MARK WAS ELEVEN AND HAD BEEN SMOKING OFF AND ON for two years, never trying to quit but being careful not to get hooked. He preferred Kools, his ex-father's brand, but his mother smoked Virginia Slims at the rate of two packs a day, and he could in an average week pilfer ten or twelve from her. She was a busy woman with many problems, perhaps a little naive when it came to her boys, and she never dreamed her eldest would be smoking at the age of eleven.
Occasionally Kevin, the delinquent two streets over, would sell Mark a pack of stolen Marlboros for a dollar. But for the most part he had to rely on his mother's skinny cigarettes.
He had four of them in his pocket that afternoon as he led his brother, Ricky, age eight, down the path into the woods behind their trailer park. Ricky was nervous about this, his first smoke. He had caught Mark hiding the cigarettes in a shoebox under his bed day before, and threatened to tell all if his big brother didn't show him how to do it. They sneaked along the wooded trail, headed for one of Mark's secret spots where he'd spent many solitary hours trying to inhale and blow smoke rings.
Most of the other kids in the neighborhood were into beer and pot, two vices Mark was determined to avoid. Their ex-father was an alcoholic who'd beaten both boys and their mother, and the beatings always followed his nasty bouts with beer. Mark had seen and felt the effects of alcohol. He was also afraid of drugs.
"Are you lost?" Ricky asked just like a little brother as they left the trail and waded through chest-high weeds.
"Just shut up," Mark said without slowing. The only time their father had spent at home was to drink and sleep and abuse them. He was gone now, thank heavens. For five years Mark had been in charge of Ricky. He felt like an eleven-year-old father. He'd taught him how to throw a football and ride a bike. He'd explained what he knew about sex. He'd warned him about drugs, and protected him from bullies. And he felt terrible about this introduction to vice. But it was just a cigarette. It could be much worse., The weeds stopped and they were under a large tree with a rope hanging from a thick branch. A row of bushes yielded to a small clearing, and beyond it an overgrown dirt road disappeared over a hill. A highway could be heard in the distance.
Mark stopped and pointed to a log near the rope. "Sit there," he instructed, and Ricky obediently backed onto the log and glanced around anxiously as if the police might be watching. Mark eyed him like a drill sergeant while picking a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He held it withhis right thumb and index finger, and tried to be casual about it.
"You know the rules," he said, looking down at Ricky. There were only two rules, and they had discussed them a dozen times during the day, and Ricky was frustrated at being treated like a child. He rolled his eyes away and said, "Yeah, if I tell anyone, you'll beat me up." "That's right." Ricky folded his arms. "And I can smoke only one a day." "That's right. If I catch you smoking more than that, then you're in trouble. And if I find out you're drinking beer or messing with drugs, then-" "I know, I know. You'll beat me up again." "Right." "How many do you smoke a day?" "Only one," Mark lied. Some days, only one. Some days, three or four, depending on supply. He stuck the filter between his lips like a gangster.
"Will one a day kill me?" Ricky asked.
Mark removed the cigarette from his lips. "Not anytime soon. One a day is pretty safe. More than that, and you could be-in trouble." "How many does Mom smoke a day?" "Two packs." "How many is that?" "Forty." "Wow. Then she's in big trouble." "Mom's got all kinds of troubles. I don't think she's worried about cigarettes." "How many does Dad smoke a day?" "Four or five packs. A hundred a day." Ricky grinned slightly. "Then he's gonna die soon, right?" "I hope so. Between staying drunk and chainsmoking, he'll be dead in a few years." "It's when you light the new one with the old one. I wish he'd smoke ten packs a day." "Me too." Ricky glanced toward the small clearing and the dirt road. It was shady and cool under the tree, but beyond the limbs the sun was bright. Mark pinched the filter with his thumb and index finger and sort of waved it before his mouth. "Are you scared?" he sneered as only big brothers can.
"No." "I think you are. Look, hold it like this, okay?" He waved it closer, then with great drama withdrew it and stuck it between his lips. Ricky watched intently.
Mark lit the cigarette, puffed a tiny cloud of smoke, then held it and admired it. "Don't try to swallow the smoke. You're not ready for that yet. Just suck a little then blow the smoke out. Are you ready?" "Will it make me sick?" "It will if you swallow the smoke." He took two quick drags and puffed for effect. "See. It's really easy. I'll teach you how to inhale later." "Okay." Ricky nervously reached out with his thumb and index finger, and Mark placed the cigarette carefully between them. "Go ahead." Ricky eased the wet filter to his lips. His hand shook and he took a short drag and blew smoke. Another short drag. The smoke never got past his front teeth. Another drag. Mark watched carefully, hoping he would choke and cough and turn blue, then get sick and never smoke again.
"It's easy," Ricky said proudly as he held the cigarette and admired it. His hand was shaking.
"It's no big deal." "Tastes kind of funny." "Yeah, yeah." Mark sat next to mm on me iug and picked another one from his pocket. Ricky puffed rapidly. Mark lit his, and they sat in silence under the tree enjoying a quiet smoke.
"This is fun," Ricky said, nibbling at the filter.
"Great. Then why are your hands shaking?" "They're not." "Sure." Ricky ignored this. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, took a longer drag, then spat in the dirt like he'd seen Kevin and the big boys do behind the trailer park. This was easy.
Mark opened his mouth into a perfect circle and attempted a smoke ring. He thought this would really impress his little brother, but the ring failed to form and the gray smoke dissipated.
"I think you're too young to smoke," he said.
Ricky was busy puffing and spitting, and thoroughly enjoying this giant step toward manhood. "How old were you when you started?" he asked.
"Nine. But I was more mature than you." "You always say that." "That's because it's always true." They sat next to each other on the log under the tree, smoking quietly and staring at the grassy clearing beyond the shade. Mark was in fact more mature than Ricky at the age of eight. He was more mature than any kid his age. He'd always been mature. He had hit his father with a baseball bat when he was seven. The aftermath had not been pretty, but the drunken idiot had stopped beating their mother. There had been many fights and many beatings, and Dianne Sway had sought refuge and advice from her eldest son. They had consoled each other and conspired to survive. They aiter me Deatings. They had plotted ways to protect Ricky. When he was nine, Mark convinced her to file for divorce. He had called the cops when his father showed up drunk after being served with divorce papers. He had testified in court about the abuse and neglect and beatings. He was very mature.
Ricky heard the car first. There was a low, rushing sound coming from the dirt road. Then Mark heard it, and they stopped smoking. "Just sit still," Mark said softly. They did not move.
A long black, shiny Lincoln appeared over the slight hill and eased toward them. The weeds in the road were as high as the front bumper. Mark dropped his cigarette to the ground and covered it with his shoe. Ricky did the same.