The Life Of A Cigarette

Sitting in the park on a sunny day, Frederico picked up the white pawn in his gnarled hand and placed it gently two squares away. Then, he did the same with the black pawn on the other side of the board.

He’d learned to play chess in Cuba. His father taught him when he was a boy. Years and years later, after Marco died, he taught himself to play both sides, upside down. Now at 87, he was certain that he was unbeatable.


image: Paolo Neo

Frederico wore a green fedora, and a purple scarf around his neck. His overcoat was olive, and his shoes were mirror-shined. His ash wood cane with the silver handle leaned against the stone chess table. He wore fingerless gloves so that he could get a good grip on each piece, loving each one as it played its alotted part.

A cool breeze blew.  It was Autumn in New York,  just like the song.

Frederico slid a hand into his coat and found the single and hidden cigarette and single wooden match. The new girl Maria would not approve if she knew, just as she did not approve of his daily excursion to the park. He placed the creased and battered cigarette between his lips, and touched the match-head to the table. The flame sparked as he dragged the match across the rough surface of the table that bordered the smooth surface of the chessboard. He raised the lit match to the end of the cigarette, shook it to extinguish the flame, and placed the spent match on the table again. He drew the smoke in, and felt  a rush of euphoria.

He smoked so infrequently now. His pack of cigarettes that he kept well-hidden at home was almost empty, and he had no way of replacing it since Benicio had gone. The new girl Maria had the eyes of an eagle. Frederico pulled in another lungful of smoke, and tasted its bittersweet flavour. He forced the smoke out of his nose in two streams, his head feeling pleasantly light.

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and let it smolder in his left hand as he surveyed the teeming energy of life around him in the park, a world  in which he was almost invisible. In youth, we strive to turn life into art, and in old age we get our wish. That is what it is to grow old, he thought; to observe the snapshots of life as if in a gallery show, at a distance, never touching, or being touched. Federico smiled. “¡Dios es bueno!,” he whispered to himself. The words formed and then melted into the sound of the wind in his ears. The wind blows wherever it pleases. That was in the scriptures somewhere, he remembered. He took another drag on his cigarette.

The people passed to and fro as he sat alone at the stone chess table. Some were old, although none as old as he was. Many were very young, loud, and immortal. Their lithe, sexual bodies churned in the sunshine with bravado and defiance. There were dog walkers, rollerbladers, and lots of children sending up rainbows of laughter into the cool air. Their clothes were a riot of colour; white, purple, pink, green,  yellow, red, blue, black. They were like flowers perched on the far slopes of Heaven.

There were men and women, men and men, women and women, walking hand in hand. They would revel in the sunshine by day. When evening came, they would go to a restaurant for a meal, a bottle of wine, and conversation. Then, they would see a show, or go dancing, or do both. Then, with their heads reeling from wine and happy exhaustion, they would make love to each other before dreamless sleep took them. Then it would be jobs, responsibilities, obligations, and the mundane courses of schedules and routines that formed the shape of their lives. They would be brightly-scaled fish swimming in the temperate waters of youth, unaware of the sea beyond.

But, soon there would be flashes of realization that nothing lasts forever, including love. That would bring some of them to sorrow, and to despair. Others would embrace love all the more, cherishing it not because it is limitless, but rather because its limits make it that much more of a worthy thing to pursue, to nurture, and to treasure. Marco’s face swam up in Frederico’s mind then. They had met years ago, at a gallery opening on Tenth Street. There were lots of those then, when passions ran high, and money was low.

He slid the cigarette gently between his lips and turned to his chess game again, absently placing the white knight protectively in front of the King, as if his thoughts of Marco were not related to that action. Frederico  drew in another short puff, his cigarette fixed at an angle between his dry lips. The ash on the end flared, cooled, and then lengthened.

“What’cha playin’?”

Frederico looked up from his board again, his face wreathed in gray for an instant before a lilting breeze turned the smoke into ragged and fading tatters. A boy stood before him on the bright grass in baggy clothes and wearing a baseball cap at an odd angle. It was hard for Frederico to guess how old the boy was. Maybe twelve? Older? Or was it younger? It didn’t matter. The boy had a bright yellow head, and eyes that were the colour of the sky. He fixed Frederico with a curious gaze, like a luminous being from outside of time looking in. The boy did not know it, but in noticing Frederico in that moment, he had found a door to another universe . The old man took the cigarette out of his mouth, and it hung limply between his ancient, brown-yellow fingers. He blew a column of gray smoke into the air before speaking.

“It is chess. You play?” he asked.

“No, thanks. I’m playing Frisbee right now. With my friend.” said the boy.

Frederico looked beyond the boy, and saw the shape of another boy further away, looking at his friend, no doubt wearing a puzzled look on his face. Frederico smiled for an instant, imagining the thoughts going through the other boy’s mind; “who is he talking to?

“No, no. I mean do you know how to play?”

“No. Is it fun?”

“It is better when you play with a partner.”

“So, why are you playing alone, then?”

“Everyone in this park knows that I will beat them. I am unbeatable.”

The yellow-headed boy laughed. The sound of the boy’s laughter was like a cool drink in the desert.

The other boy from further away called out the name of his friend, and the yellow-headed boy was gone. It was like the sun itself had set. The boy said something to Frederico as he ran off, but the old man’s ears failed him. That didn’t matter, either. He was still feeling the spiritual nourishment of the boy’s unfettered and innocent laughter, and the pleasure of their short conversation.

Above the populace of chess pieces, Frederico looked across the table at the empty seat opposite him.

“¡Yo también voy a desaparecer, mi amor!.”

The long ragged ash from the stub of his cigarette fell, cold and gray, onto the surface of the chessboard. The wind blew it away in an instant. Frederico took one final drag, and stubbed out the spent butt on the side of the stone table.  Even though he risked its discovery by Maria, he slipped the extinguished cigarette that had been so well enjoyed on the sunny Autumn day into the velvet darkness of his coat pocket.


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