by Dean Brooks

My alarm is usually set for 5:27, but this morning the radio starts blaring an unrecognizable song at 4:27. I’m a light sleeper, and in an instant, I shoot out of bed before I can change my mind. My brain hasn’t grasped what’s happening yet, and certain receptors in it aren’t firing. Truth is, I’m a morning person, but I’m even more of a pre-morning person. The dark before the dawn is wholly appealing for its connotations. It’s a precursor to the day – a little too late for people to still be up partying, a little too early for people to be getting ready for work. It’s an alone time. Just me and my brain. Sometimes it works out pretty well. Other times, not so much.

I shuffle into the kitchen, put the coffee on, and walk back into my room, closing the door gently. Sitting down in my chair, I glance over at my jacket hanging on the closet door. The gnawing starts. It’s just a tiny bit, but I’m well aware of where it’s going. My brain has had time for sufficient blood flow to form thoughts I don’t want it to think.

You could, it says.

I turn on my computer instead and open a new word document, intending to write something, anything, for an hour, whether it be good or bad. Though after fifteen minutes of transition-less material about people on my dad’s side of the family, I semi-consciously type I think they gave me my love for tobacco. I hurriedly delete the sentence, as if I were trying to prevent myself from getting any ideas.

I get up and look out the window. None of the windshields in the parking lot have frost on them.

I shake my head as if I’m snapping myself out of it and walk back to the kitchen. The coffee is just finishing, and I pour some into my favorite mug. Returning to my room, I sit back down, enveloped in a dangerous quiet, not moving, just thinking. My heart is beating faster than it was before all this started.

You know what goes great with coffee, right? And it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away. All you have to do is drive.

I breathe deep, and let out a noisy sigh. I exit out of the word document without saving and turn off my computer. I know what I’m going to do, but I force myself to not believe it yet. My joke amount of willpower tries to make its two cents valid. I know what a pain in the ass quitting is. I’ve done this eight times in four years, only two of which have had any success.

I’m not buying it. Not one bit. The heart wants what it wants, right?

That was the bottom line. I hadn’t smoked for ten weeks, and then willingly decided to have a cigar for the drive back to Bemidji after a weekend at home. A week later, I had another, to celebrate Halloween. Then I had another. And then I found out that the tobacco shop was selling pineapple cigars again, which are my all-time favorite that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else.

I was in that precarious state where becoming re-addicted was looming threateningly, but I wasn’t ready to admit it. I made myself believe that as long as I wasn’t smoking cigarettes, I’d be fine.

“I can fight this,” I say somewhere in my head to the other voice in my head. “I’m stronger than that.”

We both know that that isn’t true.

I contemplatively run my fingers through my unbrushed, grungy hair. I could sit here, trying to ward off the inevitable that I knew I would succumb to eventually, or I could just indulge.

“This is it. One last time, okay? Then I’m done.”

Sure sure. We’ll go with that.

I put on my jeans and my flannel jacket and walk to the entryway where my shoes are. I jam my feet into them and grab my keys off the hook. Opening the door a quarter of the way, I hesitate. “I could still stop. I could turn around and pretend that I wasn’t about to do this.”

Whatever. I don’t know who you think you’re fooling, but it isn’t me. I’m smarter than you.

I turn off of Anne Street onto Irvine Avenue, putting more distance between what I should be doing and what I’m letting myself do.

Driving in Bemidji at five in the morning is something I usually enjoy. The city is still, like it’s posing for a postcard. Most places aren’t open, but a fair amount of lights are still on. But they’re not welcoming. They don’t want any business yet. The buildings are still asleep like most people.

The glow of the cherry on a cigar is the best light of all, you know.

Few cars make their tired way down the street. Headlights in the distance look groggy, but nonetheless, my guard is up. Until proven otherwise, I believe that every set I see belongs to a police car, which always makes me nervous. I’ve never liked cops. I always assume that they assume I’m up to no good, and my car and my own appearance don’t look like they’re trying to deny this. Long, blonde-haired guys with lip piercings driving unwashed, black Grand Ams that have a little devil hanging from the rearview don’t give off an aura of minding the law.

But smoking is perfectly legal. Cops don’t have anything on you. You’re in the free and clear.

I drive past the funeral home. My stereo is set at a respectably low volume, which only happens when

Straight, black coffee goes well with all kinds of shame.

I see that the parking lot there is full of mourners, or if it’s some ungodly a.m. hour. As paranoid as I am about the police, I always have the music up too loud. But at this point in the morning, I feel as if I would be intruding on the silence. I ease to a stop at the lights, which change to green as soon as I stop completely. It’s as if they were waiting for something to do, but still wanted to be spiteful about it. Turning east onto Paul Bunyan Drive, the sky confronts me with the same amount of darkness as it did while I was driving south. That tiny, hinting glow of a sunrise hasn’t arrived yet. The sky is a blank, black slate with tiny dottings of stars.

Remember that time you, Sean, and Lisa were lying on the trampoline and having a discussion about the stars? You hated that. Typical burnout talk. Remember what your solace throughout the night was? Here’s a hint: it rhymes with Harlboro.

I clench my jaw, trying unsuccessfully to ignore my brain.

Careful of my speed, I turn onto Bemidji Avenue and head south. One set of headlights coming north and I are the only visible souls on this stretch of the street. By the general shape, I can see that it isn’t a police car. As it drives under a street light, it reveals itself to be a cargo van. I figure that it’s full of newspapers and a scruffy, irritable guy who doesn’t appreciate the stillness. I feel okay about being judgmental at this point. Anything to keep judgment off me and the mission of this trip.

We’re getting closer. You can already taste that sweet smoke, can’t you?

I can. My heart beats faster. I don’t know if it’s excited or afraid. Raw, unfiltered cigar smoke isn’t good for the physical heart. But the real heart, the one that loves, the one carved into trees and added at the end of high-school notes passed in the halls, adores that smoke.

I drive though the lights on Fifteenth Street, accelerating a bit. Hardly anybody gets pulled over for going a mile over the speed limit, but that’s as fast as I’m going to go. I figure a cop on patrol at five in the morning is vigilantly looking for something to do, and stopping me would suffice.

Officer, if you let me go, I’ll split a cigar with you. It’s good for what ails you. Real good.

I get closer to the Clark station by the Carnegie library. The lights above the pumps are on. It looks open. I think about pulling in and take my foot off the accelerator, but change my mind before I press the brake.

As I drive past the entrance, my brain starts yelling, Hey! What the hell are you doing? Open gas station! Cigars inside!

“I’m going to go down to the Holiday.”

For any reason in particular, dumbass?

“So I’ll have longer to smoke on the drive back.”

You know, you don’t have to go straight back to the apartment. You can drive aimlessly while you smoke. That’s kind of the nature of a smoke cruise.

“Hey, you’re the one who’s told me in the past that the suspense can be the most fun. It’s all part of the chase, remember?”

Yeah, when you’re lusting after a ladyfriend and have all night to do so.

“Oh, come on now. Tomato, tomotto.”

In this instant, feel like I’ve won, even though I haven’t. Theoretically, I could still turn around, but

I look old enough to make bad decisions.

realistically, I can’t. I drive past Dunn Bros. and remember that I still have a pot of coffee waiting for me back at the apartment. I’m awake enough now that I won’t need it, but it’ll be a good compliment to the heavy aftertaste of a cigar. Straight, black coffee goes well with all kinds of shame.

I put on my blinker, just in case, and change lanes. The slow, droning song emanating from the speakers is picking up speed. I incorporate my index and middle fingers with my thumb as I halfheartedly drum on the steering wheel.

There’s probably a reason you never got that drum set for Christmas.

“You think you’re pretty funny, don’t you?”

I will until the day we die.

I have no retort to this. I take my foot off the accelerator and hover it over the brake. My speed dips from thirty-six to thirty-five. I put on my blinker and press down on the pedal, slowing smoothly as I veer into the turn lane.

My brain is electric at this moment, but I don’t feel any smarter. All these synapses firing like a machine gun should kick up some irrelevant information. Or relevant information, for that matter. But all I can think is whether to get a Black & Mild, or a White Owl. Tip or no tip. Straight-up regular cigar-flavored or fruit-flavored.

I pull up to the curb and turn the stereo down. A little grey car is at the pump nearest to me. Its owner doesn’t look thrilled to be pumping gas at this hour. His tiredness and overall weary appearance is accentuated by the sixteen fluorescent lights overhead. It looks like he needs to shave. I do, too. And shower. And put on some clothes that I didn’t sleep in. But I’ll worry about all that a little later. There are more pressing issues to deal with now.

It’s time! We’re here! Can you feel that shit?!

I feel like my brain is a football coach giving a pep talk to his team that has made it to state, but yes. Yes I can. My heart pounds in my throat. My hands are shaking; not enough that anyone could see, but I can feel them like the inside of my body is shivering. I unbuckle my seatbelt and step out of the car, not bothering to turn it off. The cold wind off the lake blows as I take the few steps to the entrance.

Pushing the door open, I’m greeted by a store full of merchandise and devoid of customers. The donut case is full and it smells like fresh coffee in here. The floors are surprisingly clean, as is the counter. I suppose the cashier needs something to do during the night.

I walk over to the counter. This cashier is hunched over at the far end, facing away from me. It looks like he’s reading a magazine. I don’t want to be rude, interrupting him, but I will if I have to. This is more important than not being momentarily unpleasant to a person. I open my mouth, about to say something, when he lifts his head up, as if he had just processed that he heard the door open a few seconds ago.

He turns and smiles genuinely. His teeth are straight and white, like he’d had braces on since he was born and just had them removed. I’m caught off-guard. I certainly wouldn’t be this happy to dish out smokes to someone who looks like me this early, though I suppose it’s probably late for him. Maybe he’s happy that his shift is almost done. Or maybe he’s one of those people who is happy all the time. I don’t know. I don’t really care, either. I like him less because of his happiness.

“What can I get for ya?” he asks, walking over.

I hesitate. I still haven’t made a decision.

White Owl! You want strawberry! Tell him!

“Can I get a strawberry White Owl?” I say.

“Strawberry White Owl,” he repeats, letting the words linger as he walks unhurriedly to the other side of the counter. I can’t tell if he’s suspicious of a little foul play, or just repeating for the sake of it. I’d probably be a little suspicious of anyone buying a cigar at this hour, too, but I wouldn’t take so long getting it for them. He’s taking his sweet-ass time, and I like him even less for it.

He plucks a red foil-wrapped cigar from the case. I grab my wallet from my back pocket and glance inside. Two wrinkled Washingtons are the lone bills in there. I take them out, ready to hand them over.

He scans the bar code. The computer beeps. “Dollar seventy-one,” he says as he places the cigar on the counter.

I hand him the money, glad that he didn’t card me. The process would have taken about four seconds that I’m not willing to spare. I figure he thinks that I look old enough to make bad decisions.

He pushes a few buttons on the touch-screen and the register opens.  He glides a quarter out of its compartment with his index finger, scooping it into his other hand, and does the same with four pennies, one by one by one by goddamn one. My foot taps impatiently. He drops the change into my hand and wishes me a good day. I half-heartedly return the sentiment and hurry out of the store.

My brain is too excited to say anything coherent. All that comes out is a slew of obscenity and moaning.

I get in my car and put it in drive. Holding the cigar with my left hand, I unwrap it with my teeth as I fish in my right pocket for my lighter. I creep forward, past the gas pumps, with the brake half-pressed, my left knee controlling the steering wheel. I spit out the small piece of foil, place the end of the cigar between my teeth, and glide the rest of the wrapper off. I toss it on the floor in front of the passenger seat.

Getting far enough away from the pumps to not blow the place up and thus not get my fix, I position the lighter directly in front of the cigar, covering it with my left hand out of habit. I draw my thumb over the spark wheel and press down on the release in one fluid motion. Nothing. I flick it again. A spark appears, but no flame is born. Thinking the third time will be the charm, as is fairly common with disposable lighters, I flick it again. Only a spark. I glare threateningly at the lighter and flick it again. A small flame appears.

I tighten my lips around the cigar and hold it to the flame, centering it around the circumference of the tip. I hold the flame steady for a moment to let it catch. Repeatedly,  I draw smoke through the cigar and blow it back out quickly, the tip glowing brighter each time I do. Smoke starts to rise in a steady stream around the gusts I’m forcing through. After six uninhaled draws, it becomes fully lit.

My expectations are high. Ever since my first cigar a week after I turned eighteen, I’d been trying to recapture the feeling of that very first drag. My head was immediately swimming in a rush of nicotine and pleasure, and my eyes unconsciously closed as I exhaled. In that instant, I understood why people didn’t quit smoking. It was too good to give up.

I tighten my lips around the cigar and take a long, slow drag, letting it all pool in my mouth, then inhaling it. I hold it in my lungs for a moment, letting it register throughout my brain and my body. If I do it right like I did the first time, I’ll be able to feel my fingers tingling. I exhale slowly, sending a thick, loose stream of smoke past my lips. I wait a moment for the euphoria of that first drag to make me light-headed, which it does. A little.

Perturbed and not wanting to accept that it hadn’t happened, I take another drag, this one bigger and slightly more hurried, and hold it for five seconds.

One.

It’s registering as the first drag did.

Two.

I feel a little good.

Three.

I think it’s peaking.

Four.

Nothing.

Five.

Nothing except that my lungs are starting to hurt.

I exhale, watching the taunting smoke disperse in front of the red dash lights.

It’s time to go home.

Dean Brooks graduated from BSU in the spring of 2012 with a BFA in Creative and Professional Writing, and currently lives in Bemidji. He looks for inspiration in the seemingly (and that’s the key word) unremarkable minutia of day-to-day life. Despite it all, he still loves to smoke.