Everything can be traced back to its origins in the smoke shop: the walls (hewed from oaks of the Naugatauk Forest), the owner’s suit (fine Italian wool), and the patrons, even the ones who only spend five minutes browsing before returning to their homes (farmhouses in Norwalk, converted in the 1920s). The fug of tobacco clings to it all, seeps into the wood grain and the fabric and the pores and hair.
The leaves are from plantations in Nicaragua, where it grew in willowy stalks from the dark earth. But the seeds originated in Cuba, were packed and smuggled and distributed across a foreign soil to be harvested and torn up and sealed in brittle paper in New England.
Miguel, sitting in the corner in a Panama hat, rolls brown wraps around the sticky hairs of tobacco. He is a master. His brain no longer keeps track of what his thumbs do, and he can think about Pipi, a dog he owned as a boy in Havana, that would follow him everywhere and lick his ankles pensively, its tongue lingering mid-stroke as though the mutt was lost in deep philosophy. Miguel sits in his new home, thinking of the pensive dog, his fingers artful and mechanical in their chore, pure muscle memory, as natural and rhythmic as breathing: cut the sheet in a strip, roll it, seal it, cut it in la máquina, cap it with pectin.
His sinews are strung tightly, as on a finely-tuned instrument. They are mesmerizing to watch. Miguel’s eyes flick up and his lip might tug into a smile every time a new customer stands over him and watches his work, but his hands never stop.
“Don’t inhale, now,” he says, whenever someone leaves the cashier’s desk with a bag or a box. And then the bell on the door will ring as they leave, and his fingers won’t notice a thing.
In the corner sits a circle of overstuffed brown leather chairs with a chess set and several side tables equipped with ash trays, like the set of a stage play about a group of distinguished gentlemen. They groan from the weight of your body, then encompass you. They smell like you think your grandfather might have smelled when he was younger and not tethered to a respirator. The cashier is explaining to a novice that the darker the wrapper, the fuller the body of the cigar. The black labels will travel down and deposit a rich oil in your gut.
You will want to buy everything in the store, not because you have any use for it, but because owning such curios might suggest something about you. During the five minutes in the haze of the cigar shop, where everything is from some place better than here, you wish you were someone else. You would like to be the sort of man who shaves with a straight razor and smokes an evening cigar. A man who has a palate to distinguish between thick and thin wrappers, full body and light blend, who can muse about how long a cigar has matured in a humidor after a few puffs. Or maybe you would just like to hold a cigar in your mouth without the end getting soggy and your stomach growing queasy.
The store sells cigar cutters from Italy that look like small guillotines, pipes hand-carved by British artisans, French fine-toothed mustache combs, shaving kits and soaps and lotions from an old apothecary in Rhode Island. Now, they are all enveloped by the thick, rich musk in Connecticut.
And you, too, are in Connecticut, and you, too, are of imported stock, people who crossed oceans in steamers or slave ships or merchantmen. Or by passenger plane. Or by foot, wandering across the land bridge in search of a new home.
“Don’t inhale, now,” Miguel says.
And you, too, are being sucked down until you wash through the air and stick to the people who knew you, until you are reduced to ash and dust.
Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.