Smoke and Ashes by Stephen Spotte

My father’s cigar-smoking, or rather its imminent threat, had caused our banishment to the porch. After supper, Dad had taken a cigar from his shirt pocket with the practiced deliberation of an actor. Mom, recognizing the cue as hers, stood and began clearing the dishes.
            “Marcel,” she said, “you’re not going to smoke that smelly thing in the house. Now take it outside.”
            Dad winked at me as we scuffed back our chairs. We both understood the importance of private rituals in sustaining family bonds. This one had been in active use for thirty-two years, modified as necessary by circumstance and the passage of time.
            “Okay,” Dad replied with false reluctance. “Matt’s just here for the weekend, you know.”
            “I know,” Mom retorted over her shoulder. Her tone was final. The ritual would not be modified merely for my Easter homecoming.
            The night was chilly and overcast, seasonable conditions for early April in Connecticut. Spring peepers harmonized from puddles and the lowlands nearby. This night reminded me of a similar night twenty years earlier.
            “Dad, do you remember that trip we took with the McCallums when I was about ten? It was Easter week. We drove up to Meadows Lake in the McCallum’s station wagon: Mr. and Mrs. McCallum, Georgie, and us. We rented those two cabins and fished,” I said.
            Dad did not reply, but I perceived movement as he leaned toward the ashtray. Dad’s silence was not unusual; he often preferred listening to talking. I took it as my own cue to continue.
            “I remember that place perfectly. The cabins were separated by a dock and a thick stand of birches, paper birches, the kind Indians used to make birch-bark canoes. Georgie and I decided to build a canoe. Of course, we had no idea how only that we needed the bark. We skinned — actually ringed — lots of those trees. The landlord was furious. I don’t know how you and Mr. McCallum talked your way out of that mess. I’m sure the trees died.
            “Every morning, you, Mr. McCallum, Georgie, and I went fishing. There were two rowboats. You let me row one out after pushing away from the dock, but I couldn’t get the hang of it and mostly turned the boat in circles. I can still hear the oars banging in the oarlocks and remember how heavy they felt. I thought that being a galley slave on a Roman warship must have been the worst job in the world. Of course, it never occurred to me that someday I might be bigger and stronger. After you took the oars the boat seemed to fly over the water.”
            I stopped talking and listened to the night. It would rain later. The sky was heavy and ground fog had crept into the yard from the trees below. I felt relaxed and strangely secure as if all future events were somehow predictable.
            “You and Mom and the McCallums used to horse around on the dock after supper, threatening to throw each other in the water. I remember you got angry when Mr. McCallum put his arms around Mom. You told him to lay off. The others thought you were joking, but I knew you weren’t. You didn’t want her to get thrown off the dock, I guess. Of course, no one ever did. It was all just horseplay, but Georgie and I got excited about the possibilities. Kids want to see their parents in some kind of embarrassing situation at least once because they seem so mature and godlike.”
            Dad stirred in his chair. He asked, “When do you go back to work?”
            “Tuesday,” I replied. “The boss has scheduled a seminar, attendance mandatory. Of course, she’ll still be on vacation.”
            “That’s typical. It’s a good incentive to be the boss, right?”
            “Right,” I said, thinking that cigar smoke outdoors has a clean and aromatic odor. Dad’s ghostly outline leaned toward the ashtray again. It was his habit to smoke a cigar until the ash was about three-quarters of an inch long, then carefully knock it off into the ashtray with his little finger. Long ash makes for a cooler-burning cigar, he always said. I pictured the ashes lined up end to end like little gray barrels.
            “It was the night of Easter Sunday,” I started again. “I had begged to go night fishing. Georgie had a stomach ache and Mrs. McCallum was reading to him. We got our tackle and rowed to Strawberry Island. We started ith casting with spinners from shore and if they weren’t biting row out onto the lake and bottom fish. Telling Mom not to expect us until midnight, we had flashlights and sandwiches and lots of bait.
            “Well, we no sooner got to Strawberry Island than I fell in. All the way in. The water was freezing, and there was nothing to do except row back to the cabin for a change of clothes. It was a calm black overcast night, exactly like tonight, and voices carried over the water.
            “We were pulling up to the dock when I first heard them. The fog was swirling all around leaving little temporary windows for us to row through. I remember that a loon called from far out on the lake. It sounded eerie and remote.
            “There was giggling coming from the direction of our cabin, then Mom said quite clearly, ‘Pete McCallum, you’re not smoking that smelly thing in the house. Take it outside.’ I started to laugh, wondering why she would say that to Mr. McCallum when I thought she said it only to you. Then Mom whispered, ‘Wait, I heard someone.’ A door slammed, there were running footsteps, and a flashlight beam wobbled through the trees.”
            With sudden realization, I stopped. My throat filled with bile; silent tears stung my face.
            Dad’s outline bent forward and lined up another cigar ash. “I don’t remember any trip to Meadows Lake, Matt,” he said, “You must be mistaken.”

Stephen Spotte is a retired marine scientist, author of several books of nonfiction, creative nonfiction, and fiction. He lives in Longboat Key, Florida.


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