Johnny America


Smoke and the Unventilated


Janet sat on the bed with the phone in her hands and rubbed her eyes. She twist­ed the cord around her fin­gers. She put it back on­to the night­stand. This couldn’t go on, she thought. She drew a deep breath, ex­haled slow­ly, then got up and walked out of the bedroom.

Vic­ki sat on the couch smok­ing a cig­a­rette. A tele­vi­sion filled the small apart­ment with sound and threw flick­er­ing col­ors against her face.

Janet picked up a gener­ic white and green box from the cof­fee ta­ble and pulled out a smoke. She held it be­tween her thin fin­gers. She dropped the pack back on­to the table’s peel­ing ve­neer. She looked for a lighter, but didn’t see one.

“Let me hold your cig­a­rette for a second.”

Vic­ki took a last drag, crushed it out on the edge of the ash­tray and dropped it in.

Janet stared at the side of her head for a mo­ment then walked in­to the small kitchen. She lis­tened to the blar­ing t.v. while she dug around in the draw­ers, search­ing. She fi­nal­ly lit her cig­a­rette with the gas burn­er on the stove. She looked at the lit­tle clock on the mi­crowave. She coughed and walked back in­to the liv­ing room. Vic­ki stared at the t.v. through the thick grey smoke float­ing around the lamp and its yel­low­ing shade. Janet swam thru it and sat down on the couch.

“I thought I heard you on the phone.”

“Yeah, that was my kid.”

“I didn’t hear it ring.”

“No, I called her.”


“Yeah, I called her. I’d been think­ing about it for a cou­ple of days, about call­ing Sara, and I fi­nal­ly went and did it.”


“She couldn’t talk long. But I men­tioned want­i­ng to see her. Told her she should come vis­it us, maybe this week­end. You want to smoke a joint?”

Janet reached un­der the couch for the bag. She grabbed some out and broke it up, pick­ing through it for seeds.

“I thought I heard you say, ‘Bar­bara.’”

“No, re­al­ly, I was talk­ing to my kid. And I think I con­vinced her to dri­ve up. It’s been a while.”

“Bull­shit. You were talk­ing to Bar­bara. I heard you.” Vic­ki looked away from her pro­gram and fixed her eyes on Janet. “You two talk a lot lately.”

“No, it wasn’t Bar­bara. I promise.” Janet took a long drag from her cig­a­rette then set it down on the edge of the table.

Vic­ki stared and waited.

“Look, it was Sara. I just didn’t make a big deal be­fore I called, that’s all.”

Smoke float­ed thru the space be­tween them. Janet’s eyes were on her fin­gers as they worked the pa­per in­to a small, tight cylinder.

Vic­ki turned back to the television.

They’d been liv­ing like this, to­geth­er, for over a year; the box in the cor­ner al­ways on, the same couch, the same cig­a­rettes, every­thing al­ways the same. The apart­ment was al­ways hot. They’d nev­er re­al­ly dis­cussed it. Vic­ki liked the ther­mo­stat at eighty be­cause she al­ways felt cold. Janet liked it cold­er, but didn’t want any trou­ble, so she learned to live with it.

The tele­vi­sion chat­tered with com­mer­cials. Vic­ki stood and went in­to the kitchen for a beer. She came back, sat down and opened the can. She took a long drink. Janet checked the time on her watch then fin­ished rolling the joint.

She hand­ed it to Vicki.

Vic­ki pulled a lighter from her pock­et and lit it.

“See, I knew you had a lighter.”

“What does it mat­ter? Any­way, I brought this from the kitchen when I got my beer.”

“Well, like I was say­ing, I think Sara’s re­al­ly go­ing to come up this time.”

Vic­ki took a few drags. The smell of am­mo­nia and flow­ers joined the stale air. She hand­ed it to Janet with­out look­ing at her.

Janet said:

“Maybe we’ll all go have a drink down­town and then rent a movie or something.”

“You ex­pect me to be­lieve this?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, she said she’d call when she was leav­ing Mem­phis.” She paused for a drag off the joint. She ex­haled. Curls of warped blue-grey pressed against the ceil­ing. “We’ll get out of here for a lit­tle while.” Her cig­a­rette had burned out against the fake wood of the cof­fee ta­ble. Sev­er­al small black ovals dot­ted the edge. She picked up the butt and tossed it in­to the ash­tray. Vic­ki lit a fresh one wait­ing for her show to come back on.

Janet said:

“Oh, hey, I for­got to tell you. Guess what her fa­ther did.”

Vic­ki didn’t answer.

“Well, that bas­tard start­ed tak­ing dance lessons. He’s fuck­ing learn­ing to dance. I mean, I couldn’t get him out of the house for any­thing ex­cept drink­ing.” She tried to re­mem­ber. It wasn’t that long ago but she could nev­er re­mem­ber all of the de­tails. “I tell you, Vic, I was a re­al­ly good dancer. You know? I re­al­ly was. In fact, I think danc­ing was the most fun I ever had.”

The tele­vi­sion was loud; Vic­ki could bare­ly hear Janet’s voice.

“Hey, maybe we’ll go danc­ing this week­end, huh? Even if she doesn’t come?”

She wait­ed. They sat next to each oth­er on the old couch. Down on the car­pet a spi­der crawled un­der the edge of a wall and vanished.


“Je­sus, I’m try­ing to watch this fuck­ing show!”

Vic­ki stabbed her cig­a­rette dead cen­ter in­to the ash­tray. It over­flowed on­to the ta­ble. Janet looked at her, star­tled. For a mo­ment, she for­got where she was. She felt a lit­tle sick.

“Uh, I’m sor­ry, Vic. I just…”

“I mean, Jesus.”

Janet gave the joint to Vic­ki and walked to the bath­room. Vic­ki fin­ished smok­ing the weed. It was al­ways some­thing, she thought. It was ob­vi­ous the tele­vi­sion was on, right? What bull­shit. No­body was com­ing to see them, and they weren’t go­ing any­where. And if she found out Janet was talk­ing to Barbara…

She tossed the roach in­to the mess around the ash­tray. It float­ed in the soot, smol­dered, and went out. She grabbed the pack of cig­a­rettes. Four left. She lit an­oth­er. Vic­ki heard the toi­let flush. Janet came back and sat down.

Vic­ki said:

“We’re close on smokes. Why don’t you dri­ve to the store and get some be­fore work?”

“Well, the car is act­ing up. It prob­a­bly won’t even get me to the god­damn mo­tel. I mean, I don’t want you to run out, but…”

Janet didn’t know what to do. She wished Vic­ki would turn the tele­vi­sion down. There wasn’t much time. Loud bass and drums seeped through the thin walls, bleed­ing in­to the noise. A door slammed. The tem­per­a­ture out­side was in the nineties. Here they were.

Janet coughed. She reached over and touched Vicki’s arm.

“Look, do you want to go danc­ing this weekend?”

Her voice sound­ed weak, choked with tar, cov­ered in soot.

There was no ven­ti­la­tion in the room. They sat on the couch, stat­ues in the smoke. Some­where, peo­ple were yelling, fight­ing, while heat washed over them in sil­very waves.

Filed under Fiction on January 3rd, 2008

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Reader Comments

Hosho McCreesh wrote:

Love it. Reads tight & clean, with a nice bal­ance of mys­tery & pathos. Thanks, John­ny Amer­i­ca, for posting!

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