Taking a Puff

(from A FINE YOUNG MAN)

The cigarette changed hands. Billy put it between his lips. Shut his eyes like kissing Brenda Sue, his cheeks sucking in and out, then blew smoke out of his nose. Like he’s done it a thousand times before.

Roy bit his bottom lip as if stepping into freezing water, his fingers digging into the seat, trying to keep quiet, but the words burst out spiteful and ugly. “When did you start smoking?”

Billy rolled down his window, flicked the ashes off before passing the cigarette back to Dodo Bird. “I don’t do it all the time. Just a puff now and then.” His brother’s smile like his voice seemed glazed, one never known before.

Dodo Bird piped up, bragging like always, “I started smoking at twelve.”

Roy glanced over, flicked out his tongue. “Who cares?” Even it if was the second you quit sucking on your mama’s tit, if you’ve finished that yet. He stared back at his brother, stretched his eyes, and cocked his head.

Billy reached down. Touched the key, but didn’t click it on. Then, his fingers fell to the rabbit’s foot, which he held in his hand, the thumb stroking, staring at the floorboard as if seeing through it to the ground. For a moment Roy thought, though he didn’t know why, his brother was again the kid in the black-and-white photographs, not sixteen, and he wasn’t ten-years-old. Billy swallowed. “Sometimes, it helps calm me down.” The words sounded far away.

Roy stared at his brother. Mouth opened, throat dry and closing, head more stopped up than from a cold, as if seeing somebody he didn’t know. The reason didn’t make sense. He thought his brother was always in control. Billy’s strong. He never needs nothing! I bet Dodo Bird forced him! Again, his Friday went numb. “But you’re always preaching how bad they are. You said you can’t smoke and play sports. You said…” The squeaky words died in his gut.

Fred piped up, “They don’t bother me none.”

Roy glared over, swallowed, his hate erupting again. “You can’t play anyway!” Dodo Bird took another puff from the cigarette, twirled away.

“Okay, you two, calm down.” Billy glanced at his brother, sighed wearily, smiled but not too wide. He stretched out his hand, probably to rumble his brother’s hair, but stopped and grabbed the steering wheel. “Don’t worry about me, Kid. Nothing’s going to mess up my game.”

Roy crossed his arms before his chest, drumming his fingers, his eyes shifting. “Oh, is Dodo Bird quitting the team?” He ignored the snort beside him.

“No.”

“Then if smoking ain’t going to harm you, let me have a puff.” Even Ralph who claimed to have watched puppies being born, which he knew was a lie, hadn’t smoked a cigarette.

Billy shook his head back and forth, his face scrunched up like their dad’s shaving. “No.”

Roy plopped his hands on his hips, poked out his lips. “Why?”

“Because you’re too young.”

His face fell. Jaw dropped. He waved his hands before him. “That’s what y’all say about everything! I’ll be dying of old age and somebody will say I’m too young!”

“Well, you are.”

He snorted, crossed his arms and his feet, shot Dodo Bird then his brother the evil eye. “Okay, then, have it your way. I’m telling!” Blackmail, the last hope played, supposedly worked. He didn’t really want to smoke. It stunk worst than wet hickory leaves burning, but couldn’t weasel out of a dare. He once busted Ralph’s lip because he didn’t want to hand over whatever it was they dared on saying the bug swallowed was dead and didn’t have the right number of legs.

Billy looked at his brother. Not blinking or smiling, his eyes sadder than Sam’s, his stare softer than their mama’s, his face older than their dad’s. Roy felt naked, almost cupped his hands between his legs, but gripped his sides tighter. I ain’t going to back down! I ain’t going to chicken out! I’m going to be just as stubborn as he was about Mr. Turner’s boat! He faced forward, trying to breathe normal, trying to forget his brother’s x-ray eyes, but that tiny voice inside saying the dare wasn’t worth the chance, wanted to holler no. Chester passed by on his bicycle, as if not seeing the truck, still following the school bus.

“Okay, Fred,” Billy finally said slowly, his voice again faraway, his words as solemn as those spoken before church or talking about somebody that died, “give him a puff.”

Roy stared at his brother. More shocked than scared, the first time blackmail ever came through, swallowed his smile, more excited than on his birthday. I’m finally going to do something grown-up! Can’t wait till I tell Ralph!

“But…” Fred stuttered and Roy thought the dream was gone.

Billy waved his hands like a magician about to pull something out of a hat. “No, it’s okay.”

Pee nearly leaked out. Hallelujah and hurray! Roy rubbed his hands together fast enough to cause a flame.

“If you say so.” Fred took another puff off the cigarette, blew smoke, and bent over Roy. Suddenly he thought his brother’s best buddy wasn’t that repulsive. “Okay, Kid, hold it between your middle finger and thumb. Put it between your lips, suck in, swallow, and blow. Do it nice and slow.”

“Okay.” Roy swallowed, took the cigarette from Fred, just enough for a finger hold, his hand shaking like touching his mama’s finest glass. He knew they could hear his heart, taste his sweat, feel his terror, see his courage and finally realize he was a man. He also hoped they didn’t smell that toot he just made.

“Don’t take too much,” Billy warned, but his words sounded like a voice in a dream.

Roy nodded. The cigarette looked ten feet long in his eyes, weighed more than a hundred tons. He heard him bragging to the boys at school in his mind. Of course, we all had to have a smoke on the way. Without one, I can’t stay in my seat all day.

He put the butt between his lips, licked the damp tip with his tongue. Suck in, swallow, blow, he kept repeating to himself like a vow. He closed his eyes, inhaled like the movie stars. He was the roughest, toughest cowboy ever after the last roundup who shot the bank robbers, won the schoolmarm’s heart, and the mayor was about to unveil his statue in the square.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, smoke more powerful than from Mr. Turner’s burning barn flooded his mouth, nose, and lungs rising up from the inside. His eyes caught fire, his throat shut, his chest squeezed tight. He was going to die. The cigarette butt fell from his mouth. He grabbed his neck and doubled over coughing expecting any moment to see his guts vomit up. Oh, God, why did I ever beg to smoke? I’m too young to die!

Dodo Bird grabbed the cigarette up, crushed it out, and tossed the butt out of the window. “I tried telling you he was too young.” His voice, again stupid, sounded a hundred times worst than Shirley’s constant “I told you so”.

Roy kept coughing. Wishing Dodo Bird would die, waiting for something to flash before his eyes. Maybe there’s not enough life to flash by? Maybe that only happens when you’re old? I’m too young to die!

Billy’s hand sliced through the air. “Shut up a moment!” He bent over Roy like a hen gathering her chicks under her wing and gently slapped his brother’s back. “You all right, Kid?” Again, he sounded gentle and warm.

After awhile, Roy pulled himself up and pushed his brother’s hand away, which felt like a sledgehammer pounding a penny nail. The hacking had turned to honking, and then spluttering, and more coughing, slowed and stopped. His chest, swelling like a blown balloon, burnt like a furnace. Snot thick and runny bubbled from his nose. Finally, he was able to swallow, breathe, see, and never before had spit, air, even Dodo Bird’s face seemed sweeter. He knew he’d been inches away from falling face first into his grave with a running start. He wiped his eyes, mouth, and nose with the back of each hand. Thank you, Sweet Jesus!

Dodo Bird heaved and snorted, another habit Roy hated like everything else. “That’s okay, Kid. Everybody chokes the first time.”

Roy gripped his stomach, which was twirling, dipping, and spinning the opposite way of his head. “There ain’t going to be a next time!”

Dodo Bird smiled shaking another cigarette out of the pack. “That’s what we all say the first time.”

Roy shook his head no fast. “How can y’all stand to smoke that stuff?”

Dodo Bird struck another match, lit the cigarette, and shook the flame out. “It’s an acquired taste. Makes you look older.”

“Not if you’re dead!” The inside of Roy’s head felt cloudy, his throat piercing tighter than from last winter’s cold that turned into the flu. He hated staying in bed all day, for nearly a week, coughing, sneezing, aching, but not the special attention or missing school. Billy read him comic books and told knock-knock jokes Chester probably knew the answers to.

Billy leaned forward, clicked on the key. “See, Kid, why I didn’t want you to try smoking? But you had to learn.” He glanced over his shoulder, steered the truck back onto the road. “I’ll buy you a Coke at Albert’s.”

“Okay.” Suddenly Roy’s sore throat didn’t seem so bad. Friday was wonderful again. He bent over, picked up his lunch sack and his satchel off the floorboard by Dodo Bird’s feet.

“I bet you smashed my sandwich,” Dodo Bird whined.

“Hope so.” Roy smiled, stacked his lunch sack on top of his satchel in his lap like before, and folded his hands across. The radio was playing Hank Williams, about a whippoorwill too blue to fly. He knew they wouldn’t say anything about his smoking and choking because Billy was his brother and Dodo Bird wanted to stay Billy’s best pal. He knew Billy only sometimes smoked because of Dodo Bird. It don’t mean nothing. He ain’t going to mess up his game. That’s how it is. Sometimes you got to do something even if it’s wrong.

AFINEcover

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About John Northcutt Young

I write. Remember making-up stories from spelling words in the fifth grade. A journalism degree followed. Thanks for looking.
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