Publisher’s Note: The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “A Man’s Hands En Clave” is the sixth in a series of short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her column, please see our September 12, 2013 “Letter From the Publisher.”
For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”
NOTES on “A Man’s Hands En Clave” by Arya Jenkins
I came to “A Man’s Hands En Clave” from three vantage points—that of being a Latina, a bicultural, and also related to two siblings who are lovers of Afro-Cuban jazz — my brother Bill, who offered a few hints for this story, and my sister Marcela, whose own love and appreciation of the genre, and of jazz in general, has long been an inspiration.
As a writer, I am often drawn to themes of adolescence, to the struggles of the young bicultural in particular, and so the main character Hector in “A Man’s Hands En Clave” echoes in some ways the female lead in my first story published with Jerry Jazz Musician, “So What.” In both instances, the main characters are young, creative biculturals struggling for a sense of place and identity.
It also felt natural to employ sensual language in both stories, so the reader might experience the feelings and rhythms of characters, and even hear their accents. While I am Colombian-born, and not Cuban, some aspects of being a Latina do not change — the love of music and dance, for example, which are integral to the Latin soul. That said, it was a pleasure to explore through these characters, traces of my own past and heritage as well as a music that has so appealed to and riveted members of my own family and informed our rich legacy.
“A Man’s Hands En Clave”
For a long time Hector hid his broken heartedness about having nothing to say behind an attitude of “I-don’t-give-a-shitism.” From the time he was a teen, his favorite expression was “I don’t give a shit,” and he doled this line out often along with his lousy attitude to virtually everybody but his parents.
His parents were hardworking Cubans who had escaped to the U.S. on the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when Hector was only four. If Hector knew anything, it was that the one thing his parents deserved was his respect and his love, which he did his best to give them in his way.
He showed his respect by not speaking to his parents in his typical fashion and, whenever he was with them, demonstrating his love by accepting his mother’s food and his father’s taste in television, without a word.
Where his mother’s food was concerned, this was hardly a chore for she was an exceptional cook, always serving up the Cuban dishes he loved so — ropa vieja and arroz con frijoles, whose very scent awoke in him the memory of sweating flesh, rumbas, street talk and sunshine that were part of his every day in his first homeland. On New Year’s eve, his mother made Imperial Rice, with chunks of pork, ham, chicken and fish, just as she had in Cuba, in the days when the house they had inhabited was three times as small and so rickety that if you landed on the wrong floorboard, the whole place could have collapsed.
In the U.S. very little changed, except his parents’ pride, which only grew with time– pride in country, pride in family, pride in their son. His parents worked just as hard and expected just as little.
After dinner, Hector’s father enjoyed watching television — reruns of 70s shows like “All in the Family,” his face frozen into a smile as if those inside the TV set had conspired to give him just what he needed, as if he understood any of it. Hector would actually grit his teeth watching him. Although Hector loved his father, who was a good man, Hector also thought him a fool and saw himself as the one in his family who really knew the score and understood the ways of the world. He was convinced of this despite the fact that his parents had put up with a lot from him.
As a youth, he had been a mediocre student with no incentive whatsoever to improve himself intellectually. The report cards brought home included few accolades, although his ever-supportive mother never failed to point out, “Look, he passed here,” as if that had been a major accomplishment. It was not that he lacked intelligence so much as the motivation to learn what he simply was not interested in learning. In class, all he felt was a ticking anxiety, like a giant, unseen metronome inside him.
He was always the one sitting in back, legs splayed, fidgeting with something on the desk, usually a pen, that became a cell phone soon as the bell rang that he twirled and twirled, while always wearing that droopy-eyed look that frustrated his teachers but turned the girls on. There were only scattered impressions he took from his educational experience — the legs of Matilde Johnson, the eyes of Janet Hemmings, the bosom of Maria Conchita Sanchez-Hererra, and only one teacher’s words.
One day, while handing back the folded blue composition booklet that hid the C-minus he had garnered on his half-finished essay on The American Constitution, his history teacher Mrs. Anderson said to him, “Hector Lopez-Garcia, I hope you learn to do something useful outside this classroom, something that actually excites you because certainly history is not your thing.” What she meant of course was that he should start thinking about what he wanted to do with his life. Until Mrs. Anderson said what she did to him, it had not occurred to Hector to think at all about his future.
Mrs. Anderson’s advice stayed with him. What could a young man like himself do to get ahead? What did he want to do? He began to mull these questions over in his mind, like newfound objects whose usefulness he could not fathom, and, at first they caused him great distress. For who was he, besides a North American Cuban son, a jodido, tied to two Cubanos who knew very little beyond family love and belief in country. Everything seemed so simple to them, so black and white. Where was their hunger for anything save the Afro-Cuban jazz that they sought out like addicts on the radio dial that might as well have been to them the greatest gift on earth.
On Sunday afternoons, his parents went through their rituals of self-assertion, asserting to themselves and to Hector, who they were as individuals as they danced mambos and rumbas together while listening to WBCB, and with their riveting sense of patience and timing, showed off what it meant to be Cuban. His mother’s hips, which Hector’s small legs had straddled so often as a boy, and on which her left elbow often rested whenever she was wielding a spoon or ladle while conjuring some recipe in the kitchen, jerked and flipped at the same rate as his father’s feet, which were fantastically nimble, even when he danced in house slippers. From the knees down, his father was like a magician.
His mother’s hazel eyes fixed on her father’s black eyes, sometimes raking the long dimple down one cheek, while his father’s mischievous glance kept slipping across his wife’s sensual thighs. When Juan did a rumba, he pulled out his red, party hanky, twirling it in the air and flipping it between his legs, then used it to encircle Rosa’s hips. His brown hand with its dirt-rimmed fingernails snapped the raised flag of passion, of music, of dance. Then she turned, seeming to wave him off with both hands, wearing such a smile. Hector had witnessed this since he was a kid, always thinking they were the most ridiculous and amazing couple in the entire universe.
The love that Hector’s parents had for each other and for the United States of America, he himself had for nothing, and for a while in his young adulthood this filled him with both bitterness and rage. He longed to find something of value for himself. He accepted he had not been a good student and that he had additionally been a bit irresponsible twice crashing the family car, a baby blue 1963 Buick Riviera that was his father’s pride. Still, despite all this fucking up, as soon as he could, Hector did what he knew he should, made an attempt to become his own man, and upon his high school graduation, moved out of his parents’ house. He began changing his ways, behaving like a young man striking out into the world, returning home only occasionally, as a good son does to prove his faithfulness.
And still he had no clue what he would do. Certainly, Hector knew what he did not want. Despite the fact that Hector’s father had mentioned the trades many times to him over the years and was himself a well-respected mechanic who ran a popular shop with his brother and cousin, Hector himself had no such inclination. The mere idea of spending his days peering into the hood of a car, getting greasy, or wheeling under vehicles staring up at their filthy metallic underbellies, repulsed him. If he was sure of one thing, it was that this kind of life was not for him. Every time his father pressed him to come to the shop, to learn “the tools of the trade,” his stomach actually churned.
Fortunately, his mother always came to his defense. “My son will find his own way,” she declared proudly to relatives and friends, whenever they came to dinner and inquired in the third person about the young man sitting sullenly at one end of the table, the good-looking son, the only child and pride of the family.
In order to pay for his new place, Hector got busy mowing lawns, and helping a friend of his father move furniture for a month, and he got additional part-time work selling tickets and popcorn at a movie theater. Then somebody told him he could make good bucks working as a bouncer at a nightclub in the city, so he tried that.
Club Havana was known for hosting decent Afro-Cuban jazz bands. There was dancing Thursdays through Sundays, and Sunday afternoons, the management handed out free cigars. Hector became close to the house band, whose rhythm section inspired him. He thought the drummer Manny was off the charts. Completely bald, he wore leather bands that cinched his pump wrists as if to keep his hands from flying off his body whenever he played fast and furious. A skinny, short guy played bongos, and a drunk worked the tumbadoras. Jorge, Carlos and Javier, all dapper guys, played horns. As if to distinguish themselves, one wore a mustache; another, a hat; and the other, wire rimmed glasses. Additionally, there was a young Julliard graduate on piano, a white-haired Cubano on flute, and a sax player who looked exactly like Lester Young. One afternoon, before their gig, Manny and Hector got to talking, and Hector started messing around on the tumbadoras, imitating what he had so often seen and heard. Manny raised his eyebrows and cocked his head. He liked this kid, and his sound was good.
“Why don’t you come hang with us this weekend. A few of us like to jam at Columbus Circle. Come along and let’s see how you work those congas in a group.”
Over the course of the summer, Hector hung out in the park. It was there he met the slender Camila whose hips never ceased moving in his direction. It was there he developed his confidence and abilities playing a variety of drums, listening, following and picking up tunes from the Cuban ensemble. But his hands were magnetized to the tumbadora. He could not get enough of it. This was his instrument.
All his life, he had heard the names,”Tanga,” “Mario Bauzá,” “Tito Puente,” and “Chano Pozo,” who was his idol. Now he was getting the details, answers to questions about the music, the other side of what his parents had taught him. He was amazed at all he knew and did not know.
He knew for example that in 1943, it was Mario Bauzá, founder and director of Machito & His Afro-Cuban Orchestra, who, with a composition called “Tanga,” merged traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms with the fresh harmonies of jazz, evolving a new genre, Afro-Cuban jazz. He did not know that this idea of jazz improvisation over intense Afro-Cuban rhythms would one day fuel Miles Davis’s own musical experiments.
After “Tanga,” came “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo,” both of which were popularized by a brief collaboration between the great Dizzy Gillespie and the crazy, mad, brilliant drummer Chano Pozo. “Tanga,” “Manteca,” “Cubop City,” and other great numbers, became part of Hector’s repertoire. He was always with the group, always learning, quickly outshining his other compadre on the tumbadoras, who was always late for gigs, often sloppy drunk. Hector now had his own set of three congas; he was reliable when it came to music; he was good. Still, it came as a surprise when Manny invited him to join the group.
He was not even 19 and a professional musician. Hector was on top of the world. He was now ready to make the call home that he had been waiting to make and had been looking forward to making, the call that would explain his long absence from the family, that would explain where he had been. It was time to tell his parents who he was and to invite them to come hear him play.
His father’s voice sounded strange to him from the first. “Your mother is sick, viejo. You need to come home. You need to come home and pay your respects,” his father said to him, speaking in a hoarse whisper.
“Pa, how can I do that. We play tonight through Sunday. Please, give mama a big hug for me. She will understand. When she gets well, you can both come and see me play. Pa, I’m doing so good. Aren’t you happy, for me.”
“Son, your mother had a stroke three days ago. She is still in the hospital.” Only then did those direct words of truth set him straight about the reality of the situation, and once he knew where she was, Hector was off and running, his mind, a whirr. He was not even sure of what he had just heard, just that he had to go.
“I will be back,” he told someone while running out the doors of Club Havana.
The sun struck his eyes cruelly, and for a moment, he felt he had not seen sun in ages, had become a stranger to it, and had perhaps without realizing it, wilted a little inside from its lack of care. This was not a thought exactly, but a deeper awareness, that along with the fear that was growing inside him about his mother’s condition, began chipping at his sense of grandness, the feeling he had been cultivating so long that he had wanted to share. He hopped a cab to Grand Central, and from there, a train to Norwalk, then a bus to Norwalk Hospital.
A quivering sense of expectation and trepidation overcame him as he rounded the corner to his mother’s hospital room. What would he find? What would he say to her? Was this his mother, pale and still as he had never seen her, tubes spilling out of her mouth, her face contorted, one arm bent and frozen, eyes partially open, so many machines surrounding her? Only a few months ago, she had been cooking and dancing, weaving her dream of happiness around him and his father. Surely this here now was a bad dream, nothing more.
“Mama. Mamacita.” He grabbed one of her cramped hands with the perennial chipped nail polish. Her hand was warm. Did he sense a twitch of recognition in her eyes? The constant, hoarse breath of the machines frightened him. What if the machines stopped?
“Mama? Can you hear me? Mama, please wake up. This is Hector, your son. I am playing music now, tumbadoras.” Just as his voice rose with pride, it broke and he collapsed weeping into his mother’s hand, the hand that had cooked for him, adored and nurtured him all his life.
“Mama, listen to me. I am good. I am in a group. Can you hear me? Please nod, do something.” She was stiff, warm still, but completely out of it. He glanced at a clock ticking loudly overhead and saw that it was time for him to go. But first he would call his father, let him know he had come, had been there. He picked up the receiver from the phone on the nightstand and called his father’s house. The phone rang and rang. Finally his Tio Luis, his father’s brother, picked it up. “It’s me, Tio. I am here at the hospital with mama. I just wanted papa to know.”
“Hombre, get off the phone. There is something wrong with your father. He just had some kind of attack. He saw the number you are calling from and thought it was bad news about your mother. I have to call an ambulance.”
His father had indeed suffered a heart attack, one from which he did not recover, passing away that very night, on the eve of Hector launching his career, and, as if that irony were not enough, almost one week to the day after his father’s funeral, his mother came to.
She recovered physically, although most of her memory was gone, names and a colorful past eradicated, all but her ability to cook. The recipes she knew were inextricable, in her blood. The strangest thing was she never inquired about her deceased husband. One sensed that a part of her knew and still she could not bear to actually hear the truth, so, out of kindness, nobody told her directly.
She knew of course from that sensing place that was still very much alive inside her that Hector was her son, and always cast him a maternal, appreciative glance, but she rarely spoke. The stroke had left her placid, kind and capable to a degree, but void of all the particularities of her former person. Still, it was enough for Hector, for everybody. After all, she was still here, still alive, still Rosa.
Little by little she came back, moving slowly through the days. Hector moved back to the house to be with her with his woman Camila, and Rosa continued to cook for the family. Her eyes no longer beheld the world with their enthusiastic luster, for they had lost their unique object, but because there was no exact memory of the loss, she still did what she could, loving in whatever ways she had available to her those who surrounded her. It was the way of women in her world.
One Sunday, after one of Rosa’s amazing Cuban repasts, when Hector figured his mother was well enough, he asked his uncle to bring her to the club to hear him play.
At the club, his Uncle Luis and mother sat together, he dressed all in white, she in her best red and black dress and well-worn pumps. Before beginning the set, Hector leaned toward a microphone and said, “I dedicate this to my dear mother Rosa Lopez-Garcia, who is here in the audience, and to my father, Juan Lopez-Garcia, to you papi.” His eyes raised to heaven and he pointed up with one hand. “This is for you.”
The band launched with “Tanga,” and Hector, full of confidence, strutted his strong, mature hands firmly and proudly across the stretched skin of time of his instrument — toom, toom, toom, toom-toom — while his eyes fixed on his mother’s aging brow and brimming glance and perpetual smile of hope, and soon she began applauding silently and her hips began shifting slightly in her seat as together with the band, Hector brought the audience home.
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