Smoking with the Stars

October 23, 2011
She stands by the chain-link fence, smoking a cigarette. The clouds are
grey and bruised with heavy rain. Do I approach? I know my mom would probably
want her autograph. I watch her, coolly blowing the smoke from her nose, exhaling
slowly, her long nails curled around the butt of it.

“You want something?” I am startled out of my train of thought. She’s not
looking at me, is she talking to me? I pull my head back behind the wall I’ve been
peering around.

“Well?” she turns to where I’m standing. “I don’t like to be watched,” she
says. I snort, I can’t help it.

“It ain’t funny,” she says, glaring at me through the smoke. I shrug, hoping
she isn’t too mad and I’ll still be able to get her signature. I walk out from behind
the crumbling school wall. She’s wearing so much hairspray her ridiculous curly
updo stays solid as she shakes her head.

“Whadya want, kid? Just spit in my face and have it done with, why don’t
ya?” She turns away from me and finishes her cigarette. Her profile looks the same
as it does in those glossy magazine spreads of 20 years ago. I have a lot of
thoughts on the go, just looking at her, but when I open my mouth, only this comes
out: “why are you, um, here? Shouldn’t you be, you know…um, like, somewhere
else?”

She chuckles. “You mean, why am I standing at an abandoned school talking to a
kid? Because I have nothing else to do, I guess.”

I cough slightly. “Oh. Yeah, right. Got it.”

She laughs, a deep throaty gargle. I read an article once that compared it to tinkling
bells. “So,” she says, “what’re ya doin here?” I shrug, unsure.

“I guess I don’t feel like school.”

She nods, pulls out another cigarette, offers me one. With the warning voices of all
those pamphlets and my mother in my head, I pluck it from her fingers. She lights
it for me, and I suck my cheeks in, like a fish. I pull it out of my mouth, my lungs
filling with smoke, hacking and coughing like I’m dying of tuberculosis.

“Jesus, kid!” she grabs the cigarette from me, as I’m bent double, spitting
bile onto the pavement.

“First time?” I nod, straightening up. “It’s bad for you,” she intones wisely,
nodding her head, “you shouldn’t do it. It’s bad for you.” Feeling a bit better, I
attempt a nonchalant shrug.

“Hey, do you have the time?”

She shakes her head. “Nah, why, you gotta be somewhere?” I shrug again.
I’m getting hungry for lunch, and it looks like rain. She looks at me and draws
ferociously on her cigarette. “You’re a great conversationalist.” She watches
me. “What’s your name, by the way?”

“Jo,” I say.

“Joe? Just ‘Joe’?”

“Yeah.”

“Not short for anything?”

“Nope.”

“Huh. Just Joe. Huh, well. Just Joe.” I nod. She giggles. She doesn’t offer
her name. I guess she doesn’t need to. Beyond the chain-link fence and the sky is
black and I hear distant rolls of thunder. She pats her hair with one hand and rubs
her eye, smearing her makeup and making her look like a racoon, maybe a dead
one. She finishes her second cigarette, and clucks her tongue. “Well, Just Joe, I
better get going.” Rain starts to fall softly. “S***!” she says, trying to protect her
hair. I’ve seen pictures of it before, all curly and natural golden, falling
wonderfully down her shoulders. She has her hands wrapped around it, looking
absurd, some of her bright red lipstick rubbed off on her teeth. I suddenly
remember why I approached her in the first place. “Hey, can I have your
autograph?” She sighs, but nods. Taking the sheet I shove at her, rain falling
harder. “Thanks,” I say, “thanks again.” I take it back, and turn to go, looking over
my shoulder and waving, “it was nice to meet you!”

“Same to ya, Just Joe.” She smiles with her mouth, her eyes not quite on me.

Then the rain really starts, pelting us, falling in sheets. I run, not looking back, in
search of shelter. I duck into a corner store, and remember my autograph. I unfurl
it from the crumpled, damp mess clenched in my hand.

to Just Joe—

stay clean!

I stare at the signature, hardly recognizable from the running of the ink. I
can’t even tell whose it is. Could be anybody’s. And I should be grateful she
signed it at all, but all I could think was how she spelled my name wrong. And I
stare longer at the signature. Wait. I don’t even recognize it. She spelled her name
wrong? But the longer I think about it, it dawns on me; do I even know her name?
I realize I don’t remember it. The rain continues to pound on the corner store
window. I turn away from it. I ask the man behind the counter for a pack of
cigarettes. I pull one out, then wrap the rest of the pack in the slip of paper and
shove it into my pocket. I’ll go home and look up her name and remember. When
the rain stops.





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