The flight across the Florida Straits took less than an hour in the spanking new DC-7. The fuselage, which was partly constructed from a tinny new light weight material invented to maximize profits, shook like the roller coaster at Million Dollar Pier. The Kid refused to touch the gloppy mess they tried to pass off as authentic hot food, but he enjoyed his bouncy view of the sheer water from a window seat, next to Henry, who wasn’t looking so good.
“Welcome to Havana, senor.”
Henry was wearing a white seersucker suit, a yellow silk shirt, and a jaunty straw Panama hat. He had been attempting to copy the look of a suave backup singer in Ricky Ricardo’s band but something wasn’t hanging right. Maybe it was the extra hundred pounds he packed. He was drenched with sweat the instant the plane touched ground.
“Welcome to Havana, senor.”
Joe was wearing an elegant cream colored jacket, with interwoven strands of amber wheat that were nearly golden, and custom tailored white linen trousers that looked as if they had been rolled up into a ball, and shrank, but no hat, a mistake he realized as soon as they descended the stairs from the airplane into the grip of the ferocious sun. He tapped the pack of Camels in his shirt pocket to feel safe.
“Welcome to Havana, senor.
The kid was wearing a red and blue madras shirt, white Bermuda shorts, and blue knee socks. His hair was full of stuff that made it stiff. It stayed stiff under his Phillies cap. He’d rub it off as soon as he jumped into the pool.
Joe asked earlier, “So what’s it gonna be this week?”
“Just call me Kid.”
“That’s what I usually call you.”
“That makes it easy.”
“What happened to the name, Peanuts?”
“It was okay for a while but never for always.”
“You could keep going like that and try for the whole Phillies infield.”
“That only leaves Ed and Puddinhead to go. I could never stand to be called Ed.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“So, that’s it?”
No way was the Kid going to wear the goofy hat his mother picked out for him. It wasn’t her head. What was he supposed to look like, a jockey? The stretchy socks were as far as he would go. He never asked to look like a little gentleman either. But he wasn’t going to spoil his best birthday ever by far. On a need to know basis, his mother would never know.
“Give and take,” Joe Avergan advised. “Understand that, and you’ll do okay.”
“I’m not the only one who needs to understand.”
“Not everyone can.”
“But anyone can.”
Was it gave and take that stuck him with this affliction of a name that was stuck right there on his passport picture sticking out of his back pocket? What a dumb law it was that would not allow him to choose his own name on his own passport. Wasn’t it enough he had to suffer from the taunts at school? His mother had to add up to no less than a co-conspirator in that. Even if she did throw up her arms in surrender as if she was the victim of a sad story in which she had no starring role. And even if that push was pull. Or amounted to as much as war and peace.
“Don’t bet on it,” Joe replied.
It was less a name than a curse to be overcome, every day. It smelled as rotten and stinky as the smoke of a Red Auerbach cigar after a win by those cheating Celtics over Wilt and the Warriors. No matter how it was spelled out or explained, it was a girls name. Who cares how many a’s or e’s i’s or l’s it takes in an unfair sentence where he was the one to end up rotting in jail. He wasn’t having any of this creepy Merle person sticking anywhere close to him. No law abiding parent, yet alone a shameless pair of abettors, should be able to inflict a wound like that due to some dumb reason that had something to do with some dead guy and some bet on some bed that had nothing to do with him.
“You can be a stubborn kid.”
“When I’m right.”
“You think you’re always right.”
“What’s so wrong with that?”
“You’re a kid.”
The Kid might need to employ a well positioned lie or two at times in order to assure safe passage through a tough day in a tough town, or a juke or a feint or a bit of chicanery, especially to cover up and protect from the tyranny of a pair of parents who did not care to understand the concept of free will, or he might plot and connive, and certainly he would sneak around by any means necessary and hide to get out of doing what he did not want done, but not from his grandpop.
“Part of any kid is nothing but a wild savage, you know.”
“Just as long as you understand the difference.”
“Parts fit into other parts to make a whole. Yeah, I know”
“Remember what part is what.”
“What if I’m not doing anything?”
“Just don’t get caught.”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
The Kid was sitting on top of a suitcase in the front seat of the big ’57 DeSoto to get the best view of the wide boulevards of Havana The DeSoto had his favorite fins of all the ’57 models on the road. The kid was looking forward to the ’58 models that would be rolling out in another month, but he hoped the fins would stay.
“Can’t change a dead horse,” Henry contributed.
“That’s beat,” Joe corrected.
“Who said anything about beating?”
“Beat a dead horse.”
“Who’s kidding who here? No dead horse is ever gonna be in the running.”
Henry blew an alto instrument out of his mouth that registered less in decibels than in booms. He had once been accused while holding neighborhood court on the corner of 6th and Pine in Society Hill of impersonating a chainsaw. At the time, he’d been sitting regally in his beach chair at a wobbly round table, making an important point about leftover dog shit on the curb. Why didn’t some son of a bitch just kick it into the street? As a proud survivor of massive gassing in WWI, the war to end all wars, Henry received an annual pittance as compensation. He strolled the few blocks down 6th St. to Old Original Levis and celebrated each check with a hot dog, lots of onions and relish, and a cherry soda.
“Just don’t encourage the kid,” Joe scolded.
“Look who’s talking,” Henry jabbed.
Joe had never known the exact year when he was born, or precisely where, but he was too young for WWI and too old for WWII. If he was still back somewhere backward like Russia or Prussia, he’d be dead. When he questioned his plain dumb luck, as he often did when he was sure he was getting a bum deal, just like the one he had come to try to spin into gold and rescue here in Havana, he thought of that, and usually settled.
Yet, he concluded, “Feh.”
The Kid had already tuned out the back and forth in the back seat and was trying hard to figure out what the signs in a foreign language were telling him. He knew what a bakery looked like all right so that had to be a panaderia. It was frustrating to be unable to read. Then he started to get excited, as he sometimes did for no apparent cause, often with questionable effect, and flail his arms and point. He finally sputtered, “Stop.”
Sometimes Joe couldn’t help but think the Kid had to be at least a little bit meshugeneh, but he learned to keep most of his unpopular decisions to himself, or face the barb of his wife Yetta who would snap back, “Bite your tongue,” and show she meant it.
“Over there. That.”
“You’ll give me my next heart attack.”
He flicked the ashes from his unfiltered Camel out of the window. The Kid was pointing to a folding table set up on a busy street corner, but it was difficult for Joe to pay precise attention. He was assessing and reassessing the sticky situation coming up ahead with the man he was in Havana to meet who had only agreed to meet him here and now in a foreign country. How much justice was that jurisdiction likely to turn out? The outdoor table was piled high with an array of strange fruits like none the kid had ever seen. A trio of local kids about his age were sucking thick white milky goo from what looked like a bright green prickly cactus the size of a football. They were all smiles. One of the kids was wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
The Kid laughed and said, “Say that again.”
The driver pulled contentedly to the curb. The meter ran smoothly. Henry continued to sweat. Joe lit another Camel from the stub of the one still burning.
The Kid turned into all smiles, too, with the first sweet slurp that enveloped him. It wasn’t easy to pull off the skin, because the small thorns sticking out jabbed his thumbs, but the seeds, the milk, the pulp, the sinew, the meat from the guanabana, all soon dripped from his face down his madras shirt into his shorts and socks. The red and blue dye in the madras shirt started to bleed and blend into a washed out version of the color purple. With sticky fingers, he grabbed a moist gringo dollar from his pocket and picked out a mango, a guava, and a papaya from the table. Even if that purple was mere puce. The kid with the Mickey Mouse ears took note and pulled out a red bill and a yellow bill of his own, each a fine crumpled example of dinero de Cuba, and offered to trade both for a lone green yankee dollar. The Kid was considering the odds until the cab driver started to rant and yell and chased the opportunistic rodent with the big ears away.
Joe scolded, “Whatsa matter with you? Don’t you know any better than that?”
“I was only thinking it over.”
It was a good thing that Yetta Avergan was not there to witness the disgraceful mess made of her grandson in the care of her irresponsible husband as they checked into the Havana Hilton, even though no one paid any attention to her grandson in a big hotel like a Hilton, who after all was only a kid, for whom allowances are created, and an ever better thing for the unreliable husband, who could never win.
Henry plopped into a comfortable seat in the lobby as Joe counted out cash, and loud enough for numerous heads to turn, although not that loud for him, surveyed the scene and proclaimed, “Swanky.”
Joe handed him a key to the room and said, “I’ll be back later.”
Henry said, “You better be.”
The Kid complained, “I need a key of my own.”
The Kid was soon performing jack knifes and swan dives into the Olympic sized pool on the roof that was open to the spectacle of puffy clouds shooting past Havana like cue balls with spin. At the same time, Joe was getting his knife stuck squarely in the back, sitting on the edge of a spindly wicker chair on the terrace of a private suite on an upper floor of private suites where no small key in a pocket guaranteed entry. The man who spoke to him as if he was a nobody was not alone. That prick Fred Drumpf was there with his usual smirk on his face, not saying a word. As if he was too important to waste a precious breath on a nobody. How was Joe supposed to give it all away to a cheating son of a bitch like that? The man dyed his hair black, for Crissake. It was no big surprise, though, not even to him.
“You’re not our kind of team player.”
“I’ve been doing more than okay for a long time.”
“Not on our team.”
“You know what I can do.”
“You might just be another Communist spy for all I know.”
“C’mon, who’s kidding who here?”
“Isn’t it a fact most of you Jews are Communists?”
“Okay, now I get it all right.”
“There’s no one to blame but yourself. When you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough.”
“But good enough to get cheated out of what I made on my own.”
“You know the way out.”
“Don’t think this is the end of this,” Joe ventured, though he knew better. Who’s kidding whom here is right.
Once the door closed behind him, he muttered, “Feh.”
The Kid was treading water in the deep end by the time Joe returned to the empty room, thinking of trying a back flip again because swan dives and jack knifes were getting too easy. The pool contained too much chlorine in the mix and burned his eyes but he wasn’t going to stop. He had conquered a small measure of fear earlier in the Summer and pulled off a few back flips at the Ritz in Atlantic City, but then clipped his head on the diving board visiting Henry at the La Concha, only a little, no tears, a small bump, no big deal. But, still.
He was considering the evidence and the circumstances required of courage at the edge of a three meter diving board when his attention was diverted by the loud spectacle of another kid marching into the pool area. This unbelievable dipshit kid was wearing the drab gray uniform of the Valley Forge Military Academy. It was painstakingly modeled after the drab gray uniforms worn by gung-ho cadets at West Point. It was sewn from that kind of thick itchy wool woven with no regard for the skin suffering underneath.
The Kid thought to himself, “Who does this dipshit bozo think he is?”
The afternoon in sunny Havana, Cuba had turned out to be seasonably hot and sultry. There were graceful palm trees that provided no shade as the fronds rippled in sunny Havana, Cuba. White birds were diving for silver fish in the aqua sea. Green and blue parrots squawked in the branches of flowering Cuban magnolias. And this dipshit kid was marching like a toy soldier, not pretending, next to a swimming pool. He was supporting a lethal weapon on his thin shoulders. The Kid could not understand. A large hairy man in a tight teeny bathing suit was barking at this dipshit kid in a foreign language, following closely from behind. He was counting out a cadence in words and numbers that added up to no more than beans to the Kid. It wasn’t Italian, Yiddish, British, or Jamaican, languages he recognized best. The Kid could see this man’s hairy foreign balls hanging out of his teeny bathing suit. It looked like one of those teeny bathing suits worn by champions standing atop a pedestal, and televised on Saturdays by ABC Wide World of Sports. Why come to a swimming pool under a buoyant afternoon sky to hang out and march? This dipshit kid was turning pink like a piglet and sweating his hairless balls off as he marched. He marched back to where he came from and started doing it again. What was this, some kind of test? Isn’t every dumb kid taught that it’s a mistake to keep going on and on after enough is enough? His drill instructor was stern, stout, loud. Unlike a perfect little gentleman the Kid started to laugh. He laughed until it began to hurt. Before too long, snot was coming out of his nose. That’s always funny. His ass not only laughed, but felt compelled to fart in short, staccato bursts. The Kid could not help but fall laughing into the pool at an odd angle, no jack knife, swan dive, or flip. Bubbles from his ass continued to laugh seven feet beneath the surface.
Henry meanwhile was getting burned up top not only by the sun. Who knew that such a cloying froth like a Mojito could pack such a punch? He had devolved deep into a sleek lounge chair from which he would need to be rescued before long. But first his skin had more superficial burning to do. How else does a big rugged guy get his manly tan?
When the time came, as it always does, and always will, and Henry needed a strong helping hand, the hairy drill instructor made an enthusiastic dash to the spot. He assumed the ideologically correct position and snatched, grabbed, and lifted, just as he had in the 82.5 kg weightlifting event at the glorious 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, the first historic participation by the Soviet Union in the Olympic Games.
Henry yowled like a refugee. Pale skin that once had been useful slipped away into unplanned obsolescence. A red sea of pain and suffering parted and spread in the desert under his white hair. Bats were shaken in belfries. Ancient sea birds took flight in fear.
Once Henry was on his feet, though, the Kid was satisfied that he had seen it all before. No harm, no foul, rub a little dirt on it. He returned to those iffy thoughts of a back flip. Henry accepted a free drink from management as recompense. The good Russian Samaritan, a moderately promising KGB agent assigned to monitor comrades of Fidel preparing the city for the soon to come triumph, accepted the offer to join him. It felt like good old times. Happy days were here again.
The dipshit kid was at first flummoxed by the interruption, and sputtered and stalled. He stood awkwardly on the sidelines at what passed for a militaristic at ease, awaiting further commands. The evidence of mere human pain and suffering in front of his eyes proved insufficient to move him. There were those to count and others to discount. Everyone knew that. He’d been taught by professionals that the weak get no less than what they must deserve. So what’s the big deal?
He called out, “Hey kid.”
The Kid languidly turned, and looked this dipshit up and down in the street wise manner of his municipal birthright. The Kid knew what was coming because he had been there and doing that since he was six years old. This dipshit kid was a few years older, a few inches taller, heavier for sure, though clearly not smarter. And he looked marshmallow soft. There was hardly any need to state the obvious, but he did anyway, because just because.
There is a particular accent and attitude learned and enforced at an early age in all neighborhoods of Philadelphia, which by popular mandate celebrates the declaration of independence in all of those neighborhoods, with exuberance if not more so, under severe penalty of schoolyard law. It is accompanied by a matching glare that fits intricately beside the brief yet complex message of those words like a pair of steel balls crammed into a single tight pocket. “Who’re you?” is distinctively not a question in the City of Brotherly Love. You get it or you don’t. Who’s kidding who here?
“I just want to show you something.”
There was a lot of stuff the Kid was sure he knew well, and not just for an eight year old, and a lot of things he knew how to do. He knew the daily line-up of the Phillies and the standings of all eight teams in the National League as they changed each day. He knew how to choose the right peach from a basket and climb on one roof in order to jump to another. He knew the Top 10 hits on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand that changed every week and the new songs that changed every night on WIBG. He knew where and how to transfer to the Broad St. Subway from the S bus on Olney Ave. and go downtown to mess around. He knew that Nixon was lying when he spoke sincerely into the camera on the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. He knew his father was wrong about that, too. He knew to be wary of grownups. Grownups did not change every day or every week. Some were plain and simple scary at all times. And he knew how to block a right hand punch from an older and taller dipshit with his left forearm and how to hit back hard into an unguarded stomach. His estimation of softness proved to be correct. He knew it.
The dipshit kid in his heavy wool uniform ended up in the deep end of the swimming pool because it seemed like a good idea to the Kid at the time. Sure, the Kid had to admit under pressure from a hotel detective that it wasn’t absolutely necessary for him to push another kid who was already gasping for breath into the swimming pool. But, how was he supposed to know that the wool was heavy enough to drag the dipshit under? And the dipshit did not drown, not even close. So why such a fuss?
The Kid refused to say he was sorry. It was worth it.
“I didn’t start it.”
“That’s not what he says.”
“If I ask him, he’ll say you’re lying.”
“Don’t you know how to tell the difference?”
Later, over a juicy plate of tref in the swanky dining room that wasn’t half bad, Joe Avergan tried to provide the proper direction that every stubborn savage kid needs to follow as a beacon in the course of life and life only. Sort of.
“Kid, here’s a lesson you will need to learn and learn good and never forget. And you might as well start remembering here and now.”
“You see, that kid was Drumpf, Jr.”
“So, who’s he?”