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The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes in Southern Fla

Cigarettes
Mary Wilson

Mildred was boiling water on the stove, or more precisely, the water boiled on the stove as Mildred stood next to it, peering out of the window of her trailer. The children were getting out of school, released from the bus en masse. A few of them stopped by the cube of mailboxes and retrieved the contents. She took a packet of noodles out of the cupboard, one of the 33 cent packets from the store, this one the shrimp variety, and opened it, dropping the dehydrated brick into the water. Sean was asleep on the couch. He napped most afternoons around two, said that his blood sugar dipped at that time, falling asleep with the television on and one of the afghans her mother had crocheted on top of him. The soap opera was coming on, and its theme song filled the 1978 trailer where they lived.

Millie stirred the water, put the spoon on the stove, and took a seat on the recliner. They had gotten the recliner a few months back when they were driving through town, back when the truck was still working. Somebody in one of the wealthier neighborhoods had just put it out by the curb. Probably didnıt like the color or something. They had furnished most of their abode with the abandoned possessions from the army of old folks who made up the majority of the Floridian population, a state full of newlyweds and nearly-deads, as Sean liked to say. But now the recliner was theirs, and it was the most comfortable piece of furniture they owned. Sean had put a few cigarette burns into the arms, but other than that, it was still good, and those old people with too much money and too much stuff had just thrown it away.

Behind her, she heard the water boiling over. Just got comfortable, she thought, got up slowly from the chair, and turned off the stove. With her trembling fingers, she opened the silver flavor packet and emptied its contents into the pan. It was the same size and luminous material as a condom packet, and she might have recognized this, but she did not. There were plenty of things she did not recognize anymore‹people, brands in the supermarket she had used all her life, streets. Hell, occasionally she didnıt recognize Sean, would just stare at him in one of her trances, as he called them, not knowing why this strange man was lying on her couch. The episodes didnıt last long and only came sporadically, although their frequency was greater nowadays. And considering that they had started in her early 20ıs, it was a wonder she had any memory left at all. A few of the memories were still there, burned into her mind like an automatic reflex. Faces mostly, and images. The memory of falling through the ice on the pond when she was five; her sea-green prom dress that her mother had sewed for her; the dog, Happy, who was gray-muzzled and arthritic by the time Mildred came along. Many of the faces no longer had names linked to them, had lost that linkage years before, but she remembered her motherıs face and name, and that of her daughter, Sophie.

Mildred sat at the table and ate her noodles. Sean snored loudly on the couch, his mouth agape. She was going on her fourth year with Sean, and this was his trailer. Mildred had never owned a place to live. There had been the farm, but that had passed over her, her mother having willed it to Sophie. But there had always been a man to live with, to travel with. Her beauty had allowed a continuum of lovers, but now she was older and the wrinkles had come on her face as blatantly as the fat had deposited itself around her midsection. Soon, she would go through the change, just another old woman waddling through the supermarket, mumbling to herself, her biggest accomplishment being that she did not become obese.

The black and white Tom cat was on the front stoop, meowing. Millie opened the cabinet, taking out a plastic cup filled with cat food, opened the door, and poured the food onto an aluminum pie plate. She put out food for the strays each morning. This cat was her favorite, and she had named it Boots. She watched it eat, then went back to eating her noodles. The cat followed her through the open door. She didnıt notice it, at first, until she felt the cooler air coming through the open door and glanced at the aluminum storm door, still slightly ajar. Boots sat by it, cleaning himself, satisfied with his full belly and his ease at coming inside. Sean tossed and turned. He would awaken soon, and she knew that she should chase out the animal, but she just sat there, watching it.

When Sean awoke, he walked right by the animal, who was by this time lying in a patch of sunlight, and made his way to the bathroom, where he took a long piss with the door open. On his way back into the living area, he spotted it. "Millie, what is that cat doing in here?"
"He just came in."
"Just came in, huh? Well, heıs gonna just go out."
Sean opened the door and stomped his foot near the cat. Instead of running outside, it ran down the hallway. "Jesus Christ, youıve been feedinı that cat for so long it thinks it belongs here."
"Itıs a nice cat, Sean. Iıd like to have a cat."
"God-damn it Millie those cats you had at the barn you didnıt take care of and this Tom cat would just piss all over the trailer and all the furniture we got. Get the fuckinı cat outta here!"

Sean went outside to have a cigarette, and Millie walked back the hall and into the bedroom where the cat had hidden. She kneeled down by the bed, making kissie noises, until the cat came out and allowed her to pet him. Boots trusted her; she fed him most days (on other days she didnıt remember but he did not know this), and eating was half the battle to staying alive. He followed her down the hall, first checking to make sure the male wasnıt nearby, and when she opened the door, Boots darted out, past Sean and under the neighboring trailer. Sean picked up the pie pan of food and threw it towards the cat. "Whyıd you have to do that?" Millie asked him. He mocked her, "Whyıd you have to do that? The poor kitty needs a place to live. Itıs starving. Well Iım starving cause you canıt cook nothing more than those fuckinı noodles! Canıt even keep the place clean. Leave me alone." Sean walked off, down the street to his friend Leroyıs trailer, where he would eat sloppy joes, work on Leroyıs Chevy, and drink Coorıs Light, until stumbling home to sleep next to Millie.

As he slept, Boots would find the cat food strewn throughout the sandy grass, then sleep directly beneath Mildred and Seanıs room, close enough to hear Seanıs snores.

The truck was running again, and the sound of the engine awoke Mildred as Sean revved it outside. It backfired a couple of staccato farts, then calmed down to its usual shakiness. There was the smell of burning oil. The trailer where they lived sat 25 miles inland from the Western Coast of Florida. Sean had been raised there, and planned on never going north again. Too fucking cold. Leroy was with him, and he closed the hood with another bang. He wiped his hands on his dark blue work pants, his hairy belly protruding over the top of them, a bit of skin showing below the bottom of his t-shirt. Sean got into the cab and turned up the radio loud enough to wake several of his neighbors. "Thisıll wake her up," he said.

Still in bed, she stared at the paneled walls and the patterns therein. It occurred to her that she had not been happy in a long time, that she couldnıt remember the last time she had laughed.

Leroy said, "Come-on Sean, hurry up so we can get the boat and put her in the water. Better fishinı in the morning."

Millie lay in bed for a few minutes, savoring its last comforts, then slowly sat up, putting her feet into the ratty pink slippers that were past their prime. Maybe now that the truck was running, Sean could take her somewhere nice, maybe to a public beach or a state park to fish, instead of being stranded in the trailer park, broke and jobless. Better to be at the beach broke and jobless. Maybe they could even go to the state park where they had met. Millie had been working a part time job at the time in maintenance, emptying the garbage that overflowed so easily from the bathrooms and picnic areas. She had been carrying a heavy bag of trash to the dumpster when she had walked past Sean, who was fishing from the shore. "Need some help there, little lady?" Her arms were tired, her back sore, and she had accepted. He had heaved the bag effortlessly into the dumpster, and this had impressed her. She liked strong men. "Thank you so much," Millie had gushed. "Hauling these bags around can get you tired pretty quick."
"You work here all the time? I havenıt seen you before."
"Part-time. Just started. I live in the apartments on Wopsononek." Millie noticed that the park ranger, her supervisor, was watching them from porch of the gift shop and snack counter. "Better get back to work."

For weeks following the encounter, she would notice Sean at the park, sometimes alone and casting off from the spillway, other times with Leroy in his blue boat. One day after she finished her shift, while the afternoon was still scorching, Sean had waited for her at the Ranger station. "Can I buy you a soda?" He had asked. "Sure. OK." They had sat on the porch with the tourists, drinking their sodas. "Whatıs your name, anyway?"
"Millie."
They had gazed over the water, watching alligators, watching tourists load onto the park tour boat. "Itıs pretty here. Not as pretty as you, though."
Millie had blushed. "I donıt like all the alligators."
"They leave people alone if people leave them alone," he said.
"I guess." Millie finished her soda, sucking up the last of it through her straw. "I gotta get going so I can catch my bus."
"Iıll give you a ride," he had offered, and she had accepted. At the park, Sean backed up the truck, which had Leroyıs boat on the back, hitched up to the weathered trailer, and they put the boat into the water. Leroy took the rods, reels and tackle from the truck, and put them into the boat. He stepped into it, his weight sitting it down into the water a few more inches, and started the motor. "Park the truck and letıs go," he said to Sean. "Just go out about 20 yards," he said. "I need to go into the store and get some smokes." Sean bought cigarettes from the lady behind the counter, who had a bad perm and was sucking on a Big Gulp. He gave her the money. "Thank you, little lady."

Sean was not afraid of alligators, not afraid to wade occasionally by the shore. He had been doing it all his life. The water was only a few feet deep by the edges, maybe seven in the center during the rainy season. The water was the color of tea, brewed that way by all the tannins, and he could just about see his feet as he walked deeper into the water, a cigarette hanging from his lips. The boat wasnıt that far out, he reasoned. And the gators stayed by the other side of the shore, for the most part, over by the grassier area where they laid their eggs. He had heard rumors that there were 16 footers in the lake, but he had never seen that large of one himself. A park ranger on the boat ride would have told him that an alligator can stay under water for almost two hours, can just sit there on the bottom until it has to breathe. A ranger would have also told him that while the human jaw can crush with about 80 pounds per cubic inch, an alligators jaw can crush with 3000. Sean did know that alligators preferred smaller prey, but he watched around him as he walked out. He was getting closer to the boat now, the water just over his knees, and he had been right about the gators not liking this side of the lake, he had been correct in assuming that he wouldnıt get attacked by one on the way out to the boat. On the shore, blue herons and snowy egrets stood on skinny legs. Above him, an osprey circled, diving occasionally into the water to catch fish. Sean finished his cigarette and let it drop into the water. Smooth going now. He made it to the boat, swung one of his legs over, and began climbing into the craft. "Jesus Fuck!" Sean yelled. "What the hell?" "I got my cigarettes wet." He took them out of his shirt pocket, examining the casualties in the pack, and tossed those into the water. Leroy cracked open a beer and gave it to his friend. "It ainıt the alligators I worry about," Leroy said. "Itıs the fucking cottonmouths that scare me."

Millie took the bus to the mall, and sat alongside the old folks and other crazies. The Cat Lady was on the bus again. On her lap, she held a pet carrier. She was chatting with a senile passenger. "So I took her to the vet because she had diarrhea but the man said itıs because Iıve been giving her too much milk." Mildred watched as the Cat Lady exited the bus, removed the feline from its shell, and cradled it to her neck. Bill was driving the bus again. He was Millieıs favorite driver, always calm. He looked at Millie via the rearview mirror and thought to himself, "When did so many people become insane?"
"The state took away her baby eight months ago," Bill told Millie. "They say sheıs borderline retarded, citing how she always carries around that cat." The bus pulled away. The sound was comforting to Millie. "I saw her in town pushing the cat around in a stroller," he said. "My friend who works at the Humane Society says they get a couple calls each week about her and how she carries that cat around like a baby." Millie made eye contact with the reflection. "But at least she takes care of it, even if she donıt know how to do it quite right." Millie shook her head. "Sure is a shame."

The bus stopped at the mall, and Bill pulled the lever to open the door. Millie let the old folks get out first. "See ya in a couple hours, Bill." Millie said. "See ya, sweetie." The old folks who were the Morning Milers were chugging over the shiny floors, the ones in groups conversing to each other. Millie, however, meandered to her destination, pausing to look in the windows at the fashions draped over the mannequins. "Goodwill had something like that for six dollars, red tags half-off on Tuesdays," she said to herself. The stores were just opening, salesclerks lifting the gates, the metal clinking against itself. She went into the vision center, mesmerized by all the glasses on the walls. The receptionists were organizing their charts and starting up the computers. "Can I help you, Mam?"
"No, Iım alright."
"Do you have an appointment?"
"Just looking."
"Sure."

Millie waited until the women were adequately immersed in their work. She removed her glasses and put them on a counter. She picked out a pair from the charity box and tried them on. "Too strong," she said. Millie fingered through the rest of them and pulled out another pair and tried those on, looking out into the mall at the security guard who was doing his first round of the day. The right eye was not quite clear enough, and she put the pair back into the box. The women at the desk welcomed a patient, and then began talking softly to each other. Millie put on another pair, this one with a red hue to the frame, and looked out the store and checked the focus in relation to the consumers who passed by. And she could see better, clearer, more precisely than her own glasses had been able to clarify for over a year now. But there was still another test. Millie cast her glance to the lettering on the box, and there, in red letters, she made out the crisp words, which she read and digested. Give your old frames for the less fortunate, it said. She put her own frames into the box, and exited the store, wearing the traded pair of spectacles.

Leroy and Sean drank into the afternoon, drank into the coolness of dusk, until finally, they took the boat into shore. They had each caught a few fish, none of them long enough to keep, but they kept them anyway. Sean pulled the boat back to Leroyıs, and parked. The two men unhitched it, and Sean lingered by his truck, not wanting to return home. "Iıll keep them fish in the cooler 'till tomorrow," Sean said, or meant to say. All his words were slurred. "Iım going to skin mine tonight," Leroy said. "Did I ever tell you about the time I put the nail through the fishıs head to skin it and it kept moving?"
"Yep." Sean faintly remembered his friend telling him the story. "If it is dead how come itıs still moving? Isnıt really dead if itıs still moving, I say."
"It's like a chicken with its head cut off, still running around the place." Leroy asserted.

Sean flicked his cigarette into the dirt and got into his truck. He stuck his arm out of the window and waved to his friend. The last light was fading, and Sean continued driving without his lights on. He wanted another cigarette; the alcohol had caused him to expel the nicotine more quickly from his body. He put his hand over his breast pocket, but they were not there. In his peripheral vision, he saw them on the floor, the remaining cigarettes from the afternoon, those that had survived falling into the gaitor filled water. He reached over across the seat to get them, extending his arm and fingers until finally pinching hold of them. He was satisfied that he had them, and as he sat up, his last thought was that the road was full of trees.

When Leroy heard the news, he wondered if his friend had twitched in death, alone by the side of the road.

© Mary Wilson Oct 15th 2004
mjarrettwilson@yahoo.com

Previously by Mary Wilson
The Arc
The Temple
(A particular favorite with my creative writing students)
The King of Dust

Dreamscapes

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