The Acentos Review

An academic physician for over three decades with a primary emphasis on a career of scientific writing, Ricardo José González-Rothi, is a relative newcomer to fiction. Silver hair and a busy career have not deterred him from his love of the written word and the magic of the tale. He has had some of his work published in Acentos Review and Heal Literary Magazine.
Cuca la muda
                         a story by Ricardo José González-Rothi

        No one in Dr. Murfi's house ever spoke about Cuca. She was Oscar and Henry's aunt, the only sister their mother, Herminia had. I guessed Cuca was much older than Oscar and Henry's uncle Samuel and Herminia, but none of us knew how old  she was. She was short and skinny like a twig of can᷉a brava  bamboo and her skin was thin like wax paper, so the blue veins stuck out on her arms and neck. Her yellow skinny legs looked like chicken legs, waxy and scaly. She had a thin face with pointy cheekbones and no eyebrows. Her hair was in trenzas , braided like a piece of rope coiled on top of her head. It was the same color as the white hair under her arms. She always wore thin sleeveless dresses with hip pockets and old lady-type socks and these hung half down her bony legs and past her knees. I think this was because her legs were so skinny. I also think she didn't have the money to buy nylon ones like her sister Herminia because Cuca wasn't married to a doctor like her sister.
        People who came to Dr. Murfi's always thought Cuca was the maid. She would answer the door if she saw someone’s shadow through the glass, then she would step back and let the person in with a wave of her hand and then ran to the back of the house to find someone, then just like that, she would disappear... al carajo! Cuca kept busy either cleaning things around the house or folding things. She kept a square little rag she cut out of an old bed sheet and when not in one of her hip pockets, she would put it on her lap and fold and unfold it, back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes she would get into this manía and go on for a good twenty minutes at a time. Jorge would poke her shoulder and scream  -Cuca,  Que con᷉o haces…what the hell are you doing that for?-  Even when she could see his lips move, she acted like Jorge wasn’t even there. She would look down at her rag hankie, pat and smooth the edges on each corner, then undo what she folded, then she did it again, like the priests do after cleaning the wine cup during comuníon.
        Although I knew she didn't talk, La muda as everyone called her, must have had something else wrong with her. Sometimes I’d ask her questions and she would look at me like I thought she knew what I was saying, but she didn't, really. Sometimes, though, I think when she could see my lips, she would either nod like she knew, or swing her head from side to side, like letting me know she didn't like what I said. If one said or did something which upset her she would peep real loud - pa pa pa pa Abbah...-  Felix and Jorge said she was retarded. Henry said she had a brain infection when she was a baby and almost died. Mami  said Cuca had the sarampíon (rubella) when she was little and that Herminia had told her she was never the same after that.
        Nobody in Dr. Murfi's family ever talked about Cuca. There was definitely something wrong with la vieja, but I think from the way the Murfis acted, no one was supposed to ask questions. Cuca hardly ever went out of the Murfi house. She would sit in the yard, or sweep the front entrance, but she never would be out in public, like go shopping to the La Plaza market or to my Papi's grocery or even to church like normal people. Jorge said he thought it was because the Murfis were afraid if she tried to cross the street and couldn't hear the tram or cars coming she would be hit and get killed. Felix said it was because the Murfis were ashamed and because Henry and Oscar's uncle Samuel was a politician and that if people knew he had a retarded, deaf and stupid sister it would not help him get votes, even when he paid people. I thought it was a little of all these things and more, because Herminia would never take Cuca places like sisters are supposed to, and whenever people would visit, Herminia it seemed acted embarrassed but at the same time sad to have her sister be there. I always thought it was a shame that adults think eleven year-olds don't notice these things...
        Dr. Murfi was a bone specialist and his office was in his house.   We found out that Cuca had a room on the second floor. The upstairs of the house did not look like anyone lived there and was more like a place where Dr. Murfi kept his casting materials and various bone doctoring things like crutches and braces with funny shoes for the kids with poliomielítis . Eyebolts with pulleys and chains and hooks hung from the beams in the ceiling. There was a small door by the wood steps going to a room which Henry said was where Cuca slept. She always kept the door locked so we could never see what was in the room, although it looked more like a closet than a room. I never really knew whether this room had a window. 
        One day, Henry looked up towards the roof on the front of the house, while standing outside by the street.  Henry said, -Mira, this looks like it...see, up there, the round window half open with the pigeon sitting on the frame?... – he pointed towards the second story of the house around where we thought Cuca slept.
        Since most houses in Cuba had no air conditioning, we wondered how anyone could have stayed in that room with no air moving. Henry once stood in front of Cuca so he made sure she could see his lips. He popped her forehead with his palm, -Tia, mira, how can you sleep up there with all the stink from the pigeon shit??-  Cuca didn’t react, she just looked down and walked off into the house.
        Cuca was like one of those tic-toc little machines that piano teachers use to make you keep the beat. It seemed like she never stopped rocking and moving, even when she took her siesta on the couch near the kitchen. Oscar and Henry had great fun teasing Cuca all the time. They hid her mop or locked her in the bathroom downstairs and held the doorknob tight from the outside, just so they could hear her squeal pa pa pa...Abbah...- Jorge and Felix thought this was really funny, and they always pushed Henry to play pranks on Cuca just to hear her squeak.
        Cuca would get really mad sometimes. Whenever Oscar or Henry would tease her, it didn't take much for her to bring the broom down on their butts. Sometimes she would throw a dish rag or empty cardboard box at them, like she meant to hurt them but not really... I'm not saying that Oscar and Henry did not deserve a real whooping, because if I had done the kinds of things they did to her in front of  Papi, being disrespectful like that to an old lady, he would have had his belt on my nalgas in no time. The thing was that Henry and Oscar loved Cuca's "weirdness", and  I have to say, Felix and Jorge and I also sometimes acted like a pack of animals and treated her badly. Sometimes even Dr. Murfi would get mad at Cuca and he would scream at her so that the freckles on his cheeks seemed to want to pop out of his face, and he would then turn red and shake all over. If Herminia was nearby and she would hear Dr. Murfi yelling at Cuca she would run and stand in front of her like a gallina protecting her chicks, -Déjenla tranquila...leave her be, she doesn’t comprende what you want...-Dr Murfi would walk off, squeezing his hands so tight till his knuckles were white, chin tucked down with his head nodding from one side to another. Cuca would then disappear for hours.  We guessed she would lock herself in her upstairs room, often skipping eating and not show herself until we came from our houses to play at the Murfis the next morning.
        Most of the time Cuca stayed to herself. I think she liked washing towels and taking baskets of wet clothes  up the stairs past her little room on the second floor, and up the wood steps that led to the azotea roof, which was flat and had an iron banister on all sides. On the roof there was a lightning rod with an old torn kite hanging from a string that was stuck near the top of the rod. The kite flopped around like a caught fish in the wind. There were two other poles for hanging a clothesline. Cuca would take the wet laundry and hang it with clothespins to dry in the sun. I would sometimes sneak up behind her and watch her while she was hanging clothes. It seemed that this was the only time where she looked calm and even acted like she was a happy and normal person. She would at times hold the damp towels in between her two hands and put her face and nose up to the clean cloth, like she was holding and kissing a baby, or she would close her eyes and take deep breaths like she was smelling a flower. When dry, she would take down each piece of clothes and fold each like she did with her little square rag, pressing the corners flat with her hands and then placing each piece neatly  in the basket, even the socks and Dr. Murfi’s underwear.
        One day Oscar and Henry and Jorge and I were washing Dr. Murfi’s Chrysler in the driveway. Cuca walked up by the side of the house. Oscar aimed the water hose at her face and chest –Time for a bath, vieja!- We could see her bra and underpanties beneath her wet dress. Cuca went hysterical. She picked up a tin bucket half full of soapy water and flung it at Oscar, and the bucket hit him on the shoulder and then hit the fender of Dr. Murfi’s car. Luckily, neither the car nor Oscar were hurt and Cuca ran off dripping like a wet cat. We all laughed uncontrollably at Oscar. He looked so stupid standing there wet and soaped up!  But by the look in his eyes he was worse than pissed off, he was beyond encabronado!
        -Hija ‘e puta, maldita!-  screamed Oscar, -Damned daughter of a whore that you are!!!-  ( Cuca of course didn’t read his lips and Oscar, poor bastard, didn’t realize he had just called his own grandmother a puta!!) I wanted to protest, but being the skinniest, youngest and smallest of the group, I was scared, as usual, that Oscar and Felix would beat up on me, so I said nothing.
The next day we were sitting up on the roof of Oscar and Henry’s house, playing dominoes, and chewing Bazooka bubble gum, which I took from my father’s grocery store. Jorge said – Oye… this American chewing gum has little funny cartoons inside the wrapper!   Felix, what does it say in English?-  Felix looked like his usual stupid self. He didn’t read English, he only knew to say -How ar’ jew? and  -Jew make me laff…”  But that was all the Inglich he knew, which was all he learned from los Americanos that came to Varadero beach… Anyhow, we were playing dominoes, drinking Coca Cola and chewing Bazooka bubble gum when Oscar told us how he would get back at Cuca. He made a noose from a piece he cut off the clothesline, put it around Henry’s neck and had Henry to go downstairs to the second floor storage room.
        -Henry-, he said, -keep this around your neck and lie on the floor like you are dead…right in front of Cuca’s door-  Henry lay down outside her door, with the rope tied around his neck, next to a footstool which Oscar made look like it had fallen on its side. Oscar then cut part of the noose end of the rope  and made it look like it had torn, and another cut end he tied from the ceiling beam to make it look like Henry had stepped off the stool and then his weight was too much and the rope snapped and he fell to the floor and died. 
        The rest of us hid behind the boxes of plaster and bandages in the storage area, waiting for Cuca to open her door. Henry had a mouthful of Coca Cola and Oscar told him to wait until he heard Cuca open her door, at which time he would slowly let the Coca Cola slowly drip out of the side of his mouth onto the floor. I guess he wanted it to make it look like Henry puked after his neck snapped…
        Oscar thought it was a great plan he had. Jorge and Felix bobbed their heads like those toy baseball player mun᷉equitos on the dashboard of cars…they always agreed with Oscar, because I think even though they were bigger than me, they were afraid of him too…  Henry, who was the biggest and most macho of the group was quick to volunteer because whenever there was any daring, Henry always had to be it! We waited for almost fifteen minutes, after we realized that it wouldn’t matter how much noise we made or how hard we knocked on her door or made “falling” noises by her room. After all, Cuca was retarded and deaf as a doorknob, so she wouldn’t probably notice.
        Cuca finally opened her door and as she stepped forward, almost tripped over Henry, now faking like he was dead. His head lay in a puddle of brown liquid, his tongue sticking from his mouth, his body twisted in a weird position that didn’t look human. Seeing Henry, Cuca jolted back into her room, like a cat who was just about to step on a snake. Cuca’s eyes bulged out of her face and she threw her hands up on her head and began –Abba…Appah…pa pa pa…!!-  She shook her head real hard then fell on her knees at Henry’s side. She shook him and tried to loosen the cuerda from his stiff neck. Henry bolted from the floor, spitting and snorting Coca Cola then dropped back down, now really like he was dead.
        Cuca buried her head in her hands. She could not look at Henry. Her bones and ribs showed through her cotton dress. She sobbed and put her head down on her thighs, kneeling on the puddle of Coca Cola, her old lady socks soaking the liquid up. She took deep breaths and snorted and sobbed. She couldn’t control herself. She just rocked back and forth, seeing her nephew not moving. Felix and Jorge and Oscar howled. Henry stood up and started dancing around Cuca making faces and tugging at his noose as he twirled.
        I don’t know if there is a word to say how one feels when anger and pity crash with each other. I came hard from behind the boxes, head first at Henry. I felt my neck crack as the top of my head hit the lower part of Henry’s back and he flew across the room into Cuca’s door. His face smashed into the wood frame. 
        -Ayyy con᷉o, damn it!!! Maricón, you faggot!-  Henry screamed.
        I dropped to my knees and put my arms around Cuca. I remember the way she felt under me, shivering there. It was like the feeling I once had when I caught a bird with a broken wing in my hand. Cuca was shaking like she couldn’t control herself, then she stopped shaking…. stopped moving.
        I cannot remember whether Dr. Murfi or Herminia could hear my screams for help.
        Cuca could not read my lips.