Sirloin, rib eyes, T-bones – around one hundred pounds of prime meat distributed in Coral Gables. Cuts selected to be eaten practically raw and slathered with barbecue sauce, the way they like them there. Daniel turns onto Collins Street and feels a stab of annoyance. They think they know how to prepare meat better than the Argentines, with their gadget-laden toy barbecues, in their ant-free, odorless back yards. “They’re your bread and butter,” Vera always tells him. So better just to keep his mouth shut. But that doesn’t prevent him from evoking, from so many childhood summers and so many childhood places, the aroma and the sound of crackling branches, the joy of gathering them together on the damp grass. If he half-closes his eyes, he can even see the fine column of smoke rising from the mound he and his cousins have assembled. To do it right requires an ample yard, a yard that’s part forest, not those self-important sandpits, those buzz-cut lawns, like a marine’s head. They deserve their goddamn charcoal, he thinks, and once more he recalls Vera’s common sense: “You’ve got to adapt, let go of your pointless nostalgia.”
As proof of her adaptive ability, she’s given him these pants, the one’s he’s wearing now: a pair of American carpenter’s pants with at least ten different-sized pockets that he’ll never figure out what to keep in. How strange that Vera hasn’t shown signs of life yet, hasn’t sent him a single message, considering the way she usually drowns him in loving concern. Daniel shifts in his seat. He knows he’ll have to make a decision soon. He ought to move in with her. Or leave her: risk it all on that unspoken dream, the one that’s still waiting for an extraordinary woman to show up. Where did he get that crazy notion? Forty years old, practically bald, no money – and he’s still waiting for the Princess of Kappurthala? When the Princess of Kappurthala finally shows up on his doorstep, she’ll be drooping and in rags.
Daniel takes his order book out of the glove compartment and rests it on the dashboard. As he waits for the light to change, he confirms that he’s already made stops at La Estancia and Chikito Way; he’s picked up orders from Johnny Meat and Che Chorizo. The only one left is El Danzón, Mariel and Omar’s mini-market. He likes Cubans – some Cubans, anyway – but to call a mini-market El Danzón, what an idea!
Like the guy who named his ice cream parlor Socorro Ramírez, in honor of his wife, a formidable mulatto who aroused only obscene thoughts: a chocolate body bathed in peanut crème, warm syrup, and here and there a glistening bit of fruit . . . He’s already lost in his reverie of subtle sweetness when the traffic light shocks him back to reality.
Daniel pokes his head out the window and catches a ideways glimpse of himself in the rear view mirror. He’s startled. Every time his reflection unexpectedly appears, the same thing happens. Who’s that bald guy with bags under his eyes? A closer glance reveals a man who looks more and more like his father. His father, too, if the situation had arisen, would have been capable of naming an ice cream parlor Esther Sidelnik. And yet, the Cubans in Miami were doing well, no matter how flagrantly they ignored the laws of marketing. And the Argentines? The Argentines were always on a roller coaster, like him. A crisis hits, leaving him sprawled on the canvas; another one suddenly comes along and lifts him up, dumping a few bucks in his pocket. Enough to take on the adventure once again.
Now Miami, with his little Argentine beef business – Uruguayan beef, really, temporarily Uruguayan, until the outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease eases up, which should be very soon, a matter of days according to his contacts in Argentina, an outbreak that was announced just as he and his partner were getting the business off the ground.
He can’t quite figure out what to think of him, if he’s a poor fool plagued by bad luck, a putz, or a guy that will surprise everyone in the long run, beginning with himself. Every time he thinks about that, he remembers his Bubbeh’s face. How she would look at him when he was a kid, with one of those expressions described by detective novels as “inscrutable.”
Daniel turns onto Camino Way and slows down at the entrance to El Danzón. The parking lot is nearly empty. He continues toward the shed out back, where a few cars are sheltered from the fierce morning sun, and he parks in a single, deft maneuver. One of the pleasures of living in Miami is the Savannah Diesel he and his partner have bought, a sharp model whose quiet humming and purring constantly reassure them that around here things still work.
Daniel gets out, stretches, and walks toward the back. He opens the refrigerated compartment, hops in, and goes over to the corner where the boxes for Omar are stacked.
Another thing he’s happy about are their newly-designed packages, with oval labels and an elegant sketch of an Argentine cattle ranch. No one would ever doubt you’re a gourmet when you’re carrying a package of South American Beef, a piece of the mythical Argentine Pampa. He recalled those small-town butcher shops, with their bloodstained marble counters and flies buzzing around. How things have changed – how sophisticated –and perverted, he thinks – meat markets have become, when suddenly he hears a click and finds himself plunged into darkness. His heart goes click, too, even though he realizes that all he has to do is get to the door, which has treacherously closed behind him, and feel around for the inside handle, because everything has been planned out, contemplated, foreseen, especially the possibility that a poor South American might leave the door ajar without factoring in its likely trajectory, its weight, the tendency of things to return to their normal condition, because nobody wants to change: everything, people and objects, want to keep on being what and where they used to be. In the case of the door, that means: closed. But it’s not the door’s decision, Daniel thinks, it’s man’s, the engineer who designed that van, and he sidles along the cold walls of the compartment toward the door, where he sees, right by his head, the little red thermostat light, a glow that gradually becomes brighter as his eyes grow accustomed to the new situation: two degrees centigrade, so that the meat – his, too, now added to that of the River Plate bovines – will stay cold in the center, he thinks, as a shiver runs down his spine. His hand locates the handle, turns it downward, and as soon as he does, he knows he’s lost: the handle wiggles loosely, like a toy. No mechanism responds to his command. He repeats the effort, shaking the handle, yanking it backward and orward.
He refused to accept what is evident: the handle is broken. He gropes his body. What did he expect to find? A hammer? A pair of pliers? He’s nearly naked in his undershirt and his pants with their useless pockets, as smooth as a fish. Besides, he reasons, as he tries wiggling the handle again, it’s not as if a piece has come loose or fallen off, something he might be able to adjust; it’s something internal, inaccessible. Daniel slides down to the floor and grabs his head. “It runs like a Mercedes,” the previous owner had said, a guy who delivered fish, but not one goddamn thing about the inside handle being broken.
Daniel curses him out, shifty Yankee, fucking son-of-a-bitch. He remembers his healthy, rosy cheeks, his bullish neck, and swears that if he ever runs into the guy again, he’llstrangle him. In an instant he goes from fury to impotence. But he finally gets up: no reason to despair, you have to stay calm, think about afterwards, when all of this will be a funny story, a few days from now. Because he’s going to get out of here very soon, even though right now only the most macabre possibilities are running though his mind. He knows that his cell phone is up front on the counter, where he usually leaves it. What a blunder: the only thing left to do is kick the door, yell, count on his good luck, wait for somebody from the two or three cars he saw in the parking lot to hear him. He hurls
himself against the door, pounding it frantically with fists and feet. The important thing is to stay cool, two degrees centigrade. How long would it take for his flesh to grow cold from hypothermia? How long can one last under these conditions? What was it like to freeze to death?
He has to garner his forces: no hysterical pounding; just breathe deeply and kick every five, three, two minutes. Meanwhile, march constantly around the compartment in order to stay warm. Who would imagine that something’s happened to him? Nobody. When would someone start worrying about his absence? He reviews the unlikely identities of those “someones” in Miami. Only two or three people. While he keeps up his gymnastic pace and his pounding on the door, he engages in the most bizarre speculations. His mind fogs a little and the hands on the clock confuse him. The big one is for hours, the little one for minutes. There’s no second hand. He must have flung himself against the door around twenty times. He bangs his forehead gently against the wall as if that might straighten out his thoughts. Could a half-hour have gone by? An hour? Suddenly he sees his great-uncle Gregorio, the one in the daguerreotype, shrugging his shoulders as if asking his forgiveness. Because he’s the guilty party and he knows it.
The family idiot, the one who began the saga in which Daniel might well turn out to be the last, sad link. An insult by fate, to die of suffocation after having escaped the pogroms and concentration camps. He recalls the refrigerated delivery trucks in Buenos Aires, so spacious and ventilated, those half-sides of beef hanging from their hooks, and here he is, not even about to die shoulder to shoulder with his beloved Argentine cows, “like embracing a steer,” he thinks, laughing through chattering teeth. No, he’s going to end his days frozen alongside a pile of presumptuous little packages, stacked up like candy boxes. He feels a tickle in his stomach, as if a spider were walking inside him.
Trapped, just like him inside the truck. Like Russian dolls, he thinks, one nestled in the other, and he thinks of Gregorio again, brave, foolish Gregorio, crossing the Moldau with all the family’s coins sewn in the lining of his overcoat.
Gregorio showed his true colors right away, yes sir: as soon as the boatman saw him he realized what a coward Gregorio was, and then and there, without even waiting to reach the middle of the river, he took nearly his entire fortune, leaving him with only bill to pay half his passage to America hidden under the insole of his shoe. It was supposed to have gotten him to New York. The whole family had depended on him, Daniel thinks. If Gregorio had disembarked in New York, he’d be singing a different tune today: he’d be a prosperous merchant; he wouldn’t have document problems; he’d be sunbathing on yacht in Miami, not locked in a refrigerated compartment. But no, he got Argentina instead. The military dictatorship, inflation, devaluations, restrictions on bank withdrawals. Not to mention everyday adversities, little swindles, shortages, impossibilities, things that didn’t work. Who could resist a cocktail like that? Gregorio hadn’t understood the weight of his responsibility. The extent of his stupidity, which becomes apparent when you look closely at the daguerreotype: those shrugging shoulders, that scraggly beard. Because he had more than one chance, Gregorio did. He could have gotten off at some Brazilian port. He could even have stayed in Montevideo.
They’d be poor, but humble. He wouldn’t have become poisoned with Argentine arrogance. And he’d even been in Montevideo for two days, while the ship loaded and unloaded merchandise. He had been walking along a little downtown street when he looked into a window where a tailor was working. Der arbl is shlekht geneyt, Gregorio had said to the man when he saw him laboring to sew on a sleeve. The Uruguayan tailor, who was also a Landsman, understood and challenged him: So you think I didn’t sew it right? Well, if you’re so great, why don’t you sit down and do it yourself? Gregorio did, and as he had learned the trade from his father from a very early age, first he basted then sleeve and then sewed it on with fine stitches, leaving the shoulder perfectly attached, without a single wrinkle. The Uruguayan offered him a job on the spot. That was when Gregorio made another mistake, refusing out of pure fatalism, because his ticket, which at first he thought was for New York, was for Buenos Aires, and he wanted to follow the path marked for him by destiny.
And so, through that compendium of errors, which later grew and multiplied into others, he Daniel Sidelnick, was now here, like the last of the Buendías, born with a pig’s tail, exhausted from kicking against a closed door. He hated Gregorio and his Aunt Ethel, who had dragged the rest of the family, including his Grandfather Julio, and weighed anchor in Argentina; he hated his Uncles David and José and their mediocre textile factories, and their snotty children, his older cousins, who had passionately adopted the tango, yerba mate, pool, Peronism, and later on, Italian pasta and the tarantella because in turn several of their kids had mixed with Italian blood. He felt dampness on his face, tears no doubt, possibly the last ones of his life. “Don’t cry, vein nisht,” his Bubbeh used to tell him, and then he knew exactly how she had looked at him. Sacrificial flesh, he thought, and those two words fell upon him with Biblical gravity. Then he thought he heard the first bars of “Eight Days a Week.” It took him a minute to recognize the tune: it was his cell phone ringing. But, how could he hear it from there, when his phone was up front, in the cab? The music stopped for a few seconds, and then, with the same incongruous gaiety, started up again. It was coming from somewhere close by, very close by. It seemed to be emanating from his own body. The first allucination? He patted himself up and down, and then, trembling, he discovered in one of the ten pockets of his ridiculous pants, the lowest and narrowest one of all, up against his calf, something incredible, miraculous: his cell phone! It took him a while to dig it out, and when he finally succeeded, he could read Verna’s tender message on the luminous screen: “Don’t forget I love you.” Despite the cold that had already anesthetized his feet, he felt a rapturous flash of warmth and with a numb finger that now seemed vaguely divine, Adam-like, he dialed the number of El Danzón. Yeahh? said Mayito, the clerk, in her screechy voice. Daniel tried to speak, but a combination of voice and sobs clogged his throat, and the clerk impatiently hung up. Daniel dialed again, and again Mayito’s voice answered, intermittently cut off by the bad connection: Hello? Omar, Omar! Daniel shouted. Where you at, chico? In back; go call Omar. Back? You want Omar to call you back? You gonna call back? No! I’m in back, in the garage. Or should I say parking lot, “aparcadero,” “parqueo?”What you say, chico? Chico, my ass, you stupid bitch! Go call Omar, concha de tu madre! Concha ain’t here; she comes on Saturday . . . waiiiiit a minute, I’ll get Omar, said Mayito, trying to calm him down.
The silence intensified his terror. Would this false hope be he last of his torments? But a moment later he heard Omar’s happy, sonorous voice: Daniel, is that you? Yeah, Omar, I’m behind . . . You’re running behind? No, in back, behind your store, your little market, your “marketa,” here in the van, the truck, the “troca,” I’m locked in! LOCKED IN, ENCERRADO! He blessed the word, the same in Cuba as in Argentina as in Spain as in the rest of the world wherever the Spaniards had disembarked, leaving their precious language.
Defeated, he could hardly breathe until the van door opened at last. The flash of light blinded him at first. Then, little by little, he saw the outline of Omar’s smiling face, and Mayito’s peering in from behind him. And behind them he imagined he could see Vera embracing him at night, and his Bubbeh scolding: When are you going to stop running around already, Daniel, when will to find a nice girl from the community and get married? Yes, his Bubbeh was right: he should marry Vera. But right now he needed to catch his breath, warm up, think things over a little more. Maybe, he mused, he should return to Argentina. And then, standing behind his Bubbeh, he thought he saw Uncle Gregorio, with his puny little shoulders and scraggly beard, give him a wink and disappear.