Aurelio Gonzalez had ten minutes before the beginning of History to steal the book. A scholarship student at Joseph Edward Davies Preparatory, in Washington, DC, he knew he was taking a terrible chance. If he were caught, it would mean expulsion, unbearable shame, and a devastating blow to his mother; he was her last great hope. He had never stolen anything before. And yet, now, he had to, as if recovering some lost family heirloom.
He was tall but scrawny at fifteen and wore thick, austere, black-framed glasses. He carried his heavy history textbook through the long corridors of the stately mansion that had once been the home of Ambassador Davies, an apologist of Stalin and the Moscow Trials. Finally, Aurelio reached the entrance to the library and took a deep breath. Mrs. Forester, the librarian, was suspicious by nature. She peered at him archly over her thin, gold reading glasses as he came through the door.
“Don’t you have class?” she asked.
His tongue became thick, unresponsive. “Mmm…yes, Mrs. Forester, history…but I…just need to check something quickly.”
She frowned and looked back down at some papers on her desk. He headed for the French literature section.
A school trustee had donated a copy of Rimes Byzantines, a collection of sonnets published in Paris in 1891 by the Bibliothèque de L’Europe et L’Amerique. The book, though shelved in the French Literature section, was in fact a lost gem of Cuban literature by the forgotten poet Augusto de Armas. Like Stuart Merrill, José-Maria de Heredia, and a number of other 19th century poets from the Americas, Augusto de Armas had chosen French over his native tongue. Aurelio had seen the book referenced in footnotes at the Library of Congress, but even that institution did not possess a copy. He could not believe his eyes when he saw it on the shelf of the school library.
Aurelio was sickened by how Mrs. Forester had affixed a library sticker with a Dewey decimal number around the delicate spine of the book and applied Scotch Tape over the sticker to secure it further. This had made him even more determined to rescue the book. Once home, he’d remove the tape and sticker, and use White-Out to cover the school’s name and address, which Mrs. Forester had stamped in gross black ink on the flyleaf.
Unfortunately, the French section lay in direct sight of Mrs. Forester. All she had to do was look up at the right moment to catch him in the act. He pretended to scan the books on the thick, oak shelves, his eyes caressing the spines of Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Mallarmé. He stopped every now and then to dart a glance sideways at Mrs. Forester, who seemed absorbed by her papers. The thin, paperbound book was on the top shelf, wedged between two larger books. His index finger worked the book free. He glanced again at Mrs. Forester, at her pumpkin-colored hair. She’ll look up now, wait… But she did not look up.
He pulled the book off the shelf and slipped it smoothly under the dark blue V-neck sweater of his uniform. He pressed the lower edge of his history textbook against his chest, at the tip of the “v,” to keep Rimes Byzantines in place. He was positive that Mrs. Forester could hear his heart beating; his face burned and the pit of his stomach felt tight as a fist. Yet he managed to smile at Mrs. Forester as he passed, saying, in an almost flirtatious tone: “This one’s mine,” tilting the History book toward her yet careful not to dislodge the stolen book under his sweater.
He went out the door. The blood throbbed in his temples; his legs were wobbly. Keep going! You did it! As he was about to climb the stairs to History—he’d be late if he didn’t hurry—he heard a voice cry out shrilly:
“You! You! Stop right there! I said stop!”
He froze. The other students hurrying to class also stopped. Mrs. Forester stood in the middle of the foyer, beneath the enormous chandelier, her hands on her hips, her jaw quaking.
“Lift up your sweater! Yes, you! Aw-ree-lee-oh! Lift it up!”
This isn’t happening; it can’t be. He already foresaw his mother’s shock. “My son is a thief, un ladrón!” she would cry through their particleboard rental unit.
“I have nothing…” Aurelio said to Mrs. Forster feebly.
“Lift. Up. Your. SWEATER! Now!”
All eyes were on him. He was aware of the delight of his peers, especially Bruno Jaeger, who had once spilled all of the books in Aurelio’s locker onto the floor and said: “What’re you going to do about it, girl? Try anything and you’ll be wearing those glasses on your ass.” Bruno was grinning now from ear to ear, his braces glinting.
There was nothing to do but escape through time. Aurelio removed his glasses and looked up at the chandelier. Without the glasses, the light became blurry, a gas lamp on a rainy 19th century night in Havana. He was sitting in an ancient café with Julián del Casal, the Cuban Baudelaire, who condoned his petty crime and praised him for rescuing the rare book from the hands of Philistines…
The principal, Mrs. Kenner, stepped out of her office.
“What’s going on here?”
“Aurelio Gonzalez stole a book from the library. He’s hiding it under his sweater.” Mrs. Kenner turned to Aurelio. She was a bony, intelligent woman with short-cropped, gray hair. She spoke perfect Spanish, which she’d learned as a volunteer nurse with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Knowing Aurelio’s obsession with books, she’d given him a few from her own collection, most remarkably an early edition of Rubén Darío’s poems, illustrated with Beardsley-like drawings of swans and anemic princesses. She often interceded on Aurelio’s behalf, making excuses to his mother for his poor grades in math (“Es poeta…”), and pointing out his excellent work in humanistic subjects (“He needs more time…”).
Aurelio put his glasses back on. The light of the chandelier was hard and piercing. Julián del Casal could not help him now. He sighed and lifted his sweater, revealing the book. The other students gasped. Even Bruno Jaeger looked shocked.
“Return the book to Mrs. Forester, Aurelio.”
“Yes, Mrs. Kenner…” He stepped toward the librarian, who took the book from his hand so furiously that the soft front cover tore and flailed, an agonizing tongue. Mrs. Forester became even more enraged. “You…!”
Mrs. Kenner clapped her hands. “Everybody back to class—now! Thank you, Mrs. Forester. I’ll deal with this.”
“Not only did he steal the book, now he’s torn it!”
“We’ll get it repaired. Here, give it to me, I’ll write a report. I’m sorry that this happened, Mrs. Forester. Aurelio, come into my office.” Mrs. Kenner took the book in the palms of her hands, like a sacred vessel or a wounded animal. The gawking students began to disperse, whispering nervously. Bruno could not contain his joy and shimmied up the stairs.
“But why, Aurelio? Don’t you have enough books? I’ve even given you books!”
“It’s by a Cuban poet…”
“That doesn’t give you the right to steal.”
Mrs. Kenner had tried to encourage him, and he had only betrayed her. Yet, even now, all he could do was gaze longingly at the book, which protruded over the edge of her desk, begging to be grasped.
She sighed: he had lost her for good. She told him, coldly, that a letter would be sent to his mother about this incident, and that his remaining at the school on scholarship would have to be reconsidered. Mrs. Kenner bent down to find a hall pass in the lower drawer of her desk so that Aurelio could be admitted into his history class. As she did so, Aurelio, in one swift movement, slipped Rimes Byzantines between the pages of his history book. Mrs. Kenner stood up and handed him the pass, ordering him to go straight upstairs. Aurelio held his breath. She didn’t notice, or perhaps pretended not to notice, the missing book.
“I am too.”
Aurelio backed out of her office. But instead of going to class, he went out the front door and lingered on the school’s majestic porch, a classical portico upheld by six Corinthian columns. He set his textbook and the plastic wafer of the hall pass down on a stone bench and extracted Rimes Byzantines. Free of history, with only the lighter book in his hand, he skipped down a series of wide stone steps to the driveway. Aurelio kept going along a crooked path through the acres of forest that isolated the school from the city. He eased himself through a hole in the fence. There would be a high price to pay tonight, but for a few hours, he was free.
In the past, when Aurelio skipped school, he’d go straight to the Library of Congress to immerse himself in fragile, dusty books of Cuban fin de siècle poetry, the pages so acidic they almost crumbled in his hands. Besides Julián del Casal, he read Poveda, Bonifacio Byrne, Juana Borrero, and the Sapphic Lourdes Matamoros—poets full of recondite words like libellule, hierodule, nenuphar, crepuscular. When he got tired of reading, or when the silverfish darting out of the rotting paper caused a rash around his nostrils, Aurelio would roam the library’s cool, white marble stairways, which ended in finials of bronze goddesses with upheld torches. He would gaze up at the murals of Muses—Terpsichore with the lyre; naked Erato holding a pink carnation—until his senses became dizzy with desire, and he would relieve himself tenderly in one of the library’s bathrooms.
One day, as he went into the bathroom, full of pent-up longing, he saw a dirty sleeping bag, a rusted canteen, and an iron skillet lying under the sink. There was a stench of rotten cheese and feces. A large man in a reddish beard and knitted skull cap emerged suddenly out of one of the stalls, his plaid shirt rolled up over his immense belly, his fetid erection pointing straight at Aurelio. “Come on, son, just take it in your mouth, it won’t hurt you none.” Aurelio backed out of the bathroom and ran in panic. Shaken, he had never had the courage to return to the library. His sanctuary had been defiled. Later he heard that homeless men could live in the labyrinthine stacks undetected for weeks, and that sometimes they even died there, in sections devoted to forgotten or discredited areas of knowledge, among books that no-one ever requested, their bodies found only when the smell reached the sections of more vital disciplines.
Aurelio hated the time and country in which he lived. Everything about the present and American life he considered vulgar, repellant. He could tolerate Washington, DC, but only because there were aspects of it that resembled the Paris he had seen in photographs, in particular the wide avenues. He could imagine himself in Paris, especially when he took off his glasses, and that meant he could imagine himself in Havana, a smaller, tropical Paris. What Aurelio hated most were the Northern Virginia suburbs. His heart always sank when it was time to return to the dreary dormitory town of Annandale in his mother’s sputtering Pinto. She worked at a bank in Washington but was always in a rush to leave the city, a city, she always complained, of Negroes and crime.
Aurelio would shut himself in his room and listen to his favorite record, the Piano Concerto No. 1, by the forgotten impressionist composer Cyril Scott. He would lower the speed of the phonograph to 16 rpm to draw out the adagio’s hypnotic, nocturnal mystery. As he listened, Aurelio dreamed of pearlescent, softly glowing Havana street lamps; of the cornices of its old hotels; of Julián del Casal, solitary and sad, walking along the Paseo del Prado in a black cape and ivory walking stick….
Aurelio had been born in Havana but had no actual memories of it, having left with his parents when only a year old (His father abandoned them in Miami almost as soon as they arrived.). What he knew of the Cuban capital was through his mother’s memories and from the reading he had done at the Library of Congress. Aurelio was enthralled by the murky photographs of the city that he found in ancient issues of La Habana Elegante. He longed to enter the photographs and live in that vanished, ghostly world.
Aurelio got off the bus at the Treasury Building and gazed down F Street. This was the dying core of Washington, and Aurelio chose it because it was free of contemporary shops that could shatter his illusion of living in another time and another country. Even in spring midday light, the street looked gloomy, as if the old buildings were conscious of their irrelevance and imminent destruction. Abandoned tramway tracks emerged out of the macadam like prehistoric spines. Faded wall tattoos whispered the names of long-defunct businesses: Palais-Royal for Gentlemen’s Clothing; Charles F. Currant and Sons, Dry Goods… Aurelio took off his glasses: the street came to life. He saw Havana in the 1890s—a blur of shunting trams, men in black capes, women in white gloves and elaborate hats…
As he was escaping through time, he remembered the morning’s humiliations: Bruno’s victorious shimmy, Mrs. Forester’s lips quivering with rage, and, above all, Mrs. Kenner’s disillusioned face. He put on his glasses and looked down guiltily at Rimes Byzantines. A slight breeze made the torn tongue flap.
He sought refuge in Garfinckel’s, one of the last of the old department stores. He entered through the revolving doors into a space scented with Caswell’s cucumber cologne and vetiver—how he loved that word, vetiver! Great brass votive lamps hung from the ceiling. The walls were decorated with peacocks and pale rose-colored wallpaper and hypnotic art nouveau swirls. Above an archway was a large plaster bust of a beautiful but fierce woman wearing a winged helmet, which always made Aurelio recall the cry of Stuart Merrill’s Valkyries: Vers le Walhalla, heïaha! There were hardly any customers except old women who still wore hats and white gloves and who, like Aurelio, disregarded, or strangely loved, the store’s creeping shabbiness: the threadbare carpeting; an occasional rancid whiff from the tea room; the broken, yellowed clock over the entrance; the greasy soot on the muntin windows, which filtered an ever duller, grayer light.
Aurelio was grateful to them for keeping the store in business. Sometimes he followed one of them discreetly, admiring her moribund elegance, redolent of Nuits de Paris and Ben-Gay. He imagined she was an exiled aristocrat, a palais nomad, from Czarist Russia, Luxembourg, or Bruges. Perhaps she lived in one of the old Connecticut Avenue hotels, in a grand suite with a library of choice poetry books and rare recordings of Pelleas et Melisande and the operas of Guillermo Tomás, the Cuban Wagner. Come live with me, she would say, I will protect you. She would nurture his love of books, and together they would travel to Europe and sit in cafés, attend concerts of Impressionist music, and he would write sonnets in the Parnassian style of Augusto de Armas. She might be the one who could save him….
Aurelio wandered through the section for women’s lingerie, thrilling to the touch of beige and peach-colored silks. He was sure that, by now, his absence had been noticed at the school and that urgent calls were being placed to his mother, perhaps even to the police. Perhaps a massive search for him had begun in the dense woods of the school grounds. But they’d never find him here, lost in time, hidden in the past. He felt a deep sense of warmth and safety.
He took off his glasses and was no longer in Garfinckel’s but in El Encanto, the Havana department store of his mother’s youth. She always spoke of the elegant store with such a hopeless sense of loss; it was among the things she missed most in exile. Aurelio passed displays of Panama hats and white poplin suits for the Cuban heat; opulent gowns for Cuban debutantes; shelves overloaded with ornate Italian ceramics, Murano glass and porcelain statuettes of Louis XIV, Madame Recamier, and Napoleon. In the toy department, Santa Claus and his reindeers flew through a tropical landscape… And there was his mother, painfully young and slender, with delicate blonde hair, her face not yet ravaged or bitter. She wore a sleeveless white dress printed with roses and was applying perfume to her wrist… He wanted to call out to her, touch her…
“May I help you, young man?” an elderly saleslady said in English. She was frowning at him over the perfume bottles.
“Oh, no, gracias…” He put his glasses on. “I mean, th-thank you….” Aurelio, back in Garfinckel’s, felt like a thief under the woman’s hard gaze; then he remembered that he was indeed a thief and looked down at the book in his hands. He rushed out through the revolving doors.
He decided to call his mother. He ached from the tender vision he had had of her in the store. What had he done? How could he destroy her this way? Hadn’t she lost enough already? Would they let him return the book? His hand was shaking as he lifted the pay phone, his mouth dry with fear. But—how could he even begin to explain? Aurelio hung up without dropping the dime.
As he stood on the corner, anxious and unsure, a titanic, wailing voice shook the old facades and filled the darkling alleyways.
“Gawd…dis moahhhh-nin…wen’ ah-roll-ho-llin’ ohn…”
Aurelio looked around him everywhere for the source.
“Gawd…dis moahhhh-nin…wen’ ah-roll-ho-llin’ ohn…”
He didn’t understand the words, only their infinite lamentation, which called to him, spoke to him. He had to find their origin.
He walked ever deeper into the city, into neighborhoods that his mother had warned him about, and that his peers at school would probably never know. He passed a Salvation Army kitchen and saw enormous cauldrons of soup over blue gas jets. He passed a boarded-up dime-store, a gutted Baptist church, and rows of seedy single-occupancy hotels; he passed liquor stores, porn shops, peep shows, and a pawnbroker’s window full of battered saxophones. And onwards, past mysterious doorways reeking of urine, where the light bulbs were imprisoned in wire cages; past storefront palm readers; past blue-mirrored cocktail lounges emitting Hammond organ riffs. Onwards, past the blacked-out windows of an asylum for the blind…
Then Aurelio saw him, an old black man in a dirty parka, his sweaty forehead raised, black glasses deflecting bayonets of spring light. He held a white cane and a lidless cigar box that rattled with coins like a tambourine. The man tapped the sidewalk with his cane, as if summoning his song from the center of the earth.
“Gawd…dis moahhhh-nin…wen’ ah-roll-ho-llin’ ohn…”
Aurelio shut his eyes and let the immense voice overwhelm him; he was inside the voice as though inside a vast cavern that reverberated with all the suffering of the world. What was the man saying? The words eluded him. Here was a language, a poetry, beyond any that Aurelio knew, Spanish, French, or English.
Something broke the singer’s rhythm. The cigar box jangled out of step. Aurelio opened his eyes. A light-skinned black man in his twenties had pulled the box out of the singer’s hand and was walking away briskly up the street. The singer stopped his chant without a cry or word of protest; he just stood still, a sudden pillar of silence. Without thinking, Aurelio ran after the thief, shouting: “Hey! You! Stop!”
The thief, surprised by this skinny white adolescent, turned and responded with a vicious kick to the groin. Aurelio doubled over and dropped to his knees; Rimes Byzantines fell out of his grasp and splayed on the sidewalk like a dead bird. Aurelio caught his breath and lunged at the man, concentrating all his strength on grabbing hold of the box and hugging it to his chest. He became the box. The baffled thief let go of the box but began to pummel Aurelio with devastating hook punches to the face and head. Aurelio’s glasses shattered against a nearby wall.
“You white cocksuckah…”
There was a harsh luminosity to Aurelio’s pain, as if blinding lamps had been lit behind his eyeballs. He felt himself falling amid loud, wild honking.
A DC Transit bus pulled up to the curb. The driver jumped out and shouted at the assailant, who kicked Aurelio one last time in the side before running off. The bus driver, a middle-aged black man, crouched over Aurelio.
“Hey man, can you talk? You all right?” Aurelio opened his bloodied mouth and sucked in air and the filth of the sidewalk. “I’ll radio the cops, don’t move, you look all messed up.”
Aurelio felt the blind man’s box beneath him, its edges cutting into his bruised body, reminding him where he was, and when, and why. The smell of the American sidewalk—spit, piss, tar, ossified chewing gum and worn out soles—had a bracing effect, helping him rise to his feet, slowly, shakily, and somehow no longer a stranger.
“This…belongs to the singer…” he uttered.
His head spun; his rib cage felt on fire. He steadied himself on the bus driver’s muscular arm. Through a haze of blood and tears, Aurelio saw the singer, standing in his same spot, motionless, smiling even, as if nothing had happened. Aurelio pushed himself off the driver and staggered with the rattling cigar box toward the blind man.
The singer said nothing but held out a large, long-fingered, steady hand.