Salt and Sulfur

            It was an early November evening last year when I made the drive down to The Briar and Stogie Outpost for my monthly pipe club meeting. The weather was cold, wet, and miserable, as you would expect for November; but around the Great Lakes region, we can get some real nasty fall squalls. Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t joking when he talked about the Witch of November on the lakes, as this was real shipwreck weather. I was delayed a half-hour on the highway as emergency crews took care of one poor driver that underestimated the fury of that evening’s storm.

            Still, the drive was worth it, if only for the good company that awaited me inside the tobacco shop. As soon as I stepped in the shop, I was greeted with the welcome aroma of pipe tobacco and the murmuring of friendly conversations well underway.

            I’m proud to say our pipe club has a diverse group of gentlemen that calls themselves members. We have everyone from young and eager new pipers, to the old guard representing decades of pipe knowledge. Most of the chairs around the tables already had occupants, so I found an open spot next to some of the older gentlemen as the club president gathered his notes to start the meeting. I sat my iced coffee on the table and spread out some of the tobacco I brought as the club president got down to business.

            For the next half hour, our club president talked about the latest goings on with the club, from upcoming events during the next year, to recent news in the pipe world. I quietly lit my pipe and listened along, making notes of an upcoming pipe swap on the calendar of my phone.

            Before long, the formal portion of the meeting was over, and the attendees were free to enjoy some catered food along with more smoking. All along the table, the members had tins open and available for others to sample and share with friends. As a pipe smoker, you couldn’t ask for better company and surroundings to enjoy tobacco.

            About an hour later, I was chatting with another younger member about estate pipes we had recently purchased online. My friend showed off a nice looking Chacom Billiard he snagged at a steal on eBay and passed it to me to take a look at. I likewise produced the Savinelli Apple that I won after a vicious bidding war during the last few minutes of an online auction.

            As the two of us shared our auction war stories, I heard a chuckle coming from the gentleman next to me. We paused our conversation and glanced over at my neighbor in confusion at his laughter. The man seemed embarrassed that we had heard his chuckling and replied, “Oh, don’t mind me. I’ve long given up searching for old estate pipes. It’s new pipes for me, and new only.”

            The man was an older gentleman, in his early 60’s from my estimates. His moustache and side parted hair had long turned grey, and a large pair of glasses sat down near the tip of his nose. He wore a comfortable looking sweater, as well as a well-worn pair of blue jeans. His attitude wasn’t combative at all, merely interested in joining the discussion, as the others around him were busy discussing the upcoming football game.

            “Really?” my friend asked in bewilderment. “You can find some incredible deals for used pipes online. It’s a great way to build up a collection.”

            “I don’t doubt it,” replied the older gentleman as he filled an old Parker Bulldog from his tin of Crown Achievement. “But at least with a new pipe you know you’re the only owner. Can’t say the same with an estate. You’re never quite sure who had the pipe before you, at least if you’re lucky.”

            “I suppose so,” I said, not sure what the man was hinting at. “Some pipe smokers don’t take care of their pipes like they should.”

            “In some cases,” agreed the man as he struck a match and lit his pipe. “Other times, the estate leaves a part of the previous smoker behind with it.” The gentleman passed his tin over to us to share as he extinguished his match,

            “I take it you’ve had a bad experience with an estate you’ve bought?” asked my friend as he eagerly opened the tin to fill his Chacom.

            “That’s a bit of an understatement,” answered the man as he tamped the newly lit tobacco down in his pipe. “But it’s a long story, and I’m sure you wouldn’t be interested.”

            “Please, go on,” I assured the man. “I love hearing pipe stories.”

            Seeing that we were willing to hear his tale, the man relaxed and decided to indulge us. The man introduced himself as Benjamin ‘Benji’ Hodge, and explained he had been a member of our pipe club since the early 80’s. I had seen Benji around since joining the club the year before, but given the size of our group, I hadn’t had much of a chance to chat with him. So once the three of us had our pipes lit and going, Benji leaned back in his chair and recounted his tale. Though it’s been almost a year since I heard Benji’s story, I’ll do my best to retell what he told us that blustery night.

            It was a warm Saturday afternoon in September 1982 when Benji stepped off the train at Union Station in downtown Chicago. He had travelled from Berwyn to Chicago to visit his sister at her house on the North side. His sister and her husband had recently had their second daughter, and he was meeting with the rest of his family at their place for a family barbeque to celebrate the happy occasion. Having arrived a few hours early, Benji decided he would stop at a local tobacconist he frequented whenever he was in the area. So after a quick trip on the L line, Benji made his way over to the little shop, simply called The Smoking Room and stopped inside to pass the time.

             The Smoking Room was a favorite spot for the local smokers in the neighborhood to visit with friends while enjoying a pipe or cigar. Established in 1919 by Karl Plunkett, the tobacco shop had been around for decades by this point, taken over by Karl’s son Oscar in 1954 when the founder retired. Slow to change with the times, many of the original finishings and décor remained the same from when it first opened, giving the customers the feeling of stepping back in time as soon as they walked in the shop. The rectangular shop stretched all the way back through the building, with boxes of cigars, jars of pipe tobacco, and pipes of varying grades lining the walls. Benji felt at home in the shop, even if he was the youngest person there whenever he paid a visit.

            Business was active at The Smoking Room, as one would expect on a lazy Saturday afternoon. A crowd of about nine gentlemen sat in the back around the radio, listening intently to the White Sox game as they puffed on their cigars and pipes. Oscar Plunkett stood behind the counter, showing a middle-aged man a box of fine cigars as he chomped on one of his own. Oscar was a large man with a crown of grey hair surrounding a shiny bald spot, wearing a white dress shirt with bowtie and sagging suspenders. The tobacconist was quite the character, outspoken and loud, yet gregarious and friendly to his customers. Oscar nodded a greeting to Benji as the young man paced around the room, glancing around at the pipe tobacco on the wall. Not wanting to feel out of place, Benji pulled out his straight billiard pipe and filled it with his pouch before adding his own smoke to the stuffy tobacco shop.

            Benji planned on buying some tobacco while visiting The Smoking Room, but with time on his hands, the young man decided he would take a look at the estate pipe case and see if any of the used pipes caught his eye. Benji had taken up pipe smoking as a freshman in college, with the help and guidance of his roommate, Ralph Willkie. However, due to being a poor college student, Benji only had about handful of pipes in his collection. Now that he had a full time job, Benji had a bit more spending money for filling out his pipe racks with nicer pipes than the knock around ones that got him through school.

            The estate pipe case held a treasure trove of old pipes looking for new homes, ranging from all types of styles and countries of origin. The top shelf held the higher priced pipes, from great gourd calabashes, to exotic hand carved meerschaums. The next shelf held plenty of classic Dunhill’s to lavish freehands carved by the Danish masters. Sasieni, Comoy, Peterson, Savinelli, Stanwell, and others were all represented in the shelves below, each crying out to Benji like puppies and kittens in a pet store looking for a home. The young man eyed them all as he searched from row to row for a pipe that might fit his budget.

            Benji had his eye on a Blue Ribbon Comoy Rhodesian when Oscar strolled over to the estate pipe counter, having completed the transaction at the counter with his customer. The tobacconist leaned on the counter and glanced down at the pipe Benji was debating over and chimed in, “Afternoon, Mr. Hodge. Care to take a closer look at that Rhodesian?”

             Benji scratched his chin as he puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “I really shouldn’t, but sure, why don’t ya pull it out for me?”

            Oscar was more than happy to oblige, and pulled the Rhodesian out of the case before handing it over to Benji. The young man took a look over the Rhodesian, checking the briar for any fills or defects that might turn him away from buying the pipe. As far as he could tell, the pipe had no obvious flaws in it, and was only lightly smoked. Benji considered buying the pipe for a moment, until he took a look at the price tag dangling on the string connected to the stem—$35.

            Benji gawked at the price, though he hid his reaction from the tobacconist. $35 was a bit out of his budget for Benji to spend on a whim. The young man passed the pipe back to Oscar and remarked, “I’ll have to think about that one.”

            Ever the salesman, Oscar glanced at the price tag and said, “I could knock the price down a few bucks for ya. How does $32 sound?”

            “Every bit helps, but if I walked out of here with it I’d be eating cans of tuna for a week,” admitted Benji with a laugh. “I’ll keep it in mind after I save up a bit.”

            “Understandable my good man,” replied Oscar as he placed the Comoy back in its original spot. “Of course, I can’t promise it’ll be here when ya come back.”

            “It’s a risk I’ll have to take, unfortunately,” said Benji as he knelt down to look at other pipes in the case.

            Oscar stood back and puffed his stubby cigar as Benji continued his search, careful to give the young man space to pick a pipe on his own. Though Oscar was eager to make a sale, he had long learned not to get too pushy when selling his wares, lest he scare off a potential sale. As he watched Benji, he remembered something he had in the back, and snapped his fingers.

            “Tell ya what,” said Oscar as Benji glanced up from his kneeling position. “I’ve got a box of estates in the back that haven’t been cleaned yet. I’ll grab it and you can sift through ‘em, in case ya find something that catches yer fancy. I’ll even throw in a discount, since they need a bit of elbow grease.”

            Benji’s ears perked up the moment he heard the word ‘discount’, and replied, “Sure, I’ll take a look at ‘em.” Benji didn’t mind buying an estate to restore. He had previously purchased a few estates during his college years that needed cleaning and was well acquainted with the sanitizing process. Plus, the more pipes Benji could pick from, the better.

            Oscar excused himself to the back, and a minute later came back holding a dusty cardboard box, which he placed on the counter. Benji pushed the flaps out of the way and peered inside the musty smelling box. Inside were roughly twenty or so different briar pipes, each in varying states of disrepair.

            “That’s been sitting in the back for about a month,” admitted Oscar as he stubbed out the last of his cigar in a nearby ashtray. The tobacconist pulled out a billiard pipe of his own and was soon filling it with his tobacco pouch. “My pipe restorer has been out sick, and my employees don’t exactly care for doin’ the work themselves. Can’t blame ‘em, it’s not a job I enjoy doin’, either.”

            “I think can understand why,” said Benji as he held up a heavily caked Custombilt pipe that was in desperate need for a reaming.

            From what Benji could tell, most of the estates in the box were of the budget lines of pipe brands and dominated by billiards, ranging from Longchamps to Yellow Boles. Still, there were some pipes that caught Benji’s interest. There was a large bent Wellington system pipe that had a charm to it despite its rough condition, as well as a BBB Apple that didn’t need too much cleaning.

            As Benji pushed aside a filthy looking Kristin that wasn’t worth cleaning, he spotted a pipe that seemed out of place with the others. Resting on its side in the back of the box was a black pipe with a telltale white spot on its stem. While Benji wasn’t exactly an expert at identifying pipes from a simple glance, the young pipe smoker knew a Dunhill when he saw one.

            Without a second thought, Benji snatched the Dunhill out of the box and took a closer look at the pipe. The Dunhill was a bent billiard, stained with a glossy black coat and a shell finish. Compared to the other pipes in the box, this one seemed to be in better condition than all the others, with no cake built up in the bowl. The pipe needed a good polishing and sanitizing, and the stale scent from the bowl made his nose turn, but other than that, the bent billiard appeared to be as fine condition as the other Dunhills in the case.

            As Benji turned the pipe in his hands, he spotted the only flaw he could find on the entirety of the billiard. On the bottom of the bowl, the letters “SB” had been scratched into the wood. Benji frowned and moved his thumb over the grooved letters. The scratches weren’t too deep, and Benji surmised he could find an easy remedy from one of his fellow pipe-smoking friends. As disappointing as the discovery was, it wasn’t enough to deter Benji from the opportunity to buy a discounted Dunhill.

            “How much for this one?” asked Benji as he extended the pipe over to Oscar.

            The tobacconist finished tamping his newly lit pipe and took a look at the billiard. Oscar made a disgusted face upon recognizing the Dunhill and handed the pipe back to Benji as though it pained him to touch it.

            “Oh, that one,” grumbled Oscar as he crossed his arms. “You’d be doing me a favor buying it, but I’m not sure you’d want it.”

            Benji made a confused face and removed his pipe from his mouth. “Are you kidding? Why wouldn’t I want a Dunhill?”

            Oscar snorted as he tamped the ash down in his pipe. “That pipe’s been in and out of my shop since I first acquired it years ago. Every time someone buys it, they come back a few weeks later lookin’ to trade it for something else. Every last one of ‘em complains that ya can’t get a good smoke out of it. Somethin’ about it sours whatever tobacco ya smoke in it.”

            “Really? Have they tried cleaning it?” asked Benji.

            “Some of ‘em have,” replied Oscar. “I’ve even had my restorer take a crack at it at least twice. For some reason, no matter what people do to it, it always comes back like a bad habit. Truth be told, I’m ready to toss the blasted thing in the trash an’ take the loss.”

            Benji puffed his pipe for a moment while listening to Oscar as the cogs in his mind turned, formulating a plan as a wry smile formed on his face. “If you were going to throw the pipe away, then you probably wouldn’t mind letting me take the pipe off your hands for free? After all, it seems like I’d be doing you a favor.”

            The tobacconist coughed and gagged after accidentally breathing in the smoke from his pipe, sending lit pipe ash everywhere. Oscar removed the pipe from his mouth and caught his breath before replying, “Now hold your horses, I see what yer doin’ there. I can’t just give away a pipe fer nothin’ because it’s a nuisance. Every last pipe smoker an’ their mother in the city would head straight here and try to haggle a free pipe outta me.”

            Benji chuckled and shrugged his shoulders, “Can’t blame a man for tryin’?”

Oscar smirked as he tamped the loose ash in his pipe. “You’re a clever one, I’ll give ya that. How ‘bout this, I’ll sell ya the Dunhill for $25. You won’t find another deal on a Dunhill like that anywhere, you can be sure of that.”

The young man eyed the Dunhill and thought about it, but hoping for a better price, Benji countered, “How about $15? If it is a problem pipe, then that should cover the work that I’ll put into it.”

The tobacconist frowned and leaned on the counter with both of his hands as he studied Benji. Oscar wasn’t used to customers haggling over the price of his estates, yet he didn’t want to risk being stuck with a pipe he couldn’t sell. “$25 is a darn good price, son. If I went any lower, I’d be givin’ it away.”

Confident that he could get Oscar to go lower, Benji shook his head and placed the Dunhill back in the box. “You know what, I don’t think I need a new pipe right now. I’ll wait and see if I find something better. If not, I know it’s waiting here for me.”

Benji turned and started to walk away towards the pipe tobacco section, hoping that his bluff would get the old tobacconist to change his tune. Sure enough, as he was halfway across the shop, he heard Oscar call out to him, “I’ll go down to $20, an’ not a penny more.”

Bingo. Benji smiled to himself for a moment before casually turning around and walking back towards Oscar and the box. Oscar crossed his arms and gave Benji a begrudging nod, both out of frustration and respect at Benji’s ploy.

As Benji grabbed the Dunhill out of the box, Oscar added one more caveat to the sale. “You drive a hard bargain, kid, I’ll give ya that. But don’t even think about bringin’ that pipe back if yer not happy with it. Deal?”

“Deal,” agreed Benji as he held his prized pipe. “I wouldn’t worry about this pipe coming back to your shop. That is, unless I’m smoking it. You’d have to be crazy to give up on a pipe like this.”

            Benji eagerly paid for the pipe at the counter, throwing in some pipe cleaners and a pouch of Balkan Sobranie for the road. After paying Oscar, Benji sat in the lounge smoking his pipe while admiring his newest acquisition, listening to the cheers of the gentlemen in the shop as the Sox scored another run. The young man joined in their cheers, though it was more for his own score rather than the baseball game.

            The time on Benji’s watch said it was 11:34 PM when he finally reached the gates to the courtyard of his apartment complex. The young man had a relaxing evening celebrating with his family, drinking beer and eating a grilled Italian sausage and potato salad. Now it was late, and all Benji could think about was slipping into his bed and getting a full night’s sleep.

            There was an eerie quiet that had settled on the apartment complex as Benji stepped into his building. The young man climbed the stairs to his second floor apartment, careful not to make any noise to bother his elderly neighbor on the first floor as she slept for the night.

            Upon opening the door to his apartment, Benji turned on his hallway light and was greeted by his black and white tabby cat Whiskers. The feline trotted up to Benji and rubbed his back against the young man’s legs. Benji said hello to Whiskers and gave him a pat on his fuzzy head before walking into the kitchen and grabbed a can of cat food. After giving the bowl of wet cat food to the appreciative feline, Benji left Whiskers to his evening feast and stepped into the living room.

            Benji’s apartment was relatively clean for a bachelor living on his own, with only a few piles of papers that needed grading from his work as a high school English teacher. Over by the television set, Benji had a row of shelves where he kept his pipes and tobacco, along with an assortment of novels and books. Benji placed his pipe and tobacco pouch on the shelf before pulling out his new Dunhill from his shirt pocket. The young pipe smoker admired his new pipe for a moment before placing it on his pipe rack. If Benji wasn’t as tired as he was, he would’ve started the cleaning process right then and there, but he decided to wait until the morning to start sanitizing his new pipe.

            “Ralph won’t believe me when I tell him how much I paid for you,” said Benji with a smirk before letting out a yawn. “He’s gonna be so jealous.”

            The next morning after Sunday Mass, Benji arrived home and immediately went to work in cleaning up the bent billiard. The briar and stem were in decent condition, so Benji gave both a good polish until the black, rusticated finish had a nice shine on it. The inside of the shank and stem was a different matter, as the first pipe cleaner Benji passed through was blackened in gunk. The young man spent a good portion of his afternoon running alcohol soaked pipe cleaners through the draft hole until they finally came out clean.

The bowl of the pipe had already been professionally reamed when Benji purchased it, but he could still smell a strange odor that he couldn’t quite place. This wasn’t a new problem for the pipe smoker, as he had experience in removing the remnants of goopy aromatics from some of his other estate pipes. After sticking a pipe cleaner in the shank, Benji poured the bowl full of iodized salt, and used an eyedropper to saturate the salt with alcohol. With the cleaning process complete for now, Benji placed the pipe up on his shelf and let the salt do its work.

The next day, Benji came home from teaching around 6:30, and after greeting Whiskers he checked on how the Dunhill was taking the salt treatment. To Benji’s surprise, the salt had turned to a grimy black color, much like the pipe cleaners had been the previous day. Now, Benji had used the salt treatment before, and none of the pipes in previous treatments had turned as dark of a color as the Dunhill. The young man took the pipe over to his garbage can, and he scraped the bowl clean, until every grain of salt had been removed.

Once Benji felt satisfied that the Dunhill met his standards for cleanliness, he decided the time was right to fire up the pipe and see how it smoked. After opening his pouch of Balkan Sobranie, Benji scooped the bowl inside, packing the pipe with the Balkan blend. The young man grabbed his matches, his pipe tool, and a copy of The Two Towers and stepped onto his back porch, sitting in his usual outdoor smoking spot.

Benji struck the first match and hovered it over the bowl for the charring light. Yet as Benji drew in through the stem, the flame refused to catch on the tobacco, and Benji had to extinguish the match before it burnt his fingers. Perplexed that his pipe didn’t light, Benji extended his hand and felt for any wind that might’ve interfered with lighting his pipe, yet the air was still where he was sitting.

Undaunted by the first match, Benji lit a second match, and then a third, yet none could light his pipe. The young man light a fourth match, determined that if this didn’t work, then he’d switch to a lighter. The flame burned down on the match as Benji puffed and puffed, yet still the tobacco remained unburned. With Benji’s focus completely focused on puffing, he didn’t notice the flame inch down to his fingers, until he felt the fire singe his skin.

“Yeouch!” cried Benji as he dropped the match in the ashtray, sucking on the scorched portion of his thumb and finger. As Benji nursed his wound, he noticed a thin stream of smoke finally rising from bits of tobacco. Immediately, Benji struck another match and cautiously held the flame over the tobacco. Finally, the flame of the match sucked downward into the bowl, charring the top layer of the tobacco. After tamping down the burnt tobacco, Benji lit another match and drew in deeper, properly lighting the pipe.

After tossing the match in the ashtray, Benji leaned back into his chair and puffed away, relieved to finally have his new pipe lit. As Benji smoked his pipe, he tasted to see if there was a change in the taste of his favorite blend, but all seemed normal.

“Heh, I guess they didn’t clean this thing as well as they thought,” muttered Benji to himself.

Benji opened his paperback copy of The Two Towers to his bookmarked page and resumed reading his favorite series. He was on the chapter where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum were passing through The Dead Marshes while on their journey to destroy the One Ring. For some reason, Tolkien’s descriptions of the dead warriors resting underneath the water seemed to creep him out more than usual, and Benji felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

However, as he read, his mind wandered elsewhere, more specifically, back to his pipe. Though the pipe had started out fine, now that he was halfway through the bowl, he could taste an off-putting flavor that he couldn’t place. Benji unclenched his pipe and placed the bowl under his nose and gave a quick sniff. Instantly, Benji recoiled at the aroma, as it reminded him of sulfur and rotten eggs.

As much as Benji tried to put the smell out of his mind, the more he puffed, the queasier he became. Eventually, the young man admitted defeat and dumped the remaining tobacco out of his pipe and into the ashtray. Nothing annoyed Benji more than wasting good tobacco, but the he couldn’t stand another puff from the sour pipe. 

Benji grabbed his book and pipe and went grumbling back into his kitchen table, producing his pipe cleaning supplies once more. For the next hour, he gave the pipe a second deep cleaning, and did another salt treatment for good measure. As disgusted as he was with the first smoke from this pipe, he wasn’t about to give up on his new Dunhill.

Over the following days, Benji tried again and again to smoke his new Dunhill in peace. He would go out on his porch after work with the newly cleaned Dunhill and smoked, before giving up around the halfway point. He would then give another deep clean to his pipe, even using switching the kinds of alcohol he used as a cleaning solution to see if that made a difference. Yet no matter how hard he cleaned, that same sulfuric smell would inevitably creep up and ruin his bowl of tobacco.

By Friday, Benji was at his wits end, regaling his pipe woes at the local bar with his friend, Ralph Willkie. Benji had been friends with Ralph since their college days, and made it a ritual to meet up at the bar to drink, smoke their pipes, and chat about life. Ralph was a few years Benji’s senior, but as roommates they had bonded over their mutual love of fantasy and sci-fi literature. Ralph had also been Benji’s pipe mentor, having shown him how to smoke a pipe within the first month of their friendship.

As they drank their pints, Benji pulled out the wretched Dunhill and slid it over to Ralph once he finished telling his story. Ralph puffed on his bent Peterson and took a good look over the pipe as Benji took a long drink of his lager.

“20 bucks for this?” asked Ralph as he turned the Dunhill over in his hands. “You’re lucky I wasn’t with you when you found it. Even with the markings, I woulda paid the $25 and stole it right from underya.”

Benji snorted as he filled one of his old Kaywoodies. “I’d sell it to you if you want it that bad. But if you ask me, that’s no Dunhill. Dunghill is more like it.”

Ralph sniffed the pipe and turned away in disgust. “Did the previous owner only smoke Royal Yacht in this thing?”

“Beats me,” replied Benji as he lit his pipe. “Whatever it was, it’s ruined a good portion of my pouch of Sobranie.”

Ralph scratched his scraggly beard as he thought of a possibly solution for his beleaguered friend. “Well, I would buy it offa ya, but I’d hate to take a Dunhill like that from a buddy of mine. Though, I think I might have a solution for ya.”

Benji let out a sigh as he leaned against the table, “At this point, I’m willing to try anything.”

“I’ll let you try one of the blends I have back at my apartment,” offered Ralph. “I’ve had a few stubborn pipes before in my time, and this blend has always done the trick. Smoke a few pipefuls of it, and I promise it’ll eradicate whatever ghost is ruining your pipe.”

Benji puffed and gave his friend a skeptical look. “Has it been blessed by a priest? Because I don’t think anything less’ll rid me of that horrible stench.”

Ralph stuck his chest out with a confident look on his face. “Have I ever steered ya wrong before? I’m tellin’ you, Merlyn himself couldn’t blend a better tobacco to break a spell over a pipe.”

Ralph handed the Dunhill back to Benji, and the young man glared at the pipe, hitting the bottom of the bowl against the palm of his hand as he mulled over Ralph’s idea. Finally, Benji sighed and mustered an answer.

“Guess I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” asked Benji as he slipped the pipe back in his shirt pocket. “I’m not letting $20 go to waste.”

“That’s the spirit,” replied Ralph as he lifted his pint of beer. “Here’s to smoking that stench out.”

“I’ll drink to that,” replied Benji as he raised his glass, before downing the last of his beer.

Later that night, Benji returned back to his apartment, with a new tobacco pouch in hand. He had stayed at Ralph’s place longer than he would’ve liked, but ended up in a debate over whether Darth Vader was telling the truth about if he was really Luke’s father or not. Whiskers hounded after Benji in the apartment, meowing for his dinner until the he finally opened a can for the cat.

Weary for sleep, Benji considered heading to bed for the night, but as he took the Dunhill out of his coat pocket, he decided now was as good of a time as ever to try his pipe once more. Benji wasn’t sure that Ralph’s suggestion would work, but his friend often had good ideas for his pipe problems.

Due to the lateness of the hour, Benji thought against going back out to the porch to smoke his pipe. The mosquitoes were out in full force before autumn, and being out alone on the porch at night gave Benji the creeps.

So with pipe and pouch in hand, Benji headed to his spare bedroom, which he used as his study. The young man turned the light on and shut the door, before falling back into his desk chair and placed pipe and pouch on his desk. Upon opening the tobacco pouch, Benji was met with the nutty aroma of pure burley. Benji wasn’t fond of burley blends, preferring more English and Balkan blends, but beggars can’t be choosers when a sour pipe is involved. The young man scooped the ribbon cut burley tobacco into the Dunhill until he had it snugly packed.

As Benji opened his matchbox, he took a long look at the Dunhill and stuck a finger at it, scolding it as if it were a naughty child. “I’m givin’ you one more chance. If you fail me this time, I’m shipping you to Timbuktu without a return address.”

With a flick of his wrist, Benji struck a match and placed it over the bowl, drawing hard as the flame drew into the bowl. The burley took to the fire easily, and soon Benji was puffing at a steady pace. The tobacco cooperated so well, that Benji found he didn’t need a second light and slid the matchbox away. Benji sat hunched over at his desk like a grump with the Dunhill clenched in his jaw, refusing to look at any of his books or distract himself with any other mindless task. The young man was on a mission, and he would not let this stubborn pipe get the better of him.

Benji puffed away on his pipe like a madman, paying close attention to the flavor of the tobacco for any sudden changes to the putrid territory. As far as he could taste, the burley blend was an obedient and rugged tobacco, overwhelming whatever remnants of tobacco lurked within the briar. The smoke from his pipe soon enveloped the small study, clouding the room with a cloud of burley tobacco smoke. Without a window or door open to air the room, the smoke built up in a way Benji had never seen before. While Benji had been in plenty of hazy tobacco shops before, nothing compared to the amount of smoke Benji was producing with his Dunhill. Yet Benji remained undeterred, he would make sure he had slain the awful stench, and no amount of tobacco smoke would allow him to open a window.

As the smoke thickened, Benji felt as though he were in some sort of a trance, unwilling and unable to get up from his chair, or do anything other than smoke his pipe. Though Benji normally didn’t care for straight burley blends, he found the smoke agreeable to his palate, and didn’t feel queasy as he normally did with stronger blends. For the first time since owning the Dunhill, he actually felt properly relaxed, as one should when smoking a pipe.

Benji’s mind was another matter, as it wandered while the tobacco smoldered in his pipe. The normally upbeat and happy young man found his thoughts hazy for a moment, before drifting off to darker, and more sinister places. In his imagination, he saw himself smoking his pipe while wandering ancient and long forgotten graveyards at the dead of night, with broken and slumped tombstones overgrown with moss. A heavy mist surrounded the old cemetery, and the stars and moon hid behind dark, foreboding clouds. Part of Benji wanted to turn back and leave through the old, rusted iron gates, yet the pipe jutting in his jaw led him on down the soggy dirt path to an unknown destination.

As Benji reached the top of a hill, he saw the path wind down to a mausoleum, which he continued on towards without turning. As he came closer and closer to the building, he could make out more features of the decrepit tomb. The once white marble had taken to a sickly shade of yellow underneath the caked dirt, with a name Benji did not recognize chiseled over the open door. For a split second, he thought it said ‘Benjamin’, but upon closer inspection, it seemed more like a last name. Standing guard next to the mausoleum’s doors stood two statues that at once filled Benji’s heart with dread.

The statue on the left appeared to be a robed angel of some sort, covering its face as it wept with black ooze dripping from between its closed fingers. The second, taller figure on the right stood at attention, its face hidden under a hood as it beckoned with an open hand. As Benji stopped in front of the left statue and studied it, his heart filled with an unspeakable dread from the presence lurking underneath the stone. The figure’s hand had long, dirty, and sharp nails protruding out towards Benji, nails that the young man felt sure could cut flesh if they were real. Benji could feel his knees buckle and quiver as he stepped closer to touch the statue’s extended and welcoming hand with his own.

Scratch.

            Scratch.

                        Scratch.

Benji snapped out of the daydream that enraptured his tired mind as the Dunhill pipe fell from his jaw and onto the deck with a clatter. Tobacco ash spilled out onto the desktop, and Benji swore while rubbing his bleary eyes. Benji swept the dottle into his ashtray while admonishing himself for being so clumsy. Despite his annoyance, he was thankful that Whiskers wanted into the study, snapping him out of that dreaded nightmare. Benji picked up the Dunhill and upon looking in the bowl, he realized he had finally smoked his pipe to the bottom without the stench ruining his smoke.

I guess Ralph was right, said Benji with a smirk as he turned in his desk chair. All I needed was the right tobacco.

Before Benji stood up from his chair, he sat for a moment in bewilderment at the thick cloud of smoke that had built up from puffing his pipe. Despite the stillness of the air, the smoke swirled and moved around as though it had a life of its own. The young man was glued to his seat, transfixed on the ever-shifting smoke, observing as it changed shapes in the air, like seeing object in the clouds in the sky.

At first, the smoke moved in a circular pattern, before it began to coalesce into one central spot. From a circle, the smoke stretched and swirled into a pillar, like the cloud Moses and the Israelites followed in the desert in Exodus. Benji rubbed his eyes once more, wondering if Ralph’s tobacco had been something else entirely. Though Benji had never taken drugs, he thought the experience felt like something similar.

From the pillar, Benji observed with growing uneasiness as the smoke seemed to solidify, no longer being translucent, but becoming an object or thing before his eyes. Two gangly, boney legs with knobby knees and twisted feet split from the bottom of the pillar, going up to the midsection of the smoky form. At the top of the pillar, the smoke stretched out into a hideous face from the pit of Benji’s deepest nightmares.

The face of the being wasn’t human, Benji was certain of that. Instead, the head resembled more like that of a hairless opossum, with three sets of murky, clouded eyes on either side, and a nose that peeled back part way on its snout. Two sets of sharp, saw-like teeth protruded from its thin, pale lips, as a tongue that resembled a snake licked the air in Benji’s direction, tasting his scent no doubt.

Benji was so horrified by the abominable head that he almost didn’t notice the two arms protruding out of the newly formed body. The arms stretched and elongated towards the ground, to the length that the creature could easily drag them on the ground while walking. The hands appeared like that of a human, but with the long, sharpened nails Benji had seen in his imagination. The smoke seeped from the creature’s skin, appearing more like stringy and dirty hair than smoke. By now, the noxious sulfuric odor reached its suffocating peak, causing Benji to choke as he tried to breathe.

Pushing back on his chair, Benji rammed into the desk behind him with a thud as the creature turned its attention to him. The young man slowly rose from his seat with a protective hand in front of him, his mouth agape as he tried to speak, and yet his words failed him.

The creature took one shaky foot forward, as though it wasn’t used to walking in this plane of existence. As Benji backed into the corner of his study, the creature took another step forward, lifting one of its impossibly long arms in his direction, dragging its nails against the floorboards.

Scratch. Scratch. Scraaaaaaaaatch.

The smoky creature’s jaw open wide, inhaling a ragged, labored breath as it emitted a scratchy, inhuman snarl. The creature lumbered forward towards Benji with a quickness that instantly filled Benji with panic. The young man screamed at the top of his lungs as he darted forward, hoping to somehow make it past the abomination towards the study door. As Benji made his escape, the creature slashed at Benji’s midsection, and had the young man not placed a protective arm over his body, it would’ve gashed his stomach straight into organs. The sharp nails cut deep into Benji’s lower arm as the creature’s other arm reached to embrace the terrified man in a deathly hug. Benji cried out in pain as he pushed himself out of the grasp of the creature’s bony arms and stumbled towards the door.

Benji practically knocked the study door off its hinges as he tackled his way out of the room, shrieking as he made a mad dash through the apartment front door. The young man flew down the stairs faster than he thought possible, vaulting the steps three at a time as he made for the apartment door and freedom.

The door to Benji’s apartment building flung open as he fell onto the cement ground, barely making it back on his feet as he backed away from the entrance, expecting at any moment for the creature to come barreling after him. Benji trembled as he waited, hands grasped on his knees as he sucked in the fresh cool air, yet he heard no commotion from the stairwell. As the seconds passed into minutes, Benji’s adrenaline dropped, and feeling a queasy churning in his stomach, the young man threw up on the ground, both from his strenuous escape, as well as from the stinking aroma that still hung in his nostrils.

The light to the bottom apartment turned on, and Benji’s elderly neighbor Miss Jaworski opened her bedroom window. Miss Jaworski was dressed in her floral nightgown, having awoken from Benji’s escape in the hallway, and she stuck her head out the window with an exasperated look on her face.

“Good heavens Benjamin, why on earth are you making that kind of racket at this hour?” she demanded. Benji wasn’t quite sure how to answer her, and stammered as he waved his arms.

“T-There was t-t-this thing, I-I don’t know what, but—.”

Miss Jaworski let out a gasp and placed a hand over her mouth. “Ben, your arm, it’s bleeding all over!”

Benji paused and glanced at the deep gashes on his right arm as blood streamed down onto the ground with a steady flow. The young man hadn’t noticed the severity of his injury until that moment, and now that he had the chance to look at it, the pain finally set in. Benji swooned and dropped to his knees, holding his right arm as he felt his body going into shock.

“You wait there, I’ll call an ambulance,” said Miss Jaworski, as she quickly left the window to find her telephone.

The young man knew he had to stop the bleeding somehow, so Benji yanked his shirt off and used it as a temporary bandage. As Benji waited in the courtyard for the ambulance to arrive, his eyes moved back up towards the windows of his apartment where he knew his study was located. To his horror, Benji could see the creature staring down at him, with both claws resting on the windowpane. The monster seemed translucent now, fading back into the ether from whence it came. Yet as it dissipated, the horrid abomination made slow, deliberate scratches on the window as it licked its lips, before disappearing from view.

Struggling to stay conscious, Benji curled into a ball on the cold pavement, his body shivering from the lack of warmth and blood loss. Helpless to do anything else, Benji muttered incoherently to himself as he held his injured arm, praying that this terrible night would finally come to an end.

The ambulance arrived some time later, as Benji couldn’t quite recall how long it took for them to reach him due to his state. As the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance, Benji begged someone to check his apartment for Whiskers, and that if they found him, they should bring the cat to Miss Jaworski for safe keeping. The cat was found safe sleeping in the living room, unaware that any excitement had gone on in the apartment. Once Benji was told his cat was safe, the young man reclined in the stretcher and allowed the paramedics to drive him to the local hospital.

By Saturday evening, Benji was discharged from the hospital, having received multiple stitches for his injured arm, and pumped full of fluids. Benji didn’t speak of what he saw to anyone, and told the doctors an improvised story where he cut his arm on a jagged portion of the railing on his porch.

Ralph came by to pick Benji up, and allowed the shaken young man to stay the night at his place as he recovered from his ordeal. The two stopped at Benji’s apartment so he could pick up some clothes, as well as the Dunhill pipe from the study. Benji made Ralph stick by him at every moment, not wanting to spend a second alone in his apartment. Benji peered around every corner for any sign of that inhuman creature, but the apartment was completely empty, save for Benji and Ralph. While Benji kept his nerves for the most part, as he picked up his Dunhill pipe, he noticed out of the corner of his eye multiple long scratch marks on the study window. The color drained from Benji’s face as Ralph spotted the grooves in the window and took a closer look.

“Where did these come from?” asked Ralph as he turned to his friend, but Benji was already at the threshold of the door.

“I’m done, let’s get outta here,” muttered Benji as he slipped the Dunhill in his pocket.

As Ralph drove the two back to his apartment, he demanded to know exactly what caused Benji’s injury. Benji gave the same excuse he said to the doctors, but Ralph, having known Benji for years, could tell he was lying. It took two shots of whiskey back in Ralph’s apartment to coax the story out of Benji, and for the next hour the young man recounted everything he could remember from the previous night. Ralph listened quietly, making no judgment as he puffed on his pipe while his friend rambled on about some strange smoke demon that tried to eat him.

When Benji finished his tale, he looked at Ralph and waited for his response, expecting his friend to laugh him out of the room. Ralph pondered for a moment, tamping the ash in his pipe in silence before saying, “Well, I’m sure glad you didn’t sell me that Dunhill.”

For the first time in over a day, Benji managed a laugh, and slunk in his chair with a hand over his face. “Are you sure? I can give ya a great deal on it.”

The two friends laughed, lifting Benji’s spirits as he rubbed his injured arm. Ralph leaned on the arm of his chair as he puffed his pipe, adding, “So, what are you gonna do now? Think you’ll move to a different apartment?”

“I don’t know, I honestly think it’s gone now,” said Benji as he sat up in his chair. “But first thing tomorrow, I’m headed back to that tobacco shop for some answers. I don’t know if I’ll get any, but there has to be more to it than this.”

“I’ll go with you,” assured Ralph. “With everything that’s happened, I’ve gotta see how this all ends.”

The next day, Benji and Ralph arrived at The Smoking Room around 11 a.m., having taken the train into the city. The two strolled into the shop, and Benji headed straight towards Oscar. The tobacconist was sitting behind the counter drinking a cup of coffee while reading the Sunday Times, as a group of about five regulars sat around smoking in the lounge. Oscar poked his head up from behind the paper and greeted the two as the stood at the counter.

“Ah, good morning Mr. Hodge, can I help ya with anything?” asked Oscar. Benji pulled the Dunhill from his pocket, and immediately the tobacconist’s face fell upon recognizing the pipe. “Oh no, you’re not sellin’ that pipe back to me. We made a deal, remember?”

“I’m not looking to sell it back,” explained Benji as he slid the Dunhill over to Oscar. “I wanna know where you got the Dunhill in the first place.” Benji turned the pipe over and pointed at the initials on the bowl of the Dunhill. “Tell me, do you know who this ‘SB’ person is?”

The tobacconist held the bent billiard in his hands, tapping the bowl of the pipe against his palm while in deep thought. Oscar’s eyes shifted back up at Benji, debating whether to divulge the information to the young man.

Benji leaned on the counter with both of his hands and remained firm in his resolve. “Please, I’ve got to know. You would too if you had seen what I’ve seen.”

Oscar hesitated, glancing down at the shop floor as memories resurfaced into his mind. Benji could tell Oscar didn’t want to share the information, but seeing the determination on the young man’s face, the tobacconist relented with a long sigh. “Yeah, I remember where I got that pipe. It was back in ’71. I got a phone call that one of our old customers had passed away in some freak accident. Everyone was talkin’ about it at the time, due to how weird the whole thing was.”

“The customer was a young guy, probably around your age when he died. Simon Bronowski was his name, tall, lanky fella with long hair. He looked like a hippie, but he wasn’t one of those love an’ peace kinda guys. He had been comin’ to my shop for a couple of years for his pipe tobacco. Always gave everyone the creeps when he’d come in, ramblin’ about some sorta religion he was studyin’. Mind you, this wasn’t some Christian religion, but I couldn’t tell ya what mumbo jumbo he would jabber on about. Never paid any attention to it, as it gave me the willies.”

“All I can tell ya is that after he he died, I stopped by his place, as his family was sellin’ his stuff to empty out his house. I bought his pipes an’ his remainin’ tobacco, but ended up throwin’ everything but the Dunhill away. I remember he told me he would blend his own tobacco, usin’ this an’ that from blends we were sellin’, as well as other stuff I couldn’t identify. The stuff stank to high heaven, an’ there was no way I’d ever put it in one of my own pipes.”

Oscar shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “An’ that’s ‘bout all I know to be honest. As I said, he was a weird guy, so I didn’t take the time to get to know him.”

Benji rubbed his chin as he thought over Oscar’s story. The young man was disappointed he didn’t get to know more about Simon, but at least he had a name, as well as the explanation for why the pipe stank. Still, there had to be more to the story, and Benji was going to find out all he could.

“How did he die?” asked Benji, before adding, “that is, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I heard he died in a fire,” replied Oscar. “I didn’t pry for more information at the time, as I didn’t want to bother the family. Tell ya what, I think there’s a guy here that knew him more than I did.” The tobacconist paused as he glanced over at the regulars sitting in the lounge, and called over to a man sitting in a leather chair smoking a Hardcastle Lovat. “Hey Ed, come over here. We’ve got some questions for ya.”

Ed, or Eddie Walczak as Benji would learn later, stood up from his chair and joined the three at the counter. Eddie was in his late 30’s, short but thin, and wore a black polo shirt and White Sox cap. The man greeted Benji and Ralph as Oscar explained the situation to him.

“They’re wantin’ to know about Simon Bronowski,” said Oscar as he showed Ed Simon’s old Dunhill. “You knew him, right?”

“Knew him, practically grew up with the guy,” replied Ed with a scoff. From his reply, Benji could tell Ed hadn’t been the biggest fan of Simon. “Lived on the same block as me, an’ went to the same school, though he was a grade ahead of me. Yeah, I knew Simon, as much as ya could know a guy like that.”

“Didn’t care for him then, I take it?” asked Ralph with a chuckle.

“No one did,” answered Ed. “How could you? He was always getting in trouble with the nuns and priests at our high school, pushin’ their buttons any chance he got. We hung out a bit, as he didn’t really have anyone else to talk to, but I only spent time with him out of pity. Eventually, I avoided him any time I saw him on the block, but he would still come up to me and talk my ear off when I got careless.”

“He was odd in Grade School, but High School was where he really went off the deep end. He started getting into some weird books from the local library, readin’ books by people like Alistair Crowley an’ ilk like that. One day in our senior year, he told me he was gonna make his own religion, and that people were going to read his books like he did with Crowley.”

“After High School, I went off to college, so I didn’t hear from him much. When I came home for school breaks, I’d see him roamin’ the neighborhood, but I kept my distance. He stopped me one day around Christmas and told me he had found some others in Chicago that thought like he did, and that they went out to Bachelor’s Grove at night to perform some kinda magic for fun. Said he saw some strange stuff out there, but I chalked it up to Simon bein’ Simon.”

“Once I graduated College I joined the Navy, and one day I was here on leave when out of nowhere Simon came in the shop. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him, but he sat with me and we talked over our pipes. He said he was on the cusp of a breakthrough that was gonna make him famous. He had built some sorta shack in his backyard where he said he communicated with ‘the other side.’ He’d light his pipe in there until it was filled with smoke and stare into it for visions or what have you. He said he found somethin’ in there that would talk to him and show him things. I don’t know, it was all nonsense to me, but Simon was obsessed with it.”

“Around a month later, I got a message from my mom that Simon had been found dead in his shack. Apparently, it caught fire late one night, and Simon must’ve passed out from the smoke before it consumed him. Strange thing is, I heard there was somethin’ off about how they found him.”

Benji could feel a lump in his throat growing as he listened to Ed’s tale. Feeling a weakness in his knees, Benji leaned against the counter to steady himself from falling over.

“How did they find his body?” asked Ralph, eager to hear the end of Ed’s tale.

“Well, you’d think the paramedics would find an intact burnt body,” explained Ed as he struck a match to relight his pipe. The man puffed slowly, as smoke rose from the bowl of his briar. “But my mom heard the emergency crew found pieces of his body scattered everywhere in the charred remains of the shack. From what I understand, the police looked into a possible homicide, but couldn’t find any evidence that someone cut him up and burned the scene of the crime. If you ask me, I think one of Simon’s new psycho friends killed him and cut his body up in some sorta ritual, but there’s nothing to prove my theory.”

Ralph and Oscar both made a disgusted face, and the tobacconist shook his head as he added, “I coulda done without knowin’ that.”

“It’s a shame,” added Ed as he tamped his pipe with his pipe tool. “As much as I didn’t like the guy, Simon didn’t deserve that. No one does.”

“Yeah,” replied Benji as he held his head. “That’s awful.”

Ed cocked his head sideways as he glanced at Benji struggling to keep his balance. “You okay man? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Something like that,” replied Benji as he pulled himself straight. “I think I need to sit down for a bit.”

The young man excused himself and sat down in the nearest seat as he clutched his arm. Ed’s story about Simon and his grisly fate only aggravated the pain in Benji’s arm, like pouring lemon juice on an open wound. A shutter ran up Benji’s spine as he wondered what his fate could’ve been had he not turned around in time to see that thing materialize. He wouldn’t be here at the tobacco shop, Benji felt quite certain about that.

“It took me a few days before I could smoke a pipe again,” admitted Benji as he tapped his pipe out in the ashtray at our table. “But it takes more than that to keep a pipe man from his favorite pastime.”

By now, my pipe had gone cold, as I was too engrossed with Benji’s story to keep it going. My companion, too, had long forgotten about his briar, and we both took the moment to relight our bowls.

“That’s nuts,” said my friend after extinguishing his match. “I’ve heard of tobacco ghosting a pipe, but nothing on that level.”

“So what ever became of that Dunhill?” I asked. “I’m guessing you never smoked it again?”

Benji laughed as he stuffed his pipe back into his leather pipe roll. “You can be sure of that. As far as I was concerned, that pipe was tainted, and no amount of cleaning would ever get me to try it again.”

“That’s a shame,” I replied as I tamped my pipe. “I would’ve sold it to the Warrens or some other paranormal investigator.”

“Not me,” said my companion with an eager look in his eye. “I think I would’ve kept at it. I mean it was a Dunhill after all.”

            Old Benji Hodge sat back in his chair and looked off nowhere in particular, shaking his head slowly. “What profit is there for a pipe smoker to gain a cheap Dunhill, but to lose his soul? No, I’ll tell you what I did with it. Ralph and I went to my sister’s, and I threw the damn pipe in a fire in her backyard. Watched it burn to ash and spread it back into the Earth where it belonged.”

5 thoughts on “Salt and Sulfur

  1. As fine a ghost tale as you would ever want to read through a haze of pipe smoke beside a low fire on a blustery night. Well done! The ‘ghosted’ pipe is brilliant!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: So You Started Smoking a Pipe, Now What? | thebadgerpiper

Leave a Reply to thebadgerpiper Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s