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Fiction #481
(published April 8, 2010)
J.D. Salinger's Tobacco Dependency
by Robert Anthony Natiello
There are at least three Pi Mu Sigmas who would actually like to be president of this fraternity. Not me. The least little thing goes wrong; you're the guy who gets blamed. So why they awarded me the president's gavel still remains a mystery. I never hinted I had the slightest interest in the job.

It started with all the brothers sitting around this room we call the living room, not that it's the kind of room anyone would ever want to live in. We just call it that because it has this old upright piano in the corner, and anybody who goes in or out of the fraternity house has to pass through it. But it's not like it's a real living room or anything.

We're getting ready to hold our year-end elections in it when little Stan Germayne makes an official motion to create a fraternity slogan. After it gets seconded, he starts talking about our Clean Highways Program, a community participation project every fraternity has to get involved in during the school year. It's no big thing; we just have the pledges pick up all the trash that piles up along the highway that runs past the fraternity house.

"It's a neat program," little Stan says. "And it helps us make big brownie points with the honchos at our national headquarters in Chicago. But it isn't enough."

He mentions the huge metal sign we hung alongside the highway. "Hey, I love that sign," he says, his voice raised. "It gives us great name visibility—even the most vision-impaired, mid-western frat official can see those big Greek letters in our year-end photo summary. But the sign doesn't do the job." Now he's almost standing on tiptoes, "There has to be a fraternity slogan running under it. " Right away everybody starts coming up with real stupid slogan ideas. It gets so loud; I have to quiet everybody down. "Look," I say. "Whatever we come up with is going to have to last a long time—long after the Clean Highways Program is gone." I tell them we ought to think of this new slogan as a rallying cry, like a coat-of-arms or a flag that future brothers will march under for years to come. Then I say, "Hey, how about this, Pi Mu Sigma: Values—Vision—Vitality?"

For a split second, everybody sat there paralyzed. Then the room went wild. I'm not any marketing genius or anything although my dad is one of those Madison Avenue guys, and there may be something to that stuff being passed on in the genes. But the way the brothers started yelling and high-fiving and slamming me on the back was like that scene in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It's where old Chipping makes the joke about the lex canuleia , and all his little, Eton-collared, Brit students just give each other these vacant stares. After two seconds of dead quiet, they get the joke, and start this insane cheering and applauding the old guy's play on Latin words. Well, after all the brothers settled down, we voted on my slogan, and it got accepted, unanimously actually.

It would have been great if everything had ended right then, but little Stan stands up again, and reminds us we're really there to elect officers. This is so typical of the new Stan Germayne. Last year, we nicknamed him Popeye because his pupils were constantly dilated from being zonked out on weed. This year, in his role as fraternity sergeant-at-arms, he's pretty much cut out the pot. Now he spends his time running around like a bossy housemother making sure the brothers live up to every single sentence in the by-laws.

So little Stan officially calls for elections. But before he can even start asking for nominations, one of the newer brothers makes a motion to electme—by acclamation. I'm practically knocked off my chair by the force of the applause. When it finally dies down, I can hardly believe I'm fraternity president, starting immediately. I didn't like it because of all the responsibility, but I wasn't too worried because I figured I wouldn't have to do anything until the following fall.

Jesus, was I wrong. The very next day I find out Reggie Blaberg—he's not really a jock, but he's always running around in sweats so you'll think he just finished working out with the lacrosse team or the squash team—decided to give a one-man weight-lifting exhibition. After trying to consume all the scotch stocked in the fraternity-house bar, he lurches upstairs, and to show how strong he is, he throws the Coke machine out the second-floor window. Well, after that story got around, you can guess how long it took the entire campus to mock out our fraternity rallying cry. Overnight it became Violence, Vomit, and Vandalism.

So when Dean Rauschlein—he's the Dean of Student Life—wants to talk to someone about our fraternity's excessive drinking, I'm the guy who has to face him while he starts raising hell about personal safety and how someone could have been killed or maimed for life. I hate it when people start that maimed-for-life stuff. It's like they'll be stuck forever in one of those mobile chairs you operate with a touch of your little finger, and you're the cause of it all, and you're going to need your own personal skycap to help you carry that baggage around until the day you die. I mean I really hate it when people start that.

But Rauschlein didn't end there. He said we'd have to put a complete stop to drinking on fraternity premises. "You can start by closing your in-house bar, period," he says. Rauschlein is definitely not one of those tubby, double-chinned, college deans you see on TV in those old, black-and-white, B-movies. He's a six-three, ex-marine platoon leader who still keeps his head shaved. When he says "period," it isn't too smart to continue the conversation.

This is just great, I'm thinking, while I mope through the living room, which is empty except for Rance Purfield who is playing the piano. How do I break this to the brothers?

Purfield is our resident literary genius and captain of our fraternity trivia team. He plays the piano because it helps him get rid of his headaches. They're not migraines, but they are pretty painful. Once, I became curious enough to ask what caused them. His answer wasn't exactly hostile, but you could tell he didn't want to talk about them. "You'd get headaches too if you wanted to write novels, and your parents kept pushing you to transfer to pre-med." After that, I never brought the subject up.

Purfield looks up from one of those old, slow doo-wop tunes he's always playing, and with his eyelids at half-mast, says, "Bad news travels fast. I hear Rauschlein is making you shut down the bar."

"Yeah," I reply, "got any brilliant ideas?"

"I do, yes " Purfield says. While he's talking, he's absent-mindedly running his fingers across the keys. I love it when piano players do that. I really do; it makes them look like they're thinking these really deep thoughts. This old Platters' tune he's picking out must be helping his headache because you can see his eyelids raise, and a little light starts to shine behind those steely, mad-scientist glasses he wears.

"Here's my idea," he says. "Turn the fraternity bar into a cigar bar." Before I can tell him what a stupid idea that is, he jumps on me. "We won't be able to drink there anyway, right? So convert it into a place where the brothers can light up cigars and smoke their brains out."

Then he grows all excited about how popular cigar bars are. "Each guy has his own temperature-controlled humidor where he keeps his cigars," he says. "You build a couple dozen of them right into the wall. A brother wants a stogie; he pulls one right from his own private drawer. We could call them humidrawers."After that one, I'm practically blowing chunks, but he doesn't stop. "Girls love cigar bars," he says. "They think there's something erotic in seeing guys puffing away." Frankly, I can't understand why any girl would want her clothes all reeked up from cigar smoke. He swears we'll pull in more girls because now girls are taking up cigar smoking.

"Hey, it's not all that radical," he says. "I just finished writing a paper on this fifties author who was so into smoking that he mentions it in one form or another on almost every page he ever wrote." This is a typical comment from Rance Purfield who is so damn civilized he can't hold a three-sentence conversation without at least one literary reference. So he goes on talking about this writer, J.D.-something-or-other, currently in some kind of self-imposed literary exile in Connecticut or New Hampshire or somewhere. Don't expect a computer tech major like me to remember the fine points.

"Check this," he says. "I read almost every published page of this guy's work, and in nine-hundred and thirty-two pages of novels and short stories, he makes some smoking reference four-hundred and seventy-nine times. Hey, that's a mention of cigarettes or cigars almost once every two pages."

Purfield has stopped playing, and he's spun around on the piano bench breathing on these little glasses and wiping them with this handkerchief while I'm slumped on the sofa.

"But of all this author's stories," Purfield says, "the one about a ten-year old genius who dies falling into an empty swimming pool tops all. I mean in just thirty-five pages, one of the characters is involved with a cigarette—lighting, smoking, inhaling, exhaling, flicking an ash—forty-five times. Forty-five times. That means, on average, you can't finish one single page without reading about smoking or lighting or dragging on a cigarette."

All the brothers know how civilized Purfield is. I'm one of the few who knows he has a forceful side, too. When he sees how tensed up I am wondering how to tell the brothers about the bar closing, he says, "You still don't get it, do you?" He's damn right; I don't get it. So I say, "Not really."

Old Purfield just hooks his glasses around his ears, and continues like I didn't utter a syllable. He says how, if you add it all up, this J.D guy mentioned that one single word cigarettes one hundred and eighty-nine times. "OK," he goes, "does that give you some idea of the size of this guy's tobacco dependency?"

Before I can answer, he says, "How about ashtrays? Thirty-four times." The guy cannot stop. "And just the simple act of lighting up—forty-four mentions."I'm wondering why any guy in his right mind would spend so much time on some old, hibernating author's smoking obsession when Purfield goes on about how we're in a new century now, and with cigarette lawsuits in the news every day, this is the fraternity's big chance to break with the old traditions. "The fifties are dead and gone," he says. "Cigarettes are dead and gone. Booze is antiquated. Cigars," and I swear he's starting to sound like Billy Graham, "are on the cutting edge." When he tacks on a grunt that turns edge into a two-syllable word, I'm thinking this guy honestly believes he is Billy Graham.

"I don't know," I said, we'd still have to put this cigar-bar thing up to the guys for a vote, and I haven't even told them about Rauschlein's order to close the liquor bar."

I'm sitting with my chin in my hand wrestling with all this new, unwanted responsibility, when little Stan Germayne's door squeaks open. Little Stan occupies the only room in the whole fraternity house that opens directly onto the living room. Every year, when we conduct our room assignments, nobody wants little Stan's room. It lacks privacy. Everybody who comes in or out of the fraternity house

has to pass right by his door—which is exactly why he likes it.Earlier this semester, I heard him ask Ryan Jones, "Hey, Rye, where were you headed last night? I heard you walking out the front door well past midnight." "How'd you know it was me?" Ryan shot back.

"I recognized your footsteps."

Ryan talked about that for days. "Nineteen guys living in this fraternity house, and little Stan can distinguish us by our footsteps." Ryan suggested we take money from the treasury to carpet the floor outside little Stan's door. "How else you gonna' have a private life?" he asked.

Anyway, little Stan squeezes himself onto the sofa, and says, "You guys are so loud; I could hear every word." Purfield looks at me with an expression that speaks volumes, Yeah, it said, he could hear every word because his ear was pressed to the door.

Then little Stan spreads his copy of the by-laws across his lap, and opens it with one hand while absent-mindedly smoothing his blonde ponytail with the other. You could tell he was looking for a special page because he continued this steady page flipping. I mean, I'm stretched tighter than a violin string, and with each flip, he's casually moistening the tip of his index finger like a kitten obsessed with cleanliness.

"Here it is," he finally says. "I'll read it to you."

He starts citing this paragraph and sub-paragraph stuff in very stiff, by-laws language. With each sentence, he's getting deeper into fraternity-house safety and fire regulations. By the time little Stan reaches the last paragraph, Purfield has practically worn a hole in his handkerchief polishing his little steely eyeglasses.

I'm waiting for one of his headache explosions when little Stan quotes this paragraph, "Because of the potential for fire, on-premise smoking is discouraged, and special rooms designed specifically for smoking are strictly prohibited."

"Looks like your cigar bar just went up in smoke," I tell Purfield.You can imagine the look that got me. Now Purfield is practically blowing chunks.

"Too bad," Purfield says. "I had some great ideas for that cigar bar. You would have loved my flashy new slogan. I had it all ready to hang over the entrance: Very-Virile-Venue."

While little Stan tucked his copy of the by-laws under his arm, I promised myself I'd find a higher office for him next year. A few more workers like Stan, and I can spread some of the responsibility around—maybe even convince him he's the man to coax Dean Rauschlein into reinstating the old liquor bar. If I can pull that off, this fraternity president responsibility might turn out all right after all.

"Hmm, Very-Virile-Venue. Not bad," I said to Purfield, as he spun around to face the piano keyboard. "Not bad, at all." Then I placed my hand on his shoulder, squeezed it, and said, "But I've got a better one. How about, 'Close, But No Cigar.'"

Robert Anthony Natiello noticed all of the smoking references in Salinger's work and recorded every last instance from every printed page. Please also note that Salinger has recently passed away.

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