William Doonan

I write books and stories.

MedicineLand: Chapter One

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“It’s a special occasion,” Julia said, eying the rows of cigar boxes, standing in the humidor at the back of the store. “Surely you have some Cubans around here.”

Norm, proprietor of Norm’s Cigars, chuckled and made snapping noises with his cigar clipper.  “Surely not,” he said conspiratorially.  “That’s illegal.”  He reached for a box of unmarked cigars.  “We’d mail you the bands; you can put them back on if you like.”

“But these really are Cuban cigars?”

“Genuine Cohibas.  They’re Schwarzenegger’s favorite, though he legally can’t smoke them.”

Julia picked up one of the cigars to smell it.  “I thought he was against smoking.”

“Cigarettes.  He’s against cigarettes.  Cigars are his weakness.  But a suggestion, if I may.”  Norm put the box down and selected another.  “Mr. Shannon prefers these.  We haven’t had any in a while but we just got more in.”

These cigars were thinner, and had blue bands. “Cite Loana,” Julia read.

“They’re Haitian.  Would you like to try one?”

“No.”  She grinned.  “I didn’t know they made cigars in Haiti.”

“There are a couple of good houses.  The Cite Loana plantation was one of the original French producers.  About twenty years ago some Cuban exiles bought the land and started it up again.  Are you sure you wouldn’t try?”

“Why not?”

He led her to the smoking parlor beside the register, clipped the tip of the cigar, and lit it for her.

Julia puffed and held the smoke in her mouth the way Rocky had shown her, then blew three concentric smoke rings the way the boys in college had shown her.  “I’m afraid it doesn’t do too much for me,” she said, just as the door opened and two homeless-looking young men stepped in.

“It takes some time to get used to,” he said.  “You have to nurture it, like any addiction worth having.”  He moved behind the counter to attend his new customers.

The two men shuffled nervously toward the back of the store.  The taller one wore a baseball cap and carried a duffel bag.  He smiled, revealing teeth that were brown and intermittent.  “Yeah,” he said, “like we were wondering if you had those…”

“Those torch lighters,” Norm interrupted him.

“Uh, yeah, the torch lighters.”

The shorter, paler one frowned, then shook his head.  “That’s just rude, man.  You don’t know what we came for,” he said, revealing a mouthful of gums.  “We coulda come in for cigars.”

“Torch lighters are right here,” Norm told him, pointing to the glass counter.  “They start at $12.95 and go as high as $99.95 over at this end.  I’m going to guess that you young men are going to gravitate to the lower price point.”

“That’s just bullshit.  This is really bad customer service.”

“Just be cool, dope,” the taller said.  “Be cool.”  He pointed at the inexpensive lighter and nodded.  Then he pulled a handful of dollar bills from one pocket and a handful of coins from another.

Julia stamped out the cigar as the transaction was completed.  “What was that about?”

“Tweakers,” Norm said.  “I thought about putting a sign on the door that said ‘No Meth Addicts,’ but I’m not sure if that’s legal.  They probably have rights.  They like the cigar lighters because they burn hotter.”

“Charming,” she said.  “OK, so let’s have a box of the Haitian cigars.”

He went back into the humidor and came out with the box.  At the register, he thumbed through a ledger.  “Mr. Shannon’s birthday is in April.  Can I ask the occasion?”

“It’s our anniversary,” she said for the sixth or seventh time that day, paying attention to the way the words cascaded, the way they felt like a promise.  “It’s our first.”

Ω

Leaving downtown, Julia passed Sacramento State University, where a crowd of students demonstrated, waving signs protesting the tuition increases that were expected of the ‘Governator’.  She turned onto Howe Avenue and made her way north toward the Fairgrounds.  Passing the interchange for Route 80, she continued north for another twenty minutes, toward the farmlands of Sacramento County.  So close to civilization, she thought, and yet here I am in the middle of the rice belt.  She turned off just past the old grain silo, which for reasons unclear to her, had become a twenty-four hour locus of beer drinking and smoking.  She stared at the half dozen guys who stood around in the shade drinking their forties, but nobody stared back.  Two miles later, she was home.

Turning into the driveway, she pressed a button on her key ring and the gates rolled back behind the iron walls that marked the entrance.  “I live in a house with a gate,” she told herself, as she did every time she pressed the button.

Inside the house, she found Rocky in his study, sitting cross-legged on the leather couch by the fireplace staring at his laptop computer.  Billy St. Clair paced near the window, a golf putter in one hand, a pint of amber beer in the other.  He looked to be in the middle of a thought, but he shook it off and smiled when he saw her.

“Conspiring as usual,” Julia said, climbing over the couch into Rocky’s lap.

Rocky smiled and wrapped his arms around her.  “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I was quiet,” she said, kissing him.  “But you might have anticipated me.”  She looked up at the monitor on the desk, the one that was always on, and read from the  SecureHome text box in the upper right hand corner.  “Gate open, secure code, Julia Beltran” scrolled the letters.  “Garage open, same. Kitchen door open, same.  All ports closed.  Perimeter reestablished.”

Rocky reached for his glasses.  “I always anticipate you,” he said, tracing her lips with his finger.  “And you are always a welcome surprise.”

“This is just like college all over again,” Billy St. Clair said, tossing the putter aside.  “A seemingly quiet night at the dorm, but look around and people are making out all over.  Pretty girls everywhere.  It really brings me back.”

Rocky grinned.  “We didn’t go to college, Billy.  And they didn’t have girls at St. Matthew’s Orphan Boys.”

“But that’s really what it was like,” Billy suggested.  “Isn’t it, Julia?  Isn’t my college fantasy close to the mark?”

“It’s dead on,” she said, handing Rocky the box of cigars.  “Pretty girls everywhere.”

“Look at this,” Rocky exclaimed when he opened the box.  “Where did you find this?  These are my favorite.  Have one with me, Billy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”  Billy grabbed his jacket.  “Tonight is for just the two of you.  Hey, I found you a case of that Bilbao ‘92 Port but it didn’t get here on time.  So when it shows up, pretend to be surprised.”  He kissed Julia on the cheek.  “Happy anniversary, Dr. Beltran.”

After he left, Rocky rolled off the couch onto the wool carpet, pulling Julia down with him.  “I’ve been missing you all day,” he said.

“Wait, wait, wait,” she said, stumbling up and reaching for her purse.  “I got you one more present.”

“I don’t need one more present.”  He pulled her back.

Julia showed him her new California driver’s license.  “I did it today.  My new name is official.”

Rocky read it aloud.  “Julia Shannon.”  He took a deep breath and held her close.  “You didn’t have to do that, you know.”

Julia felt his breath on the back of her neck, knew he was more pleased than he would ever say.  “I know,” she said.  “I know.”

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Written by williamdoonan

September 22, 2012 at 8:14 pm

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