I put the car in park and turned off the engine. My coffee—half empty and pitch black—was cold now. I lit a cigarette, rolled the window down and stared at the old house to my right. The house I spent weekends at as a kid, my grandparents' house.
I hadn't been back for eleven months, not since the funeral. My grandmother called and said she had something for me, said it belonged to my grandfather and that I might want it.
I took a sip of coffee and reached in my notebook for an old, faded photograph with creases at the corners. The photo showed the house when my grandfather was around. The hydrangeas—once full of bright pinks and purples—were now withered away to a few white petals. The palm tree towards the side of the house hadn't grown much. It was probably dead now. I remember digging the soil out with my grandfather. The palm was just a baby then, but it had potential, it'll be a strong one, my grandfather said when we got it. We dug the hole and set the palm in then packed the soil tightly around.
Now all we can do is water it, he said, the sun and time will take care of the rest.
He pat me on the head and stood up to claim what he had laid. As he lit his cigarette—the sun reflecting off the silver zippo lighter he carried—I noticed, for the first time, his hands. Cracked and sun-dried with dirt and blood under the ivory-like nails, they looked mean and tired, exhausted from a lifetime of work, but absolutely perfect. The kind of hands you wished could talk, could tell you about where they'd been and everything they'd done. The cigarette he held only added to their stoicism, the way it fit snug between the middle and pointer fingers made them comforting.
Don't you ever start this, he said holding up his cigarette as flakes of ash fell to his boots.
I hate that smell grandpa, I replied. And I did, still do, but the image of him with a cigarette between his lips was too powerful, and so when I had my first smoke, I did it the way I remembered he did. Firmly held in the right hand and slowly raised to the lips, inhaling with conviction.
I set the photo down and took a sip of coffee. Another vice I instinctively inherited from him.
Black, no sugar and no cream, he said, that's how coffee's meant to be.
I was ten when I had my first sip. As he handed over the forest green ceramic mug, I noticed a small grin form in the corner of his mouth. I took the mug and stared down into the blackness, looking for whatever it was my grandfather got out of it. I raised the mug and poured the coffee into my mouth. My throat shut tight, allowing none of the grainy, burning liquid down. I spit the coffee back into the mug as my grandfather laughed to himself.
Good cup of mud, eh, he said.
How do you drink that stuff, I asked.
You don't, he said, you sip it. He reached over and took the mug from me and sipped as he leaned back in his chair.
The photo was old and faded but it was clear who was in it. My grandfather lying on the front lawn, legs crossed at the ankles, arms raised and folded behind his head as the sun poured down around him. I was there too, at his side, copying his posture. I must have been seven or eight in the picture, oblivious to all around me, but even then wanting to be just like him. My hands don't quite reach far enough for my head to rest on, nor do my legs seem to cross as perfectly as his, but you could see the imitation.
On the grass, at my grandfather's side, was a pack of black licorice. The wrapper is torn halfway off and a half-eaten piece lies on top of the box. He always had a couple pieces with him wherever he went, usually folded in half and tucked in the breast pocket of his Levi's flannel. He would tear a small piece off for me. Try some, he said and tossed a piece in my lap.
Don't you have any reds, I said. I don't know why I asked; he never did have any reds.
Reds aren't good for you, he said, only the blacks are.
The dye they use, you know, to make 'em red, well, don't tell anyone, but, its actually blood.
He couldn't hold it in, the smile out of the corner of his mouth gave him away, and on he went chewing that black rope.
I set the photo back in my notebook and lit another cigarette. I looked at the way the cigarette sat in my hand. It didn't look right. My hands—clean, unmarked and wrinkle free—didn't have much to say. There was no dirt under the nails, no dried blood or rough calluses on the fingers. The cigarette didn't fit snug in between my fingers either. It just looked out of place, unnatural. It didn't look the way his did, at home safely nestled in between those leathered mitts—an exclamation point on a story worth reading. No, mine didn't fit that way at all so I threw it out.
I lay my head on the steering wheel and stared out over the lawn. It was a mess, complete disarray. Patches of yellow and brown were evidence to lack of attention. Chunks of crab grass marked across like a bad rash. I couldn't look at it. I couldn't look at it and think of my grandfather. This wasn't his lawn. His lawn was immaculate, always trimmed and consistently green. He found something in that lawn. I'm not sure what, comfort I suspect, since he spent so much time on it. Two days a week mowing and fertilizing, one day edging, and at least four days watering the damn thing. You couldn't pull him away.
The water needs to soak all the way down, he said. So he took his time and made sure it was done right. Just like everything else he did.
I got out of the car and walked to the edge of the grass. A burning deep in my chest rose up and I could feel my heart pounding harder and faster. I ran around to the side of the house and kicked open the gate. It was right where my grandfather had always kept it, now covered in dust, cobwebs and neglect. I grabbed the handle and wheeled it back down and across the driveway to the lawn. I'd watched him do it many times before, but never once did it myself. I turned the switch from off to on, opened up the throttle to give it gas, and pulled the cord to spark the engine. A cloud of exhaust shot out the back as the engine rumbled on. The vibration from the handle bar shook my arms and went down throughout my body. I looked down at my hands—gripped tight on the rubber handle—lowered the throttle, and set out across my grandfather's lawn.
BIO: Kyle Kuehner was born and raised in Huntington Beach, CA and spent two years living in Vancouver, Canada. He has recently received Bachelor's degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing from Cal State Long Beach and is currently trapped in the waiting room between undergrad and grad school. "Cigarettes Don't Fit In My Hand Like They Did In His" is his first published story.