Dedicated to Maggie on her 65th birthday
In the summer of 1994, my little sister and I ended up living with my Aunt Pattie. Her children were both grown and living on their own, even though my cousin Korinna and her husband came by all the time to grab food and watch TV. One day when my mother was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she dropped us off at Pattie’s house.
It had been a rough year for my mom’s family. Their brother, the baby of the family, had died suddenly and mysteriously (in a way I would only learn later was connected to drugs and a poor choice of friends). Shortly after, my grandfather, who had been living with us since I was seven, vanished, almost into thin air. This was all too much for my mom, and she needed time to sort things out. We ended up at Pattie’s.
One foot in the door, and you were overpowered by the stale ashtray air. Even then the curtains were tinged yellow with nicotine stained scalloped edges.
My sister and I immediately tore off to the back of the house where there was still built-on romper room, complete with a Pac-Man pinball machine, dart board, and big screen TV with cable. We had never had cable at home. I’d only seen music videos played on screens in Best Buy or occasionally at a friend’s house, but never for hour after hour of unsupervised viewing pleasure. We’d watch episodes of the new Twilight Zone ad nauseum and scare ourselves awake all night.
We hunkered down in that romper room and only came out for food or to pee. Pattie seemed to believe we could subsist only on generic blocks of sharp cheddar cheese served on paper plates and Pepsi served over ice in a tall glass, straw optional. Besides these two constants was the incessant sound of the television and the smoke from Marlboro Reds. Only my cousin smoked Silvers and only because she thought they made her look sexy, but she wasn’t averse to bumming a Red off of her mom.
One afternoon at the kitchen table, while I was drawing my umpteenth sketch of Paul McCartney, Pattie sat down. She looked me right in the eye and said,
“Did I tell ever tell you I smoke pot?”
I’d never seen a bong before, never smelled pot. I didn’t want to seem uncool. I didn’t smoke, so that was one strike against me already.
As she stuffed the bowl, she told me, slowly, how she was convinced my uncle had been murdered, who had done it, and why. She told me that my grandfather, “that fuckface Milos,” had molested her, even though she couldn’t remember it. She told me that I was old enough to know these things.
I don’t know where my sister was that particular day, but I knew she wanted to go home. She told me how Korinna’s husband cornered her with a friend of his, cornered this seven-year-old girl. I told her they were just joking around, and we could leave in a few weeks.
I tried to distract her and myself with anything I could. One day I found an empty carton of cigarettes sitting on the top of the trash. On the side was a splashy color ad announcing that Marlboro was having a contest: send in the UPC labels from as many packs of cigarettes as you can and win prizes like thermoses! picnic blankets! and duffel bags! For some reason, I latched onto the duffel bags. Was I subconsciously plotting our escape?
My sister and I went mad searching for those UPC labels. We dug through the trash cans, scoured the back yard. We went with my cousin and her friends to buy cigarettes so we could score the labels before they could get lost in the chaos of Pattie’s house.
One time I was in line at the grocery store with my cousin’s friend. She was this tiny thing with big New Wave hair, feathered like Bon Jovi and the other bands she was listening to. Becky whispered to me, “Watch–they’re gonna ID me. Nobody believes I’m 21.” And when the clerk asked for her license, she smiled at me as if to say, “Told you so.” They didn’t ask for my ID. I could pass for an adult. Another badge of honor.
Over the weeks we collected several hundred of these labels which wasn’t terribly hard considering we were living amongst three-pack-a-day chain smokers. Still, it felt victorious. We got an envelope, addressed it to Marlboro Rewards, stuffed it with labels, and waited.
My sister and I fantasized about camping on our own with our new survival gear. With some Pepsi and block of cheddar cheese, we could last for days, weeks, on our own in the clear Colorado air of the back yard, maybe under a tent.
The package of goodies arrived while we were at the mall one day with my cousin, and as soon as we saw the box at the front door, it was like Christmas morning. We brought it inside and ripped it open. Pattie, sunk deep into the worn black leather couch that dominated the living room, grinned widely and inhaled. Her prize wouldn’t be there for another 20 years, but it was coming.
I called dibs on the duffel bag and gave the thermos and picnic blanket to my sister. We packed and unpacked all of our stuff, trying to arrange our prizes.
Summer waned, and Mom arrived one day to take us home. It was August and time for me to go to singing camp–the annual highlight of my vacation. This year I was bound and determined to arrive with my newly acquired swag.
“You’re not taking that bag.”
“It’s got cigarette logos all over it.”
“Just the name.”
I begged and pleaded with her to find a way to let me take it to camp. Because she was exhausted, she caved to my incessant whining, grabbed a permanent marker, and went to work. She inked out the Marlboro insignias, but you could still sort of see them. She tried to remove them with a seam ripper, but the plastic emblems were fused to the polyester weave of the bag. Finally she could do no more than put duck tape over each of them and pray that it stuck.
I carried my red and black duffel bag to camp like the affluent kids in the choir carried their Dooney and Bourkes, Kiplings, and Tumis. They may have had the real deal, but my bag was more special. I earned it. Like mowing lawns or babysitting, I worked for that bag. This was proof that I was becoming an adult. I knew how to take care of myself, turn my labor into something valuable.
Once safely at home, my sister never touched the stuff.
The bag, the thermos, the blanket, the son-in-law, the curtains–they’re all gone now. Pattie’s kids cleared the house of all smoke stained upholstery when she was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago. It still smells like cigarettes, although she traded her ashtray for an oxygen tank. She’s been told not to smoke but sneaks off hospital grounds and smokes between chemo sessions. The last time I was there, we sat at the same kitchen table. She told me why Obama’s hair is turning grey and how Jesus turns on the lights for her each morning. I’m old enough to know these things.