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Lighting Up

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The heavy air rose off the subway tracks at Clark and Division, swirling burnt grease and rush hour into the faces of countless riders. Framed against a brown pillar stood a large woman and her tiny son. The boy, who couldn't have been taller than two and a half feet, was wearing a miniature light green karate outfit.

The boy gazed up at his mother, his interest sparked by her riffling through her purse. He suddenly squealed in delight when she pulled out a pack of Marlboros. Under the watchful eye of her son, she removed a cigarette from the pack and began to tear a match from the book in her hand. This time the boy squealed in disappointment. The mother noticed this sad intonation and, looking softly down, asked him a question in Spanish. In an instant his face lit up and he cried out "Si! Si!"

With the cigarette dangling from her mouth, the mother reached into her purse and pulled out a small box of wooden matches. Her knees popped as she squatted down to the boy's height. She handed him the box, and after a bit of a struggle he finally managed to remove a single match. He slapped the box shut and struck the match with a snap. It hissed with flame and the boy screamed with joy. His hand flew into the air, hurling the burning match, cometlike, onto the tracks.

"Cerote," said the mother.

She began to stand up but the tiny boy grabbed onto her arm. She relaxed and, crouching down even lower than before, gave him one more match from the box. The boy moved his eyes slowly and cautiously, first to the match, then to the box, then to his mother's pouting cigarette face. He aimed carefully and struck. The match lit, glowing against the dirty white tile of the station. This time, the boy stared calmly in awe at the flame. Holding her son's hand steady, the mother moved her face toward the match. She drew once, twice, a third time; and as the task was completed both she and the boy were silhouetted by the flame behind a thick veil of Marlboro smoke that hung no higher than two and a half feet above the ground.

The mother stood up, shaking the dying match from her son's hand. She pulled long and hard on her cigarette, then took it from her mouth, holding it between her fingers as she folded her arms beneath her chest. The boy stared up at his mother intently. Then, as if concluding that his turn had been somehow overlooked, or maybe expecting a polite thank-you for a job well done, he stretched up with one tiny arm toward his mother's glowing cigarette. In his light green outfit he looked like a miniature Statue of Liberty reaching for a torch.

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