At work, the metal butt-urn on the loading dock is smoldering like a Dickensian or Mary Poppins chimney. The butts are on fire again. It smells like burning pvc pipes, Home Depot’s plumbing section sacked by early first century marauders. I used to contribute, but it burns without me. Like being with a friend on a long road trip, I had to get out. In a recent interview, life-smoker Christopher Hitchens said that he wished he got out of the ‘bohemian lifestyle’ sooner than he did. He said this while his bald head bobbed like a harbinger monk, his practical words more applicable than any kind of scripture. It was pathetic and inspiring. Even: life-giving to someone other than himself. It could be me.
I love smoking; I love quitting. Yet, I wanted non-smoker’s lungs. I wanted to breathe. I stepped outside at work to take in the air I was depriving myself. Everything smells funny when you get your senses back. I mourned the dull senses. When I quit people ask why? But you are Alex, you smoke. I tell that I’m not sad anymore, that I don’t want to die.
I guess that depends on the day. To alter Eliot: I love measuring my life in cigarette butts. But there is something to coughing up something tangible, expelling what some dinosaurs may have drowned in. It means something is happening, according to plan, moving forward — it’s a twisted version of progress. There is something to waiting two weeks to feel like the first time. It’s during these cyclical nostalgic times I feel the most despair in other parts of my life.
A pinch of ash nearly took down the house I rent. I had finished on our three-season porch and made sure to place the butt in a different place and dumped the ashes into a plastic bag. Half-hour later, I wasn’t cooking anything. It smelled like when, as a child, I put the frozen pretzel on 30:00 instead of 3:00. A simple mistake. My mom sprayed this raspberry body spray. Everything a burning patch.
The front bay window was like looking at that little door of a log cabin furnace. I could not see the snow. I opened the door—the couch, plastic, mail, all our detritus aflame. I could call the fire department and wait for my house to burn down. I put my white undershirt over my mouth like a silent film era train robber and pushed the f-cker out the doorway.
In front of the bathroom mirror I expectorated: black phlegm seasoned with newspaper, couch matter, probable pieces of plastic. I excreted paper products like a post office. I smelled like a smelted Lego factory peed out by a neighborhood. My skin reeked like a facsimile of General Sherman’s cologne, March to the Sea. There was a metaphor in here somewhere: for the demise of the newspaper, the death of letter writing. Maybe: don’t smoke. Yet: Zippo out while I’m shoveling January’s makeshift fire hose on my burnt creation. People sauntered past and looked at me like I was at the leash-end of a dog shitting.
My landlord: that’s why you should quit smoking, and he laughed. It was funny, after I didn’t burn the house down. But here I am years later, tobacco cirrus wisps and pixels. Even the computer hacks back. Some people quit because they find out even their pets can be poisoned.
I’m a smoker; I’m a non-smoker. I’m sick of gambling, waffling. As I get older, I almost see the odds, as clear as the lottery poster above the gas station ATM. Funny how in history we’ve burned both martyrs and sinners at the stake, that fire doesn’t care who it squanders. Its fuel is anything, ambiguous as a wanted poster. For the moment, I can stand and look down. That’s the thing about being elevated on a self-constructed pyre of youth and health. You don’t have to see the future, everything is now. Soon it will be close, and it will choose me. For the first time, fire is a mirror. Tell it a joke, say I have to go, offer to draft it a suicide letter. This parting will hurt. But it’s necessary, like all fresh-struck flames at the feet of our stakes.