Cigarettes

Grace King

He tossed another empty Coke can on the floor. The crumpled can bounced off another and landed on the ground across the room. I rolled my eyes while I flicked on the lights. I clenched my teeth together as I stared at his slothlike body kicked back on the recliner. When he reached for the remote, he hardly lifted his hand. The hair he had left on his head was matted against the back of his chair.

“You’re gonna pick those up,” I said. He moaned and nodded.

John pushed himself out of the recliner. I stared at him until he picked up all of his cans. Then he walked them to the trash can and threw them away. I thought he’d also go for the leftover Chinese from lunch, but I couldn’t expect too much.

I looked at John’s shoes lying by the door. Mud was crusted on the side and holes sat above the toes. He wore them to work—when he went to work. Six weeks here. Three months there. Maybe he kept losing jobs because he had holes in his shoes.

It couldn’t be the only reason. He came home from work once, drunk. The next day, he went to work drunk. If I would have known, I wouldn’t have let him. I didn’t keep alcohol in the house now because of him. He didn’t have money to buy any, but he wasn’t making money either. Sometimes, I didn’t know which was worse.

The butter beans started sizzling on the stove as I pulled the meatloaf out of the oven. I walked back into the living room. John was back in his chair, flipping through channels. His Lazy-Boy smelled like Chinese take-out and cigarettes. I had seen him bum cigarettes off our neighbor, Ronnie, every now and then. He’d smoke half in the morning, half at night.

“John, finish picking all your stuff up, then come eat,” I said as I sat two plates on the table.

John scooped his shoes and jacket off the floor and placed them in the coat closet while I sat down in our cold, oak chairs.

“Do you want to say grace?”

He nodded as he joined me at the table.

I prayed, then we ate in silence. There wasn’t much to talk about since he didn’t have a job.

“Probably catch up with Ronnie after supper,” John said in between bites. I raised my eyebrows as I took a sip of water.

Two nights ago, he told me he was going to Ronnie’s to play poker, and he didn’t come home until 2 AM. I didn’t think anything of him climbing into bed that late. He went out with Ronnie sometimes to play pool or do whatever men do in a town where bars aren’t open past eight. Then, I smelled the Old Spice on his neck. He only wore Old Spice when he was taking me out to dinner, which he hadn’t been in years. So the next night, I followed him to a truck stop where I saw him with a lady. I watched them kiss, then I rushed back to the house and fell asleep. He was there when I woke up the next morning, hadn’t even bothered to shower.

My stomach started turning. I looked at my food, not knowing if I could swallow it. “Tell him I said hello,” I said as I watched John stuff his face with meatloaf and mashed potatoes. He chewed like a cow: slow and loud.

“Didn’t you tell him that this morning?” John asked.

“What are you talking about?” I looked down at my plate again and attempted to eat my mashed potatoes.

“I saw you two talking while you got the mail.”

“We’re neighbors, John. What do you expect? You want me to ignore ‘em?”

“I just think you should be careful talkin’ to other men.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Ronnie don’t want nothing to do with me. He barely wants anything to do with you.”

John stopped chewing and wiped his mouth. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I looked at John’s blue eyes hidden behind his furrowed brow and round glasses. When we first met, his eyes were the first thing I noticed about him. They would smile at me. That’s how they looked when I saw him with that woman.

My throat tightened as I picked up my fork and shoved butter beans into my mouth.

“Did Ronnie say something to you this morning?” John said.

The wrinkles on John’s forehead softened as his hands fell to his lap. He leaned back in his chair and looked at me. I could see a glaze-forming over his eyes. He was starting to turn into the man I recognized, and I couldn’t look at him like this. I shifted my gaze to the kitchen floor and stuffed another round of butter beans down my throat. My stomach tightened as I forced mashed potatoes down next.

John placed his hand on my arm. His once callused palm was now smooth, and my body jumped as I swallowed my food.

“What’d Ronnie say, Laura?”

“Nothing,” I shot my head back up at John. “Ronnie didn’t say nothing.”

I reached for my water and took a large gulp, trying to wash away the lump in my throat.

“I just hate seeing you out there smoking with Ronnie. It’s a—it’s a nasty habit.” I said as I gulped down more water.

“You ain’t seemed to have a problem with Ronnie smoking.” John said, taking another bite of his meatloaf.

“Well, I ain’t married to Ronnie.”

“You wish you was?”

I slammed my fork down on the table. “Now why the hell would you think that?”

“Easy, easy. You’re just always talking about 'em like he’s so special.”

“Special?” I laughed. “Ronnie ain’t special. He just got a job.” I picked my fork up and stuck it in my meatloaf.

“What? You’re mad I ain’t got a job?”

My fork screeched across my plate as I raised my eyebrows and fell back in my seat.

“Of course I’m mad you ain’t got a job. I need two just to feed you.”

I stared at John as he stood up, grabbed his plate, and placed it in the sink. He glanced down at the holes in his socks while I carried my plate to the sink and stood beside him. His once broad shoulders had shrunk into a permanent slouch. I looked at the chest hair sticking out of his worn, cotton t-shirt. The “Chevy” logo was faded and there were holes in the sleeves. He wore that t-shirt on our tenth-anniversary vacation. I told him to take it off; it didn’t look presentable. Then, he laughed and kissed me on the cheek and told me no one was looking at him, they were all looking at how beautiful I was. It had been so long since he called me beautiful.

The smell of Old Spice on his neck snapped me back into reality. I looked up and realized how close I was to him. The last bit of sunlight through the kitchen window hit his face, making his blue eyes pop against his tan skin. The sun warmed the room, but I shivered, and the lump in my throat returned as I looked out the window.

She had silky golden hair like the sun. I looked at John again then took a slight step back, just far enough away so I couldn’t smell the Old Spice anymore.

“Ronnie’s gotta job, but Ronnie smokes a lot more than me,” John said. I guess he figured I should consider myself lucky. Ronnie’s wife had to put up with a smoker, but all I had to deal with was a lazy bum.

My glance moved back to the window as I reached for my stiff brown hair and pushed it behind my ears. The lump in my throat was crawling toward the roof of my mouth. All the water I drank at dinner was starting to make its way into my eyelids. I stiffened my tongue and felt the lump drop to my stomach. Then, I clenched my fists by my side as I saw John locking lips with little Miss Blonde Hair. My fingernails dug so deep into my palms I thought they’d start bleeding.

I looked into John’s eyes. They were not smiling.

“Yeah,” I said, “Well, at least Ronnie’s committed to something.”