The insistent smell of cigarette smoke has always given me nostalgia, not for my father, who had never had a cigarette in his life (after tenth grade), but for my uncle, who had smoked a pack every day (after tenth grade). I loved the smoke, silver like his hair, exhaled like a whisper, like a secret, like the punch line of a joke my father would have said I was too young to hear. He would glower at my uncle who would look back, sheepish eyes over a wolfish smile so you knew exactly who was wearing whose clothing.
The nostalgia isn’t worth walking behind this old man on the sidewalk as he meanders in a lazy zigzag. I try to scoot past him, but I’m worried I’ll burn myself on his cigarette. I guess memories are like that, impossible to dodge past without singeing yourself.
My uncle is smoke now. Cremated. You are what you breathe. My father caught me in tenth grade burning a cigarette. He yelled at me for it, but my mom told him that he was being too hard on me, that I was grieving, growing, going through a phase. I didn’t feel like explaining that I just wanted to smell him again, that the end glowed like his eyes catching the porch light and tossing it my way. America’s pastime. Passed time is all I want back, when he would finish a final story and stab out the stub of the cigarette in an ashtray, as full as my head was of memories. He’d give me a final hug, smelling stronger than ever, and send me home on my way.
I look closer at the man in front of me. Hair silver like smoke, built like my uncle. Suddenly I don’t want to pass him. If I pass him, I’ll see his face, but this way maybe I can tell myself I’m following my uncle’s ghost through the night, through one final, stolen night before he pats me on the head and sends me across the street to go to bed, walking past my father whose nose wrinkles at the smell of cigarette smoke still leaking off of me. How like my uncle to cheat death for a single night, just to give me another story.
Pieper Roderick grew up in India and Indonesia before moving back to the United States where he was born. He attended university in Florida where he still lives, teaching high school English. His favorite color is purple, and all of his uncles are still living, though many of them do smoke.