Richard Daybell – Novels, stories and short humor
The flickering image on the T-V screen – strong eyes, the familiar beard, the damn fatigue cap – stole Delia’s attention from the book she had determined to finish this evening. And his voice – still defiant, but the words he uttered were words of defeat, stepping down. All these years, and your revolution will end with a whimper. I’m afraid it’s getting old and wrinkled, Fidel. Like us.
The face on the TV screen changed, metamorphosing into another image from the distant past that probably wasn’t really there. It was a gentler face with a mischievous smile and a great big nose, a face that forced both a smile and a tear as he cooed: “Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” It was an odd association, these two faces, but for Delia, lasting and inevitable. Jimmy Durante disappeared into the darkness and Fidel was back.
Delia didn’t hate Fidel the way so many of the others she knew who had had associations with Cuba did. Of course her association with Cuba had been very short – but intense – a mere two months during that bittersweet summer of 1955, three and a half years before Castro took power. She was a young woman – a girl – plucked from the American Midwest by a tornado and whisked into a wild and wicked Oz called Havana. There to meet Jorge. And Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha.
Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was not born in Brazil as many think. She emigrated from Portugal, arriving in Rio de Janeiro in 1910. But once there, she so fully absorbed the culture of her new home that she would one day personify its people, its infectious rhythms. On the world stage and in the many movies that, years later, Delia would watch on television, Carmen Miranda was Brazil.
By today’s reckoning, the revolution was already two years underway that summer Delia’s father got an assignment with an American sugar company in Havana. In a way, by working for a sugar company with vast interests in Cuba, her father and by extension his family, including Delia, were in their own small way partially responsible for the revolution. Sugar (Delia still couldn’t put it in her coffee) was both Cuba’s lifeblood and its yoke. A third of the country’s income depended on sugar, and American sugar companies controlled three-fourths of the land on which it could be grown. And the entire blame, at least in Delia’s eyes, seemed to have fallen on one sixteen-year-old girl.
When Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was sixteen, she was already an entertainer in her own small part of the world. She quickly became known in her own country, and in 1939, as Carmen Miranda, she sambaed to the United States for a part in a Broadway musical review. The tower of fruit above the slight five-foot-one Brazilian Bombshell became an instant trademark, which along with her musical exuberance carried her to super stardom. She appeared in many films, but Delia’s favorite was an outrageous Busby Berkeley musical in which she sang “The Lady with the Tutti Frutti Hat” while an army of dancers waved giant bananas. Why would a young teenager idolize Carmen Miranda when the other girls her age wished to be Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth or Grace Kelly? Perhaps it was because even though Carmen wasn’t so pretty, she was so vital. And they said she was really very shy. Just like Delia.
Jorge’s last words to her were: “We’ll be together soon, I promise.” His first words had been: “Another Norteamericano. Would you like me to lie on the floor so you can walk on me?” She had cried both times. His last words echoed for many months even as she realized that although they were probably truthful in intent, they were spoken in summer, in Cuba, and in youth. Jorge’s first words were quickly forgotten. They burned, made her feel a guilt that should not have been hers. But even though his words were mean and insensitive, Jorge was not, and as soon as he had uttered them, he felt shame at having hurt a person who had done him no harm, at having acted in the same manner as those he criticized. Spurred by her tears, his apologies rushed forth. And within five minutes they were sharing their first Cuban beer, their first conversation and the first day of a summer idyll that would careen through the hot weeks of June and July like a possessed Cuban taxi on an open road.
Many of those conversations would turn to politics, and Delia showed a naiveté about the affairs of the country that stood just 90 miles from her own country’s doorstep. At the center of such conversations stood Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, and Jorge would loudly decry his infamy. “Fulgencio cares only for Fulgencio,” he would snort. When on a soapbox, he always used Batista’s given name. “He doesn’t give a damn for the people. They hate him, too. And he knows it. But he has the army and the police, so he doesn’t need the people. Let me tell you how the great Fulgencio cares for his people. Two years ago, Fidel’s attempt at revolution was put down almost as quickly as it started. The gunfire that we could hear off and on through Saturday night had died down by Sunday morning, and my father insisted we go to church as usual. During the service, the police appeared at all entrances to the church, blocking our exit except through the one door that opened onto the square. Just in front of that door, close enough so that we must negotiate around it, the police had dumped a wagonload of bloodied bodies. As we passed by we could see movement within this noxious heap and hear low groans. Some of them had not yet died.”
Jorge turned his face away from Delia as the tears appeared in his eyes. She shuddered and cried with him. What seemed to bother him the most was the hopelessness. The people grumbled and cursed, but they were apathetic. The opposition made speeches, but they were meaningless; when in power, the opposition had been corrupt too. Fidel had been released from prison but was in exile.
As deep as Jorge’s anger was, Delia conquered and subdued it as their relationship grew. And for a time his country’s turmoil became as distant to him as Ike and Iowa were to her.
To Delia’s father, what was happening at home was infinitely more important than what was happening here in Cuba. As a result Cuban papers rarely found their way into the household. The New York Times did, however, although by the time it arrived the news was as cold as a Manhattan January. Nevertheless it served the noble purpose of convincing him that he had not fallen off the edge of civilization. And it was from this unlikely source that Delia learned the fantastic news.
She and Jorge had, just a day earlier, shared their first kiss. It was an awkward moment during which each of them was so concerned about the other’s reaction that the end result rivaled the emotional wallop of a two-cheek greeting from a forgotten aunt. But later – for Delia anyway, when she was alone – that anemic kiss blossomed into the most lyrical and sensual act of all time, superior to any kiss any time anywhere by any couple, living or dead, including even that kiss she had witnessed through the rear view mirror of Johnny Edward’s ’49 Ford, a kiss involving arms and legs as much as lips. At that time, she had realized what the real difference between the sexes was; now she knew why.
And even with the passage of time, a whole 24 hours of it, she was still giddy, certain she would swoon unless she diverted her attention. So she picked up The New York Times just to let its sophisticated but utterly meaningless words ricochet off her occupied mind. And she certainly found news fit to print – just a few sentences – not about Eisenhower or Khrushchev or DeGaulle, but about Carmen Miranda. Carmen Miranda was coming to Havana to appear at the Tropicana.
Although none would ever equal in her mind that fumbling first kiss, their kisses were now accelerating in frequency and intensity. They were no longer awkward, though sometimes clumsy, perhaps, in a frenzied sort of way. She and Jorge had whizzed past everything Delia had learned from the rear view mirror and were speeding down a highway she’d never traveled before, without the aid of a road map – or if there were a road map, it was all in Spanish. Delia, however, set the speed limit and enforced it as necessary. This she usually did by breaking into conversation.
“We must go to see Carmen Miranda,” Delia insisted as Jorge tried to calm himself.
“That place represents all that is wrong with Cuba,” answered Jorge.
“I don’t think one little nightclub can represent so much.”
“It’s not little.”
“But it’s her, Jorge. She doesn’t hurt Cuba. She loves Cuba. She loves everyone. Please, Jorge.”
“Absolutely not,” said her father.
If the Tropicana represented for Jorge all that was wrong with Cuba, it represented for her father all that was wrong with civilization. To him, the Tropicana was Sodom itself with Gomorra thrown in for good measure, and any young woman who ventured therein would be, or should be, turned to a pillar of salt or stoned by people without sin or tossed into a lion’s den. (Delia knew most of the Bible stories, but she did have a little problem with proper juxtaposition.) To Delia, the Tropicana was the Promised Land, Eden, or to edge comfortably away from the Biblical, Xanadu. Once a vast private estate, it was now Cuba’s most luxurious club, a place where partying parishioners went to worship the nightlife under starry Cuban skies.
“They drink there and they gamble there,” her father went on. “God only knows what else they do. It’s not the proper atmosphere for a child.”
“I’m not a child.”
“Nevertheless, you’re not 21, the legal age for entering such an establishment.” Delia wanted to point out that this was Havana not Dubuque, that they were probably a lot looser about such things here, but decided it would not help her cause.
“But if I can look 21and I don’t drink or gamble or do anything but watch one show, what can it hurt,” she pleaded.
“It would be breaking the law,” said her father. This was not just a convenient parental ploy; Delia’s father obeyed laws, even speed limits. “We are guests in a foreign country and it is incumbent upon us to respect that country’s laws.” For all Delia knew, twelve-year-olds could legally enter the Tropicana, but even if they could, she’d never convince her father it was so. She had but one recourse – deceit.
Fortune had taken a keen interest in Delia’s affairs during this Cuban summer, watching over her and acting on her behalf, so it didn’t surprise Delia at all when her father told her that he had to go to Santa Clara for several days, leaving just a day before Carmen Miranda arrived. Delia would be left in the care of their housekeeper Josefina, a wonderful woman who could not be distracted from her television set after nine o’clock by anything on this earth, let alone by a teenager slipping out the back door for an evening at the Tropicana.
Carmen Miranda arrived in Havana on the fourth of July in the glorious summer of 1955. There were fireworks aplenty in that nation to the north, but none here where they should have been. The previous night, with Jorge still fence sitting on the subject of taking her to the Tropicana, Delia decided to play Carmen for him, hoping this would propel him in the proper direction. She first got the idea of dressing up as Carmen Miranda after seeing the movie Scared Stiff, in which Jerry Lewis had done the same thing. Practically everyone had at some time impersonated Carmen – she was an easy study – but for Delia this particular performance was like an insurance policy: No matter how bizarre her own performance might be, it couldn’t be as outlandish as this one.
She donned a costume of red, gold, orange and yellow silk scarves pinned together along with a crown of bananas, put a recording of “Cuanta la Gusta” on the player and strutted before Jorge. As the energy from the recording infused Delia, she moved with sensual abandon before her awestruck audience, their eyes locked. As the song ended, and she flew into Jorge’s arms, she knew that the speed limit would be broken tonight.
The Tropicana was a frenzied, pulsating place, as animated as the tourists and Havana socialites who crowded the casino, bar, dance floor and every table, there to be entertained by a half dozen celebrities, three full orchestras and the Tropicana’s own ballet troupe. It had not been easy for Jorge to secure a table, and when he did, it was some distance from where Carmen Miranda would shortly perform. He liked the table just fine, not wanting to be conspicuous in such a place. Delia wished they were closer but couldn’t say anything, and just being here was the high point in her sixteen years plus four months. She looked as mature as any seventeen-year-old in the place, sipping the wine Jorge had bought her and wearing another bright outfit that Carmen herself might have worn, but without the tutti frutti hat, of course, for that would be presumptuous.
Miranda’s Boys broke into a spirited overture, and suddenly there was Carmen Miranda herself, bouncing to the beat of “South American Way.” Jorge turned to see the look on Delia’s face, but there was no look on Delia’s face because there was no Delia. He scanned the floor, fearing she had fainted in her excitement. Nothing. Then he spotted her, crawling on hands and knees between the tables, toward the stage. He closed his eyes afraid to watch but finally had to look again. He spotted her as she squeezed unnoticed between the chairs occupied by the sleek black-haired man and his sleek black-haired companion, disappearing under the table next to where Carmen Miranda sang and danced.
Then Carmen jumped into one of Delia’s favorites: “Mama mama mama eu quero, mama eu quero, mama eu quero mama, da a chupeta, da a chupeta . . .” A few lines into the song, one of her most famous and one she had probably sung hundreds of times, she stopped and stared into the immense room before her as though she had become lost. “Para bebe” came a whisper from under the nearest table. Carmen dove back into the song, and few in the audience were aware of the lapse. There were no further lapses and the song appeared to be headed toward a successful conclusion.
About the only warning the black-haired couple had of the impending disaster was the dancing of the olives in their martinis, a nervous samba in time to the music coming from the stage. It was gentle enough at first, but then the table that gave cadence to the martinis above and shelter to the young lady below shook as energetically as a table at a three-ghost séance. Delia was out of control. Carmen Miranda finished her song, the audience roared its approval and Delia jumped to her feet, sending the table and its occupants reeling backward into yet another table and another couple like so many genteel but helpless dominoes.
The room hushed as waiters bobbed here and there to repair the damage. Two large men left their posts at a doorway and headed toward Delia. So did Carmen Miranda, who reached her first and stared at her without speaking. The Brazilian Bombshell was a little older, a little heavier than the Carmen of Delia’s memory, but her brilliant eyes flashed – with anger, Delia thought. But then she grinned and said: “Zank you. You are boodifool.”
She kissed Delia’s forehead, darted back to the stage and resumed singing as though she were trying to divert attention from the embarrassed young woman now being escorted away from the stage.
Even now, forty years later, observed only by Fidel, Delia’s cheeks reddened at the recollection of her calamitous faux pas, a Cuban crisis every bit as important to Delia as the Bay of Pigs invasion years later. Jorge had interceded that night and Delia was allowed to return to her table for the rest of the performance. But she was watched carefully and escorted out as soon as Carmen finished.
Summer ended as abruptly as Carmen’s performance of “Mama Eu Quero” when her father was summoned back to the United States in late July. And although Delia had known from the beginning that her summer would end too soon, this shortening of it was somehow unjust, and she said so over and over, but to no avail. For she and Jorge, that last day together equaled any sweet sorrow of parting ever committed by a romantic to paper, film or television screen. It was filled with lovemaking, tears and promises – promises to write or phone, to return, to visit, to never forget – all that stuff that tries but can’t take the sting out of the word good-by.
In the plane, somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, Delia heard the words to a popular song:
. . .though other nights and other days will find us gone our separate ways, we will have these moments to remember.
And she knew, despite trying all she could to believe otherwise, that Jorge and the past two months would be memories and nothing else.
The last few days of July and the first few in August were endless hours of agony. Her young life had ceased, after sixteen and a half short years, to have meaning. She mostly listened to music – Latin and melancholy – and stared at the television set, not really watching. Not until that night when Jimmy Durante had as his special guest, straight from her triumphant Cuban tour, Carmen Miranda.
Delia, cheered for the first time since leaving Cuba, even doffed a hat of fruit as she sat cross-legged in front of the television, watching the interplay between Jimmy and Carmen. Delia may have been watching with 20 million other Americans, but only she a few short weeks ago had seen Carmen Miranda from underneath a table at the Tropicana, had been smiled at and called boodiful.
After the lights had dimmed at the Club Durant and the star of the show had bade goodnight to Mrs. Calabash, Carmen Miranda returned to her dressing room. There, shortly after midnight, at 46 years of age, she died of a heart attack.
Ah, look what you’ve done, Fidel. I hadn’t thought about that summer in a good long time. For a few months, I thought of nothing else; for a few years, often. For several Halloweens, I shamelessly dressed my daughter as Carmen. And for one Halloween, her little brother was you, Fidel. Delia laughed. The face on the television screen was now a stranger, but she continued to talk to it. Several years ago, we all watched that old movie on TV, and they laughed when I cried at the giant bananas. My husband says I should visit Cuba, but I don’t think that’s allowed. All because of my international incident at the Tropicana, probably. I hear the Tropicana is still there. I thought they would have torn it down at once. Jorge would have.
Good night, Jorge, wherever you are.