Smoke Break–A Memoir

ZACH, TOMMY, AND I were sauntering across the empty church parking lot near our small Catholic school in Vancouver, Washington, when Tommy paused and turned his head. An engine hummed in the distance, passing naively through the quiet, buttoned-up neighborhood. I heard it too, but swiftly parleyed my hesitance. We were blocked from view on two sides by rows of large arborvitae, on the third by the brick mass of the church itself. The street that passed in plain sight was empty. Tommy just scared easily.

It was the fall of 1996, the first few weeks of our last year in middle-school. It was Saturday, and one scented with rain and chimney smoke—like fresh mud and tree roots, interrupted covertly by draughts of spicy roasting pine. Though no girls were there, a noticeable aura of Polo cologne dawdled behind all three of us, breaking into the harvest air like a needle skip.

Shiny blond and rust colored leaves crowded the wet asphalt and flashed below the grey autumn hood. Behind the screen of indistinguishable clouds, the afternoon was ambiguous. Morning and night coalesced in constant twilight, the sun a subtle ball of slightly lighter ashen fuzz. That murky cloak concealed three eighth grade rogues—under it we could get away with much.

In the middle of the asphalt lot Zach revealed from the pocket of his hulking, black Raiders jacket the whyfor of our high-noon ramble: a soft-pack of GPC menthols, Class A cigarettes, which he’d pilfered from his dad an hour earlier. The ruffled, green and white pack was seedy and appealing. Its authority took command instantly of Tommy and me, the lustrous cellophane grabbing what light there was and seducing us in its gleam. GPC—though it still escapes me what those sleek, black letters stood for, I knew right then what Class A meant. That was the class I wanted in.

Zach had crammed the package into his baggy coat hastily, and at least half of the cigarettes had ripped, some severed completely. But the pack was nearly full, so he littered the casualties and shook an unbroken cigarette to the corner, where the foil wrapper had been torn open neatly. A few bits of minty tobacco sprinkled to the ground, and I caught the whiff of their sweetness.

To watch Zach draw the smoke from its pack and up to his mouth, no passersby would have thought it was his first. He was a natural. He let the unlit cylinder rest at an angle off-center in his mouth, not quite holding it, rather, letting the dry paper stick to the moisture on his lower lip and dangle precariously. I studied him keenly, parsing the balance and tact, scrutinizing thirstily Zach’s casual expertise. “He must have been practicing,” I stewed, breathing in the green air and exhaling with a little trepidation.

Pumpkin-orange hair flamed atop Zach’s round, freckled face, which he started shaving in fifth grade. He was compact, bull-like. His adult strength was feared and envied. He bragged about pushing his dad around. We all talked about beating up our fathers, but for me it was mere delusion. The closest I ever got was forcibly messing up my dad’s already silvering hair in public. I’d sneak behind him and rifle through his slicked-back do like I was his grandad, calling him Champ or Sport. Someone always laughed—not him, but someone. Zach’s abuse wasn’t funny. His misbehavior could make a mother cry. Mine was usually just embarrassing.

Zach flicked the lighter and drew an impressive lungful, letting out a thick wash of white smoke that took its time diffusing into the cool breeze. No cough, not even an ahem. “That was awesome,” I thought. “If I can manage half that good I’ll be okay.”

I was the oldest of us three, and the tallest—I even had a dirt-bike and a chain-drive wallet. But as the dusky afternoon sifted through the haloes of smoke above him, Zach’s copper peach-fuzz beard seemed to grow deep and woolly. His voice, seasoned by the GPC, was suddenly hefty, imposing. I shrank a little bit below it. He must have gained ten years with that gulp of tobacco, at least, and I knew that if I spoke, my cranky, pubescent words would have surely cracked an octave too high. So I thought. And in that moment I found it much too easy to imagine Zach’s hand descending on my fledgling head, his brawny little fingers teasing my carefully styled scalp. “Did he just call me Tiger?” I chafed in silence. Without a word, Zach raked in another drag, and through the bounteous vapor he passed Tommy the baton.

 

DISRUPTING MY REVERIE as much as my lunch, the splintered office door claps against its aged jam and goads me to address a newly hand-written order for six pieces each of six different sizes in quarter-inch clear glass. That’s thirty-six plates. At four sides each, that’s one hundred forty-four cuts. Each cut has two edges to finish, two hundred eighty-eight passes on the wet-sander that can put a palm-width laceration in my hand in less than a second. That’s two hundred eighty-eight shots at about twenty-five stitches. I think I’m done with math.

Looking up from the crack-laden, oil-stained floor, I survey a medley of archaic tools and grimy, vintage-looking posters, some with half-nude girls, some with hotrod cars, some with half-nude girls in hotrod cars. A clock from the 1950s loses two seconds for every one it gains. No wonder the days seem so long.

Rain smears lugubriously down the sooty, yellowed plate glass windows, inspired, it seems, by the glumness they contain—like if we’d brighten the place up a bit, the clouds might break. Exposed florescent tubes sputter and hiss while I watch the gas inside them stir like trapped and frantic ghosts.

Someday this will all be mine—the dead flies resting in spider webs I’ve seen since I was a kid. Those flies must think there’s no such thing as time. They’ve watched the years race along with nothing but new calendars to mark them—calendars with cars as old and crumbly as the bricks behind them.

As I put the cutter to the glass I try to invent some semblance of pride in practicing my trade. It’s my father’s trade, I’m carrying on tradition. Not too many people can still cut glass by hand—I’m a craftsman, an artisan. I’m thirty and on the cusp of owning my own business. Then I think of my father, fifty feet away, sixty-six years old in his antiquated, nicotine stained office. His wiry grey hair quitting his forehead as bedraggled eyebrows overrun it, his varnished lungs and craggy hands betraying the years of hardship that our small-town glass shop have awarded him.

He started working for Block & Olson in his early teens, left for Vietnam via judge’s fiat, then returned six years later. He was here when Olson died. He buried Block a few years after. Now he presides over their cobwebbed legacy, and I’m supposedly next to take the throne.

I’ve worked several jobs before this—just jobs. Twelve years ago, this was the launch of my career. Eight years ago I awoke ready every morning, my alarm clock ringing as I headed out the door. Five years ago I thought, “When this is mine we’ll finally modernize.” Last year my tax form still read “technician,” and I’d never seen the books or met the owners of our biggest contracts, both of which are growing less boastful yearly. I still describe this as my job, and when I do I hear the complaint in my voice. This morning the alarm clock dragged me from bed. It’s a paycheck. Besides, what else could I do?

I score the glass and snap it.

 

THE LIGHTER FLARED AGAIN and Tommy’s supple lungs were electrified. He didn’t handle it as well as Zach. Tommy received the smoke with all the elegance of a broken ankle, bowing to evacuate sporadic bursts of adulterated air. As he coughed and belched, a string of saliva bridged his mouth and hand, bellying to the ground like a slackened tightrope. Disgracefully he slurped the spit back up. “That’s gross,” I thought. “If that were me, I’d probably let it fall.”

Tommy’s chin rippled as he worked to gain composure, discretely eyeballing Zach, whose freckled face was brilliant red with laughter. Tommy had turned red for other reasons. After Zach’s flawless performance, Tommy gagged on embarrassment as much as hot tobacco. The drool he failed to reel back left a trail of wetness on his giant white Tommy Hilfiger shirt—not a good look. Hands resting on the knees of oversized tan Dickies, he panted and gasped. But Tommy never let the cigarette drop from his fingers. I had to give it to him for that.

Tommy was a big, soft kid. He was my best friend. Somehow he managed being gangly and chubby at the same time—a confused mixture of awkward that even my mother acknowledged. She always called him bloobery.

We played football for the same Pee-Wee team in the fifth and sixth grades. When Tommy ran he’d pull his arms close to his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, while his legs strode haphazardly in every direction but forward. I was a bad runner too, but Tommy made me look like Prefontaine. He’d puke every time we did wind-sprints—we did them often. I imagine his persistent nausea stemmed from the KFC habit he indulged between school and practice. To make matters worse, he could never get his helmet before he retched. God, I hope he washed that thing.

I expected him to lose it right in the church parking lot. But he swallowed it back, straightened up, and put the cigarette to his lips again. A little more pensive, he let the smoke linger in his mouth—let it cool. Then, humph! Down it went. To redeem his dreadful start, Tommy let the smoke escape through his nose. “Good form,” I concluded.

Two gorgeous stacks of burly smoke mushroomed downward from his nostrils. It was a nice touch. His eyes teared up slightly, just glossed over really. All in all, a respectable show. I thought, “They both set the bar pretty high.”

Then Tommy handed me the GPCs, followed by the Bic. It had a black eight-ball against a red background—undoubtedly lucky. Someone had peeled off the warning sticker.

I couldn’t let them know I was nervous, so as I fumbled with the lighter I cursed at it some, blaming its shitty quality for my inability to make it work. At last I sparked the flame and raised it to the anxious scroll. “This is it, this is my future,” I mused, with the kindling of supremacy waiting at my lips, the impetuous fuse of a colossal bombshell of manhood. “This is fucking rad.”

As the flame kissed the cigarette, the sky blackened and loosed its rain. We scrambled toward the playground fifty feet away. It was the kind with those gigantic woodchips, the ones that leave irregular, red indentations on the backs of your thighs if you sit in them too long. The swings jangled ever-so-slightly in the wind. Huddled beneath the metal slide, we listened for a moment as the rain peened our tinny shelter.

 

CHALKY WATER FROM THE WET-BELT SANDER plasters my face and glasses. I never remember to take them off, and as I wipe away the gritty spots I etch the lenses even more. It’s costing me a fortune to keep replacing them.

My father hears the machine’s whir relax and leaves his solitaire to smoke a cigarette in my face while I wash the milky sanding residue from the thirty-six panes of glass I’ve ground.

Twelve years in this trade and I still can’t figure out why they call it cutting glass. There’s nothing cutting about it. You roll a very small, very hard metal wheel along the glass, which makes a deep score—a weak point. Then, using a special pair of pliers shaped like a frown, you put enough pressure on both sides of the score to break the glass along its distance—similar to how you’d fold a piece of paper, then tear along its crease.

It’s a very tactile process, requiring just the right amount of pressure in both the scoring and the snapping. Too deep a score and it breaks erratically, too shallow and it won’t break at all. Even if the score is perfect, snap the glass too fast and it chips, too slow and it curves at one end—wait too long, and it heals. It’s a game of subtleties.

My father comes next to me and says, “Watcha thinkin’ about?”

“I don’t know,” I wonder in response. “Nothing, really.”

Wrong answer. Now he’s going to tell a story—I try to guess which one.

He tells me of the time his father, with alcohol aroused machismo, asserted that his Jeep could drive up Salmon Creek. I recite the lines in my head as he says them, mouthing the more familiar ones when he turns away. To prove just how stout the old 4×4 was, my father, then just a child, was elected to the helm. The idea being, the Jeep was so damn tough that even a stupid kid could drive it up a creek, no problem. My father’s voice buzzes sentimentally as he reminisces.

The Jeep ended up in a swimming hole, its passengers soaked with both water and booze. My poor young father, captain of the fruitless voyage, was made to stay with his land-loving sloop all night, until it could be extracted and wrung out.

“Did you ruin the Jeep?” I ask, even though I know the ending.

“Nope. We drained the oil and let the distributor dry out, and it fired right up. Those things were bullet proof. I learned to drive in that Jeep. Dad would toss me the keys, and I’d come back at dinnertime. God, we used to have a blast with it. Me and your grandpa used to spend days at the mountains in that thing. It reminds me of when you were a kid, and we used to go to the dunes almost every weekend.”

I take the bait, and now I get nostalgic. “Remember the time you rolled your four-wheeler over and it caught on fire? I had to kick sand all over it.”

My father lights another smoke and smiles wryly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Man, maybe you should stay out of the wilderness,” I smirk. “It hasn’t been the best to you.”

Smoke lingers in relaxing spirals around his face. He still hasn’t let go of his wistful grin, and tiny wrinkles radiate from the corners of his eyes and mouth and somehow make him youthful. He has a handsome smile.

It’s been so long since those weekend trips, they belong to another life altogether. Funny how so many eras drift in the current of a single lifetime. I never even noticed this one floating by. Wooden a-frames of old and unprofitable mirror sigh all around us, multiplying the filthy floor. It dawns on me that I’ve made a career of breaking them, that luck has been as useful to me as a seatbelt in a sinking Jeep.

“Dad, I think I want to go back to school.”

He raises the cigarette to his lips.

 

HOLDING THE STILL UNLIT GPC, I stooped below the slide, struggling to avoid the soggy wood-chips that threatened to tarnish my impeccably composed outfit. It was a matching ensemble from JNCO: dark-brown denim jacket with tan stitching and wide legged pants ending in cuffs that completely engulfed my shoes, which were white Nike Jordan XIs, with the red accents. I had brought it all together with a plain, stark white t-shirt. It was a far cry from the white polo tucked into blue or khaki cords that comprised my school uniform. On the weekends, I pulled my bleached hair tightly into a short pony-tail, exposing the sheared sides and back of my skull. I wore it like a trophy of suburban adolescent fashion sense.

My hooliganry rested comfortably between Zach and Tommy. I wasn’t the toughest kid, by any stretch, but I wasn’t bloobery either. I was known for my creative and well-placed use of expletives. Classmates shuddered to think of tangling with my peppery tongue, though they always lauded my performance on the schoolyard. Even so, salty language only carries you so far in the real world.

Watching the smoke waft lightly about Zach and Tommy, emanating dapperly from between their fingers and coming to rest in layers that hung like translucent shelves, I couldn’t wait any longer. They looked so cool, easily twice my age. It was high time I join the ranks of them—of the Dylans, the Fonzis, the James Bonds and John McClanes.

Putting the cigarette back to my lips, I struck the Bic and drank in the fiery miasma, completely forgetting Tommy’s blunder. My throat tried to close, but I wouldn’t let it.

The burn was furious and I quickly exhumed the seething murk from my body, straining not to vomit. When I breathed the clean air afterward, its cold was shocking—like a bottle brush scouring my windpipe. Within seconds my head started to spin. The playground wobbled on its axis and my trachea throbbed. As my eyes spun inside my skull I caught glimpses of my cohorts snickering.

“Are you buzzin?” Zach belted.

“What the hell,” I thought. “Did both these assholes feel this way and fail to clue me in?” But I had to go again. I labored to aim for my lips as they whirled around my face, my own hand careering about an elliptical that I couldn’t quite track. It was a struggle not to miss, but my dad used to say that if it isn’t hard to do, it probably isn’t worth doing.

At last I persevered, and the GPC made it to my lips again. This time my bravado swelled, and I siphoned a copious volume of mentholated tobacco. My looping world began to straighten out, and in my head there sang a pleasant hum. Sounds registered with such fidelity that I could almost hear the superhuman blood coursing through my dilated veins. The brilliance of those autumn leaves was nearly blinding, and my god-like stare could pierce the heavy clouds to gaze upon the dazzling sun behind them. Oh what grandeur I’d been missing. I puffed and puffed, and reveled in the clouds that unfolded as I set them free. Destiny was tightly rolled between my manly fingers. Greatness piled up in my chest, which I expected any moment to sprout a noble forest of hair. I suddenly thought, “I should give them noogies.”

The rain in time subsided and we left our hot-boxed shelter, much advanced in years as well as coolness. Zach, Tommy, and I broiled through the neighborhood all afternoon and evening, each mass of smoke more rewarding than the last. Deliberately we stayed conspicuous. After all, what’s the point of being impressive if there’s no one to impress. We weren’t just blowing smoke.

That whole year, we lit up any chance we got. Mostly Zach would rob them from his dad. I can’t imagine he didn’t notice. I’m sure he did, but was too scared to say. Sometimes we’d get an amoral adult to buy us a pack at the Minit-Mart. We smoked the best ones then. Thus began a decade’s acquaintance with that rugged and lordly tradition. And I assure you that, for a time, it gave me what I asked of it. It sated my hunger for misrule, lifted my virility on its lofty perfume.

Smoking wasn’t just something that I wanted to do, it was someone who I needed to be. That GPC was a fiery scepter situated imperiously between my fingers, judiciously pursed within my lips. It was a will, a backbone. Powerful people smoked—lawyers and mobsters and guys with tattoos. My dad smoked like a furnace.

 

“YOU MEAN you don’t wanna run this place?” My father asks sardonically, while gazing toward his office. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t really know,” I mull aloud. “I was thinking about going into Nursing School.”

“Nursing!? Do they let in men?”

“Yeah. They hire ‘em to roll old fat guys out of I.C.U. after coronary bypass,” I deadpan, dramatically waving his piquant smoke from my face.

“Bill,” his smile ebbs, but he seems grand and warm, “I’ve spent my entire life down here. I’ve put everything I have into this place, and it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a pain in my ass. There are lots of times I wonder if I fucked up when I bought it. But it’s been good to me.

“Of course I’d love for you to be part of this company. I always imagined you here. But I want what’s right for you. I’ve always been so proud of you. I always will be, whatever you do.”

He draws a lavish breath of smoke, nearly exhausting half the cigarette, and lets it meander sagaciously from his nose and mouth.

“Except for all those damn tattoos.”

A crooked sneer faintly looms behind the unctuous veil that coils and rolls about his face. He squeezes the ember between his thumb and finger, flicks the glowing butt to the floor, and, as it scatters, says, “You’ll be good at whatever you do.”

I catch him just before the office door shuts, “You know, dad, you really should quit smoking.”

“Maybe,” he concedes, holding the door with a calloused finger, “but nobody likes a quitter.”

Through the two way mirror in his office that he’s long since forgotten about, I watch him collapse into the depressions of his tattered, leather chair, swivel around to his computer, and stare perplexedly at its cruddy, convex screen. Nudging open the door with my shoulder, I ask, “Is that why you’ve been shuffling that jack of spades all morning? It’s just too hard to press new game?”

On the cold floor below, the remains of his cigarette smolder in a tiny constellation that sends off thin laces of pure smoke. I watch them wriggle upward, accepting the luster of sun through the windows as they dissipate. For a moment, I lust again for that racy smog to fill my lungs, remembering the clout it seemed to give. Then I remember how hard it was to quit, how simple it would have been to keep torching away. I think of how I was fixed in the role more than I was addicted to the substance. I watch the ashes fizzle out, and whistle back to work thinking of tomorrow. It’ll be Tuesday, it occurs to me. Admissions advisors take walk-ins all day.

 

 

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