Smoke Ring
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Routine"
Originally featured on 04-11-2007
As part of our series "Things you can live without, but most people choose not to"

The routine had become killing. Killing himself, killing time, killing whatever he could to get through the day. At night he killed beers and all day he murdered cigarettes. It didn’t matter to him anymore. He had terminal cancer.

 

My feet sloshed on the pavement. My head was dry and warm. My elbows pointed out while my fists pressed on my pocket lining. I raised my eyes to see the stark ubiquitous bus stop against the gray afternoon sky. Through the plastic panels of the overhang, a man was sitting cross-legged on the ground. His back faced me. Smoke rose from him.

As I neared, the smoke filled the arching ceiling of the enclosure. It wasn’t cigarette smoke but black. I could smell the early campfire smell of burning newspaper.

Closer now, I could see over the man. His silhouette now eclipsed by the fire that rose over his shoulders. Still sitting, he raised his hands up to his shoulders and spread out his fingers. He stood up, and put his hands to his hips. His silhouette now included the bottom half of his brown trench coat. I walked faster and now towards the man and his fire.

When I reached the front of the stop, I looked down to see a pile of book pages. Ripped out and piled up and burning. I turned to him and he was already staring at me. His eyes were olive green and seemed wet. He wasn’t crying. I took him in momentarily and then his brows lowered, defensively.

I knelt down and took my hands out of my pockets. As I warmed them, I looked up at him.

His beard was short and messy. His hair looked like it had gone uncut a month longer than usual. Inside his brown coat, his jeans looked stonewashed but from wear. They were recently stained and looked as though once through the washer would regain them their shape and dignity. Everything about this man seemed to be shunning that same opportunity.

My back to the street, I breathed in deeply and the smoke filled my mouth and nostrils. I could taste it. I watched enviously as the words on the pages blackened and crumpled, before scattering.

I couldn’t tell which book he was burning. The size of the pages indicated a pocket size book, a book that you take to the park or on your lunch break.

I felt I could stay there for awhile.

 

He routinely walked Louie to the park on his lunch hour. Stretched out in the shade under a sycamore tree, he fell comfortably into the rhythm of Louie and their park routine. He finished a line from his book, felt a nudge against his leg, without removing his eyes from the book he grabbed the disc and threw. Each time Louie returned the disc was covered by more of the drool/dirt/grass paste, a useless byproduct of their routine. Usually after about fifteen throws, or three short paragraphs, Louie would tire and stretch out at his feet. And so they would sit, content, as the gentle breeze would spur the watching leaves to applaud the adjoined kindred souls. On weekends, entire days routinely passed in this way. And then suddenly one leash-less day, their routine came to a screeching halt.

 

As he crouched there warming his hands on my fire, I felt neither intrusion nor kinship from this man. His skin was color of old library book pages. When he looked up at me, his red eyes were wide open.

They reminded me of the screen door at the back of my grandmother’s house. Left even slightly unlatched and the door would swing out until it rested flat on the wall adjacent to the hinges. Whenever I forgot, I would return to the house with the door in this position. Nobody home, but wide open for anyone to walk right in.

He wore a wool hat but beneath it I could see that his head was shaved. The yellowish brown color of his face contrasted the white scalp, which was visible near the front of his ear.

His clothes were stained, but clean. He wasn’t homeless, just careless. Or more accurately, he didn’t care. He wasn’t anxious, but seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. After he looked up at me, he reached into his pocket. A year ago, I might have retreated slightly expecting a weapon.

He pulled out a cigarette and lit it off the fire. Then he stood up, and exhaled a small cloud of cigarette smoke.

He coughed and it sounded painful. Then he inhaled again.

For a moment, I watched his face. I turned my head down and watched as books burned.

I didn’t mean to ritualize this. This was about the opposite of ritual. This was the absence of repetition, the erasing of history. Saying goodbye.

We both watched the fire silently. The yellow and orange light of the fire lit us up despite the gray all around us.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some people approaching. I looked up to see a man walking his poodle. Louie would have tried to pick up that poodle in his mouth. I would’ve yelled at him to assuage the man. He had a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and watched us as he walked. He tugged at the leash almost dragging the dog. He glanced at us and then stared at the fire. As he got closer the gray of his expensive coat began to glow orange. Then as he silently passed he faded gradually into the gray.

With the approach and departure of this stranger, I felt a slight bond to my guest. Without taking his eyes off the flame, he finished his smoke and threw the butt on the flames. For a moment, I was almost offended—throwing his garbage to burn with my books. But that was the point.

Sentiment, Holding On, Possessiveness, No More!

These embers belonged to nobody or anybody. Nothing to be offended by.

Just embers.

 

 

He had tea every Sunday with his mother from the age of eighteen, when he went away to school, until a month ago. She had routinely questioned him about his love life, his career and his hobbies. She did so, every Sunday, without fail for thirty years. He left out details. Big details, such as his being gay, and small details, like his desire to sell the family firm that her father had started.

She was clever, both witty and wise. She had surmised early on both his orientation and distaste for Bookkeeping. With her poodle in her lap, she chided him—hoping someday they would be open with each other.

At nineteen, he felt independent having secrets from her. At twenty nine, he had desperately wanted her to know him. At thirty eight, he now had a decision to make.

 

Goddamn this dreary day. I have to half-strangle myself with my scarf just to stay warm. If Claudia pulls one more time — I need to remember Mother. She loves you, you little mongrel, and despite all my desires to deposit you where you belong, in fire over there — oh that’s just fucking wonderful. Now the street people are having fires at bus stops. Where I see the downtown bus mall, they see a fucking campground. Oh fuck it. Claudia!

She could go any day. What the fuck kind of thing to say is that for a doctor — a doctor we’ve paid handsomely for years! What the fuck kind of thing is that for a doctor to say.

Yes, I want her to know who I am, but this situation — I have to admit to lying to her for my whole fucking life on her deathbed. Oh fuck. Claudia! Just fucking stop! Mongrel. Spoiled mongrel.

I always thought I’d be able to tell her over tea. Some Sunday, I’d just tell her without warning at tea. Maybe she’d have gotten up to leave. But I don’t think she would’ve. She wouldn’t have walked out on her best friend like that. I think I am. But now — now she’ll never know that I planned to tell her. She’ll never know I planned to tell her on my own. Jesus, the shock could kill her. People might say I told her to kill her.

I don’t blame the bums and their fire. I’d like to start a fire. I’d like to start a big ol’ fire with that doctor and all the desks from the office and — Claudia!

Read More By Doug Dean

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