In the late 1970s, everyone smoked. My grandfather, a veteran of World War II and Korea, smoked Marlboro Reds, what he called the hard stuff. He started smoking in the army, when GIs overseas would receive cigarettes in their C-rations. He said he and the other soldiers smoked when they took a break from fighting, that cigarettes became a small comfort, a fire they could control.
My older uncle smoked Pall Malls. He had once been an all-conference athlete, and later he ran marathons, after he entered a treatment facility for alcoholism and got his life back on track, but when I was a kid, he smoked unfiltered Pall Malls. I still remember the red package, the unsmoked ends dissolving in the puddles of rain beside the porch at my grandparents’ house. Forty years later, he would die of lung cancer, but back then it seemed that smoking was the only way he could control the anxiety that crept up on him when he wasn’t drinking. He was a high school history teacher, and perhaps his own history got to him, in the way we sometimes can’t sit still with ourselves and need help evening out.
My mother smoked Virginia Slims. Virginia seemed a long way from where we were in rural Arkansas, so maybe she wanted to be elsewhere. She and my father divorced before she was 30, and she was left to look after my brother and me, so perhaps she needed a small comfort of her own. Her voice was sore from screaming in the days leading up to the divorce, and in the evenings, with my father gone, she stood smoking at the kitchen window, wondering, I guess, if she’d ever get her voice back.
My father quit smoking before I was born, but I could still smell smoke on his skin. He worked for the National Forest Service before the divorce, and some days burned land to clear it of undergrowth. Sometimes, in summer, these fires got out of hand, and my father was forced to contain them. At night, after the news reported all the other awfulness in the world, the latest kidnappings and conflicts, he would lean forward when the wildfires out West showed on the screen, knowing he might be called to fight them.
The world was always smoking, it seemed. There was the threat of war with the Soviets, and there were butt cans outside the Walmart. More cans stood at the end of each aisle, a forest of bent cigarettes still smoldering in the sand. Crushed-out butts littered the floor of the grocery store, where my mother bought cartons of cigarettes at a time, and clouds of smoke eddied above us as we stood to check out. The teachers at my elementary school huddled outside in the rain while we were supposed to be napping, the smoke from their cigs climbing back in the windows and wrapping itself around us like the sound of the rain on the rooftops of our houses.
Behind the high school, the seniors stood by the smoking tree, hands cupped around lighters, heads lowered so their bodies formed the question marks their lives were becoming. When his girlfriend came to visit him at his house, my younger uncle locked himself in the bathroom to smoke, brushing his teeth afterward and claiming she only imagined the smoke seething from him. My mother smoked on the way home from work and when she stepped out of the car, a wave came with her, wrapping itself around my brother and me. It might seem strange to say so, but even now smoke smells to me like comfort because so many people were seeking it then.
At the institute for the developmentally disabled where my mother worked, everyone smoked—from the secretaries and instructors to the residents themselves, sitting in the windows of the dorms where they lived, looking out at the buildings surrounding them and wishing they were anywhere but here. The staff smoked on break, standing outside in little groups, the ancient edifices rising above them like monuments to an earlier time. The institute had once been a sanatorium for tuberculosis, and it occurred to me years later that in a place that had once been home to those with disease in their lungs, my mother smoked because she could not get enough air in hers.
None of us could get enough air. Everything, it seemed, was awful, from the threat of nuclear war that we heard about every night to the mundane jobs our parents held, struggling to make ends meet. My mother sat at the kitchen table once a month with her bills spread out, running a hand through her hair and dragging deep on a cigarette. She occasionally spoke of one of the institute’s residents who had touched her heart in some way, but even those thoughts were tinged with tiredness. I could see it in her shoulders, in the way she smoked, staring at nothing for a few minutes before starting supper.
It’s no wonder then that we started smoking. By the time my friends and I were teens in the ’80s we smoked for real, stealing from our parents’ packs and circling our small town endlessly, looking for something to do. But even as kids in the late ’70s, we had asked for candy cigarettes. We had bought bubble-gum cigars. We didn’t know that the makers wanted us to imitate our parents; we just wanted to hold our candy cigarettes in the same way they did. We sat out on the porch with the grownups and waved our smokes as they talked about the weather or war or the sorry state of the world. About their jobs and the failing economy and the high price of gasoline. We dragged on our cigarettes and blew out powdered sugar made to look like smoke, and we went to bed with sugar stuck to us in the same way my mother still has smoke stuck to her skin from 1979.
Of course we tried to imitate those we loved the most. We wanted to understand what it was like to be an adult, as if we could get comfortable with the worries that we would carry around for the rest of our lives. We saw our parents struggling with work, with marriage, with the weight of the world, and we saw the small comforts they found in what they sometimes, laughing, called cancer sticks, as if death could also be a comfort, or at least something to laugh at because they were too tired to cry.
So we bought our packs of fake cigarettes, and the candy dust covered us. Some days my brother and I put on our grandfather’s clothes: we put on his shoes and shirts and pants and tapped our candy cigarettes into our palms and squinted at the nightly news. My family sat all around, there in the den of my grandparents’ house, and smoke eddied in the still air as we exhaled. It leaked from us like we would soon launch.
Years later, it occurred to me that everyone was trying to find some form of comfort, either in candy or cartons of smokes. Airplanes were being hijacked and embassies overrun, and at any time missiles might fall from the sky. Now, the world has been smoldering again, as close to burning as it ever came in the ’80s. There have been wildfires in California, and tear gas in the cities. There have been protests on the streets of Kenosha and Portland and Pittsburgh, Asheville and Atlanta and Austin, because Black people are unable to breathe. Covid-19 and the relentless killings have me thinking about what we draw into our lungs, and some mornings it all seems so much that I step outside to smoke, remembering how my family sat in the front room inhaling something that would soothe them. I wonder if they came from stronger stuff, because I can barely make it through a week with all the awfulness. They worked long hours at jobs they didn’t like while fearing the end of everything. They drove to work and drove home and took us to practice and school plays and birthday parties and still managed to cook supper. They were tired all the time, and broke and worried and scared, so they inhaled deep breaths of something other than air. Didn’t matter that it was smoke, that it wouldn’t sustain them. They were already burning up.
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