A few years ago, I was between TV jobs and, in order to eat, did time at the local Office Depot Copy Center. I had never worked in retail before and was shocked at the carryings on. To keep my sanity, I wrote stories about the people I met and things I saw - I used the third person character "Br'er Juan" to reflect both my Middle Georgia Anglo and Florida Hispanic heritage. A lot of these stories are now posted in the humor section of this blog. One story I held back, though, keeping it in my head because I knew a special occasion would arise. Cuba Nostalgia is the occasion, and here's the story:
Br'er Juan, knees aching, pulled himself upright after clearing the maw of the huge Xerox machine. As he tossed shreds of paper into the trash, he saw a bit of movement behind one of the displays on the counter.
"Uh, oh," thought Br'er Juan. "One of those damned mystery shoppers hiding again. She'll write me up for sure and say I failed to wait on her." His creaking knees carried him to the counter, and he peeped around the display.
It was not a mystery shopper at all, but an old man, scarcely 5' 3" tall, dressed in a manner that's unusual this far north. He wore khaki pants, a perfectly pressed guayabera, and pushed back from his forehead at a jaunty angle was an immaculate Panama fedora.
"Can I help you, sir?"
"Yes,"answered his soft, old-man's voice in only lightly accented English. " I understand you can make copies of old photographs." He clutched a stack of pictures to his chest the way many old people do, as though afraid to lose touch with the photographs that bring back such important memories.
"Let me see one, and I'll show you what we can do."
The old man handed over the smallest of the photographs, an average snapshot of a woman and a couple of kids on a beach. Br'er Juan made a copy, then made an enlargement for the man.
"Where was this taken?" asked Br'er Juan.
"Cardenas - - - Cuba,." the old Cuban Man answered.
"Cardenas. My family owned a home there many years ago. When was the picture taken?"
"That was right after Batista took over wasn't it?"
"Yes, the bastard."
"You know, he lived for awhile just down the road in Daytona Beach."
"I know. I thought many times of driving there to kill him." A little fire rose in the old Cuban Man's eyes.
Thinking he'd better change the subject before someone overheard, Br'er Juan asked the Cuban Man if he had more photographs. Yes, he did.
Holding up one, he said, "I left Cuba to go to New York. I played in a band until the end of World War II."
Br'er Juan gasped at the photo. "You must have been good to play for so long. "
"Cugat, Arnez, they were nothing compared to us. People who knew good music came whenever we played." He puffed out his chest a little, and surrendered a stack of photographs for Br'er Juan to copy.
The Cuban Man smiled as he shuffeled through the copies. When he came to the beach photo again he stopped and asked, "When did your family lose their home in Cardenas?"
"Bastard," he said with venom in his voice. "Even worse than Batista. But, at least fidel keeps me alive."
"How is that, Abuelo?"
"I'm going to outlive him. I'm only 92, I'm sure I can do it. I don't have his evil in my heart."
He picked up his photographs and copies and walked towards the door. After a couple of steps he turned, looked at Br'er Juan, saluted and said, "Cuba libre."
"Cuba libre, sir."
Br'er Juan turned to the trash barrel and pulled out a test copy of one of the photographs. He carefully slipped it into his briefcase.
"Cuba libre, Abuelo," he muttered under his breath. "I pray you do outlive that bastard."
Read Babalu throughout the day for more live-blogging from Cuba Nostalbia.