by Samuel J Adams
When I was fifteen, I used to smoke weed with my neighbor, Moustakas. Moustakas was seventeen but he’d taken the GED two years earlier and was already a working man. He repaired phones, working through piles on a table in his parents’ den. He commandeered that den like a man of importance and, like a man of importance, he was already hugely fat. And he sold weed, mainly to me, accompanying his sales with advice.
“Friend George,” he’d say. “Weed is a trifling side-hustle. Phones—that’s real business.”
We smoked either from a plastic green bong or a wizardly wooden pipe—Moustakas wouldn’t touch the usual double-blown glass pieces: “Won’t catch me sucking no Alien dick, man.”
The friends I brought to Moustakas’s got weirded out, but I didn’t. When I turned fifteen and my mom increased my allowance, I started visiting even more.
One day when we were hanging out listening to Andre Nickatina and watching incense sticks drift their spider-eggy smoke around the den, Moustakas handed me five dollars. “Friend George, we’re outta incense. Get some cedarwood and I’ll comp you a fat nug.”
I ripped the bong and after walking ten giggly minutes found my red eyes dancing in the reflection of the automated doors of a store. It wasn’t the store Moustakas had meant, but I went in anyway and asked a clerk for incense.
“Scented candles only.”
I bought one, Bamboo Breeze.
Moustakas saw the bag swishing heavily in my hand and shook his head.
“They didn’t sell incense,” I said, taking out the candle.
“The right store did,” Moustakas sighed and I sensed a statement with long pauses was coming. “Friend George: You are young and you are…learning. Incense disguises the weed smell. Candles…cover the smell of fucking.”
He comped me a nug for my quest but said I could keep the candle.
“May it bring you luck.”
AT SEVENTEEN, the thought of fucking started mattering to me, so beneath the passenger’s seat of my 99’ Corolla, I kept a satchel containing condoms, lube, some emergency matches cribbed from home, and my Bamboo Breeze candle.
Lisena was in my art-class, a pretty table-mate who was really good at speaking French and who smelled like my lunchtime habits. This was all we needed. Soon our lunchtimes combined. Soon we were friends. Soon we were more.
We’d smoke weed and eat Wendy’s at rest stops. We’d kiss parked between semi-trucks, the drivers in their sunglasses hoping for better shows than we gave.
We saved our first time for Stinson Beach, parking where the waves broke loudest.
Her top was off. My dick dangled out my boxer fly. I grabbed the satchel and removed the essentials: condom, matches, candle.
She asked about the candle.
“It covers the smell of fucking.”
“But you’re a virgin.”
“We are virgins.”
“So, shouldn’t we learn…how it smells?”
I should’ve insisted on lighting the candle before sex, instead of sex. We’d have dodged the milestone rolling towards, a significance we wouldn’t know how to handle
But instead we fucked. And Lisena was right: our smells needed no disguising.
I lowered the windows and the Pacific cooled the interior. I set the candle on the dash.
Lisena was straddling my lap, hands on my shoulders, head leaned towards mine, when I struck the match across the striper on the box I held between us.
I must not have know what emergency matches did. Or I’d forgotten what I’d known. Because didn’t go as expected. No orange soft flame bloomed. Instead, the matchhead hissed like a sparkler, became a green dandelion of angry flame. The flames struck Lisena’s belly, seared my chest.
Lisena opened her door and while tumbling off me her elbow pushed the match hard against my shoulder. I palmed it off into a Gatorade bottle. Blue liquid sizzled.
“Are you fucking psychotic?!” she yelled. “Do you think?!”
I apologized through the muffle of my burned hand.
The bathrooms were closed but the exterior showers worked. We ran cold water over our burns. Hers were minor but she’d biffed up her elbow falling. She requested we keep this night between us. She dumped me when I dropped her off.
MONTHS LATER, not doing too well, I drunkenly struck my car against the wall of a 24-hour-Gym. Two bodybuilders tackled me, pinned me for the cops. I was nearly eighteen, so I took a plea, got probation, and joined the Fire Response through Civilian Conservation Corps to mitigate the sentence.
I cleared brush, felled trees, relocated rocks.
I carried a fire shelter, an aluminum bag to duck beneath during a blaze. You had to pin the edges with your burning palms; most who tried this ran maddened into the flames and died.
Imagine an emergency match sparking across your entire body; imagine yourself that emergency match. The shelter felt light in the pack, for all the heaviness it brought to think about it.
Luckily, I never used the pack. The job that strengthened my body more than anything I’d ever before put it through ended up messing it up when, one day in my seventh on my job, a novice clearing brush felled a tree against my shoulder, breaking several parts of it. Now there’s pins.
No more tree felling for me.
BACK HOME, Moustakas had pins too after a car thumped him in a crosswalk, a border he crossed as little as he could. He used weed to medicate now, vapes and edibles to supplement other painkillers and lessen their side effects. He claimed weed was less fun when you needed it. I couldn’t agree. I still just liked it.
Through his phone tinkering hustle, Moustakas had gotten richer, fatter. I began couriering phones around town for him, getting comped in weed.
For cash, I picked up part-time security work standing outside a Target and on the break from my first shift I saw Lisena worked at the Starbucks within that Target.
She’d thinned out and with her bleached bangs looked like someone on the cover of an album you couldn’t buy at Target. She spoke with friendliness, hooked it up with free mochas, took breaks with me and showed me videos on her phone. She didn’t act like her previous opinion of me was too torched for a new one to grow.
But when I invited her to smoke, she went there:
“You’ll use a lighter, right?”
“Sick burn,” I said.
Like me, like many, Lisena was still living at home, so I suggested Moustakas’s.
We played Mario Kart and smoked.
And started hanging out regularly, a trio.
I DON’T KNOW WHY I thought I had a chance with Lisena. But standing curbside, working security, texting her something funny and getting emojis back, I’d guard hopes: those emergency matches—it’s a hurdle, a bummer, okay, but maybe some day—who knows, a funny story. Her shift ended before mine. She’d wave to me on her walk to her car and then drive to Moustakas.
She also started staying at Moustakas’s later than I did.
I’ve been called slow, but I will add things together.
Still, the way she announced it was fucked up.
I was in the Laze-E-Boy and she was sitting on his couch whe she began cupping Moustakas’s gigantic thigh. She kept her hand still, and with his eyes emptied towards the screen, Moustakas seemed not to have noticed the contact. Her eyes met mine. She smiled. She rubbed his thigh, back and forth, haunch to knee. Then, right in front of me, she lit a scented candle.
I got out of the chair and took three bong-loads to the face, fogging the room with ghoulish coughs. Phlegm sleeted upon my flannel sleeve. Moustakas asked what was wrong. Lisena asked what was wrong. Their voices softened. Their questions repeated. I kept hitting the bong.
Then I left.
Sleep wasn’t happening. Around 4:00 A.M, I lay fully-dressed on my comforter, thinking.
I had this half-formed notion going about how much good people can do in the world if they don’t want any for themselves—how sparks of goodness catch, spreading changes, spurring rejuvenations, little flames alighting where they’re needed. Picturing this, I began, at last, to feel good. Then my dad opened my door, killed the light, and left silently for work, and I felt low again, no candle to light beside me, no spark to see by—and for years it seemed my life would go this way.
Samuel J Adams lives in Solano County, California, and works in agricultural land conservation. His fiction appears in The Sun, DIAGRAM, Timber, Ruminate, and other journals. https://neutralspaces.co/samuel_j_adams/ @GhostWithAJob
Photo: Paolo Nicolello/Unsplash