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from the May 2016 issue

Royalty Check

For Elisú
 

I walk into the bank, check in hand, and ask a security guard whether I can cash it. He takes my question to another man who might be a plainclothes guard, then comes back to tell me 1) that I can indeed cash my check at this branch, and 2) that the computer connections have been going down a lot today.

I don’t know exactly what this means in technical terms, but I soon see the practical result: slow at the best of times, the bank is putting its full capacity for sluggishness on display right now. Each time the machines lose the famous connection, the employees gaze at them in sadistic glee.

A gentleman who isn’t a bank employee but doesn’t seem fazed or flustered by the technical difficulties or the immobile line explains that of late many people have been changing foreign currencies into Cuban CUC. The exchange rates are highly volatile, he says, and from one day to the next what you’ve got may be worth much more, or much less.

From this man, who acts as if waiting in line at a bank on one of its worst days were his natural habitat, I learn that here, too, we have currency speculators, people who study the daily exchange rate and decide whether it’s high or low enough or whether they’re better off coming back another day. Whether they should risk acting or risk waiting, in other words. Some of them do their research before they head to the bank. They watch the international segment of the daily newscast intently and draw their own conclusions. They are masters of risk, brokers made in Cuba.

The gentleman in question remains cheerful and serene, though the only things moving are the hands of an immense clock. It’s on the wall behind the tellers’ backs so they can’t see the evidence of time passing, while we laboriously chew up and choke down every minute that goes by. The man tells me that in Switzerland current rates of exchange are given on television every day. Graphics display the movements of stock markets across all the planet’s main financial centers, as well as exchange rates, the price of gold by the ounce and of oil by the barrel, the NASDAQ index and the Dow Jones, too. In fact, he tells me, this information is always the final news item of the night. “But Swiss banks,” he concludes, “are not like these.”

I don’t know who NASDAQ and Dow Jones are, though I assume they must be wizards of international finance. Nor can I picture a Swiss bank. But any moviegoer knows a Swiss bank must be a paradise; in the movies, anyone who amounts to anything has an account at one—even evildoers, bad guys, mafiosos, ex-Nazis, forgers, art thieves, corrupt politicians, and tax evaders.

However little I can imagine a Swiss bank, I’m sure they don’t have long lines. Switzerland must abound with banks that are entirely devoid of connections that go down.

In this bank, which does not appear in any movie, we customers sit invoking the god Chronos and other deities of our predilection, whichever ones have the time to concern themselves with the functioning of DSL connections. We sit while we wait, occupying chairs in the order we’ll be called before the tellers. Every time a customer is called to a window, we have to change seats so as not to leave an empty space. It’s like some children’s game, musical chairs or a board game involving squares and dice. My mind flashes on Alicia en el pueblo de MaravillasAlice in the Town of Wonder—a satirical Cuban film of the early nineties. I wonder whether its writers dreamed up this kind of queue or copied it from some bank, train station, ration-book registry, hospital, legal services office, housing agency, passport office, or the like. That is, whether their fiction sprang from reality or the other way around.

Not daring to break the pattern, I switch chairs when those ahead of me in line do, but since the connections continue to drop, none of us moves very often. At one point, this rhythm is briefly disrupted, leaving an empty seat in the middle. A modern, distracted young woman who’s just come into the bank takes this seat, cutting ahead in line. She wields an iPod or iPhone or iPad—something with earphones—which she’s pulled from her pocket and is manipulating in some strange fashion. She goes on listening, deaf to any sound that doesn’t emerge from the machine.

It’s a fancy piece of equipment and she’s fully aware of that. Maybe that’s why she has jumped the line without looking at anyone or asking “who’s last?” Next to her, another young woman decides to pull out her cell phone, in a kind of challenge. I always thought cell phones weren’t allowed in banks; aren’t they what bank robbers always use to coordinate their plan of attack or issue orders to the drivers waiting to take off, Fast and Furious, with squealing tires and bags of plunder?

The two young women, each with her device, while away the time and show off their touch screen dexterity in a silent duel of thrust and parry. Next to me sits a nurse. Her dazzlingly white uniform exudes a cold perfection that seems to further tarnish the prevailing urban grime. The nurse has no cell phone but she does have a blood pressure gauge, so she opens its case, pulls out the sphygmomanometer, and studies its dial. The fact that it’s an analog gauge does not make her apparatus any less sophisticated, she appears to declare.

On the other side of the nurse sits the lover of Swiss banks, who a few minutes earlier was explaining the movements of financial indices. He has a calculator in his hand. The owners of the sophisticated devices look at him in amazement. They don’t even know that calculators exist. They can’t conceive that there are still machines that do only one thing—calculate—without playing music, taking pictures, or connecting wirelessly to anything. The nurse looks at him as if he were ill.

I imagine that the gentleman is calculating his impending transaction according to today’s rate of exchange. I wonder how exactly he decides whether he’s better off changing his money today or tomorrow. Maybe he has a good friend in Switzerland who calls him with the latest indices. Or an antenna at his house, one of those pirate satellite dishes that people conceal from the police in so many creative ways. A painter who was much taken by this crime, which involves such pure use of mimetic design, curated an exhibit in Old Havana of all the imaginative camouflages the owners of clandestine satellite dishes have invented.

Or maybe the gentleman has Internet at home or at work, broadband DSL, a connection at many kilobytes per second that allows him to open and close Web pages in a snap, without any crashes to slow his pace.

I watch them, immersed in their devices, transforming the unavoidable wait into something enjoyable and productive. I don’t have a netbook on which to write my endless masterpiece—I imagine the writers who produce such tomes must always have theirs at hand—but I do have the manuscript of a book of short stories, submitted to a contest I’m judging. I pull it out of my bag. The book is called You Move Like a Cat, and the author’s pseudonym is Juan Pérez, which shows a certain lack of imagination, but maybe writing the stories used up all his capacity to fantasize, and when the time came to select his alias, he was just too tired.

In the doorway, the bank guards kill time swapping jokes. In front of us, the tellers keep their eyes on their computers as the connections come and go. They’re enjoying the pleasure of entropy, a state in which nothing can be controlled and we are freed of all responsibility. Young Woman Number One listens to her music, Young Woman Number Two writes something on her phone. The nurse studies her sphygmomanometer. The gentleman calculates.

I turn to the manuscript and see that the first story has the same title as the book. Before I can read a line, the bank doors fly open. Two criminals, their heads and faces covered by ski masks, burst violently through the entrance, brandishing what appear to be long pistols or sawed-off shotguns. They shout that this is a heist, that everyone is to hit the floor and stay still.

The two young women scream, and the robbers threaten them and kick away their cell phones or iPods or iPhones or iPads so they can’t call the police. They kick away the gentleman’s calculator, too. When we’re all down on the floor with our hands behind our heads, he whispers to me that these things don’t happen in Swiss banks. This earns him a reprimand from one of the thieves. We should all keep quiet for our own good.

The bank staff are now tied up with their mouths taped shut. The robbers are very well-equipped, but they know they don’t have much time. The bank’s front wall is almost entirely glass; we must be offering quite a strange spectacle to the pedestrians in this very busy area. Due to the lack of Internet connection, the employees who have keys to the vaults are not on-site. So the thieves have to make do with what they find in the tellers’ drawers and with whatever we happen to have on us, those of us whom chance placed in the here and now, when we might very well have been somewhere else.

The gentleman attuned to Swiss orderliness begins to feel unwell. The nurse asks the robbers to please let her examine him, and points to the sphygmomanometer that earmarks her as a skilled professional. Kicked away by one of the criminals, it has ended up across the room. Probably broken, I think.

One of the robbers barks that he will not allow any such thing, that nobody better move from where they are if they want to stay alive. But the cardinal rule is in operation, the rule that decrees that every crew of bank robbers contains both good elements and bad, and the good ones will intercede. The problem is that in this case the bad faction seems to outrank the good. The band of bank robbers splits into two opposing camps. One is in favor of the gentleman receiving treatment, for a variety of reasons. First comes simple humanity, pity for a human being who has nothing to do with the bank. Next comes the fact that the nurse and her device present no danger as long as one of the thieves keeps an eye on what she does. Finally, they must consider the possibility of something going wrong with their scheme; if the gentleman dies, they could find themselves charged with murder as well as theft.

The good-guy robber is also the best-educated one. Socrates would have loved his ability to remain focused on virtue even in the midst of outlaws. He knows the Penal Code and the Law of Penal Procedures and even the sentences handed down in other cases of robbery when a death was caused by lack of medical attention. He recites the names of the crimes, the articles of the code, the attenuating and aggravating circumstances. Finally he lists the locations of the prisons where he and his comrades could end up and the length of the sentences they’ll have to serve if they don’t do something, right away, for the gentleman who is feeling ill.

The gang leader says that if they keep on arguing about the old guy’s fate then for sure they’ll get caught and sent away for a long time. He says all the talk is putting their plan at risk, and they should get back to work.

The nurse is brave. She says she’ll take responsibility and they can shoot her if they want; there are no exceptions to the Hippocratic oath. She tries to get up. One of the young women who lost their devices starts to cry and tells the nurse that she’s going to get us all killed, she should just stay put and give us a chance to get out of there alive.

The crying makes another robber nervous. That’s also a rule: there’s always an unstable element in the crew, someone not quite right in the head, suffering from an Oedipus complex or something. These unpredictable members can turn out to be the most vicious of the lot, or else they’ll become the first victims of the heartless leader, or of a policeman or bank employee with an exaggerated sense of duty.

The good-guy robber has been assigned to watch us, no doubt because he lacks talent for threatening tellers, pointing his gun at their temples, breaking into their cash drawers, and dumping the money into a bag. He takes note of the manuscript that, not having been judged dangerous enough to get kicked away, has suffered only the loss of its first and last pages and otherwise remains in my possession. He asks whether it’s mine. I explain that I’m a writer, that I came in to cash a royalty check, and that to keep myself busy during the wait I began reading the manuscript because I’m one of the three judges of the contest it was entered in.

The guy examines the manuscript, leafing carefully through its pages. He asks me how I like it.

I tell him I haven’t started it, that I was just about to begin when they burst in.

He reaches the last page and says it looks to him like a good book. He says if he were the judge he’d give it the prize.

I tell him it’s not that simple; there are three judges on the panel and this book is competing against twenty other entries. And although it’s true that so far I haven’t seen any others that look like winners, I still have this one and two more to read. I don’t tell him that I’m the only judge who actually reads the books; the other two are happy to follow my advice and will say that they, too, find my candidate to be the obvious standout.

The robber seems to smile inside his ski mask and tells me that, by his calculation, Juan Pérez has a thirty-three percent chance of winning, much better than the five percent he started out with. And he leaves.

My jaw drops. This educated thief knows about the law and is quick with his math, even if he’s not very good at stealing.

Then I realize something else: one of the missing pages is the only one with the author’s name on it.

How, then, did the robber know that the author of these stories called himself Juan Pérez?

Elementary: The robber who knows his penal codes and his percentages also knows about literature. That is, he writes it.

In short, he is Juan Pérez.

This discovery gives me goosebumps. I have a valuable piece of information. I’m the only one who knows the identity of one of the thieves.

No, actually, I don’t. Juan Pérez is an assumed name. That’s why it’s called a pseudonym and why it’s used to hide a real identity, be it a writer's or a bank robber’s. Or both at once.

But if we get out of this alive, all I’ll have to do is give the manuscript to the police. It’s sure to have fingerprints on it, or maybe the type of printer can be identified. At least that’s the way things go on TV; the tiniest sample of clothing or saliva, hair, sweat, or scribbling is enough for the police force of any city in the world to find out who it belongs to. Police science has advanced so much.

Robbers have made a good deal of progress, too. This crew has perfect ski masks, and are dressed in all-black, tight-fitting outfits that allow them perfect freedom of movement. If they weren’t bank robbers, they might be members of a modern dance troupe. And they’re wearing gloves.

Maybe someone at the Writer’s Union will remember who handed in this entry. Or they’ll have the sealed envelope containing the author’s real name, book title, and other data, to be opened only after the jury has determined the winner.

Maybe Juan Pérez submitted his book by mail. Maybe the envelope with its return address and postmark has been thrown away.

But they’ll still have the sealed envelope. If Juan Pérez wants to win the contest and get his prize money—less money, of course, than what he and his accomplices are stealing right now—if he wants to see his book published, be lionized at the launch event, get reviewed, join the literary crowd, and end up sitting in a bank holding a royalty check, or rather, lying face down on a bank floor with that check, he has to have included his true name, address, phone number, and a biography of two lines, minimum, in a sealed envelope.

Everything is happening very fast. Even the clock seems to be hurrying up a bit. But one of the thieves doesn’t like the sound it makes, and fires at it. The clock shatters. Everyone screams. Now, as in the story of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, time comes to a stop.

Then, as if emerging from every chink in the walls, from the crevices of the windows, from the holes in the locked doors, surging from the floor and the cash drawers, dropping from the ceiling and the chandeliers, bursting in from all sides, a special squadron of police fills the bank with bulletproof vests and state-of-the-art weaponry.

We all scream, except for the bank staff who can’t because their lips are sealed with tape. We don’t dare move except to squeeze together as tightly as we can, keeping our heads glued to the floor to avoid the bullets.

In the midst of the firefight, the iPad-iPod-iPhone woman scurries to recover her device. A lot is happening at once. It’s hard to look everywhere, especially when you’re trying to keep your head as far as possible from the shots ricocheting on all sides.

I look for Juan Pérez, who has taken off his mask, but his back is turned and I can’t see his face. In the confusion of screams, blows, people tied and untied, criminals, tellers, and customers, Juan Pérez disappears. Like in that film with Clive Owen, the one where the bank robbers blend in with their hostages, where the thieves are so ingenious and organized that you have to be on their side. Although from now on, after this, I’ll never take the side of a criminal again, even a celluloid criminal. I’ll be a fundamentalist in the religion of law and order.

Well, I won’t be on the side of bandits, but I can’t avoid a certain feeling of sympathy for Juan Pérez. The robber without a face, going under an assumed name, with a broad range of knowledge, and a good heart. Who moves like a cat, both in his book and in his escape.

The police manage to capture everyone else. The bandits’ guns turn out to be toys, but they looked real enough. The chief of the anti-bank robbery squad informs us we’re all witnesses, that it’s our duty as citizens. I wish Juan Pérez were here so I could ask him whether it’s true that we’re required to make statements, sign them, and present ourselves at the trial. But if he were here, they’d have arrested him, too.

The chief goes on informing us of our civic rights and responsibilities. He asks us not to make any statements to the press until we’ve finished speaking to the authorities.

We all provide our IDs and the police take our contact information and tell us we’ll be summoned within the next forty-eight hours. That’s the title of a movie with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, who make a great pair. The grumpy policeman and the likeable thief.

I won’t tell the police that Juan Pérez was one of the band. He’s the only one who sympathized with the Swiss-loving gentleman and actually defended him. Who does math in his head, who knows the law, who writes. It would be criminal to put such a cultured plunderer in jail.

I’ll give him the prize. That way he’ll know. If I give him the prize he’ll know I haven’t betrayed him. Although his criminal comrades might do that. To judge by what we saw, he was not a favorite of the gang’s pitiless leader.

I won’t give him the prize. Surely he doesn’t want to be caught; even if he wins, he won’t show up to bask in the honor. He might even think it’s all a trap—awarding him the prize, counting on his neophyte vanity. Then, when he shows up at the ceremony, a whole crowd of plainclothes police surrounds him, cuffs him, and carts him off to jail.

No, Juan Pérez will not fall for such a simpleminded ruse.

But—why did he enter his book in the contest? Or did that happen before he was recruited to rob banks? And what made him choose to be a thief rather than a writer?

Maybe Juan Pérez is an undercover infiltrator. That’s why the police operation was so efficient: they already knew the whole plan. The only reason they didn’t appear right away was to avoid awakening suspicion. That also gave Juan Pérez time to escape, without the others knowing he wasn’t caught.

But even if he is an undercover policeman, he still won’t show up to collect the prize. The ceremony always attracts television crews who film the proceedings for the cultural segment of the news, photographers and journalists, who snap photos and record interviews for the next day’s arts and culture page.

The police open the doors wide to make room for the wheeled gurney carrying the gentleman out to an ambulance—already parked outside with its doors ajar, its staff ready to administer first aid—that will take him to the nearest hospital. The self-sacrificing nurse walks beside him, keeping her eye on the dial of her sphygmomanometer, still working despite the kicks, or so it seems. After the gurney departs, the rest of us will be able to leave, too, to emerge into the city, into the open air, into our simple daily lives as citizens to whom nothing spectacular or dangerous occurs.

None of this is true. There are no plunderers who threaten us, nor police who frustrate their scheme. Juan Pérez is not an enigmatic, charismatic thief filled with knowledge, lyricism, and humanity, but only the pseudonymous author of a painfully mediocre book. The bank queue continues to be slow, bereft of connection, rhythmic in its snail’s pace, floating in the sweet tranquility of lives on hold beneath a timepiece that ticktocks like a cuckoo clock. It’s a collective siesta, like when small children nap in their cots, or with their little heads down on their little classroom desks. Each one with his or her favorite toy, the iPad-iPod-iPhone, the sphygmomanometer, the calculator, the book of stories entitled You Move Like a Cat.

The doors open to admit a woman with hair dyed a menopausal red. She asks me in a friendly way whether I’m last in line. I stand up and, turning toward the exit, say, “Not anymore.” I leave, my royalty check uncashed.

 

© Mylene Fernández Pintado. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Dick Cluster. All rights reserved.

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