Charlie O’Brien Lights a Dramatic Cigarette

By Jeff Somers
2,959 words · 11-minute reading time
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Scene One: NO CHALLENGE TOO BIG

I’m the good-looking one in the back with the gin and tonic, flushed with success and amongst friends: the big flat-headed guy is Tim, my good friend and Security Director, and the round soft-edged fellow in grey flannel is Emil, my confidant and advisor. My cabinet, they are.

It’s nine o’clock on a Wednesday, The Deciding Hour, and if we were going to go home and get some rest now’s the time but we were holding back, nursing drinks, hoping that something interesting might happen to prevent early retirement. As we got older the bar gets raised on what’s interesting, until, eventually, we’ll give up altogether and just go home first thing.

We’ve known each other long enough to have nothing at all to say. A symphony of tapping, ice stirring, and absent humming surrounds us, a friendly jello of air wrapping us in a jolly atmosphere. We twinkled in the rarefied pool room of the bar and caught people’s eyes.

Tim glanced at his watch in a practiced way and said “It’s probably time we packed it in.”

I acknowledged the announcement by finding and lighting a cigarette. “Late enough for you, old man?”

“Late enough.”

My favorite delaying tactic is to just not move. Tim usually won’t make a spectacle of himself by making solo moves. I can usually keep him out for at least an hour before his whining wears me down. I signaled our waitress by raising my glass up in the air, smiling rakishly at her, and winking. Translated, it meant you’re doing fine your tip is assured please god one more round before Tim makes me contemplate my depressing apartment.

A miscalculation, this time; the jello of friendly atmosphere tensed and brittled up into the end of our evening, with Tim standing up despite my best efforts. He ducked his head and looked around—a quick, uncomfortable moment, imagining that everyone is staring at him.

“I’m tired, man.”

It’s a plea—he doesn’t want to leave alone.

I sucked in smoke and sighed. “Okay.” I said. A series of quick edits: Emil finishes his drink in a gulp...I wave at the waitress and shrug with a charmingly upraised eyebrow...Tim shrugs his jacket on as he walks towards the door in little strobe-light increments...and we’re outside.

It’s brisk and clear and I hold out a hand to Tim with my cigarette clenched between my teeth.

“A pleasure drinking with you, my friend.” I said with a wink. The cool wind whipped around us, dispersing the bar air clinging to us like thick smoke, thinning the bonds a few drinks had formed. We were all three of us attractively undone: Emil with tie un-knotted and shirt un-buttoned, Tim with jacket open, fishing for keys, myself quite flushed and sweaty with nefarious possibility. We were ripe young men and that sudden tableau hinted at great deeds left undone, at potential allowed to evaporate.

And then we were shaking hands and making vague promises, chummy gestures, and moving off in our separate directions, bleeding into night. I lit a new cigarette and paused to consider my options, letting the streetlight play on my narrow face and imagining I looked dangerous. Then I didn’t go home.

Maureen was my tall, sad girl, a beautiful creature unconvinced of her own glamour. We know the type: painfully beautiful, but crushed. She was easy to hurt. She always let me in, even late at night with booze on my breath and her only in a thought-provoking terry cloth robe.

My tall, sad girl had been watching a tape and smoking cigarettes, and while not obviously happy to see me she did leave the door open as she walked back into her apartment, which I took as an encouraging sign. I slid into the place with a wiggle and a twist and gently kicked the door shut behind me. I smiled my high-wattage smile into her back, wasting it just for the effect it had on my mood, and sauntered after her.

“How are you, gorgeous?” I said, smiling bright, light reflected off my heat-shined face, my blood pressure something miraculous. Miraculous in that I had not died yet of some aneurysm or avulsion or other cellular mishap. I claimed a seat on her couch and looked around the place with a sort of wild-eyed interest I thought translated well.

For a moment, we sat and watched.

“Well, how are—”

“Oh, get the hell out, then.” she said without even looking at me.

I allowed a snapshot smile to flicker across my face. I didn’t understand my inexplicable charm; it affected people in ways I’d never understood, really. My tall and sad girl vacillated between enamored and irritated by it. I couldn’t control how it affected her, I could only deal with it as it came up.

In the blue glow of her cheap little TV I struck a contemplative pose. “Got anything to drink?”

She shook her head. She still wasn’t looking at me. “Christ, Charlie,” tendrils of my charm, palpable, almost, in the static shine of the tube, reached out and massaged her shoulders, “on top of the fridge, okay?” She shook her head. “Make me one too. I can’t stand you unless I’m liquored up.”

I stood up and stretched. “Liar. You’ve had my delights before and you’ve subtly maneuvered me into whipping up some liquid ambrosia. You’re an addict. Very well, I will do your bidding.” I put on my noble face and waited for her to laugh. She didn’t. It was going to be a challenge, tonight, I could see.

I winked for my own minor pleasure and headed into the kitchen.

When I mix drinks I have to resist the urge to toss bottle into the air and do little twists and flips and dances. That would result in nothing but broken glass and humiliation, and my journey has no stops at Humiliation, population too many.

I found lime juice in the icebox, which inspired Gimlets, and rattled ice as I boogied into the living room. She didn’t look up as she accepted a tumbler from me. She took a sip and nodded.

“Nice.”

I settled into the cushions with an exaggerated sigh.

“So...” I said, deliberately trailing off.

She didn’t look at me and said “I’m not going to fuck you again, Charlie. It’s pathetic how you keep sniffing around here, like some barnyard dog. Go home, dry out, and forget about last June, okay? History isn’t going to repeat itself.”

I appreciated her honesty. And left, quickly.

Scene Two: MALE BONDING AU GATIN

“Don’t you have any heat? It’s a fucking meat locker in here.”

Quick-cut to Emil’s apartment, the last half-hour a grainy blur I edit out. My eternally tanned friend stands disapprovingly in his boxer shorts and a thick robe.

“Do you have any idea how cold a meat locker is, Chuck?”

“I think I do now.”

“Guess that attitude saves you on phone bills, huh, Chuck?”

I grinned. “It’s on purpose. I have to trim the Christmas list. I’m too popular.”

“Charlie, I almost believe it.” Emil drawled with his usual disdain. “Do you know what time it is, superstar?”

“No.” I said immediately. “Do you have any beer?”

Emil sighed. “I know you, don’t I? I don’t dare have no beer. Are you sure you need more beer? You’re listing to starboard.”

“In today’s civilized society, need has become a meaningless concept. One more beer will not make me throw up—does that answer your question?”

“I suppose. Domestic okay?”

“You know what they say about men who drink domestic beer?”

“What?”

“They’re weak.”

“Wipe that grin off your face. After midnight my patience is half usual, so let’s broach the obvious subject of why you’re here.”

I shrugged. “Came in to warm up. It’s November, and I’ve got quite a walk. Who knew it would be just as cold in here? My mistake. I need this beer to stay warm—to survive!” I was in a strange mood, sort of viciously cheerful.

“Alcohol actually lowers your body temperature, Chuck.”

That was Emil for you. “Thank you, Science Guy!” I bellowed.

“Jesus, okay, I’m awake, but spare the neighbors, okay? And just tell me why you’re here?”

“Got anything to eat?”

“Oh my God—you’re just here to mooch. I’ve got to stop answering the bell after midnight.”

I was already in the fridge. “I see cheese.”

He sighed. “Crackers?”

“Please.”

“What if I were to do this to you?” he asked from the cupboard.

“You’d get tapwater and mold.” I answered honestly. “Where’s Denise?”

“Sleeping.”

“You’re a lucky bastard, Emil.” I said with all the forced sincerity I could muster. “I have to crawl through the bars of this town for hours looking for women with standards low enough to stomach me, and you’ve got one lying half-naked in the other room all the time.”

Emil sat down at his bland and tasteful table and began slicing cheese. “Parsing that statement leaves me with several possible interpretations, none of which I like very much. And watching you eat is making me sick. Shut your mouth!”

“It’s good cheese.”

“Jesus.”

I sighed. Close up, my eyes, betraying my inner nervousness. “All right, chum —listen, I miss you.”

Emil just shook his head, so I put up my hands in a placating gesture. “No—really! I’m not ready to live by myself. Ever since you kicked me out in favor of the lovely Denise I’ve been a lonely guy.”

“So when you say you miss me you really mean you miss the room-mate.”

“Well, yes.”

He shook his head. “Christ. Number one, I hardly kicked you out. Two, how can you miss me? We meet for drinks all the time, and you’re like a ghost around here.”

“Still. I’m no good without company. I get antsy.”

“Antsy? Is that a word?”

“Sure. Sure it is. Don’t you miss me a little? We had a good time as room-mates, didn’t we?”

“No, we didn’t. As far as I can tell, we’re still friends only because you still owe me money.”

I gave the bastard a steady look.

“Oh, all right, Chuck: we had a good time as room-mates. But you’re all grown up now, can’t you find a way to move on?”

I detected the usual hard, tired edge in his voice. “I sense,” I announced tragically, “that you want me to go.”

“Damned right I do.” He said immediately. “It’s late, Chuck.”

“Christ,” I said with a hard smile. “If I thought I’d been thrown over just for sex I could handle it, you know. But I suspect you actually love her, chum.”

“Just go home.”

“Sure.”

He carefully wrapped the cheese back in it’s plastic, and stood. We looked at each other for a moment, and when I turned for the door Emil didn’t move to see me out.

Fade. Cut.

Scene Three: WITH TWO YOU GET EGG ROLL

Me, waking up bleary eyed and stuff, my hair a cruel joke of sweat, contortion and abuse of the laws of physics. Me, rolling too far, falling off the bed. I disappear for a few minutes.

Me, in pink boxer shorts, stumbling through the living room unglamourously scratching myself. Me, staring ominously at myself in the bathroom mirror. Tongue out. Eyes bitter. Skin green.

Me, getting on the train, bagel in mouth, paper in hand. Tasteful blue suit. Hair still ruinous. Me, straphanging, staring at chattering girls fixedly until they notice and move away. Me, smiling broadly. Me in the elevator, blatantly ignoring the other people and their empty bullshit chatter. Me, half asleep at my desk, daring the universe to kick me in the ass. Me, at lunch with Tim. Chinese food.

“Why did I agree to Chinese?” Tim complained.

“Relax. Order anything. It’s all cat anyway.”

“I don’t like Chinese food.”

“Sure you do.”

“No, Chuck, I don’t.”

“Oh,” Shrug. “Well, I’ve only known you for a few years, how am I supposed to remember all these little details?”

His eyes studied the menu again. “Egg rolls. I could eat egg rolls.”

“Then we’re in business.”

“Why’d you want to have lunch, then, hoss?” Tim said, tossing the menu aside. “Something on your mind?”

Me, shrugging. Caption:

“Tom, you ever feel like we’re just wandering around aimlessly? Lost?”

Tom, looking thoughtful. “Sometimes, Chuck, yeah. But I’ll tell you what—whenever I do, it always seems like something unexpected happens.”

I was chewing fried noodles. “What do you mean?”

Tom was chewing fried noodles. “A couple days go by, I feel loose and unfocussed and then suddenly something will happen and everything will change.” He shrugged. “Sometimes just cleaning up whatever mess I’ve made keeps me focused for weeks.”

“For a moment you threatened me with philosophy, Tom, but mundanity triumphed, never fear.”

Tom, munching and shrugging, tight close-up, for emphasis. “Watch and see, Grasshopper.”

Tom, winking.

Scene Four: SOMETHING UNEXPECTED

Pan up from sturdy black shoes losing the last of their shine. Wrinkled blue pants. Bright white shirt. Loose undone blue tie, with yellow stripes. Blue jacket, white handkerchief in breast pocket. Sandy hair, pasty hangover skin. Sunglasses. Chewing gum. I’m walking in the sunshine, happy, the city winking around me, too busy to stay in the frame.

Freeze frame.

I walk into the bank with a spring in my step. Rakish. Leave my sunglasses on inside. Grab a withdrawal slip and whistled while I write. Saunter up to the windows, stand in line like all the other suckers.

Gunshot.

No one reacts to it. We look around, unsure of the sound. Wondering if something exploded.

Again, now followed by

“Excuse me, people, but this is a robbery!”

Tall guy, light brown hair. Dark blue suit, a bit worn. Blue tie with red dots. White handkerchief in breast pocket. Sunglasses, wrap-around Fly glasses. An automatic in one hand, raised to the ceiling.

“I don’t have much time.” he says, clearly and distinctly. “If everyone would please lie down on the floor?”

Cut to me, disbelieving. My withdrawal slip still in one hand, useless.

We’re on the floor, the twenty or so people in the bank, and our friendly neighborhood bank robber is giving us a running monologue as he walks around, one hand holding out a white laundry bag for the tellers to fill with money, the other casually holding the automatic on us.

“You’d be amazed how often this works.” he’s saying. “In just about any bank in the USA if you’re out under three minutes you can usually evade capture. Thank you, dear. Remember, nothing bigger than a fifty and no wrapped bills.”

“This bank is typical. No guards any more. Non-functional cameras. Totally reliant on security features and police response time. Keep your heads down please. Only two exits or entrances, too, so it’s easy to handle. About the only thing that can cause me trouble—”

Me, looking up from the floor, red and blue lights dancing on my face, a siren on the air.

“—would be that motherfucking squad car on local patrol nearby.”

There is a moment of cool silence.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, in our continuing seminar on bank robbing, we move on to Hostage Taking 101.”

Me, face down on the floor, suddenly with a gun muzzle in my ear.

“Up. I applaud your fashion sense, mi amigo.”

In the bright sunlight we could have been twins.

“Walk easy. Relax, don’t fight me. A few blocks and it’ll be over, okay? Just get me out of this and we both go home alive. Okay?”

I nod a little, best I could do.

We emerge from the back exit as a new police vehicle arrives on the scene, screeching tires and flashing lights.

“Fuck me.” in my ear, soft and intimate.

Back in the bank. Pan around; amazingly the lemmings are still on their bellies, waiting for the all-clear.

He shifts the gun so it pokes me in the throat, making me gag. He pushes me up to and through the front door, sunlight and sirens and

Cut to: The pair of us leaving the bank, him pushing me along, his gun hidden between us, ignoring all the shouts from our friendly cops. They track us with their guns as more sirens wail nearby. And I’ve got this idiot with a gun in my back and his sour-Cheetoh’s breath around me, and the combined stink of our panic.

The cops are shouting nonstop at us, but they can’t tell what’s going on—which of us is the crook? Or is it both of us? Christ, they can’t even tell us apart. We might be twins.

Stop, motherfuckers!

Right there asshole!

Don’t do anything stupid!

We near the corner and it is obvious the cops are not going to let us turn it.

Without warning, my captor gave me a violent push. I stumble a few steps towards the corner and he takes off in the opposite direction. Shots ring out, and something hot and cold and heavy hits me in the back, and my legs go numb.

Me, falling to my knees roughly and then forward onto the palms of my hands.

Me, pushing myself back into a weird sitting position.

Me, pale and suddenly shivering, staring around in confusion.

Close up. I search my jacket with shaky hands, extract a pack of cigarettes, shake it, drop it, and pick a single cigarette from the pile.

Me, finding my lighter as I cough up blood all over myself. I cup it around my face and a cloud of smoke erupts.

A moment of calm. I sit with cigarette in hand. I exhale smoke.

The End

This story originally appeared in The Portland Review.


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