In the photographs from this time, the ashtrays are ubiquitous and ornate, and everyone is smoking. My grandmother smoked so much that the ceiling lining in her car sagged like a hammock (she’d once caught my mom stealing one of her cigarettes and made her eat it, a punishment that deterred her for life). Though my dad is the focus of very few pictures, he’s often in the background or cut off by the edge, and you can see that he’s holding a cigarette. He’d grown up spending his free time in pool halls, where I imagine he’d kept an unlit cigarette behind his ear while making low-stakes bets with his friends and hitting the kinds of impossible bank shots he used to sink when we played mini golf on vacation. He’d quit smoking when my brother Kevin was born in 1976 and started again at some point before my birth. He would quit again a few years later, and I would think of him as a non-smoker for most of his life. He chewed on coffee stirrers as a substitute, some way to work out whatever tension smoking had once eased in him. Everywhere in the house, I found mangled coffee stirrers that had fallen out of his pockets. If an archaeologist excavated our house tomorrow, they’d find it was built on a foundation of coffee stirrers.
When he died of esophageal cancer, it may have just been bad luck. But he’d smoked for many years. The choices you make when you’re a teenager matter in a way you cannot possibly imagine, no matter how often adults warn you about it. You can pretend not to understand the math, but it all adds up, with or without your permission.
I didn’t learn until long after his death that he had started smoking again, periodically and surreptitiously. Cigars in the evening, after a stressful day of work. Maybe on those long nights when he stayed up past midnight watching TV, he was not hanging on every word of Jay Leno’s monologue like we’d thought, but was waiting for us to finally fall asleep so that he could step outside onto our porch and have a cigar and feel normal again. To stop denying himself and just live in a nicotine-rich moment. To think about nothing else besides the physical pleasure of poisoning yourself. He spent a minimum of twelve hours every day at work, plus an hour commute each way. He wanted to smoke. He knew by this point that smoking could kill him, had seen friends and relatives die from it. I bet smoking out there on the porch under the moon was one of the best feelings of his life. I bet he dreamed about it all afternoon, and in those brief moments, he allowed himself to think: Let it kill me, it’s worth it right now. I bet he thought: We’re doing okay. We’re gonna make it.
Now I’ve slipped into writing fiction. In short stories people go outside and consider the stars and experience epiphanies all the time. In real life, sometimes people just want a cigarette and that’s all there is to it. It’s too easy to graft the artifice onto a few concrete details and impose meaning that isn’t there. I don’t know the circumstances of his smoking. I’m creating a character out of my dad because I can’t say that I really knew or understood him. A key aspect of my adulthood has been spent imagining the secret lives of my parents, the things that have been hidden from us not because they’re scandalous but because they aren’t remarkable enough to mention.
Most of what I know about him—now, 16 years after his death—is pieced together from unreliable memories and stories my mom has since told us. She’s the one who told LauraBeth about the cigars, and about her frustration with him. In hindsight, I remember her being so angry when he was diagnosed with cancer, and then I didn’t understand. I want to be angry at him too, but I can’t do it. Your parents expend so much energy protecting you from all the things that can harm you, and they do most of it thanklessly.
In one of my novels, I end a chapter with this line: “Self-medicate whenever possible. Whatever drug is helping you to cope is one that will kill you but at least you’re maintaining some control over how and when you go.” Every time I read it in public, people laugh, which I did not expect. I have this problem where the things I think are funny are actually sad, and the things I think are bleak are actually funny. To me, the self-medication line is not a joke. There’s a stigma against feeling pleasure for pleasure’s sake. So I drink too much—I know this. Sometimes I feel great shame about it. Sometimes my wife suggests it would be good to cut back. Sometimes I open one more beer even though I don’t really want one, and then I open another after that. But sometimes it’s a beautiful Wednesday afternoon and I can’t imagine anything better than meeting my wife in the city for an outdoor happy hour and drinking a couple draft beers while we watch strangers streaming past us. I just want to argue that there are pleasures in not solving problems too.
In 1984 there was a very famous television commercial for Apple Macintosh computers. I don’t know why I have been subjected to dozens of viewings of this commercial and its so-called importance. It is, all things considered, a dumb commercial, and our insistence on treating advertising like art is one of the main sources of cultural rot in this country. This ad is an homage to a famous novel called 1984, a novel that people who don’t read like to reference any time they dislike the passage of a new law. A specific type of person loves referencing 1984 when they get criticized for saying something racist or sexist or otherwise cruel. TV pundits are especially fond of broadly referencing Orwell, of calling things Orwellian, and trusting that you know this means they are very smart indeed and they went to good schools. Excluding religious texts, it’s possible that 1984 is the book that the most people pretend to have read. If you create something famous enough, eventually it will become so ubiquitous that all of its meanings flatten into nothingness. I could say my dad’s desire to smoke was Orwellian, and if I said this with enough confidence, you would have to believe me. Who cares what it means? They invented meaning just to fuck with us.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. He is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University. Find him on Twitter @t_mcallister.