ESSAY ON SMOKING A DEAD MAN'S PIPE
Sometimes, when the stars are out, and the sky carries the hint of promised change: snow, rain, or summer dew on foxglove and lupine, I will step out into the brisk, snug up my old friend wool shirt, and walk to a place I want to consider. I have gazed from the creaking deck of a lookout tower 40 feet in the air, across the dark blanket of pines, or hunkered in the hollow of two soft sand dunes, tucked in by the dune grass, gazing out at the thin silver of breakers. Fat moons and sliver moons have looked down. And then, when the night has gotten used to my presence, I slip my hand into a pocket. There, smooth, the small object I’ve packed just for this moment: an old man’s pipe—perhaps the same as you’ve seen before, from a grandfather, or faded photo, or, in my case, a thrift store.
Why I bought it, I don’t know. I’d never smoked a pipe, and, truth be told, neither had my dad or grandfather, or a kindly favorite uncle. Not even a professor or crotchety neighbor. No one I knew had ever smoked a pipe. But I loved its smooth round wooden bowl, the swirling grain, dark brown and black, and the thin stem, dimpled at the end by some old man’s teeth.
And now dimpled by mine, as I hold the pipe in my set jaw to strike the match.
No one taught me this, to hold the flame, to inhale and catch the fire, but it is as basic an act as any that humans have been doing a long, long time. They say the first people here did this in ceremony.
The tobacco catches, hisses, and blue smoke twines up.
Inhale and cup against the wind until the little sparks of yellow curl into a tiny orange ember.
Exhale. The smoke tastes of everything old. Leather-bound books, cedar chests, wool sweaters.
The smoke rises and scatters, tickles a snowflake.
Far off, deer slip silently through shadow, stop, sniff, and slip on.
I am smoking a dead man’s pipe, a man I have never met, but stand, for a moment, in a place he has now been invited. He knows this pace of inhale and release, the rise and scatter of smoke. I wonder if he had an old plaid Pendleton shirt like me, or Wesco timber boots.
But I cannot know. When he died these pieces were scattered. Relatives, if he had them, picked first—the valuable and sentimental. Televisions once had value, but no more. Perhaps the wedding china held its sentiment. Or not. A baseball glove. A bowling trophy. These things he once gathered were gathered again, into a box, and dropped at Goodwill. It is this process, isn’t it, to pull in what one loves, knowing it will scatter back into this, the cold open night, the wash of stars, arching overhead.
Perhaps someone else wears his old sweater, elbows patched, a button once resewn, while I stand in the falling now of new snow.