3.5 Smoke: Part One
There was something rejuvenating about stepping outside on the brand new interlocking brick porch. The style of brick was purposely chosen to replicate a sense of oldness, of tradition, of status. The salesman referred to the personality of the bricks. The cracks represented the desire to present a porch that screamed ‘refinement’ and ‘classy’. They were the most expensive brick on the market, something Richard learned through researching on the Internet. And no matter what kind of similar brick he found, his wife, Katherine, insisted they didn’t have the right ‘personality’. When challenged, she couldn’t quite pinpoint what that ‘personality’ was, just that the cheaper bricks didn’t have it.
They deserved these bricks.
Rejuvenation deflated after a moment when Richard recalled the price tag and how dispiriting it was to think about his office, his salary, and that he tolerated his boring and redundant job everyday for something as non-essential as new bricks made to resemble old.
He couldn’t help it – his mind worked in this way – but every night, the initial moments of elation diminished when he broke down the cost of each individual brick and calculated how many hours this translated into at the office. According to his mental math, this interlocking brick porch cost him three meetings with the executives, four full days of answering calls, three days of writing emails and two nights of overtime.
But it was all worth it.
Richard looked forward to this moment all day. He woke up in the morning with the thought already in his head. He never brushed his teeth at night so the taste was still left in his mouth in the morning. At 11pm every night, he was allocated one cigarette.
The suffocating fullness of the subway cars didn’t affect him. A fellow passenger might be too close, hugging him from behind in order to grasp a handle for balance. He chose instead to appreciate the warmth of another body, something that his marriage was unable to provide once rings were on fingers.
Richard wondered sometimes if they just removed the rings, would everything return to what it once was?
The subway rocked to and fro and the person behind him shifted positions. Richard was comforted.
Sure, he shared a bed with Katherine the past four years, but she slept curled up in a ball in the corner, as far away from him as possible. He tolerated her explanation that this was how she slept since a baby. Explanations over why she flinched when he touched her, or her dismissive hand gesture when he was aroused, were less acceptable. She used the formal word ‘aroused’.
She claimed Richard interrupted her REM sleep. He read in a magazine article that REM sleep was sometimes called paradoxical sleep, a word that aptly described not only their nocturnal habits, but most interactions throughout the awake day hours.
“You’re always aroused when I’m REMing,” she usually said. “My sleeping pattern can’t be broken. If it’s broken, my entire next day’s shot.”
Richard was aroused at other times, but sex revolved around those few days of the month that were best for fertilization. It was “Hand’s off!” the rest of the time. Fertilization nights had yet to bear any fruit, which was probably a good thing for both of them.
The word that came to mind when he thought of work was ‘endured’.
Richard would ride up the slow, stuffy elevator and slip into the washroom around the corner near the supply room that few people knew about. A place he could be alone. The click of the stall door lock was the sound of safety. He stepped on the toilet seat and crouched. If anyone entered, they wouldn’t know another was in the room.
He needed a moment to think.
His breathing slowed, he manually pushed away the usual tightness in his chest.
He was ready to endure.
Richard’s office was the fifth room from the north wall, between Chuck the Salesman and Dean, well, he wasn’t sure what Dean did. At parties, when people asked what Richard did for a living, he replied, “I write emails and answer the phone.” They always thought he was joking.
But the truth of being an executive for a mid-level insurance company didn’t really amount too much more than this. Oh, sure, there was an unspoken agreement between the executives that they were important, but what they did was intangible. And it was the folly of the modern executive to hang their integrity on their vague and meaningless titles (Richard: Executive Director of Sales, Western Division). They placed a price tag on what amounted to nothing beyond air. Money was moved from one place to another. It was talk. It was numbers.
Imaginary workloads were created so Richard would not have to endure lunch with Chuck and Dean. He made it through the rest of the day with a Big Mac in his stomach. Or if it was an especially trying afternoon approaching, he prepared with a two-drumstick meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken. Katherine had dinner ready and waiting every night, but she had them on a strict vegetarian diet. They were cleansing for vague reasons related to fertilization. A Big Mac could barely be counted as meat, Richard reasoned.
Two, or even three, full to the brim subway cars would go by before Richard boarded. He tried to read the newspaper, but this was for previous generations. He wasn’t interested anymore. Of course, once he was very interested. The focus had changed.
Dinnertime plateaued long ago.
Katherine insisted that they eat every night at the dining room table. Eating in the kitchen or in front of the television was for uncivilized Ex-generation-Xer’s.
The dining room table was purchased with money acquired from the wedding. Katherine found her dream dining room set, but it was over budget. She wore that poor salesman down until it was well within their price range. Richard sympathized with the salesman. There was a lot of mutual shoulder shrugging. Katherine told people that they paid the original price. The time of boasting about saving money was over. The more you paid, the higher people’s eyebrows raised in envy. The more they looked up to you.
There was little conversation beyond what happened at work. Because nothing happened at work, they mainly talked about Katherine. On this particular day, which was like every other day, she talked of events, charity organizations and personal growth activities that she participated in to make herself feel better, to make herself feel like she cared. He was actively trying not to scratch the dining room table – he made this mistake once and ended up on the couch (which wasn’t such a bad thing) – when she said something that caught his attention.
“…he died just like that.” She was saying.
“Who died ‘just like that’?” He asked, blinking to focus his thoughts.
“The Raven’s, you know, John from next door,” she replied. “I signed you up for the Run for Cancer. Remember? You still need to raise-”
“Katherine,” her eyes met his for the first time since they sat down. “What happened to John?”
“Why? You never spoke to him.”
“Does it matter why? A man dies and I care.”
She let out a slight snort.
“What was that?” Richard’s eyes narrowed.
“Tell me why.” Her head tilted to the side.
His defeated sigh was deafening to his ears but externally silent. He reached under the dining room table and scratched the flipside with his fingertips. The top was pristine but underneath the table, he had been carving away since its arrival.
“What was that about the Run for Cancer?” He acquiesced.
The comfort came when he put the cigarette to his lips. He took a moment before lighting, fingering the Zippo in his pocket. He practiced and had mastered the ability to brush the lighter across his thigh, snapping the top open, and swinging it a second time, igniting the flame.
Richard imagined someone watched him. He dramatically held the bright yellow fire in front of him for his audience. They admired his skill with the Zippo. He appreciated how, even with the wind, the fire would not be blown out. Zippos light a cigarette quickly but he always kept the flame longer than necessary. The tip of the cigarette glowed as he inhaled. The top of the lighter was flipped closed and replaced in his pocket.
The first exhale brought the remembrance that he would be alone tonight.
Richard recalled the first night John Raven appeared on the porch next door.
John’s house was not as well manicured. Their interlocking brick porch was old, but the personality of the bricks spoke not of a classy oldness, but of the uncared.
They nodded to each other. The light from their respective windows sprayed white irregular shafts on the bricks and lawn, creating long shadows of their smoking silhouettes. John had a similar arrangement: He was allowed one cigarette per night. He was older than Richard, in his forties with two kids. The son and daughter’s bedtime stubbornness could be heard through the opened upstairs windows.
As it was between two men, the opening questions revolved around what each did for a living. When Richard told John the joke about ‘emails and phone calls’, John laughed, but it was an understanding laugh.
“Yeah, I’m the I.T. expert for a mutual funds company,” John said. “I barely know what that means.”
From that night on, it became routine that their cigarette rationing revolved and ran parallel to each other. Yes, they talked of children and wives and family. But mostly, they talked of travel, of past lives, of hopes and dreams that inevitably ended in disappointment. The one thing they never talked about were the bricks.
Richard lost his companion. He realized that this loss was more essential and devastating to others, such as John’s wife and kids. But Richard took it hard. The cigarette wasn’t the same.
Katherine sat alone in the kitchen drinking a glass of wine. He could feel her on the other side of the glass. He was allowed one cigarette and she allowed herself one glass of wine. Although, according to the slowly increasing number of bottles he found every week in the recycling bin, she was downing more than a glass.
Richard thought of joining her. And than thought better of it.
How did John Raven die?
Richard placed the cigarette butt into a coffee can beside the house. The cigarette puffed at the contact with the water in the can. The smoke dissipated and disappeared into the shadows of the house.
* * *
The next morning Richard sipped his coffee, looking out the front picture window at the suburban street. It was a quiet Saturday until the sound of a hedge trimmer broke the silence. Across the street, Ted was shaping the bushes that provided his house with privacy.
Richard went out to the garage, pretended he was looking for something. The imaginary audience was watching him. It was a curious disposition: He couldn’t simply walk across the street and ask Ted directly about the circumstances surrounding John’s death. He had to be surprised to see Ted, produce pleasantries, pretend that there was no agenda. It was the polite thing to do.
The sound of the hedge trimmer grew louder as Richard approached. Ted didn’t notice him at first, concentration engulfed him. Richard tapped him on his shoulder and stepped away. He worried that people were wound tightly and ready to snap at any circumstance that was out of the ordinary. A hedge trimmer was a dangerous weapon for defense. Ted killed the hedge trimmer and the sound slowly declined, whirling towards a silence that made both men look around the neighbourhood to see if the audience was watching them. Richard’s eye twitched at the silence. He felt like a large tidal wave was going to come along and wash through the streets and crush the houses.
“Oh, hi Rich,” Ted said.
Richard blinked at the sound of his name in short form. He disliked ‘Rich’ and couldn’t stand when someone called him ‘Dick’, the way his schoolteachers insisted, and which the other kids used in a variety of creative ways. Kids can be cruel. He never would have obliged to be called ‘Rich’ and he would have corrected Ted, if he had ever asked. Richard resented the unjustified familiarity but pushed his feelings down below his bowels. He imagined what would happen if he called Ted ‘Theodore’.
“New hedge trimmer?” Richard asked.
Small talk: A necessity.
“Yeah, Judy felt the bushes needed more personality,” Ted said with forced sarcasm.
“Like our bricks,” Richard said this as a joke in order to relate to Ted, but the irony was lost and Ted squinted in confusion. There was no irony about Ted. Richard was once again misunderstood.
And so, they talked for some minutes about Ted’s new car (“You should see her accelerate, I’ll take you for a ride sometime”, “Can’t wait”), his two high school-aged kids (lots of eye rolling – they were difficult boys) and the Run for Cancer (“Judy signed me up too”). Richard finally pulled the conversation around to his desired topic.
“Hear about John?” Richard asked.
“Who?” Ted said, with sincere ignorance.
“John Raven, across the street,” Richard pointed and quickly stopped, in case the audience was watching.
“Oh, yeah, wife killed him,” Ted said.
“Kidding. Strange guy, worked from home. Heart attack. Judy brought over a casserole for the kids.”
“But he couldn’t be that old,” Richard said, more to himself.
The discussion moved from John’s death to other superfluous topics. Richard wished him good luck with wrangling the hedges. Made his exit quickly.
The rest of the day and night, Richard researched heart attacks on the Internet. A simple search displayed a multitude of layman’s information as well as dense medical terminology.
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a section of heart muscle becomes blocked. If the flow of blood isn’t restored quickly, the section of heart muscle becomes damaged from lack of oxygen and begins to die.
Sunday morning, Katherine didn’t remark, didn’t even seem to notice that Richard spent the night not beside her in their bed, but sitting at his computer, his shoulders rigid with tension, a tightness expanding across his chest and thinking thoughts and reading words that created a fear which cut so deep he was unable to sleep. Unable to even think of sleep.
They spent Sunday apart, which was not at all unusual. Katherine did the shopping for the week, an activity she preferred to do alone. Richard doddled too much in the aisles. She attended a yoga class in the afternoon in preparation for the relaxing night ahead. Richard left the computer screen only to use the washroom.
Thousands of Canadians die from heart attacks every year because they don’t receive medical treatment quickly enough. Signals of a heart attack include: Sudden discomfort or pain that does not go away with rest, pain that is brought on with exertion and goes away with rest, difficulty breathing, indigestion, clammy skin, anxiety, denial.
Richard stepped outside for his cigarette. Determined to get over this sense of loss, he focused on believing that he was too young to die of a heart attack.
A noise from next door snapped him out of his thoughts. A woman appeared, attractive but on closer inspection, tired-looking. She spotted Richard right away.
“You must be Richard, John spoke about you all the time,” she said.
Richard never spoke to Katherine about John.
She pointed at her chest with her index finger and said, “Rebecca.”
“I’m sorry about your loss,” Richard said. It was the right thing to say. It was what a polite person said in such circumstances. He had used these words before in similar situations, but this time he really meant it.
“God, I badgered John about smoking, but I could sure use one now,” she said.
Richard passed her a cigarette from his pack. Reached over the fence. He flicked the Zippo and lit her smoke. She exhaled, smiled and nodded at him.
They smoked in silence but it was not awkward.
“This might seem insensitive,” Richard said, “but did John have any health problems?”
“Worried about yourself, huh?” Richard looked down like a truant schoolboy. “No, no, I didn’t mean that in a mean way. To answer your question: No. He was fine. These things happen. And they can happen at any time.”
“I’m sorry,” Richard said.
“Please thank your wife for the banana bread. I’ve gotten two casseroles, three pies and a lasagna. I met none of these people before. I guess it takes something tragic to make people show kindness. No offence to your wife.”
Richard shrugged off her reference to Katherine. He didn’t take any offence. In fact, he strung together a few strongly worded phrases in order to dissuade Katherine from bringing over the banana bread in the first place. All of which she ignored.
“It’s the polite thing to do,” Richard said.
Rebecca looked at him after this remark, right in the eyes for the first time. She smiled, tossed the cigarette to the ground, extinguished it with the ball of her foot. A young girl’s voice called for her mother. Rebecca disappeared into the house.
Richard lit a second cigarette.
TO BE CONTINUED...