Eva had a plan. On her break, she exited the Garden, and walked toward the Sycamore tree at the far end of the parking lot. The tree was the designated smoker’s area for guests of the Garden. At a staff meeting, she heard Garden founder, Dr. Elmwood, discuss the virtues and benefits of socializing over a smoke.
Eva never smoked, but she carried a pack of cigarettes. Recently hired, she hoped to get acquainted with the clients.
Despite lacking experience, she knew befriending clients was no option. But, by way of gaining trust, a smoke break seemed a promising strategy.
The Garden, an informal mental health facility, provided various services. Registered ‘guests’ grabbed lunch, played games, attended group sessions, or hung out.
Though a non-smoking facility, Garden staff grudgingly indulged guests exercising their vice in the shade of the distant tree.
Still working toward her license, Eva ran a group and assisted the other staff.
Eva could see but one smoker under the Sycamore. Beneath a haze of smoke, he relaxed on a folding camp chair. Grizzled and unkempt, he looked her father’s age.
‘Here goes…’ she thought. ‘Is he homeless?’
The man nodded in silence as she entered the shade. The lingering, aromatic smoke reminded her of a college professor.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked.
“Can’t stop you…” He smiled. “Whatcha got?”
“Brought a pack of cigarettes. Want one?”
“Naw. Got my own.” He puffed and blew a ring. “The best…”
Eva watched the ring hover, expand and disappear.
“Where is everyone?”
“It’s early. They drift in after lunch. I’ve been here since the crap of dawn.”
“You mean ‘crack of dawn’?”
“No. There’s never a ‘crack.’ You ever see sun come up like light streaming under a door?”
“Right. It’s night. It sneaks up on you. Suddenly you can see all the crap strewn around, which, moments before, was hidden by darkness...” He gestured as he spoke. “…The waste paper, broken needles, used condoms…”
Eva indicated a multitude of spent cigarettes scattered about an almost empty coffee can. “The butts.”
He laughed. “Poor aim…”
“Based on this, you could call it the butt crack of dawn.”
His eyes smiled and he nodded acknowledgment. “They call me Snake.”
She waved with a single swipe. “Hi, Snake. I’m Eva.” She tried pulling a cigarette from the fresh pack.
“Want one of mine? Better than store bought. Save ‘em for barter.”
“Thanks, I’m fine.” She extracted one and, trying not to look a newbie, planted it in her mouth. Snake lit a match. The air filled with the smell of burning Sulphur.
The thought of ‘Birthday candles,’ popped into her head. She took a shallow pull and expelled the smoke without inhaling.
Snake watched and stifled a laugh.
“Lot more show up here since they banned tobacco at the Foundation.”
Eva watched languid smoke rise from the growing ash.
He continued. “I don’t have patience for the fisticuffs…”
Eva perked up. “What? They fight over cigarettes?”
“Or the lack thereof.”
“Tobacco’s supposed to be unhealthy. But fighting?”
“You have no idea what that craving can do. I once saw a crazy guy with a knife. Waving it around. They disarmed him with a smoke.”
“And in prison,” he nodded to Eva’s cigarette pack, “that would be gold.”
Eva digested that fact while taking another mini-puff.
Snake riffed on. “People worry about tobacco’s health effects.” He slapped his hands to his head in a mock-panic. “Second-hand smoke! Oh no!”
“What they don’t get is the whole off-the-books economy contained in a simple smoke. Cigars, chaw, ciggies, filtered, or no. I’ll even smoke menthol. Whatcha got?”
She held up her pack.
“People are trippin’ for that nicotine rush. Nothin’ like it in this life, or the other.”
Another shallow puff and Eva began to cough.
Snake smiled. “Don’t worry, hon, you’ll get used to it.”
She wiped her eyes. “Sorry…”
“Trust me. Been there.” He pulled out his pouch and began filling a Zig Zag paper with shredded tobacco. “Those commercial smokes are harsh after months in a dry warehouse. Try one of these…”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
“Really, you’ve gotta. Classic shag cut Drum. World’s best rolling smoke. Take the cure. One puff, you’ll never go back… Feels like dawn on the first day…”
Sensing something, Eva turned to see three men standing behind her. She’d seen them at the Garden, but didn’t know their names. They each nodded. The men eyed her pack of cigarettes like dogs awaiting treats.
Hemmed in by Snake, the tree, and the others, she looked for a way out.
Snake held out the freshly rolled cigarette. “Light?”
Feeling vulnerable, she didn’t want to lean in. “Uhm… Think I’m gonna stick with these.” She held the pack out to the others. “Cigarette?”
Everyone’s head snapped toward the Garden. Gabe, her team leader, approached from across the lot. The three men stepped back.
“What are you doing?”
“Smoke break. Getting acquainted with the guests.”
“Well, break’s over.” He did a double take. “You don’t smoke.”
She brandished her pack of cigarettes. “Emulating Dr. El.”
“Lots of ways to do that… Play to your strengths, Eva. Ping pong, bones… spades. Your group starts in fifteen.”
Remembering, her eyes widened.
Snake spoke up. “She has free will, you know.”
Gabe turned on him. “That’s true, Snake. More than you. You’re banned from here, six months already. You’re out.”
Snake had no answer. The others eyed her pack of smokes.
Gabe smiled. “Let’s go. These guys are blowin’ smoke.”
Eva laughed. “Thanks for the heads up about group. Race you back?”
“We’re cool. We can walk.”
Eva dropped her cigarette on the ground. One of the men gasped. A few embers bounced away before she crushed it under her heel. She picked it up and flicked it into the can.
One of the men blurted, “Good shot…!”
All eyes watched as she lobbed the nearly full pack. It spun and arched, landing in the coffee can with a satisfying thump.
The three men bolted, jostling to grab the pack. Shouting, one tried holding it out of reach. The others over-powered him. Convulsed with laughter, they collapsed, wrestling in the dirt and cigarette butts.
Gabe gestured at Snake. “You’re gone. No joke. Won’t see you here again.” He cocked his head awaiting backtalk.
Snake nodded and gathered his things.
The three men huddled and counted out equal shares of treasure.
Gabe gestured back to the Garden. “Shall we?”
She answered with a smile. “We shall.” They headed back across the lot. “Thanks, by the way. It got a little iffy back there.”
“You’re learning. Most everyone’s cool. But we do get the occasional oddball. Doesn’t hurt to let people know where you are.”
“Got it. Good to have back-up.”
They arrived to the entrance and Gabe held the door.
Eva said, “Thanks. I’ll be in group.” She entered the meeting room.
Gabe watched her with a wry smile. “Smokes… What won’t people do for smoke…?”