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Michael Dunn, Kellogg Manor

Working Man’s Cocaine


A Question of Tobacco


by A.K. Thompson



For the last two days I have not been able to keep the chaw out of my lip.  As if it wasn’t there I would lose my mind—gone, caput, done-for.  For whatever reason I cannot stop re-loading my lip, sucking all the smoky juice out of a quarter-size pinch of tobacco and then depositing another.

A friend once commented: “Dang! You take a pinch the size of Texas.”

“Hell’s bells,” I said. “If you’re gonna do it: Do it.”

So, the taste of a cigarette, which has satisfied me for all of ten years, is no longer doing the trick.  Now, when I light up, I crinkle my nose and snuff it out before it’s half-gone, a complete waste—my garbage mouth tossing money to the wind.  I find myself concerned, experiencing some sort of conundrum.  Is it better to suck and spit or suck and blow? 

Folks on either side eagerly offer advice, wanting to trump their tobacco rivals.  The spitters tell me it’ll save my lungs: Emphysema is no way to go, a terrible hacking death, wheeling an oxygen machine around, freaking out the grandkids—you’ll look like a leather handbag, Dear.

The smokers tell me my face will fall off: Such a beauty struck down with mouth cancer.  Would you rather die coughing and beautiful, or faceless?  You can always smoke, but if your mouth falls off your mug you won’t be able to chew, think about it.

So I think about it, and stick another muddy wad of Grizzly wintergreen long-cut into my raw lower-lip, sucking, spitting.  The spittoons around my desk are pock-marked with brown stains.  The keyboard boasts watery coffee-colored smudges from the splash of tobacco off the tiny desk-friendly spittoon.

The empty beer bottles on the desk are often employed as mobile spittoons—I must be prepared for a trip downstairs to holler at the dogs, taking just one second to disrupt the scolding for a spit-run to the sink so I can articulate myself better with a dry mouth will surely allow them to win the quarrel. 

“Pwath!” I spit, “Quit chasing the cats! You’re fucking up my writing! Bad dogs!”

Even my beloved coffee mugs are victims of the spits some mornings.  Mornings when I’m writing too hard, not paying attention to anything around me, I spit into the Maxwell House (just one cup is as good as a whole pot of that other stuff), sigh, and drink it anyway—after all, it is my spit.

All these receptacles around me and the old glass ashtray my granddad used for cigars remains empty until the dark hours of the day, when the sun starts heading South, which is actually West, and I finally look to my pack of smokes, shrug a sort of what the hell, and light up. 

I can’t help but to think it is absolutely absurd I do both, spit and smoke, but it doesn’t end there, no, no, it is not that simple by far. 

In the drawer to my right I keep a bag of King B Tennessee Sweet Twist Chew.  This variety is especially nice, a tightly-wound rope of tobacco leaves, a gift from a friend who knows my affinity for all things brown and cancer-causing.  King makes me hick-up almost instantly and I can only imagine this happens because I erroneously swallow a bit before I get out the first spit.  You see, some forms of tobacco produce such a thick, wonderful sweet saliva you’d almost rather swallow than give it up to the brass bucket, a good bite of plug tobacco is like that too.

A plug looks almost exactly like a Little Debbie brownie, same sized package and remarkably similar in dimension.  I hold a small fear that if a child should ever stumble on a plug around my home, he would take a big happy bite, only to be horrified, no doubt cautious of brownies for the rest of his life. 

I’d hate to ruin brownies for a kid, that’d be awful.

The loose leaf variety of tobacco is found in my home as well, I recall now a package of Beechnut rolled up in a mason jar on the windowsill behind my kitchen sink. Imagine a young woman doing the morning’s dishes, intermittently spitting black into the running dish water, the perfect hillbilly postcard I gather, most certainly not that of a woman who holds a Master’s degree.

And Oh! Lord, ground-up snuff is the finest treat of all, a quick shot of tobacco up the nose, straight to the brain.  Instant gratification!  Instant rush, instant love!  Railroad Mills is pretty nice, so is Dental. I remember the first time I ‘did’ snuff I felt like perhaps I knew a little of how it felt to ‘do’ cocaine. Which has always been an odd question for me; do I ‘do’ tobacco, or ‘use’ tobacco? You see, with snuff, you can either put the delicate powder in your lip just like chewing tobacco, or you can sniff it straight up your nose—quite obviously I prefer the latter.

While in Georgia a few summers back researching a book, I stopped by a gas station to purchase a small cache for the road.  I asked the woman behind the counter for a pack of smokes, a tin of Grizzly and a plug of Days-O-Work.  She stopped dead and told me to smile.  I shot her my teeth and she reeled back, “You do all this and your teeth still look good!”

“I brush compulsively,” I said as she was giggling, slapping her knee.

“My auntie used to spit and smoke at the same time,” said an old woman who appeared from the back. “Oh, yes, I remember she used to do both at the same time, child.”

We stood around for a few minutes, laughing, the older woman re-living the days of her youth on a hot summer porch, watching her dearest elder soak up as much nicotine as she could, in-between sips of sweet tea (which is another culprit for stained teeth).

I can only imagine how that old woman’s choppers must have looked, if she had any left after all that tobacco and sugar.

The first spit I had in front of my mother was on the Rock River in northern Illinois.  I was in the front of a green canoe, she in the back, and I pulled a pack of Beechnut out of the breast pocket of my overalls and stuck a big pinch into my cheek.  She stopped paddling for a minute, and asked very sweetly, “What’s that?”

“Umghf,” I spat into the dark water, “its chewing tobacco.”


She plainly went on: paddle, paddle, paddle, and opened a can of beer, not a single mark of trouble on her face.  I don’t think I could surprise her anymore; she knows I’m one of them outsiders, a real individual.  She once called me a visionary but I think that was pushing it a little too far, some sort of excuse to positively spin her creative daughter who’s got too many tattoos.

Everyone has their own opinion about tobacco of course, but the thing I hear most often is, “Damn, I wish I could quit this shit.”  I always look them in the eyes and say, “If you really wanted to quit, you would.  Really, you just don’t want to.”

No one likes to admit they’re addicted to anything, and tobacco and booze are at the top of the list (poor, poor tobacco).  I began a long time ago, declaring my love for tobacco, holding nothing back.  When I pass a ripe green tobacco field I holler, “Isn’t that the prettiest thing you ever seen?!”  Even if it’s just me and the dogs in the truck (which it usually is), I must say it out loud.  I stop my truck to take photos of old tobacco barns, stand inside them, run my hands along the smooth hanging posts, pressing my nose to the wood, inhaling deep.  It is a smile no one has ever seen, a smile kept secret inside dusty old barns.

The point is: Everything concerning tobacco is fine: The taste—the smell—the sound.  Never mind the death part: That’s gonna happen any-damn-way.

The sound of a butt snuffed is marvelous: the flash of a match for a new cigarette—even more so.  A good spit, hit just-right off of the brass leaves one hankering for more.  Mark Twain knew it, and shit, if anyone knew what they were talking about it was Mark Twain.

So I will continue to sit and spit.  And I am content to sit and spit, and occasionally smoke, until I sort this whole mess out, or until I don’t, and the good Lord sorts it out for me.

Ting! sings the spittoon.



A.K. Thompson is a fiction writer who lives in a cabin on a pond in Makanda, Illinois where vultures descend each fall. She holds a Master's Degree from the New College of California and is finishing a MFA at Southern Illinois University, where she is an assistant editor for the Crab Orchard Review. She has two smelly dogs, spends most of her time in the woods stalking squirrels with a Mossberg M-51 rifle slung over her shoulder, sings hillbilly songs while picking her guitar and collects taxidermy.


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