“You have to quit smoking, John.”
Quit smoking; how many times had he been offered that bit of advice? If he stopped to think about it, which didn’t happen very frequently, he’d realize he’d lost count. He knew what it was doing to his health, and he didn’t particularly care. He’d long ago accepted that he was mortal; living an abstemious life wouldn’t grant him immortality—his only gain would be a few extra years—and those he was none too keen on living through anyway. He’d watched his grandparents wither and die, and none could be said to have met the end with dignity. His paternal grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of sixty-seven and had spent the last five years in dementia. He’d only visited her at the home once in that span; the encounter had been so distressing for him that his parents could not make him go back no matter what they tried to offer as a sop.
If you asked him, John would tell you cheerily that he’d lived a good life. He’d never been married, but he’d courted his share of women. He’d never been what he would consider rich, but he’d never really struggled either. He took a vacation every winter to some remote island paradise where there were no words for snow, and a new car graced his driveway bi-annually. His life could be said to be quite comfortable materially, and he fared just as well socially; his friends had been many throughout his years and travels. He was genial and upbeat, even when life was unkind to him, and life being what it is that was often the case. He didn’t mind; you needed the lows to appreciate the highs, and he’d tallied far more of the latter in the near half century that had elapsed since he’d drawn his first breath.
His life wasn’t fully charmed, however. There was always the subject of his health to put a dent in his otherwise chipper and positive demeanor. John had one major vice in life: smoking. He’d attempted to quit numerous times in the years since he’d picked up that first pack, to no avail. He could give them up for short periods—weeks here, months there, and once he even managed a whole year before he relapsed—but he always picked up those cigarettes again in the end. There was some excuse, some justification; whatever it was that drove him back again and again, when he sat himself down to think about it, the answer he always arrived at was simply that he liked it too much to give it up for good. He’d cast off many shackles over the years—and felt a great sense of pride at every accomplishment—but a man had to have something he enjoyed, even if it might be a detriment to his health.
Which—of course—it was. His sense of taste and smell were diminished, and his sinuses were constantly aggravated. Worst of all was the persistent cough; that squishy, wet, rattling wheeze from a set of lungs struggling to purge its sickly contents. Most mornings, before he’d even poured his first cup of coffee, he’d deposited enough yellowish-green clots of blood streaked mucous into his toilet bowl to make a dritiphilist bust a load in his pants. The cough continued throughout the day, accompanied faithfully by less than graceful ejections of phlegm. The spectacle was such a regular occurrence in fact, that it had earned John a nickname: Lung-butter.
Anyone who knew him for any period of time adopted the endearment, to the point that he was no longer referred to as anything but, except by his boss and a few medical professionals.
“John,” lectured his doctor—an old greying man by the name of Edward Harding—for the third time in fifteen minutes, “those cigarettes are going to kill you one day.”
“Life is killing me doc,” John retorted, “the cigarettes are what make it bearable.”
“A lot of things make life bearable John,” Harding countered, not easily put off by this line of reasoning. “Beautiful music, beautiful art, beautiful scenery… beautiful women. And none of those will kill you—well, except maybe the women,” he quipped, laughing at his own joke. John offered an obligatory chuckle, to be congenial.
“Maybe for you,” he replied.
“Well John, I can’t make you quit, but I really think you should take my advice. In the five years you’ve been coming to me you look like you’ve aged ten, and if you’re not in the early stages of COPD you will be soon.”
John thanked him for the advice; when he left Harding’s office after the appointment his first stop was at the store in the lobby of the medical building where the doctor kept his practice, to buy a pack of cigarettes.
That winter John was diagnosed with bronchitis. In his youth, he would have shaken the illness off with ease, but between his advancing age and his deteriorating health, the effects lingered through the holiday season and on into the new-year. The worst for John was the impact it had on his ability to smoke and it goes without saying that he lit back up again the moment he could inhale without a coughing fit so severe it led to vomiting.
One morning late in February John woke with his mouth dry and his head pounding; a consequence of his actions the night before. His closest friend—a ginger haired beanpole of a man named Seamus he’d known since his boyhood days—was celebrating the fact that his divorce had been finalized, and they’d gotten drunk together for the first time since Seamus’s wedding five years earlier, closing the bar together. Without opening his eyes fully John rolled over and reached into his nightstand, groping for his cigarettes. He came away from his exploration empty-handed which further soured his mood; he liked to have his morning cigarette in the comfort of his bed.
He searched his house and found nothing, not even a stray stick that had fallen away from its filter-tipped brothers. He realized he’d have to go out and buy a pack, and cursed audibly. John lived far enough from the city that he didn’t like to drive in for just one or two items, but running out of cigarettes was an emergency he was willing to make an exception for.
The roads had not been cleared yet and were slick with ice and half melted snow. The route John drove to reach the city took him through a winding stretch of hills, the curves treacherous enough in good weather. He drove ten miles under the limit to be safe; these turns had seen the end of many drivers in the years since he’d first moved there and he had no desire to be the newest reason for a roadside memorial. As hard as you try to be careful though, sometimes life has other ideas. Just as he rounded a corner he burst into a paroxysm of coughing, hit a hidden patch of ice under the snow and could not stop the car from going over the edge of the cliff. The vehicle rolled three times before coming to a stop at the bottom.
When John came to he bellowed in pain; his abdomen felt like he’d been speared with a bayonet, but when he looked down he could find no visible injury. In fact, aside from a few tears in his pants, a small cut on his forehead, and a few scratches here and there, he saw nothing out of order at all. Thankful for whatever reason fate had seen to spare him, he pulled his way from the twisted wreckage of the car and took stock of the situation. There was no human habitation in this area; it only served to take people to some point in the city and back home again. The snow was falling furiously now, and he reasoned he had better try to find shelter; he’d freeze to death if he stayed where he was, waiting for someone to drive by and offer assistance. In his hurry to get to the store he’d left his cell phone on the kitchen table leaving him no way to call for help. He set off down the road in the direction of the city, his coat providing scant warmth as he trudged through the ever piling snow.
He had no way to judge the passage of time; he wasn’t sure if he’d walked three minutes or thirty when he came upon the first building—a small house. It looked decrepit, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to meet the occupants, but he didn’t have much of a choice. His survival depended upon getting help, and getting out of the cold. His first knock was ignored, and his second and third knocks went similarly unanswered. Well, he thought, law be damned, I need in that house or I’m going to die. He put his hand to the knob and turned it, and was only half surprised to find that it opened with a groan. The door had very clearly not been oiled recently, and as he stepped inside and looked around the small structure he could see why. It was obvious that no one dwelled within these walls, and he suspected it had stood empty for a very long time.
The one room dwelling was empty save for a few well-worn items, and a thick layer of dust covered everything. No feet had trod this floor for ages, and the specks he kicked up as he made his way about the room triggered another bout of coughing. He fell to his knees, hunched over in spasm, and expelled a large wad of blood streaked phlegm that hit the ground with a wet splat. When the attack subsided, John wiped himself off and stood up, taking a moment to catch his breath, carefully avoiding further inhalation of particulates that would set him off again as he looked around. There was a wooden table with one leg propped up by an old folded newspaper in the western corner of the room, accompanied by an equally rickety looking chair. The southern corner was home to a bare mattress, stained with the accumulation of years of sweat and semen, menstrual blood and nose pickings. The small length of wall between them was lined by poorly constructed cupboards—the doors missing on half and close to falling off on the rest. The final sad sight was a metal bucket fallen on its side, more or less directly in the center of the room. It was a hovel, but he’d spent time in worse places, and here at least he should be protected enough from the cold to rest and wait for rescue.
Now that he’d secured shelter for himself, his other needs began to reassert. In his haste he’d neglected many of his usual morning habits; eating was one of them. He went to the cupboards in search of food or anything else that might be useful. The search was fruitful, though how much luck he’d really had was still up for debate. He’d found a few dented cans, as covered in dust as everything else in the room, and the labels had been peeled off. The mystery cans came with a can opener, though, so he judged himself lucky and opened one, giving it a cursory sniff. It didn’t knock him over, and nothing crawled out, so he put the tin to his lips and swallowed half the contents before he took a breath. He thought it was ravioli by the taste; as long as it didn’t kill him he didn’t much care right then what it was.
Hunger sated, John checked the other cupboards for something to entertain him. In this he was far less successful, finding nothing of interest with which to pass the time. That was until he checked again on a whim—in the furthest cupboard to the south, on the very top shelf—and found a single opened pack of cigarettes, full save for one king-sized stick. If it was highly improbable to find the very object he’d set out to buy, that had led him to end up in this shack—no matter how stale and foul they would surely prove to be—well, he glossed over that in the sheer joy of the discovery. One thing he always had with him was a lighter, and he had a cigarette between his lips and lit quicker than he could have counted to five. He was right, they were the stalest he’d ever smoked, but in the moment he couldn’t imagine anything better.
When he was done he stubbed the cigarette out on the counter, flicking the butt into an empty corner of the room. He looked up, and spluttered at the sight before him. The snow outside was now piled high enough to reach the window, and he was quite literally snowed in.
“Son of a hemorrhaging goat,” he shouted with incredulity. He was certain the snow could not have piled up that much since he’d gone inside—there was simply no way—but he couldn’t deny the evidence before his eyes. He fought back the rising panic; he wasn’t trapped, the snow would melt, and he’d be rescued. This was temporary, and he made himself repeat until it became a mantra.
His pep talk worked to the extent that he conquered his anxiety—at least temporarily—but it didn’t help him with the problem of how to pass the time. The first hour—though he had no way to judge its passing—went by quickly enough; he fought his urge to chain smoke through the pack he’d found, mentally applauding himself for his restraint in having only three. It wasn’t only a wish to be conservative and save some for later that helped him hold back, but a desire not to exacerbate his cough. With each cigarette had come the obligatory expectoration of phlegm; each putrid smelling lump was mixed with blood, and though he was not a doctor, he knew that could not be a good sign.
The second hour passed more slowly, and the third hour slower still. His restraint was waning; he’d made his way through half the pack, and cough be damned. He’d fetched the bucket after the first bout of dust induced expectoration, and he could no longer see the rusty metal bottom for the rising soup of blood, phlegm and saliva he’d deposited within it. John had never been one for serious introspection; though he considered himself a great person by most societal standards, he vastly preferred the company of others to that of his own. Now he was all that he had for comfort, for support, and he found he didn’t measure up. John had conquered the ubiquitous fears—of death, of inadequacy—by simply not pondering them, consigning them to a mental file labeled ‘irrelevant’.
As much as he wished to, he could bury those fears no longer. Here he was faced with reality; both of his overwhelming inadequacy in the face of his impending death, and of that death itself. He was being undone before his eyes, mentally and physically. Each foul, fetid chunk of mucous that issued from between his lips revealed the sickness inside him, each clot of blood a testament to his body’s refusal to bear his abuse with good grace any longer. He had brought himself to this point; this was a message from the universe that he should have cared more when he had the chance, not been so cavalier about his health and his raison d’être. Everyone he knew called him Lung-butter, and that’s what he was; not a man, but a walking, talking being composed of bodily waste, infecting the world with the disease that was him with every hocked up nugget of slime.
Stop this, he chided himself mentally, the optimist in him struggling to regain dominance. This situation isn’t hopeless. It can’t snow forever, and someone will find you. Your lungs are diseased, but you are not. You will be saved, and you are worth saving.
To stop the rushing of thoughts in his head, John decided a nap was in order. He glanced over at the mattress, his stomach lurching at the prospect of laying his head down upon it; there was not even a square inch of surface which was not discolored by some stain or another. He realized he had left one cupboard unexcavated, and nearly wept with joy when he found two thick, blue woolen blankets inside. One he spread over the mattress—a buffer between himself and the accumulated fluids beneath—the other he kept to warm himself as he slumbered. As loath as he was to undress in such a place, he had found through the years that he could not sleep while encumbered by clothing, and he stripped down until he was bare. His discarded clothes became a pillow, and he was snoring in less than a minute.
John was awoken two hours later by a furious itching sensation. Throwing back the blanket he found the cause; he was speckled with flea bites all over his body. It was all he could do not to scratch his arms and legs raw; he settled on smoking to distract him from the agony of the fiery itching. Unceremoniously he plopped down naked at the small wooden table, the bucket beside him to catch the inevitable hocked up lung-butter. He lit the second from the first, and the third from the second, which proved to be an unwise decision. The stress of the situation had not only turned his bowels to water metaphorically; as his muscles shook and contracted from the coughing, he lost control of his sphincter and unleashed a stream of vile brown liquid the consistency of pea soup on the chair beneath him, which leaked out the back and dribbled drop by drop to the floor. He was off the chair in an instant. The choice of which orifice to void into the bucket was an easy one; he’d rather shit in the bucket and spit the mucous on the floor than the other way around. His intestines rampaged for a good ten minutes, while he sat naked on the bucket, the metal rim digging into the tender flesh of his thighs, his lungs complicit in the assault, the chunks of bloody phlegm piling up in an arc on the floor around him.
He rose weakly when the storm in his bowels had subsided, his body coated with a thin layer of sweat. The room was as ill constructed as its contents, and myriad holes let the cold winter air through to cool the moisture on his body until he was shivering on top of everything else. He took a step toward the bed to don his clothes; his bare foot slipped in the slick mess on the floor much as his car had slid on the ice, and he flailed his arms to steady himself, his foot connecting with the bucket which sprayed its fetid contents in a fan across the floor. He fell forward to the ground, unable to break his fall with his still flailing hands, and landed with a splash in the mixture of shit, mucous and blood. Reflexively he opened his mouth to shout and regretted it instantly; some of the mess flew into the gaping hole and down his throat. This proved the last straw for his already roiling stomach, and he unleashed a flood of chunky vomit to join the stew of his bodily fluids commingling on the floor.
A wave of terror came over him then, a premonition that this was how he’d succumb to the demon death; face down in a pool of his waste, his body purged and exhausted, the sickness inside him spewed out to envelop him wholly. For the first time in his life he started to worry about what came beyond death, if anything. If that sounds odd, a man half way through his naturally expected lifespan who had never seriously sweat the thought of his expiration, it had never occurred to John that it might be. He had accepted his mortality the only way he knew how, by ignoring the thought entirely. Death was just not something he thought of; he didn’t like the idea of it, and so whenever some conversation or incident or idle musing tried to implant the thought within his consciousness, he brushed it away and thought of something else. It had long ago stopped being a conscious process, and worked automatically now. Something inside him seemed to break, and he sobbed as he lay there, shivering and shuddering, waiting for the curtain to fall down mercifully upon him.
Get up John. Though the voice in his head was his own, it seemed as though he was shouting to himself from some unfathomable distance. Stand up John. You’re not giving up this easily. I’ll be damned if your obituary will read ‘died in a pile of his own shit and vomit’. Get up now, John. Be a man.
The bullying worked. John rose up slowly, not wanting to fall again. Once he was sure of his legs beneath him, he used his hands to slough off the muck as best he could, spitting profusely to rid his mouth of the dregs of his feces and stomach contents. He cleaned the rest from his face and body with his shirt and his pants, tossing them on the pile of sick in the center of the room when he was done. Risking the fleas he grabbed the blanket he’d used when he’d slept, wrapping it around his naked body for warmth. The last thing he did before he slumped down in the corner of the room was grab the rest of the cigarettes and his lighter.
You’ve lived a good life, he thought to reassure himself. If you die now, you’ve still had better than most men twice your age. He sent himself back in time through the power of memory as he smoked; if he was going to die he wanted to go smiling. He pictured Maria—his first girlfriend—who he’d met at the age of fifteen. She’d been his first lover, and he in his turn had been hers. He recalled his dog Goldie, who had died when he was nineteen and away at university. She’d been with him through everything, and though twenty five years had passed since she’d left him, some nights he could still hear her paws upon the hardwood floor.
He thought most of all about his mother. Not a few people, if asked, who had known the young boy from the small town in Southern Ontario as he grew up would have called his childhood sheltered. He was the only child of Marilyn and Oscar, and his father had been away often, leaving the mother to be the primary caregiver, protector and teacher of the boy. He couldn’t fault her for it overmuch; he knew she’d done it out of love and concern.
She’d died a few years back, and he found himself wondering what the odds were he’d see her on the other side of this life? She’d not been religious, and she’d not raised him to be either. Like many youths, he’d questioned and searched for something that might fit him spiritually, but in the end nothing man had come up with so far had satisfied him. He was pretty sure nothing ever would. How could man ever think to know all the answers in such an awesomely gigantic universe? He held science in high regard, but he did not think the lab could ever provide proof either for or against God—at least not man’s vision of God. This was another issue he was content to accept he could not satisfactorily answer, and so he ceased to worry about it. Whether or not any kind of deity existed in reality impacted his day to day decisions and activities not one bit, regardless of whether the probability of any such beings existing was 0.01% or 99.9%.
As these thoughts filled his head, and he grappled with them as he never had before, John made his way through the remainder of the pack. He broke through the reverie as he realized that he was down to his final cigarette.
“Well, I guess now is as good a time as any to quit,” joked to himself, his voice filled with irony as he spoke for the first time in what seemed like days, the sound hoarse from the cough, the strain. “When the doctor said smoking was going to kill me, I don’t think this is what he was envisioning.”
With his return to attention to the present came an increasing awareness of a sound coming from outside the door. Fragments of words and sentences came to him through the wood.
“…worst I’ve ever…”
“…no… pinned against… need to use the…”
“…blood loss… doesn’t look good…”
“…tell me your name…”
Time slowed as he looked up and saw the sky outside the window, clear and bright. The sun shone though, the motes of dust caught in the rays seeming to his eyes to sparkle as they danced in the air. The door opened and a woman stood there, looking down at him with such tenderness and concern he felt his heart break, and the tears began to course down his cheeks. She looked so much like his mother. Had she come to be with him at the end, was the light in his eyes a signal from some paradise she was there to escort him to? Without his conscious intent, a word slipped from his lips; the first he had ever spoken.
The woman reached out to him; he felt her touch on his neck. He didn’t register the gloves on her hands, the white of her uniform.
“Sir, can you tell me your name?”
“Lung-butter,” he mumbled in reply, the nickname coming out of habit.
“Ok…Lung, uh—Lung-butter,” the woman’s kindly voice said in his ear when she’d recovered from her momentary lapse of professionalism at hearing the name. “We’re working to free you. You need to relax and stay still, ok?”
“Ok,” he said.
“Just focus on my voice, ok? I’m here for you.”
He felt wetness on his cheeks. At first he thought he was crying again, but he realized it was melting snow. Something about that seemed wrong to him; snow—inside the cabin? How could there be snow inside the cabin? He mumbled his query as best he could, growing tired, his vision starting to lose focus. He only caught bits of the reply.
“…severe damage… pierced… hemorrhaging…”
He looked down at himself, and very dimly realized the truth of his situation. He’d never made it out of the car after the accident. The damage to the vehicle had been extensive, and so too had been the damage to his body. A long jagged piece of metal sharp as a knife had pierced him through the back and out the front, the end jutting out six inches. From an unfathomable place within him came a laugh, so sudden and startling the medics stopped their efforts for a moment to stare at this man who seemed to have cracked. The jovial noise rang off the stone cliffs on both sides of him, echoing. The laugh became a cough, the cough became spasms, and the spasms gave way to his final breath, his head slumping forward as the life went out of him as he had hoped—smiling.
As was mentioned previously, John’s mother had died some years before him. The same was true of his father, and he had no other relatives close enough to care what happened to him in death. Instead, the task of executing the estate and overseeing the disposal of his remains fell to Seamus. John didn’t want those still living to mourn his passing; he wanted them to laugh and celebrate his life, in the same way he had always tried to. Seamus gladly obliged, and honored John’s memory in grand tradition.
There was one detail John hadn’t arranged prior to his death however, and that was his epitaph, his last message to the world. He left no instructions, no clue as to how he wished to be immortalized. After some careful consideration—and a fifth of whiskey—Seamus settled on the following, to which any visitors to the last Earthly resting spot of John Carter Smith are treated:
March 23rd 1967 – February 25th 2013
This fallen hero was ne’er Byronic,
His untimely passing proved ironic,
Doctor warned him smoking would kill,
Went out for a pack and rolled off a hill,
Died in his car with a laugh in his throat,
Unaware of the pack that I’d slipped in his coat.