What tormented me most, even more than Polly’s secrets, were her cigarettes. I’d seen the black lungs in ads, and pictured Polly’s lungs, already old, already threadbare, quivering in the smoky cloud of each puff like doomed soldiers in the trench of her chest. The cafeteria lady at my school loved Salem Lights. I’d see her outside in her smock, smoking up a storm. Then she got sick and left for a while. She came back thin and pale, hair net pulled over a bald head as she served us spaghetti. Then one day she disappeared for good. They announced her death over the intercom, and everyone got free onion rings.
“A shame about the poor lady,” Polly remarked. “You never know when the Bear might strike.” Polly never used the word cancer. It was as if invoking it would be an invitation for it to slide under our door and slink inside her cigarettes. So she said Bear. People had lung Bear, stomach Bear, skin Bear, or worst of all (and she said this in a whisper) hinder Bear—or, colon cancer. “My uncle had the hinder Bear,” she said delicately. “He shrank down to ninety pounds, poor fellow. But they cut it out of him and he was okay for a few years, ’til he had a heart attack while leaning over a rain barrel and drowned.”
When I was eight years old, my third-grade teacher told us about the Great American Smokeout. If smokers could just quit for one day, the theory went, maybe they could quit forever. I stared in fascination at the charts showing circulation improving, lung function increasing, heart rate dropping like a sparrow from the sky.
The morning ofthe Great American Smokeout, an event that held zero interest for Polly, I hid her last packet of Virginia Slims. She discovered that fact just before the bus came.
Polly had worked as a cashier at Walgreens ever since my father died. She confronted me before school in her Walgreens smock, her name tag dangling from a cord she worearound her neck.
“Willow,” she said. “Come here.”
“Yes?” My hair was drawn into two ponytails. I had my prized lunch box and was ready to go.
“Where are mycigarettes?”
“I don’t know.”
Her eyebrow arched.
“Don’t you lie,Willow.”
I looked at her defiantly. “It’s the Great American Smokeout.”
“So? Some damn fool who doesn’t even smoke made up a holiday? What if it was National Pee Your Pants day? Should I pee my pants, you think?”
“I have to go toschool.”
I opened the front door, letting in a fall breeze and the murmurs of the kids at the bus stop.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Polly said.
“But, Mom, I have perfect attendance!”
“Well that’s your problem and you can fix it in two shakes of a rat’s tail if you just tell me where you hid my cigarettes.”
I turned around, but left the door open. We stared at each other. My lunch box dangled from my hand. A line had appeared in her skin between her eyebrows, like a twitching nerve rising to the surface. I could hear the bus rumbling down the block, coming closer.
The gauntlet had been thrown. I hated Polly at that moment, but not enough to capitulate. It was National Smokeout Day and I was going to save a fraction of her life.
“The Bear is going to come for you,” I told her. “Just like he came for the lunch lady. Is that what you want?”
We held each other’s gaze as the bus groaned to a stop and I heard the creak of the doors opening. Then with a hush, they closed. The bus eased away and there was silence.
“You know, in my day, girls who missed school grew up to be tramps. Got pregnant early,” Polly remarked.
“You are so mean,” I said.
“No!” she answered. “You are mean. Forcing your poor old mother to drive to the store and restock.”
“I’m trying to keep you from dying!” I shouted, my voice full of righteous indignation.
The line between her eyes was back. “That’s God’s way!” she shot back. “The parents are supposed to die before the child and everyone starts bitching soon as it happens. Now tell me where you hid my damn cigarettes!”
I stood perfectly still, stone faced, lest my body or expression give away when Polly was getting warm. I heard her back in my bedroom, swearing, jerking opening drawers. Next the kitchen, then the den. The cushions from the couch hit the floor. The magazine stand rattled. The wooden blinds thwacked against the window.
I was going to lose. This was nothing; it was only a desperate gesture of love and rage. It would not stop Polly, in the long run, from smoking or from getting older or from dying, but suddenly it meant the world to me. I wanted perfect attendance,but more than that, I wanted someone above me in the chain of life. I didn’t want to be alone, a single blue egg in a crumbling nest.
“Damn it,” Polly mumbled. “Damn it, damn it, damn it. You damn kid.”
Finally she slumped down at the out-of-tune piano in the hallway. I glanced over at her and she stared back at me. Something in my posture or expression must have tipped her off because her eyes squinted and took on a hooded look and then she turned from me, gazing at the piano.
She struck the middle C and it clanged in its off-tune fashion.
I held my breath.
She struck D.
My heart began to sink.
E, F . . .
G was a muffled thud.
She perked up, struck it again.
“No, Mom,” I said pleadingly, but it was too late. She jumped up and propped her knees on the bench so she could open the lid of the piano and peer inside at the keys.
“AH HA!” she shrieked. She stuck her hand in and retrieved a crumpled box of Virginia Slims, the one she’d opened the night before. She withdrew a bent cigarette and tried to straighten it, but gave up. “It’ll do,” she said triumphantly. She cast a glance at me, but something in my expression caused the glee to leave her face. The hand with the cigarette slowly fell to her hip.
“Ah, well, you tried, don’t feel so bad,” she consoled me. “I won’t smoke this in front of you, okay? You are a good kid. Now come on, let me drive you to school.”