Francisco García González, first prize winner of the 2011 nuestra palabra short story competition, is a writer, editor, and screenwriter born in Havana in 1965 and currently living in Montreal. His short story collections include Juegos permitidos [Games Allowed] (1994), Color local [Local Colour] (1999), and ¡Qué quieren las mujeres? [What Do Women Want?] (2003). He has also published the historical essay, Presidio Modelo, temas escondidos [Model Prison, Hidden Agendas] in 2002. His stories have appeared in anthologies in Cuba, Spain and Canada. He won Cuba’s Hemingway Short Story Prize in 1999, and has served as editor of the cultural journal Habáname. His articles have appeared in periodicals in Cuba, Mexico, Chile and the United States.
I arrived first at Frankie Pesto’s.
It was hell down there between the filth-filled water and the mountains of pans and dirty dishes. Other times it was scraping the bottoms of the huge pots used to make tomato sauce. Or sweeping and mopping the floor and taking the bags of garbage out to the street.
It was hell for the province’s minimum wage.
The worst of it all was the fast pace.
It was demonic.
Every night was swallowed by that insatiable stomach. After six hours I was spat back into the street. I scrubbed dozens of dishes and behind me I would hear the pans being dropped on the rack.
Losing things and living far away was playing tough.
What I was doing seemed unbelievable.
There was no way out. I surrendered to the noise and the yells of the cooks, until my mind was numbed and I had lost all sense of time.
With my weary, aching back and hands… I was a strong man, though. I could afford the luxury of leaving my peeling skin wherever I went.
The waitresses were pretty and well trained. Too beautiful to be close or attainable.
The waitresses were pretty and the cooks were rude.
They were always passing the time joking and laughing about things that I didn’t understand. All of them living in a “fucking” world, in a “fucking” way…They, the cooks, looked at the asses of the girls, as they bent down to pick up the plates. Asses that served Italian food. Sometimes they shot me knowing looks. A language far from words.
At that time I had stopped writing. Not because it was a crime. So many books need so much pulp, enough to drown us or to live in a desert. Hence the absurdity of reproducing a memory. It wasn’t that, I simply didn’t have anything to say or suggest and, if I had, it would’ve been useless. I just tried to hide my body from the tide that pushed towards the waterfall that awaited me in my fucking life.
No one knew that I was a writer. I would never have been hired. You never give a miserable job to a writer however much he deserves it. It could make you look bad.
Then Clifford Sutherland appeared.
An old guy. Just a step away from retirement. A Canadian. He wore a baseball cap and a t-shirt with a maple leaf in the middle of his chest.
A redundant piece of shit.
What was a native-born Canadian doing stuck in the belly of Frankie Pesto’s at his age?
Someone introduced us and he said hello with a nod of his head.
Clifford didn’t speak.
Or he didn’t speak much.
If a Canadian was there, what would be left for the immigrants?
Clifford went out and reappeared in an apron.
A mirror that brought me back to the harsh reality of it all.
I recognized myself in him and I had to go to the washroom. The maple leaf that I wasn’t wearing burned my chest and back.
They had assigned me a co-worker.
The old guy moved quickly, as if he’d been born in front of a dishwasher with a broomstick in his hand. I was afraid that he would replace me. Clifford talked to the cooks, but never spoke to me.
I couldn’t avoid the petty thoughts. His own kind preferred him. Clifford made salads. He opened cans of tomatoes. He chopped peppers…
I secretly competed with Clifford.
I got to work before he did.
I left after he did.
I scrubbed faster than he did.
I dove between the bits of half-eaten chicken, the rings of onion, the strings of spaghetti that looked like tiny serpents.
I changed the mop water.
But I couldn’t outdo him.
I was not petty-minded.
I acted in petty ways.
Without saying a word.
I spied on him out of the corner of my eye. Since I wasn’t writing anymore, nothing inspired me. I would go back to the shack that I plainly despised. But I still had a writer’s eye…
Which bed did Clifford Sutherland sleep in?
What woman or thing would lie beside him as he slept?
What had his life been like?
All of that was unspoken… The old guy didn’t speak, or didn’t speak much. And my English was no better than a caricature of what Cuban kids learn in high school.
The timeline of my conversations with Clifford was pitiful.
“I’m from Cuba,” I told him once when we were taking the garbage out.
He didn’t react.
I repeated myself three times.
He shrugged his shoulders.
He had no idea what I was talking about or he just didn’t understand my English.
“Compay Segundo… Buenavista Social Club,” was the other one that came to my mind.
Clifford looked at me unaffected. He still seemed to be trying to decipher what language was being spoken to him.
“Fidel Castro,” I insisted.
Finally there was nod of understanding. Clifford didn’t know who Compay Segundo was and maybe he had heard of Fidel Castro.
One night, we were eating beside the storage room shelves. Clifford looked at my plate and nodded. My food looked good to him. I looked at his: spaghetti, the same serpents that would later stop the dishwasher. Disgusting… At the time I hated Italian food. Nevertheless, I had learned to be more polite than necessary.
“I like your food,” I lied, wishing he’d never return.
Instead of responding, my co-worker took a hard bite. The little snakes hung from his mouth.
I noticed his hat. It had a glove and a baseball stamped on the side.
“Do you like béisbol?” I asked him, sure that I had found something that we had in common.
Clifford shook his head no; he didn’t care for baseball at all.
That was the last time I asked him anything.
Two months passed and I was left worn out by my secret duel. I didn’t care about Clifford Sutherland anymore. We both kept running around the place helplessly, hopelessly, while the cooks looked at the waitresses’ asses.
The only thing I was interested in was leaving that place of terrible, ordinary verbs. Taking a step up on the evolutionary scale of my new country. I had gotten used to not writing, to not being swept away by the tide. And Clifford went back to being what he was the first afternoon: a mirror, with apron and baseball hat included.
Even without speaking and looking at him through the eyes of the most solitary profession in the world, I had the filthiest human feeling: I felt sorry for him…
Who was I to feel sorry for someone, even if it was an old guy?
How much was I beating him by in the kitchen cleaning race?
I could see him trapped by the calamari’s tentacles in the depths of the sink, right at the moment that I would walk down Bloor Street looking at the storefronts of the sex shops and the cafe and bar signs.
I wanted to be far away from Clifford.
Far away from Frankie Pesto’s.
I started to look for a new job.
Until the unimaginable happened.
Clifford Sutherland escaped… First… There were no goodbyes. The day that he left the restaurant, he smiled with the same lack of decency with which he wore his t-shirt with the maple leaf in the middle of his chest.
Where was he going?
I didn’t have the courage to find out…
I suspected that the old guy was a happy man.
I returned to the loneliness of the dishwasher kingdom.
Clifford had defeated me.
Those nights I walked the snow-covered streets and I would watch the young people skate on the City Hall rink, without caring about the time or the cold. I knew what blazing gold otherworldly pre-dawn hours felt like.
No jobs turned up.
I was content and didn’t give Clifford Sutherland any more thought.
But work and the winter defeated my knees. Arthritis is a painful word, a dry brittle cracking sound. And that is why I started going to the gym.
There, surrounded by vestiges of youth, I looked around me. None of them were aging with dignity. Their bellies hung down, hiding their manhood, announcing to their owners that it was too late.
Where was the hope of the television commercials?
At the end of every workday I watched my belly growing into the danger zone. Later I rubbed my knees. The flesh of others was like already-written pages… on which I could read the life of their owners.
Then one afternoon I saw him.
A body too beautiful to belong to an old man.
Facing away from the relics.
His muscles revealed a seized energy, tenacity.
He turned around…
It was not the manhood of an old man hanging under his abdomen. Clifford Sutherland’s cock looked like my fifteen-year-old son’s. A wave of shame kept me from getting up from the bench.
That night I would tell my wife. It would excite her, we would make love and she would cry.
That was all…
Clifford soon recognized me and came towards me.
I stood up.
We were naked.
Dignity and defeat.
Smiling. Like a child hiding something evil and innocent.
“Can I go to Cuba by car?” he asked.
I smiled too.
Clifford Sutherland went forward.
… And as you already know, the tide of life rose a little more.
Translated by Jessica Kish