I drive by my bank for a visit and to check my balance. The familiar smells of offices and counters and money form memories of trips to the bank with Mother. I think of the dozens of Dum-Dum lollipops that I had been given by the clerk for being a good boy.
Laid out on a table, are cherry and cheese Danishes and a pump thermos of coffee to welcome bank patrons. As I wait in line, I lose my resolve not to sniff people, and I begin examining the female in front of me. She is taller than me, with long raven black hair and dark reddish skin. I wonder if she might be Native American, not an uncommon sight for Oklahoma.
I begin with the perfume. Gardenia and tuberose blossoms, orange blossom, rose and jasmine, and perhaps a hint of clove. She turns her head and gives me an unpleasant look and steps away, but I don’t care. Women find me repulsive. And why shouldn’t they?
Once at the counter, the young redheaded lady with a striped blouse and a pencil skirt asks me what she can do for me today.
I say, “I’d like to check my savings balance. #28743882.”
She types in my account number and says, “Jim Bronson? Can you verify your address?” She is friendly in the way that bank clerks are friendly.
“2201 Chatauqua Avenue”
She writes down a number on a slip of paper and hands it to me.
I groan when I see the figure. Without any hope of getting another job, I wonder how I am supposed to care for Mother and myself with this?”
“Thank you, I say,” and I leave, taking a pastry with me.
Resigned, I begin to visit my collection. I begin with the Homeland grocery story. It used to be called Albertsons, and before that, Skaggs.
I wander the produce section. I pick up cantaloupes until I find a sweet one and take a whiff. It smells almost of honeysuckle, and I think of Tish whose hair smelled of honeysuckle. I pick up other various produce, noting the smells; some very simple, like an apple, and others more complex like kiwi with the musty smell of its fuzzy peal mingled with the sweet acidic smell of the fruit inside.
I take time to work through frozen foods, smelling of frost and coolant and frozen pie crusts. A man, browsing the ice cream and frozen novelties, eyes me carefully as I sniff my way through the aisle. Perhaps I was oblivious to these kinds of looks before, but now I was acutely aware. I feel a sense of shame growing in me, but I don’t know what to do with it. It’s just the way I am.
I think of the time when I was only five. Mother used to take me shopping with her. I used to climb up under the cart and ride, very careful to keep my fingers away from the wheels, which I’d learned could hurt when a finger gets caught in them. She was browsing the tomatoes, and in the stands behind us where a stack of coconuts. I’d seen them on television but never live in person.
I crawled out from under the basket, walked over to the stand and picked one up. I sniffed it. It was earthy and sweet. Then I shook it. I could hear the milk sloshing around inside. I wanted that coconut, but when I turned around, Mother was nowhere to be found. She had left me.
I walked all around the produce section, but I couldn’t find her. Panic began to surge through my little five-year-old body and mind. She’d left me! I began running through the aisles looking everywhere for her. I ran passed the beans and rice and canned tomatoes and pickles and peanut butter. Not there. I checked the next aisle and the next. I began to wonder if this was it, if I was lost forever.
Then I began to cry. I stood in the middle of baking goods and cried. A woman pushing a cart stopped and kneeled down to my eye level. She smelled of rose, Pinesol and fresh bread.
She said, “Oh dear, are you lost, sweetie?” Her voice was kind and instinctively I ran into her arms and let her hug me for a little while, until I could calm down enough to speak. I still had the coconut in my hands.
I nodded my head yes. “I was just getting this coconut, and then I couldn’t find her.” I wondered if she would think I was stealing, so I added, “I wanted to see if she would buy this for me.”
“Don’t worry. She would never leave without you. Let’s find her together, shall we?”
Aisle by aisle we searched, not finding her, but the sense of panic had subsided. She knew what she was doing. When we did find her, she was looking at expiration dates on milk cartons.
“Mother!” I shouted, and ran to her, coconut in hand. “I was lost.”
“But I thought you were in the cart all this time. Were you lost for very long?”
“I don’t know,“ I said, unsure. “This lady helped me.”
“Can you tell her thank you?” Mother said.
I turned to the lady. She wore brown polyester slacks that came up over her hips and a plaid blouse. She smiled and nodded, as I said, “Thank you.”
“You just needed a little help. It’s all ok now. You see?” she said, smiling.
But I couldn’t help but wonder why Mother had not noticed. For a moment, I wondered if she cared at all that I was lost. But these thoughts fly away quickly when you’re only five.
And now I was beginning to feel that I was that same little boy, lost in the grocery store. I walk through every aisle, but never find anyone but strangers.
I approach the meat department but find very little pleasure in the smell of cow blood and refrigeration. All I find is more memories.
I go to Ted’s Picture Frames, Hobby Lobby, and the DMV, but it is all the same. There is nothing new.
Mother complains to me that I’ve been neglecting her, and she’s right. I change her and the sheets. I’m not entirely sure if she knows who I am. There are certain facts that I’m not ready to face about Mother, yet.
I sit with her for hours, singing, and sometimes reading to her from the Norman Transcript. She dozes mostly. She’s all I have, all I have in the whole world. A thought rises from deep inside of me, a terrifying thought, but I stuff it back down. It’s a thought that I’m not ready to think.
I go down to the basement, grab a wrench and begin to tinker with the Smellathizer. I start it up. It hums and cranks and bumps for a minute or so. I grab a profile at random from the file cabinet and begin to enter the data. I enter each component and its ratio. Then I gather all of the jars of smells needed for the operation, load them into the top of the machine and close the door. I double check the data and then press the green “Go” button on top of the front of the machine.
The gears begin to turn. The jars clink as they are conveyed, one at a time, over the mixing flask inside the machine where each one is poured with the precise amounts. I hear one last pouring sound as the flask is drained into the centrifuge where it spins for five full minutes. Then, at last the spinning ends and the liquid drains into the little glass bottle in the front of the machine.
I take the bottle and sniff. It’s nearly perfect. Banana nut muffin. I breathe it in, once more enjoying its delicious aroma. I think of Marie’s surprise visit with the muffins and my heart aches.
I reach up and grab a bottle of #1, but it is little comfort. It is #374 I want. I pull the bottle of #374 from my pocket, just as I had a thousand times, and drew is in deeply into my lungs and hold it there for a few seconds before letting it out. For a moment, it is like she is here with me once again.
Then I pull out my notes for project #14–first kiss– and begin to study it once again. I know that I’ve been deluding myself about this project. It is impossible to synthesize a first kiss without the human element. I sniff attempt #44, but it does nothing for me.
I sit back and close my eyes, imagining the little girl from the library. As I have done so many times I imagine what our life might have been together.
I imagine what she would have looked like as a teenager, giving her poofy bangs suspended by a zealous amount of hair spray, but still keeping the red bow and some variation on the polka dot dress. I would have taken her out on dates and to the prom. As adults, we would have married and even had two children, a boy and a girl. We would live together in the old house with Mother, laughing about our days and watching our two children playing tag in the yard. At night, we would lie in bed together and whisper sweet things to each other that only they would know about.
But now, when I imagine the face of the girl who had been the love of my life, all we can see is Marie. Somehow they had become one in the same in my mind.
I sing “The Days of Wine and Roses” to myself.
The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play
Through a meadow land toward a closing door
A door marked “nevermore” that wasn’t there before.
The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze filled with memories
Of the golden smile that introduced me to
The days of wine and roses and you