© 2006 Mark Zero. All rights reserved.


Jeremiah’s Pipe Smoke

Thick and blue and bittersweet with a nutty pungence mingling the acrid and the saccharine in equal parts, the smoke from Jeremiah Grayson’s bulbous amber pipe clung to his body like an aura. It was unclear which people objected to more: his constant smoking or the attitude it represented.
Jeremiah had fought in the second world war and had stayed in Europe until 1951—three years after his army discharge. He had acquired foreign tastes and peculiar habits during his time abroad, which he clung to in spite of the passing years: he listened to dissonant cool jazz and bebop, snacked on tinned mussels and vinegar fries and ordered his tobacco from the same tiny shop in Brussels that he’d discovered in the forties. Though he had run a quiet, respectable barber shop just off of Templeton’s town square for half a century, his unusual tastes and watchful manner made people regard him with suspicion, as if his next move might prove alarming.
Jeremiah enjoyed this reputation, though he thought he did little to encourage it. Every day, he sidled into the Blue Cup for breakfast at seven o’clock, lingered over his copy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (another quietly insurrectionary activity, since everyone else was content with the Templeton Constitution), and then walked down Cross Street to his shop. He ate lunch at Bertram’s at one. He walked home promptly at five-thirty. His unremarkable routine had remained the same day in and day out for decades, but it wasn’t his routine that aroused the concern of his fellow citizens—it was his demeanor. They felt that he simply wasn’t like them in some fundamental but ill-defined way, and it was this lack of definition that disturbed them.
Today, Jeremiah’s pipe smoke preceded him up the hill from his barber shop toward the Square. It was a muggy September afternoon and downtown traffic was as brisk as it could be in a town of seven thousand people. Jeremiah passed Jean’s Jewelry Store just shy of the Square, waved in at Jean as he always did, and crossed the street toward the Old Courthouse.
The Old Courthouse functioned symbolically as Lawford County’s seat, but inside no cases were tried and no permits issued: the county’s judges performed their duties at the newer court complex on the western edge of town. The Old Courthouse was now little more than a hall of records filled with yellowing documents from the time before computers; its maroon-red bricks were covered with an invisible but tangible grime, the ignominy of failure. Built in 1874, with a genuine Civil War cannon defending each of its corners and an attractively imperious clock tower (each of whose four clocks showed a different time), the Courthouse had fallen victim to incessant perfunctory use, then decay, and finally to the idea of progress that demanded ever more utilitarian architecture. In 1976, the year America had gloried in its past, the historic Courthouse had been replaced by a pair of long, flat, peach-colored buildings on the outskirts of town.
Jeremiah sat down on a bench on the north side of the Courthouse, beneath an ancient walnut tree, and re-lit his pipe. His old nose could no longer smell the blooming roses in the bed along the sidewalk. He sat for a few moments, puffing contentedly, watching a squirrel watch him, before he replaced his lighter in the pocket of his barber’s vest, stood up again and continued slowly across the Square.
The jangling bells above the door announced his entrance into Bertram’s Drug Store, and he shivered in the dry, artificially cool air. He walked past aisles of craft supplies, household staples and bric-a-brac, to an awkward assortment of dining tables and plastic chairs. The luncheonette was chattering with small children and their gossiping mothers. Jeremiah weaved through them and pulled a stool up to the soda fountain.
Smoke gathered above him as he studied the menu, which hadn’t changed in twenty years. Sharon Kazee, Bertram’s manager, stalked over and glared at him, until he chuckled his thick, throaty, smoker’s laugh and slipped the pipe into his pocket.
“If I see that pipe in here one more time, I’m going to ban you forever,” Sharon said, with no trace of mirth.
“But what would you do without my five dollars every day?”
“Thrive.” Sharon wiped the counter with a damp rag. “You want the usual?”
Jeremiah’s usual was a cheesesteak, potato salad, a pickle, and black coffee, none of which he could taste. He hated the racket of Bertram’s and the sentimental merchandise they sold, but he came every day for Sharon’s sensible middle-aged bulk and the swing music she played on the sound system. He liked to stare through the picture windows at farm trucks wheeling around the Square and people taking packages into the post office.
Sharon went to start his order, and Jeremiah sneaked a last surreptitious puff on his pipe before it completely lost its flame. He put it quickly back in his pocket as Sharon rounded the corner with his coffee. The smoke lingered in the air.
“You’re worse than my kids. Really. I don’t understand the pleasure you take in flaunting that nasty thing.”
Jeremiah sipped his coffee, content with their customary confrontation. He was lonely, and even stale conflicts with predictable ends were more satisfying than common public niceness.
As he sat thinking fondly of Sharon’s surliness, he noticed a change in the lunch room’s air. He looked around and saw that the eyes of his fellow diners were suddenly fixed on him, and he stared back, uncertain. He tried to catch the eye of Connie Carter, sitting with her two rambunctious sons, but her gaze was directed somewhere just beyond him. He heard a voice behind him, a ringingly clear female voice with a faint accent, possibly Irish, just light enough to be unplaceable.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” the voice said. “Could you tell me what that is you’re cooking?”
Jeremiah turned and saw, standing a few feet away from him, a woman he was certain he had never seen before but whose features seemed nevertheless familiar. She was in her late twenties, with coarse blonde hair that hung to her shoulders in loose curls. The roundness of her cheeks emphasized her equally round blue eyes, which were as bright as a welder’s arc and shot through with tiny, pale golden streaks. She had thin lips and a delicate jaw, and her furrowed brow made her look appealingly helpless.
Sharon came around the soda fountain. Sweat ran into the folds of her neck, and she wiped her hands on her apron. “It’s a cheesesteak,” said Sharon. Her voice was hard.
“I don’t mean to bother you,” the blonde woman continued. “It’s just, there’s a peculiar smell in the air I can’t quite place. You’re not baking anything, are you?”
“No.” She continued to stare at the woman aggressively.
“Or brewing some kind of herbal tea?”
“Oh.” The woman shifted her weight from one foot to the other and bit her lower lip. Well. All right, sorry to bother you.”
Sharon scowled and steamed back to her grill.
“What does it smell like?” Jeremiah asked. The blonde woman turned to him, and he felt the brightness in her eyes light up his own.
She made little circles in the air with both hands, as if conjuring the scent. “Sort of… like almonds. Burnt almonds.”
“I don’t know. It’s such a familiar smell, but I can’t put my finger on it. But… no matter.” She moved as if to go, and Jeremiah cleared his throat.
“Like amaretto,” he said. “Like hickory nuts and whiskey and oak.” The blonde woman looked at him quizzically. Jeremiah reached into his vest pocket, drew out his pipe and offered her the yellowed bowl. She held the pipe below her chin and breathed deeply, closing her eyes. When she opened them again, she smiled at Jeremiah.
“I’m surprised I didn’t recognize it at once, but with all the other smells in here…” She shrugged. “It reminds me of my father’s tobacco.”
“It’s Belgian,” Jeremiah said.
“You’re joking.”
“It’s the house blend of a tobacconist in Brussels.”
“My father’s favorite tobacco was made in Brussels! He used to go there for his job.”
“It’s from a shop called Bjarne’s. I discovered it during the war.”
“Well.” She handed Jeremiah’s pipe back and put her hands on her hips. “You just never know, do you?”
“That’s right,” Jeremiah said. “You never know.”
“Thank you.”
She adjusted the strap of her small black handbag and walked out of the luncheonette toward the other side of Bertram’s. Jeremiah unconsciously put his pipe back in his mouth and stared after her, trying to remember where he recognized her from. When he finally realized who the woman was, his blood ran cold.
Sharon set a plate down at his elbow. “Stop drooling, you old letch, and put that damn pipe away.”
“That was Marnie Hawthorne, wasn’t it?”
“Of course, who’d you think?”
“She’s as beautiful as her grandmother was.”
“Stop making a fool of yourself and eat your lunch.”
Jeremiah picked up his fork and looked at Sharon silently, until she walked off shaking her head. Then he spun around on his stool and continued tracing the movements of Marnie Hawthorne with his eyes.
From a distance, Marnie could easily have been mistaken for her own grandmother, and it surprised Jeremiah that he had taken so long to recognize her. He had assumed that Dorothy Hawthorne’s death had put an end to the fiasco of fifty years before, but now he saw that, to the contrary, her death had brought a living ghost of that past to Templeton, and it walked among them. Marnie Hawthorne’s face, the casual elegance of her walk, her simple presence seemed a sign that the transgressions of the Hawthornes, that his own transgressions, remained unforgiven.
The legacy of the Hawthornes, which had survived for years in Templeton in the form of half-believed stories and bad jokes, in the form of the brooding Hawthorne Mansion, which conveyed a feeling of desperation and corruption even now—the legacy of the Hawthornes was strolling casually through Bertram’s Drug Store. Jeremiah watched Marnie make her purchases, put her sunglasses on and walk out onto the Square, gracefully, easily, apparently oblivious of the animosity she inspired all around her.