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“In the old days, cigar rollers would choose amongst themselves someone to read aloud news and literature while they worked. The tradition lives on today with 250 lectores employed at factories across the island.”
--Zoe Nocedo Primo, director, Havana’s Cigar Museum


        The smell of tobacco felt like home after a week away from the factory. Ironic, since it had been home where he’d spent the last week, home to say goodbye to Pilar after her struggle with the disease no one survived. If not for his 40 years of service at the factory, he’d have had a choice to make: two days’ bereavement leave or lose his job to some kid who would roll half the cigars in a day that Rolando could.

    This morning he’d arrived earlier than usual, his way of thanking the foreman for the extra time off to bury his wife, see to the mourners who’d descended on their little apartment, sift through Pilar’s few belongings that mattered and burn the rest. The smoke lingered in his nostrils. It blended with the scent of tobacco that he’d long ago stopped smelling. Amazing how a week away from the factory had resensitized his nose to its sweet pungence.
 
    Rolando looked at the seat to his left where Gricel had sat for years, silently rolling cigars. Every day, Rolando would try out jokes on her, sprinkle in his own commentary on the news of the day delivered by Maria Diaz, the lectore who’d read the newspaper aloud from the front of the factory for all of Rolando’s rolling years.
  
    Once a day, exactly once and only once, Gricel would let go a smile for Rolando, the only indication that she had been listening to him at all. This memory was the only thing that brought Rolando back to the factory.
 
    Usually, she was already at her table when he arrived. Rolando got a heavy feeling in his chest when he looked at her empty chair then reminded himself it was twenty minutes until her shift began. She was probably dropping the boys at her neighbor’s right now, kissing them on the forehead, telling them to be good.

    Rolling would take his mind off the clock. And the wondering.

    The wooden cigar box was half-filled by the time the others arrived to start their shift. Their greetings were subdued, the usual holas but today coupled with a hand on a shoulder. He was glad they didn’t try to say the unsayable, awkwardly try to comfort someone they knew only to exchange jokes with during their twice-daily breaks.

    It was Gricel’s smile he needed. Usually he’d start his day with a plan for how he would get it, a few jokes delivered in a particular order, built up to the one that would finally force her to crack a smile. It was almost as if she could sense when his jokes were reaching a crescendo, when it was time to reward him for all his hard work. How did she do that? Know just when he was almost out of material and most in need of her gift?

    Today, he had no plan. Or rather he had a plan, which was this: he’d simply ask. “Gricel, today I need a smile. Do you have one for me?” She would oblige warmly, the light dancing in her onyx eyes for just a second, before they looked back down at her hands rolling her 100th cigar of the day. At that moment, his compass would reset. He could see the horizon once again. Put his left foot in front of his right.

    The scratch of Mateo’s wooden chair on the floor startled him. Mateo always arrived exactly one minute before the beginning of the shift and commented on the number of cigars already in Rolando’s and Gricel’s boxes, “Seventeen free cigars.” His crooked smile would betray his inability to understand why they’d do work for free. Today, he peeked into Rolando’s box, opened his mouth to comment on the 25 cigars inside, looked at Rolando’s face and closed his mouth, got to work.

    Rolando considered asking about Gricel, but the tightness in his throat wouldn’t let him. Even if he could, he was certain the tears he’d worked so hard to banish over the past week would burst out of him. He took slow deep breaths, clenched his jaw.

    He motioned to the floorman to bring him some more tobacco, tried to focus on his rolling. In a few minutes, Maria would arrive and start reading the paper. That would take his mind off Gricel, stop all the tragic scenarios that ran through his head.

    She’d been fired for missing work to care for Manuel again. Her drunken husband had come back and beaten her up. The cough that’d plagued her for the past three weeks had turned into pneumonia, and she was in the hospital. She’d been hit by the sugar cane trucks on that dangerous stretch of road she had to walk every day. He could almost hear the headline in Maria’s amplified voice echoing through the near-empty factory.

    The cigar in his hands was rolled too tight. He set it aside and smoothed out a new piece of tobacco to begin again. One leaf at a time, Rolando, he said to himself as he had when he was first learning to roll. One leaf at a time.

    His box full, he signaled the floorman to pick it up. Started on his second. His temples ached and his eyes blinked so fast it was like seeing the factory through strobe lights. No Gricel.

    “Buenos dias. Granma News, 2 Junio, 1998.” The chocolate voice over the microphone was familiar but definitely not that of Maria Diaz.  “Hoy en día en el mundo de noticias…”

    Rolando’s hands stopped rolling. His eyes looked to the front of the factory. Gricel’s dark eyes looked back. She smiled, began again. A sob escaped his lips.

    The next box of cigars was peppered with his tears.



Kim Suhr is the director of RedBird-RedOak Writing and Red Oak Young Writers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She
gets a huge kick out of helping others make their writing dreams come true and decided she'd better set a
good example by submitting some work of her own.  Kim took first place in the Wisconsin Regional Writers'
Association Lindemann Humor Writing Contest. Most recently, her work was recognized in the Wisconsin
Regional Writers' Association Jade Ring Contest and her poetry will be included in the Wisconsin Poets'
Calendar, 2011


 


The idea for "Cigar Reader" came from a BBC story about the lectores in Cuban cigar factories who read aloud while workers roll tobacco into the prized smokables.  I was so endeared by this -- that the factory workers listened to the newspaper read cover to cover in the morning and great works of literature in the afternoon, that they even named cigars after the literature they heard (hence, the Monte Cristo and Romeo y Julietta brands) -- I just had to write about it. After trying out a few different points-of-view, I settled into Rolando's head and heart and liked what I found there.

 





  


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