It’s Late

Back in the day, when he figured he’d never be one of the victims, he’d duck into Safeway, 7-Eleven, or some mom-and-pop store in his neighborhood, and buy a pack. 7-Eleven was his go-to since they had a lower price per pack if you bought two.

The 7-Eleven by Kawānanakoa School was the one closest to his house, a five-minute drive, and another thing he liked about it was it’s being open 24 hours a day. He could wake up in the middle of the night, smoke the last two or three cigarettes of a pack, then jump in his car and go y some more, five minutes away, often sitting to smoke one or two on the curb outside the store, staring across at the school’s park where he’d grown up playing basketball and running around on the field.

7-Eleven. Even he saw the symbolism there. It was a gamble, always a gamble.

He stared at the red digital numbers on the clock. It had been a long time, but he decided to do it. When he’d finally quit, it had been no problem at all. After so many years of trying, he’d looked at a half-empty pack and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

And he’d stopped. Right there. Never an urge, not the tiniest one, after that. He could be sitting in a bar full of smokers and it bothered him not in the slightest. The urge had died in an instant. All that money he’d spent on patches, and gum, and shock therapy, and hypnosis, and biofeedback, and you name it, he’d tried it. To no avail. Money down the drain. Money he could have used in retirement.

Will power. It was true what they said about it. It was all you needed. The will to do it. The will to quit. Piece of cake.

Why not, he thought. The clock read just after 3:00 a.m. It’s too late, it’s too early. Whatever. It’s all relative.

Old, he rolled to the side of the bed and braced his elbow to push up. He sat there for a minute to catch his breath, then stood and shuffled over to pick up his keys and wallet. Climbing slowly to the top of the stairs, he went out the front door to the garage, opened the car door, and eased himself into the driver’s seat. He started up the engine and sat in the cooling AC, catching his breath for a minute.

Finally, he backed out and headed down the hill to 7-Eleven. Not surprisingly his was the only car there. Just because they were open 24-7 didn’t mean that they were always jammed with customers. He was greeted by the lone cashier as he went inside and went up to the counter.

“Yes, sir.”

He scanned the racks on the wall. “Do they still make Luckies?” he asked, “the filterless ones.”

The clerk turned to examine the racks as well. “If they do,” he said, “I don’t see it.”

“Just give me a pack of those,” he said, pointing.

The clerk reached for a pack.

“No, not the milds. The one to the right of that.”

The clerk said, “Do you want two?”

“Is it cheaper?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“About a buck,” said the clerk.

He paused. This was just a passing urge, right? he thought. A tiny urge after all this time. Would he even need more than one cigarette?”

“Nah, that’s all right. Just the one.”

The clerk rang him up.

“Can I get a book of matches?”

“Ah, matches?” The clerk looked puzzled. “Well, you can buy one of these?” he said, pointing to the box of colored lighters lined up in rows like soldiers.

“Sure,” he said, grabbing a green one. “Go Bows,” he said, smiling at the clerk.

He paid and then headed out the door. Once outside, he turned the corner of the building and sat on the curb next to his car. Staring across at the Kawānanakoa basketball court where he’d blown so many shots, he smiled, then squared the edges of the pack and began slapping it against the heel of his palm. He’d followed that ritual ever since he’d started smoking in high school, jamming all the tobacco together, supposedly, making the cigarette burn more slowly.

Listening to his shallow breathing, he unwrapped the plastic tie, plucked out a cigarette, placed it between his lips, and lit it with the green lighter. At first, he took the smoke into his mouth, a healthy draw. Should he inhale it? Would it make him gag? ‘Kag’ as they used to say.

Oh well. He inhaled the smoke. Amazingly, it went down as though he’d never quit so long ago. After all these years, and he could still inhale like an inveterate smoker. A true pro.

He exhaled a long stream into the amber streetlit air. It looked like the trail of a rocket taking off. The smoke tasted good, too. He’s expected it to be awful.

He took another deep drag. This time, however, his reaction was not good. The cough was a deep, hacking one, and even in the odd colored light, he could see the blood he spat on the ground. It was no longer thin, the way it had been when he’d first been diagnosed. This large gob was a deep red and viscous, a bloody pudding.

“Crap” he said aloud to no one but himself. It was definitely too late to think of anything more poetic to say at a time like this. It was just too damn late.

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