“This is my favorite part of the drive,” said Alberto.
We were cruising over the 18-mile span of the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, en route from San Antonio to New Orleans, windows open to the swamp’s humid aroma. Slanting sunlight of a late summer day dappled its surface.
“Alguna vez hiciste esto cuando eras niño?” Alberto asked.
I briefly turned my head to see him moving his hand up and down outside his window, mimicking a bird, a plane, or a spacecraft. My Spanish was still sketchy, but I understood the gist of his question.
“All the time,” I answered. “Especially on long and boring family trips.”
Alberto chuckled, a feeble sound, far from his usual resounding laughter, and I was struck again by his decline. He was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, having survived two chemotherapy regimens. At first, his oncologist objected to our road trip, but she relented when she found out the reason.
“This will likely be his last chance to see him,” I told my wife, Lisa. “They’ve been estranged for a decade and Alberto hopes to make amends.”
She shook her head, having never understood my relationship with my older Cuban friend. “Well, I hope it works out for both of them. Just be careful.”
I had booked an Airbnb near the French Quarter, close to the pulse of Big Easy nightlife, but I doubted we’d be carousing. Alberto’s sole objective was to meet with his only child, Arturo, who had been released from Louisiana’s Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility to a halfway house in Metairie. Now in his mid-60s, Arturo had done time for multiple DUIs, the final one resulting in a violent crash that thankfully injured no one but himself. He had recently sent a cryptic message to his father. I want to see you, it said. There’s something I need to say. Alberto had written scores of letters to his son over the years, finally giving up hope of a response. When it arrived so close to his death, he grasped at the chance.
“Do you want to cruise by the halfway house and scout it out before we go to our room?” I asked.
"No, estoy cansado. Let’s just get a meal and turn in early. I want to be ready for tomorrow.”
“As you wish.
Alberto took a sip from his glass of beer, another sign of his condition. He usually drained it in a few gulps.
We were seated in the courtyard of Robert’s Gumbo Shop, a block from Jackson Square. Locals and tourists packed the tables around us, and a syncopated Zydeco tune filtered in from the street. My friend had been silent during our meal, avoiding eye contact. He had a half-eaten po’boy on his plate while I worked on a bowl of crawfish etouffee, nursing my own drink, not wanting to get more intoxicated than him at this delicate phase of his journey.
As I studied him in the light of the patio’s outdoor lamps, I thought of how he had always seemed larger than life: six foot two, well-muscled, his olive complexion showing his mixed French and Spanish ancestry. Now, just past his 81st birthday, his pale skin and sunken chest gave witness to his mortal battle.
I reflected on his uniquely American story. At age 18, he left his family and joined the Cuban Exodus that fled to Miami after Castro’s victory. There, he lived on the streets until the Cuban Refugee Center, initiated by the Eisenhower Administration, helped him find a job and resettle in Boston. By the time I met him, he was a journeyman electrician. I was visiting some friends in an apartment building and Alberto’s balcony was adjacent to theirs. We struck up a conversation and soon discovered that we shared not only an interest in construction skills, but a love of reading and a quirky sense of humor. I later did some odd jobs with him, and our relationship began to grow.
Now, he looked up at me with a weak smile. “You remember when I picked you up at the San Antonio airport that first time?”
I grinned and nodded. “How could I forget?”
He had relocated to Texas, and since my prospects had dwindled in Boston, he enticed me with the promise of work. In those days, the Alamo City’s airport was small, and you could drive up next to the debarking planes. When I came down the ramp, I saw his vintage Cadillac parked nearby. He had mounted the horns of a steer to the hood and was dressed in a Stetson hat, jeans, chaps, boots, and a frilled western shirt. He looked like the proverbial rhinestone cowboy.
“Howdy pardner,” he had said with a fake Texas accent, then moved to embrace me as we laughed from our bellies. We then proceeded to a taqueria for enchiladas y margaritas.
“You have to admit,” he said, “I nailed it as a Tejano vaquero.”
He lifted his drink and tilted it towards me. I did the same and we clinked glasses. Then he grew somber again. I waited, knowing he wanted to say something more, but not pushing it, letting his thoughts ripen.
“I keep thinking about those early years,” he finally said. “I was such a pinche macho asshole. Always pushing Arturo to be a man, never understanding his quiet nature. Louise constantly told me to go lighter on the kid, but I was my usual stubborn self. She told me he cried himself to sleep for months after I left.”
Louise, of Irish American descent, had married Alberto against her parents’ wishes. When their relationship fell apart after a decade, Alberto moved back to Miami for a while, but Louise’s strict Catholicism kept her from granting him a legal divorce. Arturo was 10 years old when he left.
“I hear you,” I said, “but you know as well as I do, you can’t go back and relive those choices.”
“Yeah, yeah, but the memories won’t leave me alone. And all the drinking I did around him? Jesucristo! I remember sitting in my recliner and watching football on Sundays. I would point to Arturo, lift my empty bottle and say, ‘beer me up, boy.” What an hijo de puta I was.”
Alberto had always been hard on himself and others. After I joined him in San Antonio, we shared a remodeling business. He could do the work of two men in a single day, and if we had a crew member who slacked off even slightly, Alberto would give him a tongue lashing. His favorite phrase was, “work hard or you’ll end up under the bridge.” Personally, I loved his style because it aligned with my own high energy and standards. We kicked ass and made a ton of money.
“I’ve said this before, amigo,” I offered, “and I’ll say it again. You can’t blame yourself for Arturo’s alcoholism. If it hadn’t been you, someone else would have offered him his first drink. You either have the disease or you don’t. It’s a form of Russian Roulette that people across our country are playing every day.”
“Claro, pero it doesn’t make me feel better, no matter how many times you say it.”
He pushed his plate away with its half-eaten sandwich and drained the last of his beer. “Let’s go back to the room. I want to be as fresh as possible in the morning.”
We walked the short distance, Alberto moving slowly and unsteadily, breathing heavily. Then we took turns using the shower. When I came out after mine, he was already asleep on his bed, snoring softly.
I awoke from a vivid dream of lights and laughter on Bourbon Street. Alberto was shaking my shoulder with a vigor I hadn’t seen the day before.
“Levántate, dormilón,” he said. “We’ve got things to do, places to go.”
I roused myself and dressed quickly, noticing the care he had taken with his appearance. He still had a full head of hair, streaked with gray, and he had slicked it back with some sort of gel. He wore a colorful guayabera shirt, dark pants, and a pair of shined shoes. He had neatly trimmed his moustache, but nothing could disguise the pallor of his skin, and his clothes hung a bit limply on his shrinking body.
“Let’s go get some java,” he said, “Like the last time we were here.”
We took the car a few blocks and found a parking spot near Cafe Du Monde. As we sipped our coffee and munched on baguettes dusted in powdered sugar, we watched the first stirrings of activity in Jackson Square. A few vendors were setting up on the sidewalks. A musician was tuning his kora, a man I’d heard before, his sounds forever synonymous with New Orleans in my mind. A homeless man was sprawled on the ground beneath the famous statue of Andrew Jackson tipping his hat, the monument’s head streaked with lines of pigeon dung. The air smelled of horse manure from the tourist buggies, mixed with stale beer and cigarettes.
“I dreamed about him,” said Alberto.
I knew he meant Arturo. “Tell me about it if you’re willing.”
He shifted his gaze from Jackson Square to me. “He was a boy and we were holding hands, walking on the sands of Playa Pilar in Cuba. The sun was setting and I felt a sense of peace. But then he let go of my hand and began to run ahead of me, and it suddenly got pitch dark. I was afraid he would get lost. It was my duty to find him, but I couldn’t see a damn thing.”
He placed his hand on his brow, rubbing his forehead.
“It’s understandable to feel nervous,” I said. “You haven’t seen him for so long.”
“But why now? After all the letters I sent. And what does he mean by ‘there’s something I need to say?’ Does he want to unload on me one final time? I deserve it but I don’t know if could take it.”
“Stop borrowing trouble, amigo. Whatever’s meant to happen, try to be thankful that you at least get to see him.”
He took a deep breath. “Es la verdad. If Louise were here, she would say something like ‘it’s in God’s hands.’ I never understood that woman’s faith.”
He checked his watch. “Vamos. I want to be early.”
We got back in the car and drove to the sober living home in Metairie, about seven miles north. It was in a quiet neighborhood of older houses that needed care but weren’t decrepit. I pulled to the curb.
“Do you want me to walk up with you?”
“Do I look like an invalid? Just go and I’ll text you when it’s time to pick me up.”
I put my hand on his shoulder reassuringly, then he exited the car and walked along a set of large paving stones to the front door. He knocked, the door opened, and after a brief discussion with the person who had answered, he went inside.
Since I had some idle time on my hands, I decided to visit the Metairie Cemetery. I had been there years before on a guided tour, amazed at the elaborate tombs and the stories of illustrious New Orleanians buried there.
I parked in the visitor’s lot, then wandered for two hours through the manicured grounds, recognizing many of the sites. The Moorish-style tomb commissioned by Confederate General Beauregard for his beloved daughter Laure; the former resting place of Storyville Madam Josie Arlington, with its bronze figure of a woman knocking at its door; the 60-foot spire marking the graves of Daniel and Mary Moriarty, a final “fuck you” to New Orleans’ upper-class who never accepted Moriarty’s background as a poor Irish immigrant; the Army of Tennessee tribute to fallen Confederate soldiers, its statue of General Albert Sidney Johnston riding high atop.
I sat on a marble bench in front of a beautiful mausoleum featuring stained glass and wrought iron. I didn’t know what the cemetery’s smoking regulations were, but since no one was around, I lit a cigarette and sat in the quiet sunlight. Billowing clouds sailed overhead, alternately shifting the shadows of the tombs, like the flickering frames of an old movie.
A memory of Alberto came to mind. He had supervised the makeover of an expensive home in San Antonio, and its owner took a liking to him, eventually inviting Alberto to attend his daughter’s wedding at a posh country club. Alberto was determined to present himself as not just the hired help, but as a man of distinction. He spent a lot of money to rent two tuxedos—a black one for the ceremony, a white one for the reception—changing in the clubhouse locker room. He sent me pictures from his phone that showed him standing in the midst of other guests, clearly overdressed but obviously proud of himself.
I chuckled, took a drag of my smoke, and felt a gentle breeze caress my cheek. It brought the smell of new-mown grass, a reminder that long after the dead dissolve into soil, nature continues its cycles.
I thought about Alberto and Arturo. Despite the easy affirmations of motivational speakers, I knew firsthand that real second chances are rare. My own father and I had never cleared the air between us. I recalled my grief at his funeral, staring down at his body in the casket, thinking of all the things that needed to be said but never would. The recollection still stung after all these years.
But I also treasured the joyful second chance that had happened in my love life. After the failure of my first marriage and the depression that followed it, I despaired of ever finding another partner. Then I met my soul mate, Lisa, and discovered the miracle of unconditional love and support. I was grateful for her every day.
Maybe everything is possible, I thought.
I’m not normally a praying man, but I whispered a few words: If you’re listening, God, look favorably on this father and son reunion.
My phone chirped in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw a text message from Alberto.
I’m done. Come and get me.
I ground my cigarette underfoot, picked up the butt to deposit in a trash can, then turned to retrieve my friend.
He was quiet and clearly emotional as we began our return trip. His cheeks quivered as if he was barely holding back his feelings. I noticed a white envelope protruding from the pocket of his shirt. As I had long ago learned with my friend, I stayed silent, letting him decide when or if he wanted to share what had happened.
We had just gotten on the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge going west when he finally spoke.
“Man, I never expected that.”
“Expected what?” I asked, noticing with a quick glance that tears were streaming down his pale face.
He swallowed a couple times, trying to collect himself. “I thought he would vent his anger on me. Instead, he asked me to forgive him. Do you hear that? Me forgive him? Dios mio!”
“Forgive him for what?”
“For never taking the time to understand me, even with all my faults. For always blaming me for his mistakes rather than taking personal responsibility. For not seeing that underneath my macho behavior was a man who had always cared for him.”
Alberto began to cry softly, a sound that filled the car for a moment. “Then he told me that he loved me.”
I was deeply moved, putting my right hand on my friend’s shoulder. He reached up his own hand to place it on mine, gently giving me a squeeze. In that touch, I felt all of the bonds we had formed over the years. Then he took that hand and rolled down the passenger window. Once again, the smell of the swamp engulfed us, an odor of verdant life underpinned by decay.
I looked over briefly to see him flying his hand in the air. Up and down, up and down, and then suddenly his arm fell and draped over the windowsill. I knew instinctively what had happened. I knew he was gone. With tears on my cheeks, I drove the final distance to the end of the bridge and found a turnout where I could park.
I got out my phone and called 911 to request an ambulance, then scooted closer to Alberto, feeling for a pulse and finding none. I noticed again the envelope protruding from his pocket. Though it felt like an invasion of privacy, I removed it, opened up the flap, and pulled out a faded Polaroid print. It was Alberto and Arturo when the boy was young, probably just before Alberto moved to Miami. They were standing on a wharf, Boston harbor and a fishing boat behind them, smiling brightly for the camera. At their feet was a string of cod, striped bass, and bluefish, the spoils of their adventure. I flipped the picture over. Scrawled in black ink were the words A great day together, July 12, 1969.
I scooted even closer to Alberto, put my arm around him, and tilted his head on my shoulder. Then I waited, the car filled with the whooshing sound of traffic, until I heard a siren in the distance.
I thought again of my Cuban friend in his white tuxedo, his face beaming with pride, recalling a toast he often gave when we shared cervezas.
“Salud, amor, pesetas y tiempo para disfrutarlos!”
I held him tighter and said, “Here’s to second chances, mi amigo.”
In 40 years of professional writing, Krin Van Tatenhove has produced countless articles and over a dozen books. He is also a published photographer and has curated several art books downloadable from krinvan.com. Krin and his wife, Donna, have a blended family and live in San Antonio,Texas.
Art credit: Krin Van Tatenhove