Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

Smoke ’em Anyway

Kirsten Reed

My friends were packing, or gone. I go to an early admissions university for high school dropouts in the Berkshires; they take ‘promising’ high school students as young as fifteen. I’m seventeen. This was the first day of my first spring break. I still wasn’t sure where I was going. I hoped somewhere warm and sunny. I wanted to see palm trees.

I called my mother at work, from a payphone in the hallway. I lied and said I was going to Ohio with my roommate and the bus ticket cost $200. Momma said she was busy, told me to call her back in two or three hours. I didn’t have that kind of time. 

I called back in one. She was still busy and suggested I plead my case to someone named Bill, someone she apparently had lurking around her office, an assistant perhaps, to handle matters of this nature. As I protested, ‘But I don’t know Bill’, his voice came down the line. He came on firm, said I should leave my mother alone; she was a busy lady. Why didn’t I borrow money from the school? I wasn’t aware the school had a lending policy.

‘I’d rather deal with my mother.’

‘You’re mother’s very busy right now.’ There was more, but most of it involved repetition of the word ‘busy’ and I zoned out.

I said, ‘Thanks for all your help,’ and hoped Bill detected the note of sarcasm.

I hitched downtown and spent almost two hours at the bank. They wouldn’t give me a loan, so I went across the street and dialled my mother’s office again. Bill answered. I gave him info on how my mother could wire me $200 and gave him the number of the bank. 

I sat on a plastic couch in the bank foyer and read Fortune magazine. Actually, I just looked at the pictures and there weren’t any good ones. A stereotypically bland banker called me into his office. My mother had called. She was wiring the cash.

I found a payphone and dialled the Pittsfield Bus Station. I found out I had to buy my tickets in person. The next bus from Great Barrington to Pittsfield left Bob’s Pharmacy in nine minutes. I had to sprint across town and made the bus just in time. I sat next to an old lady and closed my eyes, pretending to be asleep.

I bought a ticket to Miami, but the bus didn’t depart until the following morning. I’d have to go all the way back to the dorm and spend the night there. I borrowed a dime from a metal head loitering in the station, and called the local bus company, asked about buses back to Great Barrington. The last one left, the operator said, but there was a bus leaving for Lee from the Hilton; he’d tell the driver to wait. I ran up the hill to the Hilton. I got change for a dollar from a smelly old man and paid the driver.

One by one the passengers deserted until it was just the driver and I. He was approaching his thirtieth birthday and began reminiscing about what it is to be young, as young as me. He risked certain disciplinary action by driving entirely off course, veering from his route to get me as close to Great Barrington as he possibly could. He didn’t like the thought of me wandering around out there alone on the highway. We disputed whether this trip of mine was a wise idea. I told him I like to travel, full stop. He relaxed his stance a little; maybe all my talk of vacation and freedom and sunshine was becoming intoxicating. 

We talked about all the places I’ve lived. He said he’d always wanted to visit New Zealand, but judging from his further remarks I think he thought it was a small volcanic island in the distant reaches of the Pacific. He stopped at Lee and sent me into the pharmacy to ask about tickets to Great Barrington. There were none. When I returned to the bus with this news, he gave me directions out of Lee. He said he couldn’t deviate any further from his prescribed route without getting arrested. He advised me not to hitch-hike. When I told him it was my only alternative he wished me luck.

Dozens of cars passed. I started to think I’d be walking the whole forty miles or however far it is from Lee to Great Barrington. A few middle-aged women surveyed me from passenger seats and managed to look appalled as they whizzed by, safely strapped into mid-range luxury cars. I lowered my hood; tried to look friendlier. I got some lewd shouts, but no rides. Finally a van turned sharply into the driveway in front of me, an old man gestured. I opened the passenger side door. He touched a finger to a hole in his throat and asked me in a thin, raspy voice where I was headed. It was a little spooky. I was reminded of the hitchhiking scene from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, when his driver’s head morphs into a freakish bug-eyed monster. I hesitated, and his face was all affable exasperation: it said, ‘Just get in the damn van already, kid’. He consented to drive me to Great Barrington. After a few minutes of chatting he asked if I needed a job. He was always looking for waitresses--, attractive ones, but the paper wouldn’t let him run an ad specifying that. 

His name was Pierre and before the operation he’d been an actor, been all over the world. He said I should go to Fort Lauderdale – only old people like him go to Miami. Why was I going to Florida by myself? Did I have enough money?

I told him I had about $30 or $40. He said that wasn’t enough, snapped open his bill fold and gave me thirty more, apologising for not having more cash handy. I protested, but he insisted, and I started to feel guilty, arguing, with him having to force all his words from a hole in his throat. I told him my mother thought I was going to Ohio. He smirked. 

Pierre deposited me at my dorm, all the way up the long windy driveway. He even drove a little way up onto the grass. I thanked him and shook his hand, started to walk away. He honked, waving me back. I jogged to his window as he took off the silver thing around his neck, one of those ornaments my grandfather in California wears on his collar. They always remind me of cowboys.

 ‘Take this.’ I started to shake my head. ‘For good luck,’ he said, ‘Put it around your neck.’

I did, and Pierre looked happier.

I was the only student in the dorm that night. It was so eerily quiet I only slept in patches. I could hear the little mini-bar fridge in the corner of our room lurching at intervals. I got up with the first rays of sun, made my way half-naked to the communal showers and used someone else’s shampoo.

I hitched downtown the next morning, safe in the protection of Pierre’s Old Man’s Lucky Neck Clasp. The bus was an hour late. The driver checked my ticket and shook his head. He reckoned I’d never make it to Florida; I was travelling via Greyhound, and Greyhound was on strike. I sat up front, so I could look out the big windshield at the road ahead, the fields, the grey day. When he pointed out some deer a few hours into the drive, I asked the driver to elaborate on the strike. He told me of ‘scab’ drivers being shot at, buses being abandoned, drivers getting lost…

I stumbled out at Penn Station, New York City. A young black guy spotted me and shepherded me toward my gate. He asked me to help him out when we got to the Greyhound terminal.

‘How much do you want?’ I asked. ‘I’m pretty broke.’

‘Two fifty.’

I gave him a dollar.

According to the electronic sign over the gate, my bus didn’t leave until 8:40 the following morning. I threw my bag down and huddled against the wall, closed my eyes to the fluorescent lights and tried to will myself to sleep. The station thinned out until only a few characters lurked around. I sank into an over-sized hooded jacket belonging to a much larger friend, moved closer into the wall in a kind of upright foetal position. 

At around midnight I saw a security guard and felt a wave of relief. He was old and made his way over to me slowly. He stood over me, slightly hunched.

‘Wanna smoke a joint?’

Those words swiftly negated the reassuring effect of his uniform, and the ‘security’ implied.

‘Uh… no, thank you.’

‘Are ya sure?’

I needed this man to maintain some sort of dignity of station; wanted to curb the feeling I was through the looking glass. ‘Yeah, I’m sure.’

‘Do you want to go back to my place and take a bath?’


 With that he shuffled off. I didn’t see him again, even from a distance. 

Towards dawn I unfolded stiffly and made my way to the ladies’ room, bent by the weight of my bag draped across my back like Santa’s sack. There I encountered a bona fide bag lady, standing in front of the mirror, tugging a comb through her matted hair. She greeted me with a nod, included my over-sized bundle in her salutation. There was no mistaking it: we were soldiers sharing a trench. She handed me her comb. I hesitated, tried not to physically recoil. I thought of lice, and, at the very least, dandruff. This is the sort of callous disregard for personal hygiene they warned us about in grade school. 

‘Go ahead,’ she said, ‘Don’t be shy. We all gotta keep ourselves up.’

‘Really I… I don’t need it. Thank you.’

She settled against her overflowing shopping cart, stubbornly, comb extended. I thought it should be obvious I was just travelling through. But people seem to see me, perceive me, out here on my own, however they decide to. I am too young to have my own place in the world, so they clear me a little bit of theirs. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t really homeless, like her. I took the comb. I dragged it over my head a few times, smiling weakly at her in the mirror. 

‘That’s better,’ she declared.

I handed back her comb. We wished each other luck.

I wrestled my bag back to the gate. A line was forming. I leant against a pillar and watched the other passengers assemble. There was a young Hispanic woman, a white guy with brown curly hair in an Ozzy Osbourne jacket. The rest were black, mostly families consisting of at least one small child. 

I joined the line and asked the family behind me 

‘Can I smoke in here?’

A tiny girl peered up at me, no older than three or four. Her hair was pulled to the top of head, held by a rhinestone clip that said ‘Trista’.

Her father boomed, ‘You sure can!’

Trista smiled, and added triumphantly, ‘You can do whatever you want.’

I chain-smoked then boarded the bus, sat in the eighth row and put my walkman on. Billy Bragg. I thought of my friends, whose beds I sat on, whose tapes I copied, who would never follow me here, though most of my travelling wardrobe was comprised of their clothes. ‘I saw two shooting stars last night. I wished on them, but they were only satellites. Is it wrong to wish on space hardware? I wish, I wish, I wish you cared.’

All the black families from New York City were talking like one big family. I took my Walkman off and listened to them.

After a few minutes the old man across the aisle leant over and said, ‘You’ve been awful quiet. What’d you do with your radio?’

He asked where I was going. By this stage I had gathered some bravado. I regaled him with the tale of how I grabbed this spring break by the proverbial balls. He told the woman behind me, in the big pink dress. The two of them declared I had guts; an adventuresome spirit. 

She exclaimed, ‘You are doing exactly the right thing!’

He asked me what I was studying. I told him acting, writing, and art.

He waved his arms happily. ‘Well, why don’t you become a writer? Put me in your story. My name’s Walter Brooks. Write it down. You remember me when you make your first buck – give me fifty cents!’

Walter sat next to me and warned me in essay form against anyone trying to take advantage of me, for anything. Our conversation found its way to racial prejudice. He said I wasn’t prejudiced, because, obviously, I wouldn’t be sitting there talking with him if I was. I nodded. He offered me the key to the world’s problems: ‘Kill off the old fogies. They’re the ones who keep up the prejudice.’

He set me straight on a range of topics, in an enthusiastic verbal torrent. Life’s too short to be selfish or too independent. Have fun. Talk to people. Get to know them. Enjoy life. He’s done this bus trip for many years, and he’s talked to everyone. He used to survive on ketsup diluted in water, his own version of V8. He introduced it to his cellmate. Pretty soon all the inmates, the whole jail was drinking ketsup in water. A real energy booster. 

Once, a very prejudiced man rode this same bus and he just wouldn’t stop insulting everyone. Walter went and sat next to this man and started talking about baseball. Walter doesn’t know anything about baseball, but the guy opened up, pretty soon he stood up and apologised to the entire coach. ‘I’m a people person,’ said Walter, in summation. ‘I just don’t understand why people can’t get along.’

He asked me what I was going to do in Richmond, our next scheduled stop.

‘Eat!’ I hadn’t eaten all day.

Walter had extended our conversation to include about six rows of seats. He asked the man in front of us to give me some Junior Mints, then seamlessly expounded on the difficulty of getting out of bed and taking a pee when your hip is swollen with gout. 

‘I’m just lyin’ there, and by the time I get to the bathroom—’

‘You need a shower,’ supplied the woman in pink.

‘It’s a pain in the ass, word,’ Walter laughed, ‘I’m telling you, word!’

I used a lull in this monologue to look around at the other passengers, at the few who were not included in Walter’s audience. They stared out the windows unremarkably, apart from a man seated directly behind the driver who looked a lot like Willie Nelson. But I don’t get down south much. Every bearded white man could look Willie Nelson down here for all I know. He turned to face us all, told us he was an ex-coach driver, as if this conveyed some sense of authority. He repeated this several times throughout the journey, but was primarily occupied with putting the moves on a young woman in roller skates seated across the aisle. Eventually she came over and sat on his lap. She looked like Janet Jackson. She kept yelling at her young son. I stopped looking at them, and looked out the window.

Walter asked me to have coffee with him in Richmond. It was his final destination. I said I guessed I would. Once inside the bus station, I found an ashtray and paced around it with a smoke.

‘I’m going to take off now, Walter,’ I said, after five minutes or so.

He asked me to stay. Meet his cousin, he said. Watch his bags, he said. I watched his bags. Earlier, on the bus, I’d seen him bum five cigarettes off the roller skater, stating that once in the bus station, five people would ask him for a cigarette. He returned to where I stood watch over his bags and stuffed all five into my breast pocket. 

‘I don’t smoke that kind.’

‘Smoke ’em anyway.’

I said, ‘OK. I’m gonna take off now.’

‘Give me a kiss.’

I offered him my hand. 

‘Don’t do like that. Give me a kiss.’

‘I don’t know you.’

‘But I know you.’ He kissed my cheek. He asked if I’d like to see him again. I said no, probably not. ‘You’re beautiful.’ He said. ‘I like your eyes.’ He ran his fingers under my eyes, traced my dark circles.

I passed a man who looked like Crocodile Dundee on my way to the ladies’ room. I could feel old Walter Brooks, watching me walk away.

He shouted, ‘Make me proud!’