Contest #158 shortlist ⭐️

Smoke and Sodium Lights

Submitted into Contest #158 in response to: Start your story with a couple sharing a cigarette in a parking lot.... view prompt

5 comments

American Fiction

It was a quarter after 9pm when Sandra walked out the front door of Legacy Nursing Home. Her eyes adjusted as she walked across the parking lot to the park bench in the lawn ahead. She collapsed on the bench with a sigh, and began rummaging in her purse. Finding her reward, she pulled her hand from the bag and shook the lighter out of the cigarette pack. One more shake, and the last of the cigarettes fell into her trembling fingers. Lighting it and taking the first drag, she slumped a little more on the bench and relaxed for the first time in twelve hours.

She exhaled, and the winding tendrils of smoke spun and rose to the sodium lights of the parking lot, dissipating into the starless night.

The interior lights of the pickup truck in front of Sandra startled her as they came on, the driver side door swinging open. She had not noticed there was someone sitting in there in the dark.

“You got another one of those?”  

The glow of a lit cigarette functions as a beacon, a lighthouse for those who find themselves adrift without nicotine. Sandra had been there.

“Nope. Last one. But you can have a puff if you’re desperate.”

“Got desperate written all over me, I suppose.”

“Well, you’re hiding in the dark in your pickup in the parking lot of a nursing home.  That does have a whiff of desperation.”

The man dropped his head and chuckled. Closing his door, he walked over and perched himself on the edge of the other side of the bench, elbows on his knees.

Sandra handed him the cigarette, and he took a pull. 

“Thanks,” he said as he passed it back. “If we are gonna share a cigarette, we might as well know who we’re sharing it with. My name is Barry.”

“Sandra.”

“Nice to meet you. Are you coming or going, Sandra?”

“Unfortunately, neither. My mother is dying in there, and I appear to be stuck here in my own purgatory waiting for her to get on with it.”

“Wow. Sorry. That is definitely worse than mine.”

“What about you?”

“My father lives here. I’ve been sitting in the truck for an hour, trying to work up the strength to walk in.”

Sandra passed him the cigarette back. “How much strength does that take?”

“More than I have, evidently.  You and your mom get along?”

“We have, never once, seen eye to eye on anything. Until today. Today we are both ready for her to die.”

Barry took a quick puff, and offered the cigarette back to Sandra. “Damn. Wanna talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“Fair enough.”

Sandra cast a sideways glance over at Barry. “How about you? Would you like to share with the whole class why you are too much of a coward to walk in and see your father?”

“For the rest of that cigarette, sure.”

Sandra passed it to him.  Barry sat and held it between two fingers, turning it over, watching it glow orange in the dark.

“My father is, what they call out in the country, “a tough sumbitch”.  Worked the family farm by day, searched for the bottom of a bottle by night. Mom stuck around until I was old enough to fight my own battles, then ran off in search of greener pastures.  Drinking and brawling got worse after she left, leaving me to hold the farm down before and after school.”

“He beat you?”

“Until I was 16. Five days after my birthday, he came at me after having a few too many.  First time I was ever able to whip him. He never tried again. Dropped the fighting and stuck to drinking full-time.  Drank himself right into this godforsaken place.  His body is shot. His mind is not far behind.”

“If he was so bad, why do you visit him?”

“A question I ask myself every time I pull into this parking lot.  Maybe because I’m all he has.  Maybe because he’s all I’ve got.”

They sat in silence, listening to the crickets ask for the moon.

“Okay, Sandra. I’m not the only one who is gonna speak during support group tonight. Spill. You don’t exactly sound like you have the mom of the year in there.”

“Fair enough.  It has been just my mother and me for as long as I can remember. I had a father. Fairly certain about that; one seems to be required.”

“That’s what my biology teacher said.”

“Right? Well, no one ever showed up and laid claim to me, so I just have to assume, there.  My mother bounced around from job to job, usually waitressing in bars.  Did your school bus driver drop you off in front of a bar? Mine did. I would sit in a booth in the back from 4 until closing time. Do my homework, eat the sandwich my mother would occasionally remember to pack for dinner, and curl up and sleep until she was done.  Sometimes I woke up the next morning in my bed. Sometimes I woke up on a couch in a strange living room belonging to whoever took my mother home with him that night.”

“Well!” Barry exclaimed. “We had some real winners, didn’t we?”

“Yep. And look at us now. Look at us sit here, hiding in the shadows outside this holding tank. And for what?  What are we waiting for?”

“You said you were waiting for her to die.”

“Yeah. Maybe that’s all there is to wait for.  Because I’ve been waiting for 40 years for her to apologize. Just once. Just one “Sorry I was such a lousy mother.” Would that have been that hard? Would that have killed her?”

Barry dropped the cigarette butt on the ground, crushing it with his boot.  “Maybe it would have. Maybe every time she looked at you in that booth, asleep on a school night, she told herself that she was the worst mother on the planet.  Maybe she was scared that saying it out loud would have confirmed it.  Maybe that’s why she went home with strangers. Maybe she was trying to numb the desperation she was feeling. Maybe walking out of that stranger’s room to you sitting on the couch waiting for her sent her spinning downward even faster.”

Sandra sat with her mouth slightly open, incredulous.  “Are you, of all people, really defending my mother?  Because that is not what I thought this support group was going to be.”

Barry shook his head slowly. “No. No defense for what your mother did.”

He shifted on the bench, turning himself, ever so slightly, toward Sandra. He sat, eyes down, brow furrowed, waiting for words to come.

“Sandra, are you ever afraid you’ll turn into your mother?”

“What?!”

“I only say that because… I’ve noticed that I’m so angry these days. I mean, I’ve been angry for as long as I can remember. But I’m more outwardly angry these days. Got a real short fuse.  And I find myself reaching into the refrigerator for just one more beer a lot.”

Sandra sat there, shaking her head. “You know what? When you got out of your truck asking for a cigarette, I should have just told you to keep walking.”

They both chuckled.

“Sandra, what do you do for a living?”

Sandra refused to meet Barry’s eyes.

“Sandra…”

“I’M A BARTENDER, YOU NOSY IDIOT!”

They both chuckled over the tension.

“So yes, Barry, every night as I walk in to work, I wonder if I’m not so slowly becoming my mother.”

Barry smiled softly. 

“And I guess that’s why I keep coming.”

Sandra cocked her head to the side. “What?”

“My father would never visit someone in a place like this if he didn’t live here. So if I keep coming, maybe I won’t turn into my father.”

“Oh. Wow. In some twisted way, that makes sense.”

“Thanks. That probably means you’re gonna be okay, too. Would your mom have stayed here all day and put up with her mom?”

Sandra smirked. 

“Not a chance.”

“So, there you go.”

“There I go.”

Barry stood up and stretched. He reached a hand down to Sandra.

“Then let’s do this. Let’s get in there and spend time with the people we’ll never be.”

Sandra smiled, took his hand, and stood.

“Let’s do it.”

They walked across the lawn back into the light of the entrance. As they reached the door, Barry turned to Sandra.

“But that doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t need to bring the cigarettes next time.”

“It’ll be your turn. I’ll bring the lighter.”

“See you at the park bench.”

August 11, 2022 03:02

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5 comments

Amanda Lieser
19:10 Sep 04, 2022

Hi Dave! I loved this story and I deeply admired the beautiful themes you crafted. I thought you did an excellent job of characterization and I loved that the dialogue was used to tell the story. It was a well deserved short list! Congratulations!

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Kevin Broccoli
16:37 Aug 25, 2022

It's amazing how much you fit into a simple conversation in order to touch on broader themes. Well done.

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Tommy Goround
21:04 Aug 19, 2022

So glad this won because I missed it before. 1) the narration is very strong after just a few paragraphs. 2) you nailed the universal themes and really did a good job looking at different angles. I think this might be memorable. Very memorable among hundreds of stories I get to read. :::;Clapping

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John Hanna
11:57 Aug 19, 2022

Hi Dave, I drew your story from the critique circle and am glad I did. It's a simple tale but it progresses to a humane conclusion that helps two people. I agree with Shuvayon about this dialogue - I will also hold this work up as an example. Insightful and grammatically correct, a treasure.

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06:02 Aug 18, 2022

Loved this, Dave. Such a poignant and heartfelt conversation. It felt natural, never rushed, never awkward or forced. I'm still working on my dialogue and I learned from this one. Thanks for sharing!

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