The Cigarettes by D. Foy
Editor Matty Byloos, Fiction, April 6th, 2015
"He only wanted to know he was alone."
That Saturday, on his way home from the Quik Stop where he’d blown his allowance on sweets, near the edge of the field, he saw a pack of cigarettes. Had the brand been Benson and Hedges, or Vantage, or Pall Mall—anything short of Marlboro or Camel, which to his mind even then were the only cigarettes worth their smoke—he might’ve kept on. But in fact they were Marlboros, and not Marlboro Lights, in the white and gold pack, but Marlboro Reds, in the soft pack, totally superior. It wasn’t that he could not not look at this package in the weeds. He could not not stop looking at this package in the weeds.
Already the cigarettes had him, already he was theirs.
Blue skies ruled, sunshine ruled, summertime would come with its water balloons and swimming pools, milkshakes and barbeques, mornings late in bed his father gone to work, cartoons daily, mischief with his pals in the afternoons, baseball practice and baseball games, the A’s on the tube, the Paradero’s hideout, camping in Yosemite, and—best of all!—firecrackers and firewheels, roman candles, M-80s, bottle rockets and Piccolo Petes, smoke bombs and sparklers and cakes . . .
On the street now and then a car hummed by, the drivers thoughtless of his schemes—some stupid kid staring at a field as he gummed his lollipop and farted.
Three or four robins bounced through the sprinklers on a lawn, and cabbage moths roamed the field at whose far side, near the eucalyptus by the freeway, stood a fort, actually just a big bush in whose hollow boys pretended they were gunners in their nest or hunters in their hutch, and older boys banged their girls or jerked off to the honeys and bunnies on the pages of Playboys and Hustlers left behind for fledgling crooks like him. The old willow before the Elks Lodge up the way had begun to bloom. Late last summer Mike Paradero had bared his ass from a fork in its branches to shit down on him and Paul Paradero and Pedro Jones, that weird redhead kid who just a few weeks back had led them to his yard to peer through the window as he, Pedro Jones, sneaked up to his fat mother snoring naked on the couch and plucked one of the hairs on her belly and thighs. A block past the Elks Lodge, a lab at his heel, an old dude dumped a catcher of grass into his pickup truck. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. Some doves swept by, then circled round to settle in the willow at the lodge. The sun was really shining. The sky was really blue.
The pack was still half full, he could tell, or thereabout. He picked it up, and, by golly, there they were, eight of them, just as he’d thought, almost half a pack of real-life actual cigarettes.
But obviously he couldn’t walk into the house with them: Hey, look what I found! His father would take them. Thanks, hot shot, his father would say, and light one up.
But he had found them. They were his, and he was going to smoke one or maybe three or four if that’s what he decided. And plus by himself, as in totally alone. And no one could stop him, no one, for that matter, would even know. He looked around again and saw the same—lazy cars and robins, the willow with its doves, an old man down the street, that was it, and sun and sky and breeze.
He wedged the pack between his belly and his waistband, then set off for his room at the house to stash them in his dresser, beneath the PJs he never wore. Then he flopped on the couch by the tube to watch a dragster explode on the track, the commentators yelling as men tried to save the driver from his pit of flaming steel. For hours he went between the couch and the tube, shuffling through the channels—a baseball game, the Astros and some other team; the PM matinee, One Million Years, B.C., with Raquel Welch; a boxing match announced by Howard Cosell; a ballet—yuck; a talk show—Lawrence Welk interviewed by Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas or Dick Cavett—yuck, and yuck, and yuck, and yuck; Bob Hope in seafaring costume spazzing on a set like a tropical island; Bob Barker yelling, Come on down!—yuck; shots of a plain full of antelope, egrets, cheetahs, and giraffe . . . His mother had been doing laundry, he realized, she’d go through his drawers at any moment. He moved the cigarettes to a shoe in his closet, and then again, before bed, slipped them under his mattress.
Later that week he stole a box of matches from the tray his father worked his weed on.
Some days after that, once he’d fed the dog, and cleared the dishes, and vacuumed the rug, and edged the lawn, and swept, he told his mother he was off to the school for ball, but headed to the field.
He wove through the grass, stopping now and then to check a log or stone for lizards and snakes, though lizards and snakes were the last things he cared crap about now. It was just a bunch of fakery, same as every one else’s, this act of looking for lizards and snakes. He wanted to know he was alone. If someone entered the field, he’d wait them out looking for lizards and snakes. And if he found some jerk in the fort when he reached it, simple, he’d come back later and do the same. But apart from the moths and flies and hoppers and bees, he saw no one and heard nothing but a couple of singing larks. From fifty yards out, the shrub that was the fort looked empty. He craned for a sign—a cackle or groan or snore—but heard nothing again but the whisper of grass and purr of bugs, the whistling of blackbirds, too, and the freeway humming and, really far away, the shouting of a man.
Traffic along the path for the last few yards had made the place human, though that didn’t change the fort, which looked still like the shrub it was, five feet high and fifteen or so around. It was only after you reached the other side that you could see its purpose. Beer cans, soda cans, paint cans—milk cartons, candy wrappers, tarps—newspapers, planks, empty packs of cigarettes—magazines, lone shoes, and twine was what you found. Bums had been living in the fort, Mike Paradero once told him, though really the bums couldn’t stay for long because the cops went out to roust them, and sometimes guys from high school messed them up, as well. He’d actually gone into the fort a couple times at most, the last maybe six months back. In his memory the place glowed with exotic smut. Now it was grody with the stench of shit. He shuffled through the beer cans and butts and pages filled with naked chicks to the milk crate across the way and found that someone really had taken a dump, probably just an hour before. And whoever it was that had taken the dump had used the crate to launch it: teeming with flies, a load of shit, four logs high, gnarly in its glory, there it lay, whoa. He might’ve had to smell the shit, but no way was he going to see it. Most of the paper had been ruined by wet, from last week’s rains or morning dew. They stuck to the dirt like leaves, and when he tried to scrape up this one or that, the earwigs and pill bugs there went nuts. Finally he managed to gather enough junk to cover the shit—a branch, and two empty Tab cans, and a wad of slimy paper, and a plastic bag gummy with moldy jam. Then he moved the crate to the other side and went out and gathered up an armful of grass for the crate.
He took a cigarette from the pack and smoothed it tip to butt. He tapped it on his hand, the way he’d seen his father do, then brought it to his lips and struck a match. Then he lit it, and then he puffed, and then he squinted at the smoke. Then he drew super hard and sucked in all the smoke.
For the longest time he’d wanted this more than anything. He’d wanted to cradle the smoke as smoking men did, deep in his lungs, like a promise or a vow, he’d wanted to vent the smoke as smoking men did, slowly as he talked, his words embraced with smoke, and watch the smoke as it drifted off in arty wisps. He’d wanted this smoke inside him oh-so-badly for oh-so-long, and yet now that he had it, his body refused to help. His eyes watered, his ears burned, the world began to buzz. And then with a heaving retch, the smoke poured burning from him . . .
But so freaking what, his will was strong, too strong for this lame-O piece of paper and weed. Mastering the cigarette was mastering the rest, the bicycle, the bat, the fist. He’d smoke this cigarette down to the butt if it was the last thing he ever goddamned did. Then he’d smash the butt beneath his heel, like the roughneck at the lumberyard smashed it beneath his heel, like Clint in the sand and Bogey the fog, like his father in the lot a butt beneath his heel.
His head was spinning, now, and his stomach, too, the air had grown thick and hot. When again the seizure struck, he struggled with all he had, and in a bit the danger passed. But still his mind buzzed, inside his head the machine hummed on, bzzzzzzz, bzzzzzzzzz, bzzzzz.
He looked at the cigarette. The smoke twined up in gentle loops, the smell so good, a smell he’d always loved. Again he placed the cigarette to his lips and squinted at the smoke, again he drew, though easier now, again he took the smoke inside and felt the burn, and the burn of his cheeks and brow and ears, the branches and leaves areel before him, the lady on her page, reeling and reeling, the beer can by his foot. He held the smoke long enough now, though not too long, he didn’t gag, he didn’t lurch, and then—thooooooooooooooooooo—he let it go, gentle, easy, all the smoke, all his smoke, vanishing now in the branches and leaves to nothing. And now again the buzz set in, better than before, and now again the nausea, worse than before, and then it faded, the nausea passed, and . . . he was something else, somewhere else . . . high. . .
He took another drag, he felt the rush, he felt the burn, he felt the crazy buzz . . .
A wave rolled up then slipped away, and then a wave after it . . .
And then the cigarette itself had passed, the cigarette was gone, he dropped the butt and smashed the butt, he heard the hiss he heard his father hear as his father smashed a butt, he saw the smoke, dying at his heel . . .
Yet it was something more than fear he felt counting what was left in the pack. They had to go, he knew, these seven cigarettes, and yet he feared for how. But no sooner had he been bound than like a blade the answer cut his fear away—smoke them!
Not once did he set this choice to another—burying the cigarettes, say, or tearing up the cigarettes, say, and scattering them across the field, or throwing them in a dumpster, say, or even just leaving them with the rest of the junk in that icky little fort, maybe under the crap whoever it was had taken. The thought—the command, more like it—to smoke the cigarettes had simply rung out, and he lit another, a head without a body, now, he was, a body without a head . . .
Time passed, now quantum, now huge, but there he was, the boy in the dirt, the nothingness of the sky . . .
Constellations wheeled, crypts decayed, flowers bloomed and blooms waned . . .
Bees by the billion, stewards of the earth, swarmed the fields, life on the breeze, ruin in sun, famine, mishap, joy, war, the secret, the truth, never before, never then, but through and all, through and all, he knew it all, and he knew none, how could he know more, better, how, or why, when he was but a cipher, a boy in a bush—how could he?
Hours passed . . .
He had no clue.
+ + +
If you liked this piece by D. Foy, you might also like “Writing From the Black, Twitchy Place,” by Frank DiPalermo, which also features cigarette butts and amazing prose. Read it here.
+ + +
D. Foy’s work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Guernica, Salon, Post Road, Electric Literature, BOMB, The Literary Review, Frequencies, Midnight Breakfast, The Collagist, and The Georgia Review, among others, and has been included in the books Laundromat and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. He is the author of the novel, Made to Break. Visit his official website here.
“The Cigarettes” is excerpted from the as-yet-unpublished Patricide: A Novel of Memory.