Neal W. Fandek

Benson & Hedges

I smoked Benson & Hedges cigarettes hitchhiking to school senior year.

Benson & Hedges 100s.

Benson & Hedges 100s Menthol. On the way to hell aka Baltimore Lutheran Junior & Senior High School.

I’d had enough of the torturing and name calling on the school bus. Told my parents I’d make my own way to school, which let me smoke.

Everyone smoked back then. Dads, moms, even tennis playing moms and doctor type dads. Teachers. Sunday school teachers. Blond, blond mustached phys ed teacher, Mr. Johnson in his navy-blue track suit with the white stripe down the side.

And I didn’t really like menthol. It tasted like burnt toothpaste. Why menthol? Role models, I guess. My parents smoked Salems, and I snuck one or two whenever I could starting at age 13. Salem. The pack green and drowsy with that 30s nostalgic script spelling Salem. Same word as the Arabic Salaam or Hebrew Shalom, meaning peace. Pretty smart, naming a cigarette Peace. Not a whole lot of that around, what with Vietnam and the riots and all. People shot dead and cities on fire over here, people shot dead and villages on fire over there.

Things were not great maybe but you could still hitch. Anywhere. In the country, suburbs, interstates, dirt roads, narrow city streets. Most anyone would pick you up, not just loners or homosexuals or people trying to show how liberal they were by picking you up. Old ladies would pick up scruffy kids like me, business people in suits and ties would pick up a man or woman but rarely both, a van would pick up anyone. Your parents wouldn’t hitch maybe but a younger teacher would, a guy or gal of any age to get to work or school or well anywhere, a pastor would, a college student, a serviceman. Class differences weren’t as stark, maybe. Maybe people weren’t as afraid of each other. Or just blissfully uninformed because all the unrest was happening to someone else, somewhere else, as long as you stayed north of North Avenue that is.

You’d light up when you got a ride. The driver would offer you one or you’d say, Mind if I smoke? and they’d say, Go right ahead. Or if they had something you’d never tried, you asked for one and they’d give you one. You’d get some exotics. Russian cigarettes were pretty good. Turkish were crap. Bidis from India, cheap tobacco in some kind of leaf, awful. Kools. Kools were way too menthol and for black people anyway even if they did give you rides so you politely refused the Kool. Kents, nothing special. Winstons were good like a cigarette should but not as good as Marlboros. But Benson & Hedges. Fruity-harsh and aromatic. Benson & Hedges 100s even better, because there was more cigarette.

And the pack. The pack, too. Benson & Hedges wasn’t like any other pack. For one thing, the pack was elongated, because the cigarettes were. For another, the pack was a shiny shimmering cool green-blue, not American looking at all, with a larger company crest than Salem or Marlboro and the word Luxury in elegant script in its own Kelly-green box at the bottom of the pack. I liked the way it looked and felt. Feeling the fault lines of its crumple in my dad’s old Korean War Army parka, the slick-queasy slide of the outer wrap, it made you feel like you were entering into another, better, kinder world. The way the cigarette spooled through your fingers when you took one out, long and cool and slim. Everything I wasn’t.

I was a too tall overweight kid who’d grown up in Copenhagen attending an international Catholic school run by French and Belgian nuns. My classmates were Indonesian, French, Turkish, Saudi, Australian, British, German. Class was in English. French was the second language. Out on the street, you spoke Danish to get your salted licorice or fresh raisin bun or pork rinds. Denmark was a small country but life was large. America was huge but American life was small and Baltimore Lutheran Junior & Senior High School was even smaller.

I don’t remember any bad incidents the first year we came back from Denmark and my parents sent me and my long-haired older brother to Lutheran High to keep us away from all the drugs and turmoil. Pot was everywhere, even at Lutheran High. Me, I didn’t like it that much. It made me slow and stupid and paranoid. Once I knew how to get high that is, inhaling and holding it to the count of 10, lungs bursting with scratchy smoke and so weak it took a doobie or two to feel anything at all. Quaaludes and reds were a different story. It’s fun to stumble around and bump into things at the mall.

Where’d I get the pot? From a childhood friend who attended Milford Mill with all the other potheads and dropouts. Or my brother. Or Don at Lutheran High. Don shoved me once into a locker, not much else. He was the accidental kind of bully.

Not Mark Briknell and Dave Volenskja (pronounced Wohl-in-ski). They were the real thing. For years I thought Volenskja’s name was Ed not Dave, because Ed is a sneery tough guy slash drooly idiot kind of name and Dave is nice and normal and your buddy. Mark Briknell got his girlfriend Beth pregnant and they both dropped out. He became a carpet installer and pillar of the community with I don’t know how many children, at least one of whom died of a ruptured spleen or was it a skull fracture. Mark Briknell was a tall jock with a small round head and black eyes connected by beetling brows. He’d pick on anyone the way top jocks do, too, for any reason.

Once when he was torturing me on the bus, twanging my ears, popping the back of my head with a fingernail and calling me Pecker, I turned around and stared at him. Just stared. He stared back. He began blowing little saliva bubbles, crossing his eyes, making goofy noises. I kept staring. Eventually his face began to morph and change the way things do when you stare at them long enough and I found myself staring into the face of a beast. Not a scary one either. A big strong one, sure, but just a big, dumb, pitiful beast.

“Mark, you’re ugly,” I said. “I’m shocked no one ever told you.”

I don’t remember him hitting me or anything. I think he was too surprised.

Ed Volenskja. Ed Volenskja was a different story. Ed Volenskja was this big tall Polish kid with a square face and square brown hair. I can remember Mark’s voice, the way he walked, the way he smirked. When I think of Ed Volenskja, all I see is a square blank face. I think maybe he smiled when he knocked down kids in the hallway, on the sidewalk, playing field, parking lot.

With Mark what you mostly got were pops and twanged ears and names. Ed Volenskja would whack anyone anywhere if the teachers weren’t looking and sometimes even if they were. He tripped Mr. Johnson coming down the hill, off the soccer/football/baseball field and destroyed Mr. Johnson’s navy-blue track suit with the white stripe. Mr. Johnson made us all pay for it. Ed Volenskja cornered me once in the locker room after phys ed and punched me in the stomach until I couldn’t stand, his face was perfectly blank. Mark Briknell supplied a nice little vocal soundtrack, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” I think.

Ed Volenskja became a cop. Worked his way up to Baltimore County Police Department Lieutenant after 15 years and one month. Then became a corrections officer with the Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services. Served on the board of directors at Lutheran High for 11 years, one month too. A model citizen, a credit to the community and to Christian education in general, and even with a wrongful death lawsuit, the Baltimore County Police Force.

They’d boobytrap my locker so everything fell out when I opened it and even my few friends laughed. I had to get a lock, one of only three kids in the school who had to have locks, the other two being Bernie Easter, a mild-mannered black kid they called Snowball and Boyd Hope, a little guy with jet black greasy hair, bad zits, a sharp chin and a heart condition who didn’t participate in phys ed. They called him Chin Ho after a character on Hawaii 5-0. I don’t remember anyone beating up Boyd Hope. Once, he cried a lot in English lit when someone knocked all his stuff off his desk and Miss Krengle told him to wait outside then lectured us on Christian kindness for 10 minutes. Boyd Hope committed suicide in his 40s. Bernie Easter served some time in jail, for what I don’t know.

Mark Briknell’s family went to the same church that I did, Pilgrim Lutheran Church and Day School on Liberty Road. So we’re exiting Sunday school — this is before church starts — and he starts in with the names in the narrow corridor lined with little kids’ angular paintings on brown paper. I’d had enough and we stepped out onto the front lawn to fight. That is, I got knocked down. He strutted away and I got back up and his little brother, still as big as me, started in. Same thing. Right back down on the lawn. A few grown men were looking out the door and stained-glass windows. Smiling.

I had a revenge fantasy back then, of course. Of course it involved guns. But I didn’t want to shoot up the whole school the way kids do today. I just wanted to shoot Mark and Ed. Maybe one or two others, depending on my mood and what they’d done, but mostly those two. Not kill them. Shoot them in the knees or wrists or elbows. Make them unable to walk or use their hands or arms or pray or eat or anything for the rest of their Christian lives.

It would have to be a large caliber pistol, a .45 as we called it then, a 10 mm today. Empty the entire clip. But not on auto, no. One bullet at a time. Six bullets. I gave myself six bullets. Glocks and other pistols carry up to 17 rounds today, very useful in your school setting, but I only wanted six. One for each knee barrel held close, reduce the bone and muscle and tendon to moosh. Then one to each elbow. Save two for whatever. Hands. Scalp maybe to get the blood gushing, head wounds bleed a lot. Then reload and do the other guy who’d be blubbering for mercy and oh God please help me Jesus. Me not saying a thing. What did I need to say? I’d be smiling but not smoking. That would come later, Ed and Mark screaming and wallowing in their own blood and cartilage and urine and I’d pull out a Benson & Hedges from its elegant green pack, put it up to my nose and inhale the rich fragrance then light up. Probably have to step away from the pools of ichor so my Florsheim half boots wouldn’t get stained.

Now that I think of it, I did ride the school bus some senior year. I must have. One morning on the way to Lutheran High this fat faced smaller kid, with way too short light brown hair, smirked and called me Pecker. What was his name? Ed. Eddie. I backhanded him on the mouth. No. It didn’t draw blood, a closed-fist slap. But he sat there sniffling and touching his lip to check for blood the rest of the way to school. I felt – what? Tired. I needed a smoke.

You hear about this latest school shooting? The shooter only had one weapon, a handgun.
He shot about 10 I think it was, but only killed five or six. Then propped himself against a wall and had him a smoke waiting for the cops to come kill him which of course they did. Stupid. He should have planned better. Have an automatic rifle and a gun. Use your automatic rifle to spray the classrooms then take out your nine-millimeter and shoot them in the head. That guy was just not thinking straight. I wonder what kind of cigarettes he smoked. The media never asks the right questions.

© Neal W. Fandek

Neal W. Fandek was raised in Copenhagen, attended high school in Towson and now lives in Missouri. His short fiction has been published in the Broadkill Review, Serving House Journal, Village Writer, 42nd Parallel, Crimson River, Grand Tour and Penthouse Forum. His first novel, Peter Pike and the Murderous Mormons, was published by Full Moon Publishing LLC in 2017.

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