B E R T A, Carl Cañizares

The woman played with her chips and salsa, taking one, dipping it, then swirling it around some more before taking a bite.  Alone at the bar, she stood out among the rest of the patrons.  The others, mostly in pairs, guys waving their fists at the b-ball game on the screen and lovers close enough to feel each other’s breath on their skin, were all in their twenties or thirties.  She was at least 70.  Her soft yellow Polo shirt seemed to fade into her porcelain white skin.  As she ate her chips and chased them down with a tall frosted mug of beer, she stared at the young couple next to her.  Her stare was fixed at the man’s back.  Feeling a burning sensation burrowing into him, he turned around.

“Loneliness sucks!” she said to him in Spanish before he ever had a chance to part his lips.

“I’m sorry,” he said, still confused.

“No need, it’s part of life.  You think you get used to it but you don’t,” she said. Then she leaned over to shake his hand and added, “I’m Berta.”

The man twisted around awkwardly and shook her hand.  “I’m José and this is my wife Arelys.”

“You make a beautiful couple.  You remind me of my husband and me.”

“Is he here?” Arelys asked.

Berta didn’t respond; she seemed to disconnect briefly before returning her attention to Arelys with a muted reluctant smile.  After only a moment, she resumed her casual chat with the couple.  The bartender approached Berta, removed the empty mug and set a fresh napkin in its place.

“Another one?” he asked.

“¿Qué?” 

“Would you like another beer,” he asked her in Spanish.

“Si por favor,” Berta replied.

Berta, José and Arelys continued chatting until the couple’s meal arrived.  Berta nursed her beer and perused the menu, as the couple slowly returned to their private conversation.

¿Donde está el baño?” Berta asked the bartender.

The bartender pointed to the restroom sign and explained the route to her.  Just as she was out of sight from the bar area, an elderly man in his 70s approached the bar and asked for a shot of whiskey and a beer.  He raised the shot glass and whispered just below his breath, “this one’s for lo–,” he paused for a moment and then continued,”self-sufficiency,” and then downed the shot and chased it with his beer, killing half of it in one gulp.

“Would you like to see a menu?” the bartender asked.

“No gracias, I’m not staying; I just needed to wet my whistle,” he said with a rough throaty tone before finishing off the rest of the beer, paying his tab and departing out of sight.

Berta returned to her beer and nursed it a while longer before finally ordering another; this time she asked for a shot of whiskey to accompany it.  She sat there nursing her fresh beer while the young couple she had been chatting with ate their meal.  Forty minutes later the couple paid their bill and got up to leave.

“Adios.” Berta said reluctantly.

“Adios,” the couple called out as they walked away.

Berta played with her chips and salsa, taking one, dipping it then swirling it around some more before taking a bite.

2 comments on “B E R T A, Carl Cañizares

  1. Andrea Castro says:

    I loved his opening sentence describing the chips and the salsa, mostly because I’m and avid chips and salsa eater. Besides that, the whole piece had this mystery and appeal that really had me thinking about Berta for the remainder of my day. Berta was 70 and in a bar more suited for a younger crowed, dipping her chips in salsa. I love that. People see strangers all the time in different places and, at least me, wonder what’s their story. The enigmatic response to the question “He’s gone?” suggested so many things. The half-smile she gave intrigued my imagination, and millions of questions followed. Did her husband leave her? Was he killed in a horrendous protest in the Cuban revolution? Is she eating guacamole with the chips? Like I said before, Canizares wrote about something that happens to all of us. We see strangers every day: on the bus on your way to school, smoking that last cigarette outside, or a restaurant bar pondering about a past love. What are they thinking? What are they missing? Essays or stories like this really bring out the creativity in readers. It did to me. I enjoyed reading about Berta, and I hope that wherever she is, she’s ok. And maybe, we can share some chips and salsa.

    • URBANA v5 says:

      I’m glad the piece gotcha thinking. I was at a small theatre off of 8th street waiting for a show to start and a couple of women in their 70’s also waiting for the show got my attention. I later found out they had been actress in Cuba in the 40s/50s. One thing led to another, and “Berta” was born.

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