On An Open Fire by John J. Staughton
It was a sullen gray evening in early October and I was smoking outside the airport, mentally preparing for a journey that would soon land me on the other side of the ocean and the wrong side of sleep. As I rolled a second cigarette, girding my nerves against the string of anonymous passengers who would soon become my temporary companions, a man approached me.
Not me, necessarily, but the bench beside me, and as we were alone in the grim wind tunnel outside the departure gates, I felt the immediate camaraderie of a fellow smoker, elements be damned. Glancing at him as he shuffled over, I couldn’t get a read on him. His work pants, black, were loose and well worn, and he wore three hoodies, sloppily piled one on top of the other, as well as a lanyard that disappeared behind one of his zippers. In his ear was a Bluetooth headset with a neon pinprick illuminated on the side.
More importantly, however, he was crying, or had been crying, as there were fresh streaks on the skin of his cheeks, and his eyes were open without looking anywhere. He sat down hard, dropping a dirty backpack between his feet and stared out, unblinking.
“Do you have a cigarette?” he croaked, in a lower voice than I would have imagined from him.
“Yeah, of course.” I hurriedly rolled him a cigarette, unsure of what direction this smoke break friendship was headed. I debated leaving him with a rollie and his thoughts, my head clouded with my own concerns and the three weeks that lay ahead. But I stayed, sensing that he wanted to be left alone, but also needed someone beside him.
I sat down and rolled him another as he hungrily sucked down the first, and after mumbling a thank you, he began to speak.
“Just got a fuckin’ call, man. Down at work… boss calls me in… fuck… tells me to sit down.” He continues staring straight ahead, smoking hard, like it’s the only thing keeping more tears from tumbling. “This guy knows me, man, has known me for 10 years… and he calls me in… says he just got a call, about my family. Looking for me, but they had my work number…”
I bite my tongue before asking him anything, realizing that I have no place in this story, and no right to push him past the moment he’s stuck behind.
“I hadn’t heard anything all week, but, fuck… nobody has… they’re out in the country. Everything is so… fucked there, man… I figured…” he trailed off, head hung in a cloud of blue smoke.
“Puerto Rico?” I asked him quietly, knowing what his answer would be.
Find the rest of these words in SN12: Festivus, hitting Amazon and bookshelves Dec. 23rd.