El Golpe


Palm Beach, Florida, June 14, 1947

The tide was the color of rust. Virgílio Barbero lay by the pool, sipping a daiquiri. Mid-afternoon boredom was setting in. The oval pool bordered a trail of sand that meandered down to the red ocean. The algal bloom was killing the sea life. Kelp and snapper and grouper turned up dead and bloated and full of flies each day along the shore. The former Cuban president enjoyed walking up and down the shore, puttering around. He stood, picked up a piece of driftwood he had fashioned into a walking stick, and headed down to the water. Barbero walked with a slight limp, the result of an accident when he worked on the railroads in his youth, fastening iron ties over heavy lengths of oak. He had been alongside a moving train when the hem of his right pant leg caught on an axle and he was dragged more than a fifty meters before grace or suerte or whatever infinite force had decided to spare his life that day.

Barbero usually spent his mornings practicing the Yanqui sport of the elite: golf, but his recent duffing left him frustrated. He usually played in a fallow field next to a series of tin-roofed homes. At this stage in his life, Barbero had enough money to buy a private club but no club would have him because of his mixed features and Spanish tongue. Greenbacks went a long way, but they weren’t enough in Jim Crow Florida. The trouble had begun a a few months after his family moved in.

First someone dusted a hunk of raw meat with arsenic and thad poisoned the family mastiff. Then somebody burned something into the front lawn. His son had watched from the window as Susana the maid and Máximo the chauffeur tossed buckets of water over the flames, extinguishing the epithets letter by letter. His son was traumatized by the experience and the lawn was scarred for weeks. Yet Barbero was familiar by now with the absurd position of being a rich, powerful índio. During his presidency, he occupied the highest seat of power on the island, but he was disallowed from entering the clubs and fraternizing with the American millionaires who frequented the island. That was fine by him, though. As long as they wanted their card games, cabarets, and beaches of white sand, their cash would flow into his pockets.

It was windy on the beach that day. He rested a white towel he had borrowed from the nearby Ritz-Carlton and walked east, pushing dead fish out of his way as he went. He was partial to expensive sunglasses and had spent the better part of his morning trying to locate his favorite pair. Even his wife had failed to turn up anything and she was especially good at finding things.

Barbero checked in with his cronies from time to time and they came to visit him, of course, but retired life in Florida proved increasingly dull. The latest news was that General Roberto Campos, an untalented former lackey of his (he had named his youngest son after Barbero), had begun retiring old-timers in the army and purging the forces of those still loyal to Barbero.

Ahead of him, there was what appeared to be a young, white mother of two, sunbathing while her children jumped and splashed in the rising and falling tide. A young boy with a white hat and blue shorts was investigating the sea foam. Every time a wave receded, a finite, but uncountable number of holes opened at his feet, each the diameter of a pencil barrel, each disappearing within a matter of seconds.

“Those are where the little crabs are,” Barbero said, pointing to a hole where bubbles formed. “Do you want to see?”

The boy said nothing. After a moment, the tide receded again and Barbero scooped two handfuls of sand held them out. The boy stared back, confused. Barbero sifted the wet sand between his fingers until two small white crabs were visible.

The boy shook his hands with excitement and giggled. Barbero smiled and continued on his way down the beach. The mother must be asleep, he thought.

Barbero believed that fortune shines on those who seize it. He was living proof. He had grown up in a small eastern town in the shadow of the United Fruit Company. As a boy he had woken each morning at sunrise and carried a machete to the cane fields. Cutting, splitting, tossing. He used to hum to entertain himself during the days. Wind rustling through swaying stalks of cane as field hands cut and split and tossed the stalks in airy piles.The cane-cutters had used  the same same machetes to cut down Spanish soldiers in the War for Independence at the turn of the century. Their movement was quick. Mechanical. Violent. With each slash, sweetness was freed from the Earth, sweat collected on the cutter’s brow, and the plantation master grew richer. With every spin of the roulette wheel in the Republic of Cuba, dollars swam to Barbero’s swollen pockets. He had always been a hard worker. There had been no alternative. But he had done what no other man could, save for Napoleon or his idol, Lincoln. As the Yanquis liked to say, Barbero had pulled himself up by his own boot straps, all the way to the presidency, being recognized by Roosevelt himself as the de facto leader of Cuba.

God had blessed Virgílio with looks, brains, and magnetism—qualities that most of the Castilian fly-weights running around the congress lacked. Those clueless, corrupt Auténticos. After all, who had actually implemented the Constitution of 1940? A bunch of whiny politicians? No. It took a cane-cutter from the East. Who had organized the colored soldiers? Who created an across-the-board pay raise for enlisted men? For these things the common soldier would always be loyal to Virgílio Barbero, regardless of what Campos and the Auténticos tried.

“I can promise you three to five a year, President Barbero. Million. In exchange for exclusive operating rights of the Cuban gaming industry.” The agreement was sealed with a handshake. The hotel room had been inconspicuous for the sake of propriety. Except for a ray of dust-speckled light, the room was mostly in shadow. Barbero and his entourage left first. He was in a hurry but he stopped for a second to chat with a porter. He genuinely enjoyed talking to people and he knew that his political power came from channeling the plight of the common man. It was no longer a question of if he would rule again, but when.

“Hey! You there. What did you say to my son?” It was the sun-bathing mother. Something had disturbed her slumber and she was annoyed. Barbero’s English was serviceable but it took him a moment to switch from thinking in Spanish to English. He adopted a deferential and apologetic tone, out of habit.

“I was just showing your son the crabs,” Barbero said.

“What?” she asked.

“The crabs. In the sand.”

“Mind your own children,” she said and warned her son about talking to strangers.

Barbero ignored her and continued on his way. How he missed Cuba, he thought to himself as he made his way back to his home. As he walked up the path to the pool, he saw his young wife waving her hands in the air. His sunglasses! She had found them!

Things would change, of course. Barbero was going to announce his candidacy for the Cuban Senate seat. Once he won the seat—which he surely would, as the pueblo Cubano still viewed him as a one of their own, despite his affluence and influence—he would serve from Florida. After a few years in the Senate, with his power base reformed—a triumvirate of American corporatist interests, offshoots of the American mob, and old-line military loyalists—he would announce his candidacy for president and he would reclaim the seat of power from the corrupt fools he had relinquished it to. Once in power he would put an end to the scourge of Communism that had been plaguing the island for decades and achieve his dream of making Cuba the true gambling capital of the Caribbean. He just needed to bide his time.

Life In Vain


The trouble began at work. I was transcribing an interview with a band called “Natalie Imbroglio” when out of nowhere I was seized by a sense of existential dread. I grabbed my backpack from under my desk, walked into the managing editor’s office, shut the door, and asked if he knew any good therapists. His name was Brandon. He was a barrel-chested ex-Londoner in his late thirties who usually wore his blonde hair in a bun. His desk was populated with stacks of notebooks, a Spanish-language hardcover, a laptop, and an unopened bottle of pisco. He handed me the phone and rattled off a number. After a few minutes of pauses and excuses through gritted teeth, I told the psychiatrist that I felt like I was going to die.

Half an hour later Emily met us by the escalators below a massive digital screen that projected images of celebrities. She wore a trench coat and carried her purse and a black umbrella that I had left at her apartment.

We got in a taxi together and rode from Brooklyn to a hospital in lower Manhattan. While I signed the commitment papers, Emily called my parents to let them know what was happening.

I remember waking up in a room. Emily was still there with me. She was holding my hand. There was a large flatscreen TV attached to the opposite wall. I kept asking her why they were blasting me with some kind of radiation through the TV.

“There is no radiation, Eddie,” she said. “You’re just sick.” As she left she gave me a brief, familiar look, of sadness or relief, I couldn’t tell you which.

My father arrived while I was in the hospital courtyard smoking a cigarette. Tears were streaming down his face. He gripped me in a bear hug and told me he loved me.


Once I got out of the hospital, Emily invited me to her apartment. She told me that we were no longer a couple.

“But I love you,” I said.

“I love you, too,” she said. Her expression was solemn. I had brought a gift. A used fur vest I had found on sale at a shop in the East Village. I had wrapped it in fine tissue paper with a map of Manhattan on it and tied it with striped twine. She took it and smiled in return. She was wearing my old Yale sweater, I remember. She just took it without asking.

Eventually I gave my two weeks’ notice and moved back to my parents’ home in suburban Chicago in order to wallow, brood, and drink myself silly.


A few weeks later I attended my college reunion. Old men in striped jackets and ridiculous hats drank scotches, merlots, and club sodas. Across the quad, members of the crew team, lean and long like a forgotten species of giant, played against former teammates whose stomachs had lost their definition, whose hairlines had begun to recede. Calf muscles tensing, arms swinging. Match point. The old men watched, feeling their own bodies, angular and muscled long ago, now rounded, portly, vulnerable, but their faces retain their comforting familiarity. I observed these collegiate pilgrims, wondering at one point if you could get a DUI while pushing a stroller. Children, faces painted, who wore bull dog costumes, whose thirty-something fathers carried infant bull dogs in infant bull dog satchels. Go Bull Dogs. My pledge brothers and I ate dinner at a Thai restaurant. I say “pledge” because I never joined the fraternity, officially. Overall though, they were a nice enough group of guys. The conversation focused on the rising price of gold, emerging economies, and the deflating dollar.

My old friend Chad and I settled our checks and some friends left for other appointments, while a few stayed.

“Where are you living now?” I asked.

“The North Shore,” Chad said. It was his father’s 30th Reunion. A big deal. My gaze shifted from my sun-burned, sandaled feet to the movement in the street. Our bodies cast long, diagonal shadows on the pavement that bobbed over the cars that drove past. Families were everywhere. Fathers and mothers decked out in class jackets. A bald giant of a man, wearing a class of ’71 t-shirt sang the alma mater as best he could, mumbling most of the words.

“At least he’s got the melody about right,” I said.

“No, he doesn’t,” Chad said. “He’s flat.” We walked a little farther in silence and then he asked how I had been since a recent stint in a psych ward.

“What do you want to know?” I asked, trying to smile.

“Let me start,” he said. “I never let you know… I don’t hold it against you for what… happened. You were just going through what you were going through. When I did talk to you, I couldn’t understand what was happening. I’m your bro, Eddie. What I’m trying to say is… I forgive you. I know it wasn’t all under your control, but I forgive you.” He was a little drunk. I took a different direction from the 30th Reunion tent and told him I would look him up eventually.


While on a ski trip to Utah during my sophomore year, I confessed to Chad and his then-girlfriend Lindsey, as we warmed ourselves in a hot tub, our breath visible in the frigid night air, that my biggest fear was losing my sanity. That same year my cousin Michelle had began to suffer delusions and, for some reason, I feared the same fate awaited me. I was right.


After reunions I flew back to Chicago. I was waiting to collect my luggage when I heard a reedy voice call my name. A conventionally handsome guy in an expensive tracksuit, greeted me with a firm handshake. His name was Charlie. We were acquaintances.

“Where you coming from?” Charlie asked.

“Just got back from reunions. What about you?”

“Flew in for a tech conference. Say, you’re going to Chad’s wedding, right?”

“Chad’s getting married?”

Charlie raised a finger, signaling for me to wait. He hopped over to the conveyor belt and retrieved a leather duffel bag.

“Listen, Eddie. Great catching up with you. Sorry I won’t see you at the wedding, but best of luck with everything.”

I walked outside and lit a cigarette and did some social media stalking on my phone. One way or another I was going to that wedding.


The day of the ceremony I forgot to switch off my smartphone. It started buzzing during the vows. I think I switched it off before Chad noticed. It was my grandmother calling. She left a voicemail. I waited until after the ceremony to return her call. During the after party, I sat on a lounge chair and made small talk with the father of an old friend.

“So you gonna keep being a stroke, Eddie, or you gonna to have a drink?”

“One won’t hurt,” I said. And that’s when I saw her.

For most of the night we avoided one another, but something came over me. Emily wore a sleeveless black dress that ended above her knees and stilettos that made her taller than me.

“You look like a waiter,” she said.

“You look beautiful.”

“Eddie, please don’t make this a thing.”

“I’m not. I just wanted to say hi. See how you are.”


“Eddie, my goal in life wasn’t to be the caretaker for a depressed person.”

“Neither was mine,” I said.


A few days later, I took a walk in my hometown toward city hall. I remember the air was filled with dandelion seeds. I stuck my hand out and tried to grab a few, missing the first couple tries, but eventually succeeding. There were tens, hundreds of them floating in the wind. They were impaled on sharp conifer leaves. They got stuck on peeling wood fences, and got stuck in my hair.

I realized it was Memorial Day. Veterans in restored cars were parading down Main Street. VFW jackets, primary colors. Families along the sidewalk with lawn chairs and cases of beer at their ankles. The ones in the golf carts, the ones that waved the most. They came behind banners and grade school bands announcing the year, which came like a timeline from a text book.

When I got back to my parents’ house, I took all my photographs of us and burned them in the yard.


I started volunteering at my old high school. I was late my first day and arrived like an omen of bad fortune. A boy was crying in the end zone. I could hear him from the parking lot between the school and the football field. Sunlight was peeking over the trees that separate school property and the adjacent subdivision, with its brown and brick and yellow houses. Coaches and players were circled around the injured boy amid curses and tears and long faces. I could see the hopes for a winning season dashed by the shadowed, broken looks in their eyes. The warm dew on the Kentucky bluegrass wet my sandaled feet. I sidestepped around the throng of sweaty, helmeted faces and caught a glimpse of the star running back’s brutalized ankle. He had removed the shoe and sock. The joint in question was angry and purple and swollen to the size of a grapefruit. I had heard the sound of a pop all the way from my parking spot. X-rays would later show that the player had a hairline fracture in his tibia. His season had ended the first day of double practices. The team was not even supposed to be making full contact yet.

I knew the player’s older brother and I had read about his junior season in the newspaper. There were high expectations set for him, including a possible scholarship. I used to be close friends with his older brother before he got married. Nobody seemed to notice me as I hung back from the crowd. I knew a few of the coaches from when I played and when I was a student at the Prep. But for the most part, I was among strangers.

Later I found Coach Harrison and a couple players in the equipment room folding t-shirts. The ceiling was exposed plumbing and the walls and floor was gray concrete. It was dank and redolent of cigarettes and deodorant. The players’ cleats sounded on the concrete floor whenever they stepped or shifted their weight. Led Zeppelin was blasting through the walls from the locker room. A poster of the lone Prep athlete—a kicker—who had gone on to play professionally, hung on the wall. I sat down on one of the lawn chairs by the racks of spare helmets and shoulder pads.

“Gentlemen, this is Eduardo Campos,” Coach Harrison said without looking up. “He is an alum and he is going to be helping the team this season.” I nodded at the two players, who looked like lineman from their builds. Their gray practice t-shirts were soaked in sweat and their ruddy hands and faces were smudged with dirt.

“Thanks for your help with the t-shirts, gentlemen. Go hydrate and we’ll see you back on the field in an hour.” The players snickered and clacked their way out of the equipment room. Coach Harrison loomed over me. “Campos, I’m only going to say this once… You represent the Prep in the way you carry yourself. You are going to be around young men and the way you act will be an example to them.”

“Yes, Coach,” I said. “I know.”

“When I spoke to your dad he assured me you were clean. If I hear otherwise, you are gone. I don’t care how much your father donated to the school last year. Understood?”

“Impeccably, sir.”


That Sunday my grandmother woke me up and asked me to take her to a diner.

“My treat,” she said.

My grandmother was in good shape for her age. She could walk with a cane and spoke lucidly. She cared a lot about how she looked. Her outfits matched from shoes to blouse to jewelry. My grandfather had been dead more than ten years.

I showered, dressed, and walked to my car, which was actually my grandmother’s car, a gold Corolla with a scratch on the right front passenger door (my grandma recently side-swiped a parked car). She didn’t drive anymore.

I watched her turtle her way down the driveway and helped her get into passenger seat. She asked me ride with the windows up so the wind wouldn’t ruffle her hair. I sighed but acquiesced.

We got a booth and my grandmother made a comment about the lack of butter and jelly at each table. She bragged to the waiter about how I used to work in New York and how she grew up in Cuba. I rolled my eyes.

“You know, I was the last of my sisters to be married,” my grandmother said. “I know what it is to wait for something. When I come to this country, my degree was not accepted.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

“I used to be like you,” my grandmother said. “Your grandfather and I have to start our life over when we come here. We save every penny.”

“At least you had each other.”

“I still have the deed to our house in Cuba.”

“Grandma, I know the story. Let’s enjoy our food. Look, they have orange marmalade.”


It was the night of our first game. The all-blue drum line paraded between stopped police cars, lights flashing blue and red, and lines of stopped cars. Players followed across the concrete, cleats clacking on pavement.

I hung back on the sideline for most of the first half, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Coaches stalked the sideline with war-like seriousness. The players pouted through face masks and cursed the referees and the scoreboard. I felt out of place. I had been there with them through the practices. I had folded shirts. I had watched play after play. I had scars from my own playing days.

We were down by six the last play of the game. Coach called a thread play where the tight end blocks for a second then runs up the middle of the field for a pass. The whistle blew. The tight end hit the Mike linebacker across from him in the chest. The linebacker took the bait and didn’t think to jam me at the line. He was off, sprinting downfield. He turned back, looking for the ball, and plucked it of the air. He was easily our most athletic player. A stud. He scooted down the middle of the field until he was taken down. Our kicker, another prospect, sealed it for the win. I was back where I started twelve years ago. Standing on the sidelines. I felt no joy when the crowd erupted.

A Day Like Any Other


They are repainting the crosswalk lines on the day of the eclipse.

Kids gather in the park to stare at the covered sun. But it is cloudy. So they stare at their phones.

I notice a monarch butterfly arc a wide parabola below the El track at Wacker and Wells. I read somewhere that their population is down twenty-seven percent from last year, which is scary if you think about it.

My father emails me an article about how not go blind while taking pictures of the sun (but I can’t read it because I had deleted the news app on my phone).

My father sends another article. The preview has a photograph. A weatherman sheds tears over the eclipse.

Weeping weatherman. Ridiculous, I think. But actually I’m a little jealous.

How wonderful to greet the world and find the divine in a cloudy day.

24-Hour Diner

anecdote / fiction

There’s a diner I visit sometimes when sleep doesn’t come easy.

Tonight I order corn beef hash and eggs sunny side up and wheat toast and OJ.

Coffee, she asks. And I turn over the cup. The sound of the coffee pouring comforts me like the presence of a few strangers at this hour and the mechanical din of the soda refrigerator at the entrance and the fact that I’m sitting at a booth by myself instead of at the bar and the familiar scenes from the ’90s heist movie playing on the TV.

One Drop Does It proclaims the gringo hot sauce I drench a portion of my hash with. More like twelve.

I don’t want to go home yet so I order a slice of warm apple pie à la mode. Behind me two men discuss their buddy who thinks he’s getting into business school but clearly isn’t getting into business school. Afterward one smugly dissects the platform of the contemporary Republican Party.

I sigh as my pie arrives.

Stranded on the Tarmac

anecdote / poem

When we landed, the sun was an orange lip on the horizon. Now it is gone. We rode twenty minutes over runways, past blinking lights and descending planes.

The pilot comes on the loudspeaker. His tone is that of a remorseful philanderer. He informs us that we have another twenty minutes before we can deplane.

The man seated next to me is traveling to his father's funeral. He lives in Ohio. His wife and children sit in the next row.

The funeral home director refers to his father's ashes as "crème," not ashes, he says.

I find that kind of funny, he says.

Fly Fishing Lessons

fiction / poem

“What gives,” I say as we pull into the parking lot of an upscale mall.
“Where’s the water?”

Ten minutes later I cast my line, aiming for lengths of plywood in the grass beside the freeway. After a couple misses, my old man yells over traffic, “Give it more wrist!”

Cars slow. Drivers begin to ogle.

I assume they are confused by the sight of grown men with fishing poles on the side of the road. I expect they would be more confused were I to explain to them that my father, myself, and five other gentlemen are paying to fish in grass.

Over the sounds of amused honking and cars trundling along, I hear a plink followed by giddy laughter. I turn.
My father has hit the plywood with his lure.

The instructor claps his hands and I see
my father: grinning, happy, proud.

Fast Food

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2:17 am. I switch on my brights and drive slow

Along a road I killed a deer on once.

I hang a right past the Best Buy and Dollar Store and Taco Bell.

After I fumble my order, the man asks me can I pull up to the window.

He has tattoos on his neck and fingers and is super friendly.

I apologize and he informs me that there is an upcharge for the shake and that fries come with my meal.

I finish the burger in my car while listening to voicemails.

The View From the Deck


Sunday night I sit on my parents’ deck and smoke a cigar.

There is a pond behind the house and I admire the water, the moon, the elms, and the clouds.

You can hear crickets, frogs, and the occasional turtle popping into the water.

I know it’s after midnight when my near-blind grandmother locks me out.


Lost in Translation


Following the meal, my mother, a Brazilian, asked her in-laws, two Cuban émigrés who had made a home in the United States, “How was the food?”

Exquisito,” my Cuban grandfather replied, while making the A-okay sign, index finger touching thumb.

My mother blushed and asked her father-in-law to lower his hand.

You see, my grandfather thought he said, “The food was exquisite.”

But in Brazil, the A-okay sign is a very rude gesture, more appropriate for road rage or signaling to a rival at a soccer stadium than dinner conversation with the in-laws.

And while “exquisito” does translate to “exquisite” in English, in Portuguese it means “strange.”

So in reality, my Cuban grandfather had flipped off my mother and her parents while also showing shade on their national cuisine.


My Brazilian grandfather, or Vovô Paulo, as I referred to him, was a former rancher and bon vivant.

He was very proper, owned a gun, and had survived a kidnapping. I loved the man but things were sometimes awkward between us.

I once spilled rice all over myself at his country club and he dismissed me like you would a dog that shat the carpet.


Once, at the mall in Curitiba, I asked my father if I could go have a look in a toy store around the corner. Instead, I snuck upstairs to the food court and got in line for McDonald’s.

The line for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a large fry was hella-long.

I was still five people away from the counter when I heard somebody screaming.

It sounded like a madman.

It turned out to be my father.

He had checked the toy store and assumed someone had abducted me.

In reality, I was just making poor dietary choices.


“Did I run over your mother’s foot?” my father asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“How does this keep happening?” my father asked.

“Because you don’t pay attention,” I said.

So my father bravely exited the car and attempted to comfort his shrieking wife of 31 years, who at this point was threatening to return to Brazil for an undetermined period of time.

By itself this event would seem improbable.

A few weeks previous he had run over the foot of his own mother, who is 89 years old and walks with a cane.

Only recently has she stopped wearing the hideously unfashionable closed-toe medical walking show they sold her at the hospital.

It just wasn’t her style.