A Strange Tale

By C. Casey


"Translate this for me," said Phillip.

Michael took the papers and looked them over before returning them to his friend.

 "I don’t know the language."

"What do you mean you don’t know the language?

"That I don’t know it, hombre," said Michael.

Phillip took the papers in his hands. He looked at them with a great sadness, an ancient sadness, a sadness that ran down the narrow paths of this strange city and reached, across painful and fractured links, to the source: the grand avenues and flower-soaked views of their distant homeland: Bergen County, New Jersey.

The vicissitudes of life had brought him here, to this faded port in a forgotten corner of the Caribbean. Phillip and Michael had met one evening under a resplendent sun and the roots of their friendship lay, like many of its kind, in their mutual history. They were not close friends, but shared the friendliness of exile that presumes that people who come from the same place already know one another in the depths of their souls. This is an illusion, of course. But a delicious illusion when one finds oneself in a distant country.

"Bueno, amigo," Phillip said at last, "if you say you do not know the language, then, what can be done." And with that, Phillip folded the papers and returned them to his backpack.

If Michael felt any curiosity about the contents of the papers, he did not let on. But Phillip was sure that before evening fell, Michael would ask for them. Then Phillip would tell him everything.

The friends were sitting outdoors at a favorite coffee shop just steps from the boardwalk. It was winter and the air had a sweetness that made them remember the summers of their childhood. Phillip ordered a beer and unrolled his home-made grid and brought out the two bags of coins they used for Go! Phillip had learned to play while serving in Vietnam – better said, during his convalescence - and when he met Michael, the first thing he did was teach him the rudiments of the game.

The men ordered two more beers and some sandwiches – they say food is the last refuge of memory, and the two friends had not yet accommodated themselves to the Caribbean palate. The two chewed and played in silence. They looked like two German tourists - of which there were many in this country - rosy and chubby: Phillip in short-sleeve shirt and Michael in one of his guayaberas. After a while, Phillip’s coins had conquered the grid.

"Mierda!" said Michael. He hated losing.

"Your problem is that you're still behaving as if this were a game of chance," said Phillip

The truth was that his friend was playing like the dead. The coins arrived at the grid lifeless. Go! was not just any old game; it was not enough to get carried away by the currents. It took years for Phillip to understand the subtleties of this world that only seemed to exist in black and white. Perhaps, to understand well, one would have to have suffered a little, would have to know the strategy of deception that is needed to survive and most of all, to accept that a wrong move at the beginning, could have repercussions far into the future. Time existed as a series of connecting points. But how to explain this idea to someone like Michael.

Phillip had been a paratrooper, a member of the Third Brigade of the 505, and he never forgot the feeling of being suspended above the earth. Often, he felt that the earth itself was rushing to meet him. And even today, many years after his last disastrous mission, he sometimes woke with the certainty that the future was moving toward him while he remained suspended in a perpetual present.

They ordered two American coffees. Phillip proposed one more game, but Michael refused. He took his coffee in silence. So they had passed many days since their exile - sitting in that half-abandoned cafe, drinking beer and coffee, watching life pass through their fingers as if they had all the time in the world. After a while, Michael spoke.

"And what are the papers about?"

Phillip smiled. "What papers?"

Michael stared. "Do not be a cabrón."

"Oh, the papers in need of translation," said Phillip. "Bueno, they’re not important now."

Michael made a gesture as if to say something. But he kept his silence.

It was late afternoon. A fragrant breeze came up.  Crowds of young people were headed for the boardwalk. When a pretty girl passed their table, Phillip could not resist a compliment – he was from another time and did not know that these things had gone out of fashion, even in the Caribbean.

"Madre de Dios!" He said, "I hope you know CPR, 'cause you take my breath away."

The girl ignored him.

"Old Green Man," Michael said, breaking the silence.

"No me jodas," said Phillip. "You're as old as me."

"But not so green."

"Maybe pink."

Michael ignored him. After a while, he said, "And what could that mean?"

"What?" said Phillip, still a little hurt by the rejection of the girl (in his mind he was still a handsome young man) and also by the words of his friend.

"Old green."

"Again with that!"

"No, old man, what could that phrase mean?"


"Old green."

"Well, I do not understand," said Phillip.

"Green old man," said Michael. "I don’t understand it either."

"Ah, I see what you mean now. “Dirty old man" is only a manner of speaking, "said Phillip. "We don’t need to understand everything."

"Maybe you're right," said Michael. "But I confess that I do not understand much of what I'm talking about myself."

"Nor I," Phillip said, agradecido por fin de reconocer algo que hacía tiempo le molestaba. "For example, why do we speak in Castilian, when our mutual language is English?"

"Precisely," said Michael. "I've been contemplating this rompe cabezas for some time now."

"It makes no sense."

"No, indeed, for us it makes no sense. But perhaps for someone it does. "

"For whom?"

"I do not know. For the person writing the story, perhaps. You know it takes place in the Caribbean and in the Caribbean, they speak Spanish. "

"What an idiot you are. In the Caribbean they also speak English and French. "

"You're right. So why the fuck does she have us speaking Spanish? "

The two fell silent. After a while, the waitress arrived. "Want something else," she asked.

"Well, can you explain to us why two Americans are talking Castilian among themselves?" said Michael.

"Something else to drink, I mean," said the girl.

"Not in the mood for philosophy today," said Michael.

The waitress picked up the glasses. "Not today, not ever," she said. "We have to work, not think."

"Fine," said Phillip. "Just the bill."

The girl nodded silently and left.

"The bill ...." Michael repeated, as in a dream. "Could the bill be the wife of the story?"

"Only in the strange stories," said Phillip.

"You have reason," said Michael.

"You see," said Phillip. "I carry him in this bag."


"What is that?"

"Reason," said Michael. "In Spanish, it’s feminine."

"And in English it is .... Nothing, "said Phillip, amazed.

"Strange," said Michael.