Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters Seven and Eight

Chapter Seven (Chapter One ran April, 9 and every weekend thereafter.)

There were about ten people outside the restaurant looking great and smoking away, shooting glances across the streetscape, tapping quick, desirous feet, tapping their tobacco butts clean. These impromptu gatherings not only evoked a warm commune of the persecuted, but also gave off a sense of where the real conversation was happening. Sidewalk smokers invariably evoke a body language of release, of suddenly being disentangled, and it made them more animated, freer, and, like all free and rebellious things, more attractive.

There were a few clusters of smokers, but as Clarisse exited the restaurant, she trained her eyes upon a beautiful, authentically full-bodied young woman, dressed with all the laws of style scrupulously obeyed, and clearly enjoying a long Virginia Slim. Clarisse could not bare such smokers’ candy, but never passed judgement based on that criteria. That a person smoked was always a first step. She approached the woman under the pretense of needing some fire.

Absorbing Clarisse’s request the woman performed a glancing radar-read from the corner of her eye. Enjoying the pleasing face with dark red lipstick, the black bob cut, sensible shirt, flat espadrilles, and continental accent, Yvonne (that is the new character’s appellation) smiled and said, “Sure.” In a practiced nanosecond her chrome lighter was out and firing off in Clarisse’s face. Lips occupied, she made that smoker’s nod of gratitude already remarked upon in the accounting of things out front of the Argentine restaurant.

They talked. Yvonne’s initial line of questioning ruled out Clarisse’s being a lesbian and this put her more at ease. Clarisse’s quiz determined that Yvonne was too beautiful and too successful for her own good; that if they could only blend personalities, they’d make a perfect mate for somebody.

Yvonne thrived as a caterer of smashing events. She had an almost coffee complexion while being a standard issue white girl with turned-up nose, her own home, and a desire to hook up with a man and mate that she was not shy in spelling out. Clarisse (though not overtly sexy) did, on the other hand, have a guy. And she, too, had the desire to make babies. Knowing what she knew about such things (a lot), Clarisse concluded that Yvonne was too choosy, on top of being too beautiful and too successful for her own good.

She was too everything.

Yvonne, in the time it took for them to smoke a cigarette revealed as much in dismissing her recent and myriad lovers as, “too straight,” “too tennis,” “too golf-ish,” “too feminine,” and, frequently, “too old.” Again, knowing what she knew about such things, Clarisse guessed that Yvonne was into her late thirties, but was so sexy as to command the attention of the many and mostly ineligible young beaux striving for fortune via their good looks. Initially engaged, then inevitably dissatisfied with what the lads had to offer the remaining twenty-three hours of each day, she’d trope towards somebody in a matching life phase with a strong wallet. But these men had paid the price of their fortunes with burgeoning bellies and receding hairlines and, while younger girls were willing to look beyond these flaws, Yvonne’s economic independence spared her the compromise. Which is why she was alone.

Clarisse thought Yvonne knew little or nothing at all about men.

The cycle was repetitious and Yvonne – invariably bored by her brief bouts with somber adult discussion – would again yield to the call of the wild, initiating yet another round of romantic frustration with youth.

In less kind moments friends would remind her of how all the good ones had been pulled off the shelf. Then she’d drive her fancy ride home embittered by lonely night and the price she had paid for all her belongings, not only in hard work, but in a life without intimacy.

Clarisse, an delightful and well-bred person, wasn’t going to say anything of the kind to her new acquaintance. She was steering the conversation toward less consequential and infinitely more delicious matters when Yvonne focused her black-eyed-pea brown eyes on something in the near distance, blew out a full lung of Virginia Slim liquid-like silk and said, “Look at this one!”

She turned her gaze in the direction staked out by Yvonne’s smoke signal and came upon a rangy silhouette that struck her as familiar. Clarisse, who wore corrective lenses, was confirmed in her first impressions as the coco shell-clamping of cowboy boots filled the street and the rangy silhouette came into full focus.

Only Jordan knows Joya’s name yet so Clarisse said, “Hey! You!” as the girl passed, focused on some point of ambition much farther along in the night. Joya turned and immediately noticed the girl from an evening or two past. “Oh hi hon,” and gave her a big kiss on the lips which made the Belgian/French girl blush and Yvonne blanch. “Fancy meetin’ you out here! Smoking a cigarette of course,” she said to brief fits of laughter from the other two. “Don’t you know that will give you cancer?” and more laughs to this most overdone of sidewalk-smoking-circle-jokes.

“Listen,” she went on, sing-songy, “it’s funny I should run into you – gimme a light will ya – because your friend, what his name? Works in a coffee shop?”

“Jordan?” asked Clarisse as she produced the same fire she’d asked Yvonne for just moments before, causing Yvonne to smile the knowing smile of the beautiful.

“Yeah, that’s him. Hon, he’s sick. Got appendicitis. He called me out of the blue moanin’ in agony and asken for help.”

“He called jou? Jou just met.”

“I know, that’s what I thought,” Joya rejoined, “but I suppose he had his reasons.”

“I wonder what those might have been,” said Yvonne and the Colorado girl took it for the compliment it was. And because she was used to such things, Joya did not preen or make a fuss, and damn it if Yvonne didn’t fall in love with her just like that, which was not how she was used to it going down.

From inside the restaurant Corey saw the assembled vaginal caucus as inviting and decided to join them. Heading out he noticed that somewhere deep inside him rumbled a low and persistent hum. Was it at the back of his mind? In his chest? His soul?

Science still does not know where the wellsprings of tobacco love are hidden, for if it did, the passion would be dead by now – a thing of olden times.

“Yvonne, this is my husband Corey.”

Doctors, especially oculists, will tell you no evidence exists supporting the existence of voluntary manipulation of eye shimmering. They will say, in no uncertain terms, that nothing in physiology (as currently constituted) even remotely suggests a process leading to eye shimmer.

And Corey would refute this, because that is what Yvonne did to him. She eye-shimmered him. It is what is known as sex and temptation. They pop up at the most uncertain and/or unexpected times and almost always come attached to a crushing dilemma. If science needs proof perhaps the numbed stupor on Corey’s face might satisfy the requirement – or the fact that he agreed to smoke one of her Virginia Slims – the girly cigarette.

Yvonne, as it turned out, was not actually enjoying her fag (as the Brits like to call it) mid-meal, but rather waiting for the valet to bring her car around in a final stanza to an early evening for all involved.

Chapter Eight

By the second or third day (Jordan wasn’t sure) he had a routine of eating, sleeping, smiling at his roommate and calling for the painkiller that comforted.

With some cheerier d├ęcor, he thought, you could get used it. At around two o’clock, Corey and Clarisse made something of a surprise visit, given that the trio had not been quite so close in the past. They presented him with a pouch of Drum tobacco.

Jordan surprised them, in turn; by pulling out the pouch he’d grabbed on the morning his excellent misadventure began. He had ushered it through the entire ordeal with a solid second nature. He hoped they didn’t mind but said he’d finish his first, that the tobacco gets worked over and softer with repeated handling and shake; that the smokes at the bottom of the pouch were grainy, easy to roll and resonated.

Corey found the lecture edifying.

Anyhow, the couple explained Clarisse’s run-in with Joya outside the restaurant and he could envision it all and transport himself from the present dreariness: The sex in the air, the mysterious impulses of the food, the sacramental smoke reaching back to ancestors. The chemical mist under streetlights and night sky. The girls. The possibility that anything might happen and the certainty that it wouldn’t. The girls.

It was agreed that Joya had really come through and that everyone really liked her. It was further agreed that as soon as Jordan got better they’d all go out to dinner again and just the thought made him crave a cigarette.

It was also agreed that Jordan would call Clarisse and Corey when it was time for his release and that they would take him home and set-up his little convalescence.

And so he truly was not alone. He had more than a woman he hardly knew to depend on.

There were other people he hardly knew he could depend on, too. This would help his recovery and J. was in no condition to decline the kindness.

And then, later that evening, Jordan committed a murder.

He hailed from the school which held that health begins in the spirit and the boost he’d received from his friends earlier in the day left Jordan feeling much improved and ready to deliver on his urge to grab a smoke. He thought the best way to carry the mission out was to move over as wide an area of the hospital as possible, never retracing steps. In this way the smoke dispersion would be decentralized and the initial source would be hard to divine. It also widened the potential list of suspects to a size that made him feel good about his chances.

He’d received a visit from a financial officer informing Jordan that he represented a 100 percent financial loss to the county’s coffers, that they’d been glad to help, and that it was time for him to get out. Jordan reasoned that the walk (if not the cigarette) would hasten his recovery and limit the public’s financial exposure.

Jordan puffed and casually hid the cigarette behind his back as he ambled. An orderly rushing past ordered him to put the butt out. He responded with a smile and nod of acquiescence, turned a corner, and took a nice hit before moving on. He ducked into linen rooms and the john when people were being rolled here and trundled there on Gurneys, intravenous tubes flowing down from clear patches of fluid. He thought that a hospital was not unlike a garage. In the best cases, you came in with something they knew how to take out and/or replace, patched things up, and pushed you back into the lifestream. In the worst cases...never mind. The rudimentary nature of modern medicine, it cannot be overemphasized, continued to shock Jordan, clashing as it did with the silicon and hygienic world of commercials for the Sunday morning political talk shows.

Anyhow, these wanderings led him into the geriatric ward. The old people lay there, quiet carcasses being pumped full of expensive drugs, hearts prodded to thumping, armies of ailments kept at bay. From one of the rooms he heard a tussle and the plaintive voice of an elderly woman, with an accent, saying, “Why don’t you just let me die? I don’t want to live anymore. Why are you doing this to me?” Jordan stuck his head into what turned out to be a fray between an old lady and three orderlies finishing the job of rigging up some sustenance-giving apparatus or other (it’s all very technical and you need a background, which Jordan did not have). One orderly, a handsome black guy with a mustache and exotic high-set cheeks of oriental Africa, saw Jordan watching and turned on him. He could not tell what the face was trying to convey. Agony over what he was doing? Over Jordan having seen what he did to pay his bills or some combination of the two? J. was shaken.

Later he lay in bed under a light that conjured up bad heavens. There was illumination, but nothing like sunshine. Not while Jordan lay stunned at the sight of old people being force-fed an existence. He was unable to wrap his mind around it; a gray area of gray people beyond his experience (although his time would come).
This is what some called ‘culture of life,’ as defined by mechanical circumstances: the beating of a heart or the presence of electrical impulses.

Jordan decided to forego his dose of painkiller because he wanted to be clear-minded in dealing with the new information. He felt the difference in the dead of morning, twisting to his right and crumbling his body structure into many shattered pieces.

As dawn crept, machines glumly hummed and he lowered himself, once more, to the floor. Reaching into the nightstand he took out a pre-rolled. He stalked gingerly (if such a thing is possible) down the hallway and perhaps dodged an errant nurse or two; it doesn’t matter, because Jordan made it back to the geriatric ward. Observing more thoroughly, the horror of the carcass farm gripped him anew. He had not been wrong. Something must be done. Like Yvonne, he possessed too much for the situation to hold. He was too young, too healthy and he had no tools for absorbing the logic of medicine nor the cruelties of time.

Puffing blithely away, Jordan ducked into the room of the lady who had asked to be left alone so that she could die. He watched her with infinite mercy, a little dimming ball of energy, indistinguishable from others of her kind on-tap, dwarfed by machine-juice pulsing throughout. Mercy is what he felt. Not pity. Pity is powerlessness to alter a painful situation. But this was mercy. Hieroglyphs of pain were scribbled in a frightening symmetry across her face. Jordan read in those hieroglyphs how the suffering had been complete, had been quite enough, thank you.

He fiddled with the cables and wires leading here and there and found ways to disconnect them at different points. He pulled patches from her arm that was sinewy and wooden at the same time, a piece of pale jerky. The reaction came quickly and he watched as the old lady rattled and settled into her eternity without looking back. He made a feeble attempt to reconnect things, which was a move more cool than efficient given that it did nothing to silence the fit of soft noise-making that had begun to fill the room.

It was good a time as any to bail and he told himself this. His flight was hampered by a renewed and excruciating pain in the place where his appendix used to be. He was, of course, himself a walking wound and that is how people like their heroes – even smokers.

He was taking all of two stairs at a time, leaving a trail of airborne particulate matter behind, returning to bed in a blistering seven minutes: long enough to be caught on a number of occasions, but with his fortune and (he truly believed) the old lady’s holding firm.

The next day, while readying for departure, Jordan’s eyes met with those of the orderly who’d seen J. see him force-feed the victim. He smiled, but Jordan could not tell what the smile intimated. He returned it, not intimating much himself.

Packing the two pouches of tobacco for leaving, he said goodbye to the gang guy who was doing remarkably well under the circumstances. “I’m sayin’,” they both shrugged.

Corey and Clarisse arrived and they helped Jordan down to the discard area. A heavyset black lady who was very nice asked if Jordan had any money. He said he did not and wondered if the left-hospital-arm knew what the right-hospital-arm was doing, given that the same conversation had already taken place upstairs. She asked him if he had any stocks, bonds, mutual funds, “or anythin’ like that.” He said that he didn’t, which he didn’t. She looped a series of four or five zeroes through the form in front of her and then handed it over for Jordan to sign. He did and gave it back to her.

He sat around while she went through a drawer. After some time she looked up, surprised to see him. “You can go now sir.”

Somewhere inside burned the expectation that she might ask if he had any information relative to an old woman’s death or if he at least knew that some such thing had happened at the hospital. But she did not. Jordan, though still in pain, grabbed Corey and Clarisse by their respective elbows and rammed them out the hospital door lest the black lady recall any questions that might have gone unasked.

Jordan had heard a lot of things about health care and people not being able to get it, and he didn’t doubt for a second that it was all true. In any case, his experience had turned out to be something quite different.

“She called me ‘sir’,” he said to quizzical Clarisse and Corey as they got into the black truck Corey terrorized the town with.

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