By Jan Peña-Davis –
Light bounces from building to doorway to woman, changing each from brown to gold and back to brown as evening prepares to settle in.
Juliette-balconied buildings, some with shuttered windows to close out the heat, snuggle closely to its neighbor, allowing only a sliver of gold to stain the façade that before the Revolution, shone brilliantly as white, or pink, or blue or green. Now the peeling paint mingles with crumbling chunks of plaster and tropical air, make it hard to determine whether gray is the recent color or part of the past.
Smells of fried plantain, car exhaust, gutter waste, and an occasional whiff of jasmine waft across your nostrils with each exhale of your breath, although the thick humidity makes it incredibly hard to breathe as the day struggles to end, and the heat refuses to let go.
Heat muffles sound and grounds even the flies that are too hot to buzz and annoy the inhabitants.
She stands there. Alone. In front of the ornately carved ten foot oak doors, much like sentinels on guard, who keep the outsiders out and shield and protect those who hunker down inside.
The angle of the light shadows her face, yet bounces off her red twirly mini-skirt and the turquoise off-the-shoulder spandex top, faded from one too many washings, the straps resting in the space between her shoulders and her elbows. She wears flip-flops several sizes too big, yet showcase her immaculate feet.
Her eyes and nose hide in the shadow of the setting sun, but her lips, round and full and just a taint pouty, are painted a muted red. A tumbled mass of thick, wavy, black hair appears to be an aura of sorts surrounding her small face. Perhaps she’s an angel or at least a tropical goddess.
Hope is all there is on this decaying island.
As the light shifts in its final decline, the young woman provocatively sucks on an orange Popsicle as she gazes down the brick paved street at the German, or Canadian or European men who are willing to pay to spend time with a chocolate dream.
“Ay, mucho calor,” she whispers to herself as she takes a delicate white, lace, embroidered handkerchief from her tiny bosom and daps at the rivulets of sweat meandering down her face. On the inhale, you can smell gardenia.
There is no breeze, only heat and humidity. There is no relief in sight.
And no money either.
An old woman carefully picks her way down the same street, making sure not to step on the cracks between the bricks that cover the narrow street. She fingers a rosary surely whispering a prayer as she daintily makes her way on the uneven bricks. She’s dressed in all black, tightly buttoned from the top of her neck to the bottom of the long full skirt that brushes the tops of her black shoes, making a swishing sound with every step.
Swish, swish, swish.
She looks up when the aroma of jasmine tickles her nose as she passes the young woman standing in the doorway. She whispers ‘puta’ to no one in particular as if that word is part of her prayer.
But the woman standing in the doorway is not a woman, but a girl of twelve maybe fourteen. Times are hard and this is the only way she has to help feed her younger sibling, courtesy of The Revolution.
She ignores the insult and disapproving look from the old woman but quickly jerks her head to the right when she hears ‘Anjelicka’. She knows the voice. She and her younger brother walk this way home from school everyday.
With the back of her hand, she quickly wipes off the lipstick, pulls the straps of her turquoise top up onto her shoulders, gathers her thick mane of black hair and deftly makes one long braid, wiggles her skirt lower and turns towards the voice looking very much like the ‘tween’ she is. She smiles and almost skips a bit as her baby brother gets closer.
She adores her younger brother. He feels the same about her. The two of them were left in the care of their grandmother when their mother left in search of their father.
She doesn’t remember much about her father. Only his smile and how he tossed her into the air whenever he saw her and how she tucked her head into the curve of his neck because she felt safe when he was around. He wasn’t around much because he was American, a revolutionary who had hijacked a plane from the United States in search of Nirvana.
Her grandparents didn’t see him that way. They didn’t want trouble from the Neighborhood Watch Group so they discouraged her mother from contact with him.
“Revolutionary,” her grandfather used to sputter loud enough for the neighbors to hear, “Che, Fidel, now they were revolutionaries. You stay away from that prieto,” her grandfather warned. Her grandmother recognized the look in her daughter’s eyes and knew the warning fell upon deaf ears.
And not long after, Anjelicka was born, her brother quickly followed.
And her father, she never saw him again. He was missing and her mother left to find him. And now she too is missing.
All her mother left Anjelicka are letters; letters written by her father to his sister in the U.S. and her letters to him. His sister, her father always said, that she looked just like. The sister whose name he sometimes whispered in her ear and quickly turned his head to wipe away a tear. The sister, who never judged him, only loved him for who he was.
Letters neatly tied with a faded ribbon inside a beautifully carved wooden oak box that hasn’t been opened in years.
Anjelicka thinks perhaps now with her parents missing and her grandfather dead, is time to remove the shroud regarding her father’s life. Perhaps she’ll even discover who she is. She smiles at this thought and walks to pick up the box.
She gingerly opens the dusty wooden container. She carefully fingers the envelope on the top. It was addressed to her father with a return address in Chicago. What a different time it must have been to communicate directly with the United States she muses. Stacks of letters bound by faded ribbons are arranged according to dates with the earliest on top.
Anjelicka’s abuela shuffles into the room. She is now very old and very sick. She walks to one of the two chairs placed in front of the window and slowly eases herself down. She smiles at her granddaughter while her eyes lower to the box in Angelicka’s hand.
She nods her head in approval, and pats the chair directly across from her,
“Estás bien mi amor, it’s okay my love, it is time,” the old woman whispers to the young girl. “Pero empieza, but start at the beginning.”
This is an excerpt from a novel in progress, “Jesus Wept,” by Jan Peña-Davis, a teacher and writer in Chicago.