The sorts of cigarettes that Harvey smokes are the kind that kill off the poor with progressive taxation — the worst of the worst. Pipe tobacco, sun-baked, dirt cheap, rolled up in extra-thick paper — something incapable of doing anything more that providing a fix. The kind that are more cigar than cigarette. The kind that arrive in duffel bag-sized containers and sting the throat and nostrils. The kind that eschew filters, tampons, out of cowboy-killing masculine hubris. ______________________________________________________ Jacob Houser lives in south-western Michigan and works on wind turbines. When the weather doesn’t accommodate, he writes.
You cannot tell Harvey that his cancer came from the cigarettes; he’ll glare at you in an unsettling way and evict your ass from his porch chair. Even as he contemplated chemotherapy, he was still sure it was okay to smoke.
“What’s the point of wishing for God to take the cancer out of you if you’re just going to put it right back in?”
This is me, naive, asking rhetorical questions. He coughs and wheezes, his herniated pot belly heaving like the throat of a bullfrog.
“It’s not the cigarettes, man, I’m tellin’ ya. Now get off that shit or get off my porch.”
He casts me a glare over the rim of his reading glasses and then stews on it for a second.
“I mean shit man, not even the doctor is fool enough to tell me to stop.” Harvey clings to his delusion like his North Carolina accent.
“I gotta have somethin’ to ease my anxiety.” He says it as if reading the word phonetically in his head, Ang-Zy-It-Tee. Just a hint of a drawl, like he’s ridiculing the word, or himself.
I shrug and drink my beer – Milwaukee’s “Beast” in a purple foam koozie that reads: River Rat Run, 1994. An artifact made older by erosion, the edges worn, the surfaces distended and a rancid plaster of cigarette smoke clinging to its edges. The smell of it almost fools me into thinking the beer has flavor. I could be talking about Harvey and not the koozie.
“There are lots of ways to cope with Anxiety, Harvey,” I offer and set my beer down, “only a few of them are poisonous.”
“I’ve been smoking since I was six years old! Who the hell are you to say i should quit?”
“Your friend, Harvey,” I say a bit more seriously – I omit the word ‘Only’ from between ‘Your’ and ‘Friend’. “And I don’t like seeing you this way.”
Harvey’s legal age shows that numbers rarely quantify one’s youth accurately, or their lack thereof. He’s sixty-five going on Methuselah. Grapes going on vinegar. Every cigarette an exhaled minute of life, a trade off to take the edge off, a deal with the devil. A contract that comes due, that you don’t want to pay so your creditor takes a shotgun and deposits cancer – like bits of scatter-shot inside your abdomen. The worst interest rate in the game. Harvey coughs until his chair rocks and its legs seem to seize. He hocks a loogie over his porch railing into the margin of garden that sweeps along the side of his house, “Man, all this pain, I think I got some phlegm built up – that’s what’s irritatin’ them lymph nodes.” He has lymphoma, not bronchitis – he’s really in denial.
Today he demonstrates that with the silver cross he’s dug out of his pile: his collection of receipts and yellowing newsprint that smell like the urea salts and ammonia of cats. Cats in every corner of the house, sprawled on the June-hot floor, their hair floating where motes of dust should be. Cats stacked like his cases of canned goods and shelves filled with forgotten memorabilia. Cats in every stage of life from the cusp of youth to the brink of death, leprous or emaciated — and moaning from heat. A house of living possessions, all decaying. His cross like a buried treasure, retrieved.
“You see, Jesus is lookin’ out for me, man.” He flashes the cross in the sunlight like he’s flashing a gang sign — The Gang. A consummate gambler, Harvey’s won the lottery of hording for the day and his inability to throw things away has provided him with a minor miracle, a sign of some sort. The cross that he’s wearing is silver-plated. A veneer — like this religiousness.
Harvey curses and swears as the pressures in his veins send shocks of searing pain across his arm, “Goddamn it,” he spits, “Motherfucker.” He looks down the bridge of his nose through his glasses with a suddenly pathetic expression and sighs, “It’s like my arm went numb and these strokes of lightning are shooting up and down it.” That is how it must feel to die from cancer – the body smiting itself.
I hold the notion on my tongue like cold pilsner on a balmy day, then swallow and let myself empathize with him until my nerves mingle with my imagination and his reality. This is dying for Harvey. Alone except for cats and warped 45s, a barrier wall of canned goods inside, and a growing thicket of sunflowers out. Me occasionally checking in on him to see if he needs anything.
“Three twenty-one-year-olds,” he replies more often than not.
A wit-tick that is more automatic than epigram and more depressing than funny.
He says that his first wife died after they got separated; the bastard who killed her cut her up into pieces and spread them out like corn seeds along the furrow of a country ditch. He’d been carousing with a couple of younger women up in a graveyard when it had happened (at least in the mythology of his memory) and a cold wind had blown out of the south. He’d been drinking Boone’s Farm and kissing the strawberry flavor off some Lolita’s lips while his ex-wife was being cut up with a hacksaw. With total seriousness, he wrings his hands and stares off into the distance and shakes his head, “I was playing around with Black Magic.” Now he wants absolution, he looks to me for it, “Do you think the Lord can forgive me?”
“Of course God can. A better question is whether or not you can forgive yourself,” I reply, a bit too honest at just the wrong time. A bit too sincere when a platitude was expected.
His jaw sets, less like concrete and more like a flaccid awning over a beam, and again he looks out into the street, past his swelling patch and border of sunflowers. After a while he shakes his head and then lets his chin drop, caving in on himself like a monument undermined by the tombs hidden below.
“I can’t, I really can’t.”
And that is the nature of the Lord, though the only noise I made about it was a sigh. For a time, though, he did forgive himself, at least enough to get remarried. Harvey’s second marriage lasted three days – not long enough for the paperwork to even be filed in the balm of summer.
The sorts of cigarettes that Harvey smokes are the kind that kill off the poor with progressive taxation — the worst of the worst. Pipe tobacco, sun-baked, dirt cheap, rolled up in extra-thick paper — something incapable of doing anything more that providing a fix. The kind that are more cigar than cigarette. The kind that arrive in duffel bag-sized containers and sting the throat and nostrils. The kind that eschew filters, tampons, out of cowboy-killing masculine hubris.
Jacob Houser lives in south-western Michigan and works on wind turbines. When the weather doesn’t accommodate, he writes.