The Last Smoker in the World
by R. Baker
It took me a couple weeks to realize I am the last smoker in the world. I guess the first time I noticed was when I was walking to the library on that fateful day, May 7th. Not that I knew May 7th was fateful. I don't think I could have even told you that it was May 7th if you had stopped to ask me that day. I have a bad head for dates.

Anyway, it was kind of a long walk to the library from the apartment I was living in at the time, so even though I had just had a smoke before I left, I decided to have another to pass the time. But when I pulled out my pack it was too light and stray bits of tobacco made that soft rustling sound so I knew I was out of cigarettes. Since I was broke, thanks to a late paycheck, I looked around for someone to bum off. But, while there were plenty of people on the street, no one was smoking. Usually I am pretty calm about things but when I want to smoke a cigarette, I really want to smoke a cigarette. I ended up staying at the library for ten minutes and left without borrowing a book.

Back on the street there was still no one who was smoking, not even at the two bus stops I passed. When I got home I scrounged up change from every sofa crevice and winter coat pocket. I had to wait an hour before my roommate came home so I could borrow four dollars. When he gave me the money he laughed like something mildly incredible had just occurred. I figured it was because it was the only time I had ever borrowed money from him but he shook his head and said, "No one smokes anymore." I thought he was being a self-righteous prick. He kind of was anyway so I just rolled my eyes and left to hit the liquor store.

But what my roommate said, about no one smoking cigarettes anymore, must have stuck with me and without really thinking about it too much, I started noticing he was right. Within the next few days I realized all of my friends who used to smoke, even those who burned through two or more packs a day, had stopped. "But why?" I kept asking. "When?" It was like everyone had taken an early New Year's resolution except me.

I've thought a lot about this and have come to the conclusion that the date of May 7th is not meaningful in any way. What I mean is, I don't think there was something special about the day of May 7th that inspired everyone in the whole world to quit smoking at the same time. The more I've thought about this, the more convinced I am that it's just a coincidence. I'm not saying it isn't amazing. Of course it's amazing that something that is statistically improbable occurred on a global scale on the very same day. Lots of people argue it's some glorious, if minor, step in our evolution. Like the whole world, except for me, tiptoed into a more enlightened, health-conscious lifestyle. But if you actually listen to why people say they quit smoking on May 7th, they always say it was a personal decision and that they didn't know the whole world was quitting with them.

Unlike everyone else in the world, I never had a single thought about quitting on May 7th. And to tell you the truth, I've rarely felt any impulse to quit in the years since. Sometimes people ask if I keep smoking just because I am the last smoker in the world. I can say, honestly, that this is not the case. I never asked to be the only smoker left. If it were a paid public office, I wouldn't run for the position, even though I'm a shoo-in. Nor do I have any pressing desire to be special or different from everyone else. Still, I figure, what kind of person would I be if I up and quit something I enjoy solely because everyone in the world has also done so? There is just something a bit too lemming-like about that course of action and I've always taken pride in being true to who I am even if that means I must break with the norm.

I will admit, I did benefit, especially at first, from being the last smoker in the world. The price of cigarettes went dramatically down, to less than 50 cents a pack, including the high-end stuff like Nat Shermans. But within six months no one was selling cigarettes any more. There just wasn't a market. Luckily, I had guessed this was going to happen so I stocked up some. However, I still didn't have enough cigarettes for a lifetime of smoking, so I put out the word, through my friends and coworkers, that I would buy any cigarettes people still had, regardless of brand or type. I quickly hit pay dirt with Sheila, the bookkeeper at the company I worked for at the time. Sheila liked to gamble and frequently took those old people bus trips to casinos on reservations. And, back before May 7th, Sheila also liked to smoke. A lot. She had half a pantry full of USA Gold brand cartons she had got for cut-rate prices on various reservations over the years.

Even though Sheila's cigarettes were menthol, which I strongly dislike, I offered to buy all forty-three cartons from her. I was really surprised when she just gave them to me. Normally, Sheila's a stone-cold woman, so I felt very grateful for her gift of those cigarettes. More so than I would have felt if a naturally nice person had given them to me. In fact, I was so overcome with gratitude, I kissed her right smack on the lips, which, I admit, is a bit extreme since she was giving me some of the foulest cigarettes ever made.

But, I was genuinely excited and felt, for the first time, some real, if slight, human connection with her. That is, until she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and said, "Don't take this the wrong way. The only reason I'm giving these to you, for free, is because I don't like you." Now, I had always known that Sheila kind of hated me. The feeling was definitely mutual. Even so, I was bummed that she had gone from being someone I could maybe, at some point, grow to like, to being even more of a bitch than I had previously realized. And all in the space of two or three seconds! To this day, I'm not quite sure why she wouldn't charge someone she didn't like for the cigarettes. Ultimately, I decided not to let it get me down. I had forty-three cartons of free cigarettes after all. Later, I gave her one of those expensive fruit and cheese mail-order baskets at our company's holiday party. As I recall, she didn't even say thanks.

Just this morning, I cracked open the first carton of USA Gold menthols that I got off of Sheila. It's been six years since everyone else quit smoking and these days I remain something of a celebrity. Or maybe curiosity is a better word. I don't get on TV much anymore, though there was a year or so when I appeared on every major daytime talk show and plenty of nightly news programs. To tell you the truth, fame isn't what it's all cracked up to be. I'm glad to be mostly out of the public eye nowadays. Those pop psychologists, celebrity doctors and television show hosts ask all the same questions. It got really tedious, really fast.

Even though I am not on TV much anymore, I remain more popular than I had been before May 7th, six years ago. Back then, it was getting to the point where people looked down on you for smoking. I had noticed that, over time, I was one of the few people smoking outside of public buildings, bars and friends' parties. It was a lonely time for smokers. You would think, now, it's an even lonelier time, considering I'm the only smoker in the world. But you'd be wrong because people, literally, follow me around, sniffing the air with exaggerated gusto and saying things like, "God, I miss the smell of cigarette smoke!" or "I forgot how much I love the smell of cigarettes!" I've made more than a couple good friends with people who have followed me around while I was smoking on the street. Though it is also true that this behavior can sometimes freak me out. Especially if three or four people are going out of their way to walk single-file behind me for blocks and blocks while snuffing loudly like a pack of congested bloodhounds. At those times, I tell myself that I am bringing a real joy to people's lives, even if it's small and not something I set out to do on purpose.

All in all, being the last smoker in the world has not changed my life too much. I still have to go to work, take out the trash and do all the usual stuff that people have to do. I have made my peace with standing out in a crowd. The only thing that bugs me is a question that stumped me before I was the last smoker in the world. Which is: Why do you smoke?

When someone asks me this I just shrug and smile. I'm not trying to be cool or mysterious or even cooly mysterious. I've put a lot of thought into my answer to this question. As you can imagine, it comes up a lot. Nearly every day, in fact. I used to think there must be some special reason that I, of all the people in the world, continue to smoke. But as I get older, the only reason I can find is that I still like it. Which should answer another common question I get: Would I ever quit? Yes, if I didn't like smoking anymore. It's as simple as that.
Posted by: R. Baker

Prose (January 13th, 2009)

Tags: prose fiction smoking smokers