From the Vaults

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Here’s a random snippet of something from the may-never-get-written files. Came from a wee idea, but never really went anywhere.

 

Something’s in the air in the tropics. Perhaps it’s the way the atmosphere hangs heavy on your skin, like a warm, wet unseen ocean covering all your pores, unbroken except for the occasional whispering breeze from the sea. The nights are still and darker than the deepest purple velvet. The stars each beckon brightly, as if winking a secret.

Maybe that’s why they came. At the beginning it was only one or two of them. A family of sorts, buying up the empty houses and rebuilding the crumbling walls. Cities and resorts once again sang, the songs of life and people recalling the early days of their glory, but this time, all the life was night life and the beaches were strangely empty during the hot, sun-filled days.

Most of the locals shrugged and pocketed the handfuls of hard currency that was now flowing easily, cheerfully shopping in the new supermarkets and video stores now freely accessible by all. They’d grown used to the oddities of tourists, at first the tall gueros — blond, Nordic Europeans with money to burn and hungers to satisfy, then the rest of them, little bits at a time, taking advantage of El Jefe’s need for tourist spending. At first there were still restrictions. Locals couldn’t go into the hotels or restaurants; those were reserved for the turistas. Tangential business such as drug dealing and prostitution rose, but the economy became a little more stable, even though necessities such as toilet paper and light bulbs continued to be in short supply. And the military watched, guns still very much in evidence.

Then the unthinkable happened. Not even ten years after the tourism industry picked up, the man himself began to change. Things began to happen gradually at first. He allowed an American baseball team to play against an all-star selection of the homeland’s best and brightest. Then, little by little he began to raise the restrictions that had been a part of most people’s entire memories. Stores began to get stock, cruise lines began sounding out the government for permission to add the island to their schedules, and life began to be if not happy, it was at least tolerable.

No one really knew what to think about all of this. How it came to be, why things began to change, but some of the abuelitas muttered that it was all too good to be true. Chickens don’t suddenly begin to lay square eggs, they were heard to say when talking about El Jefe’s miraculous change of heart. He never even lambasted the NorteAmericanos any more. It was as if he were a different man. Nothing good could come of this. Just watch, it will all go back again tomorrow.

But most of the people just sat back and enjoyed the largesse. Why, you could even go into the market and buy three bars of soap and a bottle of shampoo — all at once! Not to mention the fresh bread that was available every day if you wanted. With no queues.

Un milagro, extolled the priests, coming out of hiding and celebrating mass in public churches. Only God could have granted this miracle to us, after so many years of waiting and praying.

The lust lure of capitalism, muttered the lifelong Communists – a curse brought by the evils of American television signals and the Internet. They knew computers should have never been brought there.

The television stations began to show more and more of El Jefe in his private life. Sitting at home, enjoying a mojito or two with his buddies. Visiting a nightclub in the city, dancing a merengue or the mambo. He’d even given up smoking cigars and was dressing in clothing other than his usual trademark.

We all began to notice that there was a new member of his social group. A tall, thin man, dark-haired, dark-eyed and always impeccably dressed, usually in a beautifully cut white suit. He never shared El Jefe’s limelight, only stood to the side, occasionally leaning over and whispering in the leader’s ear. You never saw very much of him. Glimpses only, at a bar, a restaurant, but never by himself. Never strolling the streets in the broad daylight.

A new advisor, nodded the pundits, smiling wisely and pretending, as all the good politicos do, that they knew everything. From Europe, no doubt, with his tailored suits and atmosphere of style. Perhaps even a distant relative. There was something about his eyes. El Jefe did tend towards a little nepotism.

It was when the first real estate office opened that we all knew things were really changing. Instead of being awarded by the government, houses and apartments could now be sold! And sold they were – by the score, as these new residents began to arrive and rebuild. Masons and carpenters long denied their trade once again rushed through the streets with their tools, too busy to stop for a cafecito or even a few minutes chat.

We began a time of honeymoon then. Golden days full of laughter, of steady, honest work and of money. Lots of money. Money that didn’t have to go to bribe a dishonest block snitch. Money that could be used to buy groceries, even enough to save for later. Maybe for the kids to have when they needed it.

People were seen on the street waiting for the delivery trucks and the postman. Waiting for packages of goods purchased over the Internet. New dresses, new hairstyles. Everything was good.

Nobody even cared that their new neighbors kept to themselves so much. Sure, we all talked about them. Look at the people that moved in next door to Samuel and Marta on Calle Rosa. They bought that big house that used to belong to the Uribes before the revolution. Spent a lot of money, too – on furniture, on carpentry work. They even hired old Manolo to work in the garden, even though he was nearly 80 and half-blind. Paying him a pretty good salary, too.

But did you notice? They never came out of the house. Or at least, they didn’t seem to. A beautiful day like we have with no clouds, no rain forecast. The water so blue and lovely. It simply calls out for spending the afternoon swimming. But they spend the entire day inside.

Manolo would just shrug when asked about his employers. They are rich and they are eccentric, he’d say. Who cares if they waste the sunshine and spend the day playing on their computers or listening to their CD players? What does it matter? Lots of these newcomers didn’t know how to enjoy the lovely sunny days. They were probably spoiled, worried that their too pale skin would burn and peel in the strong island sun.

We’d all laugh and agree, and go back to our café con leche, our cigars and our game of canasta or dominos. Our lives had gone from good to bad to better in so little time, we all wanted to enjoy it. It wasn’t until the first dead girl turned up that we began to wonder.

She was not much to look at in death, pale under her coffee-colored skin. Black hair tangled from the water she’d been found in. Not drowned, though, no water in her lungs. Enrique, the local police officer, recognized her right away. He wasted no time pronouncing it a judgment from above. The girl had been a prostitute, trading her body for beautiful dresses and fine meals at tourist restaurants. After times began to change, she’d not been able to change with them, and had remained walking the streets and selling herself.

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