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Another beautiful day lay glittering and pulsing before me as I paused at the top of the church steps; happy or presumably happy vacationers walked up and down the sidewalks of Washington Street, going to the beach or wandering into and out of the shops, and even though I no longer really believed in Catholicism I still felt that old feeling of accomplishment on leaving confession, that feeling of starting anew, of attempting to get through at least the next hour before falling into a state of black sin all over again.
Contentedly I patted my pockets for my cigarettes.
Then I remembered that I had decided to try to start quitting today, that I had told myself I wouldn’t have another cigarette till after lunch, and that, even more horrifying, in my insanity of good intentions I hadn’t brought my cigarettes with me.
At once a tidal wave of nausea rose up from my stomach into my throat. I choked it back down and then I felt an overweight mouse inside my skull chewing greedily at my brain cells.
My spit tasted like used motor oil. I swallowed it down and at once was racked with another brutal surge of nausea.
I grabbed the cast iron rail and staggered down the steps, barely keeping in what had so recently been a quite enjoyable breakfast of scrapple and eggs, home-fries and breaded fried tomatoes washed down with my usual copious cups of strong black Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee. My legs felt as if they were made of Silly Putty, and my Bermuda shorts and polo shirt had become soaked with icy sweat in a matter of seconds.
I found myself sitting on a wooden bench on the corner by the church, bent over, staring down at the shimmering sidewalk. Many wonderful cigarette butts lay like precious little tubes of ecstasy upon the concrete, jetsam of another beer-drenched summer Friday night at the shore. I saw one fat unfiltered butt, only half smoked at best, perhaps even my own brand, Pall Mall, although my eyes were so clouded I could not be sure. I reached down, almost vomiting again, and picked it up. Breathing heavily, licking my parched lips with my swollen leathery tongue, with trembling fingers I smoothed out the butt. It would do. It would do just fine, thank you very much. Just two or three drags, that sharp strong tarry smoke filling my mendicant ravaged lungs, and I would be whole again, human again, or at least as human as I could reasonably expect to be.
I patted my pockets again. But no, no, of course not, I had had to be a tough guy. I had left my lighter at home with my cigarettes.
The aforementioned vacationers marched to and fro before me, dressed in their hideous seaside attire of flaming dacrons and polyesters, strutting men with murderous scowls and frightened eyes, women with stiff sprayed hair like the headdresses of pagan priestesses, and screaming feral children veering dangerously off the curb, apparently intent on throwing themselves underneath the burning tires of an endless stream of enormous dirty belching automobiles packed with yet more family groups of Nazis, carnival hucksters, thieves, murderers, and maniacs.
All I had to do was bum a light.
Half the people going by me were smoking. Happily, contentedly smoking in the shining hot sunlight, the pale smoke swirling up and disappearing into the bright blue indifferent sky, into that great bottomless maw of a universe without meaning.
But then I sat up a little straighter and I thought: is it really true I can’t go more than two hours without a cigarette? That I would stoop so low as to fish a butt from the sidewalk?
Then of course I remembered some other occasions when I had done just that, usually when stumbling home drunk, the only other passersby my fellow wretched inebriates wandering the haunted night-time streets like some exiled race of the damned.
I took a deep breath, and coughed only a little bit. My mouth had gone bone dry over the past few minutes, but now I could actually feel a drop of moisture in there, and it did not even taste of death and ashes.
The corpulent mouse was still ensconced in my head, but he had stopped chewing. I supposed he was full, and taking a post-prandial nap.
My breakfast had receded from my chest to a defensive position just below my solar plexus, nervously awaiting instructions from HQ.
I looked at the butt. It was an Old Gold, not my brand. I flicked it away.
I took another deep breath, and stood up. The world rocked and moaned but did not fly apart or implode.
I felt my soaked shirt drying on my shoulders and back.
I launched myself forth into the stream of ambulatory humanity, my legs once again feeling if not quite like legs then at least not like something you would find sticking out of a beached octopus or squid, and the pavement unfolded obediently under the soles of my Keds, with only the occasional slight ripple or tilt.
I thought it best to head straightaway for Mrs. Biddle’s house and my appointment with Larry Winchester.
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