Desperation doesn’t have a smell. It is easily hidden beneath a fake smile, stone face, or carefree attitude. If you saw me on the streets during the winter of 2011, you would not know that I was hanging out on the fringe of society, that I was barely human, that I was a degenerate gambler. I floated through each day as a phantom, a cold, hopeless, and exhausted one.
On this day at this exact moment, my desperation was crying for a cigarette. I was outside the library searching the ground for a butt to smoke. It was frustrating because I found nothing. Maybe the other homeless people chilling here had beat me to the punch. I don’t know, but I was coming up empty.
I walked around the neighborhood in search of some tobacco. I landed at the Ramada hotel. There’s a cylinder ashtray at the front of the place. It sat there like a golden, glowing womb filled with answers. I checked it out. Jackpot. It was overflowing with discarded half-smoked cigarettes. I grabbed a handful with the speed of a hummingbird’s wings and stuffed the bounty into my black peacoat pocket.
I headed back to the library and sat on the concrete steps. I was by myself, which was always the case. Being homeless and defeated isn’t exactly a proper way to socialize. Anyway, I lit a Marlboro stub and inhaled deeply. Instant relief. It was like God himself was sucked into my lungs. I had a reprieve from the darkness. I went through four cigarettes in a matter of minutes. For a brief second, I forgot that I was homeless. I was just a guy taking a break from reading and had decided to go outside for a quick smoke. I felt almost normal. Almost human.
But I was wrong about desperation not having a smell. It does, it is the sickly sweet odor of stale tobacco enveloping a broken man on a frigid day in front of a building that houses books. It smelled like me.
About the Author: Chris Milam lives in Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, FlashBack Fiction, formercactus, Train Lit, Molotov Cocktail, Ghost Parachute, JMWW, and elsewhere. He was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2018. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.