Trace of Nicotine

[creative nonfiction]

I think I know why his breaths are slower, shallower. The way he inhales before pushing his body off the couch, first a deep breath, and then how he holds it and propels himself forward in exhale, out onto the porch.

I never realized the toll it took on his body. His fingers are rough, dried out, stained like one of his crushed filters. He could lap the baseball fields with me during practice, do pushups in the living room floor on Saturday mornings, or wrestle my sister and me at the same time—in the background we always had CMT’s music video countdown playing.

I examine pictures of him holding either me or my sister as a baby. I notice how his arms look suffocated by his sleeves, and his chest is flat, more toned. His hair is longer, not the buzzed head I’m used to. The photograph is faded; it looks like there’s a hazy layer, like a bad Instagram filter. I realize it’s smoke. This picture marks the beginning.

Even now, when he gets called out to a fire, I don’t know how he can hold the bulky helmet on his head, or carry the oxygen tank on his back, the heavy thermal gear strapped over his body. He sucks down clean air from the tank, something his lungs aren’t used to, and tries to sweat out the tar, but it’s already painted black against the pink lining of his lungs, clogging. He sends me pictures from his fire calls, usually just a burnt-up field. But some have him climbing through a hole in the ceiling of a grain elevator as the glow of the fire burns orange below. One in particular is of him right after putting out a house fire: big, thick taupe jacket on, his oxygen tank hanging off one shoulder, and a cigarette dangling from the left corner of his mouth.

Dakota Chisum recently earned his MA in creative writing at Texas Tech University where he also completed his BA in mathematics. He was born and raised in the West Texas area, where he now lives with his wife. Dakota currently teaches First Year Writing and works as a senior academic advisor at Texas Tech, when he’s not working on his first collection of essays.