Smoke Spot

Smoke Spot

Irene Hsu


I don’t know what to do about my son Maurice. He is too old for God, my advice, and curfews, though my sister the psychic said otherwise over the phone. I called her last week for three free sentences of personal guidance.

“Maurice may be in grave danger if he doesn’t watch out for curfews,” were her words, not mine.

“That’s a load of bull,” said Maurice last week. “You’re just making a big stink out of it because you don’t want me out.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I just want you to be safe.”

“I’m seventeen,” he said, and slammed his door.

And last night, he comes home after dark and scoots into his room like nothing happened. I opened the door to tell him it’s Sunday, why wasn’t he at church, and why was he home after sunset?

He says, “Mom, if I tell you something, will you call the police?”

I knew it. He had murdered someone.

“I witnessed a murder,” he said. He had found a dead body in a car. Is that what I was hearing? And had seen the murderer running over the hill without shoes on?

Maybe I could say that it was okay. But it wasn’t. And he would tell me it wasn’t, and that I was crazy. Or I could say that everything will be okay. But he would tell me I was crazy too.

What could be done? What could I say?

“I told you,” were the words that came out of my mouth. Because I really had told him. “If you hadn’t been out, this wouldn’t have happened.”

He stared at me.

“If you had listened to me, nothing would’ve happened,” I heard myself saying again.

“You’re crazy,” he shouted, pushing me away. “Leave me alone.”

He pushed me out of his room and banged the door shut. Then he told me he didn’t want to talk to me, and I tried to open the door again, but it was locked. He just doesn’t get that this is serious, and that he brought it upon himself, and I told him that. He deserved it.

But I realized it wasn’t entirely his fault. Maurice is a good kid. If my psychic sister had told me exactly what would happen, I know Maurice wouldn’t have been out after sunset.

I called her again.

“Laura, don’t worry about it,” she said. “It’s not what you think. Get some sleep.”

I asked her why she didn’t tell me about the goddamn murder, but then she laughed at me and hung up because I didn’t want to pay for a fourth sentence. Then, I called her again to tell her I’ve hated her guts ever since I was ten, but she told me to calm down. Calm down! She sure didn’t calm down when I got an A in Calculus and when her ex-boyfriend asked me out and when Mom gave grandma’s necklace to me, not her. I bet I’d even make a better psychic.



I saw a murder.

Well, Christopher saw it, but I was at the scene of the crime. I haven’t been at school for a week. And Christopher doesn’t even care.

I said to him, “We’re witnesses.”

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” he said, smashing his clay pipe.

“We need to tell the police,” I said. He laughed.

Sometimes I don’t even know why I put up with him. He always swings his legs up on my dashboard. I say, “Hey Christopher, mind taking your stinkin’ feet off my dashboard?” And he looks at me like I’m crazy. There are permanent shoe prints on my dashboard. It’s my car. Although now it’s my mom’s car, after we traded, in case. I have to tape up her license plate every night in case the murderer finds her and thinks it’s me.

He’s definitely out to get me—we did almost run him over. So I need to be on the move. I’d take Christopher, but he doesn’t seem to care.

I don’t understand. He used to skip school liberally, too. He wanted to go everywhere with me, even to find Dom’s smoke spot. But then again, he probably just wanted to smoke. The first time we hung out, I had a smoke with him—out of courtesy. Now it’s the only thing we do.

So I’ve been on the move by myself. Safety first. I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been to the grocery store, the elementary school, the aquarium—anywhere with a crowd.

If my mom finds out that I haven’t been at school, she’d kill me. I’ve ruined my perfect attendance, but I have to get my priorities straight. My mom—she doesn’t get the magnitude of this. She storms into my room, cries about how I’ve caught a cold, and when I explain, tells me I’m crazy and cries some more. She even tries to bring in my psychic aunt, until I want to scream, “If she’s so goddamn psychic, why doesn’t she rip out the phone line before you call?”

But I’ve started wondering if I’m making something out of nothing? Mom and Christopher wouldn’t actually be this nonchalant unless there really were nothing to worry about, would they? I mean, even my aunt is telling me to calm down.

But the way I see it is this: if the murderer isn’t coming after me, then I’m just wasting some time. If he’s coming and I don’t do anything, I’m dead.

Better safe than sorry.

That means I’m doing the right thing, and Mom’s a psycho. Christopher’s definitely a psycho. My psychic aunt is a psycho. And if I don’t get some peace of mind soon, I may end up as one, too.



My friends always say I’m a prude because I like scrapbooks and picnics. Now look—Water is up to my neck and I am cold and it is night and I have no idea where my clothes are.

They also took my keys, even the shoes. And Dom got those for me. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but Dom used to be a wild guy—the kind my parents would flip out about. He even used to drink and smoke. But I think he quit for me.

I wish I could call him now. Or that I had my socks. As it is, if I ran up that hill in my bare feet and got into my car, imagine the mud. The dead insects. It’s a new car.

The worst part is, I can see my car up the path. Someone even walked up to it, but I couldn’t shout—because I’m naked.

I told my parents I’d be back before dark, so they’ll know something went wrong.

I don’t understand. Why couldn’t we have just had dinner? I hate when people change plans, and now, my parents will think I lied to them, like I planned this.

God, I hate practical jokes.



Maurice and I wanted to find a new smoke spot since the city council busted our old one. I didn’t like our old spot anyway. It smelled like rotting rain in the summer, and once, we found a dead rat split in two at the base of the wall.

The thing is, Maurice heard that Dom had a place up in the hills, so he wanted to root it out, just to piss him off. I didn’t want to. Dom’s tough like beef; if you’ve got a beef with beef, you’re as good as dead. But Maurice, he’s had it in for Dom ever since he was five, but Dom doesn’t know, so that’s why Maurice isn’t dead.

We should have been carving out our own spot, but instead, we spent the whole damn afternoon looking for Dom’s, which was probably just a decoy so geeks like Maurice wouldn’t trash it. Maurice must’ve wasted a gallon of gas driving up and down that damn hill.

“Forget it,” I said. “Let’s smoke.”

“I want to find the stinkin’ spot.”

That’s Maurice for you, dogged as hell, perfect attendance for all of high school.

It was getting late and we were driving up the hill for the eleventh time.

“Was that here the last time we were up this hill?” said Maurice.

A red BMW Z4 sDrive35i perched on the slope. Maurice rolled his crushed can of a car to a stop. We whistled at the retractable hardtop roof.

“Look at that,” said Maurice. “300 horsepower.”

As if I didn’t know.

The glint flitted off her curves. It glided off her silver trim, Nappa leather upholstery, the rims. She was a beauty.

Maurice squashed his nose against his car window. He looked down. I looked down.

“What’s that?” I asked.

That was a pair of Oxfords, said Maurice, who knew not because he was gay, but because his mother paid him minimum wage to shop online for women’s shoes. They were tan, with patterns cut along the shoe like lace, Maurice narrated. They were the size of two toilet paper squares. They were sitting on the slope by the backseat of the Z4, waiting for someone to step back into them.

We stared in silence.

“Whose are they?” I wondered.

“How should I know,” said Maurice. “Check in the car.”

“You look. You’re closer.”

“I’m driving.”

That’s his damn excuse for everything. He made me get out to look. So I looked.

And it was empty.

I could feel Maurice staring. I counted to three. Then I dove into his backseat, slammed the door, and screamed, “There’s a woman lying facedown!


I almost laughed at his expression, but instead I yelled, “Drive!

The car lurched forward. Maurice screamed at me and I screamed back, interjecting curses every so often to maintain my act.

Slow down!” I screamed.


You’re about to hit something,” I screamed. He screamed. We swerved.

What was that?

That was the shape of a man kneeling on the ground. As we whizzed by, I could hear his voice trailing, “Oh, God!”

“He’s praying,” I decided.

Are you crazy?” Maurice screamed. “Why is he praying?

We were out of the hills. Maurice was still shaking by the time he pulled into my driveway.

“What are we going to do?” he said.

“Just forget about it,” I said.

“That man just murdered that woman,” he screamed.

“Yeah,” I said.

I didn’t feel like telling him there was nothing in the car. I figured I’d throw it in like a punch line someday. That’s what you get when you pull me into your secret beef with Dom that I really, truly don’t take stock in.

Especially when I just need a smoke.



I’ve told my nephew that his hamster ran away.

I’ve also been telling myself that it’s time to move out.

I mean, Martha and I are pretty thoughtful people, even for siblings. I even thought about getting her leather shoes recently. I saw them and thought, Wow, she’d really like these. I didn’t get them, but it shows I’m thoughtful. It wasn’t even about the money. They just weren’t in her size. But now, she just wants to kick me out of her house, like that night I lost her kids’ hamster.

That fateful night, I took the hamster, cage and all, and went to the grocery store, which has been like a second home to me since my roommate of six years moved out and stuck me with a lease. My roommate was the only one who ever understood me. He always remembered to turn to channel twelve so I could scroll through the guide.

Now he’s married, and she isn’t even cute. So I moved to my sister’s, because how the hell would I pay rent? Making macchiatos doesn’t get me my own one-bedroom apartment.

The hamster and I walked up and down the aisles, and I asked it what my sister would want. I felt bad. Martha was right, I couldn’t be a bum forever. The hamster pawed at the wall and stared at me.

So we got some beer.

“Want some?” I asked when we reached the parking lot. “Don’t be shy.”

I finished a can.

“Do you think she’ll have us back?” I asked. The hamster wriggled into the bedding and I turned the cage upside-down. “Don’t ignore me like that. You’re not Martha.”

I finished another can.

“No, you’re right,” I said. “We don’t need her.”

Just then, someone interrupted.

“Sir, you’re in my way. That’s my car.”

“I need a ride,” I said. “My sister threw us out and my roommate got married.”

He stared.

“I can’t drive,” I repeated. “I’m drunk.”

I clutched my hamster as he drove. He played piano music and I tried to sing along.

“Keep it down,” he said. I felt like crying. No one appreciated me.

“Turn left here,” I said.

“Here?” He swerved left into a dirt road.

“Go up that hill.”

He gave me a look but did as he was told. It felt good to be taken seriously.

“Keep going,” I said.

I saw a metal glint on the next hill. “Actually, stop here.”

“Here?” He stopped the car. We were on a hill. “You sure?”

“Yes, yes.” As I stood up, the earth almost tipped me over. “Hey, thanks.”

“Don’t forget your hamster,” he said and drove away. His car disappeared into a tiny dot. Then, it was quiet.

I stood at the top of the hill. That asshole had dropped me off in the middle of nowhere, not even close to the glint. What did he expect me to do now?

My hamster and I, we talked about life. We discussed the economical difference between tall and venti, how some hotshots just don’t leave tips. We reached a glint.

“Hey,” I said. “Nice car.”

It was red. And shiny. I tripped over something.

“Hey,” I said. “Nice shoes.”

They were leather shoes, sitting outside the car. And no one was around.

“I should get them for my sister,” I said. “They look girly. How much time do you think that would buy me? A year?”

My hamster turned its bum to me.

“You’re right,” I said. “They look small. Martha has big feet.”

Probably to trample all over my life.

“Screw her!” I concluded.

I looked my hamster in the eyes.

“Hey,” I said. “Don’t you ever get tired of this ratty old cage?”

One of us had to live the good life.

I left the shoes and hiked up another hill. At the peak, I dropped to my knees to scoop the hamster out.

“Run free,” I said. “Eat some nuts.”

It crawled away.

I heard a rumbling in the distance.

“Rain’s coming,” I said and started digging. “I’ll make you a home.”

The rumbling got louder. Louder, then brighter. It came hurtling closer. I couldn’t get up. My knees were glued to the dirt. My body was so heavy, I was dying. I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Oh God,” I shouted, as a gust of wind hit me.

When I opened my eyes, it was quiet.

“That was close,” I said to my hamster.

There was a bloody pancake off to the side.

I couldn’t believe it. Life was so short.

I cried and promised I would live a full life, not one moping over my roommate’s marriage, or mooching off Martha, or making upside-down lattes at Starbucks. I was a new man. I would turn over a new leaf. No more groveling for a place to stay.

I scooped up the pancake and cried some more. I moved it into the burrow I made. I prayed, “Hamster, you have not died in vain.”

The tears stopped coming, and I knew it was time to rise. It was time to go back to my sister’s home and apologize and promise to move out. After all, we were family

I got up to find the shoes. They were at the top of the other hill. But it didn’t matter—I owed this to Martha.

I took a deep breath and started moving towards the shoes, when suddenly, I felt sick. I threw up.

It was a sign. Clearly, nature didn’t want me to move in that direction, and I was sure my sister could understand. And plus, my knees hurt.

The shoes probably didn’t even fit her anyway, her and her big feet.



Yesterday at lunch this guy Christopher sat himself down next to me, peered at me with these glazed eyes and asked whether I really had a smoke spot up in the hills.

“Why do you want to know,” I said.

“My friend Maurice is obsessed,” he said.

I didn’t even know a Maurice. Maybe he was the nerd in my history class who always asked questions—sometimes questions that even teachers couldn’t answer. That guy—he seemed like someone my girlfriend Lucy would like. I wondered if he’d be good for my initiative. The first time I saw Lucy, I walked up to her and asked her out. She told me I had initiative. So that’s what I’ve wanted my life to be about.

“I don’t know a Maurice,” I said, “and I don’t have a smoke spot.”

I quit smoking almost a year ago. It’s part of my initiative, too. Lucy doesn’t like the smell, and I’m going to marry her, really. In a month, we’re celebrating our anniversary. It’s hard, not smoking, but she got me a lot of gum. I pop in a few pieces and the feeling goes away. People keep asking if I want a smoke, but they don’t realize that that part of me has melted away.

Lucy’s happy about it too. She said she loved me.

Christopher, though. He’s one of those guys who was born needing a smoke. And lately, I’ve been thinking about my life. Lucy and I, we go to Starbucks when she’s home from college. This guy, Jonathan, mans the cash register and makes Frappuccinos all day. No matter the hour, he’s there. He is Starbucks. And he’s thirty. Always gripes about living at his sister’s and drunk-dialing his flaky ex-roommate. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the old guy at Starbucks making minimum wage. If I’m thirty and I’m working at Starbucks, I want to at least be manager. But Jonathan, he’s not even a shift leader.

“Too much work,” he had said.

I’ve decided that people like Christopher and Jonathan aren’t good influences in the long run, only going to keep me back one more year in school. So I’ve just been eating alone. It’s nice, except when people try to talk to me or sit with me because they think I’m lonely.

“Well, we spent all of Sunday driving up and down the hills for your spot,” Christopher continued.

I told him again I didn’t have one.

“What kind of lighter do you have?” he asked.

This kid, he smelled like smoke and couldn’t take a hint.

“Excuse me,” I said. I was having dinner with Lucy’s parents. They’re high-class people, and parents don’t like me very much, even when I don’t smell like smoke.

“Why don’t you tell them about quitting smoking?” Lucy had said. “My dad used to smoke, he’d understand.”

Dinner with parents? I’d need a smoke every minute. It’d ruin my initiative.

“They’ll like you,” said Lucy. “I tell them good things about you.”

Maybe she told them about the shoes. Once, she told me she had been looking for Oxfords for ages, and I had never heard of those before, so I looked them up on the Internet. Then last weekend, like magic, they popped up in a store display.

That’s the great thing about quitting smoking—having money to spend on things that last more than a joint.

Maybe she mentioned my A in business. Her dad was a businessman—we could talk business. We could talk about Lucy’s Oxfords, and we could talk about my initiative. Then one day, we could talk about my job, a real job, like a P.E. coach or life coach or a pilot.

And after that, we can talk about me marrying Lucy, and if it all works out, it’ll be me and Lucy doing all the talking. Making breakfast, tucking in the kids at night—it’ll be us, and no one else.