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Candy Cigarettes

By Anne Panning

While your parents drank in Schmidt’s Bar, you and your cousins gathered under buggy streetlights. No one watched you. No one cared. You all ran down a big hill in the dark, holding hands. Then up again. Later, inside the bar, you begged for everything: cashews warmed in white waxed cups, giant pickles like dead babies in brine, Orange Crush in bumpy bottles, candy cigarettes: Marlboro, Winston, Lucky Strike. The cigarettes powdered your lips white. The tips brushed pink with false fire. All of you stood outside the bar, smoking. You knew the positioning well: one arm folded over the stomach. Your other elbow propped upon it: the cigarette swing arm. In. Out. Break to chew. Which always seemed like a failure of sorts: breaking the thing they taught you.

When you were fourteen, you found your mother gasping in bed, blue. I have to quit smoking, she said, but I can’t. You stood there in your cheerleading uniform: twiggy legs, curling iron bangs, eyes squinting through smoke. You were on the edge of everything. You would succeed and supercede, or come down like the rest. You hid the cigarettes for her under the kitchen sink by the Comet. But your father continued, souring up the house. You could hear the grind of his old metal lighter first thing in the morning, last thing at night. He kept the lighter in his pocket, and sometimes, when he took it out, you held it, warm silver square, in your hand. Its heat leaked through. And into you. Your mother quit her two-pack a day habit. And lived.

Later, you married a two-pack-a-day smoker. But meeting in a foreign country made this okay. Even expected. Because he was tall and thin and smart—your requirements—you bummed a cigarette off him, though you didn’t smoke. Two things made you fall in love. The way his long fingers curled around a coffee cup. The way he held his cigarette so tenderly to ash upon the floor. Unlike some, he was a beautiful smoker. Long-limbed. Dark-eyed. He blew smoke up, then ushered it away from you with cupped hands. He was eager to please. Which pleased you. Cold turkey is the only way, he said years later. And quit one weekend while overhauling the engine of the old Datsun. Sometimes, still, you miss that cloudy haze.


Anne Panning is the author of Super America (University of Georgia Press). Her writing is also available on her blog Mark and Anne in Vietnam.


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photo by Dinty W. Moore