Havana 4

“[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.”

“He wanted me to get cracking on the interview with Partin. In June, Carlos sent word that a meeting with Partin was imminent and I should come to New Orleans. As [my wife] watched me pack in the bedroom of our Coral Gables home, she began crying, imploring me not to see Partin. She feared that it was a trap and that I would be murdered or arrested.”

Frank Ragano, J.D., attorney for Jimmy Hoffa, Carlos Marcello, and Santos Trafacante Jr., in “Lawyer for the Mob,” 1994

I sighed and set my watch to Havana time. The feeling that Wendy was contemplating suicide was so strong that, despite being glad to be off a plane, the dominating thought in my mind was jumping on a flight to New Orleans, renting a car, and driving past Baton Rouge to reach Saint Francisville as soon as possible.

I ignored the urge. I closed my eyes and stood still, and told myself that she’d be fine. She was probably just drunk, or one of her dogs died. She was always upset when one of her rescue dogs either passed away or was adopted, and that led to opening the first bottle of wine earlier in the day. She sometimes got drunk and called to brainstorm about updating her will to include the West Feliciana Parish humane society. I was sure she’d sober up by tomorrow and be fine.


“Fuck,” escaped my lips.

An analysis can be just as wrong as a gut feeling.

I opened my eyes, put my earbuds in, and called her while I still had WiFi minutes.

Her mobile phone went to voice mail, probably because she was at home and the cell reception there was spotty. I called her land-line, but after four rings her vintage answering machine picked up. I called her mobile again, just to see if she’d answer. It went to voice mail.

I forced my voice to sound cheerful and said: “Hey Wendy, it’s Jason. I got your voice mail. I’m in Cuba. I’ll be offline for a month and diving and climbing in a remote areas, but I’m in Havana for a week and will check messages every day or two.”

I chuckled clearly enough for her to hear, and said, “The cell phone reception here is worse than in Saint Francisville, so I have to find spots where I can check messages.”

On a whim, I told her that I was calling from a plaza named St. Francis, after the patron saint of kindness to animals, and said that I hoped that coincidence made her smile. She had been fostering dogs for about fifteen years, volunteering at the West Feliciana Parish humane society next door to Angola Prison in Saint Francisville. If anything made her smile, it was kindness to animals and her work with the human society. I added a perfunctory “I love you,” then hung up and sent Cristi a WhatsAp telling her I had arrived safely, that I had a cryptic message from Wendy, and to message me if she hears anything.

I didn’t feel like checking other messages, but I was already wearing my reading glasses and glanced at the names. Nothing jumped out, and I didn’t have many minutes left, so I called a few of the casa particulares I had circled in the guide book. In my best but most simple Spanish possible, I asked each one that had availability a few questions about the spaces because I didn’t want a cramped room. One that said their room had two exits: a private door with a lock and a glass door looking onto a small courtyard. It had another door to a private bathroom with a shower and hot water. Breakfast was included. It was a reasonable price and within walking distance from the plaza. I said that if it were okay, I’d be there after I had dinner, mas o menus a la nueve. They said that was fine, and told me what to look for outside of their building. Havana’s a densely packed city, and many of the neighborhoods look the same. They said to knock when I arrived, that they went to bed a las diez, mas o menus, so me showing up at around nine was no problema.

I packed away my earbuds, phone, and glasses. I stretched my hands above my head and twisted this way and that.

I glanced around the square. It was happy hour. Small groups of mostly young professional-looking Cubans walked around, peering in bars and occasionally glancing at their phones. No obvious tourists were in sight. I scanned the perimeter and listened to competing beats of music, and generalized the clientele of each. I stopped at what looked most promising, a bar with wide open double doors next to a large open window, and with a diverse crowd that would make me less noticable. The evening sunlight was fading, so I could see inside the bar clearly enough. Just inside the doors, a six-person band was playing a guitar, three brass horns, a stand-up wooden bass, and a congo drum set. Past them was a stand-up bar with high bar stools, and a hand-written sign that I couldn’t make out but looked like a daily food menu; being hand-written implied it was fresh. There were about a dozen low-sitting tables with six chairs each generously spaced around the room, and a few booths opposite of the bar that would hold the same number of people. There were approximately twenty people inside, scattered in small groups among the tables and booths. The barstools I could see were empty.

I glanced at my wrist. I could still catch happy hour and begin my sabbatical with a Hemmingway Daiquiri, if only to raise a toast to Papa Hemmingway and say that I did it in Havana.

I didn’t see a sign with the bar’s name, but it stood out well enough and I could describe its location. I reached in my backpack and pulled out a flip phone mailed to me by an old army buddy, opened it, and waited for it to connect. I began typing a text message using the archaic buttons. The tactile feedback flowed from old muscle memory, and I automatically pushed buttons once, twice, or three times to spell the words in my mind. I wrote that I had arrived, and described the bar’s location. He responded immediately. I replied “yay!” and packed away the phone.

I shouldered my backpack, but didn’t bother to adjust the straps. The bar was only a phone’s throw away. I stretched my neck again, took a deep breath, and began walking towards the bar slowly, ostensibly unrushed and without a care on Earth. I arrived and peered inside and smiled. It was just as I imagined. I was finally ready to begin 2019’s sabbatical.

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