Twenty animal heads had been found in a ramshackle two-flat on the west side, and so the two reporters, determined to get to the bottom of it, pull up outside a Cuban restaurant in Logan Square.
“Here’s the scoop,” says the passenger, “this Cuban guy–a Marielito–wakes up the other morning and finds a goat and a dog in his bathroom.”
“You’re kidding,” says the driver.
“He figures, OK, I can take a dog in my bathroom. Or maybe even a goat. But a dog and goat together. Forget it. That’s too much.
“So he calls the cops. And they find all these heads in the basement. And now, according to the Sun-Times . . .”
He pauses to unfold a crumpled newspaper clipping headlined “‘Voodoo Cult’ HQ Found.”
“There is reason to believe,” he continues, “that there was Santeria involved.”
“What’s that?” asks the driver.
“Witchcraft,” says the passenger. “Cuban witchcraft. And I have it on good word that the busboy here knows something about that sort of thing.”
“So just stick by me and don’t say a word.”
“But I can’t. I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Not a word.”
They walk into the restaurant, a cramped storefront dimly lit. On the wall hang a saddle and stirrups, various western Indian musical instruments, pictures of the Three Stooges, and dozens of faded snapshots and maps of Cuba. The owner, a heavyset man in a green surgical shirt, stands behind the counter.
“Buenos dias,” he says.
The passenger unfolds the clipping and places it before the owner, who reads it slowly, whistles softly, exchanges a few words with the passenger, and then disappears into the kitchen.
“What’d he say?” demands the driver.
“He says he doesn’t know anything about it, but he’s gonna ask the busboy. He’s a Marielito. Until recently he was practicing witchcraft in Cuba. He’ll know.”
Just then a small, birdlike man with huge ears pokes his head out of the doorway, eyes the reporters, and then darts back into the kitchen.
“Who’s that?” asks the driver.
“It’s the busboy.”
“Will he talk?”
“Of course he’ll talk. His boss is gonna make him.”
From the kitchen comes a long silence. Then the rattling of pots, plates, and pans. After another moment, the owner emerges, a sheepish look on his face.
“Dice que no se puede hablar de esas cosas,” says the owner.
The passenger looks stunned. “OK, bueno, gracias,” he says and turns to the door.
“What happened?” says the driver, as they walk into the bright sunlight.
“The busboy won’t talk.”
“He says he can’t talk about such matters. That there are just some things that are not safe to discuss.”
“My God,” says the driver, “maybe we should just go home and watch the Cubs game.”
“No, no,” the passenger says with bold assurance. “It’s time we talk to the Chinaman.”
They walk to the corner and enter a laundromat. Behind the counter stands a Chinese Cuban, who is watching the Cubs-Mets game on a black-and-white television set.
“Como estas?” says the Chinaman.
The passenger nods and unfolds the newspaper clipping. “Has visto esto?” he says.
The Chinaman looks at it and smiles. He speaks rapidly in Spanish, winking occasionally, and ends with a punch line that leaves the passenger laughing uproariously.
“What? What?” asks the driver.
“There was a Cuban baseball player,” begins the passenger, choking back the laughter, “who opened up a witch doctor consulting office down the block. He’d invite Puerto Rican women over to read their fortunes. And then he’d tell the beautiful ones that the spirits wanted them to take off their clothes. One day, a woman returned with her husband. And he beat the shit out of the witch doctor.”
Now the driver laughs, and the Chinaman, who’s been trying to follow the conversation, joins in as well.
“What’s going on?” demands his wife, moving to the counter from a table in the back.
The Chinaman winks and shows her the Sun-Times clipping. She reads it and shakes her head.
“I don’t believe in voodoo,” she says, “but I respect it. There’s something mysterious about it. I just don’t like to mess with it. I’ve heard too many stories about people whove been cursed.”
The reporters exchange worried glances, thank the Chinaman and his wife, and step outside.
“Now what?” asks the driver.
“Now we visit the conga player–the city’s most sought-after musician for Santeria rituals.”
“Oh great. Just what I need.”
“Just follow me,” says the passenger. They walk a half block to a courtyard apartment building and climb to the third floor.
At the door to meet them is a big, dark-skinned Cuban man with thick arms and solid shoulders. He escorts his visitors to a room filled with plants, books, records, and a wide assortment of exotic percussion instruments.
You won’t believe what’s happening, begins the passenger. And he relates the story of the strange happenings in the west-side two-flat, where police found statues immersed in water and the blood of dead chickens, goats, and dogs splattered across the walls.
“Blood splattered on the walls?” says the conga player.
“Yeah,” says the passenger, “they call it Santeria.”
“That’s not Santeria,” says the conga player. “Santeria works clean with live things. It has nothing to do with dead animals. Goats, dead dogs, chopped-off heads, whatever. These people sound like they’re crazy.”
The passenger is confused. And so, once again, he pulls from his jacket the Sun-Times clipping, by now tattered and torn.
“Look here,” says the passenger, “the article says they found Santeria reading materials on the altar and 12 small containers of animal blood.”
The conga player reads the article and sits up straight. Suddenly he breaks into rapid-fire Spanish. He bangs his hands against his thighs, flails his arms in the air, jumps to his feet, and bolts from the room.
“Where’d he go?” asks the driver.
“My God,” says the passenger.
“He says it’s wrong.”
“The article. The article is wrong. It says that the witch doctor was practicing Santeria.”
“But the article describes voodoo practices.”
“So the conga player says a Santero won’t get near a voodoo doctor. He says they don’t get along. He knows, too. He’s played at Santeria parties, and he says they only kill animals to eat them. Santeros hate voodoo.”
The passenger drops his voice.
“He says he’s played voodoo music, but only in theaters. Voodoo works with dead men’s bones and cemeteries. He respects voodoo. But man, he’s scared of voodoo.”
“Scared? That guy? He’s built like a truck.”
The passenger shakes his head.
“He says, ‘Voodoo? Cono, pa’ su madre.'”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means: ‘Voodoo? Holy shit.'”
“Great. Oh great. So why did he have to leave us?”
“He went to call the Babalawo–the high priest of Santeria.”
“Oh no, not the high priest,” moans the driver, and he slowly sits back in his seat.
The conga player returns, a small smile on his face. The Babalawo, he proclaims, says the voodoo doctor in the paper sounds like a fraud. It would not be the first time. There’s a lot of money in this business. It costs two to three thousand dollars to become a Santero. And up to $20,000 to become a Babalawo.
“You can only wear white for a year,” the conga player explains. “So you have to buy lots of clothes. Then for the ceremony, you’ve got to dress the altar, pay the musician, and buy the animals.
“This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. If it was real voodoo, he’d have a snake watching over the cauldron with the animal parts. It’s not voodoo, and it’s not Santeria. It’s all mixed-up. He probably just threw a whole bunch of stuff together and hopes that people think it’s the real thing and pay for it.”
“So there’s nothing to worry about?” says the passenger, relieved.
“It’s not so simple,” the conga player replies, “you can’t mess with that stuff. I remember this guy in Cuba, he used to promise people that he could perform curses. If a woman wanted to bewitch a lover or a person wanted to hurt an enemy, this ‘witch doctor’ would charge them money–even though he had no power.
“One day, he was blindsided by a bus. That’s right, a bus crushed him. No, you can’t fool the spirits. I, for one, wouldn’t try to mess with that stuff.”
“Well, we mean to get to the bottom of this,” says the passenger. “We’ll go to the house.”
The conga player gasps.
“You’re going with us, aren’t you?”
“I’d love to, guys,” the conga player replies. “But I have to wait until my girlfriend gets here. I have to help her carry some things up the stairs.”
And he escorts the reporters out the door.
“You know what I think?” says the driver, slinking behind the wheel of the car. “I think that if that big guy doesn’t want to get involved, we shouldn’t either.”
“Shut up and step on it. 1933 North Keeler.”
The driver sighs, turns on the motor, and wheels the car past Fullerton, Armitage, then west to Keeler, stopping before a wood-frame two-flat with a for sale sign out front.
“Well,” says the driver. “This is it. Go do your interview.”
“What do you mean, my interview?”
“Well, you’re Mr. I Speak Spanish.”
“Yeah, but you’re coming with me.”
They leave the car and start for the house, pausing for a moment outside the chain link fence. The small front yard is a deserted plot of dried, cracked mud where no vegetation grows. A clump of soiled clothes and a surgical glove lie next to the front step.
All at once they are aware that the street has fallen silent. Front porch conversations stop. Kids poke their heads through windows. Everyone stares at the two strangers.
Self-consciously they mount the stairs, which creak and sag as they climb.
At the top they hesitate. The smell of stale blood fills the air. In the distance, a bird cries. And then the passenger rings the doorbell. A long moment passes; he rings again. Again no one answers.
“Well, guess no one’s home,” says the passenger, trying his best to sound disappointed.
“Well, guess we gotta go,” adds the driver.
And they turn, almost bumping into each other in their haste to get down the steps.
“Let’s drive around the back alley,” says the passenger. “Maybe we can see some evidence.”
As they drive through the alley, three dark-skinned kids eye them with suspicion.
“Hey kid,” says the driver, addressing a chubby boy in a bright red shirt, “do you know the guys who live in the voodoo house?”
The kid and his friends say nothing, silently moving away, and then they break into a run.
“What’s wrong with them?” asks the driver, and stares at the backyard–a tangle of weeds and knee-high grass. Against the porch are empty cages. The yard is cluttered with junk–pipes, auto parts, and chairs–as though the house had been gutted and emptied.
“Excuse me, mister, are you a reporter?”
It’s the chubby kid in the red shirt. Silently, he had snuck up on the car.
“Yeah,” says the driver.
“Whew,” says the kid, and he lets out a loud whistle. “It’s OK guys, they’re just reporters.” He turns back to the driver. “For a second there I thought you were from the house. But I figured you were reporters when I saw you taking notes.”
“Do you know who lives there?” asks the driver.
“No, but I know where he keeps his dead chickens.”
The boys break into a run, leading the reporters, who follow in their car, to a clump of weeds on the corner near the alley.
“Here,” says the chubby kid, and he points to a broken wooden crate in which lie a piece of votive candle and a petrified chicken leg.
“Wanna see?” asks the chubby kid, reaching to pick up the chicken leg.
“Don’t touch it,” shrieks the driver. “You’ll get a disease.”
“Oh no,” says the kid, dropping the leg. By now they are joined by three other kids–six total–excitedly demanding that the reporters put their names in the newspaper.
“Let’s go into the back and climb up the stairs,” says one kid. “There’s a door that’s open.”
“We can’t do that,” says the driver. “That’s trespassing.”
“Trespassing?” says the chubby kid. “We’re braver than the reporters. What kind of reporters are you, anyway?”
“You can get arrested if you break the law,” the driver reminds them.
“Oh yeah?” retorts the chubby kid. “Well, this afternoon I saw three guys. They had red eyes and wore white robes with red upside-down crosses on the back. You couldn’t see their hands, and they walked like this.”
The kid thrusts his arms straight and walks in a zombielike trance.
“That’s how they walked,” he says, breaking from his trance.
“What’d they do?” asks the driver.
“They went into the house and carried stuff out.”
“I don’t believe you. Are you telling the truth?”
“I swear. They just left an hour ago.”
“He’s telling the truth, mister,” insists another kid.
“Yeah, mister,” says a third. “He wouldn’t lie.”
“How do I know that?”
“I wouldn’t, mister. I wouldn’t.”
“Prove you’re not lying by swearing on your mother’s honor.”
There is silence.
“He’ll do it,” volunteers one of the kids.
The chubby kid shoots his friend a glare.
“Come on, kid,” says the driver. And he presses closer to the chubby kid. “Look me right in the eye, raise your right hand. Now what’s your name?”
“Okay, Faustino, keep your right hand in the air, and repeat after me, I, Faustino.”
“Do solemnly swear.”
“Do solemnly swear.”
“On my mother’s honor.”
“Come on Faustino,” urges the driver. “Keep going. Look me straight in the eye–don’t blink, don’t look away–say, I swear on my mother’s honor.”
“I swear on my mother’s honor.”
“That I saw three men in white robes walking into that house.”
“I saw three men in white robes walk into that house.”
And with those final words, Faustino stares straight at the driver. His eyes never blink; his raised arm never wavers.
The next day, as the reporters write their story, the building they’re in trembles.
“There’s someone on my roof,” says the driver. He looks out the window, but no one is there.
They rush to the radio and discover that an earthquake–the first in many years–has rocked the city.
“I told you,” says the driver, a worried look on his face. “We should have listened to that conga player and never gotten involved in this Voodoo stuff. Why couldn’t we’ve stayed home and watched the Cubs game, like everybody else?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.