Even though it was his native language, John Anderson had his problems with English.
He’d had to use the internet in order to find a worker to hire. That’s why he’d posted the ad.
Interested, I wrote to him, and since he only used his computer once a day, I called his phone number.
Instead of greetings and polite phrases, he went straight to what he needed me to know. His voice, more than just at the other end of the line, sounded as though it was in a different dimension. In his choppy conversation I could make out the words screws, hold, wood board…
“H-a-m-m-e-r,” he spelled out in a slow and incomprehensible voice.
Then he gave me a description of the tool.
I couldn’t believe it.
One man asking another if he knew what a hammer is and what it’s good for.
“Have you ever used one?” he insisted.
Where did he think I was coming from?
We got past the hammer topic.
My chronic lack of money made me tell him I’d accept, but first I had to try it out. He agreed. One morning would be enough.
The rain didn’t matter.
I found the gate with his house number on it, on Bouillon Street.
I folded up my umbrella.
I gave him my name, and he opened the gate without greeting me.
He was wearing round eyeglasses with gold frames. His shirt was wide, with long sleeves, and his graying hair was sticking out under his straw hat.
John Anderson’s hands.
Long, cared-for nails, skin translucent with thin blue veins across it: nothing indicated any particular trade. At least not one that I could imagine.
I was grateful not to have to shake hands.
We got to the courtyard.
I was facing the most intimate possible setting for a man who needed to know if someone knew what a hammer was for.
I suspect that John had lived through a lot of shipwrecks. Enough of them to have lost track of the purpose of the most ordinary objects.
The courtyard floor had holes all over it that suggested some enterprise of remodeling construction that had been abandoned a long time ago.
Vestiges of a forgotten, chaotic life were piled up everywhere.
Bikes, suitcases, pieces of toys, skeletal umbrellas, a toaster oven, empty bottles, boxes…
But none of this gave me any idea of who or what John Anderson might be. Except for all the shoes lying around in heaps.
With high heels.
Out of fashion.
Ruined by time and exposure to the elements.
No doubt about it: he was an unusual guy.
What had he survived?
It started raining harder.
The water poured through the branches, accumulated in the holes.
The two-story house was right next to the trees and was in the same state of deterioration as the courtyard.
John pointed to his watch; I’d arrived ten minutes late.
Something unforgivable even for a guy like him.
I tried to explain why…
“Hand me the backpack,” he interrupted.
He put it on a box and showed me a tool we hadn’t talked about.
He’d thought it over. The hammer wasn’t good for speed and quality.
I agreed with him.
The most interesting thing for him about the auger was that the bit could move both ways. His eyes gleamed as he demonstrated it to me. As if the tool had a capacity for flexibility that human beings lacked.
He handed the tool to me. I verified the miracle. I pressed the trigger, and then I pressed the levers located on the two sides of the auger, making it spin to the left and then to the right.
John looked at his watch and explained what he wanted me to do.
To do what he wanted would be an easy enough job: he wanted me to fasten aluminum strips one to another so that they’d cover the wall. The boards were nailed all along the wall of the lower room.
Preventive action was an infectious disease in my new country, and, even though it seemed weird, people made all kinds of preparations for winter and even for a storm.
Or maybe they were afraid of an epidemic of zombies, I joked to him.
“Can you work in the rain?” he asked.
His urgency didn’t allow for jokes with an unknown immigrant.
The setting and the atmosphere around me were asphyxiating.
I needed the money.
I said I’d take it on.
The problem was the length of the metal pieces, the distance between the boards, and the ground covered with junk and puddles.
I stood on top of a small trench. I picked up the first metal strip. The metal bent in a way that made it impossible to grab. I struggled and braced my body against it and shoved, until I managed to press it back against the wall. Finally, I could stick the first screw in and use the drill to force it in through the bottom edge of the wooden board.
The rain continued.
I repeated the operation on the second board.
The rest was easy.
Time now for the third board.
In less than half an hour the wall was covered.
John Anderson kept an eye on my work from a distance, the other eye on his watch.
His distance and attitude made me feel that he wasn’t a practical man.
The raindrops clattered on a bicycle seat.
The other wall had a window in it. This meant cutting the board, and I wasn’t ready for that. Either that or leave the space empty. I told the owner that, and he told me to go ahead and cover the window.
I looked into the room. There was no furniture, and no stairs that went up to the top floor. The door that connected the rooms was closed and barred shut with thick slats.
I followed orders, jumping from one hole to the next, and ended up with two walls covered with metal.
The rain was pouring down my back.
We got to the third wall, the one with the door in it.
“And now…?” I asked.
He came toward me.
“Seal it up like the two others.”
John Anderson wanted a room sealed shut from inside and out.
For God’s sake, man!
I looked him up and down, discreetly. Then I looked at the cemetery of shoes, the remains of things, and it all seemed part of the same coherent desire.
He went into the room.
“I need you out of there,” I said, and got ready to seal it up.
He shook his head.
He was going to stay inside.
“What are you going to do there? Get out!” I insisted.
He shook his head again.
“Seal up the wall,” he said firmly. “It’s none of your business; I have a plan.”
John Anderson had a plan.
I didn’t know what to do. Whether to leave or call 9-1-1.
Then he handed me two hundred-dollar bills.
I couldn’t avoid my fingers touching his.
John Anderson’s hands.
I closed the door and started to seal up the wall, following his plan, until it was too dark to see him any longer.
I didn’t put in the last screws, in case he changed his mind, so he could get the board off more easily. He had counted out the screws carefully.
He insisted that I finish.
He wasn’t going to pay for incomplete work.
I finished and put the tools in the box.
I gazed at my work and felt proud of it.
I had constructed a big cube of aluminum. Gleaming, hard to undo.
I knocked several times with the hammer on the board that covered the door space.
I left Bouillon Street.
I went down the subway steps.
As I headed toward my train, a man in the passageway was singing the worst rendition of “Black Tears” I’d ever heard in my life.
By his feet, he had a hat with a few coins in it.
There were a lot of people going by at that hour. Some tossed him coins without paying attention either to the music or the singer.
I stopped to listen to him.
“Nice song,” I said to him.
He was right on the line that says, “My grief has black tears like my life…”
“It’s a Cuban song,” he explained, without pausing his strumming of the guitar.
“People must like it…”
“Yes, brother, gotta keep fighting, life is hard,” he said, and I realized we’ve all got our plans.
Things worked out that day.
He went back to his song.
I left a dollar in his hat and went down the stairs.
Francisco García González was born in Havana in 1963 and has a degree in history from Havana University. He is a writer, editor, and screenwriter. His short story collections include Juegos permitidos (Games Allowed, 1994), Color local (Local Color, 1999), and ¡Qué quieren las mujeres? (What Do Women Want?, 2003). He has also published a historical essay, Presidio Modelo, temas escondidos (Model Prison, Hidden Agendas, 2002). His stories have appeared in anthologies in Cuba and in Spain. 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 U.S. He has written the screenplays for the films Lisanka and Ticket to Paradise for directors Daniel Díaz Torres and Gerardo Chijona.
Mary G. Berg has taught Latin American literature at the University of Colorado Boulder, UCLA, Caltech, and Harvard. She is now a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, and teaches translation at Harvard Extension. Her translations include three anthologies of recent Cuban fiction (Open Your Eyes and Soar, Cuba on the Edge, New Cuban Fiction), and poetry by Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Clara Ronderos, and Carlota Caulfield. Her latest translations include Olga Orozco, A Talisman in the Darkness (with Melanie Nicholson), 2012, and Laidi Fernández de Juan, Bésame mucho and Other Stories, 2013.