Secondary Smoke by Michael C. Keith

Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Michael C Keith's story about an elderly lady who just won't quit smoking.

More doctors smoke Chesterfield than any other brand.
- 1950s cigarette advertisement

June Teller, a chain-smoker since middle school, was 84. Surprisingly she was in reasonably good health, except for a minor case of emphysema that seldom impaired her. Since her husband's death 18 years earlier, she had rarely left her house mainly because smoking was banned everyplace she went. She found this very perturbing.

"All these ridiculous rules nowadays make it impossible to live. What happened to basic human freedoms? When I was young the world minded its own darn business. You could smoke anywhere you wanted to without people giving you ugly looks... or worse."

The only person who regularly visited June was her nephew Philip Conley. Every couple of weeks he'd bring her groceries, cartons of cigarettes, and whatever else she requested over the phone. On countless occasions, he had tried to get her to quit smoking, or at the very least to air out her home. The entire house had become so permeated with cigarette smoke that the walls were discolored and a grimy haze hung over everything. The condition of the modest residence had deteriorated to the extent that Philip had threatened to stop bringing her the items she needed unless she broke her lifelong habit. He figured that even cutting it in half, she'd still be burning up 2 to 3 packs every day.

"You'll have to fend for yourself, Auntie June. This has become a contamination zone. A HAZMAT suit should be worn in here. I'm going to stop making deliveries so you'll be forced to leave this ash heap. If nothing else, I should stop buying you cartons of Pall Malls, because I'm only contributing to this unhealthy situation."

"No... no, you can't do that! Smoking is the only thing I have," snapped his aunt.

"I feel like a drug dealer supplying your addiction. They're just making things worse for you. Listen to yourself wheeze."

"That's nothing. I'm fine. A little breathy sometimes, but I'm almost 90, for God's sake," answered June, lighting a new cigarette from the tiny remains of another.

"You're only 84. Don't exaggerate, and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't light up when I'm here. It's contaminating my lungs. I'll probably die from all of the secondary smoke I've been exposed to in this place."

"Oh, don't be foolish. All that business about secondary smoke is dog poop. I grew up with parents that smoked more than me, and I'm okay."

"How could they possibly smoke more than you, Auntie? The only time you don't have a cigarette in your mouth is when you're sleeping, and I'm not sure about that. It's a wonder you haven't set your house on fire."

"Well, I'm very careful about that."

"No you're not. There are burn holes in everything. Look at your couch. It looks like Swiss cheese."

"Enough, Philip, I have to get back to my knitting. Look here. I'm making you a sweater."

"Really. That's very..."

As his aunt unfurled her knitting, Philip was further dismayed when he noticed a burn hole in the sleeve of the unfinished sweater. He said nothing and bid her goodbye.

The next time he made a delivery to his aunt's house he was confronted by several of her neighbors. They had been laying in wait for him aware that he routinely showed up on Saturday afternoons. Before he could say anything, he was told that his aunt's smoking was causing serious problems.

"June's nasty habit is killing my rose bushes and vegetable garden," blurted Sadie Cameron, his aunt's one time friend, whose house was next door.

"Yeah, it's affecting everything on this block, not just plants," added Bill Foster, who lived directly across from the Teller house.

"What do you mean everything?" asked Philip.

"Animals... pets. My two canaries died last week."

"How do you know my aunt had anything to do with it? That's crazy."

"Because cigarette smoke is streaming from June's house to mine. My sweet little birds were actually whooping a week before I found them dead at the bottom of their cage. They died of secondary smoke from your aunt's constant use of cigarettes."

"How is that even possible, Mr. Foster? I mean, really."

"The waves of smoke coming from June's house are like tentacles that wrap themselves around everyone's house on the block. I swear that house has turned into a toxic monster," said another neighbor unfamiliar to Philip.

"The smell alone is making people sick. The closer you get to your aunt's house the worse it is. We try not to walk near it, but the foulness has spread to the end of the street. Look at the trees and bushes. They're turning brown and dying," commented a young woman clutching a small child in her arms.

Is it possible? wondered Philip, surveying the area. He saw that everything did have a desiccated look, including the once beautiful blue spruce pines that lined one side of the street.

"I can't imagine that one old lady's smoking is causing everything you claim. It has to be something else," said Philip, defensively.

"Take a whiff. You can hardly breathe out here where we're standing. That's why we don't come near June's place any more," said Mr. Foster.

Philip could not deny that the odor of cigarette smoke was more than a bit prevalent in the driveway of his aunt's house. How the hell is that real? How could Auntie June's smoking be contaminating the whole neighborhood, he pondered, his uncertainty rising.

"Let me check this out. I'll talk to my aunt," offered Philip.

"You better do something, because we're about to call the EPA about this awful pollution," growled Mrs. Cameron.

Once again, Philip tried to convince his aunt to give up smoking, explaining to her what it was doing to her neighbors, but his protestations were met with the usual opposition.

"They're crazy to say my smoking is doing all that stuff. I don't smoke outside. Stay in all the time. God forbid I even light up on my own porch," she complained.

In point of fact, Philip himself found it hard to believe that his aunt's habit was the cause of the upheaval on her street. Yet, he had detected the strong smell of smoke beyond the walls of her small raised ranch.

"Auntie June, the smoke is seeping out of your house and getting on everything around it. I saw for myself what it seems to be doing. I'm not sure how it's happening, but the evidence is everywhere. Come out and see for yourself."

"Heck no! I'm not leaving my house to be bullied by neighbors who think I'm the cause of their problems. They're blaming me for something that just isn't my fault. Only enjoyment I have anymore is my smoking. And nobody or nothing will deprive me of that."

Philip was actually finding it difficult to catch his breath because of the dense tobacco fumes and quickly left after helping put away the groceries he had brought.

Not surprisingly, his aunt's angry neighbors greeted Philip when he returned the following week.

"Things are getting worse," bellowed Mr. Foster. "Yesterday, the visibility on the street was nil. Couldn't see more than a couple of feet in any direction, and that was not only on the outside, but in our houses, too. Imagine that."

"So what are you going to do about your aunt? She's a hazard to all of us," said Mrs. Cameron.

"I don't know what I can do. I've tried to get her to stop, but she's within her rights to smoke inside her own house," answered Philip.

"It's having a horrible impact on our lives. So if you can't get her to stop her disgusting habit, we're going to have to do something about it. Take action ourselves."

"Sorry, you'll just have to do what you have to do. I'm powerless."

Philip pushed his way through the group and entered his aunt's house.

"Did you see what happened? I know you were peeking through the curtains. This has reached the boiling point. I'm not coming anymore. It's humiliating. You can have your food delivered. There's a service called Peapod... no, that's right, you don't have a computer, so you can't do that. I'll look into and give you a call. I'm just not going to go through this again."

Aunt June said nothing, which surprised Philip, who had braced himself for a major argument. He quickly emptied the grocery bags and left, again pushing past the irate neighbors. As he drove away, he noticed that the noxious effluence that blighted his aunt's block vanished once he was a few yards beyond it.

Two days later, an anonymous caller in the middle of the night informed him that his aunt's house was on fire. When he arrived at the scene a half hour later, there was nothing left of the house but smoldering ash.

"Where's my aunt?" Philip asked a fire fighter, who was about to leave.

"Sorry, but it seems she never made it out," he answered with a downcast expression.

"But, what happened? How'd the fire start?"

"Not sure yet. Might have been a lit cigarette. It'll be investigated, sir."

As the fire truck departed, Philip watched as the last of the smoke formed an arch over the house and drifted down the street. He thought it curious that none of his aunt's angry neighbors were to be seen.

On Thursday of that week, a sparsely attended memorial service was held for Auntie June. A month passed, and the tragic experience began to fade from Philip's thoughts. However, the events came flooding back when he received yet another anonymous call.

"Your aunt has forced everybody to move, and we hold you responsible," growled the voice at the other end of the line.

"What are you talking about? Who is this?"

"She's still smoking and ruining everything."

"What! She's dead, for chrissakes! Why are you talking such nonsense?"

A dial tone sounded, and Philip slammed his phone back unto its receiver. What kind of a person would be making such a call? Philip wondered, deciding to drive over to where his aunt's house once stood at the break of sunrise. When he drove onto her street, its abandoned appearance and the thick smog that continued to grip it surprised him. Then he looked toward the lot that his aunt's house had formerly occupied.

"God almighty!" he blurted.

Spiraling columns of smoke rose from the remaining debris, and Philip thought he could make out his aunt amidst the rubble. As he focused on the scene, the apparition raised its hand to its face and lit another cigarette.


  1. this is really superb! June is a truly brilliant character! of course there´s a lot of truth in this Story, the way smokers are hounded etc. (I`m non)
    either way, it puts over both sides of the Argument in a truly original manner. first class!

    Mike McC

  2. Good story, Michael, except I found myself gasping for air as I got to the ending.

  3. I can almost smell the smoke as I sit here, thousands of miles away !! Very well written; convincingly told, without unnecessary elaboration. Wonder if Aunt June is still hanging about polluting the air? Well done.

  4. Like Beryl I can just about smell the smoke! I was impressed by the immediacy of your descriptions and I also liked the poignancy around hanging on to her last pleasure in life (even if a rather anti-social one). The lingering offence i.e. the smoke at the end possibly had something of the parable about it? Where these determined neighbours so intent on judgement and disapproval that they had conjured their own demons into a weird longevity? Anyway a very good story, thank you,

  5. Whoa! I knew it wasn't looking good at this point -- "He figured that even cutting it in half, she'd still be burning up 2 to 3 packs every day." -- but I didn't know how very, very bad things would get. That's quite a tale.

  6. Hi Michael, what started out as a health warning turned into a very entertaining story of defiance from beyond the grave. I could just image June standing there saying, 'Yea so what now?'

    I enjoyed this and found the writing captivating.

    James McEwan

  7. Hi Michael, your dialog is snappy and realistic...great job. You know how to keep a reader interested.

  8. Now, Michael, that's entertainment, somewhat like when I turned around one day at work, 35 years ago, and I was the only one smoking in the whole joint. I really appreciate this story and the time I stopped the butts from controlling my day.