A Memoir


Smoke is the story of fatal consolations--tobacco, denial and deceit--and the second chances that can come to us in the most unlikely places. For Kate and her mother, Imogene, it was a rehab center where the two women wrestled with cigarettes, scrambled brains and each other--and in the process, found the long way back to love. 


Chapter One: Lost Horses, Rehab

His name is Carl and he wants twenty bucks for a cigarette.

“Give it to him,” my mother demands.

“I don’t have twenty bucks,” I lie. “Besides, that’s ridiculous.”

“That’s my price,” Carl says, grinning through his ancient, nicotine-rusted teeth. 

“That’s his price,” my mother says, matter-of-factly, like we’re talking about some perfectly reasonable and indisputable truth. 

We’re negotiating this deal on the patio of the nursing care center where my mother landed after suffering a grand mal seizure, followed by a stroke. She’s been here less than 48 hours and has already found a dealer. 

Carl, so far the only male patient we’ve seen, stalks the halls in his wheelchair. He uses his feet to walk the chair forward, traveling at an impressive speed. This method leaves his hands free to hold unlit cigarettes, one in each hand. He’s got three backup cigarettes in his shirt pocket nestled prominently inside a pocket protector, the kind that geeks use for pens. But old Carl isn’t a geek; he’s a salesman on the outskirts of what may be his last territory. And my mother is his best prospect.

My mother is more than willing to play whatever game is necessary, at whatever the price. She has always been willing when it comes to tobacco, her preferred method of seduction and escape, imagining herself in countless scenarios throughout her life as the ingénue Lauren Bacall seducing the old Bogart, inhaling the power of a sorceress and exhaling a long, languid trail of enchantment. Today on this nursing home greenbelt, she is no doubt imagining herself as young Lauren in her capris, and not old Imogene in her wheelchair. I learned early on in life that what we imagine saves us or kills us. And sometimes, it does both.


Chapter Two: The Burned Slice, Smoke

My childhood smelled like smoke. Something was always burning. An endless chain of cigarettes burning to ash in heavy silver trays, bittersweet incense burning at Catholic High Mass, the flickering hope of votive candles burning beside the church altar, and toast burning regularly in our old, unreliable and apparently irreplaceable toaster. 

“Mother, the toast is burned.” 

That’s how it always started, my father reminding my mother of the imperfection of the morning toast, reminding her that she had somehow missed that golden mark of domestic achievement. Even before the day had really gotten started, my father could reliably alert us to the smell of something already ruined. 

Smoke was the harried, anxious smell of my mother trying to do ten things at once, trying to raise a blended family, maintain a perfect image, console an inconsolable husband and be the perfectly coiffed and controlled Catholic.  


Chapter Three: Life Boat, Rehab

My mother is jonesing for some firsthand smoke while I scan the room for every available exit.  We’ve just arrived in the nursing home lunch room where close to fifty hungry people wait for their trays like wild-eyed first graders.  My mother doesn’t want to be here and neither do I.

“Sharing meals in community is part of the rehabilitation process,” one of the nurses told us this morning when my mother balked at going to the lunchroom. She eats like an old cat, slowly, and in tiny bits, and only the bits of her choosing. 

“It will be good for you,” the nurse added. “And your attendance really is expected.” 

Meeting the expectations of others hasn’t been of much interest to my mother for decades. And being told she has to do something is reason enough for her to refuse.