Isaac James Baker

Posted on October 31, 2011

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Cold Turkey

Nothing tastes better than a smoke and a cold Blue Moon on a summer afternoon. Sitting out on the stoop in front of my apartment, relaxed at the prospect of no plans for the rest of the evening, I proved this to myself one more time. I slid the lip of my brew onto the top step and whipped my fist down, sending the cap flying and clinking into the street. Wisps rose from the neck of the bottle like chilled genies. I brought it up to my mouth and just a bit of the beer foamed over the lip and cascaded down the side of the bottle. It tasted zesty and sweet. I put the bottle down and lit up a smoke. I dragged on it lazily.

I was trying to quit. D.C. had just slapped another $1.00 tax per pack on cigarettes. That meant a pack of Marlboro mediums cost $7.21 at the pharmacy, even more if it was late at night and I had to pick up some at the corner bodega. I decided to buy one pack per week. Every Monday morning, after my oatmeal and coffee, I would dash over to the pharmacy and buy my weekly allotment. I could divvy out the cigarettes among the seven days however I wanted. This allowed me the freedom to smoke two in a row if I was stuck waiting for a bus and the nicotine bugs started gnawing at me. During the week, the constant meetings and phone calls at work washed away a lot of the itch. Some weekdays I’d only smoke one. But on the weekends, especially at night, it seemed almost impossible not to just keep puffing away, smoke after smoke after smoke.

I had just started dating a girl who didn’t like cigarette smoke. I saw her maybe twice a week, which gave me more incentive to quit. She was smart, sexy and seemed quite interested in me. I didn’t want to ruin it before we even got into bed together, so I would only smoke one or two on days we went out. I made sure to brush my teeth and tongue vigorously before seeing her so that when we kissed she wouldn’t taste the tobacco and whatever the hell else they put in those damned things.

Three weeks in, and I was sticking to my one pack a week allowance. I figured in the next week or two I’d take it down to one pack every ten days. I’d see how that went, and then put myself on one pack every two weeks. Pretty soon, I told myself, I’d be an ex-smoker.

Cold turkey was not an option.

As I was enjoying my cigarette, a middle-aged man with cargo pants strolled up the street toward me. His T-shirt was splattered with grey paint and the neck was stretched out and crusted with dirt. He had a scruffy beard and teeth that looked like yellowed toenails. Desperation burned in his eyes, a burn any smoker would have recognized. It was that Hey brother, can I bum a cigarette? look. Sure enough, as he approached: “Lemme bumma smoke?” He stuck out his thick hand, anticipating a “Yes” from me, or, rather, demanding one.

I had exactly five smokes left in my pack. If I tossed him one, I could only have one more that night and then three for the whole day on Sunday. I was going to start the day off with the paper and a cup of coffee at a local café. I had planned to go to a blues concert on Sunday night, and I surely needed at least a smoke or two for the show. You can’t listen to dirty blues, drink martinis and not step out for a cigarette. Well, at least I can’t. So, doing the math in my head, that left me with exactly no smokes to spare. Indeed, I was already cutting it way too close.

“Sorry, man,” I said. The cigarette was burning close to the edge of the filter.

The scruffy man curled up his eyebrows suspiciously. The raw power in his gaze frightened me. “You ain’t got a smoke?”

“Sorry, man,” I repeated, holding up my smoldering butt. I looked off over his shoulder into the street.

“Alright,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Later.” He turned and began to walk up the street.

I took another drag of my cigarette until the bitter taste of charred filter filled my mouth. I tossed it into a small puddle on the sidewalk where it hissed like a swatted wasp. I reached into my pocket to check my pack. I thumbed open the lid and counted again. Five cigarettes. Perfect.

“I thought you said you didn’t have any smokes?”

I looked up and saw the big, dirty man staring right at me. He stood up from behind a bush in my apartment building’s front garden. I quickly shoved the box back into my pocket. Then I looked at him curiously. “Were you hiding out there and watching me?”

“Yup,” the man stated. He stomped through the bush and loomed over me on the stoop like a slugger taking the plate. He looked much bigger than he did a few seconds earlier. He crossed his bulging hairy arms in front of his chest. “I knew you had a smoke. I could tell you was lying.”

“Look, man,” I said defensively, “I’m trying to quit, alright? I only have a few smokes left and I need ’em. Plus, technically, I wasn’t lying. All I said was, ‘Sorry, man.’”

The man chuckled and gave me a crooked grin. “That’s still a lie.”

He was only a few feet in front of me. My eyes darted around the street. I quickly began thinking of my exit strategy, about which way I could take off should it come to that.

“You should go cold turkey,” the man said.

“That doesn’t work,” I replied, trying not to let my fear chill my words. “I already tried that. Look, I gotta go.” I stood up and wobbled nervously, my beer quivering in my right hand. “Have a good one.”

The man put his hand on my shoulder and slammed me down to the stoop.

“Look, man,” I said. “I’m not looking for any trouble.”

“Tough shit,” the man said. “Cuz trouble’s found you. Now, gimme those smokes.”

I huffed out a nervous breath. “I already told you,” I said. “I’m trying to quit. I need these. Ask somebody else. There’s a bar down the block. People are always drunk and smoking out there. They’ll give you cigarettes.”

“I want those,” the man said. He shoved his hand into his back pocket. I saw it slide out like a silver snake’s tongue: a shining switchblade. He stuck it out in front of his waist and tilted it back and forth like it was some deadly extension of his penis.

I reached into my pocket for the smokes. I tossed them up into the air. The man caught them with his other hand. Then he clicked the switchblade in and stuck it back into his pocket. He pulled out a cigarette and stuck it between his sunburned lips.

“Gotta light?” he asked.

I held out my pack of matches. I had no use for them now. He snatched them out of my hand, struck one and lit up my cigarette. He took a deep drag and blew it into my face. The smoke stung my eyes. He smiled, proudly displaying his crooked, stained teeth.

“I’m taking these, too,” the main said, sticking my matches into his pocket. “Thanks a lot, asshole,” he said. Then he turned and walked away.

I sipped my Blue Moon in silence.

***

Isaac James Baker has worked as a journalist, technical writer, editor and a communications specialist. He lives in Washington, DC, where he is working on a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. His publications can be found at http://www.isaacjamesbaker.com, and he blogs about wine and writing at http://isaacjamesbaker.blogspot.com.

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