It used to be Smooth Boy’s Zippo, but Smooth Boy is dead. I run my thumb over the striker wheel, addicted to the friction of metal sparking flint, and pass my index finger back and forth through the flame. I like the weight and the slick cold touch of it. I imagine myself going back in time to a pre-literate civilization and having them worshiping me as the living god of fire. The flame wavers like a tired stripper going through the motions. I hold my fingertip in the heart of it until the first throb of pain makes me jerk it back. Smooth Boy was my name for him, his real name doesn’t matter.
He lived a few doors down from me at The Carlyle, a Rogers Park SRO, where the hallway smells of moldy carpet and nicotine. I work nights and sleep days. My job consists of knowing zip codes and loading boxes. The snap-click-flick of the lighter is a mesmerizing rhythm, dulling memories that flash and pop.
A Zippo will last a lifetime with proper maintenance. It lasted a lifetime for Smooth Boy. I unscrew the spring holding the flint and replace the worn nub with a fresh cylindrical hulk. I pull the wick up with tweezers and snip off the carbon-frayed edges. Finally, I fill it until fluid oozes over the sides leaving the woozy scent of naphtha on my fingers. I must remember to take a generous supply of fluid, wicks, and flint with me when I travel back in time.
But I would need more than fire to convince an ancient society of my godliness. Jesus could turn water into wine, and look where he ended up. I would try for more showmanship, with less call for charity and love. Kool-Aid turns bitter water sweet, a pound of it would be worth its weight in gold. I could prepare a nice little dog and pony show, but the arrow of time moves relentlessly forward. If people could travel back in time, then why aren’t they here now saving us from ourselves? I know that nothing will save me, not Kool-Aid, not fire, not any man-made god.
I called him Smooth Boy because he resembled an anime character with almost Asian eyes, soft face, spiky black hair, and a chin suggesting a vague blend of east and west. He could have been as young as twenty or as old as forty. We never talked, passing each other in the hall with a slight head nod and momentary eye contact, enough to recognize each other's existence without the need to push for details. I’d often see him out front when I left for work, snapping and clicking the lighter with the same motion that lives on in me. He was one of those people who smoked outside no matter what the weather.
The night of our first and last real conversation was in the late spring. I’d left my room without a jacket, trusting it was going to remain warm through the length of my shift. He was seated on the low slung pipe fence that surrounds the parkway where a few weeds grow amidst lumps of dog crap, Styrofoam litter, and a dead honey locust tree.
Smooth Boy always looked up when I passed, it made it easier for both of us, no need for idle chat, just a quick nod, but that night he was looking down. I followed his attention to a small bird standing motionless on the sidewalk. The bird was close enough for him to nudge with the tip of his shoe. It didn’t move, frozen in some sort of avian stupor. It had cardinal red feathers, Zorro black wings, and a round little body like the fucking bluebird of happiness.
“A migrant,” he said, “from Central America.”
“A long way to go.” I stopped, because the bird was so outside my experience, because it was warm, and, for a moment, I thought I felt what normal might be like.
“It must have hit a window. They do that,” he said.
A fresh spring breeze pushed through concrete, urine, and smog-filled air. He flicked his cigarette back to the curb, bent, and scooped the bird into his hands.
“It'll be dead by morning,” he said.
“You never know.” Something about the breeze made me optimistic.
He held the creature out to me like an offering. It had been a long time since I had touched another living thing. I felt the creature’s heart beating wildly.
I could bring a gun with me back in time, making me a god to be feared. Religions begin with loving gods, but they always end with the threat of eternal damnation. What good is salvation if everyone gets it? With a gun, Kool-Aid, and the lighter, I would make a better god than most. I handed the bird back to him and he held it against his chest like a child with a small stuffed animal.
The breeze tapped a memory of summer nights catching fireflies in mid-air, feeling the flutter of their wings in my cupped hands, and watching their on/off luminescence through the spaces between my fingers.
Children don’t play in front of The Carlyle or anywhere near it. It is a street of rundown SROs and reeking Bukowski bars. The bird was the only color I’d seen in months and even that turned out to be an illusion, light refraction caused by feather structure, I later read. I never paid attention to science growing up, too busy working angles, trying to get by without getting done.
Smooth Boy placed the bird on a low branch of the dead honey locust tree.
“So a cat won’t get it,” he said.
“Or a rat,” I added.
“Or a rat,” he repeated and began snapping and clicking the Zippo again. The lighter has a three-dimensional black metal skull welded onto one side, an ominous detail that I have failed to mention. Smooth Boy noted my attention and tossed it to me, still warm from the friction of his snapping and clicking.
“Nice,” I said and flicked it open like he did. It weighed as much as the bird had. Would the bird’s feet hold tight to the branch after death? I pressed the lighter into the flesh of my palm and the skull left a red imprint. I held it out to return it, but he put up both hands.
"Keep it," he said.
If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true, the only advice I’d ever taken from my father, given to me when I wanted to use my birthday money to buy the sea monkeys pictured in the back of a comic book. I imagined half-fish, half-simian creatures swimming in an aquarium ready to do my bidding, like the flying monkeys in the Land of Oz.
“No thanks,” I said.
I didn’t want to feel obliged to stop and say hello, or comment on the weather. I had plenty of matches, free matchbooks were one of the few things left in this world that weren’t too good to be true.
“I’m going to kill someone tomorrow,” he said and lifted his sweatshirt high enough to reveal a gun blue handle protruding above his belt.
I almost responded with that’s good out of habit. Nice weather, have a great day, can’t complain, no problem, all came to mind. I pay lip service to humanity where none exists, it makes life easier. Feelings were for saps who believed in sea monkeys and gods who watch every step we take to punish us after death, as if the life that came before death weren't punishment enough. I load boxes into trailers bound for Kansas. I’ve never been to Kansas, but I know its zip codes. Topeka is 666, like the biblical mark of the beast. Lawrence is 660, where William Burroughs lived and died after shooting his wife square in the head. I envision treeless horizons, killer tornados, and pick-up trucks leaving trails of dust along endless flat roads. I thought about all of this in the second or two it took me to respond and the truth of the matter was, I admired Smooth Boy’s honesty.
"Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s real.” I said as he looked at the bird.
“Yeah, totally,” he said.
He wouldn’t take the lighter back. I left him staring at the bird and he returned to an anime character in my head. I didn’t want to be late for my shift. Nobody bothers me as long as I show up on time and load the trailers correctly. When I applied for the job, the interviewer asked me what my goals were, goals for a minimum wage job loading trucks. I wanted to tell her to go fuck herself, but I needed the money so I played the monkey, hat in hand, and delivered the bullshit line she wanted to hear me say. "To succeed and do my best," I forced a smile and looked her in the eye.
I imagined Smooth Boy shooting her, the action advancing slowly frame by frame, him entering the front office brandishing the gun, she looking surprised, he pointing the gun at her with his enigmatic, east-west face, the POP–POP–POP, ending in a wisp of smoke and bullets exiting her body in V-shaped sprays of flesh and blood.
I looked for the bird in the morning, but there wasn’t a trace of it. I thought about what Smooth Boy had said, but he was an anime character, the gun was probably a toy, his threat the bluster of an overactive mind. I squeezed the lighter in my hand, I intended to give it back to him that evening, force it into his hand or drop it at his feet if he refused to take it. If it was too good to be true, it was too good to be true.
That night, when I left for work, a television van was parked across the street from the honey locust tree. A reporter stood where Smooth Boy had sat twenty-four hours before, her cookie-cutter face an odd match for his anime features. She stuck a microphone in my face and asked for a comment.
“Sea monkeys are bullshit.” I said and kept walking.
I read the paper later. Smooth Boy had killed a machine shop foreman, two immigrant mothers who had had the bad luck to be filling out applications in the vestibule when he had arrived, and then himself. An employee who survived said that Smooth Boy had been fired for erratic behavior a month earlier. It wasn’t a big corporate place where faceless executives talked about mission statements, synergy, and becoming proactive. It was a small manufacturer on the north side where everyone lived paycheck to paycheck and the owner was happy enough to put his kids through college and pay for a three season vacation home up north. Smooth Boy never told me who he was going to shoot, what was I supposed to do? The paper said he had a permit for the gun, all nice and legal.
I sometimes wonder if the bird survived and returned to winter in the Costa Rican canopy. It was a scarlet tanager. I checked a field guide at the library. I haven’t seen one before or since. You put a broken bird back in a tree the same way you leave an anime character sitting where you found him. I have started smoking outside, sitting on the low slung fence, passing the time snapping the lighter open and shut and waving my finger through the flame. I’ve been thinking about buying a gun, nothing fancy, a simple forty-five would do. I want to shoot words like synergy, transparency, and closure. On good nights I don’t dream. On other nights I have visions of dead Mexican mothers and angry sea monkeys. In the meantime I keep Smooth Boy’s Zippo in perfect working order, a good lighter should last a lifetime.
Tom Schwider has a novel length e-book, The Long Cold Summer of Ben Black, available at Amazon. Other than that, he leads a rather tedious existence, staring out his third floor window awaiting the inspiration for his next story.