Dariel Suarez is a Cuban-born writer who came to the United States in 1997. He earned his M.F.A. in fiction at Boston University, where he was a Global Fellow. Suarez is a founding editor of Middle Gray Magazine and has taught creative writing at Boston University, the Boston Arts Academy, and Boston University’s Metropolitan College. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Florida Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Necessary Fiction. He recently completed a story collection, and he’s at work on a novel about a Cuban political prisoner.
The lemon tree was just beyond the hen coop. It rose majestically, like no other they had ever seen. The fruit on the ground was mostly rotten: shriveled skins and darkened insides. To get the best specimens, they had to scale up the branches and snap off the lemons with a wire looped at the end of a broomstick.
Climbing was Enito's job. For a twelve-year-old he was tall and muscular, the strongest of the four boys. He took pride in his ability to get onto the roof of most neighborhood houses without a ladder. Though the others secretly admired his skill, they resented his smug attitude and often told him so. Boris and Miche—close friends since the age of seven, when Miche’s parents had invited Boris to come along in a week-long trip to Varadero—were in charge of gathering the lemons. They had brought the broomstick and a pair of tote bags. They each wore a used pantyhose leg over his head, which they had found in a pile of garbage on the street. Their disguise flattened their noses just enough, they thought, that it would take Old Mima, the lemon tree's owner, a minute or two to recognize them. El Indio had been assigned to be the lookout. He had moved to Havana from Las Tunas province two months before, and was seen by Enito, Boris, and Miche as still proving himself to the group. El Indio had to keep an eye on the kitchen window, which faced the backyard, and whistle if he detected any movement.
The chickens kept quiet, even after the boys jumped the fence and approached the pen in a crouched position. Enito stretched his neck and stared at the rear of the house before sprinting toward the tree. In two leaps he was sitting with a branch between his legs.
"He's a ninja," Miche said in a hushed voice.
"I'm going," Boris said. He stepped gingerly, as if on a creaky floor, to the base of the tree. Reaching up, he handed the broomstick to Enito.
"That old hag is passed out," Enito said.
"Shhh," Boris said.
Behind the coop, Miche gestured for El Indio to step around and watch the house. Then he walked to Boris's side.
Boris unfolded a bag from his back pocket and ordered Miche to do the same. "Hurry up, negro," he mouthed to Enito.
Enito smiled. "A ton of lemons coming your way. Catch them with your ears, Dumbo."
Boris clenched his fists and glanced at the house. Then he scanned the branches and said, "Start with those over there."
The boys ran for three blocks, laughing the entire way, before they stopped to catch their breaths.
"Do you think she saw us?" Boris said.
"She heard us," Miche said, "but I don't think she saw us."
"She better not tell my mom," Boris said. "The last time that old lady told on me I was grounded for two weeks."
"What did you do?"
"Threw a rotten egg at her door."
"Why?" El Indio asked.
"Oh, I remember!" Enito said. "She dumped a bucket of cold water on him because he stripped her rosebush."
El Indio laughed, looking at Boris. “Why did you want so many flowers?”
"To make perfume,” Miche said. “Boris, didn't you store it in your dad’s medicine bottles?"
"You guys are morons," Boris said.
"How many did you sell?" Enito said.
"Enough to buy a few duro fríos from your mom."
"I have them for free. They're the best in all of Santo Suarez."
At the end of the street the boys made a left turn. They moved in a tight group, concealing the tote bags, worried that some of the neighborhood kids might pester them about their loot.
"Indio," Miche said, "is your grandma going to give us the sugar?"
"She's selling it to us."
"That's what I meant."
"She's giving us half of what she has. But if we get in trouble, she says we better not mention the sugar came from her."
“What does she mean get in trouble?” Boris said.
“I’m not sure we’re really allowed to sell lemonade,” Miche said.
“Technically we’re not allowed to sell anything,” Enito said. “We need a permit.”
“For lemonade?” Boris said.
“You know my cousin Yoan?” Enito said. “He was selling bananas on a street corner and got fined five hundred pesos.”
“I see random people selling lemonade at the beach on the weekend,” Boris said. “No way they all have permits.”
“They take the risk,” Miche said.
“You backing out, Dumbo?” Enito said.
“You wish. Permit or no permit, I’m making some money.”
“Well,” El Indio said, “all I know is that my grandma wants her money by Sunday night.”
"Why is everyone in your family so greedy?" Boris said. “Here in Havana we share.”
"You always want everything for free," Enito said. "The lady just wants her money. No one else will lend us sugar, anyway."
As they reached the front of El Indio's house, Miche said, "How are we splitting the work?”
“We should make two teams,” Boris said. “See who makes the most profit.”
“Aren’t people in Havana supposed to share?” El Indio said.
“I’m starting to like this guy,” Enito said.
Miche said, “Teams could be fun.”
"I'm with anyone but Enito," Boris said.
"I'll be with Miche,” Enito said. He pointed to Boris and El Indio. “He’s got more brains than you two."
"Fine with me," Miche said. "Just don't crack any jokes at the people trying to buy the lemonade."
"That's why I won't do it with him," Boris said. "He's a clown. A monkey."
"This block is a zoo," Enito said. "I'm the monkey, you're the ugly elephant, Miche's the skinny fox, and El Indio is the horse."
"Why the horse?" El Indio asked.
"Don't you screw mares in Camagüey?"
"I'm from Las Tunas."
"Even worse," Enito said. "You screw cows too!"
El Indio carried the sugar in two brown paper bags. They had used his grandmother's scale to make sure the two teams got the same amount. A few houses down from El Indio’s place, the boys opened a rusty metal gate and followed a paved pathway to Miche's home, a fairly modern apartment at the back of his grandparents' older residence. Behind the building was a small utility room with a laundry sink. Enito and Boris each picked up a plastic bucket, which Miche's mom had left by the entrance. They used detergent and an old sponge to scrub them. Once finished, they rinsed off the grime. Miche and El Indio counted the lemons.
"Make sure we don’t get stuck with the smaller ones," Boris told El Indio.
"What a crybaby," Miche said.
"Give them all the big ones," Enito said. "We're still going to sell more."
"Indio, pick up our lemons," Boris said.
"Where are you going?" Miche said.
"My house. I don't want you guys copying what we do."
"Are you really going to get like that?"
"Figure out how to make your own damn lemonade."
"Miche's mom has the ice," Enito said.
"I'll ask my mom to make some,” Boris said.
“Isn’t your mom’s fridge old and broken?” Miche said.
Boris took the stuffed bag from El Indio and, without replying, left with his teammate in tow.
"How are we going to make the lemonade now?" Enito said. "I have no idea how to measure this stuff."
Miche thought for a moment. "Let's talk to my grandma."
Enito carried the folding table and chairs. They belonged to his uncle, Coqui, who used them to play dominoes on the weekends. He'd lent them to his nephew in exchange for running a couple of errands. Miche hauled the bucket of lemonade and the cups, which were made from empty Tropicola cans his dad had collected at the hotel where he worked. The boys had taken off the tops and dulled the rims by scraping them repeatedly against the floor.
By the time they crossed Vento Avenue, Enito and Miche realized Boris and El Indio had already set up shop. They too had brought a table, a wooden one, and were using a tablecloth and displaying a badly-colored sign that said, LEMONADE, and under it, 2 PESOS.
"I see you're taking this seriously," Enito said as he arranged his table and chairs. "You even took the spot in the shade."
"Don't get too close," Boris said.
The boys were just a block away from Vía Blanca, a busy road where the sidewalks were too narrow to display their lemonade stands. Here on Vento Avenue people could afford to pause without obstructing the flow of cars and bicycles. This stretch of road, lined by rows of old residential buildings and eventually leading to José Martí International Airport, offered the boys lots of customers with no competition.
"What time is it?" Enito said.
Miche looked at his digital watch, a gift from his father. "Almost one."
"We probably won't really get going until four or five.” Enito rotated his arms and shoulders as if warming up, and clapped a few times. “Let's see what we can do in the meantime."
"He's making excuses already," Boris said.
"You've never had lemonade like this,” Enito said.
"He's right," Miche said.
Boris said, "What are you now, best friends?"
Enito hopped to the edge of the sidewalk. "Come on!" he yelled at the incoming traffic. "Get your lemonade here!"
Miche stirred the lemonade with a ladle, then covered the bucket with a large pot lid.
"Indio," Boris said, "stand out there and at least point to our sign!"
In the space of two hours both teams’ supply began to dwindle. The last few buyers had complained that the lemonade was too watery and not cold enough.
"How many cups so far?" Enito asked Boris.
"Thirty-two," El Indio said.
Boris glared at his teammate. “Don’t answer him, you moron!”
Miche said, “Because he doesn’t want us to know he’s losing.”
“I’m surprised El Indio knows how to count,” Enito said. "Forty-one cups over here, and I'm taking it easy."
"We should refill the bucket," Miche said.
Enito looked at the traffic. "You're right. We're about to get hit by a wave of people. Let's reload." He turned to the other team. "Are you guys coming?"
Boris said, "Worry about your own lemonade, monkey."
"Watch our stuff, will you?" Miche said. He pointed at the wooden table. "You're going to need us to watch that heavy thing of yours."
Enito seized his bucket and asked Miche if he minded carrying the ladle and lid. Then they ran across the avenue, dumping what was left of their lemonade in a continuous stream.
At the cusp of rush hour, the boys were swarmed by a throng of customers: families returning home from the beach on their bicycles; working men coming from as far as Playa and El Vedado; neighbors who wanted to show their support for the amusing project the boys had put together. Enito made sure that no one missed his team's table. He waved, shouted, and sang, which succeeded in alluring enough people to form a line. Miche served glass after glass, filling them just below the brim.
Boris and El Indio took turns serving their customers. They resorted to calling them over by saying, "Try ours; it's better!" or "If you don’t like theirs, we'll sell to you for half price!"
Enito and Miche made two additional trips home to refill their bucket. Boris and El Indio made only one. At around seven, when the sun had dipped low enough for shadows to sweep over the buildings and the streetlamps were turning on, the boys considered calling it a day.
"What do you say, Miche?" Enito said.
"My mom will be calling me for dinner soon. But we have like ten cups left."
"Well, I'm hungry. We can make a killing tomorrow. Since it's Saturday, we can start in the morning."
Boris said, "I don’t know about you guys, but we're done."
"Of course," Enito said. "All you got left is dirty water."
"Why do you always have to mess with me?"
"He makes fun of everybody,” Miche said. “Why do you always get mad?"
“No, he’s right,” Enito said. “This time I’m making fun of Dumbo.”
Boris took a step forward, but restrained himself when he spotted a skinny black man in a white shirt approaching. The man had a peculiar gait, his whole body twitching in spasms.
"What are you boys selling?" the man asked, halting between the tables.
"The best lemonade in Havana," Enito said.
"That's a bold claim," the man said. "I'll tell you what, I'll have a glass of each, and I'll give four pesos to whoever's lemonade tastes better."
"Sounds good to me," Boris said. "Try their tap water first."
The man sauntered to Enito and Miche's station. "Hit me," he said, pounding on the table.
"Easy there, captain," Enito said. "Don't topple my bucket."
"One coming up," Miche said. He poured lemonade into a cup.
The man drank in big gulps, his Adam's apple joggling up and down. As soon as he finished, he exhaled with satisfaction. "Not bad," he said, and handed the cup to Miche. "I've had lemonade all over Havana, and I'd say this is in the top three." He raised three fingers, staring at his own hand.
"Come on," Boris said, holding a full cup.
The man staggered over, grabbed it, and took a sip. "Damn!" he said, then took another sip. "Kid, this doesn’t cut it." He leaned forward and looked inside the bucket. "You have to do like your buddies over there, put the ice inside a plastic bag, that way it doesn't fuck up the lemonade."
"What?" Boris said. He hurried to the other team's table.
Miche tried to cover the bucket.
"Let me see," Boris said. El Indio stood beside him.
Miche removed the pot lid.
"Thanks for ratting us out," Enito said to the man.
"You gotta play fair," the man said. "You know, keep it even. Here you go." He offered Enito five pesos.
Enito snatched only four bills. "Have a good night, captain."
The man nodded and went on his way, mumbling and shoving the remaining bill back into his shirt pocket.
"I thought we were friends," Boris said to Miche.
"You were the one who didn't want to do this together."
"Who told you to put the ice in a bag?"
"You're such a traitor," Boris said. "Let's go, Indio." The two boys retreated to their table.
Enito put the money in Miche's bulging right pocket. "Tomorrow we start early," he said.
The morning was gray and breezy. Around ten o'clock, Miche and Enito were ready to serve. They had washed and dried the cups overnight, and noticed that only half the lemons and sugar were left.
"We need these clouds to keep moving," Enito said.
"Last night Dr. Rubiera said it was going to be a sunny afternoon."
"That guy is never right."
"I wonder if Boris and Indio are coming."
"They are," Enito said. “I give Boris five minutes before he calls me a monkey."
"Don't pay attention. He just has a bad temper."
"Nah, he's mad at me because my dad used to date his mom."
"Oh," Miche said, "I didn't know."
"It was before she married Boris's stepdad. He must have found out recently."
"Who do you think told him?"
"No idea. My mom knows about it. She brings it up when she gets mad at my dad. She calls Boris's mom a snake, or a whore, when she really loses it."
"Boris shouldn't take it out on you, though."
"I could slam him against a wall," Enito said, "and kick his butt all over the block if I wanted."
Miche chuckled. "He wouldn't be able to fight back."
"That's why I won't do it. My dad taught me not to abuse the smaller kids."
"He showed you all that wrestling stuff, huh?"
"Back when he visited me every weekend. He can't do it now, but he goes to all my tournaments."
"He's a big man."
"You don't know the half of it. He once took on three guys and put them in the hospital. He had to go to trial and everything. But he told me I should only fight to defend myself. As long as Boris doesn't hit me, I'm not going to touch him."
Miche stared across the street and saw the other team approaching. "Here they come," he said.
Enito looked in their direction and remained quiet.
"You guys don't sleep?" El Indio asked as he arrived.
"We thought you would be here at nine," Miche said.
"There probably won't be any customers until noon," Boris said, plopping the table down. "I'm just praying it doesn't rain."
"It won't," Enito said. "Rubiera said so."
"Then expect a downpour."
An hour later most of the clouds were gone. The avenue was virtually empty and the boys had sold only a handful of glasses. They were lounging in their chairs.
"Are we taking a break for lunch?" El Indio asked.
"We came prepared," Miche said. He lifted a brown paper bag from his table. "We got bread with garlic and oil, plus a tomato."
"Can I have some?"
"Indio," Enito said, "go tell your grandma to make you some of that sancocho you Westerners eat."
Miche turned and noticed a policeman strolling on the sidewalk. The man's blue cap failed to cover the gray hair above his ears and the pronounced wrinkles on his forehead. "We're screwed," Miche muttered.
Enito stood up, waited for the man, and shook his hand. "Officer Martinez, how are you?"
"I'm fine, Enito. How's your mother?"
"Good. She's home now, I think."
"Have you seen your dad lately?"
"About a couple of weeks ago."
"Next time he passes by, tell him to come see me at the station, to not forget old friends."
"He's just been busy," Enito said. "I'll tell him for sure."
The officer looked toward the tables. "What are you selling?"
"Lemonade. Do you want some?"
"Free for you, of course," Miche said, ladle in hand.
Officer Martinez glanced about him. "I guess a glass can't hurt."
The officer drank his lemonade while the boys waited in silence.
"Take some for the road," Enito said. "We got more than enough."
The officer hesitated. "Why not?" he finally said.
Miche refilled the cup, sucking in his lips and smiling awkwardly.
"Don’t hang out here all day, boys," the officer said, and kept going.
When the man was far enough, Boris asked Enito, "He knows your dad?"
"And probably yours too," Enito said. "That guy was in a gang with my dad when he was young. Now he rats people out to his higher-ups."
Boris said, "My dad's a doctor and he does all the committee stuff. I don't think he has to worry about Martinez."
"Doesn’t your mom sell clothes out of your living room?" Enito said.
Boris twisted his mouth. "That's only once or twice a month."
"Miche's dad is the one who should be worried," El Indio said.
"No way," Boris said. "Miche's mom is a teacher and his grandpa always hangs out with those old communist people. No one will mess with his family."
"What about the electronics he sells?" El Indio said.
"What do you know about electronics?" Enito said. "You guys still use sundials in Camagüey."
"More like a stick jammed in the mud," Boris said.
"Guys, he's from Las Tunas," Miche said.
"Oh, right," Enito said. "Where they invented the wooden radio."
El Indio shook his head. "I'm going home for some sancocho."
The early part of the afternoon was hectic. Miche and Enito, who again attracted the most customers, had to stash the money in the bag they'd used to store their lunch. By five o'clock, less than half a bucket of lemonade remained. Their stock of lemons and sugar was completely depleted. Boris and El Indio had just returned with their last bucket.
"Did we miss a lot of people?" Boris said.
"Don't worry," Enito said. "I told them you were coming back."
Boris scowled at him.
"You look like you went to the beach," Miche said, noticing that an arc of sunburned skin had formed at the base of Boris’s neck.
"So do you," Boris replied. “You’re trying to get dark-skinned like your partner. Monkey see, monkey do.”
"I'm permanently toasted," El Indio said.
As the boys chuckled, a police cruiser pulled up to the curb. A short officer stepped out and walked around the front of the car. Enito drew himself back to the table.
"What's going on here?" the officer said.
"Nothing," Boris said.
"What are you selling?"
"What's on their sign," Enito said.
"What’s on the sign is illegal," the officer said. "You need a permit to sell lemonade, especially out in the street. And you have to be an adult."
"We're sorry, officer," Miche said. "We didn't know."
"Now you know. You got five minutes to pick up."
"Can't you give us a break?" Boris said.
"No breaks, kid. If you're still here by the time I come back, I'm taking you all to the station. You're lucky I'm not confiscating the buckets and the money." The officer looked at the boys, one by one, then went back to his car and gunned the engine down the avenue.
"What the hell was that?" Boris said.
"No idea," Miche said.
"That's bullshit. Martinez didn't say anything.”
"We should leave."
"He has no right to do that. Who gets a permit to sell lemonade?”
Miche looked at Enito. "What do you think?"
"I think we should pack it up."
"Then we're done."
"I'm staying," Boris said.
"I'm leaving," El Indio said.
Miche said, "Boris, why are trying to be a martyr?"
"The table's mine," El Indio said. "I'm taking it."
Boris dropped his head. He was breathing like an angry bull. He grabbed his bucket and splashed the lemonade on the street.
"That's how you do it!" Enito said. "Do this one too."
Boris rushed over, his cheeks red and his eyes clouded. He threw Enito’s and
Miche's lemonade high into the air, spattering some of it on himself. Then he dumped the empty bucket on the table and strode determinedly across the avenue.
"Boris, your money!" El Indio yelled.
Boris didn't reply. He just moved faster.
"Leave him," Enito said.
"What about his cut?"
"Give it to me. I'll bring it over to his place."
El Indio scooped a crumpled mass of bills from his left pocket. "I've been separating it from the beginning."
Enito buried the money into his back pocket. "How much did we make?"
"I'm not sure," Miche said, peering down the street. "I'd say over three hundred each."
"That's more than my mom's salary!"
"Be careful she doesn't take it from you."
"I only owe her fifty. The rest is for me. I might just buy something from your dad."
"Don't forget about the sugar," El Indio said. "My grandma wants the money tonight."
"What if we don't pay her?" Enito said.
"Then I'll take it from you."
Enito laughed. "I knew it! You're a tough horse. I like it." He patted El Indio on the shoulder.
El Indio smiled proudly.
"All right, let's get out of here," Miche said, folding his chair. "We'll be back to give you a hand, Indio."
El Indio moved back to his seat. "Don't take too long. I don't want to be here when the officer drives by again."
Enito and Miche didn’t reply. Instead, they began to hurry in the direction of Boris's house.