WINTER SMOKE • by Andrea M. Pawley

My Grampa loved boiled coffee, his carpenter’s shop and smoking two packs a day. He gave me my first cigarette when I was fourteen. I was his favorite grandson, the only one who understood the lathe needed a light touch. I would meet Grampa by the woodshed, just out of Grandma’s view from the house, to smoke and listen to his stories. Cold winter evenings were the only times he smoked indoors where Grandma could see him.

“When are you going to visit?” Grandma said, her voice crackling through the phone line.

My mother had said that Grampa’s empty recliner still commanded the best view of the television even a year after his death from lung cancer, and smokers were banished to the yard regardless of the weather. I had smoked two packs a day since freshman year of college. I could not imagine smoking in Grandma’s yard while she watched through the curtains and worried about the condition of my lungs. The woodshed, once a good shield, had been taken down when Grandma got an oil heater.

“The shelf over the kitchen sink needs fixing,” Grandma said. “It’s leaning at me. Now all my dishes are sitting by the police scanner.”

A place bereft of Grampa held no appeal for me, but Grandma insisted. The six-hour drive to her house broke into forty segments, one for each cigarette I smoked.

Light from Grandma’s house spilled into the crisp, cold twilight. From the porch, only steps from Grampa’s padlocked carpenter’s shop, the winter breeze pulled the lingering smoke from my clothing. Grampa’s tools had been sold a few months before, and I hoped the lathe was in another carpenter’s shop, not buried in a scrapyard pile of rusting, unwanted things.

I saw Grandma through the entry door’s scratched glass. Nicotine patches dotting my upper arms pulled at my skin. With my knock, Grandma rose from her chair, reached for her rubber-tipped cane and made her way to the door. Her free hand pushed thick glasses up the bridge of her nose. When the door opened, warm air that smelled of lilacs and soap rushed out to meet me.

“You don’t have to knock,” Grandma said through a happy-to-see-me smile.

Her face was softer than I remembered from the funeral, her skin looser, her eyes the light blue of tropical water she would never see first-hand.

“Come in. The porch is icy.”

She boiled a pot of coffee, light brown and gritty at the bottom. I completed the cabinet repair in twenty minutes. The dinner Grandma made could have fed six, but we were only two people strip-mining a mountain of spaghetti. I ate and tried to listen to the stories bubbling out of her.

“…My father and I picked apples on the Coopers’ land. The highway runs through there now…”

“…Travis went to Springfield and got a job with a politician. His father thinks he’ll be back by July…”

“…The town pond froze early this year. Your Grampa and I used to ice skate there before the girls came along…”

Occasional eye contact and a nod were all Grandma needed from me to continue the conversation. This was Grampa’s long-ago method as he tried to watch television over her shoulder. I stole glances at the portraits of Grampa lining the room and thought of cigarettes: the one I wasn’t smoking now, the one I didn’t have after the chocolate cake, and the one I would miss later rather than lie and say I needed to get something from the car.

Stuffed full of dinner, we moved into the living room and put on a album by Grandma’s favorite Irish singer. She insisted I sit in her chair. I worked my deltoid muscles with my fingers as if nicotine magic could be milked from the patches.

“Your Grampa is still around, you know,” Grandma said.

The scent of tobacco leaf wafted into the room. Goosebumps shimmered along my arms.

“Three times now I’ve found cigarettes burning in the house.” Grandma coughed in the dry, raspy way Grampa did before he took a long drag on a new cigarette.

The room spun a little.

“The first cigarette was on a saucer in the kitchen. You remember how Grampa did that?”

The room’s horizon leveled again. Grampa held cigarettes in his long knobby fingers. Carpenter’s fingers, he called them when someone mentioned their odd shape, wide at their flattened ends. When he spoke, he gestured with the cigarette, its ash end growing ever longer but somehow not breaking off until Grampa flicked it onto a saucer. When Grandma was in another room, Grampa let me sneak a puff.

“And the other two were in the bathroom sink. The first one was all burnt out, but the second one was still going. I put it out myself.”

“You’re sure it wasn’t a neighbor’s?” I said. “People sometimes put down a cigarette and don’t know it’s still burning.”

“I don’t let anyone smoke in the house since Grampa died. It’s him. He’s the only one.” Grandma’s lips pursed into a thin, uncrossable line.

The Irish crooner smoothed over the moment. After another song, Grandma turned genial again and talked about other things. An album later, she grew tired and took herself to bed. Sleep was not for me. I wanted Grandma to be right. I wanted to see Grampa’s twinkling eyes one more time and feel his warm, rough hand squeeze my shoulder. Turning the television to his favorite channel, I lit a cigarette, set it on a saucer and waited.

He came dressed in wood-dusty overalls, like he just finished work in the shop. Smiling, he lifted the cigarette from the saucer, coughed and took a long drag. When he exhaled, the smoke clung to him like a halo.

“It’s not too late for you,” Grampa said, clapping me on the shoulder. “Stick with the patches.”

Andrea M. Pawley does not believe in ghosts even when they sit cross-legged at the foot of her bed and watch her sleep.

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