Monday, January 2, 2012

Coffin Nails

I really wish I could quit smoking. It’s a habit I can’t afford, makes me smell funny and most people don’t like it at all. I’ve tried the patches, the gum, the lozenges; no going. Can’t shake it. Thing is, from everything I’ve read it’s probably going to kill me eventually. That might even be why I can’t stop: knowing it’s the coward’s way of offing himself. No blood-drenched body for friends and family to find; just a guy in a hospital bed who brought it on himself. It’s not that I really want to die. I’m just not all that wild about living.

But that seems so romantically glorious compared to the real thing. It’s four-thirty in the morning and I’m out of cigs. Watching the minutes tick by on the little clock in the corner of the computer screen, waiting for six A.M. when the corner store opens and I can go buy some more with money I don’t really have. I’ve already sifted through the trash and re-smoked the last of the butts I’ve thrown away and all of life is focused on buying that fresh, new pack. But it’s not even five and the store doesn’t open for more than an hour and there’s no space in my head for anything other than cigarettes, cigarettes, cigarettes. Damn.

Time crawls but eventually gets there. I take the short cut, walking through graffiti-slathered alleys to get to the damn store. I have ransacked couch cushions and dresser drawers to scrape up enough change. I don’t have enough to buy my usual—itself a low-rent, knockoff, bargain brand. I scan the counter and see a pack of Cassandras—some low, low priced import things I’ve never heard of. But the price is right and it’s full-flavor and promises to be packed with nicotine goodness so I don’t care. “A pack of Cassandras, please,” I say as though I’m purchasing a diamond bracelet at Tiffany’s.

I get outside and rip the cellophane off the top of the pack right then and there in the parking lot. With shaking hands, I fish one out, put it to my lips and light it up. The nicotine receptors in my brain fire off like bottle rockets and thank me profusely. But then, strange thought: something about a dead little girl.

I make my way back down the alleys and, momentarily, all seems right with the world. That first smoke of the day. I’m not a loser shuffling through a gravel-covered alley; I’m Cole Porter in a swanky, thirties nightclub and the toast of the town. I’m the top. This one thing dangling from my lips has made all the difference.

I get back to my street. Uh oh. Flashing lights all around and I arrive just in time to see a tiny, sheet-covered body being loaded into the coroner’s van. A neighbor, some guy I never met, is openly weeping. Seems his seven-year-old daughter was out in the street and hit by a Pepsi truck. I hear the crowd of onlookers telling the story. Something about a dead little girl.

I’m back in my room. I peep out the window blinds and see most of the crowd has gone away. The man, the neighbor, is still there just staring at an empty spot in the middle of the street. Shit, I think, I need a cigarette. Because this is how it works: I never WANT a cigarette; I always NEED them. I’m stressed—I need a cigarette. I’m bored—I need a cigarette. I’m wishing I was dead—I’ll bet a cigarette would help. I need this. I deserve this. And so on.

So I got out my pack of Cassandras and lit one up, studying the package like a grade school kid reading the back of a cereal box while he eats breakfast. Again, that first hit did everything it was supposed to do. But a weird, fleeting thought: an old woman vomiting blood.

I could not shake this thought. Now I’ve had trouble with thoughts like these in the past: they show up for no reason and don’t go away. This one, though, was different. I could see it happening, felt like it was real and knew I was powerless to do anything about it. Again and again, my mind’s eye replayed the picture of an elderly woman clutching the edge of a sink and puking blood into it. I noticed the connection: every time I lit a cigarette I would see her, larger and more vivid. Her grey bun of hair had become untangled, one strand, blood-soaked, was trailing into the sink as she coughed up crimson in loud, racking sobs. Her eyes were clenched tightly shut although smeared with her own tears, running down her face and smearing her rouge and face powder. She kept banging on the sink with her heavily veined fist, a fresh eruption of blood would shoot from her mouth, she’d scream and finally drop to the floor. I kept seeing this.

My boss did not show up for work the next day. His mother had killed herself by drinking Sani-Flush.

This was horrible, cruel news. A few co-workers and I went out on the porch for smoke break. Gary was saying, “Yeah, I just don’t know how you can live with something like that…” and as I took a drag I saw him, I fucking saw him, go into his daughter’s bedroom and unzip his pants.

This is the part where I am losing it and don’t know what to do. There exists the real possibility that I have lost my mind. But I saw that fucker Gary do his thing and want to call him on it. But what’s going to come from that? Is he going to confess everything here at work and go get help? Doubtful. Is he going to call me a nut and physically lay into me? It could happen. I do what I know I shouldn’t and just keep quiet.

I smoked another one. I saw Gary getting away with everything, my neighbor crying as his wife consoles him and my boss having to clean up a mess. I don’t want this, but I need a cigarette.

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