issue 45: November - December 2004 

spanish translation | author bio

Dancing with Fidel
Barry Gifford


Things were not working out the way Mary had thought they would. The weather was fine, warm with the tradewinds to keep the temperature bearable, about what she had expected to experience in Miami Beach—sultry, Mary’s best friend Donna back in Dorchester had called it after her honeymoon there the year before. Mary loved the sound of that word, sultry; it was a real sexy word, she thought. The hotel was nice, too, clean and elegant without being ostentatious like some of the others she’d seen strung along the beach, false pearls whose gaudy facades faded day by day under pressure from the relentless sun and salty sea air. No, the tropical setting was satisfactory, it was Walter Turner, her husband of three days, who was not.
     Mary Keaton Turner sat in a beach chair next to the Spearfish Hotel swimming pool wearing a yellow two-piece swimsuit and cat’s-eye sunglasses. She was smoking a cigarette, watching Walter breaststroke his way the length of the pool. He was a good swimmer, Mary realized. She, on the other hand, could not swim a stroke. That she could do no better than dog paddle had not bothered her until now; seeing even small children splash their way from one end of the gigantic pool to the other made her feel suddenly inadequate, embarrassed to be so natatorily inept at the age of twenty-three. Walter, who was twenty-eight, had learned the Australian crawl, he said, when he was seven years old.
     Walter was a good person, Mary knew, kind and generous, better than average-looking, and he already earned more than most men in middle management positions. Mary had examined the statistics on salaries for the previous year, 1959, in Fortune magazine, when she was having her hair lightened the day before the wedding, and she felt confident that Walter had a bright financial future. Everyone, friends and family, agreed that he was an excellent catch. Perhaps he was, but Mary found him, in a word, dull. He had made love to her only once in their three-day-old union and he insisted on going to sleep no later than ten or ten-thirty at night. Swimming, sunning and shopping for trinkets tired him out, Walter told Mary. If she wanted to stay up, that was all right with him, but he was a man who knew—and was not discomforted by—his limitations. So far, Mary had gone to bed when Walter had, but tonight, she decided, would be different.
     After dinner on the hotel verandah, Mary and Walter went with another newlywed couple they had met poolside that afternoon to the Spearfish cocktail bar and lounge. Eddie and Diana Rogers were from Cincinnati; he was thirty-one, she twenty-five. They seemed to Mary an amiable but unremarkable pair—Eddie was a certified public accountant, Diana a secretary at a law office—but Mary craved company other than Walter, so when she spotted them dining on the verandah as well, she went over and suggested they rendezvous in the bar afterwards.
     As they sat at a table and talked, all four having ordered strawberry Daiquiris at Diana’s insistence—"You won’t believe how divine they make you feel!"—Mary contemplated her dilemma. Walter was simply the wrong guy for her, she decided. A nice guy, but not the man with whom she could now envision herself spending the remainder of her life. Why she had not realized this before was not really so difficult to understand: While technically not a virgin due to a lone episode when she was seventeen, Mary had not slept with Walter until their wedding night; unsurprisingly, it had not been a rousing (she almost giggled at her thought of the word) success, though she believed that was bound to improve. There were so many details to attend to before the wedding, so many distractions, that any doubts about the wisdom of her decision to wed Walter were relegated to a far remove of Mary’s mind; she simply could not get to them in time, much to her regret. What to do? Mary pondered, as Walter, Eddie and Diana made small talk. Tomorrow, Mary decided, she would call her mother in Dorchester and feel her out about it, though her mother, Mary knew, would almost certainly advise her to give Walter a chance; after all, he was new at this, too.
     At precisely nine forty-five, Mary’s husband told the others that he was bushed and was going upstairs to bed.
     "All of that swimming took a lot out of me today," he said.
     Walter stood up and looked at Mary, a relaxed smile on his face.
     "But you haven’t finished your Daiquiri," said Diana Rogers.
     "I’ll finish it," Mary said. "Mine’s kaput. You won’t mind if I stay a little while longer with Eddie and Diana, would you, Walter?"
     "Of course not," he answered. "Stay as long as you like."
     After Walter left, Diana began talking about show dogs, about which Mary knew nothing. Diana and Eddie had a prize border collie that in the past two years had won four blue ribbons.
     "We’re thinking of taking Clipper to the national competition at Madison Square Garden next year," Diana told her.
     "May I join you?"
     Mary and the Rogers couple looked up to see a well-groomed man of about forty standing next to their table. His thick black hair was slicked straight back; he was wearing what appeared to be a diamond stickpin in the lapel of his double-breasted blue suit, as well as a diamond pinky ring on his left hand.
     "I’m by myself here, and I’ll be happy to buy you a new round of fresh drinks."
     Eddie gestured to the chair vacated by Walter.
     "Please yourself," he said.
     "Thank you," said the man, and sat down.
     He signalled to a waiter, who came over immediately.
     "Fresh drinks, all around, Sidney," he said. "What are you having?" he asked the others.
     "Strawberry Daiquiris," said Diana.
     "Beautiful. Three fresh Daiquiris, Sidney, and my usual. A double."
     Sidney nodded and went away.
     "What is your ‘usual,’ Mr...." asked Eddie.
     "Victor. Vic Victor."
     Eddie and Diana introduced themselves.
     "Where you from?" Vic Victor asked.
     "Cincinnati," said Diana.
     "New York," said Mary.
     "Where in New York?" Vic Victor asked her.
     "Dorchester County."
     "I know Dorchester," Vic said.
     "Yourself?" asked Eddie.
     "Here and there," said Vic. "Here now."
     Diana laughed and said, " ‘There’ later."
     "No," said Vic, " ‘there’ before, where later." He laughed, punctuating it with a throaty sound that Mary could identify only as "Mm-mm-ff."
     Sidney returned and placed three Daiquiris and a double Scotch on the rocks on the table.
     "Fresh drinks," said Vic, and handed a folded bill to Sidney, who took it and went away again. Vic lifted his glass. "Bombs away," he said.
     After they had all taken a sip of their drinks, Mary said, "May I ask, Mr. Victor, what it is that you’re doing here? I don’t mean to be rude."
     "Rude? A pretty girl like you?" said Vic. "New York girl? Not a chance. Here I don’t do much."
     The four of them chatted and drank for about an hour, then Vic said, "Eddie, do you like to gamble? Cards, dice, roulette?"
     "I was in Vegas once," Eddie said.
     "Did you like it?"
     "I did," said Eddie. "I liked playing craps."
     "Listen," Vic said, "I got a private plane chartered to go to Havana tonight, in"—he looked at his gold-banded watch—"forty minutes. It takes a half-hour to get there, thirty minutes. Come with me, why doncha? You ever been to Cuba? Great casinos. I pay the pilot. We’ll be back here in a few hours."
     Diana laughed. "Fly to Havana now?"
     "Yeah, sure," said Vic. "Why not?"
     Eddie looked at his wife. "What do you think, hon’?" he asked.
     "I’ll go if Mary goes."
     They looked at Mary. She took a sip of her fresh Daiquiri. She thought of Walter, asleep upstairs in their room.
     "Why not?" she said.
     In the taxi on the way to the airport Mary was seized by a sudden fear that what she was doing was crazy. She didn’t really know any of these people, especially Vic Victor. He might be a gangster, she thought, not merely a gambler. Cuba was another country, one whose government had recently been overthrown. She had heard Cuba referred to as the whorehouse of the Caribbean. The new regime had vowed to change that, to properly educate, house and feed everyone on the island. Mary had no idea what to expect. Eddie and Diana were giddy with excitement.
     At Vic’s direction, the taxi took them right onto the runway of a small airport where an eight-passenger plane awaited their arrival. Mary and the Rogers couple followed Vic Victor onto the plane, which started up immediately and began taxiing down the runway as soon as Vic secured the door. He went forward and spoke briefly to the pilot, then sat down in a seat across the aisle from Mary.
     "That’s Hal, folks," he said. The pilot waved one of his hands at them without turning around. "We’re old pals," Vic told them. Then he shouted at Hal, "We’re old friends, aren’t we, Hal?"
     Hal signalled a thumb up, keeping his eyes straight ahead. The passengers buckled up and the plane took off.
     Once they were airborne, Vic opened an ice chest and offered the others a cold beer. Mary, Eddie and Diana each took one. Vic did not, however, and Eddie said to him, "You’re not drinking?"
     Vic shook his head. "Can’t," he said. "If something happened to Hal—heart attack, brain aneurysm—I’d have to take over. Gotta keep my mind clear, just in case."
     "You can fly?" asked Diana.
     Vic nodded.
     "Eighty-one missions in Korea," he said. "Two confirmed kills, one disputed. I know I nailed that third Russki, though. But don’t worry, Hal has the constitution of a lizard. Don’t you, Hal?" Vic shouted at him. "I told these people you’ve got the constitution of a lizard."
     Hal nodded, then again gave a thumb up without turning around.
     "Only problem with Hal," said Vic, "is that one of his eyes got poked out in a bar fight six years ago. Seminole Indian used a pool cue on him. Can’t tell the glass eye from the real one. He flies a plane good as ever, though. Just once in a while he miscalculates slightly on the landing. Almost skidded us into a lake full of alligators last May. Hey, Hal," Vic shouted, "which one of your eyes is the glass one?"
     Hal shot Vic a middle finger, and Vic cracked up.
     "Just a joke, folks," he said. "My old pal Hal has the eyesight of an eagle. Drink up, we’re almost there."
     Hal landed the plane expertly, with hardly a bounce, at the Havana airport, taxiied for a few minutes and stopped in front of a terminal. After landing, he began writing on a piece of paper attached to a clipboard. Vic opened the door, lowered the boarding steps and exited first.
     "Thanks, Hal," Eddie said, "see you on the way back to Miami."
     Hal waved his pencil but did not turn around.
     Vic guided his charges toward customs, and told them, "Don’t say a word, just follow me."
     At customs, Vic produced a permit or document of some kind, neither Mary nor the Rogers couple could see what it was, and he and the others were waved through without delay. The Cuban official merely nodded at Vic as he passed by, and hardly seemed to notice Eddie, Diana or Mary. The four of them climbed into a Cadillac taxi and sped away from the airport.
     "We’re going to El Gallo," Vic announced, "the best casino and dance club in Cuba. Trust me."
     "We don’t have a choice but to trust you, do we, Mr. Victor?" asked Mary.
     "Of course, you do, Mary," he said. "You always have a choice. It’s just that sometimes it’s better to let things happen."
     In ten minutes they arrived at El Gallo. In three minutes more they were inside the club and being led to a table. There was a stage on which a twenty-piece orchestra was performing, and a dance floor crowded with couples. Most of the tables in the club were occupied. The music was loud and upbeat and the patrons were talking, laughing, drinking and dancing in as lively a manner as Mary had ever seen.
     "The casino is in another room," Vic said to Eddie, as the four of them sat down.
     Without ordering, tall rum drinks with enormous pieces of fruit draped over the sides of the glasses were placed in front of them. The music was so loud that Mary could barely hear a word anybody said, so she sipped her drink, which was terribly sweet but strong, and watched the dancers. After several minutes, Eddie said something to Diana and he and Vic left the table together. Diana scooted her chair close to Mary’s and said, "They’re going to gamble. Do you want to go with them?"
     Mary shook her head.
     "I’m fine here," she said.
     Diana and Mary sipped their drinks and enjoyed the spectacle. After a few more minutes, Diana said to Mary, "Do you see those men over there? The ones wearing battle fatigues."
     She motioned toward them with her head. Mary looked in the direction Diana indicated and saw four bearded men in military uniforms smoking cigars.
     "Yes," said Mary.
     "Well," said Diana, "the one on the left, wearing a hat, has been staring at you since we sat down. I think he likes you."
     At that moment, the man stood up and walked over to their table. He took off his hat and looked directly at Mary.
     "Would you do me the honor of dancing with me?" he asked her.
     The man was very tall and lean, with a long, thin reddish-brown beard. Before Mary could say anything, he had taken her by the hand and led her onto the dance floor. The tune was a mambo and Mary did her best to keep up. Her partner, she quickly realized, was not a very much better dancer than she, so they managed to accommodate each other without one of them being embarrassed by their own lack of expertise. Halfway through the number, Mary began to relax and enjoy dancing with this man, who smiled at her often, revealing severely tobacco-stained teeth. She liked his dark brown eyes, which were soft and warm and very bright.
     Out of the corner of her right eye, Mary saw Vic Victor moving quickly toward her. When he was within ten feet, Vic withdrew a revolver from one of his coat pockets, pointed it at her dance partner and pulled the trigger. Just as he did so, before she could react, someone knocked his gun hand up and deflected the bullet harmlessly into the ceiling. Chaos, of course, ensued, and the next thing Mary knew, she was being half-carried out of the club and shoved into the back seat of a car. Diana and Eddie Rogers soon joined her in the back seat, and as soon as they were safely inside, the door closed and the car drove off. Mary did not know who was driving or where they were going. Diana had collapsed in tears and Eddie was trembling visibly. Mary looked into the front seat and saw that a black man wearing green army fatigues was at the wheel. In the passenger seat was another of the bearded men who had been seated at the table with her dance partner.
     The car sped rapidly through the night and soon Mary realized they were approaching the airfield where their plane had landed. Then she saw the plane. The car drove up to it and stopped. The bearded man got out and opened a rear door. Eddie disembarked first, followed by his wife and then Mary. The bearded man led them to the plane and motioned for them to board, which they did. As Mary took a seat, the engine turned over. She saw that Hal was at the controls. The door slammed shut and the plane began taxiing down the runway. It took off. Nobody said a word during the flight.
     The plane landed in Miami thirty minutes later. A black Chrysler sedan was waiting. Eddie, Diana and Mary got in and were driven by a brown-skinned man to the Spearfish Hotel. Again, nobody spoke.
     In the lobby of the hotel, Eddie said to Mary, "I think it would be better if we didn’t see each other again." Then he and Diana walked quickly away.
     Mary looked at the clock above the registration desk. It was four-thirty in the morning.
     She took the elevator to her floor, got off and went to her room. Walter was asleep, snoring softly. Mary took her suitcase from the closet, opened it and began to pack her clothes.

© Barry Gifford 2004
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author bio

Barry GiffordBARRY GIFFORD'S novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. His book Night People was awarded the Premio Brancati in Italy, and he has heen the recipient of awards from PEN, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Library Association, and the Writers Guild of America. David Lynch's film Wild at Heart, which was based on Gifford's novel, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990; Gifford's novel Perdita Durango was made into a feature film by Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia in 1997. Gifford co-wrote with director David Lynch the film Lost Highway (1997) and co-wrote with director Matt Dillon the film City of Ghosts (2003). Gifford's recent books include The Phantom Father, named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Wyoming, named a Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year; American Falls: The Collected Short Stories;The Rooster Trapped in the Reptile Room: A Barry Gifford Reader, and Do the Blind Dream? His writings have appeared in Punch, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Sport, the New York Times, El País, Reforma, La Repubblica, Projections, and many other publications. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

see also Holiday from Women, issue 43 TBR

visit www.barrygifford.com for more information.


issue 45: November - December 2004

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