A Tale of Two Quitters
Tales of the Chelm First Ward
There are many ways that people mark the days as the world spins its way through the dark of space. It’s not just Passover, Purim, or Pioneer Day. The spiritual impulse to set apart times and seasons is almost universal. Our ancestors gathered to share the first fruits of a harvest; we feast with friends around a television to mark a season’s last game.
Even little, personal dates accumulate their rituals. For a birthday, a person might serve cake and coffee. In many homes, they light a slow-burning candle on the yahrzeit of a loved one’s death. And the day after a wedding anniversary can be celebrated with a brief apology and a gift.
In the Peretz house, there are some additional traditions. To mark her last cup of coffee, Dobra goes on a little outing each spring. It doesn’t matter where, so long as she takes a train. And there’s a late spring day, the day when Isaac first finally managed to keep the whole Word of Wisdom, when he brings home a jar of pickles for the family and then goes out for a run. It helps him remember that the slave-drivers in Egypt and the mobs in Missouri aren’t the only things God has saved his people from.
Isaac Peretz used to smoke. When he was bored in the evening, smoking occupied him. When he was anxious, smoking calmed him. When he was cold, smoking warmed him up. When he was lost in work, the tug of nicotine at the corners of his mind reminded him to take a break. In the six minutes it took a cigarette to burn down to ash, you could talk with friends or watch the smoke ascend like an ancient offering. Even when Isaac caught a fish, he’d give it the dignity of a last cigarette, laid against its rubbery lips before its execution.
It wasn’t easy to quit. At least not in a healthy way, one that preserved a person’s basic quality of life. You had to come up with new rituals to fit the old needs. For example, he started giving the fish he caught a last piece of pickle instead. From his experience in supermarkets, fish seemed to like a good pickling almost as much as a good smoke.
Breaks were a challenge. As it turns out, many supervisors object to giving regular cigarette breaks to a person who no longer smokes. So instead, Isaac started bringing a large thermos of water with him to work each morning. It turned out the bladder was as effective as any nicotine craving at getting a worker up from his desk, though it took a while for Isaac to adjust to striking up conversations at the urinal.
The sparing use of meat, of course, was already prescribed by the Word of Wisdom for times of cold. To fight off the chill, Isaac turned to hot broth. The scriptures specifically mentioned marrow in the bones; his came mostly from boiled chickens.
And when he was anxious? Ah, then he thought about the money he was no longer spending on cigarettes. Few things, he discovered, had quite the same calming effect on the heart as the thought of extra money in the bank. Doctors ought to offer it instead of pills. It was a major failure of the scientific and social systems in the world, Isaac thought, that you couldn’t report yourself for anxiety or depression and be prescribed a little therapeutic cash.
Even with all those adjustments, of course, Isaac would still find himself staring out the window in the evening sometimes, feeling listless and nostalgic for a cigarette. Everything would bother him then. He would start to think about the physics of how a little smoke could dampen background noises, which felt sharper and more jarring when the air was too clear. He’d think about how annoyance could build up in the body if you didn’t have enough to do with your hands. Even after he joined the Church, he occasionally found himself desperate enough to have one last cigarette from a secret pack he kept tucked away under a couch on the balcony. And then the next week, maybe another last cigarette. He tried to stop, he really did, but the shop down the corner received regular shipments of last packs of cigarettes. That was the trouble with the law of supply and demand. As long as he wanted a last pack of cigarettes, the market dictated that one would always be there. And with such a supply of last packs available, he was more or less doomed to keep wanting one. It was simple economics.
One night between last packs, he was talking to Dobra. She kept suggesting that they use the money he was saving on cigarettes to go out to dinner or watch a movie. Of course he said yes. But the thought made him anxious. Especially since he had not exactly entirely stopped spending on cigarettes until five days before and maybe also tomorrow.
He tried to think about something else, but she was talking loud and his hands needed something to do. When he felt ready to explode, he finally told her he was going on a walk. And she said, since his lungs must be getting better, he should make it a run.
So he did. He ran, his fists pumping in the air. His lungs burning with the effort. His feet splashing in the occasional puddle from the evening’s rainstorm. He ran and he ran. Right past the corner store. Then all the way around the block. He finally came back home calm, if damp, and closed his evening out with a nice pickle and a cup of hot broth. That was it: the day he still marks.
He didn’t know at the time, of course, that he’d broken through the laws of economics. He just knew he’d procrastinated giving in to temptation. And when we delay our mistakes, isn’t God at least a little proud? After that day, Isaac went on another run whenever the old, antsy boredom started to get to him. It would engage his whole body. It would clear his mind. Sometimes, after a few kilometers, he’d even start to feel a little buzzed.
Somehow, he never gets tired of that.
Isaac’s wife, Dobra Peretz, could not quit smoking with him. As a child, she’d been taught never to play with matches, so she’d simply never started. And then, without having experienced tobacco’s benefits, she missed the appeal. Like sports or comic books or bug collecting, smoking seemed a little strange from the outside but harmless enough if that’s what made a person happy. Except for the part where comic books didn’t cause lung cancer.
Naturally, she appreciated it when the missionaries convinced Isaac to die of something else. The temporary side effect of irritability was not her favorite, and she briefly thought the something else for him to die of might be getting pushed off the balcony by his wife. But they made it. And life was better once the lingering taste of smoke in his mouth finally and completely cleared. From her point of view, the Doctrine and Covenants should have mentioned nicer kissing as a Word of Wisdom blessing, but prophets never did write the best advertising copy.
The only problem Dobra had with Isaac being a quitter was that it made her feel obligated to keep the Word of Wisdom, too. Since she didn’t smoke and wasn’t social enough to be much of a drinker, those parts were simple. In the times before Heshel brought the Church to Chelm, though, Dobra used to drink coffee every day. After she joined the Church, she still drank coffee every day. But it was bad coffee, made with barley.
The first six days after Dobra Peretz quit coffee were awful. Her head ached. In the mornings, Isaac was much too loud. And the smell of him! He’d become fixated on the idea that God expected a person to be clean, and was constantly using mouthwash and air fresheners. It drove her crazy. She very nearly quit her quitting. But on the seventh day, she rested from her worries by staying in bed long enough to finish an entire novel. And day eight was somehow…fine? Within a few weeks, days felt basically the same as always.
How could that be? She had once thought she would die without coffee. Her survival was a real mystery of godliness. She wracked her brain, but could not understand how she could feel so indifferent to the old morning caffeine now that it was gone.
Like the promised treasure of hidden knowledge, an answer came to her—literally line upon line—during a long trip to visit her cousin Ronia in France. If you sat in a train, Dobra realized, it felt like you were moving. But if you looked out the window, it became clear that the whole countryside was actually moving around the train while the window stayed in the same fixed position. That was simple physics. In very much the same way, drinking a cup of coffee gave you the illusion that something inside you was changing. But if you paid close attention, it became clear that the whole world really did start off terrible every morning. It was never her. Never had been. She could recognize that now. Nor was it anything personal the universe had against her. Early in the morning, bad was just how the world was. It was such a relief, an unburdening of the spirit, to understand that.
And then: this part was strange, but true. Because the problem was not really on the inside, a person didn’t need any substance at all to take the edge off. Within a few hours of waking up—she cataloged this carefully, to make sure the pattern was statistically significant. Maybe it was the light, or some change in the air, or just a property of the earth’s movement, but within a few hours—whether you drank good coffee or barley coffee or a startling amount of water—that same world would typically improve. If you just got out of bed and looked around, the miracle of it was easy enough to see for yourself.
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James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.