The Vanishing of She Who Smokes



We’ve known one another for a long time, although we have never actually met in person.  She is my neighbor who lives across the way by the alley. She is a middle aged lady who comes out of the house to smoke cigarettes.  She is neither tall nor short; she is neither fat nor thin.  There is nothing remarkable at all about her appearance.  You could pass her a hundred times in the grocery store and never remember seeing her.

I don’t actually see her most of the time.  In the beginning, I would catch glimpses of her as she came out of the ramshackle rental house right by the alley.  She would come outside about once every couple of hours.  She would walk around a little bit, and then sit down in one of those old plastic lawn chairs with raggedy ribbing.  Her face remained expressionless as she lit up her Marlboro or Winston or whatever it was.  There was no appearance of pleasure, relief, or enjoyment.  She just sat there and smoked, as if that was her life’s work. After she finished her cigarette, she would get up in the same leisurely, yet matter-of-fact manner, and go back into the house.

Her little trips outdoors to a weedy patch that would like to be called a yard rarely varied, although I have seen her pick up a piece of trash and put it in the trash can.  It seems she might linger just a little bit when the day is very nice, but for the most part, the time remains the same.

She looks clean, which surprised me at first because of her residence right next to the dirty alley.  She seems to be always dressed properly for the weather, too.  Another constant about her is that she projects an aura of sadness.

Gradually, I began to sense her presence.  I might be in the back of the house where I could not possibly see her, but I knew when she was there.  I would go the front kitchen window where I could just barely see her out of the far corner of the pane, and there she would be.

I gradually came to believe that she know I was there, too.  Even if I could only see a glimpse of her from my window, I think it would not be possible for her to see me.  She could probably see a little part of my tinted window, but with reflections and glare, no more than that.  Yet, she often looked right directly at me.

As the seasons changed, even as little as they do in Southern California, she seemed to come outside a little less often,  She would be wearing a jacket and a scarf to cope with the wind and the chill it brought along with it.  Still, we were in strong communication.  Wrapped up in warm pajamas and fuzzy slippers, I would rush to the kitchen window as if summoned.  And through the gathering darkness and drizzle, she looked back at me,

Winter had come, and the cold and rain along with it, day or night.  I began to worry about her.  She would still come out in the wind or drizzle or pouring rain, day or night, and sit in that old plastic lawn chair and smoke her cigarette.  She still never appeared to be distressed, but only projected that mild aura of sadnsss.

Naturally, my imagination went wild.  Why did she live in that slum?  She had decent clothing and could afford to smoke.  Most people had to give it up a long time ago as cigarettes became more and more expensive and the health do-gooders were shaming everyone with graphic advertisements on television.  Yet there she was, looking up at me while she drew on her smoke.

I wondered who she lived with.  Did she have a mean husband who made her go out into the rain to smoke?  Had she been taken in by relatives who were less than pleased to have her there?   I had visions of Cinderella scrubbing the hearth, and I swear I felt her laughing at my nonsense.  I am certain she was feeling my puzzlement, as well.

There came a time when she came outside less, and I failed to rush to the window when I knew full well she was there.  It seems that our communication was slipping away somehow.  A void appeared and grew like a crack in the alley.

I realized that I was no longer feeling her presence.  I was feeling an echo of her presence.  I was feeling her absence.  She was gone.

I saw some furniture stacked in the alley this morning.  That’s what happens there when someone moves, gets evicted, or dies.  The property manager takes the best of the stuff left behind and puts the broken lawn chairs and other trash in the alley.

I hope she has moved somewhere and is still alive and having her cigarettes in a better neighborhood and that she is being treated kindly.  But the absence of her presence is strong.  She has vanished.

There is just one last thing that is strange about my communication with the lady.  I asked several neighbors about her, and they said they had never seen her.  I saw the property manager out in the alley where she had lived, and I left my gated community, went across the street and into the alley where I approached him with my questions.

He first said that he had taken nothing from his tenants that did not belong to him, and then he told me that no such person had ever lived there, and further, that I was either mistaken, blind, or crazy.

I confessed to all three.  Vanished, but I can sense her laughter as she smokes.


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