The older girls came to stay with us sometimes Pops’. There were two of them and two of us. Two perfect pairs.
The little store up the street from Pops’ house sold blue cream sodas. And cigarettes to minors.
And the older girls smoked because they thought it made them cooler. Even older. More mature.
We used to beg Pops to let us walk there with the older girls. Most of the time he said no. But every once in a while, he’d say yes, tell the older girls to watch us, and hand us whatever change he had in his pockets.
We’d walk behind the older girls, our seven year old legs doing double-time to keep up with their longer, fourteen-year-old strides. We’d count our change, hoping there’d be enough for each of us to get a blue cream soda, planning to share if the money wouldn’t stretch.
We’d bust into the air conditioned store and head straight for the soda coolers, feeling the chill on our sweat-dampened skin. They’d head straight for the guy behind the counter, flirting until he handed over the cigarettes.
The walk back to the house was always slower than the walk to the store. They’d take the time to smoke a cigarette or two. We’d trail behind sipping the blue cream sodas, sometimes in glass bottles, sometimes in plastic.
We never cared which bottle we got, so long as either bottle was cold against the north Florida heat.
Whenever we’d get back from the store, we’d all head straight to the playhouse. The older girls would buy our silence by braiding our hair or playing house or Barbie.
And then they’d hide their cigarettes upstairs in the rafters.
One day we got bored.
We were tired of chasing the pheasants. We didn’t want to play hide-n-seek in the turkey coops. Games of Marco Polo just weren’t fun with two.
And then we saw them, or one of us did, and because we were always into everything together, it’s impossible to remember whose idea it was.
We got the cigarettes out of their hiding place in the rafters and then we sat down in the floor between the two double beds Pops had put upstairs for us. The lighter was tucked inside the outer wrapper.
She lit the first one. Or maybe I did. But soon we both held lit cigarettes in our seven year old hands.
“You go first.”
“Okay, we go together.”
And then we were smoking our first cigarettes, feeling the thrill of the forbidden while we tried not to cough.
When the first cigarettes were done, drunk on the elixir of feeling older, we lit our second cigarettes. And then our third, burning through the pack like cigarettes were matches.
We giggled at our own bravery.
We felt so old. Daring.
And then we heard them.
The steps. His steps.
The familiar sound of his boots on the path to the playhouse.
And then the familiar sounds of his boots were on the steps to the front door.
Now they were coming up the stairs, along with his calling of our names.
Emphasis always on the last syllable whenever we might be in trouble. Always.
And we panicked.
We panicked and shoved the ashtray with the lit cigarettes in it underneath one of the beds and waved our arms around like little crazy children to try and clear out the smoke that was circling our seven-year-old heads.
“What’s goin’ on up here, girls?”
He looked around, eyed us knowingly. Spied the air and knew.
“Nothin’ Pops! We’re just playin’.”
“You girls come on out of here. Y’all’ve been in here long enough for one day.”
“Okay, Pops. We think we might go swimmin’ anyway. It sure is hot today.”
“I think swimmin’s a good idea.”
And then he turned and walked down the stairs and we held our breath until we heard him shut the door below.
We exhaled and put out the still-burning cigarettes hiding under the bed.
This week we were asked to write about the first (or second) memory we got when looking at this picture. The above is most certainly a true story, and one that reminds me just how gracious my Pops was with us and the antics we pulled on his farm during those long summers.
For what it’s worth, I think more cigarettes burned to ash than were actually smoked.