Ten stories were chosen by judges as the best in this year’s Ybor-themed fiction contest, and readers voted for their favorite from that group: David Rojas' "Cigar City Angel Dust." Read David's story and the other finalists' stories below. Read the judges’ winner, "The Tabaquero's Squirrel," by Cully Perlman, here.
CIGAR CITY ANGEL DUST | David Rojas
The events of that morning sped through Oscar’s mind as he auto-piloted through the streets of town. As of late his life felt monotonously tragic and surreal like the story of someone else’s life told through a series of wet Polaroids. That morning each one of his blinks was a photograph. It was something like this: Late again? Flash. Notorious for coffee breaks. Flash. Infamous for bathroom breaks. Flash. Batteries in the bathroom smoke detector replaced!? Flash! Caught smoking inside! Flash. It wasn’t me. Flash. You’re fired! Flash. The after-images and their little blue dots still burned in his mind’s eye. Since when had a day in his life become just another flash of the sun, numb and void of sound and scent? Suddenly, the coughing of his tires treading over bricks brought him back to his car.
Then he noticed the bank. An imposing building that stood out in this historic district as noticeably new despite the best efforts of its vintage red brick façade. Oscar had driven straight across town! He parked his car in the bank parking lot and attempted to gather himself. He was tired of being down and tried to look at the positive side of things. He tried to establish himself not as an unemployed good-for-nothing but as a man free from the shackles of a job; but in the end he resolved he was just a slave to bills and child support. He thought of a million things. He even thought of robbing the bank but all he had as weapons were a bottle of hand sanitizer and a lighter. He was no MacGyver so he sanitized his hands, lit a cigarette, and went for a walk.
There were many storefronts, restaurants, and bars that Oscar walked past but he was oblivious to all until he was nearly trampled by a young blond woman. Her hair was pulled tight to her scalp on the sides and it was up down the center of her head in a faux-hawk sort of coiffure. She wore a red flower print dress and accessorized it with a black backpack and combat boots. “Sorry,” she yelled without turning her head or losing pace. Oscar noticed that she smelled of vanilla, musk, and smoke. He wished he could have talked to her or at least smelled her one more time.
He looked in the green door where she had run out of. Inside was a dimly lit hallway leading to a staircase. Just below the stairs was a sign with an arrow pointing up and it read “PUB.”
The place seemed totally disconnected from the rest of this world. His curiosity drove him through the doorway; perhaps there would be more Athenas in combat boots inside. The air in the hallway was heavy and stale with years of accumulated cigarette smoke. He went up the first wooden step and his hand gripped the wooden handrail. It was sticky. Oscar was thoroughly repulsed but he nonetheless had to fight his instinctive urge to actually smell his hand and instead just wiped his paw on his pants. Oscar wished he hadn’t left the hand sanitizer in his car. He held his breath the rest of the way up.
Upstairs the bar was one large rectangular room. In the center was a billiard table with sporadic cigarette scars in the green felt. Other than the green cloth of the table everything in the room was made of wood, even the floors. Around the billiard table were several small round tables with their respective wooden stools. At the left end of the room were small domed windows that looked out onto the street. Even on a sunny day in the early afternoon the place was dim. On the back wall stood the bar which dominated the room. There was enough space between the bar and the right wall for two dartboards. On the other side of the wall bordering the dartboards were restrooms.
There were only four other people in the bar, one of them was the bartender, and to Oscar’s disappointment but not to his surprise, they were all males. Two middle-aged men smoked, drank, and actually ate at a table next to a window. Then there was an older gentleman that sat at the bar. His hair was rare and painted with some gray, but well-groomed and slicked back. He wore a white button-up shirt with burgundy stripes and brown slacks. Oscar sat two stools to his left.
Oscar ordered a beer and noticed that the geriatric man next to him kept on looking at him. Oscar passed his hand across his face; maybe he had a bugger or something. Then he remembered the sticky stairs and cringed. The old man was now blatantly staring. Oscar grabbed his beer and raised it slightly in front of himself, made eye contact with the geezer, and with the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old boy being forced to go to Sunday school said, “Cheers, sir.”
The old man began to talk to Oscar and they traded small talk, things about the weather and their choice of beer. Then the old man asked Oscar, “What’s your story?”
Oscar didn’t know how to answer so he lit another cigarette. “It’s a pathetic one,” he finally replied. “What’s yours?”
The old man twisted the tips of his mustachio. That too was graying. From his coat he pulled out a small engraved wooden box, big enough to fit about five cigars, and from this box he withdrew a cigar. “I have terminal cancer, this is my last straw,” he said.
Suddenly Oscar felt. He felt mad and then guilty. Here he was trying to feel sorry for himself and this man next to him was terminally ill. Then it struck him like dry lightning, how self-centered he was. He didn’t care for anything but himself and honestly he didn’t care for himself too much lately. Oscar put out his cigarette. “Are you sure you should be smoking that?” he asked.
“I was given the gift of these ten cigars 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, you hear. I have only ever smoked one. I am going to die soon anyway. So I think l will enjoy it while I’m alive. You know, life is like a cigar in many ways.”
“You’re right,” Oscar replied, but he was only half sincere.
The bartender came around. He was tall, lanky, and balding with a ponytail; on his forearm he sported a fading Guns N' Roses tattoo. Oscar ordered two whiskeys this time, one for the dying man. The old man thanked Oscar for the drink.
“I didn’t know cigars could keep for that long,” Oscar said to him.
“It is not the cigar that cannot keep for 50 years; it is the man that cannot keep the cigar for 50 years. I thought about throwing these away many many times, but never could. They were rolled by Don Luis himself. And these were deemed the finest cigars of their time. Do you want one?”
“Oh, no! I couldn’t,” Oscar replied.
“Don’t worry, my friend. We are all terminally ill as soon as we are born.”
The old man took out his portable humidor, put it on the table, pulled out another cigar and closed the box. “I treat my cigars out in the air like fish out of the water.” He put the case away and turned to Oscar. “You must have one, I insist. It would be very bad to smoke all of these by myself anyway, you know. And I will tell you the story about the cigars as we puff them away together.”
Oscar was no cigar connoisseur. Hell, he smoked cheap menthol cigarettes. But this cigar was delicious. Yes, delicious. He didn’t even know tobacco could smell that great. The cigar burned perfectly and the smoke was slow and white and robust.
“This cigar is out of this world,” Oscar told the old man. “Now I am genuinely curious about this cigar and the good old days it came from.”
“Today is the good old days, my friend. You should try to see that. We have a drink and a good cigar and good company. I do not mean good like 5 o’clock is good. I mean good like only the present is — was, another second has gone past, you see. It took me a mere 73 years to realize that the present is a rare gift, not like a shooting star but more subtle and tense like a forbidden kiss or the moonlight on a lover’s hip. It is a difficult concept to unwrap. Especially for a man like me with a lifetime of practice in wrapping and rolling things together, and the whole time I always know it will all soon burn away. But I continue to roll anyway.“
Oscar was about to say something, nothing meaningful of course, but the old man kept on talking.
“In my land my parents worked in a cigar factory. When I was a boy I did not want to be a cigar roller like my family. I wanted to be a fisherman. One day when I was not yet 13 I was out fishing when my life changed. I caught a hammerhead shark. It was small and it was a small joy that was to be followed by the greatest of pains. My mother, my father, and my two older brothers were killed in a fire at the cigar factory that day. That factory was the largest and saddest cigar that ever burned.
“My uncle worked at the cigar factory, too. But he was sick that day so his life was spared. You see, sickness was a blessing that time. I came with him to this town to find work in the cigar factories here. My uncle taught me how to roll. He was a good man so he died fast, just three years after we got here. One never gets good at dealing with great losses, but I was young and had something to keep my mind busy. I had been working at the cigar factory the whole time and I grew to love it because it was all I had left to love. I was only 17 but my fingers worked like tentacles and I became a favorite of Don Luis. This earned me a seat next to el Lector.”
Oscar was surprised at how interested he was in what the old man was saying. Oscar wondered if it was because he knew that the old man would die soon. Last words are the ones that everyone pays attention to, after all. “What is el Lecture?” Oscar asked with a smirk.
“El Lector is, you know, the people that read stories or newspapers or novels to the cigar workers while we rolled. Don Luis was the owner of the factory and Katarina was his wife. She was the Lector. She was much younger than he, and beautiful, so beautiful. And I would be lost in her voice no matter what she read. The voice of an angel that woman had.
“Don Luis was a great impresario and kind man. He knew my story and saw that I worked hard, so he told me he wanted to train me to become a manager, but first I would have to learn to read. And that Katarina would teach me because she went to school in the old continent to be a teacher.“Before I could read, my favorite thing was memorizing poetry. Before I knew how to read I would pick up random books and recite a poem while pretending to read. This made Katarina laugh. Every day after work I would meet with Katarina and we would read. Sometimes we would read in the factory but if it was a nice day we would go outside. Sometimes we would even go to the bay. She loved watching the sun set and then the moon rise over the bay. Katarina and I became very close and Don Luis was traveling much because he wanted to ‘expand his brand.’
“Katarina and I fell for each other very fast and very hard. One time I counted with a kiss every freckle in her body, she had 37 freckles. I kissed each one. My favorite freckle was on the nape of her neck because it reminded me of the freckles you cannot see.” The old man finished off his drink and produced a long burdened sigh, his breath saturated with nostalgia.
“Now, by this time I was a manager at the factory and my plan was to save money so that I can run away with my Katarina. I had almost reached my goal when I saw Katarina at the factory Christmas party. She was there with Don Luis and it made me very jealous and I had to try very hard to remain stolid. Toward the end of the night we shared a dance. It was easy to dance with her. She moved like the moonlight on the bay and her scent intoxicated my body like a beautiful melody.
“The day after Christmas was not a merry day at the factory. The police was there and Don Luis was in great distress. Katarina had disappeared! I couldn’t believe that she would run away without me! We had talked about it much and every time we imagined it, we imagined it together. But the police searched for her, as did I, but she just wouldn’t be found. I had lost again, but the hope of one day finding her did not want to die in me.
“This was one of the worst times in my life. It was hard for everybody at the factory. Don Luis was in so much distress he sold the factory and moved somewhere else only a year, maybe more, after. But before he left, he gave me those 10 cigars. Said they were excellent cigars. That they won many awards for him and that Katarina would have wanted me to have them.”
There was a short silence. “I’m sorry about Katarina,” Oscar said. Oscar then thought about Michelle and their daughter. He should call them. He would call them, tomorrow. No, not tomorrow. He would call them today. Yes, today he must call. His thoughts turned back to the old man. “Did anyone ever find out what happened to her, to Katarina?”
“No,” he said. “But there was rumors about Katarina. Some said she went to Spain. Some said she went to Cuba. Others said that Don Luis killed her and burned her remains and then rolled her ashes into a special batch of cigars.”
Oscar took the cigar from his mouth. “That’s just a tall tale, right?”
“Yes, that is what the most people say,” replied the old man. "But they also say from ashes we come and to ashes we will go. And only, only the soul rises.”
“It’s actually dust,” Oscar corrected him, “but I suppose ashes works.” Oscar brought the cigar back to his mouth.
“Yes, that is what the most people say. But maybe it is not coincidence the aroma of this cigar and maybe it is not coincidence how the smoke moves like the moonlight on the bay. But maybe it is just a coincidence that my soul too rises with the smoke.”
Oscar let out the smoke from his mouth and examined the cigar between his thumb and his forefinger. The cherry still burned red. Ashes fell on the floor and Oscar watched the smoke from the tip of the cigar rise, shift into shapes, and disappear.