By Chris Mohar, Oct 23, 2008

I was certain, now, that the wedding was off. I left her at the I-90 rest area, her hair rising in the wind like the wings of a banshee as I squealed the pickup down the on-ramp and watched her disappear in my rearview mirror. That was outside Spokane, fifty miles back.

For an hour I drove in silence, just the hum of the engine and the tires on the road, the bitter blur of firs and gray summer grass. He was standing on the shoulder with an ALICE pack and a cardboard sign.

“You going to the city?” he asked.

“Get in,” I said. He smelled like pine boughs and sweat, and his face was unshaven, his stubble lined with skunk-white stripes.

“Where you from?” he said.

“Listen,” I said. “You got any cigarettes?”

“Sure,” he said, and I smoked one and didn’t say anything, and when I finished he gave me another.

“You always smoke ‘em like this?” he asked. The whole cab was hazy, and he cracked the window an inch.

“No, you don’t,” he said. “You ain’t got the cough for it.”

The truck reverberated on the patchy road. After a while the pavement evened out and the sound died back.

“I quit once, too,” he said. “Me and Lola—she was my wife, then—we were going to have a baby and Lola’d been reading how all that smoke was bad for the baby, even secondhand, so I had to quit, too.”

He ashed out the window.

“I was smoking since I was sixteen. Not too much, just bumming one sometimes, standing around after school or outside the movie theatre.

“It wasn’t until Korea that I got addicted. I needed three of ‘em just to fall asleep at night, my nerves were so bad. I’d sit awake in the dugout with my back against the sandbags and my sleeping pad wrapped around my face like a helmet or a tent, or one of those veils you see them Hajji women wearing on TV now. I’d have the pad wrapped tight so I could light up in there without anyone outside seeing, my cigarette an inch from my face with the cherry glowing in the darkness like a tiny window to hell, those embers so close I could feel the heat of them on my skin, so close my vision couldn’t focus, my eyes burning with the smoke. After a while, it got so I even liked that part, that sting and the feeling of being totally submerged in this darkness, like being underwater.

“We had bootleg Marlboros. These? These would be gold. We had the bootleg ones with the Marlboro logo and the hardpack, but the color was off and when you smoked them they tasted like hot slag. I mean it. They tasted like the heat that comes of a ladle of molten lead in a casting plant. I’d smoke three of these god-awful things, and sometimes I’d sleep, and sometimes I’d stay awake and smoke some more until I ran out and watched the sun rise over the canopy and had to get up and hump it all day with no sleep and no goddamn cigarettes, knowing I’d have to get some more or I wouldn’t sleep the next night either.”

He laughed and looked at me to say something but I didn’t. He reached out to push the dashboard lighter, and I saw that his hand was red and smooth, like a baby rat. There were no fissures or patterns or hair follicles, just a red lump on the end of his arm. He saw me looking and saw I wasn’t going to say anything, and he started up again.

“Anyway, after I got back, that’s when Lola got pregnant, and for a while I did the same goddamn thing. I’d pull the comforter over my head and smoke inside there while Lola slept next to me. I’d peek out at the streetlight and think how much better my Parliaments tasted than those goddamn bootleg Marlboros. Or I’d stare at the cherry glowing in the dark, and I’d be in the jungle again, sure that if I looked outside I’d see the sun rising above the canopy, the leaves glowing green and see-through.

“Our comforter was scarred. It would sag down and hit the cherry and the synthetic fabric would flare away and leave hole, burned black around the edges. One time the whole thing went up. I up and ran, holding the fire in front of me, my hands on the unburnt edges of the blanket, diving into the shower, cranking the faucet, dropping the fire into the bathtub. Lola stumbled in, sleep-drunk, and saw me in the shower and didn’t see the blanket, and we laughed about it the next morning, how she thought I’d gone crazy, standing there with the shower curtain open and ice-cold water spraying all over my pajamas.

“She smoked too, then. When she quit, she started saying how hard it was to be around me. She’d smell it on the sheets or in my hair, and she said it disgusted her and made her want to smoke again all at the same time, so couldn’t I please—for the sake of our unborn child—try to quit for real? So I did. For the next six weeks it felt like I never slept, but I did it. I quit for real.”

The lighter popped up in the dashboard and he grabbed it with his scarred red hand and held the glowing orange coils close to his face as he inhaled.

“It lasted a long while, too. At least, it seemed long. I guess it must not have been more than nine months from the start to the end of the whole thing. But it seemed like forever.

“We were real happy then. Lola’d always wanted a baby and she wanted it to be a surprise. I kind of hoped it would be a girl. But we said we’d be happy either way. Everything was all right. I was working construction and she was taking exercise classes with other pregnant women. We bought a little wooden crib and painted it white and put it in the bedroom with us. At Lola’s appointments she told them that she didn’t want to know ahead of time. That’s how it got so far along without anyone realizing.”

He dragged his cigarette and snuffed the butt in the ashtray with the others. The fingernails on his good hand were stained yellow with nicotine and when he rubbed his hands together they looked monstrous and asymmetrical, like the claws of a crab.

“Sometimes I wonder what old Lola is up to these days. But I think I know. I think whoever she’s got now is probably the type that falls asleep when she does, his arm hugged across her chest. The type who would quit for good, if she asked him.”

He dug in his backpack and produced a fresh pack.

“How about you?” he asked me. “You got a girl?”

Chris Mohar is currently a fiction MFA student at the University of Washington. His fiction has been published in Plankton. He holds a dual BS in Engineering and English from the University of Wisconsin, where his work was awarded the Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Prize.