Smoke and Ashes

by Carlos Bortoni (translated by Toshiya Kamei)

Without telling anyone he celebrated the smoking ban in closed public spaces. After putting up with his old comrades’ smoking for years, he would be able to enjoy his coffee without being exposed to tobacco smoke. Never again would anyone blow smoke in his face, stinging his eyes and aggravating his heartburn. Never again would he be forced to inhale smoke from others smoking around him. Never again would anyone contaminate his coffee with smoke and ashes.

He had spent all his exiled life – more than sixty years – breathing in secondhand smoke without doing anything about it. From the time he stepped on Mexican soil until now, he hadn’t stopped hanging out with his comrades in defeat at different cafés around Mexico City. They always did the same thing: they talked about the Republic, their enemy’s victory without ever mentioning it, their escape through the Pyrenees, and their days in exile while smoking and drinking coffee. Every day he showed up on time, even though he didn’t smoke. About ten years ago their meetings took place at a small café in the Colonia de Valle and around the same time they began to get together every day from eleven in the morning until three in the afternoon. All of them had retired, so they didn’t have to go anywhere and spent their days meeting up with friends, eating with their families, and sleeping in front of the TV before going to bed. Monotony no longer mattered to those who had failed miserably in life.

The news of the smoking ban took everyone by surprise. No one believed it, not even he himself. After developing a vice for decades, they would be forced to improve their physical, mental, and social well-being, as well as that of their families and friends. But only he understood it that way. His comrades took it as the last humiliation they had to suffer before death. There wasn’t any other choice: they would have to break their routine and quit smoking while drinking coffee and brooding over the past…or give up getting together.
He never imagined they would abandon the café. Even though he didn’t say anything either in favor of or against it, he was sure they would accept the ban, that they would refrain from smoking from eleven until three. But the opposite happened: one by one they stopped coming to the café.

It began when they read the sign for the first time: “No smoking in this establishment for your sake and your family’s.” The small café in the colonia, despite its five tables on the sidewalk in the style of a terrace and its large windows, which were open all the time, fell into the category of closed spaces because the air didn’t circulate freely. That day he thought some of them would leave cigarettes alone. And it was not easy to stay put for four hours without taking out their lighters and opening their cigarette packs. In fact, most of them left before three o’clock. Individually and as a group, they had decided to stoically resist the urge to smoke. They resisted, as they had done all their lives. One of them even made a joke: ordering only a glass of water, he said he would embrace a healthy lifestyle from then on.
But the next morning the mood was different. The absence of those who were not present was strongly felt. At the usual table of nine, only six old men were seated.
“They’re probably sick,” he said.
“They decided to stop coming,” someone responded. “Yesterday they said it wasn’t the same.”
“They will shut themselves in their houses,” he said.
“I don’t know.”
Every day someone else was absent.
“I saw them on my way here,” one of them said.”Smoking on the benches in the park.”
“So they will come later. After smoking,” he said.
“I don’t think so. In their other hands they held thermos bottles.”
Two days later only three old men came to the café, which was beginning to fill with a new type of clientele: women who killed time between dropping their children off at school and picking them up.
“We should go to the park.”
“What for?” he asked.
“To smoke,” they answered.
“I don’t smoke,” he mumbled laconically. Then he stared at his cup.
That Friday he sat alone at the table. He never bothered to find out, but obviously his comrades were in the park, talking about the Republic, their enemy’s victory without ever mentioning it, their escape through the Pyrenees, and their days in exile while smoking and drinking coffee.
He kept showing up at the café every morning. He kept sitting at the same table. And he kept asking for cup after another until three in the afternoon. In the eyes of the waiters and new customers who frequented there, he was an artist who fell on hard times. He, who recovered his right to breathe fresh air, spent four hours drinking coffee in silence.

Never missing a single day, he went to the café. Even when it became obvious that none of his comrades would come back. Even when he admitted he missed chatting with them, and now instead, he would ask for another coffee, ignoring the heartburn it gave him. He drank cup after cup of coffee when the silence at his table became unbearable and the conversations around him turned lively and animated. So he took unhurried sips, but without interruption. Nothing stopped him, not even the gastric reflux burning his esophagus. There was no reason to put down his cup before it reached his lips, laugh or disagree with what he had just heard, much less forget about his coffee in front of him, which would get cold while he remembered, with the others’ help, how they managed to escape the enemy’s siege.

One afternoon, at a quarter to three, he began to throw up blood. While someone was calling for an ambulance and others were trying to help him with napkins that were soon soaked red, he died with his face pressed against the table next to his cup.

No one smoked at his funeral. His old comrades went outside for a cigarette. His wife and children decided to cremate him. But that was another decision made in the name of coexistence: cemeteries take too much space. And ashes, which are easier to handle, can be scattered easily or placed inside a small urn.

Carlos Bortoni was born in Mexico City in 1979 and still lives there today. He studied history at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. His books include El imperio soy yo (2007) and Perro viejo y cansado (2007). English translations of his fiction have appeared in In Other Words and Johnny America.

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