OK, so there’s this skunk that lives
outside my apartment. Every night I go out on the stoop to have a
cigarette — and no, I shouldn’t smoke, yes my grandpa
died of it, yes I’m going to die. But it’s this illegal
war and this president who doesn’t believe in science and
these 15 percent of Americans who believe the Rapture Index
indicates “Fasten your seatbelts” — level
prophetic activity, and this feeling I get, whenever I fill up my
car and drive, that I’m dragging an Iraqi’s body behind
me. Every morning I get up and run on a different road as far as I
can go before I collapse, and every other morning I go to the CCRB
and get on this machine and row like a Viking. Every day I read
“the Nation,” “Mother Jones,”
“Harper’s,” “Le Monde,” “The
Guardian,” the Wall Street Journal, the “New
Internationalist,” and I buy books one after another, and
read until my legs go numb. But at the end of the day, I’ve
had enough glasses of water and protein and gingko biloba,
I’ve seen enough kids driving by blasting ’80s music
like they’re not really here and everything’s a
frigging joke, and I just need a frigging smoke.

Steve Cotner

So around 10 at night I sit out on my steps, and every time I
flick my lighter, there’s this little rustle in the leaves,
and then this hairy black and white thing comes out and looks all
cute at me for a minute, until I make a noise: I swing the screen
door or stomp my feet or click my tongue against the roof of my
mouth, and this thing gets all skunk on me and turns around and
rubs its legs together like it’s going to go bio-chem. So I
have to get up and hide inside and smoke through my screen door,
and I know it freaks people out to see someone smoking through
their screen door with a porch light on, but I don’t want the
whole neighborhood bleeding through their eyes, so I do it. And
it’s this great courtyard I have, little pink and white
flowers all along the little sidewalk, and yellow leaves, and this
tiny poplar that’s trained to a big maple with a string, and
I just want to sit out there and look at the four or five stars I
can see between the buildings, and forget about the Human Rights
Watch reports of U.S. operatives raping women with guns in South
America, but I can’t, because Pepé Le Pew wants to
mess around.

So I’m stuck inside my door, breaking the no-smoking
contract I signed with my landlord, with the battery on the counter
instead of in the smoke detector, and puffing like a prisoner who
passes notes between cells, ashing through a crack in the door. And
finally it leaves, even though I can still hear it behind the shed,
tearing through a trash bag. So I sit down with my ears pricked,
and accept that I can’t enjoy myself.

I remember every time I ever smelled a skunk-bomb on the road,
and I think about how the head of the International Atomic Energy
Agency warned of the “security implications of nuclear and
radiological materials that may no longer be under control”
in Iraq, and how we Shocked and Awed them anyway, and grabbed 200
state-owned companies and gave them to our business friends, and
let everything rot except for the oil pipelines. And I’m
wondering if radioactive fallout feels better or worse than a skunk
in your eyes. And then I think of all the nuclear weapons that we
have, and the cluster bombs and missiles and tanks and fighter
jets, and how we go around the world digging in people’s
trash and making every decent person a shut-in who wants nothing
more than for us to leave.

And I think, what a crappy life, being that skunk. What a
terrible way to live out your days, as this vagrant animal who
scavenges around in place after place, and when things get bad it
has no choice but to gas and run. And maybe it wants to be good.
Maybe it just wants to snuggle up and rub noses. Maybe it hates the
fact that it is what it is, but it has no other choice. Maybe
Americans really do want to do good in the world. Maybe we wish we
could hold a real conversation with a European, let alone someone
who doesn’t look like us, or walk softly through a mosque
with bare feet, or do anything that can’t be likened to
bingeing and purging. But we weren’t made like that. We have
all these weapons coming out of our ass, and we just can’t
help it. When things get tough, we lose all ability to speak, to
think; we get nervous, our legs tense up, and we just let it rip.
We cut and run and leave a big toxic thank-you note. Just ask
Afghanistan And I wonder, after all this time, why we can’t
smell it ourselves? God, I need a smoke.


Cotner can be reached at

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