Pilar

photo 4

He was a young man who crossed the sea to photograph Havana but six days passed and the shot he wanted eluded him. Not the old Soviet embassy, Stalin meets Lego. Not grinning grandma with the foot-long cigar and bougainvillea bracts in her hatband. Not the iron balconies or crumbling apartments or hitchhiker thumbing down a pink Impala. Not the art deco Edificio Bacardi or steam-engine graveyard in the shadow of the capitol. Tourist snaps. Jesus, Ben, you have to do better than that.

“Lots of free hotels in Havana.” The cab driver had affixed a Mercedes emblem to the hood of his Lada. “They give you free meals. And free massage. With sticks.”

That could be different, inside a Cuban jail. But he had no access, no contacts, only one day left. Even if he went back to the airport and found the driver again and the man agreed to take him to such a place or even just point one out—-big ifs, given the vigilance of the secret police—-the best he could hope for was a telephoto shot of gates closing behind some windowless van. Not even a wire service would buy that, much less a glossy publisher like Orbis.

“Shin, trust me. This could be my big break. A Day in the Life of Havana. They do these books about all the great cities. It’s not just commissioned. They use freelance stuff as well. And pay really good rates.” She hadn’t looked up, just carried on folding Lucy’s diapers and putting them in the bandaji chest, a wedding gift from her parents. “I can’t spend my life making idiotic websites. It’s not even as if there’s any money in it, not anymore.” Lucy began to cry.

Now he took the elevator up four floors to the roof of his hotel, which was far from free: one night meant another day cobbling together a digital footprint for Shane’s Best Foot Forward Bootique. Ignoring Shin’s silent reproach, which had somehow lodged itself in his head, he ordered a mojito from the bar. A full moon approached the nearest of the statues which rose from each corner of the neighboring Gran Teatro, a goddess in marble with arms spread wide. Now, there’s a shot: the white goddess on tiptoe atop her baroque tower touching the silver orb of the moon. Yes!

He paid for the drink with his last hundred-peso bill and looked around. The sky was strewn with stars. He tried to figure out the best place to shoot from. Just where that gaggle of Mexicans were shouting for more daiquiris. Half an hour until the moon reached the right position. He chose a table beside the low wall and settled down to wait. He was struck by how cautiously traffic moved in the street below. One of the few blessings of the embargo: a crash meant repairs, repairs meant parts, and parts, like so many other things, could not be found for love or money.

Because the moon was so bright he would make two exposures and combine them in Photoshop, one fast so details of the cobwebby face were not blown out, the other slower to show the folds in the statue’s robe. Manual focus and settings, zoomed out to three hundred millimeters. He fitted the lens onto the camera body and was pulling out the legs of the tripod when a man in a Real Madrid soccer shirt approached and stood watching.

“Photographer?” the man said.

Ben glanced up. “That’s right.” No, he was not interested in buying cigars, not even the same Cohibas Fidel smoked. The Mexicans showed no sign of moving. Half a dozen of them sprawled around a table in a direct line with the goddess and the moon. He took out his Swiss Army knife and screwed the tripod plate onto the bottom of the camera. The man stared at the knife.

“That is a fine knife.”

“Yes.” Ben put it back in his bag and stood up. He slotted the camera onto the tripod and approached the Mexicans.

“Hi, guys. Sorry to disturb you. Listen, would you help me out? I need to take a photo. Of the moon. Luna.” He pointed. They ignored him. One was asleep, head resting on folded arms. “Excuse me.”

Cabron.” Gold Rolex—might even be genuine—hairy arm, bloodshot glare.

“Listen. I want to take a picture of the moon so it looks as if the statue is holding it. Would you mind moving, just for a minute?” Braving Shin’s ineluctable outrage: “Drinks for everyone. Daiquiris, right?” He caught the barman’s eye and pointed to the group with an encircling gesture. The barman nodded.

Behind the bulk of the sleeping man the moon would reach the fingers of the goddess in the next couple of minutes. Ben tapped his shoulder. “Amigo. Excuse me. Would you mind moving?” No response. “Per favor?” He tapped harder, shook, desperation trumping diffidence. Slurred remarks from around the table, motherfucking gabacha pushing people around, push me and I’ll cut your fucking balls off.

Real Madrid appeared at Ben’s elbow and said something in Spanish. Rolex responded with what sounded like a disquisition on the arrogance of gringo cocksuckers. At first the newcomer seemed to agree. Yet he was evidently a skilled diplomat. When the drinks arrived the sleeper was shaken awake, none too gently, and Ben invited to take his place.

Too late. The silver disk had slipped past the goddess’s welcome and was already leaving her behind. Endless website drudgery loomed.

“Ernesto,” Ben’s new friend said, and stuck out a hand. “Do not be dismayed. There are many things to photograph. You have seen the Bacardi building?”

“Every tourist who’s ever set foot in Havana has seen the Bacardi building. I need something different.”

Ernesto thought for a moment. “A portrait?”

“Fidel?”

Ernesto laughed. “Not Fidel. Who else do Americans think of when they think of Cuba?”

He had been to Finca Vigia on his first day and marveled at the simple beauty of the place, a one-level white-painted villa set on a hill, bookshelves everywhere. Even with the stream of tourists it radiated order and calm. What else could a writer want? Yet the one discordant note was so loud and unsettling it made him think of a surrealist painting: the oversized heads of dead animals that dominated the walls. It was the home of a man who, if not psychotic yet, was well on the way.

“Hemingway shot himself in 1961.”

Ernesto nodded. “But some of his old friends are still here. My grandfather. He was on Hemingway’s boat. Pilar. Cabin boy. Cut bait.”

An old man, stubbled face weathered by sun and sea. Could be perfect for black and white.

“Would he pose for me? It would have to be tomorrow.”

“It might be possible. Because of the embargo Cuba is a poor country. We do whatever we can to survive.”

Six daiquiris plus a Bucanero beer for Ernesto had almost wiped him out. “I understand. But I too have money problems.”

Ernesto shrugged. “You have other things.” He looked at the bag.

“The camera? No way. I use that to earn my living.” True. Well, almost.

“Not the camera.” He laughed. “The knife.”

When Ben made real money he was going to buy a Mercedes convertible. But for now he had to satisfy his taste for European design with more modest purchases. A Braun espresso machine. A Rotring pen. The knife. To be forced to let it go felt uncomfortably like failure, a reminder of how little progress he had made in life so far. But he had no choice.

“Okay. Here’s the deal. I shoot him with the boat and if the pictures are what I want I’ll give you the knife. If they’re not I’ll destroy them and keep it.”

Ernesto smiled. “If you did that my grandfather would get nothing.”

“That’s right. But don’t worry. I’m good.” Also true. Some of the time….

****

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. Hemingway would have marveled at how time had sculpted the cabin boy to resemble his own fictional creation.

“Santiago Valdes,” the old man said stiffly and extended a hand the texture of rawhide. When Ben took it he sensed the strength whose celebration had landed a Nobel prize.

“Santiago is the name of Hemingway’s hero.”

“Exactly.” Ernesto beamed. “He used my grandfather’s name because he loved him like one of his own sons. He could see what kind of man he would become.” He said something in Spanish. The old man made no reply. “Ben, my friend, you are lucky. Hemingway’s own boat and the man whose name he took for his greatest character. Truly something different. Never been photographed before.”

Don’t ask, Ben. Don’t go out of your way to smell rats. Not at this stage.

As they passed the steps in front of the house an old woman husking corn called out, “Hola, Francisco, como estas?”

“His confirmation name,” Ernesto said. “Our family are all devout Catholics.”

They turned downhill along a path lined with royal palms to the pool. “Ava Gardner swam here,” Ernesto said. “Naked.” It was drained now, empty of everything except a green-tailed salamander. Beyond the pool lay the ruins of the tennis court, and in the middle of the tennis court, protected by corrugated plastic roofing, resting on concrete blocks and surrounded on three sides by a wooden platform, sat Pilar.

Not an elegant boat. Too chunky for that, too broad in the beam. The almost-vertical bow gave her a pugnacious aspect. Perhaps that’s why Hemingway chose her, the way people choose a dog that looks like themselves. Perfect condition, freshly painted black, so smart and tidy and unmarked she might never have breasted the Gulf Stream’s swells.

“Beautiful.” Ernesto trailed a finger along the mahogany trim. “Hemingway said she cut through the surf as if she had a foaming white bone between her teeth.”

A revolving chair had been fitted at the stern to help land the denizens of the deep. When Ben indicated the old man should sit in it he sat. Asked to turn to one side he turned. Now take the wheel … he took it. When Ben came in for a close-up with the name of the boat to one side he looked into the camera with eyes like a moonless night. All without showing one iota of emotion.

“How does he feel, seeing it again after all these years?”

Ernesto translated. The old man made no response. “He is not a man to talk of his feelings. He is silent and strong as a lion. That is why Hemingway loved him. Shall I take a picture of the two of you together?”

“No thanks.” Thirty-seven shots, none of them near memorable enough for Orbis. It wasn’t just the old man’s rigidity; that could make a good photo in itself. But for some reason things had not come together. The background was too cluttered and he had not found a way to simplify it.

“Ernesto, I appreciate your help. But it hasn’t worked. I haven’t got what I need. Deal’s off.”

“But my grandfather …”

“Frankly, I’m not convinced he is your grandfather. Or that his name is Santiago.”

“You doubt my word?”

Ben shrugged. “I’ll delete everything I shot. You’ll see.”

Ernesto spoke to the old man in a low, angry tone. The old man muttered a few words, Ernesto said something else, greater urgency in his voice. The old man reached into the pocket of his tattered shirt and took out an envelope. Ernesto thrust it at Ben.

“Read.”

Yellowed with age, postmarked Ketchum, Idaho and dated 4 January 1961, it was addressed by hand to Snr. Santiago Valdes, General Delivery, San Francisco de Paula, Havana.

“Read it!”

A single sheet of paper, folded in three and disintegrating at the folds. “Santiago, mi querido amigo, I hope all goes well with you and the big ones are running. All is not well with me and the doctors of death are putting wires in my head. Look after Pilar. She needs both engines in good repair not just the big Chrysler. The bearings on both screws need replacing to keep her sweet. As a man of honor I know you will do this for me. Papa.”

“Oh, Jesus.” Ben took out the knife. “Please have this. As an apology. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.”

Before Ernesto could respond Santiago sprang forward, grabbed it, and, with all the strength of seventy years’ hauling marlin and bonito and barracuda, hurled it far into the undergrowth.

“I am Santiago Valdes,” he said in thickly accented English. “Friend of Hemingway. Man of honor. Look.” He stepped off the platform, dropped to his knees and pointed to the underneath of the hull. “One screw. Not two.

“Not Pilar. Government fake.”

*****