In 1973 I was a student at St FX, albeit not a very good student. I was more interested in having a good time than concentrating on my courses. Parties, pranks and other fun were priorities on my agenda and there was just no time to give to the more serious reason for being there. I was like someone cut loose for the first time. And that is how it came to pass that I had to take some summer courses at UPEI, to make up for the ones I had flunked at X. I had a good friend named Marilyn, from Charlottetown who, with her parents’ permission, invited me to stay at their home for the summer while I took two courses. Truth be told, I wasn’t much better at UPEI that I was at X.
I took two courses that summer, but I still had to work to get some money for the fall session back at X. I managed to find a little job keeping house for a woman who was recovering from surgery. Every morning I walked to her house and tidied up, made beds, washed dishes, vacuumed and did whatever else was needed. That only took a couple of hours and I was left with lots of time to go to my classes and do the required reading.
I was a smoker back then and I continued to smoke for the next ten years, but I got my start at St FX, with Marilyn. That summer we didn’t have much money for smokes, and besides, if her parents knew that she smoked they would have hit the roof. Her father was a dentist and could really preach on the evils of smoking and how it could yellow your teeth and give you halitosis. Her stepmother spent her days keeping a spotless house and talking in a high-pitched baby voice to their elderly and very sick dog, mostly oblivious to much else.
One afternoon Marilyn and I were at loose ends as to what we could do for the rest of the day. We were sitting in her aqua colored bedroom where the twin beds, positioned at right angles to each other, were piled high with stuffed animals. It was a hot July day where you could look out the window and see the heat rising from the pavement below. The cicadas were buzzing and Roberta Flack droned out Killing Me Softly With His Song on the radio while we both craved for a cigarette. But we didn’t have any.
“I’d kill for a puff right now”, I said.
“We can’t just go and buy some; your parents will kill us.”
“I know, and it’s been so long since we had a smoke. But there is something I have…”
Marilyn went over to a door in her bedroom that led to an attic space. I hadn’t even realized that the door was there, so much it blended in with the wall color. She pulled the door open, reached in and took out a paper grocery bag. I was intrigued.
“This is my butt bag,” she said.
And sure enough, the bag had hundreds of cigarette butts along with a few packs of matches in it. There was even some tin foil for a makeshift ashtray. She explained that any evening her parents had company, she would get up early the next morning and, under the guise of being a helpful daughter, clean up the living room, empty the ashtrays into the butt bag and then hide it in the attic. That way she would always have a stash.
We dove in and picked out the longest butts, lit up and took deep hauls on them and then we blew the smoke out the window so as to not leave a smell in the room. Those butts were so stale and dirty I still have a hard time to picture myself smoking them and actually enjoying it. I guess the thrill of doing something illicit was so exciting that it just didn’t matter.
I don’t know whether or not Marilyn’s parents ever found out about the butt bag, but every time now that I hear Roberta Flack, or Jim Croce singing Bad Leroy Brown, I am transported back to that little house in Charlottetown, my friend Marilyn, the summer of 1973, and the butt bag.