by Guy Cranswick
The day Evan Miller stopped smoking, he wept.
For several years he had promised himself he would, but he never gave an exact date: there was no reason to, not yet, he told himself. When he reached a certain age, which he also never articulated, he would stop. It would be a time around the next corner when he would throw the last packet away.
It had been a bargain Evan had made with himself and hoped he would not have to fulfill, though in his deepest thoughts he knew it would happen, eventually. To continue smoking would have been stupid, and though Evan knew it was bad, and increasingly expensive, he had persisted because he had enjoyed it; perhaps it was what it represented: a carefree pleasure, which was not his normal habit.
When the day came and he tacitly accepted that he must stop, his tears were quiet and manly.
His tears were for some unknown object: perhaps it might be called the passing of time and his own measure of life. He had smoked since college, it was a part of him; it was part of who he was, as he thought of himself as a person.
Evan was not a reflective man and such ideas were not native to him. Somehow, when he observed the gray in his hair in a shop window; or his wife, Lauren’s passing comments about the children growing up; then he knew that the remainder of his life, and especially the time he had to himself, would be more serious, slower and considered, with a new maturity, which he did not really want to accept.
Giving up smoking was the first act in this new part of life. As he dried his eyes and readied to face his family, at that instant, an impression of his father came to him: both unsettling and calming. The union of this image to Evan was immediate, instinctive.
‘I’m so proud of you’, said, Lauren as Evan stood over the kitchen trash and crushed the last packet of cigarettes, all the while watching her reaction before dropping it into the bucket.
She had never believed his vows to stop. She had all but given up on him ever stopping, but when he had finished crushing the final packet, she embraced Evan, placing a quick kiss on his cheek. Their daughter, Martha, entered the kitchen. Lauren announced to the fourteen year old that her father had quit cigarettes. ‘Whatever,’ said Martha, self-involved and distracted, as she rushed through the kitchen, leaving her parents in her wake.
After the moment of renunciation, Evan went to the garden to rake leaves. It was a job he liked; being outdoors, the odor and sound of the leaves, the rake dragging them into heaps, the simple pleasure of doing a task, the peace to be his own man. He worked for twenty minutes in the chill air, and then slapped his chest pocket; it was his habit to reach for the cigarette packet in that pocket. The instant he felt his chest he stopped himself and laughed inside but the humor vanished just as quickly, and an odd anxiety crept up his body, as though he had given up his life in some way: his wife, his children, his job.
It was there in the yard that Evan decided he needed to find a new interest, to find new thing in life, live a little more. Perhaps he could learn a new skill, take up a new hobby, or take a practical evening class, although all his efforts at home repair had failed, before he became old. The word old terrified him and now he had said it to himself and the echoes in his mind droned deeper. He stood alone in the yard beside a pile of leaves and shivered.
The moment raking leaves stayed with Evan for weeks afterward and though he tried to conceive a plan to find a new interest, he was preoccupied with the life he had been leading up to the epiphany in the yard.
He worked for a computer products company, which sold peripherals: printers and other devices for computers. He was a manager and passed his days in meetings and by managing other people and interpreting spreadsheets and making decisions. Evan liked his job.
On a steely cold Monday morning, Evan rose at five-thirty a.m. to drive to the office, as he was the chairing a sales conference. He had wanted to host it in another city: to give his team some excitement; going to the airport and checking into a hotel, but the budget was cut and he was compelled to hold the conference in one of the larger meeting rooms with folding back doors that could double the seating area. He drove through the broad empty streets at that early time of day; the gray even rectangular buildings either side of the roads on his route blurred into one.
On his arrival, teams of people were moving tables and chairs, technicians were installing audio-visual equipment, and a catering company had been hired and was arranging urns of coffee and hot water. Evan wandered around to observe the organization and offered comments to the stream of busy people, which were not necessary, as everyone knew what to do. Habitually he patted his chest pocket and reproached himself: he was usually nervous on a day such as this one, and wanted it to go well. In the past, a cigarette had helped relieve the tension.
His mind drifted to his presentation and his opening comments to the room once it was filled with people. He began to pat his other suit pockets and then realized he had forgotten, or misplaced a small computer peripheral, a flash drive, which had his presentation on it. He had left it in the car.
Irritated by his forgetfulness Evan walked back to the elevators and the long corridors to reach the car park exit. He hurriedly pushed the door open to the outside and made two steps before he hit a person, a young woman, on the shoulder, and she cried out. ‘Oh, I am sorry, please forgive me’, Evan sputtered, hardly giving the woman attention as his eyes fell to her hand where she held a burning cigarette; its acrid aroma, the pleasure, came rushing back to him. She followed his stare and with the other hand, as if to make peace, she said, ‘Here, you want a smoke?’ while showing him the packet.
Evan saw she was dressed as a waiter in the catering company uniform. He turned to answer her, and was instantly struck by her beauty, and it made him self-conscious, and he wished he was younger and taller and handsome.
He said, while trying to look at the young woman,’ No, yes, but thank you all the same, that is, I just a…a few weeks back, I, that is, on advice, decided to stop, really stop, you know, smoking.’ And his mouth and tongue were as dry as the morning he gave his first presentation to the entire executive board. She nodded at his words but there was no significant light in her eyes, which Evan saw to guide, or suggest to him, what he could say to appear interesting to her. As he spoke, she put the cigarette to her lips then decided not to and the hand dropped to her waist.
He stopped talking, and she replied, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean; my Auntie Jean’s been trying to quit for years, but I know I can give up anytime, and anyway, I got plenty of time to worry ‘bout that later.’
She looked back at Evan in a way that emphasized what she had said, and with it, her age relative to the middle aged man staring blankly back at her. Her hand rose from her waist and she put the cigarette to her lips.
As Evan watched her draw on the cigarette, he fell into a wistful pause and wished he had remembered his presentation.
Guy Cranswick’s short fiction has been published in many countries. Published also are two collections of his short stories and a novel. His latest novel, The Hidden Bend, was published in March 2016. For more information see Guy’s website.