AFTER A NIGHT OF INCESSANT RAIN HAD TURNED OLD Havana’s streets into a muddy pool, Isidro’s eighty-year old father awoke writhing and clutching his abdomen. Isidro, soaked up to his knees from a recent trip to the bodega, sat on his father’s bed and held him down like he would a convulsing child. He asked where it hurt, if there was anything he could do. His father groaned and mumbled.
“I’m calling an ambulance,” Isidro said.
The old man shook his head. “Let me fight him,” he said, straining to form the words. “I won’t go how he wants me to.”
“We’re going to the hospital.” Isidro darted from the room and to Mrs. Benitez’s apartment. She was their next door neighbor and the only person in the two-story building with a phone.
There were no available ambulances at the nearest hospital. One had just left to pick up a patient; the other had been out of service for a week. The person on the other line said, “See if you can get someone to drive you over.” Isidro lowered the receiver but didn’t hang up. He thought about the people he could call, maybe a friend who knew medicine or someone who owned a car. Family members were out of the question. They were all Santería practitioners—of the old-fashioned, devout kind. They’d just give his father homemade remedies and perform rituals before taking him to a doctor, while his insides throbbed and consumed his life.
Isidro had never seen his father react so frantically to pain. In three decades as a cargo handler at the docks, the old man had endured six broken bones, a large gash on his left leg, and a third degree burn on his right shoulder. All this in addition to hauling sacks off a conveyor belt with arthritic knees. He used to tell a younger Isidro that an ancestor’s evil spirit had taken hold of him. “That bastard’s done everything to torture me,” he had said. “Gave me bad luck and illness. If I get to be really old, I’m going to mock him in my death bed.”
Isidro hadn’t taken any of it seriously. His family’s customs had always seemed bizarre to him. His grandmother had blamed “communist brainwashing” for his skepticism. She told him to leave a vacant space in his heart, no matter how small, to be filled with belief. Isidro had smiled and nodded, out of respect.
He made two more calls but wasn’t able to reach anyone. His hands were shaking by the time he dropped the phone and left Mrs. Benitez’s apartment. The lady shouted and chased after him. He ignored her, thinking he’d apologize later.
Back home his father lay flat on the bed, his legs twitching and juddering.
“No one in this goddamn building can help,” Isidro said. “All I have is aspirin.”
“He won’t leave me alone,” his father said.
“How’s the pain?”
“The son of a bitch won’t leave me alone.”
“The street’s too flooded. No cars will be passing through.”
Leaving his father in his pajamas, he shoved his arms under the old man’s body like a forklift and hoisted him. As he descended the stairs he feared he might collapse at any moment.He halted at the building’s entrance and took a deep breath. Then he hurried toward the back of the stairs and was relieved to see the wooden wheelbarrow—more like a box with wheels—that had been left there for the past month. It belonged to Donato, a construction worker who’d been laid off and had built the thing himself. He wouldn’t miss it much, Isidro thought, since Donato now spent his days muttering drunken slurs in a rocking chair in his living room.
He laid his father carefully in the wheelbarrow’s tray, his head toward the front, his legs resting on the handles. The old man grunted, shifted his body, and sighed to indicate he’d found a bearable position. Isidro took off his shirt and used it to cushion his father’s neck. Then he pushed the cart out to the flooded neighborhood.
He kept by the sidewalk where the inundation was fairly shallow. The bottom of the wheelbarrow cut the murky water like a dinghy. Isidro knew these streets well—every bump and crack on the pavement from years of walking with his head bent—so he avoided any obstacles as he waded. The overcast sky had brought with it a breeze. Each inhale gave Isidro strength for one more step. Two blocks down he veered right, and soon the flooding was behind him, only a few puddles and a rushing stream of rainwater in the gutters ahead. At the end of the street he veered left. From here, it was a straight path to the hospital.
By the time they reached the park opposite the emergency room, the sun was bearing down on the glazed asphalt. His father’s white beard and black skin glittered like wet leaves. Beads of sweat from Isidro’s forehead ran down his temple and cheeks, and dripped methodically from the tip of his chin. His breath had become a heaving, as if he were asthmatic, but his steps hadn’t slowed.
A young woman who was exiting the hospital held the door open for them. Isidro wanted to say thank you, but only air left his throat. He stopped in the middle of the waiting room area, anchored his body on the handles, and said, “He’s in a lot of pain. Please, someone take a look at him!” Then he stumbled to a chair.
Two nurses ran to the wheelbarrow. One of them called for assistance, and a male nurse complied. A man with glasses sitting across from Isidro told his daughter to stay put and offered to help. Between the four people they removed Isidro’s father from the wheelbarrow and gently lowered him on a seat.
“Did you bring him from very far?” one of the nurses asked Isidro.
“Just a few blocks.” The nurse reminded him of someone, though he couldn’t immediately decipher from where.
The second nurse began inspecting the old man. She asked him a series of questions: Could he point to the spot where it hurt the most? Had he eaten anything different the night before? Had he experienced a similar pain in the past?
The old man replied with nods and short phrases.
“He can wait,” the nurse concluded.
“A doctor will see him soon,” the other nurse said to Isidro. “He’s never been like this,” Isidro said. “Please help him!” “Don’t worry. They’ll see him soon.”
The male nurse had taken the wheelbarrow outside and handed Isidro his shirt back. Twenty minutes had passed. They had yet to call the old man. Isidro was sitting by him, growing impatient. His father had his eyes closed, but Isidro could tell he was awake. He’d gotten into a steady breathing rhythm, as if attempting to assuage the pain.
The daughter of the man who’d help lift Isidro’s father from the wheelbarrow glimpsed at Isidro and said,” Is he dying?” She was gazing down by the time Isidro looked at her. Strands of curly black hair draped from her head like little streamers.
“Tania, why would you say that?” her father told her. “I’m sorry,” he said to Isidro.
“He looks like he’s dying,” the girl said.
“Tania!” her father said.
“I’m not dying,” the old man said in a hoarse voice. “But there’s a spirit that wants me to.”
“What spirit?” the girl said.
“A bad one.”
“Can the doctors make it go away?”
“My son thinks they can.”
“I think they can too. They’re curing my brother.”
“I’m sure they are, sweetie. We’ll see about me.”
“Why do you have your eyes closed?”
“So the spirit thinks I’m asleep.”
“That’s enough, Tania,” her father said. Then to Isidro, “Excuse me,” and led his daughter to the far end of the row.
“Dad,” Isidro whispered, “you better not start with the Santería nonsense when we see the doctor.”
He glanced at the front desk. The familiar nurse was sifting through papers in a bulky brown folder. This exasperated him, that she was ignoring them even though he felt he knew her somehow. Her short hair, delicately- angled jaw line, light brown eyes that tittered on the verge of green, he’d seen this combination of features before. Even her mannerism felt like an echo of someone else’s: the way she’d brusquely bend the pages as she flipped them, or how she had sprawled her fingers across the side of her face, her thumb shooting down to the bottom of her neck, her pinky nibbling the base of the ear, as if she were measuring this section of her body. He was about to call her when the other nurse emerged. She pointed to Isidro and motioned for him and his father to come.
The old man sat on the edge of an exam table. Sections of the paint coating on it had peeled off, revealing a metallic surface. The nurse jotted down the patient’s required information: name, address, age, symptoms. She asked Isidro if he’d brought his father’s clinical history. Isidro replied that in the chaos he’d left it at home. She told him not to worry, that they’d get his father fixed up. She stroked the old man’s right shoulder before leaving.
Moments later the doctor walked in. His hair was damp and neatly combed back. His wrinkled white coat was too small for his frame, and the stethoscope seemed like a toy in his large hands. He introduced himself as Dr. Carrillo.
“I hear you’re in pain,” he said.
“You could say that,” the old man replied.
“Lungs and heart sound good. Let’s lay you down.”
The old man wheezed as his body stretched out on the table. Dr. Carrillo listened to his abdomen, then pressed with his fingers on different areas, asking how badly it hurt. The old man said nothing until the doctor reached his lower abdomen, just above the pelvis. He grunted and nodded. Dr. Carrillo proceeded to take his pulse.
“What do you think it is?” Isidro said.
“At this point it’s hard to say. Is that scar from your appendectomy?” Dr. Carrillo asked the old man.
The doctor inquired whether he had gone to the bathroom regularly for the past few days, if there was any blood in his stool, anything out of the ordinary, perhaps other symptoms such as nausea or numbness.
“No, sir,” was the old man’s response.
Dr. Carrillo said, “I’m going to send someone to draw your blood and take a urine sample. We’ll wait for the results and go from there.”
“What about the pain?” Isidro asked.
“A nurse will give him a metamizol shot. It’ll just be an hour or two before we get the blood and urine results. We’ll see if the pain goes away in the meantime.”
Without saying another word, the doctor walked out the door.
Soon afterward the short-haired nurse entered. She was carrying a tray with a syringe, some gauze, and two small glass bottles. She assisted the old man as he turned on his side. Then she delivered the injection. She warned him his buttocks and legs might get stiff. “But I bet you know that already,” she said, smiling.
The lab technician followed. He took the old man’s pressure, drew two small tubes of blood, and directed Isidro to take his father to the restroom to collect a urine sample. Once it all was done, the nurse requested that they return to the general area so another patient could be attended in the room. Isidro wanted to protest, but the old man got off the exam table and headed for the door.
“We’ll wait outside,” he said.
Isidro lugged his hobbling father past the nurses’ station and helped him take a seat. The old man was breathing heavily. Isidro lingered over him to ensure he was okay. His father waved him off.
The emergency room was crowded. Somewhere behind them a child was crying—a long, descending wail. Down their row, a scrawny man coughed repetitively, his whole body jerking forward each time. Isidro shuffled in his seat. He glanced toward the entrance and wondered if the wheelbarrow was still out there. Through the door he could see sections of the park. A group of kids stood on the grass, wearing white and purple belts and imitating their karate instructor. Isidro welcomed the normalcy of it, their recognizable moves and sounds. He’d watched them before while playing checkers with old friends on nearby benches, a Sunday afternoon tradition he’d relished for the better part of a decade. That was until he started looking after his father. The old man’s arthritis had limited his movements to Isidro’s shabby home, a place where, though he’d never admit it, Isidro often felt trapped.
He’d primarily agreed to be his father’s caretaker so his family wouldn’t tend to him in their antiquated ways. After years of postponing theendeavor of meeting a decent woman and starting a family, he’d forgone it altogether for the sake of his father. A son’s responsibility, a big heart, selflessness— those things people said to praise his decision—all that mattered very little to him. In Isidro’s mind there was simply no reason for his father to be mistreated, not when he could do a better job.
He looked straight ahead at a woman wearing a dress with red and black flowers printed on white fabric. He rested his vision on the pattern—as if staring at wallpaper or a curtain—and slowly dropped his tense, nearly aching shoulders. Years earlier, he had mentioned to his father’s family that he’d been bothered by a nagging pain in his shoulders. His father’s sister, Aunt Nena, remarked that his shoulders hurt due to the unshakable weight of his ancestors, who’d chosen to perch themselves on Isidro. “Apparently they have more faith in you than we do,” she’d said.
Definitely more faith than I have in them, Isidro thought. Without turning, he said to his father, “How’s the leg?”
“Rigid as a rod.”
“Is the stomach pain better?”
“Do you mean is it gone for now? Yes, but it’ll come back.”
"Hopefully they’ll admit you.”
“They won’t. I’m not sick.”
Isidro looked at his father. The old man’s eyes were shut again.
“Dad, people don’t get sick because of a spirit.”
“I’m too old to argue with you. Out of respect for your great-grandmother, may she rest in peace, I’ll just say that people have died because of spirits.” “You need medical attention. What they’re doing here, that’s what will
“Isi,” the old man said, “let me do this on my own terms. I can’t fight you, and I won’t fight you. But please, let me do it on my own terms.”
“I’ve dealt with this son of a bitch spirit far too long to just lie in a hospital bed, tubes sticking out of me, smelling medicine all day, having a sour-faced student nurse wash me.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that.”
“Isi, I’ve done my time. Let me do what’s left on my own terms.”
Isidro bit his bottom lip, cracking the skin. He gripped the arms of his chair and said, “Let’s see what the doctor says, OK?”
The old man grabbed his own left knee and pulled on the legs of his pajama pants.
“What are you doing?” Isidro said.
“Leg’s still stiff,” his father said, “but I’ll be ready to walk home in a while.”
The short-haired nurse approached the old man on two different occasions. She asked if he needed anything. The second time he requested water and was brought a glass. By now Isidro was indifferent to the nurse. The sense of familiarity he’d originally felt had dissipated. The only thing in his mind was hearing Dr. Carrillo’s diagnosis. He was so wrapped up by the thought that he didn’t immediately react when a medium-built, bald man wearing a white coat stopped in front of him and his father.
“Yes?” the old man said.
“Nice to meet you.” The man offered his hand. “My name’s Dr. Guerrera.”
“Where’s Dr. Carrillo?” Isidro said.
“He asked me to come in his place. He had to attend to an emergency.” The old man greeted the doctor and said, “I understand.”
“What did they find?” Isidro said.
“You must be his son,” Dr.Guerrera said. “Good news. There was nothing alarming in the blood and urine. Just low levels of calcium and vitamin A. We’re sending you home.”
“Home?” Isidro said. “What about the pain?”
“Based on the lab results and physical exam, Dr. Carrillo doesn’t think it’s anything serious. Could be colic due to indigestion. We recommend that you see the gastroenterologist at your local clinic for further tests.”
Isidro took a piece of paper from the doctor. It had Dr. Carrillo’s name and a few notes, but Isidro couldn’t decipher the handwriting. “But they won’t see him for a month at the clinic. It’s almost impossible to get an appointment there!”
“There’s not much we can do here at the moment,” the doctor said.
“I’m a lot better,” the old man said. “I’m sure whatever it was, it was transitory.”
Isidro stood. “What if it’s something serious? What if something happens to him on the way home, or tonight, or tomorrow morning, and I have to haul him back here in a damn wheelbarrow? They gave him a shot. Of course the pain is better!”
“There’s a small chance he might get worse, in which case I assure you we’d do everything possible to assist you. Right now we don’t think you should worry. Dr. Carrillo prescribed some oral metamizol to be taken every six hours if the pain recurs.” Dr. Guerrera fished out a small bottle from his pocket and gave it to Isidro. “Have a good day, comrades,” he added, and left.
“Let it go, Isi,” the old man said.
Isidro watched the doctor disappear beyond the door. The short-haired nurse smiled at him and mouthed, “He’ll be fine.”
Isidro felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. The old man’s grip caused a rippling shudder to settle in Isidro’s chest.
“Isi, let it go,” the old man repeated.
Isidro stored the medicine bottle in his right pocket. “Let’s head home.”
Outside, the wheelbarrow was resting handles-up against the wall. Isidro placed it down and gave it a quick push and tug, to check that it still worked. The old man, limping behind him, asked if he should help.
“You’re funny,” Isidro said. “Hop in.”
“I’m walking,” his father said.
“Sure. Better yet, why don’t you sprint there? Come on, I need to return this wheelbarrow to Donato. I’m sure if he realizes someone took it he’ll be knocking on everyone’s door.”
“I’m telling you I can make it.”
“We’re not doing this,” Isidro said. “Get in, please.”
The old man walked to the side of the wheelbarrow and sat inside the tray, this time facing the front. “Do you think the flooding is gone?” “I’m sure it’s not like Venice anymore,” Isidro said, shoving the cart. “This country’s nothing like Italy.”
“This country’s nothing like any other country.”
“How bad was the rain?” the old man said.
“Bad enough for a building or two to come crumbling down.”
“As long as we still have a roof.”
Isidro paced himself as he rolled the wheelbarrow across the neighborhoods. The sun was tearing through a few remnant clouds. Children were running in the streets, shirtless and barefooted. They splashed their feet in small puddles, dug their hands into mud and threw it at each other. Some stared at Isidro and the old man longingly, wishing they too had a homemade wheelbarrow to launch themselves down a hill or ram it against some bushes.
Glancing at the children, Isidro thought about the short-haired nurse, about what she had said before they walked out. He suddenly realized why she felt so familiar. She reminded him of his mother, a peasant woman his father had met in Santiago de Cuba, the city where the old man had grown up. His mother had a way of saying things without uttering them, as if it were a secret between them, as if she didn’t want anyone else to hear. She’d done it on his first day of school, and a couple of years later when he’d constructed a necklace out of seashells and a piece of thread. The exact words he couldn’t remember, but they’d been reassuring.
He thought about how his parents had gotten along, about the silence at the dinner table, about the silence in general. His mother didn’t whisper or mouth words to him then. Instead she spent many nights sewing and mending clothes while his father took extra shifts at the docks. By the time he turned fifteen, Isidro wasn’t around the house much except to eat and sleep. On a Friday night, his mother fled back to her hometown with another man. She claimed in a note she’d left that she was more a prisoner than a wife and mother in Havana. She died six months later when her kerosene burner blew up and ignited the wooden house she and her new boyfriend were living in.
Isidro had sent her a handful of unanswered letters, asking if he could go live with her, or at least visit, or talk to her on the phone. In the last letter he asked outright why she had abandoned him—and in a bout of anger even included some Santería references he’d picked up from his father—telling her that he cursed her and hoped to never see her again. Isidro couldn’t recall many details of the funeral. If anyone were to ask him why, he would have said it was his way of coping. He did remember fearing that his Santería curses had actually worked. The old man told him, on the sultry train ride back home after the burial, that at heart his mother was a good woman. “She just picked up a lot of bad energy from me,” he said. “Don’t blame her or yourself.”
Isidro hadn’t blamed anyone, but now he wondered whether he’d been more afraid than dismissive toward his family’s beliefs.
As they neared their block, the streets became smaller and the puddles larger. The pavement was still damp from the flood. Heaps of trash and debris had accumulated in the gutters and on the sidewalks, at the base of trees and street signs. The dilapidated stone buildings on either side reeked of mold. Isidro’s shoes squished every few steps. Above him, white sheets hung from balconies and clotheslines like festival banners.
“I need to apologize to Mrs. Benitez,” Isidro said.
“I ran from her home after I used her phone. It was disrespectful.”
“I’m sure she’ll forgive you.”
“I hope so. I need to use the phone again.”
“I’m going to call Aunt Nena.”
The old man stayed silent for a moment. Then he said, “You shouldn’t bother
“I’m going to take you to see her,” Isidro said. “You know, to see the family.” His father grinned. “Babalú Ayé!” He reshuffled his body so he could lean his head back. “I’m going to mock that bastard,” he said slowly, as if taking delight in the fact.
“I’m sure you will,” Isidro said, and made a wide turn to avoid a pile of empty crates scattered on the road.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dariel Suarez was born in Havana, Cuba, where he lived until 1997. He’s currently an MFA candidate at Boston University and will be teaching creative writing at the Boston Arts Academy this fall. Dariel’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, SmokeLong Quarterly, The 2River View, Versal, The Coachella Review, Midway Journal, and JMWW, among others. Dariel was the featured poet in New Mirage Journal’s latest Spring issue, and his work has been included in the book Tigertail, A South Florida Annual: Florida Flash, due for publication in October, 2011. He’s currently completing a collection of stories set in his native country as well as a poetry chapbook.