Cigarillo Car Ride 1975
Jody Hobbs Hesler
Bill inhales as he lights the skinny brown cigarette, then he sits up, shakes out his pant leg over the gas pedal and shoves the lighter back in its socket. Beside him, his daughter hunches toward the passenger door, huddled under a shirt-and-arms shield so she can fall asleep. Herds of stuffed animal heads peer up from the bags scrunched together on the floor in front of her. He breathes out, and a hoop of smoke lilts toward her through the air, slowly expanding to nothing.
He tamps ash. Sam wadded used gum into the last car’s ashtray, but Bill’s determined to keep this one clean. The next hoop he sends out over the unspoiled shininess of the leather steering wheel. It drifts forward and diffuses at the windshield, like a ghost passing through.
A cigarillo in his brand new car. It’s a certain kind of feeling.
His old college pal called cigarillos sissy cigars, but you can’t properly enjoy a cigar at the wheel, so it’s out of the question for the driver. A cigar requires a certain setting. Privacy, and a snifter of brandy never hurts, plus a good magazine spread across the lap – God bless Hugh Hefner – now that’s the way to savor the cigar. The cigarillo is one of those things in life that demands comparison to its higher brow counterpart, like a cold beer versus a glass of scotch straight up. Like a charcoaled burger versus a fine tenderloin. High brow, low brow, the pleasure’s the same, only the circumstances differ.
This time he exhales through his nose, checking his image in the rearview. The smoke pouring out makes him look like an angry bull. Next to him, a gentle cough issues from Claudia’s throat, and she rolls ever closer to the door.
That’s Claudia for you. That tiny phrase of dissatisfaction, just when he’s enjoying himself. She won’t say anything. Not out loud. She hardly ever says anything out loud. But she’ll cower there, afraid of him.
Afraid of him, even though he’s taken half a day off work to drive till his ass hurts so he can pick her and her brother up for the weekend, and here she curls beside him in the fetal position, never saying much beyond how-was-your-day, then it’s like she’s waiting for the car to implode or for Bill to morph into Dragon Man. Her eyes blink, blink, blinking in his direction until she turns away to sleep.
His wife leaving him was enough of a pain in his ass, but then she had to move so far away. Shiny new car or not, his ass always hurts by the time he gets home after driving all the way to Richmond and all the way back to the mountain. His ass hurts, and he can’t help but tally up the wasted time carting kids to and fro.
“It’s only two and a half hours,” Lizette says, exasperated, when he calls late at night to complain. He hates how fed up she sounds, like nowhere on earth could be far enough away from him. He needles her vexation the way he might pick a scab. Then she sounds worried, talks about calling the police or the lawyer who handled the divorce.
He bets she does go and call that lawyer, too, but not about Bill. That lawyer is the Ivy League type his ex-wife would go for, all hair pomade and tight ass wadded up into his fancy breeches. Well, she can help herself.
At any rate, he helps himself. His ex-wife may claim there’s better out there in the world than him, but he’s got a lengthening list of women who just might disagree. Mulling that list, he inhales a fresh breath of cigarillo and puffs it back out with a smile.
He double takes toward Claudia’s next little cough. Having Sam up front is better. He never can sit still, but that’s a comfort compared to this one up here, with that passive-fucking-aggressive cough and the big blinky-blinky eyes that always look so sad. “Don’t be so goddam sad!” he wants to shout at her, but he’s proud of how he doesn’t. It’s damn tempting to holler out some real obnoxious shit, but he’s a good guy. He doesn’t do it.
Not a thing on the dashboard is safe when Sam sits up front. He fiddles with the radio station, goofs with crap in the glove compartment, lights the lighter a thousand times. Rolls the window up and down, up and down, pausing always at the spot where the wind vibrates it loudest. After the second hour, Bill gets a little annoyed with him, too, but usually that’s the point of the trip when they reach the dirt roads where the driving is much more fun, and it’s easier to ignore small irritations.
“Dad?” calls Sam from the back. “I’m hungry. Can we stop at that market again?”
“Yeah,” Bill says. They stop every time. Somehow they never can wait to eat till they get to the house. They’re always getting hungry.
Another exhale, and another little cough from the front seat. Claudia unfolds her tiny body and blinks toward her dad. The sparkle in her bright green eyes startles him. He forgets about the sparkle, and how every now and then she does special things with him, like showing him a picture she drew and going over the details of it or inviting him to walk with her down the mountain road. He likes times like that, when she makes an effort, but she doesn’t always. With him coming and going so much – real estate doesn’t take the weekend off – it would be nice if she watched for his free moments and came to him then. Usually, though, by the time he’s free, she’s found something else to do.
“Daddy?” Claudia says. “Do you think you could, um, open your window? I can’t breathe.”
The sparkle winks out, and she looks like a puppy after you kick it, with its ears squashed against its head and tail tucked under. He rolls her window down about half an inch with the new electronic controls.
“Thanks, Daddy,” she says and sounds about to cry.
I can’t breathe. She can’t stop at the simple request. He’ll open a window, for Christ’s sake. She can breathe, all right. She just has to have a thing or two to say. Exactly like Lizette. They couldn’t sit together on the sofa of an evening without the conversation turning to some character-improving idea she had about him. Those conversations ended the same way: Lizette in tears, Bill saying, “This is who I am. I can’t be somebody else.”
If he got to choose, he’d pick Sam up front any day, but, again, he’s a good guy. When Claudia won rock, paper, scissors on the stoop of their mom’s house, Bill didn’t show a wrinkle of disappointment on his face. He didn’t show his impatience either as she fumbled with the door latch, scraping her shit against the finish on the new car door, her hands full of bags.
Those paper bags drive Bill batty. An old hand-me-down backpack from Bill’s college days serves Sam just fine, but Claudia crams those grocery bags full of coloring books and pads of paper and boxes of crayons plus every last stuffed animal she can scrounge from her bedroom at Lizette’s. She’ll bundle up with a veritable forest of those creatures in bed at night and look out at him overtop of them all, eyes tinged with fear. “Hell! You’re surrounded by a band of wild fucking animals!” he wants to shout. “Why are you scared of me?”
It takes her a godawful long time to haul those bags into the front seat, too, with things falling out along the way. This afternoon, Bill’s heartbeat sped up while first a floppy dog dropped onto the sidewalk behind her, then a floppy elephant. Each time, she squatted down and dusted off the blasted animals, then squished them back into the bags before making her next step toward the car. It was a freak show. Her love for these animals is a downright freak show.
Anyway, it’s better with Claudia in back. Sometimes when she’s back there, he can get her to give his shoulders a nice rubdown in the middle of the drive. She stands on the floor behind him, and he can tell her where he’s sore. She likes to rub his shoulders, so she must be faking the rest of it, all that fear in her eyes.
The next exhale comes with a happy image of Claudia standing behind him, working his shoulders, and a can of Budweiser in his hand, but Claudia is in the front seat, and she won’t let him drink beer in the car anymore anyway. A few weeks ago, in her tiny little voice, she asked him not to drink the six-pack while they were driving. Damn Lizette no doubt filled her with ideas. She’d been the same way about beer in the car, and she obviously set Claudia up to nag him about it. It’s like Lizette can’t let go for a bloody second when he has the kids. They’re always saying something about what he should or shouldn’t be doing.
Once they stopped for dinner halfway between Lizette’s and his house, meeting up with some of Bill’s work buddies for a special dinner celebration. Claudia kept whispering, “Daddy, isn’t it getting late? Shouldn’t we be heading to your house now?” Even though it was that tiny little Claudia voice, Bill knew it was Lizette’s words. What kid wants to go to bed?
What surprises Bill more is when Sam says stuff like, “Dad? Shouldn’t you put both hands on the steering wheel?” Bill loves to drive, and usually he makes it fun for the kids, playing Back Road Racer up those dirt roads, making like a sports commentator while he whips the car around every hairpin turn up the side of the mountain. They love it, but still Sam might mention his hands on the steering wheel. It doesn’t seem natural. Bill never would’ve talked to his daddy like that, and his daddy was a drunken maniac, used to beat the shit out of his mother and pass out cold on the floor. If any kid should’ve spoken up to a parent, it should’ve been him. Kids don’t say that stuff, unless they’re put up to it.
The toll plaza appears in the distance. Bill balances his cigarillo on the ashtray and powers his window down. Wind ruts his wavy brown hair and tickles his mustache as he slows. The sound of change tinkling into the basket holograms Lizette into the seat beside him, straight out of the past, from when he was more liable to make her laugh than cry, when she used to yank the toll money from his hands and toss it from her side of the car. She’d angle her hand, flick her wrist. Half the time the coins whacked into the door and lost themselves under the driver’s seat. Cars behind them honked while they patted down pockets and dug through purses for a second try, laughing so hard they lost their breath, then she’d insist on trying again, and he’d let her. He never got tired of her back then.
It’s only been a year since the divorce, and it settles on him differently at different times. He enjoys the freedom in his social life, the parties, coming home drunk without a family to stumble over or humiliate him. The house can seem awfully empty late at night, though. The outside sounds of crickets, frogs, cicadas, and occasional owls blend to a frightening pitch, like a telltale heart, and he can’t figure out what secret he’s supposed to be hiding.
He accelerates past the toll. “Watch this,” he says, and Sam leans forward from the back. Claudia peers at him cautiously, facing him now with her back against the door, knees hugged to her chest. Bill seals his right eye, the one the kids can see. “Well, look at this. Your old man can drive with his eyes closed.”
Sam hoots from the back. “No way, Dad! That’s not for real!” The grim look disappears for a moment from Claudia’s face. She even smiles a little.
“Oh, it’s for real, all right.” Now he’s steering with his knees. “Watch this! No hands!”
The wind still buffets around the car, thrashing Claudia’s curls across her eyes. Sam bounces around behind them, slapping the front seat with excitement. Bill’s right knee skims the dash, knocking his cigarillo from sight. He swerves as if to catch it with the motion of the car. A truck in the next lane blares madly.
“Daddy!” says Claudia. “Daddy! Daddy!” her voice desperate, but he can’t answer when he’s busy saving their lives.
When the traffic clears, he glances her way. His brow must show how annoyed he is. She should know better than to shout at him in the car. “I had to drive, Claudia.”
Then he sees where the cigarillo landed on her palm, blistering a red boil into it. She pinches it between the thumb and forefinger of her other hand now, hovering it in the air between them, aiming it back toward the ashtray. Huge tears flood her eyes, but she won’t let them roll down. “I caught it. It’s your new car. I didn’t want it to drop on the floor.” Bill made them bang mud from their shoes before he let them in the car today.
Still, who gets the idea to catch a burning thing in her hand?
Coldness spreads through his stomach, but he’s not sure what he’s done wrong. He keeps glancing from the road to Claudia, the road to Claudia.
Is he supposed to pull over and take a look? What would he be looking for if he did? It’s like checking under a car’s hood when you don’t have a clue how to fix it.
Finally, he asks, “Is it okay?” From the little glimpse he’s had, he can tell her hand’s pretty awful to look at, but that’s all he expects to understand about it.
“I think so,” she answers in an especially teeny-tiny Claudia voice.
“We’ll put some ice on it when we stop?”
“Yeah, okay, Daddy.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he catches sight of his cigarillo, perched on the ashtray again, only backwards, with the ash side hanging over the edge growing longer and longer. All that hullabaloo, and when she finally puts it back, she hangs it wrong. As soon as he touches it, all that ash is going to spill.
He squares his shoulders and looks ahead. It’s nearly an hour before they’ll get to that market. He pictures the store clerk giving him the evil eye when he goes in with his burnt-handed daughter to ask what the guy knows about first aid. They’ll think he did it on purpose.
Everybody thinks the worst of him.
For now, he flicks the side of the cigarillo so it scoots instantly, and of a piece, back into the ashtray. From the long plume, only one small flake of ash drifts to the floor. He’s so proud of himself, he pats his pocket for the cigarillo pack and lights up the next one.
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives, writes, and teaches in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her debut story collection What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better is forthcoming from Cornerstone Press in November 2023, and her debut novel Without You Here is forthcoming from Flexible Press in November 2024. Her essays, articles, book reviews, and short fiction appear in a range of literary journals. She holds an MFA in fiction from Lesley University, reads for the Los Angeles Review, and teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.