NOVEMBER 2008

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Smoking or Non-Smoking?
By Tom Fillion, Oct 11, 2008

I returned home from the walk and called my wife, Alice. She was working, making a paycheck. Mine came every two weeks, if I did the paperwork correctly for the bored state clerk who processed my claim, in the mail for twenty-six weeks until it ran out. I had to tell her before I changed my mind, before I saw her eyes. I had left months before. It didn’t matter. The person she had been living with was someone else, a phantom, a ghost, a pariah, an American untouchable.

I told her the news.

“See? You just have to think positive.”

She was always telling me that. I was raised by parents who already had a family burial plot and headstones engraved with their names, birth dates, and a hyphen waiting for the death date. They were smokers too. Two packs a day for each of them. By the time I was sixteen I had inhaled enough secondhand smoke and their worldview to make me who I was.

“What is it?”

“Teaching English.”

“When do you start?”

“January.”

“After the holidays? We won’t have money for Christmas, but at least the bills will be paid and you can enjoy the holidays in peace and quiet. Of course, the rest of the world is about to blow up,” she said. “Who hired you?”

I mumbled something over the telephone.

“Could you repeat that?” she asked.

“...Saudi Arabia,” I said.

“Saudi Arabia! Haven’t you heard there’s going to be a war there?”

“I’m tired of looking for a job,” I said.

No answer.

“I can’t sit around here anymore. Not having a job is awful. I’ve got to do something.”

No answer.

“I need to find out who I am again. Sitting around doing nothing is like going fifteen rounds with Frazier or Ali.”

“When are you going to let them know?” Alice asked.

“I already did,” I said.

Not true until I said that. I knew I couldn’t go back on it. The die was cast. Another destiny awaited, beckoned me from the shadows and the smoke rings that occupied my time.


* * *

From that moment on people treated me differently, not quite a celebrity, more like a zoo animal on display, even though I was the same person as before. Christmas approached, there were parties to attend. At one, I was introduced to a retired Air Force officer who was a friendly, blustery gentleman whose commission was now at the Yacht and Country Club. His wife sat close by while he stood.

“Martha, this is Jim Tierney, and he is going to be serving his country in Saudi Arabia. Teaching English to Saudi pilots. He has a two-year tour of duty.”

“That’s fascinating. Can you pass the hors d’oeuvres, dear?”

The Captain knew the area well, the hors d’oeuvres and the Middle East.

“I spent a great deal of time flying there during dubya dubya two. Khartoum, Cairo, Riyadh, Djibouti. We flew diplomats from place to place. I’ve been to Jeddah. It’s there on the Red Sea.”

“I remember one incident while I was in Jeddah,” he reminisced. “There was some commotion close to the four star hotel where we stayed. We had flown in diplomats. There was all this noise and it was close to the hotel. I couldn’t figure it out so I decided to find out what was going on. I wanted to nap first, but I couldn’t because of the horrendous noise. The noise stopped before I could get out there. They had just executed someone. Chopped his head off like sprig of broccoli. I’m glad I didn’t see it.”

His wife handed him back the tray of bright-colored vegetables and dip. He took me around and introduced me to all his friends at the party as “the young man going to serve his country in Saudi Arabia” like I was somebody important, not a guy down on his luck who happened to answer a classified ad in the Sunday newspaper.

It made me think. How about that? Answering the classified ad, something so insignificant at the time, changed the direction and tenor of my life. It cost a postage stamp to do it. Crazy. Fucking crazy.

Someone at the First Presbyterian church told the minister that I was going to Saudi Arabia too.

“Jim Tierney has been recalled and is going to Saudi Arabia in January,” the minister announced one Sunday from the pulpit.

I slunk down low not wanting to be seen. Alice sat next to me. Elizabeth, our eight-year-old daughter, was in Sunday school which was good because I hadn’t told her yet about leaving. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth and I always had a lurking suspicion that none of it was real.

At another party, someone addressed me as “soldier boy.” Of course, I had never been in the military, unless you count the Catholic schools I attended for years and the barking nuns who rivaled any crew cut drill sergeant.

This attention was strange after being neglected so long in a futile job search after getting laid off. Then, all the secondhand smoke as a youth and the smoke from my own two pack a day habit kicked in. None of this was real. Maybe I had finally gone stark, raving mad. I had never met Wendell Jackson. He was just a voice on the phone. There had not been much of an interview. The contract had not arrived yet. The only contact I had was over the telephone. Maybe the whole thing was a prank being played by the teenager down the street who had seen me walking in the neighborhood with envelopes stuffed with resumes. I began to feel it was all an illusion created by my own desperation. The job didn’t start until January. Was that part of the charade? A sense of dread filled my insides. This had happened too easily. I was a fool.


* * *

Maybe I was a fool, but I wasn’t crazy. The deal began to take on flesh. The contract arrived one day in a thick packet. One side was in English, the other side was Arabic. Wendell Jackson called to verify its arrival and instructed me to call an 800 number before completing any of the documents. I called and a secretary guided me through the many paged document, signing my name untold times under mysterious columns of English and Arabic. When I completed it, I was instructed to take it to an Airborne Express office close to the airport. From there the contract made its way back to Wendell Jackson in Denver. The next day I received another phone call from him.

“Welcome aboard. Do you want smoking or non-smoking?”

“Huh?”

“Your villa in Saudi Arabia. Smoking or non-smoking?”

“Villa?”

‘Villa’ sounded so French Riviera, so aristocratic, so unbelievable considering I waited anxiously every two weeks for my unemployment check. So unbelievable considering the view out the back window at the unfinished addition on our house. The outside was finished and painted, the inside was exposed like the ribs of a gutted animal. The smell of raw wood permeated the air and reminded me of the lingering carcass. It looked third world.

“You’ll be staying with one other person. That’s how we pair you up. Smokers with smokers, non-smokers with non-smokers.”

I looked at the pack of Marlboro cigarettes on the desk before I answered him. A tremendous idea occurred to me. Sure, I’d miss the smoke rings and the infusion of secondhand nostalgia and nicotine into my bloodstream, but why not give it a shot? I needed to quit. I was tired of killing myself. Maybe I could quit in Saudi Arabia. There was nothing else there to do from what I had heard.

“I’ll take a non-smoking villa.”


* * *

I approached my daughter’s third grade teacher and explained the dilemma I was in. It was early December and I still had not told Elizabeth that I was leaving in a month, and that I would be gone for two years which I couldn’t really conceive of. Two years might as well have been two centuries.

“Kids have no perception of time,” her teacher explained. “Don’t tell her until you have to. It’s not going to mean much when you’re leaving, but it will mean a lot that you are leaving. And don’t let anyone tell her before she hears it from you.”

“Should I hold off telling her then?”

“I would,” she replied.

Despite my concern about telling her, people in the neighborhood came to see me. They knew I was going and wanted to wish me well.

“Good luck in Saudi,” our next-door neighbor began.

“Sh. Don’t say it too loud.”

I pointed to the other room where Elizabeth was watching a video.

“What? You haven’t told her yet?”

“No.”

I knew that sooner or later I would have to explain to her about my plans. I didn’t know how to break it to her, and it really bothered me to the point of sleeplessness and a vague sense of dread.

The sleeplessness continued. I imagined my body contracted an exotic disease, and the disease progressed geometrically to the lack of sleep. I was convinced the medical report would verify this, and the contract I already signed would be rescinded, even the part in Arabic.

Step by step, things were accomplished: passport photos, legal matters, will, power of attorney, and passport application. The medical report came back. I was in good health, despite the years of nicotine fog. There was no turning back. The sleeplessness was just stress. I was just anxious to get going. I told the doctor about my situation.

“Doc, the hardest part is telling my daughter that I’m going. She’s the apple of my eye.”

Tears moistened my eyes, but they progressed no farther. I was a Marlboro man, and that wasn’t supposed to happen.

“She’ll miss you,” he said, “but kids are tough. I spent a year in Japan during Vietnam. I had three kids. They adjust. She’ll be okay.”

“Thanks. I appreciate the advice. I don’t want her hurt by all this, but I guess it can’t be helped.”

“Keep in contact with her and your wife. That’s important.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

“Good luck in Saudi Arabia,” the doctor said.

I smiled. Luck? No, it was fate turned into destiny.


* * *

“When are you going to tell Elizabeth?” Alice asked a few days later.

“Soon.”

‘Soon’ was a week before Christmas. I couldn’t stand the whispering and hushed tones of evasion. I sat with Elizabeth in the living room. The house was quiet except for the television which ran continuous stories about the situation in the Middle East.

“Elizabeth, I have something important to talk to you about.”

“What is it, Daddy? Is it about Christmas? What is Santa going to bring us?” she asked.

“Well, not exactly,” I said with difficulty. “You know how I’ve been looking for a job, and I haven’t found one?”

“Did you find one?”

“Yes, a good one that pays a lot of money so we can pay our bills and stay in this house,” I said. “The only thing is I have to go away on this job.”

Her round face had a puzzled look as she tried to comprehend what I had said. It was like I was going away to prison.

“Where do you have to go?”

“Saudi Arabia, honey.”

“Saudi Arabia, is that where the bad man on the television is?”

“Saddam? He’s close but not in Saudi Arabia. I’ll be a long distance away from him so I’ll be safe, okay?”

“Okay.”

She glanced at the television.

“Do you have to go?”

The water I was treading turned to sand.

“Yes, but I’ll send you stories about magic carpets and castles and princes and camels and all sorts of things. I’ll send you presents too.”

“Presents?”

“You’re going to be okay, aren’t you? You’re going to get along with your Mom?”

“Yeah, I’ll be okay,” she said blankly.

“I’m going to miss you a lot, but I know you’ll do fine ‘cause you’re a big girl.”

“Yeah, I’m a big girl.”

And I was the Marlboro man, my throat tightening. It made me ill to see the stunned look on her face. I reached for a smoke.

“Daddy, I don’t want you to go,” she said.

“I know, honey, I know.”

I couldn’t light up, and I couldn’t cry.

“Guess what?”

“What?”

“I’m going to quit smoking while I’m there.”


* * *

January 9, 1991. Along with three suitcases, instead of cigarettes, I packed my guitar and some music books. One book had songs from Woodstock, a generation and a war ago. By the time we get to Arabia we’ll be half a million strong, I thought. This wasn’t going to be Woodstock though.

Alice and Elizabeth accompanied me to the international airport. None of us really looked each other directly in the eyes. I hurt inside, and I’m sure they did too. Quick glances substituted for eye contact. The agent made the call for the Denver flight.

“It’s time,” I said.

In Denver I would meet with Wendell Jackson and join a group for the transcontinental flight. We exchanged hugs and kisses then I descended into the tunnel to the aircraft. Elizabeth and Alice walked along the rail above me.

“Daddy, I love you.”

I stopped. It was the longest I had looked at either one of them for some time.

“I love you so much. I can’t describe it.”

“I love you,” Alice called.

“I love you too. I’ll be okay.”

My stomach ached, but I kept walking. I couldn’t bear to look back at their faces any longer. I had to go. I had to go and be the non-smoking Marlboro man. Maybe the world would be normal again someday, I thought. Maybe. Right then though, it was all uncertainty and a tunnel leading to a hazy smoke ring that was my destiny. God, I needed a cigarette.

Tom Fillion is a graduate of the University of South Florida. He teaches mathematics and coaches golf and tennis in Tampa. He has been published in Ramble Underground, Hamilton Stone Review, Cautionary Tale, Word Catalyst, and is forthcoming in Storyglossia.

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