I started my job as project lead at Henri Cosmetics for a mass production adaptation of the Smellasizer last Monday on the condition that I not investigate the smells of my coworkers. I’ve agreed to do so, although the nose knows what the nose wants. I do not miss my job at the library, but I do miss working next to the post office. I still visit it every Saturday morning. Sometimes Marie accompanies me. Her fascination with the place baffles me, but I don’t mind the company. I find that her aroma mixes nicely with the aromatic ambience.
Today, I’m taking Marie to one of my favorite places, Sooner Dairy Drive In – heated grease, ice cream cone, dill, cola, asphalt, and fried onion.
“So did you hear about my promotion?” she says, burger grease dripping down her chin.
I nod, mouth full over French fries. I swallow and say, “Yes. Everyone is talking about our project. Are you adjusting to your new responsibilities? No more idea pitching.” [NOTE: The appeal of French fries diminishes in proportion to the amount of time from the point at which they are removed from the fryer.]
“Oh yes. I even got to pick my own team to work on the Smellasizer. No meanies allowed! I think you’ll be very pleased with the direction your invention will take with Henri. Jim, you’re going to be rich! What are you going to do with the money?”
“I plan to expand my smell collection beyond Norman. Perhaps I will travel to Purcell or Edmond,” I say, wiping my mouth with an inadequate napkin.
“But Jim, those places are just a few miles away. Wouldn’t you like to go to someplace exotic like Hawaii or Italy or the Rocky Mountains? Imagine the smells you could collect.”
“Mother cannot travel. I could never leave her.”
“You have the money to give her the best care possible now. She could receive around the clock –“
“I’m the only one who can care for her. I’m her son. I’m the only one who understands.”
No one else would understand. There is no replacement for the bond of a mother and a son.
“Jim, I was only suggesting that you could take a trip. Is her health that bad?”
“Who will bring her her chamomile and ginger snaps? Who will sing to her? She needs me.”
“Of course, Jim. I understand.”
Having lost my appetite, I wrap up the rest of my burger and put it into the white paper bag.
“When did she get sick?” she asks, putting away her food and turning her body in the passenger seat to face me.
“I first started noticing signs two summers ago. We used to have a cat, Norris, but it died when I was still in high school. It was our custom to take tea together when I arrived home from school. She would listen to me talk about my day. She was the only one who ever listened to me. I was very ill-suited for the requirements of high school social interactions, and not only did this inhibit my ability to have friends to talk to, it adversely affected people’s view of me, which led to merciless treatment by some of the other boys. But Mother was always there with a cup of hot tea.
While she served me tea, she would open the back door and call “NorrIIIIIIIS? NorrIIIIIIIS? Here kitty kitty kitty!” And Norris would join us for a saucer of milk. Mother never used a store bought kitty dish. She always used a saucer from her wedding china.
Then, two summers ago, she set out a saucer of milk, opened the back door and began to call for Norris. “Mother,” I said. “Norris has been dead for nearly twenty years.”
“Of course,” she said. “I know that. I know that. Yes of course. I guess I must miss him. He was such a good kitty.”
“Yes Mother. He was a very good kitty,” I said.
But it happened again the next day. Then, for a few weeks it would seem like everything was fine again, but only for a few weeks. For a while, I had to quit my job to care for her. I would find her in the neighbor’s garden or walking to the Midway Grocers down the street in her night gown. But now, she just stays in her bed, too weak to walk.
“And how is she handling this?” asks Marie.
“She’s fine as long as I rub her feet with liniment and bring her tea and ginger snaps and sing to her. She’s just fine.”
“Jim? Are you sure? You need help. You have money now. You don’t have to do this on your own.”
I can tell she means well. #364—Marie– is a highly compassionate woman. But she doesn’t understand. How could she possibly understand?
“Jim. I know what you’re going through. I went through the same thing with my mother. The day they brought her to The Gardens I cried all night. I felt just awful. I felt guilty, as if I’d done something very wrong. As if I’d abandoned her. I felt like a bad daughter.”
I say nothing in response. She doesn’t understand. I check my watch. Nearly 4 pm. Time for Mother’s tea.
“Marie, would you mind terribly accompanying me to the house to give Mother her tea?”
“Not at all,” she says, rolling up the window.
As I drive she says, “Jim, I need you to understand that although I’ve forgiven you, you can never spy on me at my house again. If you want to know something about me, all you have to do is ask. Even if it’s late. All you would have had to do is call if you wanted to know if I owned a cat. And perhaps I overreacted about you collecting me. There’s even something kind of sweet about it now that I understand. You like the way I smell. I don’t think anyone’s ever liked the way I smell before.”
“Your smell is extraordinary. Thanks for being my friend. I-I’ve never really had one before.” I flinch as she reaches out to touch my shoulder. I understand that she means it as a sign of affection. I let her.
She reaches into her purse and pulls out a pack of Double Mint gum, and offers me one.
“Gum?” she says.
“No thank you. I don’t chew gum anymore. It colors everything with the smell of mint. Unless of course I wanted to smell mint; a most refreshing smell.”
“Well, do you mind if I chew some?”
“That would be fine,” I say.
Inside the house, I offer Marie a seat in the kitchen. “Would you care for a Poptart? I never eat them myself, but I like the way they smell.”
She laughs and says, “No, thanks. I’m fine.”
As I fill the kettle for Mother’s tea, I enjoy the smell of water hitting aluminum. I keep the chamomile in a glass canister on the kitchen counter. It’s one of my favorite smells, floral and green. I take a full breath of it while I scoop it into Mother’s china teapot.
“Care for a gingersnap?” I offer, grabbing the box from the cupboard.
“Jim, are we on a date?”
The question startles me. I hadn’t thought about it. I’d never been on a date before. It wasn’t how I’d imagined it. But I did pay for the burgers. The kettle begins to whistle and I grab it from the stove, remove the lid to the teapot, and pour.
I don’t know how to answer her question, so I say nothing at all.
“It’s ok Jim. I don’t mind if it’s a date.”
I nod, not meeting her eyes and arrange some cookies onto Mother’s china plate. I pour the tea and place the plate and the teacup and saucer onto the serving tray.
“Excuse me. I need to tend to Mother. If you change your mind about the Poptarts they’re on the top shelf of the cupboard.”
“Thanks. I’ll be fine. You go take care of your mother.”
I carry the tray up to Mother’s bedroom as I have a thousand times and place it on her nightstand. “Mother? It’s Jimmy. Are you ready for your tea and cookies?”
But before she can answer I hear a noise at the door. I turn. It’s Marie holding the plate of gingersnaps.
“You forgot the cookies,” she says, holding out the plate. “Mrs. Bronson? It’s Marie, a friend of your—“ She puts the cookies down on the tray and steps around me to the bed. Then she looks back at me with confusion on her face.
“Jim? I don’t understand. Where’s your mother?”
I look back at her and then at Mother’s bed. I stare for what seems like hours.
“Jim? Is that a bottle of your mother on the table there? Number 2? Isn’t that your mother’s smell? Jim? What’s happening here?
I jump from my chair, knocking over the tea and cookies, and I run down the stairs. Something is terribly wrong and I don’t know exactly what is happening, but at the same time I understand. She’s gone. I understand, but I do not believe. I grab my keys from the kitchen counter and head for the front door. I must leave immediately. If I can just leave, then this won’t be happening. She’s gone. I leave the door open behind me and run to the car. The late winter air blows bitterly in my face. I jump in the car. She’s gone. Put the keys in the ignition. She’s gone. And turn. The engine turns over, but only once. I try again. Chug chug. Again. Chug chug chug. Again. She’s gone.
“Jim!” cries Marie, running toward me. I try the engine again, but the only response is a puff of diesel fume.
“Jim! Open the door,” she shouts, knocking on the window door. “You have to talk about this. Jim! Open the door.
For a moment, I sit in the driver’s seat and stare forward. She’s gone.
I know that I have to open the door, but I can’t move, not yet.
“Jim. It’s going to be ok. Just open the door.”
As if in slow motion, I open the door and get out. My knees start to give way under me, but Marie steadies me. Then it happens. Everything gathers in my gut in a big churning whirlwind of emotion. It surges up and up. I cry out, but there are no words at first, just a long wail of deep pain and sorrow. Marie grabs me and holds me close.
“It’s ok, Jim. It’s ok,” she says, patting and rubbing my back.
‘She’s gone, Marie.”
“I know. I know she is,” she says.
And she is. I can’t even remember how long she’s been gone, but I know that she is…all but her smell.
She holds me and rocks me while time stands still. The diesel fumes from starting the car linger. #79 is nearby because I smell a whiff of pipe tobacco. Marie’s perfume rolls into my nose and then our lips touch. Before I even have a chance to think, our lips are touching. I taste the spearmint in her mouth. My tears mingle with the kiss and I’m lightheaded.
We pull away and our eyes lock. There are tears in her eyes.
She says, “I’m so sorry Jim. I’m so sorry about your mother. I know you loved her. You’ve been a good son. You took good care of her.”
I’m beyond words, but in that moment I know that there is something more than smells.