I sit at my laboratory desk with my notes on profile #374 in front of me; Marie Bellman. It’s quiet in the house. Mother is sleeping. There is nothing but the hum of my two BlueAir 403 Air Purifiers blowing at both ends of my basement laboratory. This is the only place in the house that is just mine; this and my bedroom on the second story. Although the house is now in my name, I still consider it to be Mother’s house.
I began to build the lab in high school while developing a science project for school. It was my first project with smells. I wanted to demonstrate the principle that olfactory memory is the most powerful form of memory. I sought to find an event that most of my classmates would have experienced at some point in their lives.
Before Father died, he took me to a Houston Astros game. Our seats in the Astrodome were in centerfield. After taking our seats he asked me if I wanted anything.
“Jimmy. Do you hear these men shouting the names of foods?” he said.
I looked around the crowd until I heard “peeeeeeeeeeeeeeaNUTS! peeeeeeeeeeeeeeaNUTS!” and “ICE COLD beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEER! ICE COLD beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEER!” and “POOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPcorn! POOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPcorn!”
“I hear it Father!” I exclaimed.
“Well what would you like?” he asked, pulling out a worn out, black leather wallet, overstuffed with credit card receipts and who knows what else.
He bought a bag of popcorn for me and fresh roasted peanuts and a can of Budweiser beer for himself. The popcorn was warm in my hands, I recall. After Father pulled the pop top off of his beer, he took a sip and offered it to me.
“Would you like to see what beer tastes like?”
Gingerly, I took the cold can from him and sniffed it first. I was very pleased with the yeasty aroma and the way the coolness from the beer chilled my nose in the summer heat. It was a stronger flavor than I would have wished, but it pleased me that Father let me try it. The can said “beechwood aged” and I wondered about the smell of beechwood.
We were close enough to the field that I could smell the fresh cut grass, and when a runner stole second, dirt sprayed up into the air and I could smell the sweet, earthy scent of well-groomed soil.
I don’t remember much else about the game, only that a homerun landed in the next section over, and I reached up with my tiny baseball mitt, ready for the catch.
This event was the one I chose for the experiment. I carefully sifted through my memories and drew out a profile – popcorn, beer, cut grass, dirt, roasted peanuts, cigarette and cigar smoke, and human urine. This was my first attempt at synthesizing a smell. I’d been studying the science of smell for years by then and I had some rudimentary notions of how to do it. It was a crude first attempt, but successful nonetheless.
My experiment consisted of a Q and A with ten students, which followed each of four representations of a baseball game: a tape recording, pictures, a video, and the smell synthesis. The results clearly favored the established position that smell was the most evocative form of memory. And that was the moment in which I became a chemist.
And now, here I sit, in the same lab, piecing together the scent of a woman. I’d already established her hair products and now I’ve been able to identify her perfume, Burberry London Perfume for Women and other components such as Lubriderm Daily Moisture Lotion, Cedar, and pet dander. I’ve detected pet dander on her clothing, but I cannot determine whether it is cat or dog. I’d like to nail that down before I sleep tonight. I suppose I could just call her and ask. Perhaps that would be a little suspicious if I did. Besides, I do not wish to disturb her.
I head for the kitchen and pull out the city phone book from the kitchen cabinet right next to the refrigerator. Her name is not listed, but her mother’s is. Sophia Bellman 818 Comanche Street…only six blocks away. I look at my watch. 9:31 pm. I grab my heavy coat, gloves, and a black toboggan hat from the closet under the stairs and step out into the cold, winter air. The snow has stopped and the sky is very clear, revealing only a sliver of a moon.
The house is not difficult to find. In fact, I’d passed by it a hundred times. I don’t know if Marie lives there or not, but I have a good hunch that she might. As I pull up to the house, I see that the front room lights are off, but light is coming through a window on the west side, and Marie’s red Nissan Sentra in the carport.
It might just take a few minutes or it might take a few hours. I am prepared to do what it takes. I must have her scent, and this will take me one step closer to having it.
I drive the car a few houses down and walk my way back up to her house. A dog barks in the distance and I hear a car drive through the intersection two blocks away, the sound of its tires breaking the surface of the new fallen snow. Her house is very small, perhaps a two bedroom. I surmise that it was built around the same time that Mother’s house was built. A privet hedge lines the front porch. I feel the snow crunch under my shoes as I sneak around to the side of the house. The window is opened two inches and the shade is up.
Inside, I see Marie sitting at a kitchen table wearing a peach bathrobe sipping from a teacup. Her hair is bound up in a ponytail. She is looking at something on the table, perhaps a newspaper or a magazine. She picks up a pencil and makes a few marks; perhaps a crossword puzzle.
I scan what little of the kitchen I can see for some evidence of a pet. I don’t have to look hard. The walls are covered with cat clocks of all shapes and sizes, some of whose eyes and tails are moving back and forth in time.
Then an orange tabby cat jumps up on her lap. She strokes its head and it nuzzles it’s head into her hand. Faintly, I hear her speaking to the cat.
“Come here, Murray. Did you enjoy your good supper?” she says, sweetly, but not as some repugnant pet owners do, speaking to them as if they were their own little baby. She speaks as if this cat were a friend.
“I’ve never told you this, but when Mother first brought you home, I wasn’t sure if I would like you. I hope you don’t take that the wrong way. I guess I was sad about losing my first cat. Her name was Trixie. She was my best friend. But now it’s just you and me, and I just don’t know what I would do without you.”
She lowers her head to the cat so that their foreheads touch and she nuzzles his nose.
The cat says “Meow.”
“No, my presentation didn’t go well at all,” she says, frowning. “They just didn’t think a line of fragrances for felines was good for the company at all. I tried to explain that a cosmetics company has a lot to gain by marketing to over-indulgent pet owners. They liked it even less than my proposal for flavored finger nail polish.”
“Speaking of fragrance, I’ve met the most unusual man,” she says. “He’s helping me get mom’s smell back. He’s a collector of sorts; a smell collector.”
I creep closer to the window, intrigued by the fact that she would speak of me to her cat.
The cat says, “Meow.”
“I know,” she says. “It is an odd thing to collect, but it’s also very interesting. And I’m learning that I’m a sort of a smell collector, too, at least when it comes to Mom. Oh, Murray,” she says, holding the cat in her arms now. “I miss her so much.”
Her face turns pale and her nose flushes red. She wipes tears from her eyes and the cat jumps down from her lap. She looks as if she is remembering something very dear to her heart and missing it. She lowers her eyes and her shoulders rise and fall as she sighs and slumps back into her chair. She’s alone on a Friday night, with nothing but half a dozen cat clocks staring at her.
In that moment, I see that she is not so different than me. How often have I sat alone like her in the kitchen sipping an evening tea or reading the paper, or sat alone at the laundry mat waiting for someone to leave their clothes unattended. I’m afraid that Mother’s not very good company anymore. Perhaps I should get a cat.
Then I hear a terrible hissing noise, and I turn to find Marie’s cat, his eyes glowing eerily in the light of the streetlamp. His back is arched and he spits at me. In my panic, I yell out “Oh God!” I look back at the window and see that Marie is moving quickly to the window with a look of alarm on her face. Quickly, I run out and over the neighbor’s lawn. I hear her call, “Who’s there?! Get away from here or I’ll call the police!”
I make to my car and stick the key in the ignition. “Come on, old girl! You can do it!” I coax it, knowing that a cold night like this could be a problem, but it starts on the first try and I drive away from her block and back to my own house and down into my basement. I sit down and let out the breath that I realize I’ve been holding. I pick up my pencil and write down my finding. Cat dander. 1.16.2011 –At Marie’s house. Now the the only component remaining is her UPS (Unique Personal Scent). This will be much more difficult to acquire. It requires a very close contact. My best bet is if I found her in an unconscious state, but that seems unlikely.
Then I turn to Marie’s mother’s profile. Marie believes it is complete. I begin gathering all of the necessary components from my supplies shelf. It will be a long night, but I believe I will have something to give her by tomorrow.