I’ll admit, it felt a bit odd handing the cashier $12.98 for a box of nicotine gum and a pack of Pall Mall menthol 100s. Or rather, I knew the people who saw the transaction, including the cashier, would find it odd. People misunderstand both tobacco and nicotine gum.
I wasn’t a “smoker”, nor was I breaking the habit. Doesn’t stop me.
Actually, the story starts earlier. It’s a cycle, so it doesn’t particularly matter where it starts so long as it comes back around in the end. Some may say I wrote it this way to give it a marginally more interesting start, but I say “They’re right.”
I was on the bus, mind fried and itching for a cigarette. This guy at the bus stop had been smoking and summoned up a thirst for that stench. It’s funny, there isn’t a word for wanting to smell something, is there? There’s hunger, thirst, but no smell-desire.
There was this one guy sitting kind of across from me perpendicularly that was like that kind of almost-retarded. Don’t mean to be mean to the guy, but it was true. People talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve, but this guy was wearing his thoughts on his face.
The bus stopped and I loathed the idiots in back who refused to shut up. A girl came on the bus, pretty cute, with a Price Chopper nametag pinned to her shirt, wearing a bicycle helmet. I noted her and went back to my book, Skylark by Dezső Kosztolány, but the maybe-special-ed kid stared at her, mouth agape. I hoped she didn’t notice, and I hoped he got control of his fucking face.
It’s worth mentioning that I was riding the public transport. It had been a while since I had been here, but I loved it. I was back home.
At some point this white guy with long straggly hair and a “Best Dad Ever” shirt on boarded the bus, pushing a stroller with about twenty teddy bears stuffed into it. Two little black girls followed him, with their hair done up in cornrows. One of them seemed like they were wearing pajamas.
/// [split] ///*
I rode for a while. People got on and off but I didn’t pay much attention. My mind was working out what I could afford. Box of nicotine gum was around $7, I could probably get a pack of cigarettes for $6, and I wanted to get a snack or something as well, but I only had $17.16. And I wanted to get some deli meat, cheese, and bread at the store on my way back. But that would be at least life five dollars, so…
The bus pulled in to its stop in front of Wal-Mart. I hopped out with a few other people and navigated to the pharmacy area, “stop smoking”, then grab a box of four milligram mind nicotine gum, generic brand. $6.99. Head to the checkout, wait for some guy with a six-pack of beer and what was either a duck whistle or dildo, then the guy who’s way too old to still be a cashier at Wal-Mart scans my gum and tells me the price. He starts, like, finalizing the payment, without asking “Will that be all,” which is always the time that I say “Give me a pack of…” either Pall Malls or Camel Crushes, depending on what I felt like. Pall Malls were cheaper, even the 100s, which were oddly enough priced exactly the same as the non-100s.
Anyway he forgets to say that, so I butt in and tell him what I want, sensing his thoughts that there was something fucked in my head, who buys cigs and nicotine gum at the same time? A noncommittal habit-breaker, maybe.
I pay, aware of how perilously low my bank account was, and head outside. I begin walking down across the strip, hoping to find someone with a lighter, since I hadn’t intended on buying cigarettes on this trip. Just that one fucking guy with one earbud in waiting at the bus stop sent me down this path.
I passed by this guy in a motorized wheelchair thing on the way. He looked like that fake vet from Tropic Thunder in a way. I figured he probably had a lighter but didn’t ask, just kept walking.
Further down, I passed a guy sitting on the cement playing a guitar. I kept walking, as I had literally no money to give him at all, but he told me he liked my hat and I thanked him. It’s this Alphorn Swiss hat with stitched flowers around the brim.
I walked to the end. I was thinking I’d do something else but couldn’t think of what that would be, especially seeing as I had no money to spend on it. So I got to the end of the strip and walked out into the parking lot. The strip was sort of curved, so I walked around the other edge of the oval back to the Wal-Mart stop, checking the time the bus was stopping that I had screenshotted on my phone. I don’t and never will have a phone contract, so I had to screenshot anything I wanted to reference when I was away from wifi. The next bus would arrive in like twenty minutes, so I’d have some time to wait, but I had my book.
I got there, sat down, and took out my book. The man in the motorized wheelchair rolled up in front of me.
The teens in the back of the bus wouldn’t shut up. The cigarette guy had his earbuds in, and that reminded me that I had my headphones in my bag. I put them on and started an episode of This Paranormal Life, which I had downloaded before I went out.
My brain was still fried enough that I didn’t retain much of it. The partial-retard kept staring at the girl, and she kept looking forward, obviously uncomfortable from his stare. She got off the bus, and good too, for once the bus had started up again a few things happened simultaneously.
One, it hit a massive bump in the road. Or it might have been a pothole, I don’t know. It was enough to twist people out of their chairs.
Two, there was something else in the bus. I’m sure everyone felt it. A chill, a grip in all our hearts. The driver slumped out of his seat, unconscious. This was on main street, so as soon as everyone saw it happen we began running towards it. The cigarette guy got there first and took hold of the wheel, but it was too late. The bus had strayed out into an intersection, through a red light, and a propane truck (there was a propane distributor right nearby) t-boned the bus.
“Hey,” Tropic Thunder said.
“Hi,” I said, unsure of what was happening. Based on his physical appearance, he was a homeless veteran. The military sucks ass, doesn’t it? The fact that a veteran, especially one who probably went to Vietnam, even can be homeless is messed up. The people working in the military pay the price of how fucking shitty our government is. Fuck those fat fucking piece of shit idiots who have all the power and propagate the lie that we’re in a democracy.
“You a student?”
“Yeah. Natural sciences and mathematics major.”
“You know, I went to Harvard.”
“Yeah. And I’m finishing up my Master’s in behavioral therapy. When I was in Harvard, I studied hypnosis.”
He fished a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his pocket. He lit his, and I asked if I could use his lighter. I took out one of the Pall Malls and tried to light it, but between my shaking hands and the breeze I had trouble. He handed me his cigarette to light off of, but doing that with my shaking hands was even worse and I knocked the ash from his cigarette onto my lap. I gave it back to him and finally got my own lit.
“Huh, that’s interesting. I’m interested in hypnosis, but I haven’t studied it that much. At least, hypnosis that you do with someone else. I’ve done some self-hypnosis and that’s worked pretty well.” I thought it was unlikely that Harvard offered a degree in hypnosis, but it was probably the seventies when he was there. Or maybe it was just that he studied that on the side.
“There’s a book I’m going to have you look up.” The look in his eyes as he spoke to me was so adamant, so desperate, almost, that I cemented it in my mind. “Find Transformations, but John Grinder and Richard Bandler.”
Only later did I discover that the title of the book was actually Trance-formations, which would explain the unusual emphasis he put on the first word.
“Another thing you should study is neurolinguistic programming. That’s like, you know, reading someone’s face and their body movements and stuff. Like if they look to the right, that means one thing, but if they look to the left, it means another. I’m going to tell you something you’re never going to forget.” He paused, and we stared at each other, and I felt my vision begin to warble as it always did when I looked intently at something for more than a moment. “I just said it. Got it? NLP, neurolinguistic programming.”
“Alright, I’ll look into it.”
“Good. You know, hypnosis is powerful. It’s real. You know, you see this girl, and you tell her ‘Take your clothes off’, and because things you do in hypnosis have to be natural, you say ‘Take them off like you do before going to bed.’ Because you always take your clothes off before bed, and it feels nice. You’re getting ready to sleep. So you tell her that, and she takes her clothes off.”
“Uh huh.” At this point, I really had no idea what to think.
“You know, I used to be a photographer.” He said this as if he and I had met before, like he had already mentioned it to me. He took out his cigarette and pressed it against the metal of his motorized wheelchair to extinguish it, then put the half-used cigarette into his pocket. “My focus was nudes. I actually got some awards for them back in the day. But I’d bring this woman into my studio, and stare her in her eyes for a moment, then kind of shake my head and apologize and say ‘Sorry, I just couldn’t take my eyes off of you. You’re so beautiful.’ You know, ‘Woman, your name is vanity’. But I’d ask her if she wanted to see my previous work, so I brought her up to my office and showed her all the nudes I had done before, and if she liked it, I’d take her nudes. But that’s how you get a girl, you stare at her and apologize for being so entranced with her.”
He paused, then put a hand to the side of his mouth, as if speaking quietly to me in this public place. “You aren’t gay, are you?”
I laughed. “No, but I think a lot of people think I am.”
“Yeah, well, you’re lower on testosterone.”
“I am now, yeah. But I used to be pretty jacked.”
“Muscular. I did martial arts for ten years and did a lot of exercise. I was pretty ripped.”
“You know what I like about martial arts?”
“Nothing. All this flowy stuff… An iron pipe works better.”
“The stuff I liked most were the locks and holds and all.”
“Well yeah, wrestling is great.”
There was a lull in the conversation, during which someone else came by and sat next to me on the bench. His mouth was squished vertically, like when old people are missing teeth. Best Dad Ever and his two girls came over as well. The stroller was still stuffed with teddy bears, and I saw one of the girls slide three-quarters of a cake into the back. Like a birthday cake. Not sure why.
“When were you in Harvard?” I asked Tropic Thunder.
“Oh, sometime in the seventies.”
The guy who had sat next to me spoke up. “The seventies had some great music. Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin…”
“What was Steven Tyler in, again?” Tropic asked him.
“Huh? Oh, he was in Aerosmith.”
“Alright. You know, my fiancee was one of their groupies. She’s paralyzed on one side, when she was fifteen she had a car accident and it paralyzed her right side. But the guys in Aerosmith really liked her, except Steven Tyler, so they brought her along with them.”
The bus pulled in and we stood up. Tropic Thunder got off the motorized wheelchair and left it in that area, so I guess it was owned by Wal-Mart. The three of us headed towards the door.
“That’s one of the bands I always wished I could have seen live,” the guy who had been sitting next to me said.
“Yeah, that’s the curse of being in my generation. I would’ve loved to have seen Led Zeppelin live, but I never even had a chance.”
He asked he and Tropic Thunder if we had a cigarette to spare. I didn’t understand him until it was too late and Tropic had already given him one. After handing it to him, the guy said “Wait, I gave you one earlier.”
“Yeah,” Tropic said.
“So you bought a pack?”
We boarded, they sat next to each other, near the front of the bus, with their Wal-Mart bags sitting on the floor.
I put headphones on again and continued listening to the podcast. I wished I had reinstalled Google Play Music onto my phone so I could’ve put some music on it earlier. At one of the stops I got up and grabbed one of the bus schedules and began writing something on it with a pen I had brought with me. There was a woman behind me and I feared she was reading over my shoulder, but my handwriting was bad enough she probably couldn’t discern it anyway.
There was fire, and there was smoke, but despite all the heat, the chill of that thing gripping on my heart froze me, drained me even more than the sight of those three or four people dead on the bus alongside me. And for a moment, just a moment, I wondered if I was dead too, if this was just what death felt like, feeling like you’re the only person still living, but I saw the cigarette guy move. He was trying to wrench open one of the windows, since the bus had fallen onto the side with the door. I struggled over to him and pulled out my knife. It had a little pointed nub on the other side for smashing windows, and I finally put it to use.
Cigarette guy took control of the situation. People were already gathering, an ambulance had already arrived, and he explained, or tried to explain, what happened. But when he looked at me, I saw that same look in his eyes, or maybe it was a bit different, a bit twisted.
There were these two guys in back now. One black guy and one weasley-looking white guy with a little daughter. I caught snips of their conversation, but the bus was loud. They were talking about a cool but kooky guy named James.
“D.R.U.G.S.,” the white guy said, presumably coding it from his daughter.
“Oh, haha, that’s why I couldn’t put a finger on it.”
“I know it for a fact…”
They continued talking about him.
“…and the n-word slipped out. I’m like dude…”
“Wait, which n-word? -er or -a?”
“Heh, -er. Like I’m gonna put him in the ER, you know what I’m saying? But the thing is, I understand he’s not right, you know what I’m saying, so I’m like ‘D, chill’.”
I really liked his “I’m gonna put him in the ER” line.
The bus stopped and I got out and walked, hard. There was some kid on the street and I eyed him and made sure he wasn’t following me, and started heading home. But I still had like four dollars in my bank account, and the store was nearby to get stuff for a sandwich. I went back and forth, literally, a few times, but ended up heading there.
I asked the woman behind the deli how much the hard salami was per pound. $7.89. How about the ham? $6.00. Turkey? On sale for $4.00. I got a quarter pound of that, but she went a bit over, and made sure it was okay. She had sussed out that I was basically broke, and told me she had some pre-sliced cheese. I got three slices of cheddar.
“You want a roll? So you don’t have to buy a whole loaf of bread.”
She dug around behind the deli for a moment. “Sub or kaiser roll?”
“Uh, sub roll I guess.”
She pulled one out and put it on the scale in a bag and messed around with the buttons for a moment before printing out a sticker that priced it at fifteen cents.
“Do you want me to just make a sandwich for you?”
“No, that’s fine.”
I thanked her for her help, bought it all which came to around $2, then walked home. I felt odd, tired, paranoid, changed. I found that rusted-out electrical box and half-cylinder, the purpose of which I had no idea, and that pumpkin that had been smashed about six months ago and been frozen and snowed over before it could be cleaned up.
I arrived home, put the copy of Taxi Driver I got from the library into the DVD player, and collapsed on the couch. I wanted to take another dose, my brain wasn’t as fried any more, and I wanted my sandwich, but I just couldn’t get up quite yet.