Fable With Monster

By Pedro de Jesús
Translated by Dick Cluster

It’s up to you, Pancho. If you listen to Caleb, to his advice to find someplace else to enjoy the fresh air or go home to bed, this guy Osiris is not going to spoil your night. But you’re pigheaded. What’s the matter with you, man? You lie down on your back. What’s the big deal? Thanks to the drinks, you can contemplate the few stars scattered in the cloudy sky without worrying about the dirt and dampness of the wall or Caleb’s aversion to this particular corner.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Osiris appears. He offers his hand to Caleb, but Caleb leaves it hanging in the air. Lost in the stars as you are, you don’t notice him until he gives you a pat on the thigh. What’s up, my fine cabinet-maker? You lift your head slightly in a vain attempt to see who this might be. No wood but no problems, you say. Who’s asking? He leans over the wall. I’m insulted, dude. He puts his face close to yours. Do you recognize me now?

It’s horrible. The ravaged skin, a perverse collection of small scars, pits, and welts, seems familiar. I guess … I don’t know, but his bald top doesn’t match the faint image that comes to your mind. Osiris mumbles something, shoots a vicious-looking glance at Caleb, and keeps talking to you. Put some thatch on my roof, carpenter, and you’ll remember me all right.

It is him, the adolescent you remember, but with the voice and appearance of a man, grown even uglier than before. Ah, now I get it, you say, and you’re about to give him your hand and, just going through the motions, ask what he’s been up to all this time. But your instinct and experience counsel otherwise. Caleb is beginning to drum nervously on the body of his guitar as Osiris leans over you again. I need you do me a little favor here.

You’re suddenly alert. Though there’s nothing treacherous in his tone, you worry about a possible misunderstanding—what Caleb might think. Make me a bed, pal, he adds rapidly, as if divining what’s going on in the corners of your brain and trying to feed your suspicions. But now that he sees you getting up, Osiris comes to the point. The old lady sold mine so she could bring me some eats and smokes and soap when I was in the joint. And he smiles, he won’t stop smiling, an expression perched somewhere between cheerful and challenging. His teeth are tiny, as if they haven’t finished growing. You remember that detail too. What you can’t come up with is his name, if you ever knew it.

Osiris’s eyes shift back and forth between you and Caleb, back and forth. In case his intentions are what you think they might be, you take your time answering. I told you, I’m out of wood, and you sharpen your words so their edges will glimmer. Caleb signals you intensely and slides down off the wall, guitar on his shoulder. Caleb, always so full of fears and scruples. Then Osiris uncrosses his arms, I’ll supply the wood, and he puts his hand on the bulge whose dimensions are outlined by the white pants. As hard as you like it.

Caleb looks thunderstruck, all atremble. Let’s get out of here, Panchi, let’s go. But you refuse, of course you do, the guy is just trying to get what he needs in the only way he knows how. Nothing surprising, no abomination, no reason to flee. That’s what goes through your mind. Or something like that. No, let’s stay, baby. My friend here hasn’t figured out we’re together, that’s all. Caleb’s eyes widen. Listen to me Panchi, the thing is … Osiris, dying with laughter, goes on rubbing himself, I get it, Panchi, as he tries to imitate the way Caleb says your name. But I can handle the two of you—it takes a lot of plowing to plant this stalk. He thrusts his pelvis forward in evidence.

Nobody, Pancho, is forcing you to hang out here at this hour of the night, but you still think this thing can be resolved without it blowing up. No, that’s not what we’re into, man. Show some respect and get moving, you try to convince him, keeping your tone light because you feel for him, alone and frustrated, you can imagine his fear that it’ll be daybreak soon and he still won’t have found any relief for the flood built up behind his dam.

If it were just you by yourself, you wouldn’t care whether he rubbed it or showed it off or whatever. But the guy still doesn’t get the picture. You’re not into what? Don’t give me that bullshit, tiger. He doesn’t get that the problem is not you but Caleb, who hates this corner and the people who hang here, who’s terrified of getting into rough or violent situations, who hates your past and lives in constant vigilance against your returning to it. Or don’t you remember anything? Who suspects that, in fact, you’ve never left it.

Perhaps for this reason, and fearing that you’ll lose your cool, Caleb starts to walk away, I told you we shouldn’t come here, toward the opposite sidewalk. Then you do lose your temper. You get mad at Caleb for his sense of superiority, his fragility and ignorance wrapped up in affectations. You get mad at Osiris for his inopportune persistence. If he knows you so well, doesn’t he realize you could pick him up bodily and toss him aside like a sack of sawdust, break his leg without even trying, turn his elbow or shoulder or hand into jelly? He’d be better off just … Look dude, three’s a crowd and the two of us aren’t leaving.

Osiris doesn’t know, Pancho, or he doesn’t remember. Caleb, who both knows and remembers, slides the guitar off his shoulder and, in a sign of panic, wraps his arms around the instrument. There are two more men coming, Pancho, let’s split for Christ’s sake. It’s two men and a woman, let’s get out of here.

Osiris takes off down the street, passes through the glow from a light, and disappears in the darkness beyond. Caleb comes back to you, takes hold of your bicep that’s tense and ready for action, lets his own fingers relax into the hint of a caress. He gives you a pleading look. The men and the woman are carrying boxes and suitcases. Honey, I’ll die of shame … One of the men recognizes you, and the woman recognizes Caleb. It’s going to rain, Pancho, he persists. Look it’s already starting. And he’s right, and you all have to dash for the building across the street.

In less than a minute the downpour is a thick whitish curtain in front of the porch of this former mansion. From the far end, the trio with the baggage can be heard talking about a train that’s leaving in half an hour, a telephone, something to cover themselves. Then the one you know comes over to your end of the porch asking for change for a three-peso bill. You give him all the coins in your pocket. Do you remember when we were kids … ? he asks, but he leaves without waiting for an answer, as if he were invoking a bygone time as a way of saying thanks. A time you can call up from memory …

Who was that? Caleb asks, more relaxed, the guitar back on his shoulder. Somebody from my old neighborhood, didn’t you hear him? You say this to annoy Caleb. Because you know that’s not whom he’s asking about, because how many times have you seen that look of “oh, not me,” heard that lulling voice of an undercover CSI cop who inquires as if he didn’t really care, while an interrogation will surely follow. Don’t put me on, Pancho. I’m talking about the monster. Only how much you love Caleb, how much he turns you on, allows you to put up with him. Only your desire to touch solid ground after a sea of puddles (even if, once in a while, a Lake Baikal or an Amazon puts in an appearance).

If I get hold of that guy, I’ll eject him without a parachute, you say, knowing this will freak Caleb out and bring at least a temporary truce. Terrific, he snaps at the bait, that’ll land us in the hospital or the police station. Picturing Caleb in such a situation tickles you, improves your mood. And when he smashes against the pavement that’ll fix his ugly face—he’ll thank me in the end. The joke works, it amuses Caleb. He sure is ugly, he could break mirrors by the dozen. You love seeing Caleb like that, the part of him that’s carefree, naughty. You drink in his smile, so much like a kid, a smile worth all the more because you know it’s fleeting. Don’t think I’ve forgotten—too fleeting—Where do you know the monster from?

You ought to tell him. That monster had something to look at, didn’t he, baby? So he’ll understand that living is done with eyes, hands, mouth. Also with these. With these above all. Don’t try to pretend he didn’t. You’re tired of repeating it: that you only live once even if your mind deceives you, convinces you that you’ll have other lives later on … If I didn’t have my guitar to worry about, I’d be out of here right now, however much it’s raining, Caleb flares up, banging weakly on your shoulder with his fist.

Then your acquaintance comes back to ask whether he can use your cell phone. Caleb slides the guitar off his shoulder and starts fiddling with the tuning pegs. The man dials a number, moves a bit farther off, says a few quick words into the phone, and gives it back. Those were the days! Do you remember? You don’t answer, it wasn’t really a question. Hey, why does he keep asking, what does he want you to remember? Now it’s Caleb who has lost his cool, his CSI is no longer undercover. We fooled around in back of my house, you say with a smile from ear to ear, adding one more adventure to the saga of Pancho-the-freelance-fornicator that Caleb’s fantasies are always seeking to reconstruct and magnify.

Nobody’s making you stay there, Pancho. Caleb has lost interest in jokes. With the detective on the loose, the child has ducked back into hiding. Don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes, Pancho Ramírez; you’re fifteen years older but not as smart as you think, you hear me? He raises his voice without worrying—quite a miracle, for once!—that the people with the baggage might hear. As if he could frighten you with those widened eyes, as if the detective had suddenly pulled another child out of a hat, confident that a tantrum will get him what he wants. Tell me who those two are. What fairy tale or cartoon did the monster and your boyhood playmate step out of?

You’ve told him a thousand times, Best not to believe anything I say. Really you’ve forgotten more details from your past than you remember. Sometimes, when someone greets you or stands there looking at you, you wonder whether he could have been your lover. Or sometimes you’re sure he was but then you can’t remember his name or what he looked like naked. My mind is a blank, I swear it is. Maybe a little flash once in a while, but on the whole … Sometimes you’re sure the sex was good with this one or bad with that one, but still, you can’t say why. With me it’s never like in the movies, where they close their eyes and the past comes through clear as day, like watching another film. But …

You’re going to mention the wart Caleb has right in the middle of his chest, how his back gets goose pimples when you just touch it with the tip of your tongue, the series of chain-link tattoos that rise from his coccyx, wrapped tightly around the shaft of the enormous anchor, its blue ink somewhat faded, that touches bottom farther down, halfway down his ass … Truly meaningful details that your memory does retain. You’re going to impress on him once again that life is what happens right now, what you do with your eyes, your hands, your mouth. But you catch sight of Osiris, walking shirtless in the rain that has now started to let up. Caleb is upset. It was a mistake to sit at this corner. You want to confess that it’s too bad about the monster’s face. You can’t remember whether, as a boy, his body proclaimed or gave even a hint of what a wonder it would become years later, today, this late night. But don’t throw any more fuel on the fire, Pancho. Take it easy, don’t worry, Tati, I can handle that guy with my eyes closed.

As reckless as he used to be, Osiris keeps up the siege. He slides onto the porch, head down as if uninterested, and comes to a stop near the trio. Right away, the woman begins gathering the backpacks and boxes scattered around the floor—a mother hen protecting her nestlings—and clucks about something. I don’t want any trouble, Caleb splutters. If he starts up again, we’re leaving. The guitar is the least of it. And he puts it on his shoulder again.

Caleb doesn’t know guys like Osiris. If Caleb had only half—let’s say a third—of his ability to withstand defeat, a third of his inclination to go after what he wants, he would have learned to play those Arjona songs he likes so much, at the least. Caleb can’t even imagine how La Bárbara, Minguillo, Tina Tunnel all buried him in insults, laughed at his acne-ravaged face, his skinny frame, his grotesque little teeth, his dirty-looking skin. But the monster took it, kept quiet, waited. One night, just before dawn, when it became clear that no meat was to be had, the tribe picked berries instead.

Cat got your tongue, Pancho? I can’t believe the way you’re ogling that guy. Luckily, at this moment there appears an emaciated woman in plastic boots that rise almost to her knees, raising holy hell with the group laden with the baggage, hurrying them along while providing them with a giant umbrella and a sheet of plastic. Leave me alone, Caleb! Let me get an eyeful of this dancing skeleton here. Looks like the Civil Defense has showed up in a flood.

Osiris seems to listen to what you’re saying, because he smiles and keeps smiling. Caleb takes note. Speak softer, please, the lady is going to hear you; look at how the ugly guy is laughing it up. Your acquaintance raises his arm to you, Many thanks, buddy, before venturing out into the downpour, which has suddenly picked up again. Osiris walks toward the rusty iron fence that surrounds the porch, leans over it. Is he interested in the rain, Pancho, or does he want everyone to get a good look at his neck, at his impressively muscular pecs, at his ass, at the deep furrow of his back? Skeleton my ass, you faggots, go cruise someplace else, the skinny woman challenges from the sidewalk, underneath the umbrella, but when neither of you responds she goes on her way with a parting shot. I hope a cancer grabs hold of you, so you’ll know what a walking skin-and-bones looks like.

Nobody’s making you do this, Pancho. There’s no reason you need to go messing with strangers, Caleb says. Look at the way you’ve embarrassed me. He is not going to allow another mishap. We had plenty of places to hang out, why did I let you talk me into ending our night here? He insists on going home, right now. Osiris turns to face you, leaning back against the porch railing, hands resting on top of it. Calm down, old man. Buying that guitar cost me too much to let it get ruined for no good reason. Osiris’s torso is extraordinarily beautiful, and the prominence that’s swelling and swelling under the damp cloth is hard to ignore. All the more so because Osiris pretends not to notice it. He tilts his head as if something far off has attracted his attention. A moment comes when his face goes blurry, as if it doesn’t exist or is no longer needed. What a disgrace that man is, just look at him, and it’s curious, very curious, that Caleb now says “man,” retrieving Osiris from the realm of monsters.

Enjoying it, are you? Caught you, baby, caught you! Nobody’s making you do this, Pancho, you know perfectly well that Caleb doesn’t go along with that kind of frankness and permissiveness. Beyond coping now, he leans the instrument against the wall, lets go of it, and threatens to walk off. You grab him by the arm. Only how much you love Caleb, how much he turns you on, allows you to put up with him. Only your desire to touch solid ground after a sea of puddles. So you anchored your boat and you think you’ll never venture into the open sea, you hear Osiris say. You answer, What’s that supposed to mean? You’re confused, you think he’s read your mind.

But you’re wrong, Pancho. My sympathies, dude, nothing against you. This is about your honey there. You realize you’ve still got Caleb by the arm, though he’s no longer trying to pull away. He wouldn’t shake my hand, but some day that anchor will slip and the ship will drift, because sailors is what we are. You still don’t understand. Sing a little clearer, dude, because I hear the music but the lyrics aren’t coming through. And you let go of Caleb. He gets it. Ask him.

Caleb barely manages to hide his terror. His eyes don’t fool you, Pancho. Me? That guy’s crazy, I don’t understand a thing he’s saying. Suddenly you have a glimpse. But no way, impossible … What are you trying to put over on me, pal? you answer after some delay, sharpening the words so their edges will glimmer. Not a thing, Osiris counterattacks, just trying to shine a beacon in the darkness. Though what I saw that night wasn’t any beacon. I saw a tattoo, an anchor with a mighty fine chain.

Your bulb lights up at last. You got yourself into this, Pancho. You could have taken Caleb’s advice, found some other place to enjoy the air or else gone home to bed. Then this guy Osiris would not have ruined your night. But you’re pigheaded, and now look. He’s lying, Panchi, the tattoo artist must have told him … Only how much you love Caleb, how much he turns you on, allows you to put up with this last lie, to stand there immobile and silent. I’ve never seen this man in my life, Panchi, love, never in my life … No scolding, no violence. All you can do is admit your mistake with dignity: Caleb was never solid ground. Now you need to jump the puddle and pursue your voyage in the ocean.

And what’s your name, friend? You take a few steps toward Osiris and offer him your hand. Osiris, he says and offers you his. My name is Osiris, but in the joint they called me Potholes, because of my face, you know. You’re very sad, but you smile. Life is lived with eyes, hands, mouth. I’ll build you that bed, I’ve got a little wood here and there. And you’ll supply the rest, you add loudly, with a wink. When you turn, you see Caleb crying. It’s just that I was embarrassed, love, you’ve got to understand, and he tries to hug you when you grab the guitar. You evade him and head toward the water.

Born in 1970, Pedro de Jesús has published short stories, a novel, essays, and poetry in Cuba and abroad. His stories, which began to appear in the 1990s, were among the first published in Cuba to deal explicitly with gay, lesbian, shifting, and ambiguous sexual identities. He has twice won the country’s major literary award, the Premio Carpentier, once for fiction and once for criticism, as well as the annual award of La Gaceta de Cuba. His two story collections have been published in English translation as Vital Signs (Diálogos, 2014) and Frigid Tales (City Lights, 2002), both translated by Dick Cluster. De Jesús is unusual among leading Cuban writers for being based in the provincial town of Fomento, in the center of the island, rather than in Havana or abroad. “Fable with Monster” is from de Jesús’s next volume of stories, now in preparation.

Dick Cluster is the author of the novels Return to Sender, Repulse Monkey, and Obligations of the Bone (recently re-issued as e-books by booksbnimble.com) as well as History of Havana (with Rafael Hernandez), a social history of the Cuban capital, and other nonfiction. He has translated a wide range of contemporary Cuban fiction writers as well as other writing from Mexico, South America, and Spain. He is currently working on an anthology of Latin American baseball fiction in translation. A two-part written conversation on literary translation between Dick Cluster and Mylene Fernández Pintado can be found at http://tinyurl.com/ClusterPintado (Part I) and http://tinyurl.com/ClusterPintado2 (Part II). He was a finalist for the 2015 PEN Center USA prize for literary translation and the 2015 Northern California Book Award for fiction translation, both for Mylene Fernández Pintado’s A Corner of the World (City Lights, 2014).