Christmas in Havana – Part II: Train arrives, no pig


Part I: In preparation for a Christmas party, the narrator's father goes to a remote village to buy a pig. But his failure to return makes the family suspect that he has drunk the money away.

Two days later, dad hadn't yet returned. We didn't know what to do. Telegrams took a week to get to Piloto, the village where he and Gerardo had gone to buy the Christmas pig, and the service wasn't reliable. Calling the police could get them in trouble if they were found with "incriminating evidence," that is, a slaughtered pig in their suitcases.

"Didn't I say that the party was doomed?" my grandfather gloated.

After another trip to the train station, mom cried, lit a candle in front of her Virgin of Charity altar and prayed for dad's return.

"Ay, Virgencita," she sobbed. "Please, bring my husband back. Though he's a lazy drunk, I still love him."

"He doesn't drink every day," I hurried to explain, not wanting la virgen to get the wrong idea about my father.

The next time mom and I went to the train station, we took a bus. By then we all knew that there would be no pork to pay the taxi driver. It was another useless trip.

On our way back, after we got off the bus at the Alameda Movie Theater, a man ran after us. He had thinning hair, elephant-like ears and a warm smile.

"Carmen!" he called to my mother. "Do you remember me?"

"Humbertico Orozco!" her face changed instantly and became happier, rosier. "What a surprise!"

I had heard his name at home. Humberto Orozco and my mother had been high school sweethearts. In 1958, he left her and his own "bourgeois" family, to join Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Later, my mother married Dad. Orozco married one of his comrades and became a doctor. Mom had heard about him through common friends, but they hadn't met again.

"I've been asking everybody about you, Carmita," he said. "What have you been doing all these years? I thought that you and your folks had gone to Miami a long time ago. It's a pity that our political ideas aren't the same."

My mother changed the subject tactfully, "This is my daughter, Longina."

"She looks smart. Just like you."

I felt an instant sympathy for a guy who didn't come up with the "what a pretty girl" cliché that most adults resorted to. I knew that I wasn't pretty, and fake compliments made me sulk.

Doctor Orozco and my mom talked for a good hour. He had been given a Lada, a Soviet car, and offered to take us home, but we refused since it was only a few blocks away.

"I'll drop by one of these days, Carmita, if your husband doesn't mind," he said.

Mom was humming all the way home.

The following evening Doctor Orozco was at our door.

"We are going to visit several hospitals," mom explained to me, "in case your father had an accident and is unable to call us."

She smelled of her favorite fragrance--Chanel N°5--at least it was until her political ideas changed. She had bought it on the black market and wore it only on special occasions. But that was a weekday, and she was supposed to be concerned about Dad! The whiff of sophistication that filled the house seemed way out of place.

When my grandma saw her get in Doctor Orozco's Lada, she smiled knowingly and began to sing "Lágrimas Negras," an old ballad by the Trío Matamoros:

A gardener of love

plants a flower and leaves.

Another one tends to it.

To whom will it belong?

I didn't like the not-too-subtle message. Would that big-eared guy ever take dad's place?

The hospital search was useless. Mom decided to notify the police, but she didn't have to. The next morning, she found dad sitting on our porch floor with a week-old beard, a bruised face and no suitcases in sight.

"Are you hurt?" she cried out. "Are you sick? Are you drunk?"

He mumbled "yes" three times and crawled into the house under my grandparents' disapproving gaze.

He later told us that Miguel had lost all his pigs that year due to an epidemic. The few peasants who had animals left didn't want to sell them, so my dad and Gerardo partied without remorse, spending their days in seedy bars and sleeping in alleys. They got into a fight with a thug who tried to steal their wallets, and the suitcases were lost after the confrontation.

"But they were empty," dad reassured us.

With their last 50 pesos the smashed compadres took the Havana train, coughing and feverish, and bought a bottle of cheap Coronilla rum "to keep their bones warm."

My mother nursed Dad's wounds. And he, looking embarrassed and sorry, promised her solemnly, "I will not touch another drop of alcohol for the rest of my life, mi amor."

We didn't have any pork to cook or contacts to buy another pig in time for Christmas. The party was canceled. Tío Armando and Tía Jacinta, believing that grandma had cheated her way out of the celebration, didn't talk to her for months. Mom had to pay Fernando 100 pesos for the useless rides to the train station. We ate only rice, beans and chicken croquettes that triste Navidad.

The Spanish version of this story can be found here.