Seda, Part 6

(by anonymous, 15 September 2010)


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Seda

Part VI

When Bradley spotted a late-night gas station/food store, he pulled his car
into the parking lot. The only people inside when he entered were two young
women. One was holding a clipboard and checking items on a shelf. The other
stood behind the counter, reading. 

Bradley went straight to the rows of cigarette packs lined up behind the
counter. He drew closer and studied each pack, his eyes going back and forth
past the colors and names.  The more he did this, the more uncertain he
became.  

"May I help you?" It was the young woman behind the counter.  

Bradley moved his gaze to her. She wore gold-frame glasses and had light
brown hair that hung midway down her neck.   She was younger than he was,
Bradley judged, but yet somehow mature. She seemed to be smiling at him. 

"Did you want something in particular?" 

"Umm  . . . uh ..." 

Half a minute went by.   

As if to break the silence, the woman said, "Well, we do have all night."
Though she had a girlish way about her, her voice was husky.

Embarrassed now, Bradley again looked at her.  She was still smiling, not
visibly annoyed at all. Her face had a dull gray look to it but her green
eyes were bright and showed a genuine friendliness. On the counter in front
of her appeared to be an open textbook. Realizing he was staring, Bradley
quickly turned back to the shelves in front of him.

"I was just thinking about, you know, some cigarettes."   

"That's a start, we're making progress. Do you have a brand, a kind you
like?" The woman's tone was patient.

"No. Not especially."  

"Oh. You're thinking about something different?  Trying a new kind?"

"Umm, I don't think so."

"Then ... are you buying these for someone else? What brand do they smoke?"

Bradley bit his lip. "I'm buying them for myself."

"Hmmm. I see." It was clear to Bradley that she did not see.

"I . . . It's just that I . . . I don't smoke."
 
"Ah, the plot thickens. You want cigarettes for yourself . . . but you don't
smoke. Am I right?"

"Yes, I mean no, I never have.  Smoked, that is. Well yes, once. But that was
awful. I want to start. Not start over. Just start. Start again."

Though his puzzling response clearly amused the young woman, she did not
laugh, which surprised Bradley. Instead, she said, "Got to tell you that this
is a first for me. I often hear that from kids. Underage kids trying to buy
cigarettes because they want to begin smoking. But from adults? Nope. Never
hear that. Not on my watch, at least."

Bradley could not muster a reply. 

The woman's expression turned serious, as if sensing that perhaps she had
upset Bradley. "That's OK, really. I'm good with it. That is, if you're sure
that's what you want to do.  Start to smoke."

"I'm sure."

"All right then. First, I'm not going to ask you for ID."  Now it was
Bradley's turn to laugh. "Second, I happen to smoke and I welcome new
smokers. Our army is shrinking, you might have heard. We need more troops.
You seem to be a good recruit."  

The niceness of the woman struck him. "The problem is I don't know how to
smoke," he offered.

The young woman laughed, a throaty laugh. Bradley liked the sound. "It's not
difficult to smoke, I'm here to inform you. The truth is, it's a snap." She
looked at her wristwatch. "Listen, I'm due to go on break now. Valerie will
watch the counter.  Why don't we go outside? Follow me and I'll be glad to
lead you down the sinful path of cigarettes."

Bradley smiled and searched the store's floor. "Oh, OK. Thanks a lot."

"No worries." The young woman closed her textbook and placed it under the
counter. Grabbing her handbag she called to the other woman at the back of
the store that she was going outside for a while. "Take your time," Bradley
heard a voice say.

Along the store's lighted sidewalk Bradley saw that the young woman had an
appealing face. She was about his height and slender. She wore plain white,
low-cut sneakers, dark green slacks and a matching dark-green jacket. The
store's uniform, he guessed. The yellow name plate on her jacket said "Anne."  

"I'm Anne," she said, putting out her hand, which Bradley took. It felt soft
and cool.  "Anne Quist.  As in Oliver, but with a `Q' and a `u.' "  

"Bradley. Bradley Lester."

"Brad or Bradley?" 

"Bradley."

"That's a relief. When I think of a Brad I think of a preppy boy in a white
tennis sweater. You know, a Biff or a Bick. One of those guys. By the way,
where did you get that very un-preppy top you have on?  I have to ask.  It,
uh, how can I put this? It stands out."

"A gift," Bradley said. "And how can I put this? It sucks. I hate it . . .
with a passion."

She howled. "That's pretty much how I feel about the outfit I'm wearing. If
you haven't noticed, I'm a king-size cucumber."  They both laughed this time.

For some reason Bradley felt comfortable with the woman. This was an entirely
different kind of comfort than he felt with Seda. Easier, freer, ordinary. He
particularly liked it when she laughed, which she did often. A real laugh,
not one done to be polite or aimed at him. 

She reached into her handbag and pulled out a nearly full pack of cigarettes
and a lighter. She showed Bradley the front of the pack - Pall Mall Gold. "My
friends since I was a kid." She chuckled. "Well, ten or eleven years anyhow.
My parents smoked them. So did my sister Jean. I think the four of us got
along so well because we smoked the same cigarette. You know, the
what's-mine-is- yours thing. I blame my smoking on Jean. She taught me - in
the alley by our house. Truth be known, I never had a chance to be a
non-smoker. Growing up, the inside of our house was always one thick haze.
One time when my friend Joanna from junior high came to spend the night, she
said to my mom, `Mrs. Quist, may I please have a surgical mask?'" 

"That's funny."  Bradley meant it. Compared to Seda, compared to any woman he
had known, he found himself magnetized by the young woman's flip sense of
humor. 

She withdrew a cigarette and handed it to him and inserted another in the
corner of her mouth. Then she flicked her lighter and held it for him. When
he leaned forward he smelled a faint mix of coffee and tobacco and hand soap.
An agreeable combination, he thought.  Remembering the debacle with the
Ismir, Bradley took a little pull and immediately blew out a puff in the
other direction.  When she lit hers, Bradley watched the front of her green
jacket suddenly swell. A few moments later she turned her face toward the sky
to release the smoke. 

"OK, Bradley," she said, looking directly at him. "We're going to have you
inhale. Just the way my sister taught me. Got it?"

"Yes. I think so."

Taking a step closer to him, she drew on her cigarette and opened her mouth
as if to show him the smoke inside. Then she made a small gasping sound and
closed her mouth. Thirty seconds later, smoke began drifting out.

"That's all there is too this, Bradley.  Simple as that. You open your mouth,
you draw the smoke into your lungs, you send it back out. I tend to hold the
smoke in my lungs for as long as possible. You probably won't do that. For
me, it's habit. Just want to get all the benefits I can get. Sometimes it's
like I don't want to release the smoke at all because I need it so bad. But
really, smoking is so easy a caveman could do it." Once more they both
laughed. "You try it."

Bradley attempted to do as she did, being careful to not bring in too much
smoke. Suddenly a lightness fell over his body.  

She smiled. "You're feeling it, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"That's what you want. Take another drag."  He did and she watched him.
"You're good to go, Bradley.  Welcome to the club."  

They stood there facing each other and chatted as they smoked. She told him
she was 21 years old and had been working at the store at night for eight
months. During the day, she attended the community college in Waukee, and had
been going there since the winter. She was taking 16 hours this semester. She
also worked about eight hours a week doing bookkeeping for a daycare center.
Plus she tutored her sister, who would be soon taking the GED.  She needed
the jobs, she said, to make tuition and car payments for her used Nissan that
had broken down twice already. Then there was the money she gave her parents
each month to help at home, gasoline to buy and lots and lots of cigarettes
and extra large black coffees with three sugars, from Dunkin' Donuts. 

"Needless to say, I have zero social life."

Bradley did not know how to respond to this last remark. He took the Pall
Mall Gold to his mouth and  breathed in. She nodded twice, in approval. He
told her his age and that he was from Cedar Rapids and that he worked at
DigiSystems. He didn't have to explain it, for DigiSystems was the area's
largest employer. He was divorced, he said.

"I'm sorry."

"I'm not." She smiled, half in sympathy, it seemed, half in amusement over
his answer. He suddenly feared he had nothing left to say, that their
conversation might now be over. "What are you studying?" he asked, permitting
the smoke he had consumed to ease out of his mouth. "I saw your book."

She seemed glad to keep talking. "Oh, god, my trig book. I like math, believe
it or not.  Always have. Nobody knew what to do with me, nobody pushed me.
In fact, my parents wanted me to go to secretarial school. They never went to
college, didn't know what it meant. So I followed their advice and took
business practice courses after high school. Then I worked for a while at
Swanson's. That's the plumbing supply firm. Ewwwww.  I was absolutely
miserable there."

Bradley could not take his eyes off of her, especially her mannerisms. The
way she tilted her head to one side when she held her lighter to her own
cigarette. The way she held her left arm across her chest, her right arm
would be bent at the elbow and kept close to her body. In her right hand
she'd point the Pall Mall Gold straight up, like a white torch. Now and then,
he noticed, she would place her cigarette in the center of her mouth and
clamp down on it. This freed her hands to push her hair back behind her ears.
As she tended to this task, she would suck in her cheeks, as if using a
crimped straw, to ferociously pull all the smoke she could inside her body.
When she talked, smoke would pour from her mouth and nose at the same speed
as her words. The faster she talked, the more smoke emerged. When she slowed
to a few words at a time, thin veils of gray circled her face. 

"What will you do with the math? Do you know?"

"I'd love to teach. Teach math to young kids, take the fear out of it for
them. But doing that is a ways off. And you? What do you do at DigiSystems?
You don't wear that shirt there, do you?"

He grinned. "There's a dress code. No Halloween costumes." He had no idea
where that line came from, but he liked the way it sounded. 

It took her a few moments to stop laughing. "Really," she said finally. "What
do you do there? At DigiSystems?"

"Software engineer."

"Then you've . . . been to college?"

"Yeah, Iowa State." 

Behind her glasses, her green eyes widened.  "You have a bachelor's degree,
I'll bet anything." 

He shrugged. "Computer science. I minored in math, for what it's worth."

"Uh-oh. Please don't tell me you went to graduate school. Please, please do
not tell me that."

Bradley waved off her words. "Not a big deal, if you want to know. Applied
technology. Also at Ames."

She groaned. Enunciating each word, she slowly announced, "You should not
even be talking to me."   

"No, no, please. I like talking to you. Honestly." 

They smoked in quiet for a few moments.

"I'm ready for another cigarette," she said. "How 'bout you?"

"Why not? Yes, please." 

"That's what I want to hear." She fished a Pall Mall Gold from her pack and
took one for herself. "What do you think of these?" 

"They seem longer than other cigarettes." The Ismirs, he thought, were far
smaller. 

"A hundred millimeters," she said. "They draw well at that length, I find.
Probably as good or better than other one-hundreds. Anyway, I feel that with
a one-hundred, I'm getting more cigarette for my money.  What about the
taste? What do you think?"

"I'm getting used to it. It was strong at first, but it's definitely growing
on me." 

"A man after my own heart." She made a shhhing noise as smoke departed her
mouth. "You know, as strong as these are, more and more I find myself wishing
they were even stronger. Before an exam, or if I'm running late for school,
or get caught in a traffic jam, I get really tense. Just the anxiety that
comes with my hectic life makes me a basket case. At those times I want to
smoke something extra strong. Stronger even than these. Pall Mall makes an
unfiltered cigarette - you've probably seen the red pack. That would be the
logical next step for me. My mom knows the stresses I'm going through. She
worries, she's like all moms. She keeps bugging me to move to filterless, to
be more calm. `Did you get the Pall Mall Reds?' she asks me almost every day.
Mom says because they're stronger, I'll smoke less. Hah! I'm pretty sure I'll
smoke more. I've asked customers here who buy the unfiltered what they're
like. Everyone says they pack a punch. And they're supposed to be yummy.
Super, super rich. On one hand I'm looking forward to them, but on the other
hand I hate the idea of giving up my Pall Mall Golds. They've been good to me
for so long I think about, you know, being a traitor."

Just then a customer walked by them and went into the store. Anne Quist
stopped talking to raise her cigarette to her mouth. Bradley watched the tip
of the Pall Mall Gold turn a fiery red. It stayed that way for several
seconds as she worked hungrily to consume the smoke. "I'm glad you enjoy
these," she said, the result of the long inhale flooding out of her but
surely not as voluminous as what she had brought in. "When I switch, maybe
you'll give me a puff of your Pall Mall Gold now and then. For old time's
sake." She laughed. "It's a loyalty thing. My parents now smoke Marlboro
Light. Everybody does. Valerie, Jennifer, who works days here, a lot the
customers who come in, kids at school. Oh, wait, Jean went over to the dark
side. She smokes Misty menthols now. I have no idea what that's all about. I
won't criticize Jean because she's had it rough. She got pregnant in tenth
grade, quit school, got married, had two babies, then got dumped by her
husband, the snake. She needs a job now and a GED to get it. Anyway, for just
about everybody else but me, it's Marlboro Light, Marlboro Light. Pall Mall
Gold, they're a part of me. I thought I'd smoke them for the rest of my life.
Doesn't look like I'm going to. I hope our split is a friendly one."

A brief silence followed. "Oh, god, I'm sorry," she said. "I've been talking
way too much. I do that when I'm nervous. Your education threw me for a loop.
When you told me I felt so flustered I just blabbed on and on and on. I want
to apologize."

"No need," he said. "Anyway, you'll have a degree of your own pretty soon.
Get past those cosines and it's all downhill."

"Hoo-o-o-o! You must know trig cold. For me, it's been a struggle, I have to
admit. But I enjoy it a whole lot. Math is so complete, don't you think?  You
look at the problem and you either know how to reach the answer or you don't.
There's no guesswork. Do you ever feel like that?"

"All the time. Math to me is like life. If you work at it, you can solve it.
But of course not all of it."

"Exactly." 

She looked at her wristwatch.  "I need to get back in and spell Valerie."
Glancing around she walked over to a single soda can that stood on the cement
sidewalk. With the empty can in one hand and her Pall Mall Gold in the other
hand she suddenly she squatted down and began picking up their cigarette
butts and the many others lying on the concrete. Standing above her, Bradley
did not know what to do next. Below him, she began stretching forward to
reach the litter. As she did, her uniform jacket and a white T-shirt beneath
it pulled up, exposing her lower back. A tattoo of a blazing sun with rays
extending from it caught his eye. Below that Bradley glimpsed the top few
inches of pale orange panties and, finally, the taut, gentle curve of her
bottom. 

Bradley eventually decided to squat next to her and to pitch in.  As he did,
the tattoo of a bracelet of tiny hearts just above her ankle peered back at
him. When the edge of their knees wound up touching, neither made an effort
to shift positions. When she leaned in front of him to grab two butts, she
coughed three times, each cough lasting longer than the one before. He asked
if she were all right, if he could get her some water. She held up her hand
and shook her head. "Allergies, I'm afraid."

They worked side by side. "Not my favorite thing to do, this," she said.
"Please don't think I'm in love with my job. It's just that I can't stand
littering. It's ridiculous how lazy some people are. Even Valerie just flips
her cigarettes here." She paused to take a final drag, closing her eyes as
she pulled on what was left of the cigarette. She scraped the stub on the
sidewalk and then dropped it in the soda can. As she rose, twin twines of
smoke fell unhurriedly from her nose. She touched his forearm. "Thank you for
helping, Bradley." She took the can and placed it in a nearby trash
receptacle. 

Upon returning, she set the opened pack of Pall Mall Gold in a front pocket
of Bradley's blouse. A red Bic lighter rested inside the pack's cellophane
wrapper. She patted the pocket. "My gift."  

"What? C'mon. You've done enough for me already. I can buy my own."

"I insist," she said. "I get cigarettes by the truckload. And I've got a
zillion lighters.  So take these and go home and practice, Bradley. I want to
see a dent in this pack when you come back here. Come tomorrow night. I start
work at 8, but come later, when we aren't real busy, say 11:30, like tonight.
We'll talk quadratic equations and smoke our brains out."

They both laughed.   

She stuck out her hand and he took it. Her long fingers held his, he thought,
a little longer than normal. "You're going to make a good smoker, Bradley
Lester."

He had trouble looking at her. "I doubt I'll ever be as good as you."

"Maybe not, but you look natural doing it. You're not the usual newbie.
Whatever caused you to start so late?" g "Long story," he said. 

She smiled. "OK. Tomorrow you'll have all night to tell me. See you then."

"Yes, I will. I mean, yes, you will. See me, that is. Good night."

She laughed and went back to work.

As he climbed into his car, Bradley glanced toward the store. She was back
behind the counter again, her head bowed, reading her trigonometry book.
"Anne Quist," he whispered. The two words filled him with a sense of
wonderment and elation. "Good things happen when you least expect it." His
mother was right, he now knew. He reached for the pack of cigarettes Anne
Quist had given him and lit a Pall Mall Gold, using her Bic lighter. He stuck
the pack back in his blouse pocket. He promised himself he would throw the
stupid blouse into the trash as soon as he got home. 

He let the car idle a moment before pulling out. "Seda," he said aloud, "go
fuck yourself. I'm absolutely positive you know how to do that."


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