The Painting: A Novel Based on a True Story




     Roberto and his two brothers, Lazaro and Pedro had decided they would tell their parents they were leaving the day before they were to leave. The news was going to be especially hard on their mother but better to tell her and leave immediately they thought, then for her to see them for days or weeks knowing they would soon be gone.

     More and more in recent weeks, Rosa and Guillermo had to leave home early to take their place and wait in separate food lines which were becoming longer throughout Cuba. The “Special Period,” a term coined by the government in a pathetic attempt to fantasize reality, was becoming less and less special for Cubans, especially for the ones without the necessary credentials.

     As promised, Carmen arrived early at the home of Roberto’s parents with the four paintings, the day after they had met at La Roberto had reminded Carmen the night before he did not want the paintings in the frames which were too large and would be impossible to store safely in the Rosita Roberto’s parents were not at home and did not know about the purchase of the paintings which meant he didn’t have to answer any questions.

     Roberto was waiting outside in the shade of the house, sitting on the stone stoop when he saw Carmen coming with the paintings tucked under his arm in a roll.

     The rain that had come during the night had washed the heat out of the limestone steps where Roberto was sitting, leaving them damp and feeling cooler than the air. The street was quiet except for the occasional sound made by one of the resident ring-necked doves when it would call loudly in order to warn the others of an approaching late-migrating pigeon hawk, flying low over the city looking to flush one of the doves high enough above the buildings where it was safe for the falcon to accelerate to a speed sufficient for a clean kill shot.

     dias, my brother,” said Carmen. “So this is it. The last ones.”

     “Maybe not,” replied Roberto as he stood up and motioned for Carmen to come inside.

     “What do you mean? You haven’t changed your mind about leaving?” asked Carmen.

     “No, no, of course not. I have been thinking Carmen, once I am established in Miami, why not continue to collect and sell? I could make a good living if there was a way to get the paintings out of Cuba. I have Mariano in Spain and he’s told me there are many wealthy Cubans living in Miami. It would be a way for us to keep working together,” said Roberto.

     “It’s interesting, and you know I have a lot of connections,” said Carmen.

     “Something to keep in mind. Let me see the paintings,” said Roberto.

     Carmen had laid the paintings flat before rolling them loosely together, being careful to separate them, one from another with brown paper to protect the surface of the paint, then tied the roll on either end with a strong twine made of sisal. He carefully untied the twine that kept the roll together and unrolled the paintings on the floor in front of where Roberto was sitting.

     “This one is the Valdes,” said Roberto. “I recognize his style. Is it signed?” Roberto looked closely at the signature in the bottom right-hand corner. “I told Carlitos about the paintings. He said that works by Valdes are rare. I wish I had his knowledge, Carmen. He reads all the time, and his mind is like a steel trap.”

     “Why isn’t he going with you?” asked Carmen.

     “He’s afraid. It seems lately his autism has become more debilitating. I worry about him all the time Carmen,” said Roberto, after setting the first painting aside. “And this one is the Araujo? His technique is more sofisticado. More precise. I love the rural subject matter. It reminds me so much of my grandparents’ farm.”

     “The other two are the Matas,” said Carmen. “They’re more like the Valdes in style.”

     “The colors are more brilliant. I wonder if they knew one another,” said Roberto.

     “If they did it would have been many years ago. Valdes only lived to be forty-nine. He died in 1957 and Mata fled to America in the sixties,” said Carmen.

     “Is he still living?” asked Roberto.

     “I heard he died maybe eight or ten years ago,” replied Carmen.

     “If he lived and worked in the U.S. for the last twenty years of his life then for certain his works are in collections outside Cuba,” said Roberto.

     “Have to be,” said Carmen.

     “That means he is known and there is probably a market for his work,” said Roberto.

     “You’re going to do well, Roberto,” said Carmen smiling.

     “I should put these upstairs with the others before anyone sees them. I think my mother knows something is about to happen. She’s asking a lot of questions lately,” said Roberto. “I’ll be right back, and I will give you the money.”

     “Here is the payment, Carmen,” said Roberto proudly after returning to the living room carrying a knapsack containing the thirty-five thousand pesos. “It’s a lot of cash so I put it in this

     “I will return it to you,” he said.

     “It’s not necessary, Carmen. It’s not as though I will be needing it,” replied Roberto.

     “When do you think Pedrito will want to leave?” asked Carmen.

     “He thinks the weather should be good sometime around the sixth,” replied Roberto.

     “The Feast of the Epiphany,” said Carmen. “That’s only a few days away.”

     “Yes, and it’s two days after the New Moon so there’ll be no light from the moon, which will be better, obviously. The only problem we may have is if Pedrito can’t find us in the darkness,” said Roberto.

     “What do you mean? Why won’t you be in the boat?” a surprised Carmen asked.

     “If the Coast Guard sees fourteen people in a small boat, what do you think happens? The plan is, Pedrito will take his family in the boat, as though he’s going fishing. His wife will hide below deck in the engine compartment in case they get stopped by the Coast Guard. Meanwhile, we leave from the beach in Alamar just to the east. We’ll have to start swimming a couple hours before Pedrito leaves in the boat in order to have time to swim far enough offshore where Pedrito won’t be seen when he picks us up,” explained Roberto.

     “What if he can’t find you?” asked Carmen in disbelief.

     “We’ll have a couple small hand lights. When we see the light on the masthead of Pedrito’s boat, we’ll guide him to us with the lights. I’m not worried,” said Roberto.

     “Fortune favors the brave, I guess,” said Carmen.

     “And the crazy,” laughed Roberto. “You’ve been good to me. I will not forget what you have done for me.”

     The two men stood up, shook hands, and embraced for the last time before walking outside to say their final goodbyes. Roberto watched as Carmen walked to the end of the block, turned the corner and was out of sight.

     He now had fourteen paintings and planned to sell all but El Saxofonista after he arrived in the U.S. The story of where they had come from and how they had arrived in the United States would be almost as valuable to some people as the paintings’ individual values and provenance, he thought.

     With only a few days left in Cuba Roberto’s priority now was to take all the paintings to Cojimar and hide them aboard the Rosita

     There was also the matter of telling Rosa and Guillermo, that he and his brothers were planning to flee the country. He was dreading the moment and didn’t want to think about it and tried not to.

     He had been a disappointment, especially to his mother, many times in recent years and knew this would be yet another devastating blow to her and the family. He worried that there was no way of knowing if the news would take her beyond the limits of her emotional capacities. However, if they were successful and they made it to the U.S., the possibility existed he could find a way for the rest of the family to join him in Florida, and he would tell his mother that.

     The day after Carmen delivered the four paintings, Roberto left home before sunrise in order not to be seen by anyone in the neighborhood. He went to Cojimar with the paintings, where, with help from Pedrito, they hid them in a large plastic bag inside the false ceiling of the boat’s

     Pedro informed Roberto, as promised, he had managed to secure eight large, truck tire inner tubes from a friend with a tire repair business in Habana del and had safely hidden them in the bush near the point at La Playa where Roberto and the others would enter the ocean and swim out beyond the reef to meet Pedro and his family in the boat.

     Although few people went to the beach at Alamar in the middle of winter, it worried Roberto that the inner tubes would be there for two days and so he told Pedro he would check at the end of the following day, which was a Sunday, the fifth of January, to make sure no one had taken any of them.

     Roberto decided not to take Maura with him when he went to the Alamar Beach to check on the inner tubes the next day, thinking the less she saw and thought about the ocean the less she would worry about having to make the long swim at night to the boat.

     The afternoon winter air was cooler than normal, and the sky was cloudless all the way to the horizon. With the deep high pressure continuing to settled in over Cojimar, the wind was gradually lessening and the sea was beginning to flatten out.

     This evening would have been a good day to leave, thought Roberto looking out at the ocean. There was no surf line showing, even above the outer edge of the reef where the waves would normally be breaking. Swimming or paddling with an inner tube would be less tiring and they could make good time and it would be easier for Pedro to find them, even in the dark.

     In winter, after the leading edge of a norther would pass, the wind would sometimes fall out quickly along the north coast of Cuba. He knew this from experience and knew the window of calm weather that followed would sometimes last for several days and because he knew this to be generally true, he was not worried the weather would turn bad. With a smooth ocean it would take less time and less fuel to make the crossing, unless of course they were unlucky, which he never worried about.

     Roberto stayed until he began to feel the breeze slackening. He had wanted to stay and watch the sun set fully, but the sand flies were beginning to bite and he knew they would be worse when it was dusk and the wind was gone entirely and they would no longer be discouraged by the sun.

     He walked the short distance down the sand road that ran by the mouth of the river where he flushed a pair of noisy oystercatchers feeding among the rocks on the shoreline, while the tide was still out. The shoreline was fully exposed with the dead low tide so he decided to take the shortest route to the Cojimar bridge, along the edge of the river mouth, back to the harbor to look for Pedro.

     As he walked onto the bridge, he stopped to look up at the yellow-crowned night herons—that came out in the evening from their roost in the mangroves along the north edge of the river, to perch and preen. They would sit on top of the iron crosspiece stretching between the two towers in the center of the bridge—never close enough to one another to cause problems—before flying off in search of a nighttime meal. He wondered if they, like the oystercatchers, also lived in Florida.

     Walking down the path to the lagoon where Pedro kept the boat, Roberto remembered he had not seen Pedro’s friend, Senor in almost two years and hoped he would be with Pedro, enjoying a rum and a cigar by the cabana, like many of the old fishermen in Cojimar did on Sundays.

     He regretted not having taken more time to sit with the old man at the dock and listen to his stories as the young men in Cojimar liked to do, or having made time to fish with him on the days when Maykel and the old man would fish together. Even though he was little more than an acquaintance, Roberto admired him greatly and understood completely how important the old man was to the people of the village, especially the fishermen.

     When Roberto reached the edge of the clearing where the seagrapes and the almond trees ended and the coconut palms took over, he could see, in the low light from a kerosene lamp hanging under the cabana, his friend Pedro, holding a glass of rum, sitting beside Senor Fuentes, who was smoking a cigar.

     noches, grandes pescadores,” said Roberto, stopping to grab one of the plastic chairs from a stack beside the shed where Pedro kept his fishing

     said Pedro, who stood up to greet his friend. “Are you coming from the beach?”

     I wanted to see the sun set over the water and enjoy the cool coming in off the ocean. Unfortunately the sand flies had other ideas. If I could find a way to bottle this weather and sell it to the poor bastards in Habana Vieja in July and August, when there is no escaping from the heat, I’m telling you, I could make a killing,” laughed Roberto.

     “But you would have to give ninety percent of the money to the government, don’t forget,” said Gregorio. He paused long enough to wink at Roberto, briefly lowering the hand holding the cigar, before striking a match in order to relight it after it had gone out from too much talking and too little smoking.

     “Where are you hiding the rum, Pedrito?” asked Roberto.

     “Right here,” he said reaching under his chair. “You can find a clean glass in the cooler by the shed.”

     “Not too much,” said Roberto as he held out his glass for Pedro. “I promised my mother and father I would be home early for the Sunday meal.”

     “I’ll give you some fish when you leave. I may not fish for a few days,” said Pedro.

     “With this weather you should be fishing,” said the old man. “The bait will be pushed in close to shore with this wind.”

     “I have some work I need to do on the motor,” said Pedro, not wanting to make eye contact with the old man. “Besides, I don’t like fishing right after a norther. The pressure is too high. I’ll wait a day or two before I go.”

     Pedro had not told Gregorio about their plan to escape to the U.S. and was uncomfortable keeping the secret from the old man, but knowing if the old man knew, he would worry and would try and talk them out of leaving. Either way he thought, the old man would worry, and it would be hard—although not as hard as the loss the old man endured when his friend, for whom he was so well known, had been forced to flee Cuba in 1959—and so he kept their secret.

     “Pedrito tells me you have a passion for old paintings,” the old man said to Roberto.

     “Yes, I guess you could say that. They saved my life on more than one occasion,” said Roberto.

     “I won’t ask you about that,” said Gregorio.

     “I don’t mind. I see each old work like a window to a world where I am the one controlling how to think. They’re liberating. They take me to a place where I feel free,” said Roberto.

     “I believe I understand,” said the old man. “For me it has always been the sea and fishing. Once I had learned the hard lesson of humility, which you must learn to be a good fisherman, and to always do what the sea expects of you, it is the only place I have ever felt truly free.”

     “I will try and remember your words, said Roberto.

     “If you forget, your friend here I believe knows something about humility,” the old man said. “I remember the day when he learned.”

     “What happened?” asked Roberto.

     “He thought he knew better and went out when he shouldn’t have and when I told him not to go. This was several years ago when Pedrito was young and still very foolish and very proud. The wind that day was out of the northeast, blowing a thirty and there was a big dorado bite on. The current was pushing hard into the wind with the biggest kind of seas,” said the old man.

     “I can tell it, Gregorio,” said Pedro.

     “No, I’ll tell it because you’re not going to tell the whole story,” he said. “Pedrito was trolling down sea and had just hooked up two big I forgot to mention that he was fishing alone—another mistake. When he turned around in order to slow the boat and begin to fight the fish, a wave came over the stern and knocked him down. When he stood up he was facing the bow and didn’t see the second, even bigger wave coming. When it broke over the boat, it knocked him into the ocean.”

     “You obviously made it back to land, but I assume not in the boat,” said Roberto.

     “The boat was going ahead at trolling speed and was out of sight in seconds. I was maybe a kilometer and a half offshore. Fortunately with the northeast wind I was able to swim into the beach at Bacuranao,” said Pedro.

     “The other boats that were out that day looked for several hours until one of them saw his boat bottom up and no motor on the beach east of Alamar and figured Pedrito had drowned,” said Gregorio.

     “I walked the fifteen kilometers back to Cojimar and slept in the shed until Gregorio found me the next morning,” said Pedro.

     “I can’t imagine how you must have felt when you found Pedrito in the shed,” said Roberto.

     “We were all certain he had drowned that day. Not knowing what happened and thinking you would never know, that was the worst part,” said the old man.

     Roberto looked over at Pedro who was looking in the direction of the water. He finished his rum and looked back at the old man who was also looking toward the water.

     “That’s quite a story, Pedrito,” said Roberto. “Unless you have one better, I think I should be going. I’m a little late already.”

     la proxima said the old man.

     “Yes, until next time, Capitan” said Roberto. “Don’t forget, I still want to catch a big blue one someday with you and Maykel.

     “I’ll remember. Next month, when they start to run,” said the old man.

     “Take care my friend. We’ll go out soon,” said Pedro, waving goodbye.

     Roberto had already disappeared up the path through the seagrapes where it was dark when Pedro remembered he had promised Roberto some fish to take with him.

     “Uh, I forgot the fish for Roberto, Gregorio,” he said.

     “There’s always tomorrow, Pedrito. No need to worry. Have some more rum,” he said. The old man took his last cigar from the left breast pocket of his guayabera, lit a match and pulled the air through the cigar until the end glowed red and he could taste the soft sweetness of the smoke in his mouth, then looked out toward the water, and into the darkness.