David Quiles Guzmán
“Don Pedro, I don’t want to leave you,” Barbosa heard him say. Francisco Matos Paoli looked pained from the opposite cell, sunken eyes longing for a better resolution, body covered in radiation burns. But that was a long time ago and upon realizing this, the famed Puerto Rican poet, critic, and essayist disappeared, leaving Pedro Barbosa alone in his wing of La Prinsesa prison. His stomach churned so viciously he forced his thin frail body to the toilet, grabbing the porcelain, and releasing the little he ate that morning. He wiped the spittle and managed to stand, muscles barely able to support him. Corrections officers were due for inspection and there was no time to clean the vomit left by the toilet. So, he moistened his towels on the sink and returned to his cot. It was important to give the impression that the radiation was not killing his spirit.
Wet towels absorbed some of the radiation, but the constant exposure took its toll; his skin burned, peeling off like a snake shedding skin; sores, blisters, swelling, headaches and blackouts constant. Last week he blacked-out and awoke to a corrections officer checking his vitals, so Barbosa grabbed his arm giving him a scare. ‘Rey de las toallas,’ the corrections officer mockingly called him, pulling his arm free. They began calling him that when he started covering himself with towels, soon after Fransisco was transferred. That’s when the radiation increased to a level which caused an un-natural aurora Borealis to dance against the ceiling of his cell. It long killed the coquis that sang to him at night so whenever he grew bored, he thought up lyrics that could accompany the consistent hum against his cell wall. But the humming stopped which meant guards were close. He prepared himself, sitting upright, straightening his back, chin up, adjusting the towel on his head. He stared at the vomit by the toilet, agitated he didn’t possess the strength to wipe it away. It left a sick stench that added a new layer to the death’s stench already in his cell. That was unfortunate. It was important to give the impression that the radiation was not killing his spirit.
“Barbosa, I don’t want to leave you,” Francisco said. “This is outrageous. Worse than dying at the hands of an assassin’s bullet.”
“An assassin’s bullet sounds good right now,” Barbosa said. “They can do it in public or in secret. Doesn’t matter. Either will galvanize the masses into action.” But Francisco wasn’t there. He was transferred so that Barbosa’s accusations could be dismissed as the rantings of a lunatic. He shook his head and returned his attention to the vomit on by the toilet.
They offered Barbosa a conditional pardon and painted a beautiful picture of freedom. The freedom of going anywhere with his family. The promise of money to live comfortably and make up for lost time. He could meet the grandchildren he’d only heard about, they said. Enjoy his remaining days with his wife. All they wanted was a signed confession that he and the Nationalist Party conspired to overthrow the United States Government, a denouncement of the party and an oath to refrain from any future treasonous activity. A signed statement of that significance meant the end of a movement that began long before the United States invaded the beaches of Guánica in 1898. Too many lost or ruined lives for Barbosa to end the movement. What remained was an inevitable martyrdom mired in controversy and doubt.
“This mass incarceration of our Nationalist brothers is an international crime,” Francisco said. “Is anyone outside of this island paying attention? I wasn’t even involved with the assault in Washington. I’m stripped of my professorship and arrested for owning a Puerto Rican flag.”
“They’re trying to suffocate the movement,” Barbosa said, but his throat was dry and he could barely hear himself. He repeated himself and added, “It’s important to show them that they will never break our spirit.” He closed his eyes. “Keep writing, my friend. Keep writing.”
“And now this,” Francisco said. “This is pure cowardice and the world is ignoring it. Look at you. Just look at you. And it’s gonna get worse. They’re moving us all to finish the job.”
Francisco Matos Paoli was not opposite him. The man was transferred, and the cell was dark and empty. Instead, Hermilio, a corrections officer, was staring in through the bars, apparently scanning for movement. How long had he been talking to ghosts? He didn’t hear Hermilio’s footsteps echoing down the long hall which unsettled Barbosa.
“Damn.” Hermilio took another step, leaned closer into the darkened cell, and reached for his walkie talkie. But Barbosa raised his hand and Hermilio returned the talkie back on its holster.
“Hermilio,” he said. His voice was dry and weak. “You thought I was dead?”
“Not at all, Don Pedro. I thought you were sleeping. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You’re a bad liar, but I won’t hold that against you. How’s your wife?”
“She's fine. Feeling better.”
“And your little boy?”
“He’s teething. He cried all night.”
“I remember when my daughter was teething,” Barbosa said. “Poor girl. She cried all night too… I wasn’t there for the others. I wish I could see them.” He shook the thought away and returned to the corrections office holding his note pad. It was hard to focus on his face but he smiled towards his general vicinity.
“How are you feeling, Don Pedro?”
“Me? I feel better today. I feel stronger.”
“That’s good. I’ll be sure to put that in my report. It’ll ruin the Warden’s day.”
“Tell ‘em I’m ready for my next rally. I was just talking…” Barbosa’s eyes slowly rolled up into his head, the room was darkened into nothingness. Gone were the random recollections of an absentee father; gone was Hermilio standing by the bars searching for signs of life, gone his imaginary friend across the cell. All replaced with nothingness. When he regained his faculties, he desperately searched for bearings- he was in La Princesa prison in San Juan and in severe pain which he needed to conceal because he sensed company. Hermilio was on the other side of the bars. He was asking a question. What was the question? How long had he been waiting for a response? What were they talking about? Barbosa would’ve been livid had this occurred with anyone else. But this didn’t bode well either way. It was important to give the impression that the radiation was not killing his spirit. He tried to think of something to say- their conversation completely gone. He closed his mouth.
“I better go now.”
The expression on Hermilio’s face confirmed what he suspected. The end was near and there was nothing he could do. “Wait,” Barbosa said and forced himself into a sitting position. He took a quick glance at the mess by the toilet and his eyes welled up. “You’ve been a good friend, Hermilio. During these long stretches of isolation, your visits have been quite…” He looked away, trying to find the right word and when he looked back, Hermilio shook his head and placed a finger to his lips. Barbosa smiled. “Well I just want to say thank you.”
“Don Pedro, I’ll be heading back now. I'll bring you dinner tonight, before I head for home.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Barbosa said. He listened to Hermilio's footsteps and when he heard the main gate shut, his face scrunched up from pain: a blister burst between his shoulder, ooze trickling down his back. The metallic clinks and clacks that followed the humming made his head spin, his skin burned and blistered some more. His eyes rolled back into his head, his mind drifted to parts unknown. This session could be the final one and he wondered if they’d return his body to his family or if he’d be cremated to cover-up their cowardice. Then he didn’t think any longer, the humming of the radiation machine entertaining no one.
* * *
Barbosa awoke to the humming of the radiation machine and the aurora Borealis dancing along the ceiling, the humming a shade louder than usual. He followed the eerily beautiful corona of rays dancing and extending as far as the bars. It was then that he noticed the man leaning motionless by the bars. He must have been 6 feet tall because his head touched the light distortions and they intermingled with light emanating around him.
“What is wrong with you?” Barbosa said sitting upright and adjusting his towels.
“You can see me?” the figure asked.
Barbosa adjusted his displaced towels and stared through them. He was at La Princesa prison in San Juan. The man on the other side of the bars wasn’t any of the regulars. He wasn’t FBI or any other government interrogator he’d encountered. He was wearing a loose robe that fell to his feet but it wasn’t a medical gown. He had copper-toned skin and was long and lanky. Did he black-out during another conversation? “Why are you standing there while your machine is running?” he asked.
“You’re not supposed to see me.”
“How long have you been there? Are you supposed to examine me when I black-out? Aren’t you worried?”
“Worried about what? The radiation?”
“So you admit that it’s radiation?” Barbosa wished he was young and healthy, wished he could stand and face him but knew better than to expose himself while the machine was working.
The figure rubbed his chin and looked down the long corridor.
“Who are you looking at? Are they giving you instructions?” Barbosa tightened his grip on the towel over his head because the man turned back and his face was glowing. “You’re wasting your time if you’ve come for my signature. As I've told Warden Bravo, I will not sign. You’re risking your life for nothing.”
“I didn’t come for your signature.”
“Why are you here for then?”
“That’s a tough question to answer.”
“Why are you Yankees so cruel? Isn’t winning enough?” The figure didn’t respond. “You’ve subdued the Independence movement, installed a puppet government. This Free-Associated State is a farce to quell international outcry. Everyone knows this.” The figure just stared, looking more bewildered than anything. “You’ll probably get away with this crime against humanity. Why not just put a pillow over my head?”
The figure was inside the cell, leaning by the toilet and wiping the vomit off the cracked cement with a used towel. Barbosa couldn’t remember him turning a key and entering his cell. The humming was stronger than he ever remembered it, and this man was inside his cell, wiping his vomit, no less. He didn’t know what to make of it; at a loss for words.
“I know the vomit on the floor was bothering you.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“I know the same way I know that you’re very ill. I’ve been with you all your life.”
“I’m losing my mind.”
“No. That’s what the government wants the world to think. Pedro Barbosa is delusional. He’s senile. But your faculties are just as sharp as when you returned to the island.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Listen, this is almost over. Go away and let me die in peace?”
“I am not a government agent, Don Pedro.”
Barbosa blinked and found the man seated by his cot on a chair that was across his small cell. He didn’t hear the chair move. The man was standing by the toilet just a moment before. Another blackout? Now he could see him clearly, the whites of his eyes just a shade whiter than natural, almost glowing. Barbosa felt like crying, terrified he was losing his mind. It was important to give the impression that the radiation was not killing his spirit. But this was too much.
“Who are you?” he said.
“I am your guardian angel.”
“I’m losing my head,” Barbosa said.
The figure smiled. It wasn’t a mocking smile, but a warm loving smile, the kind you give to a child figuring something out.
“I once dreamed that I heard Dr. Rhoads voice in these facilities. Can you imagine? Sometimes I can still hear his voice. That, at least, is plausible.”
“What’s implausible about guardian angels? I’ll prove it to you. I was there that time you had a fever at 5 years old; when that dog bit your leg at twelve; in college, I was there to give you that extra push when you first set eyes on Laura. It took you weeks to gather the nerve- I knew you would need a woman as strong as you to keep you alive. I was there when you were surrounded by Insular Police, your head felt heavy before that bullet missed, am I right? I was even here when Hermilo was stationed to guard you. You always had this faint recollection of seeing him before. He was in El Vocero’s cover of the Ponce Massacre. Your copy is still with your things. Hermilo was fortunate and only suffered a broken ankle that day. It marked the end of his activism. But his father pulled some strings and he gained employment with the Popular Democratic Party. We gently encouraged him to gain employment in the Insular Police main headquarters and helped conceal his prior activities. Hermilio kept your spirits up, no?”
Barbosa wondered if they invented armor able to protect him from the radiation. Perhaps his glow was coming from the robe.
“They have not devised a device that blocks radiation.”
Barbosa wanted to speak but his jaw locked, his fingers and toes curled, the pain intense.
“Try to relax, Don Pedro. It’s almost over.”
Barbosa wanted to ask about his family. He hadn’t seen them in years.
“Laura’s in Havana preparing for a European tour advocating for your release, always fighting feverishly for your freedom. Her first stop is with your friends in Ireland. She won’t make it because she’ll finally be given a permission to return to you.”
Barbosa met Laura at Harvard University while studying law. On graduation they could have settled anywhere. Her family wanted them to live in her native Peru. But Barbosa couldn’t leave his island under foreign rule and Laura followed. They had four children together. How did they manage that? She raised them alone.
Spittle came down Barbosa’s cheek and tears followed. The figure used the towel on Barbosa’s head to gently clean him, adjusted his head so his neck rested on his stained pillow. “You’re suffering a cerebral thrombosis and the Governor has instructed the Warden to deny you medical attention. The cerebral thrombosis and the lack of medical attention will not kill your body initially, but it’ll allow him to grant you a pardon. Do not worry, your family will arrive in time but you’ll not have the ability to speak with them. I’m very sorry about that.”
It’s the small moments that quickly filled Barbosa’s mind, looking into Laura’s eyes at Cambridge, chasing Junior down a cobble stoned street, swinging Laura in a nearby park, hearing Rosa Emilia cry in the delivery room, sitting poolside and watching them play at the Hotel Normandie. The memories were few. He missed most of their childhood in prison. He wished it wasn’t in vain. He wished he succeeded in liberating his island and not one of many casualties fighting for freedom. So much left unfinished. His fluttering eyelids slowly began to lower.
“It was an honor to watch over you, Don Pedro,” the figure said. “And it wasn’t in vain. There will be an Independence Day. And you will not be forgotten.”
The humming stopped and there were frantic footsteps coming from the long hallway. “You’re free now.”
David Quiles Guzmán: "I live in New York City with my wife and three children. My fiction has appeared in Theme of Absence and my articles and opinion pieces have appeared in New Youth Connections, West Side Spirit, Inner City Press, and El Dario/ La Prensa. I'm currently working on a novel."