CL Fiction Contest/Ybor Stories: Who won? 

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The Prodigal Cigar | Jack Kurlychek

After the indulgence of a business-class flight from Munich, the sprint through Hartsfield to the Terminal A lounge was incongruous to Ben Scott. As a platinum level frequent flyer, he considered himself deserving of better service all the way through. This encounter with the economy-minded masses was not what he was accustomed to, at least not anymore. Ben felt that he worked hard and earned these entitlements. He was no dummy.

The business class lounge with its spaciousness, banker’s office atmosphere, and free drinks offered sanctuary from the mayhem outside, but did little to ease Ben’s mind on the trepidation of the next leg of his trip. He thought yet again about continuing on to L.A. as originally planned, but it was fleeting. He had committed to this, and as awkward as he expected it to be, he would see it through.

Boarding for his Tampa connection would be called soon, and now that he reconfirmed his new itinerary to himself, a phone call would help ease the way. Adroitly working his BlackBerry, he did the dutiful thing:

“Hi, Kristin?”

“Yeah, Ben here. In Atlanta and should be in Tampa in about an hour and half. Landing about 2:30. I’m making a quick stop in Ybor first, then on my way. I should be at the home around five. Will dad still be up?”

Somewhat disheartened, but not surprised by his seemingly flippant concern for the issue at hand, Ben’s sister dispensed with pleasantries. As Kristin began her well-measured response, she wondered to herself if further explanation would serve any purpose. Four years his senior and happily married, they hadn’t talked much since their mom died in ’03. When they did, family matters seemed secondary to Ben’s activities, his ventures, his accomplishments.

“Ben, I’m sure your business in Ybor is important — maybe a few drinks and cigars? But I was just at Fairhaven again today, and dad’s condition is getting worse. You might want to get over as soon as you can. If the schedule you gave me earlier in the week stands, you’re only here today and leaving tomorrow night. You won’t have much time.”

“Kris, cigars yes, drinks no”, Ben countered. “You know how dad and I used to light one up from time to time when I used to live down there. This was back before mom died and dad was engaging, witty and more carefree; back when I was only a Regional Manager and didn’t have the responsibility I have now. We’d smoke a stogie at bars, sports events, sometimes just walking down the street with one. To me, and maybe to dad, this is kind of a reference point. I don’t know what else to bring, and I want to leave him with something. Metropolitan Cigars has a Christmas sale on 1964 Padron Aniversarios. Dad used to love these and I’m going to get him some.”

Disarmed by Ben’s unexpected and fairly strange thoughtfulness, Kristin wondered if she might have misjudged her brother, just a little. “You know Ben, Dad can’t smoke them. He’s 81, has a heart condition, bad eyesight and a million other things. And on top of that, with his intermittent dementia, he won’t remember any of that. He may not even remember you.”

“Kris, it’s something I just feel I need to do. I haven’t seen dad in ten years and I need something to break the ice.”

Ben knew full well that he let other distractions, like sneak thieves, steal time he should have allotted for loved ones. As he saw it, these intruders caused him to distance himself from things he now realized were more important. But time did not wait for any such revelation, and a decade later he finds himself trying to catch up.

Ben continued decisively, “I know you probably feel you got stuck with all this extra responsibility — dad now and mom before that. But you live down there and I’m up in the City now. It’s the way things just worked out.”

Not wanting to get into a long-range debate and wary of Ben’s perspective on things, she terminated the discourse. “We’ll talk more when you’re here. Of course, you can stay at our place during you short visit.”

•••

The sluggish Friday afternoon I-275 drive from TIA gave Ben time to run it through his mind at full throttle. How did things “just work out” the way they were. Was he not supposed to take the VP promotion? Should he let the CompuGeld business slide just because family issues come up? Travel, a lot of it, was part of the deal, and when his ticket was punched 11 years ago, it all seemed right. And still today, at 49 years of age, he was feeling good about his success.

Ben’s acceptance of his choices would have been the reassurance he needed if only his thought process ended there. But his conscience came out of nowhere to challenge any assertion that his was the envied life. He drifted into a mire of “what ifs and maybes." Even a calculating, structured executive can fall prey to thoughts that alternately whirred and lagged.

What if he had more balance and essence in his life? Maybe he wouldn’t be coming off a second failed marriage. Maybe his kids would realize he could play basketball. Maybe this trip to see his dad would cause far less anxiety. Certainly it would help cultivate his level of contact with his sister.

Kristin was a good sister, refreshingly ingenious while exuding loving warmth — most of the time. However, she had her limits and was always ready with an acerbic retort. Her words had bite. Ben was thankful for her watching over their parents. He just didn’t know how to express it.

Finding himself drawn even deeper into a thought pattern he was unfamiliar with, he immediately shifted to the mission at hand as he exited onto 22nd Street for the cigar center of the country, Ybor City.

•••

With precise and calculated movement, Ben took possession of the Padrons and began the exit. The walk down 7th Ave brought back memories of when he and dad did the same, both much younger and both on the cusp of new adventures in their respective lives — Ben, a rising star in the computer banking world; his father about to enjoy the setting sun of retirement for him and his wife of 35 years. That enchantment only lasted a short seven years before Ben’s mother died. A year after that, his dad started the decline.

The bonding memories rose above all others for Ben and validated his side trip to Ybor. Walking casually yet deep in thought, he barely took note of his bearing as he unwittingly kicked something long and flesh-colored lying on the sidewalk. “An arm?” he yelled inside his mind, “A human arm?!” The immediate reaction to the sight played on the startled businessman.

A thick clotty voice with an uneducated accent came his way. “’Scuse me sir, this belongs in here.” A burly member of the now obvious cleaning crew picked up what turned out to be the dismembered appendage of a mannequin. He tossed it back into the large dumpster taking up two parking spaces on 7th Avenue. There the arm joined the rest of the dummy’s body parts along with countless other now useless artifacts of a now defunct boutique — torn pictures, clothes racks, hangers, “sale” signs. The humiliation of a lost dream didn’t end with just a “going out of business” sign. The rip-and-tear process that took place before the next hopeful tenant moved in had to have its moment as well.

As Ben scrutinized the dumpster’s contents on his way to his car, he made the correlation to a larger picture, a changing Ybor City. With a bit of drollness, he commented to himself, “Nothing lasts forever."

•••

The rest of the trip up I-275 to the Fairhaven assisted living facility was slow, but clean. The globetrotting salesman had been in worse traffic than this, so maneuvering to dad’s new residence was seamless. Ben had hoped otherwise. His apprehension grew exponentially as he got closer to the end point.

Meeting his sister in the lobby, they gave each other a less-than-meaningful hug and exchanged some small talk. The tentative walk down the hallway to his dad’s room allowed time for Ben to sense the rapid increase of his heart rate.

Entering their father’s small two-room apartment, Ben made some quick observations that began to alter his perception of an assisted living facility. The accommodations were clean, quaint, comfortable and had a nice view of Route 41 and smelled of fresh roses. Kristin, her husband Bill and their two teenage sons had done a tasteful job of placing Christmas decorations and flowers, Ben thought. He would have just slapped up some trinkets on the wall, strung some multi-colored lights around and called it Christmas.

“Ben? Ben is that you?” The voice was soft, even weak, but still filled with great elation nonetheless. The father’s chest was filled to bursting with pride. Ben was filled with emotions of his own, all mixed. This was a voice he had only heard intermittently over the years, and by Ben’s own admission, his choice.

The sight of the now aged man before him burrowed deep into Ben’s soul. “Dad! Yes, it’s me Ben," as he awkwardly leaned his 6”2” frame over the electric hospital-style bed to hug his frail father.

With a lucidity that matched anyone else in the room, the father continued: “You’re back home! Fantastic! What a treat. When did you get in? How are things up in New York? How’s the job?” Ben’s father’s questions were nonstop, with Ben trying hard to keep up and fill in the blanks. The exchange lasted a good hour and regenerated a long lost familiarity.

Ben’s fears were allayed, his apprehension eased. The father held no enmity toward his son.

Kristin simply watched, dumbfounded. Her father, who was in the throes of mid-level dementia, was so conversant, affable and alive. With the arrival of his only son, a piece of him seemed to be put back in place. Kristin hadn’t seen this sprightly interaction since last year.

The two men talked about everything — sports, Ben’s life in New York, trips to Clearwater Beach, the times in Ybor, politics, and yes, cigars. They continued for close to another hour when a now delighted Kristin finally broke the continuity. “Hey guys, very sorry to break this up, but Bill will have dinner for us back home and dad, you’ll be taking your meds in about ten minutes.”

Their father didn’t miss the opportunity. “Ben, this is great. I’m thrilled you came and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. The Bulls basketball game is on at noon.”

“Dad, I brought you something." Ben pulled a Patron out of his pocket. Kristin was ready to intervene, somehow thinking it was the right thing to do. Before she could say a word, the siblings’ father brightened like one of the Christmas lights. “Son, Ben. (A pause) Thank you so much. You still know me. I used to love these things. I can’t really smoke it now, but I am going to taste it.” With that, the unlit cigar was grasped in familiar fashion, with repeated faux-puffs savored by its new owner.

•••

Bill was a good cook. Dinner conversation was cordial. Manners were exercised by all, even the teens. Upon conclusion, Bill and his sons retired to the game room and the lure of electronic entertainment. Ben and Kristin talked, really talked for the first time in years.

“Kris, this is very nice of you to open your home to me. Thank you.” Ben was genuine. “I know we haven’t been close, especially since mom died. I guess I just got caught up in my life.”

“Ben, it’s a two-way street. I should have reached out more myself. And dad today… This is just great. I haven’t seen him this alive in years, let alone his memory working like the old days.” With increased excitement, Kristin drew a correlation between Ben’s visit and their dad’s newfound vibrancy. The two talked with sincerity for another 40 minutes. There was warmth in their words. The ice was beginning to melt.

That is, until a few ill-advised words brought a new forecast.

“I was very nervous about this, Kris, but it went well. I’m going to be sorry to leave tomorrow night.”

Kristin’s pleasant temperament shut down. Her moment of joy at seeing her father’s rejuvenation came to an end. “Ben. Dad is like, really looking forward to you being around for a while, maybe a couple of days. Can’t you delay, or do something to stay longer?”

“This deal in LA is behind already. I can’t just blow it off again. I need to be there,” Ben said, making every attempt to justify the plan. “And besides, I can reroute again in two weeks on the Sao Paulo trip."

Kristin thought for a moment. “If you fly to LA on Saturday night, what, you’re doing business on Sunday?”

“It’s actually a golf date. Yes, that’s how business works sometimes.” As Ben spoke those words, he realized how hollow they sounded.

The thaw had met with a new frigid climate. Kristin abruptly rose. “Yours is the first bedroom on the left upstairs. Towel’s on the bed.” With one last shot before exiting the dinner table, she mused, “Too bad you don’t have a double. He could sit with dad while you go to who knows where.”

Ben sat alone and thought.

•••

The next morning was a continuation of where discussions ended the night before, only much shorter. To Kristin’s surprise, Ben made an earlier exit than she expected. She then thought that at least he’s trying to get as much time with dad as possible before he leaves. So maybe that’s good.

When Kristin did get to Fairhaven by mid-morning, she felt anxiety spiced with further irritation. Ben wasn’t there.

•••

Ben arrived at Fairhaven a little before noon. Kristin just looked at him, her eyes expressing more challenge than curiosity. Ben’s father, like the day before, came to life. He was still holding and mouthing the maduro. He was still effervescent.

“I thought you might be here earlier, Ben” he said.

Ben replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “I had to do something." As he handled the remote, he continued, “What channel is the game on?”

The three passively watched what gradually became just another sports contest. It was irrelevant. Conversation was the main event. Quick questions were offset by thoughtful answers. As each of the three let their minds run backwards, they recaptured memories that brought a mix of laughter, uncertainty, and melancholy.

While once again genial, throughout this encounter, each assumed a stance. Ben felt he needed to explain his past decisions and actions, his persona resonating with that timbre. Kristin had the perception of needing to protect her father from hurt while subtly reproaching her brother for his self-absorption and indifference to the family. Their father, however, was oblivious to either demeanor and just reveled in the fact that both his children were by his side.

Hours passed. It was time. Nothing lasts forever. This small gathering was about to end, and an old man would soon, once again feel a vacuum within his heart.

Kristin was the first to leave. She had to take her kids to a Christmas concert, but she would be back. His daughter was by his side many times before and would continue to see her right up until his death. He was truly grateful to Kristin.

But maybe it was the novelty of having Ben there after so many years, or the bond that a father and son have, that would make his exit more excruciating. At any rate, Ben had not told his dad he was flying out that night. He sat with him for a short time after Kristin left. His flight departure time crept closer, but he was captivated by the unexpected tranquility he felt from time with his dad. The two men watched more games, talked in shorter spurts, and drifted into a satisfied repose. Dad had finally fallen asleep and Ben had a plane to catch, but he wasn’t ready to leave just yet.

As his dad nodded off, Ben went to his car, returning with a large structure wrapped in brown paper. Bringing this into his father’s room, he removed the paper, placed the thing on the same chair that he used — the one adjacent to his dad’s bed. He then pulled out another Patron and arranged things. The resultant combination of mismatched items might have been viewed as an artwork if it weren’t for its ignominious location.

There, propped up in the chair next to his dying father was a one-armed mannequin holding a cigar in its good hand. Clothed in apparel that Ben might wear, the son somehow felt this could serve as a proxy. Right? Wrong? Strange? Ben wasn’t sure, but it was something that came from his heart. With all the wealth and success Ben had, this was all he could think of to fill the emotional void.

He looked for a moment, backed away from the dummy and quietly left the room. Ben contemplated the future. Would he ever see his dad again? He tried to disguise any guilt with the mask of businesslike efficiency. He had to move on.

He had just entered the hallway and was picking up speed when simple, evocative words echoed from his dad’s room and staggered his momentum: “Son, I love you…”

Ben’s quick steps reaffirmed the urgency to catch the flight to LA. His sudden, uncharacteristic heavy heart weighted his movement. The tears in his eyes begged him to make other plans.

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