Whiff – Chapter 6

I wake up excited.  It’s Saturday, and I’m free to spend the day visiting my collection.  I think about the places I want to go and smell.  I fix Mother some toast with strawberry jam and a cup of hot coffee.  She’ll be sore, so I’m prepared to rub her legs with liniment.  She says that it greatly decreases her discomfort from staying in bed all day.  She will need changing as well.  I do not relish this task, but I am wholly devoted to her well-being.  I do not know what I would do without her.

After caring for Mother, I’m surprised to hear a knocking at my front door.  I’m even more surprised to find Marie with a covered wicker basket.  I fight my usual discomfort in interacting with her.  Even though we had such a long conversation at the library, I still find it difficult to even look at her.  If it weren’t for her smell, I wouldn’t even have opened the door.

“Howdy!  I’ve brought you something that I think you’re going to love,” she says, brightly.  Howdy, indeed.

“And what is that?”  I ask.

She holds the basket up for me to smell.  I take a short whiff at first, then a much longer one.

“This is marvelous,“ I say.  And it truly is.  It is not a complex smell by any means, but it is delightful in its simplicity

She uncovers the basket and it is filled with some sort of muffin.
“Banana nut muffins!  What do you think?”

I study her for a moment.  I’ve never met anything quite like her.  It’s almost as if she understands what I do.  Judging by her smile, I almost suspect that she may even feel some sort of odd affection for me.  Most curious.

“May I?” I ask, reaching for one

“Of course, Jim.  They’re for you and your mother.”

I take one from the top and sniff it.  Of course strong banana and vanilla on the head, but on a second sniff I get the sharp smell of chopped pecans and hint of molasses—perhaps from brown sugar.  All of this wrapped up in the wheaty, sweet smell of cake.  They are still warm.  I’d never eaten a banana nut muffin.  Mother always made zucchini bread.  I take a nibble and my taste buds come alive

“What a magnificent gift, Marie.  Thank you,” I say, as is the custom. “Why are you here?”

“May I come in?”

I stand aside to once again allow #374 to enter my house.

“I have some more information about my mother’s scent, and I was wondering if you could share more of your collection with me.”

“So is this some sort of bribe, “I mumble through a mouthful of muffin.

“No!  I mean, I just thought you would like them.  I wanted to thank you for all that you are doing for me.”

I don’t know exactly what to say at this point.  I’ve learned to keep my collection concealed.  When I worked as a custodian for my old elementary school, I began a collection.  It was a harmless collection.  I’d attended there myself and was already well-acquainted with smells of the school, but I wanted to dig deeper.  I started with the cleaning supplies, which were easy enough, being the janitor.  Next, I studied the ends and outs of the cafeteria with its fryers, gas ovens, various food smells.  The food smells were abysmal compared to the way they were when I was a child, when all of the food was prepared fresh…the yeast rolls, the mashed potatoes with gravy, the Salisbury steak, and of course the fresh made cinnamon rolls.  Now, all the food smelled the same, as if they were all made out of the same substance.

Then I began collecting other smells, smells that were trickier to collect, smells that required far more stealth.  I would make a point of cleaning classrooms when teachers were in them planning their lessons so that I could sniff them, secretly of course.  One by one, I collected their smells, at least as best I could.  But when I had exhausted my efforts with the teachers I turned to the only things left to collect, the students.  The day they found my files hidden in the supplies closet I was brought in front of principal Jacobs.  He looked at me as if I had committed the most disgusting act a human could commit.  In that moment, I felt as though, perhaps there was truly something wrong with me.  I tried to explain, but he would not hear it.  He did not understand.  I was dismissed immediately.  The following was printed on the second page of The Transcript later that week.

Local Man caught sniffing students at Norman elementary school

A janitor for Norman Public Schools was dismissed this week following an incident involving vast amounts of personal student and staff information.  Jim Bronson, who had been working for McKinley Elementary School for 7 months, was found with over three hundred pages of data relating to police say “are of a most unusual nature”.

            Sheriff Clark said, “We found hundreds of files stored in a cardboard box in a cleaning supplies closet at McKinley Elementary School.  Some were label for places in the school; classrooms, the lunchroom, the teacher’s lounge and others.  But the most disturbing information involves staff and children.  We found files for individual staff members and studies that all seem to center around smells.  We’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

            When asked if any legal action would be taken, Sheriff Clark said, “We can’t charge Mr. Bronson with a crime, but we have issued a restraining order.”

            None of the names of teachers and students involved have been released, but the families of the children will be notified this month.  Principal Jacons said, “I am deeply disturbed by Mr. Bronson’s behavior.  He was otherwise an excellent employee, but we were all stunned when we discovered this information.”

            When asked how Mr. Bronson’s secret files were found, Principal Jacobs stated that “One of our teachers stumbled upon it when she was looking for some paper towels for her classroom.”

            When Mr. Bronson was asked about the incident he simply said, “People don’t understand.  This is my work.  I didn’t mean any harm by it.”   

It’s ok, Jim, if you don’t want to.  I know it’s very personal to you.”

Once again, a chilly breeze blows through the screen door and her scent wafts toward me.  I grab my coat from the coat tree next to the door and say, “Let’s go.”

She walks to my car and I realize that she expects me to drive.  A great sense of apprehension rises up in my chest.

“Perhaps we could go in your car,” I shout from the large, front porch with a set of 1950s aluminum rockers.

“I want you to drive.  I have no idea where you are taking me.”

“I could direct you.”

“Don’t be silly.  Come on,” she implores me, motioning with her hand.

Mother gave me Father’s car on what was to be prom night.  I’ve cared for it myself ever since.  The only other person who has ever ridden in this car is Mother.  Hesitantly, I walk to the car and pull out my keys.  I look at her, then I stoop down and take a look inside the car, imagining another person sitting in the passenger seat.

“Jim, I’m getting very cold.  Are we going or not?” she says.

Mother always says that a gentleman opens a car door for a lady.  I walk around the front of the car and open her door for her.  She smiles brightly at me and says, “Why thank you, Jim.  I didn’t know you were such a gentleman.”

I say nothing and walk around to get into the car.  After closing the door, we fasten our seatbelts and she says, “What’s that smell?  It’s very familiar?”

“It’s Mother.  You’re sitting in her place.”

She scoots to the side and looks down at the seat as if she expects to find someone under her.

“It’s ok, Marie.  It’s just that I’ve never had another person sit in this car.”

“Really?  I’m the first?”   Then she reaches over and pats me on the leg.  I flinch, not sure when the last person had touched me kindly, perhaps never on the leg.

Our first stop is the First Presbyterian Church near the university campus.  I pull out my notes and read through the profile, in case I detect a change in the smell (Note 15565:  Do church smells evolve over time or between seasons?).

Once again, I open the door for her.

“So do you go to this church?” she asks as we walk into the courtyard.

The trees and many of the bushes are bare, except the row of holly bushes on the south side.  I take a moment to recall the smell of the courtyard in spring, the sweet light fragrance of tulips, and the delicate smell of rain and storm in hyacinth.

“This is the church Mother and I used to attend before she fell ill.  Some of my earliest memories are of this church.”

We enter and I take her to the foyer.  I take a moment to inhale the furnace heat drifting from the vents under our feet.

“I was an acolyte here as a child.  I used to light the wicks before the procession and let the wax drip on my hand.  It was hot, but when it cooled I could peal it off like a layer of skin.  Whenever I smell the burning sulfur of a struck match, I think of this foyer.”

We step into the sanctuary.
“Old churches smell of candles, wood varnish, dusty hymnals, and well-used paper money.  The dust created by the skin cells of worshipers over the course of many decades is the same smell of old coins and bills. “

I take her to the front, near the chancel area.  “If you smell very carefully, you can detect the scent of stale water and aluminum.  This is the baptismal font.”  I lift the lid that covers a small pool of water resting in the top of a wooden pedestal.

“Jim?  Why don’t you worship here anymore?” she asks.

“I’m not welcome here.  I was asked to leave three years ago.”

“Because of your smell collecting?”

“They caught me sniffing the coats in the coat closet.  Weeks earlier, someone had stolen a wallet from a coat.”

“But you didn’t do it,” she said, sniffing the baptismal font.

“No.  But how could I explain what I was doing?  No one ever understands…except for you.  You seem to understand.  Let’s go.  I have something else to show you; something very important.”

I drive her three blocks north and two blocks east: the post office.

When we arrive, a light snow begins to fall.  Before we enter the lobby of the post office, I stop her on the steps.

“Be quiet for a moment,” I say. “I want you to close your eyes.”  When she closes her eyes I study her for a moment, watching the way the breeze blows through her hair.  She is one of my most fascinating subjects.

“I want you to take a breath through your nose.”


“Now imagine an empty space in your mind.  It may take a few seconds.  Breathe.”  I set my satchel down, the little bottles clink and roll.  “As you breathe, imagine the smells flowing in and filling the space.”  The snow gets heavier and begins to cover the ground, one little bit at a time.  “Now, what do you see?”

“I see my front yard.  It’s covered with snow.  My father is just arriving home from work and the sky is turning purple.  I run to him and he picks me up in his arms.  I remember his aftershave as his scruffy cheek rubs up against mine.  He asks me if I’ve been a good little snow angel today. And I point to all of the snow angels I’ve made waiting for him to get home.  ‘Come on, Marie,” he says, “Let’s see what your mama made us for dinner.’  That’s what I see, Jim.”

Before I have given myself time to consider it, I lead her into the post office and take her to my favorite spot.  Janice, behind the counter takes a look at Marie and gives me a nod and a wink.  My face and ears feel hot at the suggestion.   I say nothing in response. We sit down in silence for a moment.  It’s not very busy for a Saturday.

“Now it’s my turn.”  I was four years old.  My father passed away only a month before.  We had just moved to Norman from Austin, Texas.  We hadn’t even unpacked.  Mother took me to the post office, she was supposed to fill out a change of address form.  When we reached the counter, Mother began talking to the clerk while I waited below the counter.  Then I looked over to my left and there was a little girl with her mother.  I remember her so clearly.  She wore a little red and white polka-dotted dress, just like Minnie Mouse, with black patent leather shoes and white ruffly socks.  She wore a red ribbon in her shiny brown hair.  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 four-year-old way, I longed for her.  I loved her.”

“And now?” says Marie.

“I still love her.  I visit her here every day.  I will never love another,” I say, solemnly. “Marie?” I ask.


“Why do you spend so much time at the library?”

“My mother was a librarian.  I spent my summers at that library while she worked, reading to children, helping people find just the right book.  She believed that in any given moment there was just the right one.  I go there and wear her old sweater.  And when I do, it feels like it’s summer again and I’m in her library reading her books.  The smell of her sweater with the smell of old books makes me feel like I’m not alone.

I look at the gleaming laminate floor and our feet accidentally touch.  “You’re a smell collector, too.”  I say.