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Excerpt From "Beautiful Maria of My Soul"

A novel by Oscar Hijuelos.

Thank goodness that Sixto remained a considerate sort. A few times he pulled over to a roadside stand so that she could have a tacita of coffee and a sweet honey drenched bun, which he paid for, and when she used the outhouse, he made a point of getting lost. Once when they were finally on the Central highway, which stretched from one end of the island to the other, he just had to stop at one of the Standard Oil gas stations along the way, to buy some cigarettes for himself and to let that lovely guajira see one of their sparkling clean modern toilets. He even put a nickel into a vending machine to buy her a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale, and when she belched delicately from all the burbujas – the bubbles—Sixto couldn't help but to slap his legs as if it was the funniest thing he had ever seen.

He was so nice, that she almost became fond of him despite his ugliness – fond of him in the way beautiful women, even at so young an age, do for plain and unattractive—hideous-- men, as if taking pity on an injured dog. As they started their approach towards one of the coastal roads – that air so wonderful with the scent of the gulf sea—and he suggested that if she got hungry he could take her out to a special little restaurant in Havana, for obreros like himself—workers who earn their living honestly, with the sweat of their brow—María had to tell him that she just couldn't. She had just caught him staring at her in a certain way, and she didn't want to take the chance that he might not turn out to be so saintly, even if it might hurt his feelings. Of course, he started talking about his family—his faithful wife, his eight children, his simple house in a small town way over in Cienfuegos, his love of pigs even when he knew they were going to end up slaughtered—all to amuse his lovely passenger.

One thing did happen: the closer they got to Havana the more they saw roadside bill boards– "Smoke Camels!"—"Coca Cola Refreshes!"—"Drink Bacardi Rum!"—and alongside beautiful estates with Royal Palm lined entranceways and swimming pools, were sprawling shantytowns, slums with muddy roads and naked children roaming about, and then maybe another gas station, followed by a few miles of bucolic farm land, those campesinos plowing the field with oxen, and then another wonderful estate and a roadside stand selling fresh chopped melons and fruit,  followed by yet one more shantytown, each seeming more rundown and decrepit than the next. Of course the prettiest stretch snaked by the northern coastline which absolutely enchanted María, sighing and sighing away over the hypnotic and calming affects of the ocean—that salt and fish scent in the air, the sunlight breaking up into rippling shards on the water—everything seeming so pure and clean until they'd pass by a massive garbage dump, the hills covered with bilious clouds of acrid fumes and half crumbling sheds made of every kind of piece of junk imaginable rising on terraces, but tottering, as if on the brink of collapsing in a mud slide caused by the ash filled rain, and, giving off the worse smell possible—a mountain of tires burning in a hellish bonfire; to think that people, los pobrecitos, lived there!  

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