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African Writing Archives


Cuba on the Edge

Cuba on the Edge

is a collection of 31 short stories by 21 of the Caribbean island’s accomplished writers. These new translations edited by the team of Mary Berg, Pamela Carmell and Anne Fountain are a treat to the reader in English. It is difficult to find a story in the collection that is not shadowed in some fashion by the ‘Special Period‘, the euphemism for the austerity measures forced on the besieged island by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s. That shadow will have some resonance with survivors of IMF-imposed 'conditionalities'... The characters that people this collection are distracted by their jobs - or the lack of them, by their needs, and by various approximations of love and hate. Yet, humour is not hard to find. More difficult to find is a representative story to serve as sampler for the varied collection. Here is Before the Birthday Party by Adelaida Fernández de Juan



 Before the Birthday Party


As she was going over the guest list and had gotten as far as the sixteenth child, the lights went out. She swore as usual, waited a few minutes to see if they would come back on again right away, and then since the eleven P.M. blackout continued, she grumpily began the tedious process of lighting the Chinese hurricane lamp. It was a half hour before, sweaty and irritated, she got back to the task at hand. There would be twenty-five children altogether, and if each one came with an adult, that would be fifty, but she preferred to calculate a total of one hundred, bearing in mind everyone’s craving for sweets and the recently established custom of having the whole family show up for children’s birthday parties. To make sure she wasn’t leaving out anyone important, she double-checked her list. Her son’s cousins, her own friends’ children, the grandchildren of their parents’ friends, and her boss’s (as well as her husband’s boss’s) nieces and nephews: no question about it, they all had to be invited. Neighborhood kids, friends from the park, her son’s classmates from school. And it would be a good idea to include the four children from the local shops: the grocer’s boy, the bread distributor’s two, and the new butcher’s nephew. Her first estimate of around a hundred still seemed about right; it allowed some leeway for the unexpected. She went on to her second list, and she was alarmed by how little she had managed to acquire these past six months. Cardboard party boxes,* plastic glasses, spoons of some kind, a flowered tablecloth for the cake table, a lidded pail for the lemonade, little candles and paper streamers: these were all on her list, and so far she had only managed to get the tablecloth and the pail, both on loan from her cousin in San Antonio de los Baños. She adjusted the lamp as it was about to flicker out, and feeling really anxious now, she went on perusing her notebook of lists, labeled optimistically “Sonny’s Birthday.” Now she had to deal with the hardest part: food and drinks. The cake they were entitled to from the state, and, in case that didn’t come through, a homemade cake, too, since you never know. Lemonade from the state grocery, and some instant powdered. She’d put a little arrow beside this last item, leading to a reminder note: she could sell the rice for dollars so she could get this. She’d make a cold salad with the elbow macaroni she’d put aside four months ago. I’d better check on that, and also on that twenty peso pineapple I froze so my husband wouldn’t see it and be outraged by how much it cost. She was all set for the mayonnaise: the old woman on the corner who had high blood pressure had promised it, and, pleased, she crossed it off the list. As for the cakes, she’d already stood in line to place the order for the state cake, down at city hall, and she’d taken that coupon over to the other address they gave her, but she put a question mark beside it because they’d explained to her that she could come collect it the day of the party if the eggs had arrived, if there’d been enough gas for the oven, and if the power hadn’t gone off, if the heat wasn’t unbearable, …and if it wasn’t pouring rain because the woman who delivers them lives a long way away and travels by bicycle. No problem with the homemade cake, but I’ll have to sell the unrefined sugar and the scouring powder. She wrote “Margarita” beside the cake entry, since she was always ready to buy anything. I’d better go see her tomorrow, she thought, then she focused on the drinks issue. If she couldn’t get their ration quota of lemonade from the state grocery, as so often happened, then she could sell the rice to buy that powdered mix, the “Caresses” brand. At this point I couldn’t care less whether it’s a caress or a pinch if it tastes all right and fills up the pail. The power came back on around dawn and, relieved, she moved the lamp off the dining table. Rather than continuing to agonize over all the things she still lacked, she decided to go to her bedroom to check the box of small surprises she’d collected for the piñata and to sort out the toys she’d bought little by little for the day of the party. There aren’t enough, she fretted to herself, as she wrapped them one by one. Fourteen little rubber airplanes, all of them green, twelve whistles, ten ping-pong balls, and eight little plastic boats, three of them missing their sails. It doesn’t matter, I’ll fill the piñata with the candies Katia the Russian lady makes, and with little wads of old newspapers. She tried to reassure herself, and then nervously opened the notebook again. But as she read the next list of things she still had to get, she felt her energy evaporate. Damn, she’d managed to forget this part. Paper hats, masks, horns and balloons: people always had them. We can use condoms for balloons, and we can get the horns made by Octavio, the crazy guy with the pushcart, but what about hats and masks? They’re made out of cardboard, like the little boxes and like most party spoons. Reorganizing the various items eased her anxiety a little, and she grouped them, with a note: go out to the cardboard factory that’s on the road to the airport. Talk to Jorge, who sells gasoline. The last list was labeled Entertainment. She’d have to ask the principal of Sonny’s school for a tape of children’s songs; she won’t turn me down if I take her a bar of soap, and we can borrow a tape player from Ariel, the son of the pilot across the way, but what about the clown? She pondered a few moments, trying to think of some clown who wouldn’t tell dirty jokes, who wouldn’t be so old he’d scare the kids or so young they wouldn’t laugh, and she remembered that neurosurgeon who brightened up the children’s parties at the hospital. He was doing it for free on that occasion, we’ll see what he says about this time, but it seemed like a good idea, and she looked up the number of the neurological clinic so she could call the next day. When she thought she had everything all organized and knew more or less whom she’d have to ask about each thing, she went to bed, taking care not to make a sound. She dreamed of pink paper streamers and piñatas that rained down bicycles and empty soda pop bottles. Twelve days of making deals, purchases, sales, barters, and plan changes followed, then barely twenty-four hours before the birthday party, she decided to discuss it all with her husband, just to go over everything one last time and make sure her lists were accurate.

You’re worrying too much, calm down, you act like you’re organizing a boot camp graduation ceremony for a huge class of cadets, he said. But she was so insistent, that he obliged and readied himself to listen. After all, what with meetings, people leaving the country with no notice, and being on call at the hospital, he really had no idea how all the preparations for the party were going.

We don’t have enough cardboard boxes or spoons, she said. At the factory they said they don’t sell them there, that I should go to a party outlet. And what’s that? he asked. I don’t know - see if you can find out, because I’ve looked everywhere in this neighborhood and I could only find twenty-eight boxes and nineteen spoons. Okay, tomorrow I’ll track it down, said her husband. Write “pending” next to that one.

Uncle Carmelo can bring glasses on the day of the party and, since they don’t make paper steamers any longer, he promised me the extra magazine pages that are left over at the print shop where he moonlights as a watchman. And what about the next item?, she asked. Yes, dear, tell me about the next disaster, answered her husband, condescendingly. No one has had new birthday candles in stock since the blackouts began. I swapped a torn towel for the bottom half of a used candle, she nearly sobbed. Calm down, calm down, I’ll get four matches and that way Sonny can blow them all out. If you stick that big fat candle in, it’ll look like a funeral, and it’ll make a huge hole in the cake. Go on to the next item on your agenda. You’re making fun of me, and I won’t put up with that. We’re talking about Sonny’s birthday party, and none of this is his fault; you know I don’t want him to suffer. Fine, that’s enough, don’t get all upset; tell me about the rest of it; I’m on duty all day tomorrow, and I can’t stay up all night listening to your complaints. How many quarts of lemonade do we have? he asked, to make up for his impatience. Quarts, you say? At the grocery, they told me they have a nineteen-month backlog of orders, so forget about normal channels. So what are the abnormal channels? Just give me the facts quickly, without comments, sweetheart. Okay, you know I couldn’t sell the rice the way I’d planned because it’s the beginning of the month so it’s worth less and the going price is thirty-five cents per pound instead of the fifty Lilia had quoted me. And now that bitch is saying that fifty cents is only after the twenty-fourth of the month, and she’s telling me this when she knows I only have a day left before the party. I said no comments, he reminded her, you don’t have to explain the commodities market to me. Stick to what you want me to do something about. Fine, if you want the short version, I’ll give it to you straight out. Tomorrow night you have to go to an address I’ll give you later, where there’s a lemon tree whose owners are on vacation in Júcaro or Morón, I don’t remember which, but somewhere over that way, because when I was told about it I remembered the famous march from Júcaro to Morón that we heard about in History class our first year at the university. Do you remember, dear? The teacher was a short woman with blue eyes and we saw her later at the Maternity Hospital having twins. They were both boys, with low birth weights. What you’d expect with such a small mother who chain smoked, and I’d warned her about that… Please, he cut in, yawning, just tell me when and where I have to steal lemons, if you would get to the point. Sorry, I just get caught up remembering. The house is really close to here, right near Leticia’s – the one who sold us… Never mind, I’ll give you the exact address later. Can I tell you about the next thing? Sure, let’s go on, if I don’t get arrested for the last item. There’s a small problem with the home-made cake. I already talked to the mining engineer who is making it for us, and he’s willing to make us a huge one with fifty eggs, twenty pounds of white sugar and fourteen pounds of flour if we give him a polyester guayabera shirt. I was thinking, dear, of the one in your closet, the one that you don’t much like, that peach-colored one, that you were given by the patient you operated on that night we came back from the beach, remember? A really friendly guy who was selling woven sandals like the ones your Uncle Manolo likes, that have a buckle. I know the one you’re talking about, sweetheart, he interrupted. It’s the only dress shirt I have, but if that’s the problem, it’s fine with me to give it to the engineer. The problem, love, is that that’s not the hard part. The thing is that we have to go pick the cake up at the engineer’s house. He lives on the eighteenth floor of that building on G Street where the elevator has been out of order since the floods last year, but I think it’s worth it, because with these strong, handsome legs you have, dear, you won’t have any problem going up and down those stairs, if the result is a splendid cake for Sonny, topped with blue meringue like I wanted, that manly blue that he likes so much, right? What are you saying, dear? You’re gone way overboard, woman! Stark, raving mad! You think I’m Mandrake the Magician?

Speaking of magicians, there won’t be a clown. The neurosurgeon has gone to Miami, imagine that, he took advantage of a course he was sent to in Costa Rica, where apparently he got together with a sister who had also stayed on in San José five years ago, and from there they figured out how to make the leap. That’s the last straw! You ask me to chase all over the city looking for party outlets no one has ever heard of; you want me to come up with four matches in a city of perpetual blackouts, to steal lemons, to give up my dress clothes, to climb stairways to heaven; and now I have to listen to the story of a neurosurgeon clown who took off for Miami? Don’t yell, sweetheart, you might wake Sonny, and just think about him, dear, and his birthday party, love, and how pleased he’ll be when he gets older and sees the photos. The photos! My lord, the photos! How could I forget about that! Do you think that Philosophy professor who was in Jalisco Park on Sunday taking pictures of children on the merry-go-round would be willing to come over here? He was whispering to all of us there, “Photos, photos, sixty cents in dollars,” wasn’t he? Oh, darling, first thing tomorrow could you go over to the park and ask him? It won’t be more than fifteen photos, I promise you, and the money from the rice should cover it, because even if I only get thirty-five cents a pound … sorry, I don’t want to burden you with all this … but tomorrow when you’re out looking for the party outlet store, you can make a little detour and go by Jalisco Park. All right? What’s next on the list?, was the answer. Right. There’s an art historian who has teamed up with a plastic surgeon in a juggling act that’s supposed to be spectacular. I heard about them from Olga María, the seamstress, who, incidentally, made Sonny’s new shorts and shirt outfit in exchange for a bottle of shampoo you weren’t using, that red-labeled one for dry hair, you just use the green-labeled one for oily hair, right? Anyway, she said she saw the act and they’re terrific. They juggle balls, hoops, and torches wrapped with cotton on the ends that they light when they can get alcohol, and children love it. According to her, they charge between a hundred and fifty and two hundred pesos, but — don’t have a fit — that’s what a pair of corduroy pants costs, and I already talked to Margarita and she has agreed to buy the ones you gave me for Valentine’s Day. You don’t mind that, do you, dear? Anything else? murmured her husband through another yawn. Yes, dear, how do you think it all goes together? Just picture how it will be, and tell me if you don’t think the patio looks marvelous with the table from our neighbor Cecilia covered with my cousin’s flowered tablecloth, the engineer’s blue cake, the pail full of lemonade, a plate of the Russian’s candies left over after stuffing the piñata, and the walls all decorated with inflated condoms and pictures from magazines. In the center, imagine the team of jugglers with their hoods, balls, and flaming torches. What do you think, my love? A brothel scene right out of Star Wars, he pronounced. Don’t tease me, darling, don’t be melodramatic! If I can get some gentian violet to paint the condoms, it would brighten things up. What are you telling me now? That the circus whores had ringworm? Oh go to hell! You aren’t willing to give up a thing for your son’s sake! Don’t you even care about making it a happy day for him? You’re getting hysterical; I could tell you to go to hell too, so calm down right now. Calm down? You don’t even know what you’re going to give him! When are you going to get around to fixing that tricycle for him, the one that’s been out in the garage since Columbus landed? When you give me time to go looking for spokes, but why bring that up now? Aren’t you satisfied with how I rigged the stove to keep the gas from coming through the oven when you turn on the only burner that works? Isn’t it enough for you that I fixed up that pipe in the bathroom window so you can wash your hair with rain water? Don’t you like the Chinese lamp I traded for my sugarcane harvesting boots? Have you even thought to ask how I managed to seal the leaks in the living room ceiling with modeling clay? And that day in… What are you laughing about? Did I say something funny? Hey, cut that out, you look like a madwoman! Don’t laugh so hard; everybody’ll hear us. What are you up to, woman? Get hold of yourself, please, look what time it is.

Dawn found them in each other’s arms, with just enough time for that embrace. They felt strangely joyful, as though hope, which had seemed to ebb away from them lately, was beginning to return once more.

 by Adelaida Fernández de Juan

Translated by Mary G. Berg

* At birthday parties in Cuba, food is traditionally served in individual fold-up cardboard boxes. These boxes became extremely scarce in the nineties.

Adelaida Fernández de Juan (born Havana, 1961) is a physician specializing in internal medicine, and author of many short stories, including those published in the volumes Dolly y otros cuentos africanos (1994) about her experiences in Zambia 1988-90. It appeared in English as Dolly and Other African Tales. Her second story collection, Oh vida [Oh life] (1998) won the National Short Story Prize of the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists. Her story “El beso” [The kiss] received Honorable Mention in the 2004 Julio Cortázar Short Story Competition. La hija de Darío [Darió’s Daughter], her third book of stories, won the 2004 Alejo Carpentier Prize. Nadie es profeta [No one is a Prophet], her first novel, was published in 2006.

Reprinted with permission from Mary G. Berg, Pamela Carmell and Anne Fountain (eds.), Cuba on the Edge: Short Stories from the Island (CCC Press, 2007).

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