Sam Landry exists in Gloucester, MA where he works at a non-profit, and he doesn't exist elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he lets everyone know he was nominated for that prize and just assumes he won it. (He didn't.) His mother thinks he needs a hair cut but what she doesn't know is he'll keep that hair in a bag in the closet if he does cut it off.
A Man Drinks And Smokes Alone With Friend
A tap on the filter cleans off the tip. A bright, burning ember emerges from the cover of ash, small, but bright enough to stick out in the dark, Rudolph’s red nose at midnight, burning and not moving but burning. The cigarette rests between two fingers, rests above the ash tray where it dumps its ashy clothes, rests there as a breath in does not always need to burn, is not always smoldering. The filter is pinched between the thumb and the middle finger as the index taps to clean off the ash, tap tap, barely a whisper but loud, loud in a dark room where only a man and a bottle and a pack and an ash tray sit. The room is decorated probably—the man is not a mongrel—but in a dark room you can only make out shapes, a frame, clearly that’s a stove, maybe that’s a toaster.
The index finger taps on the cigarette and the man wakes up. His eyes are open, have been open, adjusted to the dark, but he is not there. Physically the man sits in the dark with a bottle and a pack and an ashtray. There is no denying he sits there in the dark, there is no denying that he holds the cigarette and pours the drink and snuffs the cigarettes and pulls out more. But the man is not awake sitting there, a diesel truck can idle for hours without losing a drop of gas, a man can sit for hours with eyes open and never be awake, wake up but never stay awake, fall asleep and roll over onto a mine, a grenade, an explosion and blink, and he wakes up but he’s still asleep, and all the while his body remains still.
The index finger taps on the cigarette and the man brings the cigarette to his mouth. The ember carves the air, a straight line from the ash tray to his lips, each inch the ember moves with careful consideration of the air parting, Moses parted the sea to free his people, the man parts the air to free the butterflies dying in his stomach for a moment or two, he parts the air with a cigarette, parts his lips too. His lips part enough to snuggle a cigarette between them, for a moment, the cigarette rests between his lips and the stale taste of the filter fills his mouth before he creates a vacuum and pulls.
The smoke fills his mouth, fills his throat, fills his lungs. The man pulls, drags, and the cigarette must oblige. For a moment he holds the smoke in his lungs, longer than a second but not long enough to milk every flavor, every carcinogen. Long enough to let it work, but not long enough to let it dissipate in his lungs. Long enough to stretch, not long enough to stay, to make permanent residency on the cilia that would scream for help if they weren’t shriveled and black.
When he is done holding the cigarette to his lips, done pulling in, done holding the smoke in his lungs, the man brings the cigarette back to the ashtray with the same careful consideration for the air between, the man parts his lips, the man softly exhales and a dragon sits where the man is, breathing smoke, ferocious, relieved. His lips form a slight slit and smoke fills the air, lost in the pitch black but passing like a fog through the night as it crosses the ember, sitting like a fog in the night, the room is smokey but only if you’re there, eyes used to the dark, able to see past an ember. Before he is done billowing he seals his lips and finishes exhaling through his nose, smoke rifling through his nostrils into his lap, bouncing off his thighs and back into the air, parts lost in the dark, parts found by the tray, parts found by the ember, all of it dancing through different shapes and forms and degrees of opacity.
Next to the tray sits a glass, empty but still coated, and next to the glass sits a bottle, half full, half empty, it does not matter, a bottle and a glass sit. Like every night, for however long his body can stay up, the man sits at the table with the tray and the pack and the bottle and the glass. The glass sits empty now, 20 minutes ago he filled it, and now it’s time to fill it again. This is the process, this is the ritual, the man is well-versed in his traditions, no matter how deep into the night the motion is always the same. The hand with the cigarette remains floating above the ashtray and the other grabs the bottle. The cap is not on—liquor will not go bad, the man will not spill a drop—and he barely lifts the bottle off the table as he pours into the glass.
The stream is steady from the mouth of the bottle, practiced. The liquor is poured fast enough to not catch the lip and trickle down the bottle, but not too fast that it overflows the small tumbler made for dry, clean drinks. A steady stream, not a splash at all, the glass fills with at least a shot’s worth, maybe two, the man does not count his drinks like a child, like a teenager sneaking sips from dad’s handle of Bombay, he fills a glass and he sips or slams or whatever the moment calls for. The glass fills with liquor, not to the brim because this is not a competition but at least half way, and the man rests the bottle on the table with barely a sound of glass hitting wood. This is the process, this is the ritual, the man is well-versed in his traditions.
The cigarette is near its conclusion. The man brings the cigarette to his lips and takes a final drag, a deep one, a long pull, every last bite is savored, shake stretched across a lifetime if realistic or possible. As he launches smoke from his nose, lets smoke drop, as the smoke fills the dark space joining the other haze that lingers, he brings the tip of the cigarette down like a giant dropping a gavel into the ashtray. Tuff, tuff, tuff. The ember sparks off slightly as it’s pinched into a little black, chalky mound, twisting into itself like a car smashing into a wall. A few last remnants of smoke rise from the last bits that are swirled around as the man makes sure the cigarette is out, crunching the filter and whatever tobacco remains wrapped in paper further and further into the glass until it’s clear the ember is no longer lit. There is no ceremony for release; like in war, the cigarette lays where it’s dropped, a body in a mass grave without a name or a post or anything, soldiers who pulled themselves over the trench to die in another.
The man rests one hand on the table palm-down as the other hand reaches for the glass. He drinks gin. He used to drink gin and tonic or gin and juice, he used to be a lounge drinker, someone who drank while relaxing. Enough repetitions, enough time with a drink and that drink needs no help, the man drinks straight gin. Each sip tastes the same, each sip is new. This one is like all the other sips, tastes like the height of summer, tastes like the days after Christmas, tastes like pastels on a yacht. This one is unique, tastes like rotten bits of banana at the bottom of the bag, tastes like coal in a sock, tastes like dust wiped from a neglected bureau, tastes like a pull from a brown bag. The man lets the liquor rest on his tongue, slide of the sides to underneath where the veins are pretty much exposed. Your liquor goes longer when it rests under the tongue, the buzz buzzes harder as it enters straight into your bloodstream and passes through your brain and neck and seeps into your muscles and you settle, you settle and relax as you neither swallow the liquor nor spit it out, you take it through your cheeks and tongue and the fleshy bits that make up the mouth.
The liquor never really hits. The gin is to keep the man in the chair, to keep him sitting up. The drink keeps his face stoney, cut, unkempt with a shadow. Instead of thinking about the frame or what sits in the desk, really any thinking at all, the liquor keeps steely eyes on a point that is far past the wall the man stares through, probably at a place you cannot reach walking or driving or flying, blank stares that cut through the physical world.
But you cannot stop a thought. From the corner of his eye he sees the outline of the frame, and he reaches for a cigarette without a glance towards the table or the frame, without much of anything but muscle memory moving him. The motions are the same, he grabs the pack, flips open the top, brings the pack to his mouth so he can pull a cigarette out by the filter with his teeth, brings the pack to his mouth because his other hand still hold a glass with gin, the glass sits on the table but he holds on, not for dear life, not loosely, but he holds on. He places the pack on the table, no noise, and grabs the lighter from his pocket. His eyes do not move, his head remains forward, the frame remains in the corner of his eye, and with a flick the cigarette is lit and the lighter returns to his pocket.
After the first drag, he takes a sip of the gin with the smoke still in his lungs and the burn of his tongue crackling to the heat of the smoke. He swallows this time, he still leaves the liquor in his mouth but not for as long, so to let the smoke in his lungs free. Too long without a sip and something stirs, too long without a drag and the itch itches, not a real itch but the moments we have alone when you want to yell but have no reason to, when you feel like you need to run a marathon but know that your feet and lungs will only take you a few hundred yards before you’re hunched over taking short-but-deep labored breaths, butterflies that feel like they should be carrying you but all come up dead when you’re in an alleyway puking. The man lets go of the smoke, the tiniest bits of the gin that catch rides on the smoke carried through the mouth and then through the nostril as vapor on the smoke and a warm, fuzzy feeling courses through the man’s head.
When the man is not keeping a blank mind, when he is not distracting with a sip or a gulp, when the warmth leaves through the windows in his eyes, the frame on the desk sticks out from the corner. The frame was his mothers, when she died years ago it was in one of the many boxes with pictures of him and his siblings and cousins, some gone some not. The frame was one of the few blank ones, maybe one that his mother didn’t like, he never got a chance to ask or ever saw a reason to when she was alive, someone with a box dedicated to frames will have extras lying around, not everything needs a history, a backstory. Moms have frames.
The man was not sentimental, was not really much, in fact it was the only frame in the apartment. Years ago he got it from his mother, years after that he took a picture, months after that he framed it. Days after that he brought the frame to work. Years after he left work, for good, and brought the frame with him to his last job. Now it sits in a dark room, often surrounded by smoke, only seen from the peripherals, sticks out to eyes spent in the dark. Sometimes the man can go an hour without remembering the frame is there. Sometimes it’ll shine in the night, sometimes his eyes move a millimeter to the left to get a better view of the monolith, sometimes the outline in the black that’s less black after hours is lined with silver, crumbling silver that breaks into dust or smoke or ash or a glass that doubles as pestle and mortar.
Tonight the man’s head turns. Not his eyes, his head turns to the frame. The cigarette’s ember reaches the filter, tuff tuff tuff, and the man’s head turns more. He shifts his hips in the seat towards the frame, leans his right arm on the table. The closer the frame is to his direct vision, the heavier everything feels: the man’s arms are wrapped in bricks; his legs post-marathon; his neck ready to crack and his head ready to roll off his shoulders. He reaches for the glass, but he doesn’t grab it. Instincts kick in and die; apprehension rears its ugly head or is it a saving grace; his fingers float away from the glass and into his lap as now the room is lit. The room shines with the glow of a dark frame in a dark room; the air, the smoke does not change.
Tonight the man stands up. He stands up every night, sure, you cannot sleep in a chair in the kitchen every night, but he is not going to be sleeping in the chair in the kitchen. Usually the man retreats to bed by taking the path furthest from the frame; if the frame is on one side of the room, he sticks as close as he can to the other. But tonight he stands up, the liquor stronger than most nights, the blood rushing to his head as the man does the same, maybe it’s the speed to his feet, maybe because of general change in altitude, maybe he drank faster than usual. The man does not keep track of his drinks. On his feet he stands steady, a foggy head but firm, locked legs. Usually standing means straight to bed. Tonight he stands, still.
He leans forward, the type of lean that is only noticeable to the one leaning. Every part of his body moves fractions of a millimeter closer to the frame, all but his feet. The man's hand twitches, floats towards the pack on the table the same way he leans but does not make it and floats back to his side. Small movements that feel big when your body is making them, small movements that feel big when you have no control, movements that are made on their own but with the subconscious push off the dock.
A foot steps forward. Not a leap, barely even a step other than by definition, a foot steps forward. The sole of his boot eases into the floor, the man always sits in the kitchen fully clothed, stands the same. The sole carries the weight that leans into the step, and the other foot steps when ready. The man’s gaze does not leave the frame. What is barely 5 or 6 feet feels like miles, the trail blazes from short steps and almost-tippy-toes that are hidden in a boot. The man’s gaze does not leave the frame, does not look away. He blinks, the type of blink that is not involuntary but not chosen, the blink that happens when anxiety fills your gut with sour milk and rot worms, the blink that happens when there is no turning back.
He stands over the table where the frame sits, arms at his side, arms reaching forward, two hands heading toward the frame. The hands tremble, but not with the dramatic flair that trembling implies, the hands shake but not like a paint mixer, the hands shake like the stirring during the beginning of an earthquake, when people look around and wonder if they’re the only one who notice the shaking. The picture is lost in the darkness, dark features and old unpolished glass, but the man knows what the picture is, what it shows. Fingertips touch the wood and his hands shake a little more. Hands bring the frame closer.
The man stands there. In his hands the frame sits, in his eyes nothing, in his eyes a tear wells up, not enough to drop but enough to sit. He blinks and the tear escapes, rolls a few inches down his cheek until there’s no more gas, no more tear to run. His lips tighten, roll back into the mouth, scrunching up his face, bringing the whole thing to a point at the nose, wrinkled skin, water lines. A long breath, air not smoke, steadily carries the last bits of numbness from the gin up from his gut into his lungs into his throat into his nose, the man is not sober, he is not fucked up, he is standing holding a frame as a tear-line dries on his cheek and a gush blasts through his brain, through his veins to his heart which feels like it’s going to stop and explode, an explosion ends with stopping, redundancy, some traditions are well versed, some traditions forgotten but never lost, he rides the bike into the frame.
The man stands there. His eyes close, completely, not firmly but they are closed. Years ago he would fall asleep standing at this hour, a blink would've laid him out, but tonight he stands, eyes closed, fingers tightening on the frame. His hands shake more, the rest of him still, but his hands shake, his eyes are closed but he can see the picture. He rubs his right thumb up the glass. Below that thumb is part of the picture under the glass. He rubs again, studying each new spot with the surface of his skin, a place he has been before. The air is smokey. There is no reason it shouldn't be, enough smoke will stay in the air, the air is smokey and the glass foggy and the man's right thumb clears it with delicate precision. He rides the bike into the frame.
Has the temperature dropped? Goosebumps, the hairs on the back of the man's neck rise, go stiff, straight. A shiver travels down his spine, from between his shoulder blades to his feet, back up his whole body and into his lips. The frame travels to the man's chest, two hands on the frame, a rock floating through space. As he pulls the frame to his chest with steady hands, hands that do not rush, the man's chin leads his head down at the same speed. He faces the frame, barely a foot away from his face, maybe inches, and his eyes are closed. Maybe he lost his night vision.
His eyes open. Maybe he didn't lose a thing, he sees, he looks. The man is never ready. A car crash, he can't look away, a train wreck, a plane hitting a building, some horrors when you see them you see them and you do not look away and the songs of awe and excitement and split-seconds ring through the halls that lead from your pupils into your brain into your heart. His jaw drops, not with sudden shock but to the cadence of a laugh, or a slower drawl, or a whisper. Both eyes well. What sounds like the distant shrill shriek of a mouse dying in a trap is the noise, the guttural cry, the plea for help crawling out of the man's mouth, snuck out in a rocket launcher, surfing on molasses. His thumb clears the glass again, his right thumb wipes and his brows drops his eyes into a squint, pressing the tears out of his lids and onto his wrinkle-cut face.
He sobs. There is no description of sorrow. Every man has broken down like this one has, to his knees, a sobbing mess in a dark kitchen filled with hours of smoke and gallons of gin. Every man laughs at this one, happy this is not them, thanking God that they never have to spend a minute on their knees sobbing in their kitchen holding a frame with a part of the glass rubbed clean. Most of the time the man drinks, the man stays in control, the man decides he is going to fill a glass and light a cigarette and stare straight ahead through the dark kitchen, making pretend a frame that is always there is never there, but this is not what happened tonight. The man stands up one night, the man gets on his knees, the man collapses and sobs alone in a kitchen.
The first bits of sun poke above the horizon. The next bits of sun wait, the peak is the most jarring, the rest gradual. There is a bird, a call, a repeated cadence, not a wake-up call but a call made daily, chords plucked every day. Another bird calls, different. KI-KI-KI. Too-OO too-OO. They are different birds with different songs, similar notes but different songs. A car starts, backs up, pulls out. The birds call again and again, some time between calls, no time between calls. A rickety front-door opens, slams shut as it is let go, far off, not miles but not feet. KI-KI-KI. Too-OO too-OO. Maybe the first is a beetle. Maybe it is a bird.
The man opens his eyes. Usually he makes it upstairs to bed. This morning he wakes up on the kitchen floor, laying on his side, curled into a ball. A ball, a knot, pulls on his neck, the trouble with sleeping on the floor. He lays on the floor in the fetal position, his arms crossed across his chest, clutching the frame close. The man closes his eyes not for more sleep, but for less awake. The pinch in his neck feels real. The knot. The tear.
Using his right arm, he pushes himself to a sitting position, left leg out straight, right leg tucked in. Hunched over, he places the frame onto the table above him with his left arm, the frame face-down, like every other time. A year ago the man waited a month to flip the frame up. This is a task to save for the looser nights when the liquor comes out of the bottle with a glug glug glug, when the man fills a taller glass. Not every night is kept in a smaller tumbler.
The clock on the stove is off, the light cut through the dark, it's early in the morning, probably 4? 5? 6? The man pulls himself to his feet. It's not just the neck, his whole body is sore, creaks and cracks and stretches and bumps. The frame is not there, oh no, the frame will not be there for a long time, the man grabs a cigarette out of the pack with his back to where the frame lays face-down. During the morning the man is busy, he shakes off the dust that settles on him all night as he sits smoking and drinking. There are not many cigarettes left in this pack, there is a fresh one upstairs next to the bed. From his pocket he pulls the light, places the cigarette in between his lips, lights the tip. He is sloppy, his actions, his movements rushed. Some mornings he drops the cigarette. This morning he is as careful as he can be while rushing, making amends for an embarrassment that no one saw, that every man saw and laughed at and thanked god it wasn't them. The morning after he looks at the frame is when the sober version of himself is the most on-point.
The bottle has a few splashes remaining. With his right hand, the man grabs the bottle, firmly gripping the bottle before lifting it off the table. He holds it in his right hand, tilted with the label facing him. His left hand raises the cigarette to his mouth, he pulls, he pulls, the ember turns into a point, a spear, an arrow head. His eyes do not look away from the bottle. They stare with resignation, a half-hearted stare down, the man is a fawn and the bottle a bear charging, and the fawn freezes, fakes strength, and when instincts kick in the bear kills in the chase and the man pours the rest into the glass. The bottle falls from his hand, bounces once with a klunk on the table, his eyes still on the spot where the bottle rested in his hand. His eyes remain, his hand moves, grabs the glass, the glass reaches his lips, he takes a steady sip. The gin sits under his tongue. The first drink always feels right, sugar coats the mouth, slides down the esophagus, settles on an empty stomach and dances with the acid and lining, speeds up the start, blinks the man out of a gaze. Perhaps he'll shower today.