Set during a stormy day in the West Virginia mountains, “Town Smokes” is narrated by a fifteen-year-old boy who has just become an orphan after losing his father in a logging accident that same morning. With nothing but Uncle Hunter, a needy alcoholic, to keep him in his mountaintop home, the boy decides to leave and try to make his way in the world below. Although he tells his uncle that he is going to town to get cigarettes, both he and his uncle know that he will not return from his trip.
During his journey, the boy is robbed by two older boys, poor “ridgerunners” like himself. Though not really interested in stealing his belongings, for sport, the older boys strip the fifteen-year-old of the money, guns, and the knife his father had left him as well as the boy’s few earthly goods, including his shoes. Speaking from apparent experience, the robbers leave the boy with a warning, telling him that the people in town do not like ridgerunners and that he would be better off to turn back up the mountain and go home.
Broke and barefoot, the boy wanders into town. He walks into the local drugstore and is met with stories of loss and devastation caused by the storm. The drugstore owner pauses as the boy enters, dirty and shoeless, but continues with his work. The boy proclaims that he has lost his father and has no money but would like a pack of smokes. Given the extraordinary events of the day, the storeowner tells his colleague to get some cigarettes for the boy. Though the narrator is now absolutely destitute, he has found a momentary reprieve from the isolation of the mountains and life without a family.