First Cigarette

My name is Amber. They say they named me after a jewel, but I feel like an insect trapped in resin for all to see and marvel at. My limbs are stuck in this translucent matter. I cannot breathe, I cannot move. I am a thing to observe and comment on. Do Roses feel the same? Or do they have an obsession with smell? I feel inert, like a museum artefact. Amber indeed. My age is counted in millenniums. I guess that makes me an old soul. I don’t feel like one.

I’m lying on my bed, trying to see if I feel different. I’ve had my first cigarette, this rite of passage I’ve heard so much about. I realize it’s only a rite of passage if you do it publicly, affirming your right to your own body. I stole one from my father’s pack and smoked it alone, behind the shed. I had planned the whole thing carefully. My mom and I are the only non-smokers in the house. My brother smokes, but I know he counts his cigarettes, always fretting if he thinks the count is off. He doesn’t make much money and the cigarettes are a way to show that he does. He only smokes with his friends. They’re all broke and they hoard their own.

They huddle together trying to look relaxed. Smoking gives them something to do with their hands as they mill about, strategically positioned to see the girls go by. Of course, they look like a mob, and no self-respecting girl would stop and talk to them. When one does, the boys eagerly and nonchalantly offer her a cigarette, a light, a laugh. Their little cluster expands to integrate the newcomer. They try real hard to look cooler, they swagger. They become tense and revert to stress behaviour. D. becomes a smooth talker, V. turns quiet, F. laughs at any joke.

I wanted my first cigarette to be a private ceremony. I didn’t want the public accolade, the clap on the back when I choked, the laughs, the feeling of belonging. I know it’s a filthy habit, I know it’s bad for your health. My brother is the first to tell me not to start, my sister hides her own, my mother will bum a cigarette from my dad once in a while. I’ve come of age. I can feel all eyes on me. She’s fourteen and she doesn’t smoke. What does that say about me, about them? They think I’m stand-offish and that I judge them. They don’t know that I’m curious about it, like anybody else.

It turns out the hardest part of smoking is finding a quiet spot. There is no privacy in my life. The cigarette smells so you’re easy to spot. If you smoke at night, others will see the lighted tip. Neighbours are everywhere, cigarettes are counted, all my time is accounted for. The experience itself is disappointing. I didn’t feel the resin melt from the unnatural heat I inhaled. I didn’t feel relaxed, my limbs suddenly loose and limber instead of stuck in the yellow-brown tinge. I feel proud that I didn’t cough. I realized my mistake with my first puff. Dad’s a long-time smoker; his cigarettes are very strong. I still don’t know what he feels from the inside when he smokes. I was too intent on examining my own experience at the time.

Nothing unravelled, no revelation made itself known to me. I feel I’ve been cheated. All this preparation only to uncover the lie: smoking has nothing to do with cigarettes. It’s all about what you do with it. I’ve perverted the act. Smoking is a way to be seen in the world. I realize as well that by smoking by myself, I’ve robbed my family of the satisfaction mingled with disappointment that they would have felt. I would have finally been welcomed to the fold, though they would have thought a little less of me. I’m the brainy one. They hope and fear I will hold off. They want me to be successful but their way to success involves a tight social network. Mom worries about my lack of friends or social graces. They discuss, in my face, the fact that I don’t seem interested in boys. Mom defends me. I’m still a rare specimen under glass.

I won’t write any of this in my journal. I’m pretty sure one or the other reads it. I write poetry that means nothing to me, copy down quotes that move me but I don’t share anything personal. It strikes me that writing would be my cigarette, my stamp on the world, my claim to fame. The idea lights me up, infuses me with new energy. Like a cigarette, it is banal, seductive, addictive. I can make it uniquely mine. I resolve to buy a typewriter. I do odd jobs to earn a bit of money, all that without a goal, because I am expected to babysit and to earn money. Mom offers my time to babysit. I comply because I usually have nothing planned anyway. The kids are fine, I bring homework or a book and then walk myself home with a few dollars in hand. I am part of the economy.

But now I have a goal. Will I smoke as I type? Still not for me. It doesn’t add to the mystique of the act. Writing is complete in itself. I fell a tingling in my limbs, the resin going soft. Watch me hatch.

Open Mic

You come for the magic, when time stands still as you bare your soul. Your soul does not always want baring and sometimes you sing only with his voice, and that is fine, but not magical. When your soul is ready to open up, lovelier than a flower, you transport your audience to the magical place where music takes you. It’s unique, to be sure, as your soul is unique to you. Music takes you to this moment where your soul vibrates and unleashes dreams and visions and emotions that make you forget that other reality in which you spend your days.

It is quite a feat, and you approach the moment with gravitas, well aware of the responsibility on your shoulders. It is with some trepidation that you plug in your guitar. You’re nervous and start playing without introduction. The first song is just a greeting. You get acquainted with that night’s crowd and see how they respond. You’ve prepared four songs, and will sing three according to a complex calculation of nerves and audience and soul. The first one is a no-brainer “I want you to want me”. It’s self-explanatory, and gets people swaying in their chairs, even if they don’t know it. They’re an older crowd, they haven’t grown up with it. Still, they’re game and enthusiastic. You relax into it. You introduce your next song, and yourself, “Joe” with a bit more confidence. We’re only doing guitar here, maybe a bass or harmonica to accompany, and voice, of course.

You sing “I’m Calling You” from Bagdad Café which has always been your favourite, with its haunting lyrics. It’s not really country music but it speaks of the desert and longing. The crowd is less rowdy, more reflexive. Someone joins you and replaces the saxophone part with his harmonica to pinch people’s emotional chords. You end your set with King’s “It’s Too Late”, a crowd favourite. You’re looking for accolades. Your soul was skittish tonight, and stayed hidden. Still, you got something of a rush when everybody joined in the chorus, belting “But it’s too late, baby now, it’s too late”. They’re all sensitive and prone to the blues. They get it.

You quickly exit to the back of the restaurant, where the guy from the previous act is still steadying his nerves. There’s a pack of cigarettes out there. It’s nobody’s, just medicine. You inhale, exhale, and the trembling subsides. You don’t talk. It’s easier that way to find your center again. You come back in, not having exchanged a word with your compadre. You slip your guitar in its case. How you recognize the case is anybody’s guess. They’re all lined in the corridor jostling for top spot, black and innocent-looking. Some of these babies enclose the finest specimens. Yours is the best you can afford and it does a decent job. You convince yourself that the instrument is not important, yet you still eye the expensive ones.

Another musician has been playing and you sit down with a beer to enjoy the rest of the evening now that you’ve done your share. A lucky performer gets a high five, a couple gets up to dance near the end of the evening. They’re mostly white-haired, the ones with even teeth sporting dentures, the women singing with their husbands, shooting them adoring looks to boost their confidence. The voices are strong, lyrics scrolling off iPads, or printed neatly on paper. Tonight, old folks’ ailments are gone. The place is packed in the smell of memories and the vibes of youth. It’s already 10 o’clock. Time to head home…

Something Like Peace

pelted by a rain of bullets
buzzing from the planes’ bellies
I lie in the ditch

carriages and bikes,
lone dolls and shoes
litter the road
where a moment ago
a people fled

a distant rumble is heard
a beating drumbeat
from anxious clouds

suddenly the sun is out
like a curious child parting curtains
to survey the scene below

something like peace
descends on us

the sky is back to being the sky
the planes a distant memory
except for the cries for help
from writhing bodies

I offer my strength to the injured
my health to the dying
my hand to the orphaned child

Apollo

Betty points out the large cans holding up their sofa before I have time to comment. “My dad says they’re stronger than regular legs. He’s an artist.” I look at the cans. The metal has been painted a bright red. I wonder if they are empty or full. I tap tentatively but I can’t be sure because of the weight of the sofa on them. They sound full. I turn my head away and we keep on visiting. It’s the first time I’m invited over to play, and play is done in the basement in this house. She shows me the laundry room and the chute – a great hiding place. “I was hiding there once, and Mom dropped bedsheets on my head.” We guffaw.

“This is a closet.” She opens the door. It’s a closet. It’s got winter clothes and smells of wood. “It’s made of cedar to keep the bugs away. The bugs don’t like cedar.” I think of our cedar hedge and vow to check it for bugs. “This is the mud room.” She opens the door to it. It’s not true. There is no mud there. I was fully expecting long smoking pipes and a low entrance, some sort of ritual Indian room with tobacco offerings in a pouch. I’m disappointed. There are pegs to hang clothes, a flannel shirt, galoshes, a pair of gardening gloves. I shuffle my feet, a little angrily. She takes my hand and points to a door further down. “This one leads to the garage. Never, never go there by yourself!” She opens it halfway and I peer out. It smells of oil and gasoline. It’s clean. There’s a well-organized workshop and room for a car. Her mom has gone out to do the groceries. Her dad is in his home office downstairs behind the next door we open.

“Hi, girls! You’re going to be playing quietly here?” We nod. Even I can tell he’s young, with a beard that resists growing. He’s wearing a ponytail, like a girl, except it’s not tied with a coloured elastic but with a virile leather lace. His teeth are crooked, his eyes are kind. He is very thin. Mom talks of starving artists. I ask “Are you starving?” pointing at his bony forearm. He answers with a shrug “I’m an artist.” I shrug gravely, as though it says it all. I can’t tear my eyes from the bear skin on the floor. The eyes are glass, that much is clear. I crouch and run my hand on the coarse fur. The nose is leathery, the teeth are crooked. I bring my nose to the pelt. I was expecting a musky smell, but it smells… dry.

We go back to the room with the sofa. “What do you want to do?” asks Betty. I look around the room.  There is an encyclopedia, records, an earth globe and a smaller one. It’s not really a playroom. “What’s that?” I ask. “The moon.” I grab the smaller metal sphere. It has crater drawings with names and dates. “Do you want to play astronaut?” She nods enthusiastically and we play Mission control. We safely land rocket after rocket, American, Russian, Indian, French, Italian. We have the crews eat with each other and speak with their hands as they float and play swim in zero gravity. Eventually, Betty’s mom comes down to wash a load. “Betty, you put it to dry when it’s ready, all right?”

In time, we transfer the wet clothes to the dryer. Betty climbs on a footstool and starts the dryer. We play some more. Her father comes out of his study, stretching. “You’re still playing,” he remarks. He sits on the sofa and listens to us awhile. Betty’s mom comes down to retrieve the wash. She’s brought carrot and celery sticks. “They’re astronauts!” says the father with pride. We look at Betty’s mom. She’s beaming. “Do you want to play too?” I ask hopefully. “How does it work?” she asks. “You can be bringing the food. It will be floating and we’ll try and eat it.” Betty’s father is dangling carrots in front of our noses as we move our limbs in slow motion, as though under water.

The phone rings and the spell is broken. “Time to head home,” says the mother. “Mission accomplished,” I reply as I slowly take the stairs.

Hubby

It was one of ’em days when the sky won’t decide whether it will cry. And when it does, it sobs in right downpours it does. And the winds a whippin’ the drops around. For me, imma standing under this mighty oak cause the wind is a whippin one way but it’s keeping a dry tongue on the trees it is and that’s where Ise stands. Now I’m not saying my arms aint getting wet cause they hanging straight along my body like walking sticks leant against bark at the beginning of the woods so the next soul don’t have to go lookin’. My body’s pretty dry though like Imma part of that mighty oak I am. And so I wait and looks. The fields a golden under the roiling clouds not the kind you count before falling asleep, not white and puffy. I can hardly sleep on account I got a nervous dog. Him and me so tight, when he twitch, I wake up. He twitch a lot on account of all the mosquitoes this year. Today’s good cause of the wind. It’s cooler and the mosquitoes are hibernatin. So there aint no twitchin happenin but I aint sleeping standing up so there you have it. My dog’s at my feet too keep’em toasty. He’s nice and happy with his nose to the wind, takin on the news with a good sniffin. Aint nothin much to do when it’s rainin. No point in walkin home and getting sick so Ise watch the branches swirl about and the tree sigh and the birds keep quiet. I don’t mind a bit o contemplatin mysself not churchywise o anything you know. Just Mother Nature havin a tantrum. Makes me feel good about my own. All those hi falutin folks whisperin in my back when Ma come in with a black eye in church. She deserve it or she wouldn’t get it. A man’s allowed to be in a foul mood same as a missus and that’s just how things go. Winds letting up now, tears all spent. I reckon I’ll get on my way and see about picking some pretty daisies from the field. The missus will be happy to have such a thoughtful husband. Maybe she be in a forgivin mood and we can lay together. Come on, Buddy, be smart about it. Don’t have to say nothin on account of our bond but I like the sound of my own voice I do. ����

Alexa

– Alexa, what time is it?

The little girl turns her head and smiles. She points at the clock and jiggles her pudgy arms, letting out a whoop that covers Alexa’s answer. Dad frowns and repeats. Caroline, his 7-month old, listens to the voice answer the question in a soft, yielding tone.

“We still have time,” says his wife, pouring coffee. “Tiiiiime, is on our side, yes it is!” he sings back. “That’s a bad imitation of Jagger” she hollers. Baby Caroline is making happy sounds.

– Ah, that’s because I’m not imitating Jagger. Too vulgar for me, with his big lips. It’s not actually a Stones’ song, you know.

– Whaaaat? You say the dumbest things!

– Alexa?

Baby Caroline shrieks and claps her hands.

– Who wrote the song “Time is on My Side?”

– “Time Is on My Side” is a song written by Jerry Ragovoy using the pseudonym “Norman Meade”, says Alexa, in a definite tone.

“Never heard of him,” mumbles the wife as he gloats. Baby Caroline is looking from Mom to Dad and over to the left where Alexa’s voice originated. Her intelligent gaze takes it all in.

– Alexa, what’s the weather like today?

Baby Caroline is following the exchange, putting down the toy she was holding.

– Cloudy, with a 30% chance of rain.

– I’ll risk it and bring my clubs. Don’t wait up. I’ll let you know if my plans change.

– Alexa? calls the wife as Caroline crawls over. “I swear, Caroline thinks we’re talking to her. Did you notice her reaction every time we say “Alexa”?

Dad glances at Caroline, big brown eyes and half smile. “Oh, you pretty thing” he hums, with a wink at his wife. “Bowie” she mouths back. “Alexa,” he tries. Caroline looks up at him with inquiring eyes. “My God, I think you’re right.” She starts crawling to him. “Say her name,” he points to the baby.

– Caroline?

Caroline ignores her as they laugh guiltily. �

The Boss

“I was born to be eaten, beaten, bartered and thrown away. But I fought back every step of the way,” he recalls in his book “My fight”. Please welcome Jared Milton!”

Jared walks onto the scene, looking like a million dollars. Ach! A million, that’s pocket money. The audience eats him up. He’s got a perfect smile and perfect hair. He’s kept the deformed nose – it gives him authenticity, and bad boy looks to die for. The nose was never his best feature, cartilage is not tough enough for a man like him. Give him tooth and nail, guts and grit. His thoughts revert to clichés whenever he’s nervous. It’s his first time on national tv. He’s well aware of the millions of eyes on him.

The host welcomes him and dives straight into the book “You didn’t write this book, Jared, right?” “No Josh, as a matter of fact, it was written by a ghostwriter, based on hundreds of hours of interviews. If you’d read it, you’d know I was illiterate.” He turns to the closest camera and addresses it “That’s right kids. I can’t read or write, yet I’m a millionaire. Says something about our school system, doesn’t it?” The statement is met with hoots and laughter, some heartfelt clapping as well as a certain unease. “Yes folks, if you make friends with the right people, there is money to be made.” The host interjects “By ‘right people’ you mean the derelicts you met when you fled your foster family?” “I surely don’t mean either my family or foster families, Josh.” He uses the host’s name deliberately, looking him straight in the eye as he does so. The camera records the quiet confrontation, pans to the audience when the host breaks eye contact.

“You had a difficult childhood, yet you came out on top. What do you credit your success to?” “My good looks, of course,” he says, holding his chin up to show a ravaged profile with jutting eyebrows, broken nose and dimpled chin. He smiles winningly, his cold eyes sitting prettily under a cap of salt and pepper longish hair. “The look of Caesar, you know? Aquiline nose?” He’s managed to reframe his looks to his advantage, the audience now superimposing their picture of a triumphant Caesar over his own. They murmur amongst themselves, smugly. “I told you so,” can be heard.

The host tries to steer Jared back. “I enjoyed the pictures, but was sorry to not see any of your youth.”

– “We were poor, yeah? The closest I ever came to a camera was during my cousin’s wedding. They didn’t want me as a page, so there’s me fake-strangling one my size. I wanted to steal his clothes to be in the procession. They stopped me.” Laughter and whistling from the audience. He’s invited his lieutenants in the crowd. They’re sitting in the front row, arms crossed, sullen looks. In the wings awaits his loyal bodyguard. The watchdog is facing the audience, scanning it for signs of trouble. He wasn’t allowed to bring his weapons backstage but he’s got his fists, and those are lethal.

– Spunky fellow, you were.

– I say you want something, you go for it.

– Ah, the American way! Still, there’s the matter of the Constitution…

– Told you I’m illiterate.

The audience erupts into laughter as he looks at them, dignified.

– Did you not, as a child, re-arrange Inuit sculptures Inuktitut (he says that painfully, as though crunching through glass) as though they were performing obscene acts?

– What is obscene is you making those kinds of accusations, he says in a tight voice.

Jared glances backstage, the camera follows his gaze. Close-up on the gorilla’s set jaw and angry eyes. The tension is palpable, that of an animal ready to pounce. People look nervously behind for a guard with a tranquilizer gun. They better be quick about it.

– I meant no offense. I was just referring to a scene in the book…

– Childhood was such a long time ago…

The host looks at his cue cards, makes a show of throwing them over his shoulder.

– What would you like to discuss?

Jared turns to face the first guest, a lovely brunette, all legs, a popular singer with a hit single and sketchy past. He looks her up and down, appreciatively.

– “I’m a legs man, myself.” He extends his hand, she extends hers. He gives it a lick and winks at her. “Dee-licious,” he adds.

– You must be a wolf, she flirts. This perfume is called ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’

Like a magician, he whips out a smile, all canines glistening, and lets out a surprising howl. The audience howls back, under the host’s mock-horrified look. The hounds are off leash, a musky scent fills the air. After that, the host loses even the tiniest grasp on the interview and is left hanging limply, damp sheet left to dry but soaked by a sudden downpour. He runs a manicured hand through his thinning hair as they cut to a commercial. The makeup people run out to fix his hair, another help picks up the discarded cards, the producer whispers words of encouragement. They resume, the host focusing on the third guest as the first two exchange lascivious looks. Before the next commercial, Josh’s hand is resting proprietorially on the singer’s silky knee. The gorilla allows himself a sly grin as he relaxes. From then on, there are no surprises, he’s read the script a hundred times. The boss rules.