My grandmother’s house was all weeping brick on suburb streets, Denver pavement, and regular old sidewalks just like everywhere else. Slanted roof and red siding with low ceilings came down on you ever so slightly just enough to make you uncomfortable. There was well-vacuumed ivory carpet smooth on my cheeks when I lay down upon it, at length while the snow drifted and piled outside. Built-in bookshelves with gold knobs and an upright piano showcased next to lamps with shades too big for the bulbs. It was all there in its perfect late-1970s luxury, even the slim shotgun displayed above the fireplace, everything gold and brass except for the plastic turf on the back porch framed by the swinging half-window screen door. Even the swirled white iron posts, which must have been merely decoration and not anything functional, were there to set the grass apart from where we lazed on folding chairs. Standard juniper bushes and other negligible landscaping fenced in the lawn—my grandmother was many things with a laugh that took up a room, but she was not a gardener who worried over things like bushes and roses. Beyond that, it was all Coca-Cola and hot dogs.
Grandma liked to smoke cigarettes that were slim and smart. She was even graceful—smoking for what must have been a continuous loop of draw and exhale, the nicotine lifting her for just those few minutes she puffed away while filling out the crossword in the daily paper, her reading glasses hung from their gold chain around her neck, legs crossed in kindness I think, while she glanced at me toying with whatever she had chosen to keep me quietly engaged. She wore a silky shirt unbuttoned at the top, her peach skin at the neck and ironed cream pants with nice pale shoes. Her hair was something like soft cotton or silk, golden all the time, and she wore a handkerchief over her hair on the days she went to the salon. I remember I was enthusiastic about her hair, wondering what it must be like to cultivate such perfectly shaped locks. Her hair never moved—it was cemented in place, shaped in waves around her cheeks and chin, the crispy hairspray creating a steadiness to her eggshell frame. There was never a strand wild or strewn in her eyes or on her lips, even if she was pacing through the house or down the drive, busy to climb into her silver Cadillac with all of its caged-in air. I know too, that her hair smelled like ash and spray and apricot.
She was tidy with her cigarettes in this little house on Fillmore Street keeping in her possession a silent butler to do away with the ashes of her glass ashtrays that were on every surface of each table, next to the piano, on the television, in her coral bathroom. Her silent butler, silver with hinged cover and wood handle, was so important a contrivance to maintain order that she bought one each for her daughters when they came of age and moved away. At least that’s what I’ve been told; my mother never gave me one, though I could have used one just fine, emptying my own ashes from its embossed and plated etchings. A useful utility, now nothing but a modest impression to remember. Such a “handsome canyon,” as one Santa Fe newspaper called it, for cigarette debris and necessary because everyone smoked all the time—rooms filled with smoke and people and drink, the scent clinging to the walls, an era of sophistication and cigarettes now gone to the past recalled only in film or books or story. Even city buildings, places of business, lawyers’ offices kept them handy for their professionals and clients because everyone carried cigarettes; you walked into an office with a cigarette in your hand. It was an expectation, I suppose. It is rare now to enter a building where people smoke, even bars have done away with the allowance. My grandmother was from this generation that smoked regularly, almost insistently, before research gave us an understanding of what would surely be our early deaths from heart disease, cancer. Things we don’t like to talk about. And now, smoking is less of a fancy—we all know how it kills. But back then, I liked to flip the lid, smell the ashes of the discarded cigarettes, inhale the residue of every late night party of aunts and uncles and cousins. I liked to consider the stale scent of a cigarette, push my finger around the bowl, wonder about its constancy. The silent butlers, they were always there, in every room as I colored and marked up books of pictures on the floor—Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, or Daffy Duck to some degree.
If I know anything, I know that smoke lingered in the air, constant and smug, swirling through the golden shades of all the windows. Always, the ladies around the table—my mother and grandmother, my aunts with their shorts and sandals. Gin and tonics, wine, cheap beer from cans. And sometimes, the quiet hushed voices that came low after I was tucked into bed, my room the first down the thin hallway with a closet of my grandfather’s old suits and my grandmother’s glitter and sparkle dresses that I fingered in the dark. I heard the women late into the night—making drinks, pouring wine, lighting more cigarettes, whispering or not. Sometimes there was a raised voice and a tension that stuck to the air. Could they have been arguing about my father? Or someone’s lover? Or me? Did they talk about me? I froze, looked up at the black and white photos on the wall, pictures of people I had never known and never would, all of them dressed in strange knee-length skirts and saddle shoes until the silence shut and a voice would take up, maybe my mother’s, and the laughing commenced, the strain released to the drinks for just a little while longer. I climbed back into bed then, fell asleep trying to decipher the tones and mutterings of the women, wondering if we’d go swimming in the morning and what I’d have for lunch and if my grandmother would brush my hair, for a long time I hoped, while her cigarette smoked in the ashtray and burned away the day in its expanse and run of hours and seconds and time.