The Cigarette Eaters – a short story by Brandon Straun

Brandon Straun
CIGARETTE EATERS

AUGUST 23rd, 1930

The sound of the distant steam train clanged on against the chirp of a tiny bird as toxic sunlight shone on the dusty crevices of Julian’s crow’s feet next to his squinted left eye. Dust swirled around his face, masked by the shadow of a remaining shard of glass in the window pane at his right. 

“You’re a dusty old dude, I’m telling you, Julian.” Said Jameson, swigging a fifth of Old Crow rye like a seasoned champ. “I can see the dust in your wrinkles. Your eye is all puffy too; What the hell’s wrong with you?” Jameson quipped and poured another round down his gizzard. 

“You want a snort?” asked Jameson, his face screwed sideways from the burn of the alcohol, one eye closed.

“You want a goddamned knuckle-sandwich with some of this here dust in it?” Julian said, as he slammed one hand down on the grimy floorboard and lifted himself with the other arm using the rickety chair as a crutch. Jameson knew well enough to ignore him. 

Julian stepped sideways into the bathroom closet and squinted through his right eye at his swollen left eye in the shard of mirror that still clung to the medicine cabinet frame. He tried not to focus on the deep crevices around his eyes, though he couldn’t help but notice that they looked like long gangly branches grown out of a red mound of crusty flesh. 

“Hey you black-hearted lurch! Why don’t you grind me down some of that primo we found last night?” Julian shouted through the decrepit wall as he rubbed two soiled fingers slowly in circles around the bottom of his eyelid, releasing the yellow pus. He looked down at the sink handle and with an automatic reflex, slammed his hairy fist down on the side of the sink, crushing a large brown cockroach with a crunchy, wet clicking sound.

“I got another one, you black banshee!” Julian barked, then listened quietly for Jameson’s response. He stood very still, counting in a faint whisper for nine seconds, but heard only the erratic, high-pitched chirp of the tiny bird that woke him from his dream. 

The steam train had passed, and the tiny bird had ceased to chirp as Julian continued to wait patiently in the darkness for his friend to speak.

“I got one! I got one, ya crusty-eyed okie!” Shouted Jameson from outside the bathroom closet door.

“Got what? I got one, too. On a count of three, you show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”

“One…”

Jameson gripped the tiny bird in his left hand, covered the protruding legs and head with his flat left hand, and held his breath.

“Two, three!” Julian swung the closet door open by kicking it with his bad foot, hitting Jameson in the forehead. Jameson yelped something fierce, but stood steadfast gripping the tiny bird, concealing it fully with his other hand. Julian held his arm out of the closet doorway with his palm open, the mangled cockroach twitching in the center.

They said nothing as they both eyed each of their treasures.

“Come out of there and look at what I got.” Said Jameson. 

“You first.” Julian said, realizing that it was an impossible demand. 

“I got a real nice little birdy all freshly dead and ready to stuff up with some of that primo we found last night along the road. We can get the fire cookin’ out about the can-man.”

Julian already knew what Jameson held in his hand because he was secretly peering through the crevice where the door meets the closet.

“The can-man can.” Jameson sang softly under his heavy breath.

“I can hear ya wheezing, ya marlboro minstrel!” Julian often affirmed Jameson’s incantation with a new insult. 

The ‘can-man’ was an enormous collection of rusty tin cans that both Julian and Jameson had collected on their ‘gatherin’ days’. They had worked in tandem all last summer to build a twenty-foot effigy of a man they called Arjay Reynald, constructed entirely of rusty tin cans. They had cut the cans and bent them in all imaginable ways, filed them down with rocks, and adjoined them by bending areas together to build the can-man.

“Arjay will appreciate the sacrifice, no doubt.” Julian stepped out of the bathroom closet, ceremoniously holding the twitching cockroach in his extended hand.

“He’s been waitin’ a whole long time.” Said Jameson, petting the tiny bird’s head with his forefinger. “Ever since Arma-gettin’.” They had chosen this name, ‘Arma-gettin’, for their obsessive activity of gathering cans. The day itself they named ‘gatherin’ days’, whereas the symbolic act of gathering cans for can-man was called “Arma-Gettin’,” on account of the plain fact that their arm was getting a can for the can-man.  

The sun shone bright through the eye-hole of the flat wooden head of the rocking horse, with its chipped paint for a face. This indicated clearly to Jameson that it was time to get her started.

“We can stuff this sweet little vessel here with the spoils of last night’s scrounge.” Said Jameson, still petting the head of the tiny bird with his filthy forefinger and smiling wide to expose his oblong front tooth. 

“Sure can, says the can-man.” Chimed Julian as he wrapped the cockroach in a brown shred of paper, taking care to fold the corners neatly around the edges. Julian never looked a second time at Jameson when he would hang his long crooked front tooth out from under his fat upper lip. 

“Hide your tooth away, you black-beaver!” Shouted Julian, his crust-laden eye shaded by the brown paper shape that enclosed the brown cockroach.

“Shut your suck, ya road-rangling rube.” Jameson’s voice sounded hoarse. He choked up some brown bile and spat it toward the corner where the grey dust settled most.

“Come sundown we best have Arjay Reynald warm and ‘say-she-ated’. We also best count the cans once more in order to be correct and all. Arjay won’t much appreciate a wrongly counted body of cans.” 

They had both tried to keep count of the exact number of cans used to build the body and head of Arjay Reynald, the can-man. For each can they set, they also carefully rolled a dirt-clod together in the sand pit where the oil would sometimes ooze, and placed it atop the floorboard coffin they built for the occasion. One afternoon while out on Arma-Gettin’, the gust of the westerly winds had blown the dirt clods clear off and over to the base of cans where they had set out to build the can-man. It was a sign, a clear miracle-utterance that told them to commit the exact number to memory, rather than use dirt-clods. 

“Those dirt clods sure don’t work. Went clear back into sand, and a bit oily still, like your darkie face, Jameson.”

“Yes, masta, dassa true!”

“Don’t tawk that black jibberish ‘round here! Abe Lincoln’d be turnin’ in his grave.”

“Them winds tell best to recall the exact number of cans.” 

“Yes, Masta, Mista Jules.” Jameson moved his hands in large circles, dangling his legs and reversing the circular movement as his feet tapped the creaky trapdoor to the crawlspace.

“Shut your wheat hole, you old blackface minstrel, and get to sweepin’ this here floor.”

Jameson wiped a haphazard shape from the black dust caked on his cheeks. 

“Now you went and made it look like you’re wearin’ a merkin wig on your face.”

The face of the Kansas plains was ravaged by soil depletion. The black blizzards came roaring over the skies, making a man cough out the mud vomit until his eyes went dark against the night sky at noon. 

“And when the rain came down with the grasshoppers, and dust spoilin’ the nectar of God’s golden pastures, hares aplenty the curse of the land almighty…”

“Shut your suckhole, ya goddamned yard ape.”

Entirely indifferent to the vagaries of Julian’s rant, Jameson pulled a large rabbit skull from his coat pocket, unwrapped his handkerchief and pulled it right over the top of his wide nose and tied it behind his moon head. As he tied the handkerchief, the rabbit skull levitated in thin air, floating amidst a brown sea of tiny dust particles that formed a suffocating fog. Julian grabbed the levitated rabbit skull and began digging inside of it for the used cigarettes they gathered last night. He pulled out one long piece of a cigarette, its paper tattered and barely holding the moist tobacco. 

Jameson pulled a worn book from the stack of books left by his Grandmother before she traveled by horse carriage to Philadelphia and was never seen again. This book was his favorite.

Jameson cleared his throat with a hoarse grunting sound, and began to read aloud:

“Ethics of the Dust..” He began. 

Rudely interrupted again, he grimaced in silence as Jameson droned on.

“You would not have had me take my crown off, and stoop all the way down a passage fit only for rats?” Jameson paused in reflection.

“What in black hell did you say to me?” Julian barked, spreading light from the open side door.

“I said, I’m king, dammit, and I ain’t goin’ down that trapdoor for you again.”

Jameson was genuinely perturbed this time.

Julian dropped a few rusty cans he had scraped the dirt from and stomped out of the side door.

“Just for that, Jameson, I tain’t sharin’ my cigarettes with you again!” Shouted Julian from side of the shack.

© 2014 Brandon Straun

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