Photos on the walls

Fiction by Yoss (José Miguel Sánchez Gómez),
translated by David Iaconangelo

The Sambo was the one that discovered her. It was about seven and he was making the rounds before doors closed when he saw her leave with the last mourners.

Right there she caught his eye. Even though the brown girls, thick girls and busty girls, elegant girls, and super-made-up girls all liked him, and she was skinny and flat. Dressed in plain black, no heels, no exposed navel or cleavage, no belly pants, and with even her hair tucked up under a black handkerchief, almost a monk. She could pass for thirty or forty just as easily as twenty. Not much to look at.

Apparently, that afternoon the Sambo still hadn’t got any commitments from funeral sluts to go do dirty things in the pantheon of the Naturales de Ortigueira. And the chick was the only one in the entourage younger than the pyramids. But even though he kept watching her for a sign that he could approach, he never got to; she didn’t even look at him.

The Sambo had a sixth sense for mourner chicks. As decent as they might have seemed, or hidden as they might have been in a pack of relatives, as soon as he spotted them he knew if they were ripe for the picking. And then the rest was routine: offering to show them, alone, the tomb of their loved one if they calmed down and behaved, he eventually got his rocks off. Not just airhead widows like I thought at first; he also racked up one bombshell after another, above all those freaky sluts that came to search for skulls and bones and perform their satanic rituals between the graves. And since the Vulture always said it was all for one and one for all, sometimes he shared them.

I never took part in this action: women used up by other men kind of disgust me. I preferred to spend my hard-earned dough on street girls — what good was money if I didn’t? But the Vulture did every once in a while, and said that they got pretty crazy.

It could have been the confusion of their loss, repression of their urges, or a grudge against their unfortunate fate, or the desperation that they say makes some people feel like facing down cyclones, forest fires, or earthquakes.

Or most likely they just let themselves get drunk. Because the Sambo is uglier than voluntary work on the day of an Industriales playoff game; if before not even beggars would bother with him, no one would’ve guessed he would eat so much and so well when he started working in the Colón cemetery.

And the Vulture . . . the Vulture is the Vulture, it’s not that he didn’t look good, he looked like he used to be a refined type, it wasn’t for pleasure that he almost became an ambassador, but now not even hydrochloric acid could get the stink of corpses off him, hence the nickname.

Everyone has their pride, and coming up empty-handed that afternoon had to have fucked with the Sambo; the thing is, the image of that flaquita dressed in black had become etched in his mind. So when he saw her again the next day with another entourage, by a whole other tomb, he was struck stone still.

That same night he told us about it. At first, we didn’t make a big deal out of it . . . after all, he’s always making up stories about strange lights and apparitions, as if you didn’t even know what a will-o’-the-wisp was. Of course, when he swore by his mother, dead and buried right here, we believed him. The Vulture shrugged his shoulders and said that for someone who has relatives die on them twice in a row, better to put it behind them instead of bringing it up again.

But the Sambo insisted that, no, that wasn’t it. Yeah, she was close with her relatives, but she didn’t cry or anything; it occurred to him that the key lay elsewhere, and it was pretty weird. Could it be she was a necrophiliac? Right there we scared ourselves, because if some relative discovered a mussed-up cadaver, they’d put a hideous hex on us, like a year ago when that goddamn Crime Offensive sacked the people here before us.

Or worse yet, if she was in the same business as us, with dresses, clothes, and teeth. And definitely in combination with someone from outside; chicks never work alone on these things, apparently they make too big of an impression. Although the dead leave an impression on almost everyone. Starting with me, when I got here. Now not so much, now I prefer them to the living. Yeah, they stink, and their odour sticks to you and doesn’t come off with anything, just ask the Vulture . . . but at least they’re good and quiet and don’t fuck with you.

Not to mention there weren’t enough beds for so many people, nor cemeteries for so many scavengers. He had to watch her close, catch her soon as she made any strange moves. Eventually she’d try to pull something.

When we started keeping guard, we saw right away the Sambo was right: there was something fishy going on. The chick showed up early for the first burials of the morning, at noon she cloistered herself in a dark corner to eat some bread and drink a Tukola she took out of her bag, and afterwards made laps through the graves until closing time. But she didn’t carry a flower vase or a wreath or nothing, never came back to the same vault, and that had us nervous, because we couldn’t understand it.

We got to thinking that she could be undercover, preparing some kind of operation, and just in case, for a week we postponed the most dangerous shit — the pulling out of teeth — until dawn, even though she wouldn’t be around for all that at night.

The Vulture even talked about going to visit the previous Manager in Diosdado Penitentiary to see if he knew something about that chick, but that idea never took off: no one liked to rush what they knew was waiting for them sooner or later. Especially if you’d already been there, like us.

It wasn’t until fifteen days later that we realised what her deal was, and it was the Vulture that cracked the code. He’s not the Manager for nothing.

The chick was taking photos. Of the relatives, the coffins, everything. With one of those real little digital cameras that looks like a toy but costs a pretty penny. And she didn’t have authorisation, a license or whatever, because she took advantage of whenever no one was looking and until then concealed it under her shawl.

That really freaked us out: a cop she wasn’t, but couldn’t she be Security, hunting someone they knew nothing about other than that he wouldn’t miss a certain grave? Thank goodness for the Sambo, who got that kind of paranoia out of our heads right away, even though he put it there in the first place: the State has those long-distance lenses so they can watch in comfort from far away, and they weren’t going to send in some crippled dove to hang around the cemetery all day, since if we had discovered anything we could make the first move and hunt her down. Besides, if they were behind someone, where were the dark ninjas with their show-window bodies to grab him? The Vulture said they’d better have someone with a rifle with a long-range scope, and I said that for all we knew, skinny as the chick was, she was a Sixth Dan black belt. But the Sambo told us to go to hell, and said we watched too many videos.

Basically, we relaxed. That same night we dug out four eighteen-carat gold teeth from someone that had been vice consul in I don’t know what African country, and nothing happened. And not even three days later we had got back to the old racket with the dresses and shoes. There’s just never enough money, and the streets are tough.

It wasn’t stealing, no. Stealing is stealing from the living. The dead don’t count. Yeah, everyone likes to bury their folks in their best. But at the end of the day, after they die it doesn’t do anyone any good, and so many Christians walk around this island without sharp threads or half-decent shoes.

Same with the teeth and the clothes. The Vulture, who studied and all, said the word was “recycle.” I didn’t say anything, and it didn’t make much difference to the Sambo if at times he forgot to claim his portion; he was all about his funeral sluts and nothing else. He wanted it so bad it was like he’d never got laid; he said that skinny as he was and all, he had had days with five or even six. Sometimes we’d give him shit about how while in the tank he must have been somebody’s bitch, which explained the determination in recuperating lost time as a man, but he got so serious and gripped the shovel with such anger that we changed the subject right away. Because everyone’s got their secrets and certain things you don’t play with.

She kept on coming. We named her the Photographer, and got used to her, just like we got used to the constant commotion by the tomb of La Milagrosa, or to the foreigners that always wanted to see the tomb with the double-three domino. Live and let live. Marineros somos y en el mar andamos. She didn’t bother us, we didn’t get in her business. The only one that watched her was the Sambo. Little peeks, no more, but without speaking or touching, which violated what went down fifteen years earlier.

And her, always as if he didn’t even exist.

Me . . . well, we crossed paths a bunch of times. She liked to eat lunch sitting on the steps of the firefighters’ monument, and I’d take my siesta on the bench back there, where it’s well shaded and the marble’s cool. But still, not a word.

Until the mortician business. It was Monday, the first burial the mother of a mulatto girl married to a well-off Italian, but they were short a few wreaths. They raised a huge stink, called the Manager and everything. The Vulture got there, real serious, soaked in cologne so they wouldn’t notice the stench of cadavers that always emanates from him when he has to deal with people of good standing, and he tried to smooth things over; folks, it’s not our responsibility, we’re very sorry and all that . . . motherfucker had the gift of gab, I’ll give him that.

But the mulata and Italian didn’t understand, so when they threatened to get police and a judge involved, the Vulture wisened up and sent me on a scooter to see what the hell happened with the goddamn wreaths.

I couldn’t have gone faster in a helicopter. Although they didn’t even tell me where they buried the old lady, I went straight to that fatass Cadalso from Chapel Two. If there’s anyone capable of stealing the bones of a dead man and selling them as fertiliser to his widow, it’s that potbellied jabao. He even sold, for five pesos, the names of the dead they were keeping vigil for to the people hoping to get a job at the Interests Office, years ago, when you had to know everything, up to and including the last name of the dead guy or else you couldn’t spend the night on the chapel sofa.

The bad part was, although he knew every trick in the book, Cadalso had no grand vision, didn’t think big. So he stays where he is, and look how many years it’s been. The Vulture always told him to watch his step, that if he fell he’d die of hunger, because it wouldn’t even occur to that cotton ball he had for a brain to eat grass, and that shithead laughed, beating his chest and everything like it was some kind of joke.

Of course it was him that screwed up with the wreaths. I ran the situation by him and he coughed them up pretty reluctantly. But it’s well known that you don’t mess with foreigners, since if they end up filing a complaint with the Embassy, they’ll buzz down and shit on all of us.

It was about seven in the morning and not a soul out on Calzada and K. I mentioned it to Cadalso while he helped me mount the wreaths on the scooter and he laughed, drying his sweat, because that jabao sweated like a pig.

“Yeah, it’s always pretty quiet here about now; even the Photographer left a little while ago, probably to take a bath.”

I stopped cold, speechless. And pretending to be nonchalant, I asked him who that was. Not the skinny trigueña, always dressed in black, with a handkerchief on her head?

It was her, all right. Turns out that night after night she went there and took photos half-concealed, most of the people there none the wiser. For the fatass jabao she was just another loonie, but as she was clean and didn’t get in anyone’s way or spark any scandals, sometimes he even kept coffee for her. And how long had she been coming for? Well . . . and he counted it out on his fingers: he had been there like eight years on Calzada and K, and before that was Toribio, who says that she came then, so at least since ’95.

Ten years? That did it: I had to go talk to her, come hell or high water.

Looking back now, I don’t really know why it happened. Since I left the joint I had had a few flings, sure, a man’s a man, and after two years without a woman the savings pile up, but it never went through my head to really shack up with someone . . . nothing’s changed, and I’m still pissed off about what happened with Claudia, that fucking bitch.

But that flaquita intrigued me. One Friday afternoon I waited for her. When she came out, I lit a half-smoked cigarette and didn’t beat around the bush:

“Hi. I got to talk with you. They call me . . .”

“. . . the Puya,” she finished, looking right in my eyes. Hers were big, brown, and kind of wet. Strange, but not ugly. I don’t know how I didn’t notice them before. “And you’ve worked here as a gravedigger for about a year. Want to come home with me?”

Just like that. The ugly chick from the cemetery, she gave it up? To me? The Sambo wouldn’t have accepted, he said that he was jaded now, that outside of Colón he wouldn’t be able to get it up even for Julia Roberts. Same with the Vulture: he didn’t go home with anyone since the machete blow they gave him in the neighbourhood of Canal. They hunted him down in the house of a whore he went to see every now and then, and he couldn’t denounce anyone because there was Mary Jane involved.

But I accepted. He who owes nothing fears nothing. Or he who owes everything to everyone gives equally to everyone.

We walked off together, not talking much. Her least of all. I asked her if she knew why they called me the Puya, One-Cent. She said she wondered, but it didn’t matter to her, and that I liked. As to why she was taking me home if she barely knew me or if she was afraid I’d assault her, rape her, or something like that, she didn’t even respond, all she did was shrug her shoulders like that didn’t matter either.

Or maybe she just trusted me. The Vulture said all the time that my face inspired confidence, that I seem like good people, incapable of harming a fly. Claudia must have thought that too, so she figured she’d fuck me over . . . and it damn well cost her.

She lived by Paseo and 17, in a corridor sunk way back inside. Havana isn’t what it was, even El Vedado’s filling up with tenements and bunkhouses. The Vulture was always going on about the orientales that don’t stay on their own land, and right there the Sambo piped up that they’d have to set him on fire be-fore he’d go back to Contramaestre, that out there the only future he had was as a beast of burden, that’s why he came to La Poma, to be a person.

“Don’t mind the mess,” she said when she opened the door of her little room. Every women I’ve known says the same thing when they invite you home for the first time. Claudia too.

She flicked on the lights.

The mess was the last thing I would have thought to notice. The room wasn’t anything from another world, nothing like those rooms up in high places but tiny: a bed (why it was lofted I don’t know, since it barely fit), a frayed wardrobe and a table with two chairs. No chest of drawers or mirror or nothing. The door we came in and one window.

And the photos. A ton of photos. Never had I seen so many in one place. All of people in the cemetery or in the funeral parlour. The living dressed in black or normally but serious, with long faces, tearful, and bearing handkerchiefs. Balancing themselves on the parlour chairs. On foot in sad groups of relatives at the side of the pantheon. Walking behind the hearse.

And the dead with closed eyes, calm, face up, with that tranquillity and dignity they all seem to have even if, in life, they were hysterical lunatics at best.

But every corner of those four walls was filled with photos. They were yellowed from old age, in black and white, those taken with Orwo film blue-coloured, new and shiny, digital computer-pressed. Also two or three pages of magazines, newspapers, most yellowed of all.

There were so many that they piled on top of each other, half covered-up, as if they were trying to climb to the highest point, up to the ceiling. And in two or three places they almost managed to.

She had sat down on the bed, with her legs joined close together, serious, as if she were hoping I’d stop flitting around her house.

“You preparing an exhibition or are they family of yours?” I asked her to say something, and soon as I opened my mouth I knew it was an idiotic question, but it was already done.

She got up and stroked the photos, almost with tenderness, without answering me. Then she opened the dresser with a tug. There were various cameras, from an old Russian Zenith to another big one, either Canon or Pentax, the type you can tell is good just by looking and that costs an arm and a leg.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t show this treasure to the first person that came to your house,” it occurred to me to say, and again I felt I was talking bullshit. “Someone might give you a crack to get ahold of those irons, you can tell they’re worth something.”

Nothing. Like I was talking with the people in the photos. She kept watching me, fixed, with those huge, wet eyes, a moment that seemed interminable, and finally she sighed and took the handkerchief off her head and let her hair fall. She had it down to her shoulders, shiny and extra black, like the mulatas with Chinese blood, but flecked here and there with grey.

“What a terrible housewife I am, I don’t even have coffee to offer you.” She sat down again on the bed, smiled, and it was like a smile glimpsed through a mosquito net: distant, opaque. “The truth is, I never eat here, you notice I don’t have a stove or refrigerator.”

“I didn’t come to drink coffee,” was the only thing I could say. I was uncomfortable and I wanted to leave; better yet, I wished I had never gone there with her.

But I had made my bed and now I had to lie in it.

“I already know why you came,” she sighed, pulling open her black blouse. A button popped off and rolled underneath the bed. She didn’t use a bra, didn’t need one. Fatass Cadalso had bigger tits than her.

The Vulture always joked about how a girlfriend without tits is more friend than girlfriend. But she wasn’t my girlfriend, and besides, she had big nipples and areolas, so dark they were almost purple.

I undid my belt.

It wasn’t a great lay. I don’t remember very well, or rather I don’t want to remember. None of the crazy shit the Sambo spent his life getting, chicks with shaved pussies who suck you off so good the sheets get stuck in your ass, who give you their ass even without asking for it, and come five or six times before you blow your load. The Vulture said it was true, but maybe the Sambo had got too much ass and it had gone to his head.

No. She was skinny and didn’t even take off all her clothes. Neither did she move much, or sweat, or scream or scratch. She was just there, closed her eyes and took it. Maybe that was why I took so long.

When we finished I lit a cigarette and lay there smoking, like in the movies.

“And now?” I said, but I was talking to myself.

“Now, whatever,” she answered quietly and curled up on the bed beside me.

I threw out the $64,000 question: “Tell me, why all these photos? All the nights in the parlour, all the days in the cemetery . . . when do you sleep? You don’t work? Your family sends you money?”

“I don’t sleep. I don’t work. I don’t have any family,” she said. She got up and started to get dressed. “You’d better go. You’re not what I thought you were, Puya.”

That set me off. It bugs me when people expect things from me without telling me. I grabbed her by the arm and shook her, shouting at her:

“And what the fuck did you expect? That I’d tear out your liver, leave you lying there and take off with all your cameras?”

She didn’t resist. She smiled.

That was the last straw. I let go of her and got dressed without saying anything, all pissed off. No woman was going to mess with me again, never. I swore that day, with each one of the fifteen punches I gave Claudia, to be better than that.

As I was leaving, my hand on the doorknob, I noticed a framed newspaper cutout, above the lock. Alone, with no other photos around it.

It was in English, and I don’t understand much of the yumas’ language. I could only recognise the word balseros,* which was in Spanish. But there were two photos.

The first was one of those family classics, with well-dressed men and women around a table with a cake. A girl, nine or ten years old, blowing out the candles. In the other, the same girl crying and two huge blond policemen with dark glasses leading her away by her hands.

The girl was skinny and trigueña, with big, wet eyes.

Suddenly I understood why she took so many photos.

What do you say in situations like that? Nothing serves as relief or consolation or anything.

But at least I tried: “Forgive me. I didn’t know . . .”

“Elian was lucky, really,” she said as if to apologise, “At least his mother and grandmother stayed here.”

“When did they go? You were the only one that survived?” I asked, real quietly.

“The whole family. They fell off one by one, my mother last, after she tied me to the raft. I was alone on the sea for three days until the Coast Guard picked me up. In ’84” — she sighed — “since no one had stayed in Cuba to claim me, they gave me citizenship right away. And in ’95, when I turned twenty-one, I asked for repatriation. It wasn’t for me. But this . . .”

“This isn’t for you either, right?” I completed the idea.

“It’s like I stayed in the sea for good, between Cuba and Florida, without landing anywhere. Life is shit, right?” She sat back down and snapped at me, almost with fury: “Take a camera if you want, but if you don’t go right now I’m going to scream.”

I reached out my hand, grabbed the first camera I saw and left. What else was I going to do?

As always, my luck was bad luck. It had to be the Zenith. I couldn’t even get ten dollars for it.

Afterwards we crossed paths numerous times in Colón. Without talking, as if we didn’t know each other, as if that night had never existed.

Three months later I left behind the gravedigger gig and went to work making pizzas with my aunt’s neighbour. Right on time: the Vulture and the Sambo got nabbed about the same week I left. There’s no search that lasts forever, and no fighter so slick they’ll never catch him. They gave the Sambo ten years, the Vulture fifteen since he was the Manager.

Not long ago I heard they had raped and killed a chick that took photos in the cemetery. I thought it could be her and didn’t know whether to cry or be happy. But since she never told me her name, and anyway those things never come out in the newspapers or on the news here, I can’t be sure.

The pizza gig also fell through, and now I’m pedalling a bike-taxi in Chinatown. It gets me my dollars, but every night I come home with swollen legs.

Life is shit, but it’s the only one there is. In the present, keep on pushing. Sometimes I’d like to see her again to tell her as much.

* Cubans who attempt to cross the straits into Florida on makeshift rafts.


Translator’s note:

“Photos on the Walls” originally appeared in ZafraLit, a weblog that posts new short fiction by contemporary Cuban authors, translated into English by volunteers: students at Johns Hopkins University and translation programmes across the United States.

Zafra Lit’s ethos is three-quarters literary magazine, one-quarter cultural exchange programme — our goal is to construct an archive of stories, accessible to an English-speaking audience, where writers within Cuba and exiled from it, up-and-comers and the renowned, directors of publishing houses and dissident bloggers, are read side by side. It’s the product of the conviction that literature can be the best means of getting to know a place and its people, a breach in a border, an embodied empathy, sometimes even more so than travel itself.

In a less lofty sense, though, we’re also a place where editors of magazines can pass through and pick out a story that might catch their eye for publication. A place where you can kill five, ten, fifteen minutes at work reading a minicuento. A means of promoting some extraordinary writers, and a gesture of solidarity with them. An apolitical forum for texts charged with political resonance. All of these things, then whatever you want it to be.

If “Photos on the Walls” is, thus far, a bit different stylistically from Zafra Lit’s usual fare, it may also be our most irresistible story — flush with the humour and lingo of Havana street life, unflinchingly scurrile, and streaked with hints of fabulism. Yoss is a gifted and daring writer whose stories, I’m happy to say, will continue to be featured in translated form on ZafraLit. I hope readers feel compelled to explore our archive as it expands.

David Iaconangelo


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2009

José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, a.k.a. Yoss, is a Cuban writer of science fiction, erotica, humour, and realist fiction, as well as an anthologist, critic, and essayist. He has published ten books and won various awards, including the Ernest Hemingway and Luis Rogelio Nogueras prizes.

David Iaconangelo is the creator and editor of ZafraLit and a senior at Johns Hopkins University. His essays and fiction have been published in The Latin American Review of Books, The Sylvan Echo, and numerous undergraduate publications.