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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em...


"Remember to find out what your teacher smokes, so Daddy can get what we need."

My mother zipped the top of my coat and tightened the scarf around my neck, covering most of my face.  My nose leaked into the wool, making the skin on my cheeks warm and wet.

"I don't think she smokes, Mom."

"Just go."  She turned me around by the shoulders, and I toddled across the schoolyard toward the other fifth graders.

"What did you get Mrs. Flanagan for Christmas?" I asked a few of the girls as we huddled together for warmth in the shadow of the building.

"I got her some perfume.  Jean Nate," one of them said.

"I bought this little statue.  It says 'Best Teacher Ever.'"

"My mother's gonna take me to Macy's this weekend."

Shit, I thought to myself.  These presents sounded wonderful and very extravagant.

My sister, Judy and I gave our teachers the same thing every year.  An appreciative carton of cigarettes.  This practical gift was generally well-received by faculty members across the board at St. Raymond's.  But still, it would have been nice to go to Korvettes and look at the necklaces.  Maybe pick out some gloves.

The bell rang, and we filed through the double doors and up the stairs.

I waited until the end of the day to approach my teacher.  Mrs. Flanagan was a sweet, middle-aged woman with piercing blue eyes and a compact, roly poly body. She was gentle and soft-spoken.  She raised her voice at me only once.  I felt terribly self-conscious when it happened, even though it had been a bunch of us screaming in the cafeteria.  Not just me.

"Yes, Mary dear.  What can I do for you?"

"Uhm.  My mom wants to know what kind of cigarettes you like."

She stared at me for a good minute or two.  I thought perhaps she was trying to decide on her favorite.

"Tell your mother 'thank you,' but I don't smoke."

Shit, I thought to myself.

I went home and shared with my mother the details of our brief conversation.  She leaned over the kitchen table, wrapping rectangular packages of nicotine like a machine.  Stopping only to flick the ashes from the end of her own equipment and tape bows to everything that wasn't nailed down.

"What do you mean, 'She doesn't smoke?'"

She looked at me like I had four heads.

"'I don't smoke.'  That's what she told me."

Shit, my mother said.

"What are we gonna do now?"

"Go pick something from over there."

Mom gestured toward an array of boxed liquors, loosely reserved for our pediatrician and dentist, as well as select members of the clergy.

"I like this one," I said, holding up a sparkly white box with a red ribbon painted onto the cardboard.  "What's this?"

"It doesn't matter.  They're all the same shit," she said.

The following morning, I stood at the front of the line with a gift-wrapped bottle of Seagram's V.O. in a small brown shopping bag.

"Is that for Mrs. Flanagan?" one of my classmates asked.

"Yes."

"What did you get her?"

"Whiskey," I answered proudly.

I couldn't wait to see the look on my teacher's face when she opened it.

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