Living Without Leaving a Stain

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Other stories in the set: Dude | Hooky | Success

Oxygen

The heart attack is what made him stick in my mind. He was so stuck that I started telling my wife about him the moment I stepped through the door. “The man had nothing wrong with him except he came downstairs every ten minutes to smoke.” Kenny was the first of my peers to die as predicted.

“I’m nothing like that guy. I don’t pick things off the floor and put them in my mouth.” That’s what I said to Helen. But all she did was flash her disturbing smile.

This was not the first moment I suspected to be a prejavu, something I might recall sometime later while lying on a hospital gurney. At such a moment, the type when one is hoping most fervently that God exists and that he will come down here and fix things. At a moment like that, one might recall events that seemed to have a message.

I was going along pretty smooth now, taking my time, making myself comfy in a guy kind of way. First I arranged the four electric heaters in a semicircle around the couch. I’d decided on the drive up to occupy only a small percentage of the cabin, and not to involve myself with the wood stove.

I’d said to my wife, “I’ll bet you a thousand dollars that I can give up cigs.” The moment those words left my mouth I wished I hadn’t said them, and now I’m cheating. I was supposed to enter the cabin without any cigs. Those were the terms, but I’m a sneak.

I give social acquaintances and business associates the impression that I only smoke after a big meal, and the reason they think this is that I never take a pack with me when I travel. How many times has someone I just grubbed one off said, “I wish I could be an occasional smoker like you.”

The place I do most of my serious smoking is the same place my father did. I kept his desk.

The silence of the woods took me by surprise. It’s not often I have a chance to hear myself think. I’m used to the world rushing at me: phones ringing, faxes coming in, people waiting to talk.

There wasn’t much else to do beside sit down on the couch and pick a movie. Right after I thought pick a movie, I took off my hat, removed the unauthorized cig, looked at it the way one would an old friend, and lit up.

“Don’t think you fooled either the wife or me with the cigarette in the hat trick. We’ve seen how serious you get when there are no cigarettes. That’s how you ended up in this awful hunting cabin with nothing but five dollars. I can quit. That’s what you told Helen. I could see she was almost laughing. She knows you’d trade her for a pack of Marlboros.”

My conscience was coming in loud and clear. I’m not used to hearing it. I’m not used to silence.

“Clarity is something you struggle against. Helen and I spend a lot of time talking to ourselves. Stubborn is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Addiction to cigs is not the problem. The problem is feeling good is not a motive to quit. Thinking, I’ll feel better if I quit doesn’t seem to have any impact on my desire to smoke. The memory of Kenny Three Pack grabbing his chest when the big one hit him doesn’t deter me. I never expected a gesture like that from a certified public accountant. It looked like he was trying to tear out the rotten part of himself out.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’d even smoke if it wasn’t for the warning label. The label is the best of the advertising. It gives every smoker the assurance that it only appears as though they are sitting at a desk when in fact they are engaged in nothing less dangerous then flying a small plane. The label is for those who don’t have the time for adventure and those who can’t get enough. The label is for me.

If it wasn’t for that tingle, I might not even smoke. It’s not about feeling good. I did not wake this morning thinking about oxygen. Instead I sat down at my father’s desk and sucked down three in fifteen minutes. I smoke the same brand he smoked.

Now I’m upset. Double thoughts are not my thing. I find this level of complexity so yucky that I pulled the shades and started watching a movie my wife hates, but my conscience was broadcasting loud and clear. It had me pinned to the couch with the knowledge that I was fouling my own air.

I have a glitch, and now I’m conscious of it. That consciousness changes everything. It produces so much anxiety and guilt that I am convinced the lower third of my lungs are already ruined, for what. Cigs don’t get me high. There’s no rush. The strongest effect seems to be a sudden urge to move one’s bowels. That’s what happens in the morning, in the morning one has a desire after the first smoke to take a crap. That’s the most dramatic event. There’s a little snapshot for the collection.

First comes the desire for a smoke without any self conscious problems followed by a cig. After which I punish myself with images of cancerous bumps on my tongue. Then I calm myself down by assuring myself that I quit. It happens that way each time. The entire cycle from desire to desire takes about an hour.

Now I’ve done it. Picked other people’s butt’s out of the ashtray and smoked them down to the cotton, but that didn’t get my levels up to accustomed mark. The nicotine alarm was still going off. It wasn’t real noisy, but very persistent. It suggested a cig, and I said good idea. That’s how it started off.

Some of my favorite scenes were playing and I didn’t even notice. I was trying to get a signal on my cell phone, but nobody bothers to put repeaters in the woods, and I’m not rich enough to have a satellite phone. That had been my first thought to phone up and have a package delivered, but now I couldn’t even get a dial tone which wouldn’t have been all that serious if it had not been for the rain.

The city weather hadn’t mentioned rain, and I didn’t have any gear. I’d made no provisions for lousy weather. I’d come up wearing my city shoes, and a coat that’s not even water repellant. Hah! It rains more often up here. We must have passed three reservoirs on route. I should have listened to a local station.

Now I could see why they call this place the watershed, for only moments after the rain started rivulets were running down the driveway.

I tried the house phone, but could only reach the emergency operator. Guys come up here to hunt. They don’t do much chatting.

I considered faking an emergency call so I could bum a cig or two from the medics, but much to my relief after rolling the thought over a few times, I relented.

Then I was looking around for rain gear and a pair of boots, but this isn’t the kind of place where people leave stuff. The men who come up here bring there own gear and take it with them. So there I was without a change of clothes standing on the porch in my fine leather shoes looking for a break in the clouds, but one wasn’t insight. Instead an endless grey bank of clouds filled the entirety of Frost Valley and disappeared over the top of Wildcat mountain.

The only poncho I found is the one the men use to butcher the game. It's stiff with gore and has the word eviscerator written across the front in bright orange letters.

I had never seen myself so determined. I am not the kind of guy who goes for walks in the rain. I dress for indoor activities and move from car to office to house. I don’t get anything from subjecting myself to the elements. I hate wet feet. Nonetheless, I stepped off the porch and into the deluge.

One of my pretty shoes split between the sole and the upper, and the poncho was dripping so much water there was a puddle beneath me, “Pack of Marlboros and a book of matches.”

The lady handed me the cigs, and I was just about to tear them open and pull one out of the package when this pulpy white hand grabbed the pack. “That’s six twenty-five mister.”

I smiled. Glad to know that I wasn’t confronting anything complicated. Money problems are my specialty. So I reached into my pocket and as I did so I realized why my wife had insisted on the five dollar restriction. She knows I am a cheater.

“Where’s the ATM machine?”

“Not enough business.”

“Credit cards. Do you take credit cards?”

“No.”

It took a moment to overcome the momentum of twenty years of success and realize that a pudgy upstater was in my way.

“A personal check. Would that be okay?”

That’s when she pointed to the wall behind her to which were stapled a bunch of bounced checks.

“I’ll wire the money into your account.”

“That’s like instant money, but there ain’t much profit in a pack of cigarettes. It’ll hardly pay for the call.”

“I’ll buy one carton at twice the ordinary price,” I said very humbly the way one has to speak when the other party either has nothing at stake or all the power.

But just when I was feeling as though the cig procurement problem was behind me that Wonderbread hand pointed at the clock. “Too late for bank wires. Its ten after three.”

“My banker works until five. I’ll phone him. Fred will do anything I ask.”

“But I can’t get a confirm.”

That made me mad.

I pulled out the soggy five dollar bill and placed it on the counter, and said “I’ll give you all that money for two cigs.”

“My favorite uncle died of lung cancer. I never touch them.”

“Just open the pack.”

“Against the law. It’s for sanitary reasons. Besides you could be an undercover.”

I hoped that she was warming up to me and had a sudden desire to show her who I was. So I lifted the poncho to show off my fine cotton shirt and elegant trousers, but she was staring at my crotch so boldly that I could hear her wondering just how far I’d go.

I am not a moral man or a man of principal, but have limits imposed by my sense of dignity. She was ugly, so ugly that I wasn’t sure if I’d ever enjoy another cig if I took so much as a step in her direction.