I often wonder how Superman would have made his way in the world if he wasn't bulletproof. What if he didn't have super strength, x-ray vision, or couldn't fly? What if all he could do is turn socks purple? Would he still fight Lex Luthor's world domination schemes, or would he seek out a smaller cause?
“Hey Vic, can I bum a cigarette?” Larry asks.
“It's my last one,” I say. “Besides, aren't you trying to quit?”
“Aw, come on man. This damn patch just ain't cutting it.”
I shrug and open my empty cigarette case, hammered bronze and worn shiny at the edges, like Humphrey Bogart's dad would carry. With a split-second's concentration, I make a cigarette appear in the case, just under the retaining clip. I could have just as easily made the cigarette appear in my hand, between my fingers, or if I were closer, Larry's shirt pocket. I sometimes pass off my pathetic super power as slight-of-hand, but there are fewer questions when I use the case.
Larry's face relaxes as he takes the first drag. “That's the stuff.”
“Is it safe to smoke here?” a voice says.
I turn and see the new graphic artist digging through a purse. Larry introduced her last week, some flower name. Daisy? No, that wasn't it. Rose? We pass every day in the hall, why can't I remember?
“Can you see the building from where you are?” I say.
“Just a bit,” she says.
She seems nice enough, though I wouldn't have pegged her as a smoker. There's something funny about her stomach, like she's pregnant but hiding it. Heather, that's the name.
“Take a couple steps further until you're out of sight. The building manager watches this corner like a buzzard,” I say.
“Like a below-quota cop on the last day of the month,” Larry adds. “Lorena's busted me twice since the new rules came down.”
“The ones from the building owners?” Heather says.
“From Redwood Wellness, 'the provider that's a breath of fresh air.' ”
“That's their slogan?” Heather says.
“We offered our services, but they haven't taken us up on it.”
Larry blows out a smoke cloud and laughs. “How about 'Redwood Wellness, picking up where the gestapo left off.'”
Heather fishes out a cigarette from the purse and puts it in her mouth, then starts digging back in. I hold out my lighter.
"Thanks," she says.
It's a little thing, but I like to do it. We lost these little gestures with the smoking culture. We used to be civil with each other. You lit a woman's cigarette and discussed the day's issues while she leaned back and enjoyed a smoke. If you liked each other, she would let you invade her personal space again to light a second. Today instead of sophisticated banter we bitch about being outside, huddled in a circle against the wind, sucking on the cancer sticks as fast as we can to get a fix before running back inside.
"Damn, I wish it were summer," Heather says. "The least they could do is let us smoke in our cars."
Larry blows out a cloud and puts on a nasally voice. "The car's on the parking lot and the parking lot is part of the property."
“I'm surprised they allow red meat in the building,” she says.
“Just you wait, that's next,” Larry says.
“Larry here got caught twice smoking in his car. One more strike, and he gets to have a conference with Lorena and Mister Reed himself,”
“Yeah,” Larry says, “in her office. The Old Man hates being summoned.” Larry looks down at Heather's waist, and he chucks his head. “What's up with the shirt?”
Heather holds her cigarette out with one hand, reminding me of a forties movie star. She glances down at shirt tails peeking out from under her jacket.
“Camouflage. I spilled some coffee this morning and stained my slacks.”
“Oh good,” Larry says. “I thought it was a maternity top or something.”
“It makes you look pregnant,” Larry says.
“Well I'm not, jackass.” Her arm drops, and I figure she's ready to flick the cigarette to the pavement a split second before she clocks Larry.
“Good to know. If anyone tries spreading a rumor, I'll tell them you're clumsy, not knocked up."
He's not the sharpest man I know, but he must sense how close he is to having to go to HR for more sensitivity training because he turns to me.
"Hey Vic, show her the trick.”
“It ain't nothing,” I say. I doubt the world's worst super power can blunt a false pregnancy accusation.
“What's the trick?” Heather says.
“Vic can make a cigarette appear anywhere. He's like Houdini crossed with the Marlboro Man.”
“Houdini?” she says.
“Just go with it,” I say, “Last time he said I was Siegfried and Roy.”
To my amazement, she laughs. In that case, why the hell not show her? I hold my arms toward her palms out.
“Now hold your hands out like this.”
Heather hitches the purse over her shoulder and copies me.
“Okay. Nothing in your hands right? Now clasp them together like you're holding a baby bird.”
When she closes her hands together, I put mine a few inches above and below hers. I don't need to, but there's a certain expectation about how magic tricks are done. If you don't do it with a bit of showmanship, you disappoint people. I realize I don't want to disappoint Heather. So I squint a little, as if concentrating, then relax. I snap my fingers.
Heather peels back her top hand and her eyebrows shoot up.
“No fucking way,” she says.
She holds out her hand to Larry, cupping a cigarette.
“I told you,” Larry says. His face clouds for a moment, and he looks at me. “Hey, I thought you said you were out.”
“I did, I was, I am.” I take out my cigarette case and show them it's empty. “Magic.”
Heather holds the cigarette out to me. “That's damned amazing. You should be in Vegas.”
“I'm still trying to saw a lady in half without getting blood all over the floor. You keep it.”
She stares at it, and I can tell she doesn't want it. My cigarettes make the cheap ones look glamorous. I bet she'll say she only smokes name-brands, slims, or menthols.
“Is it organic?” she says.
That was a new one. “Hell if I know.”
“Then you keep it,” she says, “I only smoke organic.”
Damn, and I was beginning to like her too.
“Hey, why aren't you smoking?” Heather says to me.
“Don't feel like it right now.” It's easier to say that than admit I don't smoke.
“Then why are you out here?”
“It beats sitting at a desk, doesn't it?”
"For a little while." She smiles, and I decide not to write her off just yet.
"I gotta get back," she says.
"Yeah, I suppose." I say. "Come on, Larry."
We walk across the parking lot. Larry takes a last drag and hustles after us, tossing the butt next to his car.
As we approach, a thin woman with hair piled on her head in what I think they call a French twist stands in the glass-walled entryway. Lorena Stevens stands with a poise that comes from perfect balance. She's like a yoga instructor in a business suit.
“She's waiting for us. Damn it all.” Larry says.
“Take it easy. No one has tobacco on them right?” I say.
“I thought it just had to be out of sight,” Heather says. She clutches at her purse.
“Technically, you can't bring it on premises, but it's not like they can search you,” Larry says. "I looked it up."
“Just make sure your purse is closed, and you'll be fine.”
As we enter, I see a door open across the entryway, the door leading to Reed and Associates. The Old Man himself barrels through with face like stone, and ears flushed bright red.
“Defcon One,” Larry says, “It's been nice working with you all.”
“Steady, big guy. She can't have anything on you.”
I hold the door open and let Heather and Larry through. Lorena has already turned toward Mister Reed.
“Charles, how accommodating to come down on such short notice.”
“What's all this about, Lorena?” Mister Reed says.
“I believe one of your employees is in violation of this building's tobacco policy.” She turns. “Isn't that right, Larry?”
Larry looks uncertainly from Lorena to the Old Man. “I -uh- only have two strikes – warnings, that is.”
“Why Larry, I'm confused. Didn't I just see you toss a used cigarette in the parking lot?”
“What? No. I was smoking, sure, but off property.”
“True, but then you brought it on the property as you and your merry band finished up your little smoking break.”
“He ground it out on the pavement, that can't count.” Heather says.
“I'm sorry, but this property's boundaries are quite clearly defined.”
“But the grass on the median strip is all dry.” Heather says. “Would you rather he grind it out there and start a fire?”
“I would rather people not smoke at all." She looks pointedly at Heather's abdomen. “Especially women in your condition. Do you have any idea what that does to a fetus?”
Heather's fists ball up. “I'm not pregnant.”
"Really?" She stares at Heather's waistline, then runs a hand over her own tailored jacket, smoothing a front pocket. "If you say so, dear."
Heather's eyes narrow in a way that would make Clint Eastwood flinch. But before she can lay into Lorena, the Old Man pipes up.
"Is this true, Larry?" he says. "Did I get called out of my office because you can't follow the rules?"
Larry's head swivels between the Old Man's and Lorena. "Well maybe, Mister Reed, but come on, this is over the top, even for a crazy policy like this. Isn't it? For some reason, she has it in for me."
“I don't find the policies so onerous, Larry. I had some hand in their drafting, and I assure you they apply equally to everyone.”
I get an idea.
"Really?" I say.
"Then you don't have any tobacco on you."
"What?" She looks at me like I just accused her of leprosy. "Why of course not."
"It's funny, because I usually recognize the closet smokers." I can't. My super power would never give me anything remotely that useful. Instead, I just have to act like I know what I'm doing. Fortunately, I'm in advertising.
I'm not a superhero, but I play one on TV.
"You strike all the bells, Lorena. Why, I bet you have one on you right now," I say.
"I have never smoked, not once in my life, and I most certainly do not have a cigarette on my person."
"Prove it. Show us what's in your jacket pocket."
"Victor, don't antagonize the lady," Mister Reed says.
"You're confusing the issue," says Lorena.
"You're avoiding it." I say. I take a step toward her, almost within arm's reach, but I keep my hands at my sides. "I'm sure if you have nothing to hide, you won't mind?"
I know, it's the police state's favorite line. I feel a little guilty, but I'm no Superman.
"If it will get us past your nonsense," Lorena says.
She reaches toward the jacket pocket, and I hope I'm close enough. Super powers, don't fail me now. As she places one hand in the pocket, her body goes rigid.
"Yes, Lorena?" The Old Man says.
To her credit, she squares her shoulders and pulls out the cigarette. Heather sucks in air through her teeth. Larry mumbles something like 'holy crap,' and looks at me. It takes all my willpower to keep my face relaxed and not spoil the magic.
"I do not know how this got here, it is not mine." Lorena says.
The Old Man chuckles.
"I tried that line once when a cop found a reefer on me in '72. Said it didn't impress him much. Now I know how he feels."
He turns and heads for the office door. "If we're all done here, Lorena, I need my employees back. I'm sure they have better things to do."
Lorena stands there, tight-lipped as the Old Man holds the door open for us. Maybe I don't have the most glamorous super power, but I begin to wonder what I would look like in a cape.