Optimism

Ignacio stopped by a prostitute sleeping in front of his apartment, “Wake up,” he told her, “I want you to stay with me.”

Optimism first appeared alongside Lucky Jack in Happy, issue 20

Ignacio’s thin fingers worked over the pile of moist, crushed tobacco atop a single, perfect leaf.  In a swift movement, his hands manipulated the leaf into a long tube and met his tongue, and as his right hand set the finished cigar in the stack, his left grabbed another full leaf, and as soon as it was on his worn wooden tabletop, his right hand had returned to put a line of tobacco on it again.  The same quick movement turned it from pile to cigar, and he completed his two-hundredth cigar of the day.

His head was wrapped in the elastic band from a pair of underwear, wrapped in a cotton cloth, it was wet as if from swimming in the ocean, the sweat dripped in his eyes.  The sound in the room was the swish and rustle of tobacco leaves, thousands of paper-thin, thick-veined leaves being twisted, licked, and stacked, there was the machine-gun-like taktaktak of the single oscillating fan in the corner of the room, the blades scraping the metal cover, slightly off balance.  At the front of the room sat a man reading a book into a microphone.

“’This is a foolish scheme,’ the King told them.  ‘I am well aware that my country is nothing to write home about; but when you are reasonably happy somewhere, you should stay put.’”

Ignacio stumbled when he heard the last line read aloud.  He dropped his leaf and tobacco scattered across his table.  Around him he heard the twisting and wrapping of dry leaves, the light hollow plops of the finished cigars being stacked together.  As he tried to push the tobacco onto the large leaf, he heard only more cigars being completed.  When he recovered and stacked his cigar, he calculated that he would be short by five cigars by the end of the day.  He tried to hurry once before, but the anticipation of quickening each careful gesture had caused him to crush a leaf, and he had to hide it in his sweatband.  Today, he would be short by five.

On his walk home, Ignacio counted twelve moths as large as his hand clinging to the screen door of a closed tailor’s shop.  He picked one up, its body as thick as two of his fingers, and it spread its orange wings out far past his palms.  Its body was velvety and plump, covered with small antennae-like protrusions.  He wished to see it in flight, so he tossed it, and it fell, like a glider made of cheese.  It waddled in the street, then adjusted its wings and hunched down.  A cab came by, its engine roaring and echoing off the closed-in walls of the dirt street, and crushed the bright moth.  It didn’t flinch and it didn’t twitch.  Ignacio flicked at another moth on the screen and it fell to the sidewalk, stretched its wings, and didn’t flinch or twitch as its green and black body was crushed by Ignacio’s heel.  He shrugged and walked into a bar down the street.

Ignacio ordered a pitcher of beer with Carlos, who worked two tables over from Ignacio.

“I crushed a cigar today,” Carlos said.

Ignacio shrugged, “I crushed a moth.”

Carlos nodded, then removed the two halves of his crushed cigar, still carefully rolled.

Smoke clouds surrounded their heads, their hands glowed bright orange in the haze of smoke and the dim lighting of the bar.   Beyond the smoke, they saw dim streetlamps and a permanent strangling of dust in the air, perpetually hanging, a neon sign somewhere close by attacked puffs of the smoke, turning it red and green.

Ignacio shrugged again, at nothing.

Carlos nodded.

“We are in with the best,” one of them said.

Carlos nodded.

“There are people not nearly as educated as the two of us.”

“They think we are slaves,” Ignacio said.

Carlos nodded, “We are slaves.”

Ignacio shrugged.

“All is well,” Carlos drank from his mug.  “But not necessarily for the best.”

“Good night,” one said.

Carlos nodded; Ignacio shrugged.

Ignacio stopped by a prostitute sleeping in front of his apartment, “Wake up,” he told her, “I want you to stay with me.”

She stood from the dirt lining the sidewalk but didn’t brush it from her clothes.  He held out his hand and she took it, ran her fingers along the layer of tobacco covering his fingerprints. She had a memory of picking cherries from a tree as a girl, feeling the hard, smooth bark of the limb as she balanced on the ladder, then pulling off the fruits and being tickled by the juice running down her arm.  She kissed him and he pulled away.

She fought for his face in the dark, her hands grasping for his cheeks, his heavy jaw she had just felt.  He was gone, opening the door to his apartment for her, he took her by the shoulder and led her to the kitchen.

He poured her a glass of nectar and dropped in ice cubes.  She drank it and sat at his metal table, the yellow paint flaking off to the tile floor.  She set the glass down hard and it startled Ignacio, who was stuffing a cornhusk with figs and honey.  Her eyebrows were raised but she was watching the swirls of water melt away from the ice cubes.  He placed the husk into a steamer.

In the corner of the kitchen, where it opened into a small room with a radio and a couch, by a stained section of the stucco wall, was Ignacio’s dog, which smacked its gums briefly and then yawned.  The two ignored the dog.

“Do you have a wife?”

Ignacio shrugged, “No wife.”

“But you have a dog.”

He nodded, “And chickens.”

She nodded.

“They live in the orchard,” he handed her the steaming husk.

“With the dog?”

Ignacio nodded, “Oranges and lemons, and cherries.”

They walked in the light of a moon sliver, carefully between rows of citrus heavy trees, the thick waxy leaves shooting silver light like flimsy stretched coins across the ground.  He sat her beneath a tree and told her to hold out her skirt like a basket.  In the dark, she heard only the rustling of leaves together, they drew away from her and became quiet, then there was a pelting over her dress.  Cherries fell wildly from above until her arms grew heavy, and then Ignacio was beside her again.  She was crying silently.

“Marry me?”  He asked her.

She nodded, and let the cherries spill into the dirt.

“Then we are married,” he told her, pulling her dress over her head.

She smelled the tobacco on his fingers as they read her body in the dark.

In the morning, Ignacio carried her into his apartment and placed her in his bed, he ate an orange on his way to the shop, and stopped in the road to pick up the dried remains of the moth that had been killed the night before.  He dropped it in the wind and this time it floated away down the street, off into an alley where he was sure it fell back to the road.

Along the roads, Ignacio counted the high soaring billboards with the image of some detached and idealized potentate.  He shrugged and walked into the double-hung doors of the cigar warehouse and sat at his seat and immediately began rolling cigars.

During his break, he ate honey-covered pineapple in the shade of an alley.  Carlos hadn’t arrived and there was confusion with the owner of the shop as to where exactly he could be.  He was fired already, but they wanted to find him so they could beat him.  There was solemnity later in the day as Ignacio wrapped cigars, and it turned out Carlos had been killed in a fight the previous night, after Ignacio had left the bar, over the words, “It is the price we pay for the cigars you smoke in Europe.”

At the end of the road grew flowers, dusty wild flowers choked with aphids.  But they were free, and they were large, and Ignacio collected a handful for his wife.  He stood at the edge of the road, by the wooden sign pointing to some other place on the small island, to some place exactly the same as where he stood, for where he stood all was as well as it could be, and if he walked a block or a mile, it would still be as well.  He wondered if past the water, lying a few hundred yards out from the edge of the road, off the small cliff, if things stayed just as well as they were, if he had the best of everything.

The water lapped quietly at the shore, and the bright orange beams cutting through the surging waves sliced into Ignacio’s vision.  He heard a jet engine far above him, and he wondered if his feeling was of complacency or apathy, and he thought of the world towards which the jet traveled, whether it would be better or worse than the one he knew, and he supposed that if he was curious enough to ask, it might as well be better.

Flowers made his wife sneeze, but she thanked him and put them in water.  He gave her a bottle of wine and two glasses, and asked if she wouldn’t like to sit in the orchard.

Her name was Mariana, she was twenty-seven, and had been a prostitute for most of her life.  She liked fruit, and she liked Ignacio’s orchard.  Beyond this, she did not wish to speak, and beyond this, Ignacio was comfortable not to hear.  Between them, they did not need perfection.

She gathered the cherry pits they had collected between them in the dirt and told him she would make them both matching rings out of them, and for herself she would make a necklace.

When asked if she would still sleep with other men, she replied, “I’m where I want to be,” and Ignacio shrugged.

In the morning, Ignacio dressed in the dark pants and tie that Mariana had set out for him on the kitchen chair.  For her, Ignacio removed the meter-wide skillet from the wall and cooked a large sweet waffle, drizzled with cane syrup heated with blackberries.  She walked into the kitchen naked, tried the waffle, and told Ignacio she wanted him inside her.

Ignacio was late for work, so he was able to notice an older cigar maker now occupied Carlos’ spot.  No one looked up except the man reading from the book into the microphone, who commented with hand gestures that he liked Ignacio’s silk tie, stained now with syrup and blackberries, he then continued to read, “…taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband…”

Mariana stood on the sidewalk outside the cigar shop, holding a sandwich for Ignacio.  The men leaving didn’t notice except that Ignacio now had a wife where once he might not have.  They were smiling at each other in a stream of cold expressions lit by the intense sun.

She kissed him goodbye, her dress flapped in the light breeze like wings, her brown legs ambling away, her body movements fluidlike.  A truck came up the street and slowed for Mariana to pass by, and she disappeared behind it.  The truck lurched forward and stopped in the street in front of the cigar shop.  Cigar makers, ready to resume work, now gathered around the truck.

The man who read the book held a banana in his hand and worked a piece around in his mouth, on his lip was a small moist crumb.

“Back to work,” the shop owner said, and the crowd went back inside the small clay oven to their respective tables.

While the workers rolled cigars, there came from the ceiling the sound of heavy footsteps moving back and forth, and outside was the sound of diesel machinery revving and waning.  The revving turned into a taktaktak louder than the machine-gun-like oscillating fan in the corner.  Finally, there was a cry, an ungodly snapping sound, and a plangent of distress on the ceiling, where a large silver and black box fell from the roof through the ceiling, and into a crate of stacked cigars.  The man reading the book into the microphone stopped, the workers quit rolling cigars, and the men who had been on the roof now peered through the giant hole and into their destruction bed.

The shop closed early and so the workers all went home to sleep instead of to the bars.

Mariana smiled and waved when she saw Ignacio from the balcony, she was reading a magazine.

“They tried to install air conditioning today, they crushed our cigars,” Ignacio said.

That night, the bats came out and swarmed the town, in the morning the smell was like an old coffee bean, acrid and sharp.  At lunch he received notice, from Mariana, that his brother, the alcoholic, had died in a house fire, which was his own fault.  His brother had willed the house to Ignacio, but since there was no house, Ignacio now had an empty lot.  Ignacio asked for two days off.  One day was for his brother’s funeral, the other was to sell the empty lot.

Ignacio gave the eulogy at his brother’s memorial service, there was no body like there was no house.  “Things are now as they should be,” he said, “but this does not mean that things are good.”

The church was being used for a baptism later, so the memorial service was cut short.  Ignacio was the last person in his family, aside from Mariana, still living.  She asked about his brother.

“His name was Kike`,” he said.  “When we were little, he was in the hospital for a long time with tuberculosis.  They finally let him out, and I was so happy that I chased him around town, he tried to hop the church fence,” he pointed to the wrought iron fence surrounding the cemetery.  “He put his hand flat on one of those spires, with all his weight, it went straight through his palm like a crucifix.”

Mariana blinked.

The next day at the bank, Ignacio took the first offer the bank gave him because 1) he was not greedy and 2) it was already a generous sum that did not require being taxed.

When he finished at the bank, he took a bus to the adjacent town, which was the only place to buy a semi-new car.  The majority of the stock was sedans and old American cars that would only be used as taxis.  In the corner, however, was a long car with a small British flag painted on the fender.  The hood said Jensen, and the small badge along the side said Interceptor.

Mariana was making coffee when the walls of their apartment rattled.  A picture of a single cherry, which Mariana had painted and Ignacio had framed, shook off the wall and fell to the floor.

She looked out the window and saw Ignacio waving from the driver’s seat, revving the eight cylinders just outside their apartment.

They drove that night to the highway that ran by the airport, they parked in the grass and watched the jets launch from the flat ground and lift gracefully into the air, soaring away with a racket like a beast.  They were as lumpy and disproportioned as the giant moths.  When they came in to land it looked like a controlled freefall, angled perfectly in order to keep the passengers alive.  It was subdued chaos.  Ignacio asked Mariana if she would like to see what other worlds there were.

“Even if this is the worst of all possible worlds,” she said, “Then no.”

As she said this, a launching airplane erupted in flames, followed by the taktaktak of real machine guns.  A rocket appeared from the darkness and struck the runway, illuminating the interior of the Jensen.  Things are getting worse, Ignacio thought, and that isn’t necessarily good.

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