The Virtue Of Cigarettes

My grandmother sat on a large rock, smoking a cigarette and sipping a can of beer while she watched us play in the lake. She was concerned that we keep an eye out for fishing lures and broken glass. Treading on either one could swiftly ruin an entire vacation.

Although the campground boasted one of the finest white sand beaches in the Adirondacks, we opted for the boat-launch that day. It was nearer to our campsite. Rangers kept it clear enough to get a boat in and out of the water, but it wasn’t really meant for swimmers. Aside from the paved launch strip, the bottom was complicated with slippery rocks and fallen branches. Its small beach was pebbly and rough.

My dad was in the lake with my brother and sister and me. My sister stayed close to him for the most part. My brother, on the other hand, swam like an otter, alternately disappearing underwater and popping up where he wasn’t expected.

As a rule, I preferred exploring to swimming. A rotten log bobbing among the lily pads caught my attention. It was heavy, but still had some float left in it. It made a decent submarine when I pushed it lengthwise below the surface.

It was rare for my grandmother to be in the mountains with us, since she was fond of modern conveniences. Not that she was fussy; in fact, she was very comfortable with all sorts of outdoor activities. She was the one who’d taught me how to put a nightcrawler on a fishhook. But I got the impression that she’d “roughed it” enough in her life and wasn’t looking for her leisure time to be rustic.

When we got out of the water I noticed six or seven small reddish-brown bumps on my feet and ankles. I didn’t know what they were, but they made me feel uneasy. My Grandmother took a closer look, and said, “Oh Scotty, you got bloodsuckers on you!”

My instinct was to scratch them off with my fingernails, but she stopped me. In a deliberately calm voice she explained that they had to be removed very carefully; otherwise, their mouthparts might stick in my skin and cause a bad infection. I tried with all my might to cling to my composure.

My dad hustled back to our campsite for the first-aid kit and a saltshaker. My grandmother said she knew what to do. I trusted her, but couldn’t watch. The familiar smell of her smoke comforted me a little.

I remember the heat of her cigarette near my skin as she methodically backed the leeches out of me. Even if I got burned, I thought, it would be better than having those blobby little monsters fastened to my body.

One by one they let go, and were deftly flicked into her beer can for safekeeping. I held still and waited out the eternal seconds. She periodically took a drag to stoke the cigarette. It probably helped steady her hand too. She finished the procedure without once touching the tobacco embers to my skin.

My dad had returned in time to see the last fiend vanquished. He dabbed Mercurochrome on the tiny odd-shaped wounds. Then I could exhale again.

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