Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cancer Man: Smoker's lament

Almost all of them smell like cigarettes. They get in the car and they reek like an old tobacco barn. I know the smell.

Back when I was a smoker, a real smoker and not a dabbler who hid his habit, I remember that when I was short on money I'd buy the GPC cigarettes at the Feed store next door from the pizza parlor where I worked a couple of years while in college.

For considerably less than a buck you could get a pack of cigarettes that tasted like hot asphalt and smelled like roasted pus. You lit the things, inhaled and felt the smoke walk around your lungs like an evil spirit that couldn't be bothered to wipe its dirty feet. If you were lucky, it only gave you a headache. Usually, they made me want to throw up.

Half a dozen times I almost quit because I'd been stuck smoking those things between paydays and God, how they stank. You could barely get the smell off your clothes, let alone wash it out of your hair or scrape it off your fingertips. You had to scrub and soak to get rid of the stain and stench.

The people who get in my cars these days for our little journeys to and from, I know, smoke the worst of the worst. They still smoke because where they are now, quitting barely matters, but they don't smoke Marlboros or Winstons or even the much despised Dorals. Those brands to them are like cuts of beef to me --something you look at in the store, pray for it to be on special, but seldom actually put it in the cart.

They smoke the stuff that comes wrapped up like old porno magazines, in plain wrappers that don't promise the products they contain will do anything that the name brand versions sometime suggests. They won't get you laid, won't make you seem more interesting and won't contribute to your image as a rugged individualist. They're a suicide pact. The surgeon general's warning is hardly necessary and is more like the contents of a fortune cookie.

The smell clung to Lila. I could almost sense it before she opened the door. I didn't ask what Lila's cancer was, but it hardly mattered. From what she was smoking, I could tell that whatever she had, it wasn't looking good.

Lila and I were supposed to have met earlier. She'd been booked before months ago then called off because the chemotherapy and the radiation terrified her. She wanted a second opinion.

"I don't want to do this if I don't have to," is what she told me over the phone then thanked me for calling. If she needed me, she'd call me later.

I'd just forgotten about her.

Lila lived on the edges of what passes for civilization, in a grubby trailer at the end of a dusty gravel road that ran parallel to a railroad track.

"Sometimes they'll have the train on the tracks and you have to walk half a mile just to get around it."

The trains come at regular intervals and usually through the night. I asked her how she slept and she shrugged and said she had no idea.

Picking her up, her grown daughter thanked me twice for doing this and on short notice. They had three vehicles in the yard. None of them were reliable, they said, and besides, the daughter needed to wait at the trailer. Someone was picking her up later to take somewhere else.

"My uncle has esophagus cancer," she said. "He's got surgery today." Lila's daughter shook her head, looked tired and defeated.

I said nothing. That particular brand of cancer is ugly and usually fatal.

She said, "It's my birthday. Happy birthday, right?"

Too late.

I took the woman's mother back down the road and tried to make idle chatter. That's usually better than silence, but she didn't want to talk. She wanted to get this done and hopefully live to see her grandchildren get through school.

At some point, she asked about how I got into this business and I gave her the lame story about the newspaper already having enough people to play volleyball for the corporate cup.

"We needed points and I could get them points by donating blood or becoming a driver for the cancer society. I did both and stuck with the driving because I believe in it. I wish I'd started doing stuff like this years before."

I told her it was a good way to get out of the office. I told her I'd met a lot of interesting people then I lied and said most of them turn out fine.

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