Puffs of Smoke

This story was written many years ago while I was living in New York City. I haven’t shared this in any format before, but thought it was time to post it in this forum. I am a pessimist by nature though this story taps into that rare bit of optimism that creeps into my mind now and then.

Puffs of Smoke

The ocean breeze had an unusual bite to it that day, even for an overcast February morning. Jack was glad he had picked up the heavier jacket on his way out the door, although he regretted forgetting his gloves the moment he stepped onto the old Coney Island boardwalk. But he enjoyed these walks too much to let the thought of cold hands cast any gloom on what had become a weekend routine, so he stuck his fists deep into the down-filled coat pockets and set off down the boardwalk. He headed towards the ancient knish stands that had recently become a social gathering point for Russian immigrants and even though it was a mile away, he could almost smell the coffee that he would reward himself with when he reached his goal.

He felt better than he had in a long time. The divorce would be final in less than two weeks and this morning, for the first time, he allowed himself to feel a sense of relief. On the surface it had all been quite amicable. There was nothing to contest and the decision to separate was mutual. Jack kept the apartment and Sally took the cat. They each knew what they had brought with them when they moved in together, everything else they just divided up. Although there had been accusations of not caring and occasional bursts of anger where simmering resentments poked through, for the most part it was just a time of sadness. Jack had made great attempts not to place fault but he found himself alternating between blaming himself and criticizing Sally for not trying hard enough to deal with the problems. Inevitably he would always conclude that they were just friends stuck in a marriage that simply didn’t work.

In the eight months since they separated, both had found relationships of a sort. Sally had become fairly entranced with a mutual friend of theirs. This had made Jack wonder about what might have been going on before the separation, but he knew Sally well enough to know that even if there had been some flirting, nothing physical would have happened until after the move. Still, it bothered him to think that ideas of other men might have crossed Sally’s mind before they actual split up. Even if that were the case, he couldn’t really blame her since his own eye had been wandering for the past year.

Their sex life had been non-existent for most of the previous year and any attempts at revitalizing it had been sparked more by hormonal frustration than passionate desire for each other. There were no big fights, just a realization one day that they were both bored with the routines of making small talk and trying to keep up an appearance of happiness. The decision to break up seemed like a natural next step. But the dreams took longer to die.

Despite a sense of daily dread that clouded their lives together, they had continued to make plans. Sketches of a future house, down to the style of bathroom faucet, filling several notepads. Topographic maps showing the trails that they were going to hike were stuffed into a worn manila folder marked “Yellowstone Vacation”, along with a thin booklet on how to avoid bears. The list of “Restaurants To Try,” with the top third checked off and rated, was still tacked to the inside of one of the kitchen cabinet doors. Even then, Jack knew that they had been happier when planning the future than in dealing with the present.

Now it was almost over. Twelve days and they would go to an office near city hall, take the final documents to a notary public who would officially witness the end of six years of marriage. The whole process had been like the death of a close friend, but on this cold brisk morning he felt reborn, as if the raw moist air had stripped away the last vestiges of bitterness and self-doubt that had nagged at him for the past months. Everything seemed as if he were seeing it for the first time. Even the sound of the seagulls screeching at each other became melodic to Jack’s ear.

As he passed a long abandoned roller coaster he stopped for a moment. Ivy now covered the track on nearly half of this once grand structure. Sections of the wooden supports were missing or hung listlessly, clinging by a single bolt. He remembered the joyous days he spent falling weightless into those gullies before being jammed down into his seat by an ascent up the next hill. He could still hear the screams of delight from the people behind him and he felt the courage of a young boy who braved ride after ride sitting in the very front seat. It had been years since he had even thought about those days. But he recalled the day he and Sally had walked by this very spot on one of their first outings. He had told her about those days of riding the coaster. She had suddenly grabbed his arm and said that they should go find another roller coaster that very minute and ride it together. It had taken them twelve dollars worth of change and an hour on the pay phone to find an amusement park that was open that day, but it had been well worth it.

Standing at that old coaster Jack had one of the pangs that hit him when he remembered one of the better times he had with Sally, but unlike other pangs, this one didn’t go away. In fact it got worse after he continued his walk. He went through the usual routine during moments like this. All he had to do was think about the loneliness and distance that they had felt over the past year and these pangs would quickly disappear, but it wasn’t working this time. Then the words came, slowly at first, seeming to form out of a cloud bank in his mind. He actually didn’t even know he was saying them over and over until he actually muttered them out loud, “I love my wife”. When he finally heard them he wasn’t sure why he would have said such a thing. Even during the good times with Sally he had rarely referred to her as his wife and he couldn’t remember the last time he had used the “L” word in connection with her.

He needed to sit down. What was going on here, he kept asking himself. He found the end of a bench facing out towards the ocean and collapsed onto it. He shook his head hoping to clear the cobwebs, when he said it again, “I love my wife.”

Being so self absorbed, he didn’t hear the question the first time, in fact he thought the sound was just another muttering from his cloud bank. The second time it was a bit louder, snapping him out of his trance. “Excuse me, did you say something?”, Said a voice in what seemed to be a rather thick Russian accent.

Jack looked around and was surprised to find a stout, bearded man in a thick blue overcoat sitting at the other end of his bench. Still a bit foggy, Jack tried to sort through what had just happened and what this man had just said to him. “I’m sorry,” Jack apologized, “but what did you just ask me?” As he began to focus, Jack could see a Greek fisherman’s hat sitting atop a head of thick black wavy hair, a pipe protruding from what could only be guessed at was his mouth since his full beard hid most of his face, and piercing eyes that seemed much too blue for such a gray day.

“I thought that you asked me a question when you sat down,” he said, “but I couldn’t make out what you said.” Little puffs of smoke escaped from his beard and were quickly dispersed by the frozen winds.

“No, I was just going over some thoughts and I must have said a few of them out loud. Is there a problem?” Jack said in a much too defensive manner.

“It was not my intention to intrude. I just thought maybe you were asking for help.” The man’s face appeared friendly and the concern in his voice sounded genuine.

“Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I didn’t even know your were there, so I was somewhat startled. Besides, I was kind of lost in thought.” Despite his instincts about not talking to strangers on the street, Jack felt an almost instant trust of this man. Perhaps it was his accented baritone voice or maybe it was the hat. His father used to wear an old beat-up fisherman’s cap and there was something very reassuring about it seeing one on this man. “I’m also not used to answering questions from street people.” he stumbled, “Uh, what I mean is people on the street. I mean, I didn’t want to imply that you looked like a crazy guy or anything.” Jack was frantically trying to remove his foot from his mouth. Not only had he snapped at this man for no good reason, he had just called him a nut.

“Listen, its pretty cold out, can I buy you a cup of coffee or something?” Jack said in earnest, hoping to make up for his slips. “I’ll run down to the knish shop and be right back.”

“No need to apologize,” came the reply as the man leaned over the side of the bench and brought up a thermos. “Besides, you’re the one who’s been talking to himself.” As he spoke he poured a dark steaming liquid into the thermos lid and handed it to Jack, who assumed it was coffee. As he brought it up to his lips the smell of alcohol mixed with what he could only guess was a very strong tea assaulted his nose. “Vasha Zdarovya” said the man as he raised the thermos to that spot in his beard where the pipe had been.

Jack felt the heat of the drink fill his mouth, descend through his chest and down into his stomach. If it had been any other place he probably would have started to gasp, but the burn of that sip was balanced by chill of the day. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but it seemed as if he could feel the alcohol absorb directly into his bloodstream. Another sip and he was sure of it. Within a minute he started to loose the feeling in the end of his nose, his indicator of intoxication.

It was also evident by Jack’s next question, which came out of his mouth before it was screened by his brain. “So how come you’re not hanging out at the other end of the boardwalk with all of the other Russians?” He had actually wondered this a few moments before, but knew that it was an inappropriate question. Booze, he said to himself, does it every time.

“What!? Why would I want to talk to a bunch of no good gangsters, homesick crybabies, and gossip mongers? I would just as soon sit here by myself and watch the ocean. At least the seagulls don’t talk about how wonderful the old country used to be. Those people have memories like sieves.” With that the man took a long drink from the thermos, let out a deep breath and sat back against the bench with a look of contentment on his face.

“Now, you tell me! Why is a nice young man like you talking to himself on an old bench?”

Jack thought for a moment. It wasn’t that he was unsure about telling his new friend what had gone on, it was that he didn’t know what had happened himself, so he was groping for the words, some way to explain the inexplicable. “I don’t know.” he said, “I don’t quite understand what happened. One moment I’m feeling great and the next minute I’m sitting on this bench trying to figure out what’s going on. I’m about to get divorced and I’m thinking how great that is, but then I’m saying that I love my wife. I mean it sounds crazy. All I can figure out is that this is some sort of last minute regret for not working out our problems. Or maybe a kind of guilt thing that will go away as soon as the final papers are signed.”

“Why are you getting divorce?” asked the man, “Did you meet someone else, did your wife cheat on you, did you fight all the time, or do you hate each other?

“Well, it’s really none of those things.” explained Jack, “Its more that we just weren’t communicating. And I guess we were bored with the marriage.”

“What do you mean you were bored?”

“There was no excitement or passion left, no spontaneity, everything just went along. We lost interest in trying to put the spark back into our lives and it seemed easier to end the whole thing than to patch up the differences. There just wasn’t any enthusiasm for making it work.”

“You call that a reason for divorce?” said the man, “It sounds more like you’re looking for misery than a divorce. I take the chance of sounding like my fellow countrymen, but this kind of thing was handled much different in Russia. You Americans see a branch in the roadway and instead of driving around it or moving it, you find it easier to get out of your car and just walk away.

“For twenty-seven years I lived with a woman. She was not the most beautiful, or smartest, or sexiest woman I had ever met, but when we married, we knew there was no going back. Sure we had problems, everybody does. If you think that there are matches made in heaven then you are searching for the thing that does not exist. What we did have was respect for each other, respect and patience. If we came to a place that seemed impossible to get through, we talked and listened. Eventually we would find the solution and that solution would be another brick in our foundation. We built a house this way, brick by brick, that was as solid a structure as anyone could ever want.”

Jack wondered if he and Sally had any bricks. He remembered times that they had tried to resolve their differences and only came up with other problems. Yet they had built a structure of sorts. He could recall the week they had laughed their way across Canada on the train, he felt the support he had received on the dark days after his father’s death and most of all he could actually feel the warmth and texture of her hand in his.

“Its just too late.” Jack said, “I should have been looking at this stuff months if not years ago. People move on with their lives and they learn from mistakes. So what if I get some goofy idea when I walk by an old roller coaster. It’s freezing out here and I’ve probably just frozen part of my brain.

“Look,” Jack stated directly to the man, “I really appreciate your help in sorting this out and I’m sure that you and your wife are very happy, but this episode in my life is over and there is no use pretending that it is anything else.”

“My wife died two years ago.” said the man in a very matter of fact way. “I look at you and I say to myself that if I had the opportunity that you have, there is no way I could ever turn my back and just walk away.”

“I’m sorry.” is all that Jack could say. They sat there watching the crashing waves creep up the beach and after a few minutes Jack looked down at the other end of the bench. The man just sat there with those radiating blue eyes fixed on a point beyond the horizon.

They both sat for what felt like an hour before the man picked up his thermos and rose to leave. Jack wanted to say something, anything. He wanted to apologize for letting the man down, he wanted to tell him that everything would be all right and that he was sure to find someone else. But every word that he thought to say sounded hollow. Nothing rang true. So he stared at the sandpipers as they danced through the foamy tips of the beached waves. He thought that if he watched them long enough, the entire morning might just wash away.

Jack flinched when he felt the hand on his shoulder for he thought that he was alone. Then he felt the warmth of the man’s breath near his ear, “Just remember,” whispered the voice, “if you did not have a good heart you would not have fallen in love. That’s all it takes to make bricks.”

Standing motionless, Jack heard the sound of the man’s heavy shoes drum against the wooden boards as he walked away. When he finally looked up he was alone. It was as if the last few hours had been a dream and he was determined to shake it off. He had come here for a walk and a cup of coffee. Period, end of story. The morning was not about sudden changes in his life or reassessments of decisions that had already been made. Some unnamed Russian on a bench by the ocean had no right to interfere with his new found freedom. Besides, this guy was just a lonely man who had no connection to his life and was just looking for someone to talk to.

The Knish shop was still about a quarter mile away so he set off at a brisk pace. No more old rides or old memories. When he reached the food stand he had fifty cents in his hand, tossed it on the counter and blurted out, “Coffee! Black.” He snatched the blue paper cup off the counter and headed back. He wanted to be mad at this man who had confused him by stirring up feelings that were better left alone.

He desperately wanted to get the thought of bricks out of his head, but the images would not go away. His determined pace slacked and the feelings that had begun to surface earlier were coming back. If he could just make it to his car, everything would be fine, but he glanced up and by the time he recognized the spot in front of him, it was too late to look away.

He knew that there was only one thing he could do. He walked up to a weathered old pay phone, listened for a dial tone and dropped a quarter in the slot. He dialed her number, then balancing the phone on his shoulder stuck his hands deep into his pockets, partly because of the cold but more out of nervous apprehension.

As the phone began to ring he glanced back at the beach and saw a solitary figure outlined against the ocean. He wasn’t sure if it was the man with the piercing blue eyes until he saw the tiny puffs of smoke roll up over the top of his head.

Jack heard a sleepy but familiar voice say hello. “Hi Sally, its me.” Jack said, “Do you have a minute?”