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The Wicked, Like Smoke by Maria Pinto | Word Riot
Flash Fiction

September 15, 2015      

The Wicked, Like Smoke by Maria Pinto

Now:
      It is noon and I am already so drunk I’m over-enunciating. He knows this stage and hates to suffer it in daylight. He is standing well apart from me beneath the bus shelter. I suck in and ash. He watches the rain drip from his hair, eyes crossed. We forgot our umbrellas on this aimless summer morning and are waiting it out, while he tells me something that I should hear again. “I’m just worried. That’s my job,” he says. A bus exhales, stops in front of us. Too late, I shake my head at the driver. She moves on, craning her neck to glare. “You don’t have a job and that’s your charm,” I say, “hobo chic.” A young woman runway-walks in front of us, her white shirt wet through, her pants jodhpur-tight. She couldn’t care less about the gloom. She’s blooming, dewy, primed for attention. I have just become comfortable with the designation of “woman” and am already starting to notice how I differ from the younger ones.
      He stares at her galloping behind with uncommon interest. I’m still cool, so what the hell. I wolf-whistle. She looks back and smiles, winks. “I’m serious,” he says, still watching her, “you’re not taking care of yourself.”
      “No, you’re taking care of me. It’s nice.” He huffs and moves farther away from me, five deliberate paces away, and sits on a wet bench, taking out his Latin study book. Classes are, of course, not in session. I feel my irritation spike but attempt to quell it, remembering that it’s the wine, not him. Yet I know that this is his weapon against my recalcitrance, this dead language. The rain spatters on the book’s glossy pages. He reads aloud and the syllables scrape at my nerves. I am contemplating not going back to school in the fall. I think he can smell it on me, the fact that I’m about to quit.
      The space he put between us is about the size of the space between my grandfather’s and grandmother’s rooms, in a country I don’t belong to anymore.
      Then:
      I called them Papa and Mama for island reasons. I went to bed uneasily in their house, where I spent summers, my eyes half-open as I tried to sink into sleep. The old mattress was so stiff it groaned with each breath I took. If you could really awake from a night like that, then I awoke to the obituaries on the radio. My days at their shack in the valley were golden, quiet, each minute brimming with restlessness. My cousins were still in school for the better part of my visit, so the afternoons dragged. Papa’s appearance during the day, to get a little food in his liquored-up belly, made me feel like I needed a tail to wag, I was so grateful. He paid me attention and called me “clever,” which sounded much more exotic than “smart” to my Americanized ears.
      Papa used to be a schoolteacher before the drink. Mama couldn’t read and had never had a drink in her life, or so she said. I loved to read, and knew that grownups who drank were happier. In my experience, they were likelier to talk to me. I hated my grandmother’s limits. Though now I wonder at my incuriousness, I never thought about why Papa and Mama didn’t share a bed. Wasn’t that what marriage was about, if nothing else? A shared bed? I guess it made some instinctive sense. Papa smelled like cigarettes and rum. Breathing him in was sweet as huffing gasoline. Mama smelled of dinner smoke and sweat—like a woman, like a scolding. Their different smells water-and-oiled in my nostrils. Papa and Mama lived together as if an accident of history rather than love had forced them to cohabit.
      I loved Papa in the same way that I loved the Sunday-school Devil. They both seemed to prefer me as I was: dirty, prone to scrapes and sprains, a little insolent. In those summers, on hiatus from the institution where the real learning was supposed to happen, Papa taught me how to inhale without coughing, how to harm myself without flinching. I got too good at that.
      Now:
      “That smoke is kinda bothering me. Could you blow it somewhere else?” he asks between conjugations. His shampoo, scent thickened by the humidity, travels between us.
      Then:
      Before I was forbidden to spend time alone with my grandfather, Mama found us out back, me, just about 11 years old, with a lit cigarette in my mouth, Papa reading Psalms from his pocket Bible. I don’t remember what he was getting at, what he was trying to say to me through that stilted poetry, but I do remember Mama’s flashing eyes. They were blazing red from cooking goat in the smokehouse. She cursed at him and cursed at him and cursed at him more. I’d never heard her use words like that. She said something about a bastard child. She said something else about worthless men and gossip. She used Biblical words that described contagion. She spoke so fast and moved so quick I didn’t have time to spit out the cigarette before she was on us. Papa tumbled backward on some rocks, starting his long, unsurprised roll down to the center of the valley, which collected all fallen things. Mama yanked me into her arms without seeming to notice me. God’s name burned in her mouth. My skinny legs dangled around her waist like a ragdoll’s as she hurried me into the house. As we approached the back door and Mama was still airing her lament, I finally had the presence of mind to remove the cigarette from my mouth. I watched as my orange-centered ash singed a hole in the shoulder of her housedress. My hand didn’t move to brush it off, though I willed it to.
      Now:
      With a nonchalance I have long equated with maturity, I stub out my cigarette.

About the author:

My recent work has appeared or will appear in The Butter, Bartleby Snopes, The Missing Slate, 100 Word Story, FLAPPERHOUSE, and elsewhere. I was the 2010 Ivan Gold Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston, in the city where I live and work. My debut novel is in search of a home. I am working on my second.

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