The last time I saw Aunt Betty was the Rustler Steakhouse. We took a corner booth; there weren’t any tables available. She watched me spear a final morsel of ribeye and swirl it in a pool of watery catsup, the red meat clinging to the fork tongs. Behind her a massive bison skull was leaning off the wall, looking down on both of us.
“So you’re smoking 100’s now,” I said. “What’s the doc have to say about that?”
“It extends the pleasure. Doc doesn’t agree. He wants me to outlast life.” She smiled. Her teeth were the color of decades-old formica, but I loved her anyway. I wasn’t going to try and talk her out of quitting anymore.
She’d invited me to dinner because I was graduating next month, and she wanted to give me advice. I was drifting. Didn’t know what I wanted. Prospects cloudy with a chance of rain. I thought she had brought me here to lecture me. I didn’t understand why she was so willing to let go of it all. It bugged me.
“Most people’s lives,” she said, “the bits worth remembering, would run the length of this cigarette. All the most important stuff don’t take long.”
She flicked open her Zippo. “You’re born, like this. All the good times are the deep drags, smooth in the lungs, settling there. The tragedies: coughs of flem, choking on the smoke; a live ash falls and burns your arm.”
She held the cigarette in her fingers, the fire ring blinking, alive. She had this way of over dramatizing the smallest statements. This time, it fit.
“And then what? What about the end?” I said, staring down the eye of the cigarette that was killing her. As long as I’d known her, we’d been able to be blunt with each other, cutting to the quick.
“Butts in a glass ashtray. We all burn out eventually, you know.” She smiled again.
Did she want to confess her regrets? Why she never married and had kids. Why she never took pottery classes. Never went to Hawaii like she always wanted. Maybe, I thought, I’d crossed a line, said too much, too judgmental. I wanted to take it back. Who was I? Some ungrateful clueless kid.
“It seems a waste of time. A whole lifetime reduced to a cigarette. What about all the space in between? When nothing much happens?”
She laughed, the phlegm chugging deep inside her. “I know, most of life is pointless. That’s what these are for. They fill the gaps between the stories.”
I could see she knew something I didn’t, that whatever was bothering me, keeping me from pushing through, was the same thing she had learned to put up with. She allowed the smoke to gush from her lungs, a waterfall of air, and the booth filled with ghosty ringlets, like reels of magnetic tape unravelling off the spools.
– James Esch
Published in Mississippi Crow, 2008
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