Fiction, Monologues, Plays & More
By Sean Kozma
I’m a smoker. I know, I know, I shouldn’t smoke. I’ve been wrestling with that one for a while. I’ve quit before, but have always wound up back on the wagon eventually. I’ll try again soon, and hope it takes this time, but that’s neither here nor there. The important thing to take away here is that I’m a smoker.
So I’m outside smoking in front of the school the other day, sitting on the curb because it’s the only place to sit and it’s conveniently located in a nice, large pool of shade. It was a hot day out, so I was enjoying a moment out of the sun and the heat of the day. A cigarette is “me time” — which is, I think, one of the real reasons it can be so hard to quit smoking. If you ask me, that business about nicotine’s unimaginably addictive properties is a bunch of PR bullshit made up by the tobacco companies to scare people out of trying to kick the habit.
Anyway, I’m sitting on the curb in the shade, smoking my cigarette, when I notice something out of the corner of my eye. Another student is standing about fifteen feet away, smoking under the shade of a large tree, being accosted by a guy trying to bum a cigarette from him. The student refuses, and the guy starts shuffling slowly towards me.
Aside from my health, one of the main reasons I want to quit is because smoking in public makes you a magnet for freaks and weirdoes. Understand that, while seemingly straightforward on the outside, the politics of bumming cigarettes from strangers is a complicated and labyrinthine thing. A lot of snap judgments are made about the other person by both parties, on both a conscious and subconscious level.
It’s also probably one of the more classist of human social activities; a mold I try to break as often as I can. Being homeless does not necessarily preclude me from bumming you a cigarette. Even being a weirdo freak does not always preclude you from getting one either, but it’s highly unlikely. By the same token, not being homeless doesn’t guarantee you a cigarette either.
This guy was a weirdo freak. And likely homeless. But again, that’s a judgment made on a grand total of two minutes’ interaction, if that. The first thing I noticed about him was that he was not wearing any pants. I don’t know if he was wearing a pair of really short shorts, or if he had on underwear under there or what, because I didn’t look particularly closely and because thankfully he was wearing a just-barely-long-enough sweatshirt pulled down just far enough to forever occlude that particular detail of reality from my knowledge. I am beyond grateful that he did not bend over or sit down next to me.
The sweatshirt was navy blue, a little grubby, and I think it had some sort of graphic on it, possibly university or sports related, but I can’t be sure. Again, I tried not to look too closely. When I did look, it was mostly at his face. He was bald, or close to it. I think he had a bit of peach fuzz growth on his head, maybe. He has also shaved his eyebrows. Or they fell out too or something. He may have been wearing beat up running shoes too, but he may have been barefoot for all I know. That information lay too close to the Forbidden Zone. A thing seen cannot be unseen, gaze not into the Abyss, and all that. And he was wearing a single gardening glove on his right hand.
His face had a distinctly pugilistic quality about it. It wasn’t so much that it looked like he’d been in a fight, but there was something about him that reminded me of a boxer, or like a mob goon in Chicago in the thirties. His eyes were puffy and squinty, and he had little round bulb of a nose. Even when looking at his face, his pale legs hovered uncomfortably just at the lower edge of vision.
“Hey man, can you spare a dollar, or some change,” he asked in a quiet voice.
“Sorry, pal. Not today,” I said, hoping that would be the end of it.
“You got an extra cigarette?”
No such luck.
“This is my last one. Sorry.”
I have half a pack on me, but most of the time, especially when refusing the weirdoes and the homeless, it’s easiest just to say you’re out. It’s hard to push past that kind of that kind of resistance, but this guy was an achiever, and he knuckled down and barreled through.
“Well, can I have a little bit off of that one,” he said, pointing to my burning half-cigarette with his gloved hand.
That surprised me. That was a new one on me, at least from someone who wasn’t a fluid-swap-close friend.
“No. You can’t. I’m sorry. No,” I said, with an edge in my voice.
And that was that, finally. He shuffled off down Vermont, dejected, looking like I’d just kicked his puppy to death. That was the last I saw of him.
But ever since then, that guy has stuck with me. I find myself thinking about him, and wondering what his story was. What set of circumstances or sequence of events resulted in him walking pants-less down Vermont Avenue? Did he not possess a single pair of pants to his name? Was his situation that grim? Or was it a just-that-day thing? Like a, “You think you’ve had a bad day,” type of thing. Was he really homeless? Did he have a home somewhere else, in some other city, far, far away, and he just wound up getting a nice big lick off of the dog shit end of the Los Angeles lollipop? And what was up with the single gardening glove?
And above all I find myself wondering just what the distance is between him and me.
I suspect that most people, or at least many, when confronted with a person like that sees some kind of strange, alien creature. They see something pathetic and hideous, but not human. They see a cast off piece of trash, like paper cup or a burger wrapper that walks and talk and begs for change and takes a big, squirting, liquid shit all over a bus stop shelter.
But I see something else. I see a human being, and wonder what difference in choices and tragedies led them to where they are, as opposed to where I am. I wonder what set of circumstances may yet be in store for me that might lead me to such a place. I see a mirror reflecting back at me the worst parts of ourselves.
Fuck it, I need a cigarette. Now, where are my pants?
Sean Kozma has spent the last decade working in theater and live sound in Los Angeles. He has been developing his voice as a writer for several years with the Eclectic Voices writer’s group, and he has written several short fiction pieces for the Eclectic Voices online magazine. He is working on a handful of short stories for publication, as well as his first novel.