The Smokers

The Smokers

by Alvin Burstein

The study group had been meeting on a biweekly basis, every other Sunday afternoon, for over ten years. Three of the psychoanalysts originally involved had dropped out and were not replaced. The remaining five occasionally resented the commitment, but the meetings had the comfort of a familiar ritual, one that provided them with the increasingly unfashionable opportunity to smoke. Vernon favored cigars, Alan, a pipe. The others, Mel, Florence and Ken, cigarettes. They dubbed their group, ‘The Smokers’.

They met at Alan’s second floor apartment, partly because Alan had taken the initiative in founding the group, and partly because his cool and tolerant rationality lubricated discussions.

Meetings would get underway after an exchange of greetings and, sometimes, carried over chat about their psychoanalytic center’s politics. In recent years, the focus of the study group had shifted from discussion of published books and journal articles to presentations by the members of the study group on some topic of interest to the person presenting.

At the previous meeting, Vernon, whose turn to present was coming up, had announced that he planned to discuss premonitions of death. Mel had groaned, “Not another odd-ball rehash of ESP!”

“Yeah, Vern,” Ken chimed in. “Maybe the grandfather that owned the famous clock had a premonition and decided not to wind it.”

“Freud had the good sense to keep a lid on his mystical interests, Vern. You should, too,” laughed Flo, endorsing the jibes.

Vernon had shrugged the criticisms off, “You guys hate to surrender your stereotypes. You need to loosen up.”

Alan stood, ending the conversation, “Look, topics are dealer’s choice. And it’s time to stop for today. I’ve got stuff I need to read tonight and an early patient tomorrow.

“Vernon’s last paper comparing astrologers’ and psychologists’ ability to predict behavior was interesting. Let’s see what he has for us next time.”

Two weeks later, Vernon arrived last. He bustled in a quarter of an hour late, puffing and red-faced from his climb up the stairs.

“OK, let’s get started, Vernon,” Mel grunted, “I can hardly wait.”

Vernon’s uninspired presentation included a citation of Phillipe Ariés, a jumble of material from internet sites and excerpts from an interview Vernon had done with a critically ill hospital patient. The patient had surmised that he would die in a week’s time and did so eight days later.

The desultory discussion invoked a few references to the nursing literature and some questions about differences between personal premonitions and premonitions of the death of others. The exchange lagged into a silence. Then Flo noticed Vernon’s cigar rolling across the carpet.

“Vernon!” she blurted.

Vernon was slumped in his chair, jaw slack, a thread of saliva glistening on his chin. Ken got to him first, “My God, he’s dead.”

Mel grabbed for Vernon’s throat, feeling for a pulse. “Jesus, nothing.”

Alan and Ken quickly eased Vernon to the floor to start CPR. Alan, starting to release Vernon’s left hand, clung to it, staring at Vernon’s watch. Its face filled his field of vision. His widened eyes registered watch’s second hand.

It wasn’t moving.

◊ ◊ ◊

Alvin Burstein

Alvin Burstein is a retired psychology professor and psychoanalyst with numerous scholarly  works to his credit. He continues on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center, where he also serves as librarian,. He is a member of  Inklings, a critique group that meets weekly at the local public library to read its members’ imaginative writings. Burstein has published flash fiction and autobiographical fragments in e-zines; The Owl, his first novelette is available at Amazon. He is a committed Francophile, unsurprisingly a lover of fine cheese and wine, and an unrepentant cruciverbalist.

14 thoughts on “The Smokers

  1. One thing that arises from a good flash fiction story like this is the question of: what comes next? How do Alan, Ken and Flo react to the bizarre element with the stopped watch? It’s up to the reader to fill in such details, and we’re given enough about the characters here to imagine their reactions. Nicely done.

  2. What were they smoking? Also story is familiar to me. Maybe you presented it earlier but whatever its a really good story.

  3. A mildly eerie account of the type of premonitions of death mostly learned through oral history. This short, short story builds the tension well. Enjoyed its brevity.

  4. Vern was onto a truth. People do have death premonitions. Upon reading I immediately conjured up a twist for the ending based on a personal experience a friend told me on March 8, 1976, about his feeling of impending death. It was at 3:00 that afternoon, and at 11:38 that night he was murdered. He was 27 years old, and his name was Richard Bruenhouffer. This happened in Louisville, KY.

  5. The scene is set so nicely. I could see the smokers in their haze, strong enough friends to make jokes and jabs. The ending–the skeptical Alan’s shock at the stopped watch–brings the story full circle.

  6. Colorful snapshot of a group of colleagues – Vernon’s tenacity in the face of his peers’ mockery is admirable. I very much like the mysterious ending and the huge question mark that is the story itself.

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