No Smoking

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“It’s disgusting,” my mother said every time we came home from my grandparent’s after Sunday dinner, hanging our clothes in the garage to air them out. Her father was a two-pack-a-day smoker with leather skin and a handkerchief he used to hack into. “Smoking is a nasty, disgusting habit,” she said. I agreed with her, but I still wanted to try it.

I decided one day after school that I’d built up enough nerve—I was going to walk to the gas station, putter around, pay someone a dollar for a cigarette and smoke it on the knoll overlooking the highway. But by the time I got to the gas station my nerves were shot. I couldn’t approach a stranger to ask directions, never mind bum a smoke off one. I spent the dollar on a candy bar and left.

As I walked home, my hand turning over the unused pack of matches in my jacket pocket, it occurred to me that I was not above finding a cigarette butt and smoking that. I made a detour and slowed my pace as I got to the path that cut through the park. Off in the distance I could see the pinks and blues of fall jackets, boys and girls clambering over the playground, technicolour pendulums on the swing set. I hung back from the park and scoured the path that ran along the man-made lake. All I found were a few butts that had been smoked down to the filter. I would learn one day how expensive cigarettes were and why a thrifty person wouldn’t waste, but at the time that was no consolation for my wasted effort. I cursed the smokers who hadn’t even left me enough tobacco for one experimental puff and went home dejected.

As I think about what it was that made me want to smoke, I’m stumped for answers. It wasn’t from peer pressure—none of my friends had admitted to trying it. I still wore sweatpants, so it certainly wasn’t that I was attempting to look cool. Perhaps the problem in trying to understand the motives of my twelve-year-old self is that motive is a grown-up concept. I think about all the times my parents asked me why I did something that I wasn’t supposed to do and how often the answer was, “Because.” If I’d been the sort of kid who talked back I might have asked them, “Why do you need a reason for everything?” I understand now why they needed an explanation, but at the same time I love that there wasn’t one. With so little mystery left in the universe it’s a small relief to me that people remain plenty mysterious.

The Champ Is Tapped Out

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Avaritia stands aloft. Spreads his thick arms. Cash rains onto the partygoers. They slurp the pools of green off his marble floor and out of his champagne fountain.

Across the crumbling city an IRS agent salivates as a judge signs his warrant.

Tannins

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The Captain placed a tin mug on the table in front of Lieutenant Malory and sat across from him.

“Sorry, Malory, saving the fine china in case the Queen ever pops in.”

Malory flashed a tired smile as he brought the mug up so that it touched his moustache. He breathed in the black tea and was overwhelmed by the familiar mélange of spices that he never took the time to learn the names of. “Reminders of home,” he said.

“It’s the little things, isn’t it? For instance, I find myself missing the crunch of a garden cucumber.” The Captain spooned a heap of sugar and stirred it into his mug. The pinging of the metal had an atonal quality that reminded Malory of his sister as a child at the piano, whining about having to take lessons, refusing—it seemed to him—to improve at all as a student.

“Sugar?”

“Thanks, but don’t waste it on me,” Malory said. “I don’t drink tea for its flavour.”

“Care to elaborate?” the Captain said. A bombardment murmured faintly in the distance, like the white noise of a thousand heartbeats.

“I like the idea of tea. I enjoy the process of boiling the water and steeping the bag. I like everything about it up until that first sip. Somehow it never tastes as good as it smells. It’s like when I was a boy, I remember the anticipation of the thing was always better than the thing itself: Christmas, vacations, birthdays, it didn’t matter.”

The captain croaked deeply, approvingly; it reminded Malory of the satisfied hum his father made while rolling a cigarette, regarding it with interest.

“How are your men holding up?” the Captain said.

“Bowler had to shoot a mad horse the other day. It upset those who saw it. Besides that, they’re restless. I think they’re tired of minding this patch of earth. They want a fight. At least they think they do.”

“You know how it goes, Malory. They’ll get their fight, and if luck favours our side, they’ll be minding—as you put it—a different patch of earth before the end of the week. It’s all the bloody same.”

Malory lifted his mug in salute to the Captain and sipped his tea. It was bitter. More so than he’d expected.

“Which brings me to the point of why I called you in here,” the Captain said. “I respect you, Malory. Always have. We’re alike you and I. Somebody in an office somewhere has asked us to die for our country and we’ll do it, no questions asked.” The Captain lit a cigarette for Malory and one for himself. “We’ve received new orders to push through to the river at 0500. I know you were expecting to rotate out, but there’s been a development and, well, this is how it is.”

“I understand,” Malory said. He fought down the bile in his throat.

“I knew you would.”

“I’m sure the men will be thrilled to use their guns for more than clobbering rats.” Malory picked up the mug of tepid, brown liquid—determined to finish it as a matter of propriety—when a shell hit nearby and shook loose a good deal of debris from the roof of the bunker. Malory placed his contaminated mug on the table and brushed the dust from his hair.

“Damn,” the Captain said. “My sugar.”

“Thank you for the tea, Captain.” Malory saluted and set out for his platoon. He wondered how quickly the men’s thirst for battle would dry up once they’d tasted it.

Making A Deal At The Edge Of The Night

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The mouth of the revolver snaked in between Jacko’s collar and scarf and bit him on the neck.
“Metal’s freezing,” he said.
“That’s all you’re going to say?”
“You won’t shoot me, Tubbs.”
The hammer cocked. Jacko shuddered.
“I’m listening,” Tubbs said.

Immutable

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“What about amendments?” Maria whispered into the Void. She picked up the list of Thou Shalt Nots and shrugged. “You know,” she continued, “like the Constitution—change with the times.”

“As it is written, so shall it be,” the Void whispered back.