Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Move Over Garbo! A Cigarette Saga In Two Parts

Part One

As I was waiting at a red light the other day, there was an SUV in front of me. A delicate arm dangled from the open window. Pale, creamy skin, long, narrow, manicured fingers with a cigarette poised between two of them. The arm disappeared into the vehicle a few times while we sat there, presumably so this delicate creature could take a few satisfying puffs.

A little jingle came dancing into my head---

“ Tobacco is a filthy weed
That from the devil doth proceed….”

But, it’s a free country still, in spite of our fearless leader’s efforts, and if a person wants to kill himself with tobacco, well, that’s his business.

The light turned green and as we began to move, the delicate creature, satisfied for now, nonchalantly tossed the remaining few inches of the filthy weed, glowing tip and all, onto the side of the road! Now, she’s making it my business! Doesn’t she read the papers? Listen to the news? Didn’t she ever learn not to leave a mess for others to pick up? Doesn’t her fancy SUV have an ASHTRAY for pity's sake? Doesn’t she have a BRAIN?? As I drew alongside her [to check if she had horns and demon eyes,] I was surprised to see a nice looking young woman. With an unconcerned flick of her ponytail she sped away.

Part Two

It’s the mid-fifties. I’m about eight. Oldest of three, I live by the rules, say my prayers every night, and try not to attract any negative attention from the grownups.

Mary Grant lives a few doors down with her Australian dad, Maureen O’Hara-esque mum and at least five siblings. To me their lives seem exuberantly chaotic. By comparison, my house is quiet and dull. I like to hang around at the Grants, in hopes that some of their zing will rub off on me. Life there vibrates with noise and energy.

Mr. Grant is handsome and debonair. He thinks nothing of sweeping his wife into a passionate embrace, right there in the kitchen, in front of the children, who seem to think this is normal.

Mrs. Grant is beautiful, and temperamental. She wears dresses with low necklines. When she leans forward to wipe a nose or mop a floor, her endowments practically spill over. I’m fascinated. Cleavage is not something one sees a lot of at my house.

There’s an older brother too, something I think should be standard issue for all little girls, but apparently the gods forgot to issue one to me.

My mother smokes. She started as a nurse on night duty, long before I was born. Mrs. Grant abhors smoking, which is, perhaps, why Mary considers it so glamorous.

One summer afternoon, when we had climbed every tree down the field, and were itchy for something new to do, Mary had an idea!

“Let’s get some cigarettes!”

I wasn’t sure I liked this idea as it involved me stealing them off our kitchen windowsill.And stealing, as the nuns repeatedly told us, was a mortal sin. Did I really want to burn in hell for all eternity just so Mary Grant would continue to be my friend? She pleaded. She threatened. She cajoled. Her eyes danced and every strand of her shiny, dark hair bounced and quivered as she explained to me how easy it would be. I was a dead duck. For one thing she was a full one and a half years older than me which gave her a lot of leverage. For another, there was the ever-present danger she would decide that I was just too dull to waste her time on.

We lurked around outside the kitchen until we were sure Mum had gone upstairs. With quaking heart, I gingerly removed two cigarettes from the pack, terrified that at any moment, my mother’s hand would fall on my shoulder. We fled down the field to the plantation, a row of evergreen trees that divided the field from the football pitch. Settled in the green shade we were safe. My heart was pounding. I was beginning to think this was a little bit too much excitement.

Mary lit up and proceeded to puff like Greta Garbo. I lit up, inhaled and nearly died. After Mary had finished a leisurely smoke, and demonstrated for me, while I spluttered and coughed, the finer points of the exercise, we straightened ourselves up and sauntered home.

Mary’s mother took one look at her when we walked in their back door and declared “You look like you’ve been through a bush backwards. Sit down here ‘til I comb your hair!”

She brushed vigorously, yanking out knots, while Mary yelped. One yelp must have carried vestiges of cigarette smoke to her mother’s sensitive nostrils because, suddenly, they flared. Mrs. G stopped, brush in mid-air. She looked menacingly at her daughter. The silence was deafening. Slowly and deliberately she asked

“Mary Grant, have you been smoking?” Her voice had a dangerous edge to it and took an incredulous upward swing on the last word.

“A nod is as good as a wink…” they say. I didn’t wait for more but took to my heels, down the field to the beloved trees, and climbed, without stopping to breathe, to the top of the highest one and sat among the calming leaves for at least an hour. When my heart rate returned to normal, I crept home in the gathering gloom, taking the long way so as not to have to pass in front of Grants'house.

I decided I didn’t have a taste for crime. Living on the edge was one thing,but I didn’t want to die there. Maybe I had a weak heart......or maybe I was just chicken. Eventually the Griffins moved to Dublin, and life in our neighbourhood returned to comfortable monotony. In spite of Mary’s expert tutelage, I never did become a smoker. If someone wants to smoke that’s their business, but could they at least use an ashtray?


Thimbleanna said...

Your story is eerily close to my child smoking story, only Mary was my little sister. We "snuck" two of mom's cigarettes and I took one drag and coughed and sputtered, never to touch another one. I've always attributed that early choking to the fact that I never wanted to smoke again. My sister, however, was another story (it appears maybe, just like Mary?)

meggie said...

An excellent post! My mother smoked, & I swore I never would, I hated it so. But the adiction took hold, & it took me years to give it up. You were very lucky you didnt carry on to smoke. Even though my first attempts were similarly horrible, I persisted, with some peer pressure.

jkhenson said...

I have never, and will never smoke. I do, however, find it appalling/annoying when a smoker chucks their "butt" out their car window. I am thinking of having a bumper sticker made: The road is not your ashtray... :) Think it'll catch on? :) Continue on with the wonderfully written stories! :)

Tanya Brown said...

LOL! A great suspense and intrigue-filled story.

Like you, I was lucky enough to not become a smoker and I'm not too fond of folks jettisoning their lit butts. I've seen more than one fire start that way.

Stomper Girl said...

You can report butt-litterers here because it's such a fire and environmental menace. I'm always appalled when people do it.

Tracey Petersen said...

Even a half-Australian will lead you astray!

I have never had any interest in something that makes you smell so badly. Lots of new cars here do not have ashtrays now.

Suse said...

Funny story though! (part two that is, part one not so much).

Pam said...

Ah, but look where that little criminal seed sprouted in later life. Speeding tickets....

Unknown said...

My Dad cured me of smoking at 3.5 (I have a 4 yearold and no idea what he was thinking).. one of my earliest memories and certainly clearest. Dad smoked several packets of camel cigarettes a day.. ew and strong! He made us smoke one each. Not sure if we had the whole thing or just one puff but i can smell it a mile off still today.. and boy was I ill. I remember being given a banana afterwards... and still dont see a banana without thinking of it..

never smoked a cigarette in my life! Thanks Dad :)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I bitterly resent smokers who impose their nasty addiction on me. But then, if they have so little regard for their own bodies, how can we expect them to care for anyone else's health or comfort?

At 11, I stole a cigarette and tried to be glamorous like all the movie stars, watching myself in the bathroom mirror right before I turned green and nearly coughed up a lung.

I have never smoked since, and cannot abide the smell of smoke, dead ashtrays or smokers.

Eastcoastdweller said...

Perhaps I am way off base, but I think some of the blame for the burning butt flicking and such, has to do with today's culture in which smoking has almost completely been driven underground.

In the long run, that may lead to no more smoking at all, but in the meantime, people who take up smoking, don't have as many smoking role models to teach them proper etiquette.

As a kid, in a world in which every third person seemed to smoke, I always saw them carefully extinguishing their butts,underfoot or in an ashtray. Beginning smokers who paid any attention, learned to do the same thing.

Now, every few months, I see some furtive smoker and rub my eyes to check if said orbs are functioning properly. And said smoker never properly extinguishes his or Her cigarette.