Can One Cigarette End a Relationship?

by Ronald Merkin

            Just before leaving home Hal thought of a joke he’d like to tell during his performance that evening. To lead into it he’d need a plant in the audience, but he wouldn’t have a chance to talk with any of its members beforehand. Unable to think of anyone to ask at the last minute, Hal walked to his neighbor’s house and knocked on the door.

            “If by chance you’re not doing anything tonight, I’ve got a free ticket to the Dembry Ball,” he said. “I’m one of the entertainers there and would need a small favor in return.”

            “What?” Bill asked.

            “After my first song I’m gonna say that the program for my act says I’ll be singing Strangers In The Night and New York, New York. I’ll ask the audience which one they’d like to hear first. I need someone to shout New York, New York. Then I’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s a shame. My next song is ‘Strangers in the Night’ “.

             Having recently divorced, Bill didn’t have a wife or girlfriend who would need a second ticket. So shrugging his shoulders, “I guess I can do that.” he said. “OK, I’ll help you.”

            Hal told Bill what time he’d be starting and in which ballroom of the theater complex. But pitching his line from the stage an hour and a half later no one responded. Maybe Bill needed a reminder. “Doesn’t someone have a preference between New York, New York and Strangers In The Night?” he asked.

            Still no answer. Either Bill was late or he’d wound up in the wrong ballroom. The spotlight on Hal made it hard for him to see into the audience. While pausing to think of a funny comeback his pianist started playing the introduction to Strangers In The Night. Feeling foolish – not to mention annoyed, Hal started singing. Then a few bars later a drunk called out “New York, New York! I wanna hear New York, New York!”

Experience had taught Hal that the best way to handle hecklers was to ignore them. “Didn’t you hear me? I wan’ New York, New York!” the drunk was yelling now. Having stood up, he was visible from the stage. “Why the hell’d ya get me all the way over here ta scream ‘New York, New York’ if yu’re not gonna deliver yer punch line?” Bill slurred.

Hal stopped singing.“That’s a shame,” he said. “We’re doing Strangers In The Night next.”

The audience laughed.

Bill collapsed into his seat.

            The next afternoon, Bill knocked on Hal’s door. “I apologize,” he said when Hal answered. And when Hal just stood there, looking disgusted, “It’s this divorce thing. A stiff drink helps now and then.”

 Hal had recently finished a messy divorce himself. “At least you got me a laugh,’ he admitted. Then stepping aside, “C’mon in. We can share some stories about our ex wives.”

Hal served both of them soft drinks. Sitting on the living room couch across from Hal’s reclining chair, “How long ya been in show business?” Bill asked.

“I don’t know, exactly. Around seventeen years. And what do you do? You’ve been living next door for how long- a year or so by now? And we know next to nothing about each other.”

“I’ve been here nearly nine months,” Bill filled him in. “Would you mind if I smoke?”

A pause. Then “The combination of alcohol and smoking can be dangerous,” Hal ventured.

“A friend of mine who was a heavy smoker and had a drinking problem died at age 38. It was throat cancer. It’s a death sentence- rarely curable.”

 “I’m not an alcoholic. I told you it’s this divorce thing that made me…”

“Yeah, but even drinking because of stress can lead to something serious. You were pretty soused last night. How did you get home?”

“I walked.”

Another pause.

“You walked? Seven miles?  In your condition?”

“I managed; couldn’t risk driving last night.”

Bill lit a cigarette.

“Uh… I didn’t say it was all right to smoke. You don’t see any ash trays here, do you?”

“Sorry. You’re making me nervous.”

“Oh. Why exactly?”

“Your talk about cancer. I mean, you’re not my doctor… or psychotherapist…” An ash fell on Hal’s couch.

“You’re staining my furniture.” Hal said.

“Then maybe I’d better leave.”

But he didn’t stand up.

Hall did.

“OK,” Bill said, and stood up also. Another ash fell, this time on Hal’s carpet.

Ushering Bill to the door, “I’m sorry if I sounded like your psychotherapist,” Hal said. “But you didn’t tell me what you do for a living.”

Turning to face Hal, Bill leaned into him. “I work for the Vermont Tobacco Cessation Society,” he said.

Very funny, Hal wanted to say. But the combination of tobacco and liquor on Bill’s breath stymied him. Even if he’d been able to get the words out they would not have been heard. Bill had slammed the door and was already on his way home. Why didn’t I smell liquor on his breath before I asked him to come to my performance last night? Hal wondered.

            As Hal was walking to his car the next morning, he noticed Bill waving a greeting from his front yard. A cigarette dangling from his hand, he asked Hal which way he was driving. “To town,” Hal answered, “But I’m in a hurry.”

“Could you give me a lift?” Bill asked. “My car’s still at the theater where you were singing last night.”

What a nerve, Hal thought. But realizing that he’d just divulged that he’d be driving in the direction of the theater and reasoning it was only a seven mile trip, “OK,” he said. “But put your cigarette out before you get in my car.”

Once on the road Hal asked what Bill really did for a living.

“I’m an accountant,” he answered..

“Have you had a drink today, if you don’t mind my asking?’

“I had a tiny drink this morning. But I’m nothing like the other night at your performance and can drive home without any problem.”

Hal didn’t say anything.

             In fact there was silence until they arrived at the theater. Then slipping while getting out of the car, Bill fell on the street. “Are you all right?” Hal leaned over to look.

“Yeah,” said Bill. He stood up.

Hal was trying to think of something tactful to say about the possible connection between the “tiny drink” Bill had had and his fall. But similar to Bill’s exit from his house the afternoon before, he swung Hal’s car door shut and started sauntering away.

            Hal’s land line phone was ringing as he entered his house a few hours later. Before he could answer, a woman who identified herself as a social worker at the University of Vermont Medical Center started leaving a voice mail message indicating that Hal’s friend Bill Blaser had broken a leg in an automobile accident and could not drive himself home. Could Hal call back as soon as possible about coming to get him?

“What?” Hall interrupted. “Who’s Bill Blaser? And how did you get my phone number?”

“Bill said you were friends… and neighbors,” the woman explained. “He couldn’t remember your number but we got it from the phone book.”

Hal didn’t know what to say. “I hardly know this guy,” he managed. “He’s a drunk. Why can’t he take a god damned taxi home?”

“Oh, sorry to have bothered you. There’s been a misunderstanding.” And the social worker hung up.

An hour or so later Hal heard a pounding on his door. “Go away. Leave me alone!” he shouted, then glancing out the window at the top half of the door saw it wasn’t his neighbor, it was a short, blond, youngish, slim – a buxom woman.

Hal opened the door.

“Why couldn’t you get my husband at the hospital?” She screamed. I had to leave my work, come all this way. It’s been too many times, I’m gonna be fired! And all because…” She burst into tears.

“Why don’t you come in?” Hal stepped to the side.

 “Oh, I’m making a fool of myself. I didn’t mean to bother you. I’m acting crazy. I’m so sorry…” but she walked inside.

“Have a seat,” Hal gestured toward the couch.

            She did. Then, “Mind if I smoke?”

            “Not at all.” She’d already opened her pocket book, was fumbling for a cigarette. Hal headed for the kitchen to search for a dish that could serve as an ash tray.

“Here, use this,” he was about to say. But re-entering his living room he saw she wasn’t there.

What the hell’s going on these last two days? he wondered. Looking out the window facing his neighbor’s house, Hal noticed no one.

During some of Hal’s performances audience members inspired by his singing would stand up and dance in the isles. Usually it was couples. But during a night club gig a few weeks later a woman started twirling around by herself. Arms outspread, seemingly tipsy, her closed eyes made it look like she was in a trance.

The circles she was turning in took her bit by bit toward the stage. Hal was at “I did it all, and I stood tall,” when he recognized her. “My neighbor’s wife! Oh God”, this could really be awkward, he thought.

            Then before he could improvise some way to get a laugh out of her dancing she’d climbed the steps of the stage and was swaying next to him.

The facts that My Way is a man’s song to which she couldn’t possibly know the lyrics plus the distinct likelihood based on his experience that especially in her inebriated state her voice would be terrible led Hal to reason that the best way to get rid of this woman was to put the microphone smack in front of her mouth. He did. She started singing, exactly where he’d left off. Not only that, she knew all the lyrics.

Her voice a balance between power and lyricism, the vibrato was just right. How could this be? Hal’s impulse to jerk the microphone away because his get-rid-of-her tactic wasn’t working was prevented because of his incredulity regarding her talent and the realization that a gesture like that wouldn’t sit well with the audience. So he let her finish the song alone.

Applause erupted. People still sitting stood up to clap. Taking the microphone back, “That’s right, let’s hear it for…” But it occurred to him that he’d never learned her name.

            “Marci McCloud,” She smiled.

Uncertain looks between them, then “Marci McCloud!” he shouted.

Smiling and bowing, her gait was wobbly as she walked down the stairs.

“Encore!” someone shouted.

But Marci waved her hand with a “No” gesture.

The form fitting white satin dress Marci was wearing highlighted the contrast between her ample bosom and slim waste. Hal had not slept with a woman since his divorce nearly a year ago. Could a few coffees sober her up? He wondered.

Hal’s loneliness had descended lately into a deep depression. Lucky, he’d reassure himself, that I have a profession whereby through music I can express my feelings. But gorgeous singing packaged in a gorgeous woman plus their shared talent. Unfortunately he couldn’t imagine there’d be any chance that Marci’s ex husband who worked for the Vermont Department of Tobacco Cessation had not accompanied her that night. Hal would have to wait until intermission to find out.

Then waking the next morning Marci rolled over and reached for a cigarette. Her movement routine, it took a moment for her to remember that she wasn’t in her own bed. Not only that, she hadn’t remembered to leave her pack of cigarettes on Hal’s night table the night before.

            “Hi.” Hall smiled.

“Hi,” Marci managed.

            Neither said anything. Then shrugging, “Was I OK?” she asked.

“More, than OK” Hal answered.

And rolling over to get out of bed, “Was I not?” Hal asked.

            “Oh. Um, I have to get to the office. I’m not in a hurry because of anything you…”

            “You work on Sunday?” Hal interrupted her.

“Yes,” she responded.


“Sorry.” she lowered her head. “the truth is I… feel like… a slut.”

Hal paused. Then “So do I,” he manged.

Marcie laughed. Such sardonic wit, she thought. Glancing at him she took in Hal’s muscular chest; his teasing smile. She lay back down. He put his arms around her. “Did I tell you you have a beautiful voice?” Hal asked.

“Did I tell you I don’t work on Sunday?” she responded.

The degree of Hal’s passion in this new relationship never occurred to him until an afternoon six days later when he noticed for the first time a kitchen plate full of cigarette butts sitting on his living room coffee table. Unbelievable that I didn’t see this earlier, he realized. A good sign,  – maybe some new kind of tolerance I’m developing. But looking closer he noticed not only cigarette butts. Remains of a cigar were also on the plate.

Marci had a house key by that time. Occasionally she’d drop in during her lunch break. Hall usually wasn’t home then. Shortly after she arrived the evening after he’d noticed the cigar, Hal called her attention to it.

 “You don’t smoke… cigars, do you?”

Marci shrugged her shoulders.

“Does that mean you do?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“No? Then how did a cigar wind up in this… this pile of cigarettes?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You don’t know?”

Lowering her head Marci started massaging her forehead. “Bill dropped in,” she said. “He saw my car outside.”

“Great,” said Hal. “While you were at it might the two of you have enjoyed a toss in my bed? Just for the fun of it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous! If nothing else, would we risk the possibility that you might walk in all of a sudden?”

“So that’s the only reason you didn’t?” Hal raised his voice.

“For heaven’s sake. He wanted to chat. Feeling lonely after his accident.”

Standing, Hal picked up the cigarette butts and took them to the kitchen. Marci’s knee jerk reaction was to extract a cigarette from her pocket book. Then realizing this was the worst thing she could do, she began putting it back. Not fast enough. It was the first thing Hal noticed as he re-entered the living room.

“Oh, Christ,” he exploded. “Look, maybe you should just get out of here for now.”

“Get out?? Because I had a conversation with my ex husband?”

“Because you wanted me to know! There’s some reason why you didn’t get rid of his god damned cigar butt! You were trying to tell  me something!”

Marci reached back into her pocket book. “By getting a cigarette now you’re defying me,” Hal told her. “Whatever the reason, you want our relationship to end.”

A pause, then “Maybe, I do,” she managed. The cigarette dangling in her hand, Marci made no move to light it. “I’m sorry,” she said. Standing up, she walked to the door. Then turning to face him, “I feel guilty,” she admitted. “Bill needs me.”

And she walked out.

Noticing that the cigarette Marci failed to light on her way out had fallen on his carpet, touché, he thought. A sign – reassurance that if he harbored any regrets about having over-reacted, her farewell “screw you” type tobacco gesture proved he’d done the right thing. So picking the cigarette up while reminding himself how proud he was that he hadn’t smoked in 13 years, Hal went back into his kitchen and started searching for a match. Wait a minute, what am I doing? he asked himself. Then it’s just this one time. Because I’m so angry.

            And he lit the damn cigarette…….

Can One Cigarette End a Relationship?

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