In keeping with the theme of springtime travel, our current crop of nonfiction comes to us from a distance. The distance is literal, with stories originating in Cuba and the remote Chuvash Republic, in Russia; temporal, in their remembering and refiguring of the past and its losses; and figurative, in absenting the characters from the present—and even from another person. ~T.M. De Vos, Nonfiction Editor
by Elizabeth Hanly
She wouldn’t open the door to me that morning. Not at first. “Delia,” I called.
Neighbors shouted down that I should go away. Delia lives less than a block from Havana’s bay on the second floor of what had long ago been a sumptuous building, in a neighborhood that before the revolution had been caliente with its gangsters and whores and remained so.
“Delia,” I called to her. As everybody knows, there probably isn’t a doorbell working anywhere in the city but, not to worry, Delia’s windows were hardly ever shuttered.
“Delia says ‘no me jodas,’ ” somebody shouted down from another window. A couple of kids playing out front told me Delia was really mad.
Delia is the premier hairdresser of Havana, and one of her clients was on her way over with a charanga: eight musicians, four violins, three flutes, and a hint of drums. Richard Edgues was supposed to be coming too. Edgues, master of the silver flute. Edgues would be leading the charanga, of course. He’s been leading charangas since the 1940s, when his flute gave the chachacha its particular lilt. And for just as long as Edgues has been playing chachachas, he’s been playing for the dead. Sometimes at the same time.
Like today, for instance. That was what was supposed to happen.
One of Delia’s clients had hired the charanga and declared a party. For Josephine Baker. Today was, after all, her birthday. And since Delia Montalvo had been Josephine Baker’s hairdresser for decades, naturally the party must be at Delia’s. However, according to one of Delia’s other clients, the client arranging the party was apparently hoping not only to refresh the dead Ms. Baker’s spirit but capture it. Swallow it. Become Josephine Baker, La Seconda. Yoruba magic with maybe a little Bantu Palo Mayombe mixed in, can accomplish such things, it is said.
Delia explained all this about the charanga to me once she had recognized my voice and come down herself to hug me in and up the stairs. Two years had passed and now, finally, we were sitting together again. She as usual with her Salems, both of us with our rumcitos. All around were Delia’s great mirrors in their filigreed gilt frames; the fans of stained glass—the vidrios above her windows; on the floor—handpainted tile in glazes of whites and pinks.
How old must she be, I wondered for the hundredth time. Her children were well, she told me. Her daughter had graduated from medical school and was working in Angola—I had known that, yes? And as she went back to the story of the charanga, I waited for my trademark Delia look. She’ll talk and, as she talks, her eyes, her mouth appear nearly mournful. If you keep on looking, if you don’t turn away, suddenly she’ll half-collapse in laughter.
We met over a decade ago. One of New York’s glitzy fashion magazines had sent me to Cuba on assignment. And as I made my rounds, talking to the editors of the various women’s magazines about revolutionary consciousness and interviewing designers at the State-run fashion industry about anti-imperialist aesthetics, somebody happened to mention that Josephine Baker’s hair-dresser was alive and well and living near the bay.
The first afternoon we spent together, Delia was very polite, very mournful for a time. Then she asked if I ever had a black lover. Then we had both started to laugh.
It was during the glory days of Cuban music that Delia Montalvo and Josephine Baker found one another. Cuban pianist and crooner Bola de Nieve—snowball, as the huge ebony-colored man was called—was the hit of Paris. When his friend Josephine asked him about a reliable hairdresser for her Latin American tour, he recommended the little girl with the sad eyes who used to sweep the shop in the old neighborhood. Folks had said she had magic hands.
The two women stayed together, living in Paris and traveling several continents for over a dozen years. What was Baker really like?
“Sweet.” Delia said it again and again. “She used to wear a little skirt,” Delia continued mournfully. “It was made out of bananas. And Josephine would dance. And the bananas would fall off, one by one.” By now Delia is in half-collapse mode. “Ah, Josephine, she was so sweet.”
Josephine gave Delia the money to start that rarest of pre-revolutionary Cuban establishments, an integrated hair salon. “She told me I must take the money, I must have the salon, even after I told Josephine that I couldn’t marry her brother. Her brother was ugly—feo, feo, feo. He was too ugly.
“When I had my salon, every Saturday night everyone would make themselves very beautiful and come together to dance. Bola de Nieve would come when he was in Havana. Ah, but Bola dreamed of his death. I told you that story, no? How he flew home from Paris after his dream? He thought if he came home, he’d confuse the spirits, and if he had real Cuban mamey, his heart would grow so strong. But it all happened just like in the dream said—in the middle of the night on an old bus, on tour somewhere and he couldn’t breathe. But enough of that. Let’s remember the happy times. There were lots and lots of happy times. Bola would come and sing at my salon, and so would El Beny. The Incomparable Beny More, they’d call him. But it was to my hair salon he’d come after Montmartre or Sans Souci. Ah, Beny, he was so sweet. He had a farm and named his animals after all the musicians in Havana. His pigs, for instance, were called, Generoso y su grupo. I’ve told you about his farm, right? Beny couldn’t keep it. Beny never had any money. Beny grew up in the cane fields. And when things were hard for him, he’d go back and cut cane. Anyway, on Saturday night, we all would come to the salon and dance all the night long. In the morning we’d have hot chocolate. And nobody tried to take anybody’s else’s soul. No, I don’t remember that even once.”
All this uproar about the charanga had started months before, when Delia’s client portrayed Josephine in a Cuban musical review. The client was a singer, of course, and there always had been a resemblance to Josephine, but it was when Delia had combed her hair in the old style that the singer had come to see the real possibilities.
“I curse the day I first combed her hair,” Delia told me. “Imagine anybody wanting to hurt my sweet Josephine. As though I would let that happen. And in my house!”
Delia is just about the only person I know in all of Havana who under no circumstances wants anything to do with the old Yoruba ways.
Here’s why. There is a gatekeeper in the Yoruban pantheon: Ellegua, he is called. Ellegua is he who stands in doorways, at the crossroads, at the beginning and the end of things. Ellegua is said to be an old, old man with the head of a child.
“And that’s exactly right, that’s exactly what he looks like,” Delia told me once. “Except that he’s silver.” She was six when, one hot night, she awoke shivering. Ellegua was there, dancing. “I tried to touch him, I thought someone must be playing a trick, and when I touched him it was just like touching a spider web, no more substantial than that, still he kept dancing and dancing. All night long.”
“Nobody is going to come here refreshing the dead,” Delia said. “None of that mierda. Not here.”
On Josephine’s birthday, Delia gets out the CDs and plays her a little Mozart. That’s all.
BIO: Elizabeth Hanly’s writing and reporting on Cuba has been published in venues as varied as London’s The Guardian, Allure Magazine, Aperture, the Miami Herald, and Gargoyle Literary Journal, among others. “Delia” is an excerpt from a book-length personal essay on Afro-Cuban faith. Hanly is a professor at the Honors College at Florida International University in Miami.
by Valery Petrovskiy
Hi, Dad! Hi, Mom! Here I am, back at home.
I was a college boy then, and my parents were not yet elderly. I was back on holiday that summer, when the Moscow Olympics were to take place somewhere far away. And it was supposed that Dad and I were to put up a blockhouse at the backyard. Now, I know exactly how to set it up: my Dad taught me to raise the frame of squared timber. It’s rather simple to fasten the beams by pins, row upon row. I found great pleasure in hammering the wooden pins into the orifices while the Olympics were going on about me.
Every morning we went to the backyard and the whole day we were busy with the blockhouse. Nearby, an alley stretched itself out. It wasn’t the only way out of the village, but all the neighbors preferred to pass right by the side road by the rising blockhouse. It seemed they liked to go along in the morning and, in the evening, check up on the work done. They joyfully greeted my Dad every now and then: “Hi, Volodka!”
And my Dad would respond cheerfully, “Hullo, hullo…” Folks loved to meet him. I don’t know why. This is way they greet my brother nowadays. It looks like he knows the same secret principle as Dad did, as if he gives some electricity from himself to others. And it’s strange, because I was the one to put up the frame with Dad then.
The apertures we drilled with a gimlet, a kind of special tool. Dad had borrowed it, and I had the bad luck to break it at once since I hadn’t mastered the drilling. I shouldn’t have pressed so hard; a drill knows its way. It was more important to start right with the drill’s tip pointed like a stinger. It needed some time to proceed successfully, and I had broken the borrowed tool. To rectify the situation, I had to ride to my college town for a gimlet.
When I was back, things improved. Soon the frame was put up rather high, and it was not so easy to lay every new log. “Raise high the roof beam, carpenters!” When it got even higher, it was harder to place another beam. And the neighbors kept on passing every morning and each evening. They went to work and just measured the summer by the height of the blockhouse I put up with my Dad.
Far away, in Moscow, the Olympics were unfolding on TV, and we raised the blockhouse before everyone’s eyes. Dad asked me where we should hew through for a window and showed Mom where a kitchen should be. And the blockhouse rose, day by day.
In the middle of a hot summer day, Mom called us in for dinner. Then, the afternoon rest ensued; in Spain, they called it a siesta, as I read in a book by Hemingway. I was entering my fourth year in the English Department and had to read American literature. As far as I remember, the female character of a novel was called Pilar, an old woman, who abused her man badly.
Early in the morning, Dad went outside and, for breakfast, fetched a cap full of champignons. And Mom emptied then the already-sliced mushroom caps into a frying pan sizzling with hot oil. When I awoke, it smelled of fried champignons, and I heard my parents talking in a low voice. The blockhouse meant an even better life, with a spacious kitchen and high windows facing the garden. Possibly, they hoped I would marry a girl afterwards and take her to a new house, when we finished.
And all went wrong when a wedding occurred there in the village. It was appropriate that the bridegroom, my neighbor, invited all the folks. They all went on the spree, and they all drank hard. And then Dad went on a drinking bout, so the blockhouse stopped rising. Some neighbors still passed along the alley but in silence. The gimlet, useless now, lay there in the corner.
Soon after, my vacation was over, and I started back to college. At my English lesson, I reported that I made a close study of Hemingway. Then I was just one to read his story of Pilar, an old woman who swore like a trooper—a Russian, even.
The Dog That Never Barked
by Valery Petrovskiy
Dad made me a gift of a real sheepdog, not a puppy, but a year old—rather a big dog of a gray color. Its breed was German, and the dog looked like one from a war movie.
Dad brought him from somewhere and presented him to me. I suppose he had wanted a dog himself when he had been a child. But he couldn’t be given a dog, because he happened to be the eldest in the family after his dad had fallen in World War II. I found my grandfather’s only letter from the battlefront: he wanted his son to study hard, I’ve read the letter and I’ve studied well. I think that’s why my Dad gave me a true sheepdog, but I talked to nobody about its German breed, because my grandfather had fought against Germans and was killed there.
That day a great occasion happened for me. All of the neighbors and my playfellows gathered together and everybody saw my Dad present me with the dog. He gave me the dog’s leash before their eyes, “Hold it, he is yours!” But the dog, a big one and rather strong, wasn’t aware yet that he was mine and made a sprint for it. Everyone rushed away frightened, all my folks and the neighbors, while the dog was pulling me along. But I was aware that he was mine and managed to hold onto him. I hardly could keep him, but nobody scoffed at me, because my Dad was with me and I had a dog.
We put the dog on a chain in the garden behind the house. The sheepdog would never bark. He wasn’t apt, maybe he’d had nobody to teach him when he was a puppy. His silence frightened the folks passing through the alley. I heard Kolka, a tractor driver, tell passersby that there was a true sheepdog in the garden. He was right on that count, but another other time he blathered to a jolly crowd that he’d seen my Dad drunk. When I asked him to repeat himself in order to pass it on to my Dad, Kolka drooped at once. My Dad was a man of respect: he was the eldest among my folks and I was his elder son.
I never saw Kolka’s father: he could have been killed in the war, or Kolka had none. The only person about him was his mom, an elderly woman. When she died, I saw Kolka walking along the street drunken and sobbing. He was crying not because of her death; she had been long in poor health and had a deadly cough. He wept because no one came to the funeral repast on her Fortieth Day.
I could have come, but I felt guilty about his mom. Once, when she was ailing, she’d asked me for help. Most likely I could have helped her, but I was discouraged. While I was walking along the street, she knocked at her window and wept silently. She was very weak and could hardly breathe. Possibly, she hadn’t enough air, and then she gasped for breath while nobody was beside her. Or she was locked there all by oneself, and I could call on her, but I was discouraged and went by furtively. Oh, if she would beat at her window pane more strongly, or could give a shout! I don’t know why I was discouraged and went past.
She had been down for a long time, and when she died, Kolka, the tractor driver, walked alone in the rain weeping, and I couldn’t come along with him. He asked for my Dad, Dad always knew what to do, but Dad wasn’t in then.
And Kolka wasn’t aware that I had failed to drop in to help his mom. Otherwise, he wouldn’t talk to me in the rain, though I had a true sheepdog that my Dad gave me when I was fourteen.
And were you ever given a dog? Never? Hadn’t your Dad either?
BIO: Valery Petrovskiy is an international writer from Russia. He is a graduate of the English department at Chuvash State University, Cheboksary, and of the journalism department of the VKSch Higher School in Moscow. His prose has been published in Metazen, Danse Macabre, NAP, Atticus Review, Monarch, among others, in America; in Blinking Cursor and Firestorm Journal in the U.K.; RYGA Journal in Canada; The Skive and Going Down Swinging in Australia; and Contemporary Literary Review India. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and Super-10 prose finalist at The Open Russian Championship in Literature in 2012. Petrovskiy lives in the Chuvash Republic, in a remote village by the Volga River.
The Night Keith Stayed Home
by Jessica Dur Taylor
I have a secret that I think about while riding bikes at night through smooth, blank streets smelling of hose water. If I think about it too much, it shows, and Keith scrunches up his eyebrows and says, “What the fuck do you have to be so happy about?” and then I have to lie and say that my Advanced Comp students all handed in their essays on time. He rolls his eyes. “Goober,” he says.
I’m used to his teasing. Sometimes when I talk on the phone for too long, he throws CDs at me from across the room. I cup my hand over the mouthpiece and shout, “You know that scratches them, don’t you?” From his crouch in the corner I can see the shrubbery of his dreadlocks. He shouts back: “You know they’re mine, right?”
I wonder what Michael would say about this behavior. No doubt it would be smart and insightful. He teaches music, sociology, biology, and math. He also makes apple crisp and can recognize a song based on one guitar chord. When my bike tire went flat, he showed me how to find the wound by submerging the tube in a bucket of water and watching for bubbles.
Keith and I go to therapy on Thursday afternoons and laugh about how annoyed we get with each other. Him by my nagging and me by his insouciance: Coffee cups are recyclable! Bills do too have late fees! Can’t you at least wash your feet before coming to bed? Our therapist, Marcia, doesn’t say much. She looks at us the way I look at Keith’s High Times magazines, with bemused detachment.
My secret is making our therapy sessions even more useless, and I cringe each time Keith pulls another hundred from his thick wad of cash.
“Would you want Marcia to find out what it is you do for a living?”
“Would you rather me work at Sport Mart, for the man?” It’s my turn to roll my eyes. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
Pollen coats our front porch. I sit outside with my journal, afraid of everything I write. Two decisions haunt me: this fat notebook, too heavy to lug with me everywhere I go, and the fact that my name is on the lease. I sigh and hum “My Funny Valentine.” If my secret has a soundtrack, it is this song, played on piano.
We’re supposed to go to a gathering, a birthday party for Bonnie, the art teacher. Keith sits in my favorite chair (faux red leather) trimming his plants and listening to Jimmy Cliff. I’ve come to hate the smell of freshly cut marijuana hanging on clotheslines in the kitchen. When the CD starts skipping I can’t help but smirk.
An hour later, he’s still there, naked from the waist up, his chest and my chair sprinkled with sticky plant crystals. He looks up briefly. “I’m staying home. Your teacher friends are lame.”
Years later, after Michael and I are married, after we’ve had a baby, we will still talk about that night. The Night Keith Stayed Home. Michael will insist that was the night he first realized he had feelings for me. The night he realized I was not just another co-worker.
For me it began even earlier, though I could never say exactly when. On his piano bench after school, as he taught me chords and I lost track of time? As I pedaled hard through the lengthening afternoons, rushing to another pointless therapy session?
What I do remember clearly is the taste of guilt, like water from a hose, metallic and sweet.
BIO: Jessica Dur Taylor lives and writes in Santa Rosa, California, to the tune of her husband’s piano playing and their baby’s spontaneous laughter. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Fractured West, Prick of the Spindle, The Mom Egg, Cobalt Review, and Recess Magazine, among others.