by Stu Gillam
Part 6. Miguel's future is layed out for him. Hope you enjoy!
Producers of the Grijalva Leaf
Miguel and Quoquerdas moved back into the shop and seated themselves at the great walnut desk. A dank, oppressive fog of stale smoke hung close around them, lingering there the way moon-drenched mists like to cavort on cemetery grounds. The antique, tired ceiling fan sucked smoke up into its vortex-like vacuum, but only weakly, nary a chance of ever completely clearing the air. The only source of light came from an old fashioned wall lamp off towards the lounge area where its dull illumination cast a sooty, yellow glow upon them.
Set upon by a sudden weariness, Miguel sighed as he sank into the only chair at the foot of the desk. He noted the creaking sound of the equally old fashion, green-leather chair behind the desk, harmonizing with the sound of cracking knee joints, as Quoquerdas lowered his aging girth into it. Is nothing in this shop modern? Or have I wandered into an "olde tyme" set piece? Miguel looked at the circa 1875 cash register. Yep.
I just can’t wait for what comes next. Miguel thought. He’s really gone off the deep end tonight. That thought unsettled him, like it was the end of the world when one so cunning as Quoquerdas could lose it like this. The conversations with him tonight so far had been nothing short of queer, and his behavior was nothing like what Miguel had come to expect from the merchant. His talk of magic and ancestry was outlandish and far fetched. Yet still, he spoke with such conviction and excitement that it almost left Miguel convinced of the old man’s belief therein.
It seemed possible to Miguel that Quoquerdas was losing his hold on sanity. Perhaps the long years being cloaked within the claustrophobic, dim, smoky, atmosphere of this outback cigar shop had finally caught up with him. Miguel wondered if perhaps such insanity was precisely the reason Quoquerdas was willing to part with such a valuable humidor? There's no telling what kinds of fantastical machinations swirl within an insane man's mind which might drive him to readily part with such a precious antique.
Or had the man seen the same grotesque vision he himself saw? Did it cause him to fall prey to... what? Psychotic delusions of evil issuing from the ancient Box, filling him with dread enough to want to be rid of it? But wouldn't that prove there WAS evil, or some strange mystique about the thing--for them both to have shared the same vision? Hmm... Sure, put the evil thing on me, why don’t you.That, at least, falls squarely in line with how the cunning fox I know operates. But Quoquerdas only spoke of benevolence. There was no mention of evil, magic or otherwise. He didn't even seem remotely empathetic or aware when Miguel had stammered incoherently about seeing something weird inside The Box. Surely this line of thought was wrong. Miguel himself didn't want to give in to such contemplations of evil, and he doubted Quoquerdas felt or believed any such thing either. And Miguel also had difficulty buying into the idea that Quoquerdas was losing his mind.
But again, how was it possible that he would offer Miguel this fine, ornamental humidor? Unless he’d made a grave mistake appraising its worth? If he was aware of the value of The Box, there could be no justification in offering it up to assuage Miguel for having sold him a nasty, worm infested cigar bundle. Indeed, Quoquerdas never before cared a wit to extend any fair business practice towards him, and Miguel could recall numerous times when the old fox had proclaimed “Buyer beware, my friend... buyer beware.”, or such other nonsense like “All sales final!”
And why, for that matter, was he treating him so differently, so friendly, and with such respect? The whole meeting felt altogether wrong.
Miguel squirmed in his chair. Quoquerdas was up to something. He longed at that moment to be hand in hand with Maria, to be bolstered by the power of her presence, her love. It dawned on him how often he relied on her strength to carry him through the difficulties of life.
But there were additional undercurrents of thought as well; namely greedy thoughts. Thoughts of monetary appraisals and visits to pawn brokers. These thoughts were actually paramount in his mind; and he really didn’t care what sort of nonsense Quoquerdas was about to put forth. I can get some serious cash for that thing! That thought, above all else cluttering his mind, had a way of puttering around the inside of his head like a little steam-belching locomotive puffing merrily round and around its track.
Ultimately, he had to conclude that the fox was attempting to appease him by offering The Box as rectification for the worm problem, but had apparently, inexplicably, unimaginably, misjudged its value; misjudged it to be worth nothing more than a bundle of cheap cigars. Or more likely, considering it was Miguel he was dealing with, even less. All that hyperbole concerning the existence of ‘benevolent magic’ and 'ancestral gifts' was merely a ruse to heighten the allure of The Box on Miguel, that which Quoquerdas himself apparently judged cheap and expendable, no? What else could explain it?
Nonetheless, it was plain to Miguel, if apparently lost on Quoquerdas, that The Box did have value. Doubtless, there was age to the thing, and even if it was not near as ancient as Quoquerdas had stated, it was still antique, still possessed of fine craftsmanship, and still extremely valuable.
Yet it nagged him still. He couldn’t convince himself that the magnificent Box’s value had slipped by the wily old merchant. Miguel's thinking kept returning in a relentless circle between an explanation of insanity and that of misjudgment. But both were equally difficult to believe. Which left only the magic. Does he really believe in the bestowal of an Ancient Magic upon The Box?
He became faintly aware the man had begun to speak, though he did not yet listen.
No. The merchant has misjudged for once, and a woeful mistake it would be for him! Miguel decided just then he'd question no further. He was going to jump all over Quoquerdas this time, for the man had it coming after all these years. Miguel would finally get the better of him, and it was made all the sweeter considering Quoquerdas was yet again trying to pull his leg and get over on him. Ha, you’ve been ‘out-wilied’ this time, you old bastard! He would ‘yes’ him to death, feign interest, profess belief, and do and say anything which would get him out the door as quickly as possible with that most intriguing humidor in his possession.
His respect for Quoquerdas dropped a degree at that moment.
Yet, as his thoughts ran thus, when he actually began listening, and heard what the tobacconist was saying, he was not quite prepared to brush it aside so fast. The procedure which Quoquerdas was in the middle of describing, had it been a jest or a scheme, was far too weird for the man to go through the trouble of making up. Miguel began to pay attention out of morbid curiosity. He was suddenly struck with the impression that Quoquerdas actually had no doubt in his mind that The Box would ever really be lost to him.
“... remember, my son, only on the full moon... and after midnight when all is quiet.” Quoquerdas spoke clearly, bent on specifying just what he meant when he'd spoke of ‘duty’ earlier. That last sentence got a rise out of Miguel.
“Wait, wait. What is all this nonsense? What the hell are you saying?” The incredulous tone in his voice served well to mock Quoquerdas.
“Miguel, I beg you, with all that is good in this world, to please have an open mind. It will behoove you greatly, my friend, if you will just hear me out now and listen to what I have to tell you.” He looked into the man’s eyes, searching for understanding. “And of this procedure I’m explaining, all I ask is that you commit it to memory, and promise me that you’ll do nothing silly with The Box... until after you perform the procedure at least once. Will you do that for me?”
“Okay, okay, Quoquerdas. Jesus... I promise.” It’s likely he was less than truthful at that moment, but in the end, he held to his promise. “Start again and I shall listen more closely,” he added aloud, but was thinking instead, Common, old man, lets get this over with. I got a pawn broker to see.
Quoquerdas paused a moment, the clogs and gears of his mind spinning in overdrive. He looked Miguel up and down, sizing him up, and a tiny wave of resentment tried to move on him. He quashed it quickly, for such a feeling was of basest instinct, and Quoquerdas had always disdained gaucheness. He knew he should respect his new kin, did, in fact, and understood that it was no fault of Miguel’s to be so skeptical. But too, the man WAS thickheaded!
His hand found the course strings of his goatee, stroked them to a point. “You don’t trust me, do you, Miguel?”
“I don’t know why you think I should. Have I missed something after all these years?”
“Hmmm. Perhaps you have a point. I can see now that I have been rather... impudent with you in the past. I can also see that it was uncalled for, and I'm ashamed how I’ve acted. And you, always so respectful, regardless. Generous and well mannered. Yes, you’ve been a loyal customer, Miguel, and you’ve even found it in your heart to have me over to dinner... of which I am very grateful.” He considered the inevitability of another invite soon when Miguel finally came to accept the kinship they shared, and his stomach grumbled with craving. “It is my wish here tonight, that we turn a new leaf... or rather, that I turn a new leaf... for I’ve come to realize that you are my kin, Miguel, and I aim to rectify this matter now and for always.”
Kin. He wont let that one go, will he? Miguel said aloud, “Don’t worry about it. Listen, I’ve got a long walk home. So why don’t you just tell me what it is you have to say, and I’ll be on my way... with The Box.”
“Okay, listen carefully. As I was saying, the duty you are to perform with The Box is that of making Grijalvas. The procedure is as follows: First, it must only be done on nights of the full moon. You are to wait until after the stroke of midnight, at which time you will take The Box and place inside it the ingredients I will soon describe. You are to do this out of sight of all, including your family and friends. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Go on.” That's it... 'yes' him to death.
“You will place inside The Box any amount of tobacco leaf, shredded... whether it be from the most dilapidated Honduran weed stems, to the most exquisite premium cigar you can get your hands on. You may gather scraps off the floor from inside the plantation where you work, or you may use any cigars I would give to you, all you have to do is ask. You may even use cigarette filler, or pipe tobacco... it does not matter. When...”
“Did you just say you will give me cigars at my request?”
“I did. We mustn’t have our Producer lacking in resources now, mustn't we?”
“Um... I guess not.” Alrighty then... Insane it is after all.
“So then... oh, and let me reiterate, it doesn’t matter how much you put in. In time you’ll learn to judge how much raw material produces how many Grijalvas.”
“'Produces how many Grijalvas.’ Do you realize how utterly ridiculous this sounds, Quoquerdas?” He couldn’t help himself.
“Hmph! You are a stubborn man!” Miguel’s skepticism was beginning to annoy Quoquerdas. He sighed deeply, a faint bubbling sound rasping from his black, soot-congested lungs. He was about to raise his voice, but decided to take a different tact. “But I guess I can put myself in your shoes a moment. Yes, I can see how that might sound... rather outlandish. But what else would a ‘Producer’ do, my friend, except to create. Now, you promised to listen to me, Miguel. As before, I beg you to hear me out.”
“Yes, yes... go ahead.”
“Now then, when you have added the raw material, and only, as I’m sure you have not so soon forgotten, on the full moon...”
“And after midnight... right, right. Mustn’t start before the bewitching hour.” The urge overtaking Miguel, to poke fun at the man, to nudge him, to tease him, was strong. He felt superior to the lunatic speaking nonsense to him that moment; though it was strange feeling thus towards the cunning one. “Yes, yes. I got it. Please move along.”
“You know, Miguel, there will come a time when you'll see the need to apologize to me for being so flippant on this important matter. I warned you earlier about that, did I not?”
Miguel tried hard not to laugh in Quoquerdas' face. “Ahem... please excuse me. I’m so sorry. Do continue.” His sparkling smile was truly dashing. But the haughtiness behind it stank of contempt.
Quoquerdas pressed forward nonplussed. “So, at this time, you shall then... well, my son, you must nick yourself and draw forth your blood, and add eight drops of it upon the tobacco. Now...”
“I know, I know... that sounds strange, but have you not noticed the emphasis I’ve put on ancestry all night? There is great purpose in doing such a thing, for the Grijalva blood which flows through your veins is what The Box requires most. It's what it consumes, my friend... it's the catalyst which calls forth the magic. I do not lie to you, kin.”
“I didn’t think this could get any stranger, Quoquerdas... but indeed, you have outdone yourself." Miguel crossed his legs and rubbed his forehead. "Continue.”
“Eight drops of your blood, Miguel... no more, no less. You shall then close the lid and hide The Box away, secure and out of sight from EVERYBODY... including yourself. I suggest you prepare a special room in your house, with a key only you possess.” He stopped a moment, the image of production replaced by the image of basking in the Gift provided upon smoking a Grijalva. “And it should be in this personal space that you should enjoy your Grijalvas. Please heed this advice, Miguel, and after the first time, you will understand what I mean.”
“Got it.” Got. To. Get. Out. Of. Here!
“And that is it! Your job is done. Go to The Box in the morning and behold the wonders you have created. You shall take for yourself what you will, and then, of utmost importance, you shall deliver to me all that is left over. This is your job as Producer. Do you understand?”
“This is something else, man. But yeah, I hear you.”
“Repeat back to me the procedure.”
He did so, forgetting the part about ‘On the full mood’, and was promptly scolded by Quoquerdas. They continued to discuss the procedure more, Quoquerdas aiming to drill it into his kin’s mind, and when he finally felt confident that Miguel had memorized every part of the procedure, he moved away to the break room and retrieved the ancient humidor, The Box.
“Here it is, my son. Take it and guard it with your life.”
Miguel felt relieved that the ordeal was over, that he could finally get the hell out of this stodgy cigar shop, and away from the overbearing tobacconist. What a bunch of malarkey. Such rigmarole as I’ve never heard before! But the thought was soon drowned out by the consideration of how much money he would reap in trade for The Box.
As if reading his mind, Quoquerdas said, “You think I am playing games with you... don’t you? I can just about read your mind: Your prepared to sell this humidor as soon as you can get your greedy ass down to the pawn shop, no?”
“Can you blame me if, after hearing you out, such a thought came into my mind?”
“To be honest, no, I can not. But I can tell you this, my friend, that once you perform the procedure for the first time, any such thoughts will be wiped clean from your mind. All I ask... demand!... is that you perform the procedure BEFORE you do anything else. I’m very serious about this, Miguel. And if you find that I have been less than honest with you... well then, by all means, go with my blessing and sell The Box as soon as you can. Indeed, I can only just begin to imagine all the money you can get. You will no doubt be rich. Oh, and by the way, you would do well to visit a collector of fine antiques rather than going to a lousy pawn shop. Do you understand?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “You do not think I’m ignorant of the worth of that humidor, do you?”
“I don’t know what to think, Quoquerdas. You can not deny that what you're telling me sounds like pure lunacy." Miguel stood up. "What I can tell you is this: I will perform your little procedure... mainly because I am intrigued by our meeting here tonight, and when I find you’re just up to your usual trickery, you can rest assured that it will be a trip to the pawn shop... or, ah, a collector, that my tired legs shall carry me.” With that, he picked up The Humidor and tucked it under his arm. He winced when he felt its weight, and was immediately obliged to bring it around before him and hold it with both arms. He wondered then just how it was he’d be able to carry it a mile and a half back to his home.
“Wait, my boy, I have not yet given you your first batch of ingredients.” Quoquerdas whisked away to the shelves which contained his saleable product and grabbed three bundles of mid-range cigars, then returned, smiling broadly. “Here, let me put these inside.”
“My God, Quoquerdas, you’re serious, aren’t you?” Just what kind of fortune had he run into here this night, anyway? Three bundles of fine cigars. A valuable humidor to take as his own. Maria was going to be flabbergasted when she discovered the amplitude of his success with the cunning one. Her pride in him may even lead to a romantic outpouring. Miguel quivered excitedly with the thought.
“But it's so damned heavy! I fear I may fall at the side of the road with exhaustion.”
“What? Oh, come now, my boy... are you not Kin now? No... you will not feel the strain of the road this night, that I guarantee. Wait one moment.” Quoquerdas moved to his desk and picked up the phone, dialing numbers with resin-yellowed fingers. “Paulo... yes it’s me. Come down to the shop immediately... bring the car.” he paused a moment. “You shall drive the new Producer home tonight!” he proclaimed with grandeur. "Did you hear me, Paulo?"
Paulo was apparently speechless, though Quoquerdas could practically hear the joy at the other end of the phone.
They waited some minutes until Paulo finally arrived, entering the shop in a gust of hot, moist air peppered with dust. All was explained to him and he accepted Miguel warmly, though not a little surprised to find this familiar, yet formerly insubstantial acquaintance, an addition to the Brotherhood--The Producer, no less! He would have no part in allowing Miguel to carry The Box out to the car, such respect did he hold for the office of Producer, that which he'd so recently been retired of. He disappeared out the door, The Box and its contents of cigars held securely against his chest, leaving Quoquerdas and Miguel alone one last moment.
“Might I inform you, Miguel, that there will come a time when The Box will no longer produce for you... no matter how hard you try. You must return it to me then. Is that clear?”
Although he felt certain he would be vacationing in Florida in the not to distant future, awash with windfall profits from his sale of the humidor, he played along just the same--anything to be away from Quoquerdas and his shop, and all the strangeness of the evening. “Okay, sure. If you say so.” He turned then and headed for the door. He felt the hot, night breeze tickle his mustache, felt normalcy in the wondrous orchestral symphony of nighttime, and a sense of relief finally settled upon him.
Something in the tone stopped him short just as he was about to close the door behind him. He flinched. He frowned. He turned and looked once again at Quoquerdas.
“Concerning what I said about selling The Box. You must understand the importance of this. If you get any stupid ideas about selling it before you perform the procedure, then...” He paused. What he had to say was every bit as bitter on his lips as the taste of charred worm must have been on Miguel’s tongue.
“Then...?” Miguel prompted.
“Then I shall have to kill you!”