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.