The Painting: A Novel Based on a True Story




     Despite the events of the last two days, he was excited about seeing Carmen, whom he had not seen or spoken with in more than two weeks. The last time they had been together, Carmen had promised to contact an old friend who lived in the countryside, two hours’ drive from Havana, who Carmen recalled having a small collection of paintings from the time before the revolution. It sounded to him like a good buying opportunity and Roberto was anxious to see if Carmen’s efforts had paid off.

     Carmen lived alone in a large, single-family home that had been converted into apartments, in Habana not far from where Anabela lived. Like most of the aging baroque and neoclassical buildings in Old Havana, the building Carmen lived in was in a constant state of decay. It was not unusual to see large pieces of concrete in the street, having fallen from the building’s crumbling facades, often after a heavy rain, sometimes blocking the sidewalks, and occasionally injuring the unlucky passerby.

     When he arrived, he found Carmen, who lived on the first floor, sitting alone on the front stoop, having a coffee. Carmen had opened the window beside the steps and was listening to Tommy Dorsey’s recording of “I’ll Never Smile Again,” sung by Frank Sinatra. Carmen spoke little English, and didn’t understand the lyrics, but loved listening to music, and in particular, American popular music from the 40’s and 50’s.

     “Carmen, mi hermano, como said Roberto, holding his arms open slightly and smiling.

     “Roberto! I’ve been thinking I should get in touch with you. How are you, man?” asked Carmen.

     “Not too bad, although things have been a little crazy the last couple days.”

     “What’s with the backpack?”

     “I broke up with my girlfriend, or actually she broke up with me.”

     “What the hell happened? I thought you guys were pretty tight.”

     “She thinks I take too many risks.”


     “You know, the paintings.”

     “Maybe, but the government has more important things to worry about right now than our little business venture.”

     “Yeah, like how the hell to feed everyone.”

     “It’s getting bad, es

     “It’s about to get a lot worse, Carmen.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “Rumor is General Ochoa and Colonel de la Guardia were running a smuggling operation that El Jefe says he knew nothing about. Apparently it included drugs.”

     “El Jefe is a liar. If there was a smuggling operation you can be sure he was running it.”

     “The military police showed up at my girlfriend’s house yesterday morning before dawn looking for her father, Andres. They broke the door down. Andres is the Colonel’s assistant. At first I was sure I was being arrested again. Fortunately one of the policemen, a friend of mine from the military, recognized me and said they were looking for Andres. I’m not sure but I believe they thought he had money hidden in the house.”

     “What now, Roberto?”

     “I’ll sleep at my parents’ house until I find something. I help with the bills, so they won’t mind having me around until I get a place.”

     “You’re welcome to sleep here. I wouldn’t mind the company.”

     “Thanks, I’ll think about it. Carmen, did you manage to speak with your friend in the countryside? The one with the painting.”

     “I did. That’s why I wanted to get in touch with you. He says he has something you might be interested in. He didn’t tell me the name of the artist, but he claims the painting is very valuable.”

     “Everyone claims what they have is valuable. When can we go see him?”

     “I’ll call him now if you want. It’s Sunday. He’ll be home,” said Carmen, as he stood up and turned to go inside. “Come in, Roberto. You want some coffee?”

     “I’m okay, thanks. Remember to ask him the name of the artist. Oh, how are we going to get there? You said he’s a couple hours from the city,” said Roberto.

     “I have a friend who agreed to drive us there. You pay for the gas, and he’ll take us,” said Carmen.

     “You mind if I look at your record collection while I wait for you to call your friend?” asked Roberto.

     “Not at all. I collected mostly American jazz. I love La Voz, as you can see,” said Carmen.

     “Wasn’t he involved with the Mafia before the revolution?” asked Roberto.

     “He may have been, but if you went to a nightclub in Havana in the 40’s, you can be sure the Mafia was nearby. I mean, hell, they ran the city. Just because you’re in the same club with criminals doesn’t make you a criminal. I don’t think about that though, I just love his music.”

     “Did you ever hear him sing live?”

     “Just once. In the ballroom at the Hotel A friend of mine who worked there got me in. I’ll never forget it.”

     “Do you know if he’s still alive?”

     “Yes, I believe he’s something like seventy-three, and still performing from what I understand. It will be a sad day in Cuba when he dies,” said Carmen. “I’m going to call my friend. I’ll be right back.”

     Several minutes later Carmen returned to the living room, having spoken with his friend, who lived outside the old city of Pinar del Rio, two hours southwest of Havana.

     “I spoke with Arturo and he’s expecting us,” said Carmen.

     “What about your friend with the car?” asked Roberto.

     “I spoke with him also and arranged for him to drive us there.”

     “How much for the painting? I don’t have much money with me.”

     “He said five hundred, but I think you can negotiate. If I were you I would bring a little more. You never know what else he may have. He collected for many years like me.”

     “Then I will need to stop by my parents’ house in Santos Suarez. I keep the money there.”

     Roberto knew his parents would be upset by the news about Colonel de la Guardia and the end of his relationship with Alina. Perhaps it was better this way, he thought. He could devote more time to look for paintings to buy and sell, and besides there was the boat he was going to buy in Cojimar. He would have to sell additional paintings in order to pay for the boat which he promised his friend Pedro he would pay for the following weekend.

     Arriving at his parents’ home, Roberto wasted little time collecting the money, which he kept in two old Cohiba boxes made of Spanish Cedar, hidden in his bedroom on the second floor in the bottom of an old single door caoba armario he inherited from his grandparents.

     After saying hello to his parents and promising to return later that evening to explain his surprise early Sunday morning arrival, he rejoined Carmen who had decided to wait in the car with his friend Maceo, whom they had hired to drive the two hours to Arturo’s home in the country, near Pinar del

     Carmen had arranged for them to meet Arturo near the center of the city in front of the Museo Ciencias on La Calle Celestino

     When they arrived at the museum, the only car parked anywhere nearby was an old white MG Roadster convertible with the top up.

     “Maceo, pull up behind that car,” said Carmen pointing to the MG.

     “That’s your friend?” asked Roberto.

     “I’m pretty sure that’s him. He told me he inherited a sports car recently from his father. That must be it,” said Carmen as he stepped out of the car.

     Arturo!” said Carmen. The man sitting in the MG stuck his hand out of the window and shook hands with Carmen. Judging by the gestures the two men were making it was clear to Roberto, Arturo wanted them to follow him.

     “We’ll follow him to his house,” said Carmen, as he opened the passenger side front door. “He lives just outside of town.”

     “Nice car,” said Roberto. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these.”

     “Yeah, they’re pretty rare,” replied Carmen.

     Arturo lived in a small and very old wooden house on a hillside overlooking the Vinales Valley, twenty kilometers north of Pinar del Although Roberto had never visited the valley, he was familiar with the region from the stories his father told of the famous tobacco grown in the Vuelta Abajo area near the town of San

     Maceo pulled into the driveway next to Arturo’s MG, turned off the motor and turned around to address Roberto.

     “I hope the trip will be worth your time and money, Roberto,” said Maceo.

     “We’ll, I guess we’re about to find out,” said Roberto, stepping out of the car.

     said Roberto to Arturo. “Lovely spot.”

     Roberto, y mucho he replied. “Thanks for coming.”

     “The pleasure is mine,” said Roberto.

     “Arturo, my brother, how have you been?” asked Carmen.

     “Nice car, Arturo,” said Roberto. “What year is she?”

     “She’s a fifty-six,” replied Arturo. “Come on, let me show you the painting.”

     “Arturo, if I may ask. Who is the artist?” asked Roberto.

     “Sobrino,” replied Arturo.

     “Carlos Sobrino, from Cuba?” asked Roberto, who was somewhat surprised by the answer.

     “Yes, it is signed Sobrino, at the bottom,” said Arturo.

     Arturo led Roberto and Carmen up the half dozen steps in the front of the house leading up to the porch, before turning around once more to admire the view.

     “Arturo, what is the name of the mountains in the distance?” asked Roberto. “They’re unusual looking.”

     “The mountains are the Sierra de los and the limestone rock formations, they are called This is one of the only places on the island where they’re found,” said Arturo.

     “They remind me of the landscape in the north of Puerto Rico, near the old city of Manati,” said Carmen. “I had many friends there. I remember we would go to La Mar Chiquita on weekends for parties. I would give anything to go back one day.”

     “I remember now, you used to travel there, Carmen, when you worked for Bacardi,” said Arturo.

     “You’re fortunate to live in such place,” said Roberto.

     “The Vinales Valley is one of the most beautiful places in Cuba. I love to do photography. That’s one of the reasons I live here. That and the people here are wonderful. This is old Cuba. Why don’t you have a seat on the porch, and I’ll bring the painting for you to look at. The light is better,” suggested Arturo. “And how about some coffee?”

     “I would love some. With sugar only, no milk,” said Roberto.

     “Same for me,” said Carmen.

     “I’ll bring the painting, and you can have a look while I make coffee,” said Arturo.

     Re-emerging from inside the house with the painting, Arturo handed it to Roberto, who had taken a seat on the railing bench which bordered the edge of the porch. With his back toward the valley for better light, he placed the bottom edge of the frame on his knees and held the painting out at arm’s-length for a better look.

     “Arturo, this was not done by Carlos Sobrino,” said Roberto.

     “What do you mean? It’s signed right here,” exclaimed Arturo.

     “I see that, but this painting was done by Carlos Sobrino Buhigas, the Spanish painter, not the Cuban Carlos Sobrino,” said Roberto. Their styles are completely different. Buhigas was a great painter but he was not Cuban. The signatures of the two men were different as well. Carlos Sobrino Rivero signed his name Sobrino only, no C in front of the last name. I mean the painting is very nice but I’m really only interested in Cuban artists.”

     “How do you know all this, Roberto?” asked Carmen.

     “I learned mostly from Anabela, but my brother Carlitos also does a lot of research,” replied Roberto.

     “Have another look while I bring the coffee,” said Arturo.

     “Sure, we’re in no hurry,” said Roberto.

     Roberto waited until Arturo was back inside in order to speak privately with Carmen.

     “I’m sorry, Carmen, but I’m simply not interested in buying this painting. It’s truly lovely but not what I’m looking for. I’m sure as a collector you understand,” said Roberto.

     “No, I understand completely. It happens sometimes,” said Carmen. “I have to tell you, I’m impressed with your knowledge.”

     Arturo came back onto the porch carrying a small tray of coffee along with several buenuelos de viento, one for each of them.

     “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Arturo,” said Roberto.

     “No, I understand. You’re looking for Cuban artists.”

     “Do you have any other paintings you might be interested in selling?”

     “No, nothing I want to part with right now. Almost everything I have I inherited from my father who passed away recently.”

     “Why then did you want to sell this one?”

     “I really need to do some repairs. The house is old and in need of repairs. My father never wanted to spend any money on the house.”

     “Selling this painting wouldn’t pay for much.”

     “I realize that, but at least it would be a start.”

     Roberto had been thinking about Arturo’s MG Roadster since the moment they parked behind it in the driveway, and now, realizing Arturo was hard up for cash, Roberto was seriously considering making an offer on the car. He had never bought a car before and the only thing he knew about MGs was they had a reputation for frequently breaking down. It was out of his mouth before he knew it.

     “What about the car, Arturo?” said Roberto, pointing in the direction of the MG. “Would you consider selling it? It would certainly pay for all your house repairs.”

     “I don’t think so. It was my father’s.”

     “Twenty-five thousand. I have it with me,” said Roberto. Leaning back against the post on the corner of the porch, he pulled his feet up on the bench, stretched his legs in front of him and crossed his arms, waiting for Arturo to respond.

     Carmen looked at Roberto in disbelief, surprised to hear that he was willing to spend that kind of money on a car he had just seen and knew nothing about.

     “These cars can be a lot of trouble, Roberto,” said Carmen. “My brother had one years ago and he went broke trying to keep it on the road.”

     “What do you say, Arturo?” repeated Roberto, undeterred by Carmen’s comment.

     “I have to keep it. I rode in that car with my father when I was a boy. I’m sorry.”

     “Thirty thousand,” said Roberto, confidently. He could see the new number had gotten Arturo’s attention.

     “If you make it thirty-five, we have a deal,” said Arturo, leaning forward in his chair and holding out his hand out.

     “Deal,” said Roberto, standing up to shake Arturo’s outstretched hand. “I have the twenty-five thousand with me and I can return later in the week with the other ten.”

     “No problem. I trust any friend of Carmen’s,” said Arturo. “You have time for some rum? Maybe a cigar.”

     “How about we go for a little drive first, then celebrate?” asked Roberto.

     “Absolutely. I’ll put the top down. Carmen, you good here?” asked Arturo.

     “Sure, if you bring me a little rum, I’ll wait here with Maceo,” he said.

     “You think you should put the top down, Arturo? It’s looking a little squally over the mountains,” said Roberto.

     “It always rains in the mountains. The skuds as we call them, don’t roll into the valley until evening. We’ll be drinking rum by then Roberto,” said Arturo, smiling.