Three Perfect Cigarettes
The old man sat in the cab of his son's beat up blue Ford pickup, gazing longingly out the window at something which no
one else could see, toward a horizon hidden by a roadside gas station. The pumps in front were large and red and
boasted rounded tops that bore the image of a white winged horse.
He could see his son inside, paying for the gas and for the cream soda and Moon Pie the old man had requested. The
attendant was babbling about something behind the counter, he could see, an idiot teenager in a white cap that was
two sizes too big for him and which pushed down the tops of his ears so that he looked like a kid playing dress up. He
wished the kid would shut up so he could get back on the road with his son. His head was starting to hurt again and the
scent of oranges wafted through the open window of the cab, although there were no oranges around that he could see.
He knew it was coming, could almost smell it the way he could smell those oranges. It had happened to him every day
for the past month. Some vision, some...almost memory...would play around in his mind until he thought he would go
mad with it, and then his headache would pop like a balloon and he would take a nap, awake feeling a bit refreshed.
And then the vision would come to fruition just as he pictured it.
For some reason, the maddening scent of oranges always preceded these images.
Today, though, he had a feeling he would not be taking a nap. He just wanted to drive. Put as many miles as possible
between himself and this godforsaken town. He had awoken with a feeling of....bad. It was the only way to put it. And
now he felt antsy, ready to crawl out of his skin in his eagerness to get away from that feeling.
The sun beat down through the filmy windshield. He took a clean handkerchief from the front pocket of his tan work
pants and swiped at his forehead with it. It came away wet with blood.
The old man blinked and looked down at the square of white cloth again. There was no blood there, only a spreading
dark stain from his perspiration.
"Pop? You okay?"
His son was looking at him through the open driver's side window of the truck, concern etching lines around his mouth
and across his forehead.
"I'm fine. I just want to get going before sundown," he replied roughly. He was immediately sorry for the anger in his
voice when he saw the look on his boy's face, hurt and confused. It wasn't his fault the old man had visions that scared
him so bad he chewed on his pillow at night. He'd thrown away five pillows in the past four months, all of them mushy
with saliva and the feathers all clumped together from his teeth marks.
"I'm tired, that's all," he said, softer now.
Jake nodded and climbed up into the cab, handing over the cream soda and Moon Pie, which was half melted from the
scorch of the day. The old man didn't mind though. A Moon Pie was a Moon Pie, way he looked at it.
"I can tell. You ain't been sleepin' so good, have you?"
"No matter. Man gets old, he can count on sleep going the way of strong bones and mind. Mostly gone forever."
Jake looked over at him and nodded knowingly, as if he knew what it was to be old and know such a feeling of
impotence, as if his bladder kept him up nights and the heat gave him the shakes so bad he had to lie down in the dark
for an hour before he ate just so he could hold the fork steady. Youth, the old man thought. How strong we think we
are when we have it; how the years flit away like a hummingbird and allow time, that old bald cheater, to catch up to us.
"We should go on back home, Pop," Jake began, but the old man shook his head violently even though it hurt him to do
"I want to go for a drive, I told you. I need to get away from the house for a while. 'Sides, we haven't done this in a
long time, just take a cruise in the afternoon."
Jake tilted his head in that way he always did when he was about to argue. "But it's hotter than the devil's asshole
today and the doctor said you--"
"The doctor, nothin'," the old man said grimly, and touched the rim of the cream soda bottle to his lips. It was blessedly
cool and the soda as sweet as candy, the first sweet thing to touch his tongue in months. He almost groaned with the
pleasure of it. "I'm fine. Got me a drink, don't I? A drink and a sweet, that's all I need right now. Maybe later I'll sneak
me one of them cigarettes you got rolled up in your shirtsleeve there, if you promise not to tell your mama. Oh yeah,
thought I didn't know about 'em, didn't ya? Well, it takes more than a kid your age to pull one over on your old pop, you
Jake smiled through the blush rising in his cheeks. It was born half of embarrassment and half of shame, although the old
man wasn't angry; Jake could tell that just by the sound of his voice. The fact of the matter was this, however; the
doctor had told them all six months ago that no one was to smoke around his pop, under any circumstances. It would
only make his condition worse and he was already coughing up blood in the mornings. Jake had walked into the bathroom
just yesterday and seen it floating in the toilet, a wad of phlegm and gray lung matter running through with a crimson
thread. He had flushed the offending lunger without a further thought, simply wanting to get it out of the house, out of
the toilet so he did not have to look at it while he was taking a piss. He thought of it now, that hunk of his father's
cancer, floating in the dirty, foul water of the sewer, past dead rats and fecal matter and wads of toilet paper. It was
where it belonged, he thought, served it right for fucking up his life and the lives of his mama and Pop. He supposed that
was why he went along with whatever the old man wanted lately. The cancer was eating him alive from the inside out
and if the only thing that made him happy was some sugar and a drive through the country, then by God he would get it.
He hadn't quite been able to chuck the cigarettes, though. The craving set in, especially after a good meal, and he was
powerless to its siren song. It seemed to be calling to him even now from his shirtsleeve, begging to be lit up, but he
didn't dare with Pop in the truck, even with the windows rolled down.
"I don't know about the smoke, Pop," he said reluctantly, dropping the truck into gear and backing toward the main
road. The transmission wheezed and groaned in complaint but he managed to trundle it up and onto the gravel anyway.
A warm breeze floated through the open windows, lifting the sparse white hairs away from the old man's forehead and
cooling the perspiration that had settled there. "Mama would kill me if she found out."
"How's she gonna find out? Ain't gonna know unless you tell her, boy, and that'd be downright stupid."
Jake shot him a glance that was meant to be stern but ended in a laugh despite himself. "Maybe. We'll see."
The old man grunted and rested his arm on the side of the door. The wind felt so good on his face he felt like sticking it
out the window like a dog and tasting the air as they drove. The thought made him smile briefly, but then he saw his
son lying in the road ahead of them, battered and bloody, his head almost completely torn from his body and lying on
the gravel, attached by a thin gristle of flesh. One eyeball was hanging out of the socket and lay on his cheek, which
had been flayed open to the bone and lay in two pink flaps across his jaw. His left foot was bare; he had been knocked
out of his shoe and sock, it looked like, leaving the foot itself remarkably untouched.
The old man blinked, hard, and the image was gone. The road was clear, if a little dusty. His son sat alive and unmarked
beside him, blessedly unaware of what his father had just seen.
He had recognized that patch of road, the old man had. It was not actually the road they were on, but they would be
soon enough. It was a crossroads that joined their little town to Briggs. He knew it well, having traveled it every day of
his life from the age of sixteen or so until late last year, when the coughing had gotten so bad he couldn't bear to keep
his mask on for longer than a few minutes at a time. He couldn't figure which was worse: breathing through coal dust or
through the thick phlegm that had congealed in his lungs once the cancer took over.
The coal mines thrust up against the side of a mountain which had no name, a stark, steep thing that he had dreaded to
see peeking up over the horizon every morning. In the cool light of dawn it hadn't seemed so bad, but by the time he
reached the mouth of the mine the sun was always high in the sky and seemed to mock him, teasing cruelly with its
bright shine as though it knew he wouldn't see it again until the next morning.
His son was about to die. He knew that as well as he knew the back of his own hand or the sound of his wife's voice. He
hadn't seen himself in the vision, but figured it was just as possible that he was slated to die as well, and probably
would if he didn't do something about it. He didn't know if another car was involved or not, but he vaguely remembered
seeing the truck, the very one they were riding in, lying on its roof about fifty feet from where Jake had lain in the road.
He had to get them out of the truck without letting anything on to his son. He didn't want to scare him and, he thought,
even if he told him about his vision, would Jake believe him? If the situation were reversed, he wasn't even sure he'd
believe himself. Jake would probably think it was the cancer talking or some such nonsense and continue down the path
towards certain death.
"I want to get out, stretch my legs," the old man said suddenly, not even thinking about what he was saying, simply
grasping for any reason to stop the truck. "Let's go to the creek. You got your fishin' poles in the back, don't ya?"
"Yeah, but the creek's almost dry this time of year, Pop. It's just been too hot. You could probably reach in and grab
those fish with your bare hands, that's how--"
"I don't care, son, I said I want to stop!" the old man screeched. He felt panic, high and silver, in the back of his throat.
The weeping willow tree that marked the halfway point to the mines was coming up on their left. If Jake didn't turn onto
the road right after that, the next stop would be their final destination. Death was imminent. He could almost hear the
screech and moan of the old truck's gears as it spun out of control on the loose gravel.
"Okay, Pop, we'll stop. Don't get yourself worked up, now. We'll go to the creek." He reached over and patted the old
man on one gnarled hand, his eyebrows knitted together in concern. He had never seen him like this before. Either he
was in a lot of pain or the heat was getting to him, and Jake knew the look that came into the old man's eyes when the
pain was close to unbearable. It was absent for the moment and he was glad. It was a glassy, far-away look that he
hated. It made him look almost dead, like a corpse that had learned to breathe, and he could almost see the dead man
in his father waiting to get out. A skeleton with skin stretched over it. He wondered how his mother must feel, having
such a monster in place of her husband, having to bathe him and feed him most days like he was a child. Some days
were better than others, such as today; he'd actually walked out to the truck himself after getting himself dressed
But the end result was the same, wasn't it? A withered body bringing burden to his mother and to himself for another
few months before finally cashing it all in, and even then they could not rest. There would be the funeral to think about
and plan. Tracking down family members who had moved out of state so they could drive back here, to this miserable
mining town in Virginia, and pretend they cared about the death of a man they never really knew to begin with. It all
made Jake slightly sick to his stomach and he moved his head closer to the window, trying to breathe in some fresh air.
It was not fresh. It was hot and carried the stink of the paper mill from across the river, like burning tires and sulfur and
How he hated this town. His father had grown up here and had decided to raise his little family here, but Jake had
always hated it, was always ready to leave. He had vowed as a young boy that he would never get stuck here the way
Pop had. He wanted to live in a big city, where no one knew him and he could walk into a bookstore and buy a nudie
mag and not have the whole goddam town know about it. A city that didn't carry the residue of the coal mines or the
stench of burning paper in the air.
And now here he was, stuck here for at least as long as it took for his father to die and probably well after that, since
he was expected to stay and help his mother.
He felt his foot grow heavier on the gas pedal.
"Jacob? What in hell are you doing, boy? The turn for the creek is coming up, you'll want to slow down!"
Jake felt a slow smile spread across his face. Suddenly his stomach felt much better. He had a plan. Speed things up, he
thought. That's all I need. Then I can make a clean break from here and maybe even make things a bit easier on Mama.
"It's okay, Pop," he said softly, never taking his eyes off the road. "I'm taking a little detour."
The old man felt his eyes grow wider than he had thought possible. The little bastard wasn't going to listen to him and
the result would be worse than he could imagine. Panic welled up in his throat again and he flailed for the steering wheel
in a last ditch effort to yank it to the right, but Jake was strong and held tight with his left hand. The other hand shot
out cat-quick and the old man went reeling against the passenger side door frame, stunned. The truck fishtailed, the
tires spun briefly....and that was all.
Stars whirled around in front of his eyes for a moment before he realized his son had punched him in the skull. Something
warm and sticky slipped down the side of his face and he pulled his handkerchief out on reflex. He touched it gingerly to
the wound and when he pulled it away it came back red.
Fear and anger mixed with indignation until his blood began to boil and he looked at his son with a dangerous glint in his
eyes. The premonitory vision was starting, he realized, but the little shit had popped him one! Children weren't supposed
to hit their parents. It was this simple phrase that he began to repeat over and over in his head to keep the fear at bay,
until it became a talisman of sorts, a rosary of worry beads that he fingered mentally.
Children weren't supposed to hit their parents. Children weren't supposed to hit their parents.
"What are you doing?" he asked finally. His voice was low and pleasant, almost conversational. Jake didn't notice. He
was too busy plotting how he would make his father's death look like a tragic accident, perhaps a drowning as they
walked one last time by the river or a sudden trip over a rock on the slippery creek bank.
"Don't worry, Pop. Just sit back and relax."
A maniacal light had entered his eyes, the old man noticed. Jake was concentrating so hard on the road ahead that the
old man was able to slowly bring his seat belt forward and ease it across his lap. He feinted a coughing fit in order to
snap the buckle home without Jake hearing the click of metal against metal.
He watched the scenery pass by outside the truck, the trees becoming a blur as Jake sped up, eager to get to his
destination. The sun slanted through the leaves, as beautiful as a painting or some other work of art. The old man took
all of it in with a sadness he hadn't felt since learning he had cancer and waited until he saw the right tree before he
made his move. It was a big one, old and gnarled from the passage of time and weather. It stood alone just at the side
of the road, and it was coming up fast.
Jake was so consumed in his own thoughts and with trying to keep the truck on the slippery gravel road that the old
man took him by surprise, which was just what he wanted. The steering wheel felt slimy in his hand, slick with his son's
sweat, but he managed to hold onto it anyway and yanked it hard to the right.
It was too late for Jacob to even reach for his seatbelt. The tree seemed so big, so impossibly there, and the old man
closed his eyes as it became even bigger and the world turned upside down.
Late afternoon sunlight poured through the leaves above, creating lovely leaf lights that fluttered around the old man's
ankles. Broken safety glass glittered here and there in the road, sparkled in Jake's hair. What was left of it. The old man
sat in the grass beside the road, chewing on a sprig of mint he'd pulled off the tree.
The truck was on its roof behind him. His boy was in pieces in front of him, splayed on the road like an unfortunate
The old man had a broken ankle to show for his trouble. It didn't hurt him much. Compared to the cancer, it wasn't bad
at all. He figured he could wait for someone passing by to give him a lift back to the house; the truck certainly wasn't
drivable. It had only been about twenty minutes since the accident. Someone would come along soon enough, he
reckoned. Someone always did. And he had the cigarettes to help him pass the time, anyway. Three perfectly rolled
smokes that he had unfolded from his boy's shirtsleeve.
Funny, the old man thought. The wreck hadn't damaged them at all.