During the twilight hours of one day in January, the professor and his wife arrived at a small motel on the beach at Islamorada, and checked in. After the New Year’s Eve parties, the place had emptied of guests. It was hot and humid. Seaweed and snails piled up along the main road. Alongside the boats that docked in the marina, pelicans stood like statues on beams of rotted wood.
The couple were exhausted and sweaty after their long drive. They showered, changed into clean clothes, and went downstairs. They passed by the vending machines and ice dispenser, walked past the pool and crossed the lawn. Plastic cups rolled around in the wind. The rear parking lot was desolate, and the woman stopped for a moment, as if hesitating. A narrow path led to the ocean. They walked slowly, hand in hand, careful not to trip in their sandals. The coastline curved in a series of wide bays. Beach chairs were scattered haphazardly and the couple pulled together two of them, brushed them off, and sat down.
Finally, said the professor.
They sat silently. The sea, like a full sail in the wind, rippled before their eyes in changing colors from turquoise, to indigo, to purple, and soon became cloaked in a coppery hue.
It’s beautiful here, said the woman. But deserted.
That’s what we wanted, isn’t it, said the professor. He reminded his wife why they had left Jerusalem.
Maybe . . . said his wife. In the waning daylight her eyes followed a large seagull that was pecking among the seashells. The shadow of a lone boat loomed on the horizon. Gradually the sky became strewn with diamonds, and the couple gazed at them as they each sank into their own thoughts. The cry of a saxophone came from somewhere in the distance. High tide made little bites into the shoreline, leaving a white lace edging, rhythmically lapping like the sound of a nursing baby.
Now all was quiet. The music had been silenced and nothing could be heard but the gentle ebb and flow of the water. The woman burrowed her toes in the warm wet sand.
All of a sudden, a single beam of light pierced the darkness. It came from the direction of the ocean, and a flashlight signaled back from the shore. Quick Morse-like flashes raced back and forth.
Did you see that, the woman asked.
Yes, said the professor.
What is it, asked the woman.
How would I know, answered the professor. I imagine they are fishermen.
The lights flashed on and off. The beam on the horizon glowed brightly and it seemed to be gaining intensity and rapidly moving toward the island like a ball of fire. And then, abruptly, it went out. Large waves broke on the beach.
The woman got up, wishing to return to the motel. Her husband grumbled a bit, sighed, and slowly gathered himself up to go. Fishermen, he said faintly, as if talking to himself.
Arm in arm, they walked back to the room. The curtain and bedspread were of the same floral-patterned material, and the lamps gave off a dim light.
Too bad we didn’t go to a better place, said the woman.
You wanted to be as close as possible to the ocean, answered the professor. This was the closest.
The sand had stuck to them, so they rinsed off under the tap in the sink.
Aren’t you hungry, asked the professor.
I don’t feel like going out tonight, said the woman.
Do you want to order in pizza, asked the professor. The woman shrugged.
What toppings, he asked, and immediately added, The usual?
The usual, said the woman absentmindedly. She took a small notebook out of her handbag and started to add up columns of numbers.
Her husband phoned for the pizza.
We wasted too much money in New York, said the woman.
That’s why we’re eating pizza today, said the professor in an amused voice. Doesn’t that make you feel young?
No, said his wife.
Muttering something, he propped two pillows behind his back, and flipped open a thick loose-leaf folder.
We’ll go down to Key West tomorrow to see Hemingway’s house, he said, determined to cheer his wife up.
She uttered an irritated laugh.
Those cats again, she said. You know I’m allergic to cats. We’ll stay here tomorrow and spend the day on the beach . . .
The professor didn’t answer. He put on his glasses, adjusted the lamp, and started to read. His wife picked up the motel’s laminated instruction sheet and skimmed it over. There are two fire extinguishers in every hallway, she said.
Hmmm, mumbled the professor. He laid down the sheaf of papers, pulled some bills from his pocket and held them out to his wife.
The pizza will be here any minute . . .
The woman took the bills and stared at the pile of papers on the bed.
Cervantes, she said, it’s been thirty years already . . .
Hmmm, mumbled the professor again. He shifted to make himself more comfortable. And how many years have you been busy with your minerals?
That’s not the same thing, said the woman. We discover new things every day . . .
New things are discovered in Cervantes too, said the professor. You’re in a bad mood . . .
I don’t know what’s wrong with me, said the woman. I’ve gotten old all at once. Look at me.
You look fine, said her husband.
Outside a shrieking wind began to blow, and then another sound, like a heavy object being dropped.
Someone ran down the stairs. There were two knocks at the door. The woman yawned, counted the bills and opened the door.
A young black man, dripping wet, burst into the room like a whirlwind.
Shhh. Shhh . . . he whispered sharply. No police, please, no police!
The professor looked up.
His wife stood still, petrified. The young man put his back up against the door and didn’t move. His eyes darted around fearfully.
What’s going on here, asked the professor, Who is that?
It’s a robber, said the woman, a hint of gloating in her voice. Give him your wallet. Hurry!
Her husband held out his wallet hesitantly. The young man shook his head vigorously from side to side.
No, money, please, no police, no money . . .
The couple exchanged glances.
Are you sick, asked the woman.
No sick no sick, whispered the boy. The professor reached his hand out toward the phone, but the boy beat him to it and pulled the cord out.
No police, please . . . he begged. He was wearing shorts, a red T-shirt, and was barefoot. A puddle was forming on the carpet beneath his feet.
Who are you, asked the professor. Everything happened so quickly that he didn’t have the chance to get alarmed.
The young man wiped his face with his hand and pointed at the corridor as if gesturing toward the horizon.
Cuba, he whispered.
The couple stared at one another.
Are you a refugee from Cuba, asked the professor in Spanish.
The boy choked up and burst into tears. He began talking quickly. Someone had been waiting for them on the shore but a huge wave came . . . there were twenty of them . . . only he and another one could swim . . . the boat sank. Señor, Señora, por favor . . . the Coast Guard discovered them . . .
Twin rivulets of tears poured down his face.
Calm down, said the professor. He took a blanket and wrapped it around the young man.
The woman pursed her lips and remained silent. There was another knock on the door. The boy cringed in terror and the professor pushed him into the bathroom, threw a large towel over the puddle and glanced at his wife, as if asking for advice. She said it must be the pizza, opened the door, took the box, and paid.
Have a nice evening, said the delivery guy.
Shut the door, ordered the professor. The woman put the pizza on the round table.
What do we do, she asked. She plugged in the telephone but didn’t touch the handset.
Let me think, said her husband. He locked the door, fastened the door chain, and drew the curtains.
We have to notify the police, said the woman.
The professor didn’t answer. He called the Cuban to come out of the bathroom.
Eat, he said, you must be hungry.
The young man nodded. They had been at sea for three days, with almost no food and water.
He took big bites of the crust, and the professor encouraged him to have another one, then sat on the carpet and ate a slice of pizza himself. The woman said she wasn’t hungry.
They drank tap water because they decided not to leave the room. The boy sipped the water with his eyes closed.
I want a new life, he said.
The professor and his wife exchanged glances again.
We are only visitors here, said the woman, tourists. We can’t do anything illegal.
She spoke Spanish and the young man’s eyes lit up.
Señora, please don’t hand me over to the police, he said. He sent a beseeching look in the direction of the professor, who was toying with his glasses.
I have to think about this, he said, I need time to think.
A short while later, they suddenly heard sounds of a commotion coming from downstairs. Brakes squealed, orders being given echoed down the hallways. Someone blew a whistle, doors slammed, people were running up and down the stairs.
The boy leaped up like a hunted animal. The blanket fell off his shoulders. The woman pressed her body against the wall while her husband surveyed the room feverishly. He motioned to the Cuban to lie on the bed, covered him from head to toe with the heavy bedspread, and placed two pillows and a suitcase on top. Don’t breathe, he ordered him.
Coast Guard officers went from room to room. They showed their identification, apologized for the inconvenience and informed the guests that they were in pursuit of illegal aliens who had infiltrated by sea. Anyone found harboring an illegal alien should be aware that the penalty is imprisonment, they said. The professor nodded. He gathered up the wet towel and blanket and said that they had just come back from the pool and hadn’t seen anything. His wife remained silent. The officers came in, peeked into the bathroom, and apologized again.
Have a nice evening, they said.
You too, said the professor. He locked the door. Listened. Waited. Then he took the pillows and suitcase off the bed and lifted the bedspread. The young man lay there, as if dead.
You can get up now, he said.
The woman slowly drew up a chair and sat down. The Cuban murmured words of gratitude, and he was shaking so hard that the professor wrapped a blanket around him again and told him to keep quiet. Then he turned on the television. They stared at a tango dancing contest broadcast from Miami.
We must be insane, said the woman in Hebrew.
The professor didn’t answer. He gathered his papers that had scattered all over the room.
My wife and I were born in Argentina, he told the young man. I teach Spanish literature. He organized his folder.
I’m preparing a lecture on Cervantes, he added with a half-smile. Have you heard of Don Quixote?
You’re crazy, said the woman.
Speak Spanish, if it’s not too difficult for you, said the professor sarcastically, so everyone can understand. His wife looked at him in amazement.
Do you realize what we’ve done? We’ve broken the law, she said.
I know, said the professor.
We’re hiding an illegal alien in our room, said the woman.
I know, said the professor.
The boy tilted his head sideways, listening to the foreign language and suddenly said, with great longing, Don Quixote, Don Quixote . . . he knelt before the woman and whispered, “O Princess Dulcinea . . .”
The woman retreated in panic.
“O Princess Dulcinea, lady of this captive heart, a grievous wrong hast thou done me to drive me forth with scorn, and with inexorable obduracy banish me from the presence of thy beauty. O lady, deign to hold in remembrance this heart, thy vassal, that thus in anguish pines for love of thee.”
What is this, said the woman. She paled. The professor, on the other hand, looked astonished.
How do you know these quotations, he asked.
The young man said nothing, and the expression on his face softened as if pleasant memories had come to mind.
I grew up on Don Quixote, he said.
How is that so, wondered the professor.
Hold on, we have a problem to solve first, said the woman impatiently.
The boy seemed to be in shock. He sat hunched over on the carpet, and didn’t answer.
I’m scared, I’m scared, he said finally.
Don’t be scared, said the professor. We’re thinking this through, right? My name is Ernest and this is my wife, Amalia. He held out his hand, and the young man grabbed it as if it were a lifesaver.
Miguel, he said. Then he bent over the chair hesitantly, and kissed the woman’s hand.
I apologize for barging into your room, he said. I beg the lady’s forgiveness.
The woman turned her head away but did not pull away her arm.
This is a nightmare, she said. We are insane. Her husband held the remote and turned up the volume.
Relax, don’t panic, he requested, but he himself sounded frenzied. The Cuban looked heavenward.
“Fortune always leaves a door open in adversity in order to bring relief to it,” he recited.
Ahh, rejoiced the professor. That is from chapter fifteen, “In Which Is Related The Unfortunate Adventure That Don Quixote Fell In With When He Fell Out With Certain Heartless Yanguesans”!
Are you a student of literature, he asked.
I don’t believe this, said his wife. What is going on here?
The young man raked through his curly hair with his fingers and revealed shiny white teeth.
My grandfather worked in a cigar factory in Ybor City, in Tampa. That was a long time ago, in 1920 . . . he was a senior cigar roller and was treated with great respect . . . there was a man, El Lector, who would sit on a platform and read from the newspapers every day, also songs, and novels . . . my grandfather especially loved Don Quixote . . . he told us that this Lector had the voice of an opera singer, a thundering and joyous voice, and my grandfather, who sat close to him because of his seniority, learned every word by heart . . . my grandmother rolled cigars too . . . their daughter, my mother, they named Dulcinea . . . later there were hard times and they returned to Cuba . . . my grandfather missed the Lector and would talk of him all the time and because he didn’t know how to read or write he asked my mother to read Cervantes aloud and if she made a mistake he would correct her from memory and so because of his enthusiasm my brothers and I learned all of Don Quixote by heart . . .
Unbelievable, said the professor. He looked at his wife as if to say, what do you think of all this? He urged the boy to continue his story. The woman started to get up but froze in place. A news flash was just being broadcast about a ship of Cuban migrants that had sunk off the shores of Islamorada. The Coast Guard was pulling bodies out of the water.
The young man hid his face in his hands.
We’ll think of something, said the professor. He now had the wild-eyed look of someone who had just woken from a restless sleep. He spread the floral-patterned blanket over the carpet in the corner of the room close to the bathroom, ordered the young man to lie down, and covered him.
Try and get some sleep, we’ll take care of you . . . Miguel.
The boy burst into tears.
I want to go to Tampa, he said. I want to see the place that my grandfather talked about . . . I have the address of an old man from Cuba who lives there . . . they were friends . . .
He rolled down the top of his pants, struggled with an adhesive bandage on his stomach, and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.
Here, he said.
The professor took the paper and studied it.
Hmm . . . he said. Okay. Go to sleep. We’ll think of something.
Is Tampa far from here, asked the young man. Can I walk there?
Not on foot and not on horseback, sneered the woman.
The boy looked beseechingly at the professor.
“I’ll bet, that your worship thinks I have done something I ought not with my person,” he quoted.
“It makes it worse to stir it, friend Sancho,” whispered the professor with a weak smile.
“With this and other talk of the same sort master and man passed the night” . . . the Cuban immediately replied with the next sentence. His eyes were feverish and his mouth was dry. The professor gave him water to drink from a plastic cup and said, That’s enough for now, get some rest. The young man laid his head down, exhausted, and immediately fell into a deep sleep.
The couple remained silent for a while.
Call the police, said the woman finally. Her husband remained silent.
We have to turn him in, she said. We’re dealing with a stranger, an illegal alien. Apart from that he’s a liar, I’m sure. It isn’t possible that he memorized all of Don Quixote. I’ve never heard anything like it. Even you don’t remember it all by heart. Who knows what else he’s hiding from us.
People know the Bible by heart, said the professor.
Call before he wakes up, said the woman.
Her husband laid his folder down on the telephone.
No, he said decisively.
What do you mean No, said the woman. We have to turn him in. We’re visitors here.
And if we were citizens, said the professor.
We would also have an obligation to turn him in.
Obligation can be defined in more ways than one, said the professor. He sat by the phone, as if guarding it.
I’m going crazy, said the woman. We’re out of our minds. We’ll sit in jail because of your stubbornness.
What do you suggest, asked the professor.
Turn him in. Now.
She moved toward the door but her husband blocked the way.
No, he said.
Call 911, hissed the woman angrily.
No, said the professor. Can you really turn him in? He called you Dulcinea and kissed your hand . . .
You’re acting like Don Quixote yourself, you stupid old fool. Have you forgotten why we came here?
I haven’t forgotten, said the professor. Look at him. Like a helpless baby.
Ahhh, said the woman. So that’s what this is all about . . .
He’s from Cuba, said the professor. You can’t turn in a refugee from Cuba to the authorities. If they deport him his fate is sealed.
And what of our fate, said the woman.
They stood facing one another. The professor looked at his watch and pondered.
Ten fifteen, he said. At midnight we’ll wake him up and take him to Tampa.
Over my dead body, said the woman.
Her husband didn’t answer.
You hate me, said the woman.
I don’t hate you, said the professor sadly. I love you, but somehow . . . you’re always against me.
Outside the wind had died down. The woman threw herself on the bed and began to weep. The professor locked the suitcase. He turned off the lights, muted the television and stared at the flickering screen as if looking at scenes from his life.
“There is no recollection which time does not put an end to, and no pain which death does not remove,” he quoted his hero, mouthing the words quietly. And yet, here is this Cuban, living proof that there are some memories that time cannot erase . . . how strange and wonderful, he thought to himself.
At midnight he turned off the television, woke his wife up, and then gently shook the young man, whispering something in his ear. They left the room, which was right at the end of the corridor, and hastily made their way down the flight of stairs like three shadows. The professor motioned to the boy to lie on the backseat of the rental car, put the suitcase in the trunk, and made sure that his wife fastened her seatbelt. A single streetlight illuminated the parking lot. He started the engine and drove quickly through the motel exit toward the boardwalk along the marina, and from there turned into the empty main thoroughfare. They drove north.
Are you okay, the professor asked his wife. She sat next to him with her eyes closed and didn’t answer.
The boy lay on the backseat curled up in the blanket he had brought with him. He was breathing heavily.
Too bad I didn’t leave you then, when I had someone to leave with . . . too bad I didn’t leave you, said the woman suddenly. A tremor went through the professor and he restlessly changed radio stations.
What a pity, what a pity about everything, he murmured. He drove silently, passing over bridges and along dusky shores and wetlands and from time to time turned the light on to glance at a map of Florida. Hours passed.
The professor stopped for gas once, bought a bottle of mineral water and sandwiches wrapped in cellophane. The young man slept.
Eat something, he said to his wife.
I want to throw up, said the woman.
The professor turned west, and to avoid the highway he drove down side roads and passed neighborhood after neighborhood with identical houses and shopping malls and deserted parking lots, and after a while they reached a road that twisted through the dark swamps of the Everglades and he doggedly continued without talking and without stopping again until daybreak obliterated the night fog. The single-lane road widened, traffic picked up, and the tumultuous noise of the trucks passing by was deafening. They stopped at a traffic light.
The boy sat up, shaking off a nightmare, a deep wrinkle on his forehead as if he had aged in the hours that had passed while making their way to the western coast of the peninsula.
It’s morning, said the professor. We’ll be there soon. The Cuban stared dumbfounded at the Gulf of Mexico and the busy traffic. Downtown, impressive skyscrapers gleamed and the intersections and crosswalks teemed with people. The professor pulled over to the side, located a small street near 8th Avenue in Ybor City. He drove slowly, passing not far from the red brick buildings that were once bustling cigar factories, and now housed restaurants, galleries, and night clubs, adorned with decorative lighting fixtures and flowering balconies.
Once the Tabaqueros used to live here, said the professor. He turned into an alley and stopped near a small house painted green.
This is it, said the professor. Number nine. He turned to the backseat, saying nothing.
The young man squeezed his eyes shut as if quickly running through the thoughts in his head.
We’ll wait until you go in, said the professor. Don’t tell a soul about us. If anyone asks you how you got here, say, I rode in on Rocinante, the famed steed of the Knight of the Sad Countenance . . .
The woman took an apple from her handbag and handed it to the young man.
Take care of yourself; it’s a jungle out there, she said. You’re in America, not Cuba . . .
The boy stepped out of the car and held the apple to his heart.
Go, said the professor.
He and his wife watched him until he disappeared into the open doorway of the house, embraced by a surprised old man. The professor rolled down the window and listened to the birds’ Morning Prayer.
You’re thinking what I’m thinking . . . said the woman.
Yes, said the professor.
Your Uncle Theo, the opera singer, said the woman.
The black sheep of the family, said the professor. He ran away from home but couldn’t make a living from singing . . .
El Lector, said the woman. He became the most famous lector in Tampa . . .
And most of all he loved Cervantes, said the professor.
At least it’s obvious who you inherited that from, said the woman.
The professor smiled and pressed down on the gas pedal.
Where are we going, asked the woman.
I don’t know, said the professor. Wherever you want, Amalia . . .
The quotations from Don Quixote De La Mancha by Miguel De Cervantes are taken from the English translation by John Ormsby, 1885.
Translation of “Islamorada.” Copyright Rivka Keren. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Dalit Shmueli. Forthcoming in Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos, 2010). All rights reserved.