| Nonfiction

Smoke Signals

Nonfiction Therese Halscheid

An exhale – an O let out, then another white ringlet, then others leaving the dark of your mouth, each a loop in front of you, growing increasingly large, spiraling as they widen, until they uncoil, drift apart….

– to my father

An exhale – an O let out, then another white ringlet, then others leaving the dark of your mouth, each a loop in front of you, growing increasingly large, spiraling as they widen, until they uncoil, drift apart, gather as a big cloud, clouding the air the color of storms….


Even as a child I knew. Each day this happened, each time, it signaled something. I came to understand the smoke from you as an exhale of your thoughts. Not as in alphabet. It did not look like the cursive writing we learned in school, the way our pencils scrolled to connect one delicate letter to the next without lifting from the paper; nor did your smoke zip through air like a plane’s contrail scribbling against the bluest of sky. But it did have a way of being deciphered.

It was more like entering weather, this room with the box of Cubans where you puffed. Once they were lit, the clear air turned milky white or sometimes gray, depending on the sun, of course, and how it entered the window. Sometimes its light stabbed the smoke, piercing through to arrow the floor. Other times the sun’s light shone on the smoke itself angling in a way that magnified its particles. There was sundown too – what painters call the gloaming hour – a time of evening light when the day’s end was aglow, that turned the smoke a hazy blue. Like colored glass that is frosted, or like vapor in a swamp in the dark, that translucent blue risen up from the bogs.

I saw this once, a turquoise haze in a thick forest of pine. It was the night of the winter solstice; the moon so large its light sent blue through the trees. Lit the cold mist, turning it that color. I was with my friend Betsy. At one point, in a clearing, we just stood looking up. There, the moon. Framed in a haze that gave it a halo. So round, such a white face in the sky, its cheeks puckered. The moon kept its mouth fully open, forming the same O as you. As if the moon breathed blue, as if its blue breath was smoky. Like your smoke, in a shaft of light at the end of the day.

The room where you smoked was our den, small with tight walls that you paneled yourself. You even did the ceiling, covered it with white tiles one year – raised yourself on the step ladder, pressed each panel into place. I believe it was after midnight when the entire ceiling crashed. Tiles buckling, falling, a day’s work piled upon our rust-colored rug. In the room was a black leather chair, a recliner which we thought of as yours although you never claimed it for yourself. It was an unspoken entitlement, one that arose of its own accord, or maybe because an ash-stand stood beside it, a benevolent object, fashioned with a tray that seemed always to hold the mauled butt of a dead cigar. In this chair you sat often, working out what lived in you. Your smoke could be like that as well, quietly venturing outward, navigating its course.

Smoke signals, yours, they had an air about them that became the very air we breathed…. It was a big deal to be nearing thirteen and receive a phone call from a boy. My call came while we were at the dinner table and the phone mounted to the wall was conveniently located by your ear. You answered, passed it to me and the cord unraveled to where my face was suddenly lit. Surely I was excited by the boy’s call but you, who knew a particular about him, were not. When finished, after passing the phone back, you paused before excusing yourself from the table. Instead of talking you returned to the den, lit a stogie in the black chair to work it out by yourself. There was a matter at hand, and with large matters you tended to take your time. Later, when I went to check on you, the answer came in the form of clouds. Cumulus clouds, bunched up; cirrus clouds, in long strips like complex sentences. They encircled you – your face tilted upward, eyes staring out. We never discussed the matter of the boy, my seeing him, because, in truth, this look of you already said it. It was like thick language between us. Something to do with the smoke imparting knowledge about this particular, not yet known to my innocent self. Something about this cigar dangling from your serious mouth – which made me say to the boy, in school, he should not call again.

It is also an art. Like wine tasting, like ceremony at a Japanese tea. Cigar smoking involves preparation, which I was to witness early on, in those brief years before you got ill. There was a style to squeezing it until the tobacco was evenly spread. Then, the whiff – when this roll of tobacco leaf was held to your nose. While sniffing its length, you sometimes rotated it in admiration. After, you cut off the cap, the end which was closed. There was a way of gripping a cigar with your thumb on the bottom and all four fingers curled on the top, holding the thing like a piccolo, not chomping down on it but keeping it more like the wooden board of a seesaw, balanced, but also loose, so that it wobbled in your mouth. Then, while lighting, to hold the cigar above the flame, keeping the cap slightly above the lighter. Next, to draw in and puff out, while rotating the cigar so the entire end caught fire. And to just continue, puffing, turning it until the cap glowed. The image I have of you lighting a cigar is slow and purposeful, like posturing in meditation, how one forms a lotus with the body before beginning to breathe.

The act of smoking, I learned, was to just take the smoke into your mouth, not to inhale so that it could travel down into your lungs, but to simply draw in then out, as if your mouth could be an alcove for the smoke’s incoming and outgoing waves. I even tried it with my friend Maria, held it like I saw you do but, in truth, we couldn’t handle the stink, its smoky taste.

Still when I think of cigar smokers, I find them intriguing, something about their process that I associate with their minds, especially in matters of decision-making. Like, Winston Churchill who was inseparable from them. Smoking eight to ten a day, in almost every picture he has a lit one slanting from his mouth. Even so, I’d like to think of his addiction as a habit that informed his person. That, in the act of puffing, or by chewing cigars until they were frayed, it gave him the pause needed for certain decisions. Certainly, an asset to diplomacy. To plumb for the logic, to reach down into the interior world where wisdom reigns, and in this way, the cigar bided him time. So that when he removed it from his mouth, when he spoke finally, his words would mean something. I’d like to think that cigars have serviced some of the great ideas risen from a person. That the act of smoking helped to pace language, like the peace pipe, whose ceremonial smoke gave credence to words.

Aside from serious matters, cigars have also been used as a stage prop, of sorts – adding to the comical appearance of W.C. Fields, enhancing the role of Clark Gable as Rett Butler, or any suave idle of old film. In actual life, the cigar has played in a myriad of scenes – from a smoke-filled kitchen with card players murmuring through their own haze to the wealthy gambler who puffs and pauses in a manner that predetermines his winning hand. None of which seem like you…. Still, if I was asked to match your cigar smoking to any one personality, it would be the smoker as thinker, the Churchill type, and it would be the man who used them for celebratory occasions, as in the look of a proud father who eagerly passed them around moments after a birth.

You smoked in the open. In nature, for example, when we went camping each summer. When nights were all about the rugged dark, and I would watch you, you with us, all of us talking until the campfire went out. Watched the wood burn, heard it crackle. I was young and there were other late nights when I saw from the tent window how everything blackened, how night’s determined darkness overtook our camp. All but for a few embers and that small light from you, that circular orange of your cigar, blinking, like a firefly.

Aside from the occasional Cuban, there were American brands like El Producto, Dutch Masters, Phillies, Tudor Arms. I really liked the boxes they came in. The El Producto box with its image of a colorful woman; the Tudors, in an unvarnished wooden box, fifty of them, carefully layered. Later, the boxes would have other special uses. A place to store marbles or stash paints or start a collection of bugs. The wooden had little hinges in the back and a latch in the front, as if, what it housed was treasure. At times you bought singles which came in glass tubes, which I then used for my self-created science experiments, mixing cleaning products to create various concoctions. You went through other phases as well, the pipe period, for example, and the pouches for the loose tobacco and the cherry tobacco phase which scented the den.

In the 1960s, in the neighboring town of Audubon, was a store everyone frequented, by the name of Korvettes. We were no exception. It was our habit to ride the escalator up to the tobacco department on the second floor to buy one of the special boxes each weekend. After, there was the lifting of the lid in the car. There was the first cigar you drew out to whiff, the paper ring you then slid off and onto my finger.


I take signals seriously, as does the moon with its light. As does the moon’s blue light traveling downward to earth. You know how they say that light from the stars is light years away, flying to us at a speed we cannot even fathom. Likewise, I imagine this of your smoke, those signals of old, the swirls, clouds, ringlets that have long gone, let out of our atmosphere – I believe they are traveling onward in some other form, though invisible to our eyes, are still moving through sky, going beyond even, back to whatever it is that is you.

And I believe if smoke signals can do it, so can a person’s words. Words that say something significant, those within us that we want released to the air, to live on. I believe in the power of intent, to send messages forth, to keep language alive beyond the moment of utterance, so that, somehow, they will reach those for whom they are intended. Going where they need to, at times traveling far, words written, spoken, the carefully chosen, words, these – I send them to you. I send them to you.

Therese Halscheid is pursuing an MFA at Rutgers University, NJ. Also an accomplished poet, Therese has been the recipient of a number of prizes, including a Finalist Award in the Paterson Poetry Book Prize. Her poetry has also appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Connecticut Review, and others and she has served on the editorial staff of Story Quarterly.

3 Replies to “Smoke Signals”

  1. Ferida Wolff says:

    Therese, your prose is as poetic as your poetry. May your words travel far and long and reach into the spirit of all who are priveleged to read them.

  2. Sara Diaz says:

    Reading this brought to memory the very different “smoke signals” of my own father. Wondering what will be the medium of the memories my children have of me…

  3. Kathy Prout says:

    Like my daughter (Sara Diaz), reading this piece evoked memories of my own father. He, too, was a smoker, but of cigarettes, not cigars. Much less elegant, but still a defining part of who he was. Thank you for this glimpse of your father, the clarity of your images, and the memories you stirred in me as I read.