Burning Down the House
Both of my parents smoked since I was a baby. I think my mom smoked when she was pregnant, but I don’t think it was that big of a deal back then. And she smoked before she met my dad. I wonder if he started smoking to look cool, to try and impress her back then, with his long black hair and motorcycle, an old Triumph Bonneville he’d rebuilt. They can’t really say much about me smoking other than I’m only 17. My mom says, Where are you getting your cigarettes? I don’t tell her Paula, our next-door neighbor. She buys them for me at Smoker’s Outlet when she picks up a pack for her daughter, who’s in my homeroom. My mom yells a little more about how I’m too young to be smoking, how smoking isn’t good for you. She knows that now, everybody knows. Then she coughs, gives up a hack as if to prove it. I go upstairs and watch The Deer Hunter for about the hundredth time. The next morning my mom says, If you’re going to smoke, smoke in front of us. We don’t want you burning down the house. I get an ashtray for my room, and they start buying me cartons, because it’s cheaper that way for all of us, and because it’s safer than asking Paula to buy them for me. Now, after dinner, my mom, my dad, and I sit on the back porch and smoke together, not talking, watching the sun blaze out of sight over the darkening roof of our neighbor’s house next door.
My cousin’s in the hospital. Something about not being able to breathe at work, feeling dizzy. His boss came and picked him up from the site, drove his truck back for him. His wife, Lauren, picked him up from the warehouse and took him to the emergency room. I’m hearing this from my grandmother. She’s upset. It’s Christmas Eve.
I call Lauren. She’s at the hospital. She says he’s okay, they’ve admitted him, they think he has pneumonia maybe. She turns to Jason, says, It’s Nate. I hear him coughing, ready to give up a lung. He takes the phone, says, Hey, what’s up? And I say, How are you? And he says, I’ve been better. I say, I’m coming in and he says, Okay, and I say, Do you want any food, anything to eat, and he says, Yeah a McDouble and French fries would be great.
I toss my cigarette in the sand-filled cylinder at the entrance and walk into the Pinesol-reeking hospital, carrying the greasy bag. I find his room. He’s sitting up in his bed wearing a white gown, watching Buckmaster’s Classics on the Outdoor Channel. Lauren is sitting next to him. She takes the bag of food from me. I sit down in the visitor’s chair against the wall.
They’re doing some tests on his lungs, she says, and he holds up the plastic ventilator thing he has to blow into. Lauren says she’s going to run home, feed the dogs, take a shower, change clothes. I say, I’ll wait until you get back. They kiss and say, I love you, and then it’s just the two of us.
We talk. He tells me he was feeling dizzy, felt like he was going to pass out, and I say, Yeah Grandma told me, and he says, Nate, I was scared. I look at him, and I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything at all.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s the doctor. He comes in with his white coat, a stethoscope dangling around his neck and says, Hello, I’m Dr. Krebs. How are we doing today? My cousin says he’s been better. Dr. Krebs looks over papers on his clipboard and checks the air pressure of the ventilator Jason’s been blowing into. He asks, How much do you smoke, and my cousin answers, Around a pack a day, and then the doctor says, For how long? and my cousin says, About ten years. The doctor doesn’t ask me, but I’m thinking of how I’ve been smoking the same amount for just as long.
Listen, he says to my cousin. I’m not trying to scare you or preach to you, or judge you, because honestly I’m just here doing my job. I could care less what you decide to do when you leave here, but—and he looks at me now as if he knows—if you don’t stop smoking and start eating better, you’re going to be dead in ten years. He says, You have the lungs of an 80-year-old. I see that fear again in my cousin’s eyes.
When the doctor leaves, I tell Jason we should both quit, together, at the same time, and he says, Yeah, I think so, and we talk about how much better we’ll feel and how much money we’ll save. We talk about quitting cold turkey, rewarding ourselves at a week, a month, a year, saving up for new rods, new reels. We talk about taking the new gear, going fishing together in the spring. First day of trout season, I say. Jason smiles.
When Lauren gets back, smelling like fresh laundry, I say goodbye, tell him I’ll stop back in a couple days, tell him to get well. When I walk out to the parking lot and climb into my car the first thing I do is light a cigarette, take a deep down breath, holding it hard in my lungs. To calm myself down is what I tell myself as I finally exhale, grind the engine to a start, and jump the speed bump, making my escape.
Now Most Nights
I stole my dad’s rifles from the gun cabinet his grandfather made and sold them to Shupp’s Used Guns and Pawn over in Columbia. The guy gave me 400 bucks, not even close to what they were worth, but I took it.
When he saw the empty gun cabinet, my dad shook me awake by my shoulders until I could sit up. It’s a look that I’ll never forget in my father’s eyes. He called Shupp’s, but they’d already sold the guns, every one. You might have expected him to kick my ass or call the police or something worse even, but he didn’t. Never mentioned it again. But by then he’d become a drinker himself. Since my mom and all, the lung cancer that finally took her from us.
When my grandmother, my dad’s mom, lay dying, she’d told me how my grandfather would’ve liked me, told me I looked like him, and she smiled. I found an old picture later with my great-grandfather in a red-and-black checkered jacket, a mackinaw, the Remington 30.06 I sold for the drugs I had to have in hand and a buck propped up proud next to him on the logging road, a trophy mount, a 12-point.
At AA years later I’ll say that I didn’t know it was that same rifle I’d sold just to stay high. I’d say I’d like to think that if I’d known it would have made some kind of difference back then. Still, my voice will get shaky when I tell about it. All of us sitting in a circle like my dad and I do together now most nights.
Photo of cigarette and smoke courtesy Pixabay.