Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
by Bill McLaughlin,
...Welcome to Who's a Loser? Okay, contestants, you know the rules. Let's get started. Here are your clues: he's over 30; he's homeless; he has less than $20 in his pocket; he's standing on the side of the road with his thumb out—and it's not for shits and giggles—he really needs that ride; he's recently lost his wife, his house, his job, his car, and his wallet; he has no friends and even fewer prospects. And our final clue: last night he had sex with a man—and he wasn't even drunk! All right, please write your answer on the card provided...La da da dah da, la da dah...Okay everyone, time's up. And the answer is...
Ray was about to defend Mona's honor and begin a lengthy debate with himself when just then a car stopped—a 1963 Rambler Classic in mint condition. It was cream-colored with flared fenders and that old happy face grill and lights. As Ray approached, he read the stickers on the rear bumper: Cat: The Other White Meat. There was also a sticker about musicians doing “it” all night and in the lower left corner of the rear window was the black and white MIA/POW square, sun-bleached and peeling. The same symbol he had seen yesterday on the sax case. It took Ray a few minutes to recognize the driver.
“Hey, thanks for the ride. You know I really enjoyed your playing yesterday.”
“Yeah? Thanks, I appreciate that. Not many folks anymore want to hear that old stuff.“
“Really? And you got that Ben Webster thing going, you know, warm and throaty.”
August laughed at Ray's comment. “Yeah, Ben Webster, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims—man, that's all I ever listened to.”
“But you have your own sound too though, kinda soulful with a touch of Latin.”
“Could be, I'm half Cuban. My father came from the island, used to play all those old records. I can still remember him and my mother dancing in the living room—the parlor we called it back then—they'd move all the furniture. Mother would put on her special long dress, made just for dancing, or at least that's how I remember it. They both had special dancing shoes too. I can't recall every detail of course but it seemed to us kids like a holiday, like Christmas or something when they started that dancing. We'd fall asleep on the sofa and they would keep it up all night. I wish I had them old records now, I don't know what ever became of them.”
“Was your father a musician too?”
“No, he was a lector.”
“A lector. A professional reader.”
“Yeah, in those days, from Miami to Key West, a lot of Cubans worked in small cigar shops. These guys were real craftsmen; they made each cigar by hand. Anyway, they used to have readers, lectors they called them. The lector would read as the men worked. They would read the morning newspaper first, then books, mostly classics. I remember, in the shop where my father worked, there was a massive wooden chair on a platform, maybe a foot off the floor, right smack in front. That's where the lector sat. Next to it was a small wooden square table with shelves where he kept the day's books and always, I remember this real well, always there was a tall glass of water with slices of lime in it. His voice would carry from the front of the shop, clear and true, all the way to the back. The sound of his voice floating over the rustle of tobacco leaves, the curved knives, razor sharp and precise in the workers' hands, slicing through the leaf; the faint thud of the blade finding the wooden bench below; the rich and acrid smell of the tobacco leaves, the wooden furniture, the sweat—no air conditioning back then—and maybe twenty or thirty men sitting at their benches, facing the front of the shop listening to him as they worked, and my father, solemn and dutiful, reading each word as if it mattered.
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