The following is from Raul Palma’s debut novel A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens. Palma is a second-generation Cuban American born and raised in Miami. His short story collection In This World of Ultraviolet Light won the 2021 Don Belton Prize. His writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction at Ithaca College, where he is the associate dean of faculty in Ithaca College’s School of Humanities and Sciences.
It was Christmastime in Miami, and Hugo hadn’t been sleeping well because every time he tried, he’d feel his indebtedness drop into bed with him, this invisible thing. Sometimes it would take hold of his hand, kiss him, then wrap itself around his chest so that it hurt to breathe, or it would slap him awake and demand attention. It was impossible to sleep. It was impossible to imagine a future.
He lived in an efficiency. When he sat at his table drinking tea, he could hear the murmur of another family through the drywall. The children whined, laughed, dribbled basketballs. Their noises made him feel like he lived in a real home. From his window, he’d watch them—all in school uniforms—march across the street at 7:05 a.m. to catch the school bus. He’d wanted to be a father.
But Meli was dead, and even if she were still alive and he’d managed to be a better husband, they’d always been broke and in want of what they could not afford. They used to browse retail catalogues in the golden hours of the afternoon, but now Hugo tossed them directly in the trash. He avoided her favorite fast-food restaurants and instead practiced growing romaine lettuce on his windowsill. He had no desire for new romantic partners. He barely had the will to eat.
His only splurge: On Fridays, he’d drive to La Carreta and order a $2.25 café con leche. He kept a quarter on him for a tip. This one extravagant outing amounted to $10 per month, and though it pained Hugo to overpay for coffee, he needed the company of others. More than the coffee, making a transaction with Barbara, the eldest of the cafeteria workers, brought him dignity.
Perhaps it was because she always had nice things to say about his appearance—the clean linen of his tunic, his ceremonial orisha hat, his beaded amulets. When Barbara would reach out and hold his hand, Hugo would pretend he was a true priest, like Lourdes, his supervisor at the Miami Botanica & Spa in Hialeah. He pretended because he was an imposter. He knew this, yet his work depended on him acting as if he were ordained and capable of giving the divination that is received in Ifa.
Sometimes, while enjoying a cafecito at the window, he’d hear other patrons take note of him—neither Cuban nor Afro-Cuban nor Caribbean. Hugo looked Quechuan or mestizo. You’d think, in a city like Miami, the larger Cuban American population would be used to seeing more Indigenous-looking South Americans, but it did not feel that way. He tried not to pay attention. It being just days before Christmas, he’d gone to the window to give Barbarita a little gift—a devotional from his place of employment. He knew the present was nothing extraordinary, but he’d wrapped it using the remainder of the gift paper he’d found tucked away in Meli’s closet. It was nice paper, blue with white snowflakes, and even though Meli used to do all the wrapping, he did well wrapping it on his own. At the counter, Barbara greeted him with her customary “¿Qué me dice?” She slid his coffee over. “Do my eyes deceive me? Hugo. It’s not Friday! Got your days scrambled?”
“I wanted to surprise you,” he said, and he blushed feeling all the warmth of the season inside him. And Barbara, in her response, squeezed his hand with a strength he did not know that she had. Suddenly, his phone buzzed and rang, startling him badly. Hugo excused himself and studied the unknown number. It seemed familiar, and he wondered, Should I answer it or let it go to voicemail?, and feeling a sense of optimism, he answered, “Yes. Hello.”
“Is this Hugo Contreras?”
He’d heard the man’s voice before, but he did not know where.
“Hello? Hello?” the voice probed. “Can you hear me?”
“Who is this?”
“Alexi Ramirez.” Hearing that name uttered by that man sent Hugo way back—to him and Meli curled under the bare down duvet insert of their bed, the murmur of Ramirez’s late-night commercials carrying them off to sleep, A/C blasting. How Hugo missed those quiet nights.
“Is it really you?” Hugo asked. “The attorney on the bus benches?”
When the voice chuckled and responded, “Wow! Yes. That was me. A long time ago,” Hugo took Barbara’s gift and walked off, even though he hadn’t sipped his coffee or paid. He paced the lot, weaving in and out of parked cars; then he paused and whispered into his phone, “Do you know who I am, you son of a bitch?” Before Alexi could respond, Hugo raised his voice and said, “You need to stop calling me! What do I got to do to get your people to stop fucking calling me?”
“Hugo . . .”
“It’s every day. Every fucking day. And you hide your number on caller ID. Isn’t spoofing your number illegal? Tell me, Alexi. Should I file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission?” He yelled all of this, even with police officers nearby. Hugo’s indebtedness, which had been trying to latch onto him all day, slunk to the ground and pooled around his feet. Hugo stomped through it, kicking it so that it felt, for a moment, as if he’d actually conquered his debts once and for all.
Alexi didn’t hang up. He waited for Hugo to stop yelling; then he delicately explained why he’d called: “Look. I get it. I’m a debt collection attorney. But I’m being haunted. And it’s not just me. I have a wife, a daughter. There’s more to me than the work I do. Can you please help me?”
Hugo sat in his car considering the attorney’s plea. He pitied him. But even with his indebtedness festering and crawling on his skin like worms, he said, “I’m sorry. I won’t help you.”
From A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens by Raul Palma, October 3, 2023. Used with permission of the publisher, Dutton. Copyright © 2023 by Raul Palma.