A CIGARETTE FOR LESTER • by Christopher Owen

An old man named Lester lived at the same nursing home as my grandfather back in the late 1970s.  I still cringe when I think of that place.  The smell of stale urine dominated the bleak institution like a horrid, invisible fog.  Otherwise the place was simply gray — gray walls, gray furniture, gray people.

Back then, even at thirteen, I could tell that most of the residents at the home were pretty far gone, including my grandfather.  Alzheimer’s had taken his mind, and to him it was the 1930s and this place was a hotel that he managed.  He once told me, “None of these people have paid their bills for months, but I just don’t have the heart to make them leave.”

Lester, on the other hand, had a one-track mind.  The only word that seemed to remain in his vocabulary was cigarette.  If a nurse walked by and said, “Good morning, Lester,” his sole reply would always be “Cigarette.”  If the commissary lady called out, “Dinner is served,” he would cry, “Cigarette.”  Often he shouted the word with no prompting at all.  Lester really wanted a cigarette.

He was bean-pole thin, Lester was, and tall.  When he stood and shuffled around the home, he would have to hold up his pants by the waist to keep them from falling down.  Once he forgot to do this and his pants dropped to his ankles, revealing a dingy pair of boxer shorts.

“Lester, pull up your pants,” the nurse had said.

“Cigarette,” said Lester.

“Looks like someone ought to get Lester a belt,” said Dad.  We’d chuckled, but really I just felt sort of sorry for Lester.

One day we were visiting Grandpa in the foul-smelling common room and I really needed to get some air.  I made for the back door.

I got outside and tried to avoid puking as I gulped the somewhat fresher air of the patio.  It was deserted save for one man in a chair — Lester.  The nurse had probably escorted him out here when she got fed up with him.

“Hi Lester,” I said.

“Cigarette.”

“You really want a cigarette, don’t you?”

“Cigarette!”  His voice rose with an almost pleading tone as he heard his favorite word repeated back to him.  I cast a Hamburglar glance from side to side.  No one was around.

I headed off, making for the side parking lot and Dad’s truck.  There in the cab, sitting on the dash, was a pack of Dad’s Kool Filter Kings.  I took out two, lighting them with the truck’s cigarette lighter.

When I got back to the patio Lester’s head was slopped over, his eyes closed.  “Cigarette, Lester?” I asked.

He looked up.  I passed him the cigarette and he handled it for a moment with the same reverence that a penitent might finger his rosary beads.  “Careful,” I said.  “It’s lit.”

He nodded, then took a deep drag.  When he exhaled, I could just make out the words, “Ah, that’s good.”

“Guess you can talk after all.”

Lester looked at me, holding the cigarette within the V of two extended fingers. “Why talk?  Nobody listens.”

I nodded.  Lester continued, “You’re a good boy.”  His voice was thin and creaky like an old wax cylinder recording of Edison.  When he said ‘boy,’ the word had two syllables: ‘boi-ahh.’

“Thanks, Lester.”

“I been here three god-damned years,” he said.  “Not one damn smoke.  Say it’ll kill me.  Like that matters a hill of beans.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about.  Way it is.  Gotta keep ya alive to keep them checks coming in.  Just put ya up like old silver that never gets used.  ‘You can’t smoke, Lester.  You can’t drink.  Can’t curse.  Can’t be looking at Nurse Higgins’ ass like that.’  Might have a god-damned heart attack.”

I chuckled, and Lester did too between puffs.

“You got your whole life ahead of you, boi-ahh.  Make sure you enjoy it.  Live high on the hog.  I wish I had.”

We were almost finished with our smokes when a nurse caught us.  Much to Lester’s chagrin, it wasn’t the buxom Nurse Higgins.  “Young man, there’s no smoking here.  And Lester!  He has emphysema.  He can’t be smoking.  Put those out and come with me.”

The nurse dragged me to my dad and ratted me out.  When she mentioned cigarettes, Grandpa looked up.  “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” he said, quoting an old cigarette ad.  Dad, sporting a sheepish grin, issued a curt goodbye to Grandpa and the nurse, then escorted me out of the home.  “Get in the truck,” he said.

I got in the passenger seat, fearing the worst.  Dad mechanically pulled a cigarette out of the pack on the dash, then paused, certainly remembering the issue at hand.  “What the hell,” he said finally, then lit it.  He gave it to me.  “Don’t tell your mother.”  He lit another for himself.

“You did a good thing there.  Hell, I’ve had a mind to give ole Lester a smoke for ages.  Never had the guts.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I just took a cautious drag from my cigarette.

“Someday that’ll be me in there, like ole Lester.  I hope you’ll bring me cigarettes, son.”

“Sure, Dad.”

“And a beer.  I always like a beer with a smoke.”

“Live high on the hog, eh?”

Dad laughed.  As we drove away from the home, I puffed my cigarette, gazing out the window at the world, wondering if this was the beginning of living high on the hog.

Years later, Dad’s prediction of course came true.  The nursing homes these days aren’t quite so bad, but they still frown upon smoking.  I have to escort Dad to the far edges of the grounds to give him his smokes.  “Tastes good, like a cigarette should,” I always say to him.  The old slogan reminds me of Grandpa, even though, unlike most men of his era, he didn’t smoke.


Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Fried Fiction, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.


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 average 4.3 stars • 3 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Maybe this took too long to get started, but what a delightful story once it did. I’ve observed recently a few instances in TV/movies where cigarettes weren’t only smoked by the bad guys. I felt like I had to do some mental calisthenics to alter my perceptions.

    Here, they act as a unifying concept. Which, in my non-smoker experience, is closer to the truth. I’ve always envied smokers their camaraderie. This story exemplifies it and shows it very well.

  • Maybe this took too long to get started, but what a delightful story once it did. I’ve observed recently a few instances in TV/movies where cigarettes weren’t only smoked by the bad guys. I felt like I had to do some mental calisthenics to alter my perceptions.

    Here, they act as a unifying concept. Which, in my non-smoker experience, is closer to the truth. I’ve always envied smokers their camaraderie. This story exemplifies it and shows it very well.

  • joanna b.

    Great story. I no longer smoke but it’s heartwarming for me to read a well-written story on kindness to smokers, and kindness between father and son. Perfect for Father’s Day. 5 stars.

  • joanna b.

    Great story. I no longer smoke but it’s heartwarming for me to read a well-written story on kindness to smokers, and kindness between father and son. Perfect for Father’s Day. 5 stars.

  • MPmcgurty

    Nicely done, Christopher. I always know I’m in for a treat when I see your name.

  • MPmcgurty

    Nicely done, Christopher. I always know I’m in for a treat when I see your name.

  • I enjoyed reading this although I reckon my doctor would have a fit if he knew 🙂

  • I enjoyed reading this although I reckon my doctor would have a fit if he knew 🙂

  • Chinwillow

    Loved this! Good job, Christopher!

  • Chinwillow

    Loved this! Good job, Christopher!

  • Chris Antenen

    Wonderful and touches me because I was in Lester’s position once. Worked as a Red Cross volunteer in a hospital ER. Two women brought in their mother who could barely breathe. She kept asking for a cigarette. I wanted so badly to give her a cigarette, but couldn’t At that point what did it matter.

    Also the story is wonderfully told. I was impressed by your ability to find unusual ways to use words, “He was bean-pole thin, Lester was, and tall.

    Well done,

  • Chris Antenen

    Wonderful and touches me because I was in Lester’s position once. Worked as a Red Cross volunteer in a hospital ER. Two women brought in their mother who could barely breathe. She kept asking for a cigarette. I wanted so badly to give her a cigarette, but couldn’t At that point what did it matter.

    Also the story is wonderfully told. I was impressed by your ability to find unusual ways to use words, “He was bean-pole thin, Lester was, and tall.

    Well done,

  • Gerald_Warfield

    Great story that touches us all. How many of us have thought the same thoughts?

  • Gerald_Warfield

    Great story that touches us all. How many of us have thought the same thoughts?

  • Trollopian

    A fine story, tinged with compassion for a much-maligned group (and no, I’m not a smoker), and a rollicking good read. Reminded me slightly of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with its theme of rebellion against those minor tyrants in the so-called caring professions. Five stars.

  • Trollopian

    A fine story, tinged with compassion for a much-maligned group (and no, I’m not a smoker), and a rollicking good read. Reminded me slightly of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with its theme of rebellion against those minor tyrants in the so-called caring professions. Five stars.

  • Sue B

    Very good story, I really enjoyed it.

  • Sue B

    Very good story, I really enjoyed it.

  • Thanks for the great comments!

  • Thanks for the great comments!

  • S Conroy

    Lovely story. Best I’ve read here in a long time. One to come back to.

    • MPmcgurty

      Missed you. Welcome back.

  • S Conroy

    Lovely story. Best I’ve read here in a long time. One to come back to.

    • MPmcgurty

      Missed you. Welcome back.

  • monksunkadan

    What a gentle and poignant story. Thanks so much. It rings as true as
    life. That is Flash Fiction at its BEST

  • monksunkadan

    What a gentle and poignant story. Thanks so much. It rings as true as
    life. That is Flash Fiction at its BEST

  • Katherine Lopez

    There’s a tiny little story in here. A very tiny little story. And if a writer can’t describe a nursing home in terms other than bleak, grey, smelling of urine, and a tall thin man as a bean pole, then maybe ought not to do any describing at all.

  • Katherine Lopez

    There’s a tiny little story in here. A very tiny little story. And if a writer can’t describe a nursing home in terms other than bleak, grey, smelling of urine, and a tall thin man as a bean pole, then maybe ought not to do any describing at all.