A City on Crutches

Excerpt Twenty-Five of "Brothers from Time to Time"


A city on crutches: woodworks keep the ruins from tumbling onto Havana's Malecón.

{from Adolfo Rivero’s recollections}

Havana, April 4-5, 1980

For years I had not been able to walk across the city’s neighborhoods without being struck by their decayed, sordid, ruinous appearance – display windows that were empty and full of dust, nailed-up doorways, faded wall posters, plaster scaling off the walls, broken sidewalks. In the middle of the city, vacant lots unexpectedly appeared – the mark of recent demolitions. Everywhere the eye went, people had placed wood beams to prop up their crumbling door frames and balconies in an effort to forestall the demolitions that were coming. It was a city on crutches.

In the midst of chaos, a store called “The Cinnamon Tree” – El Canelo – was a haven of structure, clarity and faith. It had also been the site of Adolfo’s kills in the used-book trade. That afternoon he made a haul: a collection of essays published by Harvard University, a biography of Hannibal, an antique edition of comic stories. He took the books home, starting to look them over in earnest. Seeing it was 4:30, he went out again to find Alejandro who would be walking home from school.

Ale came along right on schedule, his eight-year-old body keeling over to one side with the weight of his book bag. As always, Adolfo went forward to snatch the case and take his boy’s hand for the brief walk home. Leaving Ale to his amusements, Adolfo rejoined his new companions on the terrace, wondering whether he should start with Hannibal or with Ruskin’s discourse on flowers.

A car came to a stop in front of the house. Marisa was home from the bureau. In a moment she was on the terrace. “Why don’t we go to the movies?” she asked.

Adolfo’s first thought was to stay home with his books. But then he took in her cool, direct tone and understood: Let’s not have another boring Friday night at home.

“Sure. Why not?”

They went to the Teatro-Cine Trianón, noted these days for the good condition of its air-cooling system. The feature movies were a pair of American confections that Ale liked well enough. When they came out of the theater a sea of people was waiting to get in. The buses were crowded, too many people queued up for them, so they went home on foot – a 40-minute walk, Ale protesting all the way.

En route Adolfo picked up a copy of Granma, the official newspaper. A front-page item announced that Cuba’s police guards had been withdrawn from the embassy of Peru. A group of six people, trying to enter the embassy grounds where they planned to seek asylum, had crashed a bus into the embassy’s fence. In the ensuing fracas, a Cuban officer had died – killed, it appeared, by friendly fire from another guard.

Even so, Cuba asked Peru to hand back the refugees for trial on murder charges. Peru chose to honor the tradition of asylum venerated in Latin countries.

In Granma the government defended its removal of the police guard by saying: “We cannot protect embassies that do not cooperate in their own protection.” But Cuba’s response had been a highly aggressive counter; the regime was opening Peru’s territory to vandals, toughs and other troublemakers.

At home Adolfo took a bath, watched a bit of TV and went to bed on his library sofa. He awoke to the sound of violent knocking on the door. He got up, went to the door and cracked it.

“Police! Open immediately!” someone shouted into his face.

Dazed and wearing only his underdrawers, he let them in.

“Get dressed and wake up everyone in the house! Don’t touch anything!” a gray-haired mulatto, obviously the senior officer, directed him.

It was six. Adolfo went back to Marisa’s room. She was already up and dressed. Ale, who slept in his mother’s room, had not awakened in the commotion. Adolfo let him sleep.

“It’s the police,” he told Marisa. “They’re just looking the place over. Don’t be frightened.”

He put on some clothes and went back to the vestibule. Now that he could focus, he saw five men: the mulatto and another man in uniform, a plainclothesman, and two of his own neighbors, directors of the Revolutionary Defense Committee for the block.

The senior officer brought out a paper, looked it over and told Adolfo: “You are accused of having stolen artworks in your possession. The members of your Defense Committee are present to verify this accusation.”

“All these paintings are mine,” Adolfo said.

“You have receipts for them?”

“No one gives receipts for paintings. I’ve had most of them for years. I think I can find the former owners.”

The police went straight for Adolfo’s room. As they realized how many books, periodicals and papers were packed in there, they visibly lost heart.

“This is unbelievable,” the senior officer said with a heavy sigh.

They began taking books off the shelves, inspecting them one by one. “Hey! This one has an official seal in it!” the other uniform, a beefy young white guy, exclaimed.

“Okay,” the senior officer said, “that means it’s stolen.”

“It means nothing of the kind,” Adolfo said with a rising voice. “You know as well as I do that the revolution, for many years now, has been closing up libraries and selling off the books. I’ve got dozens of books with official seals in them.”

“This is a diary, isn’t it?” the plainclothesman said, picking up a notebook.

“It’s just a miscellany – notes, random ideas, brainstorming . . .”

The plainclothesman read out: “‘True atheism resides in indifference. May we not say, on the other hand, that the passionate love atheists project toward mankind is actually a religious feeling?’”

The senior officer turned to Adolfo and said scornfully: “You’re looking for a lot of things, aren’t you. You’re looking for art. You’re looking for God. You’re looking for a way out of the country. Doesn’t it occur to you that you might be looking for too much?”

Those lines had the unmistakable ring of State Security.

“I can’t help that,” Adolfo answered. “It’s my character. It’s why I became a revolutionary.”

“You’ve changed a lot.”

“Yes. I’ve never seen inertia as a virtue.”

After two hours’ exertion the police had disassembled the library. They opened the bathroom closet – and their faces dropped to the floor as they found it even more densely crammed with books than the other room had been.

They rifled through the closet haplessly. In one of their probes they came across a rather fat document that looked unlike anything else. The senior officer leafed through it and picked up his head in alarm.

“The commander-in-chief is mentioned in here!”

“It’s an old memo that was sent to the Party leadership,” Adolfo said in his best matter-of-fact tone.

In fact it was much more potent. This was «Zarathustra», the 80-page statement he had written with Javier de Varona and others during the microfaction episode. Just now he did not want anyone in authority to be reminded of it.

The officer set aside the document like a sapper handling a live mine.

When they had done with Adolfo’s materials, they had little else to inspect. Looking in the bedroom closet, one of them turned to Marisa and asked: “These are all the clothes you have?”

“Yes. It’s not much, is it?” she said sadly.

“Your husband has to come with us,” the senior officer told Marisa. “We hope this gets cleared up soon.”

The police took a few dozen books and a stack of papers, including Zarathustra. They withdrew to give the couple a private moment. Adolfo and Marisa sat down on the bed.

“Listen, vieja,” he told her, trying to sum up everything in a few seconds. “Just remember: Life is a game. Don’t give too much importance to any one thing. And please don’t suffer.”

Ale was still asleep. Adolfo kissed him on the cheek. As the policemen took him downstairs, a neighbor who worked for the block committee gave a triumphant smile.

The complete book is being published by Pureplay Press. The book, including all material therein, is copyright © 2020 by David Landau.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from now through early October, the Impunity Observer will publish excerpts from Landau’s book. All in all, more than one-third of Brothers will be presented. Stay tuned.

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David Landau

David Landau, the Impunity Observer's contributing editor, is the author of Brothers from Time to Time, a history of the Cuban revolution.

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