The Cigar - Malcolm Zuckerman

The armchair was soft, crushed velvet on hardwood. It sat facing the lake. A small table stood next to it bearing all his latest reads in a pile crowned by a pair of round reading glasses. Although it was the library, across the hall from his office, everyone who was anyone knew that this was where the real business happened. I can picture him now, rotund and red-faced, smoking a long cigar. Clad in a pinstriped suit while his Kaiser Bill twitched in silent laughter at workers come to plead their case to the boss. To a young boy like me, it was like King Arthur holding court. I had visions of sitting in that velvet chair and watching the peasants scurry about.

            My grandfather had the map of Jerusalem printed on his face. He was a hard man, and uncompromising, but fiercely moral. Coming from nothing, his rise was nothing short of meteoric. But I don’t think he ever got over the poverty of his youth, the hungry nights, the whispered discussions. He always regarded money as the ultimate objective in life and never forgave my dad for his lack of ambition. What my grandfather saw was lack of effort. He liked me, though. More than the rest of my family. I think those early days at Lake Champlain made me determined to be at the top. My grandfather saw it, and he knew I was sharp.

He’d always say to me, in his thick New York accent, “Benjamin, listen. Becoming rich is easy, never take no for an answer. Are you listening to me? Shake a man's hand, and plan to ace him. Now, Benjamin, you’re listening to me speaking these words, and you’re just nodding along but you’re asking yourself, if it’s so easy what’s up with all the folks begging for a handout. I’ll tell you Benjamin, they’re lazy, the lot of them; just like your father. I came here with not a shekel in my hand and look at me now. The top of the world!” He’d gesticulate wildly to the bay windows overlooking Lake Champlain, take a few furious puffs on his shortening stogie and relax. “You’ve gotta work hard, Benjamin. You gotta know that you gotta work hard. Nobody gives a shit about a boy like you unless he’s working hard, Benjamin. You can relax when you retire. I’m paying for Yale but you gotta work hard, Benjamin.”

I never saw him happier than when I got my law degree. Harvard Law School, third in my class. He was the first to congratulate me, this silver haired giant of manufacturing. Clapping me on the back, a quickly burning havana in mouth, he said, “this is what I’m talking about, Benjamin. A lawyer, now that’s a real profession. No factory work for you, my boy. No hawking fish or making lox for you, my boy. No, Benjamin Gold, he’s a lawyer.”

When I got married he didn’t seem so thrilled. I was young and Rachel was young and to him we must have seemed reckless and heedless, made crazed by wild emotion. She wasn’t from a good family, and she lacked the classical Russian beauty that my grandfather held so dear. But she was clever and witty and more than a match for me. I think in his heart of hearts, he approved. I caught the gleaming hint of a tear as auburn hair flowed past a white veil. By this time, the robust man of my childhood had begun to fade. The silver hair whitened and the Kaiser Bill drooped a little more, and the the cigar kept burning. I heard him talking on the phone one afternoon to a common acquaintance.

“Sheesh I mean, I get times are changing but no way this girl is good enough for my Benjamin. He might not be top notch in the looks department, but he’s got a brain the size of Wall St. I guess that’s why they say love is blind, and blinded are lovers.”

He meant well.

We had our wedding at his house on Lake Champlain. He refused to leave, and he was rich enough that he could make that demand. He had nurses and servants taking care of him, and I wouldn’t hear of having my wedding away from my Grandpa. A day after the wedding he ushered me up to the library and he collapsed into the armchair opposite a bare table.

He tapped his cigar against an ashtray, depositing the excess, and drew a handkerchief across his red forehead, with a big sigh. “I have a proposal for you, beyond this wedding. I want you to come work for me. Listen, Benjamin. I need someone to step up. I want to teach you how to run this operation. I’m going to teach you everything I know. Are you listening, Benjamin? I know you’re a lawyer, not a businessman, but… this is a younger man’s game and I’m not going to be around to play for much longer.”

I tried to brush it off, to reassure him that he wasn’t going anywhere. In truth, it was as much for me as it was for him.

“No. Listen, I can see it as plainly as you. I’m not all I once was. I don’t have that vitality, the drive that made me one of the biggest manufacturers this side of the Atlantic, back when I was younger. All I really want right now is to sleep. But in this whole company, there’s not a soul that I trust to lead it. I trust you, Benjamin.”

I was never able to say no to my grandfather. When I walked in on him later, crumpled on his chair, burnt out cigar in his grip, it was to tell him that of course I’d work for him.

The doctors said that his heart gave out. I think he was just ready to go. When I saw him last-- laid to rest on a bluff overlooking his beloved lake-- although I looked through tear drenched lashes, for the first time in my life he looked peaceful, gone on to a calmer place. After the funeral I went up to that old library. I lit a stogie, collapsed into that crushed velvet armchair, and gazed out onto the shining blue waters of Lake Champlain.