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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Thanks for the Smoke by Katie L. Carroll

Chuck was down to one or two cigarettes a day and about to give up on the whole damn idea of trying to quit. It was hardest first thing in the morning and in the evening after dinner. There was just nothing to keep his hands occupied during those times. Emma, his niece, gave him the idea that kept him on track.

He had tried to quit cold turkey a couple of weeks before Emma’s fifth birthday. It had been going okay. Sure he had been grumpy most of the day, and he'd been drinking beer with dinner every night, but he hadn’t been smoking. Then he went to his sister’s house for Emma’s party where his brother-in-law produced a bunch of stogies.

Chuck thought, “Why not? It’s not a cigarette.”

So when the guys went out to the front yard to smoke, Chuck joined them. Boy was that a big mistake. After he inhaled his first unsatisfying puff, all he could think about was the taste of a cigarette on his lips.

He began to wonder why he had quit in the first place. Sure there was the whole lung cancer and emphysema aspect, but it sure as hell wasn’t helping his attitude or his physique. He had already gained ten pounds. Chuck was wondering if he still had a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment of his truck when his niece ran up to him.

“Uncle Charlie, will you come and blow bubbles with me?” she asked.

As he sat there with the sticky solution running down his arm and the taste of soap in his mouth, Chuck felt better than he had in weeks…maybe years. On his way home that night, he stopped at a toy store and bought out its entire stock of bubbles. They were great for when he was at home in his apartment. He would sit out on his front steps and just blow bubbles, watching them float. Some popped right away and others went so high up he never saw them burst. They were a harmless vice, except they didn’t work in every situation.

Like tonight when he was out with his buddy Dave. They went to a bar downtown. He was okay for a while, drinking a couple of beers and watching the baseball game on the big screen. Then he spotted a cute woman smoking by herself on the outdoor patio. That had been another reason why he had decided to quit: that law banning smoking indoors in public places, forcing those with the habit outside. He didn’t like feeling like an outcast. Being part of a group was one thing that had attracted him to smoking in the first place when it seemed like everyone he knew smoked. But not anymore.

He pointed the woman out to Dave.

“You should go ask her for a cigarette,” Dave said.

“But I’m trying to quit.”

Dave punched him on the arm and called him a not-so-nice word for the female anatomy, enough motivation for him to walk out to the patio.

“Can I bum a cigarette off you?” he asked.
“Sure,” the woman said, eyeing him. “I was just starting to think that I was the only smoker in this place.”

She looked to be in her mid thirties, at least five years younger than Chuck, but she wasn’t wearing a ring. He figured he’d give it a shot.

“I’m trying to quit,” he admitted.

“My friends are all trying to quit, too,” she said. “None of them could stand being out here with me.”

She pulled a box of slim cigarettes out of her purse. Chuck cringed at having to waste a smoke on one of those—they were barely even worth the breath used to inhale them—but it was a sacrifice he was hoping would pay off. He managed to accept the cigarette without grimacing, but he thought he saw a glint in the woman’s eye when she lit it for him.

“I’m Chuck Testa,” he said after his first drag.

“I’m Linda, Linda Blake,” she said.

He held his free hand out to shake hers and she obliged. They talked while they smoked. He found out that she ran a daycare center. He told her he customized cars for a living. His uncle owned the business, but he was hoping to buy in as an owner soon. He mentioned Emma and the bubbles, his face burning hot from embarrassment, but Linda ate it up.

“That’s adorable!” she exclaimed. Then she took the last puff of her cigarette and snuffed it out in the ashtray.

Chuck squished out the rest of his. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“Sure.”

He held the door for her and followed her into the bar. Dave gave Chuck a sideways smile when he saw Linda. Chuck steered her to the opposite side of the bar. Linda gave a little wave to a table with three women at it, her friend he supposed. She surprised him by ordering a beer.

“Make that two,” he said to the bartender.

He turned to Linda. “A woman that drinks beer and smokes slims. I’m confused.”

“I grew up with three brothers,” she said. “I got to liking the taste of beer, so I decided to smoke something a little more feminine to make up for it.”

They talked for over an hour. It was easy talking to her. She like that he worked with his hands for a living. She called it “real blue-collar work.” Then one of her friends came over.

“Linda,” she said. “We’re ready to go.”

“Oh, hey Sheri,” Linda said. “This is Chuck. Chuck, this is Sheri.”

“Great,” Sheri said, ignoring the hand he held out to her. “Are you ready?”

“I guess,” Linda answered.

She pulled her phone from her purse and asked Chuck for his number. Shortly after he recited it, his phone buzzed in his pocket.

“That’s from me, so you have my number.” She produced another slim and handed it to him. “One last one on me. Then that’s it, right?”

Chuck nodded. “Bubbles are better anyway.”

She giggled. “Yeah. Hey, thanks for the beer.”

“No problem.” He held up the phone. “Thanks for this. And for the smoke.” He watched her walk out before going back to sit with Dave for the end of the game.

On his way home, Chuck lit up the slim. It tasted terrible, but he sucked on it gratefully, thinking of Linda’s lips the whole time. It was the last cigarette he ever smoked, but it was not the last time he saw Linda.

***
Katie L. Carroll is a mother, writer, editor, and speaker. She began writing at a very sad time in her life after her 16-year-old sister, Kylene, unexpectedly passed away. Since then writing has taken her to many wonderful places, real and imagined. She wrote her YA fantasy ELIXIR BOUND so Kylene could live on in the pages of a book. Katie is also the author of the picture app THE BEDTIME KNIGHT and a contributor to THE GREAT CT CAPER, a serialized mystery for young readers. She lives not too far from the beach in a small Connecticut city with her husband and sons. For more about Katie, visit her website at www.katielcarroll.com.