Whiff – Chapter 5

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I didn’t grow up wanting to be a library assistant. I work here for four reasons.

One, it’s right next to the post office. This allows me to visit it more frequently. I have a morning break, a lunch break, and an afternoon break with which to visit my beloved. It’s only two and a half blocks away; 482 steps. I keep a bottle of #1 with me everywhere I go, but there’s truly no substitute for going there in person

Two, I rarely have to interact with people. My job is very simple; I take the books from the return bin and put them back on the shelf. When a patron has a question, they generally see the librarian or Connor. If they should happen to speak to me, I simply pretend that I don’t hear them and they usually take the hint. However, I am often within close enough physical proximity to sniff. You’d be surprised what kinds of behavior will be tolerated in a public library.

Three, my career as a chemist is over. I have advanced degrees in chemistry, but due to a number of “stalking” incidences—misunderstandings-I was fired from my last job as a chemist, and no one else has been willing to hire me since.

Four, I was fired as a janitor working at McKinley Elementary and asked to stay away from school grounds. They did not appreciate my studies. I’ve been fired from every job I’ve ever had, although I’ll never understand why. This job is my last prospect for caring for Mother and myself. And now I’m stuck working for a 35-five-year-old, junior college graduate jerk with no sense of smell whatsoever.

At first I thought he wouldn’t remember me. I hadn’t seen him since high school, but it only took one word to realize that he did: Sniffer. I thought maybe he would have grown up by now. Maybe he was willing to bury the hatchet and see the wrong in what he had done on the playground that day. But I was wrong. He is quite the same as he was in third grade, except for now he is my boss. He hired me because I was the only applicant who was willing to work during the day on week days. I also suspect that he gets some sort of sick pleasure in cursing at me.

“Hey Jim! You know what’s going to happen if you do one more weird-ass thing here? You’re going to be fired, and nothing would make me happier, Sniffer. Just one more thing!”

I stare at the floor, face red, and feeling like I could almost curse, but all I did was stammer out, “I ap-pologized t-to M-ms Bellman.”

“Oh? You ap-p-p-poligized? Well an apology is not going to save you next time,” says Connor, as he returns to the front counter. Then I continue with my work.

I’m pleased to find Marie sitting at her usual spot. I’m no less apprehensive, but I so badly wish to sample such an exquisite profile. I am rather light-headed when I’m around her.

“Hello, Jim.” She says, offering me a seat next to her. As I sit, I take a stealthy sniff and begin to examine her hair products. I make mental notes; perhaps one of the Finesse lines of shampoos and conditioners.

“H-how is your w-work going, Marie?” I ask, with some effort. I feel my ears burning sitting so close to her.

“Well, she definitely did not use Ivory Soap. She always used Dove. I bought a bar of it and tried it out. I recognized it immediately. Oh, Jim! For a moment I felt like I could smell her again! Thank you so much for helping me.”

She has become quite informal with me, but it’s worth it to be so near her. I’ve never smelled something so wonderful.

“So, curious,” she says, tilting her head. “What exactly do you do? Is it just with dying people?”

I rarely speak of my work with anyone anymore. People misunderstand what I do. But the more I’m willing to speak with her, the more data I can gather on her. On second thought, Tresemme. Clean and Natural or Moisture Rich?

“It’s far more involved than that. 41.6: Does death have a fragrance and is it universal, is one of many endeavors. I don’t just study smells, I collect them.”

“You collect them? I’m not sure I understand,” she says.

“Some people collect stamps, some baseball cards, and I collect smells.” I can see that she’s not getting it. I take a deep breath, taking her scent into me, and then I speak more words than I had ever spoken to another person other than Mother in my whole life.

“On some level, we all do it,” I say, “Olfactory memory is believed to be the most powerful memory of all. Smell collecting is not like stamp or coin collecting. You can’t keep a smell except in your memory. However, it is far more rewarding than any silly stamps or baseball cards. It is like having a time machine. A smell can take you to another place and time. It takes you to a very intimate moment in your life. Smell is a very intimate experience.

“After thirty-one years of collecting smells, I’ve built a system that works for me. Smell collecting requires a combination of documentation, travel, and chemistry. When you’ve found a smell that you want to collect, you begin by documenting the experience. What did you feel? Where was it? What were the circumstances? What was the time and date? And so on. Next you must undergo the more challenging task of discovering what is creating the smell. Sometimes it’s simple. A ballgame is popcorn, beer, cut grass, and roasted peanuts. It used to include tobacco smoke, and sometimes includes a hint of human urine. Others are not as simple. It requires investigation. For the post office, I later inquired about the cleaning agents. I researched the composition of the counter and the floors. I sniffed and studied the whole lobby. Other strong contributing smells included stamp glue, paper, scotch tape, packing tape, dust, and the metal that comprises the post office boxes. All of this must be carefully documented.

“And finally, if you want to revisit one of your smells, you have two choices. One, you can go to the place where you collected the smell. I make as many as 20 little trips a week to browse my collection. Or, two, you can attempt to reconstruct the smell. This is where chemistry comes into play. Some smells are not bound to a place. They exist in a single moment in time. A woman’s perfume, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a little bit of diesel fume, and some spearmint gum might come close to someone’s first kiss, for example. Of course, it’s almost impossible to recreate a first kiss because of the human element. I’ve tried samples of human saliva and sweat. I’ve tried various hair products and toothpastes; anything, really, that I imagine might go into a first kiss. Perhaps she’ll be wearing Secret Deodorant For Women. I fancy, that she’ll be wearing some sophisticated perfume from the Chanel line. Mother always says that my first kiss will make me light-headed. I wonder if it has anything to do with the smell?

“My smells are my life really. Smells and Mother. I don’t know what I would do without them. Smells capture all those special moments. Mother’s goodnight kisses, for example: Maybelline lipstick, stale coffee, Chanel #5, and Finesse Moisturizing Shampoo. I think it’s a great hobby. More of a way of life really.”

I look at Marie and she is studying my face as if I were a strange work of art. I look away, but I can feel her gaze. We sit in silence for this way for a longer time than I am comfortable.

“So, can you show me one of your smells?” she says, as if she’s not entirely sure of what she’s asking.

I reach into my pants pocket and pull out a little glass bottle labeled #2. I uncork it and set it on the table in front of her. Hesitantly, she lowers her nose and sniffs. She makes a pensive face, and sniffs again.

“I’m not sure what it is. Perfume? Maybe cigarettes?”

She sniffs again. “Kind of a stale smell…maybe coffee. Tell me. I want to know what this is, Jim.”


“Mother?” she asks. “You mean you’ve already done this? For your mother?”

“I keep a rather large supply of #2. I take Mother with me everywhere I go. She’s been my whole life for so many years. The smell of her brings me great comfort in times of stress. Mother always knows what to do.” I take a quick sniff and re-cork the bottle.

“Just like me with my sweater, I suppose except your mother’s still alive.”

“Yes, she’s my guiding light.”

“I don’t mean to be so personal, but what happened to you father? “she asks, with a look of inquisitive concern.

“He died when I was a very young boy. It’s just been me and Mother all of these years.”

“Do you remember him?” she asks.

I search my memory for glimpses of George Bronson. Most are faint, but there are a few that are clear; the trip to the lab for one.

“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” I say.

I take my empty book cart and push it back to the back room. Connor is on a break so he does not notice my slack. I open up my satchel and take out a bottle labeled #3.

I return to the table in the reading room where Marie is waiting. I set it down between the two of us. We look at it for a few moments. I let out a slow breath.

“There is one memory,” I begin. “I couldn’t have been too much older than three. It had been an unusually chilly December. Mother says that it had snowed a little. I was just old enough to know what Christmas was. At least, old enough to understand that there would be presents. I’d opened up all of my presents. I received a Jack-in-the-Box, which terrified me, and a bunny, which I called Benjamin after the story.”

“By Beatrix Potter!” she said, with faintly concealed glee.

“Indeed, Benjamin Bunny. That wily rabbit who hid under the basket with the smelly onions. As I played with the bunny, Father loaded up a record onto the hi-fi. It was “The Days of Wine and Roses”. They danced on the corded rug in the living room in front of the tree. Bringing Benjamin with me, I grabbed Mother’s robe and danced with them. I never wanted it to end. I pleaded with them to play it again. I still remember the wink he gave me as he walked over to reset the record. He said, “Ok, but only because I love you, Jim.”

The memory was so fresh in my mind that I could feel a tear begin to form although it never fell. Marie was silent. She watched intently as I carefully uncorked the bottle and pushed it in front of her. She leaned over as if she were saying a prayer on Sunday morning at church and breathed in the fragrance. Immediately her face lit up.

“It’s Christmas morning! You’ve put Christmas morning in a bottle! How did you do this?” she asked.

“It’s a delicate infusion of fir tree, scotch tape, wrapping paper, wood burning fire, clove, orange, newspaper, coffee… and just a hint of wine and roses.” I took a whiff myself and was transported back to that morning once more.

“This is the only scent I could come up with for my father. Did your father die, too?”

“When I was very young,” she says, looking at the bottle.

“Do you remember him?”

“Little bits here and there. But I do have one strong memory. He took me to a carnival. It was one of those little fly by nights that come into town once a year or so, but for all I care it could have been Disney World. He bought me my first cotton candy and it got all over my face and hands. He was so gentle wiping me clean with a napkin and some ice water. He took me to the pony rides and he paid the guy an extra buck to let me pick whichever pony I wanted. I picked the white one. I can still remember the way the saddle rolled under me as it walked the well-trod circle of a hay and manure.

“The air was filled with so many wonderful smells. Corn dogs, funnel cakes, popcorn, caramel apples…it was wonderful. Except the vomit near the tilt-a-world, but nothing’s perfect. I’ll bet you would have loved it.

“He took me from ride to ride on his shoulders, and when it was time to leave he carried me in his arms to the car where I fell fast asleep.”

“I never went to the carnival,” I said. “But if I did, it certainly would have been in my collection.

I look over to the counter and Connor is glaring at me.

“Marie, I’d better get back to work. This has been a most informative conversation,” I say, taking in a final breath of her. “Perhaps we could do it again sometime.”

Marie looks at me in the eye, and I look at my shoes. “I’d like that Jim. You’re a very…interesting person.”

I believe “interesting” is the most favorable category of person that I’ve ever been placed by a female. Not knowing exactly what else to say or do, I click my heels and give a curt bow.

I return to my work pondering the wonder of our conversation. I had never shared that story or fragrance with anybody, and I’d certainly never listened to anybody else’s story.

Later that night, in the lab, I sit with a copy of my notes for #368 and make a modification. I switch Ivory Soap with Dove Moisturizing Bar. This is a significant change indeed. I ponder the evolution of my own mother’s smell over the years. Women’s smells, in my experience, are far more variable than men’s.

I turn my attention to my urgent matters; my new profile #374, Marie Bellman. I start with the hair product. I walk toward my many shelves of smell components and begin browsing. There are quite a number of bottles because, for women especially, there are many possibilities. I grab the components for both Tresemme and Finesse and begin testing. First the Finesse, then the Tresemme. My suspicions are correct. Tresemme Moisturizing Shampoo and Conditioner. Interesting, a shampoo and conditioner combo…thrifty.

I add this as the first smell component, date it, and place it on my lab table.