The Cigarette War
She died by running out of breath. She felt weak. She couldn’t talk above a whisper. Her last words were, “So weak!” The last words I can remember, anyway, scrawled on a yellow legal pad in her hospital bed. Ironic symmetry. In her youth she had worked in a lawyer’s office. In her youthful years before Pop, before me, before any of us. Maybe even before she started coughing when she looked like a channel swimmer and could Australian crawl across the river both ways and still have plenty left.
It was close to twenty years before I had learned enough about guerrilla warfare to realize what I could have done. – Twenty years before I even understood why something should have been done. Passivity had worked against me, against both of us, my mother and me. It had been working against us for a lifetime. She really didn’t stand a chance. She and her generation were surrounded by enemy influences, already victims of a propaganda war. But what did I know, just a kid.
Years later, I picked up an American Mercury magazine from my aunt’s coffee table. In it appeared a facsimile of an ad formulated originally by the people who were going to kill my mother. George Gershwin sat at a piano. He looked natural there, as though he had been born to go rip roaring over a keyboard with fingers that were wired directly to a purely musical brain. At that moment, however, George wasn’t playing. Instead, between the middle and index fingers of one hand, raised awkwardly, woodenly, he held a Chesterfield. At the bottom of the page were words attributed to him. Couples in the background were smiling. George was smiling. Chesterfields, George said, were the best thing to relieve the symptoms of the common cold. George kept smiling. The people in the background kept smiling. My mother Mary could have been one of those people. She might even have been at the piano herself. If so, the piano would have had burn marks on its cabinet.
My mind wanders back. Did I do these things or do I only imagine myself doing them?
One day, at age five, I am pulling my wooden stool over to the open refrigerator and emptying the ice cube tray, about eight cubes’ worth, into a porcelain cereal bowl . I carry them stealthily about the house, and wherever I find a cigarette burning in an ashtray, I fizzle it out with a cube. Where there’s no cigarette, I leave a cube anyway, in case. The best defense is a good offense. I wasn’t seen. Ice cubes leave no fingerprints. The perfect crime.
But, like a true guerrilla, I didn’t always keep my identity secret. Some of my forays required revelation. Terrorists need publicity. I said, “Mommy, why don’t you not smoke?” I knew nothing of how to proceed. I was just a kid. I operated from fear. From primal loathing.
Cigarettes to me were insidious creations. I hated their look and their feel. You could squeeze a cigarette between your fingers. Roll it back and forth on the top of your mother’s coffee table, and it would put forth a quiet, dry, crackle of a sound. In those days, bits of tobacco would drop out of each end if you depressed it. I pressed, testing its strength, feeling its muscle, studying the depression where my finger had pushed.
Cigarettes’ whiteness was unreal. Nothing in nature was that white. Deceptively white. Insidiously white. They could have been made purple. Or red. But they were pure white. The enemy was clever. His propaganda machine was not to be underestimated.
My mother said, “Don’t play with my cigarette’s. Don’t press them like that. See what you’ve done, you’ve ruined a perfectly good cigarette.”
It was nearly impossible to make any headway by stealing cigarette packs. Logistically, such robbery was difficult because the cigarettes were nearly always within sight, if not arm’s length, of my mother. On rare occasions when I succeeded in spiriting them away, it was as if they hadn’t been missed, as if the enemy’s capacity to resupply was insurmountable.
Once, while snooping for Christmas presents in the top of a closet, I came upon a rectangular package wrapped in green paper and tied with a red bow. I carefully peeled back the metallic paper, honestly expecting to find accessories for my Lionel trains, perhaps a new train station for under the tree. But it was cartons of cigarettes. Four of them. It was like stumbling upon the enemy’s ammunition dump. It was a golden opportunity to put a real dent in my mother’s smoking, but I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t dispose of the cigarettes: flush them down the toilet, ditch them in a storm drain, fling them into the creek. Fling them into outer space. I would have had to blow my cover, admit my snooping. I couldn’t.
Or is that just what I told myself? A message the enemy had implanted in my mind? Was it passivity at work? Had I been brainwashed against just such instances?
Once, a few years later, our town was threatened by a forest fire. It started near the construction of the brand new Garden State Parkway, perhaps by an incendiary device, a flicked cigarette. It burned out of control heading toward the river that flowed past the end of our street. Clouds of dark smoke billowed high in the sky. Visibility got bad. Sirens went off and were answered by other sirens miles away. All the dogs in the county were frantic. The odor of burning pine and oak filled the air. Our eyes stung and watered. The whole sky turned coppery orange and everyone knew the fire was headed our way. People, especially kids, spoke of wading into the river and swimming to the other side.
It took about eight fire departments to put it out. Only one person had died. An old piney who had lived alone in a shack out in the back woods. He had been caught asleep and had died of smoke inhalation.
There it was! Smoke inhalation could kill you! Why, then, was my mother inhaling smoke on purpose? Had she been brainwashed into committing suicide? What had she done that could have been so offensive to the enemy? I felt I was onto something. I should have known to proceed with caution. But, just a kid, I frequently made mistakes, said the wrong things, put things in the wrong places, didn’t eat what was good for me. But now I knew this factual thing about smoke, and somehow the enemy must have found out and decided to send me a message.
It was on a summer day in our sandy driveway. Sounds drifted to us from the public beach three blocks away. Other kids were already there having fun. We had just returned home with the groceries. All the while we had been shopping, my sister and I had pestered Mom to take us to the beach. We did the same thing every time. Driving our old Ford to and from the grocery, Mom had held a lighted cigarette between either her fingers or her lips. Sometimes I could see the smoke making her eyes sting and water just like the forest fire. Most of the time she was driving light-fingered or one-handed. We always had to do the chores before we went to the beach. It was a routine, no matter how much we kids protested. A routine that caused various kinds of carelessness. When we reached home, my sister and I were mentally already halfway to the beach. Mom was absent-mindedly wrestling the grocery bags out of the car.
It was then that the enemy decided to strike. It was time for me to be punished for my anti-smoking forays, as inept and juvenile as they had been. As I stood with my eight-year-old arms spread open to receive one of the brown grocery bags from my mother, the ember at the lighted end of her cigarette pressed firmly against the inside of my wrist. It was a fire hot enough to ignite almost any flammable material. Hundreds of degrees hot! Hotter than midsummer beach sand against bare feet. Incomprehensibly hot. A pain like the sting of twenty bees!
Back then we didn’t know about running cold water on a burn, so I think my mother smeared ointment on it. I had been dealt a kind of intimidation I had never experienced before that. “Stay away from your mother and her cigarettes!” it seemed to say.
I imagine myself smacking the cigarette out of her hand and grinding it to shreds in our driveway. I yell “Why don’t you watch what you’re doing with those things? Why don’t you stop smoking them?”
That’s what I sometimes imagine.
What I actually did was cry and whimper until the cool cedar water at the beach lifted away the sting. I would never forget that I had been burned by “a perfectly good cigarette.”
It’s not as if no defensive measures were taken. Measures were taken. As the picture began to change, as people began to realize that what George Gershwin had been quoted as saying was not true, measures were taken. Each time it looked as if it were possible to gain an edge on the enemy, however, he introduced a new strategy. I don’t recall the order in which things were tried. I have only fleeting impressions of new sights and new smells.
At one point, after a brief stay in the hospital, my mother started using a cigarette holder. A long, white, mechanical-looking thing that she had to practice holding. I think it was almost like learning to smoke all over again. “Why bother, Mom. It’s too much trouble. Think of how awkward it feels,” I imagine saying to her. Part of the time she held it between her thumb and her index finger and inserted the end in her mouth with her finger tips pointing toward her. Eventually, though, she settled on her accustomed method, between her extended index and middle fingers. She wanted it to look graceful like Marlene Dietrich’s, but the holder was too heavy, too slippery. It kept sliding into awkward angles. When she lifted the tip to her lips I could tell it was never predictably where it was supposed to be.
After a while, anyway, they invented filters to put right on the ends of the cigarettes. Part of the propaganda war: “We have solved your uncomfortable logistical problem for you,” the enemy would say.
Somewhere in there, there was a turning point in the war. Perhaps future historians will be able to identify it. The turning point after which it was inevitable that large numbers of refugees would begin to flee from smoking. For a while Mom chewed some special kind of gum. I could smell it when she leaned over to tuck me into bed. As time went on, she switched to ever lower and lower tar-content cigarettes.
As we walked to the beach on blazing hot days, the road would melt. The tar would ooze into bizarre ripples and stick to our sneakers. I was just a kid. That was all I knew about tar.
Menthol began to be mentioned. Wasn’t menthol used in cough drops? More propaganda. More ambiguity. I overheard one end of rambling phone conversations in which the bad taste of “the menthols” was mentioned.
If the enemy got me on a witness stand at some kind of Nuremberg trial, to be honest, I would have to reveal, for the record, something that came to light only after my mother died. It is true that in her lungs she carried a predisposition. Something genetic. It probably contributed to her coughing for nearly thirty years. But that just means that all the while the enemy was tunneling through her lungs, it found the digging easier. The mine would still have been planted, and she still would have died sandbagged with a gaping hole inside her where her lung should have been.