(thoughts followed by the photo and poem that sparked them)
Many years ago—maybe as many as thirty; I think I was in my mid-20s—I made a miraculous find on a beach. A beaver skull, small (perhaps a young one who didn’t make it through the first winter, suggested a friend) and perfectly preserved, the skull ivory-white and the long curving teeth deep orange. I wrote a poem about it, “Beaver Skull,” which appeared on the last page of my first collection, Calm Jazz Sea (Brick Books, 1996).
Then, after sitting on my desk for years, it went missing. Things seemed to go missing unaccountably a lot in my twenties and thirties. “The hurricane years” might be a good word for one’s twenties, I’ve thought—and not just my twenties, but a lot of people’s. These big winds blowing things and people in and out of your life. Hurling you in one direction, then another.
Theft? I sometimes thought so. (Giving the hurricane a human face and motive.) A girlfriend I lived with for several years was my prime suspect. She had stolen my cassettes and gold pocketwatch as a parting shot. But not, it turned out, my beaver skull.
I found it, along with other precious items I’d thought long gone, in the dim and long-unvisited recesses of a cellar storage closet when I was cleaning out my parents’ house, over several months this year, after my dad died last summer and we moved my mom into a residence for the care she needs.
Under the beaver skull is my dad’s ashtray. He died of lung cancer, but had quit smoking twenty years before, he and my mom together, when they were 65. From first sneaked smokes in their teens, they’d been heavy smokers for nearly 50 years. Just cigarettes for Mom, but cigarettes, cigars (out fishing or with Sunday football on TV), and pipes for Dad. The pipe resting on the heavy ashtray was one of the most reassuring sights of my childhood, just as the sweet heavy smell of pipesmoke, or the more acrid tang of the cigar, were two of the most reassuring smells. Their ghost presence in my nostrils still brings solid, timeless comfort and security. And it’s not changed even slightly by knowing that my chronic shortness of breath, the slight constriction and gaspiness I feel always in my lungs, is most likely not unrelated to the dense white curtain of fog that closed around our dinner table right after, or just before, the last mouthful of dessert (so thick, that smoke, like gaseous milk, that we kids peeked under rather than through it to see each other), or to the closed-window capsule of even more concentrated fog of long car trips. Though present choices must, deep-set memories never adjust themselves in the light of medical know-better.
I had the bad timing to visit Mom and Dad the day after they’d quit cold turkey. They were in Florida for a couple of winter months, and I was visiting a week in their rented condo. They said they were doing it for their first grandchild, just born. They needed a better reason than “for ourselves.” Just twenty-four hours in, they were in hellish shape—not just cravings and bad tempers, but real physical distress on all fronts: sallow skins, bunged up bowels, aching joints, mouth cankers of alarming size and profusion. Every addicted cell in their body was letting them know what it thought of their going clean. Months, maybe a year, later, I asked Dad if he felt he’d regained health that made it worth it. He gave it a retired doctor’s due consideration, then answered that he was hard-pressed to think of a way in which he didn’t feel worse than before quitting. Many years after that, I asked him if he still felt cravings when someone else lit up. “Yes,” he said, “and every other time too.” I finally understood why he was so tolerant of others smoking around him: it couldn’t make worse an urge that had never subsided.
He was more vocal about it than Mom, but nicotine never seemed to let either of them forget that they had banished it. Like a stalker ex, it stayed in their face.
My ex-girlfriend, the one I thought might have stolen the skull, smoked like a chimney too. It didn’t bother me much. For a (mostly) non-smoker, I’ve been pretty blasé about breathing other people’s secondhand. It’s not tolerance exactly. I don’t know what to call it. Low expectations will do for starters. I know it sounds absurd, but I never thought clean air was something I was entitled to. I still don’t—though I’m more apt to walk out of a room in search of it.
I’m not saying the fifty years of smoking gave Dad his final lung cancer. In fact, I’ve heard that the lungs have amazing regenerative powers and, after a few “clean” years, are as good as new, or almost. I don’t know either way.
Under the ashtray in the photo is his oak desk. Designed and built by hand by one of his early mentors (what a gift to a young protegé!), Dad set it up in the den in each of his homes. In all but the last one, it was also Tobacco Central: its drawers and surrounding shelves stocked with cartons of Philip Morris, boxes of Antonio y Cleopatra cigars and soft packages of Captain Black Royal cavendish tobacco, pipes, pipe cleaners. He said all along the desk had to go to me. I worried that it would be too big for this apartment room—too big literally, but also in all the ways a father’s desk is bound to be, can’t help but be, too big. At times it does feel that way, but at other times, it feels surprisingly right-sized. Like something I’ve been sitting at all along.
The little pewter owl perched on the edge of the ashtray has nothing to do with the other objects, really. My sister-in-law Erica gave it to me one Christmas. It just seemed to find a natural perch on the ashtray on the desk, overlooking the beaver skull.
After a lifetime of living with people who lit up on any and all occasions—to celebrate, to consider, to console, to while away time—I often get the urge...very resistable, a kind of non-smoker’s phantom puff...to light up myself. Always my imaginary smoke is a thick, room-fumigating stogie. This is one of those times.
White bone. Yellowed a bit
like ivory on an old piano.
Two great eye-sockets,
and the slightly fragmented lower
mandibles I have placed on
either side, flanking the main skull,
storehouse of everything it was.
Below the large eye-holes where
everything flooded in, the optic nerve
passage through which a fibre now
gone tapered the world,
sawn into pictures.
The tiny teeth-rows like an empty
corncob. The nostrils with flap
of bone still seeming wary and
defensive, sniffing suspiciously,
ready for the great tail-slap.
Hole in back where it all filtered
out again, owl-roost and poplar
leaves toppled nerve to limb.
And I can’t forget: the two
teeth, curved in a perfect
parenthesis. I once saw
maple chips three inches round
and an inch thick. The muscles
that must have supplied those tusks!
Ideally simple remnant of the
living beast, it sits to my left
on the window sill. But the goad
of its white serenity is complex:
I will one day be as perfect
as it is without even trying.