By RICHARD HAGUE
About 20 years ago, I stopped smoking. Because smoking and I had a long and productive relationship, and because it most certainly was one of my most earnest occupations, during which I sometimes inhaled 40 or more Winstons or Vantages or Newports a day, I missed it terribly. It took four years, actually, to completely quit, though there were long stretches of abstinence all through them. But I hadn’t really kicked it until after those four years, when I no longer allowed myself nor in fact even desired a celebratory smoke on St. Paddy’s Day or on the summer solstice. (One of the head-tricks I tried to play on myself was to ritualize smoking, making it, in effect, part of a high holy day, like censing the altar at Easter or Christmas High Mass. Oddly enough, it worked, to a degree. I was able to forgive myself the brief backslides and could count them off, even, as occasions of amnesty and grace.)
Besides, smoking had served as a great excuse for writing for years. If I went up to my study, or if, after I put the boys to bed on Wednesday nights when Pam was teaching, I went out to the kitchen and turned off the overhead, so that there was only an inviting golden pool of light cast by the lamp on the table to write in, I would light up the first of the chain, and get focused. The writing and the smoking went hand-in-hand: pen and ink, milk and honey, sleeping and dreaming, writing and smoking.
In order to try to break this connection (and it is a breaking, and it is painful) I started to write on the computer. The actual taking up of pen in hand and poising before the blank screen was agonizing; a deep anxiety arose in me, because I knew I would want to smoke, smoke a lot—and that I would not, I had promised myself, I would not smoke. For more than 20 years, that connection had existed, reinforced hundreds of thousands of times, in the company of my most beloved thoughts and most intimate friends and lovers, and there I was, trying to overcome it literally overnight. Faulkner said that the raw materials of the writer’s trade were food, paper, alcohol and tobacco. I was trying to throw away half of them at a shot.
Still, I tried. I started what I thought might be a fairly long and leisurely writing project detailing my withdrawal. I gave it the corny working title of “Cold Turkey” and each day for a week or 10 days, I sat down sometime during the day and wrote at it.
Some of what I wrote was good—that is, it taught me something I hadn’t known about smoking, and about writing—and, as is always the case when the writing’s going well—something about a couple of other topics I hadn’t even suspected I’d been thinking about. Gender roles, for example. And a kid I hadn’t thought of for over 30 years.
Though this piece of writing, done in part as therapy during a period of withdrawal, was interesting to me, I somehow lost it. It is gone, flushed down the black hole of the computer I wrote it on, sent back into photons or sticky electrons or reverse quanta or whatever the words on a computer screen become when they go away, and though the kid is mostly gone with it, too, there remains a kind of ghost-image of him, still standing, smiling, in a haze of smoke and dreamwood another life ago.
We hid our cigarettes—whole flattened packs of L&Ms and Pall Malls, under rocks in the woods out past Mr. Smith’s garage where you could hear the radio playing faintly in the distance all afternoon and evening. Our fathers had cleared a 30-yard run in the second-growth locusts and built an archery buttress for us with a half dozen bales of hay; they had thought to improve us in some way by encouraging us to master the bow and arrow. Actually, we went there mostly to sneak cigarettes. After burning one, we’d hide the packs under slabs of damp sandstone where snakes and pillbugs lurked, and fire off a few shots with our little bows and then have another cigarette.
Smoking in those days was a kind of ritualized ecstasy, always communal. Before our serious addiction, we never smoked alone, and our experience with tobacco was shaped by all sorts of conventions. Never three on a match, for example. It was a rule inherited from our fathers, young bucks not long back from World War II, who had learned that an open light visible long enough for more than two quick ignitions was enough for a sniper to draw a bead on. At least that’s how the folklore went. So despite our smoking in an obscure woods on the outskirts of Steubenville, Ohio, far from Nazis and Japs, as our fathers still called them, we didn’t linger. The third guy always flicked his own Zippo open with the trademark metallic click, and lit his own.
The first deep drag was filled with an edgy excitement. You knew that within seconds the buzz would come upon you, starting in your head. You grew dizzy first, then a kind of thrill ran out into your arms and legs. You’d feel the woods sway and rock, and you’d spread your feet apart, to steady yourself. Then followed the tightening of concentration, the pleasant oral rhythm of inhale/exhale, inhale, exhale and the camaraderie of the other guys, smoking. The world was good.
I vomited horribly after my first cigarette. It too was smoked in the woods, outside Wheeling, West Virginia, at a nature camp I’d been given a scholarship to by the Steubenville Audubon Club. I was 11 or 12 and weighed, probably, 80 pounds. Some delirious miscreant named Jackie Diamond or something like that had flashed a pack of Pall Malls before dinner and whispered, “Behind the cabin, 15 minutes.” I found him there, leaning suavely against a big beech tree and French inhaling like a Parisian pimp. He lit me one off his own, and I closed my eyes and dragged on it. I gagged, coughed, wheezed and finally, after forcing three or four more inhalations, fell to the ground in a sick green swoon. I got up on all fours and heaved my guts out there on the frowning earth.
So this kid of memory—this kid who may have died years ago, or who may still be going at it in Wheeling or Bridgeport or Woodsfield or somewhere, smoking and hacking and coughing—was he an angel or a devil ? So many of the good times I had in college were times when smoking was present. My freshman year, I would go out on Friday night with a fresh pack of Winstons or Vantages or whatever brand I was smoking at the time, and drink draft beer by the mug at places like, well, the Mug Club, or at Shipley’s, or The Family Owl. Everybody smoked in those days; bars had a gray haze and stank like old house fires. Smoking was a way of meeting girls; you watched until some lovely pulled one from her cute leather bag, and then you stepped forward suavely, offering a light. Smoking was a way of punctuating an argument; Tennyson was never better than when, frowning over the curl of smoke burning your eyes from the cigarette clamped in the side of your mouth, you made one final point, your finger on the bonanza passage in the text. Just standing around on campus, a smoke in your mouth, maybe getting photographed for the candids that appeared in the school paper, was good stuff and built your reputation as a rake and intellectual.
Those earlier smokes in the woods by the archery range still brought with them a rush of dizziness and nausea, but as our tolerance increased, the queasiness subsided and we could smoke two or three in an afternoon and suffer no apparent effects.
Keeping our smokes under stones in the woods had, of course, some negative consequences. If it rained, for example, they got wet. The printing on the paper inside the cellophane would blur and smear. The sharp red capitals L and M would slowly disintegrate into blobs and splotches, while the cigarettes inside would dampen and go moldy. Once so ruined, a cigarette, though completely dried out, still tasted like a grass door mat when you lit it. But getting smokes was risky, and we used every one, no matter how spoiled.
We bought them at Mr. Howard’s, a front parlor store in a house one street over from ours on Lincoln Heights. Until our neighbor put up a fence, I could cut through his yard and be at Mr. Howard’s in 10 seconds. The most remarkable thing about Mr. Howard was that he had no ears. I have no idea what happened to them, but their lack seemed to set off in him other lacks as well: he hardly ever spoke, for example. You went in and ordered what your mother had told you to get, and Mr. Howard silently padded around the room (it was really the front room of his house, rigged with shelves reaching to the ceiling, and ill-lit as a basement) and got your order together in the dark silence. Then (this was just about the best of the strange details to me) he’d write your order down in the receipt book with the stub of pencil—it was always the same pencil, a yellow one, no more than three inches long, which he kept in his apron pocket—licking the point of the pencil in between each item. No, not exactly—what he did was he inserted the entire end of the pencil into his mouth, as if sucking on it briefly, as if to draw out its fullest graphitic darkness, then withdrew it and made his dark-damp entry. It was marvelously strange, and every time I gaped.
One summer as an adult, while I was in one of my many withdrawal periods, I sneaked out to the space between the garage and the fence to my compost pile, where I would smoke. I had noticed months before, in some weird drift of thinking while I slouched smokily next to it, how my compost pile was exactly the size of a grave, and that if I died, my body would fit exactly into it, and could be covered with vines and clippings from my gardens. I thought of myself as compost, and entertained the notion of the ultimate recycling—my body composted, then spread out over the gardens, to feed to beans and peppers and tomatoes that my surviving wife and children would eat.
But no such weird, guilt-shadowed reverie occurred that afternoon. As I dipped into my pocket for a match, I looked up to see a piece of notebook paper taped to the garage window.
I knew immediately that it was in my younger son Brendan’s hand. A few weeks before, already indoctrinated by the helter-skelter uncritical but headlong drug program of the public schools, in which nicotine and heroin were lumped together as equally heinous addictives, he had nearly done me in. At Mass one Sunday, after the pastor had invited anyone who had a special prayer to speak up, Brendan had turned to Pam and whispered loudly, “Should we ask Father to help Dad get off drugs?”
For a time as an adult, I occasionally lived alone in the woods. I rolled my own cigarettes, in an attempt to cut down the chain-smoking. I figured if I had to take all the time and trouble to manufacture each one, I’d indulge myself less. I bought papers and a bag of Bugler’s tobacco at Whitacre store, and set out to become a cowboy of smoking. It didn’t last long; the intensity of my addiction and the long habit of instant gratification doomed this attempt. Soon I was buying packs of smokes and again, unconsciously pulling them out of my shirt pocket and lighting up.
So it was back to the smoke-filled bars. There’s still something about the phrase that sets off a warm thrill in me: the eye-burning staleness and stench of such places is difficult for me now, but then, the very smell of cigarettes and beer and perfume was so warmly entangling that to remember it overwhelms me with nostalgia. I smoked and drank, drank and smoked, and in between shot pool and yearned for the wearers of those perfumes.
And isn’t it strange, o yes, looking back on it now, to see myself in shorts and a tie-dyed T-shirt, out in the middle of Clear Fork, fishing, shooting a little spinner around some likely bass-attracting structure near the bank, a cigarette hanging from my mouth? It’s all a picture of rural health and activity, of a kind of oneness with nature, except for that cancer stick sending out its treacherous fairy of smoke, that foreshadowing, that reminder of breath and ghost.
There were girlfriends who smoked, and that was always interesting. At the same time some part of me idolized them, another part of me, lighting their cigarettes, smelling the stale smoke in their hair, watching them, late at night perhaps, after all the carry-outs closed, grubbing up a butt from an ashtray and firing it up, and squinting in the acrid smoke—that part of me wondered what it was we were doing, us beautiful young people, dragging our bodies through addiction and abuse and late hours and all. What did we know? What did we care?
And then I am almost 50 years old; it has been more than a decade since I quit smoking, nearly my whole lifetime since my father quit. Yet here he lies, almost naked, shivering, in a hospital bed in Columbus, Ohio, the pneumonia he suffers from nearly killing him. Was the damage of his youth inescapable? Had those service-issue Lucky Strikes or Camels or whatever they were he so enjoyed while fishing for hammerhead sharks in Hawaii during the War hurt him in some immensely slow way that took 45 years to catch up with him, but catch up it did?
And his survival of this bout of pneumonia, only to succumb on Christmas Eve, l996, to the next—was this a result of smoking damage sustained even in the midst of bliss? The last glimpse I had of my father was his body-bagged corpse on a gurney being wheeled out the front door of his and my mother’s condominium off Hague Avenue in Columbus—he who had borne me on his shoulders when I was a child, who had sat quietly with me in the woods as I suffered after a divorce, he who must have bought hundreds of packs of cigarettes at Mr. Howard’s.
It took my mother an even longer time to die of respiratory failure—it seemed like a long time, there in the room with her and my sister—witnessing her death-struggle, although struggle seems the wrong word for what was a mercifully unconscious suffering, and a kind of extended, slow, running-down to breathlessness. How surreal it seemed. Only a week before she had been fine, planning a trip with my sister, getting ready for her birthday. We all sent flowers, and that may well have been the beginning of her end. She had allergies, exacerbated by her life time of smoking (even during chemotherapy for her cancer she sneaked them). Weakened, perhaps overcome by an abundance of fresh pollen, she succumbed.
Years ago, when I was still chain-smoking as I worked, I wrote a poem about the ubiquity of smoke in my life. Cigarette smoke, the smoke of brush fires across the abandoned strip mine we played ball next to, the smoke of the coal fires that burned still in most furnaces in old Steubenville, the fuliginous outpourings of the steel mills, even the explosive and cinder-filled exhalations of the puffing bellies—our name for the steam locomotives that pounded through town when I was a boy. Filled with such clouds and miasmas, the poem ends, “Smoke’s trouble was my trouble./It still is.” And it is still, these deaths and these many years later, these recent environmental backsteps later, these times of “An Inconvenient Truth” later—still true. Only it’s all of us who are in trouble now, not just me.
Richard Hague’s During The Recent Extinctions: New & Selected Poems 1984-2012 is just out from Dos Madres Press, and his Learning How: Stories, Yarns & Tales appeared from Bottom Dog Press in 2011. He has recent work in Still: The Journal and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel.