In the Smoke

He hadn’t been able to brush his teeth for weeks, and when he bit into an apple, blood began to form along his gums. He pitched the apple, walked toward the hospital’s banquet hall, now and then holding his finger to his mouth to compress the bleeding.

“Phillip, this way,” said Dr. Fox waving his hand from a circle of older men. As Phillip approached Dr. Fox said, “You don’t look well. You look pale. Too much time reading in the library.” The collection of men, all dressed in deep black suits, chuckled. Phillip smiled with his lips pressed together.

In fact, he had been in the library quite a bit lately. A recluse. After he heard Allison’s diagnosis he could do nothing but read. He hadn’t been eating; the lack of vitamins was beginning to show on his face.

“Really though, are you sure you’re all right?” asked Dr. Fox again.

“Maybe something I ate,” Philip answered.

The men nodded. “So what do you think you’ll end up specializing in?” asked the largest man of the group.

“This is Dr. Gregory,” said Dr. Fox. Dr. Gregory was the man with connections. He was the man Dr. Fox wanted Phillip to meet. He could get anyone in at the medical school of their choice.

“Nice to meet you, Doctor,” Phillip said. “I’ve always been interested in the heart. But I’m not really sure.”

“Plenty of time for deciding though,” said Dr. Fox. “He hasn’t even written application exams.” The men chuckled again. “Just a formality though. He’s been studying to be a doctor since his early teens. Isn’t that right Phillip?”

“Certainly, sir. I do plenty of reading.”

“We should get you in at the hospital sometime,” said Dr. Gregory. “Reading is important, but practical knowledge is good as well. When’s the last time you’ve been in a hospital, Phillip?”

“You’re right, sir. It’s been quite a while.”

It wasn’t true. He had been in the hospital a few days earlier to see Allison die. It was supposed to be her anyway. She could hardly speak. Before she had always been the chattier of the two. While chain-smoking that American tobacco, those Pall Malls, she was always telling Phillip the problems of her day.

But in the hospital all of her excitement and animation had been annihilated by her weakness. When he knelt beside her bed, listening to her last wheezing breaths, he could only think of his studies, his rather than cancer.

Dr. Fox took him aside. “He seems to like you so far.”

Phillip saw that the group of men were now all pulling on cigars, their blue smoke rising to the frescoed ceiling and moving in circles like a community of spirits. “Boys,” said Dr.Gregory addressing Phillip and Dr. Fox. “Have a cigar. Cohiba,
Montecristo, or Sancho Panza.” Phillip took one. Dr. Gregory looked satisfied.
“Cohiba--fine choice, Phillip.”

One of the doctors held a flame at Phillip’s mouth. He puckered his lips around the cigar and kissed the flame. He was afraid to remove the blood-soaked cigar. His smoke became a part of him as he inhaled and exhaled; it curled, billowed, and veiled his face.

“Do you have any questions you’d like to ask me or anyone else here?” asked Dr. Gregory.

Phillip was blind. He could only hear the faint voice amidst the background of mutterings. He thought for a moment about the question, which now seemed to echo throughout the banquet hall. He spoke out of the side of his mouth, through the fog of smoke. “Well, yes I do actually.” There was a long pause and the curious group of men leaned in to listen. “How do you deal with things like death?”

The men all seemed to empty themselves of smoke for a moment. With plumes moving closer to his face, Phillip’s eyes welled.

“All I can say is this,” said Dr. Gregory. He spoke the words softly, in what seemed to be an attempt to direct them toward Philip alone. “You can’t be too
serious.”

A doctor passed by. His movement created a current of wind that shifted the smoke away from Phillip’s face, making it circulate beside him. He removed his cigar, holding it hidden within the clouds of smoke. As he opened his mouth, blood spattered across his teeth. He could do nothing but smile.

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