The Cigar Roller
A Novelby Pablo Medina
A hypnotic portrayal of a Cuban cigar roller, now an old man trapped inside his useless body, compelled to relive his worst failures in order to conjure his fairest memories.
Praised by The Washington Post for his “subtle and effective voice,” master storyteller Pablo Medina’s new novel is a radiant journey through the mind of Amadeo Terra, a Cuban cigar-factory worker lying helpless in a Florida hospital after a massive stroke has left him paralyzed. His body no longer works and he has no means by which to communicate, but his mind is very much alive, as is his ruthless and audacious wit. His only human contact is with the callous nurse who constantly scolds him, the orderly who barely acknowledges him, and the nun who prays for Amadeo’s salvation while he fantasizes about what’s under her habit.
One day Nurse feeds him mango from a baby-food jar–a departure from the tasteless mush he frequently regurgitates with defiance–and the taste of it brings memories of his life in Havana flooding back to him. Once a master cigar roller and an imperious patriarch of enormous appetites, Amadeo now recalls his turbulent but passionate relationship with his wife Julia, his numerous romantic transgressions, his three sons toward whom he feels a shocking ambivalence, and the political strife that forced his family to relocate to Florida under desperate circumstances. Abandoned now, he is forced to confront the long-buried facts of his previously unexamined life. The Cigar Roller is a tour de force, an evocative portrait of a man whose life–once governed unapologetically by his basest urges–is now reduced mercilessly to its most basic functions.
“Mr. Medina conducts Amadeo through his regrets with grace. He is a masculine romance, a silent type for whom original sin is the raison d’etre, and these late regrets are part of the show. Mr. Medina’s assured sentences suggest a decisive mind that wanders with confidence. . . . Rarely are the tools of the Modernist novel used so quietly. . . . Mr. Medina’s psychological novel is a mental idyll: Amadeo’s enforced tranquility is no less fecund than Wordsworth’s.” –Benjamin Lytal, New York Sun
“An evocative snapshot of an era gone up in smoke.” –Detroit Free Press
“Gripping . . . Medina’s vivid prose crafts a morality tale, a story about the excesses that ultimately destroy us.” –Mario Terradell, Dallas Morning News
“Haunting . . . Medina holds nothing back.” –St. Petersburg Times
“I could not put this book down. It’s a short but very intense story. . . . Uplifting? No, although there are some very humorous moments. Beautiful? Absolutely. Pablo Medina, thank you for writing this.” –Rima Suqi, New York
“It is in the intense, lyrical passages that Medina excels, and it’s hard to believe, as with Joseph Conrad, that English isn’t his first language. . . . He also shares with Conrad a talent for lush, visceral images.” –Lisa Simeone, Baltimore Sun
“This book will draw comparisons to Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz and, thematically, is in perfect company with Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Anna and the Tropics, but The Cigar Roller reaches an impressive level of lyricism that is distinctly Medina’s. . . . Most striking of all is how Medina sustains the energy and lucidity of his prose as it shifts from memory to history to the sad reality of one Amadeo Terra.” –Rigoberto González, El Paso Times
“A lovely novel, well worth the sadness and claustrophobia evoked by its hermetic setting. The book is literally small in one’s hand but large in its ability to portray the complexity of people who are neither heroes nor villains. . . . Historically accurate facts are delightfully sprinkled throughout the book.” –Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald
“A poignant set of immigrant’s reflections . . . Medina crafts a complex, rewarding novel . . . [His] graceful use of the third person, into which he folds a multiplicity of perspectives with real lyricism, makes Terra seem to open outward into the world . . . Medina skates perfectly between Terra’s specificity and the universality of his plight, making Terra, his flaws and his struggles all the more compelling.” –Publishers Weekly
“Comparison with Carols Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz would not be inappropriate. . . . Medina writes with exquisite detail and manages to sustain interest in a basically static situation. . . . He keeps readers hanging until the last page.” –Lawrence Olszewski, Library Journal
A Book Sense Selection
Amadeo Terra is staring out the window to the sea on which the sun is dancing. He looks out and he looks in and he remembers the day he landed on these shores with his wife and three children and his youngest tugging at his sleeve, asking the impertinent questions young boys ask and their fathers cannot answer without revealing the depth of their ignorance. Amadeo Terra remembers how he pushed the boy away, too forcefully it seems now, too much like a man trying to prove himself–to a child no less–and how the boy ran to cling to his mother’s dress. Amadeo Terra can do nothing but remember.
Two white canvas straps, one around his chest, the other around his lap, keep him in his chair. His body has not moved for four years and seven months. He remembers walking on a sunny street, cigar smoke curling upward from his mouth. He remembers his brain shutting down, his cheek on the sidewalk, his left arm twisted behind him.
He remembers thinking that just when he had it all–money, a comfortable house, a new car–somebody dropped an anvil on him. Life arriving. Life escaping. Ridiculous. The sun is dappling the chops on the bay and he is finding patterns to the glinting light where none exist. At first it is like a musical beat–ta-ta, ta ta-ta–then it is a street full of neon signs blinking on and off and then it becomes a summer night in the country after the fireflies hatch. Cocuyos–that’s the Cuban name–thousands of them over the field behind the house. Occasionally a motorboat speeds by, cutting the water and leaving a wake of foam behind. Sometimes a boat will be pulling a skier. The skier crosses the wake, skipping over it then turning and crossing the wake again and again until boat and skier disappear behind the frame of the window. Much of the time there are birds, large slow soaring ones with scissor tails and small streaking ones that fly in a straight line. If he strains he can see a long bridge in the distance and beyond it sailboats floating off gracefully into the open sea. Storms appear often enough, usually in the afternoon, and he likes to watch as the sky darkens and the lightning flashes out at the edges of the sea. Once a waterspout formed over the bay, crossed the causeway on the right and plowed through a stand of pines on the mainland. Mostly, however, it is the sun shining on the water, and he likes that best of all. Time ago, he awoke early enough to see the large cargo ships lumbering out of the harbor at high tide. Time before that he was on a boat himself sailing into the harbor, sails at full mast, the prow sending spray over him and his children, Julia complaining, the sailors cursing. It was the greatest morning of his life, nothing but wide sky and stars and the future ahead.
At five o’clock Nurse brings to the rolling table by his chair a tray with several jars of baby food, some warm, some cool. She is a master of efficiency, everything placed on the tray in its proper order–the bib, the jars, the spoon, the towel, the plastic juice bottle, like a child’s, in the shape of a bear. She opens the first jar, split pea with ham, swirls it with a teaspoon a few times, then tests it for warmth by tapping some on the back of her hand. Amadeo Terra follows her motions with his eyes as he has done every day since he’s been here. He wants to speak, he wants her to see him trying to speak, but she does not like him drooling while he eats and so he doesn’t try. Instead he allows her to slip the spoon into his mouth. There, that’s good, she says wiping the excess off his lips with one sweep of the teaspoon. Sometimes, when his mind doesn’t play tricks on him, he imagines what it was like to eat real food–steak, rare, with yuca fried in lard and half a loaf of bread, or his favorite, enchilado de jaibas with a bowl of rice and plantains on the side, washed down with beer. He had gotten fat, a full three hundred pounds in his prime. A man eats. There were days when he consumed six servings of paella for lunch and two steaks for dinner, and there were days when he was working so hard he ate like a nun, a ham sandwich, a bowl of soup. He ruled his appetites, not the other way around. Now he is being fed baby food. How he longs for a large piece of bovine flesh, stringy with sinew and marbled with fat, how he dreams every day of thick pork chops, oozing with grease. He cannot bite, he cannot chew, he cannot grab the ribs with his hands. When he first arrived at the home they pulled all his teeth. He remembers how easily they slipped out of his gums, one by one, with barely a jiggle of the dentist’s clamp, then the sound of them clanging in the metal basin. The teeth were not worth fixing, they said, and feeding him would be easier that way. Mush, that is, baby food, a little apple juice, on occasion a cracker he can suck on. Meat, he can only dream of meat.
Nurse thrusts another spoonful in his mouth. He barely tastes the split pea and swallows quickly. She follows with something sweet–a flavor he cannot recall. He blinks once, yes, and swirls the paste around and won’t swallow again until he can recognize it, something from his childhood, when taste was an adjunct of eating. The substance is familiar to him on his lips, on the tip of his tongue, on the tissues of the inside of his mouth, its aroma filling his nostrils, a substance like a yellow light in his brain. His mouth is clamped in concentration and just as he is about to name the taste, just as he is about to grasp the truth, Nurse tries to force the split pea through his lips. He blinks twice, no, and keeps his jaw shut; he is almost there. She jabs his gums several times with the spoon all the while coaxing him to open up, open up now, I don’t have all day, open up. You shouldn’t be this selfish, the others need me. Open up. He avoids her eyes and voice, gentle and cheery, riding a crest of impatience, and concentrates on the taste that has filled his mouth, spread up his nostrils, and taken over his whole being. He can smell the past, smell his childhood, pungent and silky, see the sun through the branches of the tree he hid behind until his father tired of looking for him and headed home with anger swelling his forehead. He can smell the grove where he ate fruit that night and got so full he couldn’t breathe. He can smell the sap oozing out of the tree trunks.
Nurse is pressing with her thumb and middle finger on his mandible. She has done this before. Mostly she succeeded but sometimes, on days when he felt particularly strong, he could keep his jaw clamped and she would, after a time, leave to feed the others, waiting like baby birds for her and her jars. But she wouldn’t leave quietly. Nurse always had to have the last word. As she capped the jars and wiped the rolling table, she would say in a calm, condescending tone that he was ungrateful, that he was taking too much of her time, that next time she would send the orderly to feed him. Amadeo Terra is willing to resist forever, have her pack her jars, her bib and her spoon and take them to her next case, willing to starve himself (as if that process hadn’t already begun) in order to find in his memory the source of that taste. And just as Nurse is wiping his face one last time in her mock anger (she doesn’t really care whether Amadeo eats or not, sleeps or not, lives or not) mango appears. He swallows, closes his eyes. Mango. Yellow, pulpy, stringy, sticky yellow. Mango! He wants it, tubs of it, he wants all mango, mango day and mango night, mango moon and mango sun and mango sea and mango mountain and mango swamp. Nurse is mango. Home is mango. Amadeo Terra is mango. He opens his mouth wide, he wants mango. The fat around his throat is quivering for more. Mango, he yells with his eyes; mango, he begs, blinking yes.
Nurse notices, thinks she has won and Amadeo is repentant. She smiles triumphantly. She rolls the table back into place, sits on the chair by the bed. Amadeo still has his mouth open but now his whole being strains with the effort. If he could chirp, he would. He follows her actions with his eyes, watches as she places the tray with the jars on the table. The bib, don’t forget the bib. She starts with the split pea, spooning it in quickly and efficiently, as if she were feeding a coal furnace rather than a human being. Amadeo obliges, swallowing, anticipating. He is ready to do anything, eat lead if he has to, in order to get more of the sweet taste of mango. She collects the last of the split pea, sweeping inside the jar with the spoon, and jabs it deep in his mouth. She caps the empty jar and searches blindly for another, picks one that bears no resemblance to yellow, and begins to open it. Amadeo tries to warn her with his eyes, not mango, not mango, but she realizes it is still sealed, puts it back, and finds the mango finally. Amadeo has never felt such desire, not even as a young man when the whole world was desire. By the time she opens the jar, he is close to tears. The taste is different now, more like sky, not sea, more skin, light inside a pocket, breast in water. If he closes his eyes it is a deep blue; when he opens them he tastes canary tongue, rain shoulder, tree semen.
As soon as she’s done, Nurse leaves the room. No good-bye. Without Nurse there is window, there is sea and sun, there is Amadeo sitting on the chair, but there is no mango. Still, he is happy he no longer has to listen to her baby talk, her empty nurse’s voice, the rise and fall of her condescension. He doesn’t have to see her big breasts tight against her uniform or hear the rustle of her thighs walking in or smell her perfume and her skin, the white hugeness of it, and her mouth red and incessant and her wormy lips. For a long time he wanted her, spent nights awake imagining what she looked like under all that white cloth, what she would do if he asked–take off her girdle, straddle his face. That was long ago when there was hope. Now he wants to see her as little as possible.
It is mango he wants, the yellow of it on his face and its childhood taste in his mouth again. He remembers a woman once who tasted like mango. It dripped out of her like sun syrup. He remembers the juice on her belly, he remembers sex, the pump and flex, the sea inside him emptying. He remembers running; he remembers Julia his wife in the kitchen, the void in his heart, the mango woman, the bile pushing up his throat; he remembers the china chest crashing to the floor; he remembers Julia holding their son in her arms like a broken doll, the darkness of the night, the next day, the years ahead. All he can do is remember and remember and remember until his eyes close, there before the window, facing the sea on which the sun is dancing, and the taste of everything in his mouth.
It was a Sunday. Amadeo remembers. It was a Sunday and things were quiet and dismal: the port with its ragged wooden buildings, the unpaved streets, the stevedores who milled about like tired fish, still smelling of the night before. The sun had burned away the morning haze and witch-water was already rising from the sandy road that lined the harbor. On the other side of the street a cluster of tobacco warehouses leaned against each other, and at the corner formed by a road that stretched inland away from the port, a lone coconut palm grew, its base painted white. Amadeo fought his disappointment and walked off the pier bearing on his shoulders a steamer trunk that held all of the family’s possessions: clothing mostly, a candelabrum, the few pieces of jewelry Julia insisted on bringing with her, a fry pan, five forks, six table spoons, and a book that had belonged to Julia’s grandmother entitled Obras de piedad. Amadeo was close to six feet tall, broad-shouldered and heavy-armed, and, despite the weight of the trunk, he walked with long certain strides that gave the impression that he knew where he was going.
Julia followed behind him. She was wearing a plain cream-colored muslin dress with a brown silk vest and a beige bonnet–to keep her hair in place during the crossing, she said–that seemed out of place on her head. Was that the way she was dressed? Amadeo is thinking. Maybe it was the gray dress she wore to church. Or one she had bought for the trip. It had gotten soiled on board the ship, and it worried her that she would have to arrive in the United States looking like a Turkish peddler, but that concern was soon to be supplanted by much more immediate ones. She was carrying a gunny sack containing the remains of two slabs of tasajo, a small tin of crackers, a bunch of bananas, and a butcher knife wrapped in cloth. Her full name was Julia González Herrera and she walked with the posture of a woman used to better things and a better life. She had never been on a boat before and the overnight crossing had left her exhausted, with her nerves frayed from the seasickness, the vomiting, the not knowing where they were in the middle of the bobbing darkness, the dampness, the cold waves spraying over the prow, and the awful feeling that she was leaving behind everything she knew and was entering the voracious mouth of fate. It was the worst night of her life, she kept reminding Amadeo through the years, and refused to set foot on a boat again. If her husband wanted to travel, so be it, but he would do it alone. True islander that she was, she mistrusted the sea and sensed that nothing good came from it. The trip from Havana to Tampa had only confirmed her mistrust, given it a firm basis in experience, so that she did not return to the island until many years later, when she thought she was dying.
The boys hovered around her, except Albertico, the youngest, who rushed up to his father and tried to grab his pant leg and was ignored for his effort. Julia yelled out her husband’s name, Amadeo!, in alarm but then composed herself and said nothing else. It was the wrong time for anything but the essential questions. Those questions were foremost on Amadeo’s mind as well and so she did not need to ask them. Amadeo walked to the end of the pier, crossed the road and, once on the wooden sidewalk, set the trunk down and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He looked back and saw his wife already wilting in the heat. She crossed the street with Albertico holding on to her skirt and the other two close behind her, and for a brief moment it occurred to Amadeo that all of this was a mistake, that they should have stayed on the island and braved the authorities, but it was not a thought that held. What’s done is done. A lo hecho pecho.
When Julia reached him, he told her to wait there, and he entered a bodega where a group of stevedores were gathered having their morning brandy. Julia had the two oldest boys move the trunk under the tree at the corner. She sat on it, pulled the knife from the burlap sack and cut up the rest of the tasajo, placing the pieces on the lard crackers and handing them to the children. Only Rub”n, the oldest, refused to eat the dry meat, claiming his stomach hurt, and Julia offered him a banana. The other boys, too young to name their fears, had been trained by their father not to linger over their food, and so they ate their share without speaking. Finally, when the children were fed, Julia took out her rosary from her dress pocket and began to say it, more out of habit than religious conviction. It was one of the many practices she had acquired when she had almost miscarried her firstborn and had been ordered to stay in bed for the duration of the pregnancy. She had also learned embroidery and had read many books, but the only habit she retained, being the most portable, was the rosary. She had heard a priest say that she didn’t need beads, if she could only keep the count of prayers in her head, and that seven rosaries in seven days for seven weeks would buy her a plenary indulgence in perpetuity, but when the priest warned that if she miscounted she would have to start over, she decided she would do it rosary in hand. The rosary she used had also belonged to her grandmother, a saintly but morose woman who had died of tuberculosis when Julia was eleven and had imprinted in the girl a number of indelible phobias, among them the fear of the open ocean, that would dominate her actions for the remainder of her life. Amadeo mocked her, saying that with so much praying she wouldn’t have time to commit any sins, but she persisted, carrying the rosary everywhere she went–the market, the Chinese laundry, the butcher shop–saying the prayers under her breath, and accomplished the monumental feat of devotion six months before leaving the island.
Julia finished two rosaries and was considering starting a third when Amadeo came out of the bodega accompanied by a short, energetic man with a spring to his step and a Castilian lisp to his voice. The man had a gold front tooth which glinted in the sun and when Amadeo introduced him to Julia, he bent over and kissed her hand like a gentleman, a perfect gentleman as the phrase goes, which she could tell from the white linen suit with silk-lined lapels, the diamond pinky ring, and the precious way he held out his hand, that he was not. He took her hand with three fingers, then bent over at the waist in a deep bow, taking off his bowler with his free hand and bringing it to his chest in a sweeping arc. He said his name was Sergio Reinaldo Ramos but most people called him Chano. As he talked she could smell the alcohol on his breath and, with her empty stomach and the fatigue from the long sea voyage, she felt nauseated and faint and had to cover her nose with her handkerchief to keep from gagging. The action could not have been lost on the dandy.
Chano here, Amadeo said, is recommending me for a job at the Pr”ncipe de Gales factory. Chano squared his shoulders and smiled down at her. As a roller? asked Julia. She may have loved Amadeo unconditionally but she was not above doubting him. She had told him in Havana, when he first brought up the idea after being threatened by the Spanish soldiers, that the trip to el Norte was going to be a travail. That seemed absolutely clear to her now, sitting on the trunk in public, her children without a roof over their heads, and her husband brimming with drink. As a leaf stripper, Amadeo said. Chano added that as soon as there was an opening, he could move up. He had to wait his turn like everyone else. Julia wanted to say that her husband was not like everyone else, but before she could speak Amadeo said he and Chano had to go somewhere. He motioned to Chano to help him move the trunk to the sidewalk under the awning of a dry goods store and asked the proprietor for a chair for her to sit. Chano bought the boys some pastries and the store owner brought her some cool water and a demitasse of coffee, which she gladly accepted. She had not eaten anything and her empty stomach had made her light-headed. At least she could rest in the proper manner and her children would not be running around in the sun. Later on while they were waiting for Amadeo and Chano to return, the store owner, a Puerto Rican named Eusebio, brought them a pitcher of lemonade and allowed the boys to go into the side yard and play out of the street, which was now filling with wagon traffic.
You will get to like Tampa, Eusebio said to her. When I first got here, longing almost broke my heart. He used the word a”oranza for longing, which islanders intone so effectively when referring to their native land. Every moment of every day for three years I had Puerto Rico on my mind. What happened after three years, Julia asked. Curious thing, Eusebio said. One night I went to bed with my heart heavy, my thoughts far away in the hills of my island. When I woke the next morning my a”oranza simply lifted and vanished. I don’t have a choice but to like it here, Julia said. Yes, you do, the Puerto Rican said. I have known people who give up hope, shut themselves in their houses, and wait to die. Some wait a long time. Look to the future, se”ora. That is all there is here. The past is on the other side of the moon. Eusebio said that he had come to Tampa because of guavas. Guavas, Julia asked. Yes, he said. The news reached Santurce, where I was living, that there was a lot of guava around here. I had a vision of starting a guava processing plant–paste, marmalade, shells. But when I got to Tampa I discovered there were fewer guava trees here than back home. It was all a rumor the Tampe”os started to bring people to their sorry town.
The rumor had spread all over the Caribbean and attracted dreamers of every caste and color to a sleepy mosquito-ridden village of seven hundred souls. There were Dominican farmers, Yucatecan jute workers, Spanish infantrymen, Panamanian musicians, and freed slaves from every corner of the sea alongside the native population they called crackers in those days, lanky Scotch Irishmen and pale-skinned Englishmen who had been driven out of the Confederate states after the war. The people of Tampa sat around staring at each other, wondering how to keep from starving in the desolation and heat of western Florida, when the cigar workers came up from Key West and Cuba in “85 and “86 and built their factories in that part of town they call Ibor City, stress on the or. Cigar workers, mostly Cuban, spent their money as if tomorrow the world would end, or as if it never would. They liked good clothes, good houses, good liquor, good women, and good food. Soon all the residents of Tampa were scrambling around trying to satisfy the cigar workers’ tastes and unburden them of their freshly earned money. If it were not for the cigar industry, se”ora, Eusebio told her, Tampa would be a graveyard.
Amadeo and Chano were back when the sun reached its apex and the air was thick and slow, difficult to breathe. The conversation between Julia and the Puerto Rican store owner had long before run itself out and the boys were lying around the porch, swatting flies and trying to doze. Amadeo, sober now, told Julia in a tone much more like himself, to gather up the children. He had found them a house.
Amadeo Terra is thinking. In late afternoon the sun slants through the blinds and the slatted light lands on his face. Then he cannot see the sea or the birds or the motorboats crossing the bay. As the sun descends, the layers of light and shade move across his eyes in a kind of slow agonizing strobe: the brilliant light followed by shadowy relief, followed by burning light. Is he alive or dead? He cannot move, he cannot tell Nurse to move him–he doubts she would oblige. He simply accepts the fact that, unless it rains and the clouds cover the sun, all afternoon he will be subjected to burning light and cooling shade intermittently until night puts a stop to the punishment. At this point Nurse appears with Orderly. They unbuckle him, lift him out of the chair, and put him on the bed. The first time they performed this action many years ago Amadeo was not expecting it and he felt he was lifted into the heavens by two angels; for an instant he abandoned his atheism and rejoiced, but as he waited for a fanfare announcing his entrance into heaven, he descended again and saw their faces (hers strained with the effort of lifting him, his tired and indifferent) as they set him down on the bed. If that is the way angels looked, he was glad he was a nonbeliever. They changed his diaper, fed him his medicines, and tucked him in for the night. He was left alone to sleep or not to sleep, to curse, to ask what he was doing here, was he alive or dead, but no words came out of him, and he understood then, for the first time, that he could not speak. That routine would be repeated, with little variation, every night for the rest of his life until now. Nurse and Orderly turned out not to be angels, not even demons, just people going through the routine of a job, waiting for their shift to be over so they could go home, have a drink, eat dinner, go to sleep. Amadeo’s home is the room with the window looking out over the sea, the bed where he sleeps, chair where he sits, day in and day out, in cold and heat, in light and dark, in isolation and unbreachable solitude.
Across the way he hears a woman screaming, Mari, ven ac”. Come here, Mariii, followed by a loud wheeze and a fit of coughing and then more screaming. No one comes. No one answers, not even Nurse II, who is probably asleep at her station. The screaming goes on for hours. He would like to yell back to shut her mouth and stick Mari up her ass. Beyond his desperation–he cannot sleep, he cannot respond, he cannot, even if that were his disposition, walk across the hall and say, Madam, Mari is not here. Is there anything I can do for you?–there is a corresponding sense of relief that he is not alone and that, therefore, this is not hell, or a kind of earthly version of it, but purgatory, where souls suffer their cleansing punishments in unison. It is the same sense of relief he feels when he hears Garrido shuffling down the hall in the direction of his door. Garrido peeks his head in and asks, Have you seen my shoelaces? It is always the same question, nothing more. Garrido, who has sunk so deep into his obsession that it has become his personality–there is nothing in this life but his shoelaces–does not realize that Amadeo cannot answer him. Garrido waits a few moments by the door smiling blankly and then moves on. Amadeo can hear his shuffle getting dimmer as he moves away.
And then Amadeo remembers Chinese Lady. She came in the darkness one night two weeks after he arrived at the home. The following night the same thing happened, but the room was not as dark (there may have been a full moon or the blinds of his room may have been left open and the light from the driveway below reflected up through the window) and he could see a small, hunched woman enter his bed, slip under the covers, and speak an incomprehensible gibberish. She was made of toothpicks and skin and he could hear her rustling under the sheets. On the third night, when the light still shone through the blinds, he saw that she had no clothes on. Her hair was short and straight and she had a round face creased with wrinkles. This time, when she started babbling, the language was no different from what he had heard the Chinese people speak in the restaurants of Zanja Street, words that came out flat as pancakes from the mouth and blew up like balloons in midair. He had the urge, excruciating because it was unsatisfied and would always be, to rip off his diaper, turn over on her, and show her the man he really was. Chinese Lady came for many nights and became for Amadeo a welcomed companion who allowed him to tolerate his newly acquired isolation with her talk under the sheets and her tiny curled-up body like a small mammal’s providing a warmth he could only imagine. He imagined, too, how she put her hands on him and played with him, all the while speaking in the impenetrable language of the Orient. He cannot imagine any of this now, he can only remember imagining it. One night Chinese Lady stopped coming and her absence was to him as devastating as the knowledge that he would never speak or walk or move again. Chinese Lady in another wing, strapped to her bed so she cannot visit male patients and talk to their bodies? Chinese Lady home taking care of Chinese man and Chinese children? Chinese Lady sparrow singing outside window? Chinese Lady dead? Amadeo Terra feels nothing; he remembers everything.
They walked six blocks into the city away from the port, the two men in front carrying the trunk, Julia behind them with the children. A woman sweeping the sidewalk in front of a store stopped working when they passed, raised her head slowly and stared at them with eyes like sinkholes. Down the street a man with a thick mustache spat behind them and another with his hair disheveled made an evil sign with his hand. That was the welcome: vulgarity and a brutal sun that threatened to consume them. Hey, look, an Andalusian with the thick neck and short arms of a peasant said to his partner as Amadeo and his family passed by. More grist for the mill.
They turned right on the second street and entered a neighborhood in which all the houses looked alike. Rub”n the oldest asked how they could tell which was theirs and Chano said by the number. Yours is number 27, a good number, bound to bring luck, and it would be wise for your father to play it as soon as he can. Luck? Amadeo asks. Most of his life he thought he was lucky. Amadeo took Chano’s advice, despite his wife’s protests, and played the number every week for over twenty years, investing over ten thousand dollars in a venture from which he earned once, when the number hit, a sum of $2,780. In truth, they would not need a number to tell their house from all the others. Theirs was the one apart: ramshackle, abused by the wind and the rain and blanched by the sun. The floorboards on the porch were warped, the front door was off its hinges. Inside was a dank gloom and the smell of animals. It was the house of a leaf stripper, nothing better.
Julia said nothing. She opened the shutters to the front windows and walked past the two small bedrooms to the rear where the kitchen was located. The house was no larger than a country shack, a boh”o where peasants squatted. Out in the backyard was an outhouse surrounded by tall weeds. It looked like it had not been used in months. Julia came back to the front room and looked at her husband, but Amadeo avoided her gaze. He said that they needed to clean things up, pull out the weeds and the cactuses growing around the sides, and get some vegetables growing. There was a bed in the front bedroom and in the living room two broken-down chairs that people called taburetes on the island. The kitchen had a coal stove and a small icebox but there was no space to sit down and eat in a proper manner. Julia said what she had to say by the tense way her hands gripped her skirt and by the tight-lipped silence she had imposed on herself. Her eyebrows arched over her glassy, indignant eyes. Then she surprised him.
We start over, she said.
The three boys stood blankly by her. Their father had pulled them out of bed two nights before and they had gone by oxcart to a place outside the city where they boarded the boat that brought them here. Julia explained vaguely to them that the Spaniards were after their father and they had no choice but to leave everything behind, but it is one thing to hear an explanation and another to understand it. Maybe Rub”n sensed that they would not be going back, but he had no idea how close his father had come to having his neck snapped in the garrote chair. For their part the boys saw all of it as an adventure: a trip abroad on a ship, the first of their lives, their arrival in a strange town, bumbling about from street to street, trying to speak a language that turned mealy in their mouths.
Amadeo and Chano stepped outside and Julia could see the two men talking through the front window and could smell the smoke as they lit cigars. She had managed to keep the boys indoors but Rub”n the oldest was becoming restless, shadowboxing with an imaginary opponent, while Pastor the middle one was sitting in a corner chewing his collar and looking off into space. From the day he was born she had to work doubly hard to do things for him–tie his shoelaces, wipe his nose, feed him even–that came naturally to the other two. If he ever got rid of that needy look in his eyes, he might be handsome some day, but caught in the cobwebs of his dreaming as he always was, he looked soft and foolish. Only Albertico seemed at ease. He was sitting on the trunk, leaning against his mother’s arm, smiling to himself. Julia thought of him as her special one, her gift, who calmed and pacified her. He was the youngest, he was her treat. While the other two were questions, Albertico was an answer.
Just then Amadeo stuck his head inside the door and said that he had to go and would be back soon. Behind him Chano spoke dimly to her that it was a grand pleasure to meet you, señora, and I will stop by soon to see if there is anything you may need. This is a fine town, you will see, señora, the best in all of Florida, he said waiting to kiss her hand again and she burying it deeper in her pocket.
Amadeo Terra can smell himself. He is waiting for Nurse to change him. Sometimes he waits an hour, sometimes two. It used to be she came within minutes of his bowel movement. Now she goes to other patients first, the newer arrivals with relatives who still visit daily and watch over them with hawk eyes. If he could scream he would; if he could move, he would wipe himself. If he could hold it in, that would be best. Nurse enters after a time and gets to work. He follows her with his eyes, but he could just as well close them and imagine the routine. First, she flips off the sheets in one swooping movement, pulls up his robe, undoes the diaper, and folds it up carefully so that none of the mess spills on the mattress. Then she wipes him, moving his testicles out of the way. Useless as they are, they might as well get rid of them like they did his teeth. She puts on a fresh diaper and pulls the robe back down. All the while she is talking baby talk about how much he stinks today and how healthy his poo-poo looks. Poo-poo, that’s the term she uses. If he were healthy he wouldn’t be here, if he were healthy, he’d be at his bench in the factory, rolling the best clear Havanas in Tampa.
His two surviving sons split the cost for his private room but don’t visit. They are waiting for him to die so they won’t have to pay any more to keep this piece of meat their father has become out of the way. They think his brain is as dead as the rest of him, but Amadeo knows it is sharper than it ever was, less cluttered with the daily demands they and their mother placed on him. He can remember things, he can think. He can compute, for example, the total amount of money he earned in his life: $1,400,000 and change. The week before he added up the number of cigars he rolled and the week before that the number of times he had sex. What would his sons think of that? Pastor married an American and went off to the northern suburbs. Rub”n is a worthless poet in New York. Neither has visited him in years.
At first it was different. Even if they thought of their father as so much brainless matter, they came to the home and tried to distract him with talk of their lives. Rub”n discussed poetry and recited some of his poems out loud to his father. Amadeo didn’t understand them and wished he could speak so he could tell Rub”n he was wasting his time; he would never be as good as Mart”. Pastor, the middle one, is married to a leggy blond from Ohio who used to bring him peach pies he couldn’t eat because they made him gag. He has a daughter, who is studying to be a doctor. She visited only once and taught Amadeo to speak with his eyes. One blink means yes, two means no. Three blinks means thirst, four means hunger. Five means pain, which is meaningless since pain is not something he can feel in his condition. Six is doctor. Seven is change me. Eight and nine he forgets and ten means help, but no one in Santa Gertrudis has had the patience to wait for him to blink ten times, and so he does not even try. All the thinking has made him drool but Nurse is uninterested in wiping him. If you want to make a mess of yourself, go right ahead, she says. You should be ashamed, acting like a silly baby. A grown man, she says, and leaves.
Amadeo is alone again. He can think without interruption, he can remember what he did and what he did not do. Sometimes he remembers things as they actually happened; other times he changes them. He doesn’t care anymore what is true and what is not, if he sees events now as they happened then. No one is listening. No one is here to correct him. If he is an elephant on Monday, so be it. If he is an insect on Tuesday, who is there to tell him he is not? He can drool, he can shit again, he can be a killer of men, a seducer of women, he can be an old man lying helpless in bed entertaining himself with stories. He can remember the time he spent seeking his fortune, making the money that is the real measure of a man, his first job sweeping the cigar factory floor in Pinar del R”o. He can remember learning by watching the rollers in their benches, silently, never asking any questions because they would give the wrong answer just to throw him off. Cigar rollers are like that. He took tobacco home, practiced through the day and night until he could roll a perfecto with his eyes closed. He remembers moving to Elpidio’s house, Elpidio with his caramel skin and green eyes who taught him the shape, the spirit of the cigar, without which it is simply a bunch of rolled tobacco like the Indians used to make. Amadeo became a stripper and made sorter in a year. No one had ever risen so fast in the factories of Pinar del R”o. Still, they refused to give him a bench. So he worked for Elpidio who ran a chinchal, what they call a buckeye in el Norte, from the house. The time came when Amadeo didn’t need the miserable salary they paid him at the factory. If he stayed it was because he got his tobacco for free. In those days it was considered beneath the rollers’ dignity to have their allotment of tobacco weighed at the beginning and end of each day as happened later after the weight-scale strike. Whatever was left over was there for anyone to take, and Amadeo took what he needed. War broke out in 1868 in Oriente and soon spread to Pinar del Río. Amadeo’s father, a Canary Islander with the disposition of a mule, thought his son would run off with the rebels at the first opportunity, and so, the next year he sent Amadeo to Campeche, where a cousin of his owned a hemp factory. Amadeo remembers his father putting him on an oxcart with a family of six who were escaping the ravages of war for the relative safety of Havana. The head of the family, a tobacco farmer from San Juan y Mart”nez, told Amadeo that he had just had his farm burned by a column of voluntarios. The family had been assigned for reconcentration but escaped the voluntarios and were now headed for the capital where he hoped they would be safe. This hope was not shared by the others and Amadeo remembers now the drawn look of fear on the faces of the women, coupled with resignation and a several-days-old hunger. Amadeo remembers, too, the dim look on his own mother’s face as they parted–she was never an affectionate woman–and the weak wave of her hand as he climbed on the cart.
For a week they lumbered through the countryside, traveling east after the sun went down to avoid detection by the warring factions. With him Amadeo had brought a sack of food his mother prepared containing several cans of sardines, hard-boiled eggs, lard crackers and a bottle of well water, which he shared with the farmer’s family until the provisions ran out. He went hungry for the first time in his life. He saw the faces of the dead, lying contorted on the ground or hanging from the trees. Not one of them was smiling or at peace or happy or sad. All of them were vacant, graceless, drained. They drove past a small child abandoned on the road and when one of the women asked the driver to stop, he said, if he’s got the fare he can get on, if not, he can wait for the next driver. As they moved on, Amadeo threw his last cracker in the boy’s direction. The cart reached Havana three days later, an hour before the ship sailed for Yucat”n. The captain, an old friend of his father, it turned out, had to bribe a harbor official who claimed Amadeo’s papers were not in order.
Amadeo was in Campeche two years, long enough to buy his way back to Cuba to confront his father for having sent him away, but by then the old man had died. When he got to the house there was only his mother, silent and inscrutable, slowly dying of malnutrition. The interminable war was raging and there was little food to be had in the provinces. Mam”, he said, I’m home. But it was like speaking to a stone. He went out and bought a loaf of stale bread and tried to have her eat it. When she finally opened her mouth such a pestilential odor came out that he was revolted and had to turn his face away. He tried to find a doctor for her that day and the next but the three that he spoke to wanted more money than he had. He even went as far as threatening the last one, who pulled a pistol from inside his coat and put it right between Amadeo’s eyes. The doctor pulled the trigger but the gun jammed, then he quickly slammed the door and locked it behind him and Amadeo was left standing on the porch, urine dripping from his pant cuffs onto the imported Italian tiles. Amadeo’s mother survived the war and the starvation as she had survived all the misfortunes in her life, by waiting them out. Ten years later, nearly blind from cataracts, she met her fate under the wheels of a fruit vendor’s wagon.
©2005 by Pablo Medina. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
1. Amadeo Terra recalls his life story when Nurse feeds him a jar of mango baby food and the taste incites memories of his childhood. Discuss some of Amadeo’s other sensual experiences in this tiny hospital room that inspire images and incidents from his life. How do the five senses help form a narrative for Amadeo’s story?
2. Discuss how the nurses and Orderly and other hospital staff treat Amadeo. How do you explain their coldness and cruelty? As the text asks, “What do Nurse and Orderly and Sor Diminuta and Nurse II and Physical Therapist know about him?” (p. 53). Could you imagine yourself in their position, serving Amadeo’s every need? What does it mean to give part of your life to completing the basic functions of someone who cannot do it alone?
3. Of all his regular visitors, it is perhaps the nun, Sor Diminuta, whom Amadeo is most pleased to see. Why is this? What sort of memories does she conjure for him? What does his increasing lust for her reveal about his passion?
4. Tobacco, Amadeo realizes, is “the source of his passions” (p. 85). “For him only tobacco brought happiness” (p. 34). Recall the descriptions of cigar rolling. What makes tobacco and rolling so pleasurable to him? Consider tobacco’s symbolism. How does tobacco become the defining element of his existence?
5. “Sometimes his memory is animated, a scene or event he is a part of, a door has opened in his chest and he walks through. This kind of memory has a dreamlike quality” (p. 57). One dream involves the Cuban poet Mart” visiting Amadeo and Julia at their home in Tampa. Do you believe this is a true memory or a fictional dream? What does this memory/dream represent to Amadeo now? How is the famous poet significant to his life? Mart” made Amadeo consider “what does it mean to be Cuban” (p. 58). Is Amadeo a true Cuban? What does it mean to him to be Cuban?
6. Amadeo does not often think fondly of his children, especially his two surviving sons, who have paid for him to be cared for in the hospital. “If he is alive, it is only because his sons are paying for him to be fed, washed and cured when he needs curing” (p. 137). Aside from their lack of visitation, why does he resent them? Does he resent them for keeping him alive? What is your opinion of the sons, based on Amadeo’s memories and descriptions? Are they insensitive for not visiting, or is Amadeo himself to blame for their lack of interest?
7. Amadeo describes a less than ideal relationship with his own father, “a Canary Islander with the disposition of a mule” (p. 28). What is your impression of Amadeo’s father? How was he both merciful and cruel? What traits did Amadeo take from his father, and how did they affect his own attitudes and behavior as a father and husband?
8. Discuss the theme of exile in The Cigar Roller and trace its occurrences in Amadeo’s life. Are there other characters in the novel who enter a state of exile? Is it forced or voluntary? Physical or spiritual?
9. Consider the statement, “Amadeo wants to find whatever makes him feel alive, away from the domestic Sargasso that threatens to drown him” (p. 91). What are these amusements that send him out like “a wild dog roaming the night” (p. 91)? Why can he not feel alive with his family? Revisit his dreams, which begin on page 96, especially the dream of the old woman, who may be his mother or may be Julia, who distracts him from his sexual fantasy to castigate him about his behavior, how “he never thought twice about satisfying his urges when they needed satisfying” (p. 97). Was he wrong for his indulgences, “the unencumbered pursuit of pleasure” (p. 97)? In this case, why must a man deprive himself of what feels good? Are these things of true pleasure? Does he feel guilt for them now or does he accept them plainly and without remorse as an aspect of his life?
10. A recurring division in Amadeo and Julia’s relationship is religion. Why is Amadeo so opposed to priests? What are his religious beliefs? Is he strong in these convictions, or is his mistrust of priests and religion symbolic of something else? How does the priest in the hospital confirm or suspend Amadeo’s attitudes toward religion?
11. Discuss the complex relationship between Julia and Amadeo. Does he truly love her, or is it nostalgia that makes him think of her so often? Why did he mistreat her and seek other women? When was he most cruel and most loving toward her? Did he show such devotion to his other lovers? In his mind, has she forgiven him? Do you agree?
12. Revisit pages 114–116, one of the most revealing passages, in which Amadeo contemplates his own condition. How does he identify with the dresser? What does it say about his supposed vegetative state? In your opinion, which moment in the story creates the most empathy for Amadeo? At what moment does his plight seem most real to you?
13. Compare and contrast Amadeo’s two homes, Havana and Tampa. Which did he love best? Why did he leave Havana and why could he never return? What does his homeland represent to him?
14. The intensity of his life experiences and his memories of them often create for Amadeo a state between memory and imagination. ‘maybe he has imagined his whole life from birth to the present moment. Maybe he is not real but an invention of someone else’s imagination” (p. 66). When does he feel this most acutely? Can you find examples of this sensation from your own life? What does Amadeo’s final revelation about his son Albertico and the true reason for Julia’s departure suggest about how imagination conspires with memory to create an alternate history?
15. Having thoroughly reviewed his life, what conclusions, if any, does Amadeo reach by the novel’s end? In his final summation, what kind of man was he? Discuss the novel’s final image: “His eyesight clears a moment and he discovers that all those faces floating in the gray sea, all those eyes, all those mouths, are identical. It is his face he is looking at, himself he is reaching for” (p. 176). What does it mean to you?
Selected Writings by Jose Mart”; The Divine Husband by Francisco Goldman; Pedro P”ramo by Juan Rulfo; Ironweed by William Kennedy; Holy Smoke! by Guillermo Cabrera Infante; The Immigrant World of Ybor City by Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta; Loving Che by Ana Men”ndez; The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos; Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas; Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje; The Voices by Susan Elderkin; How the Dead Live by Will Self; Dirty Work by Larry Brown; The Crazed by Ha Jin.