I’ve always had one of the rare last names that starts with a “Z,” in school this meant two things. First, I was always the last seat in the classroom based on the traditional alphabetically assigned seating arrangement, and second, if a new kid came into the class at any time during the year, he or she would be placed next to me. Dave was placed next to me on the first day of school, this was strange, because he had moved into the area over the summer, and his last name did not fall alphabetically after mine, as so few did. I had originally thought that he was placed there because of some mix up in the paperwork, but it turned out there had been another reason altogether.
I was persuaded into being Dave’s “buddy,” someone who would show him around the school and introduce him to a group of friends so that he would not be left out. It was relatively easy for teachers to socially engineer prepubescent kids in this way. I didn’t complain, again because of my high range last name most of my friends were once the “new kid.”
When Dave sat down next to me on that first day, I noticed the smell of smoke on his clothes, and I thought that one or both of his parents were probably smokers. This was back in the 90’s and at least half the kids in the school smelled of smoke in the morning, it was nothing uncommon. My parents didn’t smoke, and when I met Dave, I heard my dad say in the back of my mind:
“He’s going to smoke when he’s older.”
I was soon to find out that my father’s disembodied voice would be quite wrong.
It was hard to notice anything obscure about Dave in the first few days of class. We were all still in summer mode, talkative, not yet ripe for learning. I never understood why we started school the week before Labor Day, the week was only three days long, most of us were in no condition to learn, and just when we all finally settled down, out we went for another four day weekend, and on the following Tuesday the poor teachers had to start all over again with the end-summer decompression process.
Since the first two weeks were such a fracas, it wasn’t until the third week of school that I noticed something strange about the new kid. Dave would have these tiny twitches, as though suppressing something between a cough and a hickup. No one else seemed to notice them, only me, probably because I was sitting right next to him, and since he was my “buddy,” I had to look out for him.
I was a second away from asking him if he was alright when he raised his hand. It wasn’t a normal hand rising like when we would answer a question in class. His hand was raised only neck high, instead of all the way up in the air, and it was two fingers, instead of the traditional full opened palm Roman salute. Most of us in the back row would have to frantically wave our hands in the air to get the teachers attention, and that was still no guarantee. Somehow Mrs. Knuth saw him, she nodded her head twice, quickly, and so subtly that I thought I had imagined it. Then, very quietly, Dave got up from his desk and left the classroom.
I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t look like he was sick, he wasn’t running for the bathroom with a hand over his mouth about to vomit. He just got up and walked out casually. I had not seen this done by anyone else until my first day in college, when I realized (like all freshmen do) that this is the way “adults” exit a class to use the bathroom. In five minutes he was back, Mrs. Knuth made no indication that he had left or returned, but kept right on teaching, no one else seemed to notice either, but I was distracted, and I started to doubt what I had witnessed.
I started to pay closer attention, and I saw, two or three times a day, every day, the exact same thing would happen. He would start his ticks, raise his two fingers neck high, Mrs. Knuth would give her quick two nods, and he would leave, and then come back as if nothing had happened. After a few days of witnessing this strange event, I decided to try it myself. I raised my hand, two fingers neck high.
“And the answer is… Yes,” she said, pointing at me.
“Oh, sorry I, ah, don’t know the answer,” I said.
“Just stretching your hand then?”
“Ah, yes,” I said.
The other kids laughed.
Mrs. Knuth gave me a strange look, as though I was getting close to discovering something I should not know about. It had been the worst possible time to have attempted the experiment.
“Can anyone else answer the question?” she asked in a slightly annoyed voice, the ethereal look of suspicion having already left her face.
To this day I still don’t have a clue what the answer was or even the question; clearly, it was not a priority. I was obsessed with this odd kid who was my “buddy,” and his ticks, and his quick sojourns from class. Over the next few days, I thought of doing the experiment again and listening intently so that if the experiment failed I could give a somewhat plausible answer, if not the correct one.
At recess Dave would always play with us, which was no big deal, we were becoming good friends, and my other friends seemed to like him too. We would be throwing the ball or swinging on the swing set, and just when I wasn’t paying attention to him, he would be gone, and return a few minutes later, and this happened just about every day. One day on the playground, I paid extra close attention to him. I noticed him having one of his ticks, and I saw him run over to one of the recess monitors. She nodded her head and he ran around behind the school, and then returned five minutes later.
“Where did you go?”
“Hit the head,” he said.
“Around the school?”
“I didn’t go around the school,” he told me.
It was a lie, he and I both knew it was, but I could see the strain on his face indicating the psychic energy it took him to say the lie to his “buddy.” So I didn’t pursue the question.
A few days later I saw him slip away again, and this time I decided to follow him. I saw him sneak around the fourth and fifth-grade wing of the Elementary school.
“Where are you going,” I heard the cackle from the recess monitor.
She caught me.
“I was just going over…” I said pointing in the direction I was heading with both index fingers.
“You’re supposed to stay on this side of the sidewalk she yelled.”
She said no more but pointed with her bony witch like thumb back in the direction I had come from. I had to follow her instructions, if I didn’t then I would have to sit on the bench for five or ten minutes, and that was bad.
As it just so happened I did end up going to the bench for some unrelated offense a few days later, and while I was sitting on the bench I noticed Dave running off behind the building again, and a thought came to me.
A year or two before, another one of my friends had a similar thing happen to him. He would get these tiny coughing fits as well, similar to Dave’s, and when these would happen he would pull out an “L” shaped plastic tube, and suck on it. I later found out he was asthmatic, and that tube was called an inhaler. I had been benched once for taking a drag of his inhaler. Had it been ten years later I probably would have been expelled and sent to a “special” school for the delinquent children of ill-qualified parents. Between coping mechanisms and peer pressure I would have eventually turned into a delinquent child myself, and then inevitably spent the rest of my life in and out of AA, Drug Rehab and jail. Luckily in the mid-nineties, the punishment for taking a drag on another kid’s inhaler was five or ten minutes on the bench, while the other kids were told not to talk to you.
I thought that perhaps Dave was asthmatic as well, and he was running off to use his inhaler when he got these asthma attacks. The thing that didn’t make sense was the fact that he was running away to do it. I can understand that asthma might be embarrassing, but I didn’t think that the teachers would care about that enough to have this elaborate network of secret signals and arrangements. Something still was not adding up, and I made it my goal to find out.
A few days later, he was running off again, this time the recess monitor was not paying attention to me, but yelling at another kid for another misdeed. This other kid happened to be a prominent playground bully, so I figured there was a good chance I could sneak away for a while and make it back without her noticing. I followed Dave as he ran, he snuck around the corner of the fourth and fifth-grade wing, as I turned the corner I saw his foot go around the next wall, no one was ever allowed back there, not even the fifth graders. I followed, quietly, nervous, worried I would get caught.
He had stopped running and was facing the corner of two windowless walls. I was able to get right behind him and saw what he was doing. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small plastic pouch, then he pulled out a small piece of paper that kind of looked like an oversize fortune cookie fortune but with no words. He stuck the paper into the pouch and a few seconds later he pulled out a small paper tube and licked it. Out of the same pouch, he pulled an ornately decorated Zippo lighter, snapped it open, struck the wheel, and then lit the piece of paper. At first, I thought it was a marijuana cigarette (at the time I didn’t know those were called joints) and the only reason I thought it was a marijuana cigarette was that I had seen a Saturday morning cartoon interrupting PSA showing a long-haired teenager doing something that looked very similar. When I smelled the smoke I knew right away that it was tobacco smoke. I was a little relieved that it was a cigarette he was smoking, but then I quickly realized that we were only ten, and ten-year-olds aren’t supposed to smoke. Even in those days when cigarettes were only a dollar a pack, and the Marlboro and Newport billboards stood sentinel alongside the highways, the anti-smoking campaign had at least by that point made us all aware that smoking was bad.
“What are you doing?” I asked, perhaps a little too loudly, considering I was standing right next to his ear.
He jumped, dropped his cigarette, picked it up and took another drag.
“If the monitor catches you you’re dead,” I said.
“No, but if she catches you, were both going to be in trouble.”
“Yes but… wait, what do you mean no?”
“It’s a long story,” he said.
“Tell me,” I said in an angry whisper.
“No, get out of here, if she sees you around here you’ll be dead,” he said.
I didn’t budge.
“I don’t have time now, I’ll tell you on the bus?”
“You promise?” I asked.
“Yes!” he said.
“Oh, come on that’s girls stuff.”
“Pinky promise!” I demanded, holding out my pinky.
We clasped pinkies, and I walked away.
“And don’t tell anyone, or I won’t tell you,” he whispered as I left.
I took a look in the distance, and the monitor was still disciplining the bully, I snuck back with my group of friends, the monitor didn’t notice my absence, but some of my other friends did.
“Were you smoking?” one asked.
“No,” I said, and it was the truth, but an unconvincing one.
Luckily they let the subject go.
I didn’t talk to Dave at all during the afternoon, I was too shocked that he was smoking at school. I didn’t really have a problem with smoking, I still don’t, but I was a strict rule follower, and I found myself angry at him for smoking underage. I had built up a list of things I wanted to say to him, about how smoking was bad, and rule-breaking was even worse, but nothing I thought of could have prepared me for what he told me on the bus that afternoon.
I sat down next to him, the baked in smell of tobacco smoke, that, up until earlier that day, I had thought was from one of his parents, was thick on his clothing. He had left class again shortly before school was over and our bus was called, and there was no doubt that he went to smoke another cigarette, how was he getting away with this?
“I have a very rare medical condition,” he told me. “It’s called Brittle Lung Syndrome.”
The look on my face conveyed that I needed further explanation.
“Basically my lungs are very weak and flaky, and I cough up pieces of my lung. It starts off with light coughs, but then they get worse and worse. An attack can last for hours if I don’t do something. That’s where smoking comes in, smoke makes the lungs harder and stickier, and when I smoke I stop coughing, so when I start to get these coughs I have to run away and smoke, to stop it from getting worse.”
“I thought that smoking makes people cough?” I asked.
“Well you’re right, in a normal person it would make you cough, but my lungs are kind of like the opposite of a normal person, and smoking actually helps them.”
“Isn’t there a medicine you could take?”
“Well since the condition is so rare, there has been very little research into it, and the few medicines they have come up with have very bad side effects.”
He interrupted me.
“Yes, even worse than smoking.”
I was speechless for a while. Shortly before his stop, I asked him another question.
“So the teachers know about this?”
“Yep, before I started school my parents and my Doctor had a long talk with them, telling them the whole situation. They agreed to let me smoke at school, as long as no other kids found out, so you got to promise me you won’t tell anyone.” he said.
“Pinky promise,” he said.
“Oh come on that’s girls stuff,” I said throwing his comment back at him.
We laughed… but still pinky promised in the end.
In the Halloween parade, Dave was a camel, and he convinced me to be a cowboy. We got out of school early that day, and I spent the night at his house.
“Remember not to let your friend smoke,” said his mother.
She said this in a very stern way, though with everything else she said she was very nice and polite and motherly to both of us. He lived in the middle of the woods, with no other houses around for acres, there were many good climbing trees, and we climbed several of them that afternoon before we went out trick-or-treating. He smoked a few times while we were outside, I didn’t notice the coughing start. He could somehow stand on one of the branches, hold onto another branch with one hand, and roll a cigarette perfectly with the other.
At night we stayed up in Dave’s room. As it turned out I was completely wrong about Dave’s parents, neither of them smoked, and the only place in the house they let him smoke was his bedroom, where he had a small wooden desk and chair. He told me that he was only allowed to smoke while sitting on the chair because his parents didn’t want him to set the house on fire. I thought that was a little overprotective, and I may have even said as much, but now I understand it was a legitimate concern, even grownups have set their houses on fire by smoking in bed.
We stayed up late that night, well after his parents went to sleep. I expected him to pull out his pouch and roll another cigarette, but he just let it sit there on his little wooden desk. He had a round pipe rack on the desk with nine pipes and three more empty spaces. In the center of the rack was a large glass jar half full of tobacco, he showed me the jar, and let me smell it. There was no other way to describe the smell other than pleasant, he told me it was called “Birthday Cake,” and I suppose that was the smell. He took a pipe with a long slightly curved stem, dipped the bowl into the jar, and then lit it. I watched the entire act in curiosity.
“You like the pipe?” he asked.
“I think they’re really neat,” I said, and then I breathed in. “And they smell even better”
He agreed and blew a few smoke rings, and I found myself hypnotized as I watched them float up to the ceiling and slowly integrate with the cloud of smoke already hanging there in the pitched roof of his finished attic bedroom.
“You want to try?” he asked.
“A pipe,” he said.
“But your mom said I’m not allowed,” I replied.
“She won’t know,”
I looked at him confused.
“What’s she going to do, smell it on you? You’re already smoky because of me.”
I considered his offer.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“I’ll try it,” I said, quickly, before I could convince myself not to.
He shrugged his shoulders as if to suggest that he didn’t much care about my decision either way. He pulled out a corn cob pipe and filled it with the tobacco from the jar in the center of the pipe rack.
“The corncob is considered a starter pipe,” he said. “A good pipe to learn how to smoke a pipe with.”
“Learn? Don’t you just breathe in?” I asked.
“No,” he said, and then he explained to me the hitherto unknown mechanics of how a pipe works. “There’s no oxygen inside the bowl of the pipe, to keep it lit you have to constantly puff on it.”
I took the pipe and the lighter and gave it a shot. I got two puffs before it went out. I tried it again, same thing.
“Here, like this,” he said.
He tried to show me how to do it using a different pipe for himself. It looked like the exact same thing I was doing, but it was working for him.
I tried it again, and I could not get it.
We switched pipes. He handed me his long-stemmed pipe that was still burning, but I could not keep that lit either. Meanwhile, he had lit the corncob I was trying to smoke.
He gave the corncob back to me lit, I took a few puffs on it, and it went out.
I got frustrated and gave up entirely.
The raw tobacco and the smoke had smelled very good, but that scent was a far cry from what I had tasted on the dozen or so puffs I was able to take. It also made me dizzy, and I didn’t particularly care for that feeling either.
“Would you like a cigarette instead?” he asked.
“No thank you,” I said, my stomach was not feeling great, but to my credit, I never threw up, and my stomach went right back to normal a few minutes after I gave up trying to smoke the pipe.
I never spent the night at Dave’s house again after that, and not because my parents thought I was smoking, or his parents either. Only a few weeks after that sleepover, Dave died. And yes smoking was the cause, though not in a way you might expect.
Although I don’t know the definitive story about what happened, I was able to piece it together taking various details from different stories and rumors that were floating around the school, snippets of conversations between kids who didn’t know Dave as well as I did, words spoken by adults talking when they didn’t know I was listening.
Dave had been smoking outside, in the woods, even though he was allowed to smoke in his room, he still preferred the outdoors. Hunting season had just opened, and even though the woods were all privately owned, the property lines were all ill-identified. The hunters walked between where they were and were not supposed to be all the time, it was nothing unusual for the area. The hunter saw what he thought to be a deer and took a shot.
The Coroner said that Dave bled out in about a half an hour, but it was two hours before his parents went out looking for him. They rushed him to the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do at that point, he had been dead well over an hour, he would never be back.
His funeral was a few days later, the small suit he had on covered the wound, and he looked as though he was just sleeping, in the breast pocket of his suit they placed his favorite pipe, Zippo, and a small pouch of his aromatic birthday cake tobacco. They had me speak at his funeral since I was his closest friend at his moment of passing. In the days following, kids and teachers who had attended told me it was a beautiful speech, but I cannot remember a word of what I said.
A week after the funeral there was a moving truck at his parent’s house, a week after that a for sale sign. We never saw his parents again.
They never found the hunter, who had cowardly run away from the scene of the accident. It had been an accident, and if he had gone for help, then Dave may have survived.
By middle school, Dave’s story had been blurred into a perverse PSA used by a gym/health teacher whose irrational hatred of smoking had inspired a number of my friends to take up the habit out of spite. In one class she told us about an elementary school student who had snuck into the woods to smoke and was shot and killed by a hunter. The class turned to me when she told the story, some of them had remembered something about my rather close connection to that particular story. I spent the rest of that class with the guidance counselor trying to calm me down.
I never smoked again after that night I spent at Dave’s house, not until the day I turned 18. I figured out how to smoke a pipe more or less on my own, replaying what Dave had told me a decade before, remembering those words clear as a bell, though I had not ever repeated them until now.
The smoke tasted bittersweet.
By sheer cruel unadulterated coincidence, the family that bought Dave’s old house had a kid, who was the same age as me, who went to my school, and who was in my class. Little more than a month after Dave was killed, right around Christmas a new kid was placed next to me. Mrs. Knuth suggested that I befriend the new arrival. I was used to the routine of showing the new kid the ropes, so I buried my emotions and welcomed him to his new school.
There was something strange about this kid too, though what it was I was not so sure. He talked with a speech impediment and walked with a strange limp that crutches probably would not have corrected. I also noticed a strange smell to him, not necessarily a bad smell, it was like the smell of a hospital. I thought that whatever his handicap might be, it brought him to the hospital more often than I would like to imagine.
A few times a day he would grab at the side of his stomach, with a pained look on his face. He would ask to go to the bathroom the same way as Dave did, two fingers, neck high, Mrs. Knuth nodded and he walked with his strange limp out of the class. His walk, unfortunately, drew more attention from the rest of the class then Dave ever did.
A few weeks later I happened to use the bathroom the same time he was in there, and he didn’t notice me, I saw him pull out a silver box from his pocket, unscrew the top, take a few gulps and put it back in his pocket. I knew what this was, it was a flask, and the smell I realized was not hospital, but it was the smell of that clear adult liquid that my parents kept in a dusty bottle beneath the kitchen counter behind the lined up cereal boxes. The only word I could read on that bottle amid a variety of backward and random capital letters was “Vodka.” The realization hit me hard, the new kid was drinking alcohol at school.
“What are you doing,” I said, perhaps a little too loudly, considering I was right next to his ear.
He jumped back, but then calmed down, and took another sip from the flask.
“You’re going to get in so much trouble if they catch you,” I said.
“They know about the drinking,” he said. “But if they find out you know, were both going to get in a lot of trouble.”
“What?” I asked.
“I have a rare medical condition,” he said. “It’s called Starving Liver Syndrome; basically if I don’t drink my liver begins to eat itself.”
I took a good long look at him, mulling over what he had just told me.
“Get the fuck out of here,” I said.
Zach is a graduate of Chestnut Hill College and has been writing for more than a dozen years, struggling all the while with Dyslexia. His work has previously appeared in: Crack the Spine, the Short Humour Site, Foxglove, the Corvus Review, Independent Noise, and most importantly the Ginger Collect among others. You can find out more about him at his Blog: theobscuritysymposium.wordpress.com.