Jack thanked the secretary and popped a breath mint into his mouth as he walked over to the bulletin board to pass the time. Not much had changed, he thought as he looked at the club sign up sheets on the large cork-board.
Chess club. Three names. Guess there would always be geeks.
Sewing club. Fifteen names. Thirteen girl names, two boy names. He remembered a couple of boys in his class who would have wet themselves to have been in the sewing club, but back then guys just didn’t sew.
Fencing club. Fencing club! Now that’s a club he would have liked to join. When did they start offering fencing?
Math club (more geeks), French club (he had failed Spanish), drama club (he still laughed at the word ‘thespian’), future scientists club (scary to think of these pimply kids running NASA), coloring club (what, like coloring books?), biology club…
“Mr. Harris?” Ms. Jenkins held out her hand. “Thanks for coming in today.”
“Of course,” Jack said as he shook the teacher’s hand. “I hope Sean isn’t in any kind of trouble.”
“Here, let’s go to my office,” she said as she led him down the hall. Jack popped another breath mint into his mouth.
“I was just admiring the variety of clubs,” Jack said. “I think I’ll talk to Sean about joining the fencing club. I would have loved that when I was his age.”
“Mr. Harris, children don’t often want to do what their parents want them to do,” Ms. Jenkins said as she opened the door to her office.
“I’m reminded of that every time I tell him to take the garbage out,” he chuckled. The corners of Ms. Jenkins’ mouth didn’t move. She motioned for Jack to sit.
He sunk into the chair in front of Ms. Jenkins’ desk and felt a coil poke him in the rear. Maybe he should reconsider his stance on those school bonds.
“So. What has my boy done now?” Jack asked as his left leg began to twitch.
“Mr. Harris. Sean is a good student. Academically speaking, there is no problem.”
Then this is a waste of my time, Jack thought.
She continued, “But I am worried about him socially. Other children don’t seem to want to be around him.”
Oh, brother. Surely this woman had been teaching long enough to know that young teens often had social bumps in the road. His hand instinctively disappeared into his pocket for a mint.
“And I can honestly say I can’t blame them,” she said.
“Excuse me?” Jack said.
“Mr. Harris, this is not easy to say, but your child, well, he…he stinks.”
Jack had to reprocess the words he just heard. Did she just say his child “stinks?”
“He has a bad attitude?” Surely that’s what she meant.
“No. His attitude is surprisingly good considering he smells so bad the other children don’t want to be anywhere near him.”
Jack leaned forward in his lumpy seat and said, “What are you talking about? The child bathes every night. He’s been using deodorant for, I don’t know, two or three years now! This is absurd.” Jack threw another mint into his mouth.
Ms. Jenkins pursed her lips. “Mr. Harris. I’ll be blunt in the interest of time. The child reeks of cigarette smoke.”
Jack cleared his throat and sunk back in his chair. “Smoke, huh?”
“As do you.”
As do I? Jack couldn’t believe he had been called into a teacher conference to be told he “stinks.”
“This is never a pleasant topic, Mr. Harris, but it needs to be, well, aired out, so to speak. A smoker’s sense of smell can be altered substantially over time. After several years of smoking, a habitual smoker might barely smell anything at all. And not only are you endangering your son with secondhand smoke, children who are brought up in a smoking household are twice as likely to acquire the habit and become heavy smokers themselves. Were you aware of that?”
Jack crunched his breath mint.
“Furthermore,” she continued, “as unfair as it sounds, heavy smokers are perceived to be, well, not as intelligent as nonsmokers. Sean does want to go to college, does he not?”
Jack became aware of his left leg jumping up and down. All this talk about smoking reminded him he needed a cigarette.
“Of course he does. That’s always been the plan. Now just hold on here…” Jack caught sight of the nicotine stains on his fingers as he reached for the edge of the desk. He withdrew his hand and stuffed it into his pocket.
“You are aware that Sean misses a lot of school due to respiratory infections.”
Jack had, indeed, taken his son to the doctor several times already that semester.
“I do not derive pleasure from this conversation, Mr. Harris, but these are the facts and if you want your son to have a bright future you are going to have to break your addiction before it grips your son in its icy clutches.”
A bit dramatic, Jack thought.
“Now. I have for you here some brochures and a few contacts. People who have been where you are and managed, through lots of hard work, mind you, to come out on top and quash their addiction to cigarettes. And while there have been great strides in medical treatments, I’ve also included a few ‘alternative’ methods as well.” She pushed a file across her desk toward the shell-shocked man.
Jack collected the file and assured Ms. Jenkins he would look into it. He lit up as soon as he got to the parking lot.
Jack threw his keys into the bowl by the front door and paused at the mirror in the foyer. He saw dark circles and sallow skin. His forced smile revealed brown teeth and deep crevices at the sides of his mouth. He looked like his son’s grandfather, not his father.
He wondered if things would be different had Teresa lived.
They had been ecstatic when they found out she was pregnant. Teresa immediately changed her diet, quit smoking, and never drank another margarita. Jack wanted to be a supportive husband, so he religiously took her to Lamaze classes, and cut out alcohol and cigarettes as well. It had been easy when she was there. It had been easy when they had such a bright future ahead of them.
The doctors told him there was nothing anyone could have done. Turns out, Teresa had a ticking aneurysm bomb in her head. Tick tock. Little Sean was lucky, though. The explosion didn’t go off until the thirty-second week of pregnancy, so the baby could be saved by cesarean. After a couple of weeks in the hospital, the motherless child was sent home with his destroyed father.
Jack held it together until after the grandmothers left three months later. He assured them he and the boy would be fine. Truth was, he needed time to grieve. And he needed a cigarette.
“Son, put your backpack up and come into the den.”
“OK, Pop.” Sean disappeared down the hall.
Jack looked around the room at the dingy walls and the dirty drapes and remembered how Teresa had prided herself on keeping a clean and cheery home. He had let her down. He lifted his shirt-sleeve to his nose, and if he really concentrated, he could smell the staleness.
“Am I in trouble?” the boy asked as he entered the room.
“No, no, of course not.” Jack willed his leg to stop shaking. “I wanted to tell you that your teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked me to come see her this morning.”
Sean’s eyes got big.
“You’re not in trouble, Sean. I promise.” Jack hesitated. His hand reached into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. He brought the pack close to his nose then abruptly threw the pack on the coffee table.
“It’s just, well. She said the other kids at school didn’t like being around you. Is that true?”
“I guess,” the boy replied. “I don’t care, though. Billy Pratt likes me OK. We hang out during break.”
“Billy Pratt?” Jack asked. “Is his father Chuck Pratt?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
No. Hell no. Chuck Pratt had been a year ahead of Jack in school. He was a bad kid who got two girls pregnant and ended up in prison for heroin possession. No. His kid could do better than that.
“Look, Sean. I’m the problem here. I had no idea my smoking was causing you problems at school.”
“It’s OK, Pop. I can handle it,” Sean said as he wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“No, son, it’s not OK.” Jack ran his fingers through his hair. “And I’m going to do something about it. I am going to quit, I promise. I quit once before, so I can quit again.”
Sean looked at his father and said, “You never quit.”
“Yes, son. Your mother and I both quit before you were born.”
“You stopped, but you didn’t quit. Quitting is permanent.”
Jack let that sink in. His boy was right. He never really quit smoking. He just stopped for a while.
That night Jack had a dream he was straddling a big torpedo that was gray on one side and white on the other. On the white side, the air swirled like a tornado, forming a barrier he couldn’t see through. Occasionally flashes of light would shoot out from the funnel cloud, temporarily blinding him, but he couldn’t make anything else out. He couldn’t see anything at all on the gray side until he looked down, where there was a graveyard with huge red headstones. He couldn’t read any names, but his father was sitting on one of the headstones playing the violin, and Teresa was sitting on another in her wedding dress smoking a cigarette in one of those long cigarette holders glamorous movie stars of the thirties used.
He heard a loud ticking and realized the torpedo was about to strike its target. He called down to his wife but the ticking got louder and louder and the torpedo began to shake.
He woke with a jerk and felt sweat slide down his back.
Jack hated when people said ’so’ and nothing else. For Chrissake, if you want to ask a question just ask the damn question.
“Soooo,” he replied to the stranger, “I got your information from someone at my son’s school, and I gotta tell you, I’m a little skeptical.”
The man in the rocking chair stroked his goatee and said, “I hear that a lot. My rate of success is quite high, I can assure you, but I have referrals if you would rather make some calls first.”
“No. That won’t be necessary. I’m ready to try anything. I mean, for months I’ve tried everything else, so what do I have to lose at this point?”
The man in the rocking chair leaned forward and said, “I only have one question for you. Do you want to quit smoking, really quit, once and for all time?”
Jack thought about what his son had said about stopping and quitting. “Yes. I want this to be…permanent.”
“Then let’s begin,” the man said as he leaned back in the rocking chair. “Now lie back and close your eyes. Take several slow, deep breaths and feel the weight of your eyelids, heavy, heavier. All you have to do is listen to the sound of my voice. I will slowly count backward from ten, and with each number, you will experience a deeper sense of relaxation…”
Jack closed his eyes.
The waiter led the couple to a quiet table at the back of the restaurant. Jack pulled out the chair for Charlotte Jenkins.
“I’m curious, Jack. What was it that finally made it possible for you to quit?” This was their third date, but it was the first time she had brought up his smoking. Turns out, Ms. Jenkins wasn’t as stern out of school as she had been in her office that day last fall.
Jack laughed and said, “Believe it or not, it was the hypnotist. I really didn’t think it would work, but after the patches and the gum and the prescriptions didn’t work, I figured, why not? I felt silly at first, but one session, one session, Charlotte, and I haven’t wanted a cigarette since.”
“I’m happy for you, Jack,” she replied. “It took me two.”
Jack smiled and reached for her hand. So that’s why she was so pushy that morning in her office. Recovering addicts are the worst.
The waiter brought a bottle of wine to their table. Jack watched the waiter turn the corkscrew and marveled how different his life had become by eliminating one bad habit. One bad habit that had weighted him to his grief. One bad habit that would narrow his son’s options in life. One bad habit that would send him to an early grave.
He held up his glass and said, “Here’s to a bright future.”
“A bright future, Jack.”
K. Kris Loomis is the author of After Namaste: Off-the-Mat Musings of a Modern Yogini as well as several other nonfiction books about yoga and meditation, a travelogue about her time spent living in Ecuador, and a collection of short stories, The Monster in the Closet and Other Stories.
When Kris isn’t at her standing desk writing, she’s usually off playing chess, folding an origami crane, or practicing a Beethoven sonata on the piano. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two cats.
You can find out more about Kris by visiting her author website, www.kkrisloomis.com, or by connecting with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram @kkrisloomis!