Jim Kempner

When Jim Kempner escaped Cuba in 1961 he also abandoned all hope of becoming a writer. He earned engineering degrees (Northeastern, MIT) and even rose to become an executive: the Cuban refugee success story. But the itch remained and he took early retirement to write. 

He has written two novels, not yet published. He is currently writing a memoir spanning 1957-1961, the two years before and after Castro—“The Egg” was adapted from one of its chapters. Four of his short stories were awarded first and second prizes at the last two Philadelphia Writers Conferences. He lives with his wife in Bucks County, Pa—their three children grown and gone—where he writes and occasionally builds a piece of furniture. Please visit his website at http://jimkempner.wordpress.com/

Jim Kempner


I was ten when the lady next door left us the egg. According to gossip the woman was someone’s mistress.

The egg troubled mother.

“What did she say?”

“Nothing, Mami. She just put it there.”

My mother opened the fridge and stared. The egg, light brown and speckled, was propped against the milk bottle on the top shelf—exactly where the woman placed it.

“Maybe she owed it to you?” I suggested.

Mami closed the refrigerator, pursed her lips and puzzled her forehead.

The talk about the lady next door being someone's mistress puzzled me. I already knew all about queridas from Mami's radio novelas: they were young and beautiful, the playthings of wealthy men. But also malicious home wreckers, hungry for jewels and power. The lady next door—a plain woman in a house dress—was none of those things: not fat, not thin, not tall, not short, she looked like all the other mothers except that she had no children and no husband. And she was mother's friend.

Mami was friendly but shy and cautious: quick to laugh, sweet and devoid of malice, she was the nicest person I’ve known. Her few friends were other Jewish women from small towns like hers.

She regularly visited Bella, though not as often as before, when we all lived within a couple blocks in la Habana Vieja—Old Havana, an assortment of colonial buildings squeezed between the remnants of the anti-pirate city walls and the port. We moved to Santos Suarez when I was about nine while Bella moved to El Vedado. Santos Suarez was very nice but El Vedado was for the rich.

We still lived in la Habana Vieja when Tzoritel, who was Mami's best friend, emigrated to the States. El Norte. That upset Mami. Most European Jews who'd managed to escape ahead of the Holocaust came to Cuba for good; a tropical haven of opportunity—my mother came to get away from the cold—but for a few, Cuba was only a way station.

I'm sure Mami had many friends in her Polish hometown. I tried to look it up once on a big world map in grammar school but couldn't find it. The town was little more than a village but I knew it was near Vilnius and I couldn't find that either, until I spotted it in neighboring Lithuania, a hundred miles away. I didn't ask Mami whether she'd mistakenly thought she was from the wrong country; she didn't like to talk about it.

However many friends she'd had back home they were all dead—killed along the rest of her family—and Tzoritel's move, a mere year or two after the war's end, only added to Mami's distress: she still missed and mourned her own mother and sisters. When a few months later the letter arrived telling her of Tzoritel's death, it devastated her. It made her cry, even more wretchedly when she thought no one was watching.

In time she stopped crying, but whenever Tzoritel's name came up, Mami sighed and shook her head, sad resignation on her face. Tzoritel Olevasholem—may Tzoritel rest in peace—became a refrain, as if olevasholem had become Tzoritel's last name.

After Tzoritel died, I came to believe that death soon follows a trip to el Norte and couldn't understand why anyone would want to do that. Sometimes, while playing outside, I would spot, high in the sky, tiny silver planes headed due north. All I could do was stare in disbelief.

But Mami and the lady next door, a gentile, became friends who often chatted at our kitchen table, lowering their voices to a whisper when I was around. I neither cared nor listened, yet overheard snippets: mysterious maladies, arcane remedies and complaints about cramps and premature white hairs, which the lady next door plucked with tweezers out of her curly black hair. My own hair was permanently unkempt and given a chance, the lady next door grabbed and hugged me to her chest—she always smelled of Palmolive, as if she'd just showered—while combing her fingers through my hair. I didn't mind but for the delay, always in a rush to run out and play.

The lady next door didn’t have many friends either. None as far as I could tell, other than Mami and the man—I didn’t know they were lovers then.

I did see them together once, the woman and her lover, coming out of the building. The man was older and sported an Errol Flynn mustache above a thin lip. His shoes and hair were equally black and shiny and his stumpy body was encased in a crisp white Guayabera. The man’s mouth was drawn down as he hurried towards his big Buick while she struggled to keep up, sweat already beading on her upper lip. Her eyes were bright and excited and when she saw me, she waved: a quick finger wiggle.

In spite of the eternal heat, I was prone to colds which sometimes turned bronchial. The lady next door suggested remedies but Mami pursed her lips, closed her eyes and shook her head. Until one day, for no reason—my cough wasn't any worse—Mami relented and let the woman rub my chest with Vic's VapoRub before swaddling me in blankets. I sweated and suffered while the woman sat at my side, one hand atop my chest, least I escape my hot restraints. I complained and sweated some more until I was soaked and the fever broke.

This kind of home doctoring was very unusual. Mami believed in doctors. We belonged to a clinic and at the first symptom she dragged me to see our pediatrician, Dr. Mata Lavin. It was easier when we still lived in la Habana Vieja, before my little sister was born; then all we had to do was walk the few blocks from our home to the clinic in the Centro Castellano.

The clinic occupied half of one floor of the enormous old colonial building. The waiting area was a wide hallway lined with chairs and decorated with faded tapestries and oversized epic paintings of warriors flashing sabers, wild eyed horses, and bare breasted women laying dead in heroic poses. 

I was very thin. Probably because I ran everywhere and resented taking time off from play to stop and eat. It worried Mami so much she took me to the clinic. I was about five or six at the time. Dr. Mata Lavin emerged from behind his desk—an elegant man with silver at his temples and wearing a white coat with his name embroidered in cursive red threads—and took a seat next to me. He leaned forward, smiled, and asked me why I didn't eat.

“My mother doesn't feed me,” I replied.

In a flash his open hand slapped my face. Hard. It hurt.

“Don’t you speak fresh to your mother,” he waved a finger in my face.

I don't imagine he was suspended, defrocked, punished or even reprimanded. And certainly not sued, not then, not in Cuba, not when mother loved it so. She told everyone what Mata Lavin had done, and told them again, throughout the years. It was a favorite story and sometimes she laughed so hard tears came to her eyes and she had to place a hand on her chest to contain herself.

Dr. Mata Lavin’s prescription for my lack of appetite was similar to his treatment for other ailments: a daily injection. Every afternoon Mami walked me over to the clinic where a nurse injected me with some sort of compound of vitamin B with liver extract one day and a shot of calcium the next.

The liver extract burned and the searing pain lingered. I cried all the way down the two flights of wide marble stairs, until we reached the street corner and Mami bought me a caramelo at a street stand—just a small tray covered with sweets—manned by a stooped black man with close cropped white hair. She also bought me a piece of candy after the calcium shots even though they didn’t hurt and I didn’t cry.

But I was already ten years old and living in Santos Suarez, well past those injections and well past crying too, when Mami allowed the lady next door to slather my chest with the sharp smelling unguent and wrap me up like a mummy. That happened only a few days before the woman left us the egg.

“Are you sure she said nothing else?”

“No Mami, I told you. She just walked in and put the egg in the fridge.”

Something about the egg bothered Mami. She opened the fridge again, reached inside, hesitated, closed the door, stepped back and sat down at the kitchen table.

She sat there for a long while, doing nothing, just staring at the white refrigerator door. Until she jumped to her feet, grabbed the egg and went next door.

I ran in when she screamed. A piercing, terrifying howl. The woman next door was laying on the floor: eyes rolled white, pasty lather dribbling from her mouth, blouse soiled and in disarray, one flabby brown nippled breast exposed. Other neighbors ran in, tried to help. But the woman was dead weight, gravity bound. Someone noticed and kicked me out. I waited outside until the woman was taken away in an ambulance.

I saw her return a few days later, gaunt, wan and empty, emerging from a cab. I don’t think she saw me gawking. I never saw her again, not even when she moved away a couple weeks later.

The woman and my mother never spoke again.

Anyone would've blamed the falling-out on the suicide attempt—throwing away her life when so many had been deprived of theirs—but I knew it was the egg. Mami perceived some transgression in the bequeathing of the egg, or perhaps something else, something worse—Mami was superstitious. But I couldn't say exactly what about the egg had made her so angry. Never before or after did my sweet mother display such animosity towards any action by any person.

Years and years later, after political circumstances compelled us too to abandon Cuba's warm winters and emigrate to the States, Mami and I were sitting quietly by the fire on a Boston December afternoon, the outside world muffled by a recent snowfall. I was much older then, older even than mother had been when I was ten and we lived in Santos Suarez. Mami, who could no longer remember having eaten lunch an hour earlier, suddenly sparkled and asked me if I remembered Dr. Mata Lavin.

Although I replied of course, how could I ever forget, Mami once more told the story—a small measure of mischief in her eyes—of Mata Lavin's slap and admonition. She even laughed a bit. Her hand came up and the tip of her fingers tapped her chest lightly once, twice.

I asked her about the woman next door.

Her eyes at first betrayed confusion, surprise, and finally, recognition. She reached over and patted my hand. Her skin was baby soft but her hand was thin and frail. Mami olevasholem smiled, the usual sweetness and sadness mixed in her smile. She shook her head and said she didn't remember the woman. Or the egg.