Grandpa's Cigars

by Bill Monson

Grandpa Watts smoked cigars. Not expensive ones. Just your run-of-the-mill nickel stogies. San Felice. Charles Denby. An occasional Dutch Masters. He figured he deserved them. He worked hard all day in the C. B. & Q. roundhouse -- a noisy, dirty citadel of steam. He was a pipe-fitter -- the guy who took out and replaced the guts of boilers. He got so filthy he didn't even drive his car to work. He rode a bike in all weathers -- or walked.

When he came peddling down Mulberry Street, work goggles shoved up on his railroad cap, his face was still black around the edges and his blue overalls were ebony with soot. He'd peddle up one of the two concrete strips which served as his driveway and park his bike in the garage.

Grandma wouldn't let him enter the house through the back door. That would track up her kitchen. Instead, he went around to the east side where a ground level door opened on the stairs to the cellar. He'd leave his lunch bucket on the landing and go downstairs to strip to the skin and bathe from a bucket of water Grandma had simmering on a gas hot plate.

A gritty bar of Lava soap stood next to a stiff-bristled brush, and Grandpa usually needed half an hour to scrub away all the grime. When he finished, his skin was as pink as a baby's. Then he'd don a fresh suit of underwear waiting on the cellar clothesline, stick his feet in slippers and wrap himself in his big bathrobe which hung all day on a hook near the sink.

At long last he could go up the stairs and join Grandma in the kitchen. She'd offer her cheek for a kiss, then he'd sit at the narrow little kitchen table and drink a cup of tea while she told him the news of the day and washed out his lunch bucket.

After the tea, Grandpa went up to the second floor bedroom to change into his evening wear -- dark gray slacks with suspenders, white socks, a gray chambray shirt, and a burgundy sweater if the evening were cool. Then it was back down to the living-room to his favorite armchair and the afternoon Register-Mail. By the time he finished, supper was ready, and he'd share what he read with Grandma while eating.

After supper was cigar time.

On warm evenings, they'd sit on the screened-in front porch -- she on the swing, he on the glider. They'd watch cars go by on Mulberry or chat with neighbors out for an evening walk. Grandpa could nurse a cigar for an hour -- longer if he let it go out during conversation and had to relight it.

If the night was cool, they'd sit in the living-room and listen to the big Zenith floor model radio. They especially liked musical shows such as ''The Bell Telephone Hour'' and ''The Voice of Firestone.'' By mid-evening, there'd be a layer of blue cigar smoke hanging just under the ceiling. When Grandma got up to get them each a dish of ice cream, she'd open the back door off the kitchen to draw out the smoke. No matter what the weather....

By 9:30, they were ready for bed. She always reminded him to empty his ashtray while she rinsed out the ice cream dishes. She hated to come down in the morning to a smelly cigar in the living room.

Grandpa smoked eight cigars a week -- one every night and one on Sunday afternoon. Grandma tolerated them because he got so much pleasure out of them -- but she didn't like them.

Try as she might, she couldn't get the smell of them out of his burgundy sweater, and she never found an air freshener which could get the smell completely out of the house.

It was only many years after the cigars helped carry him off with a heart attack that she admitted she ''missed the smell of the cursed things.'' And some cool evenings, she'd sit in his old armchair and wrap herself in the burgundy sweater -- which she never washed.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online March 14, 2001

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