by Brian J. Lewis

The wind waves a small American flag, the only moving thing on the chilly apartment balcony until a white-haired old man shuffles out the sliding door. Cigarette ready in hand, he lights it with a well-worn Zippo lighter. It’s engraved, a souvenir of his time in Vietnam. Why he re-enlisted was always a mystery. Most soldiers had more than enough of the blood, sweat, bullets, and pain during their first tour in that napalm hell. But that became his normal. In the jungle, nobody questioned his actions or why he enjoyed killing. It was more than just a job he had to do. Out in the oppressive heat of the jungles and rice paddy slogs, he was free in a way that was unavailable stateside. The dog was off the chain and running wild.

Letters from those who made it home didn’t paint many pretty pictures. Unfaithful wives and girlfriends running off to shack up with some draft-dodging longhair. Kids you barely knew stared at your scars with fearful eyes. Either that, or they didn’t understand why you weren’t a fan of playing War. Hey, you had the outfit, right? But they’d never seen their best buddy get blown to hell by a hidden mine, body fluids and pieces of flesh raining down. Not to mention your own family selling the souped-up Dodge you’d so lovingly put into storage when you got called up. The only thing left was a stupid sign you painted in High School saying “Mopar or NO CAR!” When the kid next door came home in a box, they just figured you were a goner, too. So, they slapped an ad in the paper and sold your dreams for two hundred lousy bucks. It was like being released from prison and coming home to a kennel.

The flag keeps waving as the old man lights a second cigarette from the butt of the first one. He still keeps the cherry concealed behind his hand, to avoid attracting enemy fire. Old habits die hard. As he sucks in another lungful of rich smoke, his body starts to spasm, mouth going slack. The spasms turn into deep coughs racking the man’s now frail body. He flops about like an out-of-control puppet.

“Hack hack hack! Hoog! Hooog! Hooooog! Ahhh-HAAACCCKKK!”

A huge wad of yellow mucus lands in the wife’s potted plant but at least he can breathe again. The man quickly brings the cigarette to his lips and refills his lungs with smoke. His doctor has warned him to slow down, encouraged him to quit. But the doctor is just some kid with a mustache that looks like he drew it on with a sharpie. Always wears a pink tie, too. So what does he know about life? Back when he was in the service, cigarettes were good for you, beer had vitamins, and nobody wore a pink tie unless they were looking for a busted lip. Uncle Sam even handed out two free packs with the weekly rations, along with rubbers, candy bars, and razors. He always traded the chocolate bars for smokes.

As the night comes on, a breeze comes in from the east and makes lighting the third cigarette a challenge. But the old man’s smoked in rougher conditions than this. He looks around the crumby, post-industrial city he’s stuck in and grimaces. This isn’t where he wanted to retire, but Clarice wanted to be close to her family. Oh yay…She hates that he still smokes and makes him do it outside. Whatever, he likes being by himself anyway. Out here he doesn’t have to listen to Clarice’s sister rattle on about what surgery she’s having next or whether margarine is just as good as butter. She made her husband quit “that nasty habit.” Now good boy Ralph just sits there silently holding his hat over his crotch while the two sisters blab.

Another round of coughing rocks the old man in his flimsy plastic chair. He grimly endures it, knowing it’ll pass. In the distance, a train whistle blows as the 7:15 rumbles down the tracks just a block away. They sure didn’t mention that wonderful feature in the apartment listing! Damn it, why can’t he stop coughing? The old man fights to pull in some kind of breath, smoke, anything, but the gates are down, blocking his way, alarm bells clanging in his head. The tracks are bathed in yellow light as the huge freight train roars into view.

With his last bit of energy, the old man launches himself towards the balcony railing, hoping to dislodge the sticky blob of mucus blocking his trachea. Just a little air, a little time, a little rest. Train cars roar past, chained to each other like prisoners of war; some scream as they are dragged along. Whugguh-chuggah, wugguh-chuggah…Screee…reee…eeee! The old man appears to be dancing to the rhythm of diesel and steel. That familiar petroleum stink filling the air. A thin stringer of drool stretches down from his mouth to the asphalt below. They often lit the flamethrowers with their cigarette butts, everything bursting into dancing orange and blue flames, sucking up all the oxygen in the jungle air until there was nothing left.

The thud of the old man’s body is masked by the passing train, and no one notices that he’s not standing there when it passes. Inside, just feet away, on the other side of the sliding glass door, Clarice continues talking to her sister. Together they wonder just who will be the ten-thousand-dollar winner on this season of, “Baking With Rich Movie Stars’ Kids That Nobody Likes,” or a similarly themed reality game show. Ralph holds his hat in his lap and keeps quiet because those are his orders. Out on the balcony, the flag still waves in the wind as a thin ribbon of smoke slowly spirals skyward.


Image by Sandeep Singh via Pexels