The day of the moon landing, George and I planned to hunt for rocks. Jorge was his actual name, but he preferred to go by George, like The Beatles guitar man. We were going to look for samples just like the astronauts would.
I sprang out of bed and cranked the window open. Looking out between the twisting glass slats, I noticed the leaves of our lemon tree were still. I hoped it meant the rains would stay away, even though July afternoon downpours in Cuba were as regular as the blood orange sunsets.
After dressing to the sound of Mima’s clanging in the kitchen and the scent of coffee brewing, I sat at the dining table. I dipped a piece of stale Cuban bread into the café-con-leche she’d set there. “It needs sugar,” I said.
“You don’t need more sugar,” she said.
But I didn’t understand why. Sugar was the one thing on the island that wasn’t rationed.
I asked if she was going to my friend Raul’s house to watch the moon landing. His family had the only working television in the neighborhood.
“Maybe,” she said.
I’d dreamt about the moon landing even before I learned that the Americans were going to do it. Ever since I read Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, a book George had given me, I’d been imagining a spaceship just like the one in the book: a long, narrow, bullet-like rocket, slicing through the heavens.
Mima wasn’t much of a reader. Not much of a dreamer either. I think that was why she’d never thought of leaving Cuba, even though everyone else seemed to be doing so.
“What are they looking for up there, anyway?” she said. “We have enough to worry about right here.”
“I don’t know. Aliens? Can you imagine that?”
“I don’t need to,” she said. “They’re already here. They’re called Russians.”
Mima was not too fond of the tall, pale-skinned Soviet professors and military officers who had invaded our neighborhood. I wasn’t either. I didn’t even have to see them coming. Their distinct pungent, acidic scent preceded them. My friends and I concluded that they never used deodorant in Russia because it was always cold. Apparently, they had yet to adjust to their new climate.
I finished my breakfast, and secretly retrieved the hammer Mima kept under her bed (for protection, I guessed). As I left, she called after me to be home for lunch. I was eleven years old; being out on the street all day at that age was not uncommon in those days, in that place.
I ran the five blocks to George’s house.
George was older than me, and I looked up to him. We were both in sixth grade, but he was thirteen, because he’d been held back a couple years. He was smarter than he appeared but in class seemed indifferent, as if his thoughts were always elsewhere. He taught me to play chess and read science fiction. He also collected rocks and knew all about them. He’d describe them to me—limestone, sandstone, shale, and others. He said they told the story of the island, the only things that remained solid, despite our turbulent history.
I began to go along with him, scrounging around empty lots, mining for rock samples with unique texture or color. I didn’t have much of an idea whether they had any real value, but George did. Every so often, I’d pick one I thought looked impressive and show it to him. Most of the time he’d shake his head and say, “No, that one you can throw out.” Occasionally he agreed with me, probably just to keep me interested.
We hid the rocks in a tiny cavern at the base of a steep ditch bound on both sides by high embankments and paved streets. It wasn’t far from Raul’s house, where we would watch the moon landing. George warned me not to tell Raul or other kids about our hideout. I supposed he knew they would make fun of him if they found out. I didn’t tell. I liked that he trusted me.
Inside the cavern, he sat in silence at times, looking over all the rocks aligned on an uneven ledge. He’d lift them one at a time and hold them in his hand, looking at them as if to extract their stories.
“People say that rocks are not alive,” he’d say. “They may be right, but rocks can change people’s lives.”
“Think of all the buildings made from stones, or how the Romans and Egyptians used them to build pyramids and canals. Think of how the Tainos used them to make tools, and weapons to defend themselves.”
When I heard all this from him, I wondered why he’d been held back two years in school. Sitting in our secret place, admiring our collection, we occasionally heard other kids playing baseball on the street above. George would lower his head and say, “I don’t like baseball.” But I didn’t believe him. Everyone liked baseball.
Breathless from running, I knocked at George’s door. His house looked almost abandoned, the patchy lawn overgrown with weeds. George stepped outside through the half-open door and quickly shut it behind him.
“You’re late,” he said.
A slim kid, George’s long legs made his red shorts seem too small. He wore canvas tennis shoes without socks, which made his feet smell in the summer heat. I told him I didn’t know which was worse, his feet, or the Russians. He adjusted a small leather pouch, a gift from his grandfather that always hung from his belt.
I’d only seen his parents once: standing outside their house, arguing. His mother, a skinny woman with distant eyes and coffee-colored hair, nodded when I said hello. His stepfather, slightly taller than her, wearing wrinkled green pants, stood shirtless next to her, smoking a cigarette and sipping a beer. He had arms that may once have been muscular but now seemed beefy and soft. He didn’t bother to look at me. His eyes remained fixed on George’s mom, and she bowed her head. Other times I went by, I heard his stepfather’s booming voice yelling inside the house.
“Yeah, I’m sorry I’m late,” I said. “Mima didn’t put enough sugar in my café-con-leche.”
“I hate that,” George said. “Did you bring the hammer?”
We set off toward our elementary school, a twelve-block walk up a slight incline along the main street. George and I liked to walk along the median, under the palms, to avoid the sun.
We arrived at the barren abandoned lot behind the school. Years before it had been planted with coffee.
“Do you think there are a lot of rocks on the moon?” I asked.
“The moon is just one giant rock,” George said.
“What if they find aliens?”
George laughed, his eyes scanning the ground beneath us. “There is no oxygen there, they wouldn’t survive.” He stopped and kicked the dirt, trying to dig a hole with the tip of his shoe.
“How do you know it’s a rock if nobody’s been there before?”
“I’ve looked at it through my grandfather’s telescope.”
“Your grandfather has a telescope? You never told me that.”
It was exciting to think of seeing the moon through a telescope, but the dismissive way George mentioned it made me feel cheated. I was realizing for the first time that I didn’t know everything about him.
I knew his grandfather on his mother’s side lived in Güines, farther than I’d ever been. George’s lips tightened and his breath shallowed when he told me that he wished he lived with his grandfather instead of his parents. I’d never seen George angry. Perhaps that was what his anger looked like.
“Do you think he’ll be able to see the astronauts land on the moon through his telescope?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said, “so long as they don’t land on the other side of the moon.”
“What do you mean?”
“The moon doesn’t rotate like the Earth does. We’re always looking at the same side. We never get to see behind it.”
“At least we’ll be able to see tonight when it all happens,” I said. “You’re going to Raul’s house, right?”
“I wasn’t invited,” he said.
George didn’t have a lot of friends. Maybe it was the smell of his tennis shoes. Maybe it was that people said his stepfather was a drunk or that his mother was the neighborhood tramp. I didn’t mind the other kids teasing me about hanging out with him. He was interesting.
“You should come anyway. I’m sure he won’t mind.”
George knelt, running his hand across the surface of the ground. He began to scrape the sandy red clay with his fingers, exposing what looked like a large rock.
“Let me see the hammer,” he said.
Using the hammer claw, he scraped away the soil around the edges of a blue, crystalline surface. “We’ve got to be careful not to damage it when we do this,” he said, sounding like a teacher. “Do you see what I’m doing?”
“Yeah,” I said. I liked when George taught me things. I knelt next to him, cleaning the top face of the rock with my fingertips as he dug. When he’d cleared enough soil, George put down the hammer and slipped his fingers under the large, round rock. He cradled it with both hands, and we sat back on our heels. George brushed off the loose soil with a brush from his leather pouch. He blew on it, then held it up to the sky. Sunlight glided across the rock’s blue prisms, breaking into small sparks of white. As he turned it, I noticed an imprint of something resembling a small shoe on the buried side.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked.
“It’s a fossil.” He put it up to the sun again.
“It looks like a shoeprint,” I said. It resembled an elongated figure-eight enclosed by thin striations, like a centipede, no bigger than my thumb.
“So, you think dinosaurs wore shoes?” He let out a rare smile.
“No, but it looks like it, doesn’t it?”
“You see the shape and color? It’s probably from the Jurassic times.”
I didn’t know what he meant.
“When dinosaurs roamed the earth,” he said.
“So, I’m right,” I said.
“Could be. But not about the shoe part.”
George tried to fit the rock in his leather pouch, but it was much too large. We spent the rest of the morning unearthing other rocks, small ones that would fit, but found no more fossilized footprints. I noticed how our shadows had shortened when sweat dripped from my brow. “I need to go home,” I said.
“Come on. We have a long way to go.”
“I told my Mima I’d be home by lunch. We can keep going this afternoon.”
I told him I’d go by his house later to pick him up and continue our quest.
I found Mima in the back hanging clothes to dry. The clothesline spanned the backyard, from the top of one fence, past our lemon tree to the fence on the opposite side. A weathered broomstick propped it up in the middle. She had clothespins clipped to the bottom hem of her skirt and a basket at her feet.
She watched me for a while. “Are you still hanging around with George?”
“Isn’t he a little weird?”
“Why do you say that, Mima?”
“I hear things. They say that he’s too quiet, and a little strange.
I had heard her whispering to neighbors. But it didn’t bother me. Like her, I didn’t much care if my windows were open enough for anyone to see inside. “They just don’t understand him. He’s smarter than all of them.”
The day grew darker, and the wind whipped a cool breeze through the house. Not long after, the rain fell, and I worried that it would not pass in time to watch the moon landing. Mima rushed outside to get the clothes from the line, calling for me to close the windows. Only part way, so the cool air could still come through.
I sat on our aluminum rocking chair in the living room, listening to the summer afternoon downpour and the rhythmic sound of water rushing off the roof, battering the concrete walk below. The tart smell of moistened leaves from the lemon tree rushed in on the breeze as I rocked. I closed my eyes and dreamt of the moon.
The sound of the back door closing woke me. Mima walked into the living room and threw the dried clothes on the couch. “That looked like a good nap,” she said.
“Mima, what time is it?” I said.
“Damn!” I leapt up. “I was supposed to meet George again, and now I can’t. I have to get to Raul’s so I can get a good seat.”
I kissed Mima goodbye and asked her again if she was going. She wasn’t.
The bus dropped me off about three blocks from Raul’s house. I looked up to the sky and thought I saw what looked like a half-moon breaking from behind a cloud, but it was still daytime. I hoped that they wouldn’t be landing on the dark side, the side we couldn’t see.
Raul’s father, Octavio, had filled the living room with folding chairs, like a movie theater, and moved the couch to fit as many people as possible. People milled around outside waiting for the broadcast. Men arrived with their wives or girlfriends next to them and shook hands with one another. I made my way through the half-filled living room to where Raul sat, about three feet from the screen.
The television had sound, but no picture. Octavio adjusted the rabbit ears on top of the box. The picture, jumbled gray, came into view, until, like a ghostly apparition, there was Walter Cronkite talking gibberish. We could see the surface of the moon through the landing craft’s window. Someone yelled to the people outside that it was starting, and they rushed in. There were more people than seats, so some stood outside and watched through the window. It was the quietest I’d ever heard a group of Cubans. My mouth gaped as the moon’s surface came closer to the screen. Chairs creaked as people shifted in their seats and a smattering of whispers, gasps, and quiet sobs filled the room.
Seeing all those rocks grow larger and larger as the craft descended, I couldn’t help but think of George. He’d been right—it looked like just rocks. They didn’t look that different from the ones we kept in our secret place. I missed him. I imagined the two of us on the moon with our hammer scraping the surface, digging up rocks. The dust kicked up from beneath the craft and the entire room broke into applause, cheering like we were at a baseball game. We cheered even louder when the astronaut jumped off the ladder onto the rocky surface. Man had set foot on the moon. After he planted the American flag, nervous voices told jokes about how much better the Cuban flag would have looked and how a Cuban astronaut would have pretended to light a cigar once he planted it. All agreed that it was best that the Americans got their first; otherwise, we’d have never heard the end of it.
I noticed Neil Armstrong’s boot print on the surface. It reminded me of the fossil George and I had found earlier. I imagined him at his grandfather’s house in Güines, a lone spectator, watching the whole thing through a telescope.
People mingled for a while, but their laughter softened into a low murmur, as if they only now sensed the weight of what they’d just seen. I left unnoticed.
I walked home instead of taking the bus. Flickering yellow light spilled down from poles along the bare streets, linked by long swaths of darkness. The poles leaned, bent forward by the weight of cables strung between them and by the weight of neglect. The clean smell of afternoon rains was but a memory now, swept away by the warm early evening breeze. Walking past our secret cave, I thought of George. I wondered if he was home, and turned toward his house. A surge of guilt made me hope he wouldn’t be there. I wasn’t sure what I’d tell him. I should have gone by his house earlier. I should’ve made him come with me to Raul’s.
His house was dark except for a sliver of light across the bottom of the door. It was quiet inside. No voices, not even the radio. I took a deep breath and knocked. No one answered. I knocked again.
George’s low voice came from the other side of the door, “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” I said.
George opened the door and stepped out to the front porch, closing the door behind him. He was shirtless but wearing the same red shorts he’d worn that morning, and the canvas tennis shoes he always wore.
“Did you see it?” I said.
George slipped his hands into his pockets, something he rarely did. It made him look different, less sure. “You didn’t come by,” he said. “You said you would.”
“I’m sorry, I fell asleep. If Mima hadn’t woken me I’d have missed the whole thing myself.”
George nodded. He did miss the whole thing. How could I have let him down like that? He looked up to the sky, shoulders slumped. I noticed a large bruise on his upper back and arm.
“What happened there?”
“I fell,” he said.
“I just fell, that’s all.”
He turned to the street.
“You should have seen it, George. Why didn’t you come?”
“Why didn’t you?” His eyes welled, but remained fixed to the sky.
“I told you. I fell asleep. I didn’t mean to.”
“Sometimes you just need to stay awake. So, you can see things,” he said.
I wanted to tell him all about it—about the boot print, about the flag they planted, about how I missed him. But I didn’t. “I gotta go,” I said. “Mima is probably worried. I don’t get why. She worries too much sometimes.”
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You should go home.”
The next day, I looked for George at school. People left Cuba almost daily. Our neighborhood was thinning out; all the empty desks made the classroom seem larger than it needed to be. George was sitting in the back of the room, like he always did. I usually sat in front. But that day I sat next to him. No one else ever did.
“Hey, George,” I said.
“Hey,” he said. He was doodling in his notebook. Occasionally he looked out the window, to the sunlit forgotten coffee fields, overgrown weeds stretching as far as the eye could see.
Our teacher, Mr. Arzuelo, was a slender Black man who spoke with the slow drawl of the people from Oriente, on the eastern end of the island. He stood with his back to us, writing something on the blackboard. The white chalk, blending with the white of his closely cropped hair, made it seem as if the words were spilling right out of his head.
I whispered to George, “What are you doing after school? Want to hunt for more rocks?”
We didn’t speak the rest of the morning. Just sat back, listening to Mr. Arzuelo, watching the clock, waiting for the lunch bell to ring. As lunchtime neared, Mr. Arzuelo asked, “Did anyone see the landing on the moon yesterday?”
“It was crazy,” said one kid.
“My Mom cried when they landed,” said another.
Finally, Mr. Arzuelo said, “You all need to understand that it’s just the next step for the Imperialists, to colonize the moon. That’s the empire our revolution is fighting against.”
The lunch bell rang, and when it did, George bolted out of his chair and raced to the door. By the time I packed my books, he was gone. I hurried to the bus stop and managed to squeeze onto the already crowded bus through the back door. I looked around to see if George was on it, but he wasn’t. As the bus pulled away, I saw George out the window, walking briskly along the sidewalk with his head down. I jumped off at the next stop and ran back until I reached him.
“What do you want?” he said, startled.
“You still mad at me about yesterday?”
When he didn’t respond I placed my hand on his back. He flinched and stopped. He glared at me and said, “Don’t do that. Leave me alone. I need to get home.”
I watched him run away, with his awkward long-legged strides, like someone just learning to walk with parts he has yet to understand. He turned the corner ahead. I continued home.
Two hours later, back in the classroom, I noticed George was not in his seat. Mr. Arzuelo asked me, “You two are always together. Do you know where he is?”
I said, “Home. I guess.”
Rain clouds rushed in, and the afternoon grew dark. Thunderclaps rumbled in the distance. I counted under my breath when lightning brightened the classroom, until I heard thunder. George had taught me that. “The number of seconds times the speed of sound,” he’d told me. “That will tell you how close the lighting struck.” Counting the seconds made me think that George was somehow close, too. I looked over at his empty desk.
I decided to check on him on my walk home from school. I skipped past muddy puddles. The light poles, no less crooked than before, seemed different during the day. Their long slender shadows stretched to the other side of the street.
I heard shouting in the distance. But shouting, after all, was not uncommon in Cuba, especially in Havana. It’s how people communicated from house to house, or from room to room. The shouting was a woman’s voice. Neighbors leaned out of their windows, pretending not to listen. As I approached George’s house, I recognized his stepfather’s thundering voice, too. The neighbor across the street, a skinny blond woman, stood on the sidewalk with her arms crossed. She looked at me and said, “Careful, son. I wouldn’t go in there. It’s dangerous.”
That’s what they told the astronauts, I thought. But they went anyway. I took an uneasy step up onto the front porch. My legs felt weak and my book bag heavier. My hands trembled as I stepped closer to the door.
“Stop it, stop it,” a woman’s voice came from inside. I could hear sobs. “Please stop,” she said.
I heard a thump and then another. Silence. And then the woman’s wail, “Oh no, no, no.”
My heart rattled. I dropped my books and pounded on the door. “George, George,” I shouted. There was no reply, so I pushed the door open.
George stood, trembling in the middle of the room. Heat rose in my stomach and my head seemed to spin a little. George held the round blue rock high over his head and gasped as if he had no air. His lips were pressed tight, and his eyes were wide, fixed on the body sprawled before him: a shirtless man in wrinkled green pants. Blood seeped from under the man’s head, crimson spread across the floor like a blanket. George’s mother sat on the weathered couch with her knees pulled to her chest and her arms wrapped tightly around them, a single picture of Che Guevara pinned on the cracked plaster wall above her. The shirtless man’s hand, still clutching a belt, rested on the floor in the pieces of a shattered ceramic lamp. George’s mother sobbed and rocked back and forth, muttering, “Jorge, no, oh Jorge.”
Two men rushed past me into the room. They pried the rock from George’s hands. One of the men led George to a corner, where he slid down to the floor, and sat on his hands, stretching his spindly legs out in front of him. He watched the body as the men turned it over and yelled for an ambulance. More people rushed in, and the room grew louder with sobs, gasps, and cries, not unlike those I’d heard at Raul’s house when we watched the Americans land on the moon.
But I could see that, this time, George had no answers, no explanations. They would probably take him away for good. A man helped George stand and led him to the door. With his eyes fixed on the dying blood orange sunset outside, he stepped past the body on the floor, blotches of red marking the edge of his canvas tennis shoes.
Jesus Francisco Sierra emigrated from Cuba in 1969 and grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. His work has appeared in Zyzzyva, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Acentos Review, The Caribbean Writer, The Bare Life Review, Gulf Stream Literary Journal among others. He is a member of The Writers Grotto in San Francisco and a founding member of the Rooted & Written Conference, the only free writing conference of its kind, by writers of color for writers of color. He holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently at work on his first novel.