She sat on her porch watching me work, smoking one cigarette after the other and occasionally barking out that little, gravelly cough. All set up in her lounge chair on the front deck, newspaper spread out at her feet and her ashtray by her side, the lady in the next condo over spent the morning browsing through the flyers and chain-smoking. I was re-modeling the kitchen across the driveway. It seemed a welcome diversion in her day.
As I hung the new cabinets and installed the sink, Joe, the condo’s owner, divided his attention between my work, his Steven King novel, and the always on television. It was tuned to sit-com re-runs of the seventies, many of which I pathetically recognized. He lived alone, retired, with long days to fill and he too chain-smoked. He also had that regular, gurgly, little cough.
I had just moved to the South after living twenty-three years in Montana, found work with a kitchen contractor, and was still scouting out this new terrain. For some odd reason I was struck by the similarities between Joe and his neighbor across the way. Physically they were both thin, almost hollow looking, and seemed old beyond their years. Both lived alone and filled the hours with distractions and an endless chain of cigarettes. Down here in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Tobacco is a force, almost a palpable presence and it is attached to this region in many ways, the names of towns and streets, parks and museums being the most obvious. The politics, history and mythology of tobacco clings to nearly everything, like the odor in Joe’s old couch or the gray cloud wafting about his ceiling. Tobacco built this town, this state and it demands a certain allegiance, even as it slowly suffocates and kills its followers. Tobacco builds the fine universities and supports the arts, bestows power on the politicians and a livelihood to the people. But it’s blood money and they all know it. It is reflected in their eyes and in the windows of their churches. Nicotine stains the school buildings, the highways and the lovely parks but it’s never mentioned. It seems to me this pervasive denial is lethal, both literally and spiritually.
She watched me load up the truck, alternately coughing and dragging on yet another smoke. Beyond her old, black Cadillac, with its license plate holder professing “Pride In Tobacco”, I could see her gaunt face, eyes set deep in their sockets. We were just far enough away that acknowledging smiles seemed unnecessary.
In Montana our mythological symbols, such as the Cowboy, the Pioneer or the Grizzly have an indirect way of poisoning people’s spirit, creating a climate of fear, prejudice and a dangerous nativism.Montanans also seem unwilling to face certain aspects of their collective past. We choose instead to de-construct or better yet, simply deny the exploitation, the slaughters, and terrible injustices’ perpetrated in the pursuit of wealth and empire. The blood money. Here in North Carolina it seems a more straightforward process, the symbol and the poison one and the same. Here they just cut to the chase and poison themselves with poison.