Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Ashtray

The Ashtray

A Literary Fictional Short Story by Shaun Michael Samaroo
written at Georgetown, Guyana in 1995

STUPID woman. All she keeps doing is smoking and smoking that stuff! Why doesn’t she just drop dead. You’d think she would kind of close her lips and stop dragging thick white smoke into her mouth. All she does is pour thick white smoke out of her nostrils. And every now and again her finger would oh! sooo delicately dispatch gray flakes of ashes in a wood astray. It’s sick! Her next of kin, a little boy, stared at her in wonder.
What I find even more disgusting is the manner she employs in smoking her lungs to death. Without a stick you’d probably think she’s on a jet set for heaven or something. She looks so alluring, so charming, so pretty and sophisticated!
And she’s white. I mean everything about her is white. Pure lily white. Jezebel purity pours from her pores. Her hands are smooth and white, clean and spotless. Those hands must have soaked up literally a hundred bottles of white skin cream. Her fingers are crowned with artistic-painted white nails spotted with corpuscles of red dots. She sits majestically, a proud peacock inhaling her pleasure with great pomp and ceremony. Her hand sways and moves gently, imitating maybe a ballet dancer in the full flight of her trained body. Her amazing fingers seem hardly to touch the delicate two-inch pure white god of her life. She very consciously pukes her blood-red lips into a surprised O. The lips then very sensuously embrace the pure white god and she sucks in, ever so gently. Then she sways her hand back to rest again on her white silk dress as it rides her leg. Slowly, with great delight, she pours the whiteclean smoke from her nose into the air, perfuming any audience who chooses to grace her presence. It’s astonishing that the interior blackness of her smokestink lungs translates into such external whiteness. From her shoes to her hair the woman is a picture of respectability. Her perfection is absolutely complete. To the tip of her nails she literally exudes confidence and poise and sophisticated training. To what end?
I suppose sitting here criticizing that woman is a sick thing to do, too. But we all waste time anyway. Whoever invented time, and why ever? She’s passing time turning herself into a pile of useless gray ash, and I pass time criticizing her. What else is there to do?
We are on this long journey, each alone and occupied with our self. The plane softly traverses the clouds of the heavens, and we sit like little dummies, occupied with our self. Makes me remember the robotics industry, you know this high-tech industry where the Japanese and Americans and Europeans are racing each other inventing robots to be our servants? I hope those do not become infected with smoking! Cars have.
My woman friend there pushes shut (with no noise at all) the automatic astray on the plane-seat and opened her handbag with two fingers, deftly.
She takes out a polished gleaming jewel case. The next second her head is bent secretively forward. Her neck is long and slender and soft…oh, must she! She has another pure white god in her sensuous red mouth. The gall of the woman!
The end of the stuff obligingly glows red and relaxes in triumph. Then a quarter inch of soft gray ash miraculously appears at its end. She blinks at it cutely and deposits it in the ashtray. I watch her. She takes another delightful pull, not a sweat breaking from her sky smooth white face. Her teeth are privileged, given her smoking habit, as white and gleaming as her manicured nails. Out of those gleaming white teeth, the ashtray becomes a volume of newly created gray ash. She keeps forcing the light ash into a powdery compact, the ashtray pathetic in its lack of protest, like the dead piled rotting into the fertile earth.
When will this stupid journey end? We’ve been flying high nearly 2000 minutes now (according to the planes clock counter on the monitor keeping track of the journey over the world, by the minute). Nobody is really interested where they are this minute in the world, or where they may be the next minute. Everybody wants the journey to give pleasure. That’s the idea. Few want it to end.
Maybe that’s because nobody really knew where the journey was gonna know, that woman fascinates me: I can’t help myself staring at her, despising her and admiring her. She looks like she can give a guy the world of pleasure…but, really, her end is nothing but a pile of gray ash melting into white vapor pouring from her puked red lips and smooth white nose.
She coughs. The plane suddenly bucks forward. The pilot’s voice caresses the ear with its dignified oratorical flourish, to remind passenger that we are traveling through rough, cold weather and there would be some “turbulence”-a lurch forward and the pilot’s female voice, with such an amazing, arresting accent, warns everyone to keep on the seat-belt, like she was preaching a sermon on Sunday morning at a church service: No problem, you won’t die, you’re in heaven. You know, that kind of nonsense.
I seem to be on the wrong side of the world. This morning at our airport back in Guyana I had to endure the stinkness of the stupid place. Sheets of white rain were pelting down on Guyana, and the parking space at the airport was a quarter inch under water. Some mad man had this brilliant idea to empty all the garbage bins on the tarmac, and his cohort the stray dog gleefully spread the filth all over the tarmac. No one bothered to clean the mess up and the stench was awful. I felt sick just looking at the place. Worse than that, the instant the pure white raindrops hit the ground, the water became contaminated with this filth. So that when you put your neatly polished shoes in the water, they become instantly loathsome.
And the road back in Guyana is so terrible - it drives you to hell and back. The car bounced into one of these craters (I think only Haitians or Somalians or Rwandans will know what I am talking about).
There was this shattering of the exhaust pipe against what I guess may be the edge of the hole, and I had to endure a terrifying backfiring noise in my drive to the airport. White smoke poured out the back of the car, and several other drivers cursed my old wreck when they sped past my machine.
Why in hell do people curse? I mean it’s worse than being that mangy stray dog pulling a rotten dead rat across the airport tarmac. That dog won’t curse you. He may bite, but filth won’t come out of his mouth. The problem with us people, I suppose is that we have descended below the stray dog. There you go. The mad man, skin drenched, yet dirty and filthy as the garbage can he is cleaning, curses the poor dog. (The dog’s skin is far cleaner too). It looks dolefully at the man, wags its tail and wimps at him. But the man grabs stale bread, stuffs it in his mouth and kicks at the dog, yelling unrepeatable curses at it.
You know, that’s what we have descended to in life. Look at this woman now. There she goes! The plane jumps forward and she grabs with her free hand unto the front seat, softly whispering a four-letter f-word. Curse all the while, woman, it will stop, you stupid bit! Chump away at your white god and spew filth from your lovely lips.
What can come out of her bowels but corrupt words, smoke and flesh and blood?
But why do I find life such a depressing spectacle? Like that plane wing that balances the machine in perfect union with the forces that cause it to transport us through time and space, humans are on a balancing act. Only, the machine is superior to us: we are outweighed, lopsided; the plane is not.
The two wings of our existence are: doing good on one side and doing evil on the other: being godly on one and ungodly on the other: being divine, like God who made us in His image on the one hand, or animalistic, you know, doglike, like the devil who corrupts us, on the other hand. We’re a people worse than animals, worse than that stray dog. Our mouth produces filth; our insides are rotten, black and sagging sickeningly. We cover this dirty graying, black stinkness with aesthetics, morality, concern for the environment and population explosion and abortion and religion and worthy causes and poverty and world hunger and war and peace and…
We wear ostentatious clothes and make up our faces and smooth our skins and eat tasty foods and have endless pleasure mixed with sorrow, and we call this life. We are simply lower in stature than animals; filth issues out of our mouth, and we communicate corruption. Why not shut your filthy mouth woman? It’s better not to communicate at all. Who would have thought being dumb is a blessing?
The plane made a sudden smooth dive and beeline and I stare out gloomily at the graying clouds floating outside around us. The woman slams her ashtray shut and grips her seatbelt, all the time whispering curses. The child next to her is calmer, staring at the frightened woman with innocent eyes, screwing his face down at her incomprehensible curses.
Thick white smoke bellows from the back of the plane and draws a neat white line across the graying clouds. Far, far below a city in Canada bustles. You can see the long neat colorful lines of vehicles crawl snaking their way to the commercial centre of some city where money grips people with morale-boosting immediacy, importance and impatience. Money - the great motivator of contemporary man. Freud said sex is the ultimate driving force behind man’s every action. I wonder what he would say inspires that woman? The sex urge? No. Women have a more subtle driving force, like the serpent; sly as a fox. Women want to be god. That’s their ultimate inspiration. Everyone must bow to them. Serve them. Lust for them. Give them.
The woman who is absorbing my flight time quickly, silently and with relief lit another of her stuff. She opens the ashtray and pokes more ash, gently, down its throat. She pulls furiously at the white stick with her lovely red mouth and taps ash into the ashtray with her white nails. It is her preoccupation.
I lean over to her. “Can’t you stop smoking?” The plane belches forward and the woman jerks towards me, her head coming within inches of my smiling face. She grimaces and looks at me blankly.
“What the hell are you talking about?” she manages through clasped teeth, while soft wisps of white smoke float like the harsh clouds outside towards my eyes and mouth and nostrils. I breathe in deeply; unable to hold my breath. The woman’s incredibly lovely. I stare at her and lapse into silence, jolting back into my seat.
There is just no communication between what the soul demands of us and the desires of the body we live in. The astray is spilling gray ash on the floor and all the woman can say is; “what!?” Understanding: that’s our great failing.
Even at this point of the plane’s erratic behavior, no one really thinks we are heading for doom, for certain death. Every second on that clock counter ticking loudly over the pilot’s cabin door is a step closer to that final drift off into nothing. Death will claim us one day. People fear the turbulence, but no one expects the worst. We all expect the best. Should we be fatalists, or is it okay to be optimistic, even when the rational evidence points the other way?
“Passengers are reminded to keep their seat-belts tightly buckled,” the smooth, calm voice of the pilot warns. Her voice, like that of the fabulous TV news anchor who made the fact that 1200 people had died on a tragic flooding in China sound like a bad picnic day, soothes one into comfort. The woman relaxes in her seat. She smiles at the boy and pats his head gently, then opens her gleaming jewel case and extracts another white stick. ‘Thank God for the relief!’ her fabulous face says.
But the reality soon has her in spasms of nervous fidgeting as the plane rises and falls, tilts and sways. The pilot’s voice calmly soothes the nerves of the passengers, their facial expressions reflecting now the one persuasion of reality – fear – then the other given to them by the trained voice of the pilot –don’t worry folks. The emotional switching must cause a severe strain on their nervous systems, as they keep emotionally in tune with the uneasy plane.
Suddenly, the ashtray empties its gray contents on the woman’s feet. She curses and starts to wriggle her shoes. Obviously, the ashes are filling up the tiny spaces in her shoes, and soiling her stockings. She picks up the wooden ashtray from the floor and dusted it out, gently placing it back into the plane seat handle. Then she calls the airhostess for a drink of alcohol. Inside the ashtray is a thin film gray coat of tiny ash particles. Is the ash a created product or a symbol of destruction at it worst?
I dare not ask the woman. She’d think I am not, well, mad, but completely insane. So here I am … with a big grouse against the world and wondering where we are heading. Actually, I’m on my way to the developed world of North America. I guess everyone is a bit excited at the prospect of setting foot on the Holy Land, symbolized for us by the materialism of America. But we are preoccupied with the plane’s alarming erratic course, comforted only by the trained voice of the female pilot who is absolutely convinced everything will be okay.
My woman friend there seems more agitated than the other passengers, yet she’s the most glamorous.
Success as a human being in her contemporary world simply oozes out of her pores. She looks at me and smiles, a warm beautiful smile which leaves a guy wondering if he can have a chat with her later on…the plane suddenly dips and the ashtray slams shut, just as the woman deposits her burnt out white god into it.
We all become absorbed by the act of balancing our emotions between the pilot’s voice and the bouncing plane, gripping our seat handles, then relaxing in ecstatic relief, some even pleasure. No one notices that a small wisp of smoke has begun to escape form the closed ashtray. I grip my seat, staring at the woman being comforted by her little boy.
Then, suddenly, her sparkling glass of alcohol slipped from her hand and drenched her clothes and feet.
The smoke from the ashtray suddenly becomes noticeable as it obscures the woman’s lovely lips in a kind of mysterious mist. Even now we are not aware what is happening. Then a small flame leaps out of the seat handle and the woman screams, a tight sound of agony. She covers her mouth with her hands, quickly taking them away and staring at the red splotch of lipstick that had transferred from her lips to the hand. An airhostess skids down the aisle and lashes furiously at the ashtray with clean white apron. But the flame suddenly engulfs the wooden ashtray in a ball of fire. By now passengers are speechless with shock and the woman has become a whimpering animal. The fire starts to die down and people begin to breathe easier. The ashtray is burnt black and begins to crumble. Ash has begun to fly into the hair of the woman and unto her clothes, but she no longer cares to brush it away. Her eyes are fixed unseeing as the destruction of her pleasure-giving ashtray continues unmercifully. In an instant, in one quick flash of a flame, the ashtray becomes a pile of ash on the floor, mixing and disintegrating among the ash of the woman’s slick white sticks she has only moments ago reduced to…ashes.
The pilot’s voice, unaware of the small commotion at the back, continues to soothe her passengers, as the plane’s bucking becomes more intense. Passengers soon forget the pile of gray ash scattering into oblivion on the clean floor of the plane, as they once more concentrate on the journey. The woman begins to fidget nervously, not daring to continue her trail of ashes. But the plane suddenly nose-dives and she screams. The pilot again soothes her passengers, informing us this time that she would have to make an emergency landing because of bad weather. But be calm, there would be no trouble. But it was too much for the woman. She held up a book and looking at me suspiciously, lit one of those stupid white stuff. Can’t she learn? Not wanting the other passengers to see her, she drags in smoke deeply and gradually exhales. She completes her intake in less than 30 seconds. Then she drops the cylindrical, crumbling ashes and the butt on the floor, covering it with her soft suede shoe.
The plane begins its descent. The woman relaxes and we all wait for this irritating interruption to our journey to a place we do not know to end.
As the plane rushes towards the ground, the woman screams: the carpet under the seat below her is on fire. No one can get up to aid her and she cannot move because the plane is in vertical decline. Everyone watches helplessly, in horror at the heavy turbulence outside, and as the fire leaps and catches the woman’s silk dress. Fuelled by the spilled alcohol, the flames sear across her screaming body and someone throws a towel at her. Her flailing hands knock it aside and the flame takes a couple of minutes to devour her dress. Her hands grab the nearly burnt ashtray and she pelts it down the aisle. As the plane levels off on the ground and people swarm at her side, dousing the flame, ash from her burnt belongings spew all over the place.
Her unconscious body fall out of the seat when an old man releases the seat-belt and she slides to the floor, as the plane comes to a smooth rest on the widest airstrip, the most beautifully decorated place, I’ve ever seen. Mixing with the gray ashes, rescuers soon clean up the place and the woman is ferried to a hospital with severe first-degree burns. I would never hear of her again.
The gray ashes – a mixture of black and white, which blends into nothing – left their mark on my consciousness long after that journey. I am, I discover, powerless against its assault. That’s the power of the ashtray. In a matter of minutes, a woman I had admired and criticized, and who had preoccupied my time, was no more – a pile of gray ash swept out to the wind to be remembered no more. Our life is a black and white journey into grayash nothing.

Copyright Shaun Michael Samaroo 1995

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