“I’m watching you,” says Connor, first pointing two fingers at his eyes and then at me. “One more incident and you’re creepy ass is gone, Sniffer.”
I ignore him and continue scanning through the books with the handheld scanner. Having completed project #46 on the evolution of book smells, I process them one by one. Beep. Beep. Beep.
All I can think about is Marie and what had happened. Could she be right? Am I creepy? I think over the years of sniffing unattended clothing, sniffing the dying, sniffing other people’s children…even their pets. What right have I to gather people’s smell? Why am I so obsessed?
Then a book turned up in the bin. I study the cover for a moment: Hiding Behind My Obsessions by Dr. Jack Hardy, and then another book, How to Break Your Addiction to a Person by Marvin Halpern. I tuck the books into my satchel and continue my work.
It seemed impossible at first. I couldn’t think of a time when I wasn’t obsessed with smells and when people. I studied the books, perhaps obsessively, looking for the answers to my new questions. I wanted to understand why Marie was repulsed by me, and I wanted to know how to fix it.
I spend my nights working on my machine and studying these books. I experiment with limiting my collecting of people. It is difficult, but I feel that I have no choice if I want Marie back in my life. At the same time, I begin to examine the possibility that I am in fact addicted to Marie, or at least her scent.
I visit the post office one day and take my usual spot. I begin to notice that people are displaying signs of discomfort with my sniffing. I leave without smelling. In fact, I begin to leave my obsession with #1 altogether. It’s Marie that I want.
I return to the boot and shoe repair shop. When Mr. Chin is standing at the counter talking with a man in western style jeans and cowboy boots. They are examining a pair of black boots together; looking at the soles and the stitching. The Mr. Chin catches my eye.
“No no no no! You not welcome hear, sniffing man.”
I hold my hands up in a sign of peace and say, “No. That’s not what I’m here for, “ but I’m compelled to take a whiff nonetheless. “I just came to talk to you.”
“I busy with paying customer. You come back later.”
I step up to the counter and the man in the boots steps aside and gives me a suspicious look.
“Mr. Chin. I want to apologize for making you uncomfortable. I didn’t mean any harm. I know that I was taking things too far. I don’t need anything repaired at the moment, I just wanted to say that.”
He nods quietly and he presses the corners of his mouth down as if to indicate his approval of my sentiments.
“I think that is good. I appreciate you saying that. You no sniff here anymore?”
“No more. The only time you’ll see me is if I need to repair some shoes.” I know this isn’t likely, because the only shoes I wear are walking shoes, I’m not even sure if they are made with natural leather.
The next morning at the library I do something that is both terrifying, but perhaps necessary. I’m at work shelving the books, and when I get back to the counter, I ask Connor if we could talk about something. He snickers and leans back against the counter.
“Ok. What is it?” he asks, smiling.
I fight the urge to run. He smiles at me the same way he did that night at the prom, but then I think of Marie, who hadn’t come to the library for weeks, and I find my courage once more.
“Why do you hate me?” I ask, hands trembling;
He smiles cruelly at first and then looks away, and his face becomes reflective.
“Jim. It’s not that I hate you. I’ve never hated you.”
I look intently at him, surprised by his answer.
“It’s just that, you’re so weird. You’ve always been weird. It makes me uncomfortable. It makes everybody uncomfortable. “ Then he looks down at the industrial carpet and says, “I just wish you would stop it.”
“I’m not sure I can, Connor. This is just who I am. I’m trying, I really am, but it’s not easy.”
“Look, man, what are you afraid of? Don’t you know there’s so much more out there than smells?“ He gestures out to the library. There are people at tables studying. A couple of teenagers are intent on a game of chess. Children gather at a blocks table. An Asian woman is browsing the periodicals. “Is all you see when you look out here just a bunch of smells? Because that’s not what I see.”
“What do you see?”
“Life. I see people having relationships. I see people searching for answers. I see people who are lonely. They’re not just a whiff of something. Look, maybe you could fit in more if you could see that.”
And then I see her. She walks in through the security bars and looks around, perhaps to make sure I’m not around. I duck into the back room so that she doesn’t see me. I think of all the things I’ve read and perhaps even learned and I want to let her know that I’m sorry.
As I approach her, she first pretends like she doesn’t see me. I stand in front of her until she looks up at me.
“I told you to stay away from me, Jim, and I meant it,” she whispers.
“I know, but I just need to say something to you,” I whisper back.
“Jim, listen to me right now. I don’t care what you want to say. I can’t be around you right now. I thought we were friends, but all I am to you is a subject. Do you know how that makes me feel?” she asks, voice rising.
“Get away from me!” she shouts. “Get away from me right now!”
And then Connor is there with us.
“Jim? Did you not hear a word I just said?” he asks.
“Yes, but—it’s not like that, I just needed too—“
“You don’t need to do anything anymore. You just need to pack up your bag and leave. You’re fired.”
I look at her. She is looking down at the table. She can’t look at me. I can see it now. It’s over. She truly never wants to see me again.
I go to the back to grab my satchel and then I leave, in the hard cold of February, I leave the library.
As I drive the streets of Norman, aimlessly, I reflect on Connors words. He understands something that I don’t. I find myself driving by all my old haunts, thinking that it’s hopeless; that I’m hopeless. Here I am, jobless once again, but what was worse, I am friendless.