THE SMOKE MAN
by Jay Edson
Jacob tore open the envelope and eagerly read the words on the enclosed invitation:
You are cordially invited to the "Christmas
Creche", an evening of entertainment at my house.
This will be my most stunning performance.
"The Smoke man"
Friday, December 24 No admission fee
7:00 PM RSVP
Neatly penned in below the printed part of the invitation there was a personal note to Jacob. It said, " Please do not be afraid of what will happen."
Jacob remembered their first conversation.
"Hello there, young man," Hank had called out as Jabob was walking by on Main street.
Hank was sitting on the side-walk in front of Newberry's dime store.
"Do I know you?" Jacob asked.
"I'm a panhandler," the man answered. "You don't have to know panhandlers for them to talk to you."
"Oh," said Jacob.
"Its the rules," the man informed him. "A lot of people don't know the rules. When I decided to become a panhandler I took the trouble to learn the rules. I wanted to be the best panhandler around. It important to do whatever you choose to do well---to be the best you can at it."
"I see" said Jacob. "My Mom says I should do the best I can in my school work."
"Do you choose to go to school?" asked the man.
"Of course not. I have to go to school."
"Then its not important to do your best there. Its only important to get by. Thats very different. You didn't notice what I said did you? I said it is important to do the best you can with what you choose. What do you choose to do?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean when you can do anything you like, what do you choose to do."
"Climb trees," Jacob told him.
"Do you do it well?"
"The best you are able?"
"The best. I practice all the time."
"See. You are getting there. Already you have learned some things. Don't ever forget what it is like to climb trees the best you can."
"You think you won't, but you may. Who is your father?"
"I don't know. Mom won't tell me, and he has never come to find me."
"I thought as much. I'll be your father."
"Are you really my father."
"What is really?"
Jacob couldn't answer this question. He thought and waited. He expected that since he couldn't come up with anything, the man would jump in to supply an answer, like teachers did at school, or that at least he would say something to break up this long silence that was becomeing embarrassing. But the man said nothing. Jacob realized that he might stand there for hours, and still the man would simply wait for his answer. "I don't know what 'really' is," he said finally.
"When you do know, ask me your question again." Hank had said. "Are you embarrassed to have a panhandler for a father?"
"I don't think so."
"Good. That's all for today. Come by and see me tomorrow. Bring me a sandwich and an apple. And a pack of Camels. I'll show you what I choose to do."
"What do you choose to do?"
"I blow smoke things."
"No, smoke things. Come and see tomorrow."
The next day Jacob brought him the apple, the sandwich and the pack of Camels. Hank lit up a cigarette and blew a series of perfect smoke rings that settled into concentric circles. It was his way of warming-up, like doing scales. Then he proceeded to produce little clouds of a variety of shapes. There were houses, dogs, trees, cars...the little clouds of smoke represented these things in simple outline, but they were clearly recognizable. "This is what I choose to do," the smoke man told him.
"Its amazing," Jacob exclaimed.
"I plan to get much better," Hank said.
With time he did get better. The smoke things he blew became more intricate and detailed, and after a while he began to produce whole scenes---like a house with a dachshund and a tree out in the yard, and a pick-up truck on the street in front. As he got better, people were willing to give money to see his smoke things, and finally he arranged little shows and charged admission. In this way he was able to buy a house for himself and move in off the street.
Even after his material condition improved Frank continued to call himself a panhandler. "Its important not to let a little success go to your head so that you begin to put on airs," he told Jacob one day. He continued to expect Jacob to bring him a sandwich and an apple whenever he came to see him. There was a little ritual to this. Jacob was never to actually give him the sandwich and the apple. Frank explained to him that when he visited, he was simply to put the sandwich and apple down in his general vicinity, and leave them there. "Then, if sometime I happen to notice them, or even pick them up and eat them, that's my business," he explained.
Jacob visited the smoke man several times a week.
"They are going to make me repeat fifth grade," Jacob had told him one day.
"Thats good," said Hank.
"Good?" said Jacob. "Thats awful. Its terrible. Its the worst thing that ever happened to me. How can you say it is good?"
"I've noticed that you have been growing up too fast lately," said the smoke man. "Thats not good. Maybe staying behind will help."
"But all my friends will think I'm stupid." Jacob was on the point of tears.
"That will be good practice."
"Practice at what? Being a jerk?"
"At knowing you are not what they think you are."
"But I am a jerk. I am just as stupid as they think. I can't do anything right."
"You chose to be my friend, and you do that well."
"What will that get me?"
"Should it get you anything?"
It was another one of those questions. This time however, Jacob was able to answer. "No," he said.
Hank took a Camel out of his pack and blew a perfect smoke figure. It was Jacob, looking glum. They both laughed.
When the guests arrived at his house on December 24th at 7:00 Hank had them all sit in a big circle, some in chairs and others on the floor. There were about 20 people in all. Hank told them they had to sit perfectly still. When everybody was quiet he took out his pack of camels and lit up. With extreme care he began on his first figure. It was a shepherd holding a shepherd's crook. Then he did a cow, and then a wise man. Each figure hovered precariously in place while he produced the next. Nobody in the room dared to move even a fraction of an inch. Finally a perfect creche made of nothing more than smoke emerged in the middle of the room. It lacked only a wise man. With great care the smoke man picked up his pack of camels and moved into a kneeling position in front of the Christ child. He was offering him a smoke.
It was then that Jacob first felt the tickle in his nose. He tried desperately to suppress it. He was afraid to move his hand in front of his face to cover the sneeze that was getting ready to happen. His only hope was that by an act of will he might be able to keep it inside. But he couldn't. The sneeze burst forth uncontrolably. The shepherd and cow nearest to Jacob exploded immediately into nothingness, and then the turbulence drifted across the room, disorganizing first one and then another of the perfect figures---wise men, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, the Christ child and the manger. Finally it reached the smoke man. Jacob saw him look directly at him, and smile. "Do not be afraid," he said. Then, as the turbulence reached him, he also began to dissolve into smoke and then into nothingness, leaving behind only a pile of empty clothes.