I

The Painting: A Novel Based on a True Story


 

I

 

     “Roberto. Roberto!” said Carlos from the kitchen, a little louder the second time.

     Carlos was always anxious and today his anxiety was worse than normal as he had promised to help his elderly friend Julio move from his house of 65 years. Julio was 92 and had outlived his wife and all his children and was no longer in need of the large 5-bedroom house in Santos Suarez. He was moving to an apartment in the same neighborhood, where he would be closer to the market and to the chemist.

     Carlos knew that this move was going to be difficult and emotional for his friend Julio and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.

     “Roberto!” Carlos shouted once more, this time even louder.

     “What do you want, Carlitos?” Roberto replied.

     He was annoyed that his brother had woken him and did not remember that he had promised Carlos that he would help to move Julio’s belongings.

     “You don’t remember that today is the day we move Julio?” Carlos asked him.

     “No, I forgot, I’m sorry, Carlitos.”

     Roberto rarely became angry with his older brother and loved him dearly. He understood how profoundly difficult it had been for Carlos growing up with autism, and he saw daily how he suffered.

     “I’m coming now, Carlitos, but first I need some coffee and something to eat.” Their mother made the best coladas and pastelitos in the neighborhood, he thought to himself. The strong sweet coffee and guava pastry was all he needed to make it through the day.

     “Yasiel is coming with the car in twenty minutes, and he told me he could only help for one hour. We need to move as much as possible with the car. I want to move all the heavy furniture first. After Yasiel leaves we can move the rest with the carro de said Carlos.

     “The car is only available for one hour?” Roberto asked.

     “Yes, and you need to hurry. Take your coffee with you,” said Carlos.

     “The carro de bueyes is for animals,” grumbled Roberto.

     “I understand but that is all we have,” Carlos replied. “I don’t like it much either. We can pull the cart together. And besides it is mostly downhill.”

     Yasiel was very proud of his 1950 Chevy Sedan Delivery and only reluctantly agreed to let the boys use it to help Julio move. It was large and they could move many pieces of furniture in a single trip.

     Julio had practiced general medicine in Havana for more than sixty years, helping poor families in the boys’ neighborhood with all their medical needs as well as food and clothing, both always in short supply, along with many common goods. Of course, these shortages were never acknowledged by the Castro regime and only talked about in private settings.

     In recent years, as Julio’s family had passed on, Carlos chose more and more to look after his aging friend, helping with many of his daily tasks. He felt sorry for Julio without his family and was very protective of him.

     As they approached Julio’s house, they could see him waiting by the front gate. The house was old and in need of repairs. It had once been a magnificent house and a remarkable example of neoclassical architecture, deserving of much better care. The tropical sun and climate had taken their toll on the old house over the years. It was a typical large home in Santos Suarez, no doubt owned at one time by a wealthy American family who used Havana as a winter playground. Unfortunately, as Julio grew older and more frail, it had become impossible for him to do all but the most simple repairs. Everyone in communist Cuba made the same monthly salary. Even a highly trained doctor received just $40 a month, which was barely enough to live on, so paying anyone to help repair the house was not an option.

     Julio. Como tu asked Carlos.

     boys.” Julio was always cheerful and possessed none of the anger and bitterness many older people in Cuba felt toward the regime. “Yasiel will be here soon. I’m sorry we cannot use the car for more than an hour.”

     “That’s okay,” replied Carlos. “We’ll manage and we can work fast.”

     “We need to finish before the afternoon rain.” Roberto reminded his brother.

     It was midsummer, very hot and very humid, and that meant heavy tropical squalls would likely form over the high land to the south of the city, always moving north toward the sea in the late afternoon.

     The brothers worked fast moving the heavier pieces of furniture out of the house and down the steps to the street in front of the old man’s house. If they could make several trips with the Sedan Delivery then all that remained to move using the oxcart would be small household items.

     Yasiel arrived on time and the boys made short work of filling the massive old American car. The brothers were grateful to Yasiel for having offered to help.

     By the time Yasiel had to leave with the car they had finished the second load and most of the large heavy pieces had been moved to Julio’s new apartment. Yasiel said goodbye and the boys walked behind the old man’s house where he kept the oxcart.

     The cart was old, large, very heavy, and made of fine-grain Caribbean mahogany.

     “It’s beautiful,” remarked Roberto. Since he was a little boy, he had always loved anything old. He didn’t know why, maybe it was the feeling of authenticity intrinsic in anything made by hand.

     “But I think the cart will be too difficult to pull through the cobblestone streets.”

     “That is all we have,” said Carlos. “Here, you take the shaft on one side and I’ll take the other.”

     As they pulled the cart around to the front of the house Roberto, rather surprised, remarked at how easily the large wooden wheels rolled over the stones.

     “The large wheels make it easy. Maybe it will not be so bad,” he said.

     “We’ll see,” replied Carlos. “Remember, right now it is empty.”

     The old man, though frail, was doing what he could to help, bringing some of the smaller items out of the house. He was moving to an apartment and didn’t have room for many of his things and so he kept only what he needed as well as his most treasured possessions, the paintings.

     Roberto and Carlos knew nothing about art but they could see that Julio was taking great care when handling the paintings and so they did the same as they began to load the rest of the old man’s items into the cart.

     The distance to Julio’s new apartment was little more than ten blocks downhill to the north, and even though the cart was full as it could hold, it was easier to pull than they had expected. Occasionally, as they passed through the surrounding neighborhood, young children from each block, all too eager to help and thinking it was a game, would come out to help push the cart along.

     It was late afternoon by the time they unpacked the final load and there was little time to spare before the first of the afternoon rain squalls, that built steadily over the hills to the south, reached the southern edge of Havana.

     The cool wind from the advancing thunderheads and the expected rain were a welcome relief to the boys. They were tired but also felt good about having helped their friend Julio. Now, they looked forward to getting paid.

     As they sat on the front stoop of the apartment building, waiting for the old man, they talked about what they would do with the money.

     Carlos loved to read and planned to buy books. He especially enjoyed reading to his father, who had grown up poor in the countryside and could neither read nor write. His father, Guillermo, was very proud of his son, despite the boy’s struggles with autism. Carlos would read to his father in the evenings, on the terrace after the sun had set, when it was cooler and more comfortable to sit outside rather than in the old concrete house.

     Roberto, on the other hand had only one plan. That was to scrape together enough money to buy a pair of black-market American jeans. The money from Julio would go a long way to making his dream come true. He was only 17. With this new pair of jeans, he would surely be able to get the attention of even the most beautiful girls in his neighborhood.

     Julio appeared in the doorway behind them carrying one of the small paintings they had moved in the cart.

     “I’m sorry, boys, but I do not have the money to pay you for your work today.”

     Roberto looked at Carlos as if to say, “you were the one who arranged this deal that I agreed to be a part of and now we will not be paid?”

     “I can give you this painting as payment,” Julio told them. “I know you wanted the money, but I am no longer working and this is all I have. It is very valuable and was done by an old friend, Carlos Sobrino.”

     “Are you sure you don’t have any money?” Roberto asked, feeling compelled to pressure the old man but not wanting to be disrespectful.

     “No, I have no money,” replied Julio. “But if you want you can easily sell the painting for more money than I was going to pay you.”

     The boys could see that Julio was upset, rather embarrassed and in an impossible situation. So they agreed to take the painting, intrigued by what Julio had said about its value. Like everyone in Cuba, particularly for the older people, Julio was doing the best he could, barely getting by day to day.

     “I’m sorry for the trouble,” Julio said. “Carlos Sobrino was a good friend of mine and a very important artist here in Cuba. I purchased the painting from him in 1953.”

     “Does it have a name,” Roberto asked.

     “Yes, it is called El Carlos Sobrino loved music of all kinds, and in particular, American jazz. He never told me who the saxophonist in the painting was. Carlos was forced into exile after the revolution and moved to Spain.”

     “Why did he have to leave Cuba?” Roberto asked Julio.

     “The government considered the subject matter of what he chose to paint incompatible with the ideals of the Revolution. He left the country nearly twenty years ago and died in 1971. In Spain, I think. Anyway, you will have no problem selling the painting should you choose to do so. But I do hope that you keep it. If you sell it the money will soon be gone and then you will have nothing. It is worth much more than I could have paid you,” Julio reminded them once again.

     “How do we determine the value?” asked Carlos.

     “You can go to the Cultural Assets Institution and ask there. They sometimes purchase art works from individual citizens, so they would know what it is worth. I remember, after he won the National Painting award in 1957, the National Museum put several of Sobrino’s works on display in the museum, but I haven’t been there in years. Good luck and thank you again for your help and kindness today. You better hurry home, it will be raining soon.”

     Julio bid the boys farewell, turned and went inside the apartment, closing the heavy wooden door behind him.

     “We’ll go to the Cultural Assets Institution tomorrow,” Roberto said to Carlos excitedly. “I think I may know someone who might buy it.”

     “No one we know has any money, Roberto. You’re dreaming. I would rather Julio had paid us today. And besides this painting has sentimental value to Julio. I don’t think we should sell it.”

     “You’ll see, Carlitos, this could change our lives!” Roberto said. Not really listening to his brother’s concerns about how Julio would feel.

     As the brothers made their way toward home, people stared from their terraces and balconies, no doubt wondering why two teenage boys would be carrying a painting. The boys paid no attention to the people, thinking only that they needed to make it home before the rain came.

     They were nearly home when the first large raindrops began to fall, and they had to run the last 100 meters to their parents’ house to keep the painting from getting wet. When they arrived at the house their father had not yet come home from work, and their mother Rosa was in the kitchen preparing dinner for the family, so they took the painting upstairs without speaking to her.

     Roberto carried the painting directly to their room where they found a place to hang it, just above the small desk where Carlos kept his books.

     “You know, Carlitos, if we sell the painting our financial problems will be over.”

     “Maybe for a few days, but you heard what Julio said. We sell the painting and soon the money is gone. Then once again we have nothing. And besides I know you could see how much the painting meant to him. I felt bad even having taken it as payment. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. We can visit the Cultural Assets Institution. Julio said they can tell us anything we want to know about our painting and Sobrino.”

     It was getting late, and the brothers were tired from the day’s work. All they could think about was getting something to eat and having some much-needed rest. They took turns showering and went to have dinner with their parents, as they did every evening on the terrace behind the house.

     In the morning when Roberto awoke and went downstairs for a his brother was already in the kitchen talking with their mother about the previous day’s events. He had told her about the painting and that they were going to research the work and the artist.

     Their mother reminded them that they needed to be careful who they spoke to about the painting, especially anyone in the government.

     “There is a government institution that buys paintings from individuals,” Roberto told her. “It’s not a crime to own a painting. Julio has many paintings.”

     “Julio is an old man. The government doesn’t bother old people, and you don’t know that to be true, Roberto. Many artists, writers, and intellectuals have left the country under protest or have been sent to prison. And some of the ones in prison were never heard from again. I’m telling you to be careful.”

     The brothers could see the conversation was upsetting their mother, so they changed the subject to baseball and, of course, to fishing. Both of the boys loved to fish and planned a trip the following weekend with their friend, Maykel. He had an old eight-meter-long, wooden boat that he fished regularly in the Gulf Stream just outside Havana Harbor beyond the Morro.

     “When you go fishing with Maykel, make sure you catch something this time,” their mother quipped. “I’m beginning to think both of you are Jonahs. Maykel, I know, is not but the two of you, well. We could use some fresh fish, and remember I like If you catch dorado I will make you fish cakes and sweet plantains!”

     Roberto turned to Carlos and said, “We should be going Carlitos. Julio told us the Cultural Assets building is on the other side of town near the Palace of the Revolution. We’ll be back later this afternoon,” Roberto said to his mother.

     As the brothers approached the building where Julio had directed them to research the painting, Roberto could see his brother’s anxiety level beginning to rise. He put his arm around him, which seemed to help and said, “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want.”

     “I’m okay, Roberto, I’ll be fine.”

     The building looked intimidating, like government buildings tend to look, mostly by design. But once inside they quickly began to focus on the reason why they were there.

     “We are here to research a famous artist from Havana,” Roberto told the clerk at the front desk. The guards posted near the front of the hallway looked at the brothers suspiciously but said nothing.

     “You need to go to the Office of Culture on the second floor.” The clerk barely looked up from her desk and clearly did not seem to enjoy her work.

     Once inside the dimly lit office, they were greeted by an elderly woman with whom they immediately felt at ease.

     Dias, said Roberto, taking the initiative. He knew his brother’s difficulties with social interactions and communication would be too much in this case.

     What can I help you with?” the woman replied.

     “We are here to research a painting and the famous artist who painted it, Carlos Sobrino,” Roberto proudly answered.

     “Well, I will have to look through our catalogues since I have never heard of the artist. Is he from Cuba and do you know when he lived?” asked the clerk politely.

     “Yes, of course he is from Cuba,” Roberto answered, a bit surprised she had never heard of Sobrino. “From Havana. He was born here in 1909 and died in Spain in 1971,” Roberto said, trying to appear as confident as possible. One thing Roberto was not wanting for was confidence, and it often got him into trouble.

     The brothers waited patiently while the clerk searched through numerous catalogues and publications, all but a few appearing to be old enough to contain any information about Sobrino or photos of his work.

     After more than an hour the clerk returned to where the boys were sitting. She looked disappointed and they thought even a little embarrassed.

     “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I was unable to find any information about this artist. Are you sure of the name?”

     “Yes, we are sure of his name. The painting is signed very clearly at the bottom,” Roberto told her. “It is entitled, El and it is very valuable. The former owner is a good friend.”

     “Well, I would suggest you go to the National Museum. It is on Calle Agramonte, and if anyone can help you, it will be the people there. If the artist is famous, like you have said, you will probably find some of his works in the Museum. Good luck.”

     “Thank you,” Roberto said. Carlos nodded to the woman, and they headed down the stairs to the lobby and out of the building.

     “I am sure we will find something at the Museo Nacional,” said Roberto, as they made their way down the narrow streets of old Havana.

     “I don’t think so,” Carlos replied. “If Sobrino is so famous, the woman at the Cultural Institution would have heard of him.”

     It was very hot and a long walk to the National Museum, so they stopped along the way for a cold coconut water and a cane juice. The thick cane juice instantly gave them the shot of energy they needed, and they felt optimistic again about their search.

     When they arrived at the museum, Carlos suggested they first look in the gallery of early modern art. Often Roberto wondered how his brother came to be so intuitive. Carlos had been a poor student in school but a voracious reader and was naturally instinctive.

     “The paintings here are similar to El Carlos said. “If we don’t find something in this gallery then we can look in the portraits.”

     After nearly an hour of searching the brothers found nothing by Sobrino.

     “Let’s look through the portraits,” Carlos said to Roberto.

     After looking carefully at every portrait they could find in the museum they began to think that maybe Julio had imagined his friend to be famous and the painting, although beautiful and interesting, was not worth much after all.

     “Maybe we can ask at the office of the director,” Carlos said.

     “I think your friend Julio is an old man and he is sentimental about the painting and his friend Sobrino,” said Roberto.

     “It doesn’t matter to me if it is not worth anything. I like it because it was my friend Julio’s and it makes me feel good when I look at it.”

     “I suppose feeling good is important,” Roberto replied, feeling a little confused by his brother’s comment. “Maybe even more important than money, especially when you are poor. Anyway, it’s late, Carlitos. We should be heading home. The rain will be coming soon.”

     As they turned the corner onto their street they could see their father, Guillermo, sitting on the steps in front of the house talking with the neighbors. It was Sunday, so he wasn’t working and always enjoyed idle conversation with his many friends in the neighborhood.

     tardes, Father,” Carlos said.

     “Where have you been?” Guillermo asked the brothers.

     “We needed to go to the Cultural Assets Fund building and then to the National Museum of Art,” replied Roberto.

     “What for?” asked Guillermo, clearly not expecting Roberto’s answer.

     “Well, yesterday we had the job to move Julio to his new apartment and when we finished he could not pay us for the work,” Roberto explained to his father. “So he gave us a valuable painting as payment. We went to research the value of the painting to see if we could sell it. But, unfortunately, no one in either place seemed to know anything about the painting or the artist.”

     Roberto could see from the look on his father’s face he was not happy about or impressed with his answer.

     “Roberto, is this Julio the doctor? asked Guillermo.

     “Yes, why?” Roberto answered.

     “And this painting was in Julio’s house in Santos Suarez?”

     “Yes, we moved all of his furniture and belongings from there to the new apartment,” Roberto said nervously.

     “Come inside, boys, I need to ask you a few more questions,” Guillermo instructed, slightly agitated.

     Not wanting to involve the neighbors, Guillermo said good evening to his friends and walked inside and through the house to the terrace in the back.

     As the brothers followed their father to the terrace they could smell the evening meal of pargo frito their mother was preparing. As they passed through the kitchen she looked up at them but said nothing.

     “You should not have taken the painting,” Guillermo said.

     “Why? We did the work and Julio paid us with the painting,” Roberto explained.

     “You have the painting now? Here, in my house?” asked Guillermo

     “Yes, we have it hanging in our bedroom. Why?” asked Roberto

     “I don’t want it in my house. It is a bad omen. Everyone who lived with Julio in his house, died in that house. I don’t want it here. You need to get rid of it first thing tomorrow. That’s all I have to say.”

     Guillermo turned and went inside to have dinner.

     “I am not surprised,” Roberto said. “He has always been very superstitious.”

     “What should we do with the painting, Roberto?” asked Carlos.

     “I don’t know, but we’re not getting rid of it. We can hide it in the bedroom for now and figure out what to do later. I’m hungry, Carlitos.”

     And with that the brothers prepared to have supper with their parents, not speaking any more about the painting that evening.

     The next morning when Roberto awoke, he felt an overwhelming feeling of excitement and went immediately to look at the painting, examining closely every detail of the small painting. The man playing the saxophone, the colors, the lines, and the geometric shapes the artist used to create the images.

     Staring intently at the painting he was suddenly overcome with a profound sense of calm and peace of mind, something he had never felt before. He didn’t understand why he felt as he did. He had many questions and wanted to know everything about the painting.

     “Who was the saxophonist? Where did he live? Was he still living and why did Sobrino paint him the way he did?” Roberto wondered. He knew at the very least he had to learn more about the artist. Remembering now how upset his father had been the night before, and that he had told him to get rid of the painting, he decided to hide it under his mattress before going downstairs for breakfast. It was well protected there and would be safe.

     Carlos had been awake for some time and was already in the kitchen having coffee. He didn’t sleep much that night and had been thinking about the painting and what to do with it.

     “Roberto,” Carlos said excitedly. “I have an idea about the painting. I think we should go to the Jose Marti Library and search there for information about Sobrino.”

     “How do you know about this library, Carlitos?”

     “I take books from there all the time. It’s one of my favorite places.”

     “You know, Carlitos, you are smart. I wish sometimes I knew about such things. I am ready to go whenever you are.”

     As they walked out the front door, down the stone steps and onto the narrow street in front of the house, Carlos turned to Roberto and asked, “What about the painting? We can’t leave it in the house!”

     “I hid it under the mattress,” Roberto said. “It is small, and he will never think to look there. It will be protected underneath the mattress.”

     It was another long walk to the library and as they came around the bend in La Avenida walking east in front of the Memorial to Jose Marti, they could see the library building off to the left. Both the memorial to the famous poet and writer Jose Marti, and the National Library building, were towering modern structures that looked out of place in a city full of classic Spanish colonial architecture.

     “When we go inside, Roberto, let me do the talking. The people will recognize me,” Carlos said. “And besides, I think I know where to look first.” After entering the fifteen-story, square, grey block building, the brothers went up to the front desk, signed in, and walked over to the directory on the wall in the lobby. “There,” pointed Carlos. “I think we need to go to the Historical Data Department. It is on the fourth floor. We can take the elevator.”

     As the elevator door opened on the fourth floor they were confronted with row after row of shelves containing thousands of black binders all looking the same. “I don’t know, Carlitos. Where do we even begin to look?”

     “Roberto, it’s simple,” Carlos said, sounding slightly frustrated with his brother. “Everything is by the year. We know when Sobrino was born, when he died, and when he left Cuba for Spain after the Revolution. Julio said Sobrino was already famous when he bought El so we can start looking through the years just before that and up through 1953.”

     Walking down the first aisle, they quickly found the section containing the years between 1940 and 1949, mostly official government issued periodicals containing historical accounts of the time period. There were no more than forty of the black binders all together, one for each quarter of the year.

     “I think we will find something here, Roberto,” Carlos said excitedly. “In 1940, Sobrino would have been thirty and just beginning the peak of his career.”

     “You are amazing!” exclaimed Roberto. “This should take no time at all.”

     Quickly the brothers began taking each binder down one by one, looking at every page for any bit of information about Carlos Sobrino or one of his paintings. As they carefully went through each one, they saw many references to important Cuban artists, poets, writers, and musicians of the time period, some of whom they knew from classes in school. When they came to the end of the section, they had found nothing about Sobrino.

     Two hours had passed and they had become very frustrated once again at not finding any information about Sobrino. They were tired of looking through the binders and wanted something to eat.

     “Carlitos,” Roberto said. “We should go home now. We can come back and try again tomorrow. We should look in the years after 1949. By the way, did you remember it is my birthday tomorrow?” Roberto asked.

     “We can go now, but I will be ready to look again tomorrow. I’m not discouraged. And yes, of course I remembered it is your birthday tomorrow. We can celebrate with our fishing trip on Saturday with Maykel. Eighteen, that is a big deal, Roberto,” Carlos said, trying to be congratulatory.

     Roberto could see that his brother was disappointed and was beginning to have doubts about the painting and about Julio’s story, but out of respect for his brother, and his brother’s friend Julio, he didn’t let it show.

     When they arrived home their mother was in the kitchen, as always, preparing supper. She did not look up when they came in and they could tell immediately she was upset about something.

     algo, Roberto asked.

     “No, nothing happened, but you received this in the mail today,” Rosa said.

     “What is it?” Roberto asked, a little surprised.

     “It is from the military. You are seventeen and you turn eighteen tomorrow. It is probably your conscription papers. I’m surprised the government didn’t send them sooner.”

     “Let me see it,” Roberto said. He opened the letter and read it to himself. When he looked up his mother was crying. “What are you crying about mother? You knew this was coming.”

     “I know, I know. But now it is real. Everyone who enters the military now goes to Angola, and they don’t come back,” said Rosa.

     “I am not going to Angola mother. If I tell them I refuse to go then I simply have to stay in for additional time. I know how it works. You’ll see,” said Roberto.

     “You are always so sure of everything, Roberto,” Rosa said. “One day it is going to get you in to trouble. I hope you are right this time. You and your sister and your brothers are all I have.”

     Roberto realized it was no use trying to console his mother. He walked outside to the back terrace, sat down, and read the letter again to himself. Whatever happened, he thought, he was not going to Angola to fight in another senseless war in Africa. Too many young boys from Havana, many whom he knew personally, had been killed in the war. He saw firsthand how devastating it had been to their families.

     He walked back inside, stopped, hugged his mother, but said nothing and went upstairs to his room. When he walked into the bedroom Carlos was sitting on the bed. He had taken the painting out from beneath the mattress and was staring at it intently.

     “Carlitos. I don’t think we will have time to go back to the library tomorrow. This is my conscription notice.” Roberto said quietly, showing the letter to his brother.

     He sat down next to his brother on the bed and they looked at the painting together, saying nothing.

     After several minutes Roberto looked at his brother and said, “You know something, Carlitos. It’s strange, but every time I look at this painting, if I am worried about something, depressed about money or feel that we are trapped and have run out of possibilities, I always begin to feel better. It is like a little window to a place where I can live and think freely.”

     “When do you think we can go to the library again?” asked Carlitos. “I don’t want to give up our search.”

     “Well, maybe not tomorrow if I am going to the Ministry of Armed Forces, but we can go on Thursday and stay all day, and if we do not find anything on Thursday we will go back on Friday morning. I will be ready to look again tomorrow. I am not discouraged. I have Taekwondo training in the afternoon on Friday, but remember we go fishing with Maykel on Saturday.”

     “I will not forget your birthday trip, Roberto. I hear the weather is supposed to be perfect on Saturday with a light northeast wind. The dorado always bite when the wind is from the northeast and if there are dorado you know there will be a marlin or two, and if we’re lucky….”

     Interrupting his brother, Roberto said, “Carlitos, maybe we should put the painting back under the mattress now. It is hot up here in the bedroom. I am going down to the terrace where it is cooler.”

     He walked back down the stairs, through the kitchen, and as he opened the door to the terrace, he felt the cool evening air coming down out of the dark clouds to the south, and saw that it was starting to rain. He was beginning to sense that their quest for information about the painting and its artist was taking on a life and a power of its own, and he felt excited.

     Roberto woke up early the next day, nervous about his appointment to register for the Army. He got dressed quickly, gathered his identification papers together, had a cup of coffee and left the house right away, speaking to no one.

     When he arrived at the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, there was already a long line that had formed outside the building, so he took his place in line with the other young men and women waiting for the ministry to open.

     After the Ministry finally opened everyone with conscription notices was directed to the registration office to fill out the required paperwork and given a specific date when they were required to report for basic training.

     Roberto had fifteen days until he had to report. During his initial interview at the Ministry he was told that—because of his background in self-defense and his national Taekwondo championship the previous year—once he completed basic training it was possible he would be assigned to the Secret Service division in the Department of State Security, an elite division charged with protection of high-level government officials.

     It was a long walk home and he had a lot to think about, more than he could ever have imagined less than two days ago. He thought about his mother and how she would manage the stress. It seemed as though, at least for now, he may not be assigned combat duty in Africa, a relief to his mother no doubt, but there were no guarantees. He thought also about Carlos, who because of his autism had been exempted from military service the previous year and who struggled daily to cope with his affliction and who depended heavily on Roberto. Everything had changed for Roberto and he was becoming anxious.

     When Roberto arrived home Carlos was waiting for him.

     “Are we still going to the library tomorrow, Roberto?” asked Carlos.

     “Yes, of course we are.”

     “What did they tell you at the ministry?” Carlos asked.

     “Well, I have two weeks until I need to report and after that I go to basic training for six months,” replied Roberto. “I’m not worried about the training. I train all the time in the gym. I know how to suffer,” Roberto hesitated, “and to enjoy it. It will be easy. Anyway, let’s talk about tomorrow and our trip to the library.”

     “Yes, let’s talk about tomorrow. I have some ideas.”

     With that the brothers went inside, Roberto needing to tell his mother about the day’s events and perhaps ease her anxiety about his future.

     After supper the rest of the evening was spent with family on the terrace enjoying each other’s company and making small talk. Neither brother mentioned anything about the painting in front of their father, nor their planned trip to the library the next day. It was a lovely summer night, the rains keeping well to the south and the westerlies light from the northeast, bringing in some drier air over the city and relief from the heat.

     The next day the brothers left home early for the library. As they entered the building and headed back to the fourth floor where they had been searching several days prior, Carlos remembered Julio telling them Sobrino had won the National Painting Award in 1957.

     “You know,” Carlos said, as they entered the library. “If Sobrino won the National Painting Award in 1957, it means the museum thought he was the best painter in the country at that time, the best. They must have information about him. We should search all the catalogues between 1950 and 1957 when he won the award.”

     With renewed enthusiasm they once again went straight to the archive room on the fourth floor, and immediately went to work carefully looking through every catalogue from the 1950’s. After three hours of careful searching they again found no references to Carlos Sobrino nor his works. It was an enormous disappointment to the brothers. They simply could not understand how a nationally recognized artist was not represented in the archives of the National Library.

     “I don’t know, Carlitos. I think we are wasting our time. Maybe we should go. It’s nearly 1:00 and I need to be at the gym by 2:00. I’m sorry.”

     “We can leave now, Roberto, but I am not willing to give up.”

     Frustrated and saddened by their failure to uncover any information, the brothers headed home.

     They would not have another opportunity to return to the National Library for more than six months, after Roberto had completed his basic training. Refusing to fight overseas in Angola and having qualified for acceptance in the Cuban special forces, Roberto would eventually be assigned full time duty in the Secret Service, stationed at the Palace of the Revolution, tasked with protecting El Presidente, Fidel Castro, a turn of events that would change his life forever.

     Roberto, sleeping little that night, was up well before dawn, preparing for the much-anticipated day of fishing on the ocean. Together with their good friend, Maykel, they would celebrate Roberto’s eighteenth birthday. Maykel was in his 60’s now and considerably older than the brothers, but full of passion and always the first one to the dock in the morning before sunrise. He genuinely seemed to love taking the brothers fishing, enjoying their youthful exuberance and optimism.

     Carlitos,” Roberto greeting his brother as he sat down at the kitchen table for some coffee. “I hope you got a good night’s sleep and are feeling strong. We are going to catch a lot of fish today.”

     Fishermen are eternally optimistic. No matter how poor the fishing was the day before they are always certain that today will be the day.

     “I will be ready when Maykel needs me,” said Carlos.

     “I saw his son, Aroldis, yesterday afternoon on my way home from training. He said Maykel had a good day yesterday and caught a nice bull dorado of twenty-five kilos.”

     “How many fish did he catch?” Carlos asked.

     “Aroldis said his father fished in the bight and caught twenty-five and two big wahoo,” said Roberto.

     “Was he fishing alone?”

     “I think so, yes,” replied Roberto.

     “He must have been very tired. We will reel in all the fish today,” Carlos said confidently.

     “We should be going, Carlitos. I hate being late to the dock. Maykel told me 4:30. He will be waiting.”

     The brothers gathered the lunch Roberto had made, along with two jugs of fresh coconut water. Leaving the house through the back door, they headed to the sea front.

     When they arrived at the dock Maykel had untied the boat and was waiting for the boys with the engine running in front of the steps leading down from the sea wall along the Avenida del Puerto.

     dias, Maykel said cheerfully.

     “Maykel was always in a good mood,” Roberto thought to himself.

     Maykel. I heard from Aroldis they were snapping pretty good yesterday,” Roberto said.

     “Yes, I fished alone and caught twenty-five and two wahoo. Fortunately no marlin.” Maykel was not interested in catching marlin when the dorado were running. They required too much time and effort to bring to the boat and often threw the hook before he could bring them close enough to reach with the gaff.

     The brothers quickly stepped from the dock to the washboard as Maykel gently eased the old wooden boat out into the harbor, the coming quarter moon giving them just enough light to safely navigate the Canal de Entrada and out into Havana Bay.

     Maykel always left the dock before the other fishermen, refusing to fish behind any other boats. He believed it improved his chances and he regularly outfished the bigger boats.

     “Carlitos, take the wheel while I rig some baits,” Maykel said, knowing it made Carlos feel important and gave the older brother confidence. Having passed beyond the reef and out into open water, Maykel knew there was no risk of hitting bottom.

     With a faint sliver of yellow light beginning to brighten the horizon and a flat calm ocean, they began trolling to the northwest, putting out all four baits, one on each outrigger at the sixth wave made by the boat’s wake, and two flatlines half the distance off the stern. Maykel’s preferred bait was a pink and white feathered trolling lure with a small ballyhoo rigged inside.

     The Gulf Stream normally flowed close to the Morro just outside Havana Harbor and even though it was still too dark to make out its distinctive dark blue color, they could easily tell when they reached the edge of the current, which was pushing steadily into the early morning northeast breeze, making the waves a little steeper and forcing them closer together.

     “Look Maykel!” Carlos shouted. “Three war birds, off the port bow, and one is on the water!”

     “I see them. For sure they’re on fish!” said Roberto. “I see the flying fish now coming out of the water underneath the birds!” he said excitedly.

     “They are right by that big patch of Sargasso. Check the baits for weed, boys. Make sure they are clean,” Maykel said as they closed in on the birds.

     “I see the dorado breaking!” Carlos said.

     “The current is pushing the fish toward us,” Maykel said, responding to Carlos.

     “See the yelled Maykel. “See him there, see him there. Get ready, he’s coming, he’s coming!”

     All four lines went off at once, the outriggers bending under the weight of the fish before releasing and snapping back loudly from the force of the strike. Quickly each brother grabbed a flat line rod and slowly leaned back as the line went out, each one feeling the weight of the fish. Maykel eased off the throttle just enough to help keep the lines tight and to ensure the hooks would hold, and then picked up the starboard outrigger rod.

     “The fish on my rod is a big bull, boys,” Maykel said. “After we gaff one of the smaller fish one of you needs to fight this fish for me. He’s heavy and my back is still bad from yesterday.”

     Holding the rod with his left hand and steering with his right he slowly brought the boat around so they could fight the fish off the port side.

     It wasn’t long before Carlos had his fish alongside the boat and ready to gaff.

     “Roberto!” yelled Maykel. “Grab the hand line and a bait. There are three more with your brother’s fish.” Dorado often run in schools and will follow the fish that is hooked all the way to the boat.

     “There is another big bull, Maykel!” said Roberto.

     They could see the free-swimming bull dorado just below the fish on Carlos’s rod, clearly visible in the clear, cobalt colored water, its pectoral and tail fins glowing a brilliant neon blue.

     “Tie the hand line off and throw him the bait, Roberto!” said Maykel.

     After securing the heavy nylon hand line around the port stern cleat he threw the baited hook overboard with the remaining line, just in front of the big fish. Holding the line with both hands he braced his knees against the wooden apron on the inside of the boat, waiting for the fish to take the bait.

     “He’s got it, Roberto, he’s got it!” yelled Maykel.

     “Set the hook,” shouted Carlos, trying to remain calm.

     Roberto felt the weight slowly begin to build on the line as the big bull dorado with the bait now in his mouth, swam parallel to the side of the boat. He tightened his grip on the heavy nylon fishing line and gave a quick pull, low and hard in the opposite direction the fish was swimming.

     When the fish felt the sting of the hook it turned away from the boat and made a burst toward the surface, every inch of his six-foot length coming clear of the water.

     With everything he had, Roberto tried unsuccessfully to horse the fish back in the direction of the boat. Maykel, seeing that Roberto was overmatched by the power of the fish, immediately grabbed the line to help, realizing if the fish made it to the end of the hand line it would snap from the force of the run and the weight of the fish.

     The old bull, probably having been hooked before, then tried going deep but failed to take any line, instead changing direction once more, coming up and out of the water right beside the boat, splashing Roberto and Maykel with a mixture of sea water and blood.

     Fully out of the water the fish had nothing to push against and they quickly pinned the massive blunt head of the fish against the side of the boat.

     Carlos, ready with the long gaff in hand, instantly sunk the six-inch, semi-circle tip into the fish’s soft under belly.

     “We don’t have him yet!” Maykel grunted, holding onto the line with both hands and straining to maintain control of the fish. “Throw him in the boat. Now, NOW!” he yelled.

     With one last supreme effort the brothers and Maykel pulled the massive bull into the boat, stepping quickly out of the way as the fish began slapping its powerful tail against the inside of the stern, spraying blood over the interior of the cockpit.

     “All right, let’s get these other fish in,” said Maykel. “Roberto, gaff Carlitos’s fish. I’ll crank yours in. The other big bull is out far. Leave him until last.”

     Working frantically the brothers and Maykel managed to quickly bring the other three smaller fish to the boat, successfully gaffing each without incident. Once the fish were in the cooler both brothers sat on the lid to prevent the fish from flopping back out onto the deck.

     Again Maykel picked up the rod with the other big bull on it, still hooked. Reeling steadily, he slowly began to gain line, synchronizing his movements by pulling back and reeling down with the rise and fall of each swell.

     Maykel continued fighting his fish while the boys, each dipping buckets of sea water from the ocean, began cleaning the blood splatters caused by the fish they had caught on the hand line that covered nearly everything on the inside of the stern of the boat.

     “He’s close now. Get the long gaff, not the small one. Have the small one ready if we need it. I want him on this side,” said Maykel, pointing toward the port side.

     Keeping the rod tip low and making one or two turns at a time on the reel, Maykel made steady progress easing the fish closer to the boat. Roberto readied the gaff and as the fish slid slowly on the surface gently bumping the side of the boat, he drove the point into the thick part of the fish’s shoulder behind the head, piercing the spine, killing him instantly.

     “Nice job, Roberto. Let’s get him in the cooler,” said Carlitos.

     “We keep this up we’ll be to the dock by noon,” Maykel said, laughing out loud. “These are big fish. A few more and the cooler is full.”

     “I know Madre will be happy,” Carlos said.

     With the sun now well above the horizon, and having trolled a good distance to the west, Maykel decided to turn back into the sea, heading to the east in the direction of Havana. Trolling east, the sun would now be at their backs as they watched the baits trailing behind the boat to the west, making it easier to see the fish when they came into the spread.

     Maykel and the brothers managed to catch a few more small dorado and a good-sized sailfish as they fished their way back toward the city. By the time they could see the outline of the buildings along the western sea front, they had filled the cooler and decided to call it a day.

     Trolling to the edge of the drop-off at the mouth of Havana Bay, and into the shallows, Maykel backed off the throttle to make it easier for the brothers to pull in all the lines. Tired, wet and with his clothes stained with blood, Carlos, remembering it was his brother’s birthday, turned to Roberto and said, cumpleanos it was a good day.”

     “Thank you, brother. For certain, it was a good day. I will never forget my eighteenth birthday.”

     Returning to the dock the boys began cleaning the boat while Maykel saw to the job of filleting the fish, which he was very particular about. When he finished cleaning the last fish, the boys divided up their share of the meat, filling a full kit bag. Turning to Maykel the brothers each gave him a hug, thanked him again, and headed home. They were proud and knew how happy their mother would be to have so much fresh fish in the house. It would be many years before Roberto would have another opportunity to enjoy time together on the ocean with his brother Carlos.