First Place Fiction: "The Next Guy" 

By Karen Alea

By Karen Alea

When Narciso died, we replaced him with Fernando. The old man was not easy to convince. But dominoes with three cannot be done.

We play down at Domino Park on Calle Ocho. Heat and cola and radios. The radio wires travel under the tables past legs with veins and sunspots and thin European socks. They plug into outlets on the poles that hold up the roof where gulls drop their shit, making tap-tap-tap sounds.

Fernando has been coming to the park for as long as I have and that was long before Marielitos and sometime after the Bay of Pigs. The seventies, I guess. Five conversations, maybe. A quiet guy who we all liked, sitting to the side, his fedora hat ragged and dull sitting on his head that held onto its last remaining gray hairs. Tiny. Five feet five, I'd say. A guayabera every day, just like the rest.

"The day I wore the tee-shirt my daughter gave me was the day the Times came," said Manuel. And it was true. We get them all, the Times, the Today Show, 20-20, The Herald, of course. Every momentous occasion like April 17th, Fidel or Che or Jose Marti's birthday. We sit and pretend to play while they do close-ups of our hands, spotted with age and rattling, placing dominoes down with tiredness. What do you think, who did you lose, why did you come? All wrapped up in a minute of footage that airs that night, minutes before we can figure out how to work our video recorders.

"Sit," I tell Fernando now and he takes off his hat, places it on the edge of the table and then rethinks and puts it down on the cement. Fernando looks at his watch. It is an old blunt-faced Timex but I see it still has the clear film on the face that is meant to be removed. It is the first sign I see and I tell myself it will not be so. Not this time.

The wind is soft today, and the sea, the same one we smelled as children from the other side, blows a tinge of ache over the table.

"How many years you been coming here, Fernando?" Manuel asks.

"Mmm. Forty maybe."

"As long as me. I know that." Manuel dumps the tiles in the middle of the table and makes a racket and 20 other weathered players look up. Each table stems from the ground, four little stools surrounding each like soldiers. The thick plastic tabletops have divots in front of each seat, just right for curled fingers and ten fichas.

We weren't going to play today. It is only Monday. Narciso was buried Friday. Manuel placed a blank ficha made from marble in Narciso's pocket. To go with him. I stood near his wife, a woman I knew from school back in Habana. That is how I met these men here. I got a call from her in Miami. "I only live blocks from you. I was talking to Hernando Torres at the meeting of the old neighborhood and he said he met a man that lived in Miramar and when he said your name, I ran right to the phone book. Here we are. Can you believe it? Here."

So I went to their house for dinner and then came here for dominoes and I have been coming through a divorce, a widowing, girls in college and out, and retirement. How time has moved beyond me all my life, I cannot comprehend.

The smooth domino tiles offer more than familiarity. Tiny bricks for a foundation that can be tossed on a table and mixed up with our own hands. Destruction. Separation. But it does not destroy me. I know that I will get them in order, share them with friends, lay them out in order, and after they get torn down again and pushed into the middle of the table it will be all right. It will happen over and over, but I have already lived through it.

"We'll call him La Boca," laughs Tito. The mouth. Fernando smiles at that and nods his head in acquiescence of the joke.

"I'm thirsty," says Manuel.

"We just started. You do this each time," says Tito.

"It is 90 degrees out here. It is not healthy to not have hydration." Miguel is a retired doctor and doesn't exercise or eat well, but brings out his authoritative advice when it wins him an argument.

"I'll get it," I say, and throw my fichas back in the middle because we will have to start again. We trust each other with our lives, not our dominoes.

"A Yoo-hoo?" asks Fernando. He opens his wallet, buckled at the seam from long years. His delicate hand quivers as he pulls out one thing at a time from it, a laminated social security card, a tip calculator in a plastic sheath, a 20, a five, some ones and some old Cuban bills. He stares at them, trying to decide or decipher, and I pick up a one and look at him. He nods.

The cool air of the drugstore hits me, and my ears ache. I go down the row of magazines, all translated into Spanish, Time en Español, People en Español. I move across the linoleum floor to the drug aisle. Again all the labels are changed. Brighter too, as if Spanish must be yelled even when written. I pick up the aspirin, the chewable kind that I am fond of. St. Joseph. I genuflect at the name. Get the drinks; use my money, nod at the old lady who draws on her eyebrows.

When I sit back down Manuel is telling the old jokes. "And Fidel dies and goes to hell and says, 'You call this hot?'"

"How come I can leave the table for a few minutes or for a few weeks' vacation and return and you are telling that same joke?"

"It is an eternal joke."

We all nod at this and take the dominoes and begin to line them up in our own private six inches of space.

"Are you married, Fernando? You go to St. Ignatius?"

"No. I don't go to that church. I'm not married. I am engaged." His voice is so laced with time and the sea that I worry about him being thrown in with us, especially Manuel.

"Congratulations! Engaged. I didn't think that happened anymore. Local girl?"

"I doubt it is a girl, Manuel," I say.

"Is the lady from Miami?" he keeps on.

"No, a girl from home. I have known her since seventh grade."

"Well, then I guess it is about time you do things right," Manuel laughs. "From Habana?"

"No, from Isla de Pino."

"Well that explains it," Tito says. It is a joke that is preceded by any town or city except Habana.

"I was there," says Manuel. "I didn't get to see much of the land, but you have beautiful prisons," and we all laugh. Manuel was like me, dropped in the jungle by the CIA, caught by Castro and put in prison for two years in Habana and then Isla de Pino. Since I was a leader, I was put in isolation and could not place his face when I met him again years later, although he says he remembers me. Memories are untrainable.

"You have any other family here?" I ask Fernando.

"No. Just me for now."

"Well. Welcome compañero."

I see the sides of Fernando's hair moving and realize the wind is picking up.

"What is this?" Manuel stands up and moves to the end of the cement floor and looks into the sky. "Yes, my friends. Look at that cloud. They missed that on the morning show."

He returns and sits heavily on the stool. Usually we would pack up in a hurry, place the dominoes in a bag and head for our homes, but we sit there, Fernando staring at us as leaders.

"What do you want to do?" I ask.

"Well. We can meet later," Tito says, not looking any of us in the eye.

We don't want to leave each other, don't want to return home to quiet where thoughts of Narciso still in a coffin, a red pillow behind his head, will come back to us. Don't want to smell the incense of the church punctuated by the sound of his wife's gagging sobs that make us turn again and again to see if she has been sick. Rustle the dominoes, listen to the thunder, let the wind blow over the tables and pull at our clothes. We don't really mind. We are used to it.

"Why don't we just go to someone's house?"

Yes, we all agree. We will turn on the radio and play and play.

"OK. Well let's think fast, friends. Whose house?"

I think of how messy my house is since my wife died three years ago. Manuel lives 30 minutes away. Tito says that his wife is having the St. Ignatius Heart of Mary ladies over for lunch today. Fernando does not volunteer, but somehow Manuel coaxes the new guy into letting us come to his home.

We scramble to collect the dominoes, pat the other old men on the back, put the Herald over our heads. We walk in a slow gait, but with determination to beat the storm.

Fernando is slow to find which key unlocks his own door. He lives at an old motel, Motel Flamingo, the flamingo more orange than pink these days, hanging on the sign that advertises rental by day, week and month. Number 12.

The rain begins to fall loud and sudden, but we are under a shallow awning and make it through his door just as our divvied sections of newspaper give way. Mine was the Leisure section.

One room with two doors, one that slides for a closet, and the other for the bathroom. "How long you been living here, Fernando?" I ask.

"Since I came."

I walk the full length of the room, scooting around the other men who are just staring at nothing. The walls are bare except for one picture over the bed. Three flamingos in a bit of water, legs balanced up like storks. The bedspread is neatly folded down at the foot of the bed. The one little desk is bare. A hard-sided suitcase sits on the luggage rack. I go to the dresser, old but clean, and open the top drawer. It flings out and stops with a catch. Nothing. I watch Fernando as I go to his suitcase and open it. All his clothes, neatly folded.

"Are you going somewhere?" I ask. He looks down.

I hate this part.

I put my hands in the air and then let them drop. "You've been here how long?" I ask, not needing an answer. Manuel is quiet for once and Tito is looking out the window at the rain.

"What is going on, my friend?"

Fernando looks smaller than his five foot five. I add it together faster and faster these days. His watch, the money, the engagement planned in another life. I look at the four of us, worn and old, standing in a small hotel room, rain hitting at the window, and I wonder if it is raining there too.

The little man who has replaced our dead friend stands against the wall, his eyes troubled as the Atlantic, and answers, "I thought I was just visiting."

About the Author

Karen Alea was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1967 but grew up in West Palm Beach. With light skin and red hair, she calls herself a Cuban-American spy: "I laughed along with the wetback jokes during the day and ate arroz con pollo with my abuelo at night." Alea received a B.A. in English at Palm Beach Atlantic University before heading for the sea, living on a ship and writing about health issues in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica. Her nonfiction book about the Bay of Pigs, For Which He Stands: The True Tale of the CIA, Castro and a Catholic (Old Mountain Press), came out in 2001. Alea is a board member of the Tennessee Writers' Alliance and lives in Murfreesboro with her Aussie husband and two daughters; in January she will begin work on an M.F.A. in fiction writing at Bennington College. Her stories have been published in Out of Line and Eureka literary magazines and by spitfirepress.com; she recently completed a novel, Spic, for which she hopes to find an agent. Alea's primary motive for entering the Scene's contest, she says, was the possibility that her story would actually be touched by the hands of Ann Patchett, her literary idol: "I haven't been this startstruck since I ran into Shaun Cassidy."

Comment from fiction contest judge Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto

"The Next Guy" has a terrific structure. It captures a quiet moment of change in the otherwise static lives of the characters. This change connects the characters to their past, giving the reader a clear view of their entire lives even though very little is said. It's much more difficult to write a subtle story than one that's filled with pyrotechnics. I thought this was extremely well done.

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