I decided to stop wanting cigarettes and bought a pack, smacking it in my hand like a ball into a mitt while vehicles swam past on F Street. Still the same plastic string to break, then the foil, still that unmolested, fecund first smell of a new pack. The sun high in its nest but past zenith. I lit the smoke with a match and inhaled, flooded with sensation, injected with memories as if from a dream. As if I’d never smoked but somehow in not smoking I’d smoked ten thousand times. An inhalation toward perfection. I took one pull for my lungs, bronchi stretched taut and sated, and one for the head, spinning slightly but controlled in mellow euphoria. The heart raced, vision was clear, sharpened. I inhaled the air around me.
I didn’t know what else to do so I ate in a diner. The food was excellent but it made me sleepy. I ordered a coffee to go and called my wife. She was upset with work. I listened, reassuring her, and promised to call before bed. The waitress brought my coffee in a paper cup and took my payment. I left the diner to smoke in the alley next to it. The air smelled of burning wood from a stove. My wife was passionate about her work in music and perhaps sometimes too passionate but long ago I conceded that I’d rather have a passionate woman than the alternative. A thin trail of single-file footsteps cut through the icy drifts down the center of the alley toward Tenderfoot on the other side, drenched in sunlight. Even with the snow cover I could smell garbage, spoiled food, piss. Something moved to the right of me and I turned to see a woman seated on steps at the back door of a business, smoking. I smiled at her and she looked at me as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. Her eyes were brown and she wore a red knit cap. Her fingernails were trimmed and painted black. I drank my coffee. Like the town itself the buildings in the alley were old and I wondered how many drifters stood in my exact spot, how many starved cowboys, how many Kerouac copycats and rafting junkies stood here like me staring at the old masonry and pondering their next move. Cat prints laced the alley snow like scars. I inhaled again and the smoke and cold air were ice in my lungs. A tall figure entered the alley from the sunlight at the far end. It was bright but the daylight wouldn’t last. Nothing lasts, nothing endures. I heard steps on the snow close behind me but it was too late. He’d come from the sidewalk near the diner’s entrance and hit me with pepper spray. Daggers ripped my eyes apart. He kicked me into a drift and I sank deep into it, my back crashing into something like steel. I cursed and could open my eyes just enough to make out two of them. Hornets swarmed and stung my face, my ears. The woman in the red hat was gone. Where’s the case? one man said. I’d never heard the voice before. He must have been talking to me because when I didn’t answer I got punched in the face, but my attacker lost balance and fell into the snow next to me. I pounced on him, grabbing him by the neck and squeezing, his stubble digging into my palms. I reared back to hit him, my face ablaze, my eyes swollen closed and filled with crushed glass, sinking deeper into the snow with each movement. Then I was pulled from behind and tossed away like a child. I landed hard on my shoulder and attempted to see but couldn’t. The snow on my face and up my nose was heaven and I stood to fight but the big man pulled the other up with powdery dust flying off him. They had dark ski masks, both of them. The man I’d fought pulled a revolver up from beneath his snowy overcoat and said, Where’s the fuckin case?
What case? I said, but the words were like saliva dripping out. My lips were burning, numb.
Someone must have walked by on the sidewalk because they both looked in that direction. Their eyes were dark rimmed with white beneath the masks.
I said: I don’t know what the fuck you’re—
Shut up! shouted the man with the gun, thrusting it toward me. His eyes were mean. The big man put his big arm out to try and quell the other man’s rage, or intent, or boldness.
Then the man with the gun said: Let’s go.
They took off running down the alley toward Tenderfoot, stumbling and breathing heavily in the deep snow. I put my face in the drift and just lay there. That asshole got me good, right on the nose. I was close enough to smell his coat. It was him—he’d been in my room at the motel the day before.
I felt a soft hand on my back. Someone said: Are you all right?
Someone else: Is he dead?