Three loose cigarettes : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Three loose cigarettes

“What I hate about winter is that it takes so damn long to get dressed,” Jack Dupont muttered. It was 7 degrees above zero in Mill River, Massachusetts, a former cotton mill town with a 14 percent unemployment rate, where Dupont and girlfriend Simone LaCroix dug metaphorical ditches as $880-a-week reporters at the Mill River Standard Times, a newspaper whose 17,000 daily circulation was 10,000 copies fewer than it had been in 1995.

Dupont had awakened in the five-room apartment he shared with his 80-year-old mother, conveniently located 10 blocks from the paper, eight blocks from his favorite bar and six blocks from Simone’s apartment. As his mother slept, Dupont donned a pair of brown corduroy pants, thick socks, lace-up tan leather construction worker boots, a white dress shirt, a plum-colored sweater vest, a brown tweed sport coat, a trench coat, a brown fedora, brown leather gloves, and a red and brown plaid scarf. As he did so, he placed a point-and-shoot camera in the left inside pocket of the sport coat, his wallet in his left rear pants pocket, a reporter’s notebook in his right rear pants pocket, three pens in the breast pocket of his shirt, a fold of money in his left front pants pocket, a box of wooden matches in the right trench coat pocket, a Zippo lighter in his shirt pocket, a pipe tool in his left sport coat pocket and a red plaid tobacco pouch in the right inside pocket of his sport coat.

Walking a bit stiffly from the weight of his wardrobe, Dupont put a handful of berry-flavored antacid tablets in the left pocket of his trench coat, glanced pleadingly at the dark wood crucifix over the door to his apartment and rustled down two flights of rubber-treaded 100-year-old tenement stairs to the street.

Simone LaCroix, Dupont often said, was the only woman he knew who could go without gloves on a cold winter day without her hands turning a blotchy red color.

“I do not allow my hands to turn a blotchy red color,” Simone had told him. “I also do not bite my fingernails, I do not wear pajama bottoms to the grocery store and I have never played a team sport.”

Simone was 40. Dupont was 52. This morning, she sat at her desk in tight black pants, purple shoes with three-inch heels and a purple blouse with gold buttons and gold chain epaulets. Her naturally curly blond hair hung down to her shoulders, each ringlet exactly the size of a dime.

Despite their physical relationship, Dupont and Simone did not talk to each other like lovers. They spoke to each other like reporters, which meant their standard greeting was, “Whatcha workin’ on?”

“I got an e-mail from Cassie this morning,” Simone said. “She sent it from home, since she won’t be in until 11 a.m.

“It says I have to do an office sweater story,” Simone said, watching a grumbling Dupont unwind himself from his winter wardrobe.

Cassie Wolfson was the paper’s managing editor. The reporters dreaded assignments conjured up by Cassie because they were invariably based on erroneous cocktail party gossip, minor accidents she’d seen along the interstate on her way in from a distant suburb and what she called “quirky” ideas.

Dupont looked, if not quizzical, then certainly on the border of angry.

“In offices where a lot of women work, there’s usually an old sweater hanging on the coat rack. It’s always the kind that buttons down the front and it’s usually black,” Simone said. “No one ever knows who brought it in, but it’s been there forever and you can put it over your shoulders if you’re cold. I’m supposed to call various businesses in the city and see if they have an office sweater.”

“We got one here?” Dupont asked.

“Oh yeah,” Simone said.

“You ever wear it?”  Dupont asked.

“Not if I’m dying of cold,” Simone said. “I do not wear communal clothing or indulge in communal grooming.”

“Why are we doing the office sweater story?” Dupont asked.

“It’s for the business page,” Simone said, perching a pair of black plastic and rhinestone half-glasses on her small nose. “Cassie feels the business page should have more ‘quirky’ stories.”

“You’d have to be pretty quirky just to read that story,” Dupont said, heading for the office coffee pot.

It was Dupont’s habit to spend the first hour of his shift having a modest breakfast of black coffee and two antacids, reading the paper and checking his e-mail.

At 10 a.m., if neither of them were out on assignment, Dupont would receive a one-word, across-the-office e-mail from Simone.

The e-mail would read “Smoke?” and would signal Dupont’s morning break, when he and Simone would stand by the paper’s loading dock, hot or cold, wet or dry, and smoke.

And, just then, Jack Dupont discovered that he had not brought a pipe with him to work and that, no matter how often he put a hand into any of the 11 pockets of his winter wardrobe, he would not find a pipe in any of them.

He followed Simone out to the loading dock and stood still as a stone while she lit a long menthol cigarette.

Simone shrugged her shoulders and raised her arms to chest level, her hands palms up.

“No pipe?” she said.

“I got tobacco,” Dupont said. “I got a pipe tool. I got matches. I got a lighter. I think I even got pipe cleaners in my truck. I don’t got a pipe. I put on so many clothes this morning, I forgot.”

Simone fished a hard pack of cigarettes from her purple paisley purse and held it out to Dupont.

“Not right now,” he said. “The city editor will be here in 10 minutes. Either he’ll give me an assignment or I’ll find one on my own and I’ll stop off at my apartment and get a pipe.”

At that moment, Dupont decided that, when he made it back to his apartment, the pipe he would choose would be a newly purchased estate Comoy billiard with a slightly canted bowl.

Dupont and Simone walked back into the 120-year-old newsroom to see 27-year-old City Editor Ryan Woods standing over the police scanner, vainly trying to interpret its static.

“I think there’s a shooting,” Woods said.

The scanner roared its garble again, the transmission ending in a long fuzzy screech.

“Fatal,” Simone said. “Outside 128 Dane Street. You want me to go?”

“I got an e-mail from Cassie,” Woods said. “You need to get that sweater story done today.”

“Call a photographer,” Dupont said, turning and heading for the stairs. “He can meet me there.

“No one stops to pick up his pipe on the way to a murder scene,” Dupont said to himself, heading for Dane Street, doing 50 miles an hour on side streets choked with light brown vinyl-sided three-decker houses and 8-year-old cars.

“Meet Wigberto Harris,” said Mill River Police Lt. Roger Morrissette, gesturing toward the unmoving lump on the sidewalk, the tarp-covered body of what had once been a 19-year-old crack cocaine dealer.

“Street name ‘Little Wiggie,’” Dupont said.

Wigberto Harris had died five feet from a chain-link fence. Undeterred by the 10-man police presence, a 13-year-old girl from the neighborhood had already leaned a fluffy white teddy bear in a New England Patriots jersey against the fence. By the end of the day, Dupont knew, a homemade shrine of stuffed animals, candles, rum bottles, funeral offering cigarettes and colorful gang graffiti would cover the sidewalk.

Morrissette took a Hershey’s Kiss from his pocket and unwrapped it, tossing the crumpled silver foil in the general direction of Little Wiggie’s remains. He put the candy in his mouth.

“Little Wiggie was a small-scale capitalist,” Morrissette said to Dupont. “When we found him, just moments after his demise, he had $600 in his pocket and an $800 gold herringbone chain around the stump of his neck.”

“Stump?” Dupont said.

“The shooters expended perhaps 18 rounds,” Morrissette said. “We’re not sure because we’re still digging slugs out of the scenery.  Wiggie was struck nine times, six times in the head. ‘Stump’ is the correct terminology for where his chain is.”

“Who would shoot Wiggie?” Dupont said. “It’s not like killing him is going to change the dynamics of Mill River’s drug trade. He was so small time, he could have made almost the same money driving a truck. He just didn’t know how to drive a truck.”

A Standard Times photographer crouched on the sidewalk, duck-walking forward, firing his camera at every step as Wiggie’s body went into the ambulance.

“In a city maybe 50 miles north of here …” Morissette intoned.

“Boston,” Dupont said.

“There are some gentlemen from one of the former Soviet Republics who are interested in Mill River’s crack trade,” Morrissette said. “Mill River’s crack trade right now is run by anyone who has crack to sell. The gentlemen from the former republic want to control the wholesale end of things in Mill River. There has been some resistance on the part of the locals. Wiggie is a message.”

“Any of this on the record?” Dupont asked Morrissette.

“Just when we found him, where, how many times he was shot and that we believe it to be gang-related,” Morrissette said.

After talking to Morrissette for another minute, Dupont talked to people in the crowd, knocked on doors in the neighborhood and succeeded only in finding out that the shots had sounded “like firecrackers.” He also learned that no one had been looking at the particular piece of sidewalk on which Wiggie had been standing at the exact moment that he had been shot.

Fiction by Marc Munroe Dion

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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Spring 2011

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