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It tastes like this, he says, try it. He swallows more hotel pool water. His brother’s eyes shine pink from diving down to the drain, his brother says it doesn’t taste like that, she drinks coke with it. In an angry heartbeat, he splashes him for guessing better, hoping Mom will hear from that high window and what? Galoomph his brother, at least with her eyes. He splashes more until he sees no one’s behind the splashing, that his brother has sunk and swum.

He lies back to get a load of sun. It is too far to cross the pool in pursuit and his stomach has that cool feeling of vomit-to-be from all the swallows he’s made. He could vomit if he wants to or he could even pull off his suit—the pool people who clean it every time anyone gets in have skipped, not one maid is hanging around with a feather baton to tell them to pipe down in chopped-up English. This makes him miss Mom more—why can’t she come down?—so he flips and swims and butts his brother in the back with his head.

His dad has flown home early.

Loud planes cross the courtyard’s square of sky as old as the ones he’s painted the wings of. Hear all that engine noise? They’re in bad shape, he says to his coughing brother.

The whole country’s breaking-down-noisy, diesel from the half-dead bus on the plaza ruined their outdoor lunch. He dog paddles into the really deep part. Not that Mom hadn’t already ruined lunch already by not eating, by just ordering Cuban sandwiches that they eat the pickle out of, and her only drinking pink or brown drinks—his brother is right about the coke—one after another as soon as Dad left.

His brother bites him from out of nowhere and he kicks him in the gut, one, two—and gets out at the first set of steps. It’s too annoying to swim and be bleeding. He shouts back at his brother: Leave me alone, just leave me alone, and one of the planes swoops and drops a lot of papers.

His brother is back-floating and shouting. One of the papers falls on his chest mid-shout. He laughs at his brother so hard he almost slips on the cement. Most of the rest of the papers sink and their ink bleeds straight out. Nice, he says, watching the black ink swirl in the water.

He turns his back on his brother for just one second to grab at a paper that has caught in a potted palm. Of course it’s all in Spanish. Of course Dad could read it, but where is Dad? Home already. He pulls open the door.

You can’t leave, says his brother. We have to buddy.

The pool’s a mess, he says, and exits with the paper before his brother can climb out and see all the ink on his chest.

In Cuba, says the ambassador, and he stops. He’s always saying that. This country he’s in is another that couldn’t have a revolution if it wanted to, if an eagle held a revolution in its talons over their heads and coaxed it. Why, just before the elections—he stops again, pen poised over his journal that is going to make him famous someday so that Batista can appoint him to some better country, he stops to admire his niece who is playing the piano off the courtyard. She’s playing something womanly, that is, something that makes her breasts jiggle and her thighs shift over the bench.

Behind him, and not for the first time, his maid curses. Bits of paper fall all over the patio, swirl down out of a perfectly blue sky, and quite a bit of it lodges in the second-rate foliage of this so-called republic. The maid curses and steps from the shadows to sweep at the fallen paper, to brush the tiny bits into a pile and pluck the strays from her broom while still muttering, leaning back to stare into the sky.

High in the citadel behind my house, he writes, is where this beknighted country locks up anyone who thinks anything.

He changes that. The maid is sweeping the patio too often, often right behind him. Close all the windows, he says to her in such a sugared voice, as sweet as one from the cane fields, from the trading floors of the rubber barons, from a well-pleased dictator nearby. He whispers it softly so she will have to come near and exhibit her décolleté to him, bending at the sill.  Close the windows, he whispers, and tell my niece to play with a little more vigor.

A carbine, he decides. Carbine, he says to his brother who slaps his wet bare feet on the tile behind him. The soldier holds a carbine at the end of the hall, the first hotel person they’ve seen between the pool and their mom’s room, and the gun is the real thing. We have a key, he tells the soldier when they are close enough to really admire the gun, who, when you look right at him, is the nervous kind of soldier, his fingers up at his mustache, down at the gun. I have the room key, he says. He holds it up. The soldier backs off, lets him use it.

Mom has half her black sequin-and-fluff dress crushed into his brother’s suitcase. You’re bleeding, she screeches at him, the way she talks when she drinks, high and happy.

Yes, he says, it’s nothing he says to belittle his brother who is not going to say he did it, who is pushing into the room right behind him.

Oh, well—just another surprise for your father, says Mom. Your father may have important things to attend to that he can’t finish a vacation for, but so does this country. We have to go now too.

No, he says. We can’t go back now. So soon?

She gives him a look. She smiles at his brother who could be smirking.

He drops the paper from the pool into the suitcase when she turns back to the closet. Really, it’s his only souvenir except for the plastic daggers that came with her drinks the night before. Mom had gone on drinking and dancing after Dad left, arching her neck like a swan against one of the dancers you pay for that Dad had made fun of or else maybe it was one of Dad’s magazine friends who so often show up on what they call junkets.

His brother is sneaking a sip from Mom’s glass even though it is lipstick-stained-icky. He is taking a big gulp just as she shrieks, We’ve got to get going, and beats the suitcase closed.

The soldier is still in the hall when she flounces past, arm-in-arm as if he is Dad, and his brother is carrying both suitcases. The soldier lets them know that he has to search their things before they go anywhere or anyway that’s what he does, nevermind whatever he says. As he shakes open her suitcase, his mother says, Revolution, my goodness, does that count for duty free too?

His niece says It is not that important or that’s what she says beforehand but afterwards, standing at the courtyard door in his robe, she cries so he knows it is something indeed, maybe her first. Standing beside her, he wonders about her age—she came to him after she became a schoolteacher, after her father had been dead two years—when the paper bits begin to fall again, this time falling into the roses and he thinks of the War of Roses and the diplomatic maneuvers that prolonged it and of the thorns that they used on the prisoners who ended up in oubliettes and of course of the crown of Christ, who does not grace this country’s capital in a hundred foot tall statue over the port but could, if this country were only a little more involved in the oil boom. The girl breaks his train of thought with a sob and he finds a chocolate for her from the silver box on his desk but not before he closes the door to block out the sound of sirens on the road up to the citadel. Someone else escorted up the mountain, he supposes. So many questions people want answered. The maid is already at the paper with her broom when he pets the girl’s fine black curls again, smoothing them to where the nape of her neck lies bare.

Propagandista, shouts the soldier, snatching the paper out of the suitcase.

This is not propaganda, Mom says, putting on her glasses. Let me see. She leans close to the carbine and pretends to translate. It says here we must go—nothing about execution. No executions, she points at him. What about a tip?

He can’t help it, he vomits at the soldier’s feet.

See what you’ve done, she says to the soldier. My son, she shrieks, catching him in the crook of her arm, the half-closed suitcase in the other. He’s sick and I must leave, she says. I’ve got a plane to catch.

The soldier cleans off his shoes with the bedspread, he doesn’t stop us.

The niece is sunbathing her back when the paper bits fall the third time. Belly down, she is sure what she glimpsed is something from a bird so she doesn’t brush off the one that falls on her blanket right away, she touches it and in her relief that it is not wet, she lifts it to her face. She is not as myopic as her uncle thinks or as myopic as he pretends, who has missed the gearshift more than once, gripping her knee instead. For a few moments she holds the paper at arms length as a shade, a piece just small enough to cover one lid, and so she doesn’t notice all the other bits and shreds falling all around her, just the word Help written on this one, in the tiniest script over and over.

She sits up.

She picks other bits out of the rose bushes and they all read the same, written in a woman’s hand, perhaps the one she saw waving from the citadel that shades their courtyard so completely two hours every afternoon that she is forced to sun in the morning.

The maid scurries out to sweep it up. She says Yes, all the papers say the same but when the niece asks her to read one of course she can’t.

Some woman is cracking ice cubes out of the tray in the kitchen as if she has always done that, as if she has come into their apartment just to do that. She is somebody he has seen at a party he has had to shake hands at, some woman in one of those furs with the animals’ heads still on and biting each other at the clasp, and that woman is the one now standing in her—well, in fact, Mom’s robe—asking if they want to have a drink and talk about it.

They’re home two days too early.

If only, he says to his brother, looking back, if only that paper had fallen say even a day later and the revolution had begun closer to when we were originally supposed to leave then Dad would have left with us and all the way back to the apartment Mom would have needled him about working too hard, coming back so early.

He’d have a dad today without that revolution.

My wife has disappeared, says the ambassador to the minister at his cocktail party in the courtyard of the citadel’s shadow. The minister is very circumspect, he ducks his head when he hears of the wife, he says It is such a small country, she must be very skillful to disappear. Unless she is thinking of going into the oil business, he says. Excuse me, he says.

They drink their drinks with their heads tipped over their glasses and their elbows akimbo, as if they were thirsty birds.

My wife, the minister says, was a writer. Is a writer, he says. And he casts a look upward, toward the citadel. The ambassador takes another sip. You must be very happy to have your niece with you.

Here she is, says the ambassador, the aspiring pianist.

His niece lifts her hand to the minister for a kiss, with such eyes.


Terese Svoboda

Terese Svoboda's Trailer Girl and Other Stories will be out in paperback this fall. Her fifth novel, Pirate Talk or Mermelade, will be published in 2010.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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