Beautiful Maria of My Soul - By Oscar Hijuelos
Over forty years before, when Nestor Castillo’s future love, one María García y Cifuentes, left her beloved valle in the far west of Cuba, she could have gone to the provincial capital of Pinar del Río, where her prospects for finding work might be as good—or bad—as in any place; but because the truck driver who’d picked her up one late morning, his gargoyle face hidden under the lowered brim of a lacquered cane hat, wasn’t going that way and because she’d heard so many things—both wonderful and sad—about Havana, María decided to accompany him, that cab stinking to high heaven from the animals in the back and from the thousands of hours he must have driven that truck with its loud diesel engine and manure-stained floor without a proper cleaning. He couldn’t have been more simpático, and at first he seemed to take pains not to stare at her glorious figure, though he couldn’t help but smile at the way her youthful beauty certainly cheered things up. Okay, he was missing half his teeth, looked like he swallowed shadows when he opened his mouth, and had a bulbous, knobbed face, the sort of ugly man, somewhere in his forties or fifties—she couldn’t tell—who could never have been good looking, even as a boy. Once he got around to tipping up his brim, however, she could see that his eyes were spilling over with kindness, and despite his filthy fingernails she liked him for the thin crucifix he wore around his neck—a sure sign, in her opinion, that he had to be a good fellow—un hombre decente.
Heading northeast along dirt roads, the Cuban countryside with its stretches of farms and pastures, dense forests and flatlands gradually rising, they brought up clouds of red dust: along some tracks it was so hard to breathe that María had to cover her face with a kerchief. Still, to be racing along at such bewildering speeds, of some twenty or thirty miles an hour, overwhelmed her. She’d never even ridden in a truck before, let alone anything faster than a horse and carriage, and the thrill of traveling so quickly for the first time in her life seemed worth the queasiness in her stomach, it was so exciting and frightening at the same time. Naturally, they got to talking.
“So, why you wanna go to Havana?” the fellow—his name was Sixto—asked her. “You got some problems at home?”
“No.” She shook her head.
“What are you gonna do there, anyway? You know anyone?”
“I might have some cousins there, from my mamá’s side of the family”—she made a sign of the cross in her late mother’s memory. “But I don’t know. I think they live in a place called Los Humos. Have you heard of it?”
“Los Humos?” He considered the matter. “Nope, but then there are so many hole-in-the-wall neighborhoods in that city. I’m sure there’ll be somebody to show you how to find it.” Then, picking at a tooth with his pinkie: “You have any work? A job?”
“No, señor—not yet.”
“What are you going to do, then?”
“I know how to sew,” she told him. “And how to roll tobacco—my papito taught me.”
He nodded, scratched his chin. She was looking at herself in the rearview mirror, off which dangled a rosary. As she did, he couldn’t resist asking her, “Well, how old are you anyway, mi vida?”
“Seventeen! And you have nobody there?” He shook his head. “You better be careful. That’s a rough place, if you don’t know anyone.”
That worried her; travelers coming through her valle sometimes called it a city of liars and criminals, of people who take advantage. Still, she preferred to think of what her papito once told her about Havana, where he’d lived for a time back in the 1920s when he was a traveling musician. Claimed it was as beautiful as any town he’d ever seen, with lovely parks and ornate stone buildings that would make her eyes pop out of her head. He would have stayed there if anybody had cared about the kind of country music his trio played—performing in those sidewalk cafés and for the tourists in the hotels was hard enough, but once that terrible thing happened—not just when sugar prices collapsed, but when the depression came along and not even the American tourists showed up as much as they used to—there had been no point to his staying there. And so it was back to the guajiro’s life for him.
That epoch of unfulfilled ambitions had made her papito