Mother was rather demanding with me this morning. At first her coffee was too hot. Then her toast was too burnt. Then she wanted me to rub liniment on her feet. I am a full fifteen minutes late to work. When I arrive, I duck into the back, hoping to avoid a cross word or two from Connor, and begin my work of gathering books from the returns bin.
It is a Saturday so Marie is already there. Per her request, I’ve been staying away from her. So I am very surprised when she seeks me out in the children’s books section.
“Excuse me,” she says, in a very urgent tone. “I know I said I didn’t want you to be near me ever again, but something terrible has happened.”
Why would she feel the need to share her tragedy with me? What could I possibly do to assist her? Certainly she doesn’t expect me to listen to her stories and provide some sort of comfort! I fight the urge to turn and walk away, but instead stay while she sits in one of the tiny, children’s chairs which she pulls up to a tiny table. She is small enough that it almost seems to fit. I stand with my feet together, hands clasped – unsure where to put them—and stare past her as to avoid eye contact.
“I did something so stupid,” she continues, holding the green sweater like a baby. “I left my green cardigan here at the library yesterday.” She holds it out for me to inspect. I take one sniff and know that there is something terribly wrong.
“It’s been washed!” she says, and I know it to be true by the scent of All-Purpose Tide that hangs in my nostrils.
I stare blankly passed her right ear, avoiding her eyes.
“He was only trying to be helpful. He said he found it last night after the library was closed and he knew I must have left it,” She tilts her head back and wipes a tear from her eye with her index finger.” He thought that I would appreciate it if he washed it before he returned it. And now,” she says, voice wavering, “I can’t smell her anymore.”
I glance over at the checkout counter. Connor is clumsily handling a stack of books for a large woman in tight jeans and a black t-shirt that reads “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” across the back. Connor. Dim-witted lout. I want to say something to her. Something comforting, but my mouth won’t open.
Her tiny body slumps in her tiny chair and she looks blankly ahead.
“It’s all gone,” she says, tossing the sweater in front of her on the table. “I cleaned out the closets days ago. Even if I could find them at the thrift store, they will have already washed them all. This was the only piece of clothing I kept. She used to wear it nearly every day.”
I take a moment to sniff the air, wondering if desperation has a smell.
“The notebook. All those profiles you’ve been keeping. You made a complete record of my mother’s scent. I thought maybe you could help me reconstruct it in some way.”
I steady myself with a deep breath. This is the longest conversation I’d had since I was asked to stay away from the elementary school last fall.
“Is it possible? I mean, is this something you know how to do? When I wore her sweater, it was like she was with me, holding me in her arms. I need to smell her, Jim. It’s the only thing that gives me comfort now. It’s what gets me through the day.”
She picks up the sweater and studies the graffiti on the table.
“Why the hell aren’t you saying anything?” she asks.
The word stings me like a bee, and loosens my jaw to speak.
“P-please d-don’t curse at me,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her eyes pleading with me, “I just don’t know what else to do. This is all I have of her. Do you understand?”
I reach into my pocket and caress the little glass bottle labeled #2. And I do. I understand entirely, but I think of the little girl on the playground with the honeysuckle scented hair and I turn to leave, stumbling over one of the chairs. She will curse me, perhaps not now, but she will curse me. She is repulsed by me. The only reason she is talking to me is because she is desperate. I push my cart hurriedly to the back room to hide. After a few minutes I peek out of the sorting room and glimpse her walking out of the automatic sliding doors, holding the ruined sweater. I want to help, but I just can’t.
After work, I return to the post office. It is my refuge. It’s my true love, this place. This is the busiest time of the day, so the smells are tainted with humanity. I sit for a few minutes, ignoring the curious stares by closing my eyes and breathing deeply. But it’s no good. I open my eyes. A skinny, middle-aged man with a scruffy, graying beard stands close to my spot. He smells of onion and hamburger pizza. This will not do. I grab my satchel and leave. In the car, I pull out #1 and take a deep breath. Yes, pure. Clean. I feel all the longing and desire and adoration welling up inside me as I’m transported to a different time, before bullies, before illness, before “The Sniffer”. Only innocence.
I was just five years old. It was summertime in Austin, Texas. I was of an age when the discomfort of summer Texas heat did not affect me. I could play all day outside and never notice the sweat dripping from my forehead and down my neck and into my shirt.
I loved to climb trees. My parents once found me half way up a magnolia tree sniffing the blossoms in front of Corey Jones’ house which was two houses down from mine. We sometimes played hide and seek together.
On this particular day, I was waiting in the crepe myrtle which was in full bloom in front of our house for my father to come home from work, but he was late. I liked feeling invisible and trees were a perfect cloaking device. I was hoping to surprise him. But I had grown impatient. Just as I was about to climb down to ask Mother where he was, she came rushing out of the house calling my name. She didn’t see me until I answered her.
“Where are we going, Mother?” I asked, as she buckled me into the front seat of the yellow Ford Fairmont station wagon.
“There’s been an accident. Your father’s been hurt.”
I couldn’t imagine what could hurt Father. He was so strong in my five-year-old mind.
Mother drove faster than usual, taking corners hard so that a few times I was thrown into the door. I could sense her fear and panic and I began to feel it as well. I almost felt that I could smell it.
After parking the car, Mother picked up and ran with me to the front desk. I had no memory of ever having been in a hospital before. As Mother spoke frantically to the nurse, I breathed in the smells of disinfectant and bleach and freshly laid carpet in the waiting room. There was something else, too, there was worry and exhaustion and fear and sadness.
I thought that the nurse would take us to a room to see him, but she asked us instead to wait in the waiting room. The vinyl seats were cold and they stuck to my sweaty legs. There was a television showing Sesame Street. We waited until I began to get fidgety.
The doctor was curly-headed and much shorter than Father. Mother stood up when he arrived. He took her aside so that I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He spoke softly. He had kind eyes. After he was done he touched Mother on the arm and walked away.
Mother didn’t move, though. She stood with her back to me. She never cried, but her voice quavered as she sat down next to me to explain.
“Your father was a great chemist, Jimmy. Did you know that? And sometimes chemicals can be dangerous. When he was working with chemicals today, there was an explosion that hurt your father. They brought him to the hospital to try to help him, but they could not. He died before we could get here. Do you understand?”
I’ll never forget the look on her face. Her mouth was set and in her eyes I could see something that I’d never seen there before. Something was gone, like a light had gone out. I’ve never been able to tolerate the smell of a hospital since then.
I stopped climbing trees that summer, and I didn’t play hide-and-seek with Corey ever again. At the end of the summer, we packed up our things and moved to Oklahoma to be near Grandmother.
Before we even unpacked, Mother drove us to the post office. She said she needed to tell them that our address had changed so that the mail man would know where to deliver our mail. I’d never been to a post office before. It was full of smells of paper, stamp glue, floor wax, packaging tape, and what seemed like an infinite array of smell.
We stood in a line. In front of us was a little girl, near my age, and her mother. She wore a red and black polka-dotted dress and black patent leather shoes with ruffly white socks, just like Minnie Mouse. Her hair was shiny and brown and was pulled over with a red bow. I watched her from behind as we stepped closer and closer to the counter. At first she didn’t see me. She shuffled her feet and played with her hair. But then she turned. She looked right at me, and I at her. Neither of us said a word, we just stared at each other. And just as I was about to turn away, she smiled at me. I never saw her again. But the next week, my mother took me back to the post office and the smell of the place reminded me of her, and in my own little five-year-old way, I longed for her. I loved her…innocently.
Having left the post office, I drive around a little while looking for another place in my collection. I have been banned from the shoe and boot repair shop. The owner, a Mr. Young-soo Kim, objected to my close range sniff of his person (ginger, garlic, and leather). His words were “You no sniff around here no more. I break your nose!” It’s difficult for me to understand humor, but I think that perhaps he was being jovial with me. I decide to come back another week to find out.
I head for the laundry mat on Lindsey and McGee. It’s on the far end of a strip mall that includes a grocery store and an alternative health clinic which amounts to a hippy massage parlor. Although the smell of essential oils and burning incense appeals to me, the thought of someone rubbing my exposed body disgusts me.
The laundry mat is full, but I find a seat by the vending machine by the door. I keep my coat on because every time someone opens the door, and stiff breeze chills the warm, moist air generated by the dozens of washers and driers.
The laundry mat is both a part of my collection and a hunting ground for others in my collection. The smell of laundry detergent, fabric softener, damp clothes, and bleach swirl seem to gleam with bright warmth. I begin scanning the room for subjects. At first, I’m concerned that none of my profiles have shown this afternoon. I carefully study the face of every man, woman, and child in the place.
But then, much to my pleasure, I spot Rodrigo Jimenez, the janitor from The Gardens. He’s still wearing his blue scrubs, yes, as if he were a doctor or nurse himself. At first I’m concerned that he’s already put all of his clothes into the washer, which would mean the destruction of all the evidence of his personal scent, but then I see the pile of dirty whites in a basket on the sorting counter.
And now I wait. I wait for the precise moment in which I can perform a smell test. I pull out a manila folder from my faded green satchel and flip to profile #355, Rodrigo Jimenez to study what little I have on him, but at the same time, eyeing Rodrigo and his basket.
I watch him pull a load from one of the large industrial dryers and dump in the folder table next to the whites. He is meticulous with his folder. He divides the pile into pants and shirts and begins with the pants. There is a beauty to his meditation. He sings a song barely audible over the grinding and humming of the machines.
Washing machines change cycles at random from filling with water, agitation, rinse, and spin. Then Rodrigo looks up and around the room. His eyes settle on a short hallway marked “Restrooms”. He folds one more pair of pants and walks around the counter and down the hallway. He opens the door and enters the restroom.
Immediately, I am on my feet and headed for his basket of whites, the smell of my own anticipation rises into my nose. I begin with an undershirt. I smell the pinto beans, garlic, and cleaning supplies but there is more. There is a sweetness there, like honey. And there is a spice, clove. I’m astonished at the beauty of his smell.
I peer around the hallway to check the restroom door, and then grab a sock. It smelled of feet, of course, but also of medicine, perhaps Gold Bond. Then I hear the handle of the door and the hiss of the door closer piston and I quickly replace the sock and walk away having gathered the data I was looking for and not wanting to alarm Rodrigo with my collecting.
After jotting down a few notes in his file, I replace the folder into my satchel and leave.
I drive around for a while, cranking my heat against the cold January air until I drive past the Gray Owl Coffee shop. I park my car a block away and walk, stopping only to take a sniff of the side alley — decomposing garbage, dominated by rotting chicken sandwiches and coffee grounds; a repugnant aroma, but compelling nonetheless. Before I even step into the coffee shop, I can smell the earthy, frothy aroma of fresh ground coffee. When I enter the smells focus in my mind – floral, wine, chocolate, spice, tobacco, earthy, and fruity. Steamed milk permeates, mellowing the sharper elements of the coffee. The shop is mostly populated by college students from the university with their trendy perfumes, some with cigarette smoke on their shirts and hair. The Gray Owl is a masterpiece of smell.
“Ok, next? What can I get you?’ says a younger man with curly sideburns, oversized glasses and messy hair. Perhaps even a hint of eyeliner. I realize that I’m standing in line, but I have no intention of ordering.
“Sir? Do you want to try our new Guatemalan blend?”
Without speaking I step out of the line. I feel as if others are staring and whispering, probably oblivious to the smorgasbord of aroma which lies just under their noses. Few people understand the world in which I live. How can they?
But as I turn around, there she is, wearing a purple and green wool toboggan hat, a cream p-coat, and a thick tan scarf. It’s Marie. She doesn’t see me, so I begin to make my way to the door. But just as I reach it she calls my name.
“Jim! I need to talk with you! Please just listen to me!”
I wonder if she has followed me here. I turn again to leave, but she catches the door, letting a gust of cold air chill my hands and face.
“If you can’t help me, at least tell me how I can do it. At least give me her profile so that I can try.”
For a moment, I look her in the eye. In her eyes, I see her desperation, enough to break a heart, but I refuse to feel it. I look over at a group of three young ladies sitting on an old vinyl couch in front of a coffee table set up with a Scrabble board. Exasperated, she steps aside and opens the door for me, and I leave. After taking a few steps, I turn to make sure she is not following me. I hurry back to my old Volvo, nearly tripping on a crumbling sidewalk. The car starts slowly, blowing diesel fumes out behind it. It starts. I’m safe; at least for the moment.
A week later, I am sneaking a sniff of an elderly man in the mysteries section (Old Spice, motor grease, oily somewhat acrid skin), I see her walking down the A though G aisle. I sneak around to the next aisle and peer through the shelves of mysteries both old and new. I feel that I must make a break for it. The only way to get to non-fiction is through the study area. It’s a risk because it is wide open space. There would be no protection whatsoever. I scan the back wall and decide that it’s not the quickest route, but it may be the safest.
My hope is to time my escape with her rounding the next aisle and then jaunting to the back wall before she has gained a vantage point on the study area, but when I turn around, there she is. She holds her hands up as a sign of peace and surrender, green sweater in hand. I turn my cart too swiftly, and all the books fall out. In my haste, I leave them and dart back to my safe place in the back room where the return bins are.
Crouching by the door I listen intently, wondering if she’ll try to find me. Nothing. Just Connor helping a young child. Whether it was a boy or a girl I could not tell. Then nothing again. I take a moment to relax and catch my breath. I breathe in the musty smell of unshelved books, well-trod carpet, and cardboard boxes. Then I hear her.
“Listen, I’ve been reading the works of Beatrix Potter, and I think you have an employee who is a little bit of an expert. I think he might be in the back? Could you get him for me?”
“Jim? Are you serious? Squirrelly little guy? Always wears those stupid short sleeved dress shirts? Beatrix Potter, huh. You mean like Benjamin Bunny and Squirrel Nutkin?”
“That’s the one. Yes, we’ve been discussing her early works.”
I hold my breath, hoping that no one will hear me.
“Ok, then. I’ll get him.”
I try to hide, but there is no place. Connor rounds the corner.
“Jim, there’s a woman out front that needs you to help her with the Beatrix Potter books. Come out front, please.”
“Beatrix Potter? I don’t know anything about that. Are you sure she means me?”
“Dude! Just freakin’ come up here,” he says in hushed, sharp tones. “Who else could she mean, you weird little shit?”
His words paralyze me.
“Do you remember what our motto is? ‘We help people with their books’. It’s not rocket science, Sniffer. If you’re not out front in one minute, I’m going to have to write you up.”
With that he returns to the counter.
“I’m so sorry Ms. Bellman,” he says to her. “He’ll be out in just a minute.”
She is not going to give up. That much is clear. She has me in a corner with no escape, except…I begin lifting the boxes of book donations away from the back wall until I uncover the back door. I grab my satchel and turn the latch. Freedom. I hurry out to the parking lot and hop into my car. I crank the engine. Nothing. I crank it again. Oh dear. I take in a deep breath and close my eyes, holding the keys in the ignition and trying one more time. The engine roars to life and I drive out of the parking lot and straight home.
When I reach the shelter of my house, I breathe a sigh of relief. I wish she would just leave me alone. I wish everyone would just leave me alone! After all that has happened to me. After the incident on the playground in fourth grade, after the name calling, after the prom. I just want to be left alone. I only need my smells and Mother.
I take a moment to look around. The house is just as it had been since I was a little boy; the front living room, the nice one, with antique furniture. There are family photos on the walls and end tables, photos of mother as a young woman, and photos of Father in his lab.
When I was a small boy, before we moved, Father took me to his lab. It was the summer before I would enter kindergarten. I was the first to rise, as was my custom. I loved the smell of a summer morning before the people began to stir and the cars began to roar down the main thoroughfare that ran down the edge of our neighborhood. The dew brought out the fresh smells of grass, leaves, and flowers. The sun was just beginning to warm the sidewalks and the mulch laid on our front yard garden. I knew that Father would be out soon in a short-sleeved dress shirt, brown tie, and an id badge hanging on his front pocket to get into his brand-new rub red Volvo hugging me and tell me to be a good boy.
But this time something different happened; something quite unexpected. He said, “Jimmy, today you are coming to the lab with me. Would you like that?”
I’ll never forget the thrill I felt when he asked me this question. He’d never once suggested this and I never expected him to. His work was always an enigma to me. It was always merely referred to as “the lab” with no further explanation.
“Yes, Father! I want to see it!”
He opened the driver’s door for me, and we pulled out of the drive, passing my favorite crape myrtle tree.
The building was tall, a giant to me, and I wondered how a little boy could climb up it to get to the lab, or perhaps would there be an elevator. I beamed with pride when Father was greeted at the front desk with a “Good morning, Mr. Bronson”, and he thrust his badge forward with what looked to be a rote formality.
“Push this button,” said my father, gesturing to the up button on the elevator.
I was delighted when the button lit up. In the elevator, I smelled the fragrance of a hundred shoes and a dozen colognes and perfumes.
My stomach did a small flip flop as the elevator began to move upward and began to shake. Father noticed my apprehension and placed his big, warm hand on my shoulder to steady me.
After exiting the elevator we stepped into a white room with a front desk and rooms that I could see into with the large wire reinforced windows. Inside, there were men and women working with white laboratory coats, just like I’d seen on television. Father walked to a coat closet and grabbed coat that was embroidered with his name, “Bronson”.
“Can I have one, too?” I asked.
He searched through the closet and pulled out the smallest one, which was still too big for me. He tried it on me and seeing that it was too big, he rolled up the sleeves to suit me. I wished that there was a mirror so I could see what I looked like, but I knew I must have looked like a miniature version of my father. People had always said that I had my father’s face, for which I was very proud.
Once more, my father used his badge, this time he held it to a metal device on the wall by the laboratory door and after a few seconds, it emitted a beep and I could hear the door unlatch. The smells of the lab were mainly foreign to me, but powerful nonetheless. The first smell flowered from the burning of butane from the Bunsen burners, of which there were five, three of which contained entirely clear liquids. The other two contained a pale pink and a striking blue liquid. The machine in the back of the laboratory, my father explained, was a centrifuge. I sniffed it. It hummed and gave off the faint smell of an electrical machine running very fast; electrical burning, lubrication. There were a dozen microscopes. I knew what these were from watching General Hospital with Mother.
“This is where a do my work. It’s called a laboratory.”
I repeated the word in long form to myself. At home, it was always “the lab”.
“What do you do here?”
“What does that mean?” I said, running my hand over the centrifuge to feel it’s warmth and vibration.
“It means that I run experiments to see if the chemicals, which are the liquids in these bottles,” he gestured to a few of the flasks being held over the burners, “do what their supposed to do.”
“But what if they don’t?”
“Then we write it down and sent it back to the lab where they came from so that they can fix it.”
He was very patient and answered every one of my questions, of which there were many.
“Can I smell one?”
“No, son, that wouldn’t be safe. In fact, every time I work with them, I wear a mask like this.” He grabbed a white paper mask from a brown cardboard box in a drawer under the lab table.
“One day, I’ll create chemicals that you can smell.”
He tousled my hair and chuckled. “I’m sure you will, Jimmy.”
As I look around the living room in Mother’s house, I take comfort in the photos and smells of this room, with its hard wood floors and the orange, brown, and green corded rug that my parents once danced on. But my reverie is interrupted by a knock at the door.
I squint out of the peephole. To my horror, it is Marie. She is stomping her feet and rubbing her mitten-covered hands together.
“Jim,” she shouts as she knocks. “Jim, please. Just let me in so we can talk about this.”
I know in that moment that she won’t quit unless I at least let her talk, and fearing that she might wake Mother, I swallow my fears and open the door to let her in. The screen door slams behind her. I flinch and tune my ears toward the second floor, but there is no sound. I leave the front door open, not intending for her to stay long. I hold her to the threshold.
She takes off her hat and lets her hair fall around her face. I’d never really taken a good look at her face. She has little freckles across her nose. Her upper lip turns up into a pleasing configuration. Her eyes are large and vacillate between green and amber.
“Jim,” she says quietly, looking down.
And in that moment, a chilly winter breeze blows through the screen door behind her and I’m surrounded by the most exquisite smell I’ve ever smelled in my entire life. The individual components do not jump out at me, just one complex aroma encircling my head and filling my heart with great, ecstatic warmth. I’m reminded of those summer mornings from years ago, and of days spent in flowering trees. I breathe it in again and again, lost in a world where heaven and smell swirl together in a magnificent symphony.
“Jim? Are you listening to me?”
Heartened by her smell, I overcome my fear of speaking and say, “Please. Go on. I’m listening to your inquiry.”
“You are?” she says hopefully. “I know you don’t like me. And I know that you’re not very fond of people in general, but you have a chance to do something good for someone, me. I know that you can help me if you only try. You’re the only one who can help me get the smell of my mother back.”