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Full Circle: Bad Habits
I had smokey eyes before they were hot
By Maury Z.Levy

I never drank, I never smoked. I lived in a house full of fumes. My sister chain-smoked cigarettes. Pall Malls. No filters, just pure poison.

My father smoked cheap cigars. He bragged about that, about how much money he saved, cigars that he got for a nickel that were better than the rich men who spent a quarter. He savored his stogies like a man drinking fine wine. He didn’t puff, he drew. Then he let the smoke roll around in his mouth for minutes and then he breathed it out. A slow, deliberate breath, never a blow.

Everything in our house smelled like smoke. It invaded the drapes and the rugs and the sofa that was covered in clear plastic. Eventually, like the teeth of junkies, it turned the clear plastic clear yellow. Most of all, it stayed in my nose. I could never get it out. It dulled my senses, it ruined my taste buds. In the wet heat of summer, with every window in the house open wide, I never smelled the freshness of grass growing. I never smelled the sweetness of a summer storm.

My mother didn’t smoke, and she was never really a drinker. Except for lady drinks, those frothy refreshments she ordered at parties or Italian restaurants. Her favorite was a grasshopper. It was green and thick and full of foam. By her second drink, the foam would start tickling her nose and she would begin to giggle.

“Rosie, you’ve had enough,” my father would tell her.

“Oh, just one more,” she would say. And then, she would kick off her shoes, climb up on the table and dance the Charleston.

My father was a more serious drinker. He never called it scotch or rye or bourbon. He called it liquor. The liquor was kept in the bottom of the china cabinet at the far end of the dining room. There was a small, well-used shot glass next to the bottle of Seagram’s Seven. On hard days or cold days or days that ended in “y,” my father would walk in the door, toss his hat on his club chair and head straight for the china closet. No one was allowed in the dining room when he was doing this. We would stay in our places and listen until we heard the sound.

“Ahhhhhhgh,” he would say. “Now that hit the spot.” He always said that. Every time. And I always wondered where the spot was. And how the liquor knew where to go.

And that would be it. There was no second drink. There was no problem. The men with the problems would stop at Walt’s taproom on Bustleton Avenue as they got off the 59B bus from work. And an hour or more later, they would walk down the block, their bright red noses lighting the way.

I soon realized I was the only one in our house without a bad habit. I took my refuge in the basement, the unfinished basement where the only smell was from the giant cedar chest that stored and protected, like the cop on the beat, our treasured garments. I loved the smell of cedar. It was rich, and it was fruity. It smelled too good to be wood, as though it had been cheated out of a more glamorous life, a better fate. I hated pine. Pine smelled hard, pine smelled dry. Pine smelled like death.

But, most of all, camphor was my pleasure. Camphor smelled as clean as fresh snow, as pungent as a menthol cough drop. At first, I was a casual camphor user. I would sneak downstairs, open the cedar chest and take a quick whiff or two. But soon, that wasn’t enough. Soon, and without remorse, I started sticking camphor balls in the pockets of my pants. I would rub them with my fingers and put my fingers to my nose. A sweet relief, a sudden rush, a hint of a better life where everything smelled like rich, red roses. A life where gentle perfume filled the air. A life without limits, a life without smoke or drink or worry. A boy’s life.

December 2013
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