The Cigar Roller: A Novel

The Cigar Roller: A Novel

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ISBN-13: 9780786178445
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date: 06/28/2005
Product dimensions: 6.76(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.20(d)

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The Cigar Roller

A Novel
By Pablo Medina

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Pablo Medina
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-1792-9


Chapter One

Amadeo Terra is staring out the window to the sea on which the sun is dancing. He looks out and he looks in and he remembers the day he landed on these shores with his wife and three children and his youngest tugging at his sleeve, asking the impertinent questions young boys ask and their fathers cannot answer without revealing the depth of their ignorance. Amadeo Terra remembers how he pushed the boy away, too forcefully it seems now, too much like a man trying to prove himself-to a child no less-and how the boy ran to cling to his mother's dress. Amadeo Terra can do nothing but remember. Two white canvas straps, one around his chest, the other around his lap, keep him in his chair. His body has not moved for four years and seven months. He remembers walking on a sunny street, cigar smoke curling upward from his mouth. He remembers his brain shutting down, his cheek on the sidewalk, his left arm twisted behind him. He remembers thinking that just when he had it all-money, a comfortable house, a new car-somebody dropped an anvil on him. Life arriving. Life escaping. Ridiculous. The sun is dappling the chops on the bay and he is finding patterns to the glinting light where none exist. At first it is like a musical beat-ta-ta, ta ta-ta-then it isa street full of neon signs blinking on and off and then it becomes a summer night in the country after the fireflies hatch. Cocuyos-that's the Cuban name-thousands of them over the field behind the house. Occasionally a motorboat speeds by, cutting the water and leaving a wake of foam behind. Sometimes a boat will be pulling a skier. The skier crosses the wake, skipping over it then turning and crossing the wake again and again until boat and skier disappear behind the frame of the window. Much of the time there are birds, large slow soaring ones with scissor tails and small streaking ones that fly in a straight line. If he strains he can see a long bridge in the distance and beyond it sailboats floating off gracefully into the open sea. Storms appear often enough, usually in the afternoon, and he likes to watch as the sky darkens and the lightning flashes out at the edges of the sea. Once a waterspout formed over the bay, crossed the causeway on the right and plowed through a stand of pines on the mainland. Mostly, however, it is the sun shining on the water, and he likes that best of all. Time ago, he awoke early enough to see the large cargo ships lumbering out of the harbor at high tide. Time before that he was on a boat himself sailing into the harbor, sails at full mast, the prow sending spray over him and his children, Julia complaining, the sailors cursing. It was the greatest morning of his life, nothing but wide sky and stars and the future ahead. At five o'clock Nurse brings to the rolling table by his chair a tray with several jars of baby food, some warm, some cool. She is a master of efficiency, everything placed on the tray in its proper order-the bib, the jars, the spoon, the towel, the plastic juice bottle, like a child's, in the shape of a bear. She opens the first jar, split pea with ham, swirls it with a teaspoon a few times, then tests it for warmth by tapping some on the back of her hand. Amadeo Terra follows her motions with his eyes as he has done every day since he's been here. He wants to speak, he wants her to see him trying to speak, but she does not like him drooling while he eats and so he doesn't try. Instead he allows her to slip the spoon into his mouth. There, that's good, she says wiping the excess off his lips with one sweep of the teaspoon. Sometimes, when his mind doesn't play tricks on him, he imagines what it was like to eat real food-steak, rare, with yuca fried in lard and half a loaf of bread, or his favorite, enchilado de jaibas with a bowl of rice and plantains on the side, washed down with beer. He had gotten fat, a full three hundred pounds in his prime. A man eats. There were days when he consumed six servings of paella for lunch and two steaks for dinner, and there were days when he was working so hard he ate like a nun, a ham sandwich, a bowl of soup. He ruled his appetites, not the other way around. Now he is being fed baby food. How he longs for a large piece of bovine flesh, stringy with sinew and marbled with fat, how he dreams every day of thick pork chops, oozing with grease. He cannot bite, he cannot chew, he cannot grab the ribs with his hands. When he first arrived at the home they pulled all his teeth. He remembers how easily they slipped out of his gums, one by one, with barely a jiggle of the dentist's clamp, then the sound of them clanging in the metal basin. The teeth were not worth fixing, they said, and feeding him would be easier that way. Mush, that is, baby food, a little apple juice, on occasion a cracker he can suck on. Meat, he can only dream of meat. Nurse thrusts another spoonful in his mouth. He barely tastes the split pea and swallows quickly. She follows with something sweet-a flavor he cannot recall. He blinks once, yes, and swirls the paste around and won't swallow again until he can recognize it, something from his childhood, when taste was an adjunct of eating. The substance is familiar to him on his lips, on the tip of his tongue, on the tissues of the inside of his mouth, its aroma filling his nostrils, a substance like a yellow light in his brain. His mouth is clamped in concentration and just as he is about to name the taste, just as he is about to grasp the truth, Nurse tries to force the split pea through his lips. He blinks twice, no, and keeps his jaw shut; he is almost there. She jabs his gums several times with the spoon all the while coaxing him to open up, open up now, I don't have all day, open up. You shouldn't be this selfish, the others need me. Open up. He avoids her eyes and voice, gentle and cheery, riding a crest of impatience, and concentrates on the taste that has filled his mouth, spread up his nostrils, and taken over his whole being. He can smell the past, smell his childhood, pungent and silky, see the sun through the branches of the tree he hid behind until his father tired of looking for him and headed home with anger swelling his forehead. He can smell the grove where he ate fruit that night and got so full he couldn't breathe. He can smell the sap oozing out of the tree trunks. Nurse is pressing with her thumb and middle finger on his mandible. She has done this before. Mostly she succeeded but sometimes, on days when he felt particularly strong, he could keep his jaw clamped and she would, after a time, leave to feed the others, waiting like baby birds for her and her jars. But she wouldn't leave quietly. Nurse always had to have the last word. As she capped the jars and wiped the rolling table, she would say in a calm, condescending tone that he was ungrateful, that he was taking too much of her time, that next time she would send the orderly to feed him. Amadeo Terra is willing to resist forever, have her pack her jars, her bib and her spoon and take them to her next case, willing to starve himself (as if that process hadn't already begun) in order to find in his memory the source of that taste. And just as Nurse is wiping his face one last time in her mock anger (she doesn't really care whether Amadeo eats or not, sleeps or not, lives or not) mango appears. He swallows, closes his eyes. Mango. Yellow, pulpy, stringy, sticky yellow. Mango! He wants it, tubs of it, he wants all mango, mango day and mango night, mango moon and mango sun and mango sea and mango mountain and mango swamp. Nurse is mango. Home is mango. Amadeo Terra is mango. He opens his mouth wide, he wants mango. The fat around his throat is quivering for more. Mango, he yells with his eyes; mango, he begs, blinking yes. Nurse notices, thinks she has won and Amadeo is repentant. She smiles triumphantly. She rolls the table back into place, sits on the chair by the bed. Amadeo still has his mouth open but now his whole being strains with the effort. If he could chirp, he would. He follows her actions with his eyes, watches as she places the tray with the jars on the table. The bib, don't forget the bib. She starts with the split pea, spooning it in quickly and efficiently, as if she were feeding a coal furnace rather than a human being. Amadeo obliges, swallowing, anticipating. He is ready to do anything, eat lead if he has to, in order to get more of the sweet taste of mango. She collects the last of the split pea, sweeping inside the jar with the spoon, and jabs it deep in his mouth. She caps the empty jar and searches blindly for another, picks one that bears no resemblance to yellow, and begins to open it. Amadeo tries to warn her with his eyes, not mango, not mango, but she realizes it is still sealed, puts it back, and finds the mango finally. Amadeo has never felt such desire, not even as a young man when the whole world was desire. By the time she opens the jar, he is close to tears. The taste is different now, more like sky, not sea, more skin, light inside a pocket, breast in water. If he closes his eyes it is a deep blue; when he opens them he tastes canary tongue, rain shoulder, tree semen. As soon as she's done, Nurse leaves the room. No good-bye. Without Nurse there is window, there is sea and sun, there is Amadeo sitting on the chair, but there is no mango. Still, he is happy he no longer has to listen to her baby talk, her empty nurse's voice, the rise and fall of her condescension. He doesn't have to see her big breasts tight against her uniform or hear the rustle of her thighs walking in or smell her perfume and her skin, the white hugeness of it, and her mouth red and incessant and her wormy lips. For a long time he wanted her, spent nights awake imagining what she looked like under all that white cloth, what she would do if he asked-take off her girdle, straddle his face. That was long ago when there was hope. Now he wants to see her as little as possible. It is mango he wants, the yellow of it on his face and its childhood taste in his mouth again. He remembers a woman once who tasted like mango. It dripped out of her like sun syrup. He remembers the juice on her belly, he remembers sex, the pump and flex, the sea inside him emptying. He remembers running; he remembers Julia his wife in the kitchen, the void in his heart, the mango woman, the bile pushing up his throat; he remembers the china chest crashing to the floor; he remembers Julia holding their son in her arms like a broken doll, the darkness of the night, the next day, the years ahead. All he can do is remember and remember and remember until his eyes close, there before the window, facing the sea on which the sun is dancing, and the taste of everything in his mouth. It was a Sunday. Amadeo remembers. It was a Sunday and things were quiet and dismal: the port with its ragged wooden buildings, the unpaved streets, the stevedores who milled about like tired fish, still smelling of the night before. The sun had burned away the morning haze and witch-water was already rising from the sandy road that lined the harbor. On the other side of the street a cluster of tobacco warehouses leaned against each other, and at the corner formed by a road that stretched inland away from the port, a lone coconut palm grew, its base painted white. Amadeo fought his disappointment and walked off the pier bearing on his shoulders a steamer trunk that held all of the family's possessions: clothing mostly, a candelabrum, the few pieces of jewelry Julia insisted on bringing with her, a fry pan, five forks, six table spoons, and a book that had belonged to Julia's grandmother entitled Obras de piedad. Amadeo was close to six feet tall, broad-shouldered and heavy-armed, and, despite the weight of the trunk, he walked with long certain strides that gave the impression that he knew where he was going. Julia followed behind him. She was wearing a plain cream-colored muslin dress with a brown silk vest and a beige bonnet-to keep her hair in place during the crossing, she said-that seemed out of place on her head. Was that the way she was dressed? Amadeo is thinking. Maybe it was the gray dress she wore to church. Or one she had bought for the trip. It had gotten soiled on board the ship, and it worried her that she would have to arrive in the United States looking like a Turkish peddler, but that concern was soon to be supplanted by much more immediate ones. She was carrying a gunny sack containing the remains of two slabs of tasajo, a small tin of crackers, a bunch of bananas, and a butcher knife wrapped in cloth. Her full name was Julia González Herrera and she walked with the posture of a woman used to better things and a better life. She had never been on a boat before and the overnight crossing had left her exhausted, with her nerves frayed from the seasickness, the vomiting, the not knowing where they were in the middle of the bobbing darkness, the dampness, the cold waves spraying over the prow, and the awful feeling that she was leaving behind everything she knew and was entering the voracious mouth of fate. It was the worst night of her life, she kept reminding Amadeo through the years, and refused to set foot on a boat again. If her husband wanted to travel, so be it, but he would do it alone. True islander that she was, she mistrusted the sea and sensed that nothing good came from it. The trip from Havana to Tampa had only confirmed her mistrust, given it a firm basis in experience, so that she did not return to the island until many years later, when she thought she was dying. The boys hovered around her, except Albertico, the youngest, who rushed up to his father and tried to grab his pant leg and was ignored for his effort. Julia yelled out her husband's name, Amadeo!, in alarm but then composed herself and said nothing else. It was the wrong time for anything but the essential questions. Those questions were foremost on Amadeo's mind as well and so she did not need to ask them. Amadeo walked to the end of the pier, crossed the road and, once on the wooden sidewalk, set the trunk down and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He looked back and saw his wife already wilting in the heat. She crossed the street with Albertico holding on to her skirt and the other two close behind her, and for a brief moment it occurred to Amadeo that all of this was a mistake, that they should have stayed on the island and braved the authorities, but it was not a thought that held. What's done is done. A lo hecho pecho. When Julia reached him, he told her to wait there, and he entered a bodega where a group of stevedores were gathered having their morning brandy. Julia had the two oldest boys move the trunk under the tree at the corner. She sat on it, pulled the knife from the burlap sack and cut up the rest of the tasajo, placing the pieces on the lard crackers and handing them to the children.

Continues...

Excerpted from The Cigar Roller by Pablo Medina Copyright © 2005 by Pablo Medina. Excerpted by permission.
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