A Life Unnoticed
I used to run into him all the time at the local Wal-Mart. I would be there loading up my cart with useless (but necessary) items such as; scarves, socks, pajamas, body wash, shampoo, laxatives, and tampons, while he was there with his cart full of smoking cessation aides such as; sunflower seeds, a jumbo pack of gum, “the patch”, and some of that nasty Nicorette gum. I always found it weird that he went to these great lengths to seemingly “stop smoking”, yet each and every time, at the checkout, he would still ask for a pack of cigs… Marlborough Lights. It was kind of half-assed, and it must have been expensive!
One day while behind him in line at the cash, I decided to talk to him;
“What’s the deal with the cigs. Aren’t you trying to quit?”
“This is my last pack…”
“What about last week? Was that the last pack too?”
“Who do you work for, the FBI Reform Smokers Division?”
“Very funny… I’ve seen you make this very same purchase a few times now, so I felt compelled to ask that’s all. Ever think that maybe this shit isn’t working?”
“Well maybe that was then, this is now.”
“What makes this time any different?”
“Well for starters, I’ve never had a cheeky stranger like you in line behind me telling me that my strategy isn’t working. Maybe (despite your annoyingness) you’re actually helping me.”
He had a smirk on his face, but I could tell that deep down he was just as disappointed in his multiple attempts to quit smoking, as I was with his explanation.
“You go interrogate the world! And leave my respiratory health to me!” He tipped his hat at me and left the store while my merchandise moved down the conveyer belt. The cashier kind of snickered under her breath; I could tell that in her head she was thinking “ha ha ha, he BURNED you sister”.
The following week I went in for my weekly visit, but didn’t see him. I wondered if he had successfully quit. Either that or maybe my interference had caused him to scout out another Wal-Mart or maybe he just chose another less-predictable shopping day. In any case, I wondered. I even asked one of the cashiers if they had seen the “stop smoking guy”. Nobody knew who I was talking about, but finally a cashier vaguely remembered him, it was the same one who saw our exchange that day. She said he hadn’t been in.
Months went by until finally one day I saw him sitting on a park bench near the waterfront where I walk my Doberman Ozzy. I don’t know why, but I got a huge smile on my face as Ozzy and I approached him eagerly.
He remembered me right away and groaned “Oh no, not you again…”
“So what’s the verdict?” I shouted
He looked me square in the face with no sarcasm, no humour, no joy, and no sadness and stated “Cancer”.
I sat down beside him and looked down at the ground while a single leaf blew past. Neither one of us spoke or looked at each other for a few awkward moments.
“Look… I’m… I’m really sorry for razzing you about the smoking thing. I didn’t mean to offend you in any way. I can be sort of obnoxious sometimes; it’s one of my many fatal flaws as a human being. I am so sorry about your health. Is there anything I can do?”
He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a half-smoked pack of cigarettes, lit one up and said “yeah… don’t harass me about this one.” He cracked a half smile and sighed as we both stared out at the water.
After that day, we became good friends and I learned that his name was Randy. Despite the twenty-year age gap, we had a lot in common. We both shared the same dry sarcastic sense of humour, a love of single malt scotch, and liked to laugh at the expense of others. Every Saturday we met in the park while I walked Ozzy and he smoked 5 or 6 cigarettes. We would talk about the changes going on in our town, our jobs, the news, and occasionally our families. Sometimes we would go for a drink at the local watering hole after our walks, but Randy was a mean bitter drunk, so I tried to discourage the drinking as much as possible. Plus, I couldn’t understand him when he was slurring his words out.
One day while in the park he said something really nice to me. He stopped walking and said “You know, I’ve been a lonely man my entire life. I’ve never had many friends. My family is all either dead or estranged. I don’t talk to nobody at work, but you… You forced yourself into my life, and I feel like a lucky man. A lucky man who’s dying… but a lucky man!” He laughed, before taking a haul of his cig, looked at me with the hint of a tear in his eye and said “Thanks”. He parsed his lips and looked away.
He wasn’t much for emotion, so I knew the best thing to do was shrug it off, but deep inside I was beaming, and I fought back every urge to bawl my eyes out and throw myself into his arms. It was the nicest thing he had ever said to me, and it made me so happy to know that my presence in his life made a difference. That he cared.
One Saturday afternoon, Randy didn’t show up at the park. I waited for him for an hour. Then two, then three… Until Ozzy finally begged me to take him home and feed him. I remember sitting out on my porch that night and looking up. It was a clear night, the moon was shining brightly and the stars filled the entire sky. I caught a glimpse of a shooting star, the first time in my life I had ever seen one. A lump formed in the back of my throat, my eyes welled up with tears… And that’s when I knew. That’s when I knew that I would never see him again.
Suddenly Randy’s whole life (or at-least everything I knew about it) made sense to me. Of course he smoked, it was one of the few things in life that actually made him happy. What else did he have?! He was lonely. His cigs were his comfort, his satisfaction, and his vice. They helped him deal with the harsh realities of a life of going unnoticed. A life where nobody cared, and a life that left him comfortable with his own death, because in a sad way… it was a relief to him. A relief to not have to take the agony of life anymore.
And that night, I shed a tear for every person in his life that didn’t.