Havana: 04 March 2019

“[Jimmy Hoffa’s] mention of legal problems in New Orleans translated into his insistence that Carlos Marcello arrange another meeting with Partin, despite my warning that dealing with Partin was fruitless and dangerous.”

Frank Ragano, J.D., attorney for Jimmy Hoffa, New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, and Cuban exile and Miami mob boss Santos Trafacante Jr., in “Mob Lawyer,” 1994

“These [Baton Rouge Teamster] hoodlums make Marcello and the Mafia look pretty good.”

“I won’t let Edward Partin and his gangster Teamsters run this state!”

“[We’re going to arrest Partin] as soon as we get the evidence against him.”

“Walter, get him out of my state. Now listen to what I am saying to you. Just get him out of my state. I’ll help you do it and I’ll give him immunity. You write it up and I’ll sign it. Just please get him across that state line.”*

Louisiana governor John McKeithen in a series of 1968 news statements, quoted from Walter Sheridan’s “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa,” 1972, including *personal correspondence with Walter.1

I sat cross legged and with a straight posture on the lawn of Hemmingways home in Havana, the one that he donated to the people of Cuba after living there for a decade but having to leave because of Kennedy’s embargo, and said to myself in what I imagined was his voice: “It was a fine home. I’m glad I saw it.”

I put my Spanish copy of The Old Man in the Sea back in my daypack, a tiny packable waterproof bag by an Austrailian company who’s mountaineering founder spared no expense on materials that packed small and were durable. It was beyond my budget, if only to empathize with people not as lucky as I was, but I had won it in a raffle at Climb Smart in Joshua Tree, and at the last minute decided it was worth squeezing into my carryon backpack. It was a good daypack. I’m glad I brought it. Inside, next to The Old Man and The Sea, was my Lonely Planet, water bottle, a simple knife I had bought and sharpened, a small pair of needle nose pliers, and a few thumb tips and half dollars.

I stood up and and stretched and made my way back to Cuba Libro, a cafe and used bookstore in a suburb near Hemmingways home. I had always daydreamed of opening a used book store and cafe, and if I ever did it, it would be a lot like Cuba Libro. It was on a corner of an upper class neighborhood with spacious houses and tree lined streets that contrasted with the high rises and concrete closer to downtown. I enjoyed staying downtown, and at every turn the architecture and small cafes and shops surprised me more and more; I don’t know why I assumed Castro’s Cuba would look like Stalin’s Moscow. But, I craved sitting in the shade of trees on a warm afternoon and reading a book or two. Cuba Libro was perfect. It had an L shaped courtyard with plenty of seating and lots of shade, and a small but curated collection of used books in Spanish and English lining bookshelves cleverly placed beside what would have been the line to order drinks at the cafe, if it were a weekend or after work hours.

It was a Monday, when most people were at work, so Cuba Libro was calm. I leisurely browsed the bookshelves and found what I was seeking that had not been there two days before: a copy of El Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries in English. I quickly flipped to the front and checked the publisher, and my smile lit up the cafe. Sol Stein. Author of: Stein on Writing. Lifetime member of The International Brotherhood of Magicians. Author of 1991’s The Magician, and creator of what I thought was the first Writer’s Software some time in the mid 90’s, a precursor to automated e-mail response generators that read your words and chirped back to write in the active voice. And, in one of the funniest coincidences I discovered after writing a memoir about my family and Hoffa, the publisher and editor of Jimmy Hoffa’s 1975 autobiography, “Hoffa on Hoffa.” I could have found it more easily in one of the bookstores near my home in San Diego or ordered a copy off Amazon, but I wanted to buy a suvenier for Cristi, and she’d appreciate a copy of The Motorcycle Diaries from Cuba; She’s afraid to fly, and twenty years before we took a year off to travel by buss from San Diego to Patagonia and back (flying over Columbia at Tim’s recommendation; a terrifying ordeal for her), and on the way back we ended up following El Che’s route from Bolivia to ??? (taking a boat to bypass Columbia), but didn’t risk visiting Cuba. Experiences can’t be ordered online. I had space in my backpack after giving Tim a copy of The Irishman, so I bought the book and a Cuban Sierra Maestra grown coffee and sat outside under the shaded canopy of a sprawling tree and beside a fence draped in vines with petite and fragrant pink flowers. I tucked The Motorcycle Diaries into my daypack and opened The Old Man and the Sea to where I had left off. It was a good day.

I finished my coffee and the book, left the book for someone else to have, and walked back to the Plaza San Francisco de Asi to access WiFi and check messages. There was still nothing from Wendy. My anxiety grew. It had been three days.

I opened my password app and used my master password to access an email account I used for most people and some work, and a similar phone account. Nothing from Wendy. I instantly felt drawn into the endless rows of mostly useless emails that had accumulated in only four days, and a few minutes later I put down my phone and cursed myself. It’s too easy to slip back into habits. I glanced at my watch. It was too late to call Wendy again, and I knew another voice mail wouldn’t help anyone. I scrolled through my contacts and found Michael J. Richard’s phone number. He wasn’t exactly my former stepfather; he and Wendy lived together on and off for about 14 years when I was a kid, and they split for the final time just before I graduated from LSU in 1997. He was a good man. We had gradually stopped calling, and it had been a few years since we spoke. I had been meaning to call him, anyway, because Wendy mentioned him having heart surgery recently. He was 74. I hadn’t seen him in person since he was probably 55 or 56. I called from the number he’d recognize, not the one I carried on sabbatical. He answered on the second ring.

“Hi Jason,” he said.

“Hi Mike,” I said. “I hope this is a good time.”

“Yeah, it is,” he said. “I’m glad you called.”

He sounded older and either anxious or irritated, but still had the same Cajun twang I had first heard in 1983, when he was an engineering manager at Exxon Plastics and had met Wendy when she was a new secretary. My mind instantly saw his face and his calm smile, and I regretted not seeing him more often. He had been valadictorian of LSU in the 70’s, and when I look back on my influences – unintentional mentors – Mike was one of the first to come to mind. I don’t know why I didn’t call more. But, neither did he. That’s life.

“I wanted to call sooner,” I said. “I heard you had surgery. I hope you’re okay.”

“Yeah, I am,” he said. “The cardiologist put in three stents. They were that material you worked with. Nickel Titanium or something like that.”

“Nitinol.” I said. Nickel Titanium Naval Ordinance Laboratory. Designed to expand and be rigid when hot, and to shrink and be flexible when cold. They thought it could make seals around metal containers and fuel lines, but inevitable fluctuations in environmental temperature made it unreliable for military vehicles. Researchers locked on the idea to change the transition temperature to hospital room cold, and to put in a bodies with a constant 100 degree celsius temperature. A cardiologist squishes it into a tube, like I squish my fancy backpack into my bigger backpack, and snakes it from a femoral artery to the heart, where the Nitinol expanded and forced clogged heart arteries open. I had a few patents for Nitinol medical devices, and had served on an ASTM committee standardizing safety testing for long-term Nitinol corrosion resistance in medical implants.

“Yeah,” he said. “Nitinol. They put in three. I’m fine now.”

“Good,” I said.

He quickly said, “Have you talked with Wendy lately?”

“No,” I said. “That’s part of the reason I called.”

“Well, you need to call her more often,” he said sharply. I instantly felt defensive.

“I tried calling this week, but I haven’t heard from her.”

“You should call her more often,” he said in a sharper tone. I felt irritated; I’ve always reacted to people speaking to me harshly.

“I know,” I said. “It’s hard, Mike. The time zones are challenging, and she doesn’t get reception at The Bluffs.”

Mike had been a founder of The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, an Arnold Palmer designed golf course near Saint Francisville. When they split, he gave her his lifetime membership to the country club, worth about $10,000 a year, and a pristine patch of land overlooking a duck pond. He was a good man; still, I dislike being spoken too like I was an unruly kid, even though I probably had been and his memory was seeing that kid instead of me, just like I was seeing him as I remembered him.

“That’s why I’m trying now,” I said. “I’m worried that I haven’t heard back, and you’re the only one I know who may have spoken to her recently.”

There was a pause. I heard him sigh subtly. When he spoke, his voice was more like I remembered, calm and kind.

“No, Jason. I haven’t heard from her in a few weeks. You should call her.”

He sounded so sad that I ignored the redundancy. He was getting older. I should call him more often.

“I will Mike. But I need to go now.”

“Okay. Tell Cristi hi for me.”

I told him I would, and we hung up. I logged out of my avatar accounts, and walked into the same bar. I hadn’t been since the first night. The same band was playing, and the same bartender was working. Some things never change. The recognized me. To be different, I ordered a Hemmingway Dacquiri. It was a good cocktail. I’m glad I had it. I went to my casa particular and fell asleep worried about Wendy.

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  1. Though not reported anywhere but within my family, in 1968 the federal government arranged for my grandfather to have a cabin in the premier elk hunting forests of Coconino National Forest and the San Francisco Mountains surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona. Big Daddy had always hunted elk in the Rocky Mountains, but they were only a day’s drive away from Louisiana, whereas Flagstaff – according to my 1990’s research on Mapquest.com – was almost 1,400 miles away and 22 hours of driving; or a series of small airplane flights from the Flagstaff regional airport to Baton Rouge International. He kept the cabin until his dying day in 1990, and that’s why my memories of Big Daddy in the 1970’s revolve around elk hunting and his big Bowie skinning knife. ↩︎