Whiff – Chapter 2

“What the hell, Jim?  Why aren’t those books re-shelved?” says Connor.

I very much dislike when people curse at me.  I am entirely unable to respond to that kind of language.  Mother says that unless the “H” word is used in a religious context, it is foul and uncivil.

He steps between me and the returned books bin and continues to address me in an agitated manner.  “Jim! Don’t freakin’ act like you can’t hear me, dude.  Listen, I don’t know what you are doing with those books, but they better be in the system and on the shelf before I get back from my break!”

He walks back to the front desk and leaves me alone in the book sorting room.  There are two bins.  One for the returned books, and one for returned multimedia like books on disc and movies.  On the back wall there are stacks of new and donated books waiting to be processed. Right now, I’m working on the returned books.  What I am doing, not that Connor would ever understand, is entirely scientific.  These books have been handled by thousands of library patrons.  Project #36 seeks to study the possible evolution of the scent of a book relative to the number of times it has been checked out.  I can’t explain to Connor or anyone else here what I do.  They won’t understand.  People are very sensitive about their smells.  It’s very personal, but this is my life.  This is all I have.  Well, smells and Mother.  I have dear Mother.

A few more books slide into the bin.  I pick them up to inspect them.

  • Letters from Motherless Daughters: Words of Courage, Grief, and Healing by Hope Edelman
  • Beatrix Potter The Complete Tales by Beatrix Potter
  • The Business of Beauty: Cosmetics Retailing by Debbie Purvis

I check the name.  They were checked out by Marie Bellman.

I finish scanning the remainder of the books into the system, organize them onto the cart by fiction, adult fiction, adult fiction large print, young adult fiction, junior fiction, and non-fiction, then push them around the front desk.  One wheel sticks from time to time, making it difficult to push with so many books.  As I push passed the reading room I notice Marie sitting alone wearing her green sweater.  I suspect she’s been crying because her eyes are puffy and a little red.  I suppose this is to be expected given that her mother has only died a few days ago.  She is a very pretty woman, Marie–perhaps close to my age, hair brushed to the side, petite, fair skin, ruffly orange blouse.  I’ve always been fond of ruffles because they remind me of profile #1.  She sits with excellent posture as she reads.  Mother always says that posture is the true hallmark of a well-disciplined body.

As I push my cart by her table she looks up at me, startled.  I freeze.  She narrows her eyes, which gives her a very stern appearance indeed, then she reaches into a pink and orange book bag and pulls out a well-used notebook.  It is my notebook.  I must have left it at the nursing facility. How could I have been so careless? I wonder.

She flips through a few pages, shaking her head and chuckling quietly to herself.  Then she speaks very sharply in a hushed tone.   “What the hell is this?  Is one of these supposed to be my mother?”

The “H” word.  I immediately look down at my sport white Rockport ProWalkers, unable to look her in the eye.

She begins thumbing through the pages until she finds the page she is looking for. “#368.  Female, mid-seventies, living at The Gardens, 5’ 3’’, hair color white, eye color blue.  Is this her?  Why in heaven’s name would you be collecting information about her?”

I am paralyzed.  I know she expects me to speak to her, but I can’t.  I can’t speak to Connor because of his cursing.  I can’t speak to the patrons because they are strangers.  And I certainly couldn’t speak to a girl.  The only person I really feel comfortable speaking with is Mother.

“I don’t mean to be uncivil, sir, but I’d appreciate if you stayed away from me.  Here,” she says as she thrusts my notebook back at me.  I thumb through the pages to make sure they are all still there.  I would be devastated if I’d lost any part of my work.

I turn around and push my cart on to the non-fiction section, her reprimand stinging in my ears.  When I am out of sight, to comfort myself, I pull the small glass bottle labeled #1 from my pants pocket and uncork it.  I let the fragrance breathe for a moment, like a fine Bordeaux, and then inhale it.  My nerves are calmed.

The next morning, I pay a visit to profile #1.  I wait patiently in the post office parking lot, meditating on smells that are almost too familiar to detect; the synthesized fragrance of Mother dabbed onto the passenger side seat, the leather upholstery of my ruby red 1978 Volvo 242, Armor All surface cleaner, the smell of winter trapped in the wool of my coat.  The one thing that I cannot smell is my own personal scent, try as I might.  Perhaps, I wonder, smelling one’s own UPS is akin to hearing the Om of Eastern spiritual traditions, in that its ever-presence requires a certain level of spiritual mastery to detect.

Ah, right on time.  Profile #144 – shoe polish, Skoal, industrial cleaners.  I watch as he unlocks the main entrance door.  I will be the first patron this morning to be sure.  I sling my satchel over my shoulder, with the clinking of tiny glass bottles, and walk swiftly through the cold morning air to the entrance, pausing only briefly to center my thoughts and tune my senses before entering what to me is a sanctuary, a shrine.

I step into the quiet entrance hall, floors freshly waxed and polished, gleaming even in the low light of the energy-judicious government facility – polyurethane, shellac, urethane, varnish, aluminum oxide finishes, epoxy – mmmmm, fresh floor wax, and the faint lingering of engine heat from the buffer.

For a moment I close my eyes, breathing steadily and deeply, holding each smell in my well-tuned mind and then allowing them to blend together into a single complex fragrance.  I step toward the letter boxes to spend some time with a blend of paper, envelope glue, and metal.  But these are all stops along the way to my destination, the counter.

The counters are made of 1950s commercial-grade Formica, the central component in smell profile #1.  As I walk into the room with the main counter, the workers immediately recognize me.  I will not be shipping anything, I will just be visiting.  They tolerate my presence as long as I do not begin sniffing patrons.  That was the agreement, and I have held up my end of the bargain, mostly.

I sit down in my preferred chair, which is the one closest to the counter, and my love affair begins.  I begin by taking in the smells of the room, focusing in on the Formica, until my head begins to spin and my heart begins to race.  The butterflies come to life in my gut, the butterflies that tell me that I am still in love.  And for a moment, I don’t know how long, I am transported to a time when I collected my first smell; the time when I met her.

As the lines begin to form at the counter, my meditation breaks up and I stand to leave.  A short, squat lady, covered with freckles waits with her child, also covered with freckles, and gives me a queer look.

“Excuse me sir, but are you in line?” she says, rudely I might add.

I avoid contact, looking only at the child who is sticking his middle finger in his nose and rubbing the snot all across his upper lip.

“What are you?  Deaf?  In or out buddy, I’ve got packages to deliver.”

The new post office clerk, a young man with thick eyebrows steps around the counter and motions to me to come closer.

“Hey, man.  What’s going on?”

“I am proving the premise of project 1.3 that American post offices (pre-1980s construction) have a universally common smell.  Also, isolating this smell is of great sentimental value to me.

He laughs.  [note #19924:  breath smells of stale coffee, ginger, garlic, and a mild degree of bacteria from gingivitis.  Start profile for man #422] Perhaps he thinks I’m joking.  Or perhaps he suspects that I am mentally ill and not in fact a life-long devotee of the collecting of smells.

“I’ve been given express permission to perform my experiment as long as I…”  I stop short.

“As long as you what?” he asks.

“A long as I adhere to certain conditions.

He raises his eyebrows as he turns away and says, “Ok then”

Not finding any new smell components, I pull my journal notebook out of the satchel and jot down a few thoughts about my visit.  Taking one final whiff, I rise and leave.

I never tire from visiting this part of my collection, and when I’m not visiting it I simply have to uncork my bottle of #1, which is a complete synthesis.  I never go anywhere without it.

By the time I reach my street, the light is fading, and a flurry of snow has gathered in the crevice between the windshield wipers and the hood of my car.    I pull into my cracked, one car drive and kill the engine.  Mother’s and my house was made in the 1920s, craftsmen style, gray with white trim.  I climb the steps to the broad front porch and shake a few flakes of fresh snow off my coat.  I take a moment to breathe my neighborhood in–wood burning fire, decaying leaves, whiff of evening pipe from Profile #76 on the corner (cherry, vanilla, tobacco), old paint chips, and damp, winter air.

Inside I get a whiff of dusty furnace heat and I head for the kitchen.  The kitchen looks just as it had when I was a little boy.  It had the original almandine and spruce checked linoleum floors and matching almandine Formica countertops.  All the appliances were from the 1950s, white with silver trim, except for the refrigerator which was harvest gold.   I fill a tea kettle at the sink.  The spark of sulfur hits my nose sharply as I light the stove.  While I wait for the water to boil, I grab a box of gingersnaps from the cupboard. This is our bed time ritual.   She eats very little, but she will always eat ginger snaps.  Mother always says that there’s nothing like ginger snaps to soothe an upset stomach and chamomile tea to calm the nerves.

After sniffing one of the ginger snaps—ginger and molasses– I arrange them on a dessert plate from Mother and Father’s wedding china and set it on a wooden serving tray inlaid with a delicate floral pattern.

Mother used to put me in charge of watching the tea kettle.

“Jimmy!” she would call. “Come watch the kettle!”

I can still hear her calling to me.  We’ve always been a team, Mother and I.

I find Mother in bed rather than in her usual chair where she often reads and knits.

“How are we feeling this evening, Mother?” I ask.

She says that she feels every bit as good as she felt yesterday.

“Mother, that’s exactly what you said yesterday.”

The room is exactly as it had been since I was a little boy.  She lay in a brass bed with the quilt she had made from the old curtains from the bathroom, my old clothes, and leftover scraps of cloth from dresses she’d made over the years.  There is an antique vanity in the corner by the window with a silver plated brush, a bottle of Chanel #5, and various cosmetics which she no longer uses.  Occasionally, I sniff her lipstick or her foundation.  They remind me of the days before she fell ill and how she would put them on before taking her for a drive or to church.

She asks me how my day had been.

“I had a very negative encounter at the library with the woman whose mother just died.  She found my notebook at The Gardens and discovered that I’d been collecting smell data about her mother.  For some reason, unbeknownst to me, she found it alarming.  She was rather cross with me.  I was quite relieved when she returned my notebook to me.  I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that she did not damage it in some way.”

Mother gives me a very concerned look and tells me that she could understand how the girl could have misunderstood my research and that I should consider apologizing for my nosiness.

“I see no reason to apologize for my work.  Perhaps if I could explain to her—but no, she wouldn’t understand.  They never do,” I say, assisting her with her tea.  “It’s not too hot is it?”

She sips and shakes her head, then reaches for a ginger snap.  She rarely finishes eating the food that I bring, so I often finished it for her.  I pick up a cookie, sniff it, and nibble it.  Mother stares blankly at the wall.  I don’t know what she is thinking or where she goes when she does this.  Sometimes it feels like she’s not even here.

I can see that she is done with her tea and ginger snaps and I sit back in my chair for a moment and breathe her in.  Her smell was the second one I ever collected.  I’ve tracked it’s evolution over the years.

Father used to buy her a bottle of Chanel #5 for her birthday every year.  I still spray her with it because it is such a fundamental element to her scent.  She no longer smells of Virginia Slims because she hasn’t smoked them since she became sick.  I occasionally light one in the kitchen, although I never smoke.  Mother always says that coffee keeps the mind keen and alert, and I still serve her a cup in the morning, Folgers.  She has mild halitosis because of the coffee and a lack of regular flossing, a point at which we are very much at odds.  She attempts to mask it with spearmint gum.  She smells of talcum from her rouge (Maybelline), Downy April Fresh Fabric Softener which she began using 6.15.1997.  She switched from Suave to Finesse on the one year anniversary of Father’s death.  Inexplicable.  In the winter, she smells of moth balls.  At night she rubs Mentholatum on her hands and wears sleep gloves.  Noxzema Deep Cleansing Cream.  Her UPS (Unique Personal Scent) is somewhat acrid, just a hint of salt pork, the tiniest bit of mushroom, boiled cabbage, and motor oil.  The overall effect of her scent is significant to me.  I keep a bottle of it with me wherever I go.  It is the most complete synthesis that I’ve ever manufactured.  I find it to be a great comfort when I am in distress.

I set her tea aside and tuck the covers in around her.  She is still staring at the wall, but I know that she would be sleeping soon.  I close my eyes and begin to sing.

“The daaaaaays of wine and roooooooses…”

I have no illusions about my singing.  I’ll never be an Andy Williams, but she likes for me to sing to her at night.  She says that it’s a comfort to her to have her baby boy singing to her.  It helps her sleep.

As I sing, I think of the times that she used to sing me to sleep.  She would sit on the edge of my bed and rub my legs as she sang whatever song was on her mind, softly in the lowest register of her voice.

When I open my eyes, she is sleeping, breathing quietly, so softly that it almost seems like she isn’t breathing at all.

Then I creep back down to the kitchen.  There, I take a packet of Strawberry Frosted Pop Tarts from the cupboard, as is my custom, and sink them into the toaster.   I never eat them, but I find the aroma quite pleasing.

I keep the door to the basement locked.  It is climate controlled and the air is purified.  Along the back wall are shelves of jars containing essential smell elements.  On the adjacent wall are bottles of smells that I have synthesized from my favorite smell profiles; places, people, and some events; all labeled with their corresponding numbers.  In the middle of the room are my laboratory space, and my most important project:  The Smellasizer; a fully-automated smell synthesizer.  I hope to complete its construction and testing very soon.

I pull out my notes from project #14, first kiss.  I’m on attempt #43.  I study my most recent notes and uncork a bottle #14.43; Secret Deodorant for Women (Strong enough for a man, made for a woman), spearmint gum, whiff of diesel, and human saliva captured from my last visit to the dentist office.  I sniff my sample.  The diesel smell is out of balance with the spearmint and the human saliva has an overbearing smell of teeth cleaner, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.

When I was fifteen, I asked mother about it.

It was Christmas Eve and we were watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  When George Baily first kissed Mary I could see that a lot was going on.  It began with a sniff of her hair while she talked with her old boyfriend on the phone.  They were sharing the hand set and they were forced to be in close personal contact.  Then he was yelling and angry, and they were crying and then they kissed with great vigor.

During the commercial I asked, “Mother, what will my first kiss feel like?”

She said, “Oh Jimmy, your first kiss will be like magic.  And it will smell good just like Jimmy Stewart’s kiss.  You’ll smell her hair and her breath.  You’ll taste her mouth and fall in love with the way she tastes.  And afterwards you’ll feel light headed.  You might feel a fluttering in your gut.  This is what first kisses are made of.”

“Will a girl ever kiss me, Mother?”

She paused ever so briefly then smiled and patted me on the leg.

“One day, just the right girl will come along and find you just as adorable as I do.  Be patient, Jimmy.  She’s out there.”

But this fragrance didn’t make me feel light-headed at all.  Nothing was fluttering in my stomach either.  I must continue to work on this.  Perhaps a puff of cigarette smoke, or a pipe, vanilla and cherry.  Who can truly predict the environment in which a first kiss might occur?  Dissatisfied with my progress, I turn to the Smellasizer.  So far, the only fragrances I’ve been able to synthesize are far too simple, like grape Kool-aid; child’s play compared to something like a day at the ball park (fresh cut grass, roasted peanuts, Budweiser beer, hot dogs with mustard, freshly groomed dirt, and human urine).

I make a few adjustments with a socket wrench, replace the side cover, and grab a few jars of fragrance essence from the back wall shelves. I pull out profile #45–fall day– and punch in the data.  The machine hums, bottles clink, and liquids trickle.  The results pour out of a spout into small glass bottle sitting in an alcove on the side of the machine.  I pull it up to my nose and take a sniff.  Once again the aroma is overwhelmed by burning leaves.  The leaves are a very important component, true, but I also want to capture the crisp smell of the air on an Autumn morning.  This is a subtler scent, but very necessary.  The first time I tried it, it smelled like sea air which is not right for Oklahoma at all.  The next time I couldn’t smell it at all; just the burning leaves.  Perhaps a touch of cedar and damp leaves would at a pungency that would balance the burning ones.

I empty the bottle into my SDS (Smell Disposal Repository) and set it down in front of me.  I jot down some notes and slump down in my chair.  I’ll try again tomorrow.  I use a step ladder to reach to the top shelf of my smell collection and grab hold of #3.  I pop the cork and take a sniff, hoping for some inspiration, perhaps some wisdom, but all I get are faint memories of a better time.