HomeSouthern VoiceI’m Sorry, There’s No Smoking

I’m Sorry, There’s No Smoking

by Chad Rhoad

The hospital smelled like gauze and sterility. Beanie busted through the door of the delivery room wearing the blue backwards gown that flapped in the back whenever it wanted, and the shower cap and booties. He put his hat on over the shower cap. His walk had a new swagger as he sauntered down the long white and gray hallway to the nursery to wait for the nurses to put his son on display. When he got to the nursery, the baby was already there under the same kind of lamps Hardee’s uses to keep cheeseburgers warm.

“Look at my little French fry,” Beanie said to an older couple next to the glass.

The couple smiled at him and went back to ogling another baby.

Beanie watched as the nurse grabbed his new son by the foot and flipped him around like someone dressing a hog for dinner. The nurse got Beanie’s attention.

“As soon as the mother is back in her room,” she said, “we’ll bring the baby in to you.”

“Take your time. I think he needs to cook a little longer. Should he be purple? He looks like a Jujy Fruit.”

The nurse smiled with raised eyebrows. She went back to dressing the hog.

Callie was still in the delivery room, and because of the epidural, she couldn’t close her legs. Beanie laughed at the thought and remembered how guys in high school used to say that about Callie and now it was true. The two were engaged in a stalemate of sorts regarding his favorite pastime—smoking. Callie said there would unequivocally be no smoking in front of the new baby and no longer any smoking in the house or the cars and Callie didn’t back down. This newfound restriction did not sit well with Beanie, mainly because he wasn’t exactly sure what unequivocally meant. The no smoking in the vicinity of the new baby rule was also complicated by the fact that the city recently passed an ordinance prohibiting smoking in personal vehicles and outdoors. The only place a man could have a square was in the privacy of his own home, or space, one imagined.

Seeing the joy of the day and the last opportunity, Beanie set off on a mission to find the smoking room in the hospital. Surely, with all the heartbreak that takes place in a hospital, there’s a smoking room.

 

Beanie figured he was losing time. He jogged to the elevator and met Callie’s parents.

“Where’s my gwanbaby,” the mother-in-law asked in the language adults use to talk to children.

“He’s at Hardee’s,” Beanie said and the plastic button on the elevator clicked when he pressed it. “I gotta smoke a cigarette.”

“He has a child and he’s going to — ” the father-in-law was in the middle of before the elevator door closed.

Beanie assumed the best place to start was the lobby, though the elevator decided to go to the top floor and stop at every floor on the way down. Each time the door opened on a floor Beanie said, “Evenin.’ Just trying to smoke, folks.”

The lobby was a huge, open room with a high white ceiling and forest print on the wallpaper. Birds and small animals looked out from the print, all trapped in the scene. Eight-foot windows ran around the room and a slight breeze pushed the shrubbery outside against the glass. The sun was beginning to set and gold, purple and orange hues melted together and wrapped around the lobby windows. The shade cast an easy, relaxing shadow on the lobby. A U-shaped desk sat in the middle of the lobby. A sign that read “Information” hung on tiny wires above it. The old man behind the desk was leaning backwards in a hard backed chair that looked uncomfortable watching Fishin’ with Roland Martin on a 12-inch TV. He wore a blue, polyester suit with big “security” patches on both sleeves and a can of pepper spray on his side the size of a can of hairspray.

“Pardon me my good man,” Beanie said. He slapped the desk with his hands in rhythm. Bee, bop, bee, bop, bop, bop.

“Yessir,” Old Guard said as a large set of keys fell from a loop on his waist and jangled on the floor.

“I would like to smoke a marijuana cigarette. Where would I do so?”

“Excuse me, son.” Old Guard stared. He bent over for the keys and attached them to his waist again. He began to sweat and put his hand on the over-sized can of pepper spray. “What was that?”

“I kid,” Beanie said with a wave of his hand. “I’d like to smoke a cigarette. Where’s the smoking room?”

“Son, this is a hospital.”

“Well, that explains the nurses and the bad food.”

Old Guard’s face didn’t flinch. “There’s no smoking in a hospital.” The keys fell from his waist again.

“Well, then where’s the employee break room? I can smoke there. I just need to burn one.”

“But this is a hospital. It’s illegal to smoke here, and I can’t allow it. Not on my watch. I have a responsibility to the patients.” He picked up the keys and tried attaching them again. They fell back to the floor. “You can’t smoke here. You can’t smoke within 2,000 feet of the building. You also can’t smoke in the city. You don’t have cigarettes on you now, do you?” He picked up the phone.

“Uh—yes. Yes I do.”

Old Guard pulled the pepper spray out of its case, and then dialed a number on the phone. “Donald,” he said, “we’ve got a code orange in the lobby.”

“Code orange?” Beanie said. “Did you just elevate the terror threat level? What the hell,” he looked at Old Guard’s name tag, “Larry?” Beanie looked around the lobby. There was only one person in the large room with them, a Latino woman in a staff uniform. She had earphones in her ears and randomly sang some of the words to a song.

“What’s the issue here?” Beanie said. “I just need to smoke a goddamned cigarette? My wife just had a kid.”

“Sir, profanity will not be tolerated.”

“What’d I say?”

The bell from the elevator sounded and a giant black man in security uniform walked to the information desk.

“What seems to be the problem, sir?” his deep voice boomed with easy confidence.

Old Guard dropped back into his chair and raised the volume of Roland Martin. He looked at the keys on the floor.

“No problem,” Beanie said. “I just asked where I could smoke a cigarette.”

“Sir, this is a hospital.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that? I know this is a hospital. That’s why I felt so comfortable bringing Callie here after her water broke.”

The Giant stared at Beanie for a few seconds and curled his lips. He put his hand on Old Guard’s back. “Lawrence, call the precinct. Tell them we have a Code Orange.”

“You know what, I’ll just go outside and smoke. Alright? Is everybody happy now? There’s no need to call the nicotine SWAT team. OK?” He turned toward the glass double doors at the entrance to the lobby and dug his hand in his pocket.

“Sir!” The Giant moved toward Beanie with his hand out. “Remove your hands from your pockets please.” He lunged for Beanie. “Don’t move.”

Beanie ran out the front door. Old Guard stood up again and took the pepper spray back out, which made the keys fall again. The Giant turned back toward the desk and keyed the radio on his shoulder. Beanie heard the commotion inside. He pulled the pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket and packed them. As he unwrapped the box, the faint sounds of sirens in the distance mixed with the crumpled cellophane. He walked across the street to The Huddle House. Beanie had distinct memories of being in Huddle Houses where smoke was thick enough redraw Monet paintings in the air.

Two families and a group of old men were the only other people in the diner. Beanie sat in a corner booth surrounded by windows beside one of the families and nervously shouted his order of black coffee to the waitress. He was breathing hard from the run across the street and the commotion inside the hospital, and the woman in the next booth clutched her purse tighter. The waitress walked in slow motion back behind the counter and poured the cup. When she returned with the coffee, Beanie was trying to light his cigarette with a kitchen match.

“I’m sorry,” the dawdling server said, “there’s no smoking.”

“Why not? I’m a paying customer.”

“Your coffee is 89 cents, sir, and smoking is illegal in this city.”

“No, smoking in open spaces and cars is illegal, which I can’t figure.”

“It’s because recent scientific evidence has shown that second hand smoke affects birds as well, and this city is a bird sanctuary. Second hand smoke also affects the passengers in cars.”

“You would work for a communist establishment with rules like this?” he asked while striking a match and moving it toward the business end of a cigarette. The cigarette jumped between his lips when he spoke.

“Whoever signs the paychecks, man,” the waitress managed. She grabbed the match and dropped it in his coffee. “I’m sorry, there’s no smoking. This is a restaurant.”

“Super,” Beanie said, and gave the server a dollar. “You can keep the change.”

As Beanie made his way outside, the waitress picked up the cup and walked back behind the counter. The woman in the booth next to him loosened the grip on her purse and said something to the waitress. They shook their heads.

 

Beanie hadn’t been to Ray’s in a while, but he figured he could have a smoke there. Everybody smokes at pool halls. So he walked back to the hospital parking lot to get his truck. There were two police cars parked at the front entrance.

He started the truck and drove the few blocks to Ray’s. The parking lot at the pool hall was full. Nineteen F-F150 trucks were parked on the gravel, each one a different color. When he entered, he scanned the room for cigarettes. Not one burning stick in sight. He walked to the bar and pulled a cigarette out of the pack.

“Can I get an ash tray real quick?” he asked the bartender.

A hairy, bald man in tank top strode toward Beanie from the opposite end of the bar. The man had two-inch thick hair growing from the top of his shoulders. He wiped his hands on a white dish rag and flipped the rag over his shoulder. “Come again,” he said and leaned a heavily tattooed arm on the bar. His eyes blinked rapidly.

“Can I get an ash tray? I need to burn one real quick.”

“Is this some kind of joke? This is a pool hall.” He kept blinking like Morse Code.

Beanie surveyed the room. He saw pool tables. “Without a doubt, sir. Can I get an ash tray, though?”

“You can’t smoke in here, amigo.” This time his arm jerked.

“My wife just had a kid. This could be my last smoke.”

“Look around, dude,” the bartender waved his arm at the men in denim and leather playing pool and drinking mugs of beer. “Does it look like my customers give a shit about your baby?”

“Can I smoke out back?”

“You can get the hell out. Frankie Jr.!” he called to something in the back of the pool hall. “We got another one.”

A 300-pound man-child came from the back of the building wearing jeans and a leather vest. The wooden planks on the floor moaned under each slow, plodding step. He stood two inches from Beanie and stared down at him. “Daddy wants you to leave,” he said in a high-pitched voice.

“All I want is a goddamned cigarette,” Beanie said. “What the hell is wrong with you people?”

Baby Huey showed him to the door. He wanted to yell out “This is fucking stupid. You people are idiots,” but fear was the factor that prevented that.

 

Ray sat in the cab of the truck for a few minutes with the pack of cigarettes sitting on the dash. He considered whether or not Callie would know he smoked in the truck and whether or not that would make him a bad father if he did. I just want one goddamned cigarette.

Beanie drove toward the city limits. He went by the hospital again to see if things had cleared yet and saw the Giant point at the truck and say something to one of the police officers. In the rearview mirror, he watched as the officer began a brisk walk toward his squad car holding his hand to his gun. He knew he only had a minute or two of a head start, so Beanie bolted for the city limit line. Old Georgetown Road was a dark road at night. Occasionally, the truck whizzed past a house, but mostly the scenery was wide, green fields spotted with oil derricks from the Lockhart Oil Field. The silhouette of the derricks’ giant hammers rocked up and down lazily in the humid night air. Dingy white lights dotted the area around the derricks and Beanie imagined the crews of leathernecks lugging around huge wrenches and spitting and cussing while they worked. He imagined a leatherneck could probably smoke whenever he wanted to. Then he pictured a tall, burly man in canvas pants and an oil-stained wife beater tightening a drill pipe with a cigarette dangling from his lips and bouncing as he talked.

A pair of headlights appeared in the truck’s rear view mirror. Beanie guessed he had about two miles to the city limit sign. The headlights in the mirror made better time than did the truck and the lights were shining in Beanie’s eyes. The thought of pushing in the cigarette lighter of the truck crossed his mind, but he was too afraid to smoke in the truck should Callie find out. The lighter didn’t work most of the time anyway. He saw the city limit sign ahead. At the sign, there was a car parked in the road, and when the truck got within 1,000 feet or so, blue lights flashed. At the same time, the police car behind Beanie turned on its lights. Beanie slowed and eased to a stop in front of the car. A very tall officer was standing in front of the car with his hand up. He motioned his hand for Beanie to get out of the car.

“What seems to be the problem officer?” Beanie asked with a ring of pure innocence.

“Your name Bernard Ross?”

“I guess.”

“I need you to turn around and back toward me slowly.” The officer had his hand by his side like the clock just struck high noon. It was nearly 9 p.m.

“I respectfully decline, officer,” he was shaking when he spoke. “I just want to walk across the city limit and smoke a cigarette. Then I’ll get back in my car and go away. My wife just had a child.”

“Congratulations,” the officer said, “but I’m afraid that isn’t possible. We got word you may be attempting to bring cigarettes into our county. Is that true?”

“Officer,” Beanie nodded at the city cop behind him. “And—yes — ” he turned his head 90 degrees toward the county officer at the city limit, “I do have cigarettes in my possession.”

“That’s what I thought,” said the county cop.

The city officer turned his face away from Beanie and said something into his radio.

“Look,” Beanie said with a rasp developing in his voice, “I just want to smoke a cigarette. You guys are supposed to protect and serve, right? Well a shot of nicotine would be a great service. You have a responsibility to the people. I’m people.”

“My only responsibility is to the sheriff’s office and the county council. And they seem like pretty decent people to me. If they say no smoking, then I’m sorry, there’s no smoking. I’m afraid I can’t break the rules. Let’s be adult about this.”

Beanie squared up to the county cop. The city cop stopped talking into his radio and pulled out his gun. The blue lights flashed on the scrub brush beside the highway and gave the night a surreal quality as if the three men were inside a kaleidoscope. Three huge shadows loomed in the headlights from the three vehicles. Beanie let down the tailgate of the truck and sat on it. He looked up at the night sky. There was a distant hum and metallic creak from the oil derricks in the fields beyond the highway.

“Hey, Beanie,” the county cop yelled. “Listen, we’ve called and there is a negotiator coming out to talk to you. So just hang on, buddy, okay?” Suddenly, the county cop’s voice had an exaggerated condescension.

Beanie looked at his watch and figured he had been gone too long and Callie was in the hospital room with the new baby, not smoking, because you can’t smoke around babies because they could get allergies or cancer. Callie would probably call him a flake and a moron and her dad would say he’s on drugs again and her mother would look into the new baby’s eyes and say, “Daddy just isn’t a good daddy is he? No he isn’t. He isn’t. Goochie, goo.”

Fourteen more police cars, two police vans, one fire truck, one ambulance and a lunch truck arrived on the scene and circled Beanie’s truck. Lights from the trucks made the small piece of country road look like Mardi Gras. Three uniformed officers were wrapping police caution tape around the edges of the vehicles. The county cop was still beside his car staring at Beanie. The city cop still had his gun drawn. Most of the other officers and firefighters were lined up to order food from the lunch truck. “I don’t have any more egg salad sandwiches,” the lunch truck driver said to a long line that let out a collective sigh. A deep blue Chevy with tinted windows drove up and a man in corduroy pants and a cardigan sweater got out of the back seat. He walked to the county cop and began a conversation. After a few minutes of gesturing wildly, he walked closer to Beanie on the back of the truck.

“Bernard,” he called with questioning in his voice like he wasn’t sure of his name.

“Yep.”

“Can I call you Bernie?”

“Why would you want to call me that?”

“What would you rather I called you?”

Beanie thought a minute. “Ishmael.”

“Alright Ishmael, how can we help you? I’m here to help you.” The other officers and firefighters gathered around to listen while they ate turkey sandwiches and chocolate chip muffins.

“You could leave and let me smoke a cigarette.”

“I’m afraid we can’t do that, Ishmael.” He turned and looked at the officers behind him. “We’ve already got all these guys out and the lunch truck and everything. We’re here now. By law, when we’re called to the scene like this, especially with the lunch truck being called out after hours, we’re required to arrest someone. It’s fiscal responsibility.”

“So, I’ve gotta go to jail?”

“Well, Ishmael, somebody’s got to go to jail.”

“Can you smoke in jail?”

The negotiator looked around at the other officers and shrugged his shoulders. “No,” someone in line at the lunch truck said.

“I guess not,” the negotiator said. “Smoking, I’m afraid, is out of the question.”

Beanie breathed out a long breath and jumped from the tailgate. The city cop behind him drew his weapon again. All of the officers who weren’t eating drew their weapons and pointed them at Beanie. Two of the firefighters and one EMT from the ambulance drew their personal firearms and pointed them in Beanie’s direction as well.

“I’m sorry, guys,” Beanie said. “This is all one big mistake. I just want a goddamned cigarette. I’m just gonna go ahead a smoke one and you guys can go on back home.”

“But the lunch truck’s here,” someone in the crowd of officers, firefighters and EMTs said.

“Beanie, don’t!” the negotiator yelled.

A loud crack sounded from behind Beanie and he spun quickly and whirled to the ground.

“What the fuck?” the negotiator yelled. His fingers plugged his ears.

“What?” said the city cop. “I already had my gun drawn, and the lunch truck — ”

The county cop walked to the back of the truck where Beanie lay on his side with an arm folded under his head like a child on the floor watching television. A thin stream of smoke swirled upward from a hole in Beanie’s back. The county cop put his hand on Beanie’s shoulder and held and closed his eyes.

Chad Rhoad is a born and bred Southerner. He recently received his M.F.A. in fiction from the University of South Carolina, where he studied with Elise Blackwell and David Bajo. He is currently a commissioning editor at The History Press in Charleston and has also served as editor for The Messenger in Hartsville. Portions of this manuscript have been featured in The Smoking Poet and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

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4 COMMENTS
  • Dan / February 14, 2014

    Well done, Chad. It read smoothly, almost like a cross between George Saunders and George Singleton. Strangely enough, it almost reminded me of Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, only cigarettes instead of swimming pools. You’ve got a strong command, especially on the sentence level, and you’re genuinely funny. Keep up the good work.

    • Chad Rhoad / February 16, 2014

      Many thanks, Dan. Singelton and Saunders are two of my favorites, so they’re obviously an influence.

  • Pingback:Pushcart nomination | Chad Rhoad / December 2, 2014

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