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Smoker's Coffee

by Paul Bacon


I had asked Tracy not to do anything even if Martin attacked me. Don’t call the cops. Don’t try to stop him. Martin needed catharsis. Since I was to blame for most of his troubles, I wanted to step into the breach alone. 

Luckily, he inflicted no permanent injuries, but by the end of his tantrum, the hulking man-boy had me by the wrists, using his right hand, his Hercules hand, to pin both my arms to the kitchen table. When he finally let go and collapsed into his chair, I recoiled slowly and quietly. Rubbing my inflamed wrists beneath the table, I watched as his left hand, the withered one, lit a cigarette. Back and forth it went from his mouth to the ashtray at a settled, post-coital cadence; until eventually his head dropped like a sack. For the moment, he was spent, ready to implode, to “go singular” as he had always dreamed, shrinking down to a speck of infinite density, becoming his own black hole.

I looked across the kitchen at Tracy and nodded toward the green sippie cup on the counter: Time for his formula.

Tracy narrowed her eyes in icy protest, but I could only shrug. I wouldn’t dare speak or move my chair before we got Martin his nighty-nights. He could relapse at any second, sparked by a muffled cough or a nervous glance.

“Come on already,” Tracy said. “He’s asleep.” She tapped her foot.


Martin stirred.

I bared my teeth at Tracy, then found myself gazing at Martin again, terrified. His head crept slowly, irresistibly upward. Must . . . not . . . look. Before I saw the whites of his eyes, I turned my head and feigned interest in his wall calendar. Steep rocks. Mountain goats. October.


November: Bleary-eyed campaign staffers in college sweats and pajamas sipped coffee while leaning against various surfaces in my motel room. Tracy nursed an Evian while sitting on the bed by the phone. Twenty minutes into the meeting, the word came: Martin was missing, presumed dead.

Expecting little grief, I closed my eyes, steepled my hands and awaited dispersal. 

Someone asked, “Why even meet without Martin?” 

Eight people filed out of my room, emptying their cups into the sink. Someone left a toothbrush on my bed. 

Tracy sneaked back in about fifteen minutes later, carrying a fresh Washington Post and a cup of vending machine coffee. Walking straight to the mini-bar fridge, she said, “Not even a sniffle, huh?”

“Just as well,” I said. “Martin lives to repulse. He’ll be flattered that no one cared.”

“You’re not going to tell him,” she said matter-of-factly, dumping a handful of ice cubes in her drink.

“I have to. Lying about Martin is one thing, but lying to him is inconceivable. ESP runs in his family. It was the bane of their existence.” 

Tracy shook her head as she undressed, then got under the covers with the Post and began to swill her freshly-chilled beverage. 

“Aren’t you gonna sleep?” I said. 

She nodded in between noisy slurps.


“For the about the next hour and a half.” 

“Won’t that keep you up?”

“You know my high tolerance. If I slam this and go to sleep right now, I won’t feel it until it’s time to get up.”

“Of course,” I said, marveling. “A chemical alarm.”

Before leaning back on the pillow, Tracy cuddled the newspaper to her chest and slipped her thumbs through the fold in preparation for the morning’s first scan. She was snoring soon after. 

I curled up next to her and smelled her hair until I fell asleep. 


Two weeks later, pre-dawn, jet-lagged. Unbearably alert, I threw off my sheets and walked to the kitchen. Nothing in the fridge was edible in a traditional sense. I turned on my little black TV and pulled a tin of Quik out of the cupboard. Leaning over the sink, I gobbled powdery mouthfuls while watching the news, absorbing the details, assigning priorities.

. . . We’ll be back to tell you about another workplace shoot-out, this time in a place you’d never imagine. 

Piqued, I tried to keep one eye on TV as I reached my head beneath the faucet to slake my painful thirst. The intervening commercial was another minute-long spot for Smoker’s Coffee, the nicotine-laced, hyper-caffienated stop-smoking beverage that came out last year and was already outselling tobacco serving-for-serving. The ad ends with a product shot: a two-dimensional image on the screen just inches from the real thing, which I always left on the counter next to the set. I liked to keep both within easy reach. 

Another workplace massacre early this morning. This time, terror struck scenic Dillon, Colorado, where 26-year-old Steve Michaels, an employee of Keystone Ski Resort, shot dead seven of his fellow snowmaking technicians in the dark of night . . . 

I coughed up a mist of chocolate as I ran to the phone.


Martin wasn’t answering his cell, so I had to drive out to where he was hiding, an abandoned house out by the empty reservoir. He ignored five minutes of knocking on the basement door then barked, “What!!!!”

“Let me in. This is the peak, man. Murder on the bunny slopes. We have to ride the wave.”

Martin closed the door behind me, acting flustered as I scooted out of his way. He threw the lock shut and scowled past me as he moved to a mattress on the floor. A TV perched on top of the dryer was tuned to the news, and sections of the morning’s Post and New York Times lay strewn across the cement basement. 

“Not in the papers, is it?”

“Of course not, it was three hours ago.”

“So?” I said giddily. "You ready to leave the hermitage?"

“Not for this. Let the anti-gun people have it. Choose your battles.”

“But this one chose us. All things considered, I think we got off easy. No pregnant ladies or little kids. The victims were golden boys, members of the outdoor elite, Saab owners.”

Martin gave an inattentive nod while scanning the papers. He waved the accusing finger on his Hercules hand at the respective sports columnists for the Post and the Times. “I can’t figure out which of these guys is the bigger idiot.”

The Redskins must have lost.


Around noon, Tracy marched by my office on her way to the State Board of Education luncheon. She was wearing lipstick. I wondered if she smelled good. 

Freddie, our new deputy controller, appeared in my doorway carrying two steaming styrofoam cups. He watched Tracy walk down the hall, leering. I pretended not to notice. 

Entering uninvited, Freddie handed me a cup and said, “Cuppa Smoker’s?” He clearly wanted something.

I greedily accepted it and took a sip. 

Freddie closed my door, assuming some inexplicable dominion over my workspace, and made himself comfortable on my little brown couch. He proceeded to grill me about Martin’s whereabouts.

As politely as possible, I asked him where he heard such things. “Tell me again. Who are you a friend of?”

“Jeannie Mishio’s my sister.”

Jeannie was our grant writer. She knew Martin since they were kids, back when Martin was the undisputed badass of their neighborhood. Freddie probably grew up worshipping the guy. It meant trouble.


Tracy returned from the Board of Ed mixer around one-thirty and sat on my couch. She looked bored. 

“How was the lunch?” I asked.


“What are they naming the new high school?”

“William Howard Taft.”

“The president? He wasn’t even from here. He was from . . . ”

“Ohio,” she said drolly. “Just like Chairman-Director Walls.”

“But why Taft? Why not McKinley? He was from Ohio, wasn’t he? He was a populist and a hawk. He took the Philippines. Taft was a rich mamma’s boy. Teddy Roosevelt beat him up.”

“Taft went on to become a US Chief Justice. It was his life’s dream.”

Oh right, I thought, just like Chairman-Director Walls.


Around two, nothing was on my plate, so I decided to take a discreet nap. After closing my blinds and stepping out of my loafers, I hustled around my office, preparing an out. I took a recently-faxed press release from the incoming tray of the machine and fed it into the out-going slot. I dialed the number to the Journal-Ledger-Tribune but did not hit the send key. I turned off my computer screen-saver and turned on the TV news, then aimed the set at the couch and sat down with the remote in my lap. Deep drowsiness ensued.

A sharp knock on my glass door came either a split-second or an hour later. I couldn’t tell. I shook off my slumber, muted the TV and said, “Yes?”

The door swung open, revealing the backlit silhouette of Jeannie Mishio.

I squinted and waved her into my office, away from the light.

She moved about an inch and said, “Terry, where’s Martin, really?”

One of the interns passed by the open door, so I tried to at least seem forthcoming. “Jeannie, you know Martin even better than I do. He’s probably not dead, but we need to embrace the idea that he might be. His creditors are very resourceful.”

Jeannie seemed only vaguely consoled. She sat down on the arm of my couch, resting her hip on my shoulder. Jeannie alert. There was too little air between us, so I quickly stood up, heading for the fax machine in my socks. 

A sudden burst of volume from the TV made me jump. I turned around to see Jeannie wielding the remote. 

“Oh shit, here’s the guy,” she said, her previously pale cheeks now flush with fascination.

I saw a slow zoom into a snapshot of the ski-area shooter, now dubbed the “Abominable Snowman.” Windblown hair, rugged smile, he stands in front of a trail sign marked with a big green circle--a beginner’s run. 

“You know,” said Jeannie. “This guy’s too clean. If we don’t get on him fast, people will miss the irony.”

I couldn’t have agreed with her more.


In case you’re wondering: 

I was second to the second in command of the National Conversation Probing National Pluralism and Identity Caucus. The NCPNPAIC was basically a front, a self-appointed think tank drawing off a state program budget that had been ostensibly slashed before put to use. The money was actually there, we just weren’t supposed to exist anymore. Somehow the state bureaucracy, which usually screwed us as individuals, had worked in favor of our group. An apparent administrative error had left us with all the money we hadn’t even touched yet. We just moved off the hill and set up shop as a not-for-prof, working on our political careers, in essence, for free. Accountable to no one. I figured we owed our country's fate to some errant accounting form or a sticky note that fell in the trash.

Martin had spotted the error. He had kept some of his savings, about twenty thousand dollars, illegally stashed in our account, and when the governor’s office announced the cut, Martin hacked back in to get his money. Strangely, he found the regular password unusable. He tried again. Nothing. He got ‘the fear’ and went flat broke. One month and two living situations later, he tried again. Same password, but this time, he got into the account--where he found, in addition to his money, the $13 million earmarked for our waylaid department. He immediately cordoned off the account with a  new password--and the old money became ours again. He told us nobody would lay a finger on it but us. 

While updating the account, Martin had had to choose a new name for our organization. Others scoffed at the name’s length, but I was in awe of its genius, its stealth. Any normal person would get pissed off just by reading it. No one would ever want to say it. It had 22 syllables, yet the acronym was unpronounceable and too long too remember. It was truly un-advertising.


After work, I walked with Tracy out to her car, staying about five steps behind. She sauntered past the passenger side of Buck--her late-‘60s Buick Roadster--and unlocked the door. Nicknamed for the “I” missing from its rear insignia, Buck was an eight-cylinder skeleton of metal and glass and tires that were rusted, shattered and sagging, respectively. A lover of anonymity, Tracy affected poverty whenever possible. 

I snuck out from behind a minivan, toed up to Buck and slipped inside. Quickly tumbling over the long front seat, I landed in a pile of Tracy’s unwashed laundry--as if in a dream. I fashioned a sublime pillow out of t-shirts and lacy things while laying on my side, out of view. 

Tracy brought the engine to a low chortle, then put it in reverse. Backing out, she stretched her arm along the backseat, looking through the rear window, looming over me. She said very solemnly, “Jeannie smells something, you know that.”

“About us?”


We were parked by the full reservoir, swigging from beer cans, when Tracy told me she was sick of lying about Martin. 

“I’m no good at it, either,” she said. “I freeze up. People can see through me like an ice cube.”

“We just need to get his mind on something,” I mumured while  wringing my hands. “He’ll come out of hiding when he’s got something to focus on. I know just he’s feeling stifled.” 

“You’re feeling stifled, Terry. Don’t project.”

“One of us has to be simpatico with him. He controls our budget, our paychecks.”

“Yeah, I know, it's serious. That’s why I have such a hard time bullshitting Bob-n-Rob-n-Tom.”

Bob-n-Rob-n-Tom were the ostensible leadership of NCPNPAIC. All three men had claimed title to executive director upon the founding of our mission-less organization, eventually deciding titles weren't necessary since they were already triplets. I found visiting their shared office an uncomfortably surreal experience and tried to avoid it at all costs.

I said to Tracy, “Just tell them Martin’s still dead for all intents and purposes.”

“You tell them.”


In hindsight, I think I ended up pushing Martin a little too hard to come out of hiding. After work the next day, I drove out to his hermitage with Jeannie Mishio in tow. She had been worried about her former classmate ever since he went incognito, and I thought it was a good time to bring her into the loop. Martin had always been secretly in love with the woman.

Barreling up the highway off-ramp in my little Alentra, I brought the engine to a deafening whine and joined the stampede of traffic. I made a hearty dash for the fast lane, threading our trajectory through spatial impossibilities, cheating death. A low but loud smear of horn welcomed us, nearly blowing us off the road. I looked back to see a panel of four or five multi-colored license plates looming over my bumper. I sped up to 85 mph, then looked back at the mirror to watch the interstate truck shrink down to manageable size.

I turned to Jeannie. “What were you saying?”

Jeannie opened her eyes slowly while un-clenching her finger from my dashboard.


After listening to Jeannie lament the past few months of assuming Martin dead, I gave her the gritty low-down on everything, except of course his tragic crush on her.

“Yes, the good news is that he’s alive," I said. "The bad news is that he has diabetes.”

“Diabetes? I don’t remember him getting shots.”

“It’s adult onset. It strikes people in their forties, especially overweight people.”

“But Martin’s 33.”

“Chronologically yes, but I think we all know in reality he’s at last twice that old.”

“Is he in the hospital?”

“He’s holed up at Judy’s old place out by the empty reservoir. We’re heading there now.” 

I think my delivery might have been a bit tour-guideish, because Jeannie just sneered at me. I was so used to speaking about Martin among people who wished him dead.

“Well, is he sick?" she finally said. "What’s going on? Why the smoke screen?”

“One word,” I said, “Jeff.”

Jeannie began rubbing her chin, putting the pieces together. 

Jeff was Martin’s older brother who had died a heroin addict when Martin was 11. Raised in a superstitious household and suffering from a congenitally withered arm, Martin imagined himself not only somehow responsible for his brother’s death but also fated to it himself. Now, as an adult, already three or four “aholisms” into the list of popular chronic addictions, he faced a disease requiring daily needle use. 


Jeannie stayed on ground level while I descended the cement steps to Martin’s unlit basement entrance. I didn’t want Martin to see her right away. No need to give the guy a heart attack, too.

I knocked for about two minutes and finally got Martin to answer the door: “What?!!”

“It’s me.”

“What do you want?”

“Nothing. Just bored. Wondering what you’re up to.”

After about a minute, I realized he had drifted away.

I knocked again. 

He opened the door about six inches, presenting the top of his head--hair tossed, t-shirt soiled and shorts on backwards. 

“What, man?” he said, looking at the floor, breathing painfully. “I’m kinda with somebody.”

Martin had company? The news came as a complete shock. I lost my bearings, ignoring my logical reflex to abort the mission.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said, “I’m with someone, too.” Oops. 

Martin looked up at me, glaring--the first eye contact we’d shared in weeks. “You fuckin’ brought somebody here?” he growled, then poked his nose out the door a few inches and took a long sniff.

“Smells like . . . Jeannie,” he whispered in disbelief, craning his neck to look up the steps.


With not one but two objects of his affection in the same room, Martin seemed calm, immune to provocation. And he didn’t look at all uncomfortable about introducing Jeannie, his life-long romantic obsession, to his guest Carol, a girl whom he had obviously just been sleeping with. I thought it must have been kind of satisfying for him; he even offered to make us nachos. 

“You have an oven?” I said.

“It’s upstairs,” he grumbled, and then I swore I heard his Hercules hand tightening into a fist. “You want some or not?” 

Still testy I noticed. He must have wanted to get out of earshot before the basement began to fill with touchy-feely revelations. I could tell from the number of soft and/or fuzzy possessions strewn about the hermitage that they had been bonding in a serious manner. As Martin’s new female partner, she would also be his new spokesperson, and we had many issues at hand. 

After Martin disappeared up the stairs, Carol unfolded a deck chair for Tracy, and I took a seat on the cement floor. 

Carol sat on the edge of the mattress, resting her arms on her knees. “So, you’re probably wondering how I met Kenny.”

“Kenny?” I said.

“Ken, Kenneth. I call him Kenny.”

Oh, shit, I thought. Another fake name. So, it turned out that Carol was his nurse, or, I should say, the nurse of the person she thought he was. It was sooo hard to listen to her talk with a straight face. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. She said Martin, or Kenny, had been found unconscious in the candy aisle at Drug Village last week. He’d been so terrified of treating his diabetes with needles that he had tried to survive on sweets and sodas. She said she met him in the hospital, gave him three sponge baths before they even said hello. She was reading a book to him when he finally came to. 

A bit nauseating I thought, but this is of course where all stories become truly sordid--upon Martin’s arrival. From here, I had to read between the lines. Apparently, by lunch, he had persuaded Carol to sneak him out of the hospital and back to his place. By the time pizza arrived, he had her convinced that he couldn’t afford medical insurance and needed someone to keep him in insulin for a while, probably until he gets a job. Then, his stomach full and his gaze fixed on her highly attainable attributes, he then decided to seal their deal with a lunge toward physical intimacy. From the looks of her, she probably really dug it. Now she was probably sleeping there every night--and in charge of all non-nacho-based foodstuffs--as addicted to his demands as he was to her supplies.


The next day, I was sitting in Tracy’s office before my unavoidable meeting with the triplets, or the trips, as we called them. Tracy was carrying on three conversations at once, switching between two phone calls and occasionally hitting the mute button to tell me what they were saying. I think she thought she was bringing me up to speed on something, but I really had no idea what she was talking about. Tracy was a lawyer.

“Bill. Bill!” she barked after about ten minutes, “I heard you the first seventeen times. Just let me talk to Sarah about it. Okay? Alright. ” She punched over to the other call. “Sarah, look, Bill’s never gonna pull his head out . . . Yeah, I understand. Good luck.”

She let out a gasp and hung up the phone. Slumping deeply into her chair, she crossed her arms and began rubbing her own shoulders. After a deep moan, she said, “Sorry to keep you waiting, Terry, but I don’t think I can get up. You’re going to have to meet the trips by yourself.”

“Like hell,” I said. “I’m not going in there alone. They’ll skeletonize me in seconds, whittle my bones to toothpicks.”

“They just want to know where Martin is.”

“They can't still be worried about the money. He hasn’t touched our account since he put on a new password. He may be a criminal, but he’s not a thief. Well, actually, he is a thief of certain things, but . . . I mean, if he was going to rob us blind, why would he have waited so long?”

“There’s still a tidy sum in there. Could buy a whole new life for someone with his low standards. I know everything’s cool, Terry, but I think Bob-n-Rob-n-Tom would feel more comfortable if Martin weren’t in hiding. It’s hard to trust a person on the lam.”

“Yeah, but I promised Martin.”

“Alright then. Just tell them what you want.”

“And then what? They’ll ask something else. They want me to flush him out.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll send Jeannie.” She grabbed the phone and reached for her speed-dial buttons. “They can’t get blood from a stone.”

“Uh, wait,” I said, “She knows.”

Tracy raised one eyebrow said, “Oh, so we’re telling things to Jeannie now?” She hung up the phone. 

“No, no. It’s nothing. I just took her out to the empty reservoir for a few minutes. She was worried.”

And you took her out there.” She picked up the phone again.

“Wait. Who are you calling?

“My other secret lover, to let him know I’ll be at his place tonight.”


Tracy wasn’t the kind to wallow in jealousy; she reveled in it. I didn’t dare sleep around on her. Not that she would make a big scene or anything, we were dating on the sly after all. No, it would be much worse. She’d go get laid herself. 

Tracy was not like other women I’d been with, although I never would learn why. She said nothing of her romantic past and asked nothing about mine. If I brought something up, she’d cover her ears or dig her fingernails into my skin until I dropped the subject. I could have been her first boyfriend or her fiftieth. I would never know. All I knew is that she had very few rules about sex because she didn’t think it was all that important. She liked it and all, but she gave sexual morality issues as much consideration as a chat about the weather. 

When we first started going out, I was the one who lobbied for monogamy. I actually felt I had to bring it up. With most women I’ve been with, it was implied, but I had to talk Tracy into it. I didn’t believe I was doing it at the time. Why was I limiting myself? But I knew I couldn’t stand the thought of her being with someone else. I liked her too much. My formidable sexual imagination would have turned against me the moment she left my sight. With Tracy, I always knew exactly where I stood--at the front of a very long line.


Tracy weaseled out of the meeting by playing a “gooj,” which stood for “get out of jail.” These worked much like hush money: When one of us was caught in an embarrassing situation, we’d grant the other an imaginary gooj to never mention it again. After that, it became our currency of relief, entitling the bearer to break small promises, duck out of apologies or rule stalemated disputes in their favor. Tracy was about six goojes up on me when I let on about my secret mission with Jeannie Mishio, so I didn’t even try to defend myself. 

I moped out of her office and walked down to Bob-n-Rob-
n-Tom’s office alone. The air around their workspace seemed thicker, impregnated somehow. I desperately sniffed for leaking gas or some airborne virulence that would require an immediate evacuation of the building. No such luck. 

As I rounded the last corner, I watched their fishbowl office appear from behind a tall potted plant. The triplets were already looking up at me.

Bob, Rob, and Tom McDonald were maddeningly perfect images of one another: tall, healthy-looking men with bright teeth and winning hair. We could only tell them apart by the colors of their neckties, which were always red, green, and blue, respectively. It took us months to get them to do this. They used come to work wearing three of the same tie on one day, three of another tie the next day, and so on. I sometimes wondered if they slept together.

To be continued . . .

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