Whiff – Chapter 1

The clinking of all the tiny bottles in my satchel comforts me as I walk through the double automatic doors of The Gardens nursing facility and hospice care.

“Well hello, Mr. Bronson.  Nice to see you,” says Juliette, the large-bosomed woman behind the front desk.  I’ve never spoken to her, and likely never will.  I find her to be overly jovial and familiar.  I walk swiftly past the desk avoiding eye contact.

“Nice to see me, too?  Well, now, it’s so nice of you to SAY SO,” she calls after me.

I walk down the softly lit north corridor heading for room #114, where smell profile #368 resides in steadily declining health.  I see Rodrigo, the janitor, walking toward me.  He’s a short man in his mid-forties, no taller than me.

“Señor Bronson,” he says pulling out a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and handing it to me.

I unfold it and read.

Nyco Hard Coat Easy Care Floor Finish

“I wrote it down, just like you asked me to,” he says.

I breathe deeply to syphon out this newly identified smell from the air, which is thick with bleach, only partially masking the illness which resides in each room.  I fold it up and put it into the outside pocket of my satchel.  He is friendly and formal.  I rather like being called Señor.  I nod my thanks to him and lean in to get a good whiff, but he backs away.

I’ve all but completed my smell profile for Rodrigo #366.   His scent is heavily dominated by cleaning supplies, Aqua Velva after shave, and garlic.  I suspect he has personal space issues. I may never get close enough to him to ascertain his UPS (Unique Personal Scent). Perhaps my best chance is to sample an item of his clothing [Note 19922:  Track #366’s laundry habits.  Perhaps he uses a local laundry mat]

I continue on to room #114.  The door is open, but I knock out of courtesy.  The light is low and the room is stuffy.  #368 is unconscious.  Her breathing is ragged and shallow.  It won’t be long now.  The moment I’ve waited six weeks for is fast approaching.  She will soon die and I can gather the data I need to take my project to the final steps.   (41.6: Does death have a fragrance and is it universal?)  I intend to capture the subtleties of the moments of death before the body begins to decay.  It is morbid I know, but fascinating as well [note #19923 will I experience an emotional change at the passing of profile #368?]

Sophia has withered away to nothing more than hair, skin, and bones since I first started visiting The Gardens.  It has been two weeks since she’s spoken, and a week since she’s opened her eyes.  I perform a full DST (Direct Sniff Test) from head to toe, and then check my notes.  In her unconsciousness, I’ve been able to gain the proximity required to gather the only category left in her profile; UPS…musty, sweet, hint of old paper…a pleasing profile, overall.

I sit next to her, notebook on my lap, and sing what I believe to be her favorite song, “The Days of Wine and Roses”, as is my custom.  It also happens to be Mother’s favorite song.  I reach out and hold her hand.  Unlike last week, she does not respond by squeezing back.  She chokes a little bit and then continues her ragged breathing.

I hear a sound at the door.  I turn.  What I see perplexes me.  It is the woman with the ill-fitting green cardigan sweater from the library.

She does not speak.  She looks at me, and then at #368.  The fragrance of her alarm permeates the air.  Tentatively, she walks toward me as I offer her #368’s hand.  I stand and offer my chair, though I find myself unable to speak.  She sits down.  The alarm and confusion on her face gives way to sorrow.  She begins to weep.  Note: A woman’s tears, although odorless, have been proven to have a biological effect on men, decreasing the possibility for sexual arousal. (See “Scent of a Woman’s Tears Lowers Men’s Desire” by Stephanie Pappas – Live Science online journal.).  Curious.

She leans close to #368’s face, pats her hand and says, “Mother?  Can you hear me?” “It’s me, Marie.  It’s your daughter.”  She lowers her head and sobs, “It’s going to be okay.”

I fight off the urge to cry myself, a most annoying and inopportune urge, but I hold steady for the sake of my work.  In this moment their scents intermingle.  I inhale deeply, sensing the deep relationship between these two women.  Fascinating. Perhaps I’ll begin a new profile on her as well. I suspect that the sweater she is wearing is actually her mother’s; an artifact of great import, no doubt.

Then it is over.  #368’s breathing stops.  Death is such a quiet thing.  I move to the other side of the bed to get a closer smell.  It is the subtlest of odors, death—not unlike the smell from when one falls from lucidness into the first moments of dreaming—but perhaps a touch sweeter.  I jot down my findings and lay my notebook down momentarily.  I rub the sinus passages around my nose to get as good a whiff as possible, hoping perhaps to find some variation from the last profile to die.

Marie stops crying.  She sniffs up the excess mucus in her nose and turns to find a Kleenex.  After blowing her nose she returns her attention to me.

‘I’ve seen you…at the library.  I don’t understand why you are here,” she says.

Unable to speak, and having completed my work, I leave.

My findings support the possibility that all deaths are accompanied by the same fragrance.  I will continue on with profile #366, Margery Coleman, for more conclusive evidence.  I’ve noted a subtle change in her scent just as I did with the others as they neared death.  I suspect that she will die in approximately nine days based on my averages.  Working with her has proved challenging because she receives numerous visits from family and I’m afraid my presence may not be welcomed by them.  The chances of being present for her death without interference is greatly diminished by this factor, but I feel compelled to persevere.

I check my watch as I walk back down the corridor.  Oh dear!  Mother will be most unhappy if I don’t get home to her immediately to serve her her ginger snaps, chamomile tea, and to sing her to sleep.

As I pass the front desk once more, Juliette shakes her head at me and says, “I know you ain’t gonna say anything to me, so just keep on walking!”  Over-familiar.

I walk back out of the main entrance into the brisk January air and take a moment to smell the cedar bushes and the exhaust from the ambulance waiting in the drive.