We all smoke, although my parents don’t know it. My sister Martha is the oldest and it’s hardest for her because she still lives in Buffalo, not even a mile from my parents’ house. Both she and her husband Dick smoke, but they can’t do it in the house. They never know when my parents might drop by for coffee and my mother has a very keen sense of smell.
So they smoke in the backyard. They grind their cigarettes out on the bottoms of their shoes and chuck the evidence over the back fence. Martha says that except for winter or when it rains, it’s not such a bad arrangement.
During holidays Johnny and I come in from out of town and it’s just murder, especially after dinner when my mother brews the coffee. All of a sudden, me and Johnny get kind of fidgety. The conversation seems forced and artificial. All I can think of is smoking.
“Jones Café?” Johnny says, grinning at me from over his coffee cup. He’s a real wise-ass, Johnny.
“Sure,” I say, tossing my balled-up napkin onto the table. “I’m game.”
I go upstairs to my suitcase and get my cigarettes. I kiss my mother goodnight and as I pull away from her face I wonder if she smells something. Before we leave my father says, ”Don’t be late boys.”
“Jesus, dad,” I say. “I’m thirty-three years old.”
“I don’t care if you’re a hundred,” he says. “I worry.”
We park my mother’s car outside the nearest bar and run inside, cigarettes dangling from our mouths. The first drag makes me dizzy and slightly nauseated, but after a few seconds I’m okay. I toss my cigarettes on the bar and Johnny does the same. We just sit there drinking beers and smoking, big shit-eating grins on our faces.
“That’s good,” I say, almost cooing. “Oh, that’s very good.”
Johnny smokes filterless Lucky Strikes, which are the worst cigarettes for leaving yellow stains on your fingers. I’m a Marlboro man myself. I use special tooth polish to keep my teeth from turning yellow, and before going home for a visit I scrub my fingers with a diluted bleach solution. Plus I work out on the weight machines three times a week at the YMCA. Looking at me you’d never know I’ve been smoking two packs a day for fifteen years.
Johnny, on the other hand, is entirely too reckless. Johnny looks like a smoker. I really think my parents suspect Johnny. He used to be skinny, but then he turned thirty and started putting on weight in strange places.
“I think my head is getting fatter,” he told me once on the phone. “The fat’s starting to pinch my eyes. I can feel it.”
His complexion isn’t good either, and all day long he coughs that deep, gravely smoker’s cough. Johnny has always been the wild one in the family. He’s the youngest and he lives in Los Angeles, which doesn’t really explain anything, but in a way it does.
The whole smoking issue drives people crazy when I bring them home to visit. Like the time I brought my girlfriend Maria for Thanksgiving. Maria is Swedish and loves smoking. She has one of those rare faces that just looks better with a cigarette sticking out of it.
“You make it seem so delicious,” a woman once told her in a bar. “I’m almost tempted to try one myself.”
Oh, she’s something else, that Maria. She thinks I’m kidding when I tell her my parents don’t know that I smoke. We’re standing by the window in the café car and she laughs and says, “But you’re a grown man.”
Maria has been on her own since she was sixteen and she’s convinced Americans are too sheltered.
“It’d destroy them,” I say. “Our family has a history of heart disease, and they worry like crazy.” “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” she says, lighting a cigarette.
“It is,” I say. “But that’s just the way it is.” I light myself a cigarette. “Okay,” I say. “These are our last cigarettes until we can sneak out of the house after dinner.”
We’re just pulling away from the Albany-Rennsalear station, meaning it’s roughly four and a half hours to Buffalo. I know from past trips that if I stop smoking now, brush my teeth and wash my face a few times, I can pretty much wipe out any telltale signs.
I put my hand on Maria’s thigh and give it a squeeze. “I’m serious,” I say.
“Oh, alright,” she says. She’s smiling, but it’s not a happy smile.
My parents love Maria right from the start. “She sounds just like Upstairs, Downstairs,” my mother says. My mother’s a sucker for public television.
Maria and I are sitting on the couch in the living room. My parents sit on the other side of the coffee table in two overstuffed chairs. The air smells pleasantly of citrus.
After a minute or so, I get up and go to the bathroom. I cup my hands over my face and let out little puffs of air, checking for traces of cigarette smell on my breath. I smell my bleached knuckles and then pull my shirt up to my nose and sniff. I get up close to the mirror and bare my sparkling white teeth, turning my head left and right.
When I open the bathroom door, my father is standing there. I jump a little and put my hand over my heart. I say, “Jesus, dad, you scared me.” For a few seconds he just stands there, rocking back and forth on his heels, hands clasped behind his back.
“I can see now why you never date American girls,” he says, smiling. He puts his arm around me and leads me back to the living room.
“She’s so darn sophisticated,” he says.
When I sit back down on the couch, though, I feel something poking me in the ass. I reach under my leg and pull out a Bic disposable lighter.
My mother says, “What’s that, honey?”
I study the lighter as if I’ve never seen one before. “I dunno,” I say, turning the lighter over in my fingers.
It’s definitely one of the lighters Maria brought from Sweden; it doesn’t have the childproof gizmo like American lighters. It might have fallen out of my pocket when I got up, but I don’t think so. My parents look at each other blankly, then we all turn and look at Maria. “Oh, just give it to me,” she says, grabbing the lighter out of my hand.
Last March I get a call from Martha. “You’ve got to come home as soon as possible,” she says, a little choked up.
“What’s the matter?” I say.
“It’s dad.” I hear a familiar flickering sound, followed by a short pause and then the sound of Martha blowing directly into the mouthpiece. “He’s had a heart attack.”
“But he’s never smoked a day in his life!” It’s the first thought that pops into my head.
“You know,” Martha says, “that’s exactly what Dick said.”
“Is he okay?” I ask, reaching shakily for my cigarettes, then deciding against it.
“He’s fine, but he’s going in for surgery tomorrow.”
Dick says something in the background that I can’t quite make out. My sister puts her hand over the mouthpiece and yells back at him. After a moment she says, “I’m here.”
“I’ll come as soon as I can,” I say.
“Couldn’t you come now?” She’s crying. “It’s just,” she pauses a moment and exhales into the phone. “I’m sorry. It’s hard, you know?”
The doctor pulls Martha, Johnny and me into a tiny consultation room. He’s a short, chubby Indian man who walks quickly and wears loose-fitting hospital scrubs and paper slippers. The whole ensemble gives him the appearance of a precocious little boy at a pajama party.
He shows us an x-ray of my father’s chest. “His heart is the heart of a young man,” he says, making small circular motions with his chubby index finger on a white mass near the center of the x-ray. “The problem though, is right here.” He runs his finger from my father’s heart down a long white tube, stopping at what looks like a cotton ball lodged in the artery. “This is the clearest case of genetic coronary disease I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Looking at the x-ray makes the saliva gather at the back of my throat. The doctor turns off the light box and puts his chubby hand on my shoulder.
“Now I don’t want to alarm you,” he says, looking earnestly at the three of us, “but you’re getting to the age where you have to start thinking about these kinds of things. Your father tells me that none of you smoke, which is good news.”
He goes on talking for a minute or so, but I’m no longer paying attention. I’m too busy imagining what my own chest x-ray might look like. I see my insides charred and crusty like the inside of a whiskey barrel. I see my heart, shriveled like a raisin, my arteries clogged with sticky, pea-sized nuggets of tar and nicotine.
My mother is sitting next to the hospital bed, holding my father’s hand. You can tell from their swollen eyes that they’ve both been crying. My mother shakes her head and says, “It’s all my fault. All those years of meat every night for dinner.”
Martha drapes her arms over my mother’s shoulders and kisses her cheek. “It’s not your fault, ma,” she says.
“We thought it was good for us,” my father says, his voice weak from worry and fatigue.
“That’s just the way we were brought up,” my mother adds, looking up at Johnny and me, as though asking for our forgiveness. Then she says, “I just hope you guys are taking good care of yourselves.”
On the way home, Johnny and I stop for a coffee. It’s one of the spots near my parents’ house where we often go to “de jones” as Johnny puts it. Johnny orders a double espresso, but I opt for the decaf cappuccino, no whipped cream, thank you.
Johnny gives me a funny look and I shrug. “Caffeine’s been making me a little jittery,” I say, making a sour face and rubbing my chest.
The mood is gloomy and neither of us has very much to say. It feels strange being there and not smoking. Finally, Johnny says, “It’s true what ma said, I mean about all the meat we used to eat.”
“Remember sausage night?” I say.
“Every Thursday,” Johnny says, laughing. “With heaps of fried potatoes.”
“Plus dad has never exercised a day in his life,” I say, wishing I’d gotten that whipped cream after all.
“How old was he when Martha was born?” Johnny asks.
I work out the years in my head. “Jesus,” I say. “He was only twenty-two years old!”
“So by the time he was our age he had three kids and a wife,” Johnny says.
“Can you imagine the stress?” I say, shaking my head in disbelief.
“They say stress is a bigger factor than you might think,” Johnny says. “They’ve been doing studies about it.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I think I read somewhere something about that.” I’m starting to feel more cheery. “You remember how dad always used to keep things bottled up?”
“Ugh!” Johnny says, shaking his head. “That’s so bad for your heart.”
“The worst. That’s what did it,” I say, adjusting myself in the chair. Johnny purses his lips and nods.
He says, “Yep.”
We light up a couple of cigarettes. I fill my lungs to capacity, holding it all inside a moment before blowing a fine stream of bluish smoke into the air. Almost instantaneously I feel it – the blood hitting the back of my brain like a mallet. I grin across the table at Johnny.
“Delicious,” I say.
JOE MAGGIO was nominated for a 2001 Independent Spirit Award for his film Virgil Bliss.