Do You Have Any Fire? by Andrea Caswell
The first two words I could recognize were LUCKY and STRIKE. My grandfather always had the cigarettes in his front shirt-pocket, as if he only bought shirts that came with Lucky Strikes. When he held me against his chest, in his muscled roofer’s arms, I heard the crinkle of the plastic-coated package in his pocket. After he died of lung cancer when I was twenty-two, I bought one of the familiar white packs, with its bold red circle and black letters. I kept it close in my bedside table that summer. Some nights, I reached into the shallow drawer to crinkle the unopened cellophane package.
When I attended a university in France for my junior year abroad, the state-run building was crumbling (perhaps plumbers or electricians were on strike), but the courses were fascinating: psycholinguistics, ancient Greek, 20th Century French Literature. The class I remember most is Contemporary Poetry with Professor Jean-Marie Giles. The work he presented was beyond nouveau; I think poet-friends were handing him their stuff before class, clandestine packages of poetry passed along in a cafe. Here, this is from last night.
One afternoon, he handed out a photocopy of a poem. The final line of the first stanza was just a period; no words accompanied this singular black dot. We sat in the silence of white space on the page.
“I’ll ask him what he intends here,” Giles said at last, as if he planned to meet with the author later to discuss punctuation.
The poetry seminar met once a week for three hours. Professor Giles brought real coffin nails to every class: Gauloises, no filter. The two sky-blue packs had their own desk. They sat in the front row, where Jean-Marie could reach them without fumbling in his pockets. Cigarettes found his lower lip in a single, fluid movement.
Most students in the class were French; they’d probably been smoking since age twelve, so whenever our teacher held a match to a Gauloise, a collective nic-fit followed. Ten people lit up at once, fumigating the shabby space with plumes of grey. One afternoon I wrote in my notebook, If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Holding out as a non-smoker became too much effort.
When I bought a pack of Camels, the little white box may as well have been a blue beret. I felt more French than ever. When strangers stopped me to inquire Tu as du feu?, I held out my hand and offered them a flame. In the most literal terms, they were asking, Do you have any fire? Yes.
It’s a question to ask your reflection on bleary mornings. Do you have any fire?
Andrea Caswell grew up in Los Angeles, and later earned degrees from Tufts and Harvard. She’s a candidate for an MFA in Writing and Literature in the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has previously appeared in the ‘Beautiful Things’ section of River Teeth. She lives with her husband in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @andrea_caswell1.