Smoke

camel-cigerettes-logoI ROSE IN THE DARK of a dead cold winter morning, my week serving Mass at St. Barnabas. Dad dropped us outside church with a dollar each.

After Mass we bought hot chocolate and Hostess Donettes at the 7-11. In the waning dark I followed Didi and Jack back across the street to the school behind the church. Jack stayed alone to eat on the fire escape; inside Didi went upstairs to the sixth grade classroom.

I offered Mrs. Kidney a Donette soon as I entered. She declined.

Mrs. K, the fourth grade teacher, was a Yankees fan. She called herself the walking dead that fall, eyes drawn and black as the Yankees chased and lost the pennant.

Cheeks tingling, I sat on the back counter beside the radiator. St. B’s was a steam-heated, wood-floored, high-ceilinged old school. The first floor ceilings were painted white and ornately carved, like wedding cakes. The ceilings upstairs were low, office-like, with fluorescent lights and Styrofoam rectangles. Moving from fourth to fifth grade, the ceilings closed in. I was drawn to the prospect of low ceilings as I was drawn to toads belly up in the sun. Horror. Fascination.

I dangled my legs, sweaty in corduroy, over the counter. Outside the drafty windows the frigid morning turned gray.

“How are your parents?” Mrs. K said.

“They’re fine.”

“How’s your sister?”

“She’s fine. She came early, too. To avoid the bus.”

“Ohhhhh, the horrible bus.” Her eyebrows rose in dark, sarcastic arcs.

“It’s not so bad.” I liked the bus, especially in the afternoon when the high schoolers got on. They boarded from another world, the world of long hair and black tees, studded bracelets and heavy boots, cigarettes rather than chewing gum. It was the world of the office ceiling and it fascinated me even as it terrified me.

“My David doesn’t like the bus.”

“He doesn’t come in your car?”

“Ohh, no. He’s too big for that.” Again the eyebrows. “OK Pickett, I have to grade these papers now. Watch you don’t spill that-”

“I won’t.” I wanted to ask if she’d graded my paper yet, but we had an understanding. We could be friends, especially about the Yankees. But I was a terrible student or she was a terrible teacher, or both, and so homework was something we never talked about. In this Mrs. K was unlike the Nuns—unlike Sister Bert from third grade. Mrs. K and I allowed each other our weaknesses.

The spring before, to celebrate Jack’s birthday, Mom let us ride our bikes to school. I arrived ahead of the others to find Sister Bert starting up the black iron staircase, all her lopsided weight cast upon the railing. I prayed, in the way that little boys pray—selfishly and not at all concerning God—that she would get to the top before my mother turned the corner.

Three steps. Four. This was the moment I decided to become an Altar Boy. Six steps. Seven.

As she reached the first landing, Jack came wheeling in, bike skidding noisily next to mine. The nun turned ponderously at the noise but disregarded us. She continued. Ten steps. Eleven.

When she reached the thirteenth step Didi appeared, ringing her tinny bell. The surprised Nun turned again, stiff. Just behind Didi came my mother.

“Your son is a horrible child!” Sister Bert cried shrilly from the top, lifting her hand from the rail to raise a finger. “He fidgets in class!”

“Fidgets?” My mother looked at me, eyebrows raised.

“Yes. Fidgets! Your son is a terrible child. He is a fidgeter.”

So I was. The Sister made me so nervous that I’d worn my corduroys smooth from rubbing. She made me nervous because I never knew what to expect. I never knew what she wanted behind those inch-thick goggles.

“We’ll have a talk at home, young man,” my mother told me. She wasn’t angry. Mom knew of my trouble with the Sister. Mom and Dad had met with her, and in the end had concluded the only thing to do was get through the year. Dad called her a senile old penguin, and though I sensed Mom agreed, neither of us was allowed to repeat the term.

“Thank you, Sister Bert,” my mother called. “We are trying to correct his fidgeting at home.”

“Hmph.”

I kissed my mother good-bye, locked up my bike, and dragged myself up the black staircase as slowly as Sister Bert had done.

Remembering this I kept my pact with Mrs. K faithfully so we could stay human to each other. We could be human together because I understood that adults lived in a separate world, one driven by work, one with no time for childish intrusions. But I also understood that adults needed to be shaken from their world of work from time to time in order to remain human.

“Mrs. T?”

“Yes Pickett.” She continued grading.

“Do you smoke?”

She looked up. “What?”

“Do you smoke cigarettes?”

She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She looked tired even though it was dead winter and they weren’t playing ball.

Mrs. T smiled a little and it softened her face. Her skin looked tough, not quite yellow, but thin. The health lady had said this was how skin looked if we smoked.

“Not anymore,” she said. Then: “Why, Pickett?”

“No reason. Just wondered.” I swallowed some hot chocolate. The radiator gave out a lonely hiss.

“Do any of your classmates smoke?”

“I don’t think so.” It seemed unheard of. In fourth grade? Maybe upstairs, some of Didi’s classmates. But the fourth grade? “No.”

“Has anybody offered you cigarettes?”

“Uh-uh.” I bit into a Donette. They were half gone. I chewed and washed it down with some not-so-hot cho. “I love it when the chocolate gets like this.”

“Yes. I like my coffee cooled a bit, too. Any more questions, Pickett?”

“No,” I lied. I wanted to know what a bitter drink like coffee had to do with hot chocolate. I wanted to know why she’d stopped smoking. I wanted to know about my paper. I could have asked her questions all morning, but I sensed the adult coming back in. If I was patient I’d be able to talk to her once or twice more before the other students arrived and the human side of Mrs. T shut down completely.

After I finished the hot chocolate I visited the corridor. It was dark and smelled of wood polish, an odor I associated with holiness. The polished floorboards creaked and groaned. I walked tenderly to avoid arousing Sister Bert, whose door was directly across from the water fountain.

I took a few drinks and swished the water in my mouth. Hot chocolate had coated my teeth. I wasn’t being hygienic, I just didn’t like the film on my teeth. I wished I’d had a toothbrush. The day before I’d wished the same thing. When I returned to the classroom I asked Mrs. K for a paper clip.

“Here you go, Pickett. What’s it for?”

“Reminder.”

“I don’t want to see it flying across the room later.”

“Oh no, Mrs. K.” But she was kidding. She had a great smile when she was kidding and it made her look much younger. When she was kidding and smiling that way it didn’t matter about her skin. She was beautiful.

I noticed that the pile on her desk where she put the graded papers had grown large, and that the pile of unmarked papers was down to three or four. I wondered if she’d looked at mine. She continued looking at the paper in front of her, distracted, as if she could feel me there looking.

“Just a few more to go, Pickett. Then we can talk.”

Mrs. K had gone into the corridor before Marty Skoggs came in. He wore a green and white knit cap—a Hartford Whaler’s cap—high up on his head. He was a husky boy with a plastic leather jacket. He stood just inside the door, head turning as he took in the room. Chest puffed, bag slung over his shoulder, he appeared a gruff seaman ready to ship.

“Mrs. K here?”

“She’s here.”

“You serve Mass this morning?”

“Yeah.”

“How many there?”

“Seven. Including me and Father Luke.”

“He take all the wine?”

“A little dribbled down his chin.”

Marty had gone into the cloakroom, a narrow hall between the fourth grade and the first grade. Hooks were screwed into the walls, wooden shelves above. Marty was just a voice from the cloakroom.

“Fall asleep?”

“Too cold.” The altar was cold marble. That was in the days before the new priest came and renovated the church to look like a living room: plush carpet, the railing between the parishioners and the priest removed, a mobile mic inside the priest’s vestments.

Winter morning Mass was empty and cold, and Father Luke spoke out into the dark marble cavern. The only source of illumination were the pale faces, white heads and folded hands of a few aging parishioners. They sat far from the altar and far from each other, their prayers silent, whispered secrets. They spread about—pop, pop, pop—and popped up white-headed in random parts of the darkness.

“Hey, what’s that?”

Marty loomed over my desk, poking at the Donettes. Two were left.

“Donette Gems,” I said, hoping to conceal their edible potential behind their commercial name. Then, guilty: “Want one?”

He popped it into his mouth, the whole thing, and chewed with his mouth open.

“You’re still wearing your hat,” I said.

“Haircut.”

“Let’s see.” He pulled off the hat and his hair stood on end with static. “Oh,” I said. I grabbed the last Donette before he stopped chewing.

“Where’d you get those?”

“7-11. After Mass.”

“Did you see the cigarettes?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go at recess.”

“Today?”

“Yeah. And we’ll come back like we’re smoking.”

“I dunno. What if we’re caught leaving the playground. Sister Bert…”

“You left earlier, didn’t you? To get the donuts.”

“Donettes,” I said. Then I felt bad because correcting him was the kind of thing Didi would do. “Anyway, I had a note.”

Marty gave me a scornful look that said, ‘We won’t get caught.’ He left his ridicule unspoken, giving me a chance to accept. My cowardice could be forgotten in the glory of our quest.

I said, “Ok.”

Mrs. K entered. “Good morning Mr. Skoggs. No hats in class.”

I knew I wouldn’t get to talk anymore with Mrs. K. Now she would have to be a teacher. Outdoors the grey had become full light, though a cold draft continued blowing through the window.

Marty disappeared into the cloakroom without removing his hat. Now and then the sound of the herds, the sound of zippers and boots and book bags was interrupted by the husky laughter of Marty, whose territory was the cloakroom. A child wailed, probably a first grader, and not long after a snowball exploded against the cloakroom door, spraying water and ice around the floor near the radiator. A pool of water gathered at my feet.

Marty emerged from the cloakroom several stubborn seconds after the bell. He’d removed his hat, hair shorn at the back and sides, long and uneven on top. He slipped along behind the last row, making eye contact with Mrs. K, strutting to the far corner. His desk was by the windows, near the fire escape, as near as possible to busy West Road and the gas stations, pizza restaurant, movie house, and people bundled up in coats walking to work, the bus stop, the dentist’s office; as near as one could be to the outside and still be in the class.

Mrs. K continued reading from Scholastic without reprimanding Marty. She was human enough to recognize his need to hide that awful haircut.

We stood in that schoolboy paradise that is the 7-11 candy aisle, a colorful collection of sugar stretching left and right and well over our heads. I wasn’t caught up in the usual awe of the moment, the awesome indecision when at a particular moment everything and anything of pleasure is yours for the taking. There was none of this for two reasons: I could feel Sister Bert’s eyes boring down my back, and we were focused on one product.

“Well, they look real,” I offered.

“If you blow them, powder comes out and looks like smoke.”

“Wonder how it tastes.”

“Doesn’t matter. We can look like we’re smoking.”

“How much you got?”

“Thirty.”

“We’ll have to split a pack.” I wasn’t willing to put my milk money into this venture.

I asked the man at the register for a bag.

“You kiddies gonna start smokin’?”

“That’s what it looks like, fatty,” Marty said.

“Nah,” I said, a glare for Marty. “It’s just gum.”

The fat man looked at Marty as he handed me the paper bag, folded twice at the top. “Hope you choke on ‘em, kid,” he said, then let go of the bag. We were out the door.

After crossing Route 73 we hid in the side entrance of the church, a small concrete cave blocked from sight of the schoolyard by a wheelchair ramp. Faint strains of organ music penetrated the high oak door at our backs. I wasn’t sure if Thomas was practicing up in the choir loft, lit by the colorful streams pouring through the stained-glass window at his back, or if I was imagining the sound, the slow, constant leak of sanctity I’d come to expect of church. The wind carried the sound of kickball in the yard.

Marty took the bag, opened the pack. He took one of the wax-papered cigarettes between his middle- and forefinger and handed the pack to me. I poked the gum into my mouth.

“Now blow,” said Marty.

A puff of powder blew out the tip. I blew and got the same effect. Twice. Three times. Then nothing. The powder sugar was gone.

“Well,” I said.

“Gimme another,” said Marty. “Let’s walk to the playground with them. Get one for yourself.”

I tucked a fresh one into my shirt pocket and unwrapped the paper from the used one. The pink gum tasted awful. “Maybe it’ll soften,” I said.

“Ahh- the gum’s no good,” Marty said, not tasting it. He tossed his piece next to the church door. It lay amid the wet butts left by wedding ushers, maids of honor, pallbearers—all the people who used the church but were otherwise unassociated with religion.

I thought, “Who stubs out a cigarette at the door to the house of God?”

On the playground we caused a mild stir for awhile. It was pretty exciting, and then the bell rang and recess was over and Marty and I were big shots. We both sat in the back row and every now and then someone would turn to take a look at one of us. We were heroes. Marty had nothing to worry about with kids making fun of his haircut.

“Pickett? Is that gum you’re chewing?”

“Yes Mrs. K.”

“Throw it away.”

No problem, I thought. It was lousy. I walked to the metal waste can feeling heroic.

“I hope you’re not picking up any bad habits.” Mrs. K used a tone she never would have used in the morning. It was a reprimand for the whole class. She was no longer talking to me alone.

“No,” I said.

“I have your papers,” she told the class. Her voice was loud enough to reach even the most remote corner of the sleepy, steam-heated room. I sat down at my desk next to the radiator.

“Most of you have done very well on this exercise,” she said, walking up and down the rows pulling the papers from a pile clutched at her chest. She lay my paper face down, as always, without looking at me.

The heroic feeling was gone.

After school Marty asked: “How many left?”

“Six. Want to save them for tomorrow?”

“No. Split them up.”

“You can have the box.”

It seemed to answer his next question. I didn’t want the box. I hadn’t given up on the gum.

“Thanks, man. See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah.”

The way home from the bus stop I gave Jack and Didi pieces of gum.

“Where’d you get this?” Didi said. “It’s lousy.”

“It looks like a cigarette,” said Jack. He blew out a puff of powder.

“Nah,” I said. “It’s just gum.”