April: and, alone in another city, lost (as usual) as I wander around the back of a strip mall, three figures huddled on a small loading dock provide my subject this issue: cigarettes, and their many pleasures in my youth. Maybe no surprise either (I am from Kentucky, after all) that it would be so – how many years I lavished on the habit! But even I was taken aback by the sudden surge of memories, images phosphorescing under my eyelids «comme ces photographies blanchies par le temps, dont les détails ressurgissent à la faveur d’un certain éclairage » (Levy). Yes, I think I’ll spend a few moments (just a few, I promise) here with you, Reader, if you don’t mind, setting down a few words on the subject – which also offers me an excuse as if I needed it to re-run Dorianne Laux’s marvelous poem, at the end of this brief ghostly peek into the ghostly curio box, where I find…
A Marlboro Red, of course, “in the box” – or rather, from the box, since, at age twelve, its acquisition was almost always a singularity as the physicists call them: slid from the rare shared pack or handed to my friends and me just this once. Most likely, in the second case, its owner was one or another of our older brothers or his friends whom we had waylaid at what appeared a providential moment: alone was good, though this usually involved a distressing display of servility on our part, prolonged by our would-be benefactor for maximum comical effect. No, better to pounce when he was in the company of a girl, when any lack of largesse might be read as uncool or miserly, and bode poorly for his amorous prospects.
Other times, we were not above begging. Though this too had its drawbacks; whereas we could rely on our siblings and their cohort eventually to produce, however reluctantly, the desired and among the under 30 demographic all but ubiquitous Marlboro, one never knew what such a random encounter might produce – possibly an unfiltered Camel or Pall Mall, or some mentholated nightmare. There was a more perilous possibility too, for even the “likeliest” targets (lone passersby, smoking of course; anyone haunting a bus stop or park bench) might erupt in sudden, fierce gestures of scorn or other bizarre behavior. One, I recall, after good-naturedly fishing in one coat pocket after another, produced a knife, which he brandished with a disturbing earnestness. A garishly made-up woman acquiesced only upon the condition that we each in turn squeeze her huge bosoms.
Shoplifting, as well, was an option – though here the potential for catastrophe was doubled, for, apprehended, not only would the object of desire be withheld, but, deaf to every rehearsed alibi and apology, the cashier or at larger enterprises a store detective, likely would escort the offender(s) (us) to a back room to await the arrival of his parents, whose timidity and debasement at the hands of this steely-eyed sleuth was a revelation, and not a good one. Far worse, when it was my turn, than the aggrieved silence in the homeward car-ride or the severity of any punishment, it pierced my young heart to the depths.
Yes, I know: the subject is “pleasure” – and truthfully, I can say that whatever rebuffs or risks we encountered in this pre-smoking phase were part of it: la chasse. Nevertheless, it would be equally true to say that the odd occasions when we did manage to score a full pack –often from an unattended machine at a diner or gas station, while one of us distracted the proprietor – also held their delights, perhaps the supreme delight. Of the looks of the package itself, its promise of ordered plenitude utterly ensorcelling — simultaneous signifier of rusticity and sophistication; I’ll spare you the semiotics: that avenue is for adults, anyway. Suffice to say the briefest Google search will reveal more than you’d thought possible on this, pointing the curious to any number of anthropological and sociological tracts, including interesting excursions into Italian Futurism (key word: kinetic) and Russian Suprematism (i.e., its shadow of Fascistic evil). For the rest – above our dim little heads. We only knew it felt good, this pocket-sized box riding in our blue jean jacket pockets, snug beneath its denim flap, or should more rigorous concealment be required, pressed excitingly against our taut underbellies and overhung with a shirttail.
I could go on, of course – not only on the finer points of procurement or accoutrement but on the matter of just how central cigarettes were to our daily lives in that year I turned to face true teenager-dom, to the exclusion of almost every other interest. Though soon enough alcohol and drugs, girls and, for some, sports or scholarly or artistic pursuits would vie for our attentions, cigarettes, as yet without competition, consumed us to the point of obsession in a manner these other diversions never would, I believe, and served as a kind of entry point and primer for those more mature activities, especially the critical arts of dissimulation. For instance, I am sure several of us took on the absurd drudgeries of paper routes not out of any dawning sense of financial responsibility as our proud parents assumed, but entirely for the opportunity to be alone for a few fleeting moments in the early morning hours, when we could walk the empty streets and smoke unmolested; not to forget the coded assignations – fabricated outings to bowling alleys and that useful catch-all “homework” — arranged over the telephone; in truth of course agreeing where and when we would meet to smoke (packs hidden in trees and beneath stones, I swear). To say nothing of the practical applications of such learned misdirection: breath mints, cologne (Brut! Hi Karate!) et cetera. And still so much more — stylized gestures recalled now as if from muscle memory: that rhythmic pounding of the tight new pack against the heel of the palm, the flick, the cup, the slight pop of the jaw from which a smoke ring is born. Other arcana, too — the art of recuperating a damp or broken specimen, the match’s folded stem and its flower firing on the rough-grained strip of ocher flint, and the bite of sulphur lodged under a fingernail, the locked vitrine at Taylors Drugstore with its carousel of Zippos sporting mid-relief figures of horses and gold clubs…
So, anyway, they came back to me, these memories, this morning in this strange town, large but not altogether focused, as on a mental drive-in screen. The blocks filed by: I was hardly aware of them. And now, as I write, I wonder: Will I ever return to them? Or, rather, they to me? I think so. I am almost 63; in the last, oh, thirty years I have smoked the equivalent of, say, a carton, at parties, mostly, after a few drinks: unpleasant, when not routinized. What once soothed, now chafing, what once perfumed now carrying on its scent a most unseemly message. Still, how easily I can envision overcoming this rough patch and falling into the arms of that old flame – how our steps might fall in sync again as we walked here or there hand in hand, finish each other’s sentences, kiss the old kisses again…. and so no doubt will, when I am so old the months or years shorn off won’t matter. I can see it, too, not ten paces from here: myself, the chair on the deck beside which I will set a little table to place my pack on, and my matches or salvaged old Zippo — no non-descript disposable Bic for me – and my ashtray: I am thinking of a plaid bean-bag model with a silver cradle twice -indented like my father’s – Etsy should have one. Already I see me leaving it outside when I step in from the rain, and the little puddle of water where ashes will be suspended above the grey flakes settled in the bottom that will appear when I return the next morning. How I will appear sullen or distracted to my wife as I fling it out into the yard, spraying the begonias, but won’t be, at all. And how she will watch me prop my feet on yet another table I will have purchased, pull the brown string of plastic embedded in the plastic (an unlikely tram or false horizon behind white mountain-tops) in a smooth clock-wise motion if the pack is new, or flip back the top of the Marlboro box with my thumb if it isn’t; and with that same thumb slide one of them a head higher than the others (I am conjuring Xian’s Terracotta Army) before taking it between my lips and shutting the lid. How on windy days I will bend my neck just-so sideways a little (I am thinking of Alain Delon) to find the flame in the tiny cave of my hand, or on silent breezeless evenings simply raise one to the other. And then after a solid but also slightly hollow metallic latch-sound of my well-travelled Zippo (unless I am using matches, long wooden kitchen ones that I must shiver out with a good shake of my wrist as if I have just taken someone’s temperature) with my smoke nestled between my index and middle fingers just below the top knuckle, I will draw in the first puff and feel the soft sizzle of nicotine in my lungs, then rushing along the blue avenues of my veins in a way almost visible were I outside myself, to my brain, where it will turn on the new incandescent light bulb I have inserted into the old porcelain socket, illuminating the creaky attic stairs long-untreaded with their dust balls blowing in the draft across petrified boards, and in turn turn me on, too. And if only for a few minutes I will be clever, wide-eyed, alert to everything and no trouble in sight – everything this much more beautiful or at least less dreadful and terrifying than it was before I sat down.
But, enough. On to Dorianne Laux’s poem, as promised – which says everything I meant to say but so, so much better. (From the book of the same name – Smoke.)
Who would want to give it up, the coal a cat’s eye
in the dark room, no one there but you and your smoke,
the window cracked to street sounds, the distant cries
of living things. Alone, you are almost safe, smoke
slipping out between the sill and the glass, sucked
into the night you don’t dare enter, its eyes drunk
and swimming with stars. Somewhere a dumpster
is ratcheted open by the claws of a black machine.
All down the block something inside you opens
and shuts. Sinister screech, pneumatic wheeze,
trash slams into the chute: leftovers, empties.
You don’t flip on the TV or the radio, what might
muffle the sound of car engines backfiring,
and in the silence between, streetlights twitching
from green to red, scoff of footsteps, the rasp
of breath, your own, growing lighter and lighter
as you inhale. There’s no music for this scarf
of smoke wrapped around your shoulders, its fingers
crawling the pale stem of your neck, no song
light enough, liquid enough, that climbs high enough,
then thins and disappears. Death’s shovel scrapes
the sidewalk, critches across the man-made cracks,
slides on grease into rain-filled gutters, digs
its beveled nose among the ravaged leaves.
You can hear him weaving his way down the street,
sloshed on the last breath he swirled past his teeth
before swallowing: breath of the cat kicked
to the curb, a woman’s sharp gasp, lung-filled wail
of the shaken child. You can’t put it out, can’t stamp out
the light and let the night enter you, let it burrow through
your smallest passages. So you listen and listen
and smoke and give thanks, suck deep with the grace
of the living, blowing halos and nooses and zeros
and rings, the blue chains linking around your head.
Then you pull it in again, the vein-colored smoke
and blow it up toward a ceiling you can’t see
where it lingers like a sweetness you can never hold,
like the ghost the night will become.