Jonah Marlow Bradenday lives on Peaks Island, Maine, with his partner Hannah. He is currently working as an apprentice carpenter while he applies to MFA programs across the country.
by Jonah Bradenday
The smoker wore a green tweed jacket with elbow pads. He had shiny black hair that fell in tight ringlets over his collar. Because he always showed his back to her, Erna had no idea what his face looked like. He wore long black chef’s pants and blue rubber gloves up to his elbows. She assumed he worked for Le Labo, a cocktail club that shared an alleyway with the East Rose Inn, but she couldn’t be sure, as she’d never seen him enter or exit the building.
She’d first noticed the smoker because of a yellowish stain on the balcony window. Having cleaned the entirety of Room 318, she’d begun to pack her supplies and the dirty bedclothes back into her cart when she looked across the room and spotted the stain. It was waist level on the window, the size of a walnut, and smudged into a bulbous shape that looked like a lopsided pig. Of its chemical or fluid nature, Erna did not know, nor did she want to. Suspicious yellow smears were all too commonplace on the walls, windows, and furniture of the hotel’s many rooms.
From her cart, she took a bottle of frothy green glass detergent and a relatively clean hand rag. She wanted to save the fresh ones for heavily dirtied rooms, and not all-but-sparkling-rooms such as 318. Spraying the stain three times with the bottle, she began to scrub at it with the rag, not paying much attention to anything in particular. She often found herself in this type of daze, consumed by the mundane yet ceaseless nature of her work, and not caring altogether about the quality of her cleaning.
Because of the daze, she almost didn’t notice the smoker standing below her in the alleyway. Her eyes were unfocused and buzzed with distant blurriness, but his movements drew her back in.
He shuffled, grape-vining, though laboriously and slowly as if the tar beneath his feet was still fresh and gelatinous. Every few steps, he stopped abruptly, raised his furthest foot in the air and flicked it, tapping some invisible bass pedal with the toe of his red leather boot, before reversing direction and beginning the vine again. Shuffling, pausing, tapping, shuffling, pausing, tapping.
Erna watched in quiet awe, not for the skill of his movements, however smoothly beautiful they were, but for the line of smoke that followed the man.
In his right blue-gloved hand, he held an ordinary cigarette, white and long on one end, tan and short on the other. It was lit, but never found the grape-viner’s lips for the duration of Erna’s watch. The embers burned in the ordinary fashion, but the smoke that stemmed from the cigarette was anything but. It split and spiraled out from the man’s hand like the wings of a miniature hurricane, though unlike the chaotic density of a storm, the tendrils of smoke slithered with purpose, each driven outward and upward by something conscious and independent. Above the man’s head, the smoke regathered, re-twining like the vines his feet twisted across the alley tar. When the man danced right, the smoke string followed, pulled along by his pinching gloved fingertips. When he danced left, so did the string.
Erna watched until the glass in front of her eyes fogged up. Not once did the man turn around or look up, yet he was ever moving, drawn on by an inaudible waltz, shuffling, pausing, and tapping, the obedient smoke string, meeting and mirroring his every move, an ever-clinging duet partner.
Someone knocked on the door and Erna jerked her eyes away. She checked the blue plastic watch on her wrist. It was 5:10 PM. Her shift had been over for 10 minutes.
“Erna, you still in there?” called her co-worker, Cindy, from the hall.
“Yeah, just about finished,” Erna called over her shoulder.
She gave the window a final scrub, erasing all trace of the stain, and looked down at the smoker one last time.
He continued back and forth along the alleyway, almost as if he were made of gears and springs. The smoke continued to follow him, seeking as if it were alive and he was not. Erna looked away, stood, and went out, pulling her cart behind her.
She wasn’t hungry enough to finish her tomato soup. The bowl sat half full in the sink next to the dirty saucepan. Instead, she sat on the couch with the television on, not knowing or caring what played in front of her. Her mind was on the smoker.
She’d changed her mind about the man’s movements. She no longer imagined that they were robotic. They were deliberate, perhaps even planned, but not automated. When he moved sideways, winding and unwinding invisible grapevines, he didn’t face her, yet she could tell he was aware of her presence. She imagined he was more than aware. In fact, he danced for her.
A couple of weeks earlier, she’d watched a nature film about birds. There was one, the male vogelkop, that stood out in her memory. When it flew between trees in the jungle, searching for seeds, fruit, and insects, the male vogelkop appeared to be no more than an ordinary blackbird. Its black feathers and black eyes were indistinguishable from any of the hundreds of other plain-shaded jungle birds. Yet while the male vogelkop was ordinary in flight and feeding, it hid a colorful secret beneath its feathers. Come mating season, like any other bird, the male vogelkop sought out a female, but when it found one, its body changed. The bird puffed up, fanning out its chest, face, and back feathers into the shape of a black and fluorescent blue humanoid face. The bird then danced back and forth in front of the female, presenting its distinct colors in arrays of shivering, bobbing motions. Through his performance of color and movement, the vogelkop seduced.
In her distant, imaginative state, Erna was sure of it. The smoker danced for her. He knew she was watching, and he’d decided to seduce her with movement and mysticism. The shuffling, pausing, and tapping were planned and rehearsed, and the slithering tendrils of smoke were his hidden paradisiacal feathers. She had been entranced by the gentle repetition, not through chance, but by nature. She was as mesmerized as a female vogelkop and he was hers, and yet he wasn’t.
She’d left him there, dancing alone in the alleyway, strutting left to right and left again, pulling his tails of wispy smoke behind him, beautiful, yet luckless in his plea for love. She wondered how long he’d danced for her before realizing that she was gone. The thought of him dancing still, under the red fluorescents of Le Labo, made her feel suddenly sad, as if she had betrayed his trust. The thought was miserable enough that she snapped back into focus.
She sat on her couch in her own apartment, not at all intertwined with the lonely shuffling smoker, not at all responsible for his happiness. In fact, she didn’t even know that he was lacking. It was all just silly, conflating a dancing man with a fantasy of romance and courting rituals. The smoke was odd, but so was the yellow stain as well as so many other things. Sometimes things were just odd and inexplicable and couldn’t or shouldn’t be rationalized. Erna nodded to herself on that couch, sure of herself at last. She appreciated the finality of her decision. It left no room for any more make-believe. She was resolute and tired and the day was over, so she went to bed.
At work the next morning, she cleaned the East Rose Inn’s odd-numbered rooms. These were the rooms that faced First Street and the few businesses along it. From Room 111, Erna could see Glinda’s Secondhand Books and SJ’s General Store just across the street. A few pedestrians stopped in at each store, but for the most part, the street was vacant. December was coming fast. From Room 217, she could see over to the next block, where the Wyland Forest Reserve began. Despite the empty grey branches, the forest was impenetrable to her eyes. The trunks bent in and around each other, obscuring the floor only a few feet past the road’s edge. The twists in the wood reminded her suddenly of the smoker.
She hadn’t entirely forgotten. She was fully aware of her intention to push him out of mind, and she had almost been successful, barely thinking of him as even real, more of a projected daydream than anything else, a figment of her dissatisfaction perhaps. Unfortunately, he had been real, and now his image consumed her once more.
Despite the smoker’s return to her thoughts, Erna waded through her impressions with a new mood of realism. Surely the man had just been dancing for himself after a particularly frustrating shift. She had often felt jittery from long hours of nothing-labor, and dancing seemed a realistic way to expel such energies. Yet that couldn’t explain the smoke’s liveliness, which at this point Erna was not wholly sure of. She had been several stories up and her mind had already begun wandering for the day. She would not be staggered to find out that the twisting wisps had been purely her own romanticizing. The smoke was fake, the man was real, and probably as plain as she, but she couldn’t help but wonder. Was he still there?
Gaining access to Room, 318 was as easy as telling Rich, her supervisor, that she had left her lip balm on the side table. The room hadn’t had any guests since yesterday, so the excuse was irrefutable. Rich waved her apathetically to the key wall and out of his office. Now she stood, her back against the inside of the door, looking across the room at the window where the yellow stain had been just a day earlier.
From this distance, all she could see was the black graveled rooftop of Le Labo, its steel vents spinning lazily. She knew that while the alley was three stories below, it was also only a few steps away. If she craned her neck, she could see the edge of the club’s roof and the beginning of its brick alley wall. If she took a step, she would see the windows of its second floor, another and she’d see the first, one more and she’d be looking at the black alley tar. She thought about turning around and leaving, ignoring her own silliness once again, asking herself to forget anything she thought she saw, but she couldn’t.
Erna craned her neck, took a step, lost patience with herself and scurried the rest of the way, pushing her nose into the glass and straining her eyes to see.
When she saw him there, she immediately felt disappointment—not the sorrowful disappointment she might have felt if he wasn’t there, but something more disenchanting, as if the mysticism of the smoker was erased by his continued existence in the alleyway. If he had only disappeared, then perhaps he was everything she’d imagined him to be. But the regret went away almost as quickly as it had arisen. The smoker still shuffled, paused, and tapped, and more importantly, he smoked. He had been waltzing all day and night and morning again and the smoke still followed obediently, yet now Erna could see that the string was not a separate living thing, but an extension of the smoker himself. Where he lacked a face to convey emotion, the smoke expressed it all, weaving and bobbing and longing. Longing. She had been right to think of the vogelkop. The smoker and the smoke stream courted her together. It was both rehearsed and spontaneous, seeking her for the woman that she was, but only her and no one else. If the glass were not there, she would reach for the wisp and tug it towards her body, conveying her approval, but she was forced to find satisfaction in the performance alone.
When the cigarette’s ember finally died and the string stopped twisting, dispersed by the morning breeze, and the sounds of shuffling on cold black tar no longer echoed against the alley brick, the smoker turned to face her. His face was like any other face. He was not split into body and soul as Erna had imagined. He flicked the cigarette away and looked up at her, widening his eyes, as if he had just noticed her presence and danced purely for the exercise. She smiled down at him, but despite her best efforts, all the smokeless man returned was a nod. He turned away again, shrugged, and left the alley.
Erna continued to watch the space where he had been for a half-minute or so, unsure of her own emotion. She expected to feel a surging disappointment, far worse than when she had seen him again, possibly even a deep sorrow, but couldn’t find it within herself. She too shrugged, stood, and left the room, seeking her cleaning cart and the odd-numbered rooms of the fourth floor.
When her day came to a close, she locked the cart away, returned the final keys to their hooks, and left the building, but before she could set out across First Street towards her car and home, she had an urge to go the other way. Still somewhat perplexed by the shift in her emotional investment, she gave in and went, skirting the edge of the hotel until she found the alleyway entrance. Just ten steps in and she stood on the black tar where he had been, her skin illuminated by the red fluorescents. The air was cool, just on the edge of uncomfortable, and had the distinct smell of cigarette smoke. She inhaled deeply, thinking that the scent might spark something within her, but only tasted stale tobacco.
Just as she turned to leave, she heard it, soft, but swelling, coming from nowhere in particular, but also everywhere at once. The red lights dimmed, and the black tar turned to checkerboard marble. An alpine breeze rippled across the ballroom floor. The swaying notes of the waltz tugged at her ears and her feet, beckoning, and because she had nowhere else to be, she went.