by Stu Gillam
Part 1 of a long short story. Enjoy!
Producers Of The Grijalva Leaf
“Lasioderma Serricorne.” The words trickled out of Miguel’s mouth slowly, timidly, sounding fractured without the proper cadence. The pronunciation was all wrong.
“Lasioderma Serricorne,” he spoke again. He moved his index finger along the words as they appeared on the page, underscoring each syllable like the bouncing ball in a children’s sing-a-long: “Laaa si ohhh derrrrrrrm ahhh Serrrr ehhh cooorrrrnn ahhhhh. “
Despite brutalizing the pronunciation, to Miguel, the strange Latin words seemed out of place; too scientific, too learned, to be uttered in such a pedestrian setting as his homey, ramshackle kitchen. All he knew was that the tiny creature to whom this scientific nomenclature belonged was in no way as regal as the name itself.
He sat at the kitchen table alone, a large Encyclopedia Britannica open before him. The room was overly warm, the air stagnant, in dire need of a fresh, cool breeze. Brought from his smoking room and placed beside the large book was a green glass ashtray. It was there so that he could examine its contents momentarily while he read. Sitting inside were the remains of a cheap, barely smoked cigar. It had a dull, maduro wrapper leaf which displayed none of the sheen or splendor found in finer, premium cigars. At one end, near to where the cigar had burned, a few tiny, almost imperceptible pin-holes dotted the wrapper. Sadly, Miguel had failed to identify these in time. He'd always had rather poor eyesight.
Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, but he wasn’t sure whether it was from the heat in the room, or the spice in the dinner he’d just consumed. A thick, sooty smell of frying grease lingered in the air. It was the only indication left of that evening's dinner: Seasoned beef & beans wrapped in corn tortillas overflowing with cheddar cheese and Maria's secret sauce. It was a simple, common meal, the type often served in the small Dominican Republic village where he and his family lived; but in Maria’s practiced hands, such simple cuisine was always transformed into something wildly savory and satisfying.
Maria’s cooking style was of Mexico, the land of her ancestry. Spices like cumin and cilantro, epazote and chili powder, constituted her palette of flavors from which to pick and choose. She applied those accents--“The colors of flavor,” as she often said--with inbred skill and an artist’s measured eye. What excited Miguel most was her bold, rather liberal use of jalapenos and habanero. What a provocative gesture it was when she served him a dish spiced so hot, it could almost be construed an affront to his person. In much the same way a lover’s spat brings a stinging slap across the face, yet mysteriously culminates in an unexpected, passionate kiss moments later, her audacity to serve him such food often stirred feelings of arousal for her with every bite. It was no mystery why the majority of their intimate coupling occurred early evenings, right after dinner; sometime even in an uncontrollable burst of passion right there on the kitchen table, dirty dishes and utensils and cups frantically swept from its surface to make room--that is, of course, when their son, Pico, was away with relatives.
He read some more from the encyclopedia:
“Tobacco beetle infestation occurs in cigars, or raw material, which are stored improperly, mainly when conditions are too hot and/or too humid. Eggs are laid by the adult female on the tobacco, hatching in 6 -10 days. The larva, grub-shaped and whitish, usually 4-5 millimeters in length, burrow into the cigar leaving small pin-holes. For 5-10 weeks, they feed on the filler leaf. Significant damage can result from this stage of burrowing and feeding. Larvae pupate in 2-3 weeks, remaining dormant...”
“ Aye yi yi, I’ve had enough of this!” he groaned, suddenly feeling nauseous. Slipping both hands underneath the encyclopedia, he firmly slapped it closed with a bang. An almost imperceptible puff of dust rose from the pages to his nose. Ahhh... the whiff of book knowledge.
He studied the cigar in the ashtray once more, but his blurry vision did not afford him a proper inspection. He was much too poor to buy new glasses, to replace the ancient hand-me-downs from his uncle Pedro he now wore, held together in some places with tape, and almost certainly the incorrect lens prescription. Nor could he afford an office visit with the optometrist in Santo Domingo. The sad fact was, for Miguel Perdone, who spent his days toiling in the vast tobacco fields, he was barely wealthy enough to afford even bus fare to the capitol city.
He was about to tear the cigar open, to inspect whatever horrors lie beneath the wrapper, but stopped. The idea of seeing squirming tobacco beetle larva just then would do little good for his nausea. He wasn’t sure what had possessed him to finally study the ways of this villain. It was not the first time he'd missed the tiny worm holes in his woefully constructed, cheap cigars. It wasn’t the first time he had drawn deeply on his Churchill or corona, expecting at least some modicum of enjoyment from the low quality leaf, only to have vaporized larva suddenly fill his mouth instead. He knew only that, at that moment, between the mental pictures, the actual pictures in the Encyclopedia, and the acidic, vile taste of charred worm lingering on his tongue, he just wanted to put the study of L. Serricorne out of his mind for now.
“Maria?” he called, beckoning his wife.
Silence. He glanced out the kitchen window, seeing her outside. The lush greenery of distant jungle foot hills, darkened in silhouette by a bright, purplish-green sunset, painted a vibrant, spectral beauty behind her. With her back to him, she affixed socks and underwear to a clothes line in the large, communal yard.
“Maria? Come here, por favor.”
“What? What is it? I’m busy,” she answered in an exasperated tone, nary a pause in her work.
“Maria, please come here and look at my other cigars for me. You know I don't see so well,” he pleaded.
“Leave me alone, would you?”
“You don’t want me to smoke another worm, do you?” he said, trying his best to sound vulnerable, slightly pitiful even, for effect.
This time, her work stopped. She remained in position with her arms up at the clothes line, her back arched. She turned only her head towards the kitchen window. “Si! I hope you have worms in ALL your cigars, Miguel! Maybe then you’ll quit that filthy habit.” With a righteous nod of her head, she resumed her work.
“Maria, darling, would you deprive a poor, hard working man of one of the few pleasures he has in life?”
Without hesitation, she shot back: “But you have me for a wife, Miguel. Surely you need no more pleasure than that!” She chuckled, glancing over at the kitchen window again... yet another pair of underwear attached firmly to the line. “I should think my kiss is far more satisfying than any cigar, no?”
He continued staring at her through the window. He looked at her ample buttocks, how it shook rhythmically while she attached clothes to the line. Her yellow, polyester ribbed shorts, hugging her form much too tightly, were stained with smudges of sweat and soil. “You know nothing is better than your kiss, Maria. In fact, why don’t you come over here and let me kiss you now. I’m sure the worms in my mouth won't bother you.”
“Oh, gross! Eso es repugnante, Miguel! Hold on a minute,” she sighed, “I’ll have a look at those cigars.”
Miguel’s passion for cigars started early in his life. As a child, he was always surrounded by the wonderful aromas of cigar smoke when his father or uncles or older brothers lit up. He could remember great gatherings of these kin folk, sitting around the porch on lazy Sunday mornings, talking of politics or business, huge billowing clouds of blue cigar smoke permeating the area. He loved that aroma as a child. He always knew he would smoke cigars. It was simply in his blood. Sometimes, it startled him just how much pleasure he received from a particularly pungent, well blended cigar, or on those rare occasions when he could actually afford a premium, or was gifted one.
As a poor man though, Miguel had to suffice with that which his meager means could provide. That meant having to smoke cheaper, shorter aged, and much lesser quality cigars - exactly like the ones which where lined up at that moment on the table being inspected by Maria. Indeed, they were all infested.
Miguel cursed Quoquerdas, who owned the cigar shop where he’d bought the damaged cigars, where he bought all his cigars; the place where he spent too large portions of his disposable income. Ironically, in this island paradise of everything tobacco, where production of cigars and the cultivation of some of the finest leaf in the world took place, the actual cigar shop was somewhat of a rarity in certain locals. Better to export to wealthy Americans or Europeans. Quoquerdas’ shop was the only one for miles. It sat in the middle of a small, squalid town, Luze, a good mile and a half walk for Miguel. He had nowhere else to go.
Furious with Quoquerdas at that moment, Miguel scoured his mind reactively, trying to recall some of the more vengeful rituals practiced in his mother’s native magic. But the incantations, the gestures, the props of voodoo all eluded him. Fact was, he'd never really understood well, or been able to coax any real magic himself. He tried to believed in her rituals, to have faith in the magic, but he had not the heart nor the passion for it. Like his father had told him: “These are things better suited to a woman’s nature, my son... for it is the stuff of witches. Better a man stand clear... and remain on her good side!” This he understood. Oh, if only she were still alive. I'd instruct her to lay a foul curse on Quoquerdas’ head, to vex him. Maybe an effigy doll... yes yes, I would feed it to the tobacco worms!
“I’m going down to see that bastard. I will not accept this anymore!” Miguel said evenly to his wife.
“Just be firm with him, Miguel. Don’t let him trick you... or charm you the way he always does. He’s a cunning one, that Quoquerdas.”
“No. No more of that! I will have reparations this time, I swear!" Miguel said, pounding the table, then rose. "I must also convince him to store my crappy cigars with the same care he does his prime stock. Now I know why these ones are infested. He keeps them way up high on the shelf in the corner, out of sight... as if he’s embarrassed to even offer them for sale. My God, Maria, can you imagine how hot it must get up there near the ceiling?”
“Si, caliente,” she said, feigning interest.
“No. This will not do.” With that, he gathered the bundle of infested cigars and stormed out the door. He was headed for Luze.
“Hey, make yourself useful. Bring back milk!” The squeal of her nag pierced his ears as he made his way down the dirt road. Her demand was soon forgotten though, as his mind was consumed with the imminent confrontation with the wily shop owner.
With not the slightest hint of concern, Hector Juan Carlos Quoquerdas kept a sharp eye on the stranger perusing his exquisite collection of Arturo Fuente cigars. The finest of the Fuente line, the pricey Opus X cigars had a strange way of disappearing from the shelves if he did not remain vigilant. The man had no idea how scrutinized his every move was. Lucky for him, he had no intention of stealing from Quoquerdas.
Continuing to eye the man, Quoquerdas remained seated in his usual perch, a huge, green leather, high-backed desk chair. His legs rested comfortably across the corner of his pitted, walnut desk, upon which where strewn various papers, loose cigars, cigar boxes, a calculator, and his ancient, mechanical cash register. His large feet, nearly bursting the seams of his aging sandals, swayed back and forth through the air, keeping time to the native folk music he liked to have playing in the background.
He wiped sweat from his brow, then slicked down his salt-and-pepper hair, using the sweat as a poor man’s pomade. Parted in the middle, his hair flowed like two waterfalls down each side of his head. Course and frizzy, it came down almost to his shoulders in curvy waves, remaining out wide at the bottom. This gave his head a certain pyramidal look.
As was usually the case, a cigar of Dominican blend, with a delicate Connecticut shade-leaf wrapper, was tucked into the corner of his mouth. It seemed to be rooted there, growing from his lips like a part of his own face, like some kind of offset, mutated proboscis. Quoquerdas didn’t have to puff on it. His natural breathing made its head glow with every inhale, then dull with the exhale, producing a sort of weird, flashing beacon in the gloomy darkness of his shop. It issued thick, blue smoke that hung in the air around his head. The scene lent a comical truth to the apropos sign which hung on the wall behind him:
“HERE AT QUOQUERDAS’, WE LIKE TO SEE THE AIR WE BREATHE.”
Though his eyes followed every move of the customer, there were more pressing matters on his mind. The time is near, he thought, caressing the strange, gold pendant which hung from his neck. Paulo must surely be approaching the end of his tenure... no? Quoquerdas had been expecting his kin to return The Box any day now, no longer able to coax the strange, wonderful magic from it, as eventually happened with all of the Producers. It was time. He could feel it in his bones.
Though what had been perplexing Quoquerdas the last few days, was that a new Producer had not yet been identified. That seemed strange to him. It left him feeling uneasy, as if the magnificent family magic of eons gone by was in jeopardy of ceasing forever. Never had the box been returned--it’s requirement for fresh New Mother’s Blood essential for continued output--before a new Producer had already been lined up, ready and waiting to take the mantle of responsibility. God forbid production was ever to cease!
“Perhaps I am mistaken this time?” he mumbled to himself. “Perhaps Paulo has a way with the Box?” It was not unheard of, after all. “Maybe it’s not through with him and his blood yet?”
But why should he rack his brain? He had no control of these things. The Ones knew what they were doing, did they not?. When the time was right, they would present the new Producer to him. That was all there was to it. Quoquerdas tried to relax.
Suddenly, an idea struck him, a feeling of premonition swirling about it. Just who is that stranger over there, anyway? he thought. I’ve never seen him in here before. I’ve never even seen him in town. He considered how many times the new Producer actually turned out to be a complete stranger to him, someone just wandering in off the street, the strange, magical Aura swirling about his head the only tell-tale sign to Quoquerdas to issue the test. True, there was no Aura currently with this stranger, but Quoquerdas was anxious. Trying to convince himself in order to assuage his anxiety, he mused: Could it be that the new Producer is standing before me right this very minute? The thought startled him. “God, what a fool I am!”
With a quickening heart beat, he painfully removed his legs from the desk, the joints in his knees popping in protest. With much effort, he removed his old, aching body from the chair and stepped to a very special, locked humidor back by the office door. He hated this phase of the process, at having to tap into the special blend, the gift of his forefathers, the priceless, ultimate leaf which was kept for none besides himself and the rest of his kin: The current Producer, and those former Producers who where still alive.
Quoquerdas knew what must be done, ignoring the fact that the Aura was not present. Such was the degree of his anxiety at failing to identify the new Producer at such a late stage as this. As painful as the test could be sometimes, especially when it revealed a mistake had been made by Quoquerdas in properly registering the Aura, he knew he must sacrifice any number of the special cigars—as many as it took—to solidly identify the new Producer. He thanked God that it usually didn’t take but one, as he seldom made mistakes as overseer. And The Ones had a knack for managing these matters like clockwork.
He unlocked the special humidor, opened it, revealing the treasure inside. A whiff of delight tickled his nose. He pulled out a big, beautiful, Hernando de Grijalva cigar. The sheen of it’s wrapper was so great, so seemingly wet with oils, that Quoquerdas could almost see his reflection in it. He desperately fought the urge to put it in his mouth, to bite off the tip, chew it tenderly, lovingly, to draw on it unlit, tasting the essence of the magical leaves packed inside. Mmmm... so oily, so supple. He drew it under his large nose and breathed in its strong, pungent fragrance. He sighed with delight, nearly swooning. Oh, how he hated using them like this.
He approached the man, startling him with a tap on his shoulder. “Excuse me senor, are you finding everything ok?”
“Huh? Oh. Ah... yes. Thanks.” He was obviously an American. “I was told I should try one of these Opus X things... but I had no idea how expensive they are.”
“Hmmm... Yes, senor, those...ahem, ‘things’ are very fine smokes indeed... though they are very strong cigars. One must develop a taste for such bold tobacco.” He eyed the stranger intently, a crooked grin peaking out from under his greasy goatee. “Perhaps I could interest you in something else, yes? I have a particular cigar I’m currently trying to push. I’m willing to let you try one... right here, right now. Are you interested?”
“Why certainly. Lets see what you’ve got.” The American's smile registered his glee.
Quoquerdas handed the American the Hernando de Grijalva. A slight wince of discomfort fluttered through his soul as it departed his grasp. The American man inspected it briefly, payed slight attention to the intricate, ornate red and gold cigar band for a moment, then shrugged and asked for a light. Quoquerdas puzzled at the man’s unenthusiastic appraisal of what he knew to be a thing of perfection. He began to feel this whole affair was a boneheaded mistake as he brought fire to the end of the cigar.
The American, as if suddenly attacked, nearly choked to death upon drawing magical Grijalva smoke into his mouth. Tears came to his eyes and his face turned red and sickly. “Oh my God... that’s disgusting!” he cried. The words sputtered out of his mouth, along with a considerable amount of sputum. “Goddammit, that doesn’t even taste like tobacco, dude! What is that, fuckin' plantain leaves, or something?”
“What?” It always baffled Quoquerdas how anyone could find a Grijalva revolting. He sniffed heavily into the cloud of smoke which arose around the man. Instantly satisfied that there was no mix up in cigars, that this was indeed a genuine Hernando de Grijalva, he said: “Surely you don’t mean that, Sir. You honestly don’t like this cigar?”
“Man, I don’t blame you for trying to get rid of these things. But you’ll have to find somebody else, bro. I’d rather stick a needle in my eye than smoke this shit!” With that, the young man stamped out the cigar aggressively in a nearby ashtray, recklessly destroying it; leaving it to lay undignified, bent and cracked, utterly reviled. Quoquerdas cringed with horror, and quickly had to look away from the carnage. Oh, how he hated using them like this.
Quoquerdas’ premonition was obviously a fluke. That man was certainly NOT kin, far from it! That was the third time it had happened like this in the past few days—Quoquerdas trying to second guess himself, trying to force the issue on behalf of his anxiety.
Quoquerdas was not a stupid man, he knew he was to seek the Aura first off, but this time something was different, something was off; not "like clockwork," was the only way he could characterize it. He realized he was rushing the process, trusting his instincts instead of those of The Ones. As much as he wanted to squash the idea, he felt for the first time like he was beginning to lose faith in them.
I must settle down, he thought. My God, I must try... you cannot waste the Grijalvas so carelessly! Come on, Hector, let the process take its course, he scolded himself. Stop thinking so damned much!
He stood there a moment, surrounded by the thinning plumes of smoke left by the rejected Grijalva. The American man was gone, having left without a single purchase. Why did Quoquerdas feel so dejected? Simply because he had not made a sale? Because the Grijalva was sitting broken in the ashtray? Because another Grijalva had been wasted? No. He knew it was none of those things. He knew only that his failure to identify the new Producer as yet was what nagged him and gnawed at his soul. He felt the anxiety, but at the same time felt empty inside. “Have I failed you?” he questioned The Ones, of course receiving no reply.
He breathed in the exquisite aroma one last time attempting to settle his nerves. He moved back to his perch. The smoke fell in behind him, whipping around in curls in the vacuum left by his body. He glance over to the lounge area where four old cronies were gathered, smoking cigars with relish and gesticulating wildly and talking loudly. Juan Garcia, the oldest, dominated the discussion with talk of the days when he played soccer for the Mexican team.
Quoquerdas ignored them, in no mood for their banter, and took to his seat again.
“Good God, Hector, what is that stench?” Juan called out, apparently the aroma from the Grijalva having drifted across the room.
“What are you talking about, old man?" said Quoquerdas nonplussed. "Don’t you know the smell of real tobacco when you smell it?”
“Real tobacco? Surely you jest. It smells like a herd of cattle has just wandered into your shop. Are you finally through with the cigar business, Quoquerdas... going to try a little cattle ranching now?” The quartet of elders erupted in raucous laughter at this, unaware of Quoquerdas’ foul mood.
“Listen, you scoundrel,” Quoquerdas spat, his anxiety getting the best of him. “You come in here every day, smoking that cheap, fetid Honduran weed... never spending a cent on my premium stock, and your going to sit there and tell ME about tobacco? You wouldn’t know a good cigar if it bit you in the ass!"
“Hey, hey. What’s the matter, Hector? No need to be nasty, amigo.”
“If you don’t like the smell in here, then go home to your wife. I’m sure the stench of her cooking will be much more to your liking. Now, leave me alone... or I’ll kick the bunch of you out of here, understand?”
“Si. Si, senor. I was just joking, man. Forget it.” Juan backed down immediately, apparently the fear of having to go home to his wife striking a nerve.
Having already put Juan and his gang out of his mind, Quoquerdas slumped back into his chair, the fingers of his hands interlocked before his chin. He pondered the oddities of his station in life, that of being the overseer to the strange magic of the Grijalva leaf. Most of the time it was an absolute joy to attend to the gift of The Ones, overseeing the smooth transition of The Box from one Producer to the next, reaping in the harvest and distributing the bounty to the hungry demands of his kin. But sometimes it all seemed too much. The burden laid upon him for insuring the continued success of the process carried with it a great weight of responsibility that could sometimes be very stressful, or too fragile a process to reckon with. Sometimes, he just felt unsure of the future.
He put his head down on the desk, closed his eyes and took a deep, forlorn breath. “All will be well, Hector... you’ll see.” he tried to soothe himself. He failed.
At that moment, the bells on his door rang out with the entrance of someone into his shop. Just as he was beginning to feel even more morose, he looked up with bleary eyes to see Paulo standing before him, a strange, woeful look upon his face. Quoquerdas’ heart sunk even farther, having seen that look many times before. Adding to his worries, he saw the magnificent, ancient humidor--The Box--tucked under Paulo’s arm. Indeed, it was time. The Box was through with Paulo.
“Hector," Paulo moaned, "it is over. The box has stopped producing for me... just as you said it would. Here are the last of the Grijalvas I was able to produce... twelve of them. That is the last batch.” He laid the magnificently worked humidor on Quoquerdas’ desk with a thump. “So, who will take my place?”
“Honestly, dear cousin, I have no idea.”