The Instance of a Cigarette Falling

Episode One. A Prologue of Sorts.

The camera eye sees everything, and sees it calmly and objectively. It pans slowly around the room, beginning at the coffin and the cluster of black-clad mourners gazing down at the body then continuing clockwise catching two or three-person clusters scattered around the room. It sees the pale cream-colored walls and the scarlet carpet. It sees everything in the circle of its passing and calls attention to nothing but the whole, until it reaches me sitting on a loveseat to the left of the deep-red coffin, a girl about the same age as me to my left. It zooms in on my face as I sit there, all emotion drawn out and dried up ahead of time. Laurie squeezes my arm and lays her cheek on my shoulder. But the camera continues to zoom in on my gaze and cuts to the focus, my mother. It saw her earlier, but now it is beginning to make sense of the situation, catching the subtle details that tell the story. In silence the camera eye peers at her, zooming in inch by inch. Like everyone else, she is dressed in black, and like me she is emotionally exhausted. She tries to smile and be strong, but there is nothing behind her smile but weariness. In her face, everything is weary. And every few moments she presses a white handkerchief to her eyes to dry tears that aren’t even coming out any more. Next to her, with his arm around her slumped shoulders is a balding man with one chin too many and a blushed face and a smile that might be able to pass as greasy if it wasn’t so creepy and intrusive. He pulls her face to him and gives her a strong hug and tries to be there for her dry-eyed weeping. The camera cuts back to me and sees in my face a glimmer of emotion growing stronger momentarily: disgust.

He let go of Ma, and she stood up straight again. She hugged him one more time, briefly, and walked over to me. I quickly wiped the disgust from my face and tried to return the same weary smile she was giving me, but even in her worst moment, I couldn’t hope to compare.

I stood up. “Hello, Ma,” I said.

Laurie stood up with me, hugged me, and said, “I guess maybe I should go.”

“Nonsense,” I said, and kissed her on the cheek. “Are you feeling all right today, Ma?”

“I’m trying, hon,” she said. “But I don’t know. Ronald has been so nice to me the past few days, and that’s helped a lot.”

“Ronald? Is that who you were with?”

“Yes. You never met him. Ronald was an old friend of your father, and me.”

“Oh. Well. I guess that’s good, then, that he’s here.” But really I was hating him already. Three days, and he’s already moving in on my mother. What a douche. But I didn’t say that to Ma. Instead I pulled Laurie a little closer to me and asked, “Ma? Do you remember how we all used to watch movies together? Me, you, and Dad?”

She nodded. “That was nice.”

“I like remembering that,” I said. “Do you remember when we watched Citizen Kane?”

She thought for a moment. “No, I don’t, actually. When did we watch that?”

“I must have been 12 or so, I guess. It was a good movie. Really good. Even though I didn’t understand it then. But I remember watching it with you two. And I remember Dad saying how glad he was that he had someone he loved who loved him back so he’d never have to end up like Kane.”

“Oh, yes. I’d forgotten. But I remember him saying that now, hon. That was nice.”

“Yeah.” I looked down at my feet and ground out an imaginary cigarette that I wanted to smoke but couldn’t inside the funeral parlor. “I’m glad you remember that.”

But apparently she didn’t, because five months later Ronald moved in with her and ten months after that they got married.

*  *  *

Episode Two. The Inevitable Strength of Doubt.

The camera zooms in slowly on the red and green neon sign above the front door of one of those expensive Japanese restaurants. One of the places where they cook your food in front of you and the chefs do goofy tricks with the butter and toss the shrimp and knives around like it’s their job, because it is, and that’s what we’re paying to see: an authentic Japanese dining experience. But there’s no one coming or going, so it fades to four people at a table inside. And there’s me, my girlfriend Laurie, Mom, and this douche with a shiny head and puke-green suit named Ronnie.

Listen, Craig, he says as the camera zooms in on his sunburned face pulling back into a greasy-lipped smile, I want you to look after your mother.

I laugh—I ask him if that was a joke, right?

He makes his face all serious. I mean it, he tells me. Right. Sure. Like I can’t see all the nasty thoughts reflecting off of that gleaming bald spot as if his hair was the only thing that he had to hide the mirror into his mind. And the camera follows my gaze up from his eyes to his shining head.

I calmly excuse myself to get a cigarette outside and a bucket to vomit in.

Mom followed me outside; she poked her head out of the door just as I was taking my first drag and staining my jacket, shirt, and tie with the stink of tobacco. I heard the door click open but didn’t bother lifting my head; I just stood there with my eyes closed and exhaled a lungful of smoke out on my blue and red tie. I could still smell her perfume through the cigarette smoke—some twist of rose and vanilla, untainted by the nicotine and alcohol pouring from my breath.

“Craig. Sweetheart.”

I took another drag. How’s that for a reply.

“Craig. I think you should apologize to Ronald. Please?”

“Mom,” I said, reverting to the annoyed tone of a 17-year-old whose parents are forcing him to go to church long after they’ve stopped bothering with belief in anything like a god.

Her counter was to assume the tone of a mother addressing her cute 3-year-old. “Yes, Craig?” I couldn’t help but smile. Behind my eyelids I could picture her face assuming that silly precocious look you might expect a British princess to wear around to impress people. It was a kind of game we played to make each other talk, acting like some time in the past; she always won.

“Um. What is it, exactly, that I should be apologizing for?”

She stepped out and closed the door quietly behind her. “For your rude comment to Ronald.”


She punched me playfully in the arm. “Why not? I think you should, darling.”

“You think I should quit smoking, too. I haven’t done that yet, either.”

She was quiet for a moment. Then, “OK, I get it. You think Ronald’s a douche.”

I grinned and opened my eyes. “Naw, I wouldn’t say douche, ma. I’d call him a dildo.” I took a drag, “But good guess, Ma, nice try and all,” then exhaled. She laughed, and stared lovingly at her baby boy turned 24-year-old. And the way the light painted her face in neon blush, you would wonder how such a radiant woman could be the twice-widowed mother of a 24-year-old.

“Well, sweetheart, I guess I’m just going to have to brush-up on the differences between a douche and a dildo.”

“I say ‘dickass’ a lot, too.”

“And dickass, hon, haven’t you ever thought maybe you shouldn’t categorize people so much?”

It didn’t take much thought. “No,” I replied quickly. “I just call ’em as I see ’em.” I grinned sweetly at her but couldn’t sustain it very long. “And in there I see a dildo sitting at that table.”

The camera watches her face as I comment on her new husband, but she never changes from her same mild smile. The red light above blushes her and the white shining through the glass door behind her creates a halo around her, casting rays across the lens as the camera shifts position to catch us both in the shot, and there I am, sickly in the green light of the sign and half-shadowed. She tells me that she loves the man I happen to be calling a dildo.

What if you don’t, I ask her, brushing my hair back.

What if you don’t love Laurie, she replies.

The camera builds the silence with a medium-shot, she on the far left and I on the far right, holding my cigarette a few inches from my mouth. Maybe I don’t want to, I finally tell her. And she says she’d feel sorry for me in that case. She steps closer to me and wraps her arm around mine.

She tells me she still loves me and my father very much and I should never forget that. Then she tells me to come back inside and leaves, and the camera holds its gaze on the door until it hears the click when it closes.

I linger behind a moment. Do I believe that? How could what she said be true? Dad’s been dead a year and she’s remarried, and she’s forgotten. I drop the cigarette on the ground and stomp it into the ground with my foot, scattering the embers and watching as they fade and their heat dies.

*  *  *

Episode Three. The Third-Act Climax.

The camera sees the car dive around the corner, hears it squeal, and watches as it parks at the curb, the passenger-side front wheel bouncing up onto the curb. The camera hears the door open and pans over to see my feet step out onto the pavement.

I staggered out onto the sidewalk in front of Ma’s house. “Ma!” I yelled, “Let’s go! Happy birthday, Ma! It’s dinner time, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!“ I stood in the cold for another minute or two before she opened the door, kissed Ronnie goodbye, and came out to join me and kiss me hello.

“You’ve been drinking, sweetheart?” she asked.

“So maybe I pre-gamed a little. I just don’t like to see that guy when I’m completely sober.”

“Do you want me to drive? I think I should, hon.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Really. I really think I should drive.”

But I’d already gotten in the car and started it and was waiting for her to get in out of the rain. She did, and I told her to put her seatbelt on. She did, and I pulled out. The camera watches. The camera doesn’t say anything, though; it just watches the black VW Bug swerve down the road. It cuts to inside the car and watches me try to concentrate through the rain and the alcohol, then to my mother’s worried face and white knuckles gripping her seatbelt.

We didn’t talk much. I didn’t think there was much to talk about. There was “So, Ma, how’s your new husband? Is he as good as the last one? Or the one before Dad?” Or I could ask, “Hey, remember how nice things were when we were a family and you actually still loved my father?” Or I could just say, “Stop loving! Stop it! You’re supposed to love me, and Dad, and that’s it, forever and ever! And stop being such an angelic whore! And if you don’t I wouldn’t be too concerned if I never saw you again in my life, ’cause as it is I only see you like twice a year now, anyway!“ And I raged in my mind and closed my eyes, desperately trying to shut it out. But the camera sees what I don’t. And it pans from my violently closed eyes to the bend up ahead. And it watches my mother gasp and play with something on her seatbelt and frantically cry for me to watch out. And in her face it sees that she has been through this before about three years ago, except the last time it had been her husband, my father, in the driver’s seat and afterwards she’d survived but he hadn’t.

The camera watches the car speed toward it, then swerve off on some drunken tangent. It watches as the car nose-dives into a ditch on the side of the road where the road becomes a bend. It pans up from the battered hood to the rear wheel and watches as it spins. It fades to the inside and watches the passengers sitting motionless in their seats, my face buried in an airbag and my mother’s face twisted in some unconscious agony. It fades back to the rear wheel and watches as it slowly stops spinning while my mother’s battered insides bleed her to death, but it never does anything. It watches and watches and watches and watches, and, God, it never lifts a finger to help. It never calls an ambulance. It never rushes to get the passengers out of the car. All it does is sit there and watch. And the wheel stops spinning, and it fades out to black. The audience will cry here, not because they understand the pain, but because some inherent knowledge of the universe makes them wonder why angels deserve to die.

*  *  *

Episode Four. When Everything is Gone.

It’s night. The camera pans down from the stars to my dark little house. It zooms in on a black window and an invisible cross-fade takes it to my bed and Laurie beside me, asleep, half of our bodies hidden beneath a black and gray blanket. The camera follows my gaze to her face, blue-gray in the dark and sometimes it seems just as beautifully pale in the light like a beautifully shining translucence.

I reached over and brushed my hand over her short black hair. Her thin eyebrows tensed and she squeezed her lips together like she was about to cry but trying to fight it off. Poor baby. What sad dreams could she be having? I closed my own eyes and tried to imagine. Without the camera invading. And I thought maybe she was dreaming about if it was her own mother that had died; which struck me as a very selfish thing, because it wasn’t her mother who died. But maybe she was dreaming about my mother dying.

I leaned over and kissed her on the lips, and her dark eyes, brown almost to the point of being black, lazily, happily opened. She squinted at me and smiled into my lips, so I pulled back and pressed my forehead to hers instead.

“What?” she asked, on the brink of a yawn.

“You looked sad.”

“No, I’m not sad,” she said, folding her arms around my neck.

“Well, you looked it. While you were sleeping, I mean. What were you dreaming about?”

She grinned. “I was dreaming about you, of course!“

I rolled off of her and stared up at the ceiling. “Well, you looked awfully sad for a dream about me. Are you sad? About anything?”

“No, of course not, I’m very, very happy. I’m the happiest little girl in your house.”

“I’m not.”

“Of course, you’re not a little girl.” She was too drowsy to laugh at her own bad joke, just drone it out in that scratchy just-woke-up voice that is always so sweet on her grinning lips.

“I’m not happy, either.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“Doubt it.”

She had no response so we both just stared silently at the ceiling, feeling each other’s warmth beneath the blanket. But she was still awake a few minutes later when the thought hit me, so I said, “Laurie, I’m going to move to L.A. the day after the funeral and sell this house.”

“Oh! Exciting!“ she said, happily ignorant of what I was thinking. “Will you put me in your movies?”

“If you learn to act,” I told her blandly.

“Hmm. I guess not, then, huh? But I don’t want a leading part or anything, I just want to be an extra or something, just to be part of it all.” Then she rolls over and says she loves me, and the camera watches her drape the top half of her body over my own and kiss me on the cheek and say how excited she is. But where the camera couldn’t see I suddenly wondered how many times Ma had told that to my father. Now my father’s ashes were scattered somewhere in the Atlantic—drifting on a wave beside fishies and driftwood, or on a Florida beach holding a sandcastle together like when he’d hold Ma’s hand in his one hand and mine in the other to say grace at dinner, or being hidden from the moonlight beneath the awkward bodies of lovers struggling for each other and leaving their mark behind in the sand. And where was Ma while this was happening? Until two days ago, in bed with Ronald, telling that gleaming skull that she didn’t mind that the moonlight reflecting off of it at night kept her awake, and that, in fact, she loved it—I mean, him.

So before Laurie’s lips left my cheek all this had poured through my head and love suddenly seemed so untrustworthy and disgusting, and the camera sees me shrink away from her. And she shrinks back a little, surprised. It sees some intangible tension build suddenly between us and the inch of bed separating us becoming a mile.

I tell her I don’t want her to love me, and I don’t want to love her. Laurie, I say, I don’t want to love you, and I don’t want you to love me, either. And if you have a problem with this, I guess I’ll never see you again. And the mile becomes a universe. But the camera watches her strain and stretch her arms across that infinite distance. She kisses me on the lips and the cheek and forehead and keeps telling me that I know it’s not true. And she asks me to please, please, please say that I hadn’t meant it because I meant everything in the world to her and that’s what made her so happy. But my expression never changes, because I can’t believe that once I’m gone she won’t run off to find the first man that comes along after me. But the camera only sees me turn my back to her and close my eyes.

She gets out of bed and slowly gets dressed, then she leans over the bed and puts her hand on the stitched-up wound on my forehead from two nights before and my face grimaces against the pain, but my eyes stay closed. She walks away and I am suddenly lit up as she opens the door and the light from the hall floods in. And the camera stays motionless as she says she hopes I’ll call when I feel better and then slowly erases her silhouette with the closing door. In the darkness again, the camera watches me sit up in bed and there are tears on my cheeks. It fades out as they slide down.

*  *  *

Episode… who gives a fuck anymore.

The camera remains focused on me for a long time, studying my blank face as it listens to Reverend Sanders speaking in the background. It pans out from my face, which appears even paler than it normally does on film, and my hair, slicked back and nearly black from the wet sheen of hair gel. It shows me in my black suit, then others come into the shot, and Ronald is standing beside me, tears flowing steadily down his fat, childish face. And it continues to pan out as Sanders continues to babble, past the coffin being lowered, until it sees the hundred or more people all gathered around watching and crying and saying goodbye. And the deeper the coffin goes, the higher the camera’s position goes, up and up until it is directly above the coffin. It watches the first shovelful of dirt being dropped into the grave, then cuts back to my face as I close my eyes and my head drops, and it pans out as Ronald puts his hand firmly on my shoulder and squeezes.

I shake free. “Watch it,” I tell him.

He frowns at me, even though it seems as though he shouldn’t be able to frown any more than he had been. “I’m just trying to—”

“I don’t need you trying to do anything,” I whispered back sharply. “Maybe Ma fell for that Prince Valiant bullshit, but I’m not Ma, and I will not be falling for that.”

“Shh. This isn’t exactly the time.”

“I don’t give a fuck. You can go to hell, Ronnie, straight to hell and burn. Because maybe she loved you, God knows why, but I know—I know you didn’t love her. If you really loved her you would never have stolen her away from my father, so go to hell, because I know this, and I know you just wanted something beautiful for yourself and never cared for what she needed or who she loved before you. You just saw your opportunity and stepped right on in!“ My voice gets progressively louder and I suddenly shift back to a whisper when I realize how loud I’m being. “So go to hell, and leave here, and never talk to me again and never come to visit her grave.”

“Craig, that’s not the way it is.” His passivity in the face of my rage sickens me visibly and my sternness turns into a look of disgust.

“Do you think,” I say, with all the contempt I can muster, “that she would have come looking for you after Dad died? Hell no. You’re the one who came to comfort her. You stole her, she didn’t want to start loving someone else, but you came along and took advantage of her weakened state and made her love you and you made her forget about my father, like he never existed ever in the first place.”

“If you want to believe that, Craig, I can accept that. But maybe someday you can try to accept that maybe we did love each other. I know I loved her.”

“Fuck you,” I say, and I turn my back to him and the slowly-filling grave and walk away, shoving my hands down into my pocket to fumble for a cigarette.

But as I walk away, I realize that she didn’t love me any less or any more than Ronald, or Dad. She just loved everyone, and that’s how it went with her. Not addicted to men, just unable to separate one love from another, and Ronald had taken advantage of that. She was like Gandhi, or she was like Jesus. And, God, she never gave up on Jesus in all the years, and I am sure he never gave up on her. And I’m sure she’s right up there with him, talking about how much they love and how they love everything. But I can’t live the same way as her. I can’t do that. Someone will come along and take advantage of me, like Ronald, or leave me, like, well, me—I know this.

So I light another cigarette. The camera follows the scorching ember at the end of the cigarette as I smoke it, and the camera slows the moment as it falls to the ground when I’m done. And the camera fades out as the smoke rises and dissipates into nothing. And the credits of her life roll silently: and there’s my father, and me, and Ronald, and David, and her sister, and her friends, and the homeless man she gave ten dollars to once, and everyone else she’s ever met, and finally her, and then the credits fade and it’s over; the audience sighs collectively and leaves, cursing their sticky footsteps for breaking the sacred silence. And maybe this will be the last time it fades out. Maybe I won’t get on the plane to L.A. tomorrow. Maybe I’ll just stay in bed and call Laurie instead. But maybe maybe is impossible and I probably just need another cigarette.