A Pack of Cigarettes and Thou ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
When she was younger, April Snow liked school, or at least could tolerate it but, now that she was fourteen, things had changed. Her body had changed, had filled out, and that somehow affected her outlook on life. She was no longer a child and she was ready, she felt, to leave all childhood things behind. She had had enough of her mother telling her what to do and of going to school day everyday and abiding by a bunch of rules that seemed to have lost all meaning for her.
As she walked the four blocks to the bus in the morning, her thoughts turned to suicide. She thought back to the day a week ago when she and her mother were having a raging argument and her mother slapped her in the face and knocked her off the toilet and caused her to hit her head on the bathtub. She lay on the floor and screamed that she couldn’t move her arms and legs, but her mother knew she was just putting on an act. She told April that she was insane—insanity ran in the family—and she was going to “put her away” in the place where they had straightjackets and padded cells and shot charges of electricity through people’s heads like in a Frankenstein movie to try to make them less crazy. If she hanged herself or cut on herself enough to bleed to death, she thought, her mother would certainly be sorry she had been so mean to her. People at school would say, “Poor April! If we had only known she was so sad, we might have given her some money or done something to help her, but now it’s too late.”
At the bus stop, she lit a cigarette and pointedly ignored the two skinny girls standing there. They looked liked little children compared to her but one of them was actually older than she was. They needed some fashion advice, some rouge and lipstick; they needed to dress and act more grown up, or they would always be hopeless losers.
The bus was late. Just when April was hoping it wouldn’t come at all and she would be able to go back home and go back to the bed, it came around the corner with a malodorous roar. She flipped her cigarette away with her thumb and forefinger in her grown-woman way, knowing the two skinny girls were looking at her. When she boarded the bus she went all the way to the back as she always did.
Of the thirty or so people on the bus, the only one who interested her in the least was Selma Butts. She sat primly with her books on her lap and her ankles crossed. She had a face like a bird—a tiny pointed nose like a beak. On her head a silly green-and-yellow knit cap she had made herself. She wasn’t interesting in herself but she was the sister of Seymour Butts, so that made her as interesting as she would ever be.
April was in love with Seymour Butts; she had only just realized it on the day her mother slapped her off the toilet. He was the reason they had been fighting in the first place. Her mother didn’t like Seymour, didn’t think he was the “proper” boy for April to associate with. She had heard things about him, bad things that would curdle cream, she said. He was, figuratively speaking, from the wrong side of the tracks, and was—anybody with any sense could see it—headed for the state penitentiary and probably the electric chair.
April had been out with him three times in his car with the “souped-up” engine that she could hear from half-a-mile away. They had gone driving two times; the third time he picked her up in front of her house and took her for an ice cream cone. Each time, she had been thrilled by his pouty expression, his perfectly coiffed hair and the skull-and-crossbones tattoo on his bulging bicep. She had expected him to sweep her off her feet in an ardor of passion—if he had she wouldn’t have been able to resist—but the most he had done was to touch her lightly on the knee to get her attention and put his hand on the back of her neck and squeeze. He was more of a gentleman than she might have expected.
He had quit high school when he was sixteen and worked at mysterious “odd jobs” for his uncle and his cousins. If he really needed a high school diploma, he said, he could get one without having to go through the hell of going to school everyday and listening to those hypocrites spout their lies that anybody with any sense didn’t believe anyway. April thought him deep and endearingly independent. He wasn’t like anybody she had ever known before.
When the bus pulled up in front of the school to let everybody out, April held back a little, keeping her eyes on Selma. She stood up just as Selma did and made sure they almost collided as Selma stepped into the aisle to get off the bus.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” April said. “Did I step on your foot?”
Selma looked at April and the corners of her mouth turned down. “No, it’s all right,” she said.
“I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
She expected Selma to say something else, but she just kept going with her head down. When she got off the bus, she ran to the door of the school and went inside as if it was raining and she was afraid she would get wet (it wasn’t).
April took her unsatisfying encounter with Selma as rather a bad omen, a bad way to start the day. She had hoped to at least speak Seymour’s name and to gauge Selma’s response, if any. In that way, she might have discovered if Seymour had ever mentioned her name to Selma. On these small things do lovers hang.
In first-period English class, she dozed through a discussion of Endymion, losing interest after “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” She didn’t much like poetry. It was too hard to figure out.
In physical education class, which she loathed more than all her other classes put together, she feigned illness so she wouldn’t have to change out of her clothes into shorts and a red jersey to play volleyball. How she despised volleyball! She never cared whether the team she was on won or not, so she didn’t even try. The result was a barely passing grade.
While the other girls were playing, she lolled on the cot in the locker room, surreptitiously smoking a cigarette. She went through the lockers that hadn’t been locked and “found” a dollar and eighteen cents that somebody hadn’t bothered to secure. She didn’t think of this as stealing, but, rather, as “finding.” She had no scruples where “finding” was concerned.
In math class she failed a test that she hadn’t bothered to prepare for and, in fact, turned in her test paper with half the problems unanswered. After that was study hall, during which she propped a novel, Forever Amber, in front of her and pretended to read. When the bell rang for lunch, she ran to her locker to put her books away and went downstairs to the lunchroom, where a long line had already formed.
After she got her food (a slab of gelatinous meatloaf, watery mashed potatoes and two stewed prunes) and was looking for a place to sit, she spotted Selma Butts sitting alone at a table in the back of the room. She rushed to claim the spot across from Selma before somebody else got it.
“Hi, there,” she said with a winning smile as she pulled out the chair and sat down.
“Hello,” Selma said.
“I’ll be glad when this day is over.”
“See that boy over there?” Selma said.
April turned to look over her shoulder at a very large boy with blond hair and bulging cheeks.
“He just ate his fifth hot dog.”
“Until you sat down, he was all I could see.”
When April looked at Selma, she felt a little rush of pleasure. Here was somebody who was not only related to Seymour Butts (although she looked nothing like him), but also lived in the same house with him.
“You know my brother, Seymour, don’t you?” Selma asked.
It was almost as if she had read April’s mind!
“Yes, I know him,” April said. She didn’t want to be too obvious but she hoped to convey in those few words that she and Seymour were on very intimate terms.
“Did you hear what he did?” Selma asked.
“He and his boyfriend moved to California. They just packed up and left without a word to anybody. So impulsive!”
“Did you say ‘boyfriend’?”
“Yeah, didn’t you know he’s ‘that way’? I thought everybody knew it. He doesn’t go around talking about it but he doesn’t exactly make a secret of it, either.”
“When’s he coming back?” April asked with a sick feeling.
“Oh, he’s not ever coming back here,” Selma said. “He’s had it with this place. I can’t say I blame him. I’m going to get away from here, too, just as soon as I can.”
“People can certainly surprise you sometimes,” April said.
After lunch she was feeling too dispirited to remain at school, so she left for the day without telling anybody. Nobody cared where she was, anyway, she told herself; she wouldn’t even be missed.
She couldn’t go home because of her mother, so she just began walking, she didn’t know where. She didn’t have a thought about how she would get home; she didn’t care if she went home or not. She just kept thinking about how she had been so wrong about Seymour Butts and how she would never see him again, just when she realized she was in love with him. How could he just go away like that without saying anything to her? Did she mean nothing to him at all?
After walking for eight or ten blocks, she came to a little park that she had never seen before. She entered the park and went in far enough so she felt hidden from view. She found an inviting bench in the shade of an enormous maple tree and sat down. She cried some, knowing that nobody could see her and, after she had cried as much as she was going to, she lay on her back on the bench and closed her eyes.
When she opened them, a young man—more a boy, really—was standing about ten feet away looking at her. How long had he been standing there? She hadn’t heard him at all. Had he seen her crying?
She sat up, a little embarrassed, and smiled at the young man. He came and sat down beside her on the bench. He was nothing like Seymour Butts but quite interesting in his way. Instead of dark hair, he had fine, sandy-colored hair and the beginnings of a little moustache and hairy forearms. All the things she had been told about not being friendly with strangers passed through her mind and then were gone.
She took out her cigarettes and offered him one. He nodded his head as if a cigarette was the one thing in this world he needed and took one out of the pack. When she had taken one for herself, he lit hers and then his own. She blew out a cloud of smoke and he did the same; the two clouds merged into one. She looked into his eyes and he looked into hers. They hadn’t yet spoken a word. They seemed to have passed into a realm where words are not needed.
In a little while he stood up from the bench and motioned for her to follow him. He led her to another part of the park where there was a clump of bushes as big as a herd of elephants. He crouched down and crawled inside. She followed along behind him, smelling the damp earth and another smell that she was unable to identify. For the first time all day, she was thinking about something other than Seymour Butts.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp