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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.
DEATH ROLL | Frank Drouzas
He keeps plodding toward me like some big black zombie no matter how much I punch him off.
I’m bouncing jabs off his forehead but Tyrone keeps stalking me, and I’m waiting for him to get close so I can rip into his mid-section.
Sparring for the upcoming Luis Salvaje fight. Only months ago I turned pro, and this’ll be my fourth six-rounder. My trainer Willy knows Tyrone who knows my opponent’s moves — trained alongside him a couple times — so he’s imitating him now.
With a five-and-five record, I know I’m hanging on by a fingernail. Drop any more fights and not sure what kind of action I can get after that. Don’t want to think about that, though.
Every time Tyrone tries to come inside, I side-step him like a matador and dig into his side. Tyrone absorbs it with bulldog grunts and keeps circling slowly, giving me a chance to draw him in and set it all up again. I’m bap-bap-bapping shots off him like nothing. It’s exhilarating.
That is until he slips me once, waits till I’m turned around then stabs me with two quick shots that dig into my hip, stun me. Not exactly a clean move, but I don’t say anything. One thing a fighter never wants to do is show that he’s hurt.
Only been training a month or so at the Sunshine Boxing Club in Ybor City, Tampa’s oldest and most dangerous part of town, so I’ve only seen Tyrone a handful of times. We repeat the dance for five rounds till Willy says it’s enough. I go to touch gloves, but Tyrone barely acknowledges.
“What’s with him?” I ask Willy when he’s walked to the other side of the gym to take of his gear on the bench.
“Moody bastard. You know he fought Paco Ortiz a couple years back at the Palladium. Says he was taking Ortiz to school when in the fifth he got caught with a dirty elbow that blew up his eye socket. Lost almost all his vision in that eye, still gets fierce headaches. Can’t pass any vision test so he can’t be cleared to fight.” Willy shakes his head. “Dead in the water.”
“He can still move around all right,” I say, still feeling the kidney shots.
Willy yanks off my gloves. “Jake feels sorry for him, lets him hang around his gym here, use the equipment, spar, whatever. He even cleans up and locks up. Doesn’t pay any dues. Not like he was ever a real contender, but now he’s just a punching bag.”
Almost sundown and I’m getting my roadwork in jogging toward the park lake when I spot an enormous black smudge in the sky, a smudge with wings that’s flying toward this condemned-looking building I’ve never really noticed before. It finds a perch on the very top, where it settles in and joins some other friends who are already squatting there. Vultures.
I reach the park at the end of my run and plop down on the edge of the small lake. Knees pulled up and head down, I’m huffing and puffing.
That’s when I sense it. Don’t ask me how. The way I imagine it’d feel when you walk into a room where someone was murdered years ago. Get a weird tingle.
I raise my head and look straight ahead of me and see them: two humps in the black water. Eyes. It takes me a split second to realize what it is I’m facing, what’s laying in wait for me.
It’s like when two gunfighters have their hands poised above their holsters, before I suddenly make the move. I push off to my left quick as lightning just as a huge black alligator comes at me like he was shot out of the water.
I hear the jaws snap shut, sounds like a gunshot, just missing me. On my feet now I backpedal, I don’t turn and hightail it. Not me. Want to keep him in front of me, in my vision. Just came off a two-mile run but now I’m bouncing on the balls of my feet, in my rhythm.
“Let’s go,” I tell the gator, hands up and ready like the bell has rung.
After its initial surge he stops about six feet away, jaws open, and hisses at me. A couple milk-white gashes near its head. Stand off. Since I’m erect I don’t look like some small animal and I’m trying to make my 160 pounds as intimidating as possible. My hands are still up. I’m all in now.
He stops hissing. His eyes narrow and he closes his jaw and it’s the closest I’ve seen an animal to outright grinning. It’s as if he’s thinking, I knew I had only one shot to take you down.
But I’m still here.
He turns back toward the lake and his tar-black tail is the last thing to slip back into the murky water, silent as death.
Next day at the gym I’m sparring with Tyrone again, and again we work on inside punches. “Draw him in,” Willy keeps shouting, “then up and underneath, up and underneath!” Only four rounds today till Willy tells me to work the bag for another four rounds and steps outside to take a call.
I’m wiping my head off with a towel when I look up and see Tyrone next to me on the bench.
“What record you got?” He asks me like he’s demanding I show him my hand in a card game.
I tell him. “Got the short end of some decisions, though. This last one--”
He cuts me off with a laugh like a rusty chainsaw. “Course you did, course you did,” he manages to get out, still laughing. “Best be careful or you’ll be Mr. Stepping Stone ‘fore you know it.”
Before I can say anything Willy comes back and says he’s going to his daughter’s to help with a faucet, and he’ll pick me up at two for the weigh-in tomorrow.
Soon as he leaves Tyrone stands up. “Let me show you some stuff.”
Back in the ring he tells me to plant myself while he comes way inside, slips my punch then turns his knee sharply and whacks my inner thigh with it — I stumble and barely avoid taking a seat on the canvas when he just taps me with a follow-up punch.
He laughs. “Now the voice in your head is sayin’, ‘Do I not get hit and fall, or do I cover up and fall?’
“I don’t know about that, man.” I don’t come out and say the word ‘dirty,’ but I’m sure thinking it.
“Survival, baby. Kill or be killed,” he says.
“You want to talk about that?” I say. So I tell him about the gator, how close it came. “It wasn’t like those cutesy Greetings from Florida postcards where you have some broad in a bikini bent over and the gator right behind her looking like it’s going to kiss her in the luscious ass. No. This thing was evil, hissing at me. I saw death in its eyes, man.”
“Whoo! You one lucky sonofabitch! He tried to ambush your ass. You think he gonna show you ten feet of reptile skin and muscle? Hell no. You don’t see nothing, until it’s too late. That thing gets a hold of your leg you either lose about a foot right there or it drags you down for a death roll.”
“He can’t outrun you on land, right? So it takes the fight to his turf. Drags you down into the water and spins around and around till either a part of you breaks off in its jaws. Or you drown.”
“Well this one was mean-looking. Had these white and gray gashes all…”
“Battle scars. The males are territorial as hell so they fight each other, especially in their mating season. Right now, matter of fact. They don’t bluff each other or play wrestle, they vicious. They bite and rip each other up till one is dead or backs off.”
“How you know so much about these things?”
He shrugs. “Mama’s always got that Discovery Channel on. Besides,” he says, getting defensive, “it’s educational.”
Suddenly he starts throwing fierce combinations in the air. In between punches he starts speaking low, “You watch him, feel him out. He come at you looking to mess you up, then you level the playing field. You got to get in his head. That’s the law of the ring. Whatever you got to do, it’s all fair.” He ends with a flurry that stops just short of my gut. “If I’d done that I’d still be fighting. Come on, I got a couple more things to show you.”
Day before the fight, at the weigh-in. Salvaje’s staring me down the whole time, making a good show of it. When we’re all weighed in I notice his woman on the way out, a fine Latina. “Looking good, mama,” I whisper to her and grin like a bastard. She looks like she can’t make up her mind to tell me to piss off or just to laugh. An iron glare from Salvaje tells her she’d better shut up. I can see him seething.
Complete rest that night. Trying to clear my head but keep thinking about my previous bouts. About what I could have done differently, how far I think I can go with this. Like Tyrone said, you have to know how to survive or you’re not going to last. You have it or you don’t.
Night of the fight. Boxing Under the Stars, the promoters call it. Set up a ring outside in the heart of Ybor. Even the crowd’s giving off an electricity, they’re all chomping at the bit to see some blood then be turned loose on the bars up and down Seventh Avenue. I got a tough act to follow cause the opener had Whelan taking his man out in the second with a face-plant KO.
Finally it’s my turn to step between the ropes. Crowd doesn’t seem too impressed when I’m announced but they all-out cheer Salvaje. It’s go time.
First round we’re just sniffing each other out with some light trading and he fires off some jabs but doesn’t get too close yet. But I’m patient. I flick off a few of my own lefts to go to work inside but before I know what’s happening he comes punching right through them and backs me into the ropes and jams his forearm against my gloves, into my chest. Tees off on me downstairs while my hands are trapped. Quits just before he can get called on anything but gets his shots in.
Every time I try to get him to come inside he steps in and around me, rips into my hip just like Tyrone did, and runs off before I can counter.
Toward the end of the second round he’s got another nifty trick. Comes in real close with his gloves tucked under his face, feints with a left then squats and whirls at the hip, trying to whap me in the knee with his own knee and knock me off balance. I’m able to jump back quick enough. He’s being sneaky as hell, boy. He manages to shove me against the ropes again and again and when my gloves are both up he jams his forearm against them, pinning them to my throat, even, while I’m eating his punches.
After the bell and between heavy breaths I try to tell Willy what Salvaje’s up to but Willy won’t have it. Screams at me to tighten up my combinations and punch my way out of trouble against the ropes. Not so easy when you can’t move your hands, I feel like saying.
During the middle of the fourth, Salvaje waits for me to come inside. I test him out, jab a few times, but back off. I sense something has changed. Feeling like I’m walking near a tiger trap. Again, he waits for me to take it to him and after a couple jabs I try to come over the top. He slips it and digs his right hand up and into my hip near the kidney two, three, four times before he backs it off.
The ref ain’t calling jack. If Salvaje whipped a .38 out his trunks, aimed it at my crotch and shot my dick clean off then maybe he’d call a foul.
So I go for it.
I take a step back and at the same time raise my right hand straight up and leave it there frozen for a second, like I’m about to smash my fist straight down on his head like a hammer. Salvaje looks up for a split second and that’s all I need. I flick my left at his forehead for decoy and in a bowling motion I bring my right sweeping down and picking up momentum as it finds its target — half a foot below Salvaje’s belt.
The crowd whoops as Salvaje leans forward, head bent down while he holds his crotch. The ref immediately shoves me back and signals to the timekeeper to stop the clock and tells Salvaje to take his time to recover.
He gives me an official warning as he backs me into a neutral corner. I shout loud enough for Salvaje to hear: “You tell him to keep doing what he’s doing and next time it won’t be a love tap.”
“Next time I take a point away,” Ref yells. “Keep ‘em up!”
Salvaje takes his time meanwhile, acting like he just took a cannonball to the groin. I know how hard I hit him so I know he’s just putting on a good show. He paces around the ring inhaling and exhaling. Can’t tell if it’s surprise or anger on his face.
During all this I spot his woman in the front row. I give her a nod. I glance across at Salvaje to see if he’s looking, then back at his girl and blow her a kiss, with tongue. I swear I see her cheeks flush. Get in his head.
We finish the round and back in the corner Willy’s giving me an earful about the low blow. “You done hot dogging out there?”
I just take in some water and spit. Focusing on what I have to do — after all, it’s just me in that ring fighting. No one else.
Sixth and final round and I’m definitely feeling it. Feeling it from the hip punches, feeling it from the gut punches, feeling it from getting out-boxed too many times in all my fights. Salvaje must smell it on me cause when I step in he gets inside and quick as hell he twines his arm over mine and locks it up at the elbow. I can’t escape. He tears into me again and again, pounding my body and kidney.
I try to whap him off with my free hand but he’s pressed me so close I can’t get any kind of juice behind it. Gripping my arm tight he keeps ripping into me at the same time spinning me around and around, trying to keep it out of the ref’s sight, while I’m flailing with only my left and my legs are wobbling and I’ve got no gas left in the tank and it’s all slipping away from me as I’m struggling for air.
Finally the ref breaks us but Salvaje comes right back in, looking to lock me up again. “This is it,” his face may as well be saying, “this is where you go down.”
I tuck in my arms and bend down so low my head’s almost in his gut and I feel his punches pelting the side of my head. I know he’s close enough so I call up every reserve I have and like a shot my right hand comes sweeping around — I’m careful to hook my glove in as I swing so it whiffs purposely short of his head but I follow through all the way with my remaining strength and smash my elbow on the point of his jaw, where it explodes on his bone.
I feel a charge shooting up and down my arm — like the lightning hitting the rod that jolts Frankenstein’s monster to life — and Salvaje drops his arms instantly while his body jerks up but his head dangles down, like he’s been tasered. Executed right, Tyrone said, a shot like that can bring down a horse. Before he can crumple I follow with a quick left, but it’s already over.
Stick my hands straight up and stab the air as the surge keeps shooting through me. I’m invigorated, baby! Alive!
Next day something drives me to go down to the lake again. Maybe respect, in a way. Can’t really explain it. I’ve got two whole raw chickens in a bag, dripping in the heat. I make my way down my jogging path and down to the lip of the lake. No fear.
I wind around some marshes trying to find the same spot, when I see a huge vulture with its red bald head and black eyes. Then another one in front of it. It’s a whole line of them, single file as they’re waiting patiently to get at something behind a thick clump of weeds.
The air smells heavy, sour in the wavy heat. At the end of the line of vultures, completely out of the water I see the black alligator, lying on its back, jaw frozen open and feet jutting up into the air, with its throat ripped and gray stomach bloated and the biggest of the vultures standing over it, its beak bloody in the bright sun, stabbing and picking through the underbelly to get to the meaty payday.
EUQUERIO | Stuart C. Purkey
My name is Euquerio Cordaro. I came to Ybor City in the late 19th century, following my employer to the Tampa area in hopes of securing a better future for myself. As you could well expect, I am a tabaquero, a cigar roller; a trade handed down through generations of men in my family. I was in my early twenties when I made my venture to a new future… never expecting just how long my future would last.
You see, I was only in my new city for two weeks when I met him. He went only by the name Adolfo, and he had the darkest eyes I had ever seen in a man. We met outside one of the bars where I would occasionally have a drink, but would commonly frequent to sell my wares.
It is not a fact that I am proud of, but while in Key West I had discovered that I could improve my income by stealing clippings and substandard tobacco leaves from the factory, and rolling cigars and cigarillos at home. Due to the scraps from which I salvaged, they of course were inferior in nature. But unlike my Cuban brothers, many of the Germans and Italians who resided in Ybor City were not comparably well-educated in the quality of a cigar. Either that, or they enjoyed that my product was considerably less expensive. Whatever the case, I was able to use the money from my sales as a savings. But I am getting off topic.
Adolfo was a bit of an enigma, I must admit. He was obviously a man who could afford a better product, well-groomed and always wearing the finest of clothing, so I never understood why he would buy my trifling cigars. But I did enjoy the company. We would talk for sometimes hours, walking the streets of my new home. He would ask about my family, my friends, my home in Cuba. It was comforting having someone to talk to after a long day in the factory, because we rarely took the time to speak while working.
I would ask him about his family, his past and other such things, but he was always quite vague, telling me that he was sure my life was more interesting. I would always respond that it was impossible, since he was obviously well-traveled, well-educated and well-read. To this he would just smirk and change the subject back to me. Twice he came by my room and had a glass of wine before he headed home for the night, but he never once let me see where he lived. While this did cause me some suspicion, I concluded that the bewilderment was worth the companionship.
It was the last time that I laid eyes on Adolfo that he fully revealed himself to me. We had partaken of a few drinks, a little more than I was accustomed to. The streets were particularly vacant on my way home this evening, the cause for this night’s events, of which I was soon to become aware.
As we passed between factory buildings, Adolfo took me by my throat and thrust me against a brick wall, lifting my feet from the ground. The force of his hand clenched around my neck strangled out most of my ability to speak. So much so, that all I could choke out was, “¿Que...?”
“You are so curious about my past? All you need to know is that I am over 200 years old. I move about like the wind from city to city, searching for people like you. You wondered how I could show such interest in your pathetic life? I could care less about your existence… I just had to know if you had friends or family who would miss you when you were gone,” he informed me, just before he plunged gleaming white fangs into my throat.
I cannot tell you the events that followed, nor how much time had passed after. The next thing I remember, I found myself under a house near the factories. I do not know how I got there, whether I crawled there myself or if Adolfo had placed me there. Though I cannot think of a reason he would have rescued me after such an attack.
Suddenly I became aware of a terrible thirst, or a hunger, I do not to this day know which. I careened out into the night, in search of a way to remove this agonizing desire. I saw an old man, staggering home from a bar, I can only assume, and it came to me that I then knew what I had become. My father told me stories that his father had told him, about creatures of the night in the old country. Vampiro. I absorbed that old drunk’s life into my body, its heat burning in my throat, but giving me a feeling of unparalleled strength. What followed, though, was the inconsolable guilt in having taken an innocent life.
In time I came to realize that on one feeding, I could go for nearly three weeks if I drained the life out of my victim. Less time if I drank less, which caused more trouble than the weight of my conscience in killing my victim, I would soon find. You see, if one does not kill one’s prey, one’s prey can accuse him.
She walked the streets quite often in the evenings, and our eyes had met a few times. Concepcion, a woman whose reputation certainly did not fit her name. I came to miss the company I had with Adolfo, so I began to spend some time with her to ease the loneliness. On this night, however, the craving had returned and as much as I struggled to resist the temptation, I could not. Upon kissing her hand good night, I turned to expose her wrist and gently sank my fangs. I only was able to drink a few ounces when she managed to wrest her hand free and run into the occupied streets. That is why Adolfo attacked on the night he did — a blessed scarcity of witnesses.
Concepcion fled, shrieking, into the streets, pointing a bloody hand in my direction. Her poor reputation came to my aid this night, as those from whom she sought help all retreated from her. I emerged from the alley, having to think very quickly. My first thought was to flee into the night, never to be seen again in these parts, but I had come to love my beautiful Ybor City. Instead, I lunged at her.
“How dare you hit me, puta! You will come and finish what you were paid for!” I dragged her into another alley, then turned to my supernatural strength to escape the scene in a hurry. When I was sure that no one else was around, I ripped Concepcion’s throat open and drained her of her essence.
From that night on, I learned that it is best to take a victim in a quick, clean kill… it is more humane and less of a risk to my own life. I have adopted Adolfo’s practice of getting to know someone’s background to make sure that they are people without friends or families. Before you begin to judge me, just know that what I do is not so different from your own practices. You raise livestock to slaughter it and eat its meat. In fact, what I do is less barbaric than your means; at least I “farm” my own food, you leave the dirty work to others. But again I get off topic.
Considering my new condition, I was no longer able to work in the factories. One must be able to tolerate daylight in order to keep a job, no? So I had to hone my skills at thievery, and began to use my continually improving new reflexes to steal others’ money from their own hands before they knew it was gone. I soon learned that not only could I move very quickly, but also very quietly. So quietly in fact, that I could walk into someone’s home and take the jewelry right from their sleeping bodies.
However, I could not leave my first love of cigar rolling. So I found myself sneaking into the factory storehouses to pilfer tobacco. This time, however, I chose the choicest leaves rather than the scraps. With theft being my new form of income, I was able to consume more of the fruits of my rolling labors, often sitting on a rooftop to enjoy my handiwork while watching the activity in my beloved city.
I eventually was able to purchase a home, which provided much-needed security. By this time, my beautiful Ybor City had become a bustling city — full of immigrants and their clubs, restaurants and other businesses. The larger population increased my opportunities, but I soon realized that I should avoid the Italians, who usually had large families. The immigrants’ social clubs made things slightly more difficult as well, as even those who had little to no family, now seemed to have friends.
By the 1920s, I had purloined my way into quite a decent wealth. By no means a Mr. Plant, but still wealth enough to begin to purchase other homes. With that income, I again saved and sought to purchase my own factory. That dream was never to materialize, as it were.
As I’m sure you are well aware, in 1929, there was an economic collapse that came to be known as the Great Depression. With cigars being considered a luxury, demand for my trade quickly declined and many factories closed or switched to machine-rolled cigars in order to reduce costs. In many cases, only small shops were able to survive this crisis.
This made my thievery more difficult, being that there were less people from whom to steal. But in the worst of times people still drink, moreso the worse things get. So I would quite frequently dine at the Columbia, picking pockets in the bar, from the wait staff, wherever I could. It was easier by far to steal from people on the streets, but the social aspect of dining in the world’s finest restaurant quelled the loneliness of my solitary existence.
As is with all things, the economic downfall passed, and I began to have hopes that my Ybor City would return to her former glory. But a great many people had left her, and many more moved to areas with greater job opportunities. But I could not leave my city. She was my dream, my hopes, my prayers.
After the Second World War, I thought she was going to be my tomb. With the soldiers returning, many of us had hoped that they would bring their money and their families with them. But the migration away from my fair city would grow, and the economy would continue to degrade.
I managed to procure a couple of small, abandoned factories for a comparably meager sum, and set up residences for myself in them. I cultivated their abandoned look in an attempt to dissuade questions as to why a deserted factory looked well-maintained. This did work to my advantage more frequently than one might expect. Vagrants and vandals would often break into my new homes, only to find themselves in the helpless position of being my latest victim. While it often occurred to me to allow one of my victims to turn into my kind, I never made the attempt. The survival instinct is apparently far stronger than loneliness.
Through the years, I began to obtain some of the finer things in life — books, furniture, art, clothing and jewelry. I gained an education from reading everything I could get my hands on, quite often reading by candlelight while smoking my cigars rooftop.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, I discovered a new problem with my condition: age. People started to notice that I never seemed to grow older, so I began to frequent more places less often, so as to not be recognized as a regular. I would also find myself spending weeks or months without going out to meet my social needs.
During this period I made quite the fortuitous discovery. It had been almost a month since someone had broken into my home, so I hadn’t fed in that time. If I took a victim every three weeks, I could maintain my youthful appearance. But every few days after that period, I seemed to age. After two months, I began to look like a man in his fifties. After three, his seventies. I also found that drinking wine helps to take away the thirst and its pain, while not reversing the artificial aging. Any longer than three months, though, and I found out (most unfortunately) that the desire for blood is so insatiable that I would go into a frenzy and slaughter a whole room of people. As a result, I began the habit of letting myself go beyond a month a little at a time, so as to appear to age naturally. Then, every ten years or so, I could start over with a full feeding every week for about a month, in order to regain my normal, youthful appearance.
By the 1960s, my beautiful, beloved Ybor City was hardly a city at all. In an attempt to revitalize the area, “they” decided to demolish many of the buildings that had fallen into disrepair, with the intent to encourage new development. Unfortunately, though, there was either too little money, too little interest, or both, and the lots sat vacant for decades. I lost one of my factory homes during this time, and only the efforts of my “old man” self were able to fend off the destruction of my other.
By the 1970s, my city was a veritable ghost town. Very few of the residents or businesses remained. I often thought about relocation, but for nearly a century this city was all I had known. I found myself expanding my hunting grounds into the greater Tampa area, becoming more of a predator than a farmer. I no longer had to build a relationship with someone in order to ensure his solitary life. No, now I could just choose a victim and be home again within minutes — the benefit of hunting away from one’s home. The drawback? I again lost the pleasure of interpersonal relationships.
Finally, by the 1980s, my city began to flicker back to life. Artists began to come to Ybor City in search of affordable studio space, which was a great boon to me as I was again able to expand my art collection. This influx of artists sparked a new interest in my city, and as a result new restaurants, bars, clubs and other businesses began to open their doors… the start to the wonderful Ybor City you know today, once again full of life and full of people.
My thieving days are now behind me. During the worst of times, I purchased spaces that are now being rented for galleries, restaurants, tattoo parlors and the like. I opened a small cigar shop and gain much enjoyment from watching my customers savor what has taken me over 120 years (so far) to perfect. So, if you find yourself in front of an old man with young eyes rolling cigars, please come up and say hello. And if, from the roof of an abandoned factory, you see candlelight, and ribbons of smoke rising into the air… please do not let yourself in to say hello. It would not end well for you.
FIFTEEN IS THE DOG | Maggie Hall
I’m not superstitious like the women from the Old Country, but I know numbers run your life.
Take this morning, for example. I got up all fine and dandy on a Sunday and put on my linen suit for a stroll on La Séptima. I wasn’t halfway out the door when Maceo, the brown mutt that Old Man Sendero keeps, lunged at me with his filthy paws. I hit him with my San Lázaro cane across the snout and the brute whimpered away. I should have known he would cross my path today: It’s the fifteenth today and fifteen is El Perro — the Dog.
I like to play the odds. You would think I’d play fifteen today because that’s what today is and because of the dog but, no sir, not me. Playing the calendar date is for pikers. Every other fool placing a bet in the neighborhood today is going for the ripe fruit because it’s the fifteenth. Not me. I didn’t sleep well last night, so no dream sent me a number to play.
Today’s bolita number will take some thinking. I’ll walk to Las Nuevitas to get a shoeshine. The boy there never gets polish on my socks and the rasping of his brushes helps me concentrate. The number will come to me.
Ciccio Manuele struts across the street with his usual following of girls in white Mass dresses and I duck into an alley. I can’t stand that braggart. He must hit la bolita at least once a week. Having money in his pockets means girls throw themselves at his pressed suit. He says he doesn’t have a system for picking numbers and that he’s just lucky, but it’s been said by more than one person that a certain bolitero owes him favors because of a little trouble with the law. Ciccio plays thirty-two and it seems to come up very often in the drawing. It’s no wonder that’s his number—thirty-two is El Cochino — the Pig. It makes sense.
There’s a breeze this morning to bring more families out for walks on the avenue. Another Sunday in Ybor. People spend half their lives outside in the summer sitting on kitchen chairs to cool off while they gossip. A scrawny cat laps water from a puddle, but I don’t like playing El Gato, which is number four. I took a bath playing that number last year when I put down half of my pay on what I was sure was a winner. I had dreamed a big tabby was chasing me. I woke up with my heart pounding and put it down on four that day. The cat didn’t deliver the goods; in fact, that was another day when thirty-two came up and Ciccio treated everyone at the tavern to drinks to celebrate his win. I gulped my rum after saying a prayer the bastard would get hit by a streetcar.
I wrote a list of all La Charada numbers and what they signify for Bobby, the German kid who lives in the room upstairs. He was just picking bolita numbers out of the air without any idea of what dreams and what comes your way means when you pick winners. Pepe the butcher gave me a piece of brown paper and a pencil. I wrote every number and what I means from one to a hundred — without getting stuck once. La Charada is a number system that came from the Chinese but we Cubans perfected it and added more meanings. We’re smart that way.
Bobby had to learn it goes like this: In La Charada, the number one is El Caballo, the Horse. Two can be La Mariposa, the Butterfly, or El Dinero, Money. Three is El Marinero, the Sailor, until you get to thirty-six, La Cachimba, the Pipe. We Cubans kept going and added the other 64 numbers the Chinese couldn’t think of.
On the nights I dream about San Lázaro, my patron saint whose walking stick protects me from evil, I play seventeen because that’s his number. It can get expensive if you dream San Lázaro hands you a pipe and a horse, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
“Amigo, numbers are just numbers,” says Bobby. He says he’s a Catholic and doesn’t believe in dreams telling you what to play in la bolita the next day. I guess he forgot that old man San José had a dream telling him to get the hell out of Bethlehem when the Romans killed all the babies. St. Joseph could have told our Blessed Mother that he was a Catholic and that he didn’t believe in dreams and where would we all be in that case? We might still be Jews playing numbers from the Chinese. Poor Bobby doesn’t get it.
The numbers are there to help you pick a winner, even if Ciccio Manuele seems to hit that number thirty-two a lot.
The church bell rings at the same time as the bell on the streetcar. That has to be an omen, but I don’t get the same tingle on the back of my neck that makes me sure about a number. The Forti girls get quiet when they see me coming. Rumor has it that Connie Forti is sweet on me, but I am not interested. Those girls live at number sixty-seven and that’s El Cementerio, the Cemetery. Bad luck if I ever saw it, even though that Connie is pink and plump — just the way I like ‘em. If she ever moves out, I may just call on her.
The shoeshine boy at Las Nuevitas waves a blackened rag in the air when he sees me because he knows I’m a good customer. His chair is empty, so I sit on the cane chair.
“Ready for you, Señor!” he says as he puts the rag back in his box. “Best scuiscia for my best customer.”
Bootblack, rag, brush brush brush. I toss the boy a coin when he’s done and I still haven’t thought of today’s number. I’d better come up with something by the time I get to Charlie’s place to make my bet.
Today is starting to feel like an umbrella-inside-the-house day. I think it’s that kid Bobby’s fault. I almost slammed him against the chiffarobe because he was about to show me the new parasol he bought for his girl Marie. Opening umbrellas indoors makes you the worst form of unlucky. Sometimes that kid can be so backward, even if he is my friend.
There’s the casita on the corner where the kid is learning to play the violin. He’s getting pretty good, too. With all the windows open, half the block can hear him play. I’ve heard the tune he’s playing, but I don’t know the name. It’s a happy, peppy one I probably heard in the flickers or in the theater that day I took Rosie to the theater with her mamá as the chaperone. The old lady’s evil eye was too much for me and I never took Rosie out again. I heard she got married. Let that guy keep the old lady and her evil eye. He’s probably dead by now.
The kid keeps practicing the same tune. I tap the rhythm on the lamppost but it still doesn’t come to me.
A hard slap on my back and a cloud of bay rum. Ciccio Manuele has found me outside the kid’s window.
“Severiano, my friend, we share a love of music!” says the bastard, pumping my hand. “Who doesn’t like Il Barbiere, eh?"
“What about a barber? The violin kid is a barber”?
“No, Seve,” says Ciccio, smoothing his oily moustache. “He’s playing the Figaro aria from The Barber of Seville. It’s a beauty.”
On the sidewalk under a lamppost, Ciccio takes off his straw hat and sings.
Tutti mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono, donne, ragazzi, vecchi, fanciulle: Figaro… Figaro Son qua, son qua. Figaro… Figaro…
Each of those Figaros pound my skull. The kid stops playing and leans out the window. Old ladies walking arm in arm stand around Ciccio smiling. A few of the girls in white dresses who had been trailing him applaud.
“That tune is called The Barber, you say?”
It’s then that I see my bolita number: forty-eight, La Barbería, the Barber Shop. The sign came to me right on the sidewalk on La Séptima, with the sun shining and the saints looking over me. And to think the number came from that bastard Ciccio and his infernal singing. Won’t he choke on those Figaros when I hit it big today!
“You are leaving so fast, my friend. I’m going to Mister Charlie’s to bet my number. Walk with me a while.”
Since I’m heading there myself, I decide it’s better not to let on to Ciccio or his acolyte girls that I have today’s winner figured out. Better to let the bastard stay ignorant.
I check my pocket to make sure I still have my wager because I just know it will be a big one today. Just stroll and don’t hurry things along. The sign came at the right time. Today is my day.
“That’s why I like you, Seve. You’re a decent and upright man, not a hothead like so many others in the neighborhood. Yes, I like you, my friend.”
It’s all I can do to clench my fist in my pocket so I don’t sock the bastard in the jaw. When I buy drinks tonight with my winnings, I’ll put rat poison in your rum, cochino.
Ciccio rests his arm on my shoulder and I almost flinch.
“Listen, Seve, I’m going to do you a favor because I like you and because I have plenty money already. When we get to Mister Charlie’s, put it all on trentadue, thirty-two. Guaranteed winner. You could use a new Sunday suit.”
A wink and a slap on my shoulder.
“Take my advice, friend. I don’t mind sharing with you today.”
The dirty bastard. Guaranteed. Then it is true what they say about Ciccio and los boliteros. Guaranteed. Thirty-two wins on the days he wagers. The bastard.
“You look a little pale, Seve. You need a drink.”
It would be a sure bet, money coming in to replace what I’ve lost this week on trusting dreams about bulls and machetes and wells. Letting Ciccio pick my number will give me a little bankroll and even a new suit. Then again, I would owe something to that fool. The money or my pride.
The one-eyed bolitero nods to Ciccio when he sees us outside Charlie’s. Ciccio nods back and points to me with his arm still around my shoulder. The bolitero throws up his hands and motions us to come in.
I hesitate, but thirty-two is too much for me. Ciccio makes his bet and I follow him like a slave. Thirty-two is also El Mulo, the mule, and I feel as stupid as one.
Ciccio and his girls say goodbye and head back to La Séptima while I walk home dejected. Forget seeing el perro this morning, or the kid playing that tune about the barber shop or all the dreams that have given me losing numbers. I’m all in on thirty-two. I could see an elephant on a streetcar in Ybor today and it wouldn’t change my bet to nine, El Elefante. I do need a new suit.
San Lázaro, my patron and protector, has let me down. La Charada, too. All those lovely numbers dancing in my dreams as fish, spiders, ducks and scissors have lied to me. That bitter taste swirls on my tongue with the sweetness of being a winner tonight.
Starting tomorrow, I’ll pretend Ciccio is my best pal. I’ll find out when that bastard bets and I’ll get rich, too. The rest of the time I’ll just let the numbers whisper to me.
Severiano, eres un payaso.
Payaso, The Clown, number sixty. Tomorrow.
FINDERS AND SEEKERS | Derry Smith
They looked stupid, struggling to pronounce a French ‘r’. The whole class, working to master it. The man beside Wren wiped sweat off his forehead.
“Use the back of your tongue,” Monsieur told them. “It’s almost like gargling.”
Hobie would think it too, that they looked stupid. He would say, “Tongues aren’t for ‘r’s. Tongues are for tasting and for… Well, you know.” And then he would do it. Put his mouth on her until she couldn’t breathe.
Breathless. He always made her breathless.
Sometimes she and Hobie would fool around in the back row of the community college chorus. Just a feel or a kiss, and only if the front row sang standing, hiding them.
She sang alto and he sang tenor, and he sang it like a virtuoso. His curly brown hair would shake with intensity and if he wasn’t holding music, his hands requisitioned the audience, even if it consisted of only the director.
After practices and a quick screw in his car, she and Hobie would walk down the street and stuff themselves with guava turnovers at the Cuban bakery. They would sit, watching the place fill and empty.
“This is the drop-off point for that man and his ex,” Hobie said, pointing to a thirtyish-looking couple with two kids eating honey buns. “Every Wednesday afternoon they make the big switch.”
“Yeah,” Wren said. “But what about those two? I’ve seen them here before.” She gestured to a female couple, both of them with long bleached-white hair, wearing full-length furs and pointy black-heeled boots. They held hands as one looked at the other’s ring.
“Hookers,” Hobie said. “Some kind of special service I bet.” Wren studied their pale faces and dark eyes.
“They’re beautiful,” she whispered. “How much you think they cost?”
Hobie shrugged. “Too much.”
He was a good-looking guy with that soft curly hair. Except for his teeth. When he grinned big he showed off a top row that leaned like loose fence slats. It must’ve made him self-conscious; his smiles were usually sealed tight. Either way, Wren liked them.
It didn’t matter though. Two months after they’d started going to the bakery Wren discovered that Hobie was seeing the girl behind the register.
It was no surprise. She knew how she looked — too heavy, too pasty. Not a typical Sunshine State resident. But it surprised her a little. Their bodies had fit well together. Better than any. He had agreed.
Wren didn’t know the cashier’s name. Everyone just called her Doll. She stood all day on skinny legs and took money without a look or a smile. She ended up pregnant and Wren never found out if the baby was Hobie’s because he stopped coming to chorus and the girl died before she had it. Nights, Wren waited for a grieving Hobie to show up at her door. Sometimes she still thinks she hears his step.
Wren saw the obituary in the Trib. She found it while searching for coupons. Cutting into the obit caused Wren some guilt but the “Buy two yards get one free” discount for Calico Corner’s fabrics was too good to pass on.
Turned out Doll was hit by a taxi while waiting for a bus on Fifteenth Street. Wren read the chopped up story on the coupon’s back over and over during her bus ride down Kennedy. Its unfinished sentences bothered her.
Nancy Ann “Doll” Garner and her unborn child went
October 4th, 2002. She was a victim of a traffic incide
struck by a taxi while standing on 15th Street in Ybor
at La Segunda Central Bakery since the age of twelve
survived by a loving family, mother, Geraldine Garne
sisters, Teresa, Lucy, brother, Michael, grandparents,
will be held on Sunday, October 18th at 11:00 at Our S
She should have cut out the entire article. Calico’s would not have cared about extra edging around the coupon.
The fabric she decided on was a deep burgundy. It looked nice on the cushion of the old church pew she’d placed in her apartment the week before. She bought the pew at a bargain price because the First Baptist Church downtown was reopening as a hipster retail shop.
“You sure about this?” her friend Holly had asked, bouncing her rear on the tattered seat. “Kinda grim looking don’t you think?”
“Not if I throw some pillows on it.” Wren rubbed the smooth top, the rich dark oak still glossy. “I think it’s great.”
Holly stood up and looked at the back.
“Except for this,” she said. She pointed to where somebody had written “Suck Cock” in thick black magic marker.
“Maybe they’ll discount it,” Wren said.
They did, so she took it home and shoved it against a wall. Many times she sat on that seat and wondered about Hobie. A few times she pictured a kid scribbling fast with the magic marker, while everyone around him bowed in prayer.
The remnants from the new cushions went to reline the rolling Samsonite she inherited from her mother. Before her mother’s death the Samsonite was considered stolen. Wren would hear about it when she called home from the red phone box on the corner.
“When you bringing my Samsonite back?” her mother would ask.
Wren had taken it, in a hurry to leave.
“I know Ma,” Wren would say. “I just don’t see when I can get there.” Sometimes it’d be a sculpture that needed finishing, sometimes an art show to prepare for. One time she told her mother, “I know it doesn’t mean anything to you, but they’ve given me a key.”
“To the art studio where I sculpt,” Wren said. “So now if I wake up at three a.m. and want to work on something, I can.”
“Always busy,” her mother said.
“Why don’t you come here?” Wren asked.
“I don’t know how.”
“What do you mean you don’t know how? Just get on a plane. I’ll send you a ticket.”
“No. I’m not flying. Planes scare me.”
“Then a bus...”
“I can’t sit for that long. My pills make my blood thick. I might have a stroke.”
“Then what the hell do you need the Samsonite for?” Wren didn’t mean to ask. She already knew. She’d had to pull the yards of white satin and netting out of the suitcase when she took it.
“You know, I’m still mad at you for stuffing that dress under the bed,” her mother said. “Grandma made me that dress with her own two hands. Every piece of lace, every pearl, every silk thread, she stitched.”
“I know, Ma.” A hundred times she knew.
“My mother was a saint, God rest her soul. You should love your mother so much.”
How could a grown woman think that loving her mother causes some kind of osmosis effect in her daughter?
“I know Ma,” Wren said. And then she forced herself, although she knew it was never believed. “And I do love you.”
“Then you’d come see me.”
But Wren never did. She didn’t feel any remorse either, when her mother died. Just the same old emptiness. Maybe it caused her to miss Hobie a little more but she couldn’t tell. There was no scale, no way to measure.
The Samsonite needed an overhaul because the old lining had been beaten to death by chunks of tile. Wren had lucked into them, to add to her sculptures.
“Hey, are you interested in tile from the early 1900s?” Holly had asked on an already-hot spring day. “I’m talking beautiful old Spanish tile.”
“Maybe,” Wren said. “Where’d you get something like that?”
“My cousin’s helping refurbish the bathrooms at the Columbia. He’s been picking up pieces of the stuff they’re pulling off the walls and taking it home. He wanted to try to sell it but he’s still on parole and got a little scared of legal consequences.”
“Well yeah, I’ll take it.”
“All you got to do is pick it up.”
After collecting it all in the old suitcase she started to sculpt. The pieces came out nice, some with soft curves, some with rigid angles and lines but all with bits of vibrant-colored tiles scattered throughout. The art earned critical acclaim in weekend shows but didn’t add much to her meager income.
On a cold-snapped January morning Holly stopped by Wren’s booth at the Saturday Market. Wren was sitting in the back trying to escape the smell of fresh funnel cakes.
“I’m leaving,” Holly said. Her orange beret was pushed back off her forehead.
“Moving to France. Getting married to that guy Henri.”
This seemed a bit rushed. They’d only been dating a few weeks. But who knows. Maybe Holly found what she wanted.
They promised to keep in touch but Wren was certain how that would go; so she was surprised when Holly called a few weeks ago. “Pregnant. Due in a couple of months.” And wanting Wren to come and help with the baby.
“Henri will happily pay you what you make in sales. Even more.”
“Yeah. And there’s a studio in town that holds shows in Paris! Paris—can you imagine?”
Wren pictured French men in tight black jeans stopping at her pieces, their heads tilted, their stares studious.
“We’ll send you a ticket, okay? If you don’t like it, we’ll pay your way back.”
Wren looked out her apartment window. She had lived her entire adult life in Ybor. She hadn’t found success but she hadn’t failed here either.
“They don’t speak English there,” she said.
“True,” Holly said.
“I might get lost.”
“Yeah. But then you get found again.”
Wren chewed her lip. If she left here, Hobie might never be found again.
“I need to mull it over.”
It was silent on the other end.
“We’re talking France here,” Holly said. “A free ticket to France. You don’t want to lose out on that.”
“Yeah,” Wren said. She pulled on a loose strand of hair until it hurt — but not enough to cover the angst. “What am I thinking? Of course. Send me a ticket.”
Losing. Finding. What did she know? Maybe she was lost already.
IT INVARIABLY HAPPENS RIGHT UP THE STREET | Brian Lott
Leaning against the canyon wall of fresh red brick, he checks his watch again in a slouch that feels clumsy. He’s conspicuously nondescript amid the nighttime hum of the city, the distant heartbeat of the clubs, the roar of I-4 behind him and overhead. He wonders if he’s allowed to stand here — probably not long before he hears move on, head inside or find somewhere else to go — but see, he’s waiting for his nephew. Even if yeah, okay, someone else is inside the Jai-Alaife Palace too.
He’s thin, pale, wispy reddish hair and glasses, unfashionably dressed, stuck here like a statue, a lesser version of Vicente himself with his newspaper in Centro Ybor. He glances 50 feet down 18th Street at the steady flow of luxury sedans, sports cars, cabs pulling into the roundabout around the corner, where vehicles and walkup foot traffic jumble around this massive-columned temple of entertainment wedged against the interstate, dangling its great neon sign over the roadway like bright flickering fruit, the pulsing pelota flying in and out of its xistera.
Where’s Todd’s xistera, his curved metaphorical jai-alai sleeve, to catch fate’s happy toss-offs? So he didn’t have to scramble like dumbass, stumbling and barehanded, for possibility that might fall from the sky? Does chance bestow anything good anymore?
He’s been in Ybor since ’98, 25 years ago—those hopeful, hectic days at the Columbia, jostling down the street with the gang after hours in his undone tuxedo, the laughing chaos, hospitality discounts, drunkenness and fuck-ups and hook-ups and it’s back to work, bleary-eyed, to ready your station the next day.
You stick around long enough and you stop caring as much. Or you just let it all go because it’s futile anyway. You watch Friday night unfold as an observer instead of a participant, and that’s okay. Todd Wigler tells himself these things.
He wanders north up the new cement sidewalk toward the palace’s service bay. It’s a spacious inlet with a ramp for deliveries, a clean dumpster and a wide rollup door. Around the dumpster he spots a pair of guys in suits with nametags, smoking, shooting the shit, and he steps out of view because he doesn’t want to seem like he’s loitering. Up the segmented face of interstate wall a truck with a bad muffler snorts past. He checks his watch again—10:27. Todd reminds himself Duane’s new, he’s a kid, maybe even genuinely excited about the action inside, the jai-alai, gambling, concerts from pop upstarts and ’90s bands on their cash-grab reunion tours.
He can almost feel the walls trembling at the slamming shock of the pelotas, the players with their leap-step up walls, the bleat and blare of the DJ and the PA and the half-distracted crowd. He imagines Allison Voss somewhere in there, doing the administrative things she did, flustered at her desk, ready to tell people go to hell (or goodnight), log off her computer, carry her laptop and shoes tiredly to her car — whatever car she’s driving now — somewhere inside that six-story parking garage where the Our Lady of Perpetual Help dirt lot used to be.
“Wigler!” a voice booms and Todd turns to see Duane walking up in his gray suit, the kid’s lanky strut and sloppy grin, hand outstretched with his Class of ’22 ring.
Todd clenches his nephew’s tight grip with a smirk. “Habout Todd? Or Mister Wigler, habout.”
“Mister Wigler?” The kid’s face could’ve been a model for Easter Island monoliths with a stocky body to match, wide-shouldered gait of someone who four short years ago was stalking other teenagers to tackle on a floodlit Orlando high school football field as cheers surged from the bleachers. “That come with batteries for her pleasure?”
“Ha-ha,” Todd deadpans. “So you’re off, you’re done.”
Duane shrugs gamely. “All done, man.”
“You wanna go down the street?”
“Shit yeah, I wanna go down the street,” Duane points toward Seventh Avenue. “Thisaway, right?”
Todd leads the way down the building, moving through the people crossing 12th Avenue, a chattering bachelorette party, a young Latino guy in sunglasses and a black suit with a bolo tie and a spectacular blonde on his arm leaning in with some ecstatic revelation. Duane taps Todd on the shoulder and wanders over to a hulking fellow in a Jai-Alaife suit on the sidewalk; they share words and the bouncer nods. Duane does a lazy jog over his uncle as they keep going down the sidewalk that hugs the parking garage.
“Hadta make sure the boss’s gone,” Duane apologizes.
“It’s good when the boss is gone,” Todd steers right as a couple holding hands slips past them on the sidewalk. The techno thump of a party on the third-floor balcony of the condos across the street snags his attention.
“Seriously,” Duane scoffs with borderline amusement. “Real bitch, man.”
They stroll past the church as Todd asks Duane about his job, thinking of Allison instead, wondering if he should’ve sent her something for her birthday, September 3, two weeks ago. She’s what — 47? Of course; Todd’s 48. Even something anonymous? No, no, too weird, discoverable, unnecessary. Duane’s talking about joking with customers, showing people to their seats, and Todd remembers to be attentive. At Palm Avenue they pause as cars swish past and it’s onward toward the noise of the clubs and crowds.
“So y’live close by?” Duane asks.
“Up 15th,” Todd says. “Other side of I-4.” He’s relieved Duane has his own place, for some reason up by USF. Duane’s dad wants him to go back to school—that’s why.
The night shimmers with far-off music and traffic, spotlights fanning the low mauve sky as if beckoning aliens on their approach. A helicopter sears past and Todd sees a curving wing against the clouds, turning toward the Crosstown Connector.
“Think that one’s ours,” Todd points, as much to fill space with talk lest it go too long untended. “I useta do the adopt-a-drone.”
“Not’nymore?” Duane says with vague interest.
“Just got busy.” This is a lie, of course, one Todd reasons he can get away with. How can you tell someone — a 22-year-old — that you don’t go out, don’t have friends, barely have a lousy job? “Still think I know the guy if you’re interested.”
They turn right on Ninth, stepping out of the way as a gaggle of kids giggles past and a low-riding BMW growls over the bricks with its seismic stereo. The back of Centro Ybor rises to their left and Todd points out the Castle, kids in black waiting to get in, sitting on the curb with tangles of friends beneath the windows’ glower, the rhythm and clang. Todd tells Duane about the place over the years, the Senator and his protégé, the Commissioner, who danced every weekend, and the celebration people wanted to throw in 1937—back when the Castle was a labor temple—to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The government shut the party down.
“Industrial goth lives on, though,” Todd clarifies.
“Cool,” Duane says.
After a moment, Todd suddenly blurts, “So y’work with an Allison Voss?” Almost wishing he hadn’t.
Duane, half a step behind, leans forward. “Allison who?”
“Voss.” There. Now it’s out there.
“I dunno, maybe. I can ask around.”
“Nah, don’t do that.”
“Why not, bro?”
“Just don’t. No need to.”
“Should be easy enough to figure out. Probably in administration.”
“Oh,” Duane laughs. “Okay, that’s cool. Lotta people there I don’t know yet.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Todd says, the back of his neck filmy with a sudden hint of sweat. “No biggie.”
“I don’t know.”
Duane laughs. “Okay then.”
As they approach 15th Street a scene draws near, the flicker of a police cruiser’s lights as a shaved-head cop waves a slow train of cars along. Todd leads Duane through the crawling traffic to the flat lot, where they meander diagonally around the parked cars. Todd remembers how he dislikes being out at night. As they come to Eighth, he gestures west, mentioning the GaYbor clubs down Seventh and the wedding kiosks and Taco Bus. As the trolley clambers past they head down Eighth, cutting across the street to the New World Brewery. In the buzz of the night’s soft twinkle a guttural stream of sexual innuendo blares somewhere from a car.
“Oh, ’fore I forget,” Duane says, Todd pausing for the kid to fish something from his jacket. He pulls out a sleeve of small filament sheets, sorting them quickly and handing one to Todd. “’Sposedta give these out,” he goes on as Todd studies the translucent slip with the Jai-Alaife logo, scan code, Duane’s name and “1” at the top. Duane explains, as they’re walking again, how employees get the cards to hand out to people they meet. Numbers 1 and 100 are the big ones—drink deals, tour, VIP admittance. “You’re number one, buddy!” Duane gives Todd a sidelong grin. “Management loves number ones. See, man, it means something.”
Todd’s thoughts drift to Allison, about how it’s almost assured now that he’ll run into her again, and what the hell does he say? What does she say?
An old White Stripes song spills from the bar as they stroll inside past a handful of occupied patio tables in the tiki light. Inside it’s sparse, a couple clusters of people at tables, a few more at the bar. Todd admires his nephew’s confident saunter to a stool away from a solitary girl with long dark curls and a denim vest, his sturdy slouch against the bar as he orders a couple beers Todd’s never heard of, the look the kid slips the girl and her mildly startled smile in return.
“Havin’ a good night?” Duane asks the girl, whose thick brown eyelashes are beacons on her pretty, almost elfin face.
“Soon as my friends get here,” she says in a young voice, barely over the music, glancing at her phone aglow on the bar before her.
“They better get here,” Duane warns optimistically, grabbing the beers the bartender slips him, handing one to Todd.
“Damn right they better,” she rolls her eyes, appraising Todd with a curious look. “What’re y’all up to?”
Duane lays a large hand on Todd’s shoulder. “This’s my boy Wigler.”
“Todd,” Todd snaps sarcastically, hand out to shake hers. “I’m his uncle.”
“If you wanna be all technical’n shit,” Duane cracks. “When your friends show up, come on over,” he tells her. “And you are…?”
“Betsy,” the girl says, curling into a gentle smile. “When your friends show up, come on over!” Duane points toward the tables and nods Todd over with him. They settle into their chairs. Todd, who barely drinks anymore, takes a sip and compliments his nephew’s choice of beer.
“So,” Duane says. “Y’like it here?”
“Ybor. Even after all the shit?”
“We bounced back,” Todd shrugs. “Hey, we got the Palace.”
Duane wants to know what it was like when the port got hit in ’18 and Todd recounts the basics, evacuation under the roiling, feverish gray sky, the neighborhood safety teams. What Todd remembers most is the sweat, his hot seething lungs inside his crinkly hazard suit as he wandered empty streets with a loose collection of older guys and gung-ho loner types. The vague smell of whoever’s breath had filled Todd’s mask in the past was irritating but the urgency of the effort kept him focused, kept him moving — assume these handheld devices can really detect toxicity, stay out of the way of the soldiers with their bristly armored bulk, their weaponry and barked shorthand, the tanks and churning choppers and the bustling command center that overtook the Cuban Club.
Duane gets them more beers and listens intently as Todd goes on. He doesn’t mention how it took a crisis for him to feel human and meaningful. Doesn’t mention how they didn’t send him to the condo complex on Fourth Avenue where Allison lived at the time. How they denied him access to her interiority, to her personal space, the chance to see the comfortable indentation on her couch, the messy spread of intimate things after she’d packed in a panic. But what else would he find? There was no positive outcome.
“Damn,” Duane shakes his head, takes a gulp.
“World’s gone to shit,” Todd says when Duane sits back down with the next round of beers. He’s feeling buzzed, warm and vertiginous, and Betsy’s still alone at the bar. Hip-hop’s on the jukebox now, Outkast and DefPanel, and Todd’s never been a big fan of this music but it’s a good moment, good to be here with the kid.
“So my dad’s worried,” Duane says. “Never sees you, y’never call.”
“I’m fine,” Todd mutters. “Tell Mike. Said I’m busy.”
“Whatta y’do when you’re not at Home Depot?”
“I write, okay?” He doesn’t, maybe someday; it sounds good.
“Whatta you write?”
“I dunno, Duane. Speculative stuff.”
“Like what? Gimme an example. I gotta report something back.”
“You know, alternate history stuff. Like if Lincoln didn’t get shot. Like the Tunguska Event — 1908. If it hit St. Petersburg.”
“Gigantic meteor. Ever see The X-Files?”
“Where they interview porn-star politicians?”
“Hang on,” Duane says, getting up for another round as Todd’s gaze drifts over to Betsy, the quick grin she trades with Duane, who returns a moment later. “Sorry, Todd. Anyway — porn stars.”
“Right, right, sorry.”
“Look, it happens a couple hours later and the meteor wipes out the whole city. Like a nuke. I say it changes history. The world sees devastation in a new way. There’s a new consciousness. There’s no World War I.”
“Great,” Duane smirks, taking a sip, balancing his chair on its back legs. “So World War I happens in 1960 or some shit and they use nukes then.”
“Look, it’s all debatable. This whole world, everything—you’re young, okay. It’s been unreal for decades. The point is, think about history. Ask what could be different.”
“Everybody?” Duane muses, “or you?”
Todd opens his mouth to reply but nothing comes out. Duane’s not paying attention anyway, pulling his keychain and the phone clipped to it from his pocket — “Hang on” — navigating the phone’s floating glow with his thumb.
Todd sits thinking for a minute and then wanders back to the bar for another beer he doesn’t need. He knows it’s mostly just to study Betsy, who doesn’t notice him. Does she look like Allison a little? She could be Allison’s daughter if she’d ever had kids. Could be Allison from almost ’07, when her little brother disintegrated on his motorcycle on I-275 at 3 a.m. When Todd went to the get-together at Sean Gold’s place, when Allison sank her drunken grief into Todd’s neck after people were asleep or gone. When they tumbled into each other for three lush, nearly wordless weeks until she had to leave it behind, the memory and misery and Todd was there fading guiltily in plain sight, left clutching the image of Danny Voss, astride his bike behind the restaurant, strapping on his helmet with his smile, stomping his motorcycle to sputtering, deafening life.
“Hey!” Duane’s voice shakes Todd out of his stare at the kaleidoscope of bottles behind the bar, kid already moving toward the door as Todd trails behind. They’re on their way to meet some guys Duane works with. “They’re sorta dicks, but whatever.”
“Betsy’s cute!” Todd offers as they round the noisy corner toward Seventh.
“Yeah, I mean, dime a dozen, bro.”
Todd slows. “What? No! No, Duane — no, they aren’t a dime a dozen! How can you say that? The right one’s priceless! I’m telling you it’s—”
“You’re drunk!” Duane guffaws.
Provoked, Todd barges around him, barreling into the parade of light and cacophony, the packed sidewalks and creeping cars.
“I’m showing you this place! This’s where you live now, where your history’s gonna happen! It happens right down the street!”
Here! Over there, there was Max Argintar, the rows of nice suits Todd ran his fingers over and slipped into for fun! And The Spitting Gargoyle — didn’t he wander among the statues and birdbaths with Allison? And wasn’t there a hologram store around here where the safety station is now? And the hat store, fedoras galore?
History’s just calling out!
“Big D!” someone bellows and Todd stops, turns after he realizes he’s left his nephew 20 feet back. Duane’s with a blurry trio of 20-ish guys in suits like him, and the kid’s laughing and gesturing toward Todd, who meanders over to the group. They’re amused to see him, Duane’s hand on his shoulder, inviting him with them.
No, Todd says no, thanks.
“’kay, well…” Duane shrugs uncertainly. “I’m workin’ Tuesday ’til 10. Stop in. Bring the card!”
Todd agrees, lurches back down Seventh, almost in escape, back the way they came. Back around the corner, past people in line, past the hurricane commotion spilling from The Ritz, past the tank squatting on the corner of Seventh and 15th with Mr. Tactical Friendly! scrawled on the side and a pair of bored soldiers in short sleeves. Past the homeless and a goateed Jamaican carrying a painting canvas, past people on the sidewalk eating their pizza. Past the night’s looming hope and towering heartbreak, past connections unfolding, past everything that never happened, past the past itself swimming through the jumble of Todd’s thoughts.
He wanders back inside New World Brewery, in nothing like the saunter he wants, but there she is — Betsy, at the bar, still alone.
She glances up, almost happily puzzled as Todd careens over while digging in his pocket.
“Promise you’ll go Tuesday,” he hands her his Jai-Alaife slip. “9 p.m.”
“Okay,” she half-laughs.
“I promise! I wanteda see the place.”
“See, it means something.” He attempts a wink and a smile he’d like to rescind, turning to retreat outside. Finding the door, wandering toward home.
The Prodigal Cigar | Jack Kurlychek
After the indulgence of a business-class flight from Munich, the sprint through Hartsfield to the Terminal A lounge was incongruous to Ben Scott. As a platinum level frequent flyer, he considered himself deserving of better service all the way through. This encounter with the economy-minded masses was not what he was accustomed to, at least not anymore. Ben felt that he worked hard and earned these entitlements. He was no dummy.
The business class lounge with its spaciousness, banker’s office atmosphere, and free drinks offered sanctuary from the mayhem outside, but did little to ease Ben’s mind on the trepidation of the next leg of his trip. He thought yet again about continuing on to L.A. as originally planned, but it was fleeting. He had committed to this, and as awkward as he expected it to be, he would see it through.
Boarding for his Tampa connection would be called soon, and now that he reconfirmed his new itinerary to himself, a phone call would help ease the way. Adroitly working his BlackBerry, he did the dutiful thing:
“Yeah, Ben here. In Atlanta and should be in Tampa in about an hour and half. Landing about 2:30. I’m making a quick stop in Ybor first, then on my way. I should be at the home around five. Will dad still be up?”
Somewhat disheartened, but not surprised by his seemingly flippant concern for the issue at hand, Ben’s sister dispensed with pleasantries. As Kristin began her well-measured response, she wondered to herself if further explanation would serve any purpose. Four years his senior and happily married, they hadn’t talked much since their mom died in ’03. When they did, family matters seemed secondary to Ben’s activities, his ventures, his accomplishments.
“Ben, I’m sure your business in Ybor is important — maybe a few drinks and cigars? But I was just at Fairhaven again today, and dad’s condition is getting worse. You might want to get over as soon as you can. If the schedule you gave me earlier in the week stands, you’re only here today and leaving tomorrow night. You won’t have much time.”
“Kris, cigars yes, drinks no”, Ben countered. “You know how dad and I used to light one up from time to time when I used to live down there. This was back before mom died and dad was engaging, witty and more carefree; back when I was only a Regional Manager and didn’t have the responsibility I have now. We’d smoke a stogie at bars, sports events, sometimes just walking down the street with one. To me, and maybe to dad, this is kind of a reference point. I don’t know what else to bring, and I want to leave him with something. Metropolitan Cigars has a Christmas sale on 1964 Padron Aniversarios. Dad used to love these and I’m going to get him some.”
Disarmed by Ben’s unexpected and fairly strange thoughtfulness, Kristin wondered if she might have misjudged her brother, just a little. “You know Ben, Dad can’t smoke them. He’s 81, has a heart condition, bad eyesight and a million other things. And on top of that, with his intermittent dementia, he won’t remember any of that. He may not even remember you.”
“Kris, it’s something I just feel I need to do. I haven’t seen dad in ten years and I need something to break the ice.”
Ben knew full well that he let other distractions, like sneak thieves, steal time he should have allotted for loved ones. As he saw it, these intruders caused him to distance himself from things he now realized were more important. But time did not wait for any such revelation, and a decade later he finds himself trying to catch up.
Ben continued decisively, “I know you probably feel you got stuck with all this extra responsibility — dad now and mom before that. But you live down there and I’m up in the City now. It’s the way things just worked out.”
Not wanting to get into a long-range debate and wary of Ben’s perspective on things, she terminated the discourse. “We’ll talk more when you’re here. Of course, you can stay at our place during you short visit.”
The sluggish Friday afternoon I-275 drive from TIA gave Ben time to run it through his mind at full throttle. How did things “just work out” the way they were. Was he not supposed to take the VP promotion? Should he let the CompuGeld business slide just because family issues come up? Travel, a lot of it, was part of the deal, and when his ticket was punched 11 years ago, it all seemed right. And still today, at 49 years of age, he was feeling good about his success.
Ben’s acceptance of his choices would have been the reassurance he needed if only his thought process ended there. But his conscience came out of nowhere to challenge any assertion that his was the envied life. He drifted into a mire of “what ifs and maybes." Even a calculating, structured executive can fall prey to thoughts that alternately whirred and lagged.
What if he had more balance and essence in his life? Maybe he wouldn’t be coming off a second failed marriage. Maybe his kids would realize he could play basketball. Maybe this trip to see his dad would cause far less anxiety. Certainly it would help cultivate his level of contact with his sister.
Kristin was a good sister, refreshingly ingenious while exuding loving warmth — most of the time. However, she had her limits and was always ready with an acerbic retort. Her words had bite. Ben was thankful for her watching over their parents. He just didn’t know how to express it.
Finding himself drawn even deeper into a thought pattern he was unfamiliar with, he immediately shifted to the mission at hand as he exited onto 22nd Street for the cigar center of the country, Ybor City.
With precise and calculated movement, Ben took possession of the Padrons and began the exit. The walk down 7th Ave brought back memories of when he and dad did the same, both much younger and both on the cusp of new adventures in their respective lives — Ben, a rising star in the computer banking world; his father about to enjoy the setting sun of retirement for him and his wife of 35 years. That enchantment only lasted a short seven years before Ben’s mother died. A year after that, his dad started the decline.
The bonding memories rose above all others for Ben and validated his side trip to Ybor. Walking casually yet deep in thought, he barely took note of his bearing as he unwittingly kicked something long and flesh-colored lying on the sidewalk. “An arm?” he yelled inside his mind, “A human arm?!” The immediate reaction to the sight played on the startled businessman.
A thick clotty voice with an uneducated accent came his way. “’Scuse me sir, this belongs in here.” A burly member of the now obvious cleaning crew picked up what turned out to be the dismembered appendage of a mannequin. He tossed it back into the large dumpster taking up two parking spaces on 7th Avenue. There the arm joined the rest of the dummy’s body parts along with countless other now useless artifacts of a now defunct boutique — torn pictures, clothes racks, hangers, “sale” signs. The humiliation of a lost dream didn’t end with just a “going out of business” sign. The rip-and-tear process that took place before the next hopeful tenant moved in had to have its moment as well.
As Ben scrutinized the dumpster’s contents on his way to his car, he made the correlation to a larger picture, a changing Ybor City. With a bit of drollness, he commented to himself, “Nothing lasts forever."
The rest of the trip up I-275 to the Fairhaven assisted living facility was slow, but clean. The globetrotting salesman had been in worse traffic than this, so maneuvering to dad’s new residence was seamless. Ben had hoped otherwise. His apprehension grew exponentially as he got closer to the end point.
Meeting his sister in the lobby, they gave each other a less-than-meaningful hug and exchanged some small talk. The tentative walk down the hallway to his dad’s room allowed time for Ben to sense the rapid increase of his heart rate.
Entering their father’s small two-room apartment, Ben made some quick observations that began to alter his perception of an assisted living facility. The accommodations were clean, quaint, comfortable and had a nice view of Route 41 and smelled of fresh roses. Kristin, her husband Bill and their two teenage sons had done a tasteful job of placing Christmas decorations and flowers, Ben thought. He would have just slapped up some trinkets on the wall, strung some multi-colored lights around and called it Christmas.
“Ben? Ben is that you?” The voice was soft, even weak, but still filled with great elation nonetheless. The father’s chest was filled to bursting with pride. Ben was filled with emotions of his own, all mixed. This was a voice he had only heard intermittently over the years, and by Ben’s own admission, his choice.
The sight of the now aged man before him burrowed deep into Ben’s soul. “Dad! Yes, it’s me Ben," as he awkwardly leaned his 6”2” frame over the electric hospital-style bed to hug his frail father.
With a lucidity that matched anyone else in the room, the father continued: “You’re back home! Fantastic! What a treat. When did you get in? How are things up in New York? How’s the job?” Ben’s father’s questions were nonstop, with Ben trying hard to keep up and fill in the blanks. The exchange lasted a good hour and regenerated a long lost familiarity.
Ben’s fears were allayed, his apprehension eased. The father held no enmity toward his son.
Kristin simply watched, dumbfounded. Her father, who was in the throes of mid-level dementia, was so conversant, affable and alive. With the arrival of his only son, a piece of him seemed to be put back in place. Kristin hadn’t seen this sprightly interaction since last year.
The two men talked about everything — sports, Ben’s life in New York, trips to Clearwater Beach, the times in Ybor, politics, and yes, cigars. They continued for close to another hour when a now delighted Kristin finally broke the continuity. “Hey guys, very sorry to break this up, but Bill will have dinner for us back home and dad, you’ll be taking your meds in about ten minutes.”
Their father didn’t miss the opportunity. “Ben, this is great. I’m thrilled you came and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. The Bulls basketball game is on at noon.”
“Dad, I brought you something." Ben pulled a Patron out of his pocket. Kristin was ready to intervene, somehow thinking it was the right thing to do. Before she could say a word, the siblings’ father brightened like one of the Christmas lights. “Son, Ben. (A pause) Thank you so much. You still know me. I used to love these things. I can’t really smoke it now, but I am going to taste it.” With that, the unlit cigar was grasped in familiar fashion, with repeated faux-puffs savored by its new owner.
Bill was a good cook. Dinner conversation was cordial. Manners were exercised by all, even the teens. Upon conclusion, Bill and his sons retired to the game room and the lure of electronic entertainment. Ben and Kristin talked, really talked for the first time in years.
“Kris, this is very nice of you to open your home to me. Thank you.” Ben was genuine. “I know we haven’t been close, especially since mom died. I guess I just got caught up in my life.”
“Ben, it’s a two-way street. I should have reached out more myself. And dad today… This is just great. I haven’t seen him this alive in years, let alone his memory working like the old days.” With increased excitement, Kristin drew a correlation between Ben’s visit and their dad’s newfound vibrancy. The two talked with sincerity for another 40 minutes. There was warmth in their words. The ice was beginning to melt.
That is, until a few ill-advised words brought a new forecast.
“I was very nervous about this, Kris, but it went well. I’m going to be sorry to leave tomorrow night.”
Kristin’s pleasant temperament shut down. Her moment of joy at seeing her father’s rejuvenation came to an end. “Ben. Dad is like, really looking forward to you being around for a while, maybe a couple of days. Can’t you delay, or do something to stay longer?”
“This deal in LA is behind already. I can’t just blow it off again. I need to be there,” Ben said, making every attempt to justify the plan. “And besides, I can reroute again in two weeks on the Sao Paulo trip."
Kristin thought for a moment. “If you fly to LA on Saturday night, what, you’re doing business on Sunday?”
“It’s actually a golf date. Yes, that’s how business works sometimes.” As Ben spoke those words, he realized how hollow they sounded.
The thaw had met with a new frigid climate. Kristin abruptly rose. “Yours is the first bedroom on the left upstairs. Towel’s on the bed.” With one last shot before exiting the dinner table, she mused, “Too bad you don’t have a double. He could sit with dad while you go to who knows where.”
Ben sat alone and thought.
The next morning was a continuation of where discussions ended the night before, only much shorter. To Kristin’s surprise, Ben made an earlier exit than she expected. She then thought that at least he’s trying to get as much time with dad as possible before he leaves. So maybe that’s good.
When Kristin did get to Fairhaven by mid-morning, she felt anxiety spiced with further irritation. Ben wasn’t there.
Ben arrived at Fairhaven a little before noon. Kristin just looked at him, her eyes expressing more challenge than curiosity. Ben’s father, like the day before, came to life. He was still holding and mouthing the maduro. He was still effervescent.
“I thought you might be here earlier, Ben” he said.
Ben replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “I had to do something." As he handled the remote, he continued, “What channel is the game on?”
The three passively watched what gradually became just another sports contest. It was irrelevant. Conversation was the main event. Quick questions were offset by thoughtful answers. As each of the three let their minds run backwards, they recaptured memories that brought a mix of laughter, uncertainty, and melancholy.
While once again genial, throughout this encounter, each assumed a stance. Ben felt he needed to explain his past decisions and actions, his persona resonating with that timbre. Kristin had the perception of needing to protect her father from hurt while subtly reproaching her brother for his self-absorption and indifference to the family. Their father, however, was oblivious to either demeanor and just reveled in the fact that both his children were by his side.
Hours passed. It was time. Nothing lasts forever. This small gathering was about to end, and an old man would soon, once again feel a vacuum within his heart.
Kristin was the first to leave. She had to take her kids to a Christmas concert, but she would be back. His daughter was by his side many times before and would continue to see her right up until his death. He was truly grateful to Kristin.
But maybe it was the novelty of having Ben there after so many years, or the bond that a father and son have, that would make his exit more excruciating. At any rate, Ben had not told his dad he was flying out that night. He sat with him for a short time after Kristin left. His flight departure time crept closer, but he was captivated by the unexpected tranquility he felt from time with his dad. The two men watched more games, talked in shorter spurts, and drifted into a satisfied repose. Dad had finally fallen asleep and Ben had a plane to catch, but he wasn’t ready to leave just yet.
As his dad nodded off, Ben went to his car, returning with a large structure wrapped in brown paper. Bringing this into his father’s room, he removed the paper, placed the thing on the same chair that he used — the one adjacent to his dad’s bed. He then pulled out another Patron and arranged things. The resultant combination of mismatched items might have been viewed as an artwork if it weren’t for its ignominious location.
There, propped up in the chair next to his dying father was a one-armed mannequin holding a cigar in its good hand. Clothed in apparel that Ben might wear, the son somehow felt this could serve as a proxy. Right? Wrong? Strange? Ben wasn’t sure, but it was something that came from his heart. With all the wealth and success Ben had, this was all he could think of to fill the emotional void.
He looked for a moment, backed away from the dummy and quietly left the room. Ben contemplated the future. Would he ever see his dad again? He tried to disguise any guilt with the mask of businesslike efficiency. He had to move on.
He had just entered the hallway and was picking up speed when simple, evocative words echoed from his dad’s room and staggered his momentum: “Son, I love you…”
Ben’s quick steps reaffirmed the urgency to catch the flight to LA. His sudden, uncharacteristic heavy heart weighted his movement. The tears in his eyes begged him to make other plans.
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.
. . . . . . . . . .
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.
. . . . . . . . . .
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.
. . . . . . . . . .
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.
YBOR NOIR | John David
Frank “Giddy” Geddy wasn’t a morning person. He never had been. Mornings were for people with nothing better to do that hassle people with better stuff to do, like sleep. Or recover from a hangover, like Frank. No good-hearted person would ever call you, or pound on your door at 11 a.m. on a Sunday. Anyone who did wasn’t a friend of yours, and probably never would be.
Frank’s friends knew better, which meant that whatever asshole was knocking on his door wasn’t one of them. Which meant they wanted something, probably money, which Frank didn’t have. Thus the no answering the door.
“Mr. Geddy? Mr. Geddy, please! I need your help!” The banging continued.
The voice was female but not feminine. A little rough around the edges, like Frank. He was listening now.
“Mr. Geddy, can I talk to you please? I tried to call your office, but no one answered.”
Frank’s “office” was his crummy walk-up apartment above an equally crummy dive bar on 7th Avenue. He liked it because it was in stumbling distance of all his favorite places, ironically all bars, but not the one downstairs. Frank hated that bar. Always filled with the wrong “type” of people—young, hip, attractive people. Not broken-down old drunks, like him.
The buzzer sounded again, and Frank’s head felt like the sound was coming from inside his brain and blasting out of his ears, like the speakers on some ghetto rat’s car. He couldn’t take any more.
“Who are you, and what the hell do you want?” he yelled at the door.
“Better yet, don’t tell me… just… fuck… off,” he continued.
“Mr. Geddy. Please open the door. I need to talk to you.”
There was just enough of a pleading tone in the voice to make Frank feel curious, if not interested.
“Un-twist your panties, sweetie. Do you know what time it is? What day it is? How hung over I am?”
“Please Mr. Geddy. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important… I… I’m just so scared.”
The little sniffle in the voice got Frank off the couch and over to the door. He had always been a sucker for a damsel in distress, and this one sounded like trouble was all around her. He opened the door.
She looked like a hot mess. Her mascara was smeared, and her clothes had that “wore them yesterday, too” look to them. The dark circles under her eyes told Frank that she hadn’t slept much, if at all lately, and her expression told him it wasn’t because she was having fun.
Good thing I’m already dressed.
“Who are you, how’d you get my address, and whatta you want?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me in?”
“Probably not. Depends on how you answer those questions. Right now, it doesn’t look good.”
“Mr. Geddy. My name is Amelia Portola, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important. My son is missing.”Missing person. Always more trouble than they’re worth. The kind of case that almost never has a happy ending. People went missing for two kinds of reasons. Because they don’t want to be found, or because somebody else doesn’t want them found. Either way, it’s usually bad news at the end.
“Ms. Portola, right? You may as well come in and tell me your story. You already ruined an awesome hangover by making me be awake through it. Drink?” He grabbed the mostly empty bottle of whiskey off the coffee table and poured some into a dirty mug.
“Um, no, thanks. I’ll pass, for now.”Her lips said no, but her eyes said “Yes, please.”
“I’ll put some coffee on. Have a seat… anywhere.” Frank brushed the burrito wrappers and crumpled newspapers off the couch and onto the floor. “Here, sit here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Geddy.”
He hated to be called “Mr. Geddy.” His friends called him “Giddy,” because he was a happy drunk, the kind that people actually liked to hang out with.
“Call me ‘Giddy,’ or Frank. But not ‘Mr. Geddy,’ please.”
“Ok, Frank. I’m here because my son has been missing since Friday night. I found out yesterday, when his friend called me to ask if he got home ok. They were all out clubbing, ‘crawling’ I think they said, here in Ybor. His friend Jenn said that Matt—that’s my son, went to the bathroom and never came back. They got a text from him later saying not to worry.”
“Has this ever happened before, Ms. Portola?”
“No, Matt lives at home and has always been good about letting me know where he is, and when he will be back. He knows that I worry about him if he doesn’t.”
“Ms. Portola, he probably just made a new ‘friend,’ and decided to make a weekend out of it. Boys will be boys, you know that, right?
“Yes of course I know that!” She was almost yelling now, and crying at the same time. “But this isn’t like him at all. Since his father died…” her voice trailed off.
“Amelia, please, can I call you that? I’ll tell you what. I’ll take a look around, ask a few questions, see what I can see. But I don’t work for free. My basic rate is $1,000 per day, plus expenses, if any. I get three days minimum, up front, no refunds. I take your case, I get paid, find or don’t find, you understand? If I don’t find him in three days, he doesn’t want to be found, or can’t be…”
“What do you mean, can’t be?”
“Well, usually missing persons that aren’t located in three days are either running from something, or they’re not gonna be found anytime soon because they’re dead. I’m sorry to lay it on you like that, but it’s the simple truth. You could always go to the cops. Have you talked to them? What did they say?”
“They said he probably ran off with someone. They said he was an adult, and they couldn’t even take a report until he had been missing for 48 hours. They said not to worry,” she sniffed. “But he’s my son, he’s not answering his phone, and I am worried, because he’s never done this before, and I’m just… so… scared.”
“Do you have the three grand?”
“No, I didn’t know I had to pay you in advance. It’s Sunday and I have no way of getting that much cash today!” She sobbed a little, then said, “But I need you to start looking now! Isn’t there any other way?”
Frank looked her up and down. She was definitely one of those moms you’d like to… friend. It had been a while since he’d felt the healing touch of anyone but himself, but the poor thing looked so sad and helpless. Damn I’m a sucker for a pretty face.
“That watch you’re wearing, is it a Rolex? It looks like one. Let me see it.”
“This?” She took it off and handed it to him. “It was my mother’s. I know it’s worth a lot, but I’m not sure how much, I never asked.”
Frank felt the weight of the solid gold watch, and counted the diamonds around the dial. “It’ll do, for now—get me the cash by tomorrow, though, or I’ll have to pawn this.”
“Fine!” Amelia said. “Just find my son. Here is the address of the last place he was seen in. It’s a bar called the ‘Big Monkey,’ or the ‘Bag Monkey,’ something like that.”
“That’s the ‘Bad Monkey,’ I know where it is. I’ll ask around. Here’s a pad. Write down the names of the friends your son was out with, their cell numbers, and the text message you said one of them got from him after they last saw him. Do you have a picture? Good.”
She took the yellow pad and began to write. “Is there anything else I can do?”
“No, just be available 24/7 if I need you. If we’re going to find him, there’s no time to waste. Don’t forget my money, or I keep the watch. Now go home and get some rest. There’s nothing else you can do right now. You’ll hear from me.”
Frank watched her as she walked out the door and down the hall.
She sure is easy on the eyes.
He closed his door and looked at the pad. Two names and numbers were written there, along with what he assumed was the text message from Matt, and his cell number. Frank looked at the picture. Good-looking kid, clean. Didn’t look like trouble.
They never do.
Mom, though, that was another story. She did look like trouble, the kind of trouble that a man got himself into and didn’t want out of. Frank looked at the pad again. The text message read:
“Il b fine, met sum1 gota fly.”
Short and sweet.
She musta been a spicy tamale for Matt to dump his friends like three-day-old leftovers.
Frank grabbed his hat and headed out the door, down the stairs and out onto the street, squinting against the late-morning sun. The smell of stale cigars, beer, and vomit lingered around the doorway to the walk-ups, like it did pretty much everywhere on 7th Avenue on a Sunday morning. He headed towards the Bad Monkey, past the disheveled passersby doing the walk of shame, and past the street musicians getting an early start on the weekend tourist crowd. He tossed a couple of dollars into the musician’s guitar case and pulled out the picture.
It was a long shot, but street people see a lot, and don’t miss much.
“You see this guy around here lately?”
“Nah, man. I don’t ‘see’ a lot of things, ya know what I mean?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Frank kept heading west until he reached the Monkey. The afternoon crew was inside setting up, but the place wasn’t open yet. He knocked out the door, three times, crisp and loud, like a cop.
Old habits die hard.
“Closed!” the pretty blonde bartender yelled at him through the glass. “We open at noon!”
He knocked again, once this time, and pulled out his wallet, holding it up the glass like it was a badge. He quickly put the wallet away as the bartender walked over to the door. “Official business, ma’am. Can I ask you a few questions?”
She looked at him skeptically as she unlocked the door. “Can I see that badge again, officer?” she said.
“I’m not a cop, ma’am. I’m a private detective. I’m looking for a missing person who was last seen here, Friday night. Can I talk to you for a few moments?”
The gal had beautiful… eyes. Frank looked up at them, after a moment. “Thanks for your help. I’m looking for this young man.” He held up the photo. “Were you working Friday night? Did you see him?”
She took the photo from his hand and studied it carefully. “I was working that night, but I see hundreds of people here, all the time. Unless he was a regular… I can’t say.”
“This guy would have stood out. He closed the place down with two of his friends, a guy and a gal. Was probably pretty hammered.”
“Man, you just described about 90 percent of the people here every night.” She looked at the picture again. “Now that you mention it, a couple was asking if any of us had seen their friend, just before closing. I remember because they seemed really worried, the girl especially. I told them he probably just went somewhere else, or to get something to eat. They left in a hurry.”
“Ok. Here’s my card. Do me a favor – ask the rest of your crew if they remember anything about that couple or their friend, would you? You come up with something I can use, there’s a hundred bucks in it for you.” Frank pulled a hundred out of his wallet, tore it in half, and gave her one part. “That’s how serious I am, you find out anything, anything at all, you call, OK?”
“Sure thing, Mr… Geddy,” she said, as she looked at his card. “Sorry I wasn’t more help to you.” Frank turned and headed for the door. “Um, Mr. Geddy, sir? There is one more thing. We keep a white board, back of the house, by the johns. People write stuff there, sometimes, jokes, news, even messages for their friends before they head off to another bar. You wanna see it? “Damn right I do. Let’s check it out.”
I’m getting old, should have looked around before I asked her anything.
“Follow me.” She turned and headed towards a hallway in the back of the bar, turned a corner, stopped, and pointed to a small whiteboard. “There it is. We usually erase it every day, but sometimes you can still see the writing.”
Frank examined the whiteboard carefully. The usual bar graffiti.
“Mandy is a whore,” written in a girl’s hand.
“There once was a man named Enis.”
Nobody is fucken named Enis, fer Chrissake.
“Go Bucs! Wooot!”
Ah, sports fans, the bread and butter of every bar.
And then, in the corner, barely visible, he saw the words “Jenn, went to JJ’s, Matt.”
“Honey, I don’t know you, but I already like you,” Frank said as he handed her the other half of the bill. “Keep my card. Anything else comes to mind, call me.”
“I will, Mr. Geddy!”
I still know how to make a woman smile, just hand them a hundred bucks. Didn’t used to cost me so much.
Frank headed out the door and down the avenue towards JJ’s. Matt must have left in a hurry, probably to score something, either pussy or drugs. Either way, he didn’t want his friends to see him. He wondered about that. Guys leaving a bar to score some action aren’t usually shy about it — they want their friends to know. So that left dope, but Matt’s mom had said he was a “good kid,” whatever that meant nowadays.
Frank had been a good kid, too, but he and his friends had still smoked a few pounds of pot in college.
Had to be a dope deal, then.
Those kinds of things always had the potential to go real wrong, real fast, even for the lightweight shit like pot.
You better be alive, kid. I hate to break a woman’s heart.
Frank stood on the sidewalk in front of JJ’s. The two bars were only a block or two apart. Maybe five minutes to get here? But if it was damn near closing time when the kid left the Monkey, it was probably after last call, which means they wouldn’t have let him in, which means he got stopped at the door, or met someone there.
Gotta talk to the doorman.
He walked in and sat down at the bar. The bartender was slicing lemons by the register.
“What can I get you?”
“Jack and a Bud back.”
“Neat or rocks? Bottle or draft?”
“Neat. Bottle. Is there any other way?
The bartender laughed at that as she poured the whiskey and uncapped the bottle. “I guess not. But you’re not one of my regulars, so I had to ask.”
“I got a question for you. I’m looking for someone. A friend.”
She laughed again. “Isn’t everyone?”
“Not that kind of friend. A young man, last seen here, probably just before closing time Friday night. He mighta got stopped at the door, if it was after last call.”
“You a cop?”
“No, I’m a detective.” He held up Matt’s picture. “This is the kid. He isn’t in any trouble that I know of.”
She studied the picture. “Doesn’t ring any bells. I didn’t work Friday night, I’m mostly days and swing.”
“Anyone else here that did work Friday night close?”
“Yeah, the assistant manager. He’s in the back. Hang on a minute.” He watched as she walked away, doing that sexy hip wiggle cute girls always seem to do when they know someone is watching.
If I was 20 years younger… I would at least ask…
She returned a moment later with a burly-looking guy Frank assumed was the assistant manager.
“I understand you’re looking for some kid?” he said.
“Take a good look at this photo. His people are worried about him. They just want him home safe. Have you seen him?”
“That sonofabitch! Yeah, he was here Friday night. Got real pissy cause we stopped him and his girl at the door. Said he was meeting someone inside. I told him to fuck off cause it was after last call. Turned out they were here to meet one of our servers. Him and his girl hung around until close, then left with Cammie.”
“Cammie? She left with this kid and his girl? Are you absolutely certain?”
“Hell yeah. I never forget a face I’m about to bash.”
“Can I have Cammie’s number?
“Hell no. I can’t give out personal employee info to every yahoo that walks in my place. But I can call her for you. Gimme your card.”
Frank handed his card over. The manager made a quick call, said something Frank couldn’t hear, then gave him the phone.
“Hello? Who is this? What do you want?”
“Cammie? Is Matt Portola there?”
“Um, who wants to know?”
“Detective Frank Geddy.”
“Call your mom right… fucking… now.”
Frank handed the phone back to the manager.
Boys will be boys.