Finding The Origin Of "Going Out For Cigarettes"
It’s a story as famous as the three little pigs:
one evening a man says he is going out for cigarettes,
closes the door behind him and is never heard from again,
not one phone call, not even a postcard from Rio.
For all anyone knows, he walks straight into the distance
like a line from Euclid’s notebooks and vanishes
with the smoke he blows into the soft humid air,
smoke that forms a screen, smoke to calm the bees within.
He has his fresh pack, an overcoat with big pockets.
What else does he need as he walks beyond city limits,
past the hedges, porch lights and empty cars of the suburbs
and into a realm no larger than his own hat size?
—Billy Collins, “Going out for Cigarettes”
You’re familiar with the story: Someone’s father in the long-ago past went out for a pack of cigarettes “and never came back.” Occasionally it’s a loaf of bread or a quart of milk, but whatever the item, it’s something that could be picked up in a five-minute trip to the corner store serves as cover for permanent family abandonment. But has it actually happened to anyone outside of sitcoms or that reliable urban-legend source, a “friend of a friend”? Parental abandonment is nothing new, of course, and I’m sure plenty of deadbeat dads have snuck out the back door without first announcing their plans to the rest of the family, but where does this particular story come from, and when did it first appear? How essential is the errand-running element to the story? Were there similarly caustic jokes in the 19th-century about fathers dying of yellow fever or never coming back from the Boer War? Is it a face-saving lie that fathers actually told their wives and children before leaving, or a face-saving lie that wives and children told each other after fathers left?
The closest I could get to real-life instances were Stephen King and Norma Talmadge, but even these started to fall apart upon closer inspection. Not “fall apart” in the most important sense, of course — I’m not trying to serve as devil’s advocate for the claim that Stephen King’s father actually stuck around and raised his kids — but on the particulars.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Stephen King’s father “went out for a drink and never came back” when King was two years old. According to an interview with Neil Gaiman for the Sunday Times Magazine, his father “went out for cigarettes when King was four and never came back.” Lisa Rogak’s Life and Times of Stephen King splits the difference: “One night, when Steve had just turned two, Donald casually told his wife that he was going to the store for a pack of cigarettes.” It’s not terribly important whether King left when Stephen was two or three or four (for our purposes, anyone), but the inconsistency and his very-young age do suggest that these details sprung up years after the fact, rather than a clear memory of an actual conversation Stephen King overheard between his parents.
Norma Talmadge (a big silent film star; if you know her it’s either from Smilin’ Through or Du Barry or a general impression that she had something to do with Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, which is kind of true) has a similar claim on her Wikipedia page:
“One Christmas morning, Fred Talmadge left the house to buy food, and never came back, leaving his wife to raise their three daughters.”
But a quick check of the source doesn’t reveal anything more than “Her father, a chronic unemployed alcoholic, left Peg and daughters Norma, Natalie, and Constance on Christmas Day.”
The necessary elements of the story seem to be as follows:
Running an errand, specifically picking up something perishable or that needs to be replaced almost-every day (it’s never “My father said he was picking up the dry cleaning and never returned”)
An element of calm or at least neutrality at first (he didn’t storm off after a fight, such that everyone left at home might have reason to think he might be leaving for good)
The way the story itself is told recreates the journey from childlike faith/trust/naïveté to disillusionment/disappointment/knowingness: “My father left for [staple]” puts the audience in an expectant position, “and never came back” punctures
A two-sentence framing; the story never gets more embellishment than “One day” (maybe “On Christmas” to really highlight the callousness of the abandonment, or “on my birthday”) or specificity regarding the child’s age. One day he ran an errand; he never came back; as simple and as open-ended as a fairy tale.
Although I can think of a few sitcoms (30 Rock, Friends, The Fresh Prince) that either repeat or tweak the format, I can’t find much in the way of older movies or books that include this story, either as fiction or (purported) biography. I’m so curious to find out more about the development of this framing, so if anyone can think of any sources before 1980, please share!