The secret to smoking

Robin Wyatt Dunn

He smoked when he walked, like any man, the longer treatment fading under his eyes, his steps loose, not too long, a rigid arrangement, like one might make on Saturdays, after everyone else has gone, like when the god speaks and you must listen, though there could be other ways. Ways he might have listened to, before his mother had died.

She'd died easy in his sleep, he told people.

Now there were other ways to make a living, new things to do, after his society had collapsed, and he had made new friends. Not so unlike the old, though they were more heavily armed;  that is, armed at all-- he had grown up a poet.

Poetry was still useful to him, he found, because it was something that lay around the edges of things, not talking too loud, like a good drunk, which he was not, so he used poetry instead.

There were things you might do on a good day, people to meet, and jokes to tell, soldiers to bribe and women to charm, and though he failed at most all of these things occasionally he would succeed, and this is what had gotten him his reputation, that he could do anything, though mostly he did nothing at all.

"What's that you're doing," the girl had asked him, and he'd given her the last of his chocolate.

"I'm making friends," he said, and she smiled.

Still he remembered her long after she had been killed in the last bombing. Like a wounded soldier, she would smile at the first sight of him, and it had made things better for him for a while, because it was hard to refuse someone at the soup line, or on the black market, if he had a charming young friend with him.

He ate more slowly now;  savoring each bite.

He waited for it to be over.

- -

How could it be over? It couldn't be, but how could it? Better to ask some other man who knew why it had started in the first place, which Claude did not. He didn't pay attention to much other than women and his some-time boss, and then one day bombs had been falling, and he'd had his coffee on the Champs-Élysées and other than the bright orange and black explosions it had seemed a normal day;  not too hot, no chance of rain in July.

Maybe summer was the reason.

- -

"What will you do now?" she had asked him, and he'd told her, start a new business. The business of making friends.

You could have too many friends, he knew that too, and tried to limit it now to five. Not too many to draw attention, and not too few to starve. It let you get to know them better too, though that also was a liability.

Mostly he preferred to be alone whenever he could, smoking.

And walking.

He could it do for hours, without stopping. Waiting for inspiration to come. Some poem to come in to him, so he could go into a cafe and tell it to the first pretty girl he saw, and if there wasn't one, to any girl at all. Even an old woman, who would laugh, and tell him something dirty.

Now that he knew they were over he could relax;  for a period of months it had been exhausting, waiting to hear what would happen, how they would respond, what the call to arms would be, but there had been nothing. Just more soldiers, from everywhere, it seemed, behaving like soldiers always did. Easily bribed, but quick to anger. He stayed out of their way.

You could smoke seventeen cigarettes without stopping if you concentrated. If you took your time, and leaned in to the wall, and listened for what the city was trying to tell him. One day it would tell him, and he would leave, bent under the enormous weight of the city's will, as he had always been, berating absent friends and imaginary ones too, for their inability to make him stop, or make him cry, or de-bond him from the city of his birth.

Now there was no one alive who remembered the old him, and that was fine with him. The one who would steal things. The one who had seemed almost rich.

"But what business?" she said. "Selling coffee? Pastries? Will you sing?"

"Poetry," he said.

"How can you make money from poetry?"

"Easy," he said. "Watch."

And he'd recited the longest poem he remembered, a poem about a solider and his dog, and the strange land they had entered, and people had given him money, right on the street. She had been happy, even though he had told her a lie. Perhaps, because it had been a lie.

He would never have a daughter of his own. He knew this with certainty. But he might have a son. A son who would no doubt hate him with the same intensity he had hated his father.

It was late, and he went into his favorite cafe, into the back, where you could still smoke, and he joked with Lucy who liked to work there late that one day he was going to take up her profession.

"You need more meat on your bones!" she said. "They don't like em real skinny."

He nodded and smiled and offered her a cigarette and they watched the solider at the bar getting steadily more drunk until he almost fell off of his chair, and Claude went to straight him up, and relieved him of a few dollars.

He could not be happy; the word was meaningless. Meaningless as Paris now. Just some swamp improbably paved over by insane plutocrats who were now gone. But it was still a beautiful city;  it needed a new name now. Perhaps that is the secret it would give him, before it was too late.

"Do you remember that girl?"

"Of course I do," Lucy said. "She was a nice girl. Pretty."

"She died in the last bombing."

"I know."

Maybe there were reasons he could understand. Like robbing the solider, or giving the girl chocolate. Perhaps they were dropping bombs for the same reason; as a way to try to understand things. A way to connect to another person, when everything else you have tried has failed. That seemed truest.

He went out and waited for the sun to rise over the river, so he could hang out with the bums when they woke up, buy them coffee, and then help them relieve some of the last few remaining wealthy residents of their coins, doing whatever they might want, that you could do in the street, polish their shoes, mend a hem, give a back massage, or whisper into their ear, little secrets.

Each little secret was like a bomb, dropped from a great height and falling slow to earth.

"I love you."


"Paris needs you."


"I need you."

or even

"Now is the end of everything; and I love for you that, that you were here to see it, not too old, or young, but deliberate. Cold, and deliberate, and feeling the weight of the city on your bones, like an old smooth fabric, passed down through the generations, to the point where it almost falls apart, but does not, it keeps together through the sheer force of the family’s love, for the old scarf, on the old mercenary's throat, marching off to war."

The secret to smoking was not to enjoy it too much; you kept it deeper than it kept you, right next to your heart, where you could watch it grow, and wait, and die.

He was falling in love, and he did that silently too, like when the soldiers would shoot people. Shutting his mouth and letting it happen.

That certain distance; about nine yards. Within which anything could happen, but it would happen slowly. Give you time to get out of the way.

Robin Wyatt Dunn lives in Los Angeles. In 2017 he was a finalist for poet laureate of his city.

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