A Cigarette

smokeIn researching one of my novels, An Act of Ambition, about a suicide–or was it murder?–in the Florida Keys, I found the quotes below by Cesar Pavase, Italian author, poet, and translater. He committed suicide following the dissolution of a love affair and figures in my novel. My short story and poem frag resulted…

From someone who doesn’t want to share your destiny, you should never accept a cigarette. One does not kill oneself for love … but because love—any love—reveals our nakedness, our misery, our vulnerability, our nothingness C. Pavase

You left—a half empty pack of cigarettes
no words, no other scent—just
those cigarettes.

You took—
what sang, rhymed, elevated my
hateful heart.

You bestowed—
an affinity for not smoking ever
smoldering parts.

I know—
I’d walk a mile or two to see you
smoke again.

From her vantage point at the crest of the hill, the woman watched the little man below prepare to smoke a cigarette. She sensed he would stop his ritual if he knew she was observing him. She leaned over and placed a moist kiss on the suntanned forehead of the man whose head lay nestled between her bare legs. Straightening, she took several fat swallows from a bottle of dark beer, and longed for pen and paper like a drunk longs for the first buzz of the day.

Through his precise actions, she detected a strong streak of both defiance and dignity in the little man. His candid presentation impressed her as he lit, inhaled, and expelled long, thin wisps of smoke into the pine cleansed air. He wore what she guessed was a child’s navy t-shirt, and blue jeans that bunched around his boots. A blue and white bandana trailed out of a back pocket.

The end of his cigarette glowed like an excited firefly. She watched his crooked fingers remove the cigarette from his mouth. He taped it lightly and grey ash fell, then spiraled upwards. He repositioned it between his lips again. She smiled when he placed the pack of cigarettes resting on the running board of his jeep under the shoulder of his t-shirt. The rectangular bulge was twice the size of his arm. Everything about the man was out of proportion, from oversized head to short, twisted trunk.

There were words people used to describe a man like him. Dwarf, physically handicapped, side show barker, little person, munchkin … He was none and all those things. She tumbled the words around like dice in a cup. The man flung the butt towards the gravel road but it landed in the grass. He hobbled over and ground it determinedly with the toe of his boot. A lazy breeze claimed small bits of paper and tobacco.

The man resting in her lap asked for a shotgun of beer. She resented the interruption, but complied and sucked in a mouthful. Bending, she flushed the beer into his mouth. Her hair curtained his face and lent a sense of intimacy to the act. He licked the last remnants of liquid off her lips and pulled her onto him with an unexpected fierceness, upsetting them both. She rolled several feet downhill, ending sprawled on her stomach, facing towards the little man she’d been observing. He gave no indication he was aware of her existence. She crawled back uphill, but didn’t return to where the man lay with both arms behind his head. She sat next to the cooler.

The little man had opened a floodgate of memories. Questions she wanted to ask him rested on the tip of her normally garrulous tongue. He seemed at peace with his imperfectness. This peace was somehow linked to the red pinpoint that glowed brightly every time he inhaled. The Arabians called it tabaq, the euphoria producing herb. Various Native American tribes called it Ana-kwe, kohaba, uppowoc, and Tsala.

It was inevitable her thoughts would turn to another man she used to watch while he smoked. He was the only man she’d ever loved, if she understood the word correctly, as noun, verb, element of fire and desire, source of joy and agony. Love, like smoking, wasn’t meant to intoxicate. Both were deadly.

The little man retrieved the pack of cigarettes, tapped one loose, and lit it. This time she observed the entire ritual, from fondling foreplay to final caress and extinguishing of the stumpy butt. He turned towards her, one unleveled hip raised toward the slant of the hill where she sat, and tipped his oversized head to her. Then using the foot step and roll bar, he skillfully hoisted himself into the jeep and drove away. The sun glanced off a tail light and made it glow bright red.

The man above her called her name. He wanted another beer but the cooler was too far away. She removed a chilled bottle and tossed it to him, not caring that the beer might fizz when opened. It did and he slurped the foam, tilted the bottle back, and drank. Then he turned on his side, rested his head in the crook of his arm, and closed his eyes again.

How had the little man known? She’d hidden her disability quite well. She longed for a cigarette, or at very least a hookah, like the one the caterpillar smoked in Alice in Wonderland. She thought about the woman in a book she’d read years ago that holed up in an attic with a pack of Camel cigarettes. While studying the outside wrapping, the woman discovered a secret message. She thought about Sir Walter Raleigh likely being the first man to smoke a cigarette right before he was executed. The Native Americans that once hunted here held tobacco in high regard. It was offered as a welcome, to mark an alliance, or to begin a journey or a war.

Tribal legends told of how tobacco was the last gift to be given by the Great Spirit. Other creatures coveted this gift, so when their help was requested, a pinch of tobacco was offered. Tobacco was only meant to be smoked on special occasions or smudged. It also has the quality of absorption. In poultice form, it can suck out certain toxins. When offered to the spirit world, it absorbs and carries words, acts as a magical wand of sorts.

And what of love? Is it a chemical experiment gone wrong—an overdose of Phenylethylamine and Dopamine, or Oxytocin hormones? Or is it an invention to stave off boredom, an attempt to generate erotic passion instead of a primal fear of existence? She concluded love was little more than self-indulgence, a craving one gets, a test we eventually fail. Its intensity consumes itself and us, burns a hole in our head.

The man she’d loved had ignited her heart and set it whirling chaotically like a Beltane or summer solstice wheel. She didn’t see love as an addiction then—it was an investment. She was all in—all his, or so she thought. She would have done anything for him—except what he asked. He rolled his own, and smoked only a few cigarettes daily. Once lit, the air smelled of cloves, ripe cherries, whisky, and fir trees. He kept them in an ornate sterling silver case and lighted the cigarettes with a wooden match. He never blew out the match. He waved it in the air until it was extinguished. Similarly, with a wave of words, he snuffed out their fire—turned her heart to ash.

Unlike the labeling on a pack of cigarettes, there’d been no warning. He exhaled. As the smoke enveloped her, he told her he was dying. He asked her to kill him—before the pain became excruciating. He assumed she would want to die too, and explained his plan to her. She looked one last time into eyes that had set off a chain reaction that flipped her heart, fired her loins, and infused her brain. The smudge from his cigarette clung to her like a caul. She saw what their love really was—a useless appendage, a demented dictator. She fled, but not before being forever marked as someone that recognized love as death in disguise and death as a devoted suitor. Death was a smoking man she would spurn as long as she drew breath. He’d found her again. It was time to move on.

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