The Smoker in Winter ||| 3:AM Magazine

Willowbrook Road is a fierce run of valleys and curves. The fog settles down just after dark, the temperature drops, and the cool dampness slides into the grass. The deer, the sloths, and the groundhogs come out – glinting at you through the white thickness.

It’s a shortcut through a wash of farms, but mostly it’s a distraction. It’s a way to keep the halves of your brain split, a way to drown the fuses as you melt into the driver’s seat.

There’s a guy waiting for me in a parking lot at the other end of town. Used to be we were lovers. Fingertips on his pink chest, on the black ink of the tattoo, watching him breathe, making him wait just a little bit longer. Used to be there was something of God in that.

I’ve ferried over this stretch of road nearly a thousand times. Twenty minutes door to door, a couple turns that makes it so you feel your pulse ticking through your thumbs. Take a right at the traffic light, and then veer left at the fork in the road.

Something kicks in as I cross Highway 34. The air stops clearing through my mind. Even all the clean winter moonrise cutting through over the hill can’t keep me still.

The guy I’m meeting has a new scar on his chest. For someone like him pain is a rush. One day it’ll come and it’ll be the end of him.

I hadn’t seen him in over a year when his name came up on my phone the other day. The break was clean enough. He came to my parents’ house and we laid out on the wet summer lawn. We pulled up threads of grass and he held my hand and gave me his sweet eyes, his baby voice. I hated him for that, for wanting to pity me. I closed my eyes and rubbed the meat of my palm into the gritty sidewalk. It was done.


When he called, he chatted me up in that obliged social voice of his, all formalities and updates. Moved to a new place, got a new job, life’s been great. Never happier.

He should have just popped his cock in my ear and pissed all over my face, it would have amounted to the same thing.

“I heard you got shot,” I said.

“It was nothing,” he said.

” Just one of those casual gunshot wounds.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“I didn’t even see the gun, I just heard the shot. I didn’t feel it. I looked at the hole in my shoulder and then I looked at they guy. He saw it in my eyes and they started running.”

“And you chase after the guys with a gun, of course.”

“I was a madman. The rest of the bouncers came out after they heard the shot and they said I looked like a wild bear.”

“You’re lucky they didn’t shoot you again.”

“They saw it in my eyes. They knew they had it coming.”

“I’m sorry I never saw you fight.”


When I see him in that parking lot, he’s leaned up against his jeep, his arms crossed at his chest. They’re mallet heads – thick, bulging things, and you can see the quiet shadows digging into the curves of the muscles in his bare forearms. It’s a couple days into winter, but he’s standing strong there. Not a hint of a shiver rising through from where I’m sitting. He’s parked under a street light and the glow casts through his fair, Irish skin. It’s like he’s got the Northern Lights raging inside of him, the way that warm yellow is spreading out all around him.

I wait in the car and light another Camel. I’m thinking of how he’s spent his year. Me? I’d logged time in one other bed, but it wasn’t much of anything.  Another creature like me–all words; no bones; cold, useless skin. A voice without a proper body. Nothing like him.

This other one-the new one-he was a goddamn blind man was what he was.

I’d have my foot shoved down into the back of his throat and be calling him a fucking whore. Useless. I’d call him useless. It was all games. It was empty. It was a way to pass the time. But I still managed to read more into it than what it really was.

See, what it was supposed to be was he was my toy. But what it really was, was serving his sickness and taking some of it in for myself.

Rape me, Mistress. Say you raped me.

He was a viper with a clean face. He was turning me into monster like him. There was some devil in me-he didn’t craft it, but he whispered and promised life to it if it would just spew and smother him. I could own him. I could own a boy body for the night.

I never had sex with him. That’d be too intimate and soft. We would lose our anonymity. There would be kindness and love in that, and he didn’t want any of those things.

Once I showed up in his filthy, tar-lined jungle across the river when I wasn’t wanted. He’d gotten canned for showing up to a press conference drunk. Now he was taking his scotch behind closed doors. I let all my little veins worry for him, but there was a proper code that I hadn’t applied. He wanted to drown in that nameless bitterness of the city. It was distilled haphazardly and bottled up like an eager Molotov cocktail ready to color a mutilated rainbow through a small strip in the sky.

And then there was me, sitting on the curb with my foot shaking out of my sandal. I kept ashing my cigarette. I tapped it so hard the coal fell out. He stood about five paces behind me, watching his own hands and feet with curiosity.

That crippled anger carried a stink, a stain to it, but it didn’t bother me so much. My face had been dirty for so long, anyway, with all the better instincts I’d let die with a slight, silent protest. The new guy couldn’t see it. He’d quit looking.

“I’ll go, I’m going,” I said, watching the cars stutter in time.

“No, don’t.” But his mouth was stopping, all dried up and empty and dead. I’d killed it.

“What then?”

“I don’t know.”

When I first met this one, it was a steady shine of our words, an invented, cunning shade crossing the mirror. It was all bright eyes cutting through some flat warm skin, nothing worn yet. But I wanted it too badly. It had been too long. It had been easier when all the words that mattered were mine.

The other bed I’d been in over a year ago, this one I’m wanting back – it was me waking up to all this flushed body, with the clean, sweet, salt sweat rising through. I knew how to keep my hands hovering over that body and still feel him coursing through me. I’d like to get his eyes on me just as he woke. They’d be wide and scared and red like a child waking in an unfamiliar room. Then those globes would find me and he’d nod and grin and go calm, tucking his head into under my chin for another time.


When I walk up to him, I want to reach over and rub those bare forearms warm, smile and scrunch my nose up before burying my face in his chest. I stay a good five feet away, though. I run my eyes over him, over the patches of raised, pink skin.

“Show me the scar,” I say. There aren’t “hellos.” I can’t put any words to him without a purpose, without it being worth something. I have to keep telling myself we’re made of different parts now.

He slides his t-shirt past his collarbone, showing all that thick, hard flesh straining under his skin. He’d look like a vicious man to anybody passing by. I know that body, I’ve fallen asleep on that body. A shiver runs over him, pushes the flawed shoulder into the light. The shiver passes through me, too, and I step in closer to him.

I put two fingers on the scar. It’s an ocean wave stopped in a time, the gray layers of skin lapping over each other, about to fall away. I keep prodding it, hoping it’s something to make him come alive, and slide the inside of his hand along the down turn of my back.

What I should do, I should bring my knees to the ground with the pavement scratching through these precious, tight jeans I wore for him.

I’d done it so many times in church as a kid. The leather would breathe out under the weight of your shiny, knobby, fidgeting body. You’d feel that smooth gloss of the pew pinch your skin against your thin wrists. If it had been an unlucky week and the world hadn’t been faithful to you, you’d make sure the starched seat of your pants didn’t graze the bench and you’d fold your hands so straight and narrow that the tips of your fingers would curve ever-so slightly backward with the strain of your diligence.

But the best I can do now is squat down. I can’t finish the deed like I should–I’m so goddamn useless. My quads are burning and the black sky keeps spinning and falling down into the parking lot.

I lose my balance, and I let my ass fall back onto the ground. The heels of my palms are working circles into my temples. I’m melting into the pavement, evaporating. My voice isn’t a part of me. It keeps begging forgiveness. It keeps wanting for something it doesn’t deserve.

All that wanting is pouring through when that breeze biting the both of us stops. My skin keeps in all of the heat of my body, all of the stale filth and dampness. My stomach gives up and I get sick all over my lap.

He doesn’t speak. He stands over me and slips his hands under my arms. I let him take all that limp weight. He holds me firmly by the waist as he opens his passenger side door and props me into the seat. Then he grips my calves over my jeans with those thick, solid fingers of his wrapping round and turns me out over the side so that I can catch the new breeze riding past.

He’s doing this quietly, with that knowing, warm body of his. A low hum purrs in my ears, but it’s just my imagination. It’s the voice I’d always given him.

I light a cigarette for myself and light another one off the first for him. He always kept a weird hold on a cigarette: pinching it between his thumb and forefinger with the rest of his hand keeping a hood over it. I watch his hand and worry about the cigarette burning him. The winter wind is whipping the spire of smoke away from his body. It’s whispering something to me, but I’m too lost. I can’t make sense of him anymore.


Jackie Corley has appeared in Fourteen Hills, Redivider and 3:AM Magazine, among others, and in various print anthologies. She is the author of a short story collection, The Suburban Swindle, published by the now-defunct So New Press in 2008. She lives in the Hudson Valley, but under the skin she’s all Jersey.

The Smoker in Winter” was originally published in 3:AM Magazine.