The Refugee Sack by Alfredo Franco
On the second day of their visit to Miami, Cristóbal’s mother left him with his great-grandmother in the lobby of the old hotel. She was off to visit classmates from the convent school that she had attended in Havana before the Revolution. She promised to return before dinnertime. In the taxi to the hotel, she made him promise to behave. “Your vizabuela was like a mother to me.”
Cristóbal was devastated, not least because, today, his mother was wearing a new, white, sleeveless dress with red roses printed on it. Her exposed arms were slender and beautiful, delicate wings glistening in the sun. And, she was in a happy mood. Not like when she wore her coarse, blue-plaid shirt back in West Chester, PA: then she would break out in rashes, go into rages for his smallest mistake, and threaten, though he was only five, to send him away to a military school or, worse, back to Cuba, where Castro, she said, would take away all of his toys.
The dim lobby smelled like the Woolworth’s in West Chester: mothballs, and Qwik-Deth bug spray. Despite the intense heat, Cristóbal’s great-grandmother wore a black dress of stiff, heavy fabric, with long sleeves and a sharp, pointed collar, buttoned to the throat. The frames of her glasses were dark brown. Her purse was a large, black square of hard leather. She was tall and bony, her gray hair in a tight bun at the top of her head. She loomed over him. And yet, when she smiled, her long, pointy chin softened, became rounded. It was a kind smile, even child-like, and helped put him at ease after his mother’s departure. They were going out for lunch, she said, a merendar, just the two of them, junticos los dos.
As they walked along Flagler Street, passersby greeted his vizabuela in Spanish, respectfully, even reverently. Elderly men raised their white hats to her. Her gait was brisk and energetic; she walked with her shoulders thrown back, her head erect; Cristóbal’s small legs worked hard to keep up. She kept an iron grip around his right wrist, which he could not slip out of, despite the sweaty heat.
Spanish words were everywhere, on windows, on the sides of delivery trucks, in the anxious voices of other children crying for their parents—Mima! Pipo! Cristóbal began to wonder if his great-grandmother had led him across some invisible border into Cuba. Could it be? Was he now in that place that his parents spoke about all the time as the most beautiful in the world, more beautiful even than the United States of America? He felt an obscure guilt for never having known it. Giving each other playful looks, his mother and father reminded him that he had, in fact, been in Cuba. Cristóbal could remember nothing. How? When?
“When you were in here,” his father had said, tapping his mother’s belly. “And then, when we got to West Chester, you came out here,” and he groped her pee-pee. She’d slapped him away.
Cristóbal wanted to be back in West Chester now. It was January; he wanted to play in the joyous snows and speak with his father in good, strong English. That was their language. His father had learned it so much better than his mother, who still had an embarrassing accent. His mother hated snow and English and was always asking why they had had to move so far north instead of staying in Miami. There they would have friends, family, warmth, Spanish, and be closer to Cuba should things change. “The Revolution,” she’d say, “will never last. Cubans like to live well, they’ll never adapt to Communism!” Sometimes, when she wore her blue-plaid shirt, she would cry and say that if she ever got the chance to return to Cuba, she would never leave it again, not even on vacation; she would go, she said, to the Parque Villalon and lie on a marble bench under the tall palm trees and never, ever wander. Finally, in the middle of a snowfall a few days ago, she’d packed her suitcase and Cristóbal’s little satchel with enough clothing for two weeks. His father waved good‑bye from behind a blurry curtain of snow.
It was a relief now to spot signs on Flagler Street that he recognized from West Chester: S.H. Kress, Grant’s, Woolworth’s. Inside the Kress, Cristóbal managed, with one strong yank, to break away from his great-grandmother and run to the toy section. He took it for granted that she would buy him something. After all, he’d been abandoned by his mother today; surely he had to be given something. He sensed that he would have to choose quickly, though, for the old woman seemed hungry and had been heading to the long food counter that snaked along the side of the store in gleaming chrome curves and brightly colored stools. He gazed open-mouthed at the long rows of metal baskets brimming with toys: green plastic army tanks and supply trucks, jet bombers, Conestoga wagons, Staghound cars, cannons, bi-planes, rescue helicopters, Mercury rockets, silver cap guns.
Cristóbal’s vizabuela caught up with him, a little cross at first. But she softened, her long chin going round at the tip.
“Bueno, un juguete, escoge,” she said.
But which toy should he choose? Cristóbal’s hand shook with excitement and rested upon a military supply truck then jumped to a silvery B-58 Hustler bomber. He was about to lift the jet out of the basket when he saw a transparent bag suspended from one of the upper hooks. It contained a yellow and white cowboy on a black horse. He released the jet and reached for the bag, on tiptoe, and though he had not definitely made up his mind, his great-grandmother snatched the bag suddenly from the hook and walked away briskly toward the cashier.
Cristóbal cried out to her to wait, that that was not the toy he really wanted. But his vizabuela did not turn. The jet bomber now seemed the most precious possession of all. He went back and picked up the Hustler, which had triangular wings, a sleek nose and cockpit, a blue and white decal that read: U.S. Air Force, and four cylindrical turbine engines in bright red, contrasting with the aluminum gray of the wings and fuselage. The flaps, the rudder, and the bomb bay were finely engraved into the smooth plastic. It could have been his. He hated the yellow cowboy. He hated the old woman. He dropped the plane back in the basket.
When they sat at the counter, Cristóbal ordered everything he could think of, partly out of nervous hunger, but also to punish his great-grandmother. He asked the waitress for a deluxe hamburger and a large plate of French fries and a bowl of mashed potatoes with brown gravy and a chocolate sundae and a Coke.
“Vas a comer todo eso?” the old woman asked.
Cristóbal shook his head fiercely: yes, he wanted all of it! He was embarrassed to be spoken to in Spanish in front of the amused blond waitress. His great-grandmother only wanted coffee with milk and an order of toast. He ordered for her. He was proud that he knew English and she didn’t.
Less than halfway through his meal, Cristóbal felt full and bilious. The enormous hamburger had only two crescent bites in it; the pile of French fries was still huge under the thick, congealing ketchup; the bowl of mashed potatoes with gravy had turned cold and hard. The sundae was melting down the sides of the tall, tulip-shaped glass like runny diarrhea. Every slurp of Coke through the mushy paper straw now burned like acid.
“I don’t want any more,” he said. “No mas.”
His great-grandmother sighed. She had been quiet, watching him eat.
“Look how you make your poor vizabuela waste her money,” she said in Spanish, not angrily or in a scolding manner, but with a deep, resigned sadness.
Cristóbal’s face reddened with shame. It was a terrible day. Where was his mother? Perhaps she’d returned early and was waiting for them in the lobby of the old hotel. Then they could still make a day of it! Maybe he could even lure her to this S. H. Kress and persuade her to buy him the Hustler bomber, which he could not put out of his mind. Everything could still be saved, made right…
“Y ahora una siesta,” his great-grandmother declared, walking back to the hotel for a midday nap.
But Cristóbal didn’t want a nap! Forgetting his mother momentarily, he wanted to explore the bustling street—la calle Flagler—and the rest of the stores. His great-grandmother walked more slowly now; she seemed lost in thought, distracted, and her head was bowed. Her face had turned an ashen gray color. She stopped and took a handkerchief from inside her long sleeve and patted her forehead dry. She coughed several times, holding the handkerchief over her mouth and pressing her other hand against her heart.
His mother wasn’t waiting for them in the hotel lobby; only old brown walls and moth-eaten carpets and the smell of Qwik-Deth. The creaking elevator opened to a long, brown corridor. Old women in threadbare bathrobes, carrying threadbare towels, went in and out through a swinging door. Some stopped to speak to Cristóbal’s great-grandmother in Spanish. She introduced him proudly. They patted his head. The women, all Cuban refugees, looked sad, consumed, skeletal, but brightened briefly by the sight of him, a little boy in short pants and a striped t-shirt. The door flapped opened and he glimpsed brown shower stalls, heard toilets flushing, and inhaled the smell of ancient plumbing.
His great-grandmother’s room was small, with pea-green walls. A narrow cot was pushed up against the window, through which the “O” of the neon HOTEL sign peered into the room. Beside the cot was a rickety night table with a lamp. Hanging from the lamp switch was a rosary. The beads were of wrought silver, tarnished and darkened, little round hollow cages of delicate grillwork. The rosary center was of a lighter, shinier metal, with volutes and tracery, like fine lace, and the tiny Jesus on the tarnished cross was of soft gold. Pocket prayer books bound in scuffed black leather were stacked under the lamp. The old woman opened one to show Cristóbal. She wanted to teach him a prayer. But while he could read bright shop signs and decals on jet planes, the minuscule Spanish words in the musty-smelling book hurt his eyes. He covered his eyes with his palms. She shrugged and closed the book and put it back on the night table.
The room had a dark, bulky dresser with a mirror that leaned against the wall. Cristóbal could just barely look over the top by going on tiptoe. The top of the dresser was almost entirely covered with standing crucifixes and small and large statues of saints, their names on scrolls at the bases: San Sebastián, Santa Lucia, San Nonato, San Albano. One figure was larger than all of them. It was a ceramic Virgin Mary enrobed in blue, yellow, and white, with a metal halo made of stars. She held the infant Jesus in her left arm and stood weightlessly upon a half-moon amid billowy clouds. Beneath her were three men in a boat, two white, one black. The two white men were rowing desperately, as if the boat were about to sink. Only the black man, kneeling between them and looking heavenward ecstatically, seemed to see the Virgin Mother floating above.
Dozens of small prayer cards with images of old men or little children gazing out of sepia clouds were tucked into the frame of the badly de-silvered dresser mirror. Cristóbal pointed up at them. His vizabuela explained that the photos were of priests and children who had gone to heaven. She sat on the cot and unbuttoned the top button of her collar. Then she took off her austere, black lace-up shoes, and a yeasty, sour odor filled the room.
Cristóbal went over and knelt before a large, shapeless mass of black cloth that lay in the corner. It was rough and scratchy to the touch, like his mother’s dreaded blue shirt.
“Mi bolsa de refugiada,” his great-grandmother said. “ That’s how your vizabuela came here from Cuba.”
At first Cristóbal understood the Spanish to mean that she had come from Cuba in the sack. But how? She was too tall! She smiled sadly. “No, niño. Just what I could carry in it: some clothes and la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.”
Cristóbal began to distinguish the wide, formless mouth of the sack from its overall blackness. He stretched the mouth open even further and inserted his head: blackness within as without, and a rotten, mildewed smell. Was this the smell of Cuba? A dark-gray drawstring curled out of the mouth, like some dead tongue or severed cord. Afraid suddenly, he backed away. He remembered that his mother had warned him about a black man who put naughty white children into a sack just like this one. The sack was larger than his own body; unlike his great-grandmother, he could be stuffed into it easily and returned to Cuba. He moved as far as he could away from it, to the other corner of the room, at the end of her cot. He sat there sullenly, running his index finger between the ridges of the battered wood floor.
His great-grandmother asked him if he wanted to lie beside her for a little nap. She patted the cot.
“Here, next to me, just the two of us, junticos los dos.”
Cristóbal shook his head no and asked when his mother would come back.
“After our siesta,” she said. He began to cry.
“Ah,” she said, remembering suddenly. “Tu vaquero!” She bent down to her big black purse, which she had placed next to her cot, and from its depths extracted the bag containing the cowboy and horse. She tore the plastic open and held the horse and rider out to him in her palm.
The light coming through the window lit up the bright yellow torso of the cowboy and its bowed white legs. The cowboy wore a yellow hat and held a yellow gun in a yellow hand; its face was yellow with a big yellow smile. There were yellow fringes across the front of its yellow shirt, a yellow kerchief around its yellow neck, and white rodeo chaps undulating along the borders of the white legs. Cristóbal hated how the cowboy’s arms were spread out to either side, T-shaped. The right hand was empty, splayed open, and the left held the six-shooter sideways, flatly. The muzzle of the gun was pointy and sharp. The smiling cowboy faced forward, flattened and stupid—what a useless cowboy, shooting to the side without looking! The cowboy was stiff with its outspread arms and held onto the horse with nothing but its legs.
“Here. Play while I take my nap.”
His vizabuela stretched out on the cot. She was soon asleep, snoring softly. A numb, brown boredom began to fill the room, the hours mired in the stifling heat. Time seemed not to be passing at all. Now and then sad sounds would come from the old woman, sighing and mumbling in her sleep: Ay…ay…Dios mío…Dios Santo…Ayúdame…Ay…
Cristóbal pulled at the cowboy’s torso. It became unpegged from the legs with a soft pop, and popped again when he pushed the two parts back into place. The black horse was flat and narrow with a rippling tail, a detailed saddle, even reins and a saddle horn, neither of which the cowboy, with its silly outspread arms, could grasp. What a terrible choice he’d made. He hurled the cowboy and horse against the wall, but the old woman did not waken.
How much longer before his mother came? What if she had returned to Cuba with her friends? His dad would rescue him, for sure, and they’d have lots of fun playing in the snow and rough-housing, but something would be missing---her fragrance, her gentle touch on good days, the red roses on her white dress, her kisses…
Cristóbal heard occasional footsteps out in the corridor and was filled with hope, but no knock followed. Finally, the boredom became unbearable. He looked back at the discarded cowboy and horse, toppled, lying on their sides. The cowboy, with its outspread arms, seemed especially helpless, as if in a permanent state of surrender.
If only he had selected the jet! Then he would have been able to fly through his vizabuela’s room, seeing everything from the heights and dropping bombs on the threatening black sack, on Cuba itself. There was nothing else to do now but play with the cowboy, transforming the floor and the furniture into a Western landscape like the ones on cowboy shows on TV. The sack, however, would be the forbidden zone, where a dangerous tribe of Indians lived, or where the cowboy could be lured into Cuba and lost forever.
Cristóbal set the horse upright on its four spindly legs and straightened the cowboy on the saddle. He pushed the horse along, stopping to let it drink water from rivulets imagined in the rough, splintered flooring. Slowly they rode past the greenish wall, the peeling paint like the fissures and uneven faces of mountainsides. They stopped to explore the dark, mysterious space under the floorboards.
“Careful,” the cowboy warned Cristóbal. “There could be snakes under there, rattlers.”
There was a portion of floorboard missing, which let them peer into the hotel’s dark foundations, as if into the center of the earth. A smell of hot, rotting wood wafted up.
Vigilant for Indians, they journeyed under the old woman’s cot. Here it was dark and cooler. Balls of ancient dust rolled softly like tumbleweeds.
“Look out!” the cowboy cried. “Over there! Apaches!”
The old woman’s snoring stopped. All was very still and quiet for a minute. Cristóbal didn’t dare move or even breathe. Then the snoring resumed.
They traveled on, reaching the foot of the dresser. The dresser loomed over them like a high mountain. Cristóbal imagined a winding, rocky path up the side of the dresser. They followed this dangerous trail slowly, the cowboy telling him to be careful not to look down, or he would get dizzy and plummet to his death.
When they reached the top of the dresser, the light had begun to wane, replaced by the O of the hotel sign, a red ring that cast a blood-colored haze into the room. The cowboy rode slowly through the maze of saints and crucifixes. The dead priests and children watched from heaven. The crucifixes were totem poles, and San Sebastián, tied to a tree, with arrows sticking out of his body, was a cavalry man who’d been caught and executed by Indians. Santa Lucia, with her eyeballs on a copper plate, was a pioneer mother blinded by cruel Apaches. The cowboy halted before Our Lady of Charity. The three men in the little boat were pirates attacking her. The cowboy dismounted, climbed into the boat, and put his gun up to the head of each of them. Bang! Bang! The black man’s eyes seemed to pop out of the sockets. Bang! The black man would never stuff white children into a sack again.
Ay, Dios Santo…Ay…Ay…Ayúdame, Dios…the old woman mumbled in her sleep, jolting awake with a sudden, raspy intake of air. She lifted herself on an elbow on the cot, rubbing her eyes. She looked around the dark room, squinting.
He remained perfectly still, holding his breath. It made him feel powerful to be invisible. But she put on her glasses and made out his small shape in the shadows.
“Ahí estas! Why don’t you answer?”
She turned to the window and lowered the venetian blinds, closing the slats tightly, then drew brown curtains over them, shutting out the light of the hotel sign entirely. She removed her glasses and fell back onto her pillow. Soon she was snoring again.
Now the only light came from the slit under the door and from the yellow torso of the cowboy itself. Back on his horse, the cowboy bumped in the dark against saints blocking his path like boulders. The old woman emitted a sudden, brief gasp of pain and then was quiet again. Slowly, slowly, they descended the winding path made of thin air back to the splintery floor. They headed for the strip of light beneath the door, which unexpectedly went black.
“Vizabuela!” Cristóbal cried.
But this time it was she who did not answer. He listened keenly in the new, pitch blackness. Even her snoring, he realized, had stopped. He called out again, loudly, hoping to hear a snore, a garbled prayer, any sign of life, but the old woman did not waken. He was sorry, suddenly, that he had ordered so much at Woolworth’s, making her use up all her money. Pobre vizabuela. Perhaps his mother had found out somehow about his greedy behavior, and this was why she hadn’t returned. He wished he had learned the prayer that the old woman had tried to teach him. Papa Dios might have helped him now. But he had shut his eyes. He knew he was a bad child who deserved his suffering. He began to cry.
The cowboy and horse dug into Cristóbal’s palm. In his panic he had closed his fist around them.. Now they reminded him that he was not alone. But, in the surprise dark, he had lost all sense of direction. He opened his fist and set the horse and rider down, steady, on the floor. The yellow T of the cowboy was the only thing still faintly visible. He had faith that the cowboy could lead them to the door. On his elbows and knees, he followed the cowboy’s light.
They rode through the darkness slowly. The darkness was so vast, Cristóbal felt himself dissolving into it. He knew the black sack was out there, somewhere, in the dark.
They moved forward blindly, but a pungent smell told him they were nearing the sack, far from the door.
“Be brave,” the cowboy shouted out of the pitch-blackness.
Perhaps, after all, the sack was the safest place, like a tent or tepee. They’d be protected here. Cristóbal groped with his right hand until he found the edge of the sack. His fingers made out the crinkled mouth, which he pulled over his head as though it were a hood. He slithered his way deeper inside until his whole body was sheltered in the sack. The material that lined the sack was softer than its coarse external fabric. It gathered around his cheeks and mouth and ears. At first, despite the odor and clamminess, he was grateful for the secure, cozy refuge from the vast, shapeless night outside. The cowboy would tell him stories of the Wild West to while away the time until his mother arrived.
But after a few minutes it became harder to breathe the thick, hot air. Walls of cloth confined Cristóbal on all sides. The feeling of security gave way, in an awful instant, to a panicked sense of suffocation. He was ravenous suddenly for air and light. He began to punch wildly around him, losing hold of the horse and cowboy. He flailed hysterically, searching for the mouth of the sack.
“Mammá,” he shrieked. “Mammá! Daddy!”
The dank fabric bunched inside Cristóbal’s mouth, overwhelming his tongue; it pressed against his eyes and nose, obstructing his nostrils. The more he flailed, the tighter the cloth closed in on him. There was no up, down, sideways. His knees were thrust against his cheeks, his elbows jammed into his ribcage. The cowboy’s sharp gun jabbed the flesh under his chin. His ears were ringing, his heart pounding. Down to his last few breaths, Cristóbal stopped struggling.
And it was then that he remembered. Why, of course! He had been here before, just as his parents had said. But it wasn’t the most beautiful place in the world. There were no parks with marble benches; there were no tall palm trees. He had forgotten the darkness and the stink.
Alfredo Franco’s short stories have appeared in Blackbird (Virginia Commonwealth University), Euphony Journal (University of Chicago), Crack the Spine Fall 2014 Anthology, Prick of the Spindle, The Pembroke Magazine (University of North Carolina) and other journals. Franco teaches Creative Writing at Rutgers University. A selection of his work can be found at http://alfredofrancofiction.net/.