Tuesday, September 8, 2009
"Charmed Shrimp in China Town" by Jorge Carpio
Jorge Carpio, a narrator and graduate of the Onelio Jorge Cardoso Literary Training Center, was born in Sancti Spíritus, Cuba in 1965 and currently resides in Havana.
“I have great faith in the insane. My friends would call it self-confidence.”
- Edgar Allen Poe
It was lunchtime and Li told Boni that she was going to Tong Po Laug to buy something to eat. She got up from her chair and left him alone with his books and CDs. If anyone comes in asking for me, tell them that I’ll be right back, she reminded him on her way out.
Boni nodded. He had gotten to the bookstore early and was hungry; he would have liked to buy food in a restaurant too but he didn’t have any money; it was the low season and what he earned was barely enough to live on. And to cap it off, the police had installed cameras at points along the boulevard in Chinatown, and the streetwalkers and tourists had emigrated to safer places…
Soon, Boni saw Li leave Tong Po Laug with a steaming plate in her hand: she had bought a paella. As the girl approached, he smelled the food and his mouth watered; he hoped she would offer her something. Boni noted the yellow color of the grains of rice and the singed green of the vegetables. He identified the little Chinese beans. He uncovered an exalted shrimp in the middle of a mountain of rice; it was a solitary shrimp, curled up, that lent an appetizing and majestic air to the plate. With great pleasure, Boni would have stuck in her hand and wolfed down that shrimp. But he didn’t do anything; he sat there in silence, suffering the fragrances of the food and swallowing his own saliva.
“Look,” said Li, pointing to the solitary shrimp with her fork. “How beautiful!” she added.
“Yeah,” responded Boni.
“I’m going to save it for last,” said Li. “Or maybe I’ll just leave him on the plate. To see if it’s a charmed shrimp who’ll bring us something good. What do you think?”
“Definitely,” he said, looking with jealousy at the solitary shrimp.
Boni stopped thinking about food and looked toward the entrance of the boulevard. People walked by, scrutinizing the restaurants; the doormen showed off their trays and hawked their offerings. In front of the bookstore one gave a cry that was particularly displeasing to Boni: he swore that the Tong Po Laug was La Bodeguita del Medio of Chinatown and that their beer was the cheapest. Here tourists could do whatever they pleased, the man concluded.
Now Li ate slower, having devoured a good part of the rice-and-vegetable mountain. And although Boni entertained himself watching the people that entered the boulevard, every once in a while he focused on the paella. The shrimp stayed intact but always in a different position; by his count, it had made four turns around the pozuelo. One of the times he looked, Li surprised him; she was also worried, she knew he was hungry; it was possible that he could have left the house without having had a bite to eat.
“Don’t worry, Boni, I’ll leave you something; I can’t manage all this. But don’t eat the shrimp, you know. I think it’s a lucky shrimp and we need some luck,” said Li.
Boni agreed. It pleased him that she kept him in mind. With the news, his guts started to make a spectacular racket; but the worst was that he couldn’t eat the shrimp. It doesn’t matter, he told himself; anything is something; and he stopped worrying about the food.
“Here,” said Li and extended the plate to him.
Boni ate with relish. When he finished, he intended to swallow the shrimp, but just then he realized that it had changed color. He remembered that at the beginning it had a pink tonality, sprinkled with white, and now it had arrived at a scarlet-like, intense red.
“Look,” he said, surprised, and pointed at the shrimp just like she had.
“What?” responded Li.
“Look how it’s changed color,” he said.
“What has?” said Li.
“The shrimp,” said Boni.
“I don’t see anything strange; it’s the same,” she maintained, and turned her head.
Boni didn’t insist. But in the midst of watching the shrimp, its new color grew more intense and he even noticed that it had moved. What was happening to him? Was the roof falling in on him, as his Russian friend Svetlana liked to say? Then Boni thought that he wouldn’t tell anyone what happened; they’d never understand; ordinary people would figure it was a hallucination. But he was convinced that he felt something different, it was as if he was floating or being invited to go on a trip. Then Boni looked at Li and surprised himself once again: he could see the things his friend was thinking. What is this? The only answer he could find was that the shrimp had gotten to the girl’s head. Anything could happen under the shrimp’s spell, he concluded.
“Something up?” said Li.
Boni looked away; he felt mean knowing he could read her thoughts.
“No,” he answered and focused on the doorman at Tong Po Laug.
He didn’t want to know what that guy dressed in yellow with a conical sombrero was thinking, either, but it horrified him to see the little capacity that he had: in his brain flowed only a few ideas. And most alarming was that they took so long to react. Boni found that he had a green brain, as if it were rotten. And he had learned in school that cerebral material was composed of gray and white. How was it possible that he had it in another color? Suddenly, in the mind of the doorman cash appeared; it was as if it was being shown before a projector. Boni directed his gaze toward where he was looking. He noticed that the doorman was scoping out the passers-by that entered the boulevard. ¡Qué bárbaro! he thought, and came to the conclusion that he saw them as cash cows. He guessed that his capacity didn’t surpass that of a chimpanzee and felt a little bit of pity for him. But Boni would have liked to look at him, he would have loved to know what type of money was involved. Clearly he sees me engraved on Cuban pesos and, what’s more, on one-note bills, he thought; and to him it seemed both funny and pathetic.
It had been a while since he had finished with the paella. What do I do with this now? Boni said to himself upon seeing the pozuelo. He looked at the floor; he searched for a place to put it. He decided on a corner, at the foot of the clock display cabinet, there it would be out of the way; it would also be tougher for an animal, most assuredly a cat, to come across the shrimp.
Afterward he leaned his head on the CD-display table; he was drowsy. Later he felt a trickle of drool hang from his mouth and fall in his lap. He took off his glasses and ran his hand over his face. He thought he had slept fifteen or twenty minutes; it was already near two. Now people were leaving the restaurants and stopping in the bookstore. Boni had realized that this time of day the tourists bought books about Ché and the Revolution; the Cubans, horoscopes and pamphlets on santería. Almost always they did good business.
Now becoming fully conscious, Boni noticed Li busy selling CDs. The girl waited on customers while never taking her eyes off their hands. They had been surrounded by a tumult of people. The nouveaux riches, the new man that came out for a stroll around Havana on Sunday afternoons, as he liked to imagine. Boni was irritated with the racket that they made; they picked up CDs; they loudly asked the prices and discussed which was best. Then he remembered the shrimp. He looked toward the pozuelo and saw it in the same place. He was delighted: it stayed phosphorescent like at the beginning but now the glow contrasted with the penumbra in the corner. Boni smiled at this. He decided to investigate what those insipid people thought. He directed his gaze at the group and went in and out of their heads. He saw more or less what he had supposed: in some, fragments of movies; in others, music concerts, Discovery Channel documentaries; in the majority he found absolutely nothing, their minds remained blank as if they didn’t exist.
Until that instant, they had done good business with CDs but not with books. Boni started to worry; it was likely that that day he wouldn’t make any money. A bit later he was encouraged by the sight of a few tourists; by their language he guessed they were German. They were dirty and stinking of sweat. He hoped they would stop in front of the library. He approached them and asked them the usual question:
“Can I help you with something?”
At first the men didn’t react; they were concentrated on some posters of Ché. Boni repeated the question.
“Yes?” said one of the men.
He pointed then at the books.
“Oh! No, no,” said the man, looking at him seriously. “No,” he repeated; but this time in a harsh tone.
Boni wasn’t bothered. He focused on the shrimp and decided to enter the head of the one who had spoken, wanting to know how foreigners thought. They’re people too. He also reflected on how they traveled across the world. They have to be different, then. His interest keen, he slipped into the mind of the tourist. First he observed his blonde, almost white hair, clumpy as if he hadn’t bathed in days. He sensed a stink similar to that of Chinatown when the restaurants’ pipes burst. Then he situated himself in one of man’s two brain hemispheres; he couldn’t identify it as the left or right. He had hopes of finding images of the city’s delights that the publicity ads suggested; however, he didn’t see anything concrete, but rather stumbled over a pile of ideas that he didn’t manage to understand: they were in German. Too bad! he exclaimed. However, upon contemplating a Hebrew medal, the tourist thought something that Boni did understand: Ich haben hunger, the man said to himself. I’m hungry too, Boni said to himself.
Still saddened, Boni watched the Germans walk away without buying anything. Afterwards, they entered the Parrillada, the restaurant neighboring the bookstore. He rejoiced; he thought that place designed like a worker’s cafeteria was the ideal site for those two morons.
It was already mid-afternoon and Chinatown stayed quiet; only the neighborhood children ran around the boulevard. Boni wondered if people were breaking the habit of reading. The world is changing, he said to himself with nostalgia. Then he remembered the Germans. He felt disgraced by them. He remembered how they had focused on the posters of Ché. He looked at them, too. He was curious about what Chéwas thinking. He decided to put it to the test and chose the famous photo by Korda that was known all over the world. But he found no idea: everything stayed black and white. He repeated the process. He thought that he had lost the spell and felt frustrated. Afterward, when he calmed down, he figured that charmed shrimp couldn’t penetrate the mind of the dead. If someone else had been put under the spell and discovers that I’m trying to figure out the intimate thoughts of a hero? Boni asked himself. Stealthily he scoped out his surroundings but no one was paying attention to him; only Li had turned around to look at him.
“This is bad,” she said, directing her gaze toward the books.
Boni didn’t respond. He didn’t like that phrase. He grumbled about Niurka, the florist, who entered the boulevard complaining, "this is bad", it was her go-to line.
“You sound like Niurka,” he said, smiling.
Li returned the smile.
The birds of the boulevard were screeching at the same time, like a great concert: the aviary was an anarchic symphony, thought Boni.
“What time is it?” he asked Li
“Ten to six,” she answered.
He glanced at the shrimp and found that the birds were intoning nostalgic melodies as if they remembered the place they had come from. Boni felt an urge to break open their cages, but he relinquished it. He noticed one that remained silent, taciturn, and wanted to know what was going on in its head. Paradoxically, he was the happiest. If I leave here, the cats will eat me, repeated the bird to himself as if conceiving a slogan. Boni loathed him, remembering past moments of his life. Then he looked above the aviary and saw two cats; they seemed like family; they were white with black spots. One was sprawled on top of the brass that made a roof in the form of a pagoda; he licked his paw and passed it across his face and behind his ears. Sometimes he closed his eyes and dozed off. The other was seated on his hind legs. Boni entered the head of the first. The animal entertained himself by contemplating images that he invented:
Countless cats seated on the Malecón wall regarding the horizon as if searching for something lost. Sardines kept jumping from the sea and falling directly in their mouths. The regular fishermen, envious, tried to open a path among the multitude of cats but they didn’t let them pass. Every time one approached, they closed ranks. Boni gave this dream a title: Feline Rebellion. And it pleased him that that an insignificant animal would be immersed in such delirium. The other cat was concentrating on the birds. It imagined it was hunting them in the air as if it were a flying tiger. Boni didn’t give much importance to that mirage; it seemed pedestrian. Many times he had thought he was like a cat; he loved shellfish and was unsociable, and had imagined himself up on the roofs.
Later, near dusk, Boni saw América and Caridad enter the boulevard together. They were conversing. He fixed his gaze on the man and thought that he wasn’t a regular black guy; he looked more like an Ethiopian with his shaggy beard. Caridad glanced toward the camera that the police had installed in front of the Pacific restaurant. The woman approached América and said something in his ear. Boni watched as he put two cartons of Marlboro cigarettes in the pocket of his shorts. Afterward, still in front of the bookstore, they waved him over. América put his hand on Boni’s shoulder and Caridad kissed him right near his lips.
“How are things?” said América.
“The usual,” answered Boni and took a peek at the shrimp.
“What’s up, baby?” said Caridad.
This time, Boni didn’t speak, only moved his head: now that he was under the spell he could know how she felt when she closed her eyes and moaned underneath him. But in that moment, he preferred to enter América’s mind. At the beginning he felt confused; eventually he adapted to the duality of his thoughts. Binary thought, Boni said to himself, and began to jump from one idea to the other: son of a bitch, and at the same time, hijo de puta, thought América while looking upon a street in Manhattan and Central Havana at once. The man mixed marijuana with campanilla, whiskey with rum, automobiles at a spectacular speed with bike-taxis that go slowly up San Nicolás, the mutiny of an Atlanta jail cell with the tired walk of some Habaneros. América also thought of Boni: he associated him with a priest in a Catholic church on Queen; with a Navy sergeant; with North West Harlem junky; with Greenwich Village loan shark; with Hudson River hermit, with a Central Park rapist…Boni was pleased that in thinking of him, América broke with his habitual binarism and associated him with such a multitude.
“Cool, América!” he said and clapped him on the shoulder. “One of these days we’ll go drink a bottle of rum.”
A little while later, the restaurants’ garlands made the boulevard glitter; the time for food and a resumption of movement had begun. Now I should really sell something, Boni said to himself, and he prepared himself to adjust the prices with the clients. He peered at the shrimp; this time for a long while, figuring it would make the spell last longer. But no one approached the bookstore; they passed and glanced at it and snuck into one of the restaurants; afterward they came out picking their teeth; and the majority carried doggie bags with them for home. During this time, almost four hours, Boni penetrated countless minds.
It was almost eleven when Boni leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes: he saw a bunch of little stars that appeared and disappeared.
“You feel bad?” said Li.
“No,” he answered.
“Let’s close up,” she proposed.
Boni got up and stayed standing for a bit. He stretched. Then he looked at the pozuelo, but he saw it was empty.
“And the shrimp?” Boni almost shouted.
Li was startled; she looked at him, frightened.
“I don’t know,” she stammered.
Boni picked up the pozuelo and brought it close to his eyes. When he made certain that the shrimp wasn’t there, he felt an immense loneliness; it was as if he had lost a close friend. Had he been abandoned again? Was it possible that everyone, the shrimp included, were leaving him? Now, to top it off, he couldn’t even know what Caridad thought while they made love. Then he saw the dog Canela sprawled on the sidewalk; he looked at him with his head tilted and mouth open as if smiling. Damn it! he said, wishing he would have come when he was under the spell; he would have liked to know what he was thinking; he thought it was a cute dog although it had sad eyes. Boni bent down by Canela, smiled too, and stayed a while stroking the dog’s face.
- Translated by Isabel Perera and David Iaconangelo. Photo by author.