Several years ago when I was single, I once mistakenly received a delivery from a local market of three cartons of cigarettes for Al Johnson. Since I also used this market from time to time and was listed in the phone book as A. L. Johnson, I could see how they got us mixed up. I hope Al Johnson eventually got his cigarettes.
Below is a story that was inspired by this incident. It’s also on my Web site and is the second in a trilogy of stories about Al Johnson. The first, entitled “Michelle,” was posted here in December. The third, “Dinner with the Johnsons,” is on my Web site and will be posted here later.
Michelle stood in the open doorway and stared at the delivery woman who struggled under the weight of three cartons of cigarettes which she claimed were for Al Johnson. “That’s my dad,” Michelle said. “He doesn’t live here, but he often comes here on his lunch break because it’s so close to his office.”
“I vaguely remember delivering cigarettes to this address a few months ago.”
“Dad thought I wouldn’t be here today, but there was a mix-up in my work schedule so I thought I would surprise him when he comes.”
The woman placed the cigarettes on the living room couch while Michelle found her check book. After she left, Michelle stood staring at the cigarettes. A few months ago, her father promised her stepmother Ruth he would quit smoking. He asked Michelle for a key to her apartment. She agreed to have an extra one made and kept her refrigerator stocked with sandwich fixings so he could make his own lunch. She realized that her father was coming to her apartment to smoke and he was having his cigarettes delivered in order to save time.
Her thoughts were interrupted by another knock at the door. What now, she wondered in annoyance, as she glanced at her watch. Her father would be here any minute, and she had yet to make lunch. When she opened the door, she was surprised to see Ruth. She smiled at her stepmother and hoped she didn’t notice the cartons of cigarettes that lay on the nearby couch.
“Hello, dear,” said Ruth with a smile. “I know it’s sudden, but I drove by and saw your car so I thought I’d ask you to lunch.”
Her father appeared, breathless and looking strained. When he saw his wife and daughter, his mouth gaped in astonishment.
“Surprise!” said Michelle.
“Surprise?” asked Ruth.
“Yes,” answered Michelle. “I was planning to surprise Dad today, and now we can all go out to lunch together.”
Al glanced at his watch. “Honey, I can’t. I’m supposed to be in court in half an hour.”
“I’ll make lunch for us here,” said Michelle. “I’ve got plenty. It won’t take long.” She hurried into the kitchen and Al and Ruth followed.
“Oh, Michelle, I hope you haven’t started smoking,” said Ruth.
“What?” asked Michelle. “Oh, those cigarettes are Rick’s. He ordered them from Bino’s, but he was called to work before the delivery person came so I told him I’d take the cigarettes when they came and he could pay me for them later.”
Michelle removed bread, lunch meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions from the refrigerator. “Here, honey, let me help,” said Al, taking plates out of the cupboard.
“Since this kitchen is barely big enough for the two of you, I’ll just use the bathroom while you get everything ready,” said Ruth.
Al whispered, “Those aren’t Rick’s cigarettes, are they?”
Michelle grinned and shook her head. “Your secret is safe with me, Dad.”
Al embraced his daughter. “Honey, I love you,” he said. As father and daughter worked together to prepare the sandwiches, Al said, “I tried to quit. I really did, but I just couldn’t do it, not cold turkey so I’m cutting down.”
“Dad, you don’t have to explain anything to me. I have some errands to do later so I could drop the cigarettes by the office. Do you think your secretary would say anything to Ruth?”
“That won’t be necessary. When I leave, I’ll just say I’m taking the cigarettes up and leaving them outside your neighbor’s door so he won’t have to come down here and get them when he comes home from work. Since we both met Rick when we helped you move in, Ruth shouldn’t suspect a thing.”
In the bathroom, the toilet flushed. A few minutes later, the three of them sat at the dining room table. As Al ate his sandwich, he chatted about the weather and other current events. He mentioned the court case he planned to argue that afternoon. From time to time, he glanced at the cigarettes. Michelle realized that he was probably accustomed to having a cigarette or two with lunch and her heart went out to him.
Fearing that Ruth might become suspicious of Al’s behavior, Michelle tried to divert her stepmother’s attention from her father by asking her about her work as a counselor at the women’s center. For the next few minutes, they discussed that and Michelle’s job as an activities assistant at a nursing home. Al finally looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got ten minutes to get to the courthouse. I’ll just drop those cigarettes outside Rick’s apartment on my way out.” He rose and hurried around to Michelle’s side of the table and kissed her. “Thanks for lunch, honey,”
Michelle jumped to her feet and dashed ahead of her father into the living room and in the direction of the front door. “I’ll get the door for you, Dad,” she said.
Al and Ruth were right behind her. Al picked up the cartons of cigarettes and headed out the door of Michelle’s apartment. Unaware that Ruth was following him, he hurried in the direction of the outer door.
“Al, where are you going?” asked Ruth. “Rick lives upstairs, remember?” Startled, Al almost dropped the cigarettes. With a sigh, he turned toward the stairs that led to the second floor. “I’ll wait while you take those cigarettes up to Rick’s, and then I’ll walk you to your car,” said Ruth.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” said Al.
“But I want to!” said Ruth.
As Al staggered up the stairs, Michelle said, “Oh, Ruth, must you go? Why don’t I make us a pot of coffee and we can visit a while?”
“I’d love to, dear, but I just remembered I’ve got an appointment in fifteen minutes. I worry about your father. He’s under a lot of stress.”
“He’s always stressed out about one case or another,” Michelle said. “I guess that’s why he’s such a good lawyer.”
Al returned, looking more strained than ever. Michelle gave him a conspiratorial wink she hoped Ruth wouldn’t notice, as they walked out the door of the apartment house. She decided to retrieve the cigarettes and leave a message on her father’s voice mail saying they were safe and he could pick them up after work.
When she was sure both Al and Ruth were gone, she hurried up the stairs to Rick’s apartment, her heart pounding. She hoped Rick wasn’t home, or if he was, he didn’t see the cigarettes and take them, thinking they were a free gift. She didn’t know if he smoked. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the cartons still lying outside his apartment door. She listened for a moment but heard no sound from inside. She lifted the cartons of cigarettes and carried them back to her apartment.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, the outer door flew open and Al rushed into the hall. Startled, Michelle almost dropped the cigarettes, but without a word, she handed them to her father. The door again opened and in came Ruth. For an eternity, the three of them stood frozen in time.
Abbie Johnson Taylor
Author of We Shall Overcome