The Exception

One of Buck’s closest associates was his poker buddy, Chino Valdes, who owned the Oriente Bank in Ybor City. Chino’s real first name was Nestor, but everyone, including Roy, called him Chino because his narrow, slanted eyes gave him an Asian appearance.

“Know why I’m called Chino?” he asked Roy.

“No, why?”

“’Cause my grandmother had a little yen.”

Chino was a partner in a nightclub on the outskirts of Tampa named El Paraíso Bajo las Estrellas, where he and Roy’s uncle often met. Buck took Roy along with him to El Paraíso several times in the afternoons, letting his nephew sit at the bar and order Coca-Colas and watch the showgirls rehearse while he and Chino discussed matters of mutual importance.

It was on one of these afternoons at El Paraíso that Roy was present during a murder, an event about which he was sworn to secrecy by his uncle and Chino Valdes.

This incident occurred the day before Roy’s twelfth birthday. He and his uncle arrived at El Paraíso shortly after two in the afternoon. Chino was already there, sitting at a table by himself, sipping Methusalem rum on the rocks. Roy and Buck walked over to Chino, who stood up and shook hands with both of them, then sat down, as did Buck.

“Go watch the girls, Roy,” said Chino, and handed the boy a five dollar bill. “It’s educational. The drinks are on me.”

Roy smiled at Chino, thanked him, and went over to the bar and climbed up on a stool. He placed the fin down in front of him and when Alfredito, the bartender, came over, said hello and ordered a Coke. Roy liked Alfredito, a short, thin, baldheaded man with a mustache that looked like two caterpillars crawling towards one another. Alfredito never charged Roy for his drinks. The five dollar bill that Chino gave Roy, as he did every time Roy came in, was to be left on the bar as a tip for Alfredito.

The dancers were on the stage, practicing their routines. Most of them were coffee-colored Cuban girls. They wore short shorts and little tops that left their midriffs bare. Roy thought they were all beautiful.

“How come you never look at the dancers?” Roy asked Alfredito. “You always keep your back to them.”

“I’m an old man, chico,” said Alfredito. “I have grandchildren older than some of these girls. It is for their sake that I don’t turn around. When they look at me, I see pity in their eyes. I want to spare them the pain.”

Roy remembered a story his uncle had told him after the first time they’d gone together to El Paraíso. It was about one of the dancers, a brunette originally from Matanzas named Soslaya Zancera, who was billed as the Ava Gardner of Cuba. Soslaya was the star of the show, and the girlfriend of one of the owners, Morris Perlstein. One night Perlstein caught her in an unnatural embrace with the club bouncer, Roberto Bulto, in her dressing room, and shot Bulto dead. Perlstein then fired two bullets into the girl’s buttocks when she attempted to flee. The owner was subsequently convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years in prison. His mistress survived, but her injuries put an end to her career as a dancer. Roy’s uncle told him that Soslaya now walked with the aid of two canes and worked as a manicurist at the Hotel Khartoum in Miami Beach.

“It was a tragedy,” said Buck. “Soslaya Zancera was exceptional.”

Roy looked over at the table where his Uncle and Chino Valdes were sitting. A third man had joined them, a large, pale-faced person wearing a mauve guayabera, a Panama hat and dark glasses. Roy noticed that the man’s fingernails were painted blood red. He had never before seen a man wearing nail polish.

“Who’s that guy?” Roy asked Alfredito.

“Cherry Dos Rios,” said Alfredito, “from Fort Lauderdale.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s in the construction business.”

“Like my uncle.”

Alfredito nodded, and said, “It’s a good business to be in.”

Roy returned his attention to the girls. Music came from a tape recorder because the band was there only at night. Alfredito told Roy the musicians slept during the day.

Suddenly, there was a loud popping sound, and the dancers stopped. Roy looked around and saw Chino Valdes hand a revolver to a man in a green seersucker suit, who walked quickly out of the club. Cherry Dos Rios sat slumped in his chair, a large, dark stain spreading under his mauve guayabera. His Panama was on the table. He still had on the dark glasses. Someone turned off the music.

Roy’s uncle came over to him and said, “Vamonos, sobrino.”

Chino stood up and came over, too.

“Chico,” he said to Roy, placing a hand on the boy’s left shoulder, “your uncle and I know that we can depend on your not having witnessed this unfortunate little accident.”

Roy looked at Chino and nodded.

“Buck tells me that tomorrow is your birthday. Here’s something from me.”

Chino handed Roy a hundred dollar bill. Roy had never held one before.

“If you’re anything like your uncle,” Chino said, “I know you’ll use it well.”

“Thank you,” said Roy. “I will.”

The dancers had disappeared. Two men were dragging Cherry Dos Rios’s limp corpse into a back room. As Roy and his uncle walked together out of El Paraíso, Roy saw Alfredito pick up Cherry Dos Rios’s hat off the table at which he’d been sitting. Alfredito waved it at Roy and smiled.

As Buck pulled his white 1958 Eldorado convertible onto Gasparilla Road, he asked, “Would you like me to put the top down?”

“Sure,” said Roy.

His uncle unhooked the latch on his side and Roy undid the one on his, then Buck flipped a switch on the dashboard and the top peeled back. The warm Gulf air felt good on Roy’s face and in his hair.

“It’s time you started to think about what profession you want to go into when you get older,” said his uncle. “Do you have any ideas?”

“Not yet,” said Roy.

“You can’t go wrong in the construction business.”

“Alfredito told me the guy who accidentally got shot was in the construction business.”

Roy’s uncle picked a cigar out of a box he kept on the front seat next to him, bit off one end, spit the leaves out his window and pushed in the dash lighter.

“Forget about him, Roy,” said Buck. “He was the exception.”