Fiction · 05/24/2017

Old Smoke

I smell smoke. I’ve smelled it for three days now and I can’t smell anything else. Old smoke. I experimented with breathing through my mouth. It’s not there then. When I breathe through my nose, it smells like a smoking room in a motel—before they spray it with that stuff they spray it with. That’s what I’ve been smelling. There isn’t any smoke in the house. No smoke in the air outside. No fires—like where there’s smoke there’s fire. There isn’t any.

You smell with your nose, but it’s the brain that makes it mean something. Like seeing. They showed on NOVA how the eye sees everything upside down. It’s the brain that makes things right-side up. It’s a brain function, but there’s no reason for me to be smelling smoke for three days going on four. My wife Fran and I haven’t smoked for years, and we never smoked in this house. Even when my son decided to become a smoker, I said, not in my house. Not around here, bud. Just another time I had to lay down the law.

Yesterday, I asked Fran if she smelled anything. Anything like smoke? But she didn’t. I told her I’d been smelling smoke for two days. Today she asks if I still smell it. Sitting at the kitchen table drinking my coffee, I tell her I still do. Fran sits down across from me with her finger holding her place in Lady’s Home Journal. She leans against the back of her chair, looking at me, and frowns. She’s thinking about it. Yesterday she thought it was curious. But she doesn’t like that it’s lasted.

She lets go of her place in the magazine and rubs the end of her finger up and down on the tip of her nose, then straightens her glasses. She lets her breath out in a soft poof and gets up with her coffee cup. I wave her away from mine, and she goes to the sink. With her back to me she asks what I think it means. What could it mean, I say. It doesn’t mean anything. She says she hopes it doesn’t mean anything. Anything like a stroke, or some brain disorder—a tumor. I tell her I know what she means about that and take a swallow of coffee.

Coffee, that’s a smell I love, but I can’t smell it for the smoke and now it’s lukewarm and tasteless. I can’t stand the smell of stale cigarette smoke. It’s like yellow air. If I have to breathe it long, I end up feeling like my skin is yellow, and my eyes.

I used to think the people who made a big deal about cigarette smoke were just making a big deal so nobody would smoke around them. Myself, I always tried to be considerate. Now secondhand smoke is next to criminal; everybody admits the risks from somebody else’s bad habits. But that’s now and not then.

When Fran got pregnant, she quit smoking altogether. She was serious about it. She is always reading up on things. After our boy was born, I never smoked in the house again. I’d had to agree with Fran on that. The house we were renting had an old-fashioned porch that wrapped all the way around it. I smoked on the porch. Winters I always smoked and walked, smoked and walked. A cigarette lasted four times around the house. In warm weather, I sat on the step, leaned against the porch rail, and watched the Fords go by. It’s what my father always said he was doing, watching the Fords go by, when he was drinking his beers on the front step when I was a boy.

Whenever I smoked in the car, it didn’t matter how cold it was, I always cracked my window. Out of consideration. When I cracked the window, it sucked the smoke right out, just like water down the drain. That’s what I believed. I thought it had to do with a principle—like a vacuum cleaner. It made the smoke suck right out—simple physics. Only Fran said more than once, the window didn’t make any difference. She said she could still smell it even with the window cracked. Not stale smoke, fresh. She could smell it. If she could, it meant our son could, though he was too little to say. I thought it was just sour grapes on her part because she wasn’t smoking anymore, so I refused to listen.

When I finally quit, after the bypass—doctor’s orders—it was one of the first things I realized. Fran was right. Cracking the window didn’t do anything. I rode home from the plant with a guy who was a smoker. He asked if I minded. I didn’t. He cracked his window. It was like Fran always said.

At first after I quit, it wasn’t bad when other people smoked or when I had to be where they had smoked. No big deal, just like I thought. But then time passed, and even though I didn’t want it to, it started to bother me. Really bother me. I smelled it on people, on their clothes, in their hair, their cars, their houses. It was like an invisible layer. I’d breathe through my mouth so I wouldn’t notice it, but my mouth would start to taste yellow. It’s better now that there are fewer smokers and fewer places they’re allowed.


I remember the time I surprised Fran with a trip to the Jersey Shore—a little holiday. Just the two of us. It was a first, me surprising Fran.

I got home early and took the boy to Grandma Vee’s with his pajamas and his stuffed frog (a sorry thing he was never without, until I finally put my foot down). My mother-in-law, Vivian, was a spoiler, which is where Fran gets it from. At Grandma Vee’s it was always candy and kisses, and spelling bees in alphabet soup. A lot of silliness, but the boy loved it, and he was safe, and I thought that’s all that mattered.

When Fran and I got to the motel, they put us in a smoking room.

I had reserved ahead—this was special, our weekend at the shore. Nonsmoking, that’s what I reserved. No doubt in my mind. Fran said she was fine with it. I said no. I went outside and walked around the tiny fenced-in pool with its blue plastic deck chairs. No umbrellas, no tables, The street on the other side. In the office, I lodged my complaint. The guy behind the counter checked and said my reservation didn’t say non-smoking. They had a smoking room and they didn’t have any others. The guy was Indian-Indian, not American-Indian, and had an accent. But he understood me. No matter how mad I got, arguing didn’t change it, they only had the one room. It was Friday night at the shore in the summer. We stayed, but I didn’t sleep. It nearly drove me crazy; the surprise was on me.


Now I’m smelling old smoke for three days going on four. Not fresh smoke like when somebody lights up next to you. This is stale. If it doesn’t go away soon, I will have to think about calling the doctor. If I don’t, Fran will, for all the good it will do. I’ve never heard about somebody suffering from the smell of old smoke. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance, something like that. Maybe they’ll be able to figure it out.

Six months ago Benny, a stock guy who works at the plant, complained he was getting these knock-down-drag-out headaches. Then he started acting weird; we all thought so. Out of nowhere he’d break out singing. Not to anybody, just singing. He’d never done that before. Not long after the singing started, he passed out right there on the shop floor while rolling his supply cart down the aisle. That’s how they found it—a brain tumor the size of a golf ball—when they operated. Fran and I talked about it when it happened. She found it interesting because it wasn’t the same old work story. This was something new.

He’s fine now. His speech isn’t up to par yet, but it’s got to be hard not to mess up something, even just a little, when cutting a tumor that size out of somebody’s brain. He’s just grateful it was benign. Ben-Nine is what he says. It might have sent out roots or seeds. That would have been an altogether different story.

That would be too much—if I had some kind of a brain tumor, I’d really have to think about that.

What’s crazy is, last night I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for bed, and I got the idea in my head that it was payback—_retribution_—for the years I drove around with the window cracked and didn’t listen. Fran told me it didn’t work. My son had to smell it, but, even when he was big enough, he never said a word. It had to make my hair stink, my clothes, my breath. Fran never said anything about that, my boy never said anything.

If Fran had done it, kept smoking and cracking the window after I’d quit, I would have gone bananas. I would have had to lay down the law. But it wasn’t Fran. It was me. And there I was, looking at myself in the mirror, thinking I was smelling smoke from my past. Crazy.

Not that it does any good now, but it makes me think I should have listened to Fran. About the smoking. Cracking the window. I can see that now. But back then, at that age, it felt natural to do things you’d regret and pay for later. Not just cracking the window. Other things, too. The things Fran said about our boy—the way I was with him. The things I expected. How I was always on the lookout to teach him from his mistakes. How I tried to toughen him so he wouldn’t get hurt so easy. So he could stand on his own. Even the ones you depended on the most could let you down, that was something I learned early. Didn’t he need to know? Because I loved him, it was my job to teach him, I told Fran. But she was probably right. Fran was probably right about that, too. At the time it felt like there was so much that needed doing, and I thought I was doing my best. No stopping, no looking around. But she was right.

Things might be different. I don’t know. I know I really must have reeked back then. Even if I didn’t want to believe it, I must have smelled to high heaven. He never once said anything, my son. Used to hug me just the same. Back then. Good hugs, strong, until I’d say, whoa fella, I need to breathe.

That isn’t the same now. He doesn’t come around so much. His life is busy, I get that. He wouldn’t know I’m drinking cold coffee and smelling old smoke. Not unless Fran has called him. Not unless she’s said.

I suppose I could call him. Call my son and tell him how things are with me, ask him what he has to say. Ask him what he thinks.

I breathe in, it’s the same.

If it doesn’t go away, I’ll call. I’ll make an appointment.


Michael Horton’s writing has been published in Glimmer Train, Cold Creek Review, Yankee, and he is completing his first collection of short stories. He doesn’t have any particular literary credentials, he just writes, then tries to write better. At different times he has been Osceola County’s bookmobile librarian, a prep & specials cook, leased a coffee shop, been king of custodians at a university, a factory worker, IT guy, purchasing agent, and other stuff, but writing is his purpose. He and his wife live off a back road in White Mountains of New Hampshire with their Great Dane, Oscar.