An International Incident

An International Incident

Alex Johnson walked to the beach bar carrying a sticky cinnamon roll on a saucer with one hand, making a peace sign with the other. “Dos expressos, por favor.”

“Si.” Vladimiro, the bartender, held up an index, nodding to Sondra Brooks as she sidled up next to Alex with a slim cigar in her mouth. “Momento.” Vladimiro, producing a lighter, hit the butane, cupping his hands to light her Cohiba. “Same as smoked by el presidente.” Stroking an imaginary beard, pointing at Sondra’s stogy. “Only yours, lady size.”

“Gracias,” Sondra said. Watching Vlad pocket the lighter, go about the coffee drill, she waved at swirls of smoke as Alex picked up a pen from the bar, getting to work on a postcard. He hadn’t but four or five words down when Sondra said, “What?”

Alex looked up, held a hand out, the pen. “What, what?”

“It’s not nine-thirty. You, on a Caribbean beach with a lady ten years junior, luckier than a Tomcat with two sacks of nuts, but already making the same face you did when that mystery meat—I said don’t eat it—started repeating on you.” Sondra dragged on her Cohiba. “I just want you to be happy, baby. It’s our vacation.”

Alex looked at her looking past him, watching the sun, blowing her cigar exhaust.

Ten years junior—ha. Sondra was a handsome lady, yeah, all that processed chestnut hair, almost natural except for the way the sun made it look over-sheened. And man was she wearing that swimsuit, a girl her age, toned. Same time, Alex, was in better shape than anyone he knew, his age, gonna be fifty-eight. It’d be a pretty neat trick for her to do better, divorced more times than him. And what she trying to do back then? Start a new race? Yet there she was, classy lady like that, sucking on a stogie, making like he’s damaged goods. Man, maybe this was too much too soon. Maybe they didn’t know each other well enough to spend a week stranded on a Commie island with no shopping.

“Look,” he said. “Bad enough I got Cecil chain smoking Exports, heavy, on the J-O-B, in the car. Now I got you.” Waving a hand over the delicate floral print of her one-piece bathing suit. “Smoking a stogy same as Castro smokes.”

Sondra bit gently, moving the cigar up and down in her mouth. “When in Santiago…”

But, as Alex pointed out, this wasn’t even Santiago proper. Thirty clicks away, and Sondra didn’t tell him about that. No, she just said she got a last-minute deal to go to Santiago—not the Mississauga of Santiago. Now here they were in the middle of Alex didn’t know where. He had the heat rash, some kind of nasty business on the tops of his burnt feet, spent most of yesterday spraying the bowl until Sondra was able to score some black-market Imodium.

Again, Sondra said Alex shouldn’t have ate that shit looked like Dr. Ballards at the buffet. Yeah, she had said so. Alex’d give her that. But now this was his first day of health proper, and he sees on CNN back in the room how they’re having another revolution not a hundred miles away, Haiti. That was on top of the six hundred Taliban forty-some miles away, Guantanamo, but then Sondra said the Taliban would be skinning white folks if they did get past the landmines. Fine, but she didn’t tell Alex they’d be anywhere near the America base—landmines everywhere—that was his point. Besides, did she now mean to tell him she’s a cigar smoker?

Sondra blew rings at him, said he didn’t seem worried about any of that last night, at least not after the black-market Imodium kicked in and he took that shower that lasted two times.

Alex leaned away, seeing her on top of him. Yeah, she knew how to do it. Give her that, too. Plus, she’d brought those sexy safari outfits—cheetah, zebra—so he let the whole thing slide. Took a bite out of his cinnamon bun, waving at the smoke as he consulted Sondra’s pocket-sized English-to-Spanish phrase book, working on his postcard.

When the expressos arrived, both said gracias, Alex pushing two American singles at Vladimiro. Sondra, pointing down to the cinnamon bun, said, “What’s that?”

Alex glanced at his plate. “Cinnamon sprinkle.”

“No.” More specific with her index this time, that speck right there. “I mean, what is that?”

“Another cinnamon sprinkle.”

“Then why’s it moving, baby?”

Rather than risk closer inspection, Alex pushed the plate to Vladimiro’s side of the bar, telling Vlad to clean his shit up, standards. That he, Alex, ought to ask for his two Americano dollars back, every one of them trying to give him dengue fever. Vladimiro said Si, but Alex wasn’t supposed to bring outside food to the bar. Alex said there wasn’t a goddamn shop for a half-hour, that he got the bun from the buffet at breakfast, that this was all part of the same hotel. Vlad said Si, but Alex still wasn’t supposed to bring in any outside food.

Alex let it slide, again, sipping his expresso while he looked over the postcard, adding points of punctuation here and there, addressing it.

“That guy.” Sondra chin-pointed at a man with a tiny metallic RCA camcorder a few tables over. “German over there.”

Alex looked. “Mr. Norbert?”

“Think Norbert’s his given name.”

“Whatever.” Alex talked as he edited. “Man from East Berlin, the one you’re talking. Met him right about here night before last. Says he’s been coming here ever since before the wall came down on account of that was the only hot-spot allowed to Commies going way back—Mr. Norbert.”

“Right, you see what he’s doing?”

Alex lowered his head, looking over his sunglasses at his Mr. Norbert, then down to the beach, a few topless French and German ladies scattered amongst some Canadians. “Just a dirty old man. Lonesome. Maybe a pecker puller, is what he is, maybe.”

“You think we should say anything?”

“Uh-uh, no.” Alex pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Cause an international incident.”

“But you’re a cop, Fraud. You can’t just look the other way.”

“That’s right.” Alex extended a thumb. “Only that’s back in Toronto.” Adding an index. “This being a police state of its own—twitchy Hispanic boys with bad skin at both ends of the complex toting little Russian handguns from the sixties—I’m a wee bit, hmm, out of my jurisdiction.”

“Jurisdiction, give me a break.”

Alex, adding another finger, said, “Also, Mr. Norbert isn’t committing no fraud, so far as I can see, and Fraud doesn’t do pervs. Like I say, just a dirty old East German man taking video of half-naked ladies gonna splice ‘em together, wank to it when he gets home, memories of the island. Aside of which, like you said, I am on vacation.”

Sondra, motioning an open hand down to the beach. “All those ladies—they don’t know.”

“I’m telling you, let it slide.” Alex took another sip, looking at the bottom of his cup, coagulated sugar. “Little cup of coffee like this, you’d think they’d at least fill it to the rim.”

“It’s café de Cuba,” Sondra said, saying it like the locals—Cooba. “You, expecting a double-double, here.”

“Cooba,” Alex said, mimicking her. “Goddamn Coobans got but one kind of coffee, extra strong, one size. You saw how Vladimiro looked at me on day one when I asked could he please make me a latte –like he never heard of such a delicacy?” Holding up Sondra’s phrase book. “Spanish don’t even seem to have a word for it, latte.”

Squinting, Sondra cast her gaze to this Norbert with the camcorder again. “You really don’t think we should say anything? You know that shit he’s recording going end up on the same website as that guy got caught taking movies of ladies going pee at the Eaton Centre.”

“Don’t you show ‘em your ta-tas—like, what, you gonna get ‘em tanned?—don’t you worry.” Alex shook his head. “And not a word, vacation. Last thing I want is confrontation, everyone so touchy these days, especially the French on account of they’re so worried everyone’s trying to dilute their culture. Just put it in your back pocket in case we need it later. Let it slide.”

“Put it in my pocket? So we pretend we just don’t see what he’s doing?”

“Like you said.” Alex stroked an imaginary beard, copying Vladimiro. “When in Cooba… Just let it play out on its own. I mean, these people been looking the other way ever since the missile crisis, so let’s us let it slide, too. This is not our country.”

Leaning over, he signed the postcard, re-reading it.

“Who you writing to, consulting my phrase book like a diplomat.”


“Cecil? Your partner? Thought this was your vacation from him. Thought you hate him, that he hate you.”

“Don’t hate Cecil—I never said that—just feel better when I’m here and he’s there on account of the Chief Inspector Almano can’t finally blame me next time Cecil takes a cellphone upside a tourist in a case of mistaken identity.”

“So why you writing him?”

“Rattle his cage on account of he told me not to send him anything from Cuba. Said he gets mail from here, he probably ends up on some kind of cross-reference Commie CIA-CSIS list, fuck up his career later on.”

Sondra said, “Sounds like he’s doing a job of that himself.” She looked across the table, smiling at Alex, his closely-cropped white walls—his body lean from paying two alimonies, walking wherever he could to save on the rising cost of gas. “Let me see what you’re writing him.”

“Nothing about you.”

Sondra pursed, waving at herself. “Just let me see.”

Alex licked his lips, handed the postcard over. She took it, looking at the black-and-white photo, circa 1961, a young Fidel Castro with a rifle slung over his shoulder, leading fellow revolutionaries through a path in the mountains somewhere near here. Flipping it over, seeing Alex had addressed it to the poor white boy care of headquarters, College Street, she read the inscription.

Dear Companero Cecil Bolan,
As you can see, we are closing in on the American sektor. el Presidente is wielding his rifle like el nino, leading by example & giving new life to the Revolución. Nights have been cool, days hot & long. Fortunately cerveza ain’t but a buck, plentiful & strong. De tadaos modos, as we move on to nearby Guantanamo to finally evict the Imperialist Yanquis (their lease done expired in 2002), I thank you for your regular inteligente. With comrades like you throughout the so-called free world, Viktory will soon be ours.
In solidarity, Che Guevara Jr. III

Sondra looked up. “Is there even a Che III?”

Alex said there must be, that Che had a bunch of kids he didn’t feel sorry about leaving poor when he resigned from Castro’s cabinet, then went to stir up his Marxist shit elsewhere, the Congo, then Bolivia where the army got him, did biblical shit. Took his pipe, tied him up, posed him for pictures, the mocking, then shot up his arms and legs, waited for him to die. How the fuck did Alex know that? On account of he read about it. Oh yeah, Sondra wanted to know, where did he read that Che didn’t feel bad for leaving the kids poor? Alex pointed over his shoulder, the lobby. The lobby? That’s right, same place where he bought the postcard, they were selling copies of Che’s resignation letter, two dollars. Alex was reading it, in Che’s hand, and right there Che said he didn’t feel bad about leaving them nothing on account of he knew the state would provide for them. Aside from that, Cecil wouldn’t know whether there was a Che III, that Cecil was young, white, and dumb. Main thing was Cecil was getting a Commie postcard at work implying he was a Commie, and that Alex would be back to see the look on his face by the time it got cleared by Havana and sent to Cecil at headquarters in Toronto.

“Why do you play with him so, get him riled?”

Alex said hmm, thought it over a few seconds, said, “On account of I’m in the autumn of my career and I have to work with a boy-man needs so much seasoning.” Rising from the table, pulling an aqua towel—had to leave a twenty-dollar deposit on that thing—off the chair behind him, over his shoulder, he led Sondra downstairs to the beach, setting up under a bamboo umbrella. Sondra said it was called a palapa.

Despite a day out of the sun on account of the mystery meat, Alex was still a little crispy. He was worried that maybe he had some kind of nasty fungal thing festering on the tops of his elevens, having avoided Sondra’s warning of the ozone on day one, so he wore socks under his sandals, a red pair of light weight cotton karate pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt that said MEDIC on the front, red cross with a stick man in the middle.

Leaning back in his lounge, the headrest fell back a couple notches—klunk, klunk—Alex thinking goddamn Soviet workmanship as he watched white caps crashing against the reef horse-shoeing the beach.

It was early, little sand crabs digging themselves out from the under, looking at Alex with their antenna eyes, rushing out to sea for the day. Fascinated, he watched their exodus, asking Sondra what did she think of the place, the food?

She said the hotel was basic, pretty alright, the food plain, mostly, hearty, truck-driver breakfasts. But, in addition to that aforementioned shit looked like Dr. Ballards, what were they thinking with the calamari? Yeah, uh-huh, Alex knew what she was talking about, squid in brown gravy—yuck. Damn Cubans still hadn’t figured out how to cook seafood on account of too much Soviet influence—shoddy Soviet workmanship again. And what the fuck was it with these chaise lounges? As soon as you rest your head, it went klunk, klunk down a down a couple notches. What good was that?

As for the complex itself, Sondra said it was a jewel in the jungle. They were in the middle of nowhere, sure, but it was a national park, and could Alex believe those screech owls the first night?

Yeah, he admitted, it was kind of a kick seeing mom and dad teaching junior to fly, junior crash landing in the palms. And look at that, he said, turning around, some poor Hispanic goat on the edge of the cliff, yelling at them—bah, bah. But what was with the vampires? Just garden-variety vegetarian bats living inside the cliffs, Sondra said, pointing at the overhangs two-hundred feet above, the holes.

Also, did Alex hear what the guy said at breakfast, that it was Club Bucanero’s sixteenth anniversary? That’s why they were having a regatta. But, watching buff Cuban boys swim supplies out to a rustic vessel, Alex said there was only one boat and he was pretty sure it was confiscated during the Bay of Pigs. He watched a woman’s sandy-blonde head emerge from under the water, revealing a bikini that was too tight on her substantial lower half.

“Nice dainties on that Conçois,” Sondra said.

Alex said, “You know why she do that, right?”

“What? Wears them panties too tight?”

“Yeah. Like, she think, if she wears tight bottoms no one will notice how generous, but solid, her hindparts are.”

“Got a butt on her, no hiding that.”

On the edge of the surf, Conçois tried to remove her sea socks, necessary equipment as the surf here was more rocky than sandy. But a nice wave knocked her down, Conçois scrambling on all fours until she found her footing. Grabbing at her sea socks again, flinging them one by one on the sand, she reached behind her back for her bikini string, pulling it.

Still a little unaccustomed to this sort of emancipation, Alex looked away as soon as he saw those nip-ons, first to Sondra starring at the same thing, then the woman’s husband. He shot Alex a dirty look, sour. Alex smirked back, thinking fuck it, looking back at Conçois, speaking to Sondra.

“Goddamn, now Beaumont’s eyeballing me.”

“The husband?” Sondra looked sideways at Beaumont, turning to Alex, then Conçois. “He is.” Back to Alex. “Tell him to tell her put a top on, he doesn’t want anyone to see.”

“I know it,” Alex said. “But it’s going to be an international incident, I just know that, too. Asides, you were saying something different about Mr. Norbert, the German, just a few minutes gone by ago.”

Sondra looked up at the beach bar, said, “Only Norbert’s taping the French lady’s got no top and a big butt. You, you’re just looking, and I can’t hardly look away myself, them too-small panties on her large hips like one of those underground cartoons by the guy did that Keep on Truckin’ decal. How do you say, ‘My eyes, my eyes,’ español?”

Alex said he didn’t know, for Sondra to check her phrase book.

Conçois was shaking the water out of her hair when Beaumont, in his little cabana trunks, dull green and blue stripes, appeared in front of Alex. “If you don’t mind, my wife is, how you say timide—self-conscious.”

“Timide?” Alex looked sideways at Sondra covering her mouth, back to Beaumont, then leaned right so that he could see Conçois, now smoothing her hair back, perky little breasts pointing into the sun. “You sure you have the right word? Looks pretty self-assured to me. How do you mean, self-conscious?”

Beaumont shifted bare feet in the hot white sand, said, “What you are doing is impoli.”

Impoli? With Sondra mum, letting it slide, Alex tried to think of what to say next, something about how blocking his view was impoli. Like, this was a public beach, at least for folks from out of town, made it okay to look on account of Conçois shaking her ta-tas right in front of him. What? Should he, Alex, tuck a fin into her too-small panties? Was that what Beaumont wanted, a tip?

But before Alex worked up the courage to say any of that, Sondra was speaking up on his behalf. Saying, “Listen, Beaumont, I can’t avoid looking at your lady, and I am a slave to the joystick, thanks. Besides, what would you do if I told you some dirty old East German is videotaping your wife right now?”

“East German?” Beaumont looked around. “I’d, how you say agrafe? Oh yes, I would staple his eyes shut. Where is this man, this East German taping my wife?”

Beaumont followed Sondra’s index up to the shirtless bald guy, Norbert focusing twenty or thirty feet in front of them, Conçois’ torso beading water.

And with that, Beaumont was off, yelling shit le merde, something about shiza films, while Alex watched Conçois tying her hair behind her head, taking her time, seemingly oblivious to everything around her, except, of course, the hot Cuban sun.

“Look at Beaumont now.” Sondra said. “Got Norbert against the railing, taking his recorder away. Look at him.”

“Told you you’d cause an international incident.” Alex lowered his head, peered over his glasses, then pushed them back up his nose, his eyes following Conçois back to her lounge, leaning back, ta-tas pointing into the white-hot sun when her head fell back a couple notches—klunk, klunk—Soviet workmanship again.

“I said look at Beaumont.” Sondra couldn’t believe it. “Not his wife.”

Alex smiled slightly, followed Sondra’s gaze upstairs, Beaumont holding Norbert with one hand, looking into the camera with the other, trying to see what Norbert had been recording. Back to Beaumont’s half-naked wife, Alex said, “Good thing I made sure you didn’t say when we first noticed, like I said. Held onto it until we could use it.”

“We.” Sondra looked up to the bar, Vladimiro interceding between the German and the Parisian now, trying to keep the peace, then back to Alex watching Conçois. “Looks like everywhere, somebody’s getting away with something, huh?”

Alex smiled, said, “Looks like it.”

Then Sondra sat up, seeing Alex watching Conçois oiling up, saying, “Hey bitch, want a job?”





About the Author

Vern Smith is the author of The Green Ghetto (Run Amok Books), a new novel set on Detroit’s dysfunctional prairie. Broken Pencil – Canada’s guide to alternative culture – calls it “a model for modern westerns.” His fiction has appeared in Concrete Forest: The New Fiction of Urban Canada (McClelland & Stewart), a handful of anthologies, and several magazines. His novelette, “The Gimmick,” was a finalist for Canada’s highest crime-writing honor, the Arthur Ellis Award. A veteran of four newspapers, three magazines, and two radio stations, Smith's non-fiction has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Ottawa Citizen, The Vancouver Sun, and Quill & Quire, among other publications. He is originally from Windsor, Ontario, Canada and immigrated to the States in 2016. After existing for most of his adult life in urban highrises, he now lives on the ground in a state of perpetual culture shock on the edge of Chicago where the streets are named after dead golfers. Coincidentally, he's wrapping up a novel about a caddy pulling a payroll heist.


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