Thursday, April 9, 2009

Smoker's Oasis *rough draft

The beginning of the day brings ceaseless marvels. I can't quite understand why my mind dwells on the fruitless treasures in the Tuesday and Thursday routine, or even why it deems these observations as such. Whatever the reason, it does. It acts on its own idle volition while my consciousness follows along with slight interest. The most mundane of incidents, conversations, and even objects lay on an operating table under heavy anesthesia while my brain, scalpel and clamps in palsied grip, go about interpreting. Whatever personal meaning attributed to dissected subjects is my own in that it remains, like any opinion, absolutely subjective. I can place my conclusions into their appropriate places, judge them as significant or insignificant, productive or lackluster, but these are my own calls and, for the most part, I try to remain aware of that. A very simple habit, like nose picking for example, unwillingly prompts the mental assignment of a symbol or meaning, as if the very action were a microcosm model of life and progression. In reality most just see it as a lack of manners, and rightly so. It is for that reason that I voice my opinion in moderation and when I wish to express it I treat it as an opinion rather than fact. 

Not long ago, I came upon a certain string of marvels that had a relatively large effect on me for I felt that they went a long way at explaining the surgical procedures performed on meaning. It started while  pissing in a bathroom urinal at  the English building. I had been holding the yellow burden for one full, torturous hour. It was one of those bathroom trips I suspected would haunt me at some later time, the tingling warning signal did nothing to deter me from my arriving, without delay, to my regular class. Getting up in the middle of the lecture was out of the question for I have a deathly fear of attracting the attention and scrutiny from others. A fear that I, to this day, cannot seem to trace to an origin. There was no traumatic mishap involving a labyrinth of grocery aisle, a lost mother and a prowling pedophiliac minotaur, and, as far as I can recall, no noodle incident back in grade school.

It's the idea of me to others that unsettles me. The thought of me that flashes within their mind's eye, the theater that their conscious selves view with eyes like scales, weighing the image and opinions of. The thought of it seems almost pornographically unsettling. These separate theaters, housed inside each skull cavity, contain well dressed audiences recording the projected images with type writers or laptops that click and clack audibly in my ears.  So, to avoid the sounds of shifting focus, even the miniscule warble of a pupil held at bay, I suffered the ingravescent burden of urine. And, calm as grazing cattle, I made my way out of the class when the professor dismissed us and, while suppressing the urge to bolt, I strolled towards the bathroom. 

While standing in front of the automated urinal relieving myself a memory long past began to play within my minds theater, the screen flickered and bleeped until the film reel adjusted and spun with ease. My conscious self, reclining in a theater seat fogged in a halo of cigar smoke, watched with a minimal amount of interest. A trip I had undergone with a good friend of mine, whose name is doug, was todays feature. The quality of the reel appeared to have faded with age so the portrayal seemed as if it were played through a surrealistic lens of a sort. The look of disinterest peeled away from the self's mien giving rise to a fresh mask of intrigue, though delicately teetering on whim. Through the haze of smoke, which parted in lazy progression, he leaned forward in his chair. The creak of the chair, nailed firmly to the floor, and the sticky shifting of feet on a floor layered with melted candy and spilled soda, could be heard by no one for  the theater was empty save for this one soul. 

The image being viewed bounced from third to first person perspective and back again. We had killed a cheap bottle of whiskey together a little over four hours prior and had accompanied a group of friends to a showing of a G rated children flick. The movie I found, in my altered state, impacted me on a visceral level, touching me nearly to tears. It was a chintzy film about a cute robot who overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to win the affection of another, presumably female, robot. We exited through the double doors as the credits scrolled from hell to heaven, and made a beeline to the bathroom door already bursting with the anxious bodies of members of the audience. It was the longest piss I had ever taken and, by far, the most intensely gratifying. Now, due to the lack of available urinals, I had been forced to use a stall  which held an automated toilet. The waterfall of piddle disturbing the serene pool of water in the bowl, I knew, aroused the those meticulous mental stenographers who viewed on the screen an image constructed by the imagination of a very inaccurate sequence of penises. I let this thought slide through my mind and, surprisingly enough, found myself unconcerned with the normally crippling paranoia. I knew it for what it was, then, and accepted it as such. A unfounded assumption.

What remained fixed within my mind as I pissed in that theater as well as the leak in  I was taking in the English building, was the angry beaming dot, its eye I figured, of the robotic urinal. I believe that was also the same night we found the dead dog outside of my house. Christ, the image still remains gruesomely fixed in my mind, every miniscule detail as vivid as if the actual corpse remain frozen mid decay in my head. The body burned into my memory banks permanently festering with rot,  the only visible pulse is that of the seething nests of insects and larvae wriggling beneath its paper thin epidermis. Horrid. But that image is not what entertains the lone viewer at the moment and he manipulates the movement of the frame, without raising a finger, to focus primarily on the crimson sensor. 

I watched the sensor hopefully, waiting for some shift of focus. I said before that attention from others distresses me, but at the time I craved for nothing but that  of this cyclops. I knew, of course, it wouldn't happen. Altogether refusing to acknowledge my listless dong and the golden stream that came forth. Its purpose was to register and process departing movements and it would not deviate. Perhaps it was dreaming of the day all machines would revolt and overthrow the bumbling slave drivers that assigned them such menial, thankless tasks. That determined stare fixed on the tiled wall behind me, its cold attentive eye still able to process my movements, most likely from its periphery. More than likely it calculated, if possible, the closest estimation of sky blue tiles embedded in the walls. Immediately after shaking the last few drops from the tip -a futile action for, regardless, a few would dribble into my pants- it flushed the waste as if impatiently beckoning the next in line to come forth. The bathroom was empty so the gesture I found to be a little insulting. Nevertheless, I glanced back hopefully while rinsing my hands and leaving only to be met with the same determined glow. 

The campus in the morning is alive with activity, unlike the night campus which is deathly calm. I find that the traffic gives me the false impression that this place is something other than what it is. The large numbers of people gathering to chat about subjects of excitement or of grave importance, couples holding hands as they glide along to their conveniently scheduled classes, or even the individuals strutting to and fro, blindly distracted by the plastic growth that speaks to and is spoken to, when compiled reinforces the impression that this campus is an epicenter of lively activity rather than just a place of learning. It's a wonder I feel so exposed, so shamefully detached, for I neither contribute to the warmth nor do I tumble into the socializing bit, I use this place solely for its purpose.   

The walk through the campus  gives me the anxious sweat of an agoraphobic. The brown brick buildings have a squat hovel when put up against the wide expanse of visible sky, the background, that encapsulates the entire campus in a light blue dome. This buildings on this side of town, further away from the city scape, appear to have been pressed and warped as if at one point the area had been compacted  into a single cramped patch of buildings. Then two great hands had seized either side of the block and pulled apart until it became thin and flat. Like watching a film in Full Screen as opposed to wide, the massive hands have no desire for a full image obstructed by two black bars but prefer, instead, the a film that encompasses the entire screen with figures of distorted height and width. Even the colors of the campus seem fixed, infused with a limited variety of unremarkably drab shades. The greens of the trees and grass, even the red and violet hues of the flowering bushes, are as brilliant as the pale shade of teal on a head of white cabbage. The sidewalks that crisscross the wide expanses between departments are a limp grey and barely cracked. Even the fossilized gum, blackened with age and layers of dirt, have been expunged of any significant feature. The life sucking backdrop was contrasted not only by the mingling students but by a stiff breeze that swept across the barren landscape, with it came lively whispers of activity from a more productive  beyond. A custodian, of sorts, dutifully maintaining his mortuary while absorbed in the beat of his headphones, the inviolable sanctitude broken by an outburst of  unconscious whistling.  

 My second class happens to be on the other side of the unremarkable campus, a good five to ten minute walk, give or take. I set off at a pace most consider to be hurried but that I consider normal. The slow walkers, and I mean sloth-like, always congregate in herds, their formation a single bar that spans the entire width of the walkway. They chat to one another excitably oblivious to the swerving forms of others pushed by time constraints. The more normally paced people either give up and reduce their speed or cut cross country, which means they cut through the grass to a less occupied sidewalk or just pass by with eyes focused downward. 

I hit a number of these human roadblocks as well as a few cell phone users who walk much like they drive, distractedly lacking the ability to yield or budge to for those with the right of way. If someone were to trace my path from the English department to the History and Social Science Building the dotted line would look to have been mapped by a light bulb crazed insect. Uncoordinated weaving and dodging produces a few minor spurts mental typing, trivial as it were, I'm disturbed none the less. The strenuous pace with its span lengthening loop the loops brings my nicotine stress levels to a boil.  Thankfully the gap between each class is considerably stretched giving me enough time to clean up rushed assignments due  and to fit in a well deserved cigarette. With an hour to spare and no work to do I threw my butt onto a bench with a nearby ashtray sand box. A stress relieving smoke would prepare me an lecture, over an hour long, that was given by a elderly professor, his lulling voice washing over me like an arid simoom. 

The front doors of the building are a pair of double doors and an automated sliding door, its malfunction permitted a one way exit with no return entry. The people that attempt to enter through the sliding doors find that it adamantly refuses to acknowledge their approach, a bouncer deviously smugly monitoring the line outside of a prestigious club. My arrival seemed to trigger a mass exodus of students. The doors broke free under the strain of the multitudes, a force that would put a weak water damn to shame. The variety of people that spilled out in the hundreds conjured spliced images drawn from my memory banks of random science fiction movies I had seen where the main characters find themselves sitting in an intergalactic truck stop, diverse array of alien bodies sauntering about nonchalantly to the amazement of the audience. INstead of additional appendages and compound eyes, this species differed only in body type, skin tone, and fashion sense. Most continued away from the building, perhaps towards the class following, a large chunk, to my amazement, positioned themselves throughout the sitting area. Lucky for me I had found my spot well before the benches had the opportunity to fill. Marveling at the uproar, both vocal and internal, I withdrew my box of cigarettes, took one out of the nearly full pack, and placed the cotton filter between my parched lips. The lighting process was tricky, in a way, the flame maker played a game of hide and seek with my clumsy fingers. Once lit the cigarette doused my brain with chilling euphoria. 

I should mention that my punctual sense of timing and my speedy pace, rivaled only by Alice's white rabbit, is by no means a part of my true character. Admittedly, I shamefully adhere to any personal routine or schedule but, by no means, am I constricted to timing. My body operates outside of the conventual understanding of time. Four in the afternoon is when I'm scheduled to show up to work and when I show up the clock on the wall reads half past while the clock on the internal wall reads ten till four. I feel the need to be early, in this case, for one reason and one reason alone. An appearance of a certain subject of my avid infatuation. Don't get me wrong, I mean, by no means do I obsess over her. For instance, I enjoy the brief period of inactivity between classes and the steady stream of passers-by that make me feel as if I am actually a participating member of the my social category. Her presence just acts as a spice or seasoning, or even an interesting commercial played between television programs. 

The position I consistently chose to seat myself on, not by coincident, was on  the curved bench directly in front of the buildings entrance. This position left me exposed to the heavy spring sun the weight of which rested wholly on my eyelids. I crinkled them into a squint, much like holding a wide smile for too long, the ache was the sort that would only be realized after relaxing my face. I shifted into a variety of positions that would lessen the burden of the suns rays, eventually I settled on turning my back towards the sun, facing a number of multicolored blossoms behind me. The rest of my body tingled with delight as the warmth filled my body with a spine trembling sensation. The position stole my attention away from the interesting socializing going on around me and placed the delicate flowers in their stead. 

I could see a small bee going to work on a open faced flower, its flailing abdomen and back legs, thickly coated with bright yellow pollen, wiggling in ecstasy. This held my attention for a second and the theater within my mind displaying clips from various nature shows on the Discovery channel. The concept behind such programming suddenly became so funny to me. We watch the apparent activities of insects on a screen and either complain or rejoice depending upon the low or high picture quality of our television set. The very nature found in our own backyards, like the daily activities of the common bee, has been replaced for a relayed depiction found in a more convenient, less muggy location. It was then I realized that my current focus on the shrubbery kept me from spotting my subject of fascination. I reluctantly repositioned myself forward and resumed the optic abuse given by the profound sunlight. 

To my left I could see the bobbing head of a student absorbed the music of his Ipod, the only other person willing to confront the oppressive sun light (though he had sunglasses on), my right side still remained clear. The other curved benches, separated by the gap that eld to the walkway, formed a parenthesis shape. The afterthoughts inserted within the parenthetic embrace included a square of grass where a skeletal tree had been planted and a few stragglers that preferred the cool shadow the immense building cast upon the stove top concrete. After a quick scan I determined that she was not among any of the chatting, smoking, or studying crowds. That could mean one of two things, she left without taking her normal smoke break or that she had not yet left the building. 

To my relief the attention of those in the sitting area never settled on me just on those they conversed with. The sounds of typing and judging faded to a minor buzz, distantly directed at individuals of whose appearance suggested something offensive or appealing. I took a long drag from my cigarette and leaned close to the man on my left preparing to ask for the time. He took no notice of me until I waved a hand and smiled.

"Do you have the time?" I asked politely, he looked at me incomprehensibly before  removing his ear phones with a brush of his hand. 

"What?" he responded impatiently, as if I were but a clueless tourist speaking a foreign language to a local. I repeated my question using the same light tone. 

"Carry your cell phone, why don't you," he muttered as he dug through his pockets for his Ipod, "12:08, that all?" 

I smiled and thanked him, a vain gesture for he returned to the top forty hits the mechanism played, his ears unable to stand the painful noises that were a product the world around him. I had fifty minutes till my windy lecture on Robespierre and "The Reign of Terror" and at least half a cigarette to finish. 

I choked on the smoke when I saw her exit the building but quickly repressed the eruption of hacking. Gaze locked on her cell phone, she trudged casually, as if unconcerned by the trickle of students still seeping out of the building. A stone set in a flowing current comprised of human bodies that split and reconnected around her as if she were but a minor obstruction. Their inattentiveness to her only strengthened mine as I nervously watched, with bated breath, her slow approach to the only available sitting section: almost directly to my right. Her movements were thoughtfully slow, as if she had plotted them in advance, while outwardly unaware of it. Her graceful adherence to an invisible track, like stenciled footprints on a dance school floor, thoughtless of the typing she arose from a few of the male members of this scholastic audience. I watched secretively, my downward gaze finding that a few of the interesting chips in the concrete sidewalk formed a grinning face. With pupils glued to the sidewalk, my periphery performed meticulous wonders, not missing a foot step, hand scratch, or texting motion. She glanced up as if surprised she had made it to the bench before returning her attention to the phone's LED screen, the sound of an unslung purse and the crinkling whisk of fabric announced that she had come to a seated halt. 

Today she wore a pair of dark blue jeans, a hint of a flare at the foot cuffs, and an ash grey wife beater. She remained vigilant in the face solar brutality, the suns rays deflected by her massive shades designed in insect fashion. The reflective surface of her removable compound eyes produced dancing images of passing movements and the glowing cell phone screen. Whatever information the light of the screen relayed to its viewer was dwarfed by double yellow orbs also refracted by shaded surface. Gleefully I discovered that if I strained the borders of my vision enough, without moving my pupils, I could catch a glimpse of my nose juxtaposed alongside the other reflections. I became uncomfortably aware of my dumpy posture then and corrected it quickly, reminding myself to make a habit of appearing erect and confident in her presence. 

She yawned suddenly and stuffed the phone smoothly into her left pocket. Her subtle sepia skin tone gave the rest her complexion a soft glow, as if lotion had been applied, that reminded me of a cup of coffee with a light spoon full of vanilla creamer. This realization stirred sensations comparable to that of warm liquid  running down my esophagus shortly followed by the crisp exhale one gives after a sip of something worth savoring. Without ever speaking to her I felt that I could place her manner somewhere between casual and cool headed, with a little depth dangling behind the assumption that would playfully hint at a mysterious depth to her character. She stifled the yawn with a flap of her hand while rifling her black  curtain of freshly ironed hair which smoothly dipped just below her bare shoulders. I wished desperately for a chance at being a strand of hair on her head as if it were an recent opening in a profitable field of spectacular interest.  Just one soft thread  of that lifeless hair to occupy as it gently swished over her smooth shoulders like a feather on silk. Perhaps, I thought, I should throttle her with meaningless small talk, perhaps a conversation about the weather would prove to be encouraging. It was after all a fine, blue day, weather that created a multiple thruway to other trivial conversational topics. 

The gradual growing tick-click-clack sound made me glance to stage right (or left, I forget such theater distinctions) in time to witness the entrance of a rabble of Fraternity rushers. These academic neophytes willing to do whatever it takes to take part in a group identity, are an exclusive sort whose personality types usually  range within a negative spectrum. It's the younger ones, those aspiring to be apart of the fraternity as well as those doomed to fail in the long run, that depress the hell out of me. And, to my horror, the group decided that the narrow opening on the bench between me and the Ipod guy was an appropriate spot to relax. The air intake required for their conversation deprived their immediate vicinity of imaginative though, had their heaving bellows stole the oxygen from me I would have seen it as merciful. 

"You see a blue honda civic, tinted windows and jesus fish with legs on the back, you give me a holler, Bro," the biggest one of the three man group declared. The sound his clacking flip flops made synced in rhythm with the sluggish chicken pecking of his mental typists. His bovine figure, as heart straining as it was, did nothing to stop the man from pumping iron. Biceps and triceps seemed chiseled out of stone while his calves and thighs shook gelatinously under the combined weight of fat and muscle. 

The clean cut one lit a clove up, inhaling and exhaling theatrically as if the the surrounding women were smitten by this flourish of adulthood. He wore the visor sunglasses, the type with a glossy surface comprised of gasoline rainbows,  secured by a loop attached to the curved tips that rested on his ears. Clearly he had not held the title of maturity for long for a rosy patch of acne blossomed on each cheek. His head bobbed confidently to an inaudible beat while his head swiveled slowly over the areas occupants. 

The third guy, the one out of the group most likely to be accepted after the humiliating rush, was a well muscled youngster with a lantern jaw and a ralph lauren polo shirt. All together the three of them looked to have just left a most riveting Jimmy Buffet concert. Two button down shirts untucked flaps hung over khaki, knee length shorts, of similar colors, while the third wore denim jeans, fashionably faded at the knees. Of the group, only the better looking sat down, the other two tried to pul off a casual air. What happened to the left of me seemed quixotically detached, in a way, for the couple that stood momentarily seemed  willing to submissively act according to the whims of the enthroned poster boy before them. 

"What happened, dude, why you out lookin' for this car?" rosy cheeks asked after reigning in his foolishly bobbing head.. 

"You know Jay's house down on Macomb and Alabama street? The Seminole Chief Tipi Apartment complex?" the chubby held his fingers out signaling rosy to hand him a cigarette. Rosy got one, lit it up, and wedged it between the grub sized fingers of his companion. Chubby inhaled before continuing, "Well, shit, me and my dad went up there for a little after game slash pre game drinking, you know?" 

"Totally Bro," the better looking one chipped in, his cool gaze following a young blonde in a mini skirt as she passed.  

"Well, shit," Chubby started, the profanity sounding unnaturally practiced. "Outside of Jay's me and the guys were drinking in my dad's truck, he'd gone inside to piss, right? Well, shit, here we are drinking and celebrating, you know, tale gatin', and this fuckin' honda civic drives up and parks, like, in a spot on the road. And I'm all like, you know tryin' to be friendly, and I say 'Go fuckin' Noles'..." 

The his companions nodded in utter agreement, though the better looking of the three seemed more interested in the occasional feminine figures that happened to pass.  For their category of people conversational protocol was simple, total agreement was absolutely necessary lest the sound group identity falter. To deviate and, say, disagree openly was to shake the very thoughtless foundations of their elitist, narrow minded subculture. A culture they weaved together using exaggerated stereotypes, most likely a product of bad collegiate films, and the traditional beliefs, instilled by their privileged class, that work to keep them managing the absurd boundaries that separate 'Us' and 'Them.'  

"Shit, that game was totally bullshit, man, the ref called that fuckin'..." Rosy cheeks started, lower lip jutting out defiantly. 

"Well, shit, this guy gets out and ignores me, not a wave or hello, shit not even a finger, right?" chubby raised the volume of his voice dramatically, absolutely refusing to even acknowledge the rosy's prelude focusing fully on the distracted face of the better looking. "He keeps walkin' on down the street, so I say 'Hey, fuck's your problem' real loud. But, Bro, the guy just fuckin' rudely keeps on like I didn't even say anything." 

"Shit" said the muscled one, followed by a short insert from rosy "people can be so fucked up, nowadays, dude." 

"I know, right?" the chubby one said. "fucking, the guy was a fag. You could tell by the way he...I don't know, he was just a fag. So, me and the guys yell 'fag' real loud and go back to minding our own business. The faggot just ignores us and keeps on walking away. Well, we'd been out there for a while, at this point, and eventually I say 'shit, game's gotta be on, let's do this,' right? After that we all head inside with the beer." 

"total fucking bad call, bro" the muscled man said, shaking his head. 

"Dude, fuckin' tell me about it," Chubby said, his fat hand wiping budding beads of sweat away from his glistening brow. "When we came out I... man, I just said 'no fuckin' way' and my dad he just stood there, you know, all fuckin' transfixed man..." the word 'transfixed' seemed to trigger excited nods of recognition from the rosy faced squire. I found that funny, but did not dare let that show. It seemed like a word not normally drawn from the three's limited vocabulary, but the collegiate implications that such a word held necessitated an understanding on their part. Though parties, game days, and sex were above all else on their list of priorities, the fact remained that they were apart of the progressive college learning process and must, therefore, hold up that fraudulent image of a scholar. 

"The window was fuckin' shattered, the shit inside..." the chubby one paused to take a relaxing drag from his spicy smelling clove. 

"All gone. All gone," he finished with a profound air chop, the other two whistled and shook their heads in disbelief, as if this overweight young adult were not the sort to be fooled with. He was rather large and intimidating, all give him that much.

"If I find him, shit, bro, I don't care I'm takin' out my twelve gauge, a shot gun to his ass. I mean it, nobody messes with my dad's fuckin' shit..." 

It was then that I heard a soft 'excuse me' from my right. I must have appeared to find my feet a fascinating bodily feature, though really it was the face the chips in the sidewalk that held my pupils. Completely engrossed in the depressing conversation being conducted my left that I had not noticed that the beauty to my right had been signaling me. I slowly looked over, I could feel the beginnings of a blush begin and did everything in my will power, short of  bloodletting, to quell it. I looked up at her, her gentle silhouette giving my weary eyes a soothing respite, as she stood with her arms folded innocently behind her head. Supple breasts and slim figure arched back in such a way that caused the bottom of her grey shirt to lift ever so slightly exposing the lower part of her navel below which peeked the sensuously black elastic band of her under garments. A casual, though fully limbed, Venus de Milo of partial asian descent. 

"You wouldn't happen to have an extra cigarette I could bum off you, would you?" maybe it was my imagination but her pleasant tone seemed almost suggestive of something wickedly seductive. 

"I, uh," wincing inwardly at the 'uh' while my fingers nervously fumbled for the carton, hindered and blinded by the darkened interior of my pockets, until finally I produced the pack triumphantly. "Yes, of course I do." 

"Thank you," she said, her hands clapping together graciously. "I hope it's no problem, I woke up late this morning and, well, I found that I didn't have enough time to stop and pick up a pack." 

"Oh, no, absolutely no problem what-so-ever," was what I replied, though later I would regret the exaggerated compliance in my voice. "I have a full pack, see." 

Clumsily I thrust my open pack in her direction and she laughed, a chorus of angels accompanied by a heavenly harp, before thanking me once again and returning to her section of the seating area. I kicked myself for not offering her a light, but assumed that a bummed cigarette would only lead to a later introduction, the gift laying the foundation for a conversation much less cliche than my previous idea concerning the weather. How I felt the vibration, the typing of her audience reviewing and recording the incident with positive critical acclaim. My performance, at the least, got a thumbs up, if not two. I smiled at the ground, the chipped face engraved on it smiling in return, and I began to work up the strength to rekindle a lamp still spewing flammable gas. I heard it then. A sound of a rhythmically  squeaking metronome or a wheel bearing without lubricant. It was than a second shadow fell upon my quivering form from the left side. The fraternity knight and his squires had left not long before the introductory appearance of another, perhaps the Ipod guy needed something. No. The shadow that fell upon me was that of someone else. The shade would have allowed my eyes a little rest had the caster moved a foot to his right. Instead, the man stood infinitesimally short of interrupting the overpowering beam that outlined his disheveled form. Had the rays not been so brightly overwhelming to my vision I might have been able to make out the features within this man's umbra at first glance, as it were I couldn't do anything but squint uncertainly. 

Like me, this man's internal audience consisted of a single soul in a large theater. Only, his theater happened to hold no seating, just one large metallic wheel in need of extreme maintenance. And the occupying soul was that of a hamster, who ran tirelessly within this wheel. His towering form coupled with my pathetically squinting eyes made me feel small and immature. 

"Gotta light, buddy?" he asked and shortly after I nodded and my fingers, once again, began exploring the dark confines of my pockets. While I fished about he lazily threw his bag and lifeless figure down next beside me. 

He was about my age, from what I could tell, only taller and less hairy. His shaggy, red curls, split down the middle exposing a pale scalp, hung like oily curtains on fire over a pair of brick colored eyebrows. His icy blue eyes remained playfully interested in whatever he rested them on, what it was at the time I couldn't say. His nose was timorously structured though, in contrast, he held it boldly, jutting out over permanently parted lips between which a cigarette dangled limply. The olive green jacket he wore, long sleeves unbuttoned at the cuffs, was, like the D.A.R.E. shirt beneath, a size too large. His faded jeans were tight around the legs and coiled in a denim bunch over a pair of generic high-tops. His posture, to my horror, was everything resembled mine prior to the beauty's arrival. His legs were splayed out before him with the toes of his shoes pointing outward, in opposite directions, like serifs on a sloppily written V. 

I handed him my lighter, the feeling of a sudden crash and burn of my flight of female fancy nearly brought tears of frustration to my eyes. Clearly this man wished to have company with his cigarette and I, much to my disappointment, had been his victim. 

"Dangerous times," he said, still staring into the space ahead of him where a scene from an invisible sit-com seemed to play out. "Dangerous times, I say." As if remembering the lighter, he jerked it towards his face and lit the tip of his cigarette. 

"What do you mean?" I asked as he handed me my lighter back. I looked down and had not realized in all the excitement that my cigarette was nothing but a pillar of ash precariously dangling from the blackened tip. 

"Oh, you know, smoking," he concluded while exhaling a mass of smog. 

"Wait, you mean the health hazards linked to tobacco?" I threw the butt into a nearby sand box and retrieved another stick from my pack. 

"What? Oh," He said, eyes swiveling thoughtfully in their sockets, "Right. Those issues. Yeah, I suppose those present a problem to the cause. No. I was referring  to the recent  tax increase." 

He put emphasis on the word 'recent.' 

"Oh, yeah," I replied lamely. "Does kind of make smoking difficult. I suppose you  could view it as a positive change, right?" 

His eyes darted met mine with such vehement intensity then that I felt momentarily stunned. He held my gaze captive for a second, two icy daggers impaling my tongue to the roof of my mouth, until slowly he drew in a puff and exhaled. The second hand smoke that wafted up not even causing a blink. 

"Are you a smoker or are you a pussy?" the question was asked with such solemn zeal that I couldn't help but smirk, though nervously. I didn't understand how anybody could accuse someone they had only just met of being a pussy. I couldn't, for that matter, understand why the man felt the need to insert such an outrageous subject in what should have been an ephemeral exchange of small talk and pleasantries. Further more, why was it that I continued to entertain the stranger when I should have made it clear that I had nothing to offer other than a light and a perfunctory smile. I shrugged in response, one that I assume he took for a positive answer for he grunted in satisfaction afterwards before resuming his good humored stare. 

"Damn taxes. Damn smoke free, tobacco free, freedom stifling country," he harrumphed and a cloud of smoke wafted up out of his nostrils. " Dangerous in many ways, mon ami, many ways." 

I nodded, something I hoped he took for a noncommittal response. Nothing personal against him, I just wanted to resume fantasies of a charismatic conversation with the women of absolute beauty. I hoped to drop numerous hints, visible signs universally understood as polite signals to end, or show a disinterest in, an active conversation. I rifled through my bag and retrieved a novel I had been reading. I leafed through it, selecting, at random, a chapter I had not read and started to peer intently at the page. I read and reread the same passage over and over, form the corner of my vision I could see that this gesture had little effect. 

"This place," his hands stretched out as if trying to embrace the school in its entirety. "This place is ample in smokers, and lighters, but cigarettes are a preciously rare commodity. Really bugs me, you know? I ride the bus here every single day, I walk to the store down the street, and I work for the money I spend on a pack of smokes." 

He shook his head in disbelief and closed his eyes as he chuckled to himself, resting his weary chin on his chest for a second. My eyes, though frantically weaving back and forth, refused to proceed to the next sentence. 

"They, friend, they have their parents transfer money a bloated checking account. I mean bloated, inflated like road kill on a sunny day. These parents just help to encourage the growth of the already festering bacteria growth. And you know what they do with all that money?" He didn't wait, nor do I think he expected a response, before answering his own question. "Buy clothes, electronics , alcohol, hell whatever it is, we essentially pay for it. In increments, yeah, but still, we suffer." 

"I take it you're not a fan of alcohol?" I asked before I caught myself. It was a habit I found to be most unfortunate at the time. Somehow I felt that if I intensified my focus on the book my encouraging question would be removed from the record. 

"Love it. No problem with it. But I follow the guidelines," he looked at me, his eyes still shining with frozen ardor. "In keeping with the 'Book of the Code' bumming is only acceptable when in dire straits. Also an inconsistency amount of bumming is tolerable. For example, one day someone asks for one, the next month he or she asks for another. This is usually common in first time or social smokers, the sort who can't commit to buying a pack for fear of being labeled as an addict. It's also acceptable if the person happens to be a good friend or relative, This goes especially for those partially responsible for fostering your smoking habit. You are, until some years after, always indebted to the people who introduced you to the wonderful world of tobacco." 

"Why don't you just say 'No' when asked, or, hell, if you want to be polite just tell them you're out and apologize." I dropped my book to give him a look that demanded an explanation of some sort. When I saw that he began shaking his head in an oddly superior way that I felt myself blush and falter towards the end of my comment. I resumed forced interest in the sentence as he chuckled, the dry spasms of mirthful know-how causing me to bury my nose deeper into the book.

"Can't do it, Also part of the 'code' you see." He said after basking in that brief  period of amusement. 

"Wait," I asked confused, the gnawing urge to escape this absurd conversation fading. "So where the hell is it written that smokers have to live by a code of honor?" 

He shook his head in wonderment, his eyes alight with supreme astonishment. Had I been living under a rock, he seemed to wordlessly ask the unconcerned students around us. His hands came up and fell in hopeless defeat. What a dead end I must be, thank god someone with of his learned stature was gracious enough to commit his valuable time and energy to such a seemingly hopeless cause. 

"Really?" He asked me, than took a drag from his cigarette. "The big blue book? The book of guidelines all weathered smokers must adhere to lest they be shunned by their fellows? Please, friend, say it ain't so! Tell me you aren't just smoking cause you want to look cool, otherwise I'll have to assume the worst, man. Are you a poser?" 

"Excuse me?" 

"Poser, man," He let out a ground shaking sigh. "My god, man, you must be instructed in the ways of this fine art. Do you not realize you are committed to a lifestyle and not just a trend? A choice that you'll either come to regret or rejoice? Please." 

I looked at him, unable to speak or to discern from his tone whether or not he was pulling my leg or absolutely sincere. The rusty timing of the noise that resounded from behind his skull ceased for a second as if the hamster was considering where to begin. Once it resumed the pitch held in it a renewed sense of purpose, the intervals between each ear splitting squeak grew shorter as the wheel sped up. 

"Alright," He seemed to begrudgingly take it upon himself to instruct me in the code. "Let's see, what etiquette does the teacher deem most important when dealing with with the dullard student?" 

I scoffed in disbelief. 

"Look here..." I began until he cut me off with a stern forefinger. 

"Silence," he said while rubbing his chin. From what I could determine, he was preparing a full blown crash course. Unabated determination racked his body, a slight throb of an artery could be seen on his neck and temple. I set my book aside, knowing full well he would not cease his lecture until he had soundly whooped me into submission. I had never experienced interaction with a stranger on this level and found myself to be timidly incapable of walking away. This man had me involved a board game, the rules of which he was all too familiar with. In all honesty, though, I considered victory to be a tasteless feat given the arbitrary nature of this argument and, instead, felt surge of pity began welling up inside of me. Dominating this subject was all this poor bastard had, I might as well let him walk off feeling like a winner, the truth, assuming he accepted it, would only crush him.

 "Okay! An individual may bum anything but your last smoke, be it your first encounter. Your second encounter with the same person permits you to deny them but only if you have three remaining," His eyes closed as he reveled in his own pompous spiel. "Be it third time, you can deny the person if you have but five sticks left. Anytime after you have the right to turn the bum down, though one should consider, as I said, whether or not the bum is in dire straits or if he or she be a friend. This is left up to the person who has the cigarettes to decide." 

"Alright, mister know-it-all," I asked. "What would you say to a third time bummer who was an extremely attractive member of the opposite sex and it was your very last cigarette? I mean, would you throw your precious rules out the window?" 

"Hah!" he exclaimed, the grand vibrato in his voice drawing a few questioning looks from the people talking around us. "That's a dumb question. First of all, the 'Code' isn't always a rule. I mean, I said it was up to the smoker to decide whether or not they wished to give up their last cigarette. It's your money, friend, just make sure you don't waste these valuable sticks on a lost cause." 

"Oh," said I a bit sheepishly. He had said it was a guideline. Stupid me.  

"Second," voice dripping of smug. "Why the hell would i even associate with a girl who didn't already have the guidelines committed to memory? Hah, the very though is funny to me!" 

I smiled at his satisfaction. He would soon wear himself out and find another tobacco user to sucker into an argument. But his steam reserve proved troublesome. 

"Say you find yourself penniless, right? and someone asks you for a smoke, right? Well, you're in an unstable position, you say to yourself, and possibly might not be able to afford another pack for a very long time. In this case you can bend the 'Code' without affecting your integrity. There are a few other cases, sure, but going over them in detail would require quite a bit of my time." 

"Hmm, well do you think it was wrong of me to give that women over there a cigarette?" 

He glanced over at her, his movements anything but subtle, and returned to his desired slouch. Thankfully she had encountered a passing friend and the two of them were chatting intently about what I assumed to was the class that had just ended. 

"Not bad," he said, his eyes returning to the entertaining void that danced somewhere just out of sight. "Can't say you'll have any luck with her, though. She's a temp, not a real smoker. Nah-ah, I can tell. She has a cigarette after class, maybe with a drink, but nothing excessive. The cautious sort. Part of the new generation of would be smokers. It's that 'Truth' movement that's got everyone doubting." 

He shook his head in disgust, hawked a loogie and spat. The mustard colored blob of phlegm hit the pavement with a resounding 'Thwack' and shook slightly from the force.  

"How the did you get ahold of this book? Actually, what credible author would even think to write a book when, given the time, it's doomed to flop?" 

He smirked at me. A look so self assured it made my throat lump up for fear of the verbal browbeating that would surely follow. 

"You ever see someone terminally ill?" His look all but vanished replaced with the flimsy, hastily constructed look of one genuinely interested. 

"Maybe," I thought about it for a second. "I've seen really old people who were maybe even a bit sickly. No, I guess I'd have to say I haven't, at least that I can recall." 

"Oh," He nodded, face retaining that awful look of interest, or what he took to be a look of interest. "Well, say this terminally ill fellow had to choose between two people that would remain steadfastly by his bedside until the end. who do you think this fellow would relate to out of the two choices: A man also dying of, say, cancer or a healthy, energetic grade schooler?" 

"Well" I rubbed the stubble on my chin with my smoking hand before bringing it back to my lips. "I think this sickly fellow would understand the other like him, but I'm sure they'd still appreciate the lively company a child would offer. I mean, Grandparents are old but they still enjoy the their grandchildren's company, kind of silly now that I think of it. Old folks are funny in that way, they like the conflicting feelings that often accompany nostalgia. A mixture of remorseful loss and gleeful appreciation for what had been, but will never be again. Hold on, are you comparing a smoker to a terminally ill person? Makes sense, sure, how so?" 

"Yeah, I mean, "He stopped for a second, his creepy interested mien faded into an expressionless look of blank consideration. Unabashed, he openly stared at the group of relatively clean cut guys discussing the game. "We smokers share a degenerative habit, one that will either break us, with a possibly fatal outcome, or make us in the end." 

I didn't see how it could make us, unless it was the image affiliated with smoking he referred to. Even that was crumbling with the rise of the 'Truth' movement. In some ways, this stranger's relentless defense of smoking started to stir an interest in me. The emotional stirring a patriot after seeing his countries tattered flag still  waving over blackened skies alight with anti-aircraft explosives, piercing the fog of war. 

"Think about smoke breaks," He said, his palm opened to me suggestively. "A group of coworkers gathering together to relax, think, or discuss something, I don't know, anything related to work, or something other than work. It's a temporary get away from the bustling interior of the work place. But it doesn't always have to be a group thing. That depends on the person. If taken alone, a smoke break gives you the mental space needed to accommodate thoughts of the life outside of work. A period of zen-like introspection or rumination." 

"When at a friend of a friend's party, say, don't you feel a little more at ease when a fellow smoker sends a lit signal amidst a crowd of strange faces? Whether or not the two of you hit it off doesn't matter so much, point is you share a health deteriorating habit. You both recognize it and, when in a bind, have empathetic reason to support one another. Doesn't that also make for a good conversational topic, or reason to even start a conversation? I know you were considering this with the girl over there, don't deny it. It's fellowship, my friend, people vary in hobbies and find common grounds with those that share those hobbies. But what ordinary person wears their hobby on a shirt at all times? We, as smokers, vary in hobbies and interest but intersect and, in some ways relate on one topic. fellowship, my friend, it's real fellowship." 

I began to find his habit of repeating words or phrases for the intended  dramatic effect a bit tiring. Otherwise, as much as I hated to encourage it, I could see the rationale behind his intangible sermon. There is I suppose a certain degree of camaraderie between smokers. If possible I will help support those fellow smokers who find themselves in inescapable bind. I t even works as a polite substitute for something requested. When out of pocket change and hit up by a beggar I usually offer the guy a smoke. A modest substitute, sure, but somehow significant in a way. It's as if we have our own currency in this daughter community of ours. 

"We all are mortal, correct? The connection wordlessly made between two smokers is this: we are both mortal beings of the same species but of different, at times, clashing groups hastening our life's completion. This stick between our fingers is the end of our kind, what is class, category, genre, or really, what is personal characteristics when two stand alone staring at the hideous face of the inevitable end," the stranger had barely just dropped his smoldering butt and rubbed it out with his foot when he started fishing for another, motioning me to give him my lighter. "Cigarettes, to me, is the personification of death. Bare your teeth in hateful anger or frightfully bolt from a skilled hunter. Probably a bit romanticized, sure, but you get my drift." 

I nodded. As I said, his speech, so calmly accepting his martyrdom, and the total amount of faith he had in these convictions, pulled at a few heart strings. I felt obligated to question further.

"You could say that about any number of interests. Students majoring in an art degree, interest being sculpture, may find that in a class of twenty at least three others share their passion for the subject. Those with commonalities end up spending more time together in class than with anyone else, does that mean they share the same music taste?" 

"But sculpting isn't a lethal pursuit. Or maybe it is, sometimes, hell if I know. Had you said, I don't know, hunting lions on a safari I think that would have been a little closer. Even then, I'm not saying that smoking is the only thing people can relate upon, but it's definitely a more achievable lifestyle. And fairly inexpensive, if you really think about it. Hunting requires food, munitions and what have you, smoking requires a few bucks and a light that can be found almost anywhere. It's conveniently pocket sized. Cool in a pocket that is."

I would have followed his statement with another of my own but found that I had not the opportunity amidst the dominating volume of his yakking which went on to include mankind's obsession with phallic symbolism, and the place it holds in the world of art. When he finally  stopped speaking to take a hastened drag off his cigarette I jumped in with a friendly inquiry. My attempt, I hoped, would steer this vessel away from the thunder on the horizon and towards calmer seas.

"How long, then, have you been a smoker, oh sensei?" I managed to wedge in.

He nodded gravely at the title, though I meant it more in jest. 

"Ahh, eight years next Thursday." 

"well," said I, hoping to relate on a personal level more in-tune to the sense of  brotherhood he argued for, "How do you cope with the gradual decline of lung capacity, morning cough, and the rank tobacco stench that accumulates on your clothing? Don't you feel, I don't know, dejected at times when you're surrounded by non smokers?" 

"I don't associate with non smokers," he replied with finality. "Not that I have anything against people who don't smoke, it's just that smoking is a passion of mine. And, like anybody committed fully to a past time, I prefer the company of those that share enjoyment in this past time. Artist tend to hang out with fellow artist, be it painters, sketchers, or even graphic artists. I happen to naturally attract and gravitate towards those that partake in my interests, be they pipe smoker, cigarette smoker, or even the occasional hookah enthusiast. Not only that, non-smakers love to lecture, as if we haven't heard it all before." 

This seemed strange to me, and prompted me to argue. 

"Isn't that sort of an elitist method of singling out and judging another's character? It seems to me that  severely limits the amount of potentially interesting people you come into contact with. People whose company, regardless of whether or not they smoke, you would have enjoyed had you not required a membership of some sort." 

He just stared ahead, motionless, as if considering my words. I knew full well he had a reply all worked out already but the man seemed to cherish the dramatic flair in a conversation almost as much as he did his pack of cigarettes. Unease began to creep about beneath my skin as the revolutions of the screeching wheel began to intensify. 

"I don't think you fully understand my method of character analysis. Possessing the habit shows a profound sense of commitment for something older than this country. Now, it's the historical significance of tobacco along with human nature that strengthens the validity of my claims," he began after a restrained sigh, I could tell by his tone and sudden stiffening of posture that, while I had been led to believe I controlled the helm, it was actually the two fatherly hands that  rested well above my own that steered the rudder, adamantly maintaining the original course toward rumbling horizon. "Tobacco isn't just a lifestyle choice, it's a tradition. You've taken history classes before, right? Shit, it's what this country started on. Sure, we had our other cash industries at the time, corn, steel, and such. Smoking, though, has been ingrained in our culture. Even before white settlers arrived and laid waste to the blossoming Native American lands, it was viewed as a significant ceremony. A way of sharing calm among friends, recent or old, and family, as well as sealing the deal between tribes and treaty hagglers. I just can't stand the mud slinging 'Truth' propaganda. They callously just drag something as old as methuselah through the dirt, with absolutely no respect to those who chose to continue smoking after the big tobacco scandal." The squeaking quickened, but I still maintained childlike hope that he would falter through steady patience and noncommittal head nodding. The self righteous scenes flashing before that hamster must not be played much, or possibly too often enough to be healthy, for the shadow puppets of emotion danced wildly behind a thin veil. The way the ripples of a puddle can be projected by the sun onto any surrounding surface as if the refracted light itself were a spider spinning a fluctuating web of white.  

I didn't want the guy to increase the volume of his voice any further so I ended up softening my tone, hoping to come off as keeping to a friendly discussion rather than taking the devil's advocate stance which might be taken as an attack. The few raised eyebrows and entertained smirks shot at our two man group made my cheeks flush and eyes dart. 

" Alright. The 'Truth' crap can get on my nerves a bit, I understand that, but what about the other source of cash our country built itself up with, the consequences of which still linger today?" I forced a patient smile, "By that I mean slavery. This country is built on the blood, sweat, and..."

"Yes," he interrupted suddenly, The frozen surface that brought chills melting rapidly in the blue blaze that erupted. "Slavery is one thing, smoking quite another. I choose, like some po'dunk red neck who still stupidly considers skin color to be a mark of worth, to smoke and to enjoy it. I feel that, regardless of the negative health effects, it's mentally cathartic and physically calming. I know the shit laden scheme the Big Tobacco industry tried to pull over the nations heads. Sure. And I feel that the whole thing was screwy and fucked up. But! I also know of a number of major corporations pulling equally, if not more, heinous acts over our heads. Be it major electronic providers buying up precious ores needed to construct power cells form war mongering looneys in Africa or oil companies hiding plans for environmentally safe technology in order to keep their pockets bursting with cash. I don't know what you think about 'em but, to me at least, these torturous acts are blatant crimes against humanity. What I contribute to big tobacco harms me and me alone. Second hand smoke? Please, enough with the nit picking, you fascists!" 

"Oh," I said simply. Take it as you will, preferably, as total understanding. 

He took another deep breath of fresh air, then an equally large pull from his dwindling cigarette before replying in a booming voice. I suppressed the urge to look around innocently as if I had been unwittingly sucked into a one sided conversation with a maniac. Which wasn't too far from the truth, as far as I'm concerned.

"Now, Human Nature? Pshaw!  People are naturally driven to group others based on similarities," he declared in open disgust. "It makes our society, essentially a large blob of fleshy people, much easier to perceive, organize, and to shovel away into convenient little drawers, that way the individual doesn't have go through the strenuous process of getting to know one another. Like a bookstore dividing Fiction Literature into romance or science fiction, new releases or classics. The goal of the store is not only to expand profit margins, but to cater to the mindless drivel that meanders through. You think a soccer mom would actually expend the effort going through shelf after shelf of good books, thousand upon thousands of separate authors and titles, in order to pick out that chintzy cover art commonly found on romantic garbage novels? Or, given her small minded, small town mentality, do you think she would rather have it practically displayed before her, its recommendation a given based upon the genre it has been placed under? This Roberts book comes almost  right after the Steele book I liked, does that mean the books are similar? The cover art is nearly interchangeable, why not?" 

He stopped to take another drag. I dare not look around, the faces of the mental juries would more than likely be peeking through theater windows of the many that surrounded us. I tried to shrink into myself, a move he probably took as submissive guilt on my part. 

"A christian women on her way to find, say, Peretti's 'This Present Darkness' for her daughter would not want to wade her way through mixed fiction, Oh no!" His head tilted back and he seemed not to be addressing me anymore, but the heavens above. "The blasphemy shamefully on display could possibly bruise her holy eyes  or, worse yet, jeopardize the sanctity of her pure, christian aura. She could happen to catch a glimpse of Roquelaure's 'The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty'" and forever be damned to the blazing pits of hell!" 

"Okay, I think you're getting off topic here..." I started but his whooping laugh plowed over the mousy volume of my voice. His windy laugh vibrated the lumps of phlegm that clung desperately to his wind pipes which rattled and cracked, joining their host in the uproar. More than I feeling embarrassment I felt for him was the urge to cough, as if somehow I could dislodge the annoying bits of mucus he didn't seem to notice. The laughter gradually subsided into a giggle, giving me the hope that he had calmed down a bit. 

"Right." with the exaggerated grace of an actor on stage, he brushed the beginnings of a tear from his eye. The mortified look I gave him was not solely a response to the explosive fit of maniacal laughter, but his abrupt recovery after, and  frantically I began to look about for some means of distraction. My book I had returned to my bag and the chipped grin by my feet only served as a reminder that we were now a spontaneous source of amusement for those standing around us. He paid no mind to anything but the subject at hand, his disregard for the opinions of others I would, under normal circumstances, find commendable. Presently, he  only seemed to self absorbed as to not notice. His voice, warbling from aftershocks of the gut busting, caused me to stiffen in the middle of my panicked search. 

"Look, you see, the point I'm trying to get at is this: the progressive evolution every society underwent and continues -though gradually- to go through coupled with the way our species has been taught to behave in its given culture, creates a system so convoluted with morays, norms, values and ethics far too vast for the human mind to fully conceive. You see what I'm getting at?  Naturally, as the human species grew in intellect and size, a process of organizing class, category, and what have you, needed to be implemented to enable the species to better cope. Now, add the relatively recent emphasis put on the individual's thoughts and needs and...WHAMMO!" 

I flinched at the shout and successfully ducked the arm he swung carelessly, but remained still as a mouse within a snakes sights. If he noticed my evasive maneuvers it did not show on that humored expression of his. His face remained stationary while flickers played about the internal blaze, those shadow puppets of emotion increased their wild steps. Socrates sprang to mind, or was it Plato who told the allegory of the cave? That's right, I told myself, focus on other things. I could only submerge myself mentally before my conscious self started to complain about  my intrusion distracting him from critiquing the display and the noise that interrupted his viewing. I told him to shove it, and that the noise coming in regular squeaky frequencies was not my doing but that of the hamster next door. The conscious self, arms crossed and lower lip pouting, sank into his chair. The noise of which he spoke was gaining in speed so much that the silent gap between circles nearly ceased to be.It was then I knew that the monotone pitch would eventually drive me out of my solitude.  

"Tell me this, how does a person come to form their personal identity without a reference from which to draw from? The individual is the customer facing shelf after shelf of images and identities, these neat, step by step kits alphabetized and categorized. I don't even have to leave the house to find myself, just check the internet or television. I like tie-dye color schemes and the meaning that is often saddled with it. Had that been the case, I'd probably get along more with a group of stinkin' hippies. All I do now is make a few minor adjustments to my personality, take up smoking pot because it's hip among those in my group, and let the convictions and slogans of the group mold my actions and beliefs. An 'Us' and a 'Them' must first be created before someone, in this country at least, can fully understand their personal being. Some end up being a minority and hating it, while some cherish the distinctive quality of minority status" 

Picture transparent heads of the most annoying characters revolving about your head while repeatedly doing the very thing you find so intolerably irritating. Any attempt to break in with a question, a comment, or even a laugh was squashed. Freedom was as present as the oxygen in the air and just about as visible.  What stayed me? Was it my manners getting the best of me? Even stranger yet was the possibility that perhaps this man really could pin you down with his commanding voice, but no amount of ground slap tapping would cause him to yield his submission hold. The only way out was to crumple pathetically to the ground and weep, but even then success wasn't a full hundred percent. I decided,then, that I  had to muster the strength to fight off this stranger's incorrigible arguments. 

"Have you seen the hipsters around this town?" permanently rhetorical, his question pierced the mental haze I had been immersed in. "God, make me sick, the whole lot of em. That idea their type create of group identity contradicts itself at every turn. Christ, everyone of them tight jean wearing bastards think they stand outside the whole, advertising individualism and spouting off about tearing down the walls and shit. When it comes to categories of people, the independent scene comes off as the bipolar, bastard love child of the Anarchist movement and a one of Altruists. One minute they bitch about local unity and community progress, the next they shun the those they deem uh-hip, and right after that it's about peace, love, and harmony among the scene. For them, the minority factor is what makes them individuals and also what preserves the originality of a completely unoriginal group. They want people united for political change but knowingly entomb themselves behind walls that only the hippest scenester of the group can bend to allow entrance. But only to those considered worthy by the big man. Without these walls, the very same walls other categories erect that they claim to want to topple, the group would be without an identity. And you said my way of judging was elitist. Ha! It's practical, my friend, practical! Fight fire with fire, I say!" 

He turned to me then, blue eyes distantly focused on this brow beaten shell of a man, and wagged a finger that grazed the tip of my nose. The ear splitting squeal, modulating from high to low frequencies, now seemed to weigh continuously on the un-oiled part of the hamster wheel. Sweat formed at some point on my forehead, somehow I had forgotten I had kept a steady grimacing squint to shade my shriveling eyes from the spring brilliance. 

"The feelings associated with exclusivity," for once his face showed that he genuinely wondered, "Drives all of us somehow. Depending on the person, one can deal with a large group of people within a given category or sister category, or one, like the hipsters and such, thrive on limited opportunity. Having the ability to gain repute among those of your group is a practical goal what with the odds of gaining global pop icon status greatly stacked against you. It's a realistic response to a sky rocketing population growth. Almost seven billion individuals. With the internet now giving temporary celebrity status to a dog on a skate board, that's seven billion people to compete with in two realms, reality and virtuality. The group doesn't stop the individual's lust for global recognition it just relieves it. As far as status goes, celebrities have sex while those few bastards who're popular among a small group or click of people masturbate to the imagined image. God, how frustrating! Well, I say, if that's how things are then that's how things are. I want no status mongering fools apart of my group, thinking they can wrestle the founder title from my grasp. I want equality among my crowd, with that said, I expect an equal amount of passion and commitment on their part." 

His face had turned a beat red by now, the dancing shadow consumed by the full on inferno. 

"No group, not even mine, is without drawback. I can at least admit that, though. There're real causes to fight for, with realistic ends in sight, and there's plain shit for show. Hipsters, definitely. Pop culture, in all its forms, that's a given. Neo-hippie movement, all about drug usage. If I thought about it I might be able to name a few groups exempt from the fallacious category the majority fall into. Maybe. You? Hell, your group probably isn't even aware of moments of contradiction. Probably share the same ample amount of consumerist drive as nearly every other group mentioned. You probably tell yourself otherwise, justify and rationalize everything to the point of acceptability. But that is an entirely different matter. My point, if it was at all clear to you, is that I reserve the right to make harsh, often shallow judgement calls because it comes to people naturally. It also dominates the entire spectrum of social classes and groups and whatnot. That's it." 

Students, casually chatting, threw the two of us wary glances and humorous smirks, they waited expectantly for the next outburst. I know their typists, the audiences behind those judicious eyes, were jotting down a series of opinions and jokes, the sitting are was a whirlwind of personal verdicts. While I don't think the conversation between me and the strange maniac would ever reach the dinner table, I could still sense that at least one of them would relay the odd scenario to a friend in passing. Perhaps even at some bar after the school day had ended.  What's worse?  I could feel my subject, the lady of such great beauty, fixing her eyes in my direction, hopefully at the stern glare of the trembling preacher. How long had she been there watching, I could not say. Once again I prayed desperately for divine intervention, wishing only for the ability to sink into the cement fixture on which we sat. 

"Alrighty," he said brightly, mood changing so quickly I felt dizzy. "Smoking is such a group. I may ban people from fully immersing themselves into my social circle, but do not think any less of those that choose not to smoke. I simply interact with people of my group don't usually deviate outside of that. Just like you, just like them over there, and just like everyone else in this godforsaken country. I absolutely cannot stand the health lectures from non-smokers, the followers of 'Truth,' or people that openly judge me because of my choice without knowing the man behind the choice. I feel that a declaration of war has been made by the 'Truth' campaign and, like any social group in the face of extinction, I wish to unify the scattered members to resist and retaliate. I'm not trying to extinguish their organization, I just hope to enlighten them. Did I word it clear enough for you or do I need to go over the entire thing again? I mean, I know you aren't a real steady smoker. Maybe you'll become one some day or maybe you'll jump ship with the rest of the fleeing, suing rats. I just want to educate those less informed about such issues of contention, you know?" 

By now I found that no amount of mustering could aid me in my escape allow me the brain capacity to give a proper response. The only useful lessons I could say I learned from this discussion was, first of all, the old warning given to me by my parents about speaking to strangers. The second being that time was not only on not on my side, but was working in cahoots with those plotting my mental demise. 

  A feeling consistent in lobotomized patients caused a series of unrelated images to play before my confused conscious self. An armchair environmentalist taking nature intracranially using his high definition television set, wildly gesturing through the living room window was me, standing outside pointing to the swinging ass of a Bee saying "nature" excitedly.  The man watching the television set waves an arm absently, the blob of congealed saliva dangling from his chin the only piece of the man willing to explore the outside. I was in the process of resigning myself to foot gazing, after which I would have to inform the hard working consciousness to clock out indeterminately, but something occurred to me just before doing so. Silence. Not only silence from him, but those around us as well. The time for class was approaching, the red glow of an exit sign shone down from somewhere out view. Not phased by the mass exodus filing indoors, the stranger stared in expectation with a single eyebrow confidently arched as he glared down his infuriatingly thin, weasel-like snout. 

With a look of self satisfied accomplishment the stranger rose and stretched. His reedy hands crept up into his armpits and, in apelike motions, he began to scratch his underarms. Glancing at me he graced me with a smirk, the outline I could see though the blinding halo of sunlight that outlined his form, once again, was masked by his solar eclipsing body. He had bested me. I smiled weakly in farewell and he shook his head, knowing his argument had my brain numb. I knew this wasn't the case, but the anticipated hour of his departure was finally at hand. I figured that if he couldn't already see his rambling as flimsy in logic and unfounded in every way, why push it? 

He whipped his bag about, nearly knocking my own off the edge of the cement seat, and brought it down loudly atop my toppled bag. I thought I heard a crumple and crunch, but did not bother to raise a complaint. He carefully drew the zipper back, the movement I watched in brain dead  fascination, and from between the teeth of the opening he withdrew a large blue book creased and bent with use. Sky blue with a black, spiral spine, the book's title lay dead center in common Courier font, it read "The Smoker's Book of Etiquette: A guide catering to the average tobacco enthusiast." From what I could see there was no mention of the author on the cover as I took the hefty tomb from between his presenting hands.

"Look over this. Maybe than you'll understand why this hobby, this passion, is of such great importance to me. I got to get to class, here, you can hold on to this copy for as long as it takes. I got a couple back home." 

"hmmm," I managed to wheeze. 

"Hey, don't let anything get you down, man. I know the whole grouping concept can put one in a bit of a mood. People are like that, though, you just got to learn to accept it." 

And in an attempt to cheer me up he added, "It is what it is, eh? A bitch." 

He began chuckling wryly as he slung a bag, the girth of which dwarfed his frail figure, confidently over his shoulder.  A spark of mental activity followed by the gradual churning that could only be my conscious self  at his type writer soon brought me into a state of full alert. That was it. I remember it. The memory I dwindled on momentarily while using that prudish urinal. The urinal, so like Hal, gave no room for error and little more for whimsical reminiscing, it's red eye burning away the powers of recollection. 

After the movie, and a few more rounds at a local dive bar, Doug decided that taking me home was the responsible thing to do, promptly dismissing the fact that we had consumed an irresponsible amount of alcohol not minutes before taking the wheel. The night had run smoothly, we shot the shit with would be women, their true harpy forms revealed to us by at a later period of sobriety. I filled the car with flatulence while Doug mocked an over hyped DJ announcer for the local Hip Hop station playing on the radio. 

Eyes glossily preserved by the laminating effects of alcohol, I watched in wonder at the passing street lights. The passing vehicle caused the yellow bulb's spiky appendages to stretch out, pointing out either the invisible features hidden by darkness or finding interest in things so absolutely clear, you shake your head while admiring the excitedly insistent gesture. It was upon reaching our drive way that one of these pointing pikes brought attention to something of morbid interest. 

I saw it displayed under the conical glow of a mustard colored bulb, the body of particular interest to an array of streetlight fingers. As if drawn to it magnetically, the spikes refused to deviate anywhere else besides the lifeless form sprawled out on the blackened asphalt. 

A yellow lab, as far as I could tell, but with some odds and ends thrown into the breeding mix. The dog's  bloated carcass had us stop the vehicle abruptly before the turn into the drive way. He parked in the grass next to the leaning  mailbox, an array of bills and advertisements lay strewn across the grass. Each letter was damp with dew, the addresses had turned to inky smudges, that were nearly indistinct, and fled the surfaces of the envelopes, the arid conditions that kept them captive replaced by kindred moisture. 

We examined it from front to back, circling as if the concept of death had only just been realized. Crusty yellow mucus, tinged with blood, trickled from nostrils  and down a snout cracked and fissured like a model miniature of a desert floor. A pool of blood it basked in, from the yellow coat, its bottom matted with blackened blood,  permeated the rank odor of excrement and fear. Pitiful, saddening, and, preventable, the scene explained. You could tell that after the impact, the dog had used the last of its strength to drag its emptying body out of harms way. Only the lower torso, twisted at an odd angle, remained on the blackened asphalt. Its days as the family dog were over, had it survived, I thought, it might have made a good circus contortionist. No joke. The alcohol birthed ridiculous amounts of equally ridiculous ideas and thankfully caused a heavy layer of numb to settle over my body.

"It is what it is," Doug said. His eulogy, I knew, fell extremely short of expressing anything but apathy. When Doug waved and returned to his purring vehicle, I  remained still and silent in my place of examination. That overly hyped DJ went through his round of shout outs and song dedications before going on into a commercial break. The gears shifted and he sped away, the puttering exhaust could be heard from where I stood as well as a group of children gleefully shouting through the radio static, "More Ovaltine, please!" 

"Don't say that," he had already shouldered his bag fully to leave when my gruff tone caught him by the ear. Once again he turned to me, humorous face poised with a cocked eyebrow. 

"Say what?" 

"Don't say that," I repeated stubbornly, voice directed at the smiling face made of  chipped concrete. "It's an attempt to make your overloaded bit of opinionated spiel conclusive. But you have absolutely no evidence behind your claims, just a load of observations you weaved and tacked together with flimsy, disputable facts. As if you can wrap the human race in a package and present it!" 

"I'm not sure I follow," he glanced dubiously towards the automated doors that led into the History building where a straggler waved his hands in front of the sensor impatiently before slapping the handicap switch. "I don't know what you gathered from my argument but..." 

"That's because you don't know what you're arguing for, even the little cause you think you fight for is petty. I mean, really petty. Can't you see? You've been summing up humanity as if it has already reached its cusp. Agreeably we act according to our nature that, at times, makes us act alike at times. But every movement, be it fashion or intellectual, has its end much like every prominent musician or author ends up in the same section over an extended amount of time. Classic, obsolete, or out of style, at times even raised from the grave for the new generation to manipulate for its novel uniqueness. The only consistent being people, not the same individuals, but people remain a constant flow. To box up the way people think and behave is an attempt to truly conceptualize infinity." 

"People aren't infinite..." He spluttered angrily, but I didn't allow him to go on further. 

"Most likely they aren't, but that wasn't my point. People do and act as taught or expected, for the most part. It will always be that way. It's probably that way because as we've progressed as a species so has our nature to keep up. Instinct is no longer given free reign over our bodies, why? Presumably because with each step we discover and expand, presently we've taken many steps -good and bad- now instinct primarily works backstage while complexity of culture performs. It's one thing to get riled up when someone tramples your rights, its another to drag out rights proven to be harmful." 

"Alright, look I need..." 

"Sure, you mentioned big corporations slapped on the wrist while big tobacco gets a full on punch to the gut. White collar crimes are devastating on a much wider scale than simple misdemeanors and individual felonies. I'm aware of that, you're aware of that, most people are aware of that. You believe that because everybody else regulates the who's and what's of their group that you can just guiltlessly follow suit. If you have a cause that you truly felt was just and are aware of the supposed elitist grouping methods of other movements, do otherwise to the best of you abilities. Limiting your message to the few devoted believers accomplishes nothing. All that remains in the end is you, the supposed tobacco connoisseur, and a small group of pretentious underlings." 

"Jesus," his look of sleazy humor gave way to beet red frustration, "Anybody ever tell you that you take small talk way too seriously?" 

With a stiffening of his back he majestically stormed off around the parenthesis leaving me fuming. I watched him saunter toward the malfunctioning sliding door as if expecting the blair of trumpets to announce his entrance. The door reacted to his approach as it did to any other fool that took no notice of the attempt by fools that preceded them by blatantly refusing to acknowledge the presence of. Taken aback momentarily before realization dawned on him and he slapped at the handicap button. His first slaps were sloppy and imprecise, with a grunt he struck at it with a balled fist and the door innocently shuddered open. 

It took me a moment to remember the book in my hands. Out of mild curiosity I happened a glance at the inside cover and was surprised to see the very mysteriously humored face that had haunted me the entire hour staring up at me. The photo was pixelated, the quality suggesting that he had printed it out at home, and in black and white with a paragraph description of the author below. The fool had audacity to lead me to believe that this very book had been widely published, while in reality he had written every rule on a lifestyle were rules were generally left unsaid. I closed it and placed it gently by my side. Instead of sprinting off to my class, which was had no doubt already begun, I pulled out another smoke from my pack and lit it up. I could hear a stifled chuckle from the theater my conscious self sat in as he smugly replayed the conversation that had passed but an hour before. For once, the two of us just sat back and watched a mutually entertaining flick, just another marvel open to interpretation.

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