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.
“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.’
“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.”
“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.”
“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.