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A Smoke and a Story by Colton Hamshire

The fall would kill me.

Good.

That’s what I wanted.

The tips of my sneakers protruded over the edge of the old railroad bridge. I stood among the rusted mess of abandoned iron and termite-infested timber ties, gazing down the forty or so feet to the shallow creek below. My heart pounded from the thought of plunging into the icy water.

A chilled winter gust pushed against my back. The second I felt my body rock forward toward that great fall, I snatched ahold of one of the many discolored cables that angled from the bottom of the bridge to the top. I shivered from the cold…and from the thought of death.

“Shit!”

The word formed itself. A flush of anger warmed my veins at my own self-preservation. That was my chance. Nature even gave me a little nudge. Hell, it would’ve already been over now, if I hadn’t reached for that damn lifeline.

The sound of heavy footsteps came from behind. They thudded their way across the timber ties in a rhythmic fashion. Someone was on the bridge with me. And I doubted they were here to jump too. I wanted them to keep walking, to not break their rhythmic stride, and let one of the last sounds I heard be the fading out of footfalls on a bridge. But the thuds died in an instant–directly behind me.

I froze, afraid to turn around. I waited another moment–an eternity it felt like.

Still, no more footsteps.

Slowly, I turned my head to look at my silent spectator.

It was an old woman. Her head was covered in a gray matted mess that looked more like twisted wires than actual hair. She wore a t-shirt that had once been white. Now it was stained all over with blemishes and bore so many holes that it gave the shirt an ugly polka-dot look. At the center of the shirt, spelled out in faded black letters across her saggy breasts was the word BEAUTIFUL. Her jeans were ripped at the knees and too long, so she had the bottoms rolled unevenly over her mismatched tennis shoes. Her arms hung gangly at her sides. In her left hand, she carried a six-pack of beer, tall cans. In the other, she held a pack of cigarettes. She looked at me for a moment with an enigmatic and squinty gaze. Calmly, she sat her six-pack on the bridge, then lifted her cigarette pack to her mouth. She pulled it away, leaving a cigarette dangling from between her thin lips.

“Well, kid,…” Her voice was an itchy rasp. She produced a lighter, tilted her head to the side enough so the smoke wouldn’t get in her eyes, and lit the cigarette. “…You gonna fucking jump or what?”

“Wha–what?” I didn’t know what else to say.

She walked to the edge of the bridge and leaned out a bit to get a good look below. She took a drag, then exhaled a white cloud that stung my eyes. She whistled a long note that faded out on the wind.

“You might wanna jump head first,” she told me flatly. “It’s a long drop, and the water doesn’t look too deep. If you jump wrong, you might just end up down there with broken legs. Drown, if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, well, you get the picture.”

“Why don’t you just keep walking? Mind your own business.”

“Normally I do,” she said with another puff of smoke. “And normally I would. But I gotta be honest with you, kid. I make this walk across this bridge all the time, and all of the time it’s just me, myself, and I. Well, except this time, of course. This time, there’s you. And your…uh…predicament…just happens to pique my interest.”

“I’ll just wait then.” I wanted to sound defiant, but it came out as desperate.

“That’s your choice, but I gotta tell you I’ve got all day. I’ve got my smokes”–she tapped her cigarette pack–“and I’ve got my beer”–she jerked her thumb toward the six-pack on the bridge–“and, most importantly, I’ve got all the time in the world, kid.”

“Stop calling me kid,” I blurted. “I’ve got a name.”

“Most people do.”

“…aren’t you gonna ask me what it is?”

“Do you want me to?”

“It’s Tommy.”

The old woman’s eyes widened in surprise, “No shit? My husband’s name was Tommy. Well, ex husband. He’s dead now.”

“I’m sorry to hear tha–“

“I’m not. He was a real asshole.”

She flicked her cigarette over the edge of the bridge, and I watched it tumble down until it all but disappeared. Finally, it made a small, almost unrecognizable ripple on the surface. By the time I looked back at the woman, she was lighting another one.

“You want a cigarette, Tommy?” She offered the pack to me.

“No. I don’t smoke.”

“Well.” She shrugged and tucked the pack into her back pocket. She walked over to the colorful beer cans, picked one up, popped the top, and took a swig. “How about one of these?”

“I don’t drink,” I said. “Not old enough anyway.”

“Wait a minute.” She wiped the beer from her lips with the back of her hand. “Just how old are you?”

“Seventeen.” I lowered my gaze and gripped the cable tighter.

“So you mean to tell me that you don’t smoke, don’t drink, and–pardon me for saying this, Tommy–a kid who’s apparently had enough of life’s bullshit that you want to jump off a bridge?” She burst into laughter, a noise more befitting a mule than an old woman.

“Hey! There’s nothing funny about this!”

“Oh, yes,” she said between bouts of laughter. “There is. You’ve ain’t been through shit. Life hasn’t even knocked you down yet so that it can kick you in the balls.”

“You don’t know me!”

“You’re right.” She drank heavily for a moment, then belched without an excuse me. “But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong, either. So go ahead and jump, if that’s what you want. Just remember what I said about the head first thing.”

“Leave me alone, you old bat!”

“I’ve got a name, too, you know?”

“And I suppose you want me to ask what it is?”

“No. I’ll tell you anyway. It’s Marilyn,” she said with an off-balanced curtsy, “like as in Marilyn Monroe.”

Now I burst into laughter. And so did Marilyn.

“Are you lying?” I asked. “Are you joking with me?”

“No,” Marilyn said matter-of-factly. “I’d prove it to you by showing you my license, but I don’t have it anymore on account of my favoritism toward these sixteen-ouncers.” She tapped the side of her beer can. “But that’s life. Shit happens.”

“Life sucks,” I said. I leaned carefully over the edge and looked down again.

“Most of the time, yeah, it does,” Marilyn agreed. “Lemme show you something.” She pulled the cigarette pack out of her pocket and held it out to me.

“I said I don’t want one–“

“No, just look it.”

I did. It was brown with desert scenery. A crudely illustrated camel stood in the foreground. “What about it?”

“See that camel there? He used to be one cool sonofabitch. I’m talking three-piece suit, shades, and a cigarette dangling between his fat lips. He had it all, you know? Then one day, life–the unforgiving shit-bag it is–threw him down and kicked him in his camel balls. Now, he’s ordinary, can’t tell him apart from any other camel out there. But at least he’s still here, still doing his thing. He’s still a camel. Make sense?”

“Maybe, I’m not sure.”

“Well, a maybe is good enough for me. Tommy, I’m gonna tell you a story.”

“I don’t want to hear a story.”

“Well, you ain’t got much of a choice, do you? You either jump, walk away or listen to my story. And you haven’t jumped or taken a step in any direction, so you’re gonna listen.” She flicked her cigarette over the edge again, this one only halfway smoked. “Besides, name me one thing better than a smoke and a story?”

“I–“

“That’s right, you can’t. Now shut up and listen.” She lit another cigarette and took a long drink. “My husband’s name was Tommy, I told you that, and he was an asshole, I’ve told you that too. But what I haven’t told you is how he was an asshole. You see, Tommy didn’t care about anything but himself, which is a trait a lot of people share, I’ve found out. We’d saved up some money one time–which was a miracle by itself, that’s for sure–and we was planning on taking a trip somewhere. Just to get out, do something, make some memories and pick some fights with each other, whatever. So we go looking for RVs, something to buy to take a trip in. A fella was selling one cheap so we go to take a look. As soon as I see it, I know it’s trouble. The tread on the tires are gone, the steps to the door are busted, the windows got cracks, and when they crank the thing it bellows plumes of the blackest smoke I’ve ever seen. Tommy loves it, the dumb bastard. I tried to tell him, ‘Tommy, this piece of shit is gonna be more trouble than it’s worth. Don’t you buy it.’” He bought it anyways.

“We take the damn thing home. It made the drive but died in the front yard. So Tommy, being the goddamn brilliant mechanic he is, goes to working on it. Fixing this, fixing that. Or at least trying to. This thing was like quicksand, the more he fooled with it, the more went wrong. Probably don’t need to say this, but I’ll say it anyway, the money disappeared and all we had to show for it was a broken RV as a yard decoration. Tommy blamed me, said it was all my fault. He somehow figured that because it was my idea to take a trip in the first place meant that he wasn’t responsible for buying that piece of shit RV. Well, we fought some more over the years about different things, yelling about this, screaming about that. Until we got a divorce. That was the only thing we ever agreed on. Point is, that I kept that RV–I made damn sure Tommy didn’t take it. It’s still sitting in my yard, and when I go out on my porch to smoke and drink, I look at it and know that Tommy ain’t ever buying another one with our money. And I also get reminded that one of the best days of my life was when Tommy bought that piece of shit because even though it was a terrible experience at the time, it eventually got me and Tommy apart from each other. And that’s a good thing.”

Marilyn hadn’t taken a single drag throughout her story, and now a trail of ash hung at the end of her cigarette. She flicked it off before finally taking a puff. She stared off in silence for a long moment, exhaled that familiar white smoke, then finally said, “That’s it. I’m going home.”

“You really leaving now?” I asked. “Right now?”

“Yeah,” she said, lifting her beer by the empty plastic ring. “My interest ain’t so piqued anymore.” Then she turned and walked away. Heavy thudding on railroad ties began to fade.

I looked back over the edge. The shallow creek below hadn’t changed; the cold wind still bit at me. But my heart wasn’t pounding anymore, and I thought of something. Something that piqued my interest.

“Hey, Marilyn,” I called.

She stopped near the end of the bridge and whipped her head over her shoulder.

“What?” A shout of raspy annoyance.

“You think I could see that RV?”

Colton Hamshire, 30, lives in Austin, Texas. He does supervisory work for UPS at the airport in Austin.

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