The sound of the kitchen phone ringing wakes me up. I put on my slippers and rush down the stairs, half falling, still in the haze of sleep. We’ve never put telephones on the second floor, and I’ve never needed a cell phone.
“Hello?” I say, out of breath.
“Yes, I’m Jim Bronson.”
The voice is familiar, but I can’t place from where.
“I’m calling regarding Margery Peters. You’re on her call list, and I believe you’ve been the only one who been visiting. Mr. Bronson, we believe that she will be passing very soon.”
“I’ll be right over.”
The completion of project 41.6: “Does death have a fragrance and is it universal?” is within my grasp.
In my haste, I pull a coat over my pajamas and race to The Gardens nursing facility and hospice. As I enter, Juliette says, “Mr. Bronson, thank you so much for coming. I know it would have meant a lot to her if she knew you’d come.”
I stop for a moment, and take a good look at her. I can see true concern and gratitude on her face. “Thank you for calling me. It’s very important to me,” I say.
“Lord have mercy! He speaks!” she exclaims, eyes lit up like Christmas.
“Lord have mercy, indeed,” I say as I turn down the south corridor to #369’s room. On my way I see the familiar face of Rodrigo as he lifts his hand in greeting.
“Hello, Señor. Mrs. Peters don’t have much time. Maybe a few minutes, maybe a few hours. Who knows?”
“Thank you, Rodrigo. And thanks again for giving me the name of your floor cleaner, it really helped me with my work.” I say, gratefully.
“It’s no problem, Señor. No one ever asked me that before. No one asks me much of anything.”
When I arrive, she is unconscious or resting. I’m pleased with this as it makes my work much easier. I begin the DST (Direct Sniff Test). She’s not my favorite subject. Her UPS is acrid and musty. Her breathing is not as ragged as Sophia Bellman’s was. I find myself wondering how these people can tell when someone is about to pass.
As I wait, I sing. Margery is fond of old time country music. Softly, I sing an old Hank Williams song, “Heeeeey good lookin’. Whaaaatcha got cookin’….”.
I have no illusions about my singing voice. It is flat more often than not. Mother says that we all have our gifts. I hold her hand as I sing another verse. I check my watch 2:24 am. I want a cup of coffee to keep me alert, but coffee would overpower the subtleties of death.
I finish my song and sit in silence for a while. I think of the other women I’ve sat with over the last six months while conducting my experiments on death. I try to get to them after their minds have left them. I don’t care for chit chat and such. But there is something about the experience that is meaningful to me beyond the smells. Mothers are dear people to me. They shouldn’t be left to die alone. For months, I’ve never seen a visitor for Mrs. Peters. Juliette tells me that I’m the only one. She has attempted to show me gratitude for my care of her, but I’ve always been able to avoid it. She doesn’t understand what I do, and if she did she wouldn’t likely thank me for it.
Just then, I feel a squeeze. It’s Mrs. Peters. She’s squeezing my hand.
“Don’t stop, Davy. Sing me another.”
She’s called me Davy before and sometimes Danny, but Davy more often than not.
“What would you like me to sing?”
“You came. I didn’t think you would. Oh Davy. I’ve missed you.”
She squeezes my hand again
“What do you want me to sing?”
“You know which one. The one you sang to me on our wedding night…Moon River.”
I think back to the many times Mother and I sat and listened to Andy Williams sing that song…from the same album as The Days of Wine and Roses. I clear my throat a little bit and do my best to croon “Moon river, wider than a mile. I’m crossing you in style someday. Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker, wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way…”
I look down at her face, her eyes are open and she is looking into the distance, a faint glow in them. She smiles, and I see her mouth the name Davy. Then the light fades and she slips away. I try to hold back the tears for the sake of the project, but I can’t. She’s gone. My tears fall onto her hand which has gone slack in mine. I try to sniff, but my nose is clogged with tears and mucus. There’s nothing to do but sit and pat her hand and sing the final verse.
Then I hear Juliette’s voice at the door. “Mr. Bronson?”
I say nothing. My eyes are closed and my head bowed. She’s gone.
“Well then. She’s passed. And the last thing she heard was your sweet voice, Mr. Bronson,” says, with her hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t know exactly what it is with your satchel and bottles and notebooks, but I ain’t never seen anything more beautiful.”
I let Margery’s hand go and I stand up. Juliette’s eyes are big and brown and glistening. I feel what’s coming before it happens. She opens her arms and I find myself wrapped inside them.
“There now,” she says, rubbing soft circles on my back as the tears roll out of my eyes onto her shoulder.
I am awoken once more, but this time by a doorbell. I check my bedside clock. I’ve slept until 10:15 am. My sleep schedule must be disrupted by my late night at The Gardens. The doorbell rings again. I slip on my robe and walk barefoot on the cold wooden stairs down to the front door. I open it to find Marie. Her face is hard as stone.
“Marie? I did not expect to see you…ever.”
“May I come in?” she says, curtly.
I step aside and motion her in and close the door behind her.
“Jim, I need something from you. It’s strictly business. If there were anyone else who could help me, believe me, that’s where I’d be.”
Despite her icy tone, I’m pleased to see her once again.
“Let me make you a cup of tea,” I say, and she follows me into the kitchen.
The chair makes a scooting sound as she pulls it out from under the kitchen table.
“I’m in trouble. I’m going to lose my job. My boss at Henri Cosmetics told me this morning that if I don’t come up with a better idea than feline fragrances by the end of the week, that I’ll be fired. Apparently, the company is in trouble and they need something that will save them from disaster.”
I recall the night in which I overheard Marie talk about something like this to her cat, but not wishing to bring this fact up, I simply nod.
“So, what does this have to do with me, Marie?” I ask, as I light the burner and put the kettle on it.
“I need your machine.”
“Yes, the Smellasizer. Think about it. It’s brilliant. You say you can create a scent for any person, event, or place, or whatever else…right?”
I nod. Discreetly, I get a whiff of her fragrance and my heart lights up.
“What do you think about selling your machine to Henri as a prototype for a mass production smell synthesizer? Imagine what we could do with it? We could create any fragrance a customer wanted?”
“With the proper data,” I say, raising a finger.
“With the proper data, of course.” she says, concealing a smile.
“Would I be able to hold the patent?”
“Of course. Is it ready? Does it work?”
I set the kettle off of the stove and unbolt the basement door.
“Well, let’s find out.”
“You realize, of course, this is strictly business.”
Happy to have any business at all with her, I nod and say, “Of course.”
Once again, Marie is in my laboratory. She is examining my machine with great interest. I pull out profile #402. I let the machine warm up as I enter the data. She tries to look over my shoulder as I do so but I shoo her away. “I want it to be a surprise.”
The machine runs its courses and the liquid pours out in the bottle. I hand it to her. She sniffs it and her eyes light up.
“Is this what I think it is?”
“Cotton Candy, hay, horse manure, caramel apples, peanuts, popcorn, corndogs, funnel cake, and a touch of vomit to make it complete. Like you said, nothing’s perfect.”
“Carnival,” she says.
She sniffs it again, smiles oddly, and shakes her head. She bites her bottom lip and shakes her head again, taking a deep breath and letting it out.
“Nope,” she says. “You’re not going to get me with this again.”
“I thought you would like this…because of your dad?”
She clears her throat and says, “Like I said, this is strictly business. So do we have a deal? Everyone’s going to make a lot of money on this, including you.”
I pick up the bottle of carnival and take a sniff. It’s perfect. The machine is ready.
“Ok. I’m ready when you’re ready.”