“Orange Cigarettes” by Alex Pruteanu

Are you twenty five feet from the building?

An old short man with a wide sun hat made from straw and a conference participant bag of goodies clutched to his chest.

I pretend I don’t hear him but I spy him through my dark glasses not turning my head to make it look like I’m unaware. He doesn’t even exist. I’ve been hassled for smoking too close to a federal building before. And always by old men and women who attend continuing education classes inside. They all smell like warm death and are probably all ex-smokers given the geography and the history of this land. Hypocrites. I’ve dealt with them all. Promiscuous girl turns Bible thumping born again virgin with a locked chastity belt. That kind of shit walking around is a dime a dozen. I despise taking lessons from the elderly. They never really give anything worth your while anyway. Nothing good you can take from the elderly. Not this elderly. Just their opinionated conservative bile and judgment. Once I called a lady with a walker Judgy McJudge for passing me by outside in the courtyard and offering up a contemptuous Mhhhpf as I blew the grey smoke away from her.

Are you twenty five feet from the building? Young man?

I’m not young.

He laughs.

Well?

Well what?

Are you twenty five feet from the building?

I look back at the wall.

Seems about right.

Good. Cause they’re real sons a bitches about it since they put the law into effect.

He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a long orange pack of Pall Malls. In relation to his petite stature the 100s look like drumsticks hanging out from in between his lips.

One day I’m gonna quit he says.

But not today.

He laughs.

Well hell he says I’m no quitter. Never been that sort.

We’re all trying I say.

I been trying since I was fourteen he laughs. Back then packs were twelve cents.

Jesus.

Course you made a whole lot less but still.

Right. You see how much they charge in New York City I say.

Ten bucks.

Ten bucks.

Still though he says. I’d like to quit. I’m seventy eight years old. Doctor says I gotta quit.

Yea. We’re all trying. But some of us got more than one weak side.

He likes that one. Course it’s always gonna be something he says. Food drink stress.

A bus.

He laughs: true.

There’s a risk outside your door every day I say.

That’s it. My brother in law got lung cancer from working at a print shop all his life. Never once smoked.

Chemicals?

I guess so he says. Toner and ink and all that.

And then there was Andy Kaufman I say. Same thing. Never once smoked. Lung cancer.

Who’s that?

Comedian. Was.

Always something he says. Babies got to sleep on their bellies. Then on their backs. Then on their bellies again. What’s it now?

I don’t know I say. They flip flop.

He laughs.

Doctors I mean. They flip flop every other year it seems.

Doctors he says.

Nobody knows anything about anything really I say. My kid’s got seizures and they can’t find anything. So they gave her a pill to take every day for two years. Nobody knows anything about anything.

He takes a drag and a long pause. And says: and that’s the best thing I’ve heard in a long time young man.

I’m not so young. Forty two next month.

Yea maybe.

I laugh. He drags. I drag. He clutches the bag of goodies tighter to his chest.

I gotta get inside he says. They’re giving me a CAB.

What’s that?

Combat Action Badge.

Really.

Yea. The Army. Korea.

I’ll be damned.

I have no use for it he says. Doesn’t matter. Only matters to them. Them ones that give it.

Isn’t that how it always goes?

He laughs: you’ll be surprised how many fellows care for these things.

I probably wouldn’t.

He laughs: wouldn’t care or wouldn’t be surprised? Puts out his butt on the concrete but holds on to the extinguished burnt filter.

You want it?

Want what?

The badge. You want it?

I haven’t served I say. Ever.

Maybe in your own way he says. I don’t know. People serve in their own ways. Guarantee that.

Ah no I couldn’t take that. Would make no sense.

Would make as much sense as them giving it to me.

No it wouldn’t.

Make you a deal he says. If you’re out here when they let me out you can have it.

He moves toward the glass double doors of the building and discards the crushed cigarette butt into the container next to the newspaper machine. I watch him go into the lobby through foggy glass. Before he blends into the sea of elderly veterans, I see him take off his hat and pat down his thin hair.

+

Since emigrating to the United States from Romania in 1980 Alex has worked as a day laborer, a film projectionist, a music store clerk, a journalist/news writer for the U.S. Information Agency (Voice of America English Broadcasts), a TV Director for MSNBC and CNBC, and a freelance writer. Currently he is on staff at N.C. State University.

Alex has published fiction in Peer-Amid, The Legendary, Girls With Insurance, Trick With a Knife, Amphibi.us, Slingshot Litareview, and Pank Magazine.He is currently working on a novel called “Resident Alien,” and recently finished a novella called “Short Lean Cuts,” available as an e-book at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The paperback version is available from Amazon Publishers on the Amazon site.