Cigarettes in Heaven by Jon Pearson


Jon Pearson is a writer, cartoonist, speaker, and international creative thinking consultant. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Psychoanalytic PerspectivesOnTheBus, and in the book Expert Approaches to Support Gifted Learners (Free Spirit Publishing, 2008).

Notable Story - Million Writers Award


Bill felt such a feeling of forgiveness, sitting in his truck at the light. He had been stewing about his ex-wife, waiting for the signal to change, thinking about what a petty, vicious thing she was. She took everything when she left. Even the alarm clock, the fold-up alarm clock that his grandfather had given him when he went off to the Army. God. Waiting for the light to turn, he just started thinking about her—thoughts rising out of his belly. Most of the time he just forgot her, shoved her out of his mind, and boarded up all the holes where she might squirm back. 

Maybe it was the sign across the street about “Primware”—whatever the hell that was—the latest thing in home utensils. Or maybe it was the smell that drifted through his side window or the song on the radio. Yeah, it was the song. Hearing the song reminded him of the times she would comb her hair at the bathroom mirror, looking pretty and female and mysterious. There was a whole mystery about the way women combed their hair at the bathroom mirror. One woman seemed to be all women then, the history of women—the way they looked at themselves in a mirror, combing their hair: idle, happy, thinking. He would drag a comb through his hair and practically not see himself at all in the mirror. He’d be thinking about going down to the hardware store to get fence wire.

She would look into the mirror, though, as if some magical twin were on the other side calling to her—some wise, fairy-tale woman who knew the skivvy, could shoot a man between the eyes at sixty yards, could bake or cook or sew anything, and knew the pain of childbirth and the pain-in-the-butt joys of raising children. It was her mother she saw looking back at her, maybe, the deep-down mother she fashioned with her own mind and soul and girl imagination, the wise mother staring back at her from the mirror. Bitchy but wise. The mother who didn’t entirely approve of the way she, Rebecca, looked, but was some kind of “truth-teller” from the other side. Truth was always tricky past thirty-five. So Rebecca listened into the mirror.

Bill was on his way to get chicken wire and maybe talk to his friend Bob Halprin, a large man who thought and felt like a bear—simple and wide as a bear and whose acceptance of him was pure genius compared to his ex-wife’s endless corrections. Big, dumb Bob made you feel like you could do anything, be anything, or for that matter, never leave the couch. Bob was a meadow you could lie in, all horseflies and sunshine. His ex-wife was barbed wire, double-strength. Pretty and sharp and unbreaking. ’Course, she didn’t see it that way. She just said things to him that felt good coming out of her own mouth. Maybe it was all those women in the mirror backing her up, all those women on whose shoulders she stood. He did his best. Whatever his best was. I mean your best is sort of a mystery, anyway, isn’t it?

She took everything when she left. Everything. Even the kids hated him now. She made sure. “Your father…” is how she began every third sentence to them. Twenty years of marriage and everything gone. He smelled like cigarettes. She was right. His plaid shirt, the one he always wore out of the house, smelled like cigarettes. He was fifty-three and smelled like cigarettes. He was a man. Men smelled like cigarettes. Maybe, God smelled like cigarettes. He hoped God smelled like cigarettes. On the seventh day, God sat back and had a good, long smoke is what he hoped. She probably, wherever she was now, hoped God smelled like pine needles. It would be just like Rebecca: pine needles.

And sitting at the light thinking that, he could see her somewhere, waiting in line to buy a broom and wishing God smelled like pine needles as she stood there. And he started to cry, dripping little tears, because he knew his hating her now was because he loved her so much then. In the beginning he loved her like a scream: a great, deep man-bellow that came from the center of the earth and poured out of him like light from melted rock. Before it all soured like milk. Before reasons and warnings and walls all went up in God’s slow, ingenious way. Where once there was love, now there were “reasons”—little platforms of hate. Softest thing in the world: love. Hardest thing: reasons. Diamond hard. The reason she didn’t love him anymore was about fifty reasons running downhill from tiny headwaters of unremedied disappointment: times and places unforgotten and unforgiven. And she was an encyclopedia of those times and places, which all fed into one fast-flowing, “The problem with you is…”

The marriage that started out as a hope and a promise had turned into a nightmare and a laugh. What started as a brilliant winged bird ended up a mildewed shoe you had to bury in the dirt behind the barn. And it stank so much that the only way you could survive its memory was to turn it into a joke: the grand eternal joke that men were no damn good and women were no damn good—especially short, cute women who at first laughed at everything you said and had eyes you could fall straight into and hope you drowned. 

Stewing mixed with sadness and then with sleepiness at the old light. Would the light ever change? Why was everything so damn hard? Life—a joke—stacked high like blocks of concrete. And there he was waiting for the light at Fifth and Market. Half thinking. Not thinking. Some kind of war raging in him out of sight. Chicken wire. That would do it. Chicken wire at the hardware store would make up for something. That and talking to loud Bob who ate too much, smoked too much, and agreed with Bill about everything. Why couldn’t women understand men like men understood men or men understand women like women did? 

Once, looking in the mirror after Rebecca had left, he tried to comb his hair like she did—pulling the comb slowly through his hair, remembering or imagining things, whatever women did dreaming away at the mirror, solving or wishing or tasting things in their minds. Maybe that was it—women “tasted” their thoughts, whereas men, dumb as they were, could only swallow them.

The sky itself was a sort of mirror, he thought, looking up beyond the buildings across the street, a mirror with maybe people looking back from the other side, people who were dead and could now be the people they always wished they had been, with nothing to lose and nothing to prove, looking down from the sky like children at a window, children innocent and waving. The sky just watched, big and wide like his friend, Bob, only bigger and wider. He forgave her now. He forgave Rebecca. The war lifted. Sitting there on the seat and smelling like cigarettes, he forgave her. From out of nowhere he forgave her. Seeing her waiting to buy a yellow broom, he saw her sniffing the air for little signs of God with her pretty nose, standing in her pink tennis shoes.  That was her all over, buying a broom and thinking of God. He could see her, every inch of her. He could feel her, see her, know her, love her. As if he were in the sky himself, looking down. He forgave her every little thing, and he forgave himself every little thing, and he felt five years old again—sitting on a swing, kicking his legs in the sunshine.

Sitting at the light, it got so he didn’t know anything. She had left. Then all his anger had left, all his blind rage, and he felt empty and happy. He saw the light change. Pine needles? How could God smell like…

It was quick—a cement truck barreling through the light. But it was quick, they said. He was sitting there wiping his eyes with his sleeve and smiling his head off. And he pulled out. Just pulled out. Light hadn’t even changed and he just pulled right out. No one knew why.