Cigarette Butts

I went to work on a farm that fall.  I was sixteen, young and full of energy.  It was a cool and cloudy afternoon, and I had on my blue jean jacket.  There was a lively bustle about the place.  From the barn I could hear the hiss of steaming water through the screen door of the kitchen up at the house as they washed the dishes dirtied from lunch.  I could hear the machinery out in the fields.  I was hanging up a pitchfork on a peg when I saw a long black car come down the gravel driveway.  It was my uncle, stopping by to see me.  It was break time just then and everyone came up from the fields to smoke and sit by the trees around the house.

My uncle had borrowed my cigarettes and he tossed the pack to me.  I fumbled the pack trying to catch it and spilled about half the cigarettes out on the ground.  I went to pick one up and light it, but it broke in my hand.  The workers around me all laughed.  I tried to pick up another and suffered the same result.  As I kept trying to pick them up, the cigarettes grew older and stale and dirty, no longer freshly fallen from the pack, until finally I found myself picking up nothing but the crushed and spent butts that had been long scattered around the yard.

The laughter around me dispersed as though carried off on the wind.  I raised myself up on old, tired, and cracked joints and there was no one around me.  My uncle and the workers were gone like ghosts.  The barn and the house were empty, long deserted and collapsing into ruin.  The sun poked through a cloud and shone in a cracked upstairs window of the house in diminished radiance as the day went cold and wasted silence prevailed.  The cigarette butt in my hand had been extinguished ages ago, in completely different days gone by.  I tossed it back to the ground.


5 thoughts on “Cigarette Butts

  1. Wow. That's a compelling movie, long years compressed into one scene, played by two actors playing the boy and the old man respectively, wearing the same jeans, in the same landscape which fades into its transformation or Eliot's “Waste Land” poem compressed into 340 words of terse prose. Time and futility.

    What happened to that youthful energy? Isn't there a scientific principle that says “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed”? Is it not a constant? Isn't there also a thing called entropy, where the energy seems to unwind, the organization of things into life unwinding into decay and death?

    Silently, the movie asks all these questions, lets them hang in the air. It's a short movie. It lasts exactly the time it takes for someone to step out of his house, as everyone must do these days, to smoke one cigarette. A time of sweet contemplation. Round here, in this street, there are two guys I know who do that, no, three, maybe more. And so we chat when I pass, and I can't get away, not till the cigarette is finished, and then the conversation reaches an interesting point, and I try to get away, before they have time to light another, because it could otherwise go on forever, me listening to their life story, or in one case the history of his family going back several hundred years . . .

    But there I go, it doesn't need that cigarette, that's only a kind of sand-filled egg-timer for an attention span, that becomes restless and wants to move on.

    Thanks, is what I meant to say. I enjoyed that.


  2. Thanks, Vincent.

    I had this dream a few days ago, and at the time I thought, “I can't really write about dropping broken cigarettes on the ground”, and I moved on. Then I had some time and I figured, “Eh, well I'll see what I can do with it.” That's how it goes most of the time. I'll have a dream and it'll seem like the last, stupidest thing I'd ever write about until I find a way to do it.


  3. A lot of times I think about how nothing makes me feel quite as old and out of shape as having to bend over and pick something up off the ground. I don't even waste my time with pennies. Nothing less than a nickle. And then, it's been so long that I quit smoking that my occasional cravings have taken on an almost nostalgic quality.

    Seems like the dream found a way to combine these two things together.


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