Three Perfect Cigarettes (Revised)

The old man sat in the cab of his son's beat up blue Ford pickup, gazing longingly out the window at something that no one else could see, toward a horizon hidden by a roadside gas station. The pumps in front were large and red and boasted rounded tops that bore the image of a white winged horse.

He could see his son inside, paying for the gas and for the cream soda and Moon Pie the old man had requested. The attendant was babbling about something behind the counter, he could see, an idiot teenager in a white cap that was two sizes too big for him and which pushed down the tops of his ears so that he looked like a kid playing dress up. He wished the kid would shut up so he could get back on the road with his son. His head was starting to hurt again and the scent of oranges wafted through the open window of the cab, although there were no oranges around that he could see.

The sun beat down through the filmy windshield. He took a clean handkerchief from the front pocket of his tan work pants and swiped at his forehead with it. It came away wet with blood.

The old man blinked and looked down at the square of white cloth again. There was no blood there, only a spreading dark stain from his perspiration.

“Pop? You okay?”

His son was looking at him through the open driver's side window of the truck, concern etching lines around his mouth and across his forehead.

“I'm fine. I just want to get going before sundown,” he replied roughly. He was immediately sorry for the anger in his voice when he saw the look on his boy's face, hurt and confused. It wasn't his fault the old man endured pain so bad that he chewed on his pillow at night. He'd thrown away four pillows in the past month, all of them mushy with saliva and the feathers all clumped together from his teeth marks.

“I'm tired, that's all,” he said, softer now.

Jake nodded and climbed up into the cab, handing over the cream soda and Moon Pie, which was half melted from the scorch of the day. The old man didn't mind though. A Moon Pie was a Moon Pie, way he looked at it.

“I can tell. You ain't been sleepin' so good, have you?”

“No matter. Man gets old, he can count on sleep going the way of strong bones and mind. Mostly gone forever.”

Jake looked over at him and nodded knowingly, as if he knew what it was to be old and know such a feeling of impotence, as if his bladder kept him up nights and the heat gave him the shakes so bad he had to lie down in the dark for an hour before he ate just so he could hold the fork steady. Youth, the old man thought. How strong we think we are when we have it; how the years flit away like a hummingbird and allow time, that old bald cheater, to catch up to us.

“We should go on back home, Pop,” Jake began, but the old man shook his head violently even though it hurt him to do so.

“I want to go for a drive, I told you. I need to get away from the house for a while. 'Sides, we haven't done this in a long time, just take a cruise in the afternoon.”

Jake tilted his head in that way he always did when he was about to argue. “But it's hotter than the devil's asshole today and the doctor said you--”

“The doctor, nothin',” the old man said grimly, and touched the rim of the cream soda bottle to his lips. It was blessedly cool and the soda was sweet as candy, the first sweet thing to touch his tongue in months. He almost groaned with the pleasure of it. “I'm fine. Got me a drink, don't I? A drink and a sweet, that's all I need right now. Maybe later I'll sneak me one of them cigarettes you got rolled up in your shirtsleeve there, if you promise not to tell your mama. Oh yeah, thought I didn't know about 'em, didn't ya? Well, it takes more than a kid your age to pull one over on your old pop, you should know.”

Jake smiled through the blush rising in his cheeks. It was born half of embarrassment and half of shame, although the old man wasn't angry; Jake could tell that just by the sound of his voice. The fact of the matter was this, however; the doctor had told them all six months ago that no one was to smoke around his pop, under any circumstances. It would only make his condition worse and he was already coughing up blood in the mornings. Jake had walked into the bathroom just yesterday and seen it floating in the toilet, a wad of phlegm and gray lung matter run through with a crimson thread. He had flushed the offending lunger without a further thought, simply wanting to get it out of the house, out of the toilet so he did not have to look at it while he was taking a piss. He thought of it now, that hunk of his father's cancer, floating in the dirty, foul water of the sewer, past dead rats and fecal matter and wads of toilet paper. It was where it belonged, he thought, served it right for fucking up his life and the lives of his mama and Pop. He supposed that was why he went along with whatever his father wanted lately. The cancer was eating him alive from the inside out and they all knew it, although the old man had managed to keep the latest update from the doctor to himself: the cancer had spread to his brain, where it had metastasized.  It was really only a matter of weeks, perhaps even days, before his body finally quit.  Jake was blissfully unaware of this fact, but he understood that time was short for his father and if the only things that made him happy were some sugar and a drive through the country, then by God he would get it.

Despite his desire to keep his pop as healthy as possible during the last bit of his life, he hadn’t been able to chuck the cigarettes.  So far he’d had the willpower to only smoke outside, well away from his father, but it was hard; damned hard. The craving set in, especially after a good meal, and he was powerless to its siren song. It seemed to be calling to him even now from his shirtsleeve, begging to be lit up, but he didn't dare with Pop in the truck, even with the windows rolled down.

“I don't know about the smoke, Pop,” he said reluctantly, dropping the truck into gear and backing toward the main road. The transmission wheezed and groaned in complaint but he managed to trundle it up onto the gravel anyway. A warm breeze floated through the open windows, lifting the sparse white hairs away from the old man's forehead and cooling the perspiration that had settled there. “Mama would kill me if she found out.”

“How's she gonna find out? Ain't gonna know unless you tell her, boy, and that'd be downright stupid.”

Jake shot him a glance that was meant to be stern but ended in a laugh despite himself. “Maybe. We'll see.”

The old man grunted and rested his arm on the side of the door. The wind felt so good on his face he felt like sticking it out the window like a dog to taste the air as they drove. The thought made him smile briefly, and a memory came floating up through the dim recesses of his mind: the two of them had gone on a drive very much like this when Jake was about twelve, out to a farm on the outskirts of town.  That day had been much cooler, though.  He couldn’t recall what month it had been, but the air had a distinct autumn-light feel to it that only comes when the trees begin to burn with color before shaking free their burden of leaves.

            They had gone to buy a dog, a big gangly chocolate lab that Jake immediately fell in love with.  The lab was dubbed Georgie, in honor of their old St. Bernard.  Georgie The First had taken his leave of them the month before.  The vet said he had died of old age, that he had gone out peacefully and happily in his sleep.

We should all be so lucky, the old man thought.

They were passing the mines now.  They were thrust up against the side of a mountain that had no name, a stark, steep thing that he had dreaded to see peeking up over the horizon every morning. In the cool light of dawn it hadn't seemed so bad, but by the time he reached the mouth of the mine the sun was always high in the sky and seemed to mock him, teasing cruelly with its bright shine as though it knew he wouldn't see it again until the next morning.

He couldn't figure which was worse: breathing through coal dust or through the thick phlegm that had congealed in his lungs once the cancer took over.

The day was passing as quickly as when he was a child, he realized; the sun was sinking toward the horizon like a woman lowering herself into a bathtub.  How he wished he could go back to one of those childhood summers, just once more, and recall the feeling—no, the certainty—that life would go on forever, that he had all the time in the world.  He wanted more than anything to end the day with his bare feet stained green and his ankles covered in chigger bites; it seemed to him that those things epitomized childhood. 

But those days were over for him, he thought sadly.  He was a man in the December of his life, and nothing would be easy or comfortable from here on out.  He watched the scenery pass by through watery eyes and thought about how unfair it all was, that he should be dispatched from this Earth so soon.  He still felt he had a lot of living to do.

As though his body had heard those thoughts and decided to prove him wrong, he was suddenly overcome by a coughing fit that rattled out of him and caused his shoulders to jerk up to his ears.  He automatically reached for the handkerchief in his pocket and covered his mouth with it.  It came away spotted with blood.

            “I want to get out, stretch my legs,” the old man said suddenly, not even thinking about what he was saying, simply grasping for any reason to stop the truck.  He had to make this day last as long as he could.  “Let's go to the creek. You got your fishin' poles in the back, don't ya?”

“Yeah, but the creek's almost dry this time of year, Pop. It's just been too hot. You could probably reach in and grab those fish with your bare hands, that's how--”

“I don't care, son, I said I want to stop!” the old man screeched. He felt panic, high and silver, in the back of his throat.  His own thoughts had risen up against him and now his own mortality was at the forefront of his mind.  He had thought he was strong enough for this, but he had been wrong.

“Okay, Pop, we'll stop. Don't get yourself worked up, now. We'll go to the creek.” He reached over and patted the old man on one gnarled hand, his eyebrows knitted together in concern. He had never seen him like this before. Either he was in a lot of pain or the heat was getting to him, and Jake knew the look that came into the old man's eyes when the pain was close to unbearable. It was absent for the moment and he was glad. It was a glassy, far-away look that he hated. It made him look almost dead, like a corpse that had learned to breathe--a skeleton with skin stretched over it--and he could almost see the dead man in his father waiting to get out. He wondered how his mother must feel, having such a monster in place of her husband, having to bathe him and feed him most days like he was a child. Some days were better than others, such as today; he'd actually walked out to the truck himself after getting himself dressed carefully.

But the end result was the same, wasn't it? A withered body bringing burden to his mother and to himself for another few months before finally cashing it all in, and even then they could not rest. There would be the funeral to think about and plan. Tracking down family members who had moved out of state so they could drive back here, to this miserable mining town in West Virginia, and pretend they cared about the death of a man they never really knew to begin with. It all made Jake slightly sick to his stomach and he moved his head closer to the window, trying to breathe in some fresh air.

It was not fresh. It was hot and carried the stink of the paper mill from across the river, like burning tires and sulfur and scorched wood.

How he hated this town. His father had grown up here and had decided to raise his little family here, but Jake had always hated it, was always ready to leave. He had vowed as a young boy that he would never get stuck here the way Pop had. He wanted to live in a big city, where no one knew him and he could walk into a bookstore and buy a nudie mag and not have the whole goddamn town know about it. A city that didn't carry the residue of the coalmines or the stench of burning paper in the air.

Those damned coalmines.  He could remember Pop telling him once that they had to be prepared to leave in a hurry if anything should ever happen there. 

It was a summer night and they had just eaten dinner; his mom was still cleaning up the kitchen.  Jake could hear the sounds of water running in the sink and of his mom humming softly to herself, and was glad his father had asked him to sit out on the porch.  As much as he loved his mother, Pop held a special place in his heart, one that wouldn’t diminish at all over the years.  He flourished under the umbrella of his father’s attention like a small flower reaching toward the sun.

“What do you mean, if anything happens at the mine?  Like what?” he asked.  He had never given much thought to the coalmines, even though he passed by them almost every day and his Pop had worked there for years.  They were simply part of the scenery, something that made their little town complete.  But his father’s words worried him.  Were the mines dangerous?

“Oh, anything,” the old man answered cryptically.  “A cave-in, maybe, or a fire.  A fire would be worse, because our little fire department doesn’t have the resources to handle anything like it.  The whole town would have to be evacuated.”

“Would there be explosions?” Jake asked, his eyes as wide as saucers.

“Maybe,” Pop answered thoughtfully.  He looked into the distance then, toward the hillside that housed the mines, and his eyes had a faraway look to them, as though he was thinking hard about something, or dreaming perhaps.  When he spoke again, he asked Jake to choose what he would take with him if that day ever came.  Jake, who was only ten at the time, had of course chosen the things that are most important to a young boy: his Swiss Army knife, his fishing pole, the broken antique pocket watch his grandfather had given him.  And of course, he told his father, he would take Georgie and his goldfish, Pete.

“Do you think that’s wise, son?  Taking animals on the run?”

“But I couldn’t just leave them behind,” Jake said, raising his eyebrows.  He was astonished that his father would even suggest such a thing.

His father looked down at him, his dark eyes thoughtful and solemn. 

“No,” he said softly.  “No, I guess you couldn’t.  And that’s what separates boys from men.”

Jake tilted his head questioningly.  “What do you mean?”

“If you were really brave, Jake, you wouldn’t take anything.”

Jake puzzled over his father’s words for a moment, and then a thought occurred to him, one that brought gooseflesh to his arms and the back of his neck.

“Pop, what if something happened at the mines while you were working?”

His father grimaced, as though that very thought had been at the back of his mind all along and he had been too scared to speak the words aloud.  Jake felt tears begin to sting his eyes and blinked them back, feeling exquisitely stupid for never having realized the inevitable before: his father’s job was dangerous.  The day might come when he would have to be the man of the house and take care of his mother.  What would he do then?  How would he go on without his father here?  He couldn’t even imagine a world without his Pop in it, didn’t want to. 

“That’s not in my hands, Jake,” his father finally said.  “You’re old enough now, I’m not going to lie to you.  I won’t be around forever.  Hopefully, I’ll die of old age right in that living room, leaned back in my chair with a beer in my hand.”

Jake smiled sadly.

“But if I don’t…if something does happen…I need you to be strong, okay?  You’ll have to be strong for your mama.  You’ll have to be a man.”

“I will, Pop,” Jake said, trying to sound strong and adult.  The words came out a little choked around the lump in his throat.  He looked up at his father, the strongest man he knew, and wondered if he would ever live up to his expectations.  He thought it probably wasn’t possible, but he would try as hard as he could.  He never wanted to let him down.

His mother had called to them through the open window then, warning them that the apple pie she had made for dessert wouldn’t stay warm for long, and his father ruffled his hair with one big calloused hand.

“C’mon, son.  Cold apple pie tastes like dog shit.”

Jake had giggled, and the old man had laughed with him, and they were still laughing when they went inside.  When his mother asked what was so funny, they both just shrugged.  She wouldn’t have understood.

Jake found it hard to believe that the withered man who sat beside him now was that same strong, fearless man from his memory.  It was difficult to equate the two.  His father had survived his coalmining job, he had provided for his family and never once complained about the aches his body surely suffered after the grueling hours he put in, and now he was going to succumb to a stupid, hateful disease.  He would be dead before the next month finished, Jake was almost sure of it.

And today…it was as if the old man knew something he himself didn’t.  He had gotten up early and dressed himself, had asked Jake to take him for a ride.  He had seemed tense when he gave his request, like he was prepared to argue until he got his way if Jake should deny him.  Jake had looked into his father’s eyes and seen the dull gleam of pain there, had seen the slightly waxy look his skin had and the sheen of sweat on his forehead.  The simple act of getting dressed had taken a lot out of him, Jake knew, and he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t feel this day was important in some way.  The thought scared him in a way he couldn’t define and his fingers itched to take out a cigarette and light up, but he didn’t dare. 

They were at the creek now.  Jake babied the truck down a narrow dirt path that led to the bank, listening as tall weeds whickered against the undercarriage.  Trees older than his pop stood silent sentry on either side of the path, reaching their limbs toward the cab windows.  The sun was low in the sky and glittered prettily on the water, which gurgled and babbled its way through a little clearing.  It was in this clearing that Jake finally brought the truck to a stop.  The day seemed too quiet without its rumble.  After a moment, he could hear the creek, a few birds chattering, the soft tick tick tick of the engine cooling.

“You feel like fishin’?  Might be some crossies,” Jake said.  The creek was higher than he’d thought it would be.

Pop shook his head.  “Nah,” he said.  “Let’s just sit by the water, why don’t we?”

Jake nodded and hopped down from the cab, going automatically to the passenger side to help his father out.  They walked slowly toward the water and the old man eased himself gingerly to the ground with a soft grunt.  Jake took a seat beside him. 

They enjoyed the day for a moment, listening to the pleasant sounds of the countryside.  Somewhere in the distance, a crow cawed indignantly from its perch in a tree, perhaps irritated at their presence.  Hardly anyone came here, as far as Jake knew; he and his pop had been fishing at this spot for years and had never met a single soul.

Jake watched as his pop carefully emptied his pockets before lying back in the grass.  When he was finished there was a little collection of items that seemed to sum up his father in a small, sad way: an old Indian head penny, which he had found in the mine years ago and carried for luck; the gold pocket watch Jake’s mother had given him for Christmas one year, etched with his initials; the Moon Pie Jake had bought him earlier; and a white handkerchief, spotted with blood.  Jake turned away after glancing at the last item, wishing he hadn’t seen it.  Those three scarlet drops seemed so wrong out here in the bright sunshine, almost tragic.

“Cigarette sure would taste good right about now,” Pop said suddenly.

Jake looked down at him.  He had his hands behind his head and was peering up at his son with the hint of a sly smile on his lips, knowing he would get his way if he played his cards right.

“You know you aren’t supposed to—“ Jake began.

“C’mon, son,” Pop interrupted softly.  “We both know I don’t have much time left.  You gonna deny me somethin’ you don’t have the willpower to give up, yourself?”

Jake sighed.  “No.  I guess not.”

He unrolled his shirtsleeve and three smokes tumbled out, remarkably undamaged despite the way they had been stored.

“Three perfect cigarettes,” his pop said, almost reverently.

Jake lit one up for him and stuck it between his lips, which were dry with age and with the heat of the day.  He puffed once, then took one of his hands out from behind his head and lifted the cigarette between two fingers.  He closed his eyes, holding the smoke in his lungs for longer than was necessary, and blew it out with a sigh.

“Thanks for this, son,” he said softly.  “Not just for the cigarette.  For today.”

Jake searched his pop’s face, memorizing every seam and wrinkle.  “You’re welcome, Pop.”

He lit up a smoke of his own and the two of them sat in silence, watching the creek flow and feeling the warmth of the sun on their shoulders.  Pop smoked the Camel down to the filter and then crushed it out in the dirt and lay back down.  The sun had made its way behind the trees now and created dusky shadows all around them, and in a strange way the dimness of the light made some things easier for Jake to see.  The tiny purple veins on his pop’s eyelids, for instance. Jake thought they made him look even frailer, as though his skin was paper-thin.  He watched his father for a long while, until his breaths started to come ragged and uneven, and then they didn’t come at all.

As the sun continued its journey toward the horizon, Jake sat beside his father and thought of all the things they had left unsaid.  He supposed no words had been needed; the two of them had always been that way.  His father had a quiet strength about him that Jake had always sought comfort in, and it was the same even now.  He could almost believe Pop was sleeping, he was so peaceful.  He guessed now he knew why today had been so important to his father, why he had been so adamant about going for a drive.  Jake and his mother had known time was short for him, but only he had known just how short.  And now that time was at its end.

Jake felt the tears come and let them flow silently as he ate his father’s Moon Pie.  It was sweet and good, the simple taste of a childhood pleasure.  His tears mixed with the chocolate, sugar and salt mingling together in his mouth.  It occurred to him that Pop would never again eat a Moon Pie, and somehow that was the thing that broke him down, from silent tears to shoulder hitching sobs.  He recalled that night when he was a boy of ten, sitting on the front porch with his pop, and how he had realized that when his father died he would have to become the man of the house. 

He cried for his childhood, when the world had seemed right and good and his father had been strong and healthy, and how quickly that time had become the past.  He cried for his mama, who still thought her husband would be asleep beside her later, and he cried for all the future nights her bed would be cold. 

When he was done he smoked the last cigarette.  The darkness came and still he sat, loath to move and disturb these last moments with his father; the day had ended too soon.  There were a thousand things he had left to say, things that would stay unsaid because he couldn’t bring himself to speak to his father’s dead body.  The grief would come flooding back when he got no response, he knew.

He stayed where he was for a long time, determined to finish out the day that had been so important to his pop.  He sat until all he could see was the silvery strip of water beneath the moon and the lush red embers of his cigarette as they turned to ash. 

We are all of us just ashes, he thought.  How quickly the cigarette burns out. 

PrestoBlammo   PrestoBlammo wrote
on 1/9/2009 6:41:27 PM
Nice. I think I'm over at that suspense sight every once in a while (if it's the same one). I tried to remain coldly critical but the part at the end got even me a little. I notice you have some stuff published on the web; are shopping stories around to print markets?

Short Story
writing mandycrum
Vita brevis, ars longa.
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Rating: 9.7/10

A revision of a short story I did a while back.