Orlando Ricardo Menes

Tio Manolo

TIO MANOLO HAD no table manners. Told lewd stories about the very ripe plantain and the avocado. Crunched chicken bones, picking shards from his teeth like flakes of gold. Good for the blood, he said. Mama retched, an embroidered handkerchief pressed against her nose, Spanish linen atomized with Coco Chanel No. 5. Mama, la mezzo who sang Neapolitan canzone in the shower, baked cauliflower souffles in Little Havana, wire-brushed her fingernails with alcohol. Papa slept on a mattress of sawdust, drank sugar water para matar el hambre. Without shoes, the soles of his feet became hard as hooves.

Tïo Manolo liked to show off the tattoo on his shaved breast, muscles twitching, the American flag fluttering. Worked out with Mr. Atlas chest pull and hand grips. Swore he’d be the first exile to make a million. This country’s wonderful, he said. Los americanos walk on the moon, crap on gold-plated toilet seats. Cars will soon run on guarapo. A super-secret satellite will shoot Fidel con rayos laser. Mama said, Esta loco. Papa (clapping): Genio! Tïo Manolo shouted Corta, then called her an old maid, uglier than rags. It took thirteen gifts for her to speak to him again.

When he drank too many Millers, Tio Manolo would tell the same story of how Fidel’s bearded guerilleros attacked his barracks just as he was brushing his teeth. The other cops drinking run, playing Russian roulette with a captured fidelista, casting dice to decide who would get his testicles. Tio bolted out the door spraying bullets. Yito’s fruit stand exploded. Mango shrapnel. Papaya pellets. Coco cannonballs. The sergeant’s prize-fighting cock—  Quiquiriquí — a ball of bloody feathers. Tïo collapsed, submachine gun between his legs, saw little stars of Bethlehem. Days of electroshock therapy, nights of catatonia. Visions of La Virgen confessing la vida es una porquería. He imagined himself in heaven, angels singing Guantanamera.

A week before the Cuban missile crisis, papa sent Tïo Manolo a one-way ticket to New York City and he landed at La Guardia with $20 in his pocket, amulets of Saint Jude for good luck. Slept in fleabags on Lexington Avenue, piles of New York Times for warmth. Said he got blisters from rubbing his hands so hard. Pawned his gold tooth in Chinatown for fried rice and egg foo young. Learned Yiddish cuss words at the automat. Hustled pool in Spanish Harlem. Got hustled himself on 42nd Street, a Puerto Rican transvestite who sang mambos, spoke Ricky Ricardo Spanglish. Tïo hated the slush. The cold. The canyons of skyscrapers. Cried for home at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, washing his face in holy water. If the world’s coming to an end, he thought, I want to die in the tropics, then boarded a Greyhound bus to Miami.

Tïo Manolo found a job at Blackwell Plumbing, selling copper elbows and T-traps, threading galvanized steel. Mimicked the drawl of his cracker customers, ate soul food in Overtown. In 1970 he opened his own plumbing sotre, married Eloísa, a chubby schoolteacher from his hometown. Twenty-eight years later Tïo’s store takes up half a block, showroom the size of a skating rink. Two delivery trucks, a dozen workers, three attack dogs that answer to Prince. Apart from a summer home in Marathon Key, Tïo built a quarter-million ranchhouse in West Miami. Lladro porcelain on every tabletop, BMW’s for my cousins Manolito and Eloisita. A small plane could land in the backyard, it’s that long and narrow, blades of grass glistening like emeralds at night. There are no bushes or flower beds, just a lone Cuban plum tree, smuggled seed, that has yet to give fruit in exile.

para matar el hambre: to kill the hunger.
guarapo: sugar-cane juice.
mamon: sucker.
corta: cut the yap.
la vida es una porqueria: life is rubbish.