by Stu Gillam
Part 2 of the story. Miguel meets The Grijalva for the first time.
Producers of the Grijalva Leaf
Quoquerdas saw that Paulo had left the shop carrying the same concern and agitation he himself felt. His own gloomy demeanor and worried expression did little to help ease his kin’s mind, he knew, and the revelation that a new Producer had not yet materialized only insured Paulo would continue to rest uneasy until the grizzled overseer called him with news. The troubled look on his kin's face only proved to Quoquerdas that this quirk in the process was not something he alone found troubling. But having Paulo to commiserate with did little to quell the disquieting sense of concern he felt.
Quoquerdas was quite sure that Paulo had for himself a substantial number of Grijalvas stashed away - enough to get him by for the next few days. Such was the prerogative of the Producer. After all, the Producer used The Box to create Grijalvas, not only for the benefit of the clan, but for his own appetite as well. There were no quotas or deadlines to meet, no orders to fill. All that was required was a steady offering of the magical cigars so that Quoquerdas could keep his special humidor stocked for distribution to the needs of the others. He knew that, of all people, Paulo’s needs would be covered for a time. But for the rest of the kin, 18 of them to be exact, including Quoquerdas, the imminent demand for Grijalvas would soon become urgent. The overseer stock would dwindle to nothing in no time without a fresh addition to the special humidor soon. Hence, the need to replace Paulo, to set up the new Producer, was of sobering importance.
But why had not The Ones revealed the new Producer to him yet? This was so out of the ordinary. Was there something he had forgot to do, to account for? Had he somehow insulted them, God forbid, or failed them in some way? Fingering the gold pendant which hung from his neck secured there by an ancient strand of leather, he could not determine how any blame could be laid at his feet, for nothing had changed.
For the first time, Quoquerdas began to feel a rather unpleasant and wholly undesirable loss in faith for The One’s ability to sustain the magical gift of his forefathers. Sitting there at his desk, the ancient, ornate Box resting before him, idle, thirsting, he knew, to be infused with New Mother’s Blood, he groaned a sigh of despair. Is this the end of it all? he wondered, a pang of fear loosening his bowels. Am I to witness the end of the Grijalva leaf? Dejection owned him as he sat there, a far off stare affixed to his vacant eyes.
The next time the bells on his front door jingled, it was of a much more riotous nature than when Paulo had just recently come and gone. The little tin bells shook violently on the metal connectors securing them to the leather band attached to the door. They screamed out their shrill, high-pitched ring to announce not only the entrance of someone to his shop, but the entrance of someone with particular purpose in mind.
Miguel burst through the door, letting in a small cloud of dust from the dirt road, the particles finding a suitable home inside the already dusty, rustic environs of Quoquerdas’ shop. He stood in the foyer, instantly zeroing in on Quoquertas, eyeballing him intently for a moment before letting his gaze continue to scan the room.
He noticed Juan and his crew off to the left, enveloped in a thick, swirling cocoon of light blue smoke. They were looking at him, eyes wide silver dollars. Frozen they sat, caught in suspended animation in the middle of their heated conversation, the frenzied ring of the bells having momentarily shocked them. Only when Felipe, an ancient, grizzled husk of a man, and staunch champion of the Nicaraguan leaf, said: “Ah, it’s only Miguel,” did the foursome re-animate, proceed to ignore him, and return to their animated, wildly gesticulated discussion.
Miguel’s gaze returned to Quoquerdas who sat straight in front of him at his desk. Even though the owner looked at him, Miguel got the impression that the man was looking right through him. Quoquerdas had a dull, lifeless, distant look on his face. He looked to be in a considerably foul mood, yet strangely apathetic all he same. Despite Miguel’s abrupt entrance, the dying vibrations of the bells now only a faint echo in the smokey shop, Quoquerdas’ weird torpor managed to disquiet Miguel.
All the while spent walking to the shop, he had devised, revised, rehearsed, and finally settled on exactly how to approach the shopkeeper. Having mentally exhausted himself upon the conclusion of his trek—for Miguel was by no means a man at home in the art of persuasion, or confrontation, for that matter—he was fairly content with his plan of action. Surprising even himself with a rush of confidence and bravado when he'd barged through the door, he felt quite sure he would prevail. He would demand justice be served, and just this one time, he would see to it that Quoquerdas made things right.
But as is usually the case, even the best of plans ultimately go awry. Quoquerdas’ uncharacteristically somber disposition, his dull demeanor, so strikingly at odds with his normal spirited outlook and underlying guile, momentarily hijacked Miguel's bravado and caused him pause. It was just enough to break his concentration and caused him to loose the momentum he had worked so hard to gain during his walk. God dammit, he thought, only fucking Quoquerdas could foul up my plans like this... without even saying a word. It was as if Quoquerdas' normal flicker of life, his spirit, the cunning wiliness of the old coyote had vanished, leaving only a shell of the man Miguel knew.
Hmmm... Miguel thought for a moment. Wait a minute. Perhaps this will be easier than I expected. The thought somewhat renewed his spirit. He turned his head and spat on the floor, the horrible, tangy taste of burnt worm still fresh in his mind. Miguel was ready.
“Look, Quoquerdas," he began. "I don’t ask for much in this world... just my health and my job, a roof over my head, and a halfway decent cigar to get me through the stress. That is all.”
Having already turned his attention away and currently tending to his cash register, Quoquerdas said: “What are you mumbling about, Miguel?" He could care less at that moment to even extend the common courtesy of looking at the man while addressing him. "I am closing shop now... so you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Closing?” Trail dirt still clung to his boots, and the ache in his tired feet fed his growing anger. He would not be put off that easily. “Dammit, man, I have just walked a mile to speak to you, and I’m not leaving until you hear me out. I mean, what the hell, Quoquerdas, am I not a loyal customer? Not worthy of at least that common courtesy?”
“Of course you are, Miguel,” the tobacconist soothed, never one to completely lose his cool—even if there was a Producer crisis. “But I have problems of my own right now, and I have no such strength for any of your trifles.” Then, with a sudden change in tone, a viper poised to strike, a master of tactics, the shopkeeper seethed at his unwelcome guest. “Now get the hell out of here, and don’t make me tell you twice!” With that, he swung his legs up onto his desk, and reached for a fresh Dominican.
“No, no, no. I'm not leaving! Not until you've replaced or refunded me for these foul, infested cigars." He actually threw the worthless bundle of cigars to the floor at Quoquerdas' desk, his audacity surprising even himself. "I will have no more of these stinking worms, you lout! This is the last time you’ll swindle...”
What suddenly stopped Miguel mid sentence was a quirky double take by Quoquerdas just as Miguel mentioned the worms. The way the man’s large, frizzy head perked up and cocked strangely side to side as he reacquired Miguel in his sights was just too quizzical for Miguel to remain focused. A moment of static silence filled the room.
Like a dog detecting the delicate tinkle of a distant wind chime on the air, tilting its head side to side inquisitively, so too did Quoquerdas as he studied Miguel intently. His eyes widened significantly. The vacant, glum expression which had so ruffled Miguel’s composure only moments before, now slid from his face like that of a wax-museum character caught in a conflagration. The look of wonder, awe, and, to Miguel, downright joy which replaced Quoquerdas’ expression was as confounding to him as the one just shed.
Miguel knew he was no match for this fox.
All it took was the utterance of the word “worm” from Miguel’s heavily mustached lips, when an instant recognition of the situation became apparent to Quoquerdas. It stunned him. He could not believe what he was seeing. The strange, dog-like cocking of his head was his way of registering if that was indeed the strange, wonderful Aura he'd so desperately been searching for; the one which now seemed to be bracketing Miguel’s head and shoulders like a solar corona. It was as if Miguel’s body temperature had risen to some ghastly high heat, were Quoquerdas—and only Quoquerdas—could see what looked like radiation emanating from the man's head. It made the objects directly behind Miguel seem as if they were being viewed through water; shimmering and swaying this way and that. The effect always reminded Quoquerdas of the desert mirages his father would point out whenever they'd wandered together through the Mexican badlands. As sure as he was sitting there, he knew it could only be one thing: The Sign of the Producer!
But what quirky fate of life was this—that this diminutive, meek man standing before him, the man known to him for years as only the poor field worker, Miguel, who could never afford anything more appealing than his cheapest smokes, who’s biggest claim to fame was having a wife who made the spiciest, most decadent and delicious dishes he'd ever tasted, but apart from that, a nobody really—that Miguel Perdone was kin to him? Wait, What?
The wonders of the Magic Leaf were many and mind boggling, and often stood Quoquerdas in rapt amazement of the vast reservoir of power within, yet this simple truth of the magic, this apparent kinship with Miguel Perdone, of all people, was one which startled Quoquerdas deeply.
Staring intently at Miguel, a smile blossomed on his oily face as he stroked his goatee up and down in contemplation. He then hurled himself out of his chair and approached his new found kin - his new Producer, he just knew it! - bearing an air of hospitality.
He felt absolutely sure at that glorious moment that he did not even need to administer the test. But just the same, and especially considering his feeling like he currently stood on shaky ground with The Ones for his mistakes and anxious second guessing before, protocol was protocol, after all. And in the end, he would never, ever dare to upset the balance of the magic by allowing an intruder to access the Box. He didn't know—even as Overseer—what The Ones might be capable of where such an occurrence to take place. And he didn't want to find out!
Miguel stood transfixed by this sudden change once again in Quoquerdas’ behavior. It dawned on him then that all he wanted to do was just leave. Perhaps it was time to give up cigar smoking? Surely that would please Maria. Cigarettes are good too, he mused, now just feeling drawn and tired with all the mental effort of this evening's theatrics.
“My dear Miguel, come now, what, pray tell, is the problem?”
“You have sold me a bundle of cigars that are worm infested, Quoquerdas... that is the problem! You know I'm not rich. I won’t have enough for cigars now until next payday. I've taken this shit from you for that last time! I want you to replace them. I... I demand it!” He tried to sound forceful, but he'd hesitated a bit too long before the last sentence, failing miserably.
“I see, I see.”
“Do you have any idea what smoking a worm tastes like, Quoquerdas?” he retched, scrunching up his nose. He spat again onto the shop floor.
“Um... No, I can’t say that I do. To be sure, my boy, that sounds rather vile.” He eyed Miguel, continuing to note the Aura which remained in full bloom around the man's head.
Miguel stood there, completely unsure of what the old man had up his sleeve, and when he felt Quoquerdas’ right arm reach around his shoulder and pat him gently, both a glimmer of hope and a cry of subconscious caution sprung from within.
Quoquertas then reached up with his other hand and patted Miguel's chest several times. “I am going to make things right with you, Miguel. Consider it written in stone! In fact, let me see..." He stroked his goatee, feigning contemplation. "Yes. I have something special for you right now... something that will rectify this matter completely. Have you ever heard of the Grijalva?”
“The Grijalva? No. What is that?”
“Why, my friend, it is the most notable cigar of them all! Manufactured with utmost love and care by true master craftsmen, cultivated from the finest leaf in all the world... from right here in this region, I might add. And I’m going to give you one to smoke right now, so that you may know the true beauty of what cigar smoking was meant to be. Would you like that, Miguel?” Quoquerdas felt a sense of contentment at being in a position to be so magnanimous.
“I've never heard of this... Grijalva? Don't forget..."
"'Hernando de Grijalva'... is the proper name, Miguel."
"Don't forget, I've worked in this industry my whole life, and I'm no fool, whatever you may think, Quoquerdas. I've never heard of this Grivalas... er, Hector de Gregor... or what ever the hell you call it! So please don't fuck with me, sir." Miguel removed Quoquerdas' hand from his shoulder. "What are you up to, you old fox? If this is some kind of trick... If you're toying with me, Quoquerdas, you’ll... you'll... well, you'll never again be invited to share in one of Maria’s dinners... so help me God.”
“Good God, man, why would I trick you? Have faith in me, dear kin. You know you are a valued customer, and I a sincere business man. What could I possibly gain by letting you leave disgruntled? Eh? Eh?” Quoquerdas mused to himself that that pitifully weak threat of Miguel's actually DID hold weight, striking a nerve in him; but he brushed it aside quickly. Although, he did make a mental note to be sure to gain another invitation to dinner soon. Such was the power of Maria’s culinary talent.
“What do you mean, 'kin'?” Miguel eyed the man suspiciously. The pungent fragrance of Quoquerdas’ Connecticut-shade premium tickled his olfactory senses, made him ache with cigar craving.
“Ahem... never mind that for now. Come with me. Let us relax in the lounge area. You shall enjoy a Grijalva, and we will talk of important matters.” To the cronies, he turned abruptly, those who had been watching the exchange with keen interest. Juan, after having the unpleasant experience earlier of sniffing—as non-kin—the acrid stench of the American's Grijalva, knew a ruse was certainly on, and smirked at Quoquerdas.
“Alright, you worthless cheapskates, time to get lost. Go back to your wives and... I don’t know, massage their feet, or whatever it is you do with them. I’m sure they miss you all so much.” The shopkeeper momentarily glanced at Miguel with that last, beaming a knowing smile and a twinkle of confidentiality in his eyes before rolling them back towards the cronies. "Now leave!"
It wasn’t long before the men had left and Miguel was seated comfortably in the lounge sofa vacated by them. He sank deep into the old, cracked leather, still warm from Felipe's girth, and the cushions enveloped his body like a lover's cradle. Such comfort was pleasant, yet he felt out of place in this habitat of the shop's clique. He sat alone for the moment as Quoquerdas moved to his special humidor and rummaged for a Grijalva.
Soon he was beside Miguel, a magnificent, gold Zippo lighter in one hand, a sizable ring gauged, torpedo shaped cigar in the other. It was the kind that was thick in the middle and tapered at both ends. The lighter was stenciled on one side with a strange coat of arms which, after a few moments, Miguel realized matched the shape of the strange pendant which hung from Quoquerdas’ neck. Never of interest to him before, the pendant’s shape now struck him as something vaguely familiar, yet he couldn’t quite place it. It was crescent shaped with minimal curvature and rounded ends, and it had minute segmented ridges running along it’s length.
“Well, young man, won’t you enjoy this cigar?” Quoquerdas handed him the Grijalva, interestingly not feeling the tug of anxiety which accompanied the parting of a Grijalva from his hand as it had with the American only hours before, or the other few 'mistakes' days before. The Ones have come through after all, haven't they? he thought. Just like they always do, you old fool. He knew the truth of the matter, even before initiating the test. He felt a little ashamed of himself for having doubting them earlier, and he smiled inwardly now at just how anxious and agitated he'd made himself. Ah... Hector, you really must have more faith in them.
If life was good for Quoquerdas at that moment, it was nothing compared to Miguel’s sense of well-being when that Grijalva was placed in his hand. In an instant, any idea of trickery vanished. Nearly hypnotized by its beauty and perfection, he stared at the Grijalva for a long time. Transfixed, he studied the fine workmanship put into its creation. He knew it was not easy to form a cigar of the torpedo shape, which was why there were so few of them around today; and that only a true master in the art of cigar making could have crafted such a fine specimen. He rolled it between his fingers, squeezed it to judge it’s firmness, finding it neither too soft nor too hard, but just perfect.
The wrapper leaf was another thing all together. It had an appeal to him like no other cigar he’d ever held. It was a maduro, fairly dark and rich, it’s color a deep, gold-tinted brown, like that of his mother’s skin. So luxuriant and smooth was its texture, its feel brought to mind the same pleasant suppleness as the skin of his wife’s breast. The oils in the leaf had so completely permeated throughout its length and seemed to have saturated every cell to the fullest extent, that it caused him to rub his fingers together, as if surely some of it must have rubbed off. He tried to imagine just what kind of aging process was used in the manufacture of this cigar which could result in the release of so much oil in the leaf. Such oiliness, he knew, represented only one thing: a flavor of immense sweetness! Despite the dimness of Quoquerdas’ shop, the oils in the wrapper leaf caught every available ray of light, which in turn were focused in shiny brilliance back to Miguel’s loving gaze.
And then there was its aroma. Even unlit, it gave off a fragrance of magnificent scent which, to Miguel’s nose—and, more importantly, a kinsman's nose—bespoke the epitome of tobacco goodness. He drew its length beneath his nose, breathing in deeply the complex smell which contained nuances of citrus, pepper, coffee and anis, all in perfect balance with which to create sheer herbal bliss deep within his soul. Such delight, and he had not even lit it yet!
Quoquerdas watched proudly by his side as the young man made his acquaintance with the magic Grijalva. He felt a wonderful, familial sense of togetherness with Miguel, almost paternal in nature, and he fell in revery of the first time he himself had beheld a Hernando de Grijalva. He noted Miguel's intrigued expression as the young man examined the colorful, intricate cigar band. He realized there would be much to explain soon. All in due time, my friend. Nor did it escape Quoquerdas’ keen eye the complete difference in appraisal between the American and his new found kin--yet another clue that he had indeed zeroed in on the real new Producer. He continued watching Miguel, delighted to see such a strong appreciation for the leaf. After the crude, unknowing remarks earlier of the old crony, Jaun, and the complete disrespect shown by the American, it lifted his spirits high to see Miguel’s reaction; and that was the way he knew it should be, the way all new Producers reacted. All was right with his ancestors.
In another moment, after cutting the cigar’s tip, Quoquerdas brought flame to it. Miguel coaxed the fire to expertly singe the end and soon the lounge area was awash in creamy Grijalva smoke. Miguel’s head fell back against the soft cradle of the leather sofa, his eyes rolling up into their sockets as he puffed hungrily on the cigar. Catching the aroma himself, Quoquerdas nearly fainted as the wispy strands of smoke moved out from the hot end of the cigar and intoxicated him. Nearly dizzy, he watched Miguel work the cigar in his mouth, watched as the man made love to it, eye’s fully closed now; and Quoquerdas knew that the outside world had simply melted away for the young man. Another moment, and he himself closed his eyes, stood mesmerized in the billowing cloud of Grijalva smoke. Soon, he felt the familiar tickle of the smoke on his arms and cheeks, a completely palpable sensation for any kin; a certain few wisps apparently having left the space around Miguel, the true benefactor, but at least a few particals migrating naturally to the other kin in the room, drawn to him, wed to all who were kin, tangible, an initial caress of immutable pleasures yet to come, and he readied himself for the real goodness...
But he then remembered where he was and what was going on. Immediately he snapped out of his revery, witnessing what he knew all along he would. The smoke in the room was changing, churning, metastasizing all around Miguel, just the way it was supposed to change. The smoke was beginning its transformation. There it was. The test was complete. Miguel was the new Producer!
But Quoquerdas knew it was too soon; not here, not now in his shop. Hell, he had not closed the shop yet, hadn't even locked the door. A dire mistake on his part. He knew the importance of secrets, and for someone to have stepped into his shop at that moment and seen, would have been an unfortunate occurrence. One completely unforgivable of him. In a flicker of sudden recognition, he realized how callously out in the open he had administered the test to the American, with Juan and his gang only yards away, and how careless he'd been. Although he cringed at the thought now, he was able to shrug it off, understanding intuitively that he'd been far too troubled, too anxious, and must have instinctively known at the time, somewhere deep down, that the American and others were not the Producers, would fail the test, and not induce any transformations in the Grijalva smoke. But then he thought of The Ones. A fright seared his soul, and he cringed again at his impudence. Good Lord, Hector, you must be more mindful.
With lightning fast movement, Quoquerdas whipped one arm through the smoke, dispersing the particles far and wide, breaking up it's intended formation before Miguel had time to see anything. At the same time he snatched the Grijalva out of Miguel’s mouth with his other hand.
It took a moment for Miguel to register what was happening, took him some time even before he opened his eyes from beneath his trance, and when he did, he looked about the room bleary eyed, intoxicated. Through the diffused, smoky atmosphere of the lounge area, he watched Quoquerdas dampen his fingers with spit and gently put out the cigar. He was in such a transfixed state at that moment that he did not immediately object, though he was in no way happy to be parted from the Grijalva.
“What’s going on?” finally he spoke. “Why the hell did you just take that cigar awat from me, dammit? That was the most exquisite cigar I’ve ever smoked.”
“Miguel, you have made me very happy this evening. This is all very good, and I’m going to make you an offer that you simply cannot refuse.”
“What are you talking about? Why won’t you let me enjoy that cigar in peace?”
“Because these cigars are not meant to be smoked in a crummy cigar shop. They're not meant to be smoked with others around to interfere with your pleasure. They're meant to be smoked in the privacy of your home, alone with the cigar, one with it... and perhaps maybe a sniffer of brandy. Just you and it alone, together, where you can truly experience all the benefits and joys it has to offer.” One eyebrow then raised, an afterthough coming to mind. "And you certainly should not smoke it while Maria is present."
Miguel shook his head out, trying to clear his mind from the sublime experience he’d just had. “Quoquerdas, if that cigar had not affected me just now the way it did, I’d say you’d lost your mind. But strange enough, I can almost... er... understand what you’re saying.” He scratched his head. “That was quite the cigar! A Grijalva, eh?" even the name he liked. "Wow... I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy a cigar more.”
Quoquerdas’ laugh was loud, deep and hardy. He beamed at Miguel, the gold cap of his front tooth sparkling as it picked up the light, and he said: “You have seen nothing yet, my friend!
“We have so much to discuss, dear kin. Let us talk now, shall we?”