Excerpt from Welcome to Miami
Emilio Garcia Abierto wanted to be a Cuban spy, an infiltrator. To live live among the gusanos, the worms (as the exiles were called)....the weak, the cowards who ran, who fled to America-all lacking the guts to shoulder the changes socialistic reform required. They came here and spit over their shoulders at the emerald island that reared them. Cowering behind the crossed arms of the strong American bully they taunted and condemned, they paraded, they marched and protested. They stomped their feet and waved placards so persistently to keep an embargo barbwired around the island. They wouldn't let go even though the very last drop of milk from the mother's teats that fed them had withered to no more than a dried pinch of sand.
"The Coast Guard sprays the new rafters with fire hoses," Abierto said to his wife.
"Change the channel. Always bad news."
She couldn't understand, how could she. She had no idea he was a spy for the last twenty years.
"We have a big screen TV and all you use it for is to watch bad news."
When Abierto saw the burst of water pounding at the skinny men on the unpainted boats he wondered if any of them were new recruits as he had been.
"They should wait for visas," his wife said.
But Abierto was lost in the thoughts of how he first arrived. He was a young man then, two decades ago, wiry and thin. He liked to walk with a clean, wide stride, a stretch of his legs that seemed with each step he'd tare open the stitching at his groin. He remembered being hungry most of the time and the fast walking stopped that, made his lungs grasp and fill him with air. He was striding as he did along the Malacon, a concrete bulkhead, a wide cracked sidewalk that winded around the coast of the Caribbean Ocean on Havana's north side. It was a promenade where he could pick up speed and listen to the waves crashing on the black coral boulders. He had applied for the security division of the army, the department of ministry it was called. But it meant spies, either spying on a neighborhood block reporting friends or relatives-- if need be, if they weakened and betrayed the socialistic call. Or spying abroad, protecting the interest of Cuba's highest ideals.
"Comrade, Abierto." A man stood in his path. A spray from ocean crashed against a boulder. Sea mist covered the man's dark sunglasses. "Go to Muriel by week's end. Wait for instructions."
And so, he became a spy, traveling with one hundred and twenty-five thousand other rafters across the Florida Straits. A number, another refugee seeking political asylum in the liberally lubricated American portal, Miami. He wasn't given money, no secret codes, no weapons, nothing-just a phone number handwritten in pencil on a torn piece of brown paper bag.
"Dial this number in exactly one month's time. Not before. Not a day after." The man with dark sunglasses grabbed him by his shoulders. "Farewell, companeo." A kiss on both cheeks.
Abierto had envisioned being united with a sleek underground cell of dapper spies, like in the movies with subtitles he had seen. The very films that, at only ten years old, had convinced him he had found his calling-- an International spy spreading Fidel's brand of Marxism. The good guys. Instead, he stayed with the other refugees in a high-anchored fence compound under a concrete overpass in downtown Miami. Slice of yellow cheese on white bread and little cartons of milk and unopenable packets of warm orange juice. No rice and beans, no lechon, no plantinos. A stiff cot and a flat pillow. Group showers. Mosquitoes. And crazy people. A lot of screaming and yelling. Too many truly criminal people and crazy, crazy absolutely loco men.
This might be a mistake he thought. He had found a piece of cellophane to wrap the scrap of paper on which the secret number was written. He memorized it anyway, incase he had to swallow it, upon torture or interrogation.
There was one man he tried to avoid, for sure. Others, he heard, call this man Santiago. He had steel-wool grey hair, this loco man, with lines of black mud he had clawed with his own desperate fingers down his face. A scraggy beard with a hairy quarter-size mole on his cheek. Santiago snatched Abierto's sandwich of rubbery cheese from him just the day before.
"No come, no eat, Communisto!"
It was a bad thing to be called a Communist in this camp.
"Get away old man, before I break your legs." Abierto had never been in a physical fight, not since he was a child. He did not like violence and the thought of being pushed into it made his heart pound.
Santiago took the sandwich and held it above his head while he danced around moving his hips in an exaggerated Salsa step. He then wildly threw the sandwich on the ground, opened his zipper and peed on it.
It was a highlight of entertainment in the compound. Everybody laughed, even the more somber, dedicated souls truly humbled and willing to start at the bottom in this great golden paved land.
They had to wait for the number they were given to be called for processing.
Abierto was stoic, and kept to himself as a spy should. Five days left before he would have to make the call. He went, as they all did, each morning to the place in the fence where the day's processing numbers were posted.
"Ha!" Santiago crept up to Abierto as he looked for his number. The old man had keened Abierto's leg from behind which made him dip and almost lose his balance.
"Come mieda! Shit eater!" Abierto slapped at the air when he turned. "I warn you, old man." Four days left, Abierto thought. He read the list of small typed numbers again.
What would he do if he could not make the call? There were two pay phones on the compound, but the lines were long. And the thugs controlled them. A pay-off was required to get to the front, and then everyone would over- hear his secret conversation. Still, this might be the only option. And a spy, as he believed, had to be resourceful.
But by then, nearly a month into detainment, the men had broken up into cliques, and did not take to Abierto's sudden change in friendliness. He was known, to his surprise, as the straight man to Santiago's brutal humorous attacks. It was Abierto's indignant reaction that made Santiago funny.
"Amigos," Abierto would say, standing among the onlookers outside the tent where a perpetual game of dominoes was in play. The men would turn and smile, Abierto unaware that Santiago was standing behind him, imitating and miming him. It was funny.
"Stupidido," Abierto shouted when he finally saw the crazy old man. Tried to smack at Santiago as he dodged and darted.
Abierto was running low on hope, when with only one day left, his number was still not posted. Santiago seemed to dog his every movement. He wound up spending the final days before the appointed time, the specific day he was instructed to place the call, sitting alone, his back to the fence in a corner of the compound under the overpass where two runs met. When he saw Santiago approaching he threw stones. The old man danced away and covered his head, high-stepping like he was walking on hot coals.
"I will just have to wait on line," Abierto said to himself. But then he thought, with panic, what happens if they do not accept a call by reversing the charges; he had no coins. If I do not make this call the Companeo will believe I have turned traitor, contaminated by Yankee propaganda.
That night, the eve of his first trail of becoming a spy, he decided he would strike up a conversation with a member of the gang who controlled the phone privileges.
It was said this man, Carlos de Mano, was released from prison to be given passage on the boats and rafts. It was also rumored he had been sentenced for molestation of young women, among other unspeakable acts, although no one asked for details.
"Senor," Abierto waited for him to come out of the port-o-toilet. "I have a question."
"Give me your shirt."
"Do you want me to answer this question?"Carlos laughed. Carlos De Mano, many years later, with a new name, would become the director to the Port of Miami.
"My shirt is the payment to ask?"
"You are a clown like that old man, now I see." His smile turned mean. "Questions are free. For me to answer will cost one shirt."
A spy was resourceful. Abierto needed to know. He peeled his T-shirt over his head and handed it to Carlos. "Can a reverse charge be placed from the pay phones in the compound, even if I have no money?"
Carlos held up Abierto's shirt. He turned it over and then inside out. He balled it up and bent over, shoved it down his rear-end. "There's no toilet paper tonight," he smiled. He offered the T-shirt back to Abierto and when he didn't take it, dropped it to the ground and started away.
Carlos turned and smiled again. "Of course, man, this is America, you can charge everything."
So, shirtless in the warm night sky in the middle of the detention compound for Muriel refugees, Abierto felt he might just become a spy after all. He would stay awake and get on line now, to be the first tomorrow when the phones were turned back on. He reached into the deepest part of his pocket, a small secret crease where the number on the piece of brown paper bag was still dry and intact in its cellophane.
He knew the number by heart, but it was always prudent to double check. The compound was as quiet as it ever got. A dog from someplace beyond the high fence barked. The whisper of an occasional car on the overpass above. A man's cough from the dark tents. He stood under the halogen shadows from the stadium lights that never turned off. He looked around again before he carefully unfolded the plastic wrapping.
"Cuba," he said, sentimental, as Abierto had a tendency to be. The sight of the brown paper scrap reminded him of the brick paved streets of Havana. He thought about his sparse but comfortable bedroom in the house he lived with his mother. But what he longed for most was a loaf of warm bread. With his ration coupons he would, once a week, wait on line at the bakery for a hot roll of Cuban bread that was wrapped in a sheet of brown paper, from which this number supplied by the secret agent of the department of ministry of the socialist Republic of Cuba could very well have been written.
The crazy old man's eyes had grown wild and whiter, his face blackened with a month's grime. But he was still swift and light on his feet. He snuck up behind Abierto and snatched the piece of paper from his hands. "Ha!" he said. He held it above his head and danced around in circles.
"Communisto! Communisto!" Santiago began to sing. He broke the syllables to com-u-nis-to into a nursery rhyme Cuba mother's would sing to their babies telling of a little chicken that would be cooked and seasoned with mojo sauce, their fingers wiggling like the chick on the grill.
Santiago's sing-song accusation grew louder. Cigarette lighters and matches struck bright from inside the tents. The opportunity to mob up and beat upon a communist was always good sport.
Abierto ran toward Santiago. He noticed a few shadows, men in underwear standing next to their cots. He thought of his mission and what this fool could do to ruin it. He leaped at Santiago but the old man was quick and skipped away. More man stood outside the tents, not happy to have been woken from their bad dreams.
"I will break your legs," Abierto heard a scream come from himself unfamiliar in its rage. He had not been a violent man. But he managed, luckily to grab a hold of one of Santiago's high-stepping feet. He tumbled the old man to the ground. He straddled him, trying to hold the hand with the paper.
"Fool," Abierto shouted. It was actually the thought of longing for warm Cuban bread that made him pound his fist into Santiago's face. It was a strong and surprisingly powerful blow. Santiago was subdued. Abierto uncurled Santiago's clenched fingers. Not there.
"Where did you put it?"
A dark corner of blood appeared at the edges of the hairy mole on the old man's face. "Pocket," he said.
Abierto dug into the slimy pants and felt through the crazy derelict's pocket. It was there, the paper, rolled into a ball. A circle of men had gathered and when Abierto saw them moving in closer he punched the old man again before he stood and pushed his way clear.
A spy needed to be ruthless. That's what he thought, and resourceful, whatever it takes. He washed his face, relieved himself in the port-o-toilet and took his place to be the first on line when the phones would be turned on at dawn. He would not take the scrap of paper from his hiding place again, until he was ready to dial.
Shirtless, slapping at the mosquitoes on his back, Abierto stood at the tip of the white line painted in the patch of asphalt were the post that held the phone on a square of plywood was fastened. Three feet away the phone waited. He would dial the number, charges reversed, and hear the instructions on how to join the secret cell of Cuban spies. There were two pay phones on plywood backings, but he choose to wait on the line for the one he had known to be controlled by Carlos de Mano. He may receive some favor for having offered the man his shirt to wipe his ass. He might be in a good mood and associate the source of his feelings when he saw Abierto standing there, barechested. But Abierto knew this was unlikely. The politics of phone usage were strict and the currency of a package of cigarette would be the only guarantee. It was known that drug deals and a variety of schemes for racketeering were regularly conducted from the phones. These were business lines and sometimes they would remain unused, the receivers down, the line long and unmoving until a particular pager call was returned. Occasionally, a call could be placed to a relative if the man had something the phone gang needed. Abierto could only hope that not too many would stand on line with more barter than he. Abierto would wait all day, if he had to, after all, he was about to become a spy.
With the first change of light the phone Abierto had been staring out all night rang. The noise startled him. Many times he had wanted to lean against the post and fall asleep, but he knew if he was caught near the phones, beyond the white line, without the gang's approval, he would be kicked, smacked, possibly stabbed, but more dangerously, put in bad favor and banished from the possibility of phone privileges for many days.
Abierto didn't know if he should answer it. He looked around. The tents were quiet. The halogen lights still shone. It rang and rang and rang. Finally, Abierto decided he should answer it, hang up quickly and make his call. It would be more luck than he could imagine. He looked around again. But the moment he placed one foot over the white waiting line he heard a shout.
It was Carlos de Mano rubbing his eyes, stumbling out of his tent. He had slept in his clothes. "You haven't been chosen. Stay behind the white mark." Carlos de Mano didn't look at Abierto. Answered the phone and immediately started laughing, talking nonsense, from what Abierto could overhear. It must be a girlfriend; Carlos spoke of the raunchy dreams he had with her.
Abierto stood there, standing tall, sticking out his chest for Carlos to notice and remember him. The man responsible for his rashless butt. Carlos kept his back turned and yapped away for more than an hour. Breakfast served and finished. One of Carlos's men brought him a double portion of cheese pancakes and two cups of weak coffee. But the time De Mano tired the line was thirty men deep behind Abierto. It was a somber group, knowing that trouble makers never got a chance. Business began and the phones stayed used or idle waiting for pager calls until after lunch. Abierto felt weak, and he had to pee, badly. But he was a spy, almost, and spies could handle hardship.
By three o'clock only a dozen, three minute max, non-business calls were allowed. Abierto grew more despondent as he witnessed the barter required. One man gave up his watch and two packs of cigarettes to get to the front. The gang could care less if someone's mother was dying-what did he have to obtain the privilege. It would take a long time for that amount of cigarettes to be passed out among the gang before they'd need to see who on the line had more to replenish their stock.
Faint and wobbling on his feet Abierto heard rumblings that there was only one hour left before the phones were shut down and the mandatory orientation meeting would begin. It was really a head count to see if anyone had escaped. No one ever had, except a few of the truly insane, because once a man's number was called he would be given a resident card, food stamps, spending cash and a new suit. Abierto still might get lucky, if only he could get Carlos De Mano to notice him.
With only fifteen minutes till shut-off Abierto looked behind him to see most of the men on the line dwindle away. Cursing under their breath and giving the middle finger to the air once their backs were turned. The gang never seemed to focus on the happenings beyond the white line, as if that area was covered with a fog, concealing events non-essential.
"Senor," Abierto tired to get Carlos De Mano's attention. But the fog was not only thick but seemed to carry an odor that made the gang members' faces scowl when noise filtered from it.
"Senor, senor, senor" a sing-song echo mimicked Abierto's pleads. It was Santiago again. This was the final straw, Abierto thought; they'll both be ejected from the line.
But to his surprise, Santiago danced and swirled over the line and went up to Carlos De Mano. It looked like he took a new twenty dollar bill from his grimy pocket and placed it in on the ground in front of the plastic milk crate from where De Mano supervised. He spoke in a low voice but from the nods and smirks, Abierto could assume he was to be the butt of some kind of prank. Carlos De Mano laughed and elbowed his gang buddies to get their heads up and check this out.
"You," Carlos De Mano called, pointing at Abierto. "You have been chosen to make a call." He smiled at his men. "What do you say?"
Abierto knew the drill. "May I cross the line?"
"Yes, you may. You have three minutes, starting," he looked at one of the three watches he received that day strapped like bracelets on his wrist, "now."
Abierto stood before the phone. He wondered if push button numbers worked the same way as the rotary phones did back home. He took out the piece of paper with the special number. Unfolded the foil. When he had it in his palm he felt something hard. It was a dime, a shiny new coin sat squarely on the tiny bridge of paper. He hadn't had a penny to his name.
"Two minutes," Carlos De Mano called.
Abierto had no time to figure out where it came from. He slid it in the phone, waited for the tone and then pushed in each number carefully, waiting to hear it register. Waiting, waiting, then yes, he heard it ring.
In his concentration he had forgotten about Santiago. The old man had taken a place at the first spot on the white line of the second phone fixed the plywood-back in another asphalt patch ten feet away. Abierto kept a finger to his free ear and did not hear that the number he had dialed had caused the second compound pay phone to ring. Santiago got a nod from the gang.
Why was no one answering, Abierto thought. Panic was setting in. Had he dialed the correct number? Had the ministry of defense altered the plans? Was he not to be, after all, a spy?
Abierto heard the phone picked up on the other end. He closed his eyes to concentrate, memorize all instructions given. What happens if they requested a password-he had none?
"Hello. Hello." Abierto spoke loudly and was careful to pronunciate clearly. "This is Emilio Garcia Abierto. I am calling from the scrap of paper." He could think of no other way to identify himself.
When he looked up to see if Carlos De Mano was continuing to measure his time he saw Carlos and the other gang members laughing. What were they pointing at? So, he thought, crazy Santiago was also placing a call. Who could care-this was serious business he was on.
"I said I am Emilio Garcia Abierto, do you hear me?"
"I hear you," Santiago said.
But Abierto still did not connect that it was Santiago who was speaking.
"You have proved loyal," Santiago made crazy faces and spoke low to disguise the content of his words. Carlos De Mano and his boys elbowed at each other and seemed about to pee from laughter, mostly at the seriousness of Abierto's demeanor.
"Yes, I have been; I await further instructions."
"Good. Listen. You must sign up for a sponsor to be released from this hell hole. That is what you have missed. Sign your name to the rooster for landscape work with a firm called Manuel Farms. They plant palm trees from the home land."
Abierto was looking at Santiago as he listened. The lunatic was staring at him, making wild expressions. But his lips, when he was speaking into the phone, seemed to mouth the very secret instructions he was hearing on his end.
"Oh, impossible," Abierto finally said, lowering the receiver slightly from his ear.
Santiago winked, from a very normal face, although still extremely filthy before he resumed the wild-eye, tongue wagging impersonation of a loco man. "Yes, I have been the eyes and ears. And it is I who will confirm your readiness."
"But, all this time..." Abierto started.
"Your three minutes are almost up. You must come over and punch me in the mouth." Santiago suddenly raised his voice, loud enough for his words to be heard through Abierto's end. "So my son, I am your true father. Your mother was a whore-- everybody in the neighborhood has had a shot. Come say hello to your Papa." Santiago lowered his pants and wagged his prick at Abierto. "Come, kiss your Daddy."
How could it be? But it was--the tentacles of the spy network. He concealed his amazement at how this all works, the beauty and the power of the secret spy societies for which now he was truly a member. He wanted to hug Santiago, hold his hands and dance around with him in celebration-for he was finally a spy, a Cuban spy on American soil. He had made first contact-yes, yes, Emilio Garcia Abierto, a quiet shy boy his mother kept to play on his front patio, the dutiful studier of socialism and full participator of all things Fidel, lover of warm bread rationed and wrapped in brown soiled paper, was and would always be a man for his country-a spy.
"Suck his dick," Carlos De Mano, grabbed Abierto around his neck. "That will be of the greatest entertainment." He pushed him toward Santiago, who leapt up and down, his penis stretched out in his filthy hands. Carlos's grip was firm and forceful. He lowered Abierto to his knees.
"Busito. Kiss for your poppy."
The laughter resounded like howls from a rabid wolf pack.
Abierto looked up for a sign from Santiago, but the man seemed truly crazy again. Abietro could not struggle free. His face was inches away. What would he do? What should a spy do?
Just then he felt a warm splash on his eyes and then tasted the salt stream of urine dribbling in his mouth. Santiago, huh, what a spy--truly resourceful and clever, and besides, an excellent aimer with his piss, let a full heavy stream out on Abierto's face. It had the force of a fire hose. He was the one who provided Abierto with the dime during the distraction of their last scuffle. Santiago--a true professional.
The crowd cheered. It was the highlight of amusement. One for the record books, long after the men would become integrated into the great American society, pieces of hard Cuban bread bobbing in the fondue melting pot of this land, the story of Abierto on his knees, bathed in the urine of a crazy man would be retold.
But to Abierto his tears they witness were not from embarrassment; he cried with joy. For now, finally, he made contact-he was a spy.
Who, many years later, would own a big screen TV with a pre-programmable remote.