The Cowboy

We had been sat there for nearly half an hour when Paul, without a hint of pretense, pulled a slim cigarette from his jacket pocket. Over the course of many weeks, and entirely by accident, it had become our custom on a Friday to sit for a while on the grass near the school and talk placidly. From there we would watch the familiar after-bell traffic passing by us. There were the nice kids who walked home all in one nice group. There were the party-goers who cajoled in anticipation of two more days that, like some wonderful fair from bygone times, seemed like it had never come before and was never returning to town. And then came the couples; languid and liquid in their quest to find a quiet spot to waste away the afternoon. Never before though, had Paul smoked.
“What’s that?” I said.
He had placed the cigarette haphazardly between his lips, mumbling in a put-on husk, “What?”
“That.” The little tube bobbing to the curvature of his breath.
“Oh yes,” he plucked it from his pink lips, “It’s a cigarette.” And then, a pause: a clarification, “I’m going to smoke it.”
Paul was dark-haired, pale in the face and, at present, his oak-y brown eyes were fixed on a gaggle of tenth grade girls strolling past our spot.
Against all urges, I asked the obvious question: “Uh, why?”
The tube wriggled between his fingers and he considered my query. “I’m not sure, to be honest. Seemed like a logical decision at the time.” With that he replaced it in his mouth, cavalierly flicking the cigarette like the toughest cowboy in town, so it landed precipitously at its mark.
“So this isn’t the first one?”
“Oh no, it is,” then came a practiced smile so unlike himself, he could have been another person, “but I bet you couldn’t tell.”
I shifted my gaze forward, where the silhouette of a little boy stood alone by the sidewalk. The fact was that, on this surprisingly warm February day, I could tell. I had only known Paul for the few months since I had arrived the fall previous but I felt like I knew him well. When you’re fourteen, the time elapsed and the strength of a friendship aren’t always in ratio. Anyway, there was just something to the way he pursed his lips, the precision he practiced as that little object dangled between his lips; it was the product of Saturdays at the movies, the enticingly imitable mannerisms of the stereotypical rebellious teen. It was a costume, this cigarette, and my friend Paul did not wear it comfortably.
“So you have no real reason?” I asked, the seeds of a plan edifying.
He shrugged and pointed out in front of us. The silhouette of the little boy had moved and was now approaching across the grass. From the baggy t-shirt and sweatpants I recognized the boy as Lyle; a sixth-grader who I’d baby-sat on more than one occasion. I noted Paul’s momentary distraction and took my opportunity. With a single motion, I snatched the cigarette nimbly from his lips. Paul turned towards me, his eyes wide and with an expression like I’d insulted his mother.
“What are you doing?”
I took a breath and outlined my deal, “Okay, when Lyle gets up here I’m going to ask him whether or not he thinks you should smoke the cigarette. If he thinks that you should, I’ll give it back,” I gave a pause for effect, “but if he agrees with me that you shouldn’t, I’m keeping it.”
His mouth switched into an annoyed curl and he leaned back on his arms like James Dean on the hood of a roadster, “Whatever makes you happy. Anyway,” he added, “it’s a waste of time. All eleven year olds think smoking is cool. It’s science.”
“What are you guys doing up here?” Lyle’s squeaky voice asked. He had one hand in the pocket of his grass-strewn pants and another scratching his frizzy blonde hair.
“Lyle, I have to ask you something. Important.” I registered the boy’s confused expression and went on, “What do you think Paul should do with this?”
With a dramatic flourish, I brought it out, holding it delicately between my thumb and index finger, like some rare and exotic flower. The cigarette dangled next to Lyle’s nose and he stared at it breathlessly. Paul gave me a self-assured smirk.
“So, Lyle, do you think Paul should smoke this?” I asked, pointedly.
There was silence between us. Then Lyle grabbed the cigarette between his pudgy fingers and, like some animal, attacked the tube. With a sickening rip, it came apart and we watched as Paul’s pride fell unceremoniously to the grass. It looked so much like confetti.
Paul jumped to his feet instantly but the child was already dashing down the hill as fast as his little legs would carry him. “Hey! What did you do that for!?” He bent to the floor to gather up the remnants of the broken cigarette, a look of mourning spreading his features.
I began to laugh.
“You knew this was going to happen didn’t you?” He asked.
“Lyle’s brother smokes out of his window at night and the wind blows it into his bedroom. The kid hates cigarettes.”
Paul gave me an annoyed look, “Well, I may as well go home now. That was my only one.”
I stood up with him and began to walk down to where the grass met the sidewalk. I didn’t ask Paul why he’d only brought one cigarette or why he didn’t even have a lighter with him; I figured I already knew the answer. Also, looking back at the tatters on the grass, it seemed like a cruel thing to ask. The afternoon was yellowing with age and so we walked down the street until our paths split, then I hurried home to eat dinner.

The Cowboy

Jamie Fraser

Joined November 2007

  • Artist

Artist's Description

A recent short work I wrote for a competition. If it seems a bit truncated, that’s because it is. I hate 1000 word limits!

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