The Smoking Arm

By Christian Newton

He drove by her, off the street, beyond the restaurant, and behind the kitchen. She worked in the kitchen, perhaps, and was smoking. He stopped, parked. His immediate concern was that he would have to pass right by her to get to the restaurant. She seemed languid, from his angle, and tall, dressed in black. But the black was covered by a sharp white apron that stopped shorter than it should. He waited. He hoped for a phone call to excuse his wait. He picked up his phone and simulated one half of a conversation, elaborating into broad gesticulations that might read from across the parking lot. And he kept looking. Not that she was looking. But she had seen him.

That was the central assumption, anyway. Only women smoked outside that way anymore. The man had been on the road for a long time now and maybe it was because he tended only to notice women, but it seemed to him that only women smoked that way, with a somehow wary apprehension. From his view, which was a composite of those provided by the side and rear view mirrors--he would not actually turn his body and look back directly--she stood a few feet from the side of the red brick building. He could not see the cigarette now, but he had seen it when he drove by. He could not see the degree to which it was ashed, or the amount of ash on the cigarette, waiting to be ashed. Was she ashing? He couldn’t say. Anyway, a thin chute of smoke would issue from her position, just about whenever he looked for it. Only women smoked this way, with their smoking hand held upright, holding the fag perpendicular to slender fingers, their smoking elbow at ninety degrees, the arm extended from the body, the forearm pointed upward. The other arm invariably crooked under the smoking arm, under the breasts, the back of their non-smoking hand lifted, supporting the opposing elbow. This position seemed to force the hips and legs into particular roles as well, the opposite leg from the smoking arm supporting their weight, knee locked and static. The opposing leg, as if feeling the pressure of convention, being farther from the cigarette itself, breaking the line from cigarette to hand to elbow to breast to hip and kicking just so out from the body, not straight and locked like the opposite leg, but free to wander slightly, the heel of her shoe never leaving the ground, but wandering just the same, the toe pointed up and the foot pivoting. There was some movement there. The smoking leg’s movement given to the same limited, formalized expression as the smoking arm, or the forearm anyway. The smoking forearm had work to do after all and that work meant freedom of movement. The cigarette would have to be moved to and from the mouth. The woman who smoked this way, didn’t they all do, so long as they were outside, so long as they were momentarily free from labor? The women who smoked this way never held the fag with the lips. The fag would never leave its cradle between middle and index fingers, the fag didn’t move. The hand in that long, languid, static, formal position would do the moving, the delivery and the removal, the issuance and the abeyance. The ring and pinky fingers curled down, away from the cigarette. The thumb in recess, pressed against the palm, not extended, not opposed. Opposition was a position of labor. This was the break from labor. The thumb and the ring and the pinky were off duty. All the movement above the waist would be in the smoking arm.

The man hadn’t registered her face at all when he drove by, his mind had only the time to work the basic shape and color and definition and style that discriminates sex. He could not see her face now, not even if he turned around, which he wasn’t about to do. And the smoking arm would do more. It could rotate on its support from the non-smoking hand, the back of the non-smoking hand lifted slightly to crook the smoking arm just so. No, the smoking forearm might be called upon to pass slightly to the left or right, apparently with the same incalculable and random instruction as the opposing leg, but all the same formalized action. There seemed no will in it. The woman stood, indeed had been standing for at least two minutes now--the cigarette must be close to its end--back turned only slightly to his, not by design of course, but all the same he could see this woman smoked the way those women--all women?--smoked when outside, when away from work, when on break. He could see the black dress, which seemed an odd choice for the work. The flares of the white apron framed her hips. He could see in those hips, and her left elbow and her right shoulder and the smoking and non-smoking arms, that the woman was smoking in that way. The hips shifted over the opposing leg, bringing her weight into a curiously beautiful axis. The left arm under her breasts, the elbow bent just so. The right shoulder lower than the left, to allow the smoking arm maximum range.

Everything to keep the smoking arm from labor, this to the man seemed the heart of the whole thing. There was movement in the smoking arm, even the smoking foot perhaps, but never labor. The thumb and the crooked arm under the breasts and the static non-smoking leg and the support of the smoking elbow saw to that. No, there was no labor here, this was the break from labor. By giving over to form there was no work. The position, static and efficient, with a pleasure of movement restricted and formalized, pleasure coming from the smoke itself, was all abeyance of labor. The position excluded any sense of any meaning of the word. There were events, but only in service to inaction. There was motion, but only in service to pleasure. This was the woman’s set of moments without labor, formalized. They added up to a smoke. All women who smoked like this seemed languid. The woman was languid. And then, between glances into the car’s mirrors, she was gone.

It was warmer outside than in the kitchen, for the first time in a long time. Actually, the first time ever. The woman had worked there since December. This was the first time a butt break had not meant a trip along the back hallway to the kitchen exit and out to a chill that lent her breath the volume and color of the tobacco smoke. Actually, this was not the first time it was warmer outside. Not really. The other day, the last day she had worked at the restaurant, it might have been warmer, maybe by a little, but she had thrown on her black jacket before hitting the kitchen exit. This time she left it inside. She left it inside, on the hook, stopping only to remove her smokes and lighter. She drew a cigarette and held it in her smoking hand while she dug for the lighter. Once outside, she lit it and took a first drag.

Mind you, the first drag was not the drag one had to take to light it. That was not the first drag by any stretch of the thing. You got a little charge out of that one, a little smoke down the pipe for sure, but that was not the first drag. The first drag would come only once the lighter was dropped into her apron pocket. Usually, the lighter would have been placed back in the jacket pocket, but today and maybe for the rest of her time at this job, the lighter would be dropped into one of the three apron pockets that lined the very bottom of the white apron, one of two she had to buy, that she felt didn't quite fit her. The first drag was the best one, not because it was the biggest or longest, or most potent, that was actually the last drag, when the butt was short and one had to commit to a final drag and well, you might as well make the most of it, no need to stand out in the cold much longer and there was no need to burn into the dregs. No, the first drag was best because it would usher upon her mind the energetic calm, if such a feeling was not oxymoronic, that the butt could deliver. The lighting drag would have hit the brain by the time the first drag occurred and this was why the first drag was not really first, but really second. The first drag would be much heavier than the lighting drag had been, no question, but the first drag, the long, deliberate pull, once taken, once possible, only from a properly set and oriented and formed butt, held in her right hand and only in that hand, only with the index and middle fingers, pressed slightly together. That first drag would be the marriage of the action of the drag, a mechanical action, the static pressure around her chest and through her arms and over her face and the chemical action, the splash that calmed her waters, like film in reverse. The calm was really the lighting drag of course, and yes, that splash would happen with or without the first drag, but in the first drag, neither part was disposable, they were equally necessary.

The woman had eight minutes by the clock, but she usually went in after the smoke was through and that took anywhere from three to five minutes, depending on how quickly she smoked. She stepped into the open air, butt ready to light, stood just behind the corner of the restaurant, just behind the exposure to the frontage road and the driveway that ran from the front of the restaurant to the parking lot behind. She usually smoked three butts during her shift. This left two breaks during which she usually ate something or made a call in the phone booth that was attached to the diner section. This was her first break, so she smoked. The cigarette lit, she took it in her right hand and brushed her bangs from her face with her left. Then she tucked her left arm under her chest. She held her smoking arm upright, braced against her crossed arm. She put the cigarette to her lips.

It was overcast and had rained. People coming into the diner had been peeling wet coats from their bodies. People outside, she could see people from a shallow angle passing on the sidewalk, skipped puddles in the driveway. From the corner, she could see the ice cream shop and the branch bank. A couple of cars pulled into the rear parking lot, drumming up that distinctive sound of tires on wet pavement, that eager, tight rip of water sticking to the tires and between the pebbles and dropping back down. She worked on the butt and looked at nothing in particular.

Returning to the diner section, she saw there were no new customers. She cleared two tables, one of which had been hers. In the next hour she took five tables and three stools. She watched the last of the sunset crawl along the diner counter, turning the chrome first white then orange. On break she went for her second cigarette. She stood at the corner of the building, looked up at the sky stained by sunset light and thought about the man in the suit of three days.

The man in the suit of three days had come into the diner about ten minutes after she had come off her last break. The man in the suit had taken a stool. To her, the man in the suit, who had also worn a tie, had reminded her of her of people from school. Professors mostly. Although she had not noticed the man in the suit before he sat down at the counter, she would have guessed that he would sit at the counter. He looked like a counter man. Counter men were those who sat at the counter in a diner such as this, and he looked like a counter man. The funny alchemy of waitressing and education had disposed her to these lines of thinking. She had made great strides in her first few weeks, creating a canon of psychology and history of the diner, but now with novelty of the work long burned out, she had unwittingly begun to treat her constructions like translated classics, dusty and remote; remembered but taken for anything but face value.

He had been in his late thirties, well dressed in a suit, but he did not look well. He was handsome, not her type perhaps. Again, this consideration was based on previous evidence that had not be examined before she stepped out for her second butt, but even retrospectively it was a distinction worth making. He had been wearing a suit, but to her it looked like he might have been wearing it for a few days without break, three she decided now. But this was a mark of the counter man. Of course, women used the counter, but statistically far less frequently than men. This was due, she knew intellectually, to the demographics of the truckers and police, of the road warriors and traveler salesmen. They were here in the diner on break from their labors. They tended to be men. Not that being alone translated to a stool, either. Plenty of women, many who were regulars that she knew by taste if not name, dined alone, but at a booth. Plenty of men did too, but not the counter men. The counter men, the truckers, the cops and salesmen, those who also drove alone and worked alone and slept alone and sat in their cars doing paperwork alone, these were the counter men and the man in the suit of three days looked like a counter man. Her opinion on the matter, she now decided while looking at nothing in particular, would have been the same even if she had come through the kitchen door and he had been at a booth.

The man who wore the suit of three days had, with the practiced familiarity of someone in sales, ordered a Reuben. The only reason she was thinking about the man now, a good hour after the fact, was the way he followed her around the room. She was aware also of the way he regarded her when she had first seen him. She had seen a stripe of surprise across his face, as though he was an old friend, seeing someone who has changed in some singular and unavoidable way. Something else occurred to her, although the thought did not go any further, and this thought was not a retrospective one, chewed over between drags, but one that occurred in the moment, when she crossed the pie shelf that bisected the long counter and walked toward his side of the diner, the side with the phone booth and the six seater table and the jukebox. It occurred to her that the man in the suit of three days was also the man who had not gotten out of the car.

There had been one car, which had rumbled by, ripping up that after-rain sound with its tires, that had parked behind the kitchen, a few spaces down from the loading dock and the dumpster, among the spaces where the employees parked, not far from her own car. But no one exited the car and walked up to the diner. She had given it no more thought then, and no more thought when she reconsidered the event as she passed the pie tray and she could give it no more now an hour and more later, back on break. Or maybe the whole thing had been because she was tall for a woman and half Korean, though she knew she, for some reason, she didn’t look Asian from a distance, whatever that meant, or so she had been told on more than one occasion, usually by drunk college boys.

After taking his order and pouring his coffee and leaving two creams by his cup, she continued to occasionally measure his gaze. She took two more orders and then brought him his. She noticed his jacket was dry. He felt well built under his jacket. It might have been too small, or perhaps it was a contribution of the effect that the suit had been worn too long without launder or any number of other things, but she felt--that was the right word--a particular muscularity on his body. It was not unfamiliar to the counter man. Although for every well build trucker or cop there were a dozen on the other end of the scale, or near to it, but the man who had worn the suit without break gave her that feeling.

Once he had the food to occupy him, she did not feel his attention again. He raced through two cups of coffee, which she offered wordlessly and he accepted with a reciprocal silent ascension which really was the only action that she had found attractive about him, a willingness to pay great attention was something she liked in men. Of course, she knew, as she burned toward the last of the second cigarette of the day, this quality was usually only apparent when her relationships attained an intimate dimension. It was usually only at play in sex, or at least the actions that surrounded sex: sleeping together, eating, bathing, cleaning, cooking together, maybe. This was where that nice, comforting, symmetrical formal payment of attention to her--and she was more than willing to reciprocate--made the whole relationship, and to be honest, she often disliked most of the physical trials of a relationship, but anyway, made the relationship worth the work.

She had gone out of her way, in her enterprise of watching his own watching of her, to see to filling his coffee. This was one of the moves she had developed in her tenure of three days a week at the restaurant, she had opened herself in the offering of the coffee. In opening herself, nothing needed to be said. She held the Burnson pot and tilted her head to one side just slightly--it did not take a lot as she was self-conscious of her long neck--and would in perfect timing with her neck, extend the Burnson. Not just extend, but move to the right, move away from her body, opening herself just slightly, passing the wide brown lip of the Burnson in an arc over the cup. His response could take any form, but she was pleased that he made it symmetrical. This was the way the whole thing could go down without a word having been said. She had offered the coffee silently and he had replied with a silent opening of his own body, nodding his head and moving his body back from the counter. She took the final drag and ground the butt meticulously against the grout between the bricks of the wall. She wondered if anyone thought about the first drag that was really the second drag or the coffee proffer that needed no words or the best way to extinguish a butt outside Smoky's Sightlines Diner and Restaurant, even on a wet day. She exhaled for the last time, dropped the butt to the pavement, and wondered if anyone thought about these things the way she did. She left her lighter in the apron pocket and wondered if it would be possible to live with anyone else who thought about these things. Thought about them and articulated them. She thought perhaps in the past she had come close to doing so. She opened the kitchen door with her smoking arm and asked herself if anyone could see these things within her.

Posted May 11, 2002.