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A Rag Puppet

  • By Antón Arrufat
  • Issue 21
  • FableDecember 2017

I set out for my daily stroll through the city. Every night, after dinner, I walk a few blocks and then return to my room. Sometimes I overexert myself; on other nights I have shorter walks. It depends on my mood. I choose a time when there will be few people around. In front of me a woman—a tattered rabbit fur draped around her bony shoulders—heads slowly toward Parque de la Fraternidad; two men engage in conversation, hands behind their backs, as if tied with an invisible rope; an insomniac boy pulls a toy car on a string … I enter the Capitolio’s gardens with long, determined strides.

It is then that I notice—I am not sure whether I notice or have an intuition—that someone might be following me. I hear his steps behind me: I stop and they stop. I carry on and they carry on. I turn onto a walkway and they turn. I walk faster, heading toward the opposite end of the gardens. I listen attentively. There can be no doubt: the same steps start again behind my back. I should turn around and confront him, but I don’t. I continue my stroll, pretending to ignore him, feeling somewhat uneasy as I keep my ears pricked up.

How can I be so certain of his footsteps? Those shoes must belong to a man—the stride confirms it—but they produce a disturbing sound: a metallic sound, not unlike the clack made by a tap dancer’s heels.

After a long while I succeed in escaping my anonymous pursuer. I exit the gardens and arrive at the little café where I often pause during my strolls to drink a cup of strong coffee. Some regulars are seated at the marble tables, engaged in conversation as they hold their cups. An old, balding German with oily skin takes a seat at my table as he lights a cigar, and attempts a conversation in Spanish—he drags his vowels—about the quality and the price of Cuban tobacco. I say little and mostly remain silent until he finishes his coffee and rises in search of a more eloquent interlocutor. When the German—enraptured by his own monologue—crossed his leg, I stared at his sole. I was relieved to see there was no metal tap.

Soon after the German had installed himself at another table to carry on his spirited conversation, someone burst into the café with grand and spectacular gestures: it was a man kitting himself out in a top hat, a tuxedo—a red handkerchief peeking out from his upper pocket—and a cane.

He introduces himself with a howl as he removes his top hat and then bows. Everyone falls silent and stares at him. His goal attained, he walks toward the jukebox, produces a coin, raises a hand, traces an arc in thin air, and selects a record. He has not chosen a specific tune—I am certain of this fact—he has simply dropped the coin in the slot and pushed a button. And he has done so with indifference. As a random record falls onto the turntable—it glitters, reflecting the machine’s bulbs—the man moves to the center of the café, slides some chairs out of his way, and, as soon as the music starts, breaks out in a dance.

He is a skilled dancer. At first I think he moves to the rhythm of the music but then I conclude that he is dancing in a peculiar way, as if following his own tune. His body seems to have a rhythm of its own. Sometimes it is in step with the recorded music, other times it slides in a different direction.

Before long I am fascinated by him. I tap my fingers on the marble and, under the table, bounce my feet to the rhythm of the music or perhaps to the rhythm of his dance. I cannot stop myself, nor can I avert my eyes from his contortions, his twirls, his waist-high kicks, his bending down and rising up again, his red handkerchief flying in the air and then returning to his pocket. His tuxedo, somewhat frayed, adds a certain degree of grace and elegance to his movements.

When the record stops, someone from the crowd drops another coin in the jukebox and the same tune starts again. The tuxedo man repeats the dance, exactly as before, not showing any sign of fatigue. He smiles, bows to his audience with exaggerated mannerisms, and speaks in a roaring voice: a rusty, primal voice that sounds as if it has not been used in a long time. He swirls around the spectators, who laugh at his senseless steps, before bowing to them again.

I rise from my chair and head toward the group. Now standing in the middle of the circle, he raises his arms and strives to keep his balance, as if walking on a tightrope.

I am now certain of it. I caught a glimpse of the metallic horseshoe under his heel, and I heard it the entire time he was dancing. Here is the man who followed me into the Capitolo gardens. When the music stops again I hear the same sound that followed me earlier.

Someone drops another coin. He seems to perk up. A newfound energy animates his face, his hands, his agile legs. And he dances, dances once again.

In a flash I jump into the middle of the group and start dancing. The tuxedo man stares in silence, then steps aside and disappears, as if clearing the way for an awaited substitute. During one of my contortions I see him leaving the café. I hear for the last time the clacking of his heels on the sidewalk. I know that my audience is cheering, clapping. But as I swirl again, tirelessly, I am no longer surrounded by people but by an amorphous mass that engulfs me and imprisons me, alternating between sudden silences and enraptured bravos. The same music plays again several times over.

I dance all night. The next day I return to the café. And the next day and the one after that. Every day, dancing in spite of myself to the rhythm of that music played by an unknown hand.

Antón Arrufat, born in 1935 in Santiago de Cuba, is the author of dozens of books across a range of genres. “Un Fantoche”—which translates as “a rag puppet” but could also suggest a tattered person, or someone whose manner of dress verges on the ridiculous—was written when the author was twenty-one.

Rubén Gallo is the author of book-length essays on Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud, and a Cuban novel: Teoría y práctica de La Habana (2017).

Photograph from the series In Flux, Havana, 2014, by Lisette Poole