Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668
“The Smoker” is told in the third person through the consciousness of Douglas Kerchek, a teacher of high school English. He has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard and lives alone. The title refers to a recurring event, the Friday Night Smokers hosted by the Society of Gentlemen club in Kerchek’s hometown, Allentown, Pennsylvania. As a high school senior, he had often been invited to box at the smokers.
The two main characters are Kerchek and Nicole Bonner, a student at St. Agnes High School at Broadway and West Ninety-seventh. The story opens with Kerchek musing over a note Nicole has appended to her essay on William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (1604) describing her late night reading in bed (a novel a night), her disdain for Hunter S. Thompson, and her family’s habit of sharing a brandy before bedtime. Kerchek is taken aback by the intimacy of Nicole’s observations and by her personal, nearly impertinent, question about how he had bruised his ankle. He has written a keenly observed and detailed letter strongly supporting Nicole’s application for admission to Princeton. Nicole is not only a year older than his other AP English students, she is brilliant as well and, in Kerchek’s eyes, “dangerously alluring.”
As a solitary well-built man, good-looking with a dash of gray at the temples, Kerchek knows he is a figure of interest among the young women at St. Agnes School. He is not attracted to his female colleagues so he does not date any of them. Kerchek walks the five blocks from school to his noisy apartment building where he lives alone, finding as usual the lobby outside his apartment filled with Chicano men drinking and playing high-stakes poker. They call him “Uno” because he may stop to have one beer with them, but only one beer. In his apartment, he has a sandwich and begins his paper grading only to be interrupted by a phone call from Nicole, who has copied his phone number from the principal’s Rolodex. He spends ten minutes on the phone with Nicole, tongue-tied as a teenager contributing, little to the conversation. The next morning, still irritated with himself for his inept conversation, he puts on a “smart coat and tie” and gives a pop quiz on vocabulary and titles. Nicole responds by writing verbatim from memory the first few pages of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851).
Three weeks later on a rainy Tuesday, Nicole seeks Kerchek out from the faculty lounge to say that she has been accepted to Princeton and to invite him to a thank-you dinner with her parents at their place in the Preemption apartment building at West Eighty-second and Riverside. Slightly stunned, Kerchek accepts, gets a fresh but inept haircut from Chiapas, and shows up for the Thursday dinner. Nicole, dressed in an exquisite black silk evening gown as black as her hair, and her parents, Simon and Paulette, welcome him to their penthouse. The situation is jovially confrontational, putting Kercheck off balance as he is challenged to “teach them something.” Samson challenges Kercheck further “to test his mettle” before announcing that he and Paulette wish to arrange a marriage between Kercheck and Nicole. Later Nicole and Kercheck are shown into Samson’s study, where they are alone together for the first time in their new roles. Nicole tells Kerchek that she knows “what the world is like” and how long people can go in New York City without finding someone and that she understands loneliness even if she is only nineteen. Kercheck, the more romantic of the two, wants to know if Nicole is in love with him. Nicole, the practical one, is fully prepared to fall in love with him “as of the first week in June” when the prom and graduation are behind her. He orders her to make a fist and hit him as hard as she can. She does, showing them both what lies in their future.
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