Hank Has a Cigarette

Hank settles into a lawn chair as the graduation party unfolds around him. He adjusts himself against the vinyl as he watches his youngest grandson swapping jokes with some of his buddies over by the big cottonwood tree. He’s a good kid. Got a bit of a wild streak in him, but honestly it would be a little disappointing if he didn’t.

Reaching into his jacket pocket, Hank roots around for his plastic lighter. As his fingers close around the soft pack of cigarettes, he thinks back on 20 years of subterfuge. Joyce, God rest her, always on him any time the grandkids came to visit. Scrub out all the ashtrays. Open the windows and turn on a table fan to air out the three-season porch. Get those smoky polo shirts in the laundry basket and put on a fresh one before they get here. Keep up the routine once they arrived. Take the dog out for long walks by himself. Run unexplained errands after meals. Blame the smell in the mini-van on some wayward poker buddies. Always keep a roll of breath mints in a front pocket.

An irritating routine, but all for a good cause. Filthy habit and all that, and certainly not one he’d want to pass on to a couple of impressionable young boys. But they’re not boys anymore. They’re men. And now that high school is over, they can make their own decisions.

Hank 1.jpg

Hank pulls a Newport out of the pack and lights up with all the casualness of a six-decade smoker. He’s aware of the multiple shocked gazes that have settled on him. He takes a slow drag and exhales a smooth white cloud as he watches a red squirrel winding its way up the trunk of the cottonwood. They’ll get over it.

 

Ira Brooker lives in Saint Paul and writes anything for which people will pay him, plus a lot of things for which they will not. He has a site for professional stuff, and another for pop culture.

 

Fleischkuechle

She made Fleischkuechle, a strange sounding name for hamburger rolled in flour and fried in a pan. Afternoons, school finished, I’d watch her at the stove, her hair sometimes stacked up in curlers like a fern, sweat trickling down her cheeks from the heat in the kitchen, the spiced tang of meat ripe in the air around us as I sat at a table struggling with math homework, struggling with puberty, struggling with being her son.

She was a focused chef. All the good ones were, she said. We were poor but still she was a chef. I wished she'd pay me as much attention as the food she prepared.

My brothers were always away and I wasn’t sure how to talk to my mother so I’d make up terrific lies that she may or may not have believed. It gave us something to talk about.

“Here,” she’d sometimes say, tossing me a potato peeler. “Strip these as fast as you can.” Strip for peel. A dozen potatoes on the counter, things that looked more like gourds or discarded embryos.

“You are the smart one in the family, reading your poetry,” she said, snickering. “But you can still do things with your hands, or else you’ll go soft.”

1916 color lithograph by Yvonne Vernet from the  Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog .

1916 color lithograph by Yvonne Vernet from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

As I peeled potatoes I felt Mother coming up behind me, which made me speed up the slicing of the skins. I wanted her to think me capable of carrying out a command. Cigarette smoke wafted over my head and into my eyes, stinging, and I hoped they wouldn’t water.

She leaned across my shoulder and took one of the spuds in her hand, inspecting for a moment, before thrusting it close to my face. “You’re careless. You’re missing the divots, the eyes. See, there’s still dirt and skin there.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yes you are,” she said, dropping the potato on the table. I heard it thunk, watched it roll off and bounce across the floor. 

“Pick it up and wash it,” she said.

We raised and butchered chickens. It’s a scary thing when you’re nine. The beheaded birds would fly off squirting blood, dead but somehow still alive, like me, I’d think.

 

Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State, an editor at the online magazine Literary Orphans, and the author of I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE AND NEITHER ARE YOU out now from Unknown Press.  You can also find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com