27 June 2009

Smoke Break

He wanted a cigarette and looked over his shoulder at his daughter and her friends as he stepped out to the sidewalk to smoke one. He ducked his head to light the Camel and, at first, he thought the butane lighter had exploded in his hand. But, then he realized his hand was empty, that he was on his knees and bleeding. He guessed he must have fallen. He twisted around to the shop behind him but he couldn't see it. He twisted some more and felt sharp pain. He wondered what was going on here, just what the heck had happened. And some part of him was already afraid that he knew.


The rest of that afternoon was kind of blurry. The moment immediately after the blast was crystallized, however, and became frozen in such a way that while he and events all moved forward in time together, that moment remained unfinished and attached to each successive moment. It was a lot more than that he just couldn't stop thinking about that moment. He could not get out of, remove himself or move away from that moment.

A man came to where he'd been blown. There were other noises--screams, the last rumble of damaged architecture--but they conversed together in a normal tone.

"I guess I fell down," he said.

"Oh, gosh," the other man replied, distractedly pulling needles of glass from his own forearm.

"That was so weird. What was that?"

They both turned their eyes to the boiling ruin of the shop. They heard the noises, they saw the flame inside the building, they smelled the smoke and meat.

"Oh, gosh," the other man said in genuine puzzlement. "Something must have happened."

And suddenly and very surprisingly, the street and the sidewalk and the area around the store was filled with people. They walked, they darted, they stood and turned small circles, put their hands to their faces. They wore regular clothes, they wore bloody rags, they wore uniforms. Some were shouting and pointing, some were crying, and some were just looking silently about them. There was a lot of junk strewn all over the place.

But even as these things happened, as he noticed these things and these things happening, he was (with the same kind of clarity and attention) still within that moment on the sidewalk before he knew.


The hospital was the worst place to have gone but they made him. The emergency room was bedlam; it was an unquiet place when all he truly wanted was a very quiet place. He kept thinking that if they'd only let him go home, he could clean himself up while watching himself for signs of concussion, pour some disinfectant on the worst of his scrapes, rest up a little and gather his wits, smoke a cigarette, and then come back for whatever disaster examination the hospital had prepared for him. As it was, he was triaged off by himself into a curtained area where he sat for a long time until the chaos subsided enough to allow a doctor time for a visit. All that while, even as he peeked at the action through a slit in the curtain, he was at the same time on his hands and knees on the sidewalk in a crust of broken glass worrying about his defective lighter.

"Well, then," the doctor said. "Let's take a look at you."

As expected, his clearly superficial wounds were identified, examined, sterilized, bandaged, and dismissed. The doctor paid lots of attention to his head, though, shining lights at it and in it from alarming angles. He was thinking about how nice it felt to grab a moment to himself after a long day of following teenaged girls as they shopped. A cigarette would taste very good, he thought.

The doctor said the word "observation" and, sure enough, some time later a young man came to take him upstairs in the hospital. They put him in a room and taped wires to his chest and left him alone. He couldn't get the lighter to work, kept scratching the flint uselessly. He turned deeper upwind; he hunched his shoulders and he cupped his palms to shelter the flame.


Some time later, another doctor came in.

"Has anybody had a chance to talk to you?" the doctor asked.

He really didn't know how to answer.

"I know you've been through an awful lot today. And, I'm afraid you've got some more to go through," the doctor began. "Your ex-wife will be here in a few hours. She's probably on the plane right now."

He had his eyes focused on the tip of the cigarette, at the place where the flame would be. He could taste the odor of unburned tobacco and the cotton filter; he anticipated the first lung full of thick smoke.

"You've sustained some injuries that aren't too serious," the doctor continued. "Scrapes and bruises, mostly. But, we're a little concerned about concussion so we're going to get some pictures of your head in a minute. You may even have a small fracture...you took a pretty good blow out there. The nurses will come to take you to the Imaging Lab and we'll get a better idea of what's going on."

The doctor moved over to almost sit on the edge of the bed.

"You know," the doctor said and his voice had changed. "You've been through something terrible and a lot of what you're feeling right now is just shock, pure and simple, plain old shock. Sometimes it takes a while for things to sink in, for the body and the mind to prepare themselves for a trauma. And you've already been through one terrible trauma this afternoon."

The doctor paused and looked out past the hospital room, out the room's grey window to another grey window on the opposite wall of the hospital.

"It's so hard to imagine someone doing this," the doctor finally said. "How could anyone deliberately do something like this? I find it hard to believe."

"You can't believe it?" he asked and the emphasis he gave those words must have sounded sarcastic because the doctor apologized but he meant it sincerely, had seized upon that phrase as a confirmation of his own inability to continue past a particular moment in time. If a doctor can't believe it, he reasoned, why should I?

"Listen," the doctor said. "If there's anything you'd like to know...any, ah, questions you might have...anything at all that might be on your mind...anything you're worried about...just ask me or call the nurse. Whenever you're ready...."

He moved his thumb deliberately to create a long, perfect spark, to get this cigarette really going, and he couldn't quite understand the doctor or what the doctor was saying because he was guessing he was about to fall down.

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