Smoke

“Hey — can I ask you for some advice?” The girl stepped out into the streetlight toward me and took a made-for-TV drag off her cigarette.

She’d been nearly camouflaged against the Mermaid’s worn brick, but you learn to make a habit of noticing people if you come down to the waterfront at night. Nuisance? Lurking threat? From the wide eyes, Goodwill jacket and torn denim, I figured her for one of those strays who’d come west following a dream, then woke up cold, hungry and broke one September morning with no way back home. The soup kitchen does a good job of making sure they don’t starve, but there aren’t a lot of good options for a kid on the street in this town once winter comes around.

So that’s what I figured her for: Northwestern street waif, juvenis errans occidentalis — a common enough sight on Water Street. I was headed upstairs, for dinner, so there was no easy way around. Still, I had a couple of spare singles in my wallet, and there were worse causes on which to spend them.

But she sidestepped my path as I approached. It was a curious, deferential gesture, a far cry from the aggressive stance of a seasoned panhandler. And yet her eyes stayed with me. I drifted to a stop at a respectful distance, where “respectful” in this case also meant that I had some range if, improbably, she pulled a knife. She didn’t seem the type, but we also got the occasional crazy out here, and at this point I was no longer sure quite what to make of her.

“Yes?” I strove for a neutral, calculated tone.

My inquiry seemed to throw her off. Hadn’t she thought this out in advance?

“Um, I don’t know…” She stammered a little and stomped a foot to the sidewalk.

She hadn’t. Her eyes dropped to the pavement, ashamed, searching. Now I felt ashamed, too: maybe this was her first night out, her first night on the street after the bottom dropped out, and she’d only just now realized that she had nowhere to go. And maybe I was the first stranger who hadn’t just brushed on by.

“Take your time.”

She looked up at me and nodded, then looked back down at her feet and kicked at nothing in particular. Then her eyes rose again and the words tumbled out all together, like she was unable to contain them once they found her.

“I’m about to do something stupid. And you look like a nice guy.”

This was not the pitch I’d been expecting.

Granted, “something stupid” could mean anything from suicide to ordering the Mermaid’s excuse for nachos. No, scratch the nachos. But this was not going to be a simple matter of slipping her a few dollars and continuing on my way. Impatience and the promise of chicken pot pie tugged at my shoulder. But there was a transfixing hollow of scarcely-contained panic in her eyes. Dinner would have to wait.

“Go on.”

She pulled hard on the cigarette again, held it and shook her head as if trying to dislodge an idea lost somewhere deep inside. Smoke sublimated into breath, then composure. Advice on the health implications of smoking was also going to have to wait.

“It’s a boy.”

I was almost disappointed. But it was usually a boy, I suppose. Or a girl.

“What does he want?”

Her words trickled out, as tenuous as the night air. “He wants me to follow him.”

She could have been my daughter. Forty years ago, when I was young, she could have been Olivia.

Maybe she thought she was reading my mind.

“I know, right?”

I hadn’t said anything.

“Where?”

She snorted, preparing me for the ridiculous. “Pendleton.” She said it again, for emphasis. “Pendleton.”

As if I knew what that meant. Flannel shirts?

“And?” It somehow felt important to withhold anything that could be taken for judgment.

“Everything I’ve got. It’s here.” She stamped a leather boot to the mottled sidewalk, marking it as her own, and raised her palms to invoke the darkness of Water Street as witness. “And he just wants me to leave it all. To go with him.”

Forty years, and I could still hear the rain. Our goodbyes lasted so long I was afraid she would miss her flight. Maybe I was afraid she wouldn’t. We were utterly, stupidly drenched by the time we stood at arm’s length on the curb, somehow knowing that even taking each other’s hand at that point would derail the already-too-messy departure.

That’s when she’d said it: “You could come with me.”

Of course she knew I couldn’t. Knew that I wasn’t brave or reckless enough. Or maybe that I didn’t really believe. That to me, Milan was just a word.

“You could come with me.” She said it neither as a plea, nor as a favor. Just as a simple statement, a reminder as we stood in that downpour that I, too, was making a choice.

“Josie. I’m Josie.”

How long had her hand been outstretched like that?

I gave her my name and my hand. She clasped it with both of hers and held it like a smooth, warm stone. Like it was a lifeline. The wet end of her cigarette, still clutched between her fingers, dabbed at my knuckles.

A half-drunk couple, sport coat and out-of-season floral dress, toppled out of the doorway, lost in their own hilarity. They seemed momentarily sobered to find themselves with company on the sidewalk and paused to size us up. I suppose we presented a bit of a sight, a hobbled old codger holding hands with a street waif. The woman suppressed a smirk, but her partner burst out in unembarrassed laughter. Then pulled at his companion’s arm, and they disappeared down the street. Josie released my hand, chastised, and took two steps back.

“What’s in Pendleton?”

The way Josie saw it, only two things sent people to Pendleton. The wool mill, of course (so I was right!), but also — and she enunciated as if allowing me time to write down its name — the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.

I thought better than to question which of those two was compelling her boy’s move, but she read my hesitation and shook her head. “He’s going out to help a friend.” Not that this really answered anything.

She snuffed out the remains of her cigarette against the brick while she spoke, then slung a fresh one from the pack in her shirt pocket. Some part of my internal calculus awarded her two points for excusing herself to deposit the stub in a curbside litter basket.

A lighter appeared from somewhere and flared in her cupped hands as she sucked in a fresh drag.

“Oh shit, I’m sorry.” She stammered through the exhale, retrieved the pack again from and held it out to me. “Smoke?”

I didn’t. Hadn’t, that is, since… Olivia laughed when I’d waved away her first offer. The thin plume rising from her fingertips buckled and curled at my gesture, then re-formed in the still night air, an evanescent yet patient serpent waiting to be charmed. “Everybody smokes,” she’d said with a wicked smile. “Some just more than others.”

I shook my head. Josie gave me a moment to reconsider, then stowed the pack and began pacing. Her steps traced the circular street lamp shadow like a caged animal made of light.

It seemed to be my turn to speak. What was there to say?

“What’s in Pendleton for you?”

“Other than him?” She shrugged. “Squat.”

“How long have you known him?” It wasn’t like I was searching for specific information. But I wanted to keep her talking.

“Forever?” She searched the sky for something. “No. Like, two years. Three, maybe. He fixed my car.”

She laughed, a short burst blown through her lips. “Wrecked it too. No, I know what you’re thinking. It wasn’t his fault. Really. And he got me another from the shop. Patched up a beater, got it running. Yeah, it’s a beater, but it runs.”

The reverie left her all at once. “What do I do?” She stopped pacing and faced me, desperation returning to her eyes. “What would you do?”

What had I done? I’d stood there in the rain and done nothing. Forced my heart down through my feet and stood there like a column of stone. Drew an impassive veil over my face and stood there. Stood there until she turned and walked away. Stood there as she paused at the door, as she looked over her shoulder. Stood there steeling myself against the question in her eyes: Was I sure? Stood there until she was gone. Forever.

To be fair, there had never been a plan. Our lives had run together almost accidentally — first a smile in passing, then some excuse for smalltalk while pushing through the lunchtime crowd at the graduate student union. I was the one who leapt the chasm with a bold invitation to “get coffee sometime,” and from there the orbit of our days circled relentlessly closer until an August storm punctuated the dance, catching us both out unprepared for the rain.

I lay there that evening, wrapped in the sheets she’d abandoned in search of something or another, trying to make out the smells of her apartment: jasmine, cloves, old paper and damp wool. She returned with an unapologetically-lit cigarette and half-slid, half-rolled back into the narrow bed, fixing her eyes on me the whole way, daring me to be appalled.

And now Josie’s eyes were on me, fixed with a different kind of question. Had I drifted off again? She held out the smoldering cigarette pinched between her fingers, filter end up.

“You sure you don’t want?”

Was I sure? I almost laughed. I don’t think I’d ever been sure of anything again. If Olivia had taught me one lesson, it was that we were fools to be sure of any conclusion, however well-reasoned. That the best we could do in this life was to plow ahead with it and assume we were damned.

The glowing serpent at Josie’s fingertips waited patiently. I took it without saying a word, put it to my lips and drew the fire in deep, as deep as I could.

Memories rose from the heat in my lungs, the ghost of lost dreams projected on a nicotine smokescreen. The emotions I’d let go, banished, always telling myself it was better that way. I’d lived in fear of what lay at the end of that summer. I had my whole life laid out ahead of me, after all. I had a plan, and there was no question of what, only how far, and how long.

But it was years before I stopped wondering. Was I sure? The fire made its home in my chest, kindling a reckless conviction.

“Does he love you?”

Certainly Olivia was too sensible to have ever asked that of me. But Josie nodded. Hesitant, and yet not unsure.

“I think so.” A quaver in her voice said she had contemplated the question before.

“Then go.”

Of course I had no right to tell her that. I knew nothing of her life, nothing of the sacrifice she would have to make. Family? A job? Friends? Who was I, a bearded old prophet in corduroy, armed with nothing but sixty years of bad decisions, to so blithely pass judgment? To sentence this girl for the crime of my own regret?

But how could I tell her otherwise?

“Go.” I said it again, as confidently as I could manage. “Do it.”

She practically ran forward, throwing both arms around me. She’d pinned one of my own arms at my side and I twisted the other up and clear, still holding the cigarette, trying not to set her hair on fire.

She held me for a long time, rocking side to side. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.” I resigned myself to the picture we would present for the next drunk couple who stumbled across our awkward embrace. The ash-headed serpent watched, satisfied. Its tail rose as a tendril of smoke, still beckoning even as it vanished. What the hell — I put it to my lips and surrendered to another drag.

Yes, she was probably damned. As was I, I suppose, for talking her into it. Weren’t we all damned in the end?

But there was no reason she had to know that yet.