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I looked Vladi up and down. “You look like they tossed you back to Havana and then dragged what was left of you to Ybor,” I told him.
“They… they… no,” he said. “I didn’t take the squirrel.”
“What squirrel?” I said. “What the hell is this squirrel?”
“Some squirrel with some dogs over at the hotel,” La Voz said. “Supposed to be Plant’s dogs from France. Some lunacy. Au Coup de Fusil. I don’t know. But it wasn’t him. Wasn’t you, Vladi, no? No era tu, verdad?”
“No… no… no,” Vladi said. “I… I didn’t take no maldito squirrel.”
“Ridiculo,” said Calixto Velázquez de Cuéllar, who, it was rumored, always had his lips on Vladi’s uncle’s ass because of some nonsense about his great grandfather six or seven or eight times removed supposedly brought in black esclavos — slaves! — before becoming the first Adelantado of Cuba over what was once the Indies.
La Voz glanced at Calixto, but as usual returned to whoever else was nearby. “Anyway,” he said, “I’m taking Vladi home to get cleaned up. After that,” he said, looking at me, “you meet me over by the cañones at midnight. At the hotel. You know where?”
“I know where.”
“Bueno,” he said. He looked at Vladi; Vladi stared back. “Midnight,” he said.
And so we met at the cañones. It was me and La Voz and Vladi, and though it was clear it put a screw in Vladi’s uncle’s side, Calixto.
Calixto said, “We can take the two dogs and then they’ll have nothing. Frustrate them un poco, no?”
“That’s your brilliant idea?” La Voz said. “To be a criminal to prove we aren’t criminals?”
Calixto pointed to the dogs. “They’re right there,” he said. “Beside the oak trees.”
La Voz walked to the dim figures. We heard him urinating on them. When he returned, he said, “A jester never be.”
Vladi said, “I… I… no lo hice, lo que dicen. I stole nothing.”
“Anyway,” La Voz said. “The gringo has it out for you. And while I would say quedate, stay? I can’t. Not with any conscience. Not my sister’s son. Not now. Now you must go, chiquito.”
Calixto moved as if to speak, but when Vladi looked away, first at the cannons and then, sadly, into the night, he put his hand on Vladi’s shoulder and himself looked down at his feet.
I said, “What are you saying?”
La Voz said, “What needs to be said. Vladi leaves in the morning. Before the sun is up. Before the patrón and the policia and any goddamn bigmouth wakes up in Ybor. Before them, you will be gone, Vladi. Ya esta.”
Vladi looked at me and I looked at Vladi. Vladi said, “Help me?”
“Of course,” I said. “Claro.”
La Voz nodded. “Me and el brillante over here will head back to Ybor. You take him back to his casita, get his things. And Vladí, when you get to where you’re going — maybe go to Caya Hueso or someplace maybe a little closer, mandame una carta. Tell me where you are, but don’t sign your name. Just a little hello from wherever, vale?”
“I… I… claro,” Vladi said. And his uncle and Calixto left us standing there, in the middle of the night, by the cannons.
We walked along the river and then along Lafayette Street. It was warm and my shirt stuck to my back with sweat. Vladi was quiet for a bit. I lit two cigars from the factory and handed one to Vladi. He smoked half of his cigar as we walked and then, noticeably perturbed, scrutinized the cigar under the light of a streetlamp.
“No,” I said. “Calixto gave them to me.”
Vladi smiled. “I… I… I knew it, man.”
But it was a lie. I had rolled the cigars myself.
“You know,” Vladi said. “I… I… can’t stay because of my uncle.”
“Why say this, Vladi?”
“The squirrel? This is no re-reason to go. It’s because of my ti-tio.”
“What about him?”
“He is too much trouble. He… he…”
“No, hombre. All the lectores are the same in Ybor. All the patróns have issues with their lectores. Your uncle is no different.”
Vladi said, “Well… Well…” and shook his head, and that was that. We were quiet all the way to Vladi’s casita.
At the door, Vladi turned to me and, with that same yo no se que in his eyes that his uncle had, said, “You… you… are a good friend, hombre. The road ahead I… I… is mine to walk alone.”
Vladi leaned into me and hugged me, and I hugged him back. We had left Cuba together as acquaintances and in just a couple of years had become friends. But friends — tabaqueros, alligator fighters, swampland adventurers, escuchadores of the wisdom of the lectores, Vladi’s uncle and the various men who carried those beautiful voices before him, aside — we were just strands of tobacco at the will of so many things that we would never control no matter what. Not in our lifetimes. I smiled. I bid Vladi farewell.
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