Published in Playboy magazine in November 2012.
As I look at the barn in my ninth decade, I see the no-smoking sign, rusted and tilting on the unpainted gray clapboard. My grandfather, born in 1875, milked his cattle there a century ago. Neither of my grandparents smoked. I don’t know when my grandfather nailed up the sign, but I know why. Sometimes a tramp would dodge inside the barn after dark to sleep on a bed of hay, and once my grandfather found cigarette ash when he climbed to the tie-up in the morning. It doesn’t take much to burn down a barn. Whenever I focus on the sign, white letters against red, I pull a cigarette from the pack beside me, flick my Bic and take a drag.
When my parents and I visited the farm way back, my father was required to do his smoking outside. My mother, who learned to smoke at college, pretended to her parents that she never touched the stuff. (My grandmother lived to be 97, and her sense of smell diminished. My elderly mother sneaked upstairs and puffed on a cigarette.) My father was a gentle and supportive man, but he was tense, shaky — and could not do without his Chesterfields. He walked up and down the driveway, dodging horse manure, to work on his four-pack-a-day habit. He started smoking when he was 14 and wasn’t diagnosed with lung cancer until 1955, when he was 51.
Every time I write, say, or think “lung cancer,” I pick up a Pall Mall to calm myself.