The Smoking Ban, fiction by Caroline Kepnes

Han­nah missed the way things used to be. Now, if you want­ed to have a cig­a­rette at The Tav­ern, you had to walk out onto the deck. But it didn’t used to be that way. It used to be that every­one inside was smok­ing, flick­ing their ash­es, singing along to rock songs that nev­er got old, not here on the island any­way, where peo­ple weren’t expect­ed to grow up, where the old would get drunk and lament the fact that they nev­er got off this damn sand­bar and the young would balk, why would you even want to get off? The old would shake their heads and remind the young that they were young. And then some song would come on and they’d all want to dance and they’d for­get what they had been talk­ing about in the first place. They all chose to be teenagers, except the few who turned eigh­teen, hopped a fer­ry and returned only annu­al­ly, at Christ­mas, with heirs of con­de­scen­sion that only affirmed to the locals that stay­ing on island meant you were stronger, more whole of heart and more spe­cif­ic some­how, able to have all the expe­ri­ences you need­ed in one place. You were loy­al and you deserved to get drunk and pat your­selves on the back on a reg­u­lar and fre­quent basis.

Back then the smoke was a raft wide enough to hold them all. Smoke in a bar was an air­borne sea mon­ster, slow­ly drift­ing, watch­able as TV. The leather skinned old­er women hud­dled and puffed on ultra lights and whined about their hus­bands, cau­tion­ary tales for the young girls who sucked on real cig­a­rettes, Marl­boro reds, silent­ly swear­ing to quit so they’d nev­er look like that. The guys, hap­py guys, sad guys, drunk guys, guys who need­ed eight beers and a shot of Jack to get a buzz on, all of them slight­ly emas­cu­lat­ed by the fact that they were clear­ly only com­fort­able amongst famil­iar peo­ple, peo­ple they could iden­ti­fy, for the most part, by name. All shared a deep sus­pi­cion of out­siders, of strangers. And that meant even if you hat­ed some­one you loved them because you knew them and they served as a tar­get for some feel­ing you had, be it a good one or an igno­ble one. The lit­tle black plas­tic ash­trays were every­where, in the bath­rooms, on the tables, in the bars. But not any­more they weren’t.

Now here she was, stand­ing out in the cold, shar­ing a cigarette—imagine that, shar­ing—with Andrea DeWitt. They were out here because you couldn’t smoke in there any­more. It was cold. And they were women. And this was degrad­ing. Being out­side made smok­ing into an addic­tion, an affair, some­thing illic­it, which it wasn’t. They were cig­a­rettes for fuck’s sake.

I said this thing’s genius.”

What?” Han­nah blushed. She hadn’t been pay­ing atten­tion to Andrea. Of course, she hadn’t been pay­ing much atten­tion to her since they were in high school, when Andrea became the girl she was now, talk­ing too much about noth­ing all of the time. Andrea nev­er had broth­ers. Maybe that was why.

The Butt Bin. These things are genius.”

Han­nah looked at the Butt Bin and saw a giant black con­trap­tion, an inel­e­gant bas­tion of prac­ti­cal­i­ty; what a stu­pid thing. Why not just put out some nice stan­dard black plas­tic ash­trays? Butt Bins start­ed show­ing up like cock­roach­es when the smok­ing ban went through and now they were every­where. They were indus­tri­al, they were ugly and they announced them­selves with a pride Han­nah found obnox­ious; steel nametags nailed to each one that read BUTT BIN. As if we were all so stu­pid we didn’t know what they were.

I hate them,” Han­nah said.

Andrea huffed. “Oh, Han­nah, you’re fun­ny. Any­way, the bake sale.”

Han­nah sim­mered. She wasn’t fun­ny. She was smart. But she knew Andrea too well to be stung. Andrea was basic. She pre­ferred lov­ing things to hat­ing them. She was the type who’d get excit­ed for some lim­it­ed time ice cream con­coc­tion at McDon­alds, eat it every day for as long as they had it, then talk about miss­ing it for months until it was gone, until they were pro­mot­ing some new piece of spe­cial, fleet­ing junk. Andrea didn’t have a crit­i­cal bone in her body. If told to be excit­ed, she’d get excit­ed. She was deeply com­mer­cial that way. Maybe it was because of Buck­ets. In nurs­ery school Andrea was mad for her pup­py Buck­ets. Her father ran him over with the lawn­mow­er. Andrea cried for weeks, always say­ing she’d nev­er love any­thing that could be tak­en away ever again. Han­nah told her that she would, but Andrea always shook her head no. They hadn’t talked about Buck­ets in hears, but Han­nah thought Andrea nev­er real­ly stopped mourn­ing that dog. She just had a cycle, antic­i­pa­tion, plea­sure, mourn­ing, and begin again.

She tried to smile at Andrea, “Don’t you miss smok­ing inside?”

Heav­ens no,” Andrea said. “The stench. Yuck. So as I was say­ing, Skip and I may go to the Keys for a month.”

Han­nah stared at the butt bin. What a crude thing. You’ve had six drinks and you’re sup­posed to put the butt into this minis­cule slot? All that was miss­ing was a sign that said FUCK YOU SMOKER.

Hey I asked you a ques­tion,” Andrea said.

Oh,” said Han­nah. “Sor­ry.”

How did I man­age to hold onto Skip for thir­ty eight years?”

I don’t know.”

I’m a great fuck. That’s how.”

Andrea didn’t talk like this. You didn’t sud­den­ly talk like this after forty-eight years of friend­ship. And Han­nah squirmed. “Well good for you.”

What are you good at, Han­nah?”

Excuse me?” Han­nah stubbed her cig­a­rette on the deck, in protest against the Bin.

I just told you I’m a good fuck. Every­one is good at some­thing oth­er­wise nobody would keep any­body around.”

Well I don’t know.”

It’s the one thing I have no doubt. I. Am. A. Great. Fuck.”

That’s ter­rif­ic.”

Are you a great fuck?”

Han­nah reached for the rail­ing, but they were stand­ing by the butt buck­et. There was noth­ing to grab. “Maybe,” she said.

Andrea’s smile fad­ed. “Well, you must be good at some­thing else then.”

It was time go inside. The next time they spoke, there would only be talk of the bake sale.

 

Nate drove, whistling, one hand out the win­dow. Dri­ving drunk, Han­nah thought. Nate is good at that. He was loaded, sure­ly, but in April there was no dan­ger in it. She couldn’t get Andrea’s words out of her head, plain as a prayer, I am a good fuck.

That was good times tonight,” he said.

Oh sure,” she said, try­ing. “I just hate hav­ing to stand out­side. I miss the old days.” I am good at miss­ing things, she thought.

You and Andrea were out there for an eon. She okay?”

She’s fine.”

She looks good.”

Han­nah didn’t agree or dis­agree. But it was true. Andrea’s hus­band was a fish­er­man and the nature of that lifestyle was extreme. A fisherman’s wife was either well fed with enough mon­ey in her pock­ets to clean out the clear­ance racks at Filene’s or she was drawn, drag­ging her feet and des­per­ate­ly in need of get­ting her roots done. They were island peo­ple in that way, Andrea and her hus­band, always in some extreme state, flush or broke.

Han­ny, you want a cup of cof­fee?”

The Dunkin Donuts loomed; a cop they knew leaned against his car out front, his head down, tex­ting away on his phone, prob­a­bly to some young slut on her way home from the Tav­ern. Was he a good fuck?

Not right now,” she said.

Nice get togeth­er, eh?”

Yes,” she said. She and Nate didn’t fuck very often. It wasn’t because they weren’t good at it. The first time they had sex, on a blan­ket on desert­ed Sea Street beach, she’d been twen­ty-one and it had occurred to her as she was tying the strap on her biki­ni that she could go on fuck­ing him for years and it would be fine. It worked. Their smells blend­ed. His hands under­stood her body. She didn’t have to tell him what to do or pre­tend to like what she didn’t. And he wasn’t annoy­ing, wasn’t talk­ing dirty about his cock or pulling her hair too hard. No, he pulled just right.

Well I sure as shit want a cup of cof­fee,” Nate said.

 

Nate was on the toi­let for most of the night. Dunkin Donuts didn’t mix well with Jack Daniels. Nate’s diges­tive sys­tem had become their secret glue. It was a seri­al­ized sto­ry of cramps, inter­nal pipes askew sound­ing, vivid descrip­tions of his move­ments, his aches, his after­maths. Han­nah was good at being let into the stag­ger­ing hor­rors of old age, wear and tear. She let him talk about his trips to the bath­room like they were high school foot­ball games, sigh­ing at the bad news, clap­ping for the good. Usu­al­ly when he emerged, rant­i­ng about his sys­tem, swear­ing he’d nev­er drink again she took him in her arms. She let him make his promis­es and she nev­er ques­tioned him when he’d be yearn­ing for whisky a few days lat­er.

Nate stepped out of the bath­room. “Now that was some­thing. You think those shrimp were all right?”

I’m sure they were.” She lit a cig­a­rette. Theirs was a house you could smoke in. Oth­er cou­ples, par­tic­u­lar­ly Andrea and her hus­band, made a show of smok­ing out­doors, even in win­ter. Dumb fucks, Han­nah thought, freez­ing their butts off, prob­a­bly get­ting the snif­fles, when they could just smoke inside. Han­nah liked a smok­ing house.

She put out her cig­a­rette in her mother’s old ash­tray and slipped down under the cov­ers. Nate had got­ten fat over the years; this was true, but it was a sign that he loved her and didn’t long for a mis­tress. She laid a hand on his arm and stroked him.

He chuck­led, “I still say those shrimp were bad.”

Well sure,” she said, try­ing to make her voice go raspy, try­ing to tell him what she want­ed with­out telling him. “I’m sure those shrimp were very bad.”

Ten sec­onds ago you said they were fine.”

Nate, you know about those things more than I do.”

Well do you think they were bad or not?”

I trust you.”

He shook his head and laughed. “So, what did Andrea have to say? Skip said they might go down to the Keys.”

“She didn’t men­tion any­thing.” She didn’t know why she lied.

“Must be nice, able to just take off like that.”

“Well, then again, no job secu­ri­ty, always wor­ry­ing. Nev­er know­ing what’s run­ning when. I would hate it. I like know­ing what’s com­ing.” And that must be what she was good at: being com­fort­able. She didn’t get bored eas­i­ly.

“Still, must be nice.”

Han­nah wait­ed it out. Nate got like this some­times.

“You know I real­ly hate those butt bins,” she said.

“Real­ly?”

“Every­thing used to be more fun.”

“I had fun tonight.”

“No, Nate. I don’t mean it that way. I had fun.”

“You sure looked like you were hav­ing fun. Andrea and you were talk­ing up a storm.”

“And we had fun. I had fun Nate, I did. I just was think­ing, years ago, when you could smoke inside, it was more-”

“We were kids. Course it was more.”

“It’s not just that.”

“She say some­thing that pissed you off?”

“I’m not mad about any­thing.”

He seemed to relax now, rolled over. “The butt bins are fuck­ing bril­liant, Han­ny. You know how many cig­a­rettes those things can eat? Dan­ny Toule, he sells em, he’s mak­ing a killing. Soon enough, he and Char will buy the Keys, the mon­ey they’re mak­ing.”

Han­nah wasn’t good at get­ting her feel­ings across. A dif­fer­ent woman would have relayed her nos­tal­gic woes in a way that opened the door and set the table and invit­ed the man inside. She didn’t feel like hav­ing a pity par­ty but she didn’t know how to stop him when he got like this.

“How’s your bel­ly now?”

He looked at her, “No shrimp for a long time.”

He leaned over and shut off the light. He then put an arm around her and stroked her back in a go away way she knew well by now. She pulled at the sheets so their bod­ies could touch, at least. The smell of shit was there; the bath­room door was ajar. Her big toe found the back­side of his calf. He gave in to her; it was Sat­ur­day. They went at qui­et­ly in their emp­ty house and then it was done. She sup­posed she’d got­ten what she want­ed. Had he?

Shit.” Nate leapt from the bed and stubbed his toe. He grabbed the news­pa­per. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

I thought it passed.”

Damn shrimp. Tomor­row I’ll call Eddie and tell him.”

Oh, Nate.”

I’m going down­stairs. Sor­ry about the smell.”

You don’t have to do that. I don’t mind it.” 

But he was already gone. She felt stu­pid for telling him she didn’t mind the smell. Who didn’t mind the smell of shit? Even­tu­al­ly the toi­let flushed. She lis­tened to him pet the cat, open the refrig­er­a­tor door, close the refrig­er­a­tor door, scuf­fle across the linoleum, bid good­bye to the cat and pro­ceed up the stairs. I am a ter­ri­ble fuck, she thought.

You know, Dan­ny Toule said he can get us a butt bin, whole­sale,” he said, climb­ing into the bed. “Would be great to have here. For when we have peo­ple over, for when we’re on the deck. Danny’s a smart shit get­ting in on that. Every restau­rant needs one. Every sin­gle restau­rant with an out­door patio. Imag­ine the busi­ness. Smart shit says he just was out­side smok­ing one day and saw one and called the com­pa­ny. Cold called. Now he’s rolling in it. Smart guy, smart guy.”

Sounds great,” she said.

He was soon asleep but her eyes wouldn’t close, not even when the sun crept in through the blinds. Soon, she would fuck some­one else and she felt ter­ri­ble about that. Maybe she was being sil­ly; peo­ple didn’t start run­ning around because of a butt bin, because their hus­band didn’t hate what they hat­ed. But maybe she was right; peo­ple start­ed run­ning around because of the stu­pid­est lit­tle things. Because they didn’t see some­thing that didn’t mat­ter the same way, which shouldn’t mat­ter, but did mat­ter, which made no sense, which kept her eyes from clos­ing up. Maybe she’d nev­er sleep again and she laughed. A lot of peo­ple prob­a­bly think that when they can’t fall asleep. She felt very uno­rig­i­nal, like she’d been wrong about her­self, like all her thoughts had been thought, like God prob­a­bly made her the same day he made many oth­ers which was true; lots of peo­ple were born on May 23rd. That’s true of every day.

By the time he woke her up the next day, it was near­ly one in the after­noon. He tick­led her chin and laughed when she sat up star­tled. “Fig­ured you’d want at least a few hours of day­light today, hon­ey.”

He was leav­ing to go to work and she would nev­er sleep with some­one else. She would call Andrea back, who had called twice already and hear about the great deals she found at Filene’s. Then she would cook dinner—pork chops and corn—and see about cheap deals in Flori­da. When Dan­ny dropped by with the Butt Bin, she joined him and her hus­band on the deck and sang prais­es of the thing as if she didn’t real­ly hate it. Nobody, not even a genius, would have been able to tell that she was lying when she called the thing a great inven­tion. And she didn’t feel bad about it, not real­ly. Andrea was just kid­ding her­self; there’s no way she was a great fuck. There’s no way she knew that the way you know your eyes are a cer­tain col­or. If that were true, then oth­er peo­ple know it and would have talked about it and Han­nah would have heard that over the years. Andrea had got­ten around in high school, after school. And she didn’t have a way of ruin­ing her con­quests for oth­er women, that’s for sure.

Dan­ny didn’t stay long and when he was gone Nate and Han­nah returned to the warmth of the liv­ing room where they smoked and watched the news. Her hus­band didn’t real­ly like that butt bin or he’d be out there play­ing with it the way he does with a new wrench. He was only amped up about it because he’d been drunk. Maybe it was the same with Andrea, going on about being a great fuck. Andrea’d had a few shots of Jaeger; it was pos­si­ble she’d been talk­ing out of her ass. But if alco­hol was truth serum, then maybe their drunk selves were their true selves in which case Han­nah didn’t have a secret, real self because she nev­er drank so much that she said things she didn’t mean. Her head was start­ing to spin and she put out her cig­a­rette.

What’s wrong?” he said. He knew her moves well.

Noth­ing.”

You upset about the Andrea thing?”

What Andrea thing?”

Skip said she was going around telling every­one at the bar that I was the best lay she ever had,” he said. And he laughed and shook his head as if he was talk­ing about their daugh­ter, or rather, the way she imag­ined he would have come to talk about his daugh­ter if they ever had a daugh­ter, which they didn’t and wouldn’t. “What a crock, right?”

She had no rea­son to be mad. It wasn’t like she didn’t know that they’d screwed and she’d screwed Skip once, so they were even, and it was all before any of them were mar­ried. But to say Hannah’s hus­band was bet­ter at some­thing than her own hus­band was to imply that she’d rather have him than her hus­band. And that was for sure rude. But they weren’t in high school any­more. They were old, dry­ing up, out­grow­ing this kind of crap. If she were to get mad and not return Andrea’s phone calls, some­how she’d be the one act­ing like a baby because her bad behav­ior would be sober and delib­er­ate. She wouldn’t win. She couldn’t win.

Andrea has good taste,” she said. “You can’t argue that.”

And they laughed and went on watch­ing the news and talk­ing about some guy upstate who went and shot his neighbor’s dog and what an ass­hole he is and how he should fry. Some­how watch­ing the shoot­er get cuffed and dragged into the cop car made Han­nah feel bet­ter about her life, supe­ri­or, and she sup­posed that’s why they sat here watch­ing the news every night, not to find out about the goings on or form opin­ions about pol­i­tics, but to feel like they were doing alright, in spite of hav­ing lived such small and down­right inces­tu­ous lit­tle lives, like maybe, if they were here and not there, they had abid­ed the laws, even the sil­ly ones like the smok­ing ban. In some way, they had won.

Caro­line Kep­nes has been split­ting her time between her home in Los Ange­les, CA  and her par­ents' home on Cape Cod, MA. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished in or is forth­com­ing in The Barcelona ReviewCal­liope, Dogz­plotEclec­tica,The Oth­er Room and Word Riot. She spent the past few months writ­ing a young adult nov­el The Dig that's avail­able on all e-book plat­forms. Her YA pen name is Audrey Hart. In her spare time she enjoys read­ing about meth lab busts, Florid­i­an crim­i­nal activ­i­ty and wild ani­mals.

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One Response to The Smoking Ban, fiction by Caroline Kepnes

  1. Kate Conway says:

    LOL! I'll nev­er look at those Butt Bins the same again. How appro­pri­ate though — I'll see them and think "ass!"

    Per­haps that is why they were called "butt bins" in the first place …

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