A Puff of Smoke

by Joe Duffy

The sun set earlier in November, usually between four and five o’clock. Cooper stood leaning against the kitchen counter with two eyes on his wristwatch. It was four-fifteen in the afternoon and the streets were beginning to darken. Broad shafts of sunlight stretched through the windows, pouring over dusty hardwood planks.

He waited. The sun dangled above the sea, reluctant to set. Cooper scooped up his mug and downed the rest of the cold, bitter coffee. The mug’s handle was in the shape of a whale’s tail, with MONDAYS BLOW inscribed across the front. Mary had gotten it for his birthday—sometimes he wanted to throw it away just to forget about it. It was his last good mug though, so he kept it. He scraped the stray grounds from his tongue as he made his way to the sink. It brimmed with crusty cast iron pots, grimy dishes, clusters of forks in murky pools. He glanced at his watch again: four-nineteen.

He walked past the kitchen counter to the living room, where ivory blinds were strung up in bundles over the tall, sand-speckled windows. He opened the closet opposite the front door and peeled a thick black windbreaker off one of the wire hangers.

The formerly golden sunlight had turned now to wilder, more violent streaks of pink and red that reverberated off the bungalows lining the thin grey alley. Cooper stepped outside and crossed his small patio, closing the grated silver gate behind him.

A breeze rushed him as he stepped into the alley. He shivered and proceeded along towards the beach, which sat maybe thirty yards from his front steps. As he hurried over the shaded concrete, music trickled from rooftops, from different homes in different alleys. Crossing the back road which split the alley, he overheard chatter from the burger joint around the corner. A woman broke into laughter. The scent of fried onions drifted through the evening air in warm tendrils.

He crossed the empty boardwalk and hopped over the waist-high barrier. Cooper paused on the barrier and kicked off his tennis shoes, slipping a finger in each of the heels and starting off again. He went left but froze after a few steps. Further down the beach, a group of men and women who looked to be about Cooper’s age were huddled around a roaring bonfire. They sat in bright beach chairs and kept beers holstered in the armrests. They even had a green canopy spread over them, but it trembled in the wind. One of the men worked desperately to bury its aluminum legs in the sand.

Cooper turned and headed the opposite direction. The beach was nearly empty in front of him. A young couple much farther down had their backs turned to him. They pranced along the shoreline, hands clasped together. The water coiled back and pounced at their bare feet as they yanked on each other’s hands, laughing and dancing in the direction of the boardwalk.

Cooper checked his watch one more time: four-thirty-nine.

He bit his lip and buried his free hand deep in his jacket pocket. The time was approaching and he couldn’t miss it again. Too many times he had come out to the sand too late. It had always been a source of conflict between him and Mary—she never liked to keep people waiting. He didn’t either, but sometimes the hours simply escaped him. He had been very careful today though. He had kept himself awake, alert, wary of the moment approaching.

The bottom of the sun sunk below the horizon, into the cool blue water. It was as if the ocean pinched the sun’s belly, its plasma guts spilling over the seascape.  

Only another minute or two, Cooper thought, a matter of seconds and the sun will be swallowed until morning. Now was the time, as he well knew, but he held off for a few more moments because he had begun to think that the experience became more vivid the closer the sun came to vanishing. He had come out too early before and, during those times, she had still come along, or he had coaxed her along at least, but the whole thing felt as though it may slip away at any moment, like it was nothing more than a vivid dream. He would look at her once and then look back only a second later and something seemed different. She felt like a palmful of water—if he grasped too tightly she would trickle between his knuckles.

Cooper took a seat in the sand and tossed his tennis shoes aside. A last dot of light hovered over the water. He took his hand out of his jacket pocket. His fingers emerged wrapped around a crinkled pack of cigarettes. He flicked open the top and looked over the contents. Stowed on the inside were three cigarettes and a lighter. Flipping the pack over, his thumb traced the Drumstick Milds lettering, reminding him of how badly he wished he could find another pack of the same name. He had looked and looked, but every time he stopped in a bodega or smoke shop they had always turned the pack over curiously in their hands, scratching their heads and sheepishly admitting that they had never seen the brand, or at least hadn’t seen it sold anywhere in years. Cooper was fairly certain, however, that another pack, even by the same name, wouldn’t do the trick. There was something uncanny and miraculous about these cigarettes. Perhaps Mary had known that.  

He removed the lighter and a single cigarette from the pack. As the final streaks of light licked the horizon, he put the lighter to his mouth and flicked. Nothing. He flicked a second time and, again, nothing. His stomach churned and his eyes sunk. He flicked it over and over again, cupping his other hand over the tip of the cigarette and working frantically with his thumb. Looking out over the sea, he could no longer see the sun but still saw its brilliant orange glow. Come on, he urged, please, come on. His deep green eyes began to well with tears. Each attempt conjured feeble sparks that quickly flashed and died. Come on, come on, come on. He managed a little flame and held his thumb down on the lighter wheel until it was numb.

Cooper drew in and puffed streams of smoke from the corners of his mouth. Drawing in deep, he exhaled a great cloud of smoke and coughed a bit, turning his head and spitting as far as he could. He had given up smoking years ago and only returned to it for these kinds of occasions.

He leaned back and dug his left hand deep into the sand behind him. He watched the waves as they rolled over the beach. Any trace of light had all but evaporated and the sand felt cool between his fingers.

Bringing the cigarette to his mouth, he took a second drag. He exhaled and the smoke wafted towards the water and drifted upwards between Cooper and the glowing moon. The waves began rolling in at a quicker pace. They crashed against the shore and erupted into little clouds of sandy mist.

The third puff of smoke was already swirling in his mouth. When he released it, the cloud floated forward and revealed the vague outline of a figure standing directly before him. Not the full figure, no, but the shaft of a nose, the hollow of a cheek, the curve of a woman’s chest. Cooper saw these features for a fleeting second before the breeze quietly carried them away. Now it was quiet again, and there was nothing except for the sand and the waves and the sharp moonlight.

By the fourth drag, he could feel her underneath him. His buried hand felt a faint movement beneath the surface, a tossing and a grumble as if something had been awakened. Cooper turned his head to either side and saw that he was alone on the beach. The ground trembled lightly around him and grains of sand rolled off the tops of mounds, seemingly by their own accord. The trembling grew more powerful and expanded beneath Cooper. Veins of wet sand from great depths rose to the surface and sputtered in every direction.

The head emerged first and the rest of the body followed. She sat up bent at the waist and reached in the direction of her smothered toes. She fell back and lifted two balled fists, letting out a deep yawn. Then she turned and looked at Cooper.

“Care if I have a drag?”

“Of course.”

The cigarette hung limply between the two of them. She reached out with a peeling grey hand and took the thing between them, putting it to her lips. Her flesh was a rotting grey-blue which peeled in some places more than others. The bone pierced through a few of her fingers and peeked through her cheek facing the moon. A haunting glow illuminated the coarse bone and reminded Cooper of her cotton white complexion––of how, at one time, she radiated beauty and youthfulness. She had brown hair thick with streamers of seaweed and algae, barrettes made of small shells and broken sand dollars. As she pulled in her breath and the tip of the cigarette flared, Cooper reached over and stuck two fingers inside her hollow eye socket, pulling out a tiny crab whose legs thrashed helplessly between his thumb and forefinger. With a flick of his wrist he tossed the crab aside and it scurried away, darting between piles of sand.  

The waves had settled. The water moved slowly and quietly across the sand. The earlier disturbance in the tides had distracted Cooper from the beating of his own heart. Now he felt the thumping in his chest. He felt the blood pulsing beneath his skin, the veins carrying the blood from his heart to his cheeks to his hands, all the way down to his naked toes, wiggling in the moonlight.

Cooper turned to look at her once again. She grinned at him, the cigarette dangling from her lips. He reached over and placed his hand on her thigh. His hand was met with a thin, slimy film and he felt repulsed by the alien texture. He almost drew away but by an effort of sheer will kept it there, caressing slowly back and forth. She used to have a small mole on the tip of her nose. She would occasionally look at herself cross-eyed in a hand mirror and toss out things along the lines of, It looks pretty dark today, huh? Like, especially dark. Not sure what to say to things like these, Cooper would just chuckle. What’s so funny? Cooper never knew what to tell her. He felt that he always laughed at the wrong times.

“I can’t remember the last time I had one of these,” she said.

“Must have been last summer.”

“With the hatch of your Forester lifted up. And my blanket over the two of us.”

“Yeah.”

“It used to bother me when you let ashes fall on the blanket,” she said. “But then—all those holes and burns—they were like little pictures. Abstract brushstrokes.”

“You’re right. Maybe we should start ringing up galleries.”

Cooper almost laughed, then stopped himself. He kept his hand on her thigh.

Lifting the cigarette from her fingers, he leaned in even further, planting a kiss on her cold, swollen lips. Cooper allowed it to go on as long as possible, feeling her lips squirming beneath his, but eventually pulled away. Her seawater fragrance and that briny mouth were too unbearable and he came close to vomiting. He almost spit over his shoulder, and would have blamed it on that bitter tobacco taste he had never learned to like, but decided against it.

The cigarette burned at the filter and stung Cooper’s fingertips. He brought it carefully to his mouth and took another puff. She yawned beside him and he felt her stirring in the wet sand. Then she rose to her feet, put her hands on her hips, and stuck her chest out towards the water. She raised her head to the moon and closed her eyes. It appeared that she was taking in the smell of the sea.

She opened her eyes and turned to Cooper.

“You want to go for a swim?” she asked.

“You know I can’t.”

“I do?”

“Well, maybe not. I’ll stay here.”

“I’ll bet the water is nice tonight. Come on, you never wanna go with me.”

“Someday I’ll come with you, but I’m just not feeling it tonight. Sorry.”

“Suit yourself.”

She flashed him a toothless smile and made for the water. Her long legs glided confidently across the sand. Seeing her silhouette in the moonlight, Cooper’s eyes were drawn to where that long, black hair brushed against the small of her back. He watched her slim figure dance across the luminous sand, admired her hips as they swayed freely in the dim light of the cold beach.

Cooper watched as she reached where the tide met the sand. She stretched a foot towards the water and, after a great deal of hesitation, slowly dipped it in. Then she turned to look at Cooper again, who smiled and offered a thumbs-up. She bounded into the gentle waves, skimming the top of the sea with soft, mutilated fingers. The ocean swelled and tossed and flailed wildly, a brilliant, crashing maelstrom. The water seemed to turn a hideous shade of black. Thunderous crests rose above her head and battered her down.

Cooper lost sight of her. She was there one moment and then a wave came along and took her the next. Afterwards, the crashing subsided and the water was smooth and glassy. All that remained were scattered canopies of soiled white foam floating on the surface. Cooper took the cigarette and crushed it into the sand. He stood up and gathered his shoes, carrying them in one hand, the extinguished butt in the other. He strode across the sand, hopped the barrier a second time, and threw the butt away in a nearby trash can. As he neared his home, the smell of the sea became less and less intense.

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Joe Duffy is a senior studying English at the University of San Diego.

This piece was originally published in the Fall 2018 Issue, Vol. 4 Iss. 1.

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