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Smoking in Bed


The red light lit the cold room in irregular blinks, filling it with an erratic electric heartbeat. Noises from the street filtered in the partly opened window, kept in place by an ancient beer can, a brand of beer no longer made or sold in the city--Burgermeister Beer.

Mom used to drink "Burgie" with her war-bride Japanese girl friends, who would alternately shriek with hysterical laughter, or weep with nostalgic melancholy. God, I remember the time I came home from a New Year's Eve celebration, only to find mom and the "girls" all passed out in various rooms of the apartment, in grotesque positions, like corpses dropped from a great height. A small pyramid of empty "Burgie" cans decorated the center of the kitchen table. Ashtrays overflowed with filtered cigarette butts, rouged with different-colored lipstick smudges. I thought it was funny then.

A car honked as the red light blinked and I slowly sat up in bed, springs creaking loudly anyway. I paused for a second, not wanting to wake Martin. I slowly reached over to the night table and patted about in the dark for my smokes.

How can he sleep with all this light and noise? I wondered. He sleeps like a man with a clear conscience. I laughed silently as I lit up my Salem-Light. The match in my cupped hand sent spastic shadows wincing along the wall of the cheap motel room. I thought of the paintings of the Dutch Masters, highly glossed and somber works of faces illuminated by a single candle, or by the spiritual light emanating from the baby Jesus.

The red neon could not tint the light of my flame. Does that mean that nature is stronger than technology? I remember hoping so. I sucked the flame into the end of my cigarette and blew out the match unceremoniously with my exhale. Reaching back for the ashtray I hoped I wouldn't knock it over and wake him.

He almost hurt me once, being woke up in a start. Comes from being in the Special Forces in Vietnam, I suppose, but I am still a gook when he wakes up like that. I was scared to death. I had just come in with the good news that my unemployment check had just arrived and I was telling him happily that now we could go grocery shopping. He had been napping and the sound of the bedroom door hitting the wall woke him up. He was immediately on his feet, in a fighting stance, mad as hell, stark naked. No yawning or stretching, no simply opening his eyes- he just went from sleep to self-defense. It took me over an hour of being sweet to cool him out.

So I carefully reached over for the ashtray, balancing it with the tips of my fingers as I swung it into position to place on my sheet covered chest, having successfully accomplished that task I could then smoke in peace. The red light reflected off of the edge of the amber glass ashtray, giving it a fullness of color like the juice of pomegranates.

Martin rolled over in his sleep. I grabbed the ashtray to keep it from falling into the bed and held my breath until he was settled. He was now facing me, his arm up, forearm on forehead. The red light lit his face at such an angle that he looked diabolical one moment and then angelic the next. It was enchanting to see the shift in character, when all he did was sleep, not knowing his nocturnal transformation through neon. I had to look away.

I just wanted a moment to myself. It seems the harder times get the more he wants to keep me by his side. I can't even pluck my eyebrows, or paint my nails without him saying in that little boy voice he gets sometimes, "Tinkey, make me coffee," "Scratch my back," "Gimme sugar," wanting that hug, kiss, or whatever it would take to cheer him up. Jesus, a woman needs to be alone sometimes, but ever since we've been really hard up, he has been on me like white on rice. This white boy from Savannah, Georgia, with big hands that threw touchdowns in college, built bridges and baled hay, those hands which have maimed and destroyed, which can fall upon my breasts like dust, twitch in some dream next to my thigh.

He isn't really white, not really when I look closely, but how many things can bare close scrutiny? When I look at Martin and myself, as we jockey for space before the morning mirror, I can't help but sigh as the boring monotony of my yellow skin fades next to his multicolored completion. He is wonderfully freckled in the shapes and colors of the bottom of a mountain stream. I half expect a rainbow trout to dart out from under his arm pit and disappear into the shadows of his rusty pubic hair. My yellowness seems almost sinister in its tone and when I look closely I see a faded galaxy of cream colored dots, like the dots in the close up on a news paper photo, or of eye-strain. I sighed a jet of pink smoke that blinks away from me in the night as I remind myself to eat more greens to rid myself of winter bumps.

The cloud of pink smoke drifted lazily towards the window. A siren wailed past us as the blinking cloud reached the ancient "Burgie" can holding the window up. It paused hesitantly, blinking a few times, and then dove into the noise-filled night, doing a languid side stroke in the direction of the fading siren. I rolled the ashes off of the tip, making it cone-shaped, watching the sucked in fire retreat further up the shadow I held in my hand, and I thought to myself it was really noticeable how close he kept me.

I wondered if he was afraid I would leave him while he was down? That was stupid. Where would I go? I don't have any money, no decent clothes. He is the one who can hustle. I have only been the back-up. I didn't want to turn tricks to raise the money to go anywhere. That was something I would have to give him credit for, he would never turn me out to walk the Ho's Stroll just to feed him. He'd rob a bank before he would do that. I didn't know if he didn't pimp me out because he really loved me, or if he was afraid some other hustler would offer me a better gig. For what ever his reasons were, I was just glad he didn't. He was cool that way. So why was he afraid? I didn't come this far with him to wander off right when things got rough.

I reached over and covered his freckled shoulder with the thin sheet and itchy blankets. He was a good man, as hustlers go, I thought to myself as I held my cigarette between my teeth, squinting off the smoke in my eyes. I tucked the blankets in behind his back. I'm not going anywhere, he shouldn't be afraid.

I have to face it anyway, I am not as marketable as I would like to think I am. It wouldn't be all that easy without him to fall back on or hide behind. Someone said the other day I looked good for my age. All I know is that I am not running on youth anymore. All I know is my breasts sag and they are zebra striped, along with my stomach, with too many days with babies inside of me. Those stretch marks rose up like angry crimson tears, and now have quieted to the color of coffee with cream. The shine of the grain of the scar runs unnaturally horizontal in contrast to all the curves on my body. I don't feel that bad about my stretch marks, my birthing decorations, for they are my battle scars in the fight to keep the species going, for what reason I'll never venture to guess. What bothers me to this day is the loss of the boys. Since their father ran off with them I have no consolation for the loss of my beauty. I won the battle of birthing, but lost the nuclear family war.

I remember one time the boys came into the kitchen, flushed with the heat of an argument.

"Mommy!" cried Takao, my youngest, then about 4 years old. "Mommy, lookie here," holding up a crayon, "T. J. told me this is the crayon I have to use for the skin. He says it says SKIN." He looked at me with the earnest eyes he got from me, pleading with my eyes on his face to tell him different.

"I didn't say it said skin," T.J. declared, he was about nine years old, leaning nonchalantly on the door sill. "I said the crayon title spelled FLESH, and it does." He was confident with his new found skill of reading, but he looked at me with the same eyes we all have, Grandma's sadly turned down eyes, wondering if I would prove him wrong somehow.

The crayon was the color of a pastel pinkish-orange, like a cheaply painted Spanish style stucco house in the suburbs. Dare I tell them the crayon company lies to them?

"Let me see it, honey." I said softly as I bent down to take it from his tiny fist. I looked at it seriously, " It does say FLESH, alright."

"See, Dummy." T.J. crowed triumphantly, standing straighter in the door way.

"Don't call your brother Dummy, it's not nice," I shot a stern look at his direction. His smile faded. "I said the writing on the crayon spells flesh, but only God is perfect," they nodded in agreement, "it could be wrong. Do either of you think this is the color of our skin?" I looked at them as they looked at each other and then back to the crayon I held in my hand.

"No, it doesn't," T.J. conceded.

"I didn't want to use it for skin anyway," Takao chirped.

"Well then," I smiled devilishly, "what do you two think we should do about this stupid crayon?" I teased them as I held the offending object over the garbage pail.

"Toss it?" T.J. asked somberly, testing the feel of seriously condemning it to oblivion.

"In the ga-batch, in the ga-batch!" screeched Takao, jumping up and down.

I broke the crayon into three pieces and gave both boys a small bit to throw into the garbage pail. T.J. simply lobbed his piece in still feeling somewhat defeated, even though he knew he was right. Takao gleefully threw his piece in as if it were a live grenade onto the heads of his enemies.

I yelled "Bonsai!" and loped my piece in with the greatest hook-shot I ever made.

T.J. started to laugh at my unbelievable hook-shot. Takao joined in for no other reason than everyone else was laughing. Then they ran off happily to their room to play.

A laugh tried to raise itself, but got caught in my throat. I shook my head and took another drag on the cigarette in the dark, feeling very sad. I knew I couldn't indulge in such memories, not now, not so close to my menses, not if I didn't want to have a good cry in the night and really wake Martin for sure.

I played with the glowing end of the cigarette, blowing its smoke back at it, watching it make a small ruby circle in its anger. The red light blinking outside faded it intermittently. After rolling the tip into a cone again, I slowly broke it off the end of the butt. It wobbled across the ashtray and then it came to a stop in its own ashes, a pulsating ruby pyramid amid black obelisks of tobacco ash, surrounded by blinking pomegranate cliffs. I watched it die out.

"Tinky?" Martin said softly, lowering his arm to his broad chest.

"What Boobah?" I asked in a whisper, not wanting to draw him further from his dreams.

"Love me?" he asks sounding sad.

"You bet." I said as I put the ashtray back on the night table.

"You know you shouldn't smoke in bed, Tinky." he sighed, pulling me into his sweaty embrace.

"Yes dear, I put it out. Go back to sleep." I said, patting him on his shoulder.

"O.K." he murmured with his lips on my hair, and he fell back to sleep after a few red blinks and a twitch of his foot next to mine.

I snuggled up against him spoon style, wiggling my fanny next to his goolies. It made me smile. I settled in, determined to sleep, in spite of sad memories, red lights, car noises and the loudly creaking bed.


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