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THE WAR IS OVER | By Cameron Hunt McNabb
Alda and Jorge circled about the kitchen, in close orbit but never crossing paths. There wasn't enough gravity between them.
"I made you grits."
Her forced half-smile landed with the plate.
"You haven't had grits for awhile now, have you?"
"Well, now you know you're home."
This time it landed with her at the table. The faded lace napkins cut white triangles in the oak and remained unused. An aging note in Jorge's attentive cursive was still dangling on the fridge.
. . . . . . . . . .
Jorge chose to take Bayshore into downtown, for the scene that always made him feel at home. During the day, the sun glinted off of the water enough to obscure the line between the bay and the sky, and on very still nights, the water was so smooth it looked like a satin sheet. Sometimes he was tempted to climb over the balustrade and lie down in it. But now the scene looked unfamiliar, like someone had wrenched back the sheet and crumpled it on the shore. The disheveled rocks bobbed in the shallow, choppy waves and looked like the heads of fallen men, the thin coat of algae like matted hair. From that distance offshore, it would only take a wave or two for their bodies to be beached. But the rocks didn't move.
He arrived at the downtown office on Tampa St. The rugged "Garcia & Sons Paper" sign pitched in the morning sun that shoved its way between the buildings. He found downtown orderly — the bricks in their strategically staggered rows, the trees in their wrought iron cages. He instinctively stayed under the patterned awnings and hugged the exterior walls. If he had to cross the street, he jogged, a compromise between the sprint he wanted to do and the walk he knew he should.
The office wasn't as orderly as the streets. Stacks of stationery teetered on one end of Rose's desk, beside watermark samples and cigar labels. On the other end, newspaper headlines littered it, obscuring war transmissions and pamphlets. The Drew Field Echoes headline beamed,
"Jorge! Glad you're back." Rose's words shot out from behind the desk and hit him in the chest. "Let me show you to your office, back here, next to your dad's." She began to usher him down the hallway, only to meet his father mid-stride.
"Hijo, buenos dias. And welcome home." His smile, like always, hovered between pity and disappointment. Dad had always expected too much and given too little, as had Grandpa before him. But Momma had always given enough for the both of them. "I wasn't sure when you got home. Today will be a light day for you, but you do have a meeting at 2 with Carlos Hernandez, from the Club, just to get your feet wet. He is interested in buying out a paper in Havana, and we need to go with him. Cuba is a gold mine for us. Tell him about Manny. And speak Spanish."
Rose escorted him from his father's smile into his office. The room was bare, save half a dozen stacks of paper samples on the desk, rising like a metropolis on a wide, oak plain.
Jorge was always fascinated by paper but not like his Dad. He loved the blankness of it, the possibilities. He would search for a word amid a floating shelf of them above his head, and then pluck one down, with a slight squint of skepticism, and lay it out tentatively on the blank space; he always left one corner raised so that he could peel it off after a second thought. And on second thought, he would peel it off, dab it back on the invisible board, and choose again; this time he'd press down firmly, exchanging the squint for a smile, and smooth the word down with three fingers. That was it. That was the very word he wanted. And once one word was written, he knew that he had closed off all other possibilities. To him, writing wasn't about producing something new. It was about reducing infinity.
But selling paper was a whole different matter. He tried to remember everything he could — reams, caliper, stocks. But now all he could think of was that newspapers staunched wounds well, with their headlines melting under the whitewashing blood, and that war transmissions flaked into confetti when hit by a bullet.
Soon, he felt he needed a drink. It was his only liberty, he thought, drinking whenever he wanted. Just to get by today. Just today.
"Dad, I'm going to grab some lunch. I'm set for the Hernandez meeting at 2." His father wafted him out without a word, and he boarded the eastbound trolley.
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Alda ambled the car through the cobbled brick back streets, checking out whether the Daytons' bougainvillea was still in bloom or how the Swifts' roses were doing. The Daytons' lawn looked perfect, despite Joan's renovations, and Alda wondered who their lawn man was. Betty was in a dither that the roses might suffer in this heat. They had not.
The lights on Grand Central flashed red, and she watched the trolley lurch down the tracks, into the blinding sun.
Downtown looked lovely that day, and Alda walked in the middle of the sidewalk, with the mothers with buggies and children like sidecars. She headed into the Kress, with the faded napkins from breakfast in hand, the ones she had sewn for her hope chest. Daddy had bought all of the other items — bed linen, a tea set, a handmade veil — but she had wanted to make the napkins. Momma had given her an old issue of Women's Illustrated with a how-to guide and a tear-out pattern. It took her six months, and one napkin was slightly larger than the other three (her first attempt), but she had made them herself. They didn't sit in her hope chest for a month before she met Jorge. Six months later, they graced their half-moon table at their wedding.
"Mrs. Garcia, how are you! Come inside. It's hot as blue blazes out there. I hear that Jorge's home, now that the war is over?"
"Oh yes, Evelyn, thank you. Home indeed."
"Well, you must be delighted. What can I do for you today?"
"I'm actually looking for a new table runner. Betty had a nice new lace one last week that was simply gorgeous. But I'd like one to match these napkins. I'm hosting the luncheon for the Junior League."
"Why yes, we have a few lace ones over here. I think they'll go. Such adorable napkins!"
"Oh heavens, Evelyn, these old things! They're hardly worth a look."
The aisle of linens swallowed them whole.
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The trolley ran between the gentrified downtown and the grittier 7th Avenue to the east. The bricks there were more disorderly and the antique balconies hung far over the street. Jorge jumped off at the first Ybor stop and went straight into the cantina of the Centro Asturiano.
The place was familiar, more so since he'd been gone. The generations of men, the camaraderie, the sweat, and the smell of liquor. The high walls and sunken floor, like barracks erected in a bombed-out hotel. There were no women allowed.
He saw Manny right away, at the bar, wielding a cigar like a sixth finger. He tapped his ash and smiled at his nephew.
"Jorge! Que pasa? I didn't know you were home."
"Got in yesterday. Working today. You know Daddy."
"That I do. Let me get you a robusto and a brandy." He nodded to the bartender but didn't speak a word. When the young man returned with both, Jorge smiled at that intimacy, between Manny and him, such that the two could communicate with a single gesture.
"How's Alda, now that you're home?"
"OK, I guess. I haven't been home that long. She made me grits this morning, with fancy napkins and everything. She has expensive tastes, you know." Momma and Dad had liked Alda from the beginning. A good family, a good name. Her Dad had done business with Manny down at the factory, and her brother was already working to take over. Plus she was beautiful. At her debutante ball, she was so stunning that she made the front page of the paper. "She would make you a good wife," Dad had said. "Such a sweet thing," Momma had confirmed.
Jorge changed the subject. "Actually, can I talk to you about Carlos Hernandez?"
. . . . . . . . . .
In the afternoon heat, Alda pulled into Palma Ceia. It was bridge today, with the Junior League. She had brought the finger sandwiches, carrying them with two hands, like a fragile offering to a capricious god. The bridge club was already dealing the cards.
"Alda, honey! Welcome!" A chorus of the echoing greetings rose up, and Alda delicately situated the sandwiches on the table, among others of their kind.
"How's Jorge, now that he's home?" Betty asked.
"OK, I guess." Alda had met Jorge through Evelyn's older sister Joan. Father had approved of him right away. The Garcias were a good South Tampa family, older than most of their white neighbors. Cigars. And some citrus. "He just needs to get used to being home, that's all. I don't think he liked it there. Goodness knows it would have scared the living daylights out of me. All that war and death. Now he's working with his Daddy at the company, downtown, over on Tampa Street. I think it'll make him feel better in no time."
"Oh, for sure. Some good home-cooked food and some family will get things back to normal. And how wonderful about the company! I couldn't imagine him working anywhere else."
"Of course not. It's his Daddy's company."
"Why, sure. He's gotta sell paper."
"You know, when we were in high school, he wrote me a note asking me to the fall social. 'Dear Alda,' it began. He had written it out carefully on some of his Daddy's paper and then cut it to fit in the envelope. He said he hated to fold paper into envelopes, that it ruined it. He was funny like that. I fold paper all the time. Isn't that what it's there for?"
"I imagine so. Why else would they make it so big if you weren't supposed to fold it? Doesn't make a lick of sense. Oh, and how are things looking for the luncheon?"
"Just wonderful. I even got a new table runner, after I saw your lace one last week. Yours was just darling. And your roses! Heavens. And I've been meaning to ask, who is Joan's lawn man?"
The women fanned their cards and partook of the sacrifices until the sun began to fall behind the Club's colonial facade.
. . . . . . . . . .
Jorge nodded and sat down before his paper metropolis. It was so exposed; one false move and the whole city could collapse. But this was what he had been waiting for, to work at the company. "Providing for his family," as Dad had said.
This was what Dad had always wanted. And Momma. It can't be Garcia & Sons without the sons, and the sons had always been there. Now there was just one son. Without him, it would be Garcia Paper, and then just Paper. It would be too much to lose the man and the company in a single blow. One should stagger tragedy.
Jorge slid a single sample off of the nearest stack, reducing the high-rise by a single floor. He began to sketch a cigar label for Manny's new sun-grown torpedo, plucking words and images from his invisible shelf. But when Carlos Hernandez walked in at a quarter to 2, all his words fell off and crashed on the oaken plain below. He swept them away with one hand while shaking Carlos's with the other. "Buenos tardes, Carlos. Tome asiento, por favor. Let's talk about Cuba."
When Carlos emerged from Jorge's office an hour later, the deal was done. Garcia & Sons Paper would start shipping newspaper to Havana next month. The press was three blocks from Manny's headquarters.
Jorge's father nodded slightly. "Let's grab a drink. To celebrate."
Women were filing out of Palma Ceia with empty platters in tow. Manny was already in the 19th Hole, tapping ash with his right hand while sipping with his left, when Jorge arrived. The fall of his ash exploded in the tray like miniature bombs on a walled-in city. He'd just have a drink. One drink.
The bartender brought a cheap paper napkin with his single malt scotch, and it was folded into a flaky white triangle. The droplets from the glass stained it almost beyond use. But he soiled it indiscriminately, like a cheap imposter of Alda's fancy lace ones. He was too scared to touch those, even after two years of marriage. He didn't want to mess them up for her. Once the paper napkin had dissolved beyond recognition, he smiled at Manny, shook his father's hand, and threw down some bills.
He drove Bayshore back again, to see if someone had tucked back in the corners of the bay. Now the white choppy Vs of the seagulls against the sky were indistinguishable from the white choppy Vs of the waves, leading Jorge to think that whoever had crumpled the satin sheet had now folded the scene in half along the horizon, blotting the white etchings on the blue canvases. The bodies were no nearer the shore.
. . . . . . . . . .
At home, Alda folded her old napkins and the new table runner into her hope chest, which she now called her completion chest after their marriage. It covered her black and white face and sparkling white gown on the front page of the Tribune. The old Women's Illustrated cutout was just beneath. As she closed the wooden lid, the magazine's article struck her eye: "Dear Reader," it began. "Every girl asks, 'How do I keep my husband happy? How can I make a house a home for him?' You can begin by making these beautiful lace napkins." Alda practically had it memorized. But now she took out the page and crossed out "Reader." She wrote her own name instead. "Dear Alda." She liked seeing it, her name spelled out. Her first clear memory of a note written to her, her own self with her own name, was Jorge's note about the fall social. It lay further buried, underneath both clippings.
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Dinner was the same dance of dropped plates and half-forced smiles. Grits were replaced with picadillo, but the dance did not change. Alda put out paper napkins instead. Jorge's note on the fridge finally fell to the floor.
In bed, they drifted to opposite sides and closed their eyes. The war was over.