Picture Book: Cigarette

    Photo by Emily Chow / North by Northwestern.

    What she liked most about these woods was the dampness — a dampness that didn’t seem to exist down in the plains, where the wind blew everything dry. In the morning, the tent’s thin folds were sprinkled with ice cold drizzle, and when she went to light the fire, her feet squelched and sunk into the damp ground. But her feet remained separated from the grit — the unpleasant wet — by tattered flip flops.

    What repulsed her most was a condom wrapper — “At least they’re being safe,” said Theo wryly — tossed almost proudly on the ground.

    They’d camped for two nights and hadn’t realized that local teenagers came here every weekend to party. On the second night, the blaze through the trees — of the kids’ sociable bonfire — hadn’t been too bad, but the kids had blasted Jay-Z throughout the night, and she hadn’t been able to listen to those small, eerie sounds of nature she’d taken for granted the night before. The anonymous animal scuffling, the occasional hoot of an owl, the sifting of pebbles and dirt against the ground — these were all drowned out. And the smell of beer and weed and nicotine and oversexed hormones came wafting over to their campsite.

    The next morning — Sunday morning — she and Theo had walked over to the kids’ campsite. What repulsed her most was a condom wrapper — “At least they’re being safe,” said Theo wryly — tossed almost proudly on the ground. Those little bastards had left twisted beer cans in the bushes around their circular campsite. She and Theo went around with tissue-wrapped fingers, feeling like crime scene investigators as they pulled loose the multitude of slivers of plastic wrap, Red Bull cans, iPod earbuds, concert tickets, chewed BIC pen caps and even a wrinkled stapled class schedule — “Martinez, Earth Sciences, 10:00 AM-10:50, Niemeyer, English 10, 11:00-11:50” — belonging to one Jordan Bernstein. The kids had thoughtfully left a half-full garbage bag, the strong durable Glad kind, and she and Theo had filled it to the brim.

    Now it was Monday morning, and much too early for Jordan Bernstein to have already graced Mrs. Martinez with his doubtlessly hung-over presence. Theo had wanted to call every Bernstein in the white pages to inform Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein of their child’s misconduct and hopefully to exact justice.

    But she had bigger fish to fry, she reminded him, grinning, because they still hadn’t cooked the trout, and breakfast trout was an essential camp breakfast.

    Theo was rubbing his pointer finger in the last dredges of oil in the pan. He brought it to his mouth and sucked messily, leaving a sheer gloss on his lips.

    So now she peeled the slab of trout from its Ziploc casing, and poured a little oil in the pan, and began to cook it on the little camp cooker. As the fish browned, she set to work on the fire, tossing dry twigs on the pile until the flames grew strong enough to water her eyes when she got too near. The ash floated onto her ankles and blackened them, the scent of the spicy smoke setting into her skin. It would take more than one shower to extinguish that scent, she knew, but she didn’t feel dirty, just rugged and somehow at one with the woods.

    Theo dragged himself over and planted himself on a log in front of the fire. The trout popped and crackled — the only sound this early in the morning.

    “It’s freezing,” he said, his voice dragging on a few sounds. He wasn’t fully awake yet.

    “It’s refreshing,” she said. They had some bread left over — seeded French bread, nothing fancy, just something they’d picked up at Safeway on the way to the woods — that tasted delicious out in nature. She tore a bit of it and tossed it to Theo, who picked at it slowly.

    They both knew that today was the last day, that tomorrow they’d have to go back to work. This Monday was using up yet another precious vacation day — she only had ten left this year — and tomorrow she would have several drafts to write, a few calls to make, a Post-It scribbled with To-Dos plastered on her planner, some of which she’d half-heartedly attempt to accomplish. Right now, though, after breakfast, they planned to hike up over the ridge, further and further away from the gravel parking lot where Theo’s battered red truck had endured sharing space with the teenagers’ gleaming Toyota Sequoia, clearly borrowed from their parents, but gleaming nonetheless. They’d leave a couple flakes of fish skin in the oily pan, and sling canteens over their shoulders to keep them going, and stick to the path — because one foot off the path would mean instant destruction to millions of tiny invisible ecosystems, she’d remind Theo on the way — and admire the small throngs of tiny yellow and purple flowers that only grew at this altitude, and finally reach that ridge, beyond which there was sure to be a breathtaking view.

    Theo was rubbing his pointer finger in the last dredges of oil in the pan. He brought it to his mouth and sucked messily, leaving a sheer gloss on his lips — a fishy gloss.

    “Let’s extend this trip to five days.” He grinned and rubbed his toes in the old ash surrounding the fire.

    “I wish. I’m sure as soon as we get service I’ll have a flood of texts from Laura. She likes to remind me of deadlines. It’s kind of demeaning.”


    “Yeah. Let me grab my camera.”

    As she zipped her bag and slid her feet into boots, the ridge above remained solid, ever-present, the sky above it cloudless and clear. Whatever was over that ridge — a lake, maybe, that would sparkle, emerald and gem-like, once they looked down on it at the height of morning, or perhaps a less appealing winding highway and telephone poles, or more rolling hills — would make a great photo, she thought as she reached for Theo’s hand — a quick squeeze — and then turned to the path.


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