LUISITO GRAU DE ARMAS
WHEN THE PRIEST directed his entire Sunday congregation to turn and welcome the foreigner sitting in the last pew, Luisito was already staring at her from his wheelchair. He had propped himself up on the chair’s right arm—something only a person of his size could do without toppling over—and was using the boost to peer over the heads of the Bejucal congregation, for a clear view of the blonde person. She was a quarter breath from falling asleep, her eyes growing bleary and narrow. Each time her head drooped toward her lap, Luisito fought the urge to giggle and point.
“We have a special guest with us in Bejucal…” the priest slipped into his sermon’s close, regaining any haphazard listeners.
“…an Americana, who came to help with the nuns.” Luisito watched the foreigner’s head jolt up at the sound of her name. A quick blush pummeled her sleep-bleached cheeks. The congregation, in an avalanche of pews, turned to nod and smile.
“We hope she’ll feel at home with us here,” the priest offered on behalf of Bejucal, then said, “And now let us pray,” cuing all attention back to the pulpit. All attention, that is, except Luisito’s. Luisito remained facing the direction that interested him most: against the devout flock, toward the town’s new alien.
The Americana fixed her eyes on the altar, while the rouge on her cheeks melted down. But like everyone seated in the dim nave, she eventually let her eyes drift, first climbing up to the red stained-glass saints, then left, toward the eastern side aisle, where sun charged in at a slant, finally meandering down the stone columns, to ground-level, where the left eye of Luisito Grau de Armas was pointed at her, unmistakably, like a vector.
Immediately, the Americana looked away. People always looked away from Luisito—unsure what sort of creature he was—before warily looking back to ascertain. A second glance would pinpoint what made the little man side-saddling the wheelchair so unsightly, beginning with eyes that didn’t match. His pupils floated around without synchronizing, taking turns on focus. His torso had an egg shape, as if someone had packed his body into a concentrated ball, as they would clay or snow. Irregular rib bones jutted out from his chest. His legs were meager sticks, nearly equal in width all the way down. They touched the floor only when Luisito scooched to the edge of his wheelchair’s seat. These legs allowed Luisito to scramble around the floor in short spurts, but never walked upright.
While the stick limbs suggested Luisito was no more than a dozen years old, other features hinted at an older age. Tiny white hairs were sprinkled throughout his buzz cut, prominent in the otherwise jet-black thicket. Luisito’s nose and ears had outgrown all other features on his enormous head. His teeth were large, cartoon-proportioned ivories—so large, in fact, that without pursing his lips, Luisito could not cover his teeth.
“Join me in our closing hymn…” The congregation swelled in song, ejecting the priest down the center aisle, parishioners filing out after. Luisito joined in, reaching no higher than any adult waist, letting the garrulous stream carry his wheelchair towards the back pew, where the Americana stood, fielding kisses from people tall enough to reach her cheek.
Luisito had come to Sunday mass with a plan: He would meet her. Then hold hands. And maybe become her boyfriend. This was the trajectory. For today at least.
“Ania!” Luisito called out to the stout young woman standing beside the Americana. Whenever a new stranger happened into Bejucal, Luisito relied on a normal-looking person to orchestrate the introduction. Otherwise, the stranger wouldn’t know what to make of Luisito. His compact body and loping arms made one think monkey, while his long pointer finger and rock-solid torso recalled the gentle alien E.T. His voice—a young boy’s pitch squeezed into a tight nasal horn—suggested elf, maybe gremlin.
“Ania!” Luisito negotiated his wheelchair to get between the two women. Ania finally glanced down at Luisito’s half-height and grinned. “Luisiiiito!” She elbowed the Americana. “Have you met our Luisito yet…?”
The Americana looked down on him and he felt it, tucking his head low. He guessed that her mouth was opening in a circle, to say no, she hadn’t met Luisito, but what a pleas—
A lurch! Luisito’s wheelchair was shoved forward from behind. A little boy had seized hold of the handle bars, gripping them with the energy that a half-hour sermon pens up. Vamos! Luisito was whisked off.
The children of Bejucal played with Luisito like a doll. They spun his wheelchair around in circles. It was always okay to spin Luisito, to pull his big doughy ears, to pet his spiky buzz cut. It was always okay because he was everyone’s to play with. Bejucal was that small, and Luisito was the smallest among them.
Weeeee! The boy’s pack of little sisters joined in, propelling Luisito in a narrow circle. Neither smiling nor frowning, Luisito took his joyride. Parishioners circumnavigated, smiling on the scene. When the ride was over, Luisito seized his chance. With three brisk cranks of the rubber-padded wheels, he was back.
“ANIA.” Luisito called, his elfin voice now frosted in impatience.
The priest had the Americana in conversation, talking effusively about Bible studies, choir practices, and rosary groups, where she was more than welcome.
Luisito stole glances from below. Did the Americana know Luisito lived in the same nursing home she did? She on the first floor, he on the third? That her rice and beans came from the same big pots as Luisito’s rice and beans and must taste bad on the same days? Did she know she and Luisito could see each other every morning if they wanted?
She must not know. “Tell her, Ania,” Luisito whispered, trusting that Ania knew what to tell. Ania nodded and laid one of her palms on his head, gripping it like a basketball. They were allies. Ania knew.
First and foremost: that Luisito was special. That everyone liked Luisito. That everyone liked Luisito best. That Luisito said grace before eating his meals like a good boy. That the nuns taught Luisito grace. That the nuns called Luisito Luisito, and the nurses called Luisito Luisito, so naturally, Luisito called Luisito Luisito.
Also: that Luisito had many girlfriends. Mostly nurses and floor moppers, but a physical therapist and one architect, too. That, speaking of girlfriends, Luisito had never had an American girlfriend, and perhaps this American girl had never had a Luisito boyfriend. Did they even have Luisitos in America? Luisito would bring this up later, when the American girl was looking Luisito in the eye.
When the priest finally finished his plugs for prayer meetings and they walked down the sunny side streets back to the nursing home—Ania, next to the Americana, next to Luisito—and Luisito slipped Luisito’s man-sized hand into the Americana’s woman-sized hand, Luisito considered it a good sign that the Americana did not pull away from Luisito.
. . .
It would take me months—nearly ten—to piece together the odd history of Luisito Grau de Armas. Not because his past was a secret, but because I didn’t actively seek it out. In the landscape of Bejucal, too much else was new to me, including dozens of full-sized strangers coming at my cheeks with double-kisses. At first, I did not much notice that guy, Bejucal’s strange accessory: always around, always paddling his wheelchair in the direction of voices.
I’d chosen this remote facility, thirty miles from Havana, because the Mother Superior was willing to let me play volunteer, unsuspicious of my nationality and my American “public service fellowship.” Here, I could have a hand in the simplest rituals: carrying lunch trays, shepherding walkers, cleaning.
The only kink in the arrangement was called Luisito. When Ania told me, grinning, that her little pal wanted to play boyfriend to an Americana, I laughed, but did nothing to engage him. Instead, I spent my first week in the company of Ania and the nuns. The nuns let me join them in the infirmary, making beds, mopping floors, spoon-feeding.
Tagging along with this coterie of Sisters meant learning about their charges. While we stripped beds, the nuns told me about the old folks in the beds, what they were like before this sickness or senility. There was one name the nuns had a special devotion to. Of course: Luisito. It was through the nuns that I began gathering his history. Each Sister dispensed her share. Tracing his story to its origins, it is no wonder that the nuns had more to say about Luisito than any one else under the roof of the Bejucal nursing home—not because he was the youngest or the smallest or even the most idiosyncratic of their hundreds. But because Luisito’s little life had begun, quite literally, at their feet.
. . .
Once, in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, the convent in Central Havana had a special panel on its front door that could be pushed open from the outside, from the street. Any nameless stranger roaming Havana could hand off a medium-sized anything to the Sisters of Charity, for one of the nuns to find in the morning. If this delivery happened to be a baby boy, then the person making the delivery would of course ring the bell, as Luisito’s mother did, just before disappearing.
Hearing the doorbell, the nun on duty scurried to the door. There she found a basket, holding a baby whose bones poked at his skin in worrisome places, a baby leaking tears from crooked eyes. The basket contained no directions, no name.
He became Luis only when the nuns decided it was an appropriate name for a little boy with bigger ears than hands. Luis was a small name—not a proud Fernando or a hereditary Miguel, but humble and common. Once the orphaned baby was named and fed, the nuns had to find him a home. It was 1959, the year Cuba changed hands and the Robin-hood bureaucracy began transferring property from rich hands to poor ones. A school for Havana’s young Catholics had been made into a home for disabled children. The government named it El Edad de Oro, the title of a children’s book by the national hero, Jose Marti. The Age of Gold.
Luis was given a crib in the nursery. It didn’t take long for the staff to determine that this orphaned ugly duckling was not growing into anything swan-like. Luis’s deformities became more pronounced with age. While his head ballooned, the rest of his body hardly grew. Luis’s chest remained compact and bony. Thus the suffix –ito (“little”) was added to his name.
Luisito was the last creature any one expected to grow fond of, so when they did, the unlikelihood of the affection lent it a private, precious feel. Before Luis had even graduated from a crib to a bed, he was already the mascot of The Age of Gold. Mascot because he was turning out to be the sweetest of little boys, hungry for affection from anyone willing to spend some of theirs—any of theirs—on him.
. . .
“Luisitoooo! Where’s your new girlfriend?”
“Aaah, Luisi: got your suitcase packed yet?”
“THERE he is. So when’s the wedding, Luisito? We’ll get working on a cake.”
The kitchen staff was on Luisito’s case. Word had gotten out around the nursing home. Now every employee and nun knew it: Luisito was brewing a crush on the Americana.
Luisito pulled his wheelchair up against the island-countertop, where a plump cook was slicing tomatoes. Bashfully, he looked down at the floor, at a viscous dribble of seeds. “No wedding,” he countered, feeling the cooks’ attention marshal around him.
“Oh c’mon, Luisi. She’s just your type.”
He was fighting a giggle now, his eyes holding onto the tomato seeds.
“And you’d fit right in her suitcase,” added the head cook, pulling a silver tray out of the fridge. “You wouldn’t even have to beg Fidel for a visa.”
Residents are technically not allowed in the nursing home kitchen. With all the traffic—men delivering branches of bananas, nuns darting in for extra kettles of warm milk—wheelchairs are not a welcome obstruction. The kitchen aisles too slender and often slickened with at least one ingredient from the day’s menu.
Luisito made himself an exception to the kitchen rule. It took years of carefully floating by the entrance, testing the boundaries of the cooks. He slipped in so subtly that no one noticed him. Once inside, Luisito could work on getting what he wanted from the kitchen staff: food.
Luisito was a dedicated carnivore. Growing up in public institutions—where beef was nonexistent and chicken a once-per-week benediction—Luisito’s craving had flourished. He wanted slabs of ham, chicken off the bone, a patty of ground beef glistening with orange grease. Meat was Luisito’s dream, boiled eggs his scourge.
“Eggs today, Luisito,” a passing cook muttered. Luisito didn’t have to look up to know who it was; her apron always reeked of garlic.
“Lie,” Luisito replied calmly. He had already checked. Today was cod.
“Eggs indeed,” chimed in the tomato cutter, her voice sounding like a smile. “Just for Luisito.”
A cook back-pedaled the conversation. “She was in here not long ago, Luisi. A couple of minutes ago.” Luisito looked up. “A healthy appetite that Americana has! Ate two rolls. Then some bananas.”
Luisito appreciated these details, had been collecting them. From Sister Jubi he learned that the Americana woke up at dawn, asking “what that sound was.” (That sound was the autistic lady on floor two whose singing—“Que Buuuuuueno…”—echoed through the nursing home every morning.) From Ania, Luisito learned that the Americana owned a magical screen where American movies appeared and sound came out. The Americana was staying in the guest room beside Ania’s, in the storage loft, ten steps up from the third floor, where Luisito’s chair could not go.
“So how you gonna charm her, Luisi? What’s the plan?” the garlic apron asked.
“This is your big chance.”
Another cook agreed. “Marry an American and you’ll never eat another egg.”
Luisito remained mute, as though some idea or answer was leavening his puny chest.
“Tell you what, Luisi. We’ll help you out. We’ll put some fresh cod in the oven and throw those eggs to the hogs. We’ll feed that Americana WELL, so she doesn’t go running off back to Havana. How does that sound?”
Despite himself, Luisito was smiling.
“You do your part—work your charm, senor—and we’ll do ours.”
. . .
Growing up at the Age of Gold orphanage had not been comfortable. The orphanage suffered whenever the economy did. Like every institution in Cuba, it was managed by Cubans who earned federally-set wages. When these wages fell short of the basic needs of the employees, Cubans could not make ends meet. In all segments of the communist economy, people began stealing from their place of work. Even the bosses had to steal. This corruption became so widespread that the verb “robar”—to rob—was supplanted by the milder “llevar”—to lift.
The fact that the Age of Gold was an orphanage only made the consequences crueler. Nurses and aides “lifted” anything they could make use of at home: vanilla pudding, band-aids, chicken, pajamas, hair combs, sugar. Food that was intended for the disabled orphans was divvied up. When Luisito recalls his years at the Age of Gold, he talks about being hungry.
Luisito’s eclectic upbringing was clear when he spoke—the triumvirate of influences: nuns, nurses, workers. The nuns were responsible for Luisito’s chronic tendency to remind people to “be careful,” and in his common salutation, “May you have a merry Christmas with your loved ones.” Thanks to the nurses, Luisito treated other people’s bowel movements as a casual topic of conversation, like weather. The floor moppers and the handy men were the reason Luisito often fell into street slang.
But some of what came out of Luisito’s fresh mouth was untaught. Soon after he began speaking, the Age of Gold began hearing the opinions of Luisito Grau de Armas. Luisito hated The Age of Gold. Luisito hated the food. Hated the eggs. If Luisito’s legs could do the walking, Luisito would be long gone.
The nuns shushed him, just as they would any orphan pining away for a real home. They taught him prayers. The language of counting your blessings and eating your eggs. But they also made minor allowances, Sister Sarah especially, wheeling Luisito into the nuns quarters on holidays, packing the tight paunch below his ribs with food he couldn’t name but talked about for months.
Once, the nuns took Luisito on an errand outside of The Age of Gold. Sister Sara was visiting the Mother Superior of the Bejucal nursing home and made room for a wheelchair. In the Bejucal nursing home, Luisito gawked. It struck him as an odd place—filled with people so old their skin hung towards the floor—but he knew improvement when he smelled it. Before the visit was half-over, Luisito uttered his fateful proclamation: “I’m not going back.”
. . .
Luisito had an artillery of ways to get what he wanted. Having grown up in the care of middle-aged women, he learned to read female moods and press maternal soft spots. His most trusty maneuver involved pulling the arm of a caretaker down toward his wheelchair and pressing her hand against his stubbly cheek. Once the hand was in place, he would shrug up his bony shoulder to make a warm sandwich. The palm-n-stubble sandwich functioned as a hug.
Just as the nurses and nuns played favorites with Luisito, Luisito played favorites within the ranks of nuns and nurses. He was strategic with his affection, zoning in on the youngest and the prettiest, sweet-talking with his elfin voice. It didn’t so much matter who had husbands or boyfriends, but who was most pliable—who paused the longest, regardless of their workload, and treated him—for the length of their shift—like a tag-a-long son.
Luisito’s favorite staff member at the Bejucal nursing home was Dinorah, the home’s physical therapist. She never worked before 2PM, which meant Luisito’s days had to be formatted in anticipation of her arrival. He received her in the lobby every afternoon.
Dinorah liked to tease Luisito for being spoiled. “El nino de la casa,” she would say, staring at the back of Luisito’s head. “The kid of the house.” The son of the nursing home. As pampered as a son of a nursing home can be. Luisito didn’t mind the term “nino.” He seemed to find it cozy, muttering back at his surrogate mother, “El nino de la casa.”
. . .
The first time I heard an old man at the nursing home tease Luisito for being a “nino de la revolucion,” I figured this was a variation on Dinorah’s jibe—just another way to tease the little man, but with a communist twist, to unleash his unpatriotic bravado.
I learned, however, that the title “nino de la revolucion” actually refers to any Cuban born the year the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959. When the Bejucal men call Luisito a “nino de la revolucion,” they are harping on his date of birth. I listened to this, and laughed, before following its inference through to the obvious conclusion: someone born the year the Cuban Revolution triumphed would have to be the same age as Castro’s regime. I couldn’t forget the age of the Cuban Revolution any less than I could forget my own, for it was proclaimed across the island: on highway billboards, city billboards, banners draped in museums. Forty-six, forty-six, forty-six.
“He’s not forty-six.” I said disbelievingly to Ania.
“Yup,” She nodded, used to incredulity on the topic. “Forty-six.”
Ania nodded again, her knowing smile growing more amused.
“He can’t be forty-six.” I actually wanted her to take it back. “Ania—”
Sure, I had known Luisito was older, but older in the vague not-born-yesterday sense. But this many yesterdays—forty-six years of them—was too much. Putting a number on the age made comparisons too easy and abundant: your uncle, your English professor, the man whose kids you babysat.
“No,” I denied once more. “No lo creo.” I don’t believe it. I was more than incredulous; I felt embarrassed. Whether the embarrassment was for Luisito, the man carrying the toy Santa Claus, or for the surrogates who doted on him, I couldn’t distinguish. But the number made me flush, as if I had just lifted the veil on a room full of grown-ups and caught everyone dressed in tutus and clown costumes.
Once I got over my amazement, I could think about what it actually meant: “un nino de la Revolucion.” I knew Cubans of all ages, and they fell into one of two categories: they were either born “before,” or they were born “after.” They either saw capitalism, or they got their parent’s version of it. Watched revolution foment, or became its living application.
Luisito fell into neither category—not before, not after, but in 1959. When I found out his birthday was October 3rd and subtracted nine months, the aptness of the title “nino de la revolucion” grew eerie. Luisito must have been conceived in the first days of the new year, just as a young bearded leader marched into Havana, triumphant. His life not only aligned with the Revolution’s, possibly to the day, but he was born into that society where everything was changing hands, from private to public, including him. Luisito was caught in the frenzy, handed off in kind, in a basket, to no one and every one, with the ringing of a bell. Midnight’s abandoned child.
Months after meeting Luisito, I asked him how old he was. I did it impetuously—wondering if he too would disbelieve with the hefty number in his mouth, or just fabricate a smaller age. But as soon as I asked him, I knew it was a careless question, if not mean and unfair. Luisito looked down at the floor, not making a noise. He went mute, declining to respond, as if fessing up would jeopardize his nino status. As if a long enough quiet could erase the question from the air.
. . .
In Bejucal, Luisito could close a door. L U i S i t O g R A u d E A R m A S, it declared, in a hodge podge of sticker letters. He had a bureau in which he could hide his things. He had window blinds he flip open and shut, a fan he could aim at Luisito.
The curious thing about Luisito’s move was that it did the opposite of curb his hunger for Luisito-and-Luisito-only things. As soon as he put away his kid-sized shirts in his new dresser and placed his stuffed Santa Claus on his bed, Luisito was talking about “needing” a television. The nuns dismissed his wish as impossible, but he lobbied on, having learned not to give the word impossible too much credence. A few months later, Luisito had his very own color television.
Grateful for an afternoon, Luisito became disillusioned by evening—when the national news came on: his television picked up only the three channels broadcasted. Luisito wanted Canal Veinte-tres, or Channel 23, which he had heard the women in the kitchen talking quietly of. More and more people in Bejucal were picking up this signal, paying an unnamed person to have an illegal cable routed onto their roofs. “The 23” came from up North, came from Miami, came, unmistakably, from capitalism. Between flashy game shows and fast food commercials, primetime on “The 23” could hook any virgin viewer.
Luisito did not give up on “The 23.” He fiddled with the stiff antennas of his television, bending the tip of the right one so that it poked out his window blinds, fiddling further until he could make out the profiles of General Hospital heroines and Big Macs. But by the time “The 23” wandered across the Florida Straits, reached the valley of Bejucal, and craned through Luisito’s bent antenna, it had lost all of its sound and was sheathed in heavy static. Luisito gave this interference an apt name: “rain.”
The only interference that frustrated Luisito more than “rain” was the power outage, or “apagon.” There was a direct correlation between Luisito’s mood and the flow of electricity to Bejucal. During the summer, when the electricity came and went as fluidly as the breeze, Luisito was beside himself. What seemed to bother him about the apagon was the total lack of control. Blackouts came from inside the walls, as storms came from clouds. But unlike clouds, the walls offered no warning that his favorite TV people were about to scamper off the screen, or that his fan was making its penultimate rotation. A blackout could last two minutes or ten hours.
Luisito’s hate for the apagon had a deeper cause than all of these paused amenities. When the electricity quit, Luisito lost his legs, condemned to whatever floor he and his wheelchair happened to be on. The elevator could not take him down to the kitchen, nor up to his bedroom. He was a cripple again, with 1/3 of his normal liberty, whenever Cuba shut off the lights.
And that is the way Luisito spoke of the apagon—as though the president of his country were sitting in a room of switches, picking on the Bejucal panel for no good reason. Luisito might have learned to associate the power supply with the politicians from listening to nurses vent, but he also seemed to believe deep in his compact chest that Fidel was to blame for every dark spell in Cuba. When Luisito learned that certain places in Cuba didn’t lose electricity like the Bejucal nursing home, his indignation stewed.
Luisito found his proof not long after ascending to his third floor penthouse. When the lights went off throughout Bejucal, there was one building that remained aglow, lying plainly in Luisito’s view. Before he even found out what this building was, Luisito had announced that he was going to move there.
“People don’t live there, Lou-eee-see,” the nuns and nurses tried to press into his obstinate head. “It’s a chemical lab.” They explained that this plant had its own supply of electricity for safety reasons, so that experiments wouldn’t go awry. “No one lives there, Luisi. It’s not a home.”
But Luisito would not accept this logic. He continued bringing up the Place-Where-the-Lights-Never-Go-Out to whomever happened by his room during a power outage. “Look,” he’d say, pointing his long index finger toward the Promised Land. “They have light.”
Monina, the old woman who lived in the room next to Luisito’s, didn’t bother dissuading him; she knew Luisito too well. Instead, she would peek her head in the next door whenever the lights went out after dinner. She would find her little neighbor in bed, surrounded by his ragged stuffed animals, more clingy than usual. Checking in, Monina learned the secret root of his apagon gripes. Luisito was afraid of the dark.
. . .
“Where is it?”
“Coh-lene, take out your machine. Luisi wants to see it.”
“The computer? Hang on, I can’t see anything. Where are you Ania?”
“Over here. The other bed.”
“Oh. How in the world did you get him up here?”
“Piggy back. Next best thing to a wheelchair, right Luisi?”
“I hate blackouts.”
“We know you do, Luisi.”
“I won’t put up with blackouts any longer.”
“You hear that Coh-lene? Luisi won’t put up with blackouts any longer. What’ya gonna do Luisi? Should we bring this up with the Commandante?”
“I’ll tell the Commandante that this is garbage. I’m not afraid.”
“Are there blackouts in your country?”
“My country? Um, there was one. Last summer.”
“ONE! You hear that Luisi? ONE blackout. That doesn’t count. American things still work when the lights go out. You get to watch movies. Can we watch a movie on the machine?”
“The battery won’t give us enough time. How long do these things last?”
“I mean—normally. How long do they normally last?”
“Why are you named Coh-lene?”
“Why are you named Luisito?”
“Because my mom named me Luisito.”
“And mine named me Colleen.”
“Coh-lene, are you from the countryside?”
“NO, Ania. Coh-lene is from the U-NIT-ED STATES.”
“I am from the United States. You’re right. I don’t think you’d call my town countryside, though. A suburbio? Is that a word?”
“Is that where they have the big houses? Do you have one of those?”
“I don’t have a house. I live in Cuba right now. My parents live in a house...”
“Luisito wants to visit that house.”
“Hear that, Coh-lene? Luisito wants to visit that house.”
“Ahhh, but Luisi: what would you do in America?”
“WORK! But you’d have to work a lot, Luisi. They work a lot in America.”
“Luisito can work. And eat beef. And watch some television. The 23.”
“What’s the 23?”
“The channel, Coh-lene. Channel 23.”
“Oh, that’s just a Miami thing.”
“But you live in Miami.”
“No I don’t. I’m from the North.”
“Yeah, Luisi, there’s snow where Coh-lene lives. You think Luisito can handle snow? And work? I don’t know, we gotta think harder about this immigration thing.”
“Luisito doesn’t mind snow. Luisito doesn’t mind work. Luisito minds the blackouts. Luisito won’t tolerate the blackouts any longe--”
“Hu-HO! You said the magic word, Luisi! What’ya know! Fidel must have been listening. Can we watch a movie now Coh-lene? Look, Luisito’s staring at you. Check it out. What, Luisi: did you forget what Americans look like in the light?”
When I looked at Luisito, he giggled and looked away at the bedspread.
“Still wanna go home with her?” Ania asked.
. . .
There are two main types of Cuban jokes, one featuring Fidel Castro, and the other featuring a recurring character named Pepito. Pepito is a sweet little Cuban school boy who stands for the upright Cuban citizen: simple, loyal, satisfied with his communal lot. What gets Cubans laughing during a Pepito joke is that Pepito eventually shows his true colors, right at the punch line, saying or doing something cynical and greedy. One nurse at the Bejucal nursing home likes to tell the joke about Pepito’s grandfather leaving Cuba for the United States. As his grandfather darts off with his suitcase, Pepito yells after him, “Grandpa, you traitor! Don’t forget what size clothes I wear!”
The people of Bejucal love Luisito for many reasons. One is for bitching about beef shortages and blackouts. Another is for wanting to move to America. If their own hopes for winning the immigration lottery or falling in love with someone from Nevada are a stretch, then Luisito’s prospects are pure satire. Through him, anyone can make light of Cuban impossibility. So Luisito stays one notch below real—without age or stature, without family obligation or sexual inclination—and talks about how he just has to get to the United States, how he has had enough of this crap and wants to sink his teeth into one of those juicy hamburgers from the commercials. Cubans roar, and never forget his name. Luisito: the elf that wants to be a Yankee.
He knows to go overboard with his anti-Castro bravado; as a mini-man, he can get away with blasphemy that full-size, incarcerate-able Cubans cannot. To the Cuban ear, the sound of this nun-raised munchkin calling Fidel Castro an asshole couldn’t be more delicious. For the little one born looking like E.T., the forty-six-year-old kept indoors for life, comedy works.
. . .
I am trying to pay Luisito my full attention, but the sun is making that a challenge. We are on the roof of the nursing home, where the sun comes down in a fierce, uncompromised blast. Squinting requires all the muscles in my face. Ania and I are seated in metal rocking chairs, the audience for Luisito’s rooftop show.
Luisito has a thing for heights. His caretakers found this out a few years back when he disappeared. They searched the entire nursing home, in all spaces big and tiny, only to conclude that yes, Luisito was indeed missing. Finally, someone came across an empty wheelchair on the roof. It was positioned beside a ladder, which led to a higher landing. Luisito had climbed, on his meager knees, all the way up to the top. He was seated near a collection of electrical wires, looking giddy and guilty. To this day he maintains that he was “fixing an antennae,” as if this were a routine activity of his. No doubt it had something to do with “the rain.”
Today, Luisito is on the roof to showcase his prize possession: his carrito, or little car. His carrito was imported from Florida—bypassing the trade embargo as a donation—made in the land of 65-plus, where folks with white hair maneuver through supermarkets on these battery-powered scooters.
“The Mother Superior says the first time Luisito knocks over an old person with that thing,” Ania tells me, breaking into laughter halfway through her sentence. “She’s sending the carrito back to Miami!”
The nursing home roof is about eight yards long and five wide, offering a tight, repetitive loop that Luisito has obviously rehearsed. He is propped in the driver’s seat, like a toddler harnessed in a roller coaster seat, and he wears a serious expression.
Luisito likes to work a special trick into his carrito show—just to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. There is a narrow bridge on the side of the roof, which leads to another escarpment, where only cinderblocks sit. Luisito’s trick involves driving his carrito right up to the entrance of the narrow cement bridge and pausing there, like he just might dare…
Luisi! Ania calls out.
The bridge is barely wider than the carrito. Unless Luisito has unwavering aim, he won’t make it to the other side.
Don’t even think about it!
Luisito giggles, looks back at us, then taps the acceleration again, getting the carrito’s front wheels partway up the bridge.
It isn’t exactly a death-defying stunt, but it works every time. LUISI! The audience pleads on cue. Don’t do it! Be a good boy! Stay here! Never leave us!
Once he gets an impassioned scolding, Luisito returns to the loop.
“Your turn, Coh-lene,” he says, approaching.
“My turn?” I look at Ania.
“An honor, Coh-lene,” Ania is smiling. She must have known about this ahead of time. Luisito has been scheming. “He doesn’t let anyone drive in that carrito.”
“Have you driven it?” I ask her, somewhat nervous.
“Well…yeah,” she admits, “But almost no one else has.”
I try to read Luisito’s face. Does he really want me to drive or am I supposed to politely decline?
“Your turn,” he repeats.
Seating myself in the carrito is simple enough. It was made for someone of adult size, if not bigger. Finding the right buttons to drive it, however, requires some focus. I figure out the horn first and give it a toot. This is a crowd pleaser, so I do it again. Luisito, who has been trying to instruct from the sidelines, is now caught in a giggle fit.
“Coh-lene!” he pleads between laughs. “The handle! Use the handle!”
The handle is both the accelerator and the brake. I rotate it forward, and the carrito lurches. “Whoa there!” I exaggerate, keeping the gremlin giggling. Then I send the carrito clear across the length of the roof. Ania and Luisito are out of sight. I veer left and the carrito takes the command seriously, shooting me under the nearest clothesline. Pillowcases brush over my hair.
In the spirit of his humor, I creep the carrito towards the narrow footbridge and look back at Ania with my mouth open in mock surprise. Oops!
Luisito chuckles, then loudly beseeches me—“Coh-lene!”
As I zoom away from the bridge, I hear Ania teasing Luisito that Coh-lene is having an awfully good time on Luisito’s carrito. That Coh-lene might not give Luisito’s carrito back. That Coh-lene might just ride it back to America…
“The carrito belongs to Luisito.” he responds with calm.
I figure this is an appropriate time to give carrito back, still unable to read the line between what Luisito dismisses and what Luisito believes. As I loop back, Luisito begins hoisting his body out of the chair. “Do they have carritos in your country?”
“Some. Some old people have them…” As soon as I specify this, I wish I hadn’t. Luisito has to share enough with old folks. “But not many people...”
“Because they’re expensive?”
“VERY.” I raise my eyebrows and nod.
“What does it say on the back, Coh-lene?”
Luisito shifts his carrito into reverse and veers its rear end toward us. I lean down toward the label. On a silver sticker, in small letters, are the words:
BUDDY’S SUNSET MOBILITY
I read the title aloud in English. Luisito stares at me, expectant.
“What does it say, Coh-lene?” Ania asks, just as impatient.
All I can do is attempt the peculiar translation one word at a time, pointing to “sunset” first. “That has to do with the sun. The moment when the sun goes down.” I look up at the sky for an easy reference, but the sun is so north of us that I can’t even point it out.
“Atardecer,” Ania offers, catching my drift.
“Exactly,” I nod. Tarde means afternoon, late; Atardecer means to grow late—when the day turns late afternoon on you. “Atardecer.”
Luisito waits for more, hopeful.
I point to “mobility” next. “This has to do with…moving yourself.” Trying to think of a more sensational way to phrase this, I flail my arms like a peppy aerobics instructor. “Moving yourself—anywhere you want to go!”
Luisito lets out a snort. He likes this word better.
“And THIS word…”
Buddy en Espanol?
“..This is a name.”
Ania and Luisito look at me, the same question in both their faces. Whose name?
“Not a specific name. More like a general name you’d use for a friend. A person everyone likes and wants to be around.” I struggle to elucidate. “Un amigito.” Amigito is the diminutive of amigo. A little friend.
“A LUISITOOO!” Ania concludes, throwing her weight back in the rusty rocking chair, riding it with a smug grin.
“A Luisito,” I allow, grateful to cede the translation, particularly to this end. A Luisito. Of course. I look over at him.
Luisito has his head down. He does this when things escalate too much—too fast—he’s too tickled, too doted upon, too anything to keep interfacing with people. He hides in the lap of his wheelchair for a couple of seconds and muffles noises that always find their way out, shaking through his frame first.
“A Luisito,” he finally echoes, his little body losing to a chortle.
This brings up something Luisito’s been meaning to address.
“Coh-lene, are there Luisitos in your country?”
I look at Ania, who repeats the question with a complicit smile.
“Yeah, Coh-lene. Are there any Luisito’s in your country?”
This is a question I will field almost every day that I live in Bejucal. “Nope.” Thankfully, I get the answer right on the first try. “Never met one. No Luisitos.”
I can just see the logic working in his brain:
One Little car for Little Luis Only One Little Luis in existence Little car made for the 1 and only Luisito Grau de Armas.
He taps the gas pedal and lurches away from us. When Luisito turns the corner, taking it as hard as the geriatric velocity permits, I relish his profile. Luisito’s big white teeth are uncovered, exultant in a way he can't hide under his lips.