By Andy Betz
I lived on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach until I began my university studies. My father worked maintenance at a Catholic retreat off of Biscayne Bay. My mother worked at the Ida M. Fisher Elementary School serving lunches. I attended a variety of schools and loved every moment of the time the three of us were together. No one ever had it so good.
Every day, I would return from school, interested to explain what I learned that day and more interested to learn how and what my parents did for a living. My mother’s occupation dominated dinner conversation on the weekdays. Together, we would plan the children’s menu and shop for the prerequisite groceries. Back then, as was the custom, we could prep the food for the next day at our dinner table and bring it to school in the morning. Here I could listen to every adage my parents could muster. They explained the principles of saving, the insidious nature of politics, and the euphoria of good health. I explained how much I adored reading and detested algebra. My mother prodded me for information on boyfriends. My father disdained such talk. And as such, we always returned to discussions on sage advice reminiscent of Poor Richard’s Almanac. Such was safe as well as wise.
My father needed both my mother’s and my assistance on the weekends at the retreat. Saturdays and Sundays meant more people which meant more income as well as tips. It was during this time I would greet the guests, attend to their needs, and listen to their stories. My father wanted me to concentrate on the former; however, my mother encouraged the latter. Each new guest brought a series of explorations and investigations to my attention. Listening to so many raconteurs only increased my fascination to expand my horizons by seeing the world and begin my own collection of adventures. During my high school years I wanted to be an architect, then an opera singer, then a soldier, then something new. Each tale had a great influence upon my thinking. By the time I began my senior year of high school, the old people at the retreat yearned with great anticipation for my arrival to hear their stories of guidance. I began to refer to these twelve as my Ministers. Every step I took at the retreat came with the wisdom of people who learned each lesson they knew the hard way. Mrs. Coswell was a WWII WAC (Women’s Auxiliary Corp) member. She was at the places, at the times, I could only read about in history books. As such, she was an avid supporter of peace through strength. Every encounter with her always ended with her mumbling “never again”. Senora Collar retired from a national bank. Her mind was as piercing as her eyes. She worked through periods of hyperinflation and recession. She found great delight in reminding me (over and over again) that any fool can manage a country’s finances in times of prosperity. Only a well-trained fiscal disciplinarian could “tweak” monetary policy in a laissez-faire manner. Any other sudden shock always results in disaster. Mr. Smith encouraged me to study foreign languages and not disclose to anyone I ever did. His reasoning was twofold. If I spoke Farsi and no one knew I spoke Farsi then people would say, in Farsi, what they really meant and assume I required the services of a native speaker who would tone-down the harshness of the rhetoric and dissolve the meaning. The second was far more secretive. In diplomatic circles, one simply does not “lay their cards on the table”. Studying foreign languages forces one to listen more and speak less. With a raised finger brushing his nose, Mr. Smith (if that really was his name) concluded his daily lesson for me. My father always thought Mr. Smith was a retired spy. I think he was correct.
September turned to October and my parents introduced me to Mr. and Mrs. Rossi. I spent the day fishing bayside with them learning patience. I knew that neither one of them would catch a single fish, but they persevered none-the-less. A curious seagull remained vigilant on a nearby fence post should serendipity surface. Hours passed and I wondered why my parents did not call my name for a new series of more profitable errands. By the time my family would normally call it a day, the sole fishing line the Rossis attended snapped. One seagull quickly became dozens then scores. Mrs. Rossi had little trouble bringing the fish out of the water. She did experience little success removing the fish from the line. The opportunistic seagulls swarmed over the loosely guarded treasure and scavenged the flesh bare. This brazen act did not go unnoticed by me. Mr. Rossi did provide a verbal component, in his thick Italian accent, that some work to attain but do not work to retain. I knew this best as finders keepers, losers weepers. The seagulls did not even have the courtesy to leave with gratitude; only squawking, but no gratitude.
By Thanksgiving, I was on a first name basis with most of my Ministers. Miss Prudo never married and never stopped lamenting about the opportunities she squandered. Father O’Malley rarely spoke, and when he did, it was always in parables. I spent my November break buried in the Bible just to conduct a proper and intelligent conversation with him. The Atoejigu twins were Ethiopian, identical, and far more robust than their 70+ years belied. Their “pearls of wisdom” came between the sprints up and down NE 27th Street. Usually in small doses and easy to digest, what each spoke (for they often finished each other’s sentences) was profound. I remember hearing, “a belt fastened while running will come undone while running” and “a cat may go to a monastery, but she still remains a cat”.
It was nearing Christmas and my father asked if I could work at the retreat for just one weekend, attending to one of the returning guests I had previously seen but not spoken to. Her name was Martina. No surname, just Martina. Having nothing but the best of times at the retreat, I accepted the offer without hesitation. In hindsight, I should have paid a bit more attention to the trepidation on my father’s face and the equanimity on my mother’s.
On December 23, I rode with one of the new priests to the airport to pick up Martina on her flight from Washington DC. The priest had a special wheelchair available as one of the prerequisites of her arrival. Without fanfare or assistance, an elderly woman with visible burn scars on her face and hands slowly walked toward our greeting sign and introduced herself as Martina. I didn’t ask for identification. This woman looked frail and tired. I did not believe she could take another step without dropping from exhaustion. I moved the wheelchair to her and she waved off my further assistance as she lowered herself. Both the priest and I winced in sympathetic pain as she sat. A few minutes of adjustments and she declared herself fit for the last leg of her journey. I pushed the wheelchair and the priest went ahead to retrieve the van.
Martina did not speak a word during the brief trip from the airport to the retreat. She looked about as a woman who had been here before, years before. I watched her as she watched the scenery. She scanned the panoramic view the empty van accorded. Her hands rubbed the leather seats as if she had never felt leather before. By the time we arrived at the retreat, Martina displayed the gestures and reactions of a newborn baby unaccustomed to the wide array of sensory overload. Maybe that is why Martina insisted on going to sleep and not to be disturbed until sunrise the next day. The priest took his leave and I agreed to her conditions. As per my agreement with my parents, I slept at the retreat to guarantee an early start with Martina.
The next day, I awoke before dawn only to find Martina ready for the day, overlooking Biscayne Bay, watching the sunrise over Miami Beach. I announced my presence and she directed me to sit next to her on one of the large red Adirondack chairs for this very purpose. Martina never looked at me, but I remained looking at her. Our conversation was not profound, but it was memorable. She began it innocently.
“Do you know who I am?” I answered that I knew her name and I was there to help her.
“Do you know why I am here?” Once again, I answered as before.
“Please take a good look at me and think before you answer. Tell me all that you know of me.”
I know I had the benefit of a substantial sunrise. Martina was not wearing gloves or a hat. Her burn scars were both old and obvious. When she smiled, she displayed only two visible teeth and a blackness one develops from years of neglect. The hair she had remaining was coarse, sparse, and short. Its grayness was not the grayness of a silver fox. Hers was the grayness of despair and long suffering. Her ears (like mine) were not pierced. She did not have the visible skin discoloration on her left hand of a long worn wedding ring. I looked down to her shoes to find she did not have any on. Her left foot was void of all toes and her right had layers upon layers of surgical scars. Even I knew from my biology class, that type of scarring rarely is seen outside the confines of combat.
I wanted to ask Martina a few questions, but she interrupted me at the onset.
“I didn’t ask you to tell me what you have seen. I asked you to tell me all that you know of me.”
I had to be honest. And I was when I replied, “nothing”.
With a crooked smile and a deep breath, Martina began the most interesting story anyone has ever told me.
“You must never repeat what I am about to tell you. Not to your mother, not to your father. If you do, no one will believe what you say, but they will never forget it either. And it will come back to haunt you. If you haven’t learned by now, this year of your life was not by accident. Your exposure to these people here, at the retreat, the ones you refer to as your Ministers, is by my hand, and it is all for you. If you heed these lessons the others have taught you, you will still fail in life. Yes, young lady, even armed as such, you will fail. You will fail early and you will fail often. As dismal as I currently sound, there are two saving graces I have yet to bestow upon you. The first is, while you will fail, you are the only person qualified to try. Great leaders have great expectations thrust upon them. The man who sweeps the streets never has a chance to save the world. The dog-catcher cannot win a war. Only the right person in the right place, at the right time, can. You must be that leader. You must be ready.”
Martina needed another deep breath to continue speaking. Ironically, after what I just heard, I needed to start breathing to continue listening.
“I speak of two saving graces. The first I left somewhat cryptic. The second, I shall make crystal clear. Whenever you do acquire a position of leadership, use the trappings of the office and the associated power to accomplish the goals you see best. I said you will fail both early and often. I did not say you would fail always. The purpose of power is to use it. The purpose of leadership is to know when to use it and then, how much to use. Power is like fire. Too much and the bearer frequently is the one who gets burned (emphasis on Martina examining her own hands). Too little and the common man will sell all he holds dear for both the small amount of light and warmth his costly purchase provided. This is how freedom is lost. This is how slaves are made.”
When she finished, she did not permit the opportunity to ask questions. She asked me to load her bags in the same van in which she arrived. Martina explained she had a plane to catch and was glad she met me. Somewhat astonished at the brevity and peculiarity of her conversation, I acquiesced and wheeled her to the van to find the same priest at the wheel and my mother in my previous seat. Taking a subtle hint was all I required to depart. I said goodbye to Martina. She did not look at me or return the words.
In the van, Martina did conduct a brief conversation with my mother once the driver arrived at the real destination of a secluded cemetery on Calle Ocho (aka 8th Street). I listened to this from a taped recording, given to me, upon my mother’s death. The final priest (the driver) from the retreat forwarded the tape.
Martina – “This will be the last time we ever see each other like this again.”
Mother – “Do you believe you have made enough of an impact to make a difference?”
Martina – “I am looking at my feet and see that I have all ten toes and most of my teeth have returned.”
Mother – “Your father and I will shelter you, I mean her, as best we can. Your instructions were very clear as to what will come. Could you provide some more information? Maybe names and dates? It would prove most helpful.”
Martina – “Mama, you know I love you. It was all I could do not to burst into tears upon seeing Papa or myself yesterday. But the mere fact I am here tells me I have already changed the future for the better. I think I have corrected enough of my mistakes before I can make them. As of now, I am unsure about only one thing.”
Mother – “The radiation burns on your hands and face?”
Martina – “Yes, the radiation burns have not healed or subsided and I am out of time. Please Mama, watch what I say and who I say it to. Make sure I start learning Farsi this year. Make sure I am fluent. Constantly quiz me about what I should know. PLEASE make me remember today. Don’t allow me to fail again, preventing the crimes and horrors of tomorrow for I will not get another chance. There may not be anyone left to try the guilty.”
The audiotape concludes with my mother saying goodbye to Martina. There is no recording of her returning the words.
I watch the sunrise, each morning, to see if all their effort was worth all of the trouble.
With each passing day, I believe it was.
Bio: Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 40 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 29 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates. Andy has written many great things that have been posted to The Yard: Crime Blog. He has written “Oleander“, “Senny” in collaboration with Dounia Saunders, “Et tu”, “The Less You Have, The More It Hurts To Lose It“, “How My New Life Began“, “I Knew Her as Tigist“, and “Water“, which was written by Jaysa Brown, in collaboration with Andy.