Southern Legitimacy Statement: Although a Northerner by birth (NYC), I was raised in Eastern Kentucky where my family returned after Dad was done working for J. Edgar and the Feds. I attended college in North Carolina before I too was pulled back by the lure of the Bluegrass State, spending a year amongst the hollers of Prestonsburg before settling into the “big city” of Louisville – a town that sometimes likes to pretend it’s Midwestern but is, without a doubt, particularly during the first week of May (and that certain Saturday), and the first snowfall of the season, Southern.
“The fire took everything,” Mama told us, as I’d never seen her, shaken when she was always the strongest in the family, had to be, with Daddy gone. We were staying at this shelter downtown, left there by the Red Cross, huddled together in a corner wrapped in scratchy blue blankets after being plucked off in the middle of the night, still in our PJs and bare feet, clutching at each other in the confusion, rescued from the raging inferno, a burst of bright oranges and yellows punctuating the bleak horizon.
Mama’s face was ashen, her eyes watery, with a frailty to her manner that frightened me, made my heart race, my stomach twist in knots. I didn’t understand what Mama meant by everything, couldn’t process the enormity of it. Everything back then to me, when I was but six, was a stuffed animal collection, mostly bears and bunnies, and the two-story dollhouse Daddy had built for me one Christmas, that one Christmas right before he went away. And my bed, of course. I loved my bed, my delicate four-poster bed with flowing pink silk canopy straight out of a fairy tale. That was everything to me. That was my world. Until it was snatched away, along with everything else, by a cigarette left burning in a full ashtray.
We ended up moving into a tiny apartment above the steakhouse where Mama hosted and waited tables until insurance could come through with somewhere permanent for us to live, somewhere we could properly call our home, which took a while, longer than expected, red tape or lapsed payments, something like that. Mama spared me most of the details since I was the youngest. All I really remembered was that smell when we returned to the scene a couple days later to root around for anything worth saving, for any of our possessions that might have miraculously survived, tiptoeing through the ruins of what we used to call our home.
That smell, that distinct, disheartening smell: burnt, just burnt, burnt everything, our entire existence burnt and gone. That smell of smoke was nauseating. It was suffocating. It reached down deep inside of me, to choke my last breath, to smother my spirit. It coated my clothes, my skin. I couldn’t purge myself of it, scrubbing in the sink with peppermint lye soap, my fingertips turning flat and pruney, the hot water steaming over the bathroom mirror.
That smell of smoke was everywhere, on the most miniscule – the silver locket I uncovered amidst a pile of charred wood where my dresser had stood, with oval black-and-white photos of Mama and Daddy, smiling, toothy grins, hopeful expressions, hair combed perfectly not a strand out of place, beautiful, handsome, that Mama pushed aside when I proudly presented her with it, an accomplishment, I thought, a minor accomplishment but still. Mama just turned her nose up, said she didn’t reckon why she had held on to that thing and I could keep it if I wanted – and I wanted, even with that smell.
There were moments, as I lay curled-up on a fold-out cot in that tiny apartment above the steakhouse, with Mama still downstairs pulling an extra late shift, when the cigarette smoke from the lounge where the people gathered to drink and chatter until their tables were ready was able to waft its way up through the vents, slither in from the floorboards and snake its way under the covers. I would jolt wide awake, bolting straight upright, that smell yanking me back into those smoldering embers where our life once was. I couldn’t sleep after that, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how I squinted my eyes shut and thought good thoughts and imagined happy places, not until Mama came in when her shift was done and held me in her arms, whispering that everything was going to be alright, that everything was going to be alright, over and over and over so that I managed to believe her.
It was that same smell of smoke, that stale smell of smoke, that jolted me one other time, many, many years later, married with children of my own, when Charlie announced, unceremoniously and apropos of nothing, that he was leaving me, just like that he up and announced that he was leaving me for that young blonde tart of an assistant from the office, who I assumed was just an assistant from the office but how was I to know and shame on me for not knowing.
Charlie always thought he could sneak cigarettes without me realizing. He would step out on the stoop, usually at night, after the kids were settled in, and sit there dragging on Marlboro Reds, staring at the sky, pondering life or whatnot I supposed. I would spy him down there from the upstairs bathroom while I was washing my face, the smoke lazily rising, graceful curlicues, particularly in the summer, the typical humid Louisville August, with the window open to coax the air to circulate inside. When he was finished, dragging and staring and pondering all he needed to, he would stuff a palmful of hard candies into his mouth before he came to bed, as if that would cover it, that smell of smoke, as if I would be none the wiser. I never said anything. Why embarrass him? Who was I to say anything anyway? We all had something stale we tried to cover with something sweet.
And I didn’t say anything to Charlie when he announced, unceremoniously and apropos of nothing, reeking of cigarettes because he had been out on the stoop longer than normal, no doubt pondering how to break the news, that he was leaving me for that young blonde tart of an assistant from the office. What was I supposed to say? I sure as shit wasn’t going to beg that son-of-a-bitch to stay. I silently gathered his belongings – not all of them, mind you, because Charlie was well-traveled and had quite a bit – whatever I could carry in a heap against my chest, and marched around the corner to the dumpster behind the old Sears, and I tossed them in and burned them, lit them up with Daddy’s Zippo lighter that had the picture of the pin-up girl in the skimpy polka dot bikini, a burst of bright oranges and yellows punctuating the bleak horizon.
Charlie was incensed, absolutely furious, called me all sorts of names, cursed me into next week. But that was it, and nothing more. He got the message. He understood. He was no longer home, and he left, sending his red-faced boozy cousin for the rest of his belongings, and good riddance. I knew I could go it alone if I had to, always had, because I had seen how Mama had done it. And I did, smoke again directing me towards a different course, both my nemesis and my old companion, even if I never could stand that smell.