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THE SMOKER IN WINTER

by

J. Corley



Willowbrook Road is a fierce run of valleys and curves. The fog settles down just after dark, after the temperature drops a good inch on the thermometer and the cool dampness in the air slides into the grass. The deer come out. The sloths, the groundhogs. Everything prowling and glinting at you through the white thickness.

It's a shortcut through a wash of farms, but mostly it's a distraction. It's a way to keep the halves of your brain split and drown the fuses as you melt into the driver's seat.

I've got a guy in the parking lot at the other end of town waiting for me. Used to be we were lovers. Used to be there was something of God in that. Fingertips on his pink chest, on the black ink of the tattoo. Watching him breathe, making him wait longer.

Something kicks in as I cross Highway 34. The air stops clearing through my mind. Even all the clean winter moonrise cutting through over the hill can't keep me still.

This is new to me. I don't know if it's because I'm getting older. I don't know if it's maturity or if it's just a new confusion I haven't put a name to yet. I'm thinking of how I'm supposed to get to work the next day, where I'm going to sleep tonight. I'm thinking of the articles I have to write and how much I can trick around tomorrow before I have to turn them in. And how did this ever happen? I was supposed to be more than this fucking suburban nerd.

The guy I'm meeting has a new scar on his chest. Bullet wound just under the collar bone, by the shoulder. Him and a couple drunk, baby-hair-mustached punks in a bar fight. He threw them out of the place, they came back with Daddy's heavy clunker of a handgun.

But for someone like him, the pain was a rush. He jumped back up and, with his good arm, he smashed their teeth into the concrete until the loose gravel was shaving their gums. And the one wouldn't hold his leaking, warbling mouth in to help the other one from getting beat.

I don't have sympathy or pride for the guy, you understand. He had it coming to him, one way or another. He's lucky this time, is what it is. One day it'll come to him again. It'll be the end of him or some other poor bastard. The police report will run through over the fax and I'll have to call up names and confirm details and write the article. One day I'll have to write this thing, you understand, and I won't cop out on it to my bosses by telling them he was mine once. He'd have taught me that much.

When he called me the other day, I hadn't seen him in over a year. The break was clean enough. He came to my parents' house and we laid out on the wet summer lawn. We pulled up threads of grass and he held my hand and gave me his sweet eyes, his baby voice. I hated him for that, for wanting to pity me.

We watched the seventeen year old next door walking his first girl to her car and kissing her hair, embarrassed by us being there but wanting for some part of her. We gave each other the soft, weary, wary smile. I closed my eyes and rubbed the meat of my palm into the gritty sidewalk. It was done.

This stretch of road I'm taking now, I've ferried over it near a thousand times. Twenty minutes door to door, take a right at the traffic light, veer left at the fork in the road. A couple turns from time to time, but that's just to slow you down, make it so you feel your pulse ticking through your thumbs.

When he called, he chatted me up about a half hour in that obliged social voice of his, all formalities and updates. Moved to Belmar. Love the bouncing gig. Life's been great. Partying all the time. Never been happier.

He should have just popped his cock in my ear and pissed all over my face, it would have amounted to the same thing. But I let him run with the lines, let him knot himself so fluffed and happy and believing inside.

"I heard you got shot," I said.

Dead quiet. It hit like a sudden, angry shout in a romantic restaurant. I kept pacing around my parents' back yard with my cigarette clipped tight down by the groove between my index and middle fingers. The security lights cast the shadow of the thing at my feet. I stopped and watched the coal. I watched a few rain drops from the start of a quiet drizzle wet the wrapping paper. I did tricks for myself with the smoke - mutated smoke rings and such, lapping out in front of me.

When he spoke up, he was back with the chipper social voice. He laughed a little.

"It was nothing," he said.

"Yeah, just one of those casual gunshot wounds."

"They came back after the bar closed and the bartenders were cleaning up and mixing the bouncers drinks from what was left in the empty bottles of the hard liquor."

"Yummy."

"Yeah, it's a game for who can take down the nastiest pint," he said. "I had left one of my flashlights outside, so I went out for a minute to look for it and as I'm staggering around out there, I see these two cocksuckers I'd thrown out a few hours before for pissing in the bushes in front of the bar."

"You get some bright ones out in Belmar."

"They're all retarded. This wasn't the first time I threw these guys out for it. So when I caught them at it again I really roughed them up like don't be an asshole. But when I get out there, looking for the flashlight, they're back and they're staring at me. I'm like 'What the fuck do you want, faggots.' Then one of them starts reaching into his jacket pocket."

"Jesus Christ."

"Yeah. I couldn't see the gun, I just heard the shot. But I was plastered and I didn't feel it. I looked at the hole in my shoulder and then I looked at him and oh man, it was on. They ruined the new Bar Anticipation shirt I got, so I was fucking pissed. They saw it in my eyes and they started running."

"And you chase after the guys with a gun, of course."

"Damn right I did. You don't take a gun when the other guy's empty handed. That's low class. That's no morals. They deserve what they got," he said. "I was a madman. The rest of the bouncers came out after they heard the shot and they said I looked like a wild bear."

"You're lucky they didn't shoot you again."

"No, they knew they were wrong. They saw it in my eyes. They knew they had it coming."

"I'm glad I never saw you fight."

"I knew if you ever saw that part of me you'd never want to see me again."

When I see him in that parking lot, he's leaned up against his jeep, his arms crossed at his chest. They're mallet heads -- bulging, meaty things, and you can see the quiet shadows digging into the curves of the muscles in his bare forearms. It's couple days into winter, but he's standing strong there. Not a hint of a shiver rising through from where I'm sitting. He's parked under a street light and the glow casts through his fair, Irish skin. It's like he's got the Northern Lights raging inside of him, the way that warm yellow is spreading out all around him.

I wait in the car for a minute, light another Camel. I'm thinking of how he's spent his year. Me? I'd logged time in one other bed, but it wasn't much of anything. Some reporter running a city hall beat in Manhattan. Another creature like me--all words; no bones; cold, useless skin. A voice without a proper body. Nothing like my bouncer boy.

This other one-the new one-he was a goddamn thin, blind man was what he was.

I'd have my foot shoved down into the back of his throat and be calling him a fucking whore. Useless. I'd call him useless. It was games. It was empty. It was a way to pass the time. But I still managed to read more into it than what it really was.

See, what it was supposed to be was he was my toy. But what it came down to was I was serving his sickness and taking some of it in for myself.

Rape me, Mistress. Say you raped me.

He was a viper with a clean face, and he was turning me into another monster like him. There was some devil in me-he didn't craft it, but he whispered and promised life to it if it would just spew and smother him. I could own him. I could own a boy body for the night.

I never had sex with him, you understand. That'd be too intimate and soft. We would lose our anonymity. There would be kindness and love in that, and he didn't want any of those things.

Once I showed up in his filthy, tar-lined jungle across the river when I wasn't wanted. He'd gotten canned for showing up to a press conference blitzed, and he was taking his scotch behind closed doors. I let all my little veins worry for him, but there was a proper code that I hadn't applied. He wanted to drown in that nameless bitterness of the city. It was distilled haphazardly and bottled up like an eager Molotov cocktail ready to color a mutilated rainbow through a small strip in the sky.

And then there was me, sitting on the curb with my foot shaking out of my sandal. I kept ashing my cigarette. I tapped it so hard the coal fell out. He stood about five paces behind me, watching his own hands and feet with curiosity.

That boulevard in front of me, all eight lanes of it, was fast and vicious. Some musty heat and ugly noise through the forced, false symmetry. It would cloud up over you, numb your limbs if you were caught there in the darkness. All those goddamn boroughs had that unkind, grimey silk coat. He wanted that; there was nothing human there that would try to run a finger along his jaw.

That crippled anger carried a stink, a stain to it, but it didn't bother me so much. My face had been dirty for so long, anyway, with all the better instincts I'd let die with a slight, silent protest. The new guy couldn't see it. He quit looking to see that in anyone but himself some time ago, but I guess they all do. Maybe even me some day.

"I'll go, I'll go. I'm going," I said, watching the cars stutter in time.

"No, don't." But his mouth was stopping, all dried up and empty and dead. I'd killed it.

"What then?"

"I don't know."

When I first met this one, it was a steady shine of our words, an invented, cunning shade crossing the mirror. It was all bright eyes cutting through some flat warm skin, nothing worn yet. We could've breathed into each other. I would've let him.

But I wanted it too badly. It had been too long. It had been easier when all the words that mattered were mine.

The other bed I'd been in over a year ago, this one I'm wanting back to-it was me waking up to all this flushed body, with the clean, sweet, salt sweat rising through. I knew how to keep my hands hovering over that body and still feel him coursing through me. I'd like to get his eyes on me just as he woke. They'd be wide and scared and red like a child waking in an unfamiliar room. Then those globes would find me and he'd nod and grin and go calm, tucking his head into under my chin for another time.

When I walk up to him, I want to reach over and rub those bare forearms warm, smile and scrunch my nose up before burying my face in his chest. I stay a good five feet away, though. Safer that way. I run my eyes over him, over the patches of raised, pink skin.

There aren't "hellos." I can't put any words to him without a purpose, without it being worth something. I have to keep telling myself we're made of different parts now.

"Show me the scar," I say.

I expect him to slide his t-shirt past his collarbone, but he strips it off his body. With all that thick, hard flesh straining under his skin, he'd look like a vicious man to anybody passing by. I know that body, though; I've fallen asleep on that body. A shiver runs over him, pushes the flawed shoulder into the light. The shiver passes through me, too, and I step in closer to him.

I put two fingers on the scar. It's an ocean wave stopped in a time, the gray layers of skin lapping over each other, about to fall away. I keep prodding it, hoping it's something to make him come alive to me again, slide the inside of his hand along the down turn of my back.

What I should do, I should bring my knees to the ground with the pavement scratching through these precious, tight jeans I wore for him.

I'd done it so many times in church as a kid. The leather would breathe out under the weight of your shiny, knobby, fidgeting body. You'd feel that smooth gloss of the pew pinch your skin against your thin wrists. If it had been an unlucky week and the world hadn't been faithful to you, you'd make sure the starched seat of your pants didn't graze the bench and you'd fold your hands so straight and narrow that the tips of your fingers would curve ever-so slightly backward with the strain of your diligence.

But the best I can do now is squat down. I can't finish the deed like I should--I'm so goddamn useless. My quads are burning and the black sky keeps spinning and falling down into the parking lot.

I lose my balance, and I let my ass fall back onto the ground. The heels of my palms are working circles into my temples. I'm melting into the pavement, evaporating. My voice isn't a part of me. It keeps begging forgiveness. It keeps wanting for something it doesn't deserve.

All that wanting is pouring through when that breeze biting the both of us stops. My skin keeps in all of the heat of my body, all of the stale filth and dampness. My stomach gives up and I get sick all over my lap.

He doesn't speak. He stands over me and slips his hands under my arms; I let him take all that limp weight. He holds me firmly by the waist as he opens his passenger side door and props me into the seat. Then he grips my calves over my jeans with those thick, solid fingers of his wrapping round and turns me out over the side so that I can catch the new breeze riding past. He puts his t-shirt into my lap.

He's doing this quietly, with that knowing, warm body of his. A low hum purrs in my ears, but it's just my imagination. It's the voice I'd always given him.

I light a cigarette for myself and light another one off the first for him. He always kept a weird hold on a cigarette: pinching it between his thumb and forefinger with the rest of his hand keeping a hood over it. I watch his hand and worry about the cigarette burning him. The winter wind is whipping the spire of smoke away from his body. It's whispering something to me, but I'm too lost. I can't make sense of him anymore. It's time for me to go.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

J. Corley was born in 1982. She is the publisher of Word Riot, a monthly online literary magazine, and Word Riot Press, an independent publishing press that evolved out of the magazine in January 2003. Her writing has appeared at SerialText and MobyLives and is forthcoming in Little Engines (TNI Books) and Boom! For Real (Better Non Sequitur).




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