Behind the Times, Part 1

(by msulliva@asacomp.com, 09 December 1996)


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Behind the Times, Part 1 of 6

This story is dedicated to Laura (LadySmoker) for her kind words of
encouragement.


1. The Old Curiosity Shop

It was the worst of times…

Grant grimaced in disgust and dropped his half-smoked B&H to the sidewalk.
 "Pariah!" came the silent shout from those nearby.  Glancing east and west
along Broad Street, he noted the passing people (not a female smoker among
them), the tall office buildings (smoke-free environments, every one), the
gray skies, the biting wind.  Columbus, Ohio, in December, 1996.  Healthy.
 Clean.  Great place to raise your kids.

Aloysius Potter Grant, 36, divorced, systems analyst (unemployed), was
walking to his next job interview.  Less than a block from his last,
unsatisfactory one, it was still over an hour until his appointment.  He
glanced across the street to the Borderlands Insurance building, a new thirty
story office tower, world headquarters of his next prospective employer.
 Even from here, he could see pasted on its many glass doors a row of
innocent white cigarettes, brutally violated by vicious red slashes.  To
either side of the doors he saw small groups, hunched in their coats against
the bitter wind, smoking in the desultory, furtive manner that characterized
the 90s.  Their sexes were hidden by their bulky clothing, any pleasure they
might find in their activity blunted and cheapened by their despised exile.

Grant could imagine the non-smoking passers-by pausing to cast stones at the
wretched smokers.  "Leper!  Unclean!" they would cry.  Grant felt like
spitting.  It was so unfair, so unnecessary…

At his last interview, he had marked himself as a "light smoker" (ten
cigarettes per day or less) on the application.  The truth was he was a
committed, heavy smoker, consuming at least 30 B&H menthols per day if
circumstances permitted.  If!  The rage boiled up inside him.  Despite his
understating his habit, the subject had of course come up in the interview.

"You, uh, smoke, Mr. Grant?"  the personnel officer had asked.

"Yes." Grant replied.  "Is that a problem?"

"Well, to be frank, Mr. Grant, we have been concerned with the productivity
cost of the breaks our smoking employees require.  It means at least 20 lost
minutes a day, often more.  Not to mention the increased absenteeism, health
problems, insurance costs, and the like…"

"Don’t quote me those bullshit statistics!" he had wanted to shout.  "What
about the lost productivity from unhappy employees?  What about the fact that
cigarettes improve memory and concentration?  What about simple enjoyment,
for god’s sake?  What gives you the right to judge me?"  Of course, he had
said nothing.  He would not be working there in any event.

Grant turned to examine the buildings behind him.  Between the office towers
was an older structure, only three stories high.  Pre-war, Grant thought, and
an odd sight on this stretch of Broad Street.  The lowest story was
half-sunken below street level, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence with a
small gate.   Beyond it was a short flight of steps leading down.  Grant
moved to take a closer look.

The bottom floor of the building was a store front of some sort.  An
old-fashioned sign hung over the door.  It read "Smoking Curios."

Grant’s spirits lifted immediately.  Just when you thought there was no light
left in the world…he glanced at his watch.  Still an hour before the
interview.  Plenty of time to check this out…

He unlatched the small gate and descended the stairs.  The shop window was
oddly clouded, reminding him of the look of his car windows when the insides
hadn’t been recently cleaned.  Clouded by tobacco smoke residue…!  At the
window’s bottom, arrayed on a shelf of gray velvet, were several antique
cigarette tins, long graceful holders, a rack of Meerschaum pipes, and a
desktop cigar humidor.  Through the murk, he couldn’t see anything deeper in
shop, no lights, no people.

Grant moved to the wooden door.  A sign hung there, reading "Yes, We’re
Open."  The shop looked anything but open.  Grant expected no result when he
twisted the knob, and was surprised when the door silently opened inward.  A
small bell tinkled overhead.  Grant entered the shop.

Despite the evidence from outside the shop was lit, although dimly, from
overhead fixtures like those you might find in an old hotel.  That wasn’t
what Grant noticed first, however,  The air was heavily fogged with a gray,
sweet-smelling mist.  Cigarette smoke!  Grant breathed in deeply, like a
climber savoring the air high in the Rockies.  This was his element, his
natural environment.

Strangely, there was no apparent source for the layers of heavy smoke.  There
was no one visible in the shop, no familiar spiral of smoke rising from any
of the ashtrays or smoking stands scattered around.  Grant moved deeper into
the shop, pausing to examine the many crowded shelves that made a maze of the
floor.

Most "smoker’s" shops emphasized cigars and pipes, those being somehow more
socially acceptable pursuits (at least at home or in private clubs).  Here
there was certainly no shortage of pipes and cigars, many of them
rare-looking and valuable to his uneducated eye.  Grant was pleased, though,
to see the shop also had a wealth of cigarette memorabilia and paraphernalia.
 There were tins of vacuum-packed Luckies from the World War II era (still
smokable, no doubt!), cigarette boxes of all sorts, some delicately filigreed
in silver, desk lighters, holders, even books of matches from famous
nightclubs like the "21" in New York and the "Whisky-a-Go-Go" in Los Angeles.

In the rear of the shop was a real treasure.  There was a rack of magazines;
 Playboy, Oui, Hustler, Penthouse, all bearing dates from the 1960s and 70s.
 He flipped through a few, seeing not unexpectedly that all included at least
one photo spread of a lovely women posing with cigarettes.  There was a small
shelf of plainly boxed video cassettes bearing copyrights by CoherentLight
Photography, UpInSmoke Productions, and several others.  Grant recognized
several from his own collection.

As far back as he could remember, Grant had associated smoking and sex.
 Nothing stimulated him like the sight of a young girl or woman smoking.
 Why, he had no real idea.  His mother had smoked heavily when he was young,
but she had quit when he was twelve.  His father enjoyed an occasional cigar.
 Whatever the reason, he felt sorry for anyone who did not share his fetish.
 Like any "normal" man, he could be aroused by beautiful, naked, female
flesh.  The smoking attraction was just icing on the cake.  Unlike
non-fetishists. Grant could be treated to the equivalent of a good porno
movie in any club, bar, restaurant, or other place where women gathered and
were permitted to smoke.  It was as though beautiful women were unexpectedly
to begin disrobing in public.

He moved back toward the front of the shop.  Out of work, he knew he couldn’t
afford any real goodies at this point, but he could at least show his support
of this enterprise by picking up a pack or two.  He was also curious to see
who was running the store, so to speak.  And where was all this smoke coming
from?  It showed no sign of diminishing despite its lack of any apparent
source.

A glass case supported an elderly cash register at the shop’s front.  Behind
the case was a doorway closed by a red velvet curtain which reminded Grant of
the entrance to a fortune-teller’s parlor.  Next to the register was a
hemispherical silver bell.  There were also several pewter ashtrays (looking
well-used though clean) and a small nozzle emitting a blue flame.  A
perpetual light, he thought.  I've heard of these but never seen one.

He looked in the case.  Here were more holders, old and expensive-looking,
made of richly carved ivory or rare hardwoods, rimmed with silver and gold.
 There was a collection of gold lighters, cigarette cases, and an exquisite,
lacquered, oriental cigarette box.  Oddly, a battered, plain Zippo lighter
lay upon its own velvet stand as though it was a special treasure.

Maybe it belonged to Rita Hayworth, Grant  thought, and rang the bell.




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