The Cigarette Prayer
Michael Larson

Sam could not answer his doctor’s question about where the pain was. He gestured loosely over his sternum and swept his fingers upward from there. Then he shrugged.

“Your throat?” asked the doctor. “A sore throat?”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” said Sam.

“More in the upper chest, then?”

Sam grimaced. “I can’t say, really. Not exactly the chest.”

“And it’s not in your head, right?”

“No, it’s not in my head.”

The doctor smiled. “Everything’s all right at home? No stresses?”

Just then Sam saw his wife leaning over the bathroom vanity, putting on make-up, texting one of her friends, while telling Sam that he lived in his own little world, that maybe he should see a doctor.

“No stress,” he said as he looked out to a pale sky through a window in the examination room.

“Well, then, I’m not sure why you’re here. If you’re feeling pain, it has to be somewhere.”

Sam shook his head, still eyeing the sky. “It’s not,” he said.

The doctor was silent for a time, studying the patient. “I’d like to run a couple of tests,” he offered, finally. “Let’s do a cardiogram and a cranial x-ray. Just as a precaution.”

Sam nodded, but after the doctor stepped out, he put his shirt back on and excused himself.

Out on the street, among legions of pedestrians, he lit a cigarette, which burned a steady prayer to the heavens. He started walking somewhere, intent on leaving his own world—as she called it—behind, and hoping he would recognize the real world when he saw it. As he walked, the pain assumed its familiar form, a vague sense of loss, a dim memory of something precious and hidden beyond all imaging, above all frequency, more humble than a mustard seed.

Michael Larson’s fiction has appeared in The Malahat Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a fiction writing award from the Iowa State Arts Board and poetry awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, and the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council. He received the MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas, and he has been teaching English at Minnesota State College Southeast since 2003.