When I was a kid everyone smoked. The most money spent on furniture was on ash trays. Small ones, big one, one that came on stands. Fat ones, thin ones, ones that got thrown around a lot. I was in school and the teachers smoked. I was in the hospital and the doctors smoked. My memory might be a little hazy but I tend to remember priests smoking. While doing his sermon. In Latin. In double time so he could get to his seat at the stadium before kickoff.
Personally, I was never a fan of it. I’d been burned as a kid so the thought of a burning ember that close to my face just wasn’t appealing. I used to look around trying to find one person who didn’t smoke. Impossible. I once saw a guy wheeling an oxygen tank down the street smoking. I crossed the street. I went to my first major league baseball game. For the first time in my life I saw that baseball was in color. And quite larger than it looked on my tiny black and white TV. During the game I couldn’t take my eyes off my hero. Our teams star left fielder. I couldn’t believe he was live in front of me. A big thrill even from the cheap seats.
As the game progressed I never stopped watching my hero. He made some catches but, as baseball tends to, the game dragged on a bit. Especially when you’re watching one player for half the game and looking around at all the other sights and sounds for the rest. It was during this downtime in a game that was already decided that I saw something. At least I think I did. But it couldn’t be. I trained my eyes on my hero until I saw it again.
“That fucker is smoking.” I said in my disbelieving head.
But it was true. I even saw him stomp it out at the end of the inning. Well, that was the end of it for me. I stopped looking for anyone not smoking and, after a time, even stopped thinking about it. It was like humidity or the tar stench from the train station around the corner. It was all around me.
One midsummer day my mother, once again, had me run down to the store to buy her a pack of cigarettes. It wasn’t like the suburban city we moved to in a few years, I didn’t need no note. Hell, the guy behind the counter would often toss the pack at me when I opened the door. I’d toss the quarter at him and turn on my heels and would be out of the store before the door swung fully open.
I put that pack on the table and went about my day. A day that consisted mainly of rough and tumble kid stuff. There probably wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t bleed. When the world under your feet is concrete and you run and play sports and fight like we did, blood will be spilled.
Later that day while eating dinner my mother was getting ready for work. She was doing dishes, chiding my to finish so she could get the dishes done and, of course, smoking. Then I heard a dish rattle in the sink. I look over to catch a glimpse of what’s going on. It was my mother putting out her cigarette. Not an unusual thing. As the strewn ash trays would attest. But this time she’s looking at it. Pawing it. Tearing it apart.
“Well I don’t believe it.” She said shaking her disbelieving head.
She turns to me and is holding something up. At first, because she was back lit, I couldn’t make it out. It wasn’t until she was about three feet from me that I recognized what she was holding.
A tooth. The tooth of a kid younger than me if the size was any indication. I stared at it stunned for some time. At first I couldn’t process how a kid, little more than a tyke, tooth could get into a cigarette rolled by a huge machine in a giant tobacco company yonder down south. Certainly they wouldn’t let a mere child near a certain death machine like that.
Then slowly it dawned on me. And a holy shit moment overcame me. But that couldn’t be it. Things like that are outlawed, right? My mother lit another cigarette and said when she got home after work she’d write a letter to the company asking them to explain the errant tooth in her cigarette.
I remember looking at the tooth every time I went into the kitchen. And I’d think about that kid. I was eight or nine. That tooth was definitely a couple years younger. What was life like for him? My life was no picnic but my lost teeth usually didn’t leave the apartment. That is, until the Tooth Fairy traded it for a quarter. Funny how closely the Tooth Fairy smelled like my mother’s cigarettes when she made the swap. But that’s how tricky they are! Masking their scent to make it fit your surroundings! Brilliant!
Some time passed until one day my mother got a package from the cigarette company. You could tell the package was a carton of cigarettes. There was also a letter from the company thanking her for returning the wayward tooth and hoping she’d accept the carton of her favorite cigarettes as further reward for her kindness. They went on to explain that one of their field hands must have had their child’s tooth with them while working.
Even back then my rapidly growing, yet still in the pupa stage, cynicism thought,
“Yeah, sure, that could happen.”
It’s weird because I’ve often thought of that kid over the years. More than many people I actually knew from back then. I hope he’s had a good life. I’ve wished he’s had many laughs. I want him to be happy.
And I sure as well hoped he never let his father take another tooth to work. That shit’s unsanitary.