Dariel Suarez



        Elena was almost done washing her dishes when she heard a knock at the door. She put down her scrubber and let the water run, trying to remember if she was supposed to be expecting someone. She was a sixty-eight year old widow who had lived alone since her husband's death ten years prior, and though some neighbors would pay unannounced visits from time to time, few ever came this early in the afternoon. None that she could recall in the last month. She had sometimes questioned if the absence of early visits in such a gregarious neighborhood was due to something other than respect for her, especially because in Havana showing up at someone's home without notice was common practice. At her age, she had grown accustomed to the constant company of silence, but more often than not she wished for the sound of friendly voices in her living room.

      After reflecting for a while, Elena shut off the squeaky kitchen faucet, wiped her hands on the damp cloth she always kept by the sink, and checked her green blouse and short brown pants for water stains. Satisfied, she headed towards the front door, her canvas shoes making a sluggish sound as they grazed the floor. Another knock came before she twisted the lock and held the door half-open.

      “Mrs. Portales?” a police officer said.


      “How are you today?”

      “I'm doing fine. Is something the matter?”

      “No. We just need to take a look at the Address Registry,” the man said, pointing with his right thumb at another policeman who was standing beside him. Both men were wearing blue and grey uniforms, topped off by standard grey berets.

      “Of course,” Elena said, and let them inside.

      The officers lingered in the middle of the living room. They looked around without much discretion, scanning every visible part of the house. There were an old sofa and two worn out chairs facing a Caribe TV; a circular coffee table supporting two ceramic elephants which were standing on their hind legs, their trunks facing each other, with a small picture of a middle-age man in-between; a few rectangular black-and-white portraits of young newlyweds hanging from the yellow walls; a metallic standing fan with a rusty base near the far end of the sofa; a retrievable white curtain with red flowers that led into the kitchen and which appeared to have served as a tablecloth at some point; a small chandelier with diamond-shaped crystals, three of which were missing; a high white ceiling with a large blot on one of the corners, and a cement tile floor which still looked dirty after Elena's meticulous morning cleaning.

      Elena closed the door, turned around, and invited the officers to take a seat. After a moment of hesitation, they took off their berets, shoved them into one of their respective pockets, and walked to the sofa.

      “I'll be right back,” Elena said once the men were seated, and disappeared into the dark hall that ended at her bedroom.

      She then walked to her dresser--the one her husband, Ignacio, had built years ago, right before the Revolution. She stared for a moment at her reflection in the round mirror resting above it. Beyond her aged and tired image, she could see the bed properly made: the faded sheets tidily folded, the pillows propped up against the headboard, looking like identical twins. Her bed had exhibited this impeccable appearance from the moment she and her husband had moved into the house. Now something was missing. She pictured Ignacio sitting at the edge of the bed, his hands on his knees, the elbows stretching outward, wearing his distinguished naval uniform and his spotless black shoes, the heels of which used to make a rhythmic tapping Elena now longed to hear echoing through the house.

      Ignacio had been a naval engineer for over twenty-five years, a man who oozed authority due to his flawless service record and his intellectual capacity, a man who she knew had loved her deeply and whose memory she cradled closest to her heart. She had missed her husband every day after he'd lost a grueling battle with stomach cancer--a battle he'd promised her he wasn't going to lose. Presently she seemed to miss him even more.

      Shaking off her husband's image, she wondered about the Address Registry. Who could be in trouble? Maybe's Manolo. He finally got caught. Elena knew that Manolo, a doctor who had moved out of the neighborhood to his girlfriend's place six years before, had not taken his name off the Registry. Six years was long enough for the government to deny him the rights to the house. Instead of giving up the home, Manolo had left it to his best friend, René, who had come from Pinar del Rio and was not legally allowed to register the house in his name. Elena was fond of both men. The notion that they could be in trouble worried her.

      As she bent down to open the dresser's bottom drawer, she felt a slight pain shoot up her back. She took a couple of deep breaths and retrieved the book slowly. Moments later she emerged from the hall. She handed the Address Registry to the officer who had done the talking, and said, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

      “No,” he said.

      Elena watched him as the man pressed his legs together, laid the bulky book on top, and began browsing aimlessly through the pages. He was taller and lankier than his companion, and had a trimmed mustache bordering his lip. His overall appearance made him look better fit for a suit and tie than for law enforcement attire. He reminded Elena of her cousin Tomas, who held a job with the Agriculture and Livestock Industry, and who had been shunned by the family for having accused his brother-in-law, and co-worker, of being a “political dissident” for allegedly stealing two meat boxes from a government warehouse. Elena hoped the officer's resemblance to her cousin was merely physical.

        As the man searched through the Registry pages, he began shuffling his legs. He slid the book back and forth, and said, “Do you mind if we go into the kitchen? It's too uncomfortable this way.”

      Elena felt embarrassed for not having offered the table. “Oh, forgive me,” she said, before escorting the officers past the flowery curtain into the kitchen. 

      The tall officer placed the book on the wooden table and sat opposite the refrigerator, which was humming and had the letters g and e missing from the word Frigidaire. His comrade, who had a stocky figure and permanently-furrowed eyebrows, sat to his left. Elena stood in front of the fridge, facing both men. She noticed them fix their eyes on the kitchen counter, which had only a few empty glasses, two medium-size containers labeled “sugar” and “coffee”, and a transparent saltshaker. Adjacent to the counter, a big pressure cooker was perched precariously on the front-right burner of her gas stove. A pair of green potholders, the one in front showing a burnt spot, hanged from a nail that'd been hammered into the wall above it. Next to the stove there was a small rack with a few potatoes, a long slice of pumpkin, and a string of garlic with two bulbs left.

      Elena waited in silence, feeling confused and invisible. The tall officer, having finished his visual inquiry, directed his attention to the book. He opened it and rummaged through it once more.

      “Maybe I can help you,” Elena said. “Is there a specific name you're--“

      “It isn't necessary,” the man said without raising his head, still flipping the pages. “Could I have a glass of water?”

      The request sounded more like a demand to Elena. She nodded, and paced hastily across the narrow area to the counter. She grabbed a glass and looked at the second officer. “Would you like some as well?”

      “No,” he said in a baritone voice.

      Elena walked back and put the empty glass on the table. She turned to face the refrigerator. As she opened its door, she was swiftly overtaken by distress. Besieged by her eyes, on the center shelf, was a smooth wheel of cheese. Elena felt as if her scrawny legs would give out from under her. A wheel of cheese like the one staring at her could only be obtained through illegal means. They were not available at the local bodega, nor could anyone ever dream of them being allocated through the rationing booklet. Instinctively, she tried her best to cover it. Reaching with her left hand, she took out a glass jar from the refrigerator's top shelf and shoved the door closed with her left elbow. After rotating her body with awkward pauses, she poured the water and handed the glass to the tall officer. He accepted it, took two sips, and brought it out in front of his eyes, examining it as if it were an unknown object.

      Elena headed towards the sink to refill the jar. As her fingers wrapped around the faucet handle, the second officer said, “Excuse me. Could I have some water as well? I guess I'm thirsty after all.”

      Elena considered confessing, apologizing, explaining. She had never broken the law before. When she had gone to purchase the cheese at Emilio's, an old acquaintance of her husband's who--like many people in the city--had recently begun selling food products out of sheer necessity, she kept telling herself that it was okay, that she deserved to give herself a harmless treat. She had repeated this in her head in order to summon the strength to go through with it. She had even taken a tote bag with her to carry the cheese undetected. Now the thought of being discovered sent shockwaves through her brittle limbs. Though she wanted to speak, a knot formed in her throat, too dense for her to fight it. She nodded, seized another glass from the counter, and returned to the fridge.

      Elena opened the door slightly and withdrew a plastic bottle that was on the bottom shelf. Ignoring the pain in her lower back, she straightened her torso and slammed the door inadvertently. She took a deep breath and focused her attention on the officers. The tall one was whispering in the other's ear. Elena wished she were twenty years younger so she could hear what the man was saying, but it wasn't hard for her to imagine.

      Without turning his head, his lips still moving, the tall officer took a sideway glimpse at her. She poured the water once again and offered the glass to his companion. The shorter man waited a moment for his comrade to finish. Eventually he leaned forward, took the glass, and laid it down. The tall officer moved back to his own chair. He adjusted himself so that his chin was raised, his elbows rested on the table, and the tip of his arched fingers touching, making his hands a mirror image of each other.

      “Mrs. Portales,” he said, tapping his index fingers, “we're not here for the Address Registry.”

      Elena said nothing. She didn't move, though her heart was racing.

      “Please, sit down,” the officer said.

      She pulled out her chair and sat with caution, her hands clinging to the rounded edge of the table. She felt fatigued.

      The officer tilted his body back. He spread his elbows and interlocked his fingers, resting the palms of his hands on his stomach. “We know what you did,” he said. “and we're willing to prosecute you.” The seconds of silence that followed began to smother her. The man continued, “Now, there's a way for you to avoid further consequences. We just need you to sign a paper stating the details of how you obtained the cheese: the name of the person you got it from, the cost, what you might know about the manner in which he procures his products.” The officer shifted forward. “All we need is for you to serve as a witness, Mrs. Portales. If you do this, we'll ignore anything you've done.” He pointed to the refrigerator, which had just become silent.

      Elena, who had been staring down and squeezing her hands together, tried to gauge through her mounting fretfulness how much of the officer's threat was meant as intimidation, and how much of it bore real consequences. After all, she could use her outstanding record in her defense. Besides, Emilio had been a good friend to Ignacio. Her husband would not betray him for something which suddenly seemed ludicrous and insignificant to her.

      “I'm really sorry,” she said, with an improvised tone meant to be resolute, “but I cannot do it.”

      The tall officer sighed and shook his head. He stuck out his chest and placed his forearms along the edge of the table. “If you refuse to cooperate, you can get in a lot of trouble.” He waited for an answer, but it didn't come. He then said, “Your record? You can forget about it. You've deliberately broken the law. If you don't assist us, it can get ugly. Why not help and get everything off your back? We already know who sold you the cheese. Just sign the paper and end the problem.”

      “I'm sorry,” Elena replied, her voice starting to shake. “I won't do it.”

      The officers looked at each other. The shorter man shrugged, the other clenched his jaw.

      “This is your only chance, Mrs. Portales,” the tall officer said.

      “I understand.”

      The other man said, “Think about what you're doing. There's no need to complicate things.”

      “I'm sorry,” she repeated.  

      The tall officer pushed his back against the chair and ran his hands through his dark hair. He stared at Elena and clicked his tongue. Elena couldn't tell whether he was trying to intimidate her or if he had run out of things to say.

      The officer then looked at his comrade and jerked his head, signaling they should leave. Both men stood, put on their berets, and walked to the front door. Elena heard them tussling with the lock. She perceived their voices trailing off as they opened and then closed the door behind them. She thought she heard one of them use the word “hag.”

      Elena then thought about her neighbors. She couldn't fathom why someone had gone out of their way to denounce her. She felt a mild impulse to weep, to curse under her breath and drench herself with pity. Instead, she went to the kitchen sink. She turned on the faucet, grabbed the scrubber, and continued washing her dishes, attempting to lose herself in pleasant memories of Ignacio.  

Dusk was starting to percolate through the open living room window. Elena was sitting on the sofa, enjoying the intermittent breeze coming from the fan as she embroidered a blue handkerchief. She was planning on giving it to Emilio as a token of appreciation for his not having accepted her money. “Take the cheese as a gift,” he had said. “For old time's sake.” Elena had spent most of the afternoon fretting he could be arrested. She had considered making a trip to see him, since she didn't own a phone, but the risk was too great. She could make the situation worse, when the officers had not even mentioned his name. And the person who had spied on her could do the same now.

      Startled by a chill, Elena placed the handkerchief, needle and yarn on the coffee table, and walked to the fan to reduce its speed. As the blades slowed, she heard approaching voices outside the front door. She recognized one of them. It was Xiomara, the woman who was in charge of political and social matters in her block. During the years they had known each other, Xiomara had always treated Elena with respect, even hints of affection, so Elena construed her visit as a possible solution to the problem.

      Following the habitual hellos, Elena invited the woman and her nephew, Alejandro, to make themselves at home.

      “It's all right, Elena,” Xiomara said as she remained near the door. “We're really disappointed that we had to get involved.”

      Elena quickly perceived an odd look on Xiomara's face. There wasn't the faintest residue of a smile lifting the downward-curving edges of her mouth, no friendly connotation on the way her thin, puckered brows fell over her eyes, no affability in the solemn resonance of her vocal chords. Elena figured the denouncer was in front of her.

      “I'm sorry you feel that way, Xiomara,” she said as she closed the door and turned around. “You know Ignacio and I always--”

      “Ignacio would've never done something like this,” Xiomara said.

      Elena knew this to be true. Hearing someone else say it stirred a mixture of remorse and affliction in her. Still, she didn't expect Xiomara to reproach her for something so trivial, not even out of respect for Ignacio. “What is it that I've done?” she said. “What unpardonable crime have I committed?”

      Xiomara said, “You should've practiced better judgment and considered the consequences before you went buying things from a counter-revolutionary.”

      Now it was mild anger rising in Elena's chest. She had always been an exemplary neighbor, she thought, never once meddling in other people's businesses. She could recall Ignacio saying, on more than one occasion, “In this country, discretion goes a long way.” Though she had never asked him what he meant exactly, she had followed his advice as best she could. She never accepted gifts which Ignacio would deem risky or inappropriate, nothing that would have endangered his good standing with the government. Elena believed she and Ignacio could not have been better role models, could not have been more supportive of the political system through their public actions. “The person who gave me the cheese is not a counter-revolutionary,” she said. “I have committed no crime.” Then she said, “You know, I have to say, I'm the one disappointed in you, Xiomara. I thought you'd be more understanding.”

      “I cannot be understanding of such a reckless and selfish act,” Xiomara said, swaying her head as if trying to convey an air of pre-eminence.

      Elena looked at Alejandro. He was standing a few feet away, his long arms slumping down and meeting at the hands over his crotch. There was a certain dullness in the way his mouth hung barely open and his eyes appeared to be staring over Elena's right shoulder at the front door. 

      “Elena, do you honestly believe you haven't done anything wrong?” Xiomara said.

      Elena gazed back at her. She felt a plank of her conviction snap and splinter, but it wasn't enough to make her budge. “Yes,” she said. “To be honest, I think this whole thing's kind of ridiculous.”

      “Well, you can think whatever you want. You're lucky the officers only want us to confiscate the cheese. Oh, and we need to talk about the Address Registry. After all this I don't think you can be in charge of it anymore.”

      “What goes around comes around,” Alejandro said.

      Elena discerned a smug attitude in Alejandro's voice, as if he were enjoying every minute of the confrontation, as if her misfortune somehow delighted him. “Why, Ale?” she said, taking a step forward. “What have I done to you? I've always been--”

      “Elena,” Xiomara interjected, “at least exhibit some dignity.”

      Elena stopped herself. She sighed. “I'm sorry. Please give me a moment,” she said, and went into the kitchen.

      The wheel of cheese was sitting on the counter, being feasted on by three flies, while two others hopped their way around the carton base. Elena scared them away by waving her hand. Not long after she had finished cleaning the dishes earlier, she had taken the cheese out of the refrigerator and left it out to fester in the warm, stale atmosphere of her kitchen.

      Elena pulled the carton to the edge of the counter and slid her hands under it palms-up. She carried it to the living room like a cake whose flaming candles she did not want to put out. Handing it to Xiomara, she said, “Are you taking it to the station?”

      “To my home first. I have to cover it with something.” Xiomara inspected the cheese with hankering eyes, while Alejandro drew closer from behind her and peered down over her shoulder.

      “What about the missing piece?” he said.

      “It was already like that when the officers came,” Elena said.

      Xiomara said, “Then we're done. We'll be back later to talk about the Registry.”

      Elena nodded. She turned to Alejandro and gave him a look of pity, like that of a disillusioned grandmother. She walked by him to the front door and pulled it wide open so Xiomara could get out without difficulty. She and her nephew left in silence.

      After locking the door, Elena picked up her things from the coffee table and put them away in the bedroom. As she returned to the living room, she thought about Xiomara and Alejandro, about their trip to the station. She also thought about the Registry. She had been in charge of it for so long that the idea of having it stripped from her actually saddened her.

      “Oh Ignacio,” she said to herself, looking around the room to ensure she had put everything away, “what a day.

      Elena then walked to the kitchen. Inside the raucous refrigerator, on the same plate where the cheese wheel had been resting, there was a thin slice lying on its side. She reached for the plate and lifted it up to her chin. She tilted her head forward and took a whiff. She closed the door with her free hand, lowered the plate down to her hip, and paced all the way to the back entrance of the house.

      As soon as Elena opened the door, Carol, a seven year old brown mutt, came running across the yard to her feet, her tail smacking against Elena's ankles. Elena sat on a narrow metallic chair she always kept by the entrance. Carol propped up her front legs on her owner's knees.

      “No,” Elena said, pushing her gently away. “Down.”

      Carol stuck out her tongue and bowed her head. Elena laid the plate in front of her dog. Carol's nose hovered above the cheese slice. She looked up at Elena as if searching for an approval.

      “Eat up, silly.”

      Carol began eating.

      Elena looked at the flamboyan tree towering on the far corner of the yard, its red flowers yielding gracefully to the wind. She stared beyond it at the purple sky, now dark enough to display a few stars. Though the sun was gone, she could feel the sultry, still air sticking to her pores. Soon she would take a bath, she thought, and rid herself of the day's burden.

      Dropping her head, she saw Carol savoring her treat. She petted her ears. “That's good, isn't it, girl?” Elena waited for Carol to finish eating. She promised her she would let her come into the house the next morning. “Ignacio would've loved you,” she said. “He wanted us to get a dog after he retired.” While Carol wiped the plate clean with her relentless tongue, Elena felt an empowering surge within her: there was something satisfying in her dog's lively contentment, something consoling and invigorating in the animal's enjoyment of the stolen evidence.  


The Inquest


Dariel Suarez was born in Havana, Cuba, where he lived until 1997. He currently resides in Miami, FL with his wonderful wife and a large number of books. He is attending Florida International University, where he was a winner at the 2009 Literary Awards. Dariel’s works have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications including Skive, elimae, Bent Pin, The Heron’s Nest, Foundling Review, Vain, and The Absent Willow Review