Indulgence, by Susan Perabo

27 Jun

The problem with One Story, a single-story literary magazine that dwells in the slough at the bottom of my shoulder-bag, waiting for an off-moment for reading, is that sometimes I cry too hard for the coffee shop, as happened yesterday, reading Susan Perabo’s short story, “Indulgence.” The piece is two things, a love-letter to smoking, and a love-letter to the main character’s dying mother. The two—smoking and motherhood—surprisingly turn out to mix.

In the story, the character’s mother, a life-long smoker who recently quit, is diagnosed with brain cancer and 8 months to live. The first thing she does is ask her adult daughter to come visit and bring cigarettes. Here is a quote from their reunion:

“She’d already broken into a carton of Carltons, in exactly the way a dog would break into a package of bacon thoughtlessly left on a coffee table. Pieces of the box were strewn across the room. Now, she flicked the lighter and took a drag so deep that I thought the smoke might seep from the tips of her shoes. ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘Oh my God, Christine, thank you.'”

Smoking, at this point in our culture, is pure id, pure pointless self-destruction, almost a criminal act—especially for a mother, who must safeguard her health for the sake of her children. And so, in this story, it paradoxically take on a death-fucking significance: We are here now. We have this pleasure now. The future doesn’t matter. The moment matters. (Easier to do since the mother is off the hook: She’s dying of brain cancer, not lung cancer, as she jokes.)

The daughter, Christine, is trying to figure out what to say to her mother pre-death, how to express what her mother meant to her, how she protected her, what, precisely, the mother did so right. Christine hones in on a time when she was a teenager, after she’d been hit by a car and seriously injured, and her mother let her stay home, smoking with her and watching daytime TV long after the doctor’s orders would have sent her back to school. This wasn’t right or virtuous or even healthy, but it was presence in the moment, pleasure instead of theory, instinct instead of medicine—and the daughter ended up feeling safe and healed in a way that prepared her for living in the world.

I cried my ass off because it’s so true. We end up loving our parents not for their virtue, but for their truth as complex and real human beings, the mixed portrait of good and evil, the mother and the smoker. How we can ourselves be good parents isn’t in (the stressful & impossible) doing everything right, but in being present, sharing what we are, focusing on is instead of on should.

There’s more to this story, including a very clever device that brings more layers of meaning to the title “Indulgence.” But the  ‘Indulgence’ that resonates for me here is in the old-fashioned religious sense of forgiveness for sins. Though, of course, the picture would have been complicated if the daughter had turned out a smoker!

One Response to “Indulgence, by Susan Perabo”

  1. Karen Carlson June 27, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    Hi Valerie – I’m a public reader (and weeper and laugher) too. Bus stops especially, though the waitress at a local pub where I treat myself to a once-a-month saturated fat splurge has learned not to worry, I’m not crying over the burger. And this story struck me the same way. Fortunately, I was in my living room when I turned into a “sobbing puddle of goo.”

    Nice to meet you! I’ve got you on my reader, looking forward to more. One Story is my favorite litmag – right now my only subscription.

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