Reinaldo makes water tanks for a living. He measures, bends, and welds a metallic skeleton, then places a wooden mold around it. He applies a thick layer of cement inside the mold and around the skeleton. Once the cement sets in, he removes the wooden frame, smoothes out the surface, and the job is done. He leaves a hole toward the bottom of the tank for a pipe to be installed. If asked to install the pipe himself, he charges extra, unless it's a close neighbor, in which case he doesn't add any cost. On occasion he does carpentry work in his backyard, but only when the water tank business is slow. The Cuban government has never questioned him about his practices or how much he earns, so he plans to keep working until they tell him otherwise.
He learned to make tanks from his best friend, Carlos, who died three years ago at age fifty-two. Pancreatic cancer. Reinaldo is forty-six. Words like cancer, hospital, and disease scare him. Always have. When his time comes, he wants to die in his sleep. One of his aunts died that way. He saw her body after someone in the family realized she wasn't breathing. She looked placid, unafraid. Just kept on sleeping.
Reinaldo once witnessed a man falling from a scaffold at a construction site. The man died on impact. Reinaldo threw up behind a stack of planks when no one was looking. He didn't sleep well for a week. While making water tanks, he never turns his back to the edge of the roof. Carlos taught him that. "I've made over eighty tanks," his friend would say, "and I've never kicked gravel off a roof." Reinaldo doesn't have a problem carrying on the tradition.
Though he can do most jobs himself, Reinaldo has an assistant. The young man is Carlos' nephew. His name is Fidel, like Castro's, but he calls himself Navajita, small blade. He served six years for killing a man during a fight at a block party. He's five-nine, one hundred and forty-five pounds, and has a taciturn, even polite demeanor. He has a scar on his cheek shaped like scalpel blade. Some people suspect that’s how he got his nickname.
No one seems to know, however, how he got the wound. There are theories: fell on a barbwire fence as a child when visiting his grandmother in Camagüey; got it from his father, a belligerent drunk now dead from cirrhosis, during one of his tirades; cut his face on a shard of glass in a street fight. Regardless, most people in the neighborhood stay out of Navajita's way, avoid exchanging glances with him. There's a rumor that he can snap at any moment, like when he killed the guy at the party by stabbing him eleven times with a homemade knife.
Fidel has been out of prison for a few months, released on good behavior. Reinaldo offered him a job when the rest of his family, including Carlos' wife, rejected him. Reinaldo's own wife, Mirta, questioned the decision. "That boy isn't well in the head," she told him. He assured her that if Fidel ever did anything out of line, he'd dismiss him immediately, and that he'd be tactful about it.
Reinaldo has his reasons for trusting his friend's nephew. Carlos always spoke well about him, even after the incarceration. He claimed the boy was innocent. He couldn't picture him going off on someone just like that, hurting them so viciously. "The other guy must have done something," he'd say. "They say he was also toting a knife."
Reinaldo often thinks he would've reacted the same way. A man pulls a knife on you, there's no telling what he'll do.
As a worker, Fidel is reliable and skillful. A fast learner. He follows directions well and isn't afraid to ask questions about the tasks. Nonetheless, Reinaldo and Fidel barely speak during work. This allows them to finish quickly. Reinaldo can tell, or more like intuits, that Fidel is content with the job, and that satisfies him.
On a Thursday afternoon, almost finished with a double order, Reinaldo can't help staring at Fidel's scar. Between the sweat and the sun, it seems to glisten, more outlined than before. To Reinaldo, the scar looks surgical. He's been gazing at it for so long, he wonders whether Fidel has noticed and hasn't said anything out of respect.
After a while, both men stand up. They stretch their backs for a moment, and Reinaldo says, "How did you get it?" He traces a line across his own cheek with his index finger.
Fidel tilts his head slightly to one side. "In a fight. I was a kid," he says, and smiles briefly. His scruffy hair, grown past the bottom of his ears, flutters in the breeze and covers the scar.
Reinaldo considers the possibility that Fidel is joking. But then he keeps staring at him. Fidel's expression turns solemn. He lifts his chin, squints, and follows a flock of birds flying overhead in a pattern, a shifting "W." His hair slips back, and the scar again comes into view. Reinaldo watches it, a handcrafted furrow in Fidel's trimmed beard, and suddenly feels there was no joke. His friend's nephew had smiled about something else entirely.