Mom stuffs the grocery list, the coupon book and money into my shirt pocket and hands me the scratchy burlap sack for lugging the goods home. Before going to the market, I best get to the barbershop, she says and adds that my hair has gotten long, so the haircut has to happen today, and she doesn’t want me to have to wait too long, groceries in hand, if the barber gets too busy to take me right away. Into my pants’ pocket she stuffs the haircut money, one peso, plus a peseta, which she insists I give as tip this time instead of keeping it for myself.
“Remember, mijo,” she says. “As meek as the dove and as astute as the dove.” She tells me this often, every morning before sending me to school, and every three or so weeks when she sends me to the barber. “Remember they’re always listening, always watching.” And we have to be wise about what we say and how we act, she doesn’t say this time, but she doesn’t have to. She’s said it enough my brain says it for her.
I nod, let her kiss me on the forehead, then head out of our tiny first floor apartment. Previously occupied by the now long gone building’s manager, it was never meant for a family of four. But this is the ongoing, never-dying Cuban Revolution, and we must all sacrifice.
Candelaria, our building’s representative to the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDR, has a much better apartment right at the entrance of the apartment building. Using its large corner window, she can watch everyone going in and out. For some reason, she likes to do it without you knowing, and Dad one time said she would have preferred her name be Clandestina. But I always see her when I want to, like I do now when I notice the curtain move ever so slightly. Mom’s told me not to pay any attention to her, to ignore her. But I’m just a kid and can get away with it, so I wave at Candelaria and give her my best fake smile. Why not smile at her. At least I know she’s watching me. Not like all the other people out there, any of them, who could be watching me, who probably aren’t but who I should treat as if they are.
I’ve often thought that’s how the government keeps you under control, not with guns or violence, but just with the fear that someone’s watching you, ready to report you if you say or do anything you shouldn’t. You could have nine friends, all ten of you unhappy and ready to something about it, but the fear that any one of you could turn you in is enough for all ten of you to keep your mouths shut except to praise the Revolution.
The walk to the barbershop takes me five minutes. There, on a Saturday morning and just past the 8:30 AM opening time, I find my favorite barber — well, Dad’s favorite, and hence by default, mine — waiting for his next client.
I walk to his chair and hand him the peso and peseta. Haircuts are 80 cents. Until recently I would just give him a peso, leaving him a 20 cent tip. Now, after I held back 20 cents to buy comics, an act that resulted in a string of 3 sloppy, painful haircuts, we’ve been trying to rebuild his graces with an extra peseta. This kills Mom and Dad because we scarcely have it to give, so it’s come out of my allowance, reduced by the same amount whenever I earn my keep by polishing the family’s leather shoes. It annoys me not so much because of the lost allowance as it does because, being good at math, I know 20 plus 20 out of 80 cents amounts to a 50 percent tip.
“How old are you again?” Ortencio the barber asks me.
“Maybe it’s time for a more grown-up haircut. Maybe try a timberlay?”
By “timberlay” he is referring to Timberlake, but I think he really means the other Justin, the younger one, Bieber. He probably gets them confused because they’re both Justin, pronounced Justeen, like you would pronounce Augustine. Anyway, timberlay used to be hot, but Bieber is the thing now. Either way, Ortencio doesn’t appreciate that my parents would not appreciate me coming home looking like an American teen idol, not because they hate America, like everyone else wearing Lees and Levis and getting dollars from their families in Miami claims they do, but because it would not line up with our conservative Baptist concept of living in the world while not being of it.
“Nah, let’s just do the usual,” I say, and resist adding “the kind you used to give me before you got all tweaked about not getting a tip that one time.”
He smiles, waves me to the chair, and I take that plus his offer to do a special haircut as a sign that our extra peseta investment is about to pay off with a clean, normal haircut. Just so, the haircut begins smoothly, with none of the pulling of the ears or careless poking with the comb I’ve come to dread.
“How’s school going for you?” my barber asks me.
“Okay,” I say, tensing up a bit. Barbers love to chat you up. You can’t really blame them, standing there all day cutting hair, they have to find something to pass the time and talking’s one of them. Still, I prefer to relax and zone out while my hair becomes presentable again. That, and I have to watch what I say, which makes unexpected questions all the more uncomfortable.
“Getting good grades?”
“Yeah.” I shift in my seat and opt to add a little more to avoid coming across as rude. “All marks above ninety percent. One hundred in math, plus some extra credit assignments.” I stop there because I’ve gone from rude to sounding cocky. Along with being careful about what to say, I have to remain humble — another trap to avoid in the crowded field of things I could say wrong.
“Ah, smart boy. So you like math then. Is it your favorite?” I nod, and he follows up with, “Why is it your favorite?”
I think about that for a minute to contemplate this landmine. Unlike other subjects where textbooks and teachers can inject politics, math leaves no room for doctrine. Two plus two is always four, and it has nothing with Capitalism or Imperialism or the good of the people or the heroism of those who fight against colonial oppression. It’s four, end of story. That’s what I’d like to tell him, but instead I say, “I like how it makes sense. It’s predictable. There’s no room for interpretation.”
“It makes sense, huh? Some people wouldn’t say that.”
“I think it does.”
“What about history? Doesn’t it make sense?”
No, actually it is the one that made the least sense, and the one I hate the most because it seems one can make it add up to whatever one wants. I pause again, wondering if this is a trap, a way to get me to say something wrong. Doesn’t everybody know that you can make history say whatever you want? That has to be obvious, even to a barber. I opt for a short response. “I don’t like all the memorization.”
“Oh? Don’t you have to memorize things in math? Like the multiplication tables?”
“Not really. You just memorize a principle or a pattern, then you derive everything else from it. For example, you don’t have to memorize the entire multiplication tables. If you know that 2 times 2 is 4, and notice that the result goes up by 2 for 2 times 3, then you know that 2 times 4 must be 6 plus 2, which gives you 8. Eventually you remember it and don’t have to do the math. But it being predictable helps you when you get stuck. You can derive it. Now if Napoleon lost in Waterloo, that tells you nothing about how the next Emperor is going to do in a future battle.”
In the mirror across the way I see him looking at me, nodding, frowning. “I guess our minds work differently. Maybe that’s why we like different subjects.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I say. For a few seconds the conversation goes quiet, and I wonder if he’s going to leave it there and the rest of my haircut will stay peaceful and relaxed.
“Madelicia is in your class, isn’t she?” he asks.
“Yeah.” Madelicia is a pretty girl who pleases the teachers every which way she can, especially with extra-curricular political activities. Lately she’s made it her project to convert me and make me join her beloved pioneers. Or more than likely, someone’s made it her mission, same difference.
“Her Dad came in the other day,” my barber presses on. “We were talking, and he mentioned you, how smart a student you are, and how odd it is that you’re the only kid in school that’s not a pioneer.”
I don’t answer, fearing now this conversation has definitely entered the red danger zone. I’m looking down now, remembering all the questions that could come up and the safe ways to answer them. Why do I have to be careful? Because I can’t say anything that will suggest or prove Mom and Dad are anti-revolutionaries, or that they’re taking bad care of me, which would result in the government taking me away from them, and if things get bad enough, them getting thrown in jail.
“Are you a Jehova’s Witness?” he asks.
That’s the automatic, typical question, and sometimes I wish I could say yes because I think it would end the conversation. Instead I have to say, “I’m Baptist.”
“Yeah, that’s what we thought. We’re wondering why you wouldn’t join the pioneers. I know a lot of Christian kids that do.”
I could give him the long answer, which goes something like this: the party and its organizations, like the young pioneers, are all communists; communism is an Atheist ideology; therefore it is contradictory for someone who believes in God to join these organizations. It’s that simple. It makes sense. It adds up. But I don’t feel like getting into that, to avoid the rebuttal about Christians who fought side by side with Fidel Castro to bring about the Revolution, mainly because about those people I can say several things: that they were fooled by Fidel in the beginning, or too weak in their faith to make a stand once Fidel said he was a communist, or too afraid for their necks, or all of these things at once. Yeah, that’s a minefield. No way I’m getting into that at a barbershop.
“I explain all this to my teachers at least once a year,” I say. “They’ll be glad to tell you all about it.” Pointing people back to your previous answer when they ask you the same question also helps avoid getting twisted up into saying something that goes against what you said before. Still, I know it’s a rude answer, but I hope it will make him stop asking questions. In the mirror I see him nod, his lips curling into a barely noticeable smile. Also in the mirror, I see the other barber and his client looking at me. They’re not smiling. I give them my hardest stare, and they look away.
We go on in silence, and a few minutes later, halfway through my haircut, a couple of more men arrive. They’re arguing about something. That’s not unusual. Men argue about all kinds of things at the barbershop: baseball, and how Cuba invented it, no matter what the Yanquis up north claim; boxing and whether Teofilo Stevenson is or isn’t the best heavyweight ever, why the CIA and the Mafia wouldn’t allow a head-to-head with Muhamed Ali to prove who was best once and for all; and on and on.
But this argument seems more tense. The older of the two men is saying something about the new reductions in the coffee quota. I remember Mom and Dad talking about it last night, with Mom complaining. She’s the coffee drinker in the family, pretty much drinking my brother’s allocation and most of mine, and maybe even some of Dad’s. The old man is yelling, “How can we call ourselves Cuban if we can’t even drink coffee when we want to?”
This makes me recall Mom’s subdued but just as indignant anger the night before. I recall also that the reductions don’t become effective until next month, and I press my hand against my shirt pocket, feeling the coupon book in there, wondering if it will seem thinner then.
“We need to do whatever we can to increase our exports,” a younger man says from another barber chair. “Higher exports are good for the economy, and that only helps all of us. We each need to do our part in–”
“Yeah, we heard that before,” the old man cuts in. “When we were going to become the pre-eminent exporter of sugar, remember? Now it’s coffee. Next week it will be water and oxygen.”
My barber steps in with, “Ah, come’on, Eusebio. This is temporary, a provisional measure–”
“Temporary? Have you ever seen them cut something to give it back? No, it’s cut this, cut that. Until eventually we have nothing. Just do it to us slow enough that we don’t notice.”
“That’s not true. Our sugar quota increased last year.”
Eusebio curses. My barber points at me, then gestures at Eusebio to calm down, and the old man curses again, anyway. “And now it’ll go down, because if we don’t drink as much coffee, we don’t need as much sugar, do we?”
That sounds logical to me, but the others aren’t having any of it, and the argument keeps going, mostly repeating the same things over and over again, as if saying something with different words strengthens your argument and the repetition makes it more reasonable or true. I figure they’re going in circles because they don’t want to get burned. They don’t want to deal with the core issue, the one that burns hot at the center of it all, so they talk around it in loopy circles. Someone in here will snitch if they get too close to that center. Dad’s told me he thinks the snitch in here is the other barber, and I note how so far he’s said nothing since Eusebio walked in yelling.
“I think we need to all calm down here a bit,” my barber says. “We have a young man here, and we don’t need to be upsetting his mind with hot talk.”
Eusebio eyes me. “Yeah, that’s our problem. Young people that don’t remember how we got here, who think all this is normal.” He raises his hand and points his index finger upwards, much like Fidel would. “There used to be a time when young people would stand up for things. For truth. For freedom. Now they just want to listen to American music and wear jeans.”
At this, my barber stops what he’s doing. I can see his expression in the mirror, the fear that Eusebio is about to jump into the fire and take us all with him.
“We’ll soon have an explanation and then we’ll understand better why the cuts are needed,” the man who walked with Eusebio offers.
“Yeah, I’m sure we’ll get a speech to explain why we can’t drink coffee,” Eusebio said. “Like speeches are going to warm up my belly. All we need is another speech to inspire us out of our misery. Let’s have our Fidelisimo tell us how this is all coming about because of some CIA plot, and how our tightening our belts will defeat American Imperialism! And then let us clap and cheer like the starving idiots we are!”
Where the arguments seemed to have been going loopy, Eusebio’s last parley results in a dead, heavy silence. He hasn’t just stepped into the fiery center; he’s spread a bunch of sparks and hot embers all about.
My barber returns his attention to finishing my haircut, so that all I hear now is the metallic clinking and cutting of his scissors. He brushes away stray hairs from my face and with his mirror shows me a nice haircut, some of his best work that I can remember, anyway. I nod my approval, and he removes the cloth that covers my chest.
I glance at Eusebio. He’s gone quiet. The red fervor in his cheeks has turned into white, the kind that one might get from having done something wrong and getting caught in it. He’s staring straight ahead, right at me and past me all at once, his eyes zoned out like he’s watching his paralyzing, irrevocable fate. Later, when I remember Eusebio and what happened here, this is how I will remember him. That blank, resigned face will stare back at me.
The barber pats me on the shoulder, tells me we’re all done. I thank him and leave for the market, the worst part of my day still ahead. The market stands on a corner, by the same bus stop we’ll use tomorrow on our way to church. Dad tells me this market used to be something, one of the top supermarkets in all Havana. Not so much anymore, if the cracking plaster and the rusted, empty shelves inside tell it true. I see the line, for the most part in full sun, over a block long. I sigh and keep approaching.
I join the end of the line, or la cola, literally, the tail, an appropriate term for a thing that winds its way thick and slow, inch by inch up to the smelly end of the animal. In my opinion a cola takes on a different character than a line. First, it’s a place for a warfare of sorts, primarily of the defensive kind, where you protect the 10 or so spots in front of you to prevent those who’d dare cut in. If everyone does that, no one cuts in. Second, it’s a place of anticipation, perhaps even one where you hope that by the time you reach the front whatever it is you came to buy is still there. The list Mom gave me includes coffee, and based on the conversation back at the barbershop and the grumbling around me, I don’t think I’ll find any of that by the time I reach the front door of the market, no matter how many coupons our family has left for the month. Third, a cola is a conduit of information, namely letting you know why things are moving so slow, and whether this, that or the other thing has run out. Sure enough, news travels from front to back now that the market is out of coffee and is also running low on sugar.
A large number of folks step away, some waiving their arms and saying angry things. That reminds me of thing four, why I really hate la cola: it’s a place of disappointment, of powerlessness, even despair. This may sound like overstating it, that one should become depressed while waiting for what one will likely not get. But that’s what happens to me, mainly because Dad says how rich our soil is, how well it can grow crops and nourish farm animals, how once before the Revolution, no matter how bad things were in other respects, no one had to stand in line hoping to get meager rations to feed one’s family. Now, we’re here, hoping to get some coffee and maybe some sugar with it, and we’ll probably get neither.
The line moves forward. Whereas I stood one full block from the market’s entrance, now I get to within half a block. I’m tempted to think I’ve made some progress, but I know better. A tap on the shoulder calls me out of the monotony. I look up. It’s Dad.
“They’re out of coffee,” I say, hopeful he’s come to take my spot. Just then, we move forward a few steps.
“How much longer?” Dad asks.
I shrug. “Might move faster now that they’re out of coffee. Even faster if there’s no sugar.”
He nods, and just then I can tell he’s not here to take my spot. “Let me see your list.”
I hand it to him, watch him scan it with a burrowed brow. “Hmm.” He looks down the line. It’s moving again, a few more steps. He checks his watch, assesses the line again, like he’s calculating something. “Let’s go. We can get this stuff tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday,” I say, knowing we’ll be going to church and not returning home until the market’s closed.
“Monday, then.” He reaches for my wrist, pulls me out of the line, and off we go.
“Where are we going?”
“The barbershop. They came home looking for you.” He says it in a way that makes me feel like I’m in trouble.
“Who’s looking for me? What did I do?”
“They just want to ask you some questions.” He stops us. At that point, I understand him because he’s said “they” the way he says it when referring to anyone who could be working for the government. With a hand on my shoulder, he draws me under the shade of a large tree. After standing under the sun all day, this feels good. His hand on my shoulder and the way he’s looking at me, like he wants to protect me, that feels good, too.
“Listen, Esteban. Be very careful what you say. Remember what we’ve told you. Short answers. Don’t say anything the question doesn’t require.”
I nod, recalling Mom and Dad’s instructions about how to answer when they ask me about my family’s faith and why I’m not a pioneer. I recall my conversation with the barber earlier this morning. Though I almost tell Dad about it, I decide not to. He looks worried enough, and I don’t want to go over what I said to the barber. Still, I wonder how it all ties together.
“Okay,” I say again, and I see Dad’s looking at me with the regret of a father who wants to protect me but is powerless to do so.
We start walking again and arrive at the barbershop. Two men, dressed better than the rest of the others eye us as we arrive. “Is this the boy?” one of them asks my barber. When the barber nods, the man comes over to me, crouches down. The other man gestures to Dad, who squeezes me on the shoulder and steps away.
“What’s your name?” the first man asks.
“Thanks for coming, Esteban. We just need to ask you a couple of questions. No big deal, okay?”
He checks his notes. “You were here when Eusebio Fuentes was talking about the coffee quota reductions?”
“The old man. Thin. About eighty years old,” he says. “Came in while you were getting your haircut.”
I shrug. “All the men here are older than me.”
He smiles. “It’s okay to tell me, Esteban. Everyone else has.”
“Tell you what?”
“What Eusebio said.”
I give him another shrug. Dad probably wants me to tell the truth, with short, quick answers. And I could do that, just say what I saw, what I heard. But I don’t want to. Actually, I want to stand there and not say a thing. It feels right to not tell on Eusebio, this my little act of defiance, my show of solidarity with his rebellion. I can get away with if I do it right. I also like Eusebio more than I did before when I thought he was a cranky man. I like how angry he was, and that he let everyone know it. I like how for a few moments he let his anger fly free to yell out how things really are. That should happen more often, people being honest to say what they really think, how they really feel. It wouldn’t hurt anything. No, no matter what everyone else said, I’m not going to tell on him.
“He was upset, wasn’t he?” the man says, and I can tell he’s getting annoyed because I’m not going along.
“I remember an old guy was pretty upset. He gets upset all the time, though, so I don’t pay any attention. One time he was upset about moldy bread at the store. Last month he was upset because some stray dog kept barking outside his house at three in the morning, every night. The month before he was upset because his neighbor had a new girlfriend and he said they made noise all night long. I think he’s just a cranky man and gets upset about a lot of things.”
He smiles. “I see. Do you remember what he was upset about this time?”
I weigh carefully what to say next. I realize I need to say something, but I don’t want to rat out Eusebio. With yet another shrug I say. “Something about coffee. He said something about how could we call ourselves Cuban if we can’t drink coffee.”
“Maybe, but I wasn’t paying attention. Besides, the barber was using the electric shearers at that point, so I couldn’t hear much.”
“So he was upset about coffee, and you didn’t hear anything else.”
I look over at Dad, then back at the man. “Pretty much.”
“Nothing about young people?”
“Oh, yeah. That they listen to American music and wear jeans.”
“Thanks. That helps a lot.” He straightens up, and I figure that even though I didn’t tell the whole story, I’ve more or less confirmed enough to hang Eusebio. The thought makes my stomach queasy, especially when I recall Eusebio’s face staring at me and past me.
“Is he going to be okay?” I ask.
He hesitates, seems to struggle with the answer, or maybe I’m imagining him doing so. “We’re going to get him some help.” He nods as if to convince himself. “Anyway, thanks. You can go with your Dad now.”
Hand in hand, Dad and I walk back to our apartment. He doesn’t say and won’t say anything until we get there. Even then, he’ll choose his words carefully.
On the way into the apartment building we see a curtain move in the window of the front apartment. Candelaria has spotted us coming in. Check. Los gusanos have arrived, getting tucked in for the night, until tomorrow, when Bibles in hand they’ll go pump themselves with some opium for the masses.