"One Last Smoke"

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One Last Smoke

As Richie reaches the car, his cigarette has burned nearly all the way down. He sits behind the wheel, alone with his thoughts, remembering, and flicks the dead stub through the window.

From his first meeting Richie admired Bill, sensing the older man’s confidence, his calm, his quiet strength. Bill would lean back in the folding chair, hands behind his head and legs stretched before him, and effortlessly tell the story of his life. Not like Richie—hunched over, elbows on knees, staring at the floor—and the others, who stammered out their stories when they could tell them at all.

Richie looked forward to meetings and especially the quiet times afterward, when they would linger outside on the sidewalk, smoking, gazing at passing cars, chatting about the week ahead.

Bill would bum a cigarette—"That’s another one I owe you,” he would say—and as he lit up, Richie would brush him off, saying, “You only owe me the one.” Bill smiled as the smoke billowed from his lips and rose past his eyes, where Richie recognized his knowing look.

The words—his own, the others' encouragement and the group leader's guidance, Bill's chatter while they smoked—always reassured him, but also faded whenever Richie found himself alone. Late at night was the toughest time, when he couldn’t sleep and again felt that thirst.

“I could really use a belt,” Richie said on the phone, struggling to keep his voice from cracking.

“You don’t need it,” Bill replied. “You’re better than that. You’re strong. Booze doesn’t rule you. Live without it.”

The call would sometimes go on for an hour or two, Richie admitting his weakness over and over, Bill saying he would get through this, until Richie felt the urge fade away and calmness settle in. He often wondered if Bill, despite his brave words, ever felt the same weakness and doubt.

Once, at the end of a call, Richie thought to thank him.

“You’re the best, Bill. It’s like you’re my guardian angel.”

“I don’t believe in angels, or any of that stuff,” Bill replied. “But don’t tell Dennis I said so.”

They laughed. Dennis was their group leader, full of faith and scripture, invoking Bible passages for strength and encouraging prayer, like all of the group leaders.

“Not a real angel, then," Richie said. “Figurative.”

“That, I’ll take. Your figurative guardian angel.”

In the car Richie peers at the dark clouds looming in the distance. He worries about the Marlboros he left on the gravestone getting soaked, and ruined.

“I’m only taking the one,” he had said, palming one and lighting. "Now you’re paid up. We’re even.”

Richie hopes the rain will hold off, for hours and maybe days, so someone else can enjoy one last smoke there. He pictures that someone, smoking, musing over the cheap angel figurine—Richie bought it with the cigarettes, at the Citgo on the drive over—and remembering Bill.

Bill, who also helped that someone through the toughest times.

(I wrote this piece as an entry for the Summer Flash Fiction Series at Midwestern Gothic, where it failed to make the cut, so I've posted it here instead.)

Photo Credit: "James Dean Grave (Detail)", by David J. Thompson

July 29, 2015 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fading Ad: Oil Coal Gas Furnaces


Unusual find, on River Street in downtown Batavia, Illinois, where my mom lives. Other than ads I've seen on barns, this is the first one that I can remember seeing that was painted on wood instead of brick. And I don't even know what the name of the company was. And Google didn't clarify much, either. Nice little mystery.

July 26, 2015 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (1)

Joliet Police Blotter

The great Joe Hosey is remarkably restrained with this story - although that aside about the juice boxes is damned near perfect.
Drunken Joliet Man Sent 6-Year-Old Daughter Into 7-Eleven to Buy Him Beer: Cops
A drunken Joliet man sent his 6-year-old daughter into the Cass Street 7-Eleven to buy him a 12-pack of beer, police said.

Aurelio Aguilera-Lara, 36, waited with his 4-year-old daughter in his 1997 Pontiac Grand Am while his older girl went into the store about 10 p.m. Tuesday, police said.

The 6-year-old went in, brought the beer — and some juice boxes for herself — to the counter and tried to make her purchase, police said, but the 7-Eleven clerk grew suspicious and contacted the cops.

Shortly after, officers found Aguilera-Lara, who was “reeking of alcohol,” and the two girls still in the car parked outside the 7-Eleven, police said. Aguilera-Lara also allegedly had an open can of beer in the Grand Am.

Aguilera-Lara was taken to the Will County jail.

I believe we now have our first nominee for 2015 Joliet Horrible Father of the Year.

July 23, 2015 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

"To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain."

Interesting take on compassion, from Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"; the narrator has bent over backwards to help Bartleby, but soon realizes that his employee is probably beyond hope.
My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder.
Bartleby is still one of my favorite short stories ever.

July 22, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I think that the minute a writer knows what his style is, he’s finished. Because then you see your own limits, and you hear your own voice in your head. At that point you might as well close up shop." - E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015)

July 22, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Update on Summer of Melville

My Summer of Classics (this year, renamed "Summer of Melville") continues. I just finished Moby-Dick yesterday (in a word: "Whew!") and this morning started another re-reading of the long story "Bartleby the Scrivener"; this is the third or fourth time I've read the story, and am enjoying it as much as ever. After that, it will be the novella Benito Cereno, and then The Confidence-Man. My old blog friend Golden Rule Jones is a big Melville fan, and at a recent lunch he recommended the latter novel as a fine way to round out my summer reading.

I'm going to refrain from any extensive commentary until the summer is over, so for now I will just say that Moby-Dick was every bit as thrilling and exasperating as I expected it to be.

Moby admirers might appreciate Peter Orner's recent essay "Brief Early Morning Thoughts on Ahab" at The Rumpus, in which he reflects on whether Ahab's monomaniacal quest was simply a ploy to avoid going home.

July 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Russell's Silverbar

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I love this 1943 postcard for Russell's Silverbar ("Where the Crowds Meet") at State and Van Buren in Chicago. (The building is long gone; the Harold Washington Public Library now stands on that entire block.) The graphics are wonderful, of course, but what I really like is how all of the great old State Street department stores - Marshall Field, Carson Pirie Scott, Goldblatt's, The Hub, The Boston Store, The Fair - are labeled, as if to say "When you're finally all shopped out, stop by Russell's for a stiff drink before you head home."

July 21, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


"If you take the life-lie away from an average person, you take away his happiness as well." - Henrik Ibsen

July 20, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I think self-confidence is a very dangerous thing for writers. I tend to write in a fragile, edgy, doubtful sort of way, trying things out all the time, never confident that I’ve got something right." - William Trevor

July 18, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c7af962c970b-pi

From a 1937 Chicago Tribune article, here is an 1880s bird's-eye view of Chicago's downtown lakefront, superimposed with the grid of streets that were added later through landfill reclamation. The new streets are now some of the most valuable real estate in the city, but before reclamation the sandy shoreline north of the river was mostly an outlaw wasteland known as "The Sands." I have a book of the same name (by Francesca Falk Miller) that I picked up at the Newberry Library sale a few years ago but still haven't gotten around to reading yet. Soon.

July 16, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)