Oscar Diaz was something closer to what Corey’s Dad might have hoped from his son. The young men were of proximate age, but Diaz’s life was more in line with traditions the elder thought he’d bequeathed his son – whom instead fled, putting a continent between them.
Oscar was harnessed to a cart and pulling with all his might. He had two children to whom his every effort in life was dedicated. He was married to a woman with whom he got along, more or less, for nigh on a decade. He had not gone to college and so carried around quite a chip on his shoulder about it. The irony would not have escaped Corey’s Dad because having not attended himself, sending his son became the driving motor behind all his and the wife’s actions throughout the spoiled youngster’s life. And yet it was there, in academe, that his son developed a disdain for everything great in this great country. He took a summer in France. He came back funny. He liked it more than his own nation. Go figure. And once it happened, there was nothing a summer at home, under Dad’s tutelage, could do to turn him around. The boy was lost to the father and his way of thinking. And the father knowing, still, that this is the best damn country there is.
Oscar, meanwhile, had taken a job working in the oil fields out of high school. The hourly rate, for a kid, sounded like a king’s ransom and although it wasn’t, the young man became hooked on the consumer heroine that a steady, sustaining paycheck offers. It got him a car that was cooler than anything his contemporaries scraping their way through university could afford. And darned if it didn’t draw some of the more attractive honeys from that very same early epoch in which no one knew what the hell they were doing. From there things developed as they have for generations with
Oscar knocking his girlfriend up. Duty-bound and unfamiliar with a wider world of wacky liberating ideas the college boys were twisting on, he agreed to marry and father the little guy. Home and job security necessarily followed. Oscar went through the rather rigorous motions of those seeking entry to the profession of firefighters and the lucrative unions safeguarding their financial stability. It was no sure thing, but now he was set. He could pay the bills on the new house and the newer truck (practicality playing a role here) by lowering his head, his eyes and expectations (if he’d really had any) and report to the same place year in and year out.
Our sarcastic tone masquerades a general respect for people who accept responsibility the way they accept free tickets to a baseball game, a respect for the simple timepiece quality of such lives; laid out as evenly as a set of keys on a piano, each step the same distance as the one before.
And there was satisfaction in Oscar’s work. It was a labor of undeniable utility to the community and his service, at times, had Oscar touch the ceiling of glory. He had saved lives and been recognized for it; had become a source of pride and joy to his parents, his wife and other family members both nuclear and extended.
But it was, in the end, a job that leaned heavily upon the physical prowess of the man who held it and the years had begun to take a toll. In recognition of this the fire department had, some two years prior, promoted him right out of his thrilling perch at the back of a fire truck and into an inspector’s stuffy office. Not that Oscar was ungrateful. He knew firefighting was not child’s play. And he knew his trick knee – source of a significant workers compensation settlement he used to buy motorbikes – could betray him in a crucial moment. There was, too, a tendonitis affecting the left shoulder making his job an increasingly miserable affair and he barely brushing the mid-thirties.
But what they’d gone and done was appointed him to a very important job, one that involved a new law – The Smoke-Free Workplace Act – and its enforcement – all of it.
For our own purposes we must identify him parochially for what he was – a natural enemy to smokers everywhere. That’s right, it was Oscar’s job, along with his partner Joseph Thorpe, a white guy with an identical pedigree, to run around town responding to calls or cooking up their own cases of Smoke-Free Workplace Act violations. He was a tobacco narc, a cigarette cop, a smoker snitch and roving petty bureaucrat. It was enough to make one smoke, and Oscar and his partner Joe knew it as they revved up and drove off each evening in search of fat quarry to skewer on behalf of the city’s empty coffers.
But back to the dinner, the table for which was set a chapter ago.
Jordan was looking pale, gaunt, and just a little scared.
Clarisse was there, Corey, and a new addition to the first loose nucleus, Randall, who’d run into Clarisse when outside a coffee shop where he’d stationed himself for a smoke. Fighting off thoughts of Joya through active conversation, Yvonne was laying out her happy religion to a skeptical Jordan. He claimed to have been as positive a believer in himself as the next guy, only to come up a month and many thousands of dollars short. “Well, that means it’s your fault,” Yvonne echoed the distinctly national tradition which views the victim as root cause of his/her own discomfort.
The company assembled was urbane and high-minded enough to moan at this – even if they knew it to be true in Jordan’s case given his inability to tolerate orders, bosses, or what his spoiled contemporaries knew as “structure,” and what his parents called “a job.”
Yvonne clumsily withdrew when confronted with the disapprobation of her latest acquaintances; acquaintances she must meet and know so as to run into Joya once again. The retreat promptly executed, she paused to reflect upon her disappointment that Joya was not as yet a full-fledged member of what she did not know to be the future political bureau of an important social front. “You’ll see,” she regressed into a ditsy girl voice that matched her outfit, “you’ll get your stitches out (he’d shown them to her, too) and gain some weight, and get strong and things will begin to go right for you if only you want them to.”
“I want them to,” Jordan [emphasis his] assured Yvonne.
“If that’s true you’ll see how fast everything goes your way,” she repeated in case he hadn’t gotten it the first time. She all but promised it with a sweet and earnest face lit up by black-lit eye-lanterns seemingly nailed at the center with bright pinheads of joy juice – if such a substance existed.
“The only thing that goes fast,” the prophet of bum philosophy jumped in, “is money.”
A novelty addition, Randall arrived with nothing less than a plan to transform this group from the assault on the stomach it was, to something more high-minded, purposeful.
“Isn’t your friend Joya going to join us?” Yvonne tried.
Joya was not yet a friend, except to Jordan, and a responding shrug on the part of all, except Jordan, was followed by Randall’s observation that, “something fishy happened at County Hospital while you were there Jordan.”
Jordan’s heart verily dropped into the hole his appendix had occupied a week earlier. “Yeah man. Seems,” Randall went on, “somebody pulled the plug on an old lady and she got a trip to heavenly land. Police are investigating.” Jordan’s gut began to feel not unlike the way it had at the last steakhouse gathering. But this time it wasn’t his appendix that was on the grill – it was his life.
“Dey shud save de money,” said Clarisse. “Maybe some one in heer family deed it.”
“Says here the family is devastated and plans to sue the hospital.”
“It’s more likely that they’ll sue than that they’re devastated,” Corey chimed in.
“That’s cynical,” Yvonne said, sparking a speech.
“If they were so dedicated she’d have been in a room upstairs at home instead of clamped to a bunch of machines at county,” Corey countered. “They’ve probably been hoping she’d kick-off for a long time and now that the hospital has screwed up, they can cash in at the same time.”
“I can’t believe you can think things like that,” Yvonne voiced her discomfort at such plain talk regarding the darker notions that often inform peoples’ actions. Randall, for his part, was enjoying the seedling of debate unfolding, privately nurturing expectations for the mental development of his stylish new friends. “Having just been there,” he turned to Jordan, “what do you think?”
Jordan, meanwhile, had been suffering the antagonisms of someone forced to be other than whom they truly are. He would have liked to observe out loud how keeping people artificially alive by pumping them full of things alien to their organism was an immoral practice for generating expensive fees based upon unneeded services; how life, without quality, was not life at all. But that, he felt, would have made him suspicious of murder in their eyes (which, of course it would not have) and such are the workings of the guilty, homicidal mind.
“Who cares about some old sacka bones that’s already dead?” he weakly dissimulated his intimate relation to the affair.
“I can’t believe you would say something like that,” Yvonne cried once again, the ugliness of the discussion chasing celestial visions of Joya’s ass from her mind.
Tension was clearly rising as they all considered their plates smeared with greasy swirls and the odd piece of unworthy viand; a cigarette popped into each mind simultaneously.
As one they arose in perfect concert, heads high, cardboard packs gently tapped against fingertips, lest the reason for this decamping be lost in the clean cut of their clothes. And why not? The Smokers were lively, chatty, otherwise (almost) respectable people who should naturally draw attention.
Outside, Clarisse pulled out your father’s cigarettes, while Yvonne pulled out yo’ momma’s maybe. Jordan retrieved his Drum pouch while Randall turned out to be a partisan of the Export-A, a fancy little Canadian offering that came in a flat box at something like thrice the normal pack’s price. They were short-cut, filterless, and the paper was of a silken quality. The taste hinted at a world of the privileged gentleman gone by, something far superior to the mass productions of our own lowbrow systemic configuration.
Corey had once again followed them all out, but not over any insecurity he felt about Clarisse. “I think I’ll have a smoke, too,” he said, just as he had a week earlier in the same place, only this time with meaning. It happens that fast. Such are the realities of drugs, and dependence develops quickly. He was beginning to appreciate the relief a good cigarette brought to a body stuffed with the specialty foods one went to restaurants for. He began to sense the rhythm affecting smokers’ lives, the nervous cadence, the syncopated beat that involved heading outside for a quick butt and some fragmented conversation. It became one with a dinner ritual that included showering, getting dressed, valet parking, cocktail, appetizer (if it didn’t kill one’s meal), and entrée. The outdoor feature broke this sequence of thicknesses, extended both the evening and one’s ability to endure some more time at the table over coffee, dessert, perhaps an apéritif and more importantly, more conversation, more possibilities. Using your life minutes and stealing some fun.
Randall, who aspired to the life of a young 19th century English dandy, knew, or had read about, some of grace’s finer points. With a polished gesture, contrasting only slightly with his worn attire, he opened the box of Export-A’s to Corey, who accepted them with an equally polished and gracious nod of the head.
“Ideas man, huh?”
Randall nodded in the affirmative.
“Bum philosophy, huh?”
“What if I helped you get it out to bum subscribers?”
“Find the bums?” Randall was aroused.
“Sure. There are ways of doing that from home on a decent computer.”
Randall was taken aback. Arrogant of posture, he suffered from the insecurity particular to thinkers who are not being thought over by anybody but themselves.
“God that’s good!” Corey held the Export-A at arm’s length and glowingly admired it. “Makes those American things taste like piss.”
“Many American cigarettes are infused with a small quantity of urea, the reason for which I remain ignorant of,” Randall informed.
“Yeah and anyway I’m flattered, but no-can do,” the philosopher feigned disinterest.
Corey slumped just a bit at the shoulders and Randall’s powers of bum perception picked up on it. This guy actually believed in him. “The bum philosophy has no brand-name recognition and it would cost more to develop than you can probably afford. No, let it be stated in a less equivocal fashion. It would cost more to develop than you can afford. To put it in bum philosophy terms – and everywhere they know it and say it: ‘You need money to make money’.”
Corey drew deep on the airy substance that was the Export-A’s special offering. He knew, even before Randall, that he was in for a sampling of his co-smoker’s work in progress. Having already decided bum philosophy was the meal ticket, his interest was heated to a burning-bright white intensity. We have no reason to doubt, either, that the cigarette hastened the comity developing between them.
“The situation might be otherwise if the ‘Randall’ brand-name enjoyed an element of familiarity,” he continued, “but it does not. Nobody cares who I am.”
“Brand-name,” that was the expression that excited Corey, and Randall had used it twice. Standing before him, he surmised, was a polished artist, exhausted from the polishing and ready to compromise with commerce.
“I’ve played my cards wrong up to now,” Randall confirmed his thoughts, “but had no choice. Development of a philosophical system is a mean task and goes beyond the full-time, into the overtime of demands upon one’s energies. You’ve got to learn many other systems to really understand what makes them what they are. You’ve got to out-adventure the adventurers; you’ve got to be more interesting than the interesting. You’ve got to live more than the living.”
Out of this Corey deciphered a discipline and firm belief in doing the time instead of the crime. “That’s good,” Corey said out loud.
“What’s good?” asked Randall whose rhythm was easily thrown off.
“You’re good,” Corey answered.
Randall loved it. “So that is where all my time has gone, into the thing itself, whereas the ‘who’ of who I am has languished from lack of love and attention. It was un-philosophically bumly of me to expect that excellence and thoroughness of thought would sell themselves. You have to have done something or your thoughts mean nothing. Experience in the spectacle is the only spectacle anymore.”
“And the only experience,” Corey added.
Randall, no more free of stylish calculations than any of the show horses around him, yanked his shiny silver box of sticks and offered Corey another. He declined, as might be expected of someone in their apprenticeship to the ancient guild of pedestrian puffers.
“Something, anything. Even bad, especially if it’s bad, but please elevate yourself to the level of wide attentions,” Randall prodded things forward. “Only then will they care.”
“Who are ‘they’?” Corey tried.
“I don’t know,” Randall confessed, “but they love a good comeback story for example. Singers and actors are great at them. There is nothing quite like sinking into obscurity and then rising anew with tales from the black hole of sensual excesses to spark sympathy and imagination in the general television-viewing populace. They never tire of hearing the gruesome details of one’s self-initiated sloth as long as it’s wrapped in the born again baby’s blanket of redemption. A nation of Christian origins, our payoff is the defeat of Satan’s evil pull into the liminal utopias beyond discipline.”
He would get better at it, but for now at the dawn of things, Corey could absorb no more. That this guy could fill so much air time and sound so good doing it only reconfirmed a belief that Randall – with a sanding of his rough edges – represented passage to financing a baby and restoring his life to a balance not known since bachelorhood.
“Comeback, huh?” said Corey.
“Celebrities provoke less envy when they’ve been through the ringer. They behave worse than us, mostly because they can afford to. What falls to us is developing a way of misbehaving that is a lot cheaper, but just as loud.”
“Who’s us?” asked Corey.
Randall shrugged, “Ah, I don’t know,” but permitted himself the luxury of a quick glance at those smoking and chatting amiably all around him.
“What about an addiction for Randall?” Corey proposed.
“Yeah, you get hooked on heroin or something.”
Randall tapped the frame of his glasses at the temple. He twirled the finger around and around.
“Okay, then fake it,” Corey insisted in the correctness of his notion, “but do something. The high road is closed. Sometimes it’s the low road or nothing at all.”
Randall took out a small notebook that had been bulging his blazer down in the lower left-hand pocket, “Sometimes it’s the low road or nothing at all.” He looked up, eyes awash with shine, “that’s good. That’s very good.” Randall was frozen by the idea’s brilliance – however twisted – and was, for once, at a loss for words.
Clarisse had clustered up to Yvonne and Jordan. Watching Corey light up she was subject to a pair of emotions flowing in different directions – at counter-purposes deep inside her. There was, first, a relief that what she was doing ceased to be a matter of disapproval. Smoking was no small matter where the question of harmony between them (and all couples) was concerned. Still, she could not deny that something personal was being usurped, something that had been exclusively hers in a life otherwise shared almost completely. Her cigarette break was exactly that, in the truest sense of the word – a break – and Clarisse would miss it should Corey make a habit of his own sidewalk smokings.
The others began to coalesce around them. Yvonne mentioned, “your friend Joya,” one more time and once too often. Her companions-in-smoking said that, yes, everybody was in agreement that Joya was wonderful and, that like her, they hoped she would deign to make them a part of her own wide city circle. Until that time, Yvonne would have to make do with the mere mortals presently assembled.
Yvonne blushed and smiled in a way that was simply too charming and authentic in its pure embarrassment to not evince a wave of unanimous simpatico. All was forgotten, sort of.
Clarisse held forth on the virtues of an occasional clove cigarette. Most of the gathered had been through that phase and her discourse failed to excite until she finished by saying “dey turn my tongue into a flowerbed,” and nostalgia overwhelmed each.
As the conversation wound down in rhythm to the depletion in tobacco supply, into discussions of money and pets and career breaks (for they all thought they were moving inexorably upward), Jordan was traipsing a more prosaic world wherein he waited, terrorized, for someone to bring up the old lady at the hospital again.
For that was not yesterday’s papers at all.