Even dried, stumped and discarded, the stale roaches said more
about the man than his children ever could. Who and what he was
was never as clear or available to anyone - blood relation, ex-wife,
high school chum or otherwise - as was the detailed knowledge
of how and what he smoked:
Half 'n Half squeezed from a worn leather pouch, rolled with unconscious
perfection in a Zig Zag between thumbs and fingers, or one-handed
in a pinch. An anxious dab of drool from the tip of his tongue
sealed the paper to itself and without fail the metallic flick
of a Zippo's lid rang out just before the cigarette's tip glowed
That was who he was.
But that was not who he had always been. He became that person
one summer years ago in a hijacked boxcar with friends. Amid the
rumbling, swaying motion of the tracks, a sloppily made cigarette
fumbled its way to the mouth of a boy. A boy with a devilish smirk
and a penchant for pranks. A boy who strove for the coolness of
his heroes while still the early mold of a man. It was then that
his transformation began, where the unbridled potential of adolescence
slowly devolved to a choking, solitary passion that aroused talk
in everyone it seemed, but him.
Indeed, more smoke flowed from the man's lips than words for he
had little need for conversation. Cigarettes were his most frequent
companions, his most trusted, whispering advisors. And as expected
and natural as a nose or freckle on the face of a passing stranger
was to most people, he would have appeared freakish and incomplete,
deformed in some way if a vacancy had fantastically arrived on
his lip where a cigarette rightfully belonged.
To see him was to see cigarettes.
The yellowed, moistened ends he breathed returned his favor by
kissing the tips of his fingers and nose with their formaldehyde
pallor, staining his skin like the proud tattoo of his one true
love. And he wore their scars on every shirt, pant leg, sock,
coat and pair of boxer shorts he owned in the form of pockmarks
from an acne of burning, errant ashes. The same could be said
for his couches, blankets, pillows, sheets, carpets and car seats
since he spread the diseased look everywhere he went.
Though most apparent, most appallingly obvious, was his scent.
The man was smoke incarnate. It inhabited his every pore and follicle,
hid under his toenails and swirled about his eardrums. To new
acquaintances, his rancid, sweet smell turned stomachs and was
so a part of him it seemed to rise directly from his soul.
His wife knew him as best she could. She knew he was never a father
to his own children and he resented having her children in his
house and paying for their needs. She also knew any love they
once shared had left, leaving her with no where to go.
So she learned what he liked and when he wanted it: runny eggs
sunny side up with bacon, toast and a pot of coffee before work;
a big lunch for him to come home to mid-day; a gin martini as
dry as the Sahara the minute he walked in the door at night; and
tins of tobacco, bottles of lighter fluid and boxes of rolling
papers fully stocked at all times in the cupboard for the cigarettes
he would enjoy before, during and after each meal and throughout
the rest of his day.
His wife didn't smoke.
But she cared for his cigarettes much like she cared for him.
She gave them everything they needed. She had ashtrays of every
conceivable material and design strategically placed throughout
the house on any surface large enough and flat enough to hold
them. Some were modern glass and came as gifts. Others were stolen
from restaurants and looked appropriately out of place next to
ceramic masterpieces molded by the hands of children the man sought
to ignore behind his smoky haze. And before any ashtray had a
chance to gather more than one or two of the handmade butts sucked
lifeless by her husband, his wife was in motion. In a blur of
efficiency, the defiled object was whisked away, its contents
launched into the fireplace, before a sanitary thrashing of Palmolive
and hot water in the kitchen sink ultimately concluded with a
dish towel buffing fit for fine china.
This routine was repeated thousands of times over twenty-five
years of marriage and each time, within those shiny ashtrays,
his wife searched for something. For a speck of approval, a glimmer
of acknowledgment. It was there that she looked for her husband
and never found him.
His existence was only proven by the physical space he occupied
as a moving cloud of smoke. That was all. Much like the rolled
layers of Zig Zags that cloaked the essence of his cigarettes
- the man's human content was never revealed.
He was truly a world onto himself, a nicotine-addled topography
of folds, creases and fissures draped in a perpetually replenished
smog of cigarette exhaust. Fine, lengthening wisps of airborne
tar and exhaled detritus reached out from his body as he sat in
a chair at the head of the dining room table. The phantasmic fingers
hung in the air at various altitudes and slowly crept throughout
the rest of the room where they spread over lamps, chairs and
books like ground fog over doomed, low-lying hills and forgotten
headstones. And when the smoke finally cleared, the man was gone.
A mahogany urn with polished brass fittings is temporarily displayed
on the crowded mantle in the man's home. Gleaming ashtrays flank
the box in silent tribute as they wait for an as-yet-to-be-scheduled
garage sale or trip to the junkyard in the company of a ragtag
collection of men's clothing covered with mysterious little black
holes. Down below, just before the cold, charred, week-old logs
in the fireplace, the crusty, stained remnants of abandoned cigarettes
are also on display, sitting on a pile of ashes.
~ * ~