Matches and Cigarettes by John Haggerty
One more trip to the store for her cigarettes. He has come to hate the drive, something he found beautiful just months before. Now, the vitality of it repulses him—the violent green of the grass, the desperately flowering dogwoods, the creek bottoms churning and gasping with life.
He doesn’t make it all the way to town—he’s exhausted, though it’s still early in the day. He turns into the drive of a little shack that advertises bait and beer on a hand-lettered sign. The place looks like it’s barely got the strength to stand, sagging downward as the roots of the forest tear at the foundation like slow hands. Inside, it’s dusty and dark; a fat girl sits on a stool behind the register. “You got Camels?” he asks.
“There might be some in back,” she says. “If we put them out on the shelves, the trash steals them.” He feels the time ticking away, Sheila back at home, coughing, staring at the walls, counting her breaths. They have entered a realm without words, where only the most painful things have been left unsaid, awkward together like teenagers, both afraid of making the next move.
The girl watches him patiently. Her face is round and sad. She is wearing a big, flowery dress and has a matching bow in her hair. He looks around the shop, at the grimy fishing equipment (“Mighty Tackle!” it says, in cheery print over a picture of a bass in heroic death throes), the fallen stack of canned pork, the sawdust on the floor, soaking up some mess.
“You got them or not?” he asks again.
“Lights are out back there,” she says. “We been waiting on an electrician for days now, but he don’t call us back. I ain’t going back there alone. Gives me the creeps.”
“I need a couple of packs of Camels,” he says, though he doesn’t, and soon Sheila won’t either. “Can you at least show me where they are?”
She looks at him, then gets heavily off her stool. He follows her through a door in the back covered with a poster of a cartoon cowboy ready to draw. “Fuck Off,” the cowboy says in bright red words. It’s dark back there, and hot, the spring sunshine merciless on the tin roof. “They’re somewhere around here,” the girl says.
He fumbles his way around the room, stumbling over boxes and cans. When he stops, disoriented, she is standing very close. They are still for a moment, then she grasps his fingers. “You can touch me,” she whispers. She pulls his hand upward and puts it on her soft breast. “You can do anything you want.”
In another world, in a lighter place, he might have turned and left, gone back to listen to his wife’s breaths, the fertile silences in between. Instead, he hears different sounds: thousands of birds shriek outside and somewhere, a radio plays a slow country song about loss. The girl makes a soft noise that might be a sob.
Two weeks before, he took Sheila out in the boat, rowed her around the lake, going nowhere for hours. “Don’t you ever get tired?” she said. “I’m tired just lying here. Hell, just breathing makes me tired.” Behind them, he watched their ripples fade and disappear, their passage, in the end, leaving no trace. She looked past him, or through him, and smiled. “You’re the match to my cigarette, baby. I love you that much.”
John Haggerty is a first year MFA student at San Francisco State University. His fiction has appeared in Confrontation, Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, Opium Magazine, Santa Monica Review, and War, Literature & The Arts, among others. He was a runner-up for the 2007 Bridport Prize and a finalist for the 2011 Scott Prize.