We recently published Rina Palumbo’s brilliant “Cigarette Tag.”
Here, we ask her two questions about her story:
1) When I was a kid, I remember there were all kinds of tag variations — freeze tag, TV tag, shadow tag. I don’t remember this particular brand of tag, though. Is this an invention of your own or is this a kind of tag from your childhood?
Like freeze or shadow or TV, cigarette tag is a variation. I don’t know the provenance, but our neighborhood group of multi-aged children would just start playing the ‘cigarette’ version every once in a while. It came to mind when I noticed a program had a warning that included “smoking” (along with nudity, violence, and language). I thought back to seeing ads for cigarettes and remembering the jingles that went with them and, more importantly, how common (almost ubiquitous) it was in my working-class neighborhood to have fathers who were heavy smokers. The contrast between the fantasy in the ads and the reality of smoking is something I wanted to bring forward.
2) I love this ending, how everyone wants to be the last one in cigarette tag, how everyone wants to be the last to go home. How everyone knows the lines to all the commercials. Do you think there is something of a talisman in chanting these slogans for the kids? Something that protects them?
In the closed universe of this childhood game, there is a sense of protection and maybe even safety. There is a sort of magical thinking involved. I thought of it as almost a carve-out from reality made more poignant by the fact that the buttress of this imaginary sphere is the absolute lies spun by the advertising companies in service of a toxic industry. Of course, you only see this reality as an adult, which made me, as a writer, want to elevate the delicate nature of childhood play into an art form, like a dance or a symphony.