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Everything Burns

Photo: Kwon Junho
Photo: Kwon Junho

Before I step through the doors of the cigar factory, I smell the aroma that has followed my sister, Rosario, home since she started working here. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I make out the figures of rollers already at their cutting boards.

“May I help you?” a cold voice asks.

 “I am Ernesto López Famosa.” I lean toward the man sitting at a table. “Rosario’s brother.”

A snort escapes him.

This reaction is not unusual. I have experienced it since the moment Rosario was born. Longer really, since, before that, no one would believe that with my dark skin, eyes and hair, I could be fair, green-eyed Ezmeralda’s son either.

Usually, if I do not respond, if I look patiently at the doubter, he will eventually see the resemblance. Rosario and I both have one droopy eye and high cheekbones. Those who have known us for a long time wonder why they did not see the resemblance sooner. “You two are the spitting image of your mother,” they finally say.

The man at the table, however, is not so observant. “Tell the truth. Who are you?”

 “My sister is Rosario Fernández Famosa. She must now stay home to care for our mother.” I pull a slip of paper from my pocket and offer it to the man. “The supervisor said I may take Rosario’s place.”

I follow him to a messy office with a window that looks out over the workers. “Señor, this is Ernesto. He says he is Rosario’s brother.”

If the supervisor is surprised, he does not show it. He reaches across his desk. His hand is warm and so are his eyes. “Sit down.” He gestures to a chair. “Alejandro, stay with us a moment.”

Para servirle.I sit. “I appreciate this opportunity. It means much to our family that we will not lose the salary, especially with Mamá’s accident.”

Si, si. Such a shame. How is she?”

“We are grateful she is alive, but she needs constant care.” I do not say I am grateful not to have to care for her all day, not to be constantly reminded of her suffering and my failure to ease it. “Thank you for asking.”

“We will miss Rosario, but it is right that she stay at home to care for her mother.” He writes on a card and hands it to Alejandro. “Alejandro, find Manuel and tell him to teach Ernesto how to roll.” We stand. “If you are half as good as Rosario, you’ll be fine.” The respect in his voice surprises me.

I thank him and follow Alejandro to an empty chair in the midst of the other cigar rollers. Their hands deftly smooth brown tobacco leaves—layering, rolling, measuring, cutting. How had Rosario, with her damaged hand, become one of the best rollers in the factory?

If she had a special technique, she did not share it this morning when she advised me to follow Manuel’s instructions. “He will make sure you get the best leaves, not too moist, not too dry. It all begins with the best leaves.” She said nothing about what to do once the leaves are in front of me.

I watch the speed and precision of the other workers. The only thing I have taught my own hand to do is drag a pen across a sheet of paper in hopes of becoming one of the Next Important Cuban Writers. Mamá has fed this dream. Perhaps she created it in the first place, telling me stories about my father and his beautiful words.

“Rosario’s brother, eh?” The gruff voice must be Manuel’s.

I move to stand up.

“Sit.” He reaches for a leaf. “Rosario got this quick.”

I slide my chair to make room for the mountain of a man. He talks through each step. By the time he asks, “Any questions?” I do not have the courage to say, Could you please show me again?

“I’ll check on you in a while,” he says over his shoulder.

I watch the others work. They offer quiet smiles and brief words of welcome, but seem lost in the dance of their hands. Perhaps they don’t want to talk over la lectora, who reads the newspaper into a microphone, or they assume my presence in Rosario’s seat embues me with her skill. Either way, no one offers instruction, and I do not ask.

By the time la lectora has finished reading the news, I have rolled five cigars that look like skinny dog droppings.

“No! No! No!” Manuel takes the cigar from my hand. “There is no way this will stay lit.” He tosses the cigar into the basket for waste. “Don’t you know how fire works, kid?”

I know all too well how fire works. “Please show me again.”

After the too-tight cigars comes a series of too-loose ones. Manuel speaks slowly and a little louder than normal. “When the tobacco is too loose, you get a fire hazard.” He flicks his lighter keeping the cigar away from his face as he lights it. Instinctively, I stand to evade the flame. My chair tumbles to the floor.

Manuel laughs.

“Hernández, put that thing out,” bellows a voice. The others stop rolling to chuckle and comment.

“Manuel, give the kid a break!”

“Don’t worry, ’mano. You’ll get the touch.”

“You should have seen how loose mine were when I started out!”

Manuel faces me, so I can read his lips, smell his tired breath. “Too much air around the tobacco leaves makes a fire hazard.” He throws the flaming cigar to the cement floor and puts it out with his boot. I fan the smoke from the air around us. His point made, Manuel’s eyes find mine and soften a bit. “Okay, Rosario’s brother, let’s try again.”

He sits and rolls three more cigars. Slowly. He holds each one up to my face, then puts the last one in my left hand. “Compare it to your finger.” He squeezes my middle finger. “You, maybe your thumb.” He hands me another leaf. “You’ll get it.” He doesn’t say that Rosario is better at this than I will ever be.

 

Mi corazon, like this.”
I am four years old and sit on Mamá’s lap. Her hand is wrapped around mine, which is wrapped around a pencil. “Make a loop here,” she says, “that will make it a B instead of a P. See? Like magic!”

Rosario lies in her crib. Waving her arms and legs in the air, she looks like a pale cockroach, and I tell Mamá so.

She claps her hands. “You are so imaginative. You will be a famous writer one day.”

I can’t imagine how this making of letters could make me famous, but I do feel the love it stirs in Mamá, so I hold the pencil tighter and concentrate. Maybe if I make my writing good enough, it will take away her sadness when she looks at the portrait of my father. Maybe it will soften her face when she rocks my fussy sister.

“Do not disappoint me, Ernesto,” Mamá would say. “Your father was driven from this country because of his writing. Now you must be his voice.”

After two more days of wasted tobacco, Manuel puts his hand on my shoulder. “Old Orestes doesn’t have much time left. Why don’t you go sit with him for a while? Learn the ropes.”

I don’t know what Old Orestes does at the table in the back of the factory. It seems he packs boxes then passes them on to Enrique before they go into shipping crates. But, just as there is much more to hand-rolling a cigar, there must be more to Old Orestes’ job than it appears.

He grabs a handful of cigars. Using a formula only he seems to know—he pulls three from the bunch, places them into a box on his right and sets the others aside. The next handful yields four cigars acceptable for the box. Transfixed, I try to figure out what criteria Orestes uses to select the cigars. At first, I guess it has to do with their circumference. But, as far as I can tell, the ones he has not chosen are the same size as the ones he has. I measure a couple against my thumb to make sure.

It might have to do with aroma because Orestes holds them close to his face.

But, when I look closer, I can tell he is not sniffing them as I have seen aficionados in the smoking ritual do.

“Figured it out yet?” His smile shows a darkened tooth.

I shrug.

“Keep watching.” He holds up a handful of cigars and chooses one.

As I watch him at work, my mind drifts to Rosario. How can I admit to her that I have been demoted to watching an old man use a mysterious formula to fill cigar boxes at the back of the factory? Perhaps there is no secret to Orestes’ job. Perhaps this busy work is simply to give structure to an old man’s days. If so, what does this say about me? I can hardly ask Rosario without admitting my diminished status.

“Ernesto! What are you doing? You will burn the house down!”

I am eight years old and standing over the gas burner with a piece of bread turning black and smoking on the end of a fork. Mamá’s hair looks like laundry left on a line in a rain shower, and there are dark smudges under her eyes. It’s the first time she has left her bed in three days.

Then she sees the toast. “Oh, Ernesto, such a waste.” She turns off the burner, puts the charred bread on a plate. “Plain bread for you. I will eat this later.” She notices Rosario’s tears. “It’s okay. Everything is okay now.”

She turns to me. “Did you give your sister breakfast?”

I feel as if I have been giving my sister breakfast for my whole life.

“Quiet as corpses, you two. I’m going back to bed.” She kisses us each on the forehead. “No more toast.”

“Okay, now you try it.” Orestes holds a handful of cigars in front of my face. “Look at what is already in the box.”

I look.

“Now, which ones will join them?”

I concentrate trying to discern size, shape, texture, anything that will give me a clue.

“I’ll give you a hint. Three of these will make the grade.” How he can see through those cloudy eyes I will never know.

I squint. My vision goes out of focus, and I discover Orestes’ secret. Being half-blind is an asset. I can now see that three of the cigars are the exact shade of brown as the others already in the box. Uniform color, as well as size and shape, must be important. I gently pull the three cigars from his fist and lay them in the box.

“A-ha!” His deep laugh relaxes my jaw. The first thing I have gotten right all day. I start to ask how he is able to do his work so fast.

“Sh!” He turns his face toward la lectora. “She is back from her break.”

Distracted by my own incompetence, I had lost awareness of la lectora’s reading. But I now see that Orestes has been listening, anticipating her return to the microphone.

“Quiet now. She left off at a good part.” He puts a box in front of me, signals I should get to work. I am concentrating too hard on the cigars to listen to the story, but it must be compelling because Orestes occasionally mutters something under his breath, sometimes stops for a moment, cigars suspended in front of his face as he gazes into a distance I cannot see.

By the time she closes the book and turns off the microphone, I have filled five boxes to Orestes’ fifteen. Still, he smiles.

“Yes, Rosario’s brother,” he pats my shoulder, “you will work out just fine.”

 

“Ernesto, can you make me like toast?”

“You mean you want me to make you toast?” I should remind Rosario that the burner is off limits since the burnt bread incident.

“No, I want you to make me like the toast. I want my skin to look like yours.”

“Why would you say that?” I ask but I already know the answer. She can sense our mother’s soft spot for me and attributes it to the shade of my skin, not the fact that I am a boy or that my mother loved—still loves—my father, while Rosario’s father is a “dog” if he is mentioned at all.

“You do not want skin like mine,” I say but not firmly.

“I do, too.”

I should scare her. I should tell her how dangerous fire is. I should threaten harsh punishment if she were ever to play with fire. I should tell her the truth.

“It would hurt...,” I say. I tell myself we are playing a harmless game of What if?

At the mention of pain, other girls would get big eyes and back down, but Rosario does not. Her spine straightens. She rolls up her sleeve. “I do not care.”

Again, I have the opportunity to discourage her. Instead, I hang her school satchel from her shoulder. “Time to go.”

Another week at Orestes’ table and I have gotten to the point that I can listen to la lectora and work at the same time. She is reading a translation of the American book, The Invisible Man. I am sure she has been allowed to read it to us because it depicts the U.S. in an unfavorable light. The black people there are treated worse than dirt even though slavery is long over. The main character, the Invisible Man, has been betrayed by those around him—black and white—at every turn.

I can tell the book has affected Orestes. These past days, his work has slowed, and he sits for long minutes, eyes closed, listening. Sometimes, my box is filled before his.

“Just like here,” Orestes says while la lectora takes a sip of water. “Each one with his own kind.” He holds up a half-filled box and clicks his tongue. “This is what the revolution was supposed to do away with.”

His voice holds such resentment I look around to see if anyone has heard.

I try to act as if I have not heard either, hoping Orestes will just get back to work and forget about the bigotry all around us. The hardest, dirtiest jobs at the factory are done by those whose skin is darkest, whose ancestors were brought to Cuba against their will. It is only Orestes’ frailty, I’m sure, that has saved him from a more taxing job in the factory.

At home, however, favoritism goes the other way. It is Rosario who might as well be invisible. In our house, the son has always gotten full favor and praise while the daughter and her manual work were dismissed.

La lectora continues, and I am aware of the quiet that has settled over the factory. The Invisible Man has found himself in the belly of a riot, helping residents of a tenement gather fuel to burn down their apartment house, the only way they can express their outrage at their hazardous living conditions.

How bad must circumstances be, I wonder, to burn everything?

La lectora’s voice is the only sound I hear: “‘They’ve done it,’” she reads. “The decision their own and their own action. Capable of their own action.’” I finish one box and start another as she continues. “‘They did it themselves—planned it, organized it, applied the flame.’”

My school assignment sits on the kitchen table in front of me. I struggle to figure out how x can represent a number and how to work out what that number is.

Rosario fiddles with the knobs on the burner. “Is this how you do it?”

“Stop it and do your figures.” Part of me wants to see the bold Rosario try to toast her skin and give up at the first sensation of pain.

I hear the strike of a match and a satisfying whoosh and I know I should walk to the stove and turn it off. I should order Rosario back to the table. Instead, I continue my quest to solve for x.

From the corner of my eye, I see the flame as it catches the cuff of her sleeve and leaps up her arm. Oh yes, her body jumps back from the burner, and she runs silently in an odd figure-eight. I watch like I am at the cinema.

She caroms off the wall. The flames threaten to grab the yellow kitchen curtain. I have shirked my duty to protect her. It is as if I struck the match myself. Fire licks the ends of her braids. The scream that finally escapes goes directly to my spinal cord. I throw her to the floor and fall on top of her, covering the side of her body with my own. I feel the heat of her blouse, smell cooked meat, hear my voice saying her name over and over.

When I return home from the factory, I listen at the door. Quiet. No radio playing Mamá’s favorite music. No news that Rosario listens to while Mamá naps. My hand pauses on the knob. The door creaks as I push it open, but neither Rosario nor Mamá has heard it. They sit opposite each other at the kitchen table. Rosario’s dead hand rests on her lap, the other clenched in a tight fist next to the dish of mush in front of her.

Mamá seems to stare at something in the corner; a greenish-tan stain runs the length of her blouse. The only evidence that there could be anything going on in her brain is the fidgeting of her thumb. Tap. Tap-Tap. Tap. Tap-Tap. I recognize the beat of her favorite song, La Bayamesa. Perhaps she taps so the rhythm can transport her out of her worthless body. Perhaps she is like the Bayamo woman looking at the green pastures until tears well up in her eyes.

I fear speaking, but this silence is worse. “Why don’t I cook supper tonight?”

Before the final word crosses my lips, I know I have said the wrong thing. How long have they sat with the bowl of mush between them? Since lunchtime? My stomach growls despite the tension in the room.

Rosario slams her good hand on the table rattling the spoon in the bowl. She shoves her chair back. It topples to the floor with a thud. She picks up the bowl. Stupidly, I expect her to rinse it in the sink.

“Eat this!” She hurls it at me and it glances off the side of my head leaving me with mush on my shoulder and a smarting temple.

She slams the apartment door so hard that Mamá’s favorite rooster sugar bowl falls from the shelf and shatters on the floor.

I look at Mamá to see if she has registered anything. Her eyes blink slowly, steadily, as always, her thumb keeping time with music only she can hear.

 

Orestes holds up a handful of cigars, accepts my nod before laying them in their box. “Just testing you,” he says. But I know he wants me to confirm he has made the right choices. It must be difficult for him to make out colors in the drab factory today. The sun that streamed through the windows earlier has disappeared, and the bosses haven’t turned on the overhead lights. La lectora clicks on her reading lamp and begins the next book, The Count of Monte Cristo.

Orestes smiles. “Ah, I like this one! This was to be my last week, but now I will stay until she finishes the book.”

My shoulders drop.

“What’s the matter?”

As I look for the right words to tell him I will miss him, I glance at la lectora. The book in front of her is huge, over 500 pages easily. Orestes will be here awhile longer after all.

“Nothing.” I pull an empty box toward me and begin to fill it. “I am looking forward to this book. I have never read it.”

He snorts. “And you call yourself the son of a writer?”

I haven’t called myself the son of anyone, not to him or anyone else in the factory.

Somehow he knows of my father and has chosen this moment to let me know.

“May I speak freely?” He asks this from time to time. If I say, Yes, he tells me something innocuous that cannot be misconstrued as unpatriotic. If I say, Of course, he will tell me what’s in his heart. I look around. “Of course,” I say.

“I have read all of your father’s books. He was a man of vision and principle. I want to know: what are you doing to honor his name?”

Again, I am silent. I should tell him the truth—that I haven’t picked up a pen since I started at the factory, and that, actually, I have felt a liberty in this. I should admit I am surprised by how satisfied I feel when a box is filled with perfectly uniform cigars, much more satisfied than the son of a Great Cuban Dissident Writer ought to be.

 

When I turn the corner toward our apartment, I half expect to see the building in ashes, but it stands as always, weathered shutters closed against the afternoon sun. Tears of rust stain the concrete façade.

At the top of the stairs, I hesitate. The door opens before I can grab the knob. Rosario has a scarf wrapped around her head and clutches her handbag. “I need to get a few things.”

I step aside and let her pass.

I kiss Mamá on the cheek. Change into a clean shirt. Put the kettle on. Rosario has left a pan of beans and rice on the burner, its pureed version in a bowl on the counter. So she has planned to miss dinner.

I fasten a bib around Mamá’s neck. “We will eat without Rosario.”

I wheel Mamá to the table. Since she returned home from the hospital, I have never had to feed her. In fact, I have done my best not to watch as Rosario fed her. Now, I must get the food past her lips. I hold the spoon under her nose, then touch it lightly to her lips. This is how I would get Rosario to eat when she was a baby and Mamá was too exhausted to get off the couch. This method does not work with Mamá.

With my thumb and fingers on either side of her mouth, I squeeze gently creating a small opening and push in some of the mush. Her mouth moves though, judging from the amount that lands on her bib, it’s hard to believe anything has gone down her throat. We go on this way until the bowl is half empty and I give up.

I wheel her to the balcony, so she can look out over the neighborhood. Her glazed eyes cannot see the couples strolling hand in hand, but I pretend she is among la matronas smiling down on the young lovers, remembering the days when her cheeks were pink and her eyes were clear.

I find my notebook and look at the date of my last writing, the day before I started work at the factory. I settle onto the couch to try to write something worthy of my father. The words come slowly and without fervor. I begin as Mamá has told me he did, from the perspective of a small person. Someone like her. Someone like me.

 

A boy sits on a bench with his mother while the other children play in the park. He doodles in a notebook wishing to make her proud. His sister plays jump rope with the other girls, her bandaged arm no impediment to the tricks she shows off. They are playing a version of tag that requires the child jumping the rope to turn around three times before running out to chase the next victim. Most of them stagger a few steps before catching their balance, but not his sister. How can she be so steady?

“Ernesto.” His mother taps his knee. “Look over there. Señora Garcia.”

The old lady is propped in a wheelchair staring straight ahead. The left side of her face droops. A line of drool stains a turquoise bib.

“If I ever end up like that, promise me you’ll kill me.”

A surge of fear and sadness rush through him. “No, Mamá—”

She puts a finger to his lips. “You must.” She doesn’t wait for an answer. In her mind, a vow has been made.

No explanation of how he should carry out her request. No guidance for how to find the courage.

 

With the memory of my broken promise, a surge of guilt washes through me. How could I have forgotten? I close my notebook and set it aside.

The sun has started to set. Mamá could catch a chill. As I wheel her inside, I gag at the stench from her diaper. I leave the door half open and turn on a lamp hoping to find that Rosario has returned home, knowing she has not.

Mamá’s eyes are open, her thumb tapping. She would rather die—literally—than to have me deal with something so personal and undignified. But what is worse: having me change her diaper or sitting in her own mess?

I lay a towel on her bed, find a clean diaper and some old washrags. I fill the bucket with warm water, dawdling with the preparations hoping that Rosario will return.

I roll Mamá’s wheelchair to her bedroom and begin the awkward process of moving her to the bed. She weighs almost nothing, but even so, how is Rosario able to do this with only one good arm?

I expect Mamá to realize what is about to happen and that she will resist, but, no. She simply lands on the bed with a flop. I rearrange her hips and gag again. How is she not retching with the stench?

Her eyes gaze at the ceiling. Her thumb continues to tap.

Still, no Rosario.

“Okay, Mamá, I guess it’s my turn after all the diapers you changed for me.”

As I work, I remind her of the embarrassing stories that were part of my childhood. How I was nearly four when I finally gave up diapers. She told me: “Your caca was so stinky, you smelled like an old man.” She’d wave a hand in front of her face and pinch her nose. “Finally, I handed you a diaper and said, ‘Change it yourself.’ And what do you know? The toilet looked pretty good after that.”

Whenever she relayed the story, her voice had a note of annoyance, but her face betrayed her. She felt nothing but love for her son, poopy pants and all. Even now as I recall it, my cheeks warm, but I retell it anyway hoping to lessen the embarrassment she must feel.

I fold the soiled diaper in half and try to wipe away the mess without looking.

I’m probably not cleaning her as well as I should, but Rosario will just have to take care of that when she returns. I close the clean diaper and pull Mamá’s housedress over her knees. “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamá.” I need to get this stinking thing out of the apartment, get this out of my mind. I place the diaper in the trash can. I return to sit on the bed beside her. I brush her hair from her forehead and give it a small kiss.

Her skin is cold, as if she is already dead.

Contributors

Kim Suhr is the second-place winner of the Wisconsin People & Ideas 2021 Fiction Contest. She is author of Nothing to Lose (Cornerstone Press, 2018) and Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice Mom (2012).

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