Pen to Paper: “Smoking Kills, but so does Candy and Pizza,” an excerpt

I never knew much about the German family next door except that the boy about my age was named Max, and I imagine that was only a nickname for Maximus or Maximilian or something equally menacing. He was one of six boys in the Schwung family, and they were all pale-faced, chubby, and perpetually sweaty, it seemed. At nine years old, they became the subject of my fascination. Any sighting of them was considered a special occasion, and I would linger, trying to decipher the meaning behind their secret language. The few times I was able to overhear their conversations, they spoke with harshness and speed in what sounded like a violent language full of exclamation points and spitting. They moved as a group, an army of spluttering foreigners.

Their mother was frightening in a different kind of way. She was constantly sprinting around our neighborhood, her limbs jutting out at odd angles with every stride and her neon workout gear glaring against her lifeless, sagging skin. She was tan all over, a sort of burnt orange that you could only get from spending your entire life on nude beaches in Europe.

I really only got to see her up close in two types of situations: when she picked the boys up from their school bus stop and when she paced the sidewalk outside her home on warm nights. There was something about the way she herded the boys around like cattle that made them seem less intimidating while making her more so. Mrs. Schwung would bark out some incomprehensible German order, and the boys, stumbling off their school bus, would all simultaneously become silent. Their posture straightened, and their faces were wiped of emotion. I wondered what she’d said that had granted her so much power.

Evenings, she would walk back and forth along the street, a cigarette in one hand and a phone clasped between her tilted head and a shoulder. For a while, there was something captivating about her ritual to me. The language didn’t sound so frightening. I imagined that she was talking with some elderly relative from a remote German village or her husband from back home that none of us knew about. Words flowed from her mouth into the phone and were only interrupted by her soft, girlish laughs. The cigarette smoke against the backdrop of night made her seem just a bit more elegant. Mrs. Schwung loved her cigarettes.

That year, in my third grade health class, we learned about smoking for the first time. Photos of blackened lungs and rotting gums left an impression on me, but what really frightened me the most was a video we watched—one of those cheesy nineties educational videos that was mediocre in every way, but it did its job. A woman spoke in a flat, machine-like voice about her decades-long addiction to smoking, which ultimately led to a laryngectomy, the loss of her voice box, and the gaping, black hole in her neck. After that, every time I passed by Mrs. Schwung walking down the sidewalk puffing her Camels, I judged her with all the might that a third grader could have.

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