In a weedy lot on the outskirts of Memphis, two boys watch a shiny Lincoln pull up to the curb. Eleven-year-old Mark Sway and his younger brother were sharing a forbidden cigarette when a chance ...(more)
Mark lit the cigarette, puffed a tiny cloud of smoke, then held it and admired it. "Don't try to swallow the smoke. You're not ready for that yet. Just suck a little then blow the smoke out. Are you ready?"
"Will it make me sick?"
"It will if you swallow the smoke." He took two quick drags and puffed for effect. "See.
It's really easy. I'll teach you how to inhale later."
"Okay." Ricky nervously reached out with his thumb and index finger, and Mark placed the cigarette carefully between them. "Go ahead."
Ricky eased the wet filter to his lips. His hand shook and he took a short drag and blew smoke. Another short drag. The smoke never got past his front teeth. Another drag. Mark watched carefully, hoping he would choke and cough and turn blue, then get sick and never smoke again.
"It's easy," Ricky said proudly as he held the cigarette and admired it. His hand was
"It's no big deal."
"Tastes kind of funny."
"Yeah, yeah." Mark sat next to me and picked another one from his pocket.
Ricky puffed rapidly. Mark lit his, and they sat in silence under the tree enjoying a quiet smoke.
"This is fun," Ricky said, nibbling at the filter.
"Great. Then why are your hands shaking?"
Ricky ignored this. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, took a longer drag, then spat in the dirt like he'd seen Kevin and the big boys do behind the trailer park. This was easy.
Mark opened his mouth into a perfect circle and attempted a smoke ring. He thought this would really impress his little brother, but the ring failed to form and the gray smoke dissipated.
"I think you're too young to smoke," he said.
Ricky was busy puffing and spitting, and thoroughly enjoying this giant step toward
manhood. "How old were you when you started?" he asked.
"Nine. But I was more mature than you."
"You always say that."
"That's because it's always true."
They sat next to each other on the log under the tree, smoking quietly and staring at the grassy clearing beyond the shade. Mark was in fact more mature than Ricky at the age of eight. He was more mature than any kid his age. He'd always been mature. He had hit his father with a baseball bat when he was seven. The aftermath had not been pretty, but the drunken idiot had stopped beating their mother. There had been many fights and many beatings, and Dianne Sway had sought refuge and advice from her eldest son. They had consoled each other and conspired to survive. They had plotted ways to protect Ricky. When he was nine, Mark convinced her to file for divorce. He had called the cops when his father showed up drunk after being served with divorce papers. He had testified in court about the abuse and neglect and beatings. He was very mature.
Ricky heard the car first. There was a low, rushing sound coming from the dirt road.
Then Mark heard it, and they stopped smoking.
"Just sit still," Mark said softly. They did not move.
A long black, shiny Lincoln appeared over the slight hill and eased toward them. The
weeds in the road were as high as the front bumper. Mark dropped his cigarette to the ground and covered it with his shoe. Ricky did the same.
The car slowed almost to a stop as it neared the clearing, then circled around, touching the tree limbs as it moved slowly. It stopped and faced the road. The boys were directly behind it and hidden from view. Mark slid off the log and crawled through the weeds to a row of brush at the edge of the clearing. Ricky followed. The rear of the Lincoln was thirty feet away. They watched it carefully. It had Louisiana license plates.
"What's he doing?" Ricky whispered.
Mark peeked through the weeds. "Shhhhh!" He had heard stories around the trailer park of teenagers using these woods to meet girls and smoke pot, but this car did not belong to a teenager. The engine quit, and the car just sat there in the weeds for a minute. Then the door opened, and the driver stepped into the weeds and looked around. He was a chubby man in a black suit. His head was fat and round and without hair except for neat rows above the ears and a black-and-gray beard. He stumbled to the rear of the car, fumbled with the keys, and finally opened the trunk. He removed a water hose, stuck one end into the exhaust pipe, and ran the other end through a crack in the left rear window. He closed the trunk, looked around again as if he were expecting to be watched, then disappeared into the car.
The engine started.
"Wow," Mark said softly, staring blankly at the car.
"What's he doing?" Ricky asked.
"He's trying to kill himself."
Ricky raised his head a few inches for a better view. "I don't understand, Mark."
"Keep down. You see the hose, right? The fumes from the tail pipe go into the car, and it kills him."
"You mean suicide?"
"Right. I saw a guy do it like this in a movie once."
They leaned closer to the weeds and stared at the hose running from the pipe to the
window. The engine idled smoothly.
"Why does he want to kill himself?" Ricky asked.
"How am I supposed to know? But we gotta do something."
"Yeah, let's get the hell outta here."
"No. Just be still a minute."
"I'm leaving, Mark. You can watch him die if you want to, but I'm gone."
Mark grabbed his brother's shoulder and forced him lower. Ricky's breathing was heavy and they were both sweating. The sun hid behind a cloud.
"How long does it take?" Ricky asked, his voice quivering.
The brother eased onto all fours.
"You stay here, okay. If you move, I'll kick your tail."
"What're you doing, Mark?"
"Just stay here. I mean it." Mark lowered his thin body almost to the ground and crawled on elbows and knees through the weeds toward the car. The grass was dry and at least two feet tall. He knew the man couldn't hear him, but he worried about the movement of the weeds. He stayed directly behind the car and slid snake-like on his belly until he was in the shadow of the trunk. He reached and carefully eased the hose from the tail pipe, and dropped it to the ground. He retraced his trail with a bit more speed, and seconds later was crouched next to Ricky, watching and waiting in the heavier grass and brush under the outermost limbs of the tree. He knew that if they were spotted, they could dart past the tree and down their trail and be gone before the chubby man could catch them.
They waited. Five minutes passed, though it seemed like an hour.
"You think he's dead?" Ricky whispered, his voice dry and weak.
"I don't know."
Suddenly, the door opened, and the man stepped out. He was crying and mumbling, and he staggered to the rear of the car, where he saw the hose in the grass, and cursed it as he shoved it back into the tail pipe. He held a bottle of whiskey and looked around wildly at the trees, then stumbled back into the car. He mumbled to himself as he slammed the door.
The boys watched in horror.
"He's crazy as hell," Mark said faintly.
"Let's get out of here," Ricky said.
"If people realize we knew about it, then we could get in all kinds of trouble."
Ricky raised his head as if to retreat. "Then we won't tell anybody. Come on, Mark!"
Mark grabbed his shoulder again and forced him to the ground. "Just stay down! We're not leaving until I say we're leaving!"
Ricky closed his eyes tightly and started crying. Mark shook his head in disgust but didn't take his eyes off the car. Little brothers were more trouble than they were worth. "Stop it," he growled through clenched teeth.
"Fine. Just don't move, okay. Do you hear me? Don't move. And stop the crying." Mark was back on his elbows, deep in the weeds and preparing to ease through the tall grass once more.
"Just let him die, Mark," Ricky whispered between sobs.
Mark glared at him over his shoulder and eased toward the car, which was still running.
He crawled along his same trail of lightly trampled grass so slowly and carefully that
even Ricky, with dry eyes now, could barely see him. Ricky watched the driver's door, waiting for it to fly open and the crazy man to lunge out and kill Mark.