‘Home Tastes Just Like Fried Plantains’ by Silvana Morales

Fried Plantains
Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

At five o’clock that morning, like he had done every morning, Ibrahim Delgado woke to the sound of screeching roosters. His old bones creaked like the bed he rose from as he shut off the rusted fan that blew faint wisps of cool air throughout the night. The aluminum shutters opened with a stubborn jolt, allowing the first glimmers of the early morning light to flutter in. It was a morning like any other.

The old man washed and dressed himself, buttoning his white guayabera, not forgetting to slip a cigar into the front pocket of his shirt. He pulled on the cap his son had sent him from Canada, the one he wore every day and loved. It had been a bright blue, red and white once; it was now faded and stained but still represented some hockey team his grandson often talked about during their monthly phone calls. He still did not understand the sport. Ibrahim Delgado remembered that it was the first of the month. Miguel, his son, would be calling him later that day. He felt a jabbing pain in his chest as he thought back to their last conversation.

The kitchen was still that morning, as it had been every morning, and Ibrahim Delgado waited for his coffee to brew. He bit into a guava, the sweetness bursting into his mouth as he inspected the magnets on the yellowed refrigerator door. The plastic magnets – shaped like apples, bananas, and grapes – help up a mosaic of photographs and postcards. Some were recent photos of his family in Montreal, surrounded by snow. Some were of Miguel as a child playing in the Caribbean sun. And a photo of Mirta, torn and bent. She was young and beautiful in the black and white of the photograph. He missed her the most.

Ibrahim Delgado thought about what he would say to his son. He would tell Miguel that he was fine on his own. He would be firm with his son. He would say that if he had been strong enough to survive malaria in Angola, he would easily overcome a simple economic crisis. Besides, what did Miguel know anyway? He was not living there anymore.

The old man sighed. He knew he no longer had the same strength he had had as a young man, fighting in a war on a different continent. Those days were nothing but stories told to his wide-eyed grandchildren now, as they listened to their abuelo talk about the time before the revolution.

He would tell Miguel that things were not as bad as they seemed.

Ibrahim Delgado picked up the plastic bucket he kept next to the back door of his home. He stepped out into the cramped backyard and was greeted by the cool breeze coming in from the sea. And like every other morning, Ibrahim Delgado was greeted by his chickens scattering around his feet as he plucked fresh eggs from their nests. He sometimes spoke to them about his plans for the day, and he liked to imagine that they listened and clucked their responses in return. Before leaving his home, he examined the lone banana tree he had planted beside the house. A cockroach slithered down the trunk. He poked at the fruit, turning them this way and that. They would be ripe in a few days, he guessed.

The sun was beginning to rise as the old man stepped out onto the streets of La Pachanga. It was the same sun he remembered seeing every morning as a child in Pilón, where he would accompany his father, admiring the dark-skinned man in a straw hat who wielded a machete with the grace of Ogún. His father, who, when angry, would cuss in his native Yoruba. His father, who had taught him everything he needed to know about cutting sugar cane. He looked down at the sun spotted hand carrying the bucket. His right index finger with the missing fingernail. The white scar that seemed to shine like a jagged bolt of lightning, where as a young man his hand had slipped, the rusty machete slicing into his skin.

He cleared his throat as he shuffled down the street, listening to the first bristles of the old fishermen’s village come to life. The tin roofs of the houses glinted in the warm light, and Ibrahim Delgado shook himself out of his daydream to let out his first whistle of the day.

El huevo! El huevo!” The old man chanted as the eggs rattled in his bucket. And as he made his way through the streets, he exchanged each egg for one peso, patting the occasional stray dog on the head as the bucket gradually grew lighter.

It was now midmorning. Ibrahim Delgado, empty bucket in hand and a pocketful of jingling coins, made his way to the tiny grocery at the end of the village. He stopped when he saw the mob that had formed around the decrepit building. The people were angry as they had been for days on end. He could hear snippets of the conversations around him, saying the same things he had been hearing every day for the last few months.

“I have been standing in this line since three o’clock in the goddamn morning and you’re telling me that there is no bread?”

“What in God’s name am I supposed to feed my children?”

“Isn’t it bad enough that the government took away the bread and milk rations for an old woman like me? El Presidente must want us all to starve!”

“No oil, no rice, no meat! What now?”

Ibrahim Delgado sagged –of course, no food, again. He would just make do with what he had at home. That’s what he had always done, anyway. He thought back to the grocery stores his son had spoken of when he had arrived in Canada all those years ago; the ones with the shiny floors and shiny lights. The ones that never had empty shelves; where you could find whatever your heart desired. The ones with the jets of mist that kept the vegetables looking fresh and bright. The old man’s stomach growled.

He turned and walked back through the streets, making his way to the stand on the corner of 1era Avenida and Calle 17; where an old lady sold flowers she grew herself. And on this morning, just like every morning, Ibrahim Delgado bought a white lily from the same woman for the last three years with one peso he had earned from his morning labor. She greeted him with a smile that had only become more toothless over the years and handed him the delicate lily. He thanked her with a nod and left. They had never exchanged a word in three years.

As he turned onto another street, the old man paid no attention to the crowd that had formed in front of the house at the corner. He did not need to approach them to know what it was. He could tell by the sobs coming from the woman lying in a crumpled heap, and the screams from the old lady beside her, that they were coming to take the house. The construction workers looked just as miserable as the homeowners. Ibrahim Delgado briefly wondered how they could blindly follow such orders. He knew that they probably had no choice. They had mouths to feed just like everybody else. It was not really their fault. The government had been tearing houses down one by one. To increase tourism, they had said. To build more hotels! A splendid idea! He shook his head. This was not what he had fought for. He had fought for what he thought was liberty. Back in the Sierra, with Che and the others. What a stupid boy he had been; a stupid, hopeful boy. It was only a matter of time before they tore down his house, too.

Passing the restaurant on Calle 13, he hummed to the strumming of guitars coming from the patio, where tourists and locals intermingled and the smells of carne asada and congrí were ever-present. The musicians were playing Dos Gardenias and the melancholic sound of the trumpet made its way into Ibrahim Delgado’s heart. He smiled, his mood lifting itself once again, and clutched the lily closer to his chest. His wedding band glinted in the sunlight and he remembered Mirta.

He remembered how they had met long ago, beneath the framboyán tree in the park he had visited every morning for the past three years –two teenagers in love. It had not been ‘love at first sight.’ He smiled as he remembered how much of a nuisance Mirta had found him to be at first. How he teased her and how her annoyance soon turned into laughter. The tree had become their daily meeting spot. They would sit on the ground, lean against its trunk and chat until it was time for Mirta to go home for dinner. They had gone to different schools. Some days he would pluck flowers from the tree’s branches and give them to her. Her cheeks would redden, matching the petals of the flowers as she would accept the gift. Some days she would bring her little sister to the park and let her play on the seesaw as the pair sat in the shade of the vibrant framboyán. He had grown to love the tree as much as he had loved her.

Ibrahim Delgado was old. He knew it, and so did his son. He could no longer travel long distances on public transport. The heat and the cramped interior of the trucks, the sweaty bodies, the lack of air. It would kill him and he knew that. He had not been to the cemetery in the neighboring town on his own since the burial. He had not visited Mirta, nor had he cleaned her tombstone. So, he did what his body allowed him to do. He had left a lily for her beneath the framboyán tree every day. He knew Mirta would have understood. She had always loved lilies anyway.

This morning had not been any different. The old man checked his watch, a strange digital one his son had given him on his last visit. It was ten o’clock. Miguel was supposed to call him that evening. He already knew what his son would say to him. He had been saying the same thing for the past few months.

“Ay pero Papi, you know you can’t stay like that on your own.”He had said the last time they talked.

“Basta, Miguel! I won’t hear any more of this nonsense.”

“Pero Papi, you’re getting older. You shouldn’t be working like a dog every day. You should be living life! You’ve worked hard enough as it is.”

“I am not working like a dog, Miguel. And I am not going to Canada!”

“Don’t be stubborn, Papi. You know Mami wouldn’t want you to be alone like this.”

“I can’t leave, Miguel. You know that.”

“Yes, you can! Papi, por favor –”

“Miguel! Just let a poor old man die in peace. I’m too old to be starting my life all over again. Besides, I can’t abandon your mother’s grave like –”

“Papi…”

“I said NO.”

“All I’m saying is you should think about it. You aren’t going into exile, Papi. And we’d all go back to visit! We’d go to the cemetery, Papi. You know I always take you when I come visit. You don’t have to worry about that.”Miguel had paused before adding, “And there are more opportunities here.”

Ibrahim Delgado had sighed and told his son that he would think about it. The truth is he had not thought about it. Or at least he had tried not to. But, the thought of Canada had piqued his curiosity. Nevertheless, his heart ached at the thought of leaving everything he had ever known behind.

He turned the corner and followed the trail to where the park stood. It was a simple park. It had been around since he was a young boy and had seen the passage of time in the town just like he had. It now stood between two hotels, and tourists often stopped to watch as the local children played on the rusted slide. At this hour, the children would all be in school. The smile that had earlier played on his lips had now faded, and his forehead was creased with worry. He could see some trucks up ahead, blocking the path. He felt the seams that were holding his heart together coming undone as he urged his body forward. The air was thick with dust, and the old man coughed. He slowed down when he reached the park. He could see the workers, in their ragged uniforms, pulling bits of metal that he assumed could only belong to the swing set. He watched as they tossed the trash into the back of their trucks. Weaving through the trucks, he ignored the surprised cries of the workers as he pushed past them to get a better view of the land.

In the farthest corner of the park, a stump rose from the ground. Scattered around it lay dozens of lilies, both new and wilted. The rest of the tree was nowhere to be seen. Ibrahim Delgado clutched at his chest. He stood, eyes locked on the stump as more workers milled about, some crushing the lilies beneath their feet as they went about clearing the park.

“Excuse me, Señor, but you need to step back.” A young man in uniform had appeared beside him. Ibrahim Delgado did not say a word, his eyes resting on the place where he had met his wife decades before. The young man gazed at him before speaking again. “They want to extend the hotel –build a bigger pool. That’s what everyone’s saying.” He pointed at the bigger of the two hotels, a bright blue building with high walls all around it.

“They cut down the tree…”

A confused look spread across the young man’s face. He glanced back at the stump before turning back to the old man. His face softened upon seeing the lily. “They tore everything down, Señor,” he said softly, “They always do.”

_________________

Ibrahim Delgado walked home with a broken heart. He had spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly around the village, his hand grasping the lily so tightly, the petals had begun to crumble. As he approached the orange house on 1era Avenida and Playa, Ibrahim Delgado realized that the sun was beginning its descent into night. He accelerated, hoping to get home before his son called.

He passed a group of old men playing dominoes at a table they had hauled out in the middle of the street. He heard the clinking of the little dotted tiles, the frustrated knocking of knuckles indicating when someone could not play their turn, the shouts of “Coñó aseré!” Ibrahim Delgado might have joined them on any other night. Only tonight he wondered if they ever got bored of playing the same game every night, if that was simply their way of ignoring the fact that they were all waiting for the change everyone knew was never going to happen.

The old man unlocked his front door and entered the parlor. It was flooded with silence. He flicked on the light switch, praying that there had not been another apagon. He sighed with relief when the room was illuminated by a faint light. No power outage that day, he thought. He entered the kitchen and pulled out a chair, setting the wrinkled lily down on the table before him. He tried to smooth out its fragile petals in vain. He began to stand, deciding to turn on the light in the kitchen before remembering that the lightbulb had burnt itself out days before, and he had not been able to find lightbulbs anywhere. He sat back down.

The weak evening light seeped into the kitchen as the old man sat at his table. He waited, like he always did on the first of every month, for the phone on the wall to ring. He prayed that when his son called the line would not die. He hoped that he could hear him properly. He knew how difficult it was to call. The old man could not afford it either. So, he waited, and although the phone hardly rang anymore, Miguel had never broken his promise.

Ibrahim Delgado glanced around at the empty kitchen. He saw the cracked tile counter and the peeling paint on the wall above the refrigerator. He saw the holes in the towel he used to dry the dishes. He saw the chipped plate he used three times a day sitting on the counter. The phone rang, and the old man lifted himself with a grunt. He shuffled to the phone and picked it up from the receiver. Miguel sounded far away, but he could hear his son’s voice nonetheless. He listened with a heavy heart as his son told him about his life in a country he had never seen. His grandson was doing well in school. His daughter-in-law was pregnant with their second child. The pride radiated through the phone and Ibrahim Delgado beamed at the news. His heart twisted itself in his chest.

“Papi? Can you hear me?” Miguel was asking him.

“Yes, Miguel. I’m here, mijo.”

“You’re quiet today, Papi. Are you feeling well? How was your day? How are your chickens?”

“I’m fine. We’re all fine. What are you doing, Miguel?”

“I’m making dinner, Papi. Have you eaten today?”

The old man glanced at his refrigerator. It only contained two eggs and a bottle of water. “I have. What are you cooking?”

Ropa vieja. Plátanos fritos. You know, the usual.” Miguel chuckled.

“Fried plantains.” The old man repeated.

“Tastes just like home.” He heard Miguel laugh once more.

“Home.” The word felt strange in Ibrahim Delgado’s mouth. For a minute, he said nothing more.

“Papi?”

“They cut down the tree, mijo.”

Miguel was quiet. “I’m sorry, Papi.”

“Everything, Miguel. The entire park was demolished.”

“I know how many memories you had there, Papi. Nobody can take that away from you. You know that.”

The old man coughed. “You’re right about that, mijo.”

Miguel did not speak. He tried to picture his father on the other line, most likely standing in his battered kitchen, in the same clothes he wore every single day. He knew his father was not telling him the full magnitude of the situation.

“Miguel?” The old man took a deep breath.

“I’m here, Papi.”

“Is it difficult to go to Canada?”

“What?”

Ibrahim Delgado gazed at the faded photograph on the refrigerator door. “I want to go, Miguel. To Canada, I mean.”

“Are you sure, Papi?”

The old man sighed. “Yes, mijo. Like you said, I’ll keep my memories with me wherever I go. That’s all that matters. I think your mami would understand.”

 


SILVANA MORALES is an undergraduate student at Concordia University, currently studying a double major in Creative Writing and Religious Studies. She has a passion for writing both prose fiction and poetry. As a Latina writer, Silvana uses writing to explore and stay connected to her roots. She also wishes to provide a different cultural perspective in the writing industry.

Copyright © 2019 by Silvana Morales. All rights reserved.