The park where the four men gathered was small. Before the city put it on its tourist maps, it was just a fenced rectangle of space that people missed on the way to their office jobs. The men came each morning to sit under the shifting shade of a banyan tree, and sometimes the way the wind moved through the leaves reminded them of home.
One man carried a box of plastic dominos. His name was Máximo, and because he was a small man his grandiose name had inspired much amusement all his life. He liked to say that over the years he’d learned a thing or two about the physics of laughter and his friends took that to mean good humor could make a big man out of anyone. Now Maximo waited for the others to sit before turning the dominos out on the table. Judging the men to be in good spirits, he cleared his throat and began to tell the joke he had prepared for the day.
Antonio leaned back in his chair and let out a sigh.
“Here we go.”
Máximo caught a roll of the eyes and almost grew annoyed. But he smiled. “It gets better.”
He scraped the dominos in two wide circles across the table, then continued.
“Okay, so they freeze his body and when we get the technology to unfreeze him, he wakes up in the year 2105.”
“Two thousand one hundred and five, eh?”
“Very good,” Máximo said. “Anyway, he’s curious about what’s happened to the world all this time, so he goes up to a Jewish fellow and he says, ‘So, how are things in the Middle East?’ The guy replies, ‘Oh wonderful, wonderful, everything is like heaven. Everybody gets along now.’ This makes Clinton smile, right?”
The men stopped shuffling and dragged their pieces across the table and waited for Máximo to finish.
“Next he goes up to an Irishman and he says, ‘So how are things over there in Northern Ireland now?’ The guy says, ‘Northern? It’s one Ireland now and we all live in peace.’ Clinton is extremely pleased at this point, right? So he does that biting thing with his lip.”
Máximo stopped to demonstrate and Raúl and Carlos slapped their hands on the domino table and laughed. Máximo paused. Even Antonio had to smile. Máximo loved this moment when the men were warming to the joke and he still kept the punch line close to himself like a secret.
“So, okay,” Máximo continued, “Clinton goes up to a Cuban fellow and says, ‘Compadre, how are things in Cuba these days?’ The guy looks at Clinton and he says to the president, ‘Let me tell you, my friend, I can feel it in my bones. Any day now Castro’s gonna fall.’”
Máximo tucked his head into his neck and smiled. Carlos slapped him on the back and laughed.
“That’s a good one, sure is,” he said. “I like that one.”
“Funny,” Antonio said, nodding as he set up his pieces.
“Yes, funny,” Raúl said. After chuckling for another moment, he added, “But old.”
“What do you mean old?” Antonio said, then he turned to Carlos. “What are you looking at?”
Carlos stopped laughing.
“It’s not old,” Máximo said. “I just made it up.”
“I’m telling you, professor, it’s an old one,” Raúl said. “I heard it when Reagan was president.”
Máximo looked at Raúl, but didn’t say anything. He pulled the double nine from his row and laid it in the middle of the table, but the thud he intended was lost in the horns and curses of morning traffic on Eighth Street.
Raúl and Máximo had lived on the same El Vedado street in Havana for fifteen years before the revolution. Raúl had been a government accountant and Máximo a professor at the University, two blocks from his home on L Street. They weren’t close friends, but friendly still in that way of people who come from the same place and think they already know the important things about one another.
Máximo was one of the first to leave L Street, boarding a plane for Miami on the eve of the first of January 1961, exactly two years after Batista had done the same. For reasons he told himself he could no longer remember, he said good-bye to no one. He was thirty-six years old then, already balding, with a wife and two young daughters whose names he tended to confuse. He left behind the row house of long shiny windows, the piano, the mahogany furniture, and the pension he thought he’d return to in two years’ time. Three if things were as serious as they said.
In Miami, Máximo tried driving a taxi, but the streets were a web of foreign names and winding curves that could one day lead to glitter and another to the hollow end of a pistol. His Spanish and his University of Havana credentials meant nothing here. And he was too old to cut sugarcane with the younger men who began arriving in the spring of 1961. But the men gave Máximo an idea, and after teary nights of promises, he convinced his wife—she of stately homes and multiple cooks—to make lunch to sell to those sugar men who waited, squatting on their heels in the dark, for the bus to Belle Glade every morning. They worked side by side, Máximo and Rosa. And at the end of every day, their hands stained orange from the lard and the cheap meat, their knuckles red and tender where the hot water and the knife blade had worked their business, Máximo and Rosa would sit down to whatever remained of the day’s cooking and they would chew slowly, the day unraveling, their hunger ebbing away with the light.
They worked together for years like that, and when the Cubans began disappearing from the bus line, Máximo and Rosa moved their lunch packets indoors and opened their little restaurant right on Eighth Street. There, a generation of former professors served black beans and rice to the nostalgic. When Raúl showed up in Miami one summer looking for work, Máximo added one more waiter’s spot for his old acquaintance from L Street. Each night, after the customers had gone, Máximo and Rosa and Raúl and Havana’s old lawyers and bankers and dreamers would sit around the biggest table and eat and talk and sometimes, late in the night after several glasses of wine, someone would start the stories that began with “In Cuba I remember.” They were stories of old lovers, beautiful and round-hipped. Of skies that stretched on clear and blue to the Cuban hills. Of green landscapes that clung to the red clay of Güines, roots dug in like fingernails in a good-bye. In Cuba, the stories always began, life was good and pure. But something always happened to them in the end, something withering, malignant. Máximo never understood it. The stories that opened in sun, always narrowed into a dark place. And after those nights, his head throbbing, Máximo would turn and turn in his sleep and awake unable to remember his dreams.
Even now, five years after selling the place, Máximo couldn’t walk by it in the early morning when it was still clean and empty. He’d tried it once. He’d stood and stared into the restaurant and had become lost and dizzy in his own reflection in the glass, the neat row of chairs, the tombstone lunch board behind them.
“Okay. A bunch of rafters are on the beach getting ready to sail off to Miami.”
“Where are they?”
“Who cares? Wherever. Cuba’s got a thousand miles of coastline. Use your imagination.”
“Let the professor tell his thing, for God’s sake.”
“Thank you.” Máximo cleared his throat and shuffled the dominos. “So anyway, a bunch of rafters are gathered there on the sand. And they’re all crying and hugging their wives and all the rafts are bobbing on the water and suddenly someone in the group yells, ‘Hey! Look who goes there!’ And it’s Fidel in swimming trunks, carrying a raft on his back.”
Carlos interrupted to let out a yelping laugh. “I like that, I like it, sure do.”
“You like it, eh?” said Antonio. “Why don’t you let the Cuban finish it.”
Máximo slid the pieces to himself in twos and continued. “So one of the guys on the sand says to Fidel, ‘Compatriota, what are you doing here? What’s with the raft?’ And Fidel sits on his raft and pushes off the shore and says, ‘I’m sick of this place too. I’m going to Miami.’ So the other guys look at each other and say, ‘Coño, compadre, if you’re leaving, then there’s no reason for us to go. Here, take my raft too, and get the fuck out of here.’”
Raúl let a shaking laugh rise from his belly and saluted Máximo with a domino piece.
“A good one, my friend.”
Carlos laughed long and loud. Antonio laughed too, but he was careful not to laugh too hard and he gave his friend a sharp look over the racket he was causing. He and Carlos were Dominican, not Cuban, and they ate their same foods and played their same games, but Antonio knew they still didn’t understand all the layers of hurt in the Cubans’ jokes.
It had been Raúl’s idea to go down to Domino Park that first time. Máximo protested. He had seen the rows of tourists pressed up against the fence, gawking at the colorful old guys playing dominos.
“I’m not going to be the sad spectacle in someone’s vacation slide show,” he’d said.
But Raúl was already dressed up in a pale blue guayabera, saying how it was a beautiful day and smell the air.
“Let them take pictures,” Raúl said. “What the hell. Make us immortal.”
“Immortal,” Máximo said like a sneer. And then to himself, The gods’ punishment.
It was that year after Rosa died and Máximo didn’t want to tell how he’d begun to see her at the kitchen table as she’d been at twenty-five. Watched one thick strand of her dark hair stuck to her morning face. He saw her at thirty, bending down to wipe the chocolate off the cheeks of their two small daughters. And his eyes moved from Rosa to his small daughters. He had something he needed to tell them. He saw them grown up, at the funeral, crying together. He watched Rosa rise and do the sign of the cross. He knew he was caught inside a nightmare, but he couldn’t stop. He would emerge slowly, creaking out of the shower and there she’d be, Rosa, like before, her breasts round and pink from the hot water, calling back through the years. Some mornings he would awake and smell peanuts roasting and hear the faint call of the manicero pleading for someone to relieve his burden of white paper cones. Or it would be thundering, the long hard thunder of Miami that was so much like the thunder of home that each rumble shattered the morning of his other life. He would awake, caught fast in the damp sheets, and feel himself falling backwards.
He took the number eight bus to Eighth Street and 15th Avenue. At Domino Park, he sat with Raúl and they played alone that first day, Máximo noticing his own speckled hands, the spots of light through the banyan leaves, a round red beetle that crawled slowly across the table, then hopped the next breeze and floated away.
Antonio and Carlos were not Cuban, but they knew when to dump their heavy pieces and when to hold back the eights for the final shocking stroke. Waiting for a table, Raúl and Máximo would linger beside them and watch them lay their traps, a succession of threes that broke their opponents, an incredible run of fives. Even the unthinkable: passing when they had the piece to play.
Other twosomes began to refuse to play with the Dominicans, said that tipo Carlos gave them the creeps with his giggling and monosyllables. Besides, any team that won so often must be cheating, went the charge, especially a team one-half imbecile. But really it was that no one plays to lose. You begin to lose again and again and it reminds you of other things in your life, the despair of it all begins to bleed through and that is not what games are for. Who wants to live their whole life alongside the lucky? But Máximo and Raúl liked these blessed Dominicans, appreciated the well-oiled moves of two old pros. And if the two Dominicans, afraid to be alone again, let them win now and then, who would know, who could ever admit to such a thing?
For many months they didn’t know much about each other, these four men. Even the smallest boy knew not to talk when the pieces were in play. But soon came Máximo’s jokes during the shuffling, something new and bright coming into his eyes like daydreams as he spoke. Carlos’ full loud laughter, like that of children. And the four men learned to linger long enough between sets to color an old memory while the white pieces scraped along the table.
One day as they sat at their table closest to the sidewalk, a pretty girl walked by. She swung her long brown hair around and looked in at the men with her green eyes.
“What the hell is she looking at,” said Antonio, who always sat with his back to the wall, looking out at the street. But the others saw how he returned the stare too.
Carlos let out a giggle and immediately put a hand to his mouth.
“In Santo Domingo, a man once looked at—” But Carlos didn’t get to finish.
“Shut up, you old idiot,” said Antonio, putting his hands on the table like he was about to get up and leave.
“Please,” Máximo said.
The girl stared another moment, then turned and left. Raúl rose slowly, flattening down his oiled hair with his right hand.
“Ay, mi niña.”
“Sit down, hombre,” Antonio said. “You’re an old fool, just like this one.”
“You’re the fool,” Raúl called back. “A woman like that. . . .” He watched the girl cross the street. When she was out of sight, he grabbed the back of the chair behind him and eased his body down, his eyes still on the street. The other three men looked at one another.
“I knew a woman like that once,” Raúl said after a long moment.
“That’s right, he did,” Antonio said, “in his moist boy dreams—what was it? A century ago?”
“No me jodas,” Raúl said. “You are a vulgar man. I had a life all three of you would have paid millions for. Women.”
Máximo watched him, then lowered his face, shuffled the dominos.
“I had women,” Raúl said.
“We all had women,” Carlos said, and he looked like he was about to laugh again, but instead just sat there, smiling like he was remembering one of Máximo’s jokes.
“There was one I remember. More beautiful than the rising moon,” Raúl said.
“Oh Jesus,” Antonio said. “You people.”
Máximo looked up, watching Raúl.
“Ay, a woman like that,” Raúl said and shook his head. “The women of Cuba were radiant, magnificent, wouldn’t you say, professor?”
Máximo looked away.
“I don’t know,” Antonio said. “I think that Americana there looked better than anything you remember.”
And that brought a long laugh from Carlos.
Máximo sat all night at the pine table in his new efficiency, thinking about the green-eyed girl and wondering why he was thinking about her. The table and a narrow bed had come with the apartment, which he’d moved into after selling their house in Shenandoah. The table had come with two chairs, sturdy and polished—not in the least institutional—but he had moved the other chair by the bed.
The landlady, a woman in her forties, had helped Máximo haul up three potted palms. Later, he bought a green pot of marigolds he saw in the supermarket and brought its butter leaves back to life under the window’s eastern light. Máximo often sat at the table through the night, sometimes reading Marti, sometimes listening to the rain on the tin hull of the air conditioner.
When you are older, he’d read somewhere, you don’t need as much sleep. And wasn’t that funny because his days felt more like sleep than ever. Dinner kept him occupied for hours, remembering the story of each dish. Sometimes, at the table, he greeted old friends and awakened with a start when they reached out to touch him. When dawn rose and slunk into the room sideways through the blinds, Máximo walked as in a dream across the thin patterns of light on the terrazzo. The chair, why did he keep the other chair? Even the marigolds reminded him. An image returned again and again. Was it the green-eyed girl?
And then he remembered that Rosa wore carnations in her hair and hated her name. And that it saddened him because he liked to roll it off his tongue like a slow train to the country.
“Rosa,” he said, taking her hand the night they met at La Concha while an old danzón played
“Clavel,” she said, tossing her head back in a crackling laugh. “Call me Clavel.”
She pulled her hand away and laughed again. “Don’t you notice the flower in a girl’s hair?”
He led her around the dance floor, lined with chaperones, and when they turned he whispered that he wanted to follow her laughter to the moon. She laughed again, the notes round and heavy as summer raindrops, and Máximo felt his fingers go cold where they touched hers. The danzón played and they turned and turned and the faces of the chaperones and the moist warm air—and Máximo with his cold fingers worried that she had laughed at him. He was twenty-four and could not imagine a more sorrowful thing in all the world.
Sometimes, years later, he would catch a premonition of Rosa in the face of his eldest daughter. She would turn toward a window or do something with her eyes. And then she would smile and tilt her head back and her laughter connected him again to that night, made him believe for a moment that life was a string you could gather up in your hands all at once.
He sat at the table and tried to remember the last time he saw Marisa. In California now. An important lawyer. A year? Two? Anabel, gone to New York? Two years? They called more often than most children, Máximo knew. They called often and he was lucky that way.
“Fidel decides he needs to get in touch with young people.”
“Ay, ay, ay.”
“So his handlers arrange for him to go to a school in Havana. He gets all dressed up in his olive uniform, you know, puts conditioner on his beard and brushes it one hundred times, all that.”
Raúl breathed out, letting each breath come out like a puff of laughter. “Where do you get these things?”
“No interrupting the artist anymore, okay?” Máximo continued. “So after he’s beautiful enough, he goes to the school. He sits in on a few classes, walks around the halls. Finally, it’s time for Fidel to leave and he realizes he hasn’t talked to anyone. He rushes over to the assembly that is seeing him off with shouts of ‘Comandante!’ and he pulls a little boy out of a row. ‘Tell me,’ Fidel says, ‘what is your name?’ ‘Pepito,’ the little boy answers. ‘Pepito—what a nice name,’ Fidel says. ‘And tell me, Pepito, what do you think of the revolution?’ ‘Comandante,’ Pepito says, ‘the revolution is the reason we are all here.’ ‘Ah, very good, Pepito. And tell me, what is your favorite subject?’ Pepito answers, ‘Comandante, my favorite subject is mathematics.’ Fidel pats the little boy on the head. ‘And tell me, Pepito, what would you like to be when you grow up?’ Pepito smiles and says, ‘Comandante, I would like to be a tourist.’”
Máximo looked around the table, a shadow of a smile on his thin white lips as he waited for the laughter.
“Ay,” Raúl said. “That is so funny it breaks my heart.”
Máximo grew to like dominos, the way each piece became part of the next. After the last piece was laid down and they were tallying up the score, Máximo liked to look over the table as an artist might. He liked the way the row of black dots snaked around the table with such free-flowing abandon it was almost as if, thrilled to be let out of the box, the pieces choreographed a fresh dance of gratitude every night. He liked the straightforward contrast of black on white. The clean, fresh scrape of the pieces across the table before each new round. The audacity of the double nines. The plain smooth face of the blank, like a newborn unetched by the world to come.
“Professor,” Raúl began. “Let’s speed up the shuffling a bit, sí?”
“I was thinking,” Máximo said.
“Well, that shouldn’t take long,” Antonio said.
“Who invented dominos, anyway?” Máximo said.
“I’d say it was probably the Chinese,” Antonio said.
“No jodas,” Raúl said. “Who else could have invented this game of skill and intelligence but a Cuban?”
“Coño,” said Antonio without a smile. “Here we go again.”
“Ah, bueno,” Raúl said with a smile stuck between joking and condescending. “You don’t have to believe it if it hurts.”
Carlos let out a long laugh.
“You people are unbelievable,” said Antonio. But there was something hard and tired behind the way he smiled.