Smoke Break


 

–by Neal Lemery

 

His hands shook as he rummaged through a plastic grocery sack, pulling out a plastic pre-roll tube. It still had its faded label from the marijuana store down the street.  The shakings nearly caused him to drop the tube, but he managed to snap open the plastic lid. He tapped a little something into his mouth and swallowed.

He’d laid his lit cigarette on the black metal patio table, and set down the plastic tube, pushing the lid shut with yellowed fingertips.  The rest of the sack’s contents were soon strewn across the table: another pre-roll tube, three cigarette lighters, a half empty pack of rolling papers, an open pack of cigarettes, and a pocket knife with an open, half broken off blade.

A worn cardboard box sign with crude letters spelling out “Hungry” also decorated the table.  He had been holding it up on a street corner a mile away not an hour ago, looking gaunt, wet, and needy.  The hood of his coat had shadowed his face from passersby and the drivers waiting at the light.

His body twitched occasionally, his head bouncing back and forth, as he muttered to himself and occasionally spoke loudly in an indecipherable squawk, into the wind.

The sign was catching some of the raindrops  blowing in from the approaching storm, and he scooted the table and himself further under the eaves, until the chair banged against the window.

His friend showed up a few minutes later, also dressed in a black, heavy cotton raincoat and jeans, with equally sunken eyes and a week’s worth of beard across his face. His fist was curled around a crisp new paper sack, its shape formed by the scrunching of the sack against a bottle recently purchased at the nearby liquor store two blocks away.  He grinned as he arrived, raising the bag and his fist in triumph. He mumbled a few words to the first guy, who took another taste of whatever was in the tube, and handed it to the second guy.

It was their only conversation here on the street.

The second guy took a long drag on his cigarette, white smoke briefly covering his face, before the wind cleared the smoke away.  He set the half-smoked cigarette on the table. A fresh breath of wind rolled it off and down to the sidewalk, where it was promptly snuffed out by the wet. Grabbing the tube, he opened it with an experienced flick of a thumb, and tapped some of the contents onto his tongue.

The sidewalk and side street were otherwise deserted, as rain began to fall in bursts. The wind gusted, picking up speed, scattering fallen leaves this last part of November. An empty, sodden Starbucks cup rolled towards the adjoining street, soon to meet its fate in the steady stream of log trucks and pickups, and tires splashing in the gutters.

They each took a couple more hits from the pre-roll tube, until the contents were depleted.  The second man cursed as he discovered his sodden cigarette on the ground, and quickly lit another one from the open pack on the table, flicking a flame out of one of the three lighters on the table.

The first man, staring at his shoes, pulled heavily on the last of his cigarette, everything in jagged motion as yet another twitch overtook him. Taking in the last of the smoke the cigarette had to offer, he breathed out a sigh of pleasure.

The wind gusted stronger, moving the rain at a lower slant, now streaking the window under the café eave.  The two men were starting to get wet.  They wordlessly fought with the plastic grocery sack and the wind, finally getting all their items back into the sack, and stuffed it into the first man’s knapsack. They headed off towards the street. The second man clutched his sack full of liquor, his steps uncertain in the wind and rain.

The first man paused, wracked again by yet another twitch and shaking all over, his hands convulsing for a few more seconds.  Again, sounds came from his lips, harsh, angry, incoherent.

The other man looked back at his friend, his eyes gaunt, staring, unfocused. He silently turned and moved ahead, as the first man finally regained his balance and started moving again, trailing the other guy.

In a minute, the sidewalk was empty, the rain moving in for good, drenching the pavement and washing away the last traces of their visit to the table by the café.

Back and forth, give and take, getting a little high before the storm hit for good, before they opened the booze somewhere out of the storm.

******

 

I watched from my booth at the café, this snippet of their young lives playing out before my disbelieving eyes, leaving me to ignore my coffee cup and the poem I was trying to rewrite.

The waiter came to refill my cup, and looked out into the wet, windswept street, commenting about the coming storm.  No mention of the two men, the ingesting of the contents of the tube, the full bottle of booze in the brown sack, the occasional twitchings and outbursts, as if this episode of these young men’s world wasn’t really playing out by the front door of his café.

Invisible, or just part of the downtown scenery, I wasn’t sure which.  Maybe the scene was just too ordinary, too commonplace to merit comment.

 

The poem I was going to work on lay unattended, and my coffee had grown cold. Instead, I had become a part of their cigarette break, their moment on the street.  I had been held silenced, unnoticed on the other side of the glass, and the ritual with the contents of the plastic tube, as they passed it back and forth, emptying the contents into their mouths.  There were the manipulations of the smokers and their cigarettes, and the occasional twitches and tremors, the incoherencies of the man with the “Hungry” sign.

“Hungry”.  Still hungry, as the two men started their journey to the next place.  A place where, perhaps, the bottle would give them warmth and conversation, a way to pass the time until the storm blew through.

And, perhaps the stuff from the tube, the liquor, the smokes would somehow fill the bellies of their souls with what they needed in their lives, the stuff that couldn’t be found on the table by the café.

I went back to my coffee, and a bowl of soup, and my unfinished poem, behind the glass of that café window that was my own private window into their world, sheltered by the storm and the wind that blew through their lives.

11/29/2018