I still find the cigarette to be an offensive concept. I suppose I always will; it's romanticism eviscerated from its dark, dreamy essence by the memory, still seared into my mind, of lifting Mom, with brother on the other side, from floor to toilet to tub to toilet to tub and back to bed, in those closing days, the Oncological Carthage, of treatment's false heroism.
Every puff I pass--on park benches, gridded pavement, under scaffolding on a dreary day, in the crosswalk with the smoker's arm dangling, cooly, from a car window where driver waits to go left, right--is death: decisive, obliterative, ravenous.
My friend A says this is "mourning talking." He may be right. After all, I wouldn't begrudge Bogart his smoke in say, Casablanca. It is his essential element, an alluring beacon into the despair of life's painful reality that in living there is loss, disappointment and the shattering of illusions. Hemingway in Italy; an anonymous soldier, covered in corpses, in a trench in Somme. Who could possess the inhumanity to deny that man a smoke? In a large number of the photos Dad sent home from France during the Second World War, he was always smoking. It obscured the monotony and enhanced the rugged handsomeness of it all.
Mom's first cigarettes were in high school, fifties-style. I imagine bobbie socks, big cars, custard stands, and smoke. That stance passed easily to college, to bars, bridge games, and late night reading frenzies, until, as I imagine it is for so many people, slippage into the habitual swampy wasteland of existential despair. A life aware that it will not transcend itself. The tobacco, no longer a fuel for propulsion, gives way to smoke, the clouded filter, a bag around the soul.
Not uplifting stuff, I grant you that.
And the end: the bitter irony of poison deployed to fight poison's deleterious effects! Chemo v Cancer, the Supreme Court Ruling everyone knows. FUBAR.
I enjoyed this past summer's heat, its occasional bursts of rain. And I welcomed the cool transition to autumn. It has soothed me. Miraculous leafy decay, unapologetic winds, shadows chilled into submission by time's minimizing march has me prepared, like a soldier going into battle, for the long onslaught of winter. Long walks in the wet and cold; icy winds stabbing at my cheeks. My own plodding along, firm ground underfoot, giving way to spring.
Death: brief, unadorned, cold. Life, in spring, new.
How does that happen year after year?
"Eternal, what is man that Thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man that Thou makest account of him? Man is like a breath; his days are as a shadow that passeth away. Eternal, bow Thy heavens and come down; touch the mountains that they may smoke."
You smoke! You smoke!
So it was You!
God in the hands of a fool is, yet again, proven to be a dangerous thing.
The garden, dear Mom, the garden: it called but you didn't listen. The trees whispered your name but you didn't turn your head to hear. You were in that stance, that insistent posture, surrounded by smoke, all-knowing. A god in your own universe.
Rain falls in Brooklyn on a dark morning. Footprints fade in the washing away. A man walks to the train, heading to work. His burden burns in one hand; and with the other hand, call it hope, he reaches for the line, a ring, calling him home.