When you’ve smoked as long as me, smoking and thinking are the same.
“Smoking is prohibited, Mrs. Crane.” “Your second warning, Mrs. Crane.” “The Silver List of Regulations…”
“Give me that cigarette!”
The name of my care home is Champagne Meadows. They have one fir tree and you can’t even drink. They don’t allow smoking.
“Can you give me anything for the cravings?”
No, they couldn’t. I threw everything I could think of the first week.
I asked Bernice for cigarettes and she brought them, but they saw the towels under my door.
I ordered cigarettes, but it was the same thing. Bernice had an aneurysm.
Dad smoked. The ashtrays were built into his armrests, one on each side. I’d sit on his lap when he smoked, always. I picked up the cigarette butts and pretended to smoke them.
When he went to the kitchen, I picked up his burning cigarette.
“It’s a dog’s ass,” he said, catching me.
Dad was not the kind of man to kiss anyone’s ass, or any dog’s.
I tasted it.
I have been a smoker now for eighty-one years.
I did not want to go to Champagne Meadows. I’d heard things from Bernice. I wanted to go to Emerald Mansions, but Janet, my eldest, convinced me it was too expensive. Plus she’d looked into it, she said, and I could definitely smoke at Champagne Meadows, in the Smokers’ Lounge. I liked the sound of that. On the first day when I asked them which way it was to the Smokers’ Lounge, they just laughed and took my cigarettes. They don’t even let you smoke outside, because it’s on the Silver List and they don’t question anything on it, no matter how stupid.
I sulked in my room for a week. When my daughter came I jammed a chair against the door. I wrote a note and slid it under the door. It said, “At the Smokers’ Lounge.” Janet didn’t think it was funny. She has a degree.
I got bored of sulking. When you’re ninety-four, you can’t waste too much time on anything. I still missed my oldest friends alive, my cigarettes. I kept trying. The worst was when they took the pack Bernice smuggled in and threw it into the campfire. They light a barbecue once a week and call it a campfire. The ones on oxygen sit farthest away. You’re supposed to sing along. The fat one strums a guitar. “I can’t hear you, Mrs. Crane,” she said to me. I wanted to say, “You don’t feel like singing when you’re watching your friends turn into French fries.”
The boss lady said we could have lawns or gardens. We voted. It was gardens.
April, my granddaughter, was planting spinach in the front one day. I was sitting in a lawn chair watching. A young guy in a Buick kept driving by too fast.
I moved closer to the sidewalk. When he drove by again in his Buick, I threw a stone at it.
He slammed on the brakes. He backed up.
“What the fuck did you throw at my car?” he said with his neck out the window.
“My car,” I said.
I pointed at the sign in the window, FOR SALE, 1000 OBO.
“Fuck, you wanna buy it, ma’am?”
I said, “April, get my chequebook.”
The first girl who answered the ad was shy and skinny.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Is that old enough?”
“It is if someone’s with me.”
I don’t understand these things. Frank always did the driving. She looked believable. She picked a scab on her elbow.
“What does it pay?”
“Ten bucks a week and all the second-hand smoke you can eat.”
I laughed. She asked for fifty. I hired her.
Frank was a lousy driver. I didn’t learn to drive, I learned to squeeze the armrests. He was an enraged driver before it was popular. When he’d say, “Let’s go for a ride, Ruth,” I’d throw cigarettes into my purse. By the second pack, I hardly minded. I relaxed my grip. In ’86, he just dropped dead.
Bree came every day before school and after school. She came on the weekend if I asked her. I just had to pick up the phone and say, “Bree, get the Ashtray” and she’d fetch the Buick from guest parking and pull up to the front door.
The first time, I sat in the back.
“Would you rather I sat in the front?” I said.
“No,” she said.
“No?” I said, lighting up.
She pointed in the mirror. “It bothers my asthma a little.”
“You have asthma?”
“Just a little.”
I thought she might get sick. But with the window open she was fine.
Bree was nerved-up. It wasn’t me, it was her way. She needed to relax. She was one of those skinny girls who can’t relax. She leaned on that steering wheel and squeezed it like a rapist. She always brought coffee, which I thought was a mistake. A good driver, even though she braked hard. Frank may have been angry but he braked gently. I never once dropped my cigarette.
I don’t think Bree talked for a month. I didn’t mind, I smoked to myself, that was the whole point. I always asked, “How was your day, Bree?” and she answered, “Good.” Always “Good.” I always said, “That’s good.” Then I put my feet up and smoked away.
Smoke is wonderful. It’s a peace pill. I’m a militant smoker. When the do-gooders take over, the world will be full of people not smoking while they kill each other. If I can put my legs up and smoke at the end of the day, it was a good day. I could be covered in dirt, but I’m the First Lady. It’s a green Buick but it’s ecstasy.
One time when Bree got in the car I asked her how she was and she said, “Bad.” I smiled a little. Told her to tell me about it. I don’t even remember what she said, it was dumb teenage stuff. I don’t know what I told her. I’m not a fountain of wisdom, I’m a fountain of smoke. She told me and she seemed more relaxed. Blood went back into her knuckles. Then the next week when she jumped in she said, “Fucking awful,” without waiting for me to ask. I thought, the smoke is working.
On Sundays we drove all afternoon. I smoked, she talked. She asked, I answered. I really started listening and thinking. Remembering. She had a lot of problems, this girl. She was a nice girl but she had a bad home life. Her dad did Elvis puzzles in the basement. I smoked and put her life together. When you’ve smoked as long as me, smoking and thinking are the same. There’s an idea in every cigarette, if you can find it.
If Bree was having a bad day, if her mom hadn’t come home, the smoke got pretty thick in there, even with the windows open. Then she had to lean her head out the window like a dog, or stop and open the doors for a bit. But she always got right back in, and kept listening and talking.
Pretty soon Bree was driving with one hand. She wasn’t braking as hard. I didn’t have to hold onto my cigarettes as hard. She even phoned me sometimes, things a girl would ask her mother, if her mother wasn’t drunk. Always looked happy to see me, but always looked sad too. I never quite understood this girl. She was a nice girl.
Heaven is something good that lasts.
Then Bree hit the fire hydrant when she was backing out of the gas station. The plates were expired. The guy who sold me the Buick didn’t tell me that. The policeman said I didn’t count because I didn’t have a valid driver’s licence. He took away her learner’s permit. We both got tickets.
I never heard from Bree again. She never called me again. I phoned once, but whoever answered hung up.
I couldn’t find any other girls. There were too many other jobs out there, or they were lazy. I gave up on it.
It was hard for a long time. I couldn’t get my hands on anything. No one would bring me anything. I asked the new guy if he could get me cigarettes and he said, “That’s against policy.” The damn Silver List.
My health’s not so good now. That’s mostly boredom. You’re not bored when you’re smoking, you’re smoking. I do puzzles in the lobby.
Half the people in Champagne Meadows wish they were dead, or would be better off dead. I thought I could smoke forever. If I could get some cigarettes, I could still live forever.
A Buick is better than Heaven because you can smoke in a Buick. You can put your feet up and smoke.