Last Cigarette Together
by Robinson Terry
We stood smoking under the fluorescent lights that illuminated the side of the store where we both worked. A few dark stains from where I’d accidentally spilled my iced tea on it during our break splotched his light blue company t-shirt. His jeans weren’t faded or ripped, and he refused to wear jeans like that. He said if he wanted clothes with holes or tears he’d make them himself. We both wore the same company-issued black shoes. He leaned his back against the brick wall and put his outside foot flat against it. I copied his pose.
I was about to ask him what his plans were for this cool Wednesday night when he said, simultaneously shattering the silence and killing the end of my summer with one sentence, “It would be so easy for me to stay here.” He said it with a plaintive and passive acceptance, like the sentiment saddened him, even though he was not surprised by it.
“Oh yeah?” I asked, rotating my blue lighter in my left hand.
“Why’s that?” I asked as I took another drag of my cigarette, mirroring his inhale perfectly.
He took a second and his tone shed its melancholy, and became hopeful, enthusiastic even. “Because I know these lawns and backyards and trees, ragged and rotting and jotting and uneven as they are.” He chuckled, so I did too. “I know these shitty backroads that give you flat tires, and these empty parking lots”—he pointed out our own empty lot—“where kids used to make out in their cars. I know all the secret paths from old McPerkins mansion all through the town like the back of my hand. But it’s not that I know them, all this stuff, it’s that I, I dunno, I’ve learned it. I ran through the fields and forests as a kid, I toiled in the factories and buildings as a man,”—he was hardly a man, I thought, barely older than me—“I mean, I feel like I watched this place become itself. I feel like I’ve explored its unseen spaces, and lived a whole life here.”
He paused. “That’s why it’d be easy for me to stay.” He took another drag, and this time I did not mimic him. “Easier, I should say.”
I cast my eyes downward, then faced him. “But you’re not staying, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
We took another drag. I looked out at the vacant lot, saw the rear lights of a car turning out. “That’s too bad,” I eked out. I swallowed down my sorrow and anger at myself for not saying something earlier, anything. “Where’re you gonna go?” I asked, keeping the conversation afloat.
He looked at me with a heavy grimace on his face. He breathed in once again from his nicotine stick, so I did too. “You know,” he stated.
I tilted my head at him as I inhaled more smoke.
He exhaled, “I’m joining up.”
My facial expression said I was surprised, even though I knew what he was about to tell me. A co-worker had mentioned it to another in passing, and I had overheard. I had been prepping myself for a few weeks for this moment here, right now. I asked, as I planned, “What? Why?”
Now defiance, and self-assuredness entered his tone. “What’s here for me?” He asked as if not just to me, but to all of Hesper. “I mean, really? What’s here?”
Part of me had planned to come out to him, then and there. Forget the fact that I had never told anyone in my life, even my parents, and blurt it out to him, him, a “man” I’d known for less than a year. In the end, I just shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. “You just said all that stuff about knowing or learning the town, an I—”
“Yeah,” he took a drag of his dying cigarette, “but just cause you know all that about a place and learn it doesn’t mean you have to stay there, or even that you should.” He continued, the smoke drifting up out of his mouth with every word, “There ain’t no future for me here, none at all.” He looked me right in the eye. “You neither,” he said.
“But the military? Why that? Why not something else?”
“War’s not gonna be over anytime soon,” he said, “I serve a few years, they pay for me to go to school after, which, if you remember,” he tapped his two cigarette-holding fingers against my chest, “I never got to do.”
I nodded, leaned back against the wall. The seconds seemed to be going slower now, and it seemed a little darker outside, like a few stars had extinguished themselves from the sky. “I see,” I said.
“Yep,” he said, mirroring my pose.
“But what if,” I looked at him, “you know.”
“Well,” he said, shaking his head, “I’d rather not think about that if I can help it,” he flashed a smirk of youthful invincibility at me.
We smoked in silence for a few seconds, the sound of cars driving over both sides of the bridge and owls hooting in the background, the smell of tobacco filling the air around us. I turned my head away from him and closed my eyes, picturing this scene, drawing it in my mind so that I could remember it in the coming days and months, when he would not be there.
He took a final drag of his cigarette and then threw it against the ground, pushed it out with the sole of his right shoe. “Well, time to get back to the old grind, huh?” He clapped me on the shoulder.
I flicked my cigarette into some nearby bushes, vaguely wishing that it would start a fire. “Yep,” I said, “back to it.”
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Robinson Terry spends his nights dreaming of stories and his days trying to remember them. He used to write one-page stories as a kid (mostly about sports), but has progressed to writing more about the relationships between people and all the crazy ways we all act. He is working on his first novel and is continually working on shorter pieces, such as stories and poems.