★ ‘Cigarette’ by Zach Harbaugh

sc june 18

The frigid November winds crushed me from the east as I stood watching.
Smoke rose from the structure in spicy, billowing blackened clouds.
The building breathed famished gasps of the freezing front through shattered nostrils.
Feeding off of the bitter, ice-cold refreshment.
Flames vomited from the open loading port with each inhale.
The darkness of the docks and storehouses around me was illuminated with radiant heat.
Screams expelled louder, further into the surrounding troposphere, as the roof began to crumple.
The smell of wilted flesh was foreign to me up until tonight, but I fear it will never dissipate.
My mucus membranes clutching to that savory smell forever after.
It’s a shame really.
Tonight, being his birthday and all.
A family to get home to.
A daughter to tuck in.
A wife to wrap his arms around before drunkenly stumbling off to sleep.
Or not.
Watching the ashy fireflies dance with liberation into the sky, I pondered but one thought.
Could I have prevented this premature cremation?

I’ve known Robert for years now.
At least in the skin deep, nine to five, type of knowing a person.
Office pizza party peers, team building exercise acquaintances.
Grabbing the occasional after work drink, that kind of friend.
But in the end, years mean nothing when a fraction of a second ultimately ignites one’s fate.
After this is all over – the investigation, the questioning – I should send his wife a card.
I wonder if Hallmark makes “Sorry for Braising Your Husband Alive” cards?
Although, after our conversation tonight maybe his wife will be sending me a Thank You card instead.
He was a whore, after all.

The warehouse burned hotter as the wind blew more turbulent.
Organic cries of igneous anguish ceased, clearing the air for the main event.
The rusted sheet metal casing squealed from harsh contrast.
The mix of exterior freezing wind and the roaring blaze within, torturing its structural integrity.
How did it come to this?
I could hear the firetrucks blasting from the shrouded skyline in the distance.
They would certainly arrive soon.
But not until the industrial cleaning supplies cache scorched a wide lesion in the Ozone.
Antiseptic-Antimicrobial aerosol invading the heavens.
But at least they tried to help
Can I say the same?
The, now caved-in, loading bay coughed out plumes of noxious, chemically infused secondhand smoke.

Robert was fondling a Pall Mall ultralight 100.
This was before his fingers melted to a fatty paste sizzling on the concrete warehouse floor, of course.
He was telling me of his cornucopia of infidelity with a sneer full of browned incisors.
Boasting of his morally corrupted exploits between long burning hits and drunken crackups.
Describing each piece in his collection with terms learned from a module in Hip Hop Anatomy 101.
He’d funnel a fluid ounce or two of Everclear into his herpes spotted lips, then continue his gloat.
Small streams of the neutral spirit trickled from the corners of his mouth, soaking into the collar of his coat.
And somehow, he thought me to be impressed.
I tried to change the subject of our one-sided conversation.
Why the hell did he bring me to a Union forklift operators coffin for a birthday drink?
He took another lung full and sloshed the clear, cap-less bottle my way.
Splashes of the flammable liquid oozed down one side of its container.
It was the only place his wife couldn’t find him.
This he admitted with a deeper, straining voice caused by the ongoing alveoli corrosion in his chest.
I sipped the grain alcohol conservatively.
She’d probably have already checked all his usual hangouts.
This he told me with a smoke evacuating exhale as he counted the large metal beams looming above us.
Robert just wanted to enjoy his night; it was her fault he fucked around on her, after all.
He felt trapped in a loveless marriage.
Or so he failed to justify.
To me.
To his wife.
To everyone.

Anyone who knew Robert, even slightly, could smell the withered soul hidden deep inside.
He explained, while stomping the tar-caked butt to the ground, that his daughter kept him around.
Without her, he would’ve left years ago, he stated while lighting another cigarette.
And it was then that I could relate.
With his daughter, to be more precise.

With the burden of being blamed for a parental treason.
Targeted as its source code.
Knowing all too well the emotional infection grown from days spent in the quiet shadow of a once happy home.
Morphing overnight into a pin cushion for misplaced needles poisoned by spite.
Absorbing the array of pent up animosity like a blow-up doll.
The aggravated pressure pressing its toll until the seam splits.
And as the mislaid attacks pile up, the surface beings to rupture, and then…

I glided the 190-proof liquor in his direction, and asked for a puff from the Pall Mall.
Robert muttered something too softly to hear as he passed me the cigarette and gripped the bottle.
I didn’t get a chance to ask him to repeat himself.
And looking back now, I kind of wish I would’ve heard him.
When the slippery bottle touched the concrete floor, he was doused with an eruption of glass strewn ethanol.
I had never smoked a cigarette before.
I still never have.

The road to the future is constructed by choice, and paved by action.

Standing a hundred feet from the warehouse, as the wind died down, as the flames burned small, I hummed.
The firetrucks came barreling down the bumpy service road from behind me, wailing away their shrill song.
I hummed along as the buildings core gave way, crashing down on top of itself with a pyrotechnic plume.
Ember speckled smoke and dust shot high into the universe above as support beams settled in the rubble.
And here I stand, humming lightly in a blizzard of emergency lights and metro-volcanic ash.
Swimming in a scented sea of burnt Lysol residue and hissing fire hydrant mist.
The concert of screams and combustion forced into resolution.
Smoldering remnants waving a steamy “That’s All Folks” to this evenings audience.
My cars hood still hot from the excitement as I leaned on it, before being approached.
Engulfed in a blaze of fire retardant stares of inquisition and on-the-record questions suing for an answer.
But did I really have an answer?
Happy Birthday Robert.

If you knew me any better, you’d be sure of my intentions; at least I’d hope.
You might be there to describe the morally sound person that you’ve come to know and love.
Attesting, for me, that if I could have done more to help that I would’ve.
But in reality, you don’t know me any more or less than those you’ve known for years.
In truth, you may not even know yourself.
It doesn’t matter how wise or smart or rational you think you are.
It isn’t relevant how long you’ve thought your way through life.
Because in the end, impulse is worth its weight in logic.
Seconds can be constructed into years, and years can be demolished in seconds.
And at the end of day, while relaxing by a warm fire, we can come to terms with that.
We’re human, and emotion controls us all.
After all, years mean nothing when a fraction of a second ultimately ignites one’s fate.
I really hope Hallmark pulls through.
Maybe I ought to check with American Greetings.

‘Plum-Pit’ by Zach Harbaugh

sc june 18

The kids on the bus keep asking me why I smell funny.
But it only makes me cry.
They all turn away to stare out the windows in silence.
Watching the snow fall as I sob quietly to myself.

Later on, in second period, when the student counselor calls me down to her office, she asks the same thing.
Only much nicer.
She asks why my clothes have been dirty for the past few days.
I tell her that the washing machine at Grandma’s house broke down.
I tell her that Grandma is going to take me to the laundry mat today after her nap.
That grandma hadn’t been feeling very well.
She asked me a few more questions about Grandma before sending me back to class.

At lunch, nobody wants to sit next to me.
I smell too bad, my friends say.
I tell them it’s ok.
That I understand.

That’s after I got a rectangular slice of pizza, strawberry milk, and a fruit cup.
After the large lunch lady tells me that my account doesn’t have enough money for the fruit cup.
She gave it to me anyway, with a big smile folding through her pale skin.
A smile that reminded me of Mom.
“Tell your parents to deposit some funds tonight, that way you can have all the fruit cocktail you like!”
This she said as the smile grew wider across her kindhearted face.
Ok, was all that I was brave enough to say.

I sat on the ground outside of the cafeteria doors.
The hard-plastic tray between my legs.
My picture of Mom and Dad, planted firmly in a crack on the concrete floor, kept me company as I ate.
I was just a baby in the picture.
Mom and Dad in silly Christmas sweaters.
Big smiles hung on both faces.
Me in the middle, being held by both of them, sporting a floppy elf hat.
I miss them. I miss them so much.

Vince, a fourth grader, walked out of the bathroom door by the cafeteria.
I tried to hide the picture, but he stopped me before I could, snatching it up in a balled fist.
“What’s this?”
He asked.
“Poor little stinky boy eating all alone?”
He continued with a mimicking voice.
“Oh no, I guess not.”
Vince said as he un-crumpled the photo.
“Who’s this then, huh, Momma and Dadda?”
He asked, speaking like a baby.
“Give it back, Vince.”
I trembled.
“Oh, what’s wrong? Does little smelly miss his mommy and daddy?”
He said, then laughed as he scanned the picture.
“Does someone need his diaper changed?”
“Please Vince, give it back.”
I begged.
“Ok, sure. Yeah, yeah, I’ll give it back.”
He said looking at me, then back to the picture.

Before I could muster the will to stop him, Vince ripped the picture into eight pieces.
He sprinkled the chunks of Mom and Dad onto my half-eaten slice of pizza with a violent smile.
As I reached to gather them together, he stomped his Nike to the tray and ground the pizza to fragments.
After wiping the sole of his shoe off on my jeans, he walked into the cafeteria and sat with my friends.

Mom and Dad’s torn, smiling faces were stained red and riddled with spongey bits of pink shaded dough.
I cleaned them gently with a wetted paper towel, as tears welled up in my eyes.
I locked the handicap stall door and cried silently in its solidarity until the lunch bell rang.

Grandma’s house was old.
The rusted metal gate crunched open as I pushed through it after stepping off the bus.
Mom and Dad’s old car rested, just as mangled as the day they went away, in the snow strewn drive way.
The eighty-year-old lock on the front door resisted hard as I crammed my key into the icy slot.
“Hi Grandma, I’m home.”
I yell through the house, plopping my book bag to the wood floor.
She didn’t respond.
She’s probably napping.
Her hearing aid on the fritz again.

I pick away mold from the bread on the kitchen counter before coating it with the last of our peanut butter.
After making two holy sandwiches, I headed up the stairs to Grandma’s room.
I hoped she would wake up long enough to eat her sandwich; but I knew it was unlikely.
The smell was getting worse.
Grandma’s cat Plum-Pit had started chewing on her toes again.
The scattered plates of uneaten peanut butter sandwiches told me that she still hadn’t woken up.
It’s been eight days now, and I’m starting to worry.
Her skin has turned purple and puffy.
I just hope she wakes up soon.

I kissed her wrinkled forehead and went back to the kitchen to do my homework.
Afterwards I cleaned up Grandma’s room and lit some candles.
Then cleaned a few pairs of clothes with dish soap in the bathtub.
The power went out while I was drying them off with Grandma’s hairdryer.
I lit a few logs in the fireplace and set my wet clothes on the brick mantle in front of it.
It had slowly gotten dark, and the house grew cold quickly.
I headed up to Grandma’s room with my jacket and a flashlight.

“I love you grandma.”
I whispered in her ear as I curled up next to her on the bed and shut my eyes.

The police woke me, banging on the door.
I had overslept and missed the bus.
Someone from the school had called them to perform a welfare check.
This the police men told me when I answered the door.
Once they smelled the inside of the house, they insisted on coming in to talk to Grandma.
I told them she was napping.
I never did get to see Grandma after that.
I sat in the back of a car when they wheeled her out of the house.
The sheet veiling her fluttered in the wind, lifelessly flaccid.
The falling snow adorning her with celebratory flakes.
Plum-Pit leapt up onto the gurney as they began loading her into the ambulance.
Later, the social worker told me that Grandma went to be with Mom and Dad.
I smiled widely at that.
I told the nice lady that Grandma was lucky.
That it didn’t make me sad at all.
I told her this as she plopped Plum-Pit into my lap.
I stroked his back, making his skin crawl with involuntary spasms.
“I hope I get to be with them soon.”
I told the social worker, while wiping the crusted blood off Plum-Pit’s chin.