The Last Cigarette
Walter Regin sat on the edge of his tattered couch, staring through a thick haze of smoke at the flat panel Sony that was mounted neatly on the wall. He had no idea how long he had been transfixed, though the numbness in his ass suggested that it had been a considerable amount of time. Moving to stand, a burning pain seared into the webbing between his left middle and forefinger. Uttering a semi-conscious groan, Walter looked down to see a cigarette burning down to the filter. Reacting with a sort of waking over-awareness, he jumped up and emphatically stamped out the butt.
“Jesus,” Walter moaned, almost as though the lord and savior had appeared and proposed an evening of drunken charades at a retirement home.
As he ran his fingers through his graying hair, he was struck by a surge of self-awareness about what had just happened. Nervous laughter spilled out of him in rivulets. The image of the smoldering carpet resurfaced in his mind, which opened the floodgates between his gut and his mouth. A torrent of laughter, nearly hysterical in both cadence and in pitch, exploded outward, echoing off of the walls in his humble apartment. Walter raised a hand to wipe away the tears of mirth that had welled in his eyes. Instead, he knocked his glasses off with enough force to launch them over the coffee table, which stood halfway between his couch and the television.
Slowly inching his way towards the TV, wondering what the probability that he would crush his glasses was, a fresh wave of laughter engulfed him. Shuffling awkwardly to the side, Walter reached a hand out for the wall to steady himself.
Get a grip, Walt. Do you really want to spend your last moments on earth braying like a jackass?
This thought served as a swift backhand across the rosy cheeks of a drunk. Last moments? Where the hell did that come from? He thought back, but could only remember getting snapped out of a daze by his own burning flesh, anything prior to that was lost. He knelt down, feeling around for his glasses, the question of just what the hell ‘last moments’ meant, rattling around his head like the final Camel in a pack. While the question ticked over and over in his mind, he found his spectacles and returned them to their proper perch.
Cancer? Is it cancer?
Walter’s mind was throwing out answers to satiate the question, which continued to eat at him.
No, it’s not cancer. I just had a checkup two weeks ago and, aside from some chronic back pain, everything was fine. Definitely not cancer, no sir.
There was a strengthening thunder inside his head, running from the top of his spine and tracking all the way around to his temples. Rubbing his neck, Walter stood up slowly from his crouch, grimacing as his knees protested. He still felt dazed, like he had taken a solid blow to the head. The same head which had not only spawned the ‘last moments’ comment but was working tirelessly at driving Walter insane trying to figure out just what the fuck it meant.
Think, Walter. Focus. You came home and turned on the TV. You were looking for the Blues game, wondering why the hell they were playing at 5 o’clock on a Sunday.
His eyes drifted to the coffee table. Sitting neatly on top like a Sherpa perched on high was a bottle of Elijah Craig. This discovery sparked a quick internal debate over whether or not he should imbibe and how it might affect his already clouded mind. Apparently, Walter’s good little angel had taken the day off, as Walter was already walking toward the freezer.
He opened the door, gathered four ice cubes, and dropped them into his glass. A smile had crept across his face, temporarily displacing the increasing unease he had been feeling. He swung the freezer door shut and was greeted by a picture of his four-year-old son, James. Presto. Shazam. Walter’s heart sank into his stomach, his small smile slowly melting into a quivering shape of despair.
Walter had been the type of guy who had never envisioned himself as a father. It’s not that he disliked children, far from it, though he didn’t always know how to act around other people’s kids. Truth be told, it was fear more than anything else. He wasn’t sure he could do it. At thirty-six, Walter had found out that indeed he would be a father. He had a brief mental freak-out that lasted between five to ten seconds, after which joy set in.
From the day his son was born, Walter made it a priority to spend as much time as he could with James. It never failed to blow his mind the ways in which his little boy was so much like himself, his laugh, many of his facial expressions. Being a father had brought untold wealth in Walter’s life, but that wealth had been getting sucked dry recently. Six months of only seeing his son via Skype, missing out on the hugs, missing out on being in his son’s life in a truly significant way.
Moving back towards the coffee table and its prized bourbon, Walter glanced down at the wedding ring he hadn’t bothered to stop wearing. It had been six months, and his heart was still shrouded in a fugue. It wasn’t so much that he missed Veronica, his wife of seven years. True, he had loved her dearly and wanted to grow old with her, but their relationship had been fraught with issues over recent years. Of course, if you had asked Veronica, it was over Walter’s “lack of motivation”.
He had been a sportswriter in St. Louis for fifteen years, covering hockey for the Post-Dispatch. Along with this, Walter had contributed articles to several sports websites as well as co-hosted a hockey talk show on WXOS. He had recently begun a podcast, which was developing a very nice following. To many people, Walter appeared to be very successful at his trade. To Veronica, he was simply “wallowing” and “incapable of advancing his life or career”.
What a bitch.
Indeed, Walter had been doing very well. Well enough, in fact, when Veronica got pregnant, Walter moved them out of the city and into a very nice house in Clayton, far away from the noise and crime of the city. For a while, things were good, if not great, with the two of them. They seemed to reconnect, going back in time to when they first started dating. Veronica was enthralled by the idea of being a mother and starting a home in a nice suburb, outside of the city.
For his part, Walter embraced life outside of the city. There was a spare room above the garage that he had converted into an office, and the quieter lifestyle meshed well with him. Walter knew that it would be a much better location to raise his son, which held precedence over everything else. As James grew, so did Walter’s love of his family and their home. Things were perfect.
Fatherhood had a profound impact on Walter. Every cliché that his friends and family had told him about becoming a parent had proven true. Work always kept him very busy, but time was always made to spend with his son. By the time James was two, Walter was taking him to Blues practices and occasionally to games. James had built quite a collection of autographs and was developing his own love of hockey. Walter had bought him a net, which they would often set up in the driveway for evening father-son games.
James was learning how to skate and was already showing a high level of proficiency for his age. The pride that Walter had in his son had been growing exponentially, and he often found himself in awe over how much love he had inside. While his bond with his son grew stronger each day, his relationship with his wife soon started to deteriorate, ostensibly quicker than before.
For all of the positives that Walter’s job granted him, there were drawbacks. The one that Veronica always hammered him about was the amount of time that he was away from home. Covering the Blues meant traveling with the team, which would often see Walter was gone for a week at a time, visiting such far-off locales as Minneapolis, Edmonton, and Los Angeles. This was something that Walter had always enjoyed, although the joy diminished once James was born.
While he didn’t enjoy being away from home for extended periods of time, he could handle it. What he couldn’t handle was having his son used as a wedge to try and force him out of either his home or his career, which is exactly what had happened.
It was January of last year, and Walter was preparing for a west coast road trip. He would be gone for eight days, which he was not looking forward to. The trade-off was that he had four days off beforehand, and another three after coming home. As Walter anticipated, Veronica didn’t see any upside. There was only the negative, and she took that ball and ran with it. She had been drinking, which eroded what small amount of control she normally had over her emotions. No sooner had he told her about the trip and the cushion of time off before she flew off the handle.
“A week,” she screamed, almost spitting at him. “What kind of father leaves his son for a week?”
Walter stood in the doorway to their bedroom, wishing that he had stopped off for a shot or two of bourbon before delivering the news to her. The thought of his young son being in a home with two drunken parents who were constantly at each other’s throats hurt his heart and he was glad he had abstained.
“It’s my job, Veronica.” He was talking in a very slow, deliberate manner. In his mind, he was maintaining calm, trying to diffuse this bomb before it exploded, ripping his family apart in the process. In Veronica’s mind, he was being a condescending prick, a thought that she didn’t hide.
“Don’t you talk to me like I’m a fucking child Walter!” She drained her wine glass and began eying the half-empty bottle.
The venom in her tone had multiplied. As she stepped closer to Walter, he could smell the alcohol on her breath. There was a gleam in her eyes that went beyond the booze; it went beyond her irrational anger. To Walter, it looked like hate.
“Mister big shot fucking sportswriter,” she sneered. Walter marveled as the gorgeous young woman he had fallen in love with and married turned into a bitter and wholly disgusting hag in one facial gesture.
“Veronica,” he began, taking a step away to maintain separation. “We’ll discuss this in the morning, you’re dr”—
She cut him off, her eyes wider than ever, her mouth frothing as it spewed forth a fresh measure of invective.
“What, drunk?” she asked incredulously. “Wow! My husband would rather fuck off with a hockey team for a week than spend time with his family, so I’m drinking! Who would have guessed?”
Her sneer grew larger, more grotesque. There was no question for Walter now, it was hate, and she intended to hurt him. Now his guard was up, and his temper was following suit.
“You’re a worthless fucking husband, a worthless fucking father, you”—
It was Walter’s turn to do the cutting-off, only he didn’t do so with words. Instead, he briskly, almost matter-of-factly, slapped her across her face. Veronica stepped back, her mouth agape, totally astonished that she had been hit.
Walter didn’t sneer or even smirk, but he kept his shoulders squared and looked his wife dead in the eye.
“It’s my turn to talk.”
Veronica started to open her mouth in protest, but Walter clenched his jaw and held up one stern finger. Veronica, perhaps thinking she was about to be struck again, closed her mouth with a snap.
“You can say whatever you want about my job, just remember that my job is what paid for this house. My job is what pays for all of the bottles of wine that you continuously pump into yourself.”
Walter could feel his anger rising. There was a dull ache throughout his head. He hated arguing, but after the tongue-lashing he had just been subjected to, he wasn’t about to back down and slink away.
“Feel free to criticize my job in any way you like, but remember that you live off of my work.”
Veronica’s eyes drifted downward, away from Walter.
“Look at me!” he barked at her. She brought her gaze back up to his, and Walter could see tears welling in her eyes. It hurt him, but he continued. She had hurt him, and he intended to return serve.
“Don’t you dare question me as a father to my son. I mean you have got to be fucking kidding me. I come home at six o’clock, six o’fucking clock to find my wife drunk. Not only that but still drinking! The only adult here with my son is his drunken fucking mother, yet you have the gall to call me a bad father?”
Walter had moved toward the door, stopping momentarily as if the clip he thought was empty actually held another round. Thinking better of it, he had walked out of the room without another word.
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