by Damian Sebouhian
I’d been living in Northern California for five years. I make it a priority to visit friends and family in New York and Ohio, at least once a year. I’m a middle school teacher, so that time is generally during the summer. My brother Gareth still lives in the same town we were brought up in – Dunkirk, NY – a blue-collar factory town off the southwest coast of Lake Erie. When I arrived, he had just moved from the east side to the west side for his first attempt at home ownership. It’s a three-bedroom, two-story house with functional basement and large A-framed attic. His two kids live with him: Morgan, a highly responsible Junior in High School, and Evan, a goofy and awkward Eighth-grader. Gareth’s wife had left him for a large black guy right before the move. According to Gareth, she had been cheating on him for some time. They both had gained so much weight and were fighting all the time. The combination had a deleterious effect on their sex life to the point where they weren’t having any. His wife began hooking up with strangers via the internet, behind his back, until one day she confessed everything and told him she had met this guy, a roofer who lived in Fredonia – the neighboring town – and that he could satisfy her and that he didn’t always want to talk politics and books and movies. He was a man, a real man.
Gareth never replaced her. He dates a lot, but, at the time of my visit, he wasn’t troubling himself with any long-term commitments. In a lot of ways he was regaining his youth. Started working out, started running, and as a result, he lost a lot of weight. Looked really good, the best shape of his life. Ironically, on top of that, he started smoking. Got up to about a pack-and-a-half a day during the weekends. The other five days of the week, Gareth spends in Allegheny’s high security prison, teaching English Literature to inmates. Not a lot of opportunity for smoking, but he manages to sneak one every now and again. Most of his smoking, he does at home, in the attic.
When he gave me the tour, he saved the attic for last. He pulled open the flimsy, unpainted door, which was hanging on a single hinge. “Gotta fix that soon,” he said.
He warned me, just as he pulled out a Marlboro cigarette. “It’s a little gross, I know,” he said, sounding confessional and matter-of-fact at the same time. I could smell what he was talking about before I could see anything. The aroma of used cigarette filters, carried by the thick, musty attic air. “Damn, dude,” I said and borrowing a phrase from one of my seventh graders, I added, “it smells like butt ass up in this place.”
We climbed the creaky narrow staircase and Gareth paused three steps from the top. “Yep,” he said, “that’s exactly what it is.” He pulled the chain to a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and it flashed to life, illuminating the smell’s source. To our left, between the stairwell and the wall, covering a 2’ by 10’ cranny space, were several containers of all kinds, from ash trays to plastic bags to mason jars, all filled with cigarette butts. Thousands and thousands of them. He had five mason jars, standing in a neat little row, filled to the rim, two clamped shut, the crooked and smashed yellow butts spilling over the top of the other three. The last time I had seen mason jars was at my mom’s house in Ohio. She keeps a stock of jarred tomato juice in her basement. Whenever I visit I like to use the juice to make Bloody Marys. Looking at the jars in my brother’s attic, I couldn’t help but shutter.
Gareth pushed open a window and lit his cigarette. “I don’t know why I don’t throw them away,” he said. “Look over there,” he pointed to our right. A long row of stacked empty Marlboro hard packs lined the stairwell railing and led to a three-foot high mound of cartons. It looked as though he had lost patience with his initial project of organization and said “fuck it,” and just started hurling the empties into an ever-growing pile of thin, neatly painted red and white cardboard.
“I don’t know Gareth, why don’t you throw them away?” I was trying not to sound too disgusted. “Do you really want to know how much you smoke?”
“It’s about three years’ worth,” he said, looking around the room.
I pulled out my pack of American Spirits, withdrew a cigarette and put it between my lips. Gareth lit it for me with his silver lighter. “I don’t think I need this cigarette,” I said pulling it out of my mouth. “Just inhale this room and I got all the stale nicotine I need for a week.”
“I like this room,” he said. “It’s not about the smoking, though, it’s about having my own space. My own time, you know, to reflect, to just relax, to get away from the kids, the tv, the world.” He looked up and casually swatted the light bulb’s chain. He looked at it snaking in the air and pinging against the bright bulb and he snagged it, let it slide gently through his fist. He looked at me with his brown eyes, the look that brothers get when they are letting you know this isn’t just bullshit. This is them, opening up to you in some little way, giving you the truth of themselves, if only for a moment.
“Being here, smoking, thinking…it’s the one time I feel like I have control. You know what I’m saying? I don’t have to do anything. Just look out the window and inhale and exhale and think. Each of these butts represent, what? five, seven minutes? Seven minutes of peace.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” I said. We smoked in silence and I climbed the rest of the stairs and investigated the rest of the long room. Cobwebs glimmered dully in the shunted light, looking like hammocks weighed down by dust and rocking between both sides of the angled ceiling. Boxes of books and records, a stained mattress, empty picture frames, an old tv set, speakers, vacuum cleaner, bags of clothes. His ex-wife’s wedding dress housed in clear plastic, the dress all puffy and white. The stale smell of cigarette smoke clinging to it all. It seemed so haphazard and depressing, especially compared to the rest of the house, which was always neat and put away, everything in its place. Polished wood flooring, plush black leather couches and chairs, a wide, hi-def flat-screen television, a computer in every room, all the latest in technology. Both Evan and Morgan own cell phones and i-pods and dozens of video games.
It just didn’t match up, was the thing. If Gareth were living in a trailer and was an alcoholic who beat his kids every morning before breakfast, this deplorable collection would make sense. I’ve seen homes where the occupants, usually elderly folk, refused to throw out newspapers and magazines. They were stacked all over every nook and cranny forming furniture for more junk, furniture made with yellowing paper and filled with crumpled fading words no one would ever read again.
Compared to me, Gareth’s life seemed so stable and secure. He’d had the same job for years, lived in a big house, drove a nice car, paid all his bills, took care of his kids, dealt amiably with a manipulative, half-crazed, 300-pound ex-wife. He seemed to do it all with an almost saintly, non-judgmental air. I was thinking all this while skimming through his LP collection, smoking my cigarette, when Gareth said, “Two days ago, one of my students hung himself.” I let the Jane’s Addiction flop against Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” and raised my head. He was wearing a faded purple t-shirt with holes around the belly section and the sleeves. Some kind of compass design logo adorned the chest. His blue jeans were likewise haggard with a hole at the right knee. Red flip-flops revealed his black-painted toenails. Painting his finger and toenails was a habit he acquired in high school. He never explained it and never applied any other makeup – say eyeliner or something – but I always took it as a sign of rebellion. There was always something of a rock-star wannabe in Gareth. It’s probably why he DJs at pubs, and why many of his friends are musicians. Gareth himself, like me, doesn’t sing, play guitar or any other instrument.
Gareth was looking at the wall more than at me and the way the light glinted from his thin, peach-fuzz facial hair made him seem a lot younger than his 35 years. Despite all his lost weight, he still maintained a round baby face, an attribute that made him quite attractive to the ladies. He was always going out with women much younger than him.
I didn’t know how to respond, so I waited. Still looking at the wall, he bit at one of his fingernails. I noticed that all his fingernails were chewed down past the quick. All but the pinky nail which was extra long and quite feminine looking.
“It’s fucked up, man,” he said. “One day you’re discussing the imagery of T.S. Eliot’s ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’, and the next morning you come in and are informed, in this business, matter-of-fact tone, that John Runningbear hung himself in the middle of the night.” He looked at me, an angry glint in his usually soft brown eyes. “With his own goddamned shirt. What the fuck am I supposed to do with that? I mean, talk about imagery. I didn’t have to see him or anything, it’s all here,” Gareth tapped his head. “I can see him hanging there, his eyes rolled back, his head at a fucked up angle, the blood gone from his face. Just hanging there like some heavy sack of lard. He had these huge dimples too and he was always smiling, you know, like he wanted poetry in his life, literature, books, something other than the shit and misery of prison. You think maybe you can do something, make some kind of positive impact.” He shook his head and looked back at the wall, took out another cigarette and lit it. Inhaled a lung-full of carcinogenic smoke and blew it out in a giant cloud that climbed the ceiling and billowed into non-existence. “And it doesn’t even matter. His life was totally worthless, you know, as far as the ‘system’ is concerned. They just replace him with another felon and I get a new student.”
I had to say something, so I stood up and walked over to him, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder, but choosing not to. “Heavy shit, dude,” I said, sounding pathetic in my attempt to be reassuring. “God, I mean the worst I ever have it is worrying about a student getting expelled or turning to drugs.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry for sounding like a downer. It just happened you know. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Suddenly we were interrupted by the sounds of banging furniture against hardwood floor and we could hear Evan screaming at Morgan and Morgan screaming back at Evan, and then footsteps pounding up the stairs and the attic door crashing open and Evan sobbing in explanation: “Morgan…(sob)…Morgan…(sob)…turned off…(sob)…guitar hero…(sob)…right in the middle…(sob)…of my game…”
Gareth looked at me and sighed then smiled. He dropped his cigarette to the dusty floor, coated with streaks of smeared ash. He stepped on the cigarette and ground it into the floor, picked it up and tossed the remains into a white plastic bag, to join its countless brethren. “Well, bro,” he said to me as he started down the stairs. “Looks like peace time is over.”
Damian Sebouhian is a writer, actor, and teacher who has had five of his plays produced (most recently “Zombie Killers Brigade” in New York City) and resides in Willits, California, a small town known as “The Gateway to the Redwoods.”
Photo Credit: louisianapremisesliabilitylaw.com