Prose Header

The Smell of Land

by Clark Zlotchew

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


The following day, Ed and several buddies took the bus to La Concha Beach. After a swim, Ed lay on the shore feeling the sand against his back, watching the yachts at anchor as they swayed gently on the water. He detected a pungent, sweet aroma carried on the breeze. A man had cut open a pineapple and was distributing pieces to his family. Ed heard what sounded like Elvis Presley’s voice issuing from a radio. The tune was familiar, but the words were in Spanish. It was a local imitation of the American entertainer. He could have sworn it was Elvis. He could have sworn it was the real thing. But it wasn’t. It was an imitation. A good imitation, but an imitation nonetheless.

Ed closed his eyes. He could hear the rhythmic shushing of the surf. A fragrant amalgam of land smells — tropical fruits, flowers, grilled meat, suntan lotion — would alternate with draughts of salty ocean air. The sun’s warmth was penetrating. Tempered by the cool sea breezes, it lulled him into drowsiness. He saw nothing but the pink of sunlight filtering through his closed eyelids. He was conscious of the soft terrycloth towel against his cheek, of its clean laundry smell.

Terrycloth, Terry Cloth, Terri... In his state of reverie, Terri’s face materialized, only to metamorphose into that of the slim girl in green. The one the boatswain had abused at the Bar Victoria. She was not like the lady in red. The slim girl was delicate, fragile...

* * *

He walked into the room and peered through the cigarette smoke. She was on the other side of the room but immediately caught his eye. As she approached, he felt a rush of adrenalin, a tickling in the pit of his stomach. She was very young and slender but with the basic feminine outline: narrow waist gently widening out to rounded hips. For an instant he flashed back to his high school prom.

Dark brown hair, eyes like two drops of chocolate, and skin the color of honey. Her face, pretty as an angel’s. Angels...? Here? She walked straight toward him in her strapless green party dress, her red pumps clicking on the black vinyl floor tiles. When she reached him, she peered into his eyes and smoothly slipped her hand into his.

“My name is Vikki,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Call me Ed.” He paused and said, “I guess you want me to buy you a drink.”

“Only if you want to, sailor.”

“Problem is: I don’t have enough for both drinks and for you. It’s one or the other.”

“Make it the other, eh? Who wants to drink, anyway?” she said. “Besides, that’s all we ever do here ... Well, almost all we do.” She looked sheepish. “There’s no charge for dancing, you know. We can be very generous, no?”

They were heedless of the rapid beat of guaracha, merengue, mambo, guaguancó, those dynamic dances that ordinarily would irresistibly draw Ed to the dance floor. By unspoken agreement they danced only to boleros, those slow, romantic dances, never just instrumental, always with sentimental lyrics. They swayed lightly to the music, cheek to cheek, holding each other close in a rhythmic embrace.

At one point, Ed seated himself in his chair while Vikki sat on the table looking down at him... Tenderly? he wondered. More likely with dollar signs in her eyes, he decided.

Her legs were crossed. He looked at her graceful little foot in the high-heeled red pump, her trim ankle, the curve of her calf as it widened upward, the rounded triangle of her knee... The rustling crinoline petticoats — that crisp, starched, white cloud topped by the lustrous green of her gown — whispered to him of hidden treasure.

He wanted to go with her right then, but thought everything would be over that much sooner if he did. After all, there were plenty of other customers. And he didn’t want it to end just yet.

To prolong his time with her he told her the story of his life, somewhat distorted and embellished for effect, and she responded by telling him hers. After her father had died, less than two years earlier, her mother encouraged her to leave the countryside and relocate to Havana. In the Big City she would be able to look for a job, to live decently, instead of being a dirt-poor guajira, a peasant like her mother.

She had gone to Havana and, not knowing how to do anything but cook and clean house, found a job as a maid in a rich man’s home. Her employer insisted — “naturally,” she commented — on her going to bed with him as part of her duties whenever his wife and three children were away. Finally, she decided it would be better, if she had to give her body to a man she didn’t love, to do it for decent pay. And where she wouldn’t have to cook and clean house for a whole family. Someone else’s family.

It made sense to Ed.

Ed thought of the brawl he had started on her account. “Vikki, why did that bos’n slap you around the other night?”

She frowned but said nothing.

“Come on, Vikki. What was that all about?”

She looked down at the table for several seconds. Then she spoke in flat tones. “He said I wasn’t worth the money, that I was a ‘cold fish.’” Suddenly she looked at Ed and said, “Ed, I like you. A lot. You know?”

“Why?” A stupid question, he realized.

“’Why...?’ What do you mean ‘why’? You’re a nice guy. And besides, you may not exactly be a movie star,” she smiled, “but you’re not too bad-looking, either.”

Ed began to smile, but stopped himself immediately, and laughed a short, dry laugh.

“Ed, I mean it!” Vikki wrapped her arms around his neck, drawing his head to her diminutive breasts. “Come on, Ed. Don’t be like that.”

In spite of his wish to prolong his time with her as much as possible, his will was weakening. He looked into her dark brown eyes, her sweet-serious face, her hands, her legs, her knees, the glossy green fabric, the crinolines...

He whispered, “Let’s go, Vikki. Okay?”

She beamed. “¡Sí, Ed, muy bien!” She looked around and called out to an older woman, “¡Mamá, ven acá!

The woman lumbered over, extended her hand to Ed, palm up. “Cinco pesos.”

He told her he had no more than three. “Then forget it, sailor. Not good enough.” She turned to walk away.

“Wait, Mamá,” Vikki cried, catching her arm. “Would it be all right if he pays four pesos?”

The older woman said nothing, but stared menacingly at Vikki’s hand on her arm. When Vikki released her grip, Mamá curtly rasped, “But he doesn’t have four.”

“But would it be all right?”

The matron hesitated. “I’d have to talk to the boss. Why?”

Vikki looked at the floor and mumbled something.

“What? I couldn’t hear you.”

Vikki sighed with exasperation. “I said I’ll take care of the extra peso myself.”

The woman looked puzzled for a moment. Then she shrugged and asked Vikki and Ed to wait a moment.

Ed stared at Vikki. “What did you go and do that for?”

Vikki looked at the floor. “Because I felt like it, that’s why.”

Through the cigarette fumes Ed spotted the woman in red. She was sitting at a table energetically kissing and embracing a young sailor who was stroking her breasts. The sailor’s eyes were closed with rapture but hers were wide open. She glanced at her watch, then checked it against the wall clock. Her current prospect still joined to her at the mouth, she noticed Ed and winked.

* * *

It was dark in the room, but their eyes gradually became accustomed to the gloom. They tenderly kissed and touched for a long while. Her arms encircled his neck more tightly, drawing him ever closer. Everything was blotted from Ed’s mind but Vikki. Nothing existed but Vikki.

* * *

The lights in the main hall were not very bright, but seemed so to them as they emerged from the darkened room. They had to squint because of the relative brightness, and their eyes smarted from the cigarette fumes as they entered the smoke-filled enclosure. Ed felt pleasantly weak and groggy. Then he frowned on noticing that the room had filled with prospective clients. There were large groups of U.S. Naval personnel, middle-aged American tourists, convention types in Hawaiian shirts, and a few young locals. There were not enough hostesses to accommodate everyone. It was an opportunity for a girl to earn quite a few pesos, yet Vikki put her arm through Ed’s and steered him to a corner table.

She looked dreamily into his eyes and murmured, “Ed, it was good with you. I love you. You know?”

“Come on, Vikki, don’t exaggerate. You don’t love me.”

“I do, Ed! I do! Why do you say that?”

“Look...” He sighed. “It’s just that... Well, you’ve been with so many men, so many times... Well, it’s true, isn’t it? That there’s no way that I — or any guy — could have a real effect on you.”

Her eyes hardened, became incandescent and blazed into his face for a split second. Then her features softened. She spoke defiantly, and yet with the manner of a patient teacher trying to communicate with a slow student.

“Ed, listen. You mustn’t forget that no matter how many men we’ve been with, we are still human. We’re women with human feelings. You know?” She brushed away a tear. “We do what we do to stay alive, but, once in a while, if we’re with a boy we like, who is nice to us, who treats us like a human being... Well, you can see what I mean, Ed, can’t you...? Can’t you?”

A bolero was playing. They rose and lost themselves in the dance. They swayed as one to the guitars, the nasal tenor, and the sentimental lyrics. Ed recognized some of the Spanish words: amor imposible, olvídame — words having to do with impossible loves and with the necessity of forgetting.

Their faces were pressed together, but from time to time Vikki would lean back to gaze into Ed’s face. To look into her eyes made Ed feel like a wax statue melting next to a flame. He hated the thought of ever having to take his arms away from her sweet body, of having to lose sight of her angelic face.

But he forced himself to remember that she was, after all, just a whore. It wasn’t her fault, of course, but she was just a whore.

* * *

Shortly after dawn, Ed stood on the flying bridge of the destroyer escort, heading out to sea. The early-morning chill was beginning to dissipate as the fierce tropical sun gained strength. The grey steel vessel gleamed brightly in the sunlight. Too brightly. The ship was too clean, too neat, too shiny, too antiseptic. Like an operating room.

They were making a course for New Orleans, but Ed was looking back, facing Havana. The brightly colored structures behind the grey sea wall no longer seemed garish; they were cheery. But they were sliding away from him. He swept his gaze around the horizon and, except for the receding green of fertile Cuba, saw only a vast expanse of barren grey water.

The flat land on which lay the teeming city of Havana dropped below the horizon, but Ed kept looking back, gazing at the fortress of El Morro, still visible on its rocky precipice. The sea was broken by a bubbling, frothy highway of foam, leading from the vessel’s stern to the fortress. That foamy path tugged at the pit of his stomach.

The land smell — a sweet fragrance of rain-soaked soil, of aromatic tobacco leaf, tropical fruits and flowers — gave way to the sterile salt smell of the barren sea.

Copyright © 2018 by Clark Zlotchew

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