Sunday, May 13, 2012

Smoking With Mom

My mom, Zoe Jean Bishop, was incredible. Charismatic, artistic, witty, intellectual, worked toward the public good, devoted to child welfare, the center of any given conversation -- I haven't known many people as capable of inspiring love as she was.

She was also the kind of person who is constitutionally incapable of understanding any law higher than her own reason and good-will.

And she was drunk, mostly. It was the distillation of the American regime of psychoactivity -- coffee until beer, cigarettes always -- that killed her. She knew it, we knew it, and that's why I wrote the following piece when asked to do a memory for her funeral.

Our relationship wasn't as close as either of us would have liked. She was someone dependent on illusion for survival, while I can't pass an unpleasant truth without rooting my snout deep in its rotten guts. Just to give you a hint of the complexities, she used to get drunk and tell me that she never, ever smoked or drank while pregnant. I've recently been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.

It was kind of a surprise, in a way.

What can you do? Mother's Day is bittersweet, just like Mom. This was eventually published in Monday Night magazine, I think in issue 4.

No edits, this is my old prose style. It'll do.

Zoe Jean Bishop

Mom slid the cellophane envelope off of a pack of Kools, just touched the cherry of her cigarette against it, burning a tiny hole in the plastic. She took a quick drag, blew dense smoke into the envelope, then plugged the open end with the pack of cigarettes. Holding the envelope in place, she tapped the pack. Out of the hole came a perfect ring of smoke an inch across that moved out, expanded, finally dissolved into shreds less than a foot away from where it started.

“Do it again!” I said.


We sat on the porch in the shade of the juniper tree, and its dusty, spicy green smell seasoned the mentholated fumes of Mom’s cigarettes.
I rubbed my hands against the grainy red non-slip paint of the steps and leaned forward into fresh air. “Mom, why do you smoke?”

She took a drag and exhaled sharply, vented the smoke from her nostrils in a jet so clean it could have been cut out of construction paper, looked at me out of the corner of her eye, and smiled just a little. “Why don’t you try one and find out?” She poked her elbow towards the green pack behind her, matches tucked inside the cellophane.

I grabbed the pack and stuck my finger into it to drag out a bent cigarette. It took me three tries to strike a match, and finally I used the cover of the matchbook to pinch the head against the striking strip. When I had it lit, I picked the cigarette out of my lap, put it in my mouth, and held the flame to its tip. I inhaled.

It scratched the inside of my throat as though I’d swallowed a blackberry vine. Wood smoke, smoke from burning paper, sulfur smoke from a kitchen match, this was the worst.
I coughed, spat, and handed the cigarette to my mother, who stubbed it out and set it to one side. She still had that half-smile. She looked pleased with herself. “So, why do you think I smoke?"

“Because you’re an idiot.”

She nodded. I could tell by her expression that she’d tricked me again, but I couldn’t quite figure out what the trick had been.

“That’s right.” She took the last drag off of her cigarette, dropped the butt in her empty beer can, then lit the smoke I’d just abandoned. “I’m an idiot.”


Dad replaced our brick patio with turf, and a few weeks later there was a patch of grass in the backyard that felt nice, that you wanted to walk on barefoot, a place where you could lie down and roll around.

I made a twist of wire from a coat hanger and filled a jar with water and dishwashing detergent. The weather was bright and clear with just enough of a breeze to send the bubbles drifting gently across the yard. “Mom, what happens if you blow bubbles with smoke?”

“Let’s see,” she said.

I dipped the wire loop into the jar and handed it to her. She took a drag off of her cigarette, blew at the glistening film. It bulged, then wobbled free of the wire. It was gray and iridescent, its sides trembled as it floated through the air. I followed it until it touched the grass and burst, releasing a puff of smoke.

“Mom, you’ve got to see this!” I dipped the wire loop again and handed it to her, and this time she followed the bubble along with me.
“Oh,” she said, “that is neat-o petite-o.”

I passed her the loop again.

After a while she didn’t look so good. She wasn’t Mom-colored anymore; she was more like a Band-Aid or a flesh-colored crayon. “No more,” she said. “I’m getting a little sick.”

I didn’t know there could be too many cigarettes for Mom.


We were driving home from the day care center. Rayne’s parents had been late again, so it was way past dark. I still smelled like Lysol from cleaning the bathrooms.

“Maybe you should name them,” I said.

Mom took a drag off of her cigarette. “I’m not sure I follow you.” She huffed a little phlegm loose from her larynx with a purring noise.

“If you really want to quit smoking, you could try giving your cigarettes names. They could be like little people.” I grinned into the dark, warming to my brilliant idea. “See, that way every time you smoked a cigarette, you’d be killing someone. Every time you lit a cigarette, you’d be setting someone on fire.”

“Setting their heads on fire, or their feet?” She pulled open the ashtray and stubbed the butt into it, then popped the dashboard lighter in.

“I guess that’s up to you.”

“Okay.” She picked up her pack of Kools and tapped out a cigarette, put it in her mouth. “This is Sparkle.” The lighter popped out of the dash. The metal coil glowed red, and as Mom held it to her cigarette it lit her face from below. “I’m setting her hair on fire.” She took the first drag off of Sparkle, then put the lighter back into its socket.

“Her real name is Wanda Sue Weszlowski, but she makes everyone call her Sparkle. It’s on the sign on her dressing room door at the club where she works. She sings corny old torch songs in this squeaky little girl voice, but she’s not going to be able to keep it up for much longer. So far as she’s concerned, she’s a star, and she isn’t afraid to let everyone know it. She’s real mean to the other girls at the club, and she’s sleeping with the manager. He tried to fire her, but she threatened to tell his wife.”

Sparkle was almost gone. Mom ground the charred stubs of her ankles into the ashtray. “Was it wrong to kill Sparkle?”

“I guess not.” I rolled down the window and leaned my face into the jet of cold, clean air. “I guess she pretty much deserved it.”

“My next cigarette is Carl Rickards,” she said. “He owns a bait shop, and he doesn’t take good care of the worms and minnows. He does it on purpose. You buy bait from him and half of it’s already dead.” She paused a moment, gave Carl a chance to express himself. “He has two daughters, you know.”

How old were they? Were they tiny children lying in bed with their eyes wide, listening for Carl’s footsteps in the hallway? Or were they sullen hulks with greasy hair working behind the counter at the bait shop, dishing out bad change and smirking to themselves as they watched pileworms slowly dry out and minnows go belly-up in stagnant water?

“So what should I do with Carl?”

I rolled the window back up and felt the car refill with stale air from the heater. “I think you should kill him.”


pongacha said...

Thanks for posting, Sean.

Sean Craven said...

Is this Bob Slavin? Hey, I saw Kent just the other night! Drop me a line, let me have your email.

Craig Dylke said...

What a powerful narrative.

Based on true events, or heavily inspired by them?

Sean Craven said...

All straight-up true. She was like that all the time.

Anonymous said...

Spot on. A testament to the power of the written word- I never quite understood the nature of your slightly prickly relationship with mom, reading this helps me get a general vibe. Also captures that light/dark quality that characterized her.

Long live Zoe, the Zoe is dead!

Thanks Sean.

Sean Craven said...

The whole story is kind of amazing, and I can only infer some of it from the documents we turned up after her death. But I've never seen her as anything but a heroic figure.

Rob Pierce - 2 Verbs said...

That was a pretty strong prose issue for Monday Night - there was also a Keith Rutledge story in there that I really liked, and a couple of other things. It's out of print, but I may have a couple of extra copies if anyone's curious. Of course, we just moved so I may not be able to find them right away, but I am available to be bugged, (but not for buggery).

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