11. WHERE ARE YOU DYING TONIGHT? – John Dufresne
In Biscayne Bay:Call me Booger. Now it is November in my soul and twilight in my heart. Light is leaving me. And hope. It is this blackness above all that appalls me. The blackness to come, the blackness of this loathsome hull above me, and the inky black hearts of those Stygian scoundrels who took Ma from me, the dark-complexioned, cloven-footed desperado who fired the bullet into my snout and that pink and squabby venom spouter who steered this floating coffin. The pair of them are madness-maddened, blackness-blackened. They have all that is bloody on their minds. Whatlunatic vision is it that drives these blackguards? Whatfurious passion? What unimaginable fear has freed them from the irons of civility? Loosed their bonds of horror? Nothing so simple as greed. Not that. We see differently, they and I. They have their colors, I my grays. But blackness we share. Blackness, agent of the mind, not the eye. We all see black alike. And it's blackness where our fates will meet. I have a plan.
At the Chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow and Everlasting Anguish:Monsignor Armand Turgeon celebrated the funeral mass for his friend and patron Marion McAlister Williams. He praised her generous philanthropy, her unconventional but enthusiastic faith, her tenacious efforts to save the Everglades from the ravages of Big Sugar and the Corps of Engineers, to save the wildness that was Florida from the teeming masses breathing free, flushing waste into the bay, and paving the earth. Father Turgeon suggested that after death we return to what we were before birth – washed in the precious blood of the Lord and rocked in His mighty arms. He looked out at the assembled mourners, at the politicians, the curious, looked into the glassy eyes and disinterested faces of these waking dreamers who fend off their fears with distraction. He told them that our longing to survive is vanity only. Even God, he said, envies our mortality.
Jake Lassiter hadn't heard a word the reverend said. He'd spent the morning at the library, trying to keep his mind off Fay and Britt and where they might be and in how many pieces. He looked up "manatee" in the dictionary and learned that it comes from the Cariban manati,which means breast, and for some reason he found the revelation distressing and depressing. He couldn't stop himself from thinking about that sea cow Booger, and about Fay and Britt. What kind of man beholds a hulking sausage-shaped, beaver-tailed, cleft-lipped creature and decides to name it for the female breast? A man too long at sea, perhaps. But still. Jake reminded himself where he was. He studied the Stations of the Cross on the stained-glass window. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. He stared at the crucifix suspended above the altar, thought Jesus looked like the daring young man on the flying trapeze. Jake couldn't stop his obsessive thoughts: beaver, sausage, tail, lips, cleavage, breast. What was worse, he'd also read that a manatee's breasts were situated under the flippers, where appendage meets torso. Jake cursed himself for going to the library in the first place. It would never happen again. He turned to Janice Deal, his buddy John's ex, smiled, squeezed her hand. She smiled, returned her attention to the priest. Jake inhaled her vanilla scent. He tried not to think of breasts in her armpits.
Judge Manuel Dominguez wondered why this priest was carrying on about the failure of a people to cast off its oppressors. Quebec, he was yapping about, not Cuba. Not a very apt or decorous sermon, certainly. What did all this have to do with the death of this esteemed grande dame? Had he missed something? All this sadness. First his nephew Victor and now Ms. Williams. Poor Victor, a lousy bailiff, sure, and a worse jai alai player. "Victorless" they called him at the fronton. But why would he try to do that, race the drawbridge like he did in the new Acura? With the young, the judge thought, often the danger is in not taking the risk.
Vernon Sawyer wanted to sing "What Wondrous Love Is This?" "Abide with Me," or "There Is Power in the Blood," anything. Why can't Catholics sing? He was tired with all this talk, talk, talk. He wanted his religion to carry him out of the church, out of himself, to lift his heart, to set his feet in ecstasy. He looked at the hair of this vaguely familiar man seated in front of him, saw how it thinned at the crown. He hated the treachery of baldness. Vernon knew that when there is a mystery, there are always two stories – what happened and what seemed to happen. What seemed to happen here was a drowning. But no, not with the granddaughter gone missing like she'd done. That was no coincidence, no sir. Something to do with that key he'd passed to Fay. The key to the whole mystery, likely.
Dash Brandon didn't like his seat. He belonged up there with Governor What's-his-face and Jimmy Carter. This sort of affront would never happen at Planet Hollywood or at the Raleigh, where just this morning he'd been seated by Johnnie Cochran's table. What was he in town for? Defending some fat tourist? Something about a riot. Or was it the Club Hell fiasco? Dash had given Johnnie a nod and a conspiratorial thumbs-up. He'd eavesdropped as Johnnie rehearsed his forensic couplets: "If the facts don't indicate, you must vindicate," "If the fault's with the police, you must release," and so on throughout the brunch. Dash thought about his own funeral. A full-couch, polished copper casket with taffeta lining, interior lighting, brass fittings. Or an Egyptian sarcophagus. Wouldn't that be a hoot? Show tunes and spontaneous eulogies. He cast his pallbearers: Arnold, Bruce, Sly, Wesley, Woody, the Boz. No, not the Boz. Denzel. Ziff Bodine nudged Dash, showed him the sketch he'd been doodling. Castro, it looked like, without the beard and toupee.
John Deal wondered if this was such a good idea, coming back to Miami. It had seemed like the right thing, sitting there in the bar with Mike, into his tenth Cuba libre, thinking he could straighten his whole life out in a minute if he could just get back home. He felt an intense heat at the base of his neck, an itch on his scalp that stung like shame. He touched the back of his head. He made a mental note: call 1-800-ROGAINE. Why the burn? Why at the back of his head. Too much Advil? Where was it coming from? Deal turned, and the man's doleful gaze locked with his for a moment. Deal returned his eyes to the altar. Where had he seen that face before? Havana? Not Havana. Deal felt – he didn't know – he was marked or something. That's it. The Grove. The man outside the market. Just a coincidence, he hoped. What was it his dad used/to say? You'll meet everyone twice before you die. This was like a reunion for Deal. The man behind him, his ex across the aisle with Jake Lassiter of all people, the movie actor who'd sued him over the hot tub. Deal wondered if he might be dreaming all this. No, this was Mike Weston right beside him, Mike Weston was real, wasn't he? And there's that quack, Irwin Schein ... berg? man? Schein? ...
Irwin Scheinblum wondered why the cover-up. Marion's death was no drowning, of course. You don't have to be a coroner to know that it takes days for a drowned body to bloat with gas and rise to the surface. No weeds or sand in the lungs. He'd read the autopsy report. Evidence of pete-chiae, tiny hemorrhages, dark spots on the mucous membrane, caused most likely by increased pressure in the head from strangling, or choking perhaps. Face and neck congested and dark red, bruises on the arms and legs, contusions on the face, a fractured hyoid bone and torn thyroid cartilage. So why did the medical examiner rule the death an accident? And why wasn't anyone upset? Why wasn't anyone talking, writing about this? Irwin was puzzled. Irwin needed several drinks.
Marion McAlister Williams felt deflated, degenerate, annoyed. So there you have it: there are no answers beyond the grave. Well, not the grave just yet. No answers beyond death. She was no longer one of the chosen people – those still alive. She found herself humming the tune to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and singing the words to Emily Dickinson poems: Because I could not stop for death, da-da-da-dum-dee-tum.No answers and no tunnels and no lights. We spend our lives lumbering from hope to hope. So what is death then? No lights and no hope. Marion felt like her mind was going blind. Death belongs to life, not to whatever-this-is. No hope and no Buddha. No Jesus. No Allah. No angels, no time, no enlightenment, no nine circles of hell, no rest, no numbers, no regrets, no color, no stories, no space, no peace, no honor, no pain, no blood, no air, no matter. Just alone. All alone. That's all.
Jimmy Carter was basking in a marvelous run of good luck and nothing was going to get him down – not Rosalynn's volatile mood swings, not Robertico Robles's threats, not this dismal ceremony, and certainly not these elitist book reviewers. Jimmy Carter stood with the congregation. He bent his head, moved his lips, as if in prayer. Yesterday he'd autographed eight hundred hardcover copies of Always a Reckoning intwo hours at Books and Books, beating the Anne Rice record by seventy-five books. Mitchell Kaplan told him so, and booksellers don't lie. And then last night he'd beaten Vanilla Ice by a pentameter in the poetry slam at Warehaus 57. Then this morning's Newscarried his photo on page one. There he was driving a nail into a crossbeam in the new Habitat house in Liberty City. He was in a zone right now, and he dared to dream of, to lust in his heart for, the unprecedented Double Nobel – Peace and Literature. He was possessed by the Muse, on fire with a Promethean mission to steal poetry from the academic gods and deliver it to the people. Soon poetry would be accessible to working men and women in paper-hat jobs, would be understood and loved by schoolchil-dren, illiterates, babies, cats. And in the limo on the way to the cemetery he'd begin his Sonnet Sequence for Democracy,that is, if he could get Governor Whatchamacallit to shut his trap for a minute.
Former altar boy Juan Carlos Reyes stood in line to receive Communion. Introibo ad altare Dei.The choir chanted Tantum Ergo.To God the joy of my youth. He felt his pager vibrate in his pocket. He checked the display. Ramona calling. Probably wanted him to pick up a bag of those pink mice for her snakes. I have no shame, he thought. Shame is for the young. Juan Carlos nodded to the Peanut Man as he passed the first pew. We live on secrets, he thought. He took the host in his hands. My God, what would the world be like if all our secrets were revealed, all our lusts, opinions, fears, dreams, our fantasies, our rituals? What secrets, he wondered, did this old woman take with her? Expensive secrets perhaps. Well, he wasn't here to worry about that. He was here to protect his holdings: Reyes Cuban-American Cruise Lines, Reyes Hotel and Casinos, Reyes PepsiCo Bottling Company, Reyes Burger King Havana, Inc. He was here to keep his eye on the slippery Dr. Irwin Scheinblum, the one man alive who could positively identify the body of Fidel Castro, the man who had performed Fidel's penile implant in 1962. But where was that body? Juan Carlos was not paying a million dollars to any CubanCuban for a severed head. The gentleman would have to provide the rest of the filthy Communist. Of course, if he, himself, could acquire the rumored lock of hair and match its DNA with the head, well, perhaps then he would negotiate. Yes, people will need to be relocated. Yes, people will have to die, unfortunately. Yes, of course, the transition to the Golden Age of freedom and prosperity will not be easy.
This was still not what Joe Sereno had in mind when he joined the police department. This was not fighting crime; this was not making a difference. This was standing in the vestibule of a church waiting for some dignitaries to exit to their limousines. He'd been reduced to this, to special-detail security for Magic City Protective Services. He'd been suspended without pay after the Grove riot and would remain suspended until the trial was over, at least. And now he had to worry if Johnnie Cochran was going to turn him into the next Mark Fuhrman. Sure he'd called the fat guy a Canuck and a Frog, but he hadn't meant it in a bad way. Since when did people start worrying about the Frenchies, anyway? And now he was getting that uneasy feeling again like on the night of the Club Hell disaster when he worked the door. Who'd have thought the sharks would only go after the lawyers like they did? Must be some kind of pheromone they give off. What a mess that was. Joe Sereno himself had dragged two of the bodies out of the drink – the city manager of Miami Beach, who looked like a drowned cat, actually, and the city's insurance attorney, Russell B. Whittaker III, whose mascara had run over his face and whose left arm had been chewed to the bone. Joe felt dizzy again. Maybe he was bad luck like the sergeant said. He dipped his fingers into the holy water font, blessed himself. He waited for whatever would happen to happen.
In Dania:When housewife Sabrina Kennedy saw the face of Mickey Schwartz on the door of her Kelvinator refrigerator, saw it blossom to life like a Polaroid photograph, why, she called Tristan Jude, Dania correspondent for the Broward Sun-Tattler andinvited him over to see for himself. He wanted to know what she thought this meant. Well, she said, it means, apparently, that I'm going to win the lottery in the very near future. Yes, she had to agree with Tristan, this could possibly be Mickey's double, that Cuban dude, in which case she figured she'd meet some tall, dark stranger. Miracles aren't ordinary, she told him. Life's no accident. Everything means something.
On Desi Arnaz Boulevard:Big Joey G. leaned against the fireplace, his arm resting on the onyx mantel, in his hand a Vietnamese trophy skull. "We boiled the flesh off the VC skulls," he told Britt. "We made table ornaments, ashtrays, candy dishes, like this fellow here. I call him Tranh. Sometimes we carved their ulnas into letter openers, their fingers into whistles." He set the skull on the mantel, sat in the club chair across from Britt. "Happiest days of my life, the war."
"And now you find yourself playing with skulls again," Britt said. "How funny."
"Not playing, Ms. Montero. Neurosuspension is not a game." Big Joey explained the process: A cryonicist opens the subject's chest, injects cryopreservatives and cooling solutions through the blood vessels to preserve the brain. He then severs the head at the sixth cervical vertebra, submerges the skull in a silicone oil bath with dry ice for twenty-four hours. "Then we pop the noodle in a neurocan and cool it in liquid nitrogen for ten days.''
Britt stretched her shackled legs on the couch. "Why just the head? Why not the whole body? Why not a corpsicle?"
"Cephalic isolation is economical, portable. The body isn't very useful really."
"Speak for yourself."
"Eventually, we bring back the cryonaut, and he's himself, only we make him better because we provide an engineered body, a cyborg, a person who can breathe underwater or run like the wind."
"Fidel the flying squirrel, maybe?"
Big Joey smiled.
"You can't make a flank steak back into a cow, Big Joey. The thermally challenged will remain so."
The doorbell chimed. Big Joey G. stood, excused himself. "That would be our delivery: Lilia Sands and her faux Fidel."
Britt said, "This is getting confusing."
On the patio, Hector explained to Fay how it was, but how could a woman ever understand? "Yes, I killed your grandmother. Yes, I killed Phil. What were we supposed to do when he let you escape like he did? You think I had a choice? Besides, he was a nudge and you know it."
Pay wiped her tears on her shoulder. "Scum!" She knew she'd destroy Hector if she could chew her way through these cuffs and the ropes.
"I understand you're upset, but don't you see that the crime itself is a relief, you know, a release. It's a regeneration." Hector stood and stretched. He kissed his scorpion tattoo, flicked his tongue at Fay. He thought, Yes, this woman will understand. "Before I killed, I was far more horrible than I am now, because I was pregnant with evil, with the idea of murder. And now the evil is done, gone, vanished. The idea of violence, the threat of violence, is always more frightening than the act of violence. Don't you think?" Fay heard a chime, a tune that sounded like "Lara's Theme" from Dr. Zhivago.
"Our guests have arrived," Hector said. "And now we're all going for a long boat ride."
At the Odyssey Motel:Fidel Castro sat on his balcony smoking his Don Miguel de la Flor cigar, watching the topless bathers on the beach. Oxen in the sun, he thought. Fidel winced, lifted his weight off the chair as a shock of pain shot through his groin. What more, he wondered, can this hulk suffer? He'd done the surgery, the radiation, had the orchiectomy. Too late. The cancer had spread to the lymph nodes and the bone and to distant organs. Nothing left now but hormones and morphine. There he sat, anonymous in his morbidity, hairless and shrunken, listening to a Xavier Cugat CD in the heart of the city that wanted his head at any price. Drawn here, made reckless, by love.
Fidel took the photo of Lilia Sands out of his shirt pocket. Oh, there had been others – Miss This, Miss That, Miss The Other. They were all lovely, but like flowers without scent compared to Lilia. She was his first socialist. I kiss the feet of you, senorita, he told her that night in his tent in the Sierra Maestra. He closed his eyes, tried to summon Lilia, his Penelope. Yes, he thought, yes, because she never did a thing like that before as bite my ear – her breakfast in bed – never a thing as cut a lock of my hair. Lilia, her boiled eyes and smutty photos, her samba, her wicked tongue. I gave her all the pleasure I could until she said yes and yes. I let her see my everything. O Lilia! O Cuba! My twin lovers! Yes, I know the back alleys of my heart, the dark corners of my soul, and though I tried to do you no harm, in the trying I failed. Love without commitment, socialism without democracy are doomed. Yes, I was seduced by revolution, driven to trample the worm who sold our country to the Mafia and the corporations, to trample him and drag his carcass ten times around the gates of Havana. A new order, I thought. A New Jerusalem. But politics is just who shoves whom, who doles out the pineapples and soup to whom, who pockets whose profits. Politics is a marketing strategy, a tool of business. It can never make anyone happy. For that we need virtue and knowledge, not laws.
And so I get to live my simple life at last, here in the land of the lotus-eaters, where our people, some of them, have lost the hope of home. Others are worms who would devour our flesh. The aristocrats who fled, the professional class. I wouldn't give a snap of my fingers for all their learning, their fortunes, their self-righteousness. Let them try to create something, like an independent nation, like a poem. Yes, when at last this Cuban-head-as-Trojan-horse business sorts itself out, the exiles will be coming home. To those who return, welcome, but remember, no one will own us – the CubanCubans, we who have lived on our wandering rock for the last thirty-seven years. You see, we know how you think: eleven million Cubans – Demon Nation; one billion Chinese – Most Favored Nation. We understand the great fear in your adopted country, the USA: fear of the poor! Power is based on weakness of the masses. Those who come home must serve the people, not judge them, command them, prod them. Cubans, yes. Juan Carlos Reyes, no, no gusanos,no problem.
Fidel thought again of Lilia, her legs and her lips. He remembered the moon setting over the Gulf of Man-zanillo, his comrade Che, and his heart was going like mad. Yes, Lilia, he said, senorita, yes, I will, yes and yes.