Smoke and the Unventilated

Janet sat on the bed with the phone in her hands and rubbed her eyes. She twisted the cord around her fingers. She put it back onto the nightstand. This couldn’t go on, she thought. She drew a deep breath, exhaled slowly, then got up and walked out of the bedroom.

Vicki sat on the couch smoking a cigarette. A television filled the small apartment with sound and threw flickering colors against her face.

Janet picked up a generic white and green box from the coffee table and pulled out a smoke. She held it between her thin fingers. She dropped the pack back onto the table’s peeling veneer. She looked for a lighter, but didn’t see one.

“Let me hold your cigarette for a second.”

Vicki took a last drag, crushed it out on the edge of the ashtray and dropped it in.

Janet stared at the side of her head for a moment then walked into the small kitchen. She listened to the blaring t.v. while she dug around in the drawers, searching. She finally lit her cigarette with the gas burner on the stove. She looked at the little clock on the microwave. She coughed and walked back into the living room. Vicki stared at the t.v. through the thick grey smoke floating around the lamp and its yellowing shade. Janet swam thru it and sat down on the couch.

“I thought I heard you on the phone.”

“Yeah, that was my kid.”

“I didn’t hear it ring.”

“No, I called her.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, I called her. I’d been thinking about it for a couple of days, about calling Sara, and I finally went and did it.”

“Huh.”

“She couldn’t talk long. But I mentioned wanting to see her. Told her she should come visit us, maybe this weekend. You want to smoke a joint?”

Janet reached under the couch for the bag. She grabbed some out and broke it up, picking through it for seeds.

“I thought I heard you say, ‘Barbara.’”

“No, really, I was talking to my kid. And I think I convinced her to drive up. It’s been a while.”

“Bullshit. You were talking to Barbara. I heard you.” Vicki looked away from her program and fixed her eyes on Janet. “You two talk a lot lately.”

“No, it wasn’t Barbara. I promise.” Janet took a long drag from her cigarette then set it down on the edge of the table.

Vicki stared and waited.

“Look, it was Sara. I just didn’t make a big deal before I called, that’s all.”

Smoke floated thru the space between them. Janet’s eyes were on her fingers as they worked the paper into a small, tight cylinder.

Vicki turned back to the television.

They’d been living like this, together, for over a year; the box in the corner always on, the same couch, the same cigarettes, everything always the same. The apartment was always hot. They’d never really discussed it. Vicki liked the thermostat at eighty because she always felt cold. Janet liked it colder, but didn’t want any trouble, so she learned to live with it.

The television chattered with commercials. Vicki stood and went into the kitchen for a beer. She came back, sat down and opened the can. She took a long drink. Janet checked the time on her watch then finished rolling the joint.

She handed it to Vicki.

Vicki pulled a lighter from her pocket and lit it.

“See, I knew you had a lighter.”

“What does it matter? Anyway, I brought this from the kitchen when I got my beer.”

“Well, like I was saying, I think Sara’s really going to come up this time.”

Vicki took a few drags. The smell of ammonia and flowers joined the stale air. She handed it to Janet without looking at her.

Janet said:

“Maybe we’ll all go have a drink downtown and then rent a movie or something.”

“You expect me to believe this?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, she said she’d call when she was leaving Memphis.” She paused for a drag off the joint. She exhaled. Curls of warped blue-grey pressed against the ceiling. “We’ll get out of here for a little while.” Her cigarette had burned out against the fake wood of the coffee table. Several small black ovals dotted the edge. She picked up the butt and tossed it into the ashtray. Vicki lit a fresh one waiting for her show to come back on.

Janet said:

“Oh, hey, I forgot to tell you. Guess what her father did.”

Vicki didn’t answer.

“Well, that bastard started taking dance lessons. He’s fucking learning to dance. I mean, I couldn’t get him out of the house for anything except drinking.” She tried to remember. It wasn’t that long ago but she could never remember all of the details. “I tell you, Vic, I was a really good dancer. You know? I really was. In fact, I think dancing was the most fun I ever had.”

The television was loud; Vicki could barely hear Janet’s voice.

“Hey, maybe we’ll go dancing this weekend, huh? Even if she doesn’t come?”

She waited. They sat next to each other on the old couch. Down on the carpet a spider crawled under the edge of a wall and vanished.

“Vicki?”

“Jesus, I’m trying to watch this fucking show!”

Vicki stabbed her cigarette dead center into the ashtray. It overflowed onto the table. Janet looked at her, startled. For a moment, she forgot where she was. She felt a little sick.

“Uh, I’m sorry, Vic. I just…”

“I mean, Jesus.”

Janet gave the joint to Vicki and walked to the bathroom. Vicki finished smoking the weed. It was always something, she thought. It was obvious the television was on, right? What bullshit. Nobody was coming to see them, and they weren’t going anywhere. And if she found out Janet was talking to Barbara…

She tossed the roach into the mess around the ashtray. It floated in the soot, smoldered, and went out. She grabbed the pack of cigarettes. Four left. She lit another. Vicki heard the toilet flush. Janet came back and sat down.

Vicki said:

“We’re close on smokes. Why don’t you drive to the store and get some before work?”

“Well, the car is acting up. It probably won’t even get me to the goddamn motel. I mean, I don’t want you to run out, but…”

Janet didn’t know what to do. She wished Vicki would turn the television down. There wasn’t much time. Loud bass and drums seeped through the thin walls, bleeding into the noise. A door slammed. The temperature outside was in the nineties. Here they were.

Janet coughed. She reached over and touched Vicki’s arm.

“Look, do you want to go dancing this weekend?”

Her voice sounded weak, choked with tar, covered in soot.

There was no ventilation in the room. They sat on the couch, statues in the smoke. Somewhere, people were yelling, fighting, while heat washed over them in silvery waves.

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