled and amplified.
“What about Enrique? Listen to him,” said Hermie, sniffling, embarrassed.
“He’s …” as she waved her hands overhead, “… older, in with his father and the rest, they brought him along on these things, it’s something done, finito, too late to fix, I don’t know.”
But she did know, about her stepson Enrique. Who was always only Enrique to her; not Kiko, not Kiki, no terms of endearment offered or expected from her mouth, and absolutely no mention, ever, of his abandoning birth mother Silvia, who saw something or suffered something back in Havana in the ’50s, and ditched Mr. Montero, and broke Enrique’s heart, but didn’t outrun the cold steel retribution enacted by her husband, with his co-killer brothers and amigos, who all wound up with blood and so much more of her on their hands. A big enough pile of dinero ensured no witnesses to pack them off to the slammer, and when one day brother José Montero got shivery-shaky from guilt and cold feet, the next day he just wasn’t around, at all, anymore. The lie on Silvia was she’d been stepping out, got in over her head with the wrong crowd–it was easy with all the hotel bars and American-run casinos and drugs. Or, you know, something, wink-wink, even worse. Like that.
Now living among the New Jerseyans, the Monteros weren’t Irish or Italian or German or something else that had taken root. The family drama hadn’t played out here, for God’s sake. And it just faded. It wasn’t even back story, just myth. Was it because they were other people, not like us, they have their ways? I wonder how being creamily porcelained Swedish would have played out.
And the knife that found its way into Silvia found memorial residence in an ornate jewelry box in Enrique’s room, along with a psyche-scarring lesson that stuck to the walls around him and enveloped a wounded boy’s mind; a lesson on the fate of traitors.
But Idoya, Hermie’s loving mom, kept her arms wrapped around him. “Not you, Herminio, mi amado, not like this. This is a new country, a new place for us, to stay, to live, to move on from what was behind. To not just live in America, to be real Americans. I don’t know if I’d want to go back.”
I always thought New Jersey winters might change her mind.
She cried, sitting with us, for a long time, sobbed hard thinking back about being a descended Iberian Basque, her features a cast of Moorish darkness generating a sneering unwelcoming racism among the more lilied European Cubans, no matter which horrible despot, from Fulgencio Batista to Fidel, was running things. And meanwhile the party in the other room never paused, never broke. They never even heard her.
She hadn’t known about Silvia until she’d birthed her son. She would not be deserting “my darling, mi hijo, Herminio”, for anything. I would start to come by for after-school homework and sometimes lunch on Saturdays, and be with her and Hermie, while Enrique and his father and the others were drifting into something else.
Not that Mr. Montero didn’t clearly love “mi Idoya” as well as he could. Often on those Saturdays, the apartment lighted by his burn for her, I would hear his sing-song love-talk counterpoint weaving its way through my recall of the damning curses and vengeance oaths of the nights before. I watched as he stroked the lightest of caresses along her blushing cheeks and brow, and lifted my face to his and her mingled sweat, a musky-sweet luring distraction I didn’t understand. “Querida,” he’d say slyly, each time. “Dulce. Adoncia.” And, each time, he’d tumble out “amor”, and “mi vida”, and “todo mi corazón”, and then she’d stop him, right there, each time, to remind him he’d already left nearly all of his heart and soul behind “en Habana, en Cooba”, as they pronounced them, and his own tears would come as he hid in the other room.
I wondered if he cried because he was sorry she believed it or because it was true.
Or because the dream of returning to his beloved island was slipping away.
Slipping away, until late December, when the President made a fifty-three million dollar deal to get those captured heroes of Brigada Asalto 2506, the Bay of Pigs invaders, freed from their prisons in Cuba, and sent to Miami. Mr. Montero and his wanna-be soldier son now substantially softened their rhetoric, and the two of them planned to drive down along with Uncle–Tío–Tito to Florida to be there for the big celebration in the Orange Bowl football stadium to welcome these men home, to America. Although I was still confused about them calling here home when they’d tried to start their own war in another country, and I guess take it over. I was eight, after all, and Hermie wasn’t all that interested, so we were a little sketchy on the details. Hermie did tell me his dad and brother and uncle planned to be away for a while, through New Year’s, that they were going to be seeing some important men from the Brigada and other groups about helping to make Cuba free again.
Somehow, someday. Any way.
“Hermie, where’s your dad?”
I was afraid he’d deserted them, or been kicked out, and what that might mean if the stories about Silvia back in Cuba were true.
It was well on into March, and I hadn’t seen much of him since he’d driven back from Florida with Enrique and Tío Tito, all of them having turned a page on the President. The Brigada leaders had presented Kennedy with their battle flag, hidden away during the terrible time in Cuban jails, and he had reciprocated by emotionally vowing to hand it back in a “free Cuba”. Many dark-hearted and serious veterans were not buying it; once bitten and all that. But Orlando and Tito wanted in on whatever it took to oust the Fidelistas.
“He’s in training now, to be a soldier, it’s his new job, he sends money to mamá every week, and he says they’ll be going in to win Cuba back. He talks to ’Rique a lot on the phone, from Louisiana and Texas, ‘in the field’ he calls it but I think its like woods or a swamp, and right by a real base near Fort Benning in Georgia. He says he’s going to Guatemala or Nicarag… ”
Enrique bolted from the other room straight toward us, covered the floor like Groucho in two giant steps, smoke from the ears and daggers from the eyes, and just in the nick pulled back on a two-shoulder shove that would have flown Hermie’s ass off the wooden chair and onto the floor and instead cuffed him across the back of his neck and on the crown of his head, and knocked him woozy. Enrique forced a chuckle to lighten it up. He would not have a career in the theater.
“Hey, Hermie, Herminio,” pointedly, “easy there. Family business, family business. You answer too many questions. And you, hombrecito …,” as he shook his head and “tsk, tsk”-ed me. No career in the movies, either. He knew his father called me hombrecito. Maybe he thought he was taking his place. “And perhaps you ask too many.”
I told him, “Your father is always nice to me, you and Tío Tito and everybody taught me to play soccer at that big VFW park by the river where he brings us, Hermie shows me how he paints those nature pictures with his watercolors. You’re all fans of baseball and I got you going with the Yankees. He’s my friend, like you guys. I asked one question because I don’t see him. Sorry. Did he join the army? Is it secret? That brigade you always talked about?”
Enrique’s face was blank. His jaw slid back, forth and back. He leaned over to cut me in, share the inside story, as much as he could. “OK. It’s not the army. But it is pretty secret, for now. Let’s not talk about it too much, sí?”
“OK. Sí, señor. The secret is mine. I mean, ours.” I smiled.
And he really needed to practice that vacant chuckle.
April changed everything. And in the Montero house, everything old was new again. The screaming. The majestic cursing. The swearing allegiance to violence and retribution. I was there the night Orlando and Tito came back from … wherever. They’d picked up the bar gang, after quite a few at the tavern on the corner, and shanghaied Enrique on the way into their bedroom meeting hall across from me and Hermie at the kitchen table, ignoring us and Idoya, off to making some choices.
“Cobarde!” Weakling! Coward! Quitter!
“Pendejo!” ??? Silence.
“Not in front of my mother,” he said.
Orlando and Tito were out of their khakis and cammo, and out of a job. Whatever operaciones and actividades and aventuras being planned in the military trade had been scrapped; all the money spent, and all the plotting and training, for naught.
“They are never going to invade! They are never going to take it back! They pulled the plug!”
“What does he mean ‘take it back’?” I said. Hermie tried to wave me off, too late. “I didn’t know we owned Cuba.”
“You little bastard.” A little of the drink was talking, but most of it was Mr. Montero for real, staring past my eyes like he wanted in behind to rip them out. “What the hell is this place you live, the United States? America comes to Cuba, you reinvent the place with the guns and the gambling, then the oil companies and the army and the spies and la Mafia run everything, and I’m on the right side of all that. And then they all get run out by some back-stabbing fuckers who turn comunistas, and that stands? Stays that way? No, no, it will not stand, something will give.” He turned toward the hall to head downstairs and drink the night away. “If I can’t have Cuba,” musing, conspiring with himself, “I will have the man in the middle. You play us for fools, so shame on you. And fool us again? Shame on us, for believing in you. But three is the charm, yes? The lucky charm. Luck of the Irish?” He passed the doorjamb and dropped an octave to a dripping mutter. “If we can’t get home, we should get Kennedy.”
Mr. Fessente, from across the street, seemed a nice fellow, but so did Mr. Montero. So I made sure to keep our secret about that man inside his front door. We all got to see him a lot in the neighborhood, usually on his porch, scanning the street, smoking cigarettes, waving and calling hello and watching as we went home or back to the schoolyard to play. A bigger man than most of our dads, round from neck to waist, not bouncy fat but hard, and looked like he could move on his feet when he sort of danced down his front steps and zipped along the sidewalk a couple blocks to the corner to confer with Paulie the street sweeper, a yippy little fellow with a too-high-shaved haircut and what we thought of as a squirrelly voice. It seemed a strange pairing, until we sort of heard around that you could bet money you gave to Paulie on all the sports games and you could go to him if you won, but you had to speak to Mr. Fessente if you lost. Especially if you had been given credit or were late paying, when he would waste no time coming to see you.
Mr. Fessente had some job with the different union halls that put a lot of townies to work on the waterfront and on the trucks and trains, so he was popular, it seemed. People didn’t really say anything bad about him. I don’t remember ever hearing a crack or a joke, even. And soon Mr. Montero was talking to him a lot, about working, I guess, but it was like they knew each other or had something going on. I thought maybe they played cards, or Mr. Montero expressed an interest in the unions and wanted to be involved in what they were doing. I’d see him get into Mr. Fessente’s car, a gigantic brand new ’63 Oldsmobile 98, and Hermie told me they’d take off for the Teamsters union building next town over, which had something to do with trucks and shipping and loaning money for big building projects around the country, and talk big plans with important people from all over. Soon, Mr. Montero started driving himself, in his not gigantic but pretty snappy brand new ’63 Chevy Impala. I made sure not to say anything in front of Enrique so he didn’t find out his brother was talking to me about “family business” again.
Hermie kept up the chatter, though.
“Papá’s been down to New Orleans, other places too, and says he’ll be traveling more in the fall, for some work with people with big money, and thinks he’ll have prospects for a good job after Thanksgiving. He’s making money now after the army work stopped, but he says it looks really good for him later on.” His dad had brought him a menu from a great restaurant called Antoine’s, and we read the listings of all sorts of wonderful-sounding food with strange and exciting Frenchified names. We looked forward to what we’d see from Mr. Montero in November. He said he’d be moving around the country, following very important government people, checking security and safety measures, part of a back-up team in case there was trouble finishing the job. When he said that last thing, he seemed to think it was a little bit funny, for some reason.
Hermie got officially stamped and cancelled travel postcards as mementos when his papá came home for Thanksgiving. They were from Chicago on November 2nd, a New York City hotel on the 8th and 14th—Hermie wondered why his dad was staying in a hotel just across the river from home, must have been for work–Tampa and Miami on the 18th, Dallas, Texas on the 21st, and another one from Dallas on November 22nd. And Hermie wondered about the need for the second one from Dallas, like it was a commemorative for what happened there. One day he would figure it out, collect that secret to his innermost place, and lock it away for good.
Soon, Orlando Montero found the fear biding its time, lost hold of himself, spent the next three and a half years in a drunken, downward drift, being paid regularly through the mail, for what no one knew, less and less often venturing outside, until out of nowhere some friend of Mr. Fessente called one day, told him something or other about coming in to one of the union halls for a high level meeting. Some people swore up and down they saw him there, and yeah, they’d say, oh, that’s right, yes, I remember now, he left early, after some hot-headed talk, in a big hurry. They found him in the Impala, driver’s door open, covered with white powder the cops said was cocaine and heroin, shot with a big gun in each shoulder and each knee, his chest hacked and blade-opened with a machete, or from the looks of it maybe a broadsword. Touristy postcards from big American cities were tossed on the passenger seat, and one from Texas shoved so far into his mouth it jammed past his tonsils down his throat.
Mr. Fessente gave a lot of money to Idoya for the funeral, and then after that, for a long time, piled on enough to keep Hermie in art lessons for his painting all through high school and college, and enough for Idoya to keep herself well until, years later, she died.
He also looked into Enrique’s eyes at the cemetery, and gave him a job. A hair-trigger temper guaranteed he wouldn’t last long and soon be out on his own or in the ground, but like his father, Enrique learned to exact his lust for revenge on targets in view, marks he could reach out and touch–like “freeing Cuba” by running guns and drugs, and bombing local social clubs and concert halls–and never realize he’d all but given up on ninety miles south of Florida.
And these days, fifty years later for Christ’s sake, me and my city kid concrete-battered knees can hit the old neighborhood, longing for a proper café con leche, and hobble up the street into the crusty old bowels of all that murderous fetid prideful shit, righteous though they claim it be.
One night a newer, happier-mileage model of some half-sized 4X4 SUV thing rolled up, slowed, and kept going when the driver saw me, staring at the back end of his car. He’d found the right address I think, but discretion and valor and all that sent him on along. I held a hard look on him, all the way into the cover of dark, the white paint job back-dropping a souvenir fake Florida license plate above the legit New York tag; “Key West” it read, “90 Miles to Cuba”.
Oh, come on, Juan.
It might as well be between the moon and Mars.
There was one day after school a couple weeks after Halloween, a year before the storms of November ’63, and learning about guns in the streets. I don’t know why my head calls up that one afternoon, falling as it did between Cuba and Dallas, but I can wipe dry my eyes and see it clear–after class we left the schoolyard and I looked out across the roofs of houses and the big Palisades cliff and over the rail yards and the old shipping piers, across the Hudson past Hell’s Kitchen and the West Side, and up and up to the top of the mighty Empire State Building, coolest thing in the world, as we all walked home.
I’m going to take a couple grand and give it to Hermie and have him paint it; not his vision, but mine, from my memory. From my mind’s eye to his hands, we’ll take our childhood back, and right next to my window that opens to a view of the real thing, I’ll hang it on my wall. Our Empire State’ll be getting us back. And there it’ll stay, just like I remember it.
Gary Cahill is an Active Member of Mystery Writers of America New York, International Thriller Writers, and Irish American Writers and Artists. His first published fiction, the noir short story “That Kind of Guy,” appeared as a Black Mask homage in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Other stories followed with Short Story Me Genre Fiction, Pulp Empire, The First Line Literary Journal, and Plan B Magazine Volume I. “Fathers, Sons, Ghosts, Guns” and “Hudson County, November ’80” will be featured in the Big Pulp Magazine anthology The Kennedy Curse and online with Shotgun Honey, respectively, in Fall 2013. He lives with wife Jo Ann and daughter Ryan in Weehawken, New Jersey, where he works as a staff member at the public library.