"Smoke"

Susan Carroll received her bachelor's degree from Purdue University in Creative Writing, English Literature, and Professional Writing. She spent a year in the M.F.A. prgram at the University of Pittsburgh before she decided that she wasn't getting enough rain and moved to the Pacific Northwest. She currently lives in Seattle, leads reading groups in the greater Seattle area, and coordinates author events and reading groups for the University Book Store in Bellevue, Washington. She has just completed her first novel, Cornfields, about the generation of children who lost their fathers in Vietnam.

"I wrote Smoke after being stuck in a car driving cross-country with only an AM radio. I was amazed at how those golden oldies first grated on my nerves and then, around Montana, I got really interested in what was happening to the poor people who were singing. I had also been looking for a place to use my memories of watching that terrible tackle and how the TV station replayed it beyond all limits of taste. The lyrics of the songs and the instant replays came together, perhaps in some sick amateurish homage to Borges who believed in immortality through repetition."


The smoke still hangs from the ceiling, swirling around the creeping ceiling fan. No one looks familiar. No one calls out for you to join them at their table. You take a seat at the bar and order from a bartender that you don't recognize and who doesn't recognize you. The TV is still on in the corner, hanging down from the ceiling, angled toward the floor. Cars still race and quarterbacks still get sacked in the slow motion replay. The conversations from the tables are quieter, except for the group in the corner farthest from the door, where they've pulled all the available chairs together and they down their beers so fast the waitress only has time to serve them. You could see in her face when she comes to the bar for each new wave of pitchers and shots that, if they didn't tip her big, she might quit. Across the bar from you, a man and a woman hold hands, his fingers running lightly over her palms, their heads close together, their drinks untouched on the coasters in front of them. The bar has stopped serving peanuts but you don't know until you asked the bartender and he snorts at you. Go to the circus, he says. And you say, that's where you though you were.

An old gray man stumbles to the jukebox and puts ten quarters in. He hits the exact same buttons all twenty times. As the bar speakers click and hiss to warm up, you hold your breath and hope for something good. "It's Julie's turn to cry," a sharp female voice squeals out, the sequel song to "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To," and, in a way, you're glad, because you've always wondered how that poor girl from the first song ended up. And now you know. How she went to another party and kissed a new guy and there was Johnny and Julie at the same party and how Johnny couldn't stand watching you with someone else and he punched out the guy you'd just kissed and left the party with you. And now it's Julie's turn to cry, but you have to admit that the only person you feel sorry for is that guy who got punched out and who must be sitting in the kitchen at the party with an ice bag over his eye going, "What the hell?"

The bartender smokes huge cigars, not little cigarettes, and something about the smell makes you order another drink. He brings you your whisky sour and blows that thick sweet tobacco smoke right in your face. You lean into it, breathing deep, loving the honeyed feel of your stomach, the tightness in your lungs, the cool warmth on your face and hair.

Through all twenty replays, the old man sways in front of the jukebox. The couple across the bar kiss twice and the waitress sits on the lap of one of the men at the loud table in the corner. A car spins out of control on the TV screen. You can just hear the driver saying, "What the hell?"

The whiskey gives you shivers and evaporates in your mouth the instant it hits your tongue. You feel it getting into your blood stream, starting from the top down. Your eyes close. Your mouth relaxes into a small smile. Your neck moves slightly side to side. Your shoulders drop. You take another sip. The whiskey evaporates into pure whiskey air, flowing up to the roof of your mouth, tingling your nose, and going straight into your blood. Your foot begins to tap.

And now it's Julie's turn to cry, Julie's turn to cry, Julie's turn to cry. How could she have done that? Shown up at your party, stepped outside with your boyfriend, and come back in wearing his ring. Well, you showed her. The worst part is the new guy that you were kissing kissed so much better than Johnny. His lips were soft and cool. His arms tightened around you gently. He leaned into you, bending you back a little, making you lift your head up and raising your chest against his. His breath smelled sweet and hot and it made your stomach feel even tighter than it does now from the whiskey.

Then there was Johnny's hand on your shoulder, pulling you away, the new guy catching his breath, the flash of Johnny's fist, and Johnny dragging you out of the party to his car, cursing up a blue streak. You caught a glimpse of Julie, horrified, shocked, alone. For the next few hours, in the back of Johnny's car, where he apologized and apologized, and kissed you with his wet, sloppy mouth, and bit your nipples too hard, and rubbed you raw beneath your underwear, pulling it up into your ass as he pushed just-one-so-you'll-still-be-a-virgin finger into you until you made those gasping noises so he'd stop. You kissed him back and told him how much you'd missed him. After you were wiping him off your hand on the grease rag he kept in the trunk, you pictured the new guy in the kitchen with his ice pack. Your only consolation was Julie's puckered face and the idea of Julie not missing out on this moment. Knowing that night at the party when she went outside with Johnny, he must have unhooked her bra by twisting it hard against her back, and he must have pushed his finger in and out of Julie's vagina, sometimes pulling up a little, just so she'd feel that twinge of pain, so she'd know how gentle and loving he was being. How Julie must have also licked her hands to keep them moist and slick so that Johnny wouldn't be as rubbed raw as she was. How Johnny had smiled when they'd come back, looked right at you and smiled, with Julie leaning against him, squeezing her legs tight, and making a fist with her left hand so that Johnny's big ring wouldn't fall off. Knowing this as you cleaned yourself up in the back of Johnny's car, that's when you told yourself that you knew the true meaning of consolation.

You feel yourself swaying to the beat on your bar stool. The bartender asks if you want another. Why even ask, you respond, smiling at your old friend. The smell of his cigar permeates the bar now. The air is hot, and sweet, and close. The couple across the bar pause for a moment to sip at their drinks. As the woman tilts her glass back she runs one hand back and forth over the man's leg. He leans his head back and takes a deep breath. The old gray man clutches the jukebox as he sways, his head back and lolling from side to side. You notice that the bartender has a black eye.

A quarterback in a green uniform on the TV steps back for a pass, legs apart in a solid stance, one arm forward for balance, the arm with the ball held back, jerking slightly as he scans the field for an open receiver. A blue and silver uniform comes out of nowhere and hits him straight on. The front leg breaks in the middle of the shin, laying flat on the ground followed by the knee and then the rest of the body. The silver uniform jumps up waving his arms, running to his sidelines for help.

Slow motion replay. The arm back, searching. The silver and blue uniform. The hit. The first half of the leg bends to touch the ground. The knee bends. The body falls, twisting. Once again. Silver and blue. Hit. Half of the leg. The knee. The body. Again. Hit. Half of the leg. Stop action. Magnify. Frame by frame. Silver streak. The hit. The green uniform rips at the break. The tip of the bone sparkles white in the spotlights. The quarterback drops the ball. The broken shin grinds into the turf. The knee bends. The body tips. The silver uniform falls on top. Flash to the open field. The players standing around. The medics from both teams out on the field. A stretcher is wheeled out. The ball lies off to the left. A free fumble.

"Get the goddamn ball!" one of the men in the corner stands up and yells at the TV, "Wake the fuck up and pick up the goddamn ball!"

Everybody in the bar watches the TV now, except for the old gray man at the jukebox who is listening to it tell him about the time where you were at the same party with Johnny and Julie and you kissed some other guy. He strokes one hand over the glass cover. The bright green and yellow and red lights are the only colors in his face.

On the field they have taken the helmet off of the quarterback. He is gray and shaking. When they lift him onto the stretcher, he screams, except you do not hear him scream. The camera down on the field has turned its sound off because it is not the first time the quarterback has screamed. The silver and blue player who hit him has also taken off his helmet and is leaning over the stretcher trying to apologize. He would be gray too, except he is a black man, and so he has just turned a lighter shade of tan.

No one has picked up the football yet and the men in the corner table shriek at the players, slamming their beer mugs down, waving their fists, and throwing themselves down in their chairs before they jump up again and yell at the TV. Finally a referee picks up the ball and another referee waves his arms in large, precise arcs towards the press box. The men at the table curse and moan out loud and fall back into their chairs again. The play will be called an incomplete pass. The waitress brings a fresh pitcher of beer and two towels to wipe the sloshed beer off the table. Distracted, the men smile when they see her.

There is a click over the speakers and you realize that, finally, the jukebox has stopped playing. The old gray man is searching his pocket for coins. The couple across the bar have turned away from each other and are looking across the bar at you. You glance behind you to see what they are looking at and behind you is a mirror. It is reflecting off the mirror across the other side of the bar and you can see a multitude of yourselves, each smaller than the one before and all smaller than the you at the bar. When you look back across the bar the couple is looking behind them at all of themselves that are smaller than they are. The old man is down on his knees looking under the jukebox for another quarter. You have finished your drink again.

The bartender comes back and says, hit you again. Why even ask, you say, and can I bum one of those great cigars? He chuckles as he sloshes the whiskey into your glass, no but you can buy one. Okay, you say and unfold a few more scrunched bills from the bottom of your pocket. You lay them on the bar.

The cigar he hands you is as thick as your thumb and as long as your hand. The tobacco leaves that wrap around it are smooth and cool. You roll it back and forth between your hands, as if you were making a play-doh snake out of it. You put one end in your mouth, tasting the sweet burnt leaves. You run it under your nose like you've seen gangsters in movies do, inhaling deeply and then letting the air go in a long sigh when you're done.

Now, how do you do this, you say to the bartender as he sets your glass back down in front of you. He takes the cigar back. He sets it on the cutting board which he has been cutting lemons and limes on and picks up the paring knife. He cuts off the very tip of one end and then hands it back to you. Picking up a matchbook with the name of the bar and a palm tree on it, he lights a match and makes a tent around the flame with his hands. You put the uncut end of the cigar in your mouth and lean into the fire. Puffing big breaths, you watch the cut end flare up and then the bartender takes his tent away and shakes out the match. He turns away and takes the cutting board back to the corner to cut more lemons. The hot air enters your mouth and lungs and solidifies there. As you breath out, the smoke collects around you, clinging to your hair, burning your eyes. The first puff tastes like fruit, the second like sugar, the third like a smokehouse in Georgia.

There is a tap on your shoulder. You turn to look and you are staring right into the face of the old gray man. In the mirror behind you, you can see the surprise in your face and the old gray clothes he is wearing, and in the mirror in the mirror, you can see the back of your head with it's halo of smoke around it and his blank gray face. You notice that he has a black eye.

Do you have a quarter I could borrow, he says, unrolling a thin gray hand in front of you. Digging deep in you pocket you find that you do have one and you set it on his hand, which he rolls back up and holds to his chest. He walks around the bar to the couple and unrolls his hand for them.

You shouldn't do that, the bartender comes to you and says. Why not, you ask. Because he'll play that song until the record's worn out, that's what he did with "Teen Angel" all last week. Oh really, you say, why? The bartender shrugs, why even ask, he says.

What you think now is that you wish you had been here all last week for "Teen Angel," because then when you ran back to the stalled car to get Johnny's ring, which you'd taken off so that you wouldn't scratch him with it, and when the bright light from the train filled your mind and blinded your eyes, then you would have been able to tell yourself that you understood the true meaning of sacrifice. And Johnny, poor Johnny, even though it hurt to breath, you came to for a moment in his arms as he leaned over you. You gasped out "I love you" with your last breath and clench the ring that you had fought for so tight that they would have to pry your dead hand open to get it away from you.

All this so Johnny could tell himself that he understood the true meaning of love.

But you know that he would never understand the true meaning of consolation, because there would always be Julie there waiting for him to take her into the back seat of his car, to take off his ring so she wouldn't scratch him as she gave him his handjob for the night before he drove her home. Of course, he would be more careful about stalling the car on train tracks from now on, but that was not a true consolation. That was just a lesson to live by.

Johnny would never, ever, understand the true meaning of sacrifice, because he would never know about the new guy who he punched the night he got you back and how well the new guy kissed and how tight you stomach twitched every time you thought of him. Johnny would never know that when you ran back for his ring, you could have cared less for him, but that the ring was your trophy, your true consolation for giving up the new guy, the one who kissed you all the way down to you stomach. Without that trophy, you couldn't have lived with yourself. Johnny would never understand that.

The old man stands in front of the jukebox again. He collected quarters from every patron at the bar. He punches in that same song again and again. He sways back and forth, holding on to the jukebox, his head down, almost touching the shiny glass top, the lights reflecting on his hair and skin. There is a skip in the record now. It sings, "Now it's Julie's turn to, Julie's turn to, Julie's turn to," and skips that last beat every time. The old man tries to dance along, but jerks at the missing beat.

The couple across the bar pay their bill and start to leave. When the man helps the woman on with her coat, he runs his hands over her breast, squeezing her nipples. She smiles and takes one of his hands and leads him out of the bar. On the TV screen it is the fourth quarter and no one has scored. The men in the corner are cursing at the TV again. They are pooling their money to buy beers and they have exactly enough left for two pitchers, but no tip. The waitress has stopped going over and as she ticks off the number of pitchers on their tab, she wonders whether she should get a job as a receptionist who answers all the phone calls for a big firm, none of which will be for her, or whether she should lie about her ten-key skills and get a job doing data entry at night where she won't have to talk to anybody. The bartender rinses his cutting board off in the sink, and just faintly, over the smell of your cigar, you smell the citrus. You exhale a large puff and wipe out the clean smell of the lemons, cloaking yourself again in the hot sweet smoke and you tell yourself that now you know the true meaning of victory.


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