by NIELS RINEHART
“I’m telling you, I’ve been looking at that cigarette on the window sill since I got moved to this cell five years ago.” The new kid sat on the opposite bunk, holding the cigarette in the palm of his hand, moving his hand slightly and watching the cigarette roll. The kid never looked up while the man spoke. He continued.
“My first night in this cell and I put my pillow on the opposite side of my bed so I could look out the window and see the sun rise the next morning. That was when I first saw the cigarette lying over there between two cinder blocks on the window sill. I’m always up long before the first morning bell and every morning I watch the light of the sun rise across those blocks and light up that cigarette on the sill. It’s from watching the cigarette that I’ve learned to track the sun from summer to winter as it moves over the grooves in the cinder blocks. It’s like my sun dial, counting the months and the years.” The new kid still didn’t look up. The kid had a lot of tattoos on his neck and arms and looking at him holding the cigarette, the man figured it would take a long time to note them all in a mental inventory. He was getting anxious as he watched the cigarette rolling in the palm of the new kid’s hand. In all these years he’d never seen it moved or thought to pick it up, and now the kid was rolling it in his hand, back and forth.
“But I never asked Simpson why the cigarette was there. Simpson had been sleeping in your new bunk since the 50s, oldest guy in the block. Some mornings I’d be looking at the sunlight on the cigarette and he’d sit up in his bed, his hands resting on his old knobby knees, and then I’d turn to see him watching me watching it. I got to know him as well as I ever got to know any man I guess, but I never asked him about the cigarette. Odd thing was Simpson never smoked as far as I knew.
“Anyway, he was real old and he started getting sick. Something in his lungs. So a couple months ago they took him to the infirmary. He was dying. But I had to know about the cigarette, I couldn’t let him die without him telling me about it. So I went to see him and he knew why I was there. He could only speak in a whisper. He asked me if I liked Johnny Cash. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Who wouldn’t?’ He told me that Johnny Cash played here once in 1969. Everybody was so excited that somebody like Cash would come here and play for people like us. But he did. It was at the end of “Orange Blossom Special” he said. The song where Cash plays the harmonica like it’s a train, you know, where he makes the sounds of a train with the harmonica. Simpson said everyone was cheering. At the end of the song, Cash looked across the crowd, scanned everyone with his eyes and his eyes met Simpson’s alone out of the whole crowd. That’s what Simpson said. He said Cash saw him and looked at him and then Cash threw the harmonica right at him, perfect aim right at him, and Simpson said he caught it. All the guys standing around Simpson patted him on the back and the crowd was cheering. They loved it. Anyway. The weeks went by and then Simpson said he traded the harmonica for four packs of cigarettes. People told him he was crazy but Simpson said he couldn’t play the harmonica and he certainly couldn’t smoke a harmonica. So he made the trade. He didn’t think anything of it till one night when he was finishing the last of the four packs and he heard the guy playing the harmonica. Then it kind of hit him. He said he quit smoking that night and kept the last cigarette there on the window sill. He said when he looked at it, he remembered Cash’s face looking right at him and he remembered how easily he had traded it all away.” A train passed in the distance and blew its whistle. The man looked up at the window. “That’ll be the 6:19,” he said.
The new kid was still looking at the cigarette in his hand. He made a fist around it and crushed it. Then he looked up at the man.
“Who the fuck’s Johnny Cash?”
Niels Rinehart lives in Jericho, Vermont with his wife Lauren and their two sons, Liam and Abe. He has published short stories in Fiddleback, as well as the anthology, Please Do Not Remove. He has also published in several archaeological journals and edited volumes.