Millie runs a smoke shop at the edge of town, at the traffic signal where Main Street becomes interstate highway. She doesn’t get much pedestrian traffic there, not like she would if she were a couple miles down on Old Main. Nobody walks to the edge of town who isn’t hitching a ride to the next one. And drivers on their way out tend to pick up cigarettes at the gas station across the street while they fill up their tanks. Nevertheless, Millie does a brisk trade. The locals like her.
She sells tobacco, of course, but none of the big-name brand cigarettes. No dromedaries. No lasso-toting cowboys. Mostly she sells it loose. You can get it flavored or plain, in bulk by the ounce or pre-rolled into those delicate little cigarillos that are Millie’s specialties. She also sells fancy cigarette holders, and hookahs and bongs and pipes. All of the paraphernalia that’s in these days. Marijuana? Of course. It’s legal now, no need to be coy. Other smoking herbs, too: elephant’s head to calm your anxiety, colt’s foot for soothing your cough (not too much, now; think of your liver). Damiana for pepping you up after the blinds go down.
Carl comes in to buy his usual, a couple big squares of chewing tobacco. “I don’t know how you do it, Millie, but you’ve got miles on any of them shops downtown.”
Millie twinkles at him. She’s a cheerful old thing, always smiling under those blue-blonde curls of hers. “Now, you know I can’t tell you my secrets. It would ruin the fun.”
It’s not just quality of the product. It’s something harder to put your finger on. Millie’s smokes just smell more friendly, somehow. They make you feel happy, and like you ought to pass that happiness on to somebody else. Not just the smokers and the chewers. Maybe you pass by a cloud of someone else’s enjoyment, or maybe you’re freshening up the house by burning some incense you bought from Millie last week, and out of nowhere you remember that your next-door neighbor’s still laid up with a broken ankle. Her family could probably use a night off from cooking. A few hours later they’re exclaiming over your casserole and insisting that you stay to help them tuck it away.
Everybody knows Millie’s smoke shop just makes the town a nicer place to live. Nobody really knows why.
Carl, now, Carl’s got theories. “You don’t have to tell me, Millie, but I do hope those secrets don’t end up dragging you down in the end.”
“Drag me down? Why, whatever could you mean?” Millie wanders over to the sink, fills a little watering can, goes to water the potted plants in the big window. A couple of the potted plants are pot plants; she likes the way their finger-like leaves clutch at sunbeams. “Do you know, I haven’t had a bad day in years. I like making people happy. That’ll be twenty dollars and forty-four cents, dear.”
“I don’t dispute that you’re happy,” says Carl, pulling out his wallet, “but I do wonder what it’s costing you. When you go out to dinner to make deals with your distributor, I just think it’d be wise of you to bring a long spoon, if you see what I mean.”
It’s clear that Millie doesn’t. “Now, Carl, it’s not like the old days. I don’t have to bust my butt networking, thank goodness. I just place all my orders online. Means more time for putting my feet up after hours.”
Carl stows his purchase in his satchel. He decides he’d better be blunt. Blunt is not something Carl’s very good at; his mama raised him to be polite. But he tries. “I’ll lay it right out on the table, Millie. It’s your Distributor Himself I’m concerned about.” When Carl says it, you can just hear the capital letters come out to play. “I’m worried that when it’s time to pay your dues, it’ll be in something more precious than cash.”
“Carl, dear, you’re very sweet, but you don’t need to fuss. You just enjoy your nice chaw and leave the tallying up to me. That’s what I’m here for.”
“But—Millie! Your eternal soul!”
“And I’ll pray for yours as well. Give my best to your grandson.” She bustles over from the sink, where she puts down the watering can, to the end of the counter, where a long task of rolling cigarillos awaits her. She’s been pecking away at it between customers, and if the day stays this slow, why, she’ll finish it before closing time. “Have a lovely afternoon, Carl.”
Carl leaves, grumbling. Millie’s pleasant humming follows him out the door. Irritated, he digs out and unwraps his purchase. Soon he begins to feel better. By the time he’s home, he’s stopped worrying about where Millie gets her stock or where she’s going in the hereafter. Instead, he’s thinking how nice it would be if he could get the kitchen cleaned up by the time his daughter gets off work. She gets home so tired every evening. Maybe he can spare her a few chores tonight.
Meanwhile, Millie puts the round, clock-shaped sign on the shop door, its hands set to indicate she’ll return in twenty minutes. She locks the door and gives it an experimental rattle. Then she steps into the back office.
It’s very bright in there, despite the failing neon tubes and the utter lack of windows. The light is associated with the figure seated at the desk. No matter where Millie stands in relation to the figure, or where the figure positions itself in the room, the light always seems to come from a point about ten feet behind its head. You might call it a halo. But of course it’s always more complicated than that.
“Carl thinks you’re the Devil,” she tells the figure. “Isn’t that a hoot?”
__"It's That Little Something Extra" is the Friday Fictionette for February 5, 2016. On March 1, it was designated the Fictionette Freebie for February, such that now you can read it here and/or download it in PDF and MP3 formats regardless of whether you're a Patron.Cover art incorporates "Feather For Beauty" (CC BY 4.0) from tOrange.us and public domain photo of loose tobacco from Pixabay.com