A frozen breath curled from my lips and vanished into the cold night air. Above the violet, neon signs and the clustered crowds slurring from bar to bar, I could just barely make out those three familiar dots in the sky. Uniformed in a line amidst the constellation Orion. Even through the clouds of dust, deceit, and murky breath the stars still made their routine appearance over my apartment building. Their twinkling eyes peeking through the fire escape like the steady orange glow at the end of a cigarette.
While walking past Leland and Cecile’s, a patron swung the door open and a waft of cigarette smoke filled my nostrils. Most would find it to be revolting, but for me it was the scent of a memory. Her laugh. Her laugh is what played in my head the most. The nasally, asthmatic chuckling of a dedicated smoker. She was so dedicated that she only quit smoking because the cost was too high. Even when the doctors told her she had throat cancer, she quit for a while, but went back to it as soon as she was cleared. It was this sweet, smell of dirty tobacco that rebelled against her body as she did society.
She lived by no one’s rules but her own. A tough and sassy rebel with the kindest of natures. We would sit in the gazebo out back after my parents would drop my sister and I off for the evening. Her, smiling and leaning in to our eager little faces as she whispered for us to keep this our little secret. Click, Inhale, Exhale. The dirtied breath leaving her lungs as the smell of tobacco invaded the springtime air. That’s when her stories began. How the barn blew away in a tornado, how she survived living in a house with only one bathroom (and raising four daughters in it), and how Great Grandpa Bert went to escape all the drama in the garage and danced around to The Eagles while building furniture.
There never seemed to be a dull moment in her life, that is, until her time on earth came closer to its end. Her lively attitude faded slowly as the twinkling stars did when the morning sun crept above the horizon.
She could barely get out of bed. She said that Bert needed her in heaven and to meet him by Orion, so she replied that she wanted a soda. The daughter by her side followed her bidding and gingerly took her time going down both flights of stairs to the basement. The daughter retrieved the drink and went back upstairs. How strange it must have felt to get a soda that was doomed to be left undrunk. I mean, this tough rebel hated soda. She despised soda. But she loved her daughter enough to leave a lasting memory rather than a lasting nightmare.
As my boots softly padded against the concrete with each step, I couldn’t help but wonder what stories she would have told now. Like how she would have laughed watching me try to swing dance, how she would have pinned my picture to the fridge to show me off to her friends, and how she would have hugged me and laughed when I told her I loved the smell of her cigarettes. The story possibilities were infinite, but this short life we live isn’t.
She would have been one hundred today. For one hundred years she would have been here, making memories. But instead I am left to reminisce the ashes of the ones she left behind.
To the world, these past one hundred years may have looked like progress, smelled like success, and sounded like innovation. But to me, it looked like her, smelled like tobacco, and sounded like a rusty laugh.
*1st place at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Center for Writing Excellence Spring 2017 writing contest (Theme: Centennial or 100)*