La Habana

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Even now, as I sit here; a very old man who cannot hear and of little use to anyone, they continue to come. They continue asking about my memories of Carlos. They want to know just what it was like that day and then they ask directions to the statues.

                              *                        *                      *

Carlos Juan Roberto Manchego is our unelected (this is the way things are done), uncontested leader…ourcommandantino, our ‘little commander’.

Here, the clubs are open all night and there is a club everywhere. Most are in the people’s houses. You pay nothing more than your respect. No one fights over the girls or drinks or falling into a stranger. Machismo is left at the door, in the streets. Still, no one forgets.

Carlos is in his Carlos world; patent leather shoes (far too large for him because he wears size nine and these must be at least size eleven). He is proud of the shoes. They are his father’s shoes. His father has owned them since the revolution. Someday they will belong to Carlos. These shoes are dancing shoes. But in the whirl and blur under the dim bulbs, some oaf steps on them as he carelessly passes. Carlos will not fight, but out of respect for the owner, he invites the careless man to a dual. Asking politely; whispering into the man’s ear, asking that he meet him at an address on a quiet street the very next day. ”…and please do bring apistola.”

“Please bring a gun that works. I do not want to be accused of murdering you; after all, you have only soiled my shoes.”

Here in Habana, everything is patina, everywhere there is color. It begins with the sun, then the peach and mango houses, the buildings and the old lime green Chevrolets with their rusting bumpers…Passion fruit taxis; the white sand and azure ocean: All things brilliant and motionless in the heat; far away and untouchable, as if paintings of buildings rather than the buildings themselves. Only the sun, the moon and waves move and are alive.

The next day, and the sun is almost its highest. Between two sleepy bodegas Carlos stands and opposite him his offender; the man who stepped on his father’s shoes. They are both cordial, as polite and accommodating as old friends; giving each the time to check and recheck his weapon.

Duels are quite different here. There are no paces; no turning quickly, drawing the gun then firing. Here the opponents approach each other, and like men, they look into each others eyes. Each places his pistola to the others heart, then fires when ready. It really is something to see. Though foolish, it is exquisite. It is elegant, the bravest of acts, as both men are most often killed…a dead man shooting a dead man and a dead man shooting back. Still, there is great honor in such a death.

As each man places his gun to the others heart, we hold our ears rather than cover our eyes. Each man smiles a brave smile; salutes to both the courage of his opponent as well as an acknowledgment of the lives they have lived. It is all so fatal, so sad. I want to weep. I want to weep for my friend Carlos. I want to weep for the stranger; instead I come to my senses and whisper a prayer.

The sun is directly above now. No man leaves a shadow. The earth is crystalline in the sun, blinding.

“Click…Click”. Both hammers go down, both triggers pulled, but nothing. Each gun misfires.

“Aye, Dio Mio.” I whisper, but the men are stoic. Each is inspecting his pistola. Turning the guns in their hands, they seem more inquisitive than relieved.

They begin conversing casually, quietly and, rather than calling the whole thing off, they agree that it must be bad ammunition and a simple coincidence. They agree to walk together to the nearby store to purchase more bullets, and I wonder if a man counts his change when he is returning to a dual.

Soon they return, still concentrating on their weapons. On their faces is the sun but no concern.

Once more they raise theirpistolas to the others heart and once more they attempt to fire.

“Click…click.” The hammers come down as before. Still the guns do not fire. Each man begins to curse. Carlos turns rapidly firing his gun into the sparkling dirt, then angrily into the sky as though it was the earth and sky which had stepped on his father’s shoes. His opponent fires his gun with the same results.

It has come to this: When the guns are pointed to each other man’s heart, the guns themselves refuse to fire, yet fire perfectly when aimed harmlessly away.

They make several more attempts, though always the same result.

Now each with his gun to the other stands silently, motionless in the street. We wait a long while before approaching them.

Each man now brilliant as a painting. In time we dare to touch them. They are statues: Still as stones…as immutable as the word of God.

                                                             * * *

The people come,Touristas and locals, bringing gifts; goats, tortillas, carnitas, limons and Coca Cola; each wanting to believe in the miracle of everlasting life that seeing, touching the men may bring.

The sun, the azure ocean, the buildings and the Chevrolets continue to deteriorate and we along with them. Time, we know, will consume us all, just as the sun sets and because the sun rises, giving us the illusion that all is lost only to be regained.

Yet, in the twilight the gunfighters have not moved. There are only the sounds of the old cars; the smell of food and fresh new, dueling children.

The Author

Steve Vermillion is a writer living in Northern California. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley.

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