My name is Ray. I have sex with a widow for cigarettes.
“Come by any time for tea and a smoke, dear,” she said when I first saw her, poking her high square-haired head in my open door the day I moved in and was unpacking. I was standing in the middle of a room full of boxes using an empty coffee cup as an ashtray.
“I’m Mrs. Patterson, Mrs. P. Just across the hall,” she said.
I stubbed my cigarette in the cup and walked toward her to shake her hand. She was tall. Buxom. Eyes like two grey-white hazy moons. Her handshake was warm and moist. Odd for an old person, that, I thought.
I visited Mrs. P the very first evening because I had no tobacco, no food in my cupboards. My first social service cheque wouldn’t be deposited until the next day. I hoped Mrs. Patterson would offer snacks.
“Sit on the loveseat, dear,” she said. The oval glass ashtray on the coffee table overflowed with butts, two of which still smoldering. Her apartment was the same as mine: a tiny galley kitchen, living room, one bedroom. But hers looked like it had been lived in for decades—nicotine-stained ceiling, cheap dark wood shelving and cabinets, framed department store prints of landscapes, heavy beige velvet curtains embroidered by faded gold fringe and dishes of wrapped licorice and hard candy, the brands of which I thought had disappeared long ago. It smelled as if it had been smoked in for a century with the windows never opened.
“Excuse me while I go to the toilet, dear,” Mrs. P said. “Then I’ll make some tea and slice some banana loaf and you can tell me about yourself. I assume you’re an ex-con. Most people moving in these days are.”
She went to the bathroom and I decided I did not like being here. This home was too dead, too hoary in its texture. When Mrs. Patterson returned, her face was made up so that she looked like a white-horned owl: bulging eyes, high cheek bones, wearing red lipstick on pursed lips.
“You like tea?” she smacked, sharp and biting. She bent over and touched my knee with a wet palm. “You like banana loaf?”
I had been taught to respect my elders, and feeling rather mouse-like, all I could say was, “Yes, Mrs. Patterson.”
We sat. I on the loveseat, she on a matching wing chair beside me, her back erect as a tombstone, sucking slivers of banana loaf through the gap in her yellow front teeth. She was lascivious. I was Lolita. She was Humbert Humbert (at least from what I could remember hearing about the book, though I was not as small and innocent as Lolita).
“So, are you an ex-con, dear? This building has gone downhill so much in the past twenty years. Well, the whole neighborhood has. An old lady doesn’t feel safe anymore. She feels she needs protection all the time. No offense, dear. You look nice enough. You have nice manners. I do wish you’d wear socks or slippers when you visit, though. Barefoot’s a bit intimate, isn’t it?”
Her eyes were latched on the hairy knuckles of my toes. I felt strangely naked, making it difficult to drink let alone enjoy my tea and eat her homemade banana loaf, which tasted oddly of cigarette smoke. Perhaps that was because Mrs. P smoked the entire time she was sipping tea and sucking on her food, or maybe because the loaf had been sitting on the kitchen counter a few days, absorbing the apartment’s general odor. The loaf was dry. I didn’t care. I was hungry.
“No, I’m not an ex-convict,” I said, “not recently, anyway. Not that it’s any of your business.”
I got my back up and swallowed half a slice of loaf, whole.
“I’m just down on my luck right now, like a lot of guys. I was lower management in the tech sector when the bubble burst and can’t find anything. Haven’t had work in a year and a half if you have to know, Mrs. Patterson.”
“Mrs. P is fine, Ray. It makes me feel a bit younger. Most young men are heading for the oil patch, aren’t they, dear? Have some more tea.”
She poured from a pot with a hideous hand-knitted lime green cozy. She was obtrusive as hell, but I needed to ask for a smoke.
“I can’t go anywhere,” I said. “I have a little girl here.”
Linda and I were married ten years ago, long after I’d been released from a six-month sentence on a stupid break and enter dare from some friends to steal booze from old man Cooper. He was said to have a stash of whiskey and beer and to always be passed out by early evening. No matter that he was known to keep a loaded .22 by the sofa where he slept. I was the youngest in the group, and if they said I could smash the basement window around 8 p.m. and Cooper wouldn’t hear a sound, I believed them. I wanted to believe them if only to be fully accepted.
The basement, it was said, was where he kept the liquor. What no one told me about was Cooper’s two dogs. One was a Doberman and the other a mix, but just as big and probably an even meaner alloy of bastards than Dobermans are.
Anyway, I got in, but I never got out. I got a flat of beer and a case of whiskey out to the boys quick as shit before the dogs had me pinned in a cobwebbed corner and old Cooper was hobbling down the basement steps, clutching the railing with one hand, the rifle with the other.
“I already called the cops, whoever you are, so don’t move! The dogs’ll tear you to shreds anyway,” he slurred loudly.
When he heard the cops upstairs, he yelled to them, then threatened the dogs with the rifle to back away from me and stop their growling.
I spent six months in a juvenile detention centre. That was the end of my life of crime.
When I got out, I went to university for computers and business management. That’s where I had met Linda, the artsy English major. Blonde, freckled. She was enamoured by her good girl image, my bad boy one.
I had told her about the B&E and that seemed romantic to her. That I alone had redeemed myself didn’t fit into her narrative, though. She inserted herself into the tale of my success at university and later at getting hired along with every other computer geek in the region right after graduation. She kept me on the right path, she told herself, my parents, her parents, her friends. What can I say? I liked the sex and her beauty next to my ordinariness. But she was no inspiration, no muse. She was a trophy I’d legally acquired and finally secured by marriage. Then she got pregnant. Then things slowed down in the tech sector and I wasn’t seeing pay rises, promotions or bonuses anywhere in my future. Maybe I should have reverted to high tech crime, but I had no balls for it or friends I cared to impress. Certainly, not Linda. And the memory of those dogs still gave me nightmares. I’d never be the romantic bad boy, never again in her eyes. She saw me for what I truly was: boring.
But I loved Jenny, our daughter. She was three-and-a-half when all tech went bust. Thousands of us lost our jobs. A few took their lives quickly, or slowly through drink. Some delivered pizza and prayed for a re-inflation of the bubble. Most moved away. I can’t find a pizza job. I wish I could afford to drink. And I won’t kill myself or head west because I need Jenny as much as she needs me. Not for financial support. My employment insurance ran out. I’m about to go on welfare. Linda is a school teacher soon to marry another school teacher, so they’re fine financially. Jenny tells me she misses me. I get to see her every second weekend, thank God.
Smoking is the one pleasure I can sometimes afford. It calms me, alleviates boredom, quells hunger. But it’s a downer, too. Smoking all alone, standing in the cold dark or looking out a window is when I am most isolated, most reflective, most likely to have dark thoughts. What is it I am addicted to? The cigarette or the beautiful melancholy that comes with it? The smoke draws me in like an album of old photographs.
I told Mrs. P about the B&E, Linda and Jenny in summary fashion to gain her pity, to ask her for a smoke because I hadn’t had one in hours.
“Well, Ray, dear, that’s quite the story. Come, let Mrs. P give you a hug.”
She stood, forcing me to stand. I’m an average-sized man, but my forehead was right at her earlobe as she embraced me, tightly, the static from her thin polyester sweater clinging to my t-shirt, her brassier-covered breasts threatening lacy indentation in my chest—I swear to God she held me that hard. The hand that held my head close to hers had a cigarette in it. I could feel its heat through my hair and feel the smoke fill my ear canal. All I could think of was that this was not my grandmother.
In the middle of our embrace, I asked, “May I have a cigarette, please? I’m flat broke.”
Mrs. P let go and sat down in her wing chair. Part of her powdered face was smudged. I feared I had some on my face or in my hair.
“Of course, dear.” She opened the pack on the coffee table. “It’s empty.”
I thought: You’re not telling me a constant smoker like yourself doesn’t have cartons of them stashed somewhere? She shook the pack as if one might be stuck in a corner.
“I’ll run to the store for you, Mrs. P, if you’d like. I don’t have money, but I can pay you back for a few when my cheque comes in tomorrow, I promise.” I heard myself promise like a child for Christ’s sake!
She slowly dragged on what was left of her cigarette.
“You could do that, Ray, but then why don’t I just open another pack?” she said. She got up from her chair and disappeared into the bathroom. When she returned, her face was fully snow-owl-white again, and she bore a package of king-size milds. She undid the cellophane wrapping and startled me by flipping me a cigarette like a schoolgirl, giggling, like she was giving an eighth-grader a glimpse of her tit. I caught it with both hands and lit it using a match on the coffee table.
“You know it’s not good to smoke indoors, with all the second-hand smoke, dear” she said, earnestly.
I was about to put it out in the ashtray overflowing with butts.
“I’m only teasing, dear. I’ll join you in one.”
She sat again, but this time beside me on the loveseat. She must’ve put some fragrance on because there was something about her of the smell of roses competing with the smell of smoke. I looked at the big fox hunting scene in front of us, a faux gold ornament frame, then glanced around the rest of the room again.
“You have no photos of family, just these paintings,” I said.
“Oh, most, dear, I’ve had for years. I loved what I could find at the Kmart, Woolworths. So reasonable, but they looked grand.”
“And family?” I kept at her.
“There was only Walter. Walter worked on the trains. Never around. Just as well. I didn’t like him much. But in those days, when you were young, well, dear, pressure to marry, have children. Walter was gay. Could care less. So, no, dear, I take his pension, but to put up a photo would seem wrong. I’m glad he had a heart attack in the middle of a run in northern Ontario. No time to get him to proper help. It was like a coldness was taken from my life. I didn’t shed any tears.”
She put her hand on my knee and took a long drag from her cigarette in the other. I took a long drag on mine, now anxious to leave.
“Well, Mrs. P, that was very nice, but I’ve got to get back to unpacking.” I stretched my arms and cracked my toe knuckles. The poor old doll winced. We both stood at the same time, brushing each other too closely for my liking, her flimsily nylon-stockinged foot atop my bare one.
“Come again, anytime, dear,” she said, with her hand at the small of my back pushing me toward the door with her chest. I was about to ask for a few more smokes when she surprised me and said, “Here, take these, dear. Pay me back later,” and handed me half a deck. I gave her a hug, and she gave me a sharp kiss on my cheek that left a red peck mark I wouldn’t notice for hours.
The next few days I was rich. My cheque had been deposited. I painted my apartment a soft blue, the bedroom pink because that’s where Jenny would sleep when she came to visit. I wandered around St. Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army stores until I found a comfortable enough pull-out couch, even had the money to pay for delivery. I stocked my fridge and cupboards with sensible sale items and healthy and not-so-healthy treats for Jenny. Bought a carton of cigarettes, and a six-pack of beer to nurse for a day or two.
Jenny arrived for her weekend and left. I spent my last twenty-five dollars on a cinema movie with her. I couldn’t afford to buy the kid fuckin’ popcorn! I pulled the Assistant Manager aside—a man almost a decade younger than me—and asked if they were hiring. No.
No. No. No. No, was all I heard everywhere. Forget newspaper want ads. There weren’t any.
I was down to my last smoke in my last goddamn pack. It was minutes before I was to meet with my social worker, Mrs. Beattie.
“I can’t increase your allowance just because you have Jenny every second weekend. You don’t have custody,” said Mrs. Beattie, fat as a bulldog, who probably couldn’t stomach Kraft dinner but would eat plates full of macaroni and cheese in high-class Italian restaurants. “You’ll have to supplement your income by going to the food bank and eating in soup kitchens.”
“I’m not taking Jenny to soup kitchens!”
“I’m not saying that. You, when you’re alone.”
My Mazda and split-level home seemed a carriage and castle belonging to another man a long time ago. My balls were blue with envy and anger at that man.
Leaving the Provincial Building, I smoked the last cigarette. Under my breath, I growled, “FUCK! FUCK!” I was angry at Linda as I’d never been before. I had my fall, and she was nowhere to pick me up. I guess trophies don’t pick up, they want to be picked up.
The night after Jenny left and my meeting with Mrs. Beattie, I mixed some canned tuna with Kraft dinner and added some Cajun spice. The trick is the Cajun spice. Make the dish seem foreign. You can have curry or Cajun or paprika Kraft dinner different nights, mix in some canned protein and vegetables and, whazzam, you’ve got a complete meal. My food would last me till the middle of the third week of the month. After that, it’d be food banks and soup kitchens. Smokes are another matter. Food banks don’t hand out smokes. Mrs. P does or did, that once. But it was so goddamn uncomfortable.
It’d been four hours since my cigarette on the Provincial Building steps. My loose change was of no help, barely five dollars. I walked the perimeter of my living room at least ten times, thinking I should quit anyway. What better time? I’d say out loud. (I do that a lot lately, talking to myself. Something about loneliness, I guess. I hear Mrs. Patterson all the time when I’m in the hall when I know damn well she’s got no-one in there.)
I decided to visit her, if only to talk to a human being. If I get a smoke, all the better. I’ll be damned if I was going to wear slippers or socks, though.
I looked through the peephole, again. Why do I do this? To see if her door is still there? If they haven’t plastered it over, nailed a plaque? Here rests the lascivious Mrs. P. God bless those lonely souls who came for tea. Maybe I imagine something like this. I am an addict, after all. Addicts hallucinate. I waited, I peeped. I walked the perimeter of my living room. I watched. I peeped. I cracked the knuckles of my toes.
Finally, I emerged from my apartment and knocked on her door.
“Oh, Ray, dear, I haven’t seen you in a long while. I thought you might have been put back in prison. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
She was wearing a long velour dressing gown, oh God, like Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company. It was emerald green with yellow fringe. It clashed with her curtains—it could have been made from old curtains.
“I’ve been thinking of you, a lot. You know my walls could use a good paint, make them shimmer again. And I saw you taking all that paint into your place. Maybe you have enough left over to coat mine?—at least once, eh? I’ll pay and feed you, of course. I know the extra money will come in handy with your little girl. I was so disappointed you didn’t bring her by to introduce her, dear.”
She didn’t even have her white horn owl face and lipstick on. She was blotchy; she was Queen Elizabeth I at seventy, first thing in the morning, before she was dead.
“And my place is dusty. You need to dust my place, dear. I don’t get around like I used to or move as fast as I used to so it all just settles. And the windows need scrubbing. Can you deal with all that, Ray, dear? I have lots of work. Then I’m thinking of getting rid of this old furniture and bringing in newer things. All that rearranging. My back is sore, dear, thinking about it.”
I said, “Yes,” startled by her ability to bully me.
BUT I WANT A SMOKE!
“May I have a smoke, Mrs. P?” I asked.
“Yes, and then let’s start in the bedroom. You’ll put on Walter’s slippers until smoke break, of course. Then you’ll put them back on.”
I said, “Sure, Mrs. P,” wondering if there’d be at least a full pack a day in it for me. Wondering about facing Jenny again. Wondering if I was bad enough again for Linda.