Blame Mariel (Excerpt)
While my older brother lived, I didn’t exist, not even as a thought in anybody’s head. As a second son who was also a second only son, I’ve always felt confident in my redundancy. Had I traipsed, back then, into the middle of an idea my Mom or Dad was busy having, they would have shooed me out, beat me back with a broom or bat, like the intruder I would have been. Then my older brother, Matty, didn’t even call home for three weeks before he went back there to die. This was in Miami, in the days when you could still blame anything on Mariel. Mariel was the port from where, in 1980, Castro gift-wrapped his criminals, deranged and in clean T-shirts, and shipped them to us with a kiss. Suddenly, Cuban lives shattered and the pieces blew across this whole continent and people came searching for them on bended knees and never stood all the way back up. And blame them my parents did. Matty was seventeen when he died and, in addition to ruining my life, was very much my brother, even though we never met. Try and understand. This is my brother meeting his first refugee. Age: eight. It happens because the mango tree bloomed and there is no more space in the house for the fruit. A crate of it sits in the tub, which they move on top of the toilet in order to shower. Men ring the doorbell to offer ten dollars to pick the burdened tree, then twenty. Or they don’t ring and lean on our fence until dad goes out. They look at him, offended, and move away. Nights are making him possibly insane. He keeps himself awake, convinced someone is up in his tree. And just as he starts to slip away, a mango gets too heavy for its branch. You can hear the fall even before it hits, and dad is awake, and his face grows dark and bristly like a mango you wouldn’t eat. One morning he walks through breakfast with a machete. Cool, Matty says, and wants to touch it. Where the hell did you get that? mom says. I always had it, he says. He sits and leans the thing against his leg point-down and goes at a grapefruit. Armando on the corner charges three bucks each for mangoes, he is telling them, dislodging wedges of his breakfast. I thought Matty could sell the rest of the tree, get sign on a chair out in the yard, make a little gumball money. Huh kid? Cool, Matty says. You’ll cut yourself in half, mom says. Ah, dad says, and picks it up and goes through the back. He goes to the side for the ladder and carries it and the blade together. He stands the ladder and spreads it and checks for wobbles. He turns the machete in his hands, studying it, the realness of its edge, and ascends, holding it away from his body in case he falls. He hacks a few, but really it’s easiest to twist them til they pop off. The machete is used for jostling the hard-to-reach branches. As he works, he talks to the tree about his life, about what’s reasonable to expect from the time left, what he’d like to leave his family. He is perfectly audible inside. Matty makes his sign out of sharpie and a flayed cereal box. He listens to Mom about cars in the street, then he sells alone while dad reclimatizes in the a.c. The skinny shade of a palm tree swings radially about the trunk, and he follows, relocating the chair and sign and the grocery bags gorged of mangoes. Underneath is at least the absence of heat, if not coolness. Only one car has stopped, a mother. At least she paid ten for only two. It was charity. Her kids won’t trust the look of the food, and she doesn’t want many things in the house that just sit and molder. When the shade moves too far back to serve as a viable retail location, my brother moves back streetside and plants the chairlegs in the naked sun. They are reclaimed by heat and sting when his own legs brush past. A man walks down the street, no hat, long pants, closed-toe shoes, probably even socks. Must have been a walk whatever crazy house he just escaped. He is smoking, exhaling the shapes of his lungs in vapors that burn away behind him. He stops before the boy and the incomprehensible sign and looks atthem as at things underwater. Dipping a finger into a bag, he parts the top and inspects the unripe orbs that needed more time on the tree. He turns his head away before breathing out more smoke. Matty has decided not to announce that all paying customers can have their mangoes blended inside into a Mom’s famous smoothie. Cuantós? the man says. For how many? Matty says, already seeing himself at school telling this to Señor Garces. Uno. Trés. Cinco por dos. The man shakes his head. Es criminal, he says, trying to pronounce the second word as English. He bends and grinds his cigarette into the road. He pulls another from his pants pocket, tears off the filter, sticks the rest between his lips. Fuego? he says. No. Sorry. The man moves on, towards the lighter out there waiting for him. Matty goes inside and asks mom to take him and the unsold mangoes to church. That Sunday, he sees mangoes gutted and partitioned on the after-service snack table. He goes up to say there has been a mistake, that one of the coffee ladies must have pilfered the donation box, and is pointed down the table to the birthday cake that is meant for the kids. He steals back as many pieces as he can, and later walks the neighborhood, looking for someone in need of fruit as the heat makes it stink and sour in his hands. I believe he got the better parts of his heart from fishing. Our father was and is a charter boat captain. Every dawn he is, apparently, woken by the sound of the ocean. You can’t hear it from our house. But when I was little I liked to touch parts of my body to the same parts of his. Hand to hand, nose to nose. I guess my parts could know themselves better that way, impossible alone. When we were ear to ear, I wonder if I could hear the waves. So he wakes. Back then, he would move the coffee maker to the hall closet so its grumbling wouldn’t roust anybody else. One might just as well run an extension cord outside and brew under a palm tree. But my parents are of the North, where the outside must never be trusted, and no amount of balm in the Florida weather would convince them otherwise. Often as not he forgot to take the maker back. Conscientious he may have been, but the sea is loud. The drip coffee maker—each drop quivering over the pot, should I fall? should I fall now?—taunted his patience. So our mother’s first move in the morning was not towards the kitchen, where she might lean over the sink, yawn into the morning light of the window, and feel a mother. Her first move was to the hall closet. This she could stand. These were his most honest quirks; he gave them unto her. She went over and waved the coffee steam away from her jackets and carried the maker back, knowing that everyone is not perfect, and is the better for it. But the pee. After rising, before the hall closet, she detoured to the bathroom. I don’t know her ritual nor God willing will I. I know it was early, it was dark, things were unreal. Matty would have been awake, playing quietly, anxious for food to get made. Basically it is entirely plausible that she overlooked for years a component of her married life. One morning she looked before she sat: the toilet was already full. She happened to curse then, audibly. The thought of that stewing how many morning hours. She flushed, went, flushed again. She walked into the kitchen, where Matty was eating from a cereal box with a spoon. They startled each other, both of them caught in their different acts. She left, came back. Sorry I cursed, she said. S’okay, my brother said. He doesn’t flush cause it’ll wake us up. That night she called a family powwow. She told dad she’d cursed in front of Matty. She asked Matty to forgive her. He did, again. Then she announced that, regarding toilet business, respect for sleepers was appreciated but not extenuating. I saw a son’s share of powwows, too, years after Matty’s last. Some of the structures they built around him hadn’t fallen before I came around. I could enter, sightsee, imagine how nice it must have been. In these meetings we sat separately. No pair could form a front against the third, no axis of powwow power. Which meant we had to pull a chair from the kitchen and Dad sat alone on the sofa. No one quite knew how not to stare into the empty, person-sized space beside him. I sat on the floor, spurning the imported chair and the efforts it implied and the whole conversation, but also punishing myself both for my contempt and my inability to stand up and leave. I felt very complicated then. Dad was a sport, though he was lost after ten minutes. Mom talked, asked us to share, nodded appreciatively as we mumbled whatever back. A great talent of hers. But I wonder what Dad really thought, sitting there with his fisherman’s eyes, brushing his knee against that vacancy. Fisherman, as an adjective, suggests something that is not truly expressed unless it is looking to something, or nothing, very far away. So far I’ve found it applicable only to the eyes and the heart. What did he think of me down there picking at the rug, of the kinds of trouble I was bound for? Maybe he said, but not with any clarity that I remember. The living room was our biggest, still it wasn’t ocean enough for him to feel home. I suppose what I most want his eyes for is their memory of what Matty was like to have around. Anyway, Dad’s morning movements were but a gentle presence. So gentle that no sleeper in the house could tell them apart from the other evanescent qualities of morning, birds testing out their voices, sunlight spreading over the shades. You couldn’t know if they also happened in reality or just in your dreams. Of course Matty was desperate to fish. Leaving with Dad at dawn would complete him as a person and make him happy for life, like the GI Joes on the top shelf at Walgreens. Unfortunately, my brother had an immaculate childhood. Mom left work for seven years, as she’d always said she would. She contemplated nursing until he was four, well into his sentience, as a journal suggested; one look from Dad knocked her down to three. No one else touched him, he spent every night in his own house, and no fishing. Even a rod kept inside the house would enter an eye, topple a vase. But what Mom really knew was that fishing was no short-term pleasure. It took men. She would lose another. The sea is called many things. Vast, wine-dark. It should get called greedy more often. Its smell infiltrated the house when Dad came home. He would fall on the sofa and Matty would climb over him, pressing the sea-laden air out of his captain’s shirts. Salt lodged in the creases around his eyes, which still squinted into the wind. On Sundays Mom opened all the windows and drove our vacuum like punishment. A lot of good that did. The house was underwater. Happy birthday, son, Dad said, producing a long package from behind the fridge. Matty was eight. The other presents and money-bearing cards were opened, the wrapping and cake-smeared party utensils stuffed in garbage bags, the other second-graders at last captured by their respective mothers. Matty lit up, inexhaustible in the face of unopened presents. Dad might’ve looked fearfully, or defiantly, or connivingly at Mom—however the one spouse who knows of an upcoming fight looks at the other. It was a junior fishing rod, three-foot long, only fifteen feet of line, with a rubbery, No Injury hook attached to the end. Thanks Dad, Matty said, not letting go of the rod for the next three weeks. Shit Harold, Mom said, but when Matty wasn’t around to hear. Matty wasn’t allowed to sleep with it—he was scolded that night for trying, spooning the rod and naming the marlins they would hook together. He fell asleep staring at it, its long shadow on the wall, and took it outside as soon as daylight let him. Maybe he saw sunfish flipping in the yard grass, or snook sneering down their snouts at him from the trees. But they weren’t really there, so he fished the flowers. He was casting into my flower beds, Mom said that night. He’s casting already? He pulled three bulbs clean out. Last I checked the catch limit was twelve. Harold. I’ll tell him to fish the garbage can. I don’t see why you had to get him that thing in the first place. You saw how he looked at it in the store. I saw how you looked at it. Matty listened in bed, decided not to ask for a back scratch. Mom pled on, trying to keep the household safe, dry, behind bulwarks of reasonableness. Surprisingly not a great talent of hers. For a few nights, Matty strained to decipher the parents’ hushed argument. At some point Dad said, because it’s good for him. Matty, floating towards sleep, bumped and awoke on those words—they were solid, buoyant, and pointed in a safe direction. He trusted their sea-worth, and in that moment gave himself to their care, and slept. Still, when he was shaken awake, a couple mornings later, he didn’t right away recognize the man above him. Dad’s face does look strange, with all but its hardest lines slept away, when you see him just before dawn. He helped Matty into some pants, with movements that spoke victory. They weren’t sneaking out, for now. As they drove, Matty wondered why more people don’t come out to see the first light. He was elated. He had a sip of coffee. At the marina, Matty met his second, third, fourth, and fifth refugees. Juan Carlos, Carlos Juan, Carlos Carlos, and Juan Juan were their names—probably, people assumed, their re-names. As starkly real and bathless as the dispossessed come. They were not, they said, of the rabble, by whom they meant the criminal and the insane they sardine-sat beside on that famous boat ride. As seen on the news television, they told the hotel guests. And they all four linked arms and grinned, as if re-configuring a famous picture of themselves, while they each falsely remembered a huge applause accompanying their adjoined first step off the boat. The hotel guests would promptly think of something they’d left in the room, to which they needed to run for their life that very moment. We are a movie stars, one Juan or Carlos would call after them. Their English was in fact much better than what they spoke with. They had an appreciation for devilment that left little doubt of their hiding something, but whether or not it was only their past no one asked. Because they worked, and seemed to need only enough money to go out at night and come back alive. That’s all Gus cared. Gus owned the hotel. It was he who carved a marina out of the limestone shore and ran fishing charters for the guests (half-price) and general public (price negotiable, but steep.) It was he who went to the beach when the Cubans were scattered there like flotsam and stood in the bed of his truck and hollered that he’d take as many as could work and sleep in one room. He looked furtively for news cameras, but they were off finding the whitest-looking refugee they could throw before their television audiences. Four men climbed up, one woman made a couple steps his way before thinking better of it. The men worked hard, slept just fine, and smiled like they weren’t deep in other schemes. The Juan Carloses liked Dad especially. He arrived at the marina early, and clambered for his first cigarette like a man needing air. He’s never smoked near any oxygen we might inhale. They thought he was the funniest thing and, leaving their mops at ease, went to help him with a few puffs. They felt the affection of strangers in the morning, unable to care what might befall one another, but appreciating the warmth of the nearby bodies. The marina’s pelican, sleepy on a barnacled pylon, covered his head with his own wing like it was all to much to watch. Dad hadn’t exactly told Mom of their existence. Not that she couldn’t’ve dealt. But the marina was his office space, and its characters as much his right to withhold as a buxom coworker in a problematic neckline. He just didn’t need Matty finding them interesting enough to gab about later. She had asked, while they were drafting the minutia of Matty’s big day, if the men had hooked anything undesirable since she’d last been down. If they did, Dad said, Gus would’ve made us grill it up for the guests. She moved on to a discussion of sunscreen application in a manner that suggested their son’s sure death was on him. They stopped at the bait shop for chum, line, two candy bars and two Cokes. The smell from the bubbling tanks, where half the little bait fish floated belly-up, didn’t bother passing through Matty’s nostrils; it grabbed straight for his throat. They got to the marina, which sits between the quiet hotel and the wakeful ocean, earlier than any soul save that hopeless pelican. There was only the hollow hit of water along fiberglass hulls, the sagging of pier wood, and every wind-touched thing’s coordinated sway. Matty thought he was witness to a new state of water. He’d only engaged with it through faucets, hoses, the shout of beach waves and the touch of rain. He’d never known the ocean as useful or usable. Now he watched it move between the boats, slow and colored like morning, preparing its deep bulk to provide for him. He lowered a hand in to check if it was still wet. I’ll never forget my brother’s first time fishing. I imagine the Juan Carloses wore their clean coveralls, shook his hand, and scraped the grit off the dock like dignitaries. I imagine Dad said be careful about putting your fingers in like that, fishes eat near the surface. I imagine the pleasure Matty found, when they reached open water and Dad gunned it, in crouching below the level of the gunwales, where the air keeps still and warm. I imagine him looking at some flat piece of water, without a fish making a try at his lure for hours, and I imagine the better parts of his heart realizing themselves right there. I imagine that if you asked him, then and there, why should anyone marry a fisherman, he would look at you, then back at the water, and say, because they can be patient with this big mean thing for so long. I imagine, because I’ve never been told. But I can picture the marina as it was then more clearly than I’ve ever known it under my own feet. Then he turned seventeen. Then he left for three weeks. Then he came back and then he died. The parents didn’t blame themselves. After all, they should have just left Miami when their friends left, when they saw refugees on the news television and talked about leaving, when their parents called and said haven’t you left yet? They stayed for pride, but there wasn’t any health in blaming themselves for it. Because they’d tried. And there was always Mariel. (Even though, when Dad pinned Carlos Carlos against his truck and asked him just what in fucking hell were his thoughts on the matter, he found there was nothing in it. By then, Carlos Carlos was the only one of them that hadn’t died, disappeared, or resurfaced in Atlanta in a troupe of José Fernandos. All Mom needed to hear about it was that, while Dad’s colleague certainly wasn’t to blame, the tone and wording of his condolences implied that such incidents were tragically common and characteristically Cuban. Though, as of yet, my research into the subject does not show that immigrants cause drug addiction.) They didn’t blame themselves, but after that they pretty much boxed it up and mailed it in, so to speak. When he peed, he flushed and made no mind. When the coffee maker ended up places other than the kitchen, she just made tea. If they ever had another son—which of course they wouldn’t—they’d let him go fishing the day he was born, and he could stick all his fingers and toes where the fishes feed. When they had another son, by accident, of course, he would catch them looking at him like he’d just crawled out from under the sofa, intruder that he was.