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Issue #13 |

Holy Smokes Goes Up in Flames

Business has been shit since the protestors showed up. Every morning for the last month, they’ve met me with bad attitudes and flimsy cardboard signs with slogans like “Smoking: The Other Deadly Sin” and “Un-Holy Smokes!” I feel like I’m part of some anti-tobacco campaign. It’s not like I’m operating an abortion clinic or a brothel. I sell cigarettes. Today, however, as I pull my old red pickup truck to the front of my shop, I wonder why they’re just standing there. No chanting, no marching. Then I see it: the plate glass window is gone, knocked clean out of its frame.

I park the truck and hop out. “What the hell happened?” I ask.

Most of them keep their heads down, but one skittishly acknowledges me. “I don’t know, Gus. It was like that when we got here. We didn’t want you to think we had anything to do with it, so we held off picketing until you got here. I’m really sorry about your window.” He nods and turns to the group, and then looks back at me and says, “If it’s any consolation, we’ll go easy on you today. And if you need help cleaning up the glass, just say the word.”

I walk past them and unlock the front door to go inside. I flip the switch for the neon sign above the glassless window. I know my wife Jenny wouldn’t be thrilled about this mess.

Holy Smokes. Open for business.

By the time Sid arrives, I’ve collected the larger pieces of glass in a bin, and I’m sweeping the remaining shards into a pile.

“Oh man, Gus. What happened?” Sid asks.

“Well, college boy, looks like someone chucked that thing through my front window,” I say, nodding in the direction of the counter. Next to the cash register in all its gilded glory is a bronze bust of Jesus Christ staring out with lifeless, dull eyes and a flaccid smile.

“Was it one of the protesters?” Sid cradles it for a few seconds before setting it down. He’s worked for me the last year to make a few bucks while going to community college. I did it as a favor to his dad who I’ve known since we were kids.

“Nah, they might be opinionated, but they’re good people. They wouldn’t do something like that. I’m really not quite sure who would want to vandalize this place.” I’m lying; I have my suspicions.

 

About nine o’clock the doorbell dings. It’s elderly Mr. Walker, who was our first customer of the day when my grandfather opened the place in 1949, something he never lets me forget.

“Your window’s missing, Augustine,” he says.

“We had an incident this morning.”

“Vandals?”

“You could say that.”

“God damn vandals, excuse my language. It’s not right. How’s a small business supposed to survive when you got hooligans and thugs with no regard for people’s property. Back when your grandfather owned this place, it was a different time. People had pride in their town and its businesses. Even if they didn’t like your grandfather, they respected him and didn’t steal or vandalize the place. Well, except for the Eye-talians. Maybe they broke your window.”

“I know, Mr. Walker. But I got the Lord on my side, so we’ll be just fine.”

“Sure, sure,” he says, removing his thick glasses and rubbing the lenses on his flannel shirt. Sid grabs two packs of Holy Smokes Fire and Brimstone, full-flavor non-filtered, and rings the man up. Mr. Walker hands Sid a twenty and then walks to the empty window frame.

“Can’t you all just shut the hell up for one day?” he yells.  “The man is a victim.” He shoots me a glance like he’s done his civic duty.

“Alright, Sid. I’m heading out to make deliveries. I should be back a little after noon. Think you can handle things while I’m gone?”

“Yeah, Gus. I got it.”

As I walk out, the fluorescent lighting catches the bust just right, and it almost looks glorious in its plainness. Something says to take it with me, let it be my guide today. So, I stick it in the box with the orders and head to my truck. The first stop is the reverend’s house.

 

Antioch Calvary Baptist Church lacks a parsonage, so the Reverend Simmons and his wife rent an old farmhouse on a quiet stretch of land he does little with, not being much of a farmer and all. Even though they knew I was coming, the only open spot in the driveway is the space under the overgrown pear tree that houses a few dozen meadowlarks. No matter how short the visit, I always manage to have bird shit all over my truck when I leave. I feel like they purposefully offer me that spot. I’d park on the street, but I don’t want to be impolite. Last thing I want to do is offend my church’s pastor and his wife, who also happen to be my best customers and my in-laws. I grab a carton of Burning Bush for the reverend and a carton of Breath of God, my menthol, for the Mrs.

I walk up to the back door and knock.

The Mrs. answers. “Did anyone see you?” she asks, opening the door just enough to stick her head out.

“You’re the only house on this end of Waverly Road, Ma.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. Satan’s prowling like a hungry lion, waiting to devour Christians like naïve gazelle. Always gotta be on the lookout.”

I shrug. “Well, there wasn’t another soul out here but me, and I’m shrouded in angels.”

She opens the door properly. “Good. Come on in, Gus. Have a seat at the table, and I’ll get you a nice piece of pie and a cup of coffee while you wait for Gene. He shouldn’t be but a moment.”

First, I hand her the cartons of cigarettes.

“Oh, right,” she says as if this isn’t the main reason I’m here. That and the spiritual advice.

 

To read this story, please subscribe to the print edition or purchase a copy of Issue #13. Photo courtesy of Conchi Martinez; view more of her work on Shutterstock.

Matthew Meduri is a graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) consortium, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gastronomica, Litro, and two anthologies: The Akron Anthology and The Experiment Will Not Be Bound. He is the recipient of a 2022 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.

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