A Healthy Cigarette

Fiction by High Times’s favorite short story writer, Etgar Keret.
Cigarette
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Sometimes I wonder how many of the people I know have ever killed someone. I’m not talking about murder. I mean, how many of them have run someone over, or left a baby in a car, or accidentally given Grandma the wrong medication. It must be a big number. After all, heaps of people die all the time. And someone’s killing them. Not all of them, but at least a few. And yet when I think about everyone I’ve known in my forty-odd years on this planet, I can’t come up with a single one besides myself who’s killed someone. Maybe the killers keep it under wraps, or they just don’t think about it all the time like I do. Maybe for them, the whole episode was just something that happened a long time ago and it’s not on their mind anymore—like a stag party, or hernia surgery, or a mediocre backpacking trip to the Far East.

I don’t know the name of the man I killed. He was a Syrian soldier and I was an Israeli soldier and we were at war. I’m not saying that to excuse what I did, just to explain the situation. It happened in Southern Lebanon, at night. We were standing about twenty feet apart. He tried to shoot me first, but his AK-47 jammed. Then I tried to shoot him, and my rifle jammed too. I took the magazine out, cocked twice—and the chamber discharged a bullet. I put the magazine back in. All this time I was looking at the Syrian soldier, who was doing exactly the same thing. It was obvious that under the circumstances, with him so close to me, what I should have done is charge ferociously and clobber his skull with my rifle. I’m guessing he was thinking the same thing. But instead of lunging at each other, we kept clutching our jammed rifles as if they were life boards: something to hold the necessary murderousness at bay, something that would allow us the luxury of being brutes by proxy instead of just brutes.

With the magazine back in, I cock my rifle and shut one eye so I can aim. The Syrian does the same thing. His one open eye looks fearfully straight at mine. I start to squeeze the trigger but the Syrian beats me to it by a split second. I hear the tap of his firing pin. His rifle is still jammed. Mine works. The sound is deafening. His face spurts blood. I wake up.

* * *

Whenever Rivi comes over for her regular check-ups, she asks my mother tedious questions like “What were your parents called?” or “How long have you lived in Israel?” or “What is the President’s name?” Rivi says these questions are like a workout for the brain, but as an outside observer it seems to me that my mom’s brain hasn’t been in workout shape for a long time. On her last visit, Rivi asked Mom, “Do you remember what street you live on, honey? Do you know which city you live in?” like she was a little girl. 

“Sort of,” my mom answered with a tender smile, “and you? Do you remember where you live?”

Rivi laughed and said she lived in Ramat Gan. Then she pointed to herself and asked Mom if she remembered her name. 

“Ruthi?” Mom tried, “is it Ruthi?” 

“You’re close,” said Rivi, stroking Mom’s pale hand, “very close. What about him?” She pointed at me. “Do you know who he is?”

Mom gave me an awkward look. “Him?” She shrugged her shoulders. “I know that I love him. Isn’t that enough?”

Before leaving, Rivi asked to have a word with me privately. She said my mom’s condition was deteriorating, she was worried, and I should take her to see a geriatric doctor. I tried to explain that Mom doesn’t like going to the doctor, and that as far as I’m concerned the fact that she doesn’t remember much is something of a blessing, because when you’re a lonely widow with no grandchildren and your son is an unemployed loser, it’s probably best not to remember. Rivi gave me a teacherly look and said that when I label myself as “an unemployed loser” I’m diminishing my existence, and that I have a lot more to offer. I asked what more I had to offer—not to pick a fight, but because I genuinely wanted to know—and she said that I’m a good person, a son who takes care of his mother, and that as a social worker she knows that’s not always the case. “I know you went through a rough divorce,” she added, “and that you have a mental health diagnosis, and that you experienced trauma in the army…”

“I killed someone,” I countered, “that’s not trauma, it’s what soldiers are supposed to do. I even got a medal of honor.”

“I know. Your mom told me there was a ceremony with the Chief of Staff and that—”

“I didn’t go. Did she tell you that, too?”

“Yes, she did. She told me. I know pretty much everything about you, from preschool onward. Your mom likes to talk. But her cognitive abilities are declining. She needs to see a doctor.”

After Rivi left, I made Mom some pancakes. Whenever I cook something good for her, she always wolfs it down, barely stopping to take a breath, as if I might grab her plate at any second. “Slow down, Mom,” I tell her, “relax, that pancake isn’t going anywhere.” But it’s pointless. If she likes it, she scarfs the whole thing in a second. That’s why I waited till Rivi was gone to give her the pancakes, so she wouldn’t embarrass herself.

“What’s the name of that lady who was here asking questions?” Mom asked. 

“Rivi. Her name is Rivi. But it doesn’t really matter.”

“Yes it does,” Mom said and looked up at me, “it does matter, and I’m sorry I forgot who you are. Sometimes my thoughts get mixed up, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

“I know, Mom.” I tried to smile, and I leaned over to kiss her warm cheek. “I know.”

* * *

High Times Magazine, October 2022

In the evening, I roll a “healthy cigarette” for Mom. That’s our codename for a joint. She smoked her first one when she was eighty, a few months after I moved back in with her. Every evening we’d sit in the yard and smoke the lousy, gritty pot that Nathan, the neighbors’ son, sold me for cheap. Mom always stressed about how the pot was going to destroy her short-term memory, and I always tried to figure out which of the things that had happened in the recent past she’d rather not forget: that my dad had dropped dead of a heart attack? That Dikla had left me for a woman with Asperger’s who designed products at her company? Or was it that I’d put on twenty-two pounds in seven months and now I looked like Mr. Potato Head?

As soon as mom started smoking, her mood always improved. Or maybe it didn’t but the weed made me think it did. Once, she grimaced and shut her eyes and said, “All these pains are unbearable! Do you know which part of my body hurts most?” When I said I didn’t, she gave me an apologetic, stoned look and asked me to remind her what we were talking about. “I was asking what you want for dessert,” I said.

“Mmm… Do we have any ice cream?”

“Of course we do.” I headed to the freezer, and presto—in the blink of an eye, the unbearable pain had turned into a tub of Cherry Garcia with M&M’s on top.

“I’m sorry about today,” Mom says, passing me the healthy cigarette, “maybe I really should see a doctor.”

I take a drag. “Okay. I’ll make an appointment. But first tell me who I am.”

“You?” she says with a hurt look, “I know who you are.” She falls silent, and I feel guilty again. You don’t have to kill to feel guilty. Mom stammers, “You’re… you’re…” and bursts into tears.

I get up and hug her: “It’s okay, Mom, don’t worry about it. You remember that you love me and that I love you. Isn’t that enough?”

Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

This story was originally published in the October 2022 issue of High Times Magazine.

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