A Falling Star
Excerpted from the novel A Falling Star (Carolina Wren Press, forthcoming Spring 2014)
Daysy del Pozo
Daysy left the library in a daze. A peanut vendor on 49th Street, moved by the sadness she wore on her face, gave her a little cone filled with nuts. “Para tí,” he said, and smiled toothlessly. Daysy muttered gracias, and walked on until she reached her house at last. She took a long look at the iron door then kicked it, savagely.
“Abuelo!” Daysy called, throwing open the door and making a dent in the wall behind it. “Abuelo!” she shouted, her voice breaking as she searched the bedrooms, the kitchen, the bathrooms. Panicked, Daysy pictured all the things that could have gone wrong with her grandfather. She saw him run over in the street, torn in half, his shoes filled with gore. She imagined him drowned in a canal. His bed was rumpled. His toothbrush still wet. A lemon rind was placed carefully on the edge of the sink. All of it was evidence of Abuelo, but where was he? Dead; lost; confused; swindled; kidnapped, Daysy told herself over and over, counting the ways in which her desertion had hurt her grandfather. I’ve killed him, Daysy thought, and sat down to cry. But there were no tears. She wished for them—big, sloppy, snot-infused tears instead of this bitter aridity.
Daysy heard the squeal of the iron door as it opened. She turned to watch Abuelo coming in, tucking keys into his pocket, a steaming cafecito in his hand from the bakery a mile down the road. He came to Daysy, stopping to kiss the top of her head. Daysy could feel the heat from the coffee near her face as he bent down. Daysy breathed deeply to take him in—coffee and Grecian Formula. He patted her cheek. His palm was cold.
“Abuelo,” Daysy asked, “it’s so hot outside. How do you manage to keep cool?” She smiled at him and held his hand. Abuelo was having a good day, and for the moment, thoughts of Belén had dissipated.
“Bueno, the air conditioner in the Buick works really well.”
“El aire, muchacha. You need to use the air conditioner or you die out there. But in Cuba? No, in Cuba we had the sea breezes. In Cuba, we . . .”
“You drove?” Daysy asked again, her hand firm around his.
“Claro. Do you think an old man like me can walk to the bakery? Once perhaps, but not now.”
Daysy pressed his open palm against her cheek and closed her eyes. He could have killed himself, but he didn’t. He managed to turn the car on, point it in the right direction, park it. It was a wonder considering the many times Abuelo would wake up frightened in the night, unsure of everything, thinking he was still in Havana, or how often he’d confused Magda Elena for Nieve, how he’d pinch her thighs from behind, how Magda Elena would scream at him, confusing him further. It was as if time had melted for Abuelo, and he was swimming in it, going in any direction he pleased—back thirty years one moment, in the present the next. Daysy thought that perhaps Abuelo hadn’t forgotten anything after all, only that he was in a different space in time at any given instant.
Daysy said, “Abuelo, tell me about Belén,” hoping that perhaps he was there with her in his mind, but he looked at Daysy with knitted brows, the way he did on days when he struggled with names, and Daysy knew the clouded look, knew the moment of clarity had gone.
“Is this her?” Daysy tried again, putting the photograph she’d found in her mother’s drawer back in his hands. She carried it with her all the time now, and the photo was softening from wear.
Abuelo stared at it for a long time. He swayed a little where he stood, and Daysy took hold of his forearm. “She was the most delicate bebita, white like sand, blond. Blond like her grandmother. The only real rubia in the building. You should have heard the old women in the park. ‘That baby can’t possibly be your nieta,’ they’d say to me. Ha!”
Daysy felt a click in her chest then thought that perhaps she’d imagined it. “Tell me more about her.”
Abuelo closed his eyes and began to hum. The skin on his eyelids was heavy and shiny.
“Belén, Abuelo. Focus, just this once!” Daysy had lost control of her voice then, and it echoed in the house. If her Spanish were better, she thought she might be able to explain to him how much she needed to know about her sister, about the lie she’d been told, but the moment was one of those that reminded her how very slow the brain can be, as the words in Spanish failed her, one by one. “Dime. De mi sister. Come on. Hablame.” She knew she could do better, but the language wouldn’t shape itself in her mouth. “Tell me something about her,” she pleaded at last. “Anything.”
“My grandmother once loved a pirate,” Abuelo said, and Daysy moaned. Stories that began this way were often long and pointless, and she knew that he wasn’t going to answer her question.
“Abuelo, por favor.”
“The man she loved was named Don Virgilio de las Cruzes, and he sailed a brigantine. He was hanged in Camagüey, you know.”
“No, I don’t know anything. That’s the problem! Please, Abuelo!”
“But before he died he told my grandmother about his hidden gold, and when the authorities tried to get the location of the galleons from her, she refused to speak. Or maybe, she just forgot.”
“Abuelo!” Daysy was standing now, yelling, shaking her grandfather. He was hard as a statue underneath her grip, though warm. The doctors had described the damage in his brain as a sort of ossification of the tissues, of the memories, and Daysy wondered now whether his body was not becoming stone with each passing day.
“Bueno,” Abuelo said, and stood. He smiled and nodded his head. Daysy’s hands fell off his shoulders. She watched Abuelo walk toward his bedroom, and his shaky steps suggested some sort of illness in him, something beyond the deterioration of his brain. Daysy’s throat ached, and she swallowed again and again, as if trying to wash down something very bitter.
“She never told anyone,” Daysy heard Abuelo say to himself from within his room. “Imagínate, we could have been rich.”
Later that afternoon, when the hottest part of the day was over, Abuelo stepped into Daysy’s room. She’d been studying the photograph, the one with the baby in Magda Elena’s arms. Try as she might, she could discern no information from it. Abuelo sat on the edge of her bed, twirling in his hands a top he’d carved. It was smooth and painted with red nail polish, so that it gave off a potent, acrid scent. She watched as Abuelo twirled the thing in his hand, deftly, the way he handled his flute. As a little girl, Daysy had loved watching him play, imagining his fingers were spiders’ legs, so delicately did they press upon the finger holes.
“Do you have any string?” he asked as if he were a child.
“No, Abuelo,” Daysy said, wanting only to sleep and forget. Later, well rested, she planned on talking to her parents about Belén, on showing them the article she’d found. The prospect frightened her.
“But I need some,” Abuelo insisted.
Abuelo patted her head, then scratched softly at her back, the way he did when she was little. “Would you like to see Belén?”
Daysy sighed. “She’s dead,” she said, folding the article and the photograph together and slipping them into the back pocket of her jeans.
“She isn’t!” Abuelo shouted, standing and yanking Daysy along with him. “We’ll go in the Buick,” he announced, as if they owned a fleet of cars and not just two.
At first, Daysy tried to restrain her grandfather, but he was still strong, and though she pulled at his shirt, tearing the pocket off the guayabera he always wore, he got past her, sprinting down the driveway and getting into the driver’s seat of the Buick before Daysy could stop him. Part of her wanted to believe him. He insisted again and again, “I’ll take you right to your sister. You should see how big she is now,” and Daysy let herself imagine that it was true.
The “Buick” was actually a colossal Ford van, painted blue, with curtains in the windows. The back of the van had plush seating and a Formica-topped table anchored to the floor. Abuelo called all cars Buicks, especially those vehicles he most admired. “El Buick,” he’d say often, “is stronger than a tank.” Angel had purchased the van a few months ago at a bargain price, with the idea that sooner rather than later, his father would be wheelchair bound, and a van that size could hold him, his wheelchair, and any other medical equipment necessary. Magda Elena hated the van, had whispered “solavaya” at it, fearing the van itself would hasten Abuelo’s illness.
Outside, Daysy held onto Abuelo in the front seat, gripping his shoulder and tugging, saying, “Abuelo, anda, let’s go inside. I’ll make coffee.” But Abuelo turned the ignition, the van thundered to life, and so Daysy had no choice but to get in. She didn’t trust Abuelo’s driving on the highway, so she suggested he drive side roads instead. Obeying, he avoided the crowded expressway and drove down 16th Avenue with one hand on the center of the steering wheel, ready to pound the horn at every poor driver, which he did with frequency.
“Where are we going?” Daysy asked.
“You said you knew where Belén is.”
“Of course I know!” he shouted again, and banged the steering wheel with his fist closed. “Caramba, you ought to trust me more.”
He said it so convincingly that Daysy leaned over and kissed his stubbly cheek. Abuelo chortled and then, his face changing in an instant from gladness to something more melancholy, heaved a broken sigh. As for Daysy, she was happy for the distraction, if not a little nervous at having her very unstable grandfather driving an enormous van.
They drove through Miami Springs, down Le Jeune, and across South Miami, until they found themselves in the elegant, oak-lined streets of Coral Gables. Abuelo drove past rows of wedding dress boutiques that prompted him to declare how odd it was that Nieve, his dead wife and Daysy’s grandmother, weighed only one hundred pounds with her wedding dress on. “She was a very fat woman by the time she died del corazón,” he said.
“Heart attack?” Daysy asked.
“Broken heart,” he said, and he flicked the headlights rhythmically. Oncoming drivers flicked them back at him. “She was so sad when all of you left us. You don’t remember her, do you?”
Daysy shook her head. How odd, she thought, that her Alzheimer’s-stricken grandfather was quizzing her memory.
“Your grandmother was a hard woman, but your absence softened her like a piece of bread. ‘Daysy, mi Daysy,’ she would mumble to herself. Por Dios, how she missed you.”
“Then Belén died,” Daysy said, helping him tell the story.
“Died? Who died?” Abuelo asked, stopping at a green light for a second before reconsidering and pressing the accelerator again.
“Belén,” Daysy said.
“Such a name! It caused all sorts of trouble,” Abuelo said. Before Daysy could ask him what he meant, Abuelo had rolled down his window as he drove and pointed at a garish car dealership on the corner. Then Abuelo told of the time he worked at a car lot in Hialeah painting trucks, how he’d tripped on a discarded battery and hit his head, and the owner, “ese desgraciado,” had tricked him into signing papers so that he couldn’t get his workman’s compensation. “So long ago,” he said and whistled when the light turned green.
“Abuelo, it was last year.”
“No, m’ija, it was ages ago.” Daysy said nothing. At another large intersection, the road they were on ended and ran smack into a six-lane mega-street. Daysy’s sense of direction failed her.
“¿Ahora que?” Abuelo asked, and Daysy faltered.
“How am I supposed to know?” she shouted over the din of people behind them pressing their horns. “Just turn! Right!” Daysy pointed at last, and Abuelo took a sharp left then hit the brakes.
Around them, drivers swerved into other lanes to avoid the stopped van, honked their horns, and waved middle fingers at Abuelo. He tightened his seatbelt once again and shifted the van back into drive. “Trust me,” he said to Daysy.
Daysy undid her seatbelt with a vicious swipe, stumbled to the back of the van as they lurched forward in traffic. Rush hour was just beginning, and the van moved and stopped, moved and stopped. Daysy felt her stomach twisting with the motion. But Abuelo didn’t seem to mind. He hummed a few bars of “Por un Beso,” and his voice was especially deep and resonant, as if the feeling of driving again after so long, of being out in the thick of Miami, surrounded by reckless drivers and colorful billboards, had refined his talent.
Daysy said, “I think we’re lost. I think this was a big mistake.”
Abuelo took another sharp left at that moment, and Daysy strapped the seatbelt on. They were in the heart of downtown Miami now. Buildings wrapped in glass towered into the blue sky, and between them, Daysy could see glimpses of a gray sea in motion. So much water, she thought. Abuelo began humming to himself again, and the hum took the form of words, and his voice grew until he was belting “Guantanamera” so loudly that the van’s windows shivered. He revved the engine at the height of the song, just as he drew out the guantanameeeeeeeera melismatically, and the force of it threw Daysy back into her seat. The engine bellowed its accompaniment as they drove through Miami, out of downtown and back into the neighborhood grids.
When they got to Calle Ocho, they found it gridlocked. Street vendors, mostly men Abuelo’s age, darted in between cars, handing out white paper bags with sweet churros to paying customers, while clear plastic bags filled with small, green mamoncillos hung from their belts. On the corner, El Cristo restaurant was so full that people were standing outside to wait for seats. The men and women were dressed in dark suits. Some had white flowers pinned to their lapels, their dresses.
Watching the milling crowd, Daysy remembered the newscast from earlier that week, the one about the Cuban crooner, Cruz García, who had died from a heart attack. This was the day of the funeral mass, held at the Miami Cathedral, and naturally, the fans and distant relatives had gathered in Little Havana for dinner before heading back downtown to stand in line at the Freedom Tower to view the body of the famous Cruz García one more time. Daysy noticed, then, the music blaring from all of the storefronts, songs like “Regreso” and “Mi Perla Preciosa,” songs by various artists about Cuba and exile that played at every wedding, every New Year’s party, and every time the news gossips predicted Castro’s death. The songs, sung by high-voiced men and deep-voiced women, were nearly always flute-heavy, and trumpet blasts started off the choruses rousingly, and always, at the weddings and parties, the handkerchiefs would come out and the toasting would begin, the calls for “Next year in Cuba” accompanied by the dull clicking of plastic glasses filled with sidra. Daysy rolled her eyes and tapped her grandfather’s shoulder.
“We’re stuck. It’s that stupid Cruz García funeral. Try a back road,” Daysy said, interrupting his singing.
Abuelo’s face went blotchy at once, his eyes liquid. It looked as if he were suffering a sudden allergic reaction. “¿Estúpido?” Abuelo asked. “¿Estúpido? Mira muchacha, I watched that ‘estúpido’ perform back in La Hábana for six months from backstage, and he was a real artist. ¿Me oyes? A real artist.” As he spoke, he waved an open palm in the air as if he would slap her. Then, Abuelo opened the car door and stepped out. He pulled his flute out from an inner pocket of his light jacket and held it high in the air. He had left the transmission in drive, and Daysy tumbled into the front seat as the van rolled forward. She threw on the emergency brake, turned off the ignition, and pulled out the key.
Since he’d become ill, Abuelo had also become easier to anger. With the onset of dementia, he sometimes exploded into violence. On one occasion, after Angel had refused to give him his car keys, Abuelo began to pound his son with his fists, bruising Angel’s shoulder and cheek. The doctor had said it was normal. He said confusion would give way to sporadic violence, which would give way to mute submissiveness. Daysy was glad her grandfather had not chosen to hit her with those coiled fists, those hands laced with veins that could pull out stubborn banana trees by the roots with one tug. Instead, he disappeared into the crowd on the sidewalk. From inside the van, Daysy could hear him singing, “Ay mi Cuba, mi perla del mar . . .” in his beautiful, broken voice, and she heard cheers from the crowd.
“Oh, my God,” Daysy yelled, and jumped out of the van. She crossed the intersection, nearly stepping on the dry carcass of a run-over cat. Soon, she was stuck behind a wall of dark suits, all transfixed by Abuelo, who had begun playing an old Cruz García favorite on his flute. She whimpered, “Excuse me,” a few times, but no one moved from his or her spot. Rather, the wall of mourners was swaying back and forth, like snakes charmed by Abuelo’s music. A Channel 23 camera crew made its way toward the sound, too. A stout reporter, also in a dark suit with a white carnation in his lapel, broke through the crowd with his microphone held like a sword. Daysy swept in behind the man with the camera.
Abuelo was just finishing his tribute with a long, trilling note, only one hand on the flute, his chin vibrating with the crescendo, his left hand a fist over his heart. Around him, the mourners wiped tears from their eyes and then exploded in applause. Abuelo kept his hand on his chest and bowed slowly.
The reporter, whom Daysy recognized as Albert Arroyo, a small-time celebrity in Miami, pushed away Abuelo’s admirers and held the microphone two inches from his mouth.
“Tell us,” he asked in Spanish, “what is it about Cruz García’s music that so moves you?” The cloudy look had come over Abuelo’s face again.
“Eh, Cruz García? García?” Abuelo rubbed his forehead. “Eh, García is playing at the Teátro tonight, I think. Sí, el Teátro Martí.”
Daysy heard the crowd sigh, heard the words she’d heard before in public places, “Ay, pobrecito,” again and again, a phrase that revealed both genuine pity and relief that the crazy old man was in someone else’s family.