Havana -- Roberto comes into the kitchen hunting for a plastic bucket. When he finds it under the sink, he turns my way with an amused expression that should warn me something isn't quite right. "Want to go for a walk?"I don't like Roberto. He's a smartass, always bragging about how he bettered somebody else, like the time he "tricked a stupid tourist" into giving him a copy of Penthouse, which he scissored into separate pictures that he sold to his friends. I'm visiting his mother, a retired dancer and family friend. Care for him or not, he is a terrific source of local jokes and gossipy stories, an authentic voice of the Havana streets.
He's adored. He sails through the Centro Habana neighbourhood like a red-carpet celebrity, greeting men and women of all ages with handshakes, hugs and cheek kisses. He loves the snug familiarity of his home turf but dreams of Florida, the enchanted city of Miami, where, he tells me, heavy-breasted blonds play beach volleyball and every male his age (21 edging on 22) owns a denim jacket.
On a street lined with rundown apartment buildings, one of his friends asks Roberto what he's carrying in the bucket.
"Nothing," Roberto answers. "My uncle's coming from Holguin tomorrow. I'm getting a special meal for him."
Wherever he's getting the special meal, it isn't at the government market.
Since the U.S. partially lifted the food and agricultural products embargo last year, chicken and other foods are more plentiful, but low-income Cubans like Roberto and his mother can't afford them.
So when Roberto refers to a dining table serving other than the usual rice and beans, I remember horror stories I've heard. How a blind man walking on Calle 22 suddenly felt the leash go limp as a thief cut it and grabbed his seeing-eye dog. How a city zoo hired a night guard to keep people from swiping small animals and exotic birds, only to catch the guard taking home a 4-foot-long iguana.
And, my personal favourite, how a train killed a cow on a rural track and villagers attacked the carcass with knives, saws and axes, taking everything except the head and tail before the police arrived.
Roberto leads me to a residential area where no one seems to know him. We slip into a derelict building and walk to the rear. The window panes and door are missing. The room smells of mildew and rot. Roberto removes the bucket lid and lays it on the concrete floor.
"What are we doing here?" I ask. Roberto shrugs. "Are you meeting someone?" I ask.
"It won't be long," is his muttered reply.
A two-storey house sits across the lane from us. On the other side of the low brick wall behind it, laundry dries in the yard. A roly-poly woman makes a brief appearance at the kitchen window.
"There she is," Roberto says happily. "Hold this." He hands me the bucket lid and hurries into the lane.
A scrawny white cat has leapt onto the wall. Roberto grabs it. The cat is a hot-tempered scrapper. It twists, it claws, it issues furious noises.
"Quick! Bring me the bucket!"
I stay put. Roberto runs over, shoves the cat inside and attaches the lid.
"I don't believe this," I say as we return to the street.
"It's the "untouristy' Cuba you say you're looking for," Roberto replies. "You ought to be grateful, you know, that we aren't eating tourists. The fat bastards soaked in suntan oil would fry real good."
"Does your mother know you steal cats?"
"How can she not know? She cooks our meals," Roberto says. "We've eaten weird food. Pigeons. Rodents. Boiled weeds for vitamins. The national dish we call rooster soup -- brown sugar and water."
I feel terrible, like an eyewitness to a grisly murder.
I consider offering to buy the cat. Five bucks American, a lot of money to Roberto, but I don't trust him. He's too proud of his deceptions, his cleverness.
He'll pocket the cash, release the cat and snatch it again when I'm not around. Besides, I'm a well-fed Canadian, so why should anyone in a food-strapped country do what I want them to do?
Roberto and I part at an intersection. I take a bus that's going near my hotel. I'll sit in the bar, sip beer and, if my mind's in a merciful mood, forget all about the crying cat in the plastic pail.