Smoker’s Lament

On the Third Day image 1
Smoker’s Lament
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

(I posted this story before, with a different title.)

Grandpa’s name was Estes Liam Whiteside. He never said much but just sat quietly and smoked his Winston cigarettes. He almost always had a cigarette going; he would light a new one as soon as he finished the old one. Grandma would nag him about some things, but not about his smoking. He had always smoked and she knew he’d never be able to quit.

Grandpa was a machinist. He worked in a machine shop. I’m not sure what he did, exactly, but he got up early in the morning and went to work and was gone all day until around five-thirty in the afternoon. When he came home, he’d be tired and his shirt would be dirty so he’d take it off and sit at the kitchen table and smoke cigarettes in his sleeveless undershirt. His arms were thin; he hardly had any muscle at all.

One day grandpa had a heart attack at work. They rushed him to the hospital and put him in a bed and wouldn’t let him get up. They gave him medicine and watched his heart beating on machines. The doctor came in and saw him pretty often but usually didn’t stay long. The doctor told him he was going to have to stop smoking if he wanted to go on living. Anybody who knew grandpa knew that wasn’t going to happen. As soon as the doctor left, he told grandma to bring another carton of Winstons the next time she came to see him.

We went to the hospital every evening after dinner to visit grandpa. I was too young to visit him in his room, so I had to sit in the crowded waiting room with Gloria, my sister, and read a magazine. Sometimes mother gave me a dime to buy a candy bar or a soda, so that would help to pass the time. Of course, when I got a dime, Gloria got one, too.

After a few days grandpa left the hospital. Everybody pretended he was well again, but he wasn’t. Not really. He stayed home from work for a couple of weeks, taking long naps, reading the newspaper and watching TV. He was eager to get back to work because he and grandma needed the money and he couldn’t afford to live a life of leisure, he said.

The doctor let him go back to work with the stipulation that he be on a “reduced workload,” meaning no more than four or five hours a day. That didn’t bring in enough money, though, so grandpa ignored it. He worked his full day, as before, and went back to smoking as many Winstons as he always had, as many as three packs a day.

In about two months he had another heart attack, this time while he was mowing the lawn. They put him in the hospital again, gave him oxygen and stuck needles in his arms. The doctor said this attack was worse than the first one and caused some damage to his heart. He had “yellow jaundice,” a result of his heart not pumping enough blood through his body. If he didn’t start following doctor’s orders, he could kiss the world goodbye.

They kept him in the hospital for ten days and then let him go home. He was supposed to be on a strict diet, with no salt, butter or fried foods, but he went ahead and ate what he wanted anyway. His first meal at home, just out of the hospital, was a big plate of fried eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes. He then spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the front porch eating pork rinds, drinking beer, and smoking Winstons.

He paced the floor a lot in his bathrobe, cranky and worrying. He had to get back to work, he said. He wasn’t a rich man’s plaything and had to have enough money to pay all the bills that were coming in every day in the mail. If you can’t go to work, he said, you might as well be dead.

The doctor told him he needed to consider retiring and applying for medical disability. That wasn’t his way, he said. He had worked since he was fifteen and he couldn’t see himself sitting around collecting a government check. That just wasn’t his scene.

He went back to work, even though the doctor advised against it. His next heart attack, his third and last, happened on a Friday afternoon in November. When he became stricken and collapsed on the floor at work, his co-workers called an ambulance. They rushed him to the hospital but it was too late. He was already dead. He was fifty-seven years old.

We were at school when it happened. Mother came and got us, first my sister and then me, and took us to grandma’s house. (As soon as I looked up and saw my mother in the hallway at school, I knew what had happened.) She was driving somebody else’s car with a stick shift and didn’t know how to shift the gears; we jerked and bumped our way over to grandma’s. It was a good thing it was only a few blocks.

The minister was at grandma’s house, along with her niece and a couple of the neighbor ladies. Grandma seemed calm but she looked pale and her hair was sticking up as if a cat had been licking it. The minister held grandma’s hand and quoted scripture. He told her that grandpa was fine now, that he was looking down on her from heaven and preparing a special place for her. Grandma smiled and invited him to stay and have something to eat. I knew she wanted to get him to stop patting her and holding her hand.

People began bringing in food. There was a platter of fried chicken, a chocolate cake, potato salad, spaghetti and meatballs and a shrimp casserole (none of us liked shrimp). You had to wonder how these people came up with all that food on such short notice. (It was all part of the elaborate American death ritual.)

In the evening more people came, including my father and my mother’s sister, Aunt Aldine. Their one brother, Paul, was a teacher in the city and wouldn’t be there until the following day. There were also more relatives, more neighbors, and the minister’s wife and their two odd daughters. (One of the daughters had a harelip and the other had an artificial foot. I wanted to a closer look at both of them, but I didn’t want them to know I was interested in them in any way.)

Everybody sat around, talking in hushed voices and eating the food. They left, one or two at a time, and others came in. They all wanted to give grandma a hug and tell her how sorry they were and to ask her if there was anything they could do for her. They all wanted to hear the intimate details of how grandpa died, who was present at the time, and how the news was delivered to the bereaved. Grandma answered their questions politely, secretly wishing they would all leave so she would not have to talk anymore.

Early the next day mother took grandma and her sister Aldine to the funeral home to make the funeral arrangements. I wanted to go along, but mother said it was no place for a child. When they came back about lunchtime, we learned that there would be two nights of visitation at the funeral home and the funeral would be on the third day, just like it says in the Bible. I imagined that would be the day that grandpa would take his place in heaven, even though the minister had been telling us he was already there. The minister also told my sister and me that we would see grandpa again one day in heaven.

I had my one dark suit but had outgrown my shoes, so mother took me on an emergency shopping trip that afternoon. Of course, Gloria had to go along. She was afraid I’d get a new pair of shoes and she wouldn’t.

When we returned home with the new shoes, mother gave Gloria a home permanent to try to put some pep into her lifeless, stringy hair. She wanted her daughter, she said, to look halfway decent and not like a refugee. Gloria gagged and made faces from the chemical smell of the permanent, but mother told her to hold still and stop complaining or she was going to slap her silly.

When Gloria saw the results of her home permanent in the mirror, she cried and screamed. The permanent had not been successful—or maybe it had been too successful. Instead of the right amount of curl, there was far too much curl. Her hair looked like the horsehair stuffing from an old sofa that had been in the attic for years that father set fire to in the back yard. Gloria was going to get the scissors and cut off all her hair herself, and while she was at it she might just open a vein or two. Mother told her to stop being so dramatic and promised to get her an appointment at a beauty parlor to get her hair fixed right, but it wouldn’t be until after grandpa’s funeral.

The next day at four o’clock, grandpa’s body was “ready” for viewing. We all dressed up in our best clothes and went to the funeral home early and stood out in front until it was time to go in. (Gloria wore an old wine-colored felt hat she found in the bottom of somebody’s closet.) There were family members there I had never seen before from out of state. Grandma or mother introduced me to them, but I didn’t know who any of them were. I figured they were all as uncomfortable as I was.

Seeing grandpa in his casket was a shock for me. He didn’t look like himself. For one thing, he was wearing a gray suit with a red tie and a white carnation in his buttonhole. I had never seen him dressed that way before. He looked fine, but he didn’t look like anybody I knew or had ever seen before. His hair was smoothed down and he seemed to have a little smile on his face. As I stood looking at him, I realized he was my first dead person.

Grandpa’s casket was at the end of a long room. It was cool in the room, with only about half as much light as you would expect. Around the casket were flowers of every color, shape and size: roses, chrysanthemums, daisies, lilies, carnations, and a lot of other flowers I didn’t know the names of. From then on, the smell of flowers would always make me think of death and the funeral home.

We spent two interminable evenings at the funeral home from four o’clock until they closed at ten. When nobody was paying any attention to me, I tried to find a quiet place to sit where I could be alone and not have to talk to anybody. I wondered what grandpa would have made of all the flowers, all the people, all the talk. I’m sure, wherever he was, he was either smoking a Winston, or wanting one.

On the day of the funeral, we were ready to go by noon, even though the funeral didn’t start until two o’clock. The funeral home people took the casket to the Methodist church in the hearse. At the church, we were given a little private (family) time before the service, where we could all have one last glimpse of grandpa before they closed him up for good.

The church was filled to capacity. Grandma and grandpa knew a lot of people. The service lasted over an hour. The minister spoke and, as usual, I didn’t pay any attention to anything he said. A woman I had never seen before wearing a green dress sang I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses. We prayed again, led by the minister, and then the service was over.

All the cars lined up outside the church then and we went in a slow procession to the cemetery a few miles outside of town. Grandpa’s body was committed to the earth, as the saying goes, and that was the end of him. Next to him was the empty grave where grandma would go when her time came. Her name was already on the double stone.

Grandma surprised us all by getting married again, less than a year after grandpa died, to a man named Erville Lawson. They met at a card party and began spending a lot of time together. They both liked shopping trips and catching small fish and throwing them back again. Erville, who was not a smoker, lost his wife about the same time that grandma lost grandpa.

Grandma sold her house and moved to a different town, to live with Erville Lawson in his house. She changed all the furniture to suit her own taste. Whatever she wanted to do was fine with Erville. They got along well together for many years, until Erville was called upon to make his own final journey.

When grandma was on her deathbed, grandpa was the one she talked about, the one she saw standing over in the corner, waiting for her. He was the one she most wanted to see when she got to heaven. It was as if all the years with Erville Lawson had never happened.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp