Patient #414: 49 y.o. male with stable vitals, self-reporting loss of olfactory acuity. No known history of neurological or psychological disorders. Employee on leave from B——— Greetings, the nation’s pre-eminent manufacturer of scented stationery, stinky stickers, and SCENTS AWARE® public safety advertisements. Male, average height, slightly below average BMI, slightly above average Monty Python impressions.
|Loves the smell of:||Hates the smell of:|
antiseptic, dentist gloves, manila envelopes, gelatin (peach), mulch, shoe polish, pink erasers, catnip, hydrophilic polypropylene (see: diaper tape), dry-cleaning fluid, spray starch. large-batch scrambled eggs (though he would never eat them), cloves, skunks, charred garlic and cassettes.
metal zippers, urinal cakes, fluorescence, floor wax, fruit wax, fishing sinkers, shingling, Shih Tzus, unpasteurized sheep’s milk, bell pepper pith, frozen cubed potatoes, wilted cilantro, lilacs, lipstick, silica powder, grenadine, cantaloupe, coffee stirrers, Kleenex, blood, post-nasal drip, washable paint, chewable multivitamins, overworked gadgets, enclosed public spaces (especially if they include a candle store or a food court), reptiles and amphibians (categorically), and New Jersey (specifically, all of it).
Hates (bitterly): all sixty-seven Stinkers® collections for which his team was responsible—including Honeymoon Rio, Hibachi Grill, Midnight Munchies, Zombie Bakesale, On The Rocks, Remembrance of Things Passed (AKA Blame The Dog), and, most recently, If You Smell Something Say Something: NYC Nose What’s Up.
#414 was granted sick leave (temporary, unpaid), beginning last week, due to symptoms consistent with olfactory fatigue, a short-term condition in which the nervous system short-circuits itself to avoid sensory overload. In his line of work, afflictions of acute desensitization are more common than nasopharyngitis. Its sufferers rarely present with permanent neurological sequelae.
Results of preliminary 20-item standardized forced-choice SmellyStix Test indicate odor detection threshold well beyond the mean range (±standard deviation) of normosmic control group participants, which supports initial diagnosis of psychosomatic rather than pathophysiological condition.
Patient—professional, middle-aged late forties male—says: No, my olfactometrics are whack; he can no longer distinguish between calfskin leather and shell cordovan, between 80% and 50% post-consumer content toilet paper, or between 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine and 2-acetyl-tetrahydropyridine. And, just as a further point of reference: this morning he ate a whole bowl of oatmeal he inadvertently topped with allspice in place of the usual Saigon cinnamon, and wouldn’t have noticed a thing had he not left the spice jar on the kitchen counter.
Regarding his workplace, #414 describes a room pulsing with colors not typically comorbid anywhere outside of acid trips, kid’s watercolor sets, and—no offense but—my wardrobe of late. A lobby furnished with egg chairs, cylindrical poufs, and giant beanbags—all the room’s corners hidden behind fisheye mirrors and plastic topiary, even the secretary’s desk (lime green) shaped like a comic book SPLAT!
Says: As if the designer had a serious aversion to angles. Anglophobia—no, that’s something else. Rectophobia?
No, that’s definitely something else.
But, anyway, not what you’d expect from such a bland gray feature in such a bland gray industrial blandscape. “Overcompensating” is the word he uses.
Also the word Mom used upon seeing my brand new purple HDV digital camcorder—a gift from #414—the cost of which, she was eager to point out, equaled a full semester’s worth of textbooks for a just hypothetically first-year pre-med student at a just for the sake of argument Ivy League university. This was all according to her Very Good Friend (VGF), who is chronically secreting Forbes statistics, and who also noted that the gadget’s value was nonetheless not equivalent to three years of—just saying—child support.
Her gift to me, or really, their gift, since the VGF was the one to find it at his church’s book sale—was the 30th edition of Gray’s, full of highlighter marks plus some scabs of dried smoothie. Though, it is true that Section 3, Neuroanatomy, was mostly unharmed. Mom couldn’t have guessed what a hit the tome would be at my fourteenth birthday party—the slasher film we rented for the occasion suddenly so childish next to those de-skinned bodies, the exposed strata of tendon and bone, the spinal cross-sections that made us all clutch our backs and writhe in superb discomfort—not to mention “Urogenital system, surface anatomy,” which we paged through slowly, twice.
On a given day, the Quality Control department of B——— Greetings greets you with carpet shampoo and window cleaner, plastic plants and licked stamps (the latter of which is it weird he’s always found strangely appetizing?). #414 will never forget how, on the day of his job interview (back when I was still stem cells), the air brimmed with particulates of egg roll and duck sauce—a combination which had him, instantly, slogging through Christmas nostalgia.
Says: You know, as Chinese food is wonton to do.
On the wall behind the secretary’s desk, there’s one of those trick clocks that make you feel foolish for consulting it. The woman herself—half-hidden behind two stacks of valentines—appeared to him first as badly approximated magnolia and cherry lozenges, plus some caustic element: salon chemicals, he guessed. She was working her way through the right-hand tower at a machine-steady rate: reach, scribble, Outbox, reach, scribble, Outbox. She did not seem to sense his presence until he started to speak. He recalls his embarrassment on stepping up to the desk to state his name and purpose. He remembers that he had some difficulty getting the words out. (He’s always found the word ‘sniff’ kind of repulsive.)
“So, you’re the Nose,” she said without meeting his eyes, and gestured for him to take a seat. He fell into the fire engine red bag of beans, which sort of sneezed out an uncountable number of intimate, below-the-belt-type odors; which sent his already unsettled stomach right up his esophagus. To keep from checking that stupid clock again, he examined the arrangement of greeting cards on the amoeboid table in front of him—propped vertical like a haphazard mock-up for a city: a Times Square where the billboards proclaim adoration in doggerel verse and campaign for timely recoveries. I wish I were the kind of man for whom romantic gestures were easy. I’m not, said one. Screw the carbs!, said another, in pink gel on a white (he suspected, vanilla scent-imbued) sheet cake. His tour cul-de-sac’d at: God is with and all around you.
#414 asks: Aren’t you a little young for that? If I’m not mistaken: Fleur désir numéro cinq, by L——? If I’m not mistaken: YourMother’s? Anyway, you should tell YourMother the eau’s getting on in age. The irises wilt, you know. The base notes take over. The foodie fragrances. She’s gonna find herself inordinately attractive to bees pretty soon. Her first-grade brats are gonna be nibbling her fingers.
I smell edible?
Says: Like an Easter party, my sweet. Though, there’s no getting around that trace of industrial chemicals. Sort of tarry. Doesn’t that tightwad ever buy YourMother gifts? They must’ve had at least one anniversary by now. Wait. Hey. Wait. This wearing-of-YourMother’s-perfume: this better not mean she’s letting you date now.
Did you say ‘tar’?
Says: Right. Think wagon wheels of squashed petals soaking in hydrocarbon broth. 550 flowers to a 4-ml bottle. Can you imagine? To flatten life like that!
#414 used to think he was destined for the rose fields of Grasse. Musk ratios. Narcotic fumes. Extracting of the absolute. But he never learned French, was the thing.
Not that he didn’t try. Computer modules, Word of the Days, French cinema. But just as soon as he had mastery over an odd mix of:
Hi, how are you?
Where is the: bathroom? ticket window?
Which way to the: cemetery? train station?
How much for a: cab? Americano? round trip?
I am I was I will be
She sees she saw
I won’t I wouldn’t
Can I call you cookie? Because I find you irresistible.
Do you kiss strangers? No? Well then, allow me to introduce myself.
Oh! The cow!
To make the sausage. To put a rabbit.
I’ve got the cockroach.
I’ve got the throat of wood.
That I can do with my fingers in my nose.
What a bunch of badly combed sheep!
he found himself madly clearing brain space for another heretofore unexplored language: that of love. Which, he says, contrary to popular belief, is not French.
Her mother tongues were English (the Connecticut country club, I-don’t-have-an-accent-you-have-an-accent variety) and pedagogy theory. She was fluent in world history and baseball history and art history and birdcalls and astrophysics. And she—being three years into her Master’s in Education—had no plans to leave the city, non merci.
What she smelled like? When they met: ketones, chlorine, wet latex. When she left: hotel soap, iris essence, wet latex. In between: tree pulp, owl feathers, brackish water, ear wax, sometimes acetone, bean stalks, tomato leaves, a greenhouse’s productive heat, Expo markers and associated alcohols, Mudslides and associated alcohols, piney foaming hand soap, Mountain Fresh detergent, candy fruit, record sleeves, rubber soles, spent elastic.
When she was sad, she smelled like puddles on hot asphalt. When she was angry, she smelled like a parking garage in February.
What they fought about? Well, water.
Says: I mean, not well water. Tap water.
For #414, the tap was like the best of talk radio on a 24-hour circuit. He savored the way all the city’s stories were captured in dissolved solids, like a literal stream of consciousness.
She, on the other hand, being of artesian tradition, was horrified just imagining the unknowable miles of old pipes the water traveled through just to arrive at their kitchen sink, convinced she could taste asbestos and atrazine, and who-knows-what-else that was flavorless and killing unwitting urbanites slowly by the millions each day. She couldn’t drink it. Wouldn’t even let him cook pasta in it.
Says: And so, the famous compromise: the dual-function faucet filtration system that gave you your name.
I was named for a compromise?
Says: You were named for a dual-function faucet filt—
Why was I named for a compromise?
#414 says if I want to know about Uncle Geoff, a trip to Yaffe’s is in order. That man’s mandelbread is memory itself. The smell alone can raise the dead. Says: Take a left here and—turn signal, turn signal. He can’t believe I’ve never been there—YourMother’s views on nutrition notwithstanding—Yaffe’s is world-famous, one billion served, etc, etc. Highest rated Kosher bakery in the tri-state area. All the stars. Only reason Uncle Geoff ever took the taxi over state lines. If it’s still where it used to be, we’re not even 20 minutes away; a little highway practice would be good, no?
Says: I can almost smell the lemon zest. Unless it’s this air freshener tree thing. It’s been getting worse, you know: the ol’ faction, dwindling.
Says: Now, okay, that’s what we call a ‘rolling stop.’ You wanna count three-one-thousand. Cops here jump at a New York plate.
Six days out of seven, Uncle Geoff drove a yellow taxi to/from all boroughs, to/from all the airports but Newark. On the seventh day, he was a chef. Since his studio apartment had only a hot plate and a microwave, he borrowed his sister’s kitchen in exchange for a budget-friendly version of the five-star meals his passengers described.
The little critter—his sister’s youngest—wasn’t part of the deal, but the kid persistently insinuated himself, scrabbling after stems and ends, snuffling chopped herbs, nearly getting his nose nicked off more than once.
His mother was sure “the Nose” simply shared his uncle’s genetic predisposition for gluttony—a prospect that made her ache all over with financial foreboding. Geoff thought otherwise. He was convinced that the nine-year-old was a prodigy of sorts, and once he recovered from his initial vexation, he took it upon himself to improvise an apprenticeship—not at all facilitated by his modest means, nor the scrapped-together nature of his culinary expertise, nor the state of inebriation to which he regularly sank.
Sometimes the two of them would play Guess the Secret Ingredient. The Nose was never stumped. Mouth agape, he would gasp the vapors into his retronasal region, rarely relying on taste at all. It’s toasted walnuts. It’s horseradish. It’s yeast. It’s nasturtium. It’s mom’s meatloaf! It’s fresh snow! It’s dandelion greens. It’s – nice try, I’m not eating that – Milkbones!
Unbeknownst to the #414’s mother, Uncle Geoff even introduced his protégé to wine. Now, remember to spit. #414 didn’t need to be told twice. The wine felt funny on his tongue, and he felt funny about their new, clandestine routine. While he lacked the proper vocabulary, he made up for it with a kind of poetic approximation: eating pickled beets, a lime and some not-ripe blueberries all at once; like the realrealreal dark chocolate I don’t like, plus gnawing on a pencil?
Each time they repeated the experiment, the flavor of the wine grew more complex, more robust, more pleasing. Geoff seemed to like it better, too. To keep their operation a secret from his sister, he would finish the bottles on the spot.
Uncle Geoff’s fibrotic liver reached its saturation point well before all that training paid off.
#414 obtained his Silver Corkscrew when he was 24. It took three months and just two weeks’ pay. The online certificate didn’t add any letters to his name, and he wasn’t sure it would even be recognized outside of the state, or even the city, but his future wife liked to tell their friends—her friends, all of them, all fellow educators—that NASA was after him. No shit: NASA, the North American Sommelier Association. The Nose puts me to shame, she would joke. He earned his Master’s in three days. Here I am in year three. And she liked to mispronounce terroir as ‘terror,’ so those who didn’t know him would get the impression he was the next Tobe Hooper. My fiancé, master of terror.
The nose, the organ itself, was a source of fascination among her friends, initially. But the phase of blindfold challenges did not last. Once they had gleaned its scary omnipotence, they were eager to be away from it—wary of the secrets their bodies might divulge. Every exhalation another potential betrayal. Could it tell, for example, that they’d had a drink or two before happy hour? That they almost never washed their stockings? That they often held the hair dryer too close to their scalp? That they refused to obey their gut on the subject of cheese? That their married life was sexless? That their sex life was extramarital? Could it smell their Botox? Their cat box? Their moon cycles? The something that had died in their car engine?
The Nose floated through the steely vapors of their discomfort. Socially repellant, alone.
When he lost the sommelier gig, he wasn’t sorry—not really. His clientele were fathead yuppies who couldn’t distinguish Grenache from grape Kool-Aid. They liked to make a show of consulting monsieur le sommelier, though his recommendations played exactly zero role in their calculations (of which the main variables seemed to be price, occasion, stock market activity, and what they aimed to get out of their date). They rolled their eyes as soon as they saw his Groucho brows and huge, gap-toothed grin. He appeared barely drinking age, and no matter how he held it, a wine bottle looked like a beef shank in his broad and inelegant hands.
His wife saw it as an opportunity. Perhaps now he could pursue a different field. Maybe one that didn’t involve playing with fire. She didn’t like his being around liquor all day, given his family’s history.
For the record—and I’m not sure what YourMother may have told you, but—#414 has never struggled with addiction. Of any sort. In fact, he never even learned to like the smell of wine, booze fumes having always been too strongly associated with certain unpleasant periods of his early life.
No, the patient does not care to elaborate.
Says: What is this, a hearing?
Not two weeks after the GM had given the Nose the boot, his wife found the B——— Greetings ad opposite the horoscopes in the General Labor section of the classifieds. He read from the clipping she handed him: “Virgo, this is not your week for romance.”
“No, not that! (Does it really say that?) No, the other side!”
“Aroma development for international commercial— entry-level, no prior—?”
At first, he believed this was a joke, or a ploy to remind him about Valentine’s Day. But his wife smelled pretty serious, and also—though he had not yet mentioned this to her—pretty pregnant.
“I don’t know. Pays the bills. Just think about it, will you?”
And he knew he would, and he did. Because, when it came right down to it, being extraordinary was nothing, next to being enough. It was difficult to imagine how he could ever be that. How could having an oddly keen sense of smell ever be enough? What had his little parlor trick gotten him? A fancy cup on a gilded chain, a career as a glorified bartender, and more migraines in 32 years than most people experience in a lifetime.
The hiring manager (aftershave and aftershave with undertones of aftershave) didn’t seem to notice that his interviewee was nervously humming Christmas songs between responses. Before #414 even got around to suggesting a demonstration of his preternatural talent—identify all of the fabrics in your tie by scent? the source and variety of coffee you had this morning? which memos were printed within the hour?—he was hearing about work hours and project titles, and being directed toward the scent lab.
He expected: glass beakers, apothecary bottles, white lab coats, some level of artistic pretense. What he found was: a two-foot sign declaring WORK STINKS, under which two bearded men in violet coveralls cracked fart jokes as they worked through a jumble of sealed pipettes. Lance was the leader, though not by official designation—nor, as would quickly become evident, ability. He explained that the lab apparel was so that they wouldn’t track any outside odors in, and the headgear was because M-E-T-S Mets Mets Mets!
As #414 sealed himself into his uniform, he was wincingly aware that its previous occupant had been a man of frattish tendencies. A bilious, bathroom tile-morning type odor settled over his skin.
Lance explained that everyone had his preferred method of returning to the baseline between odors—which was necessary, given the rate at which they worked. Six scents a minute (which is how much it costs Jerry to chat with his lady friend—Ohhhh!). The insulted man had his collar pulled over his nose. That was his method: catching a whiff of himself. The employee whom #414 was replacing—nicknamed Gore for his chronic epistaxis— had used Ritalin (or some such) to kick his receptors into high gear—and, man, what a pisser.
Although foodstuff was technically prohibited in the lab, Lance permitted himself a cup of black coffee and a steady supply of water crackers.
And of course, there was the zinc spray. The company supplied it, and both Lance and Jerry were addicted to it, secreting the little bottles into their pockets to puff on at home.
Lance found it professionally irresponsible that #414 neglected to humidify. #414 didn’t find this necessary because, unlike Lance and Jerry, he inhaled the odors instead of sniffing them—understanding, as he had since childhood, that olfaction was mostly retronasal.
Lance was a snorter. He put his whole upper body into the task, as though attempting to rocket the molecules straight into his gray matter, or as though he believed hard work was more convincing with a loud noise attached. It reminded #414 of a miner saying huh while swinging his pickaxe.
Jerry found his nose was most effective when he was slightly out of breath, so he often did push-ups below the lab counter or did sprints up the stairwell, singing, before racing through a new round of scents.
Neither of them possessed a very sophisticated scent vocabulary; they alternated between alright/okay and horseshit. Before long they were leaving it up to #414 to decide if Coffee smelled too much like Mocha, or Pecorino Romano too much like Vomit. In fact, none of it smelled anything like anything to him. Candy Apple didn’t remind him of Oktoberfest. Coppertone didn’t take him to the beach.
It all just smelled like concentrated contrivance, and he developed a deep antipathy toward the scent’s creator, a man called the Chinese Cockroach, whom none of them had ever met. It was said that he was half crazy and half blind, thin as a blotter strip, and only consumed food in vapor form. It was also said that he rarely left his hermetically-sealed upstate home, and never did so without a medical grade facemask and his pocket chromatograph. It was also said that he was partial to music metaphors and spoke of himself as a great composer. The scents he sent to B—— Greetings were mere jingles next to his life’s work, his masterpiece, an arrangement that could make any person weep.
There followed 15 years of passably professional, passionless scent testing, utterly incident-free—until last month. The rapid-onset Reddi-wip episode.
If you’ve ever tried to kill a can of it with the fluted plastic pressed to your tongue—which you should NOT do—, that was the smell. That anesthetic whoosh. That aerated teaser of sweetness.
Granted, it wasn’t an awful smell, but it drove him crazy and left him, literally, going through the motions at work. Tulips: Reddi-wip. Petrichor: Reddi-wip. Burnt sage: Reddi-wip. Vodka: Reddi-wip. Nasal spray: Reddi-wip. Nasal spray: Reddi-wip. Nasal spray: Reddi-wip.
#414’s eyebrows are doing a different thing today. They’ve settled low on his brow, his eyes in swift retreat. His application for worker’s comp has been rejected. He’s scared. It’s gotten worse. Last week his dollar pizza tasted like ammonia. Today, his Red Delicious like an ashtray.
His skin is emanating putrefaction: a scratch n’ sniff man, essence de déchéance.
He agrees to seek a second opinion.
#414 is pale, 20 pounds lighter than last month. He says he can’t eat. Everything tastes like it was spat out of a muffler.
The rhinoceros found no probable cause, no nodes, no polyps, no –itises, no acute epithelial trauma. If not a receptor-side malfunction, then it must be further up the limbic line.
Says: Christ, did I just say rhinoceros?
His prescription is for an IND, each pill containing 9 milligrams of phosphatidylcholine—which, based on clinical trials with mice, delays the onset of aging. Or does absolutely nothing. Or causes random lethal myocardial thrombosis.
He insists on calling it PCP.
Worse now. There is one smell he can’t get out of his nose. His one nostril, the right one. What does it mean that he can only smell this one thing? What does it mean that this one smell, unidentifiable and of origins unknown, is overtaking all the others?
Sometimes it wrenches him from sleep, this smell. He shakes off his blankets and tries to locate its source. This alarm bell-smell. It’s not coming from anywhere. It’s coming from everywhere. Or it’s coming from inside him.
A smell with texture. A smell with a pulse.
A bit like char. A bit like decay.
Definitely not Reddi-wip.
Acrid, like dried baby upchuck, or the smell of gym mats. A hard water smell. Formic. Foul, definitely. But not overwhelmingly so.
Disturbingly familiar, and yet, with no memories attached: a ghost smell.
#414 says we’re going to have to change days. Are Friday’s okay? He’s—don’t tell YourMother—working at:
anyway, it’s an Italian restaurant in the city. They didn’t need a wine expert. He’s—don’t tell YourMother—waiting tables.
Says: And, by the way, those drugs they gave me? Smell like fucking placebo.
#414 tells me Suzy-Q can keep her anosmia-friendly custards, can take her Papillae-Popping Pomegrenades and shove them up her ass.
I have no idea who Suzy-Q is, or if Suzy-Q even is.
Pomegranates? I say. Never been a fan, either. Not worth the trouble.
Says: Work is work. He ferries Lysol-basted crostini and pies of molten morning breath and fettuccine à la vaginal discharge to the faceless clientele. When the shift is over, he gets shit from his co-workers. They want him out of the tip pool; he’s not pulling his weight. Apparently, the anonymous bodies expect him to remember their names.
#414 brings me an exhaust-scented flower. Says he has a favor to ask, arms stretched as if for a hug.
Says: I can’t smell if I smell. I can’t smell if I—Fuck. I can’t tell if I smell.
I’m a bit out of practice. We’re a bit out of practice. I press my face to his chest, nose to his clavicle. He does nothing with his arms, as if he’s being patted down. I smell menthol and sweat, but what I really notice is his heart, beating what must be arhythmically against my cheek.
Ahh, I say. You know, you do smell. You smell like a man who’s going to be late.
Says: Late where?
He lets me drive, and I speed because you don’t keep a neurologist waiting.
In the clinic’s anteroom, #414 curses at his paperwork. His pen hovers over the box that says SOC SEC #. Who remembers this shit?
Says later, MRI results in hand: My wires be crossed, bad.
The black and blue images show an unequivocal volume decrement in the orbitofrontal cortex, the olfactory bulb, and the ipsilateral pyriform and entorhinal cortices. The amygdala at the center of it like useless furniture: a filing cabinet with the key jammed in the lock.
The prognosis is progressive, degenerative, untreatable: He’ll live, but he’ll live to know himself only less.
#414 insists his mouth and nose are filled with smoke. He wants to know, what does this mean? Opens wide.
His breath smells like horseradish, and I think he sees me flinch.
Says: I don’t think you’re supposed to survive this kind of smell.
#414 has this black tee shirt now, with the words INSUFFICIENT MEMORY AT THIS TIME printed in white across the chest. He mail-ordered it from:
He can’t remember where.
Says: Isn’t that funny?
The shirt is his new favorite thing: a joke and an apology all in one. He used to be full of puns, witticisms, Yiddishisms, but they’ve stopped occurring to him. Like the inverse of a baby’s language acquisition, his idioms ebb. I try to spur his memory: Tell me again about your old coworker, Lance? It’s like trying to get my stepsister to play Scrabble: futile, disheartening, all the fun punched out a priori.
#414 says his diet consists of paper and packing peanuts and:
those those egg things.
Cartons, I say. I assume he is speaking figuratively. In any case, I suggest he try to eat more of them. His BMI is plummeting.
He can still feel smells, though. Like breathing ash or snorting soot. He says my perfume prickles. He scrapes his tongue against the roof of his mouth, his eyes vitreous. Says: Like kiwi fuzz.
The problematic nose is crammed with tissues today. Another incidence of hemoptysis, as he was cleaning his bathroom with bleach this morning. You don’t notice until your saliva starts to boil, he says, his eyes bright and horrid with subjconjunctival hemorrage.
Not the first time it’s happened, then?
Says: Just must of got carried away.
He eats Pop Rocks, chews chili flakes by the packetful, licks his lips till they singe and pink. Sometimes he sucks marbles.
He pours salt on everything, drinks hot water for breakfast because what does it matter? Coffee, tea, cup o’ piss. He drinks it roiling hot just for a sensation.
#414 makes a mark on his calendar after he has applied a stroke of deodorant to each of his underarms. #414 empties his garbage and recycling twice a day. On the calendar, #414 has marked “Launder bedding” every other Friday. He replaces his undershirts, throws out his tennis sneakers. Just in case. He doesn’t buy food, or cook food, or keep food. He doesn’t host guests in his new apartment—where, he is convinced, someday he will asphyxiate, having failed to detect a toxic fume.
Says: A dog? Yeah right. Nice try. Rather die than become one of those geezers who don’t realize their pet pissed the carpet until they’re wading in it.
#414 apologizes about last:
Friday, I say. It’s Fridays now.
He was en route to our regular appointment, when someone on the train said his name. A total stranger. He thought he must have misheard. Then she said it again, smiling, moving toward the unoccupied seat to his left. #414 looked at his knees and pretended to be deaf. He looked at his reflection, in which he could also see her behind him, standing in the aisle, arms akimbo, saying his name again: now with a question in her voice, now with anger. It was a mistake, somehow a mistake. Wrong number, sorry. Finally she turned around and huffed off to the vestibule, stood much closer to the SCENTS AWARE® methane PSA than anyone ever does by choice. By then, curious faces had sprouted up around all sides of the neighboring seats. Their gaze was more than he could take. He got off at:
the next station, and never made it to the stop where I waited with my car.
At the train station—the wrong one—every single pedestrian was that woman who knew his name. All of rush hour was turning that same face on him, demanding recognition. He ran all the way to the marina, stopped just short of launching himself into the Sound. Under the boardwalk, he locked himself in a Porta-John. It smelled like anonymity and reminded him of nothing. He stayed there until the music from the Grand Carousel had ceased.
Says: Speaking of, when was the last time we hit the boardwalk, you and me? Or don’t seventeen year olds like bumper cars and spun sugar?
Eighteen. I’m eighteen.
Says: No shit. When did that happen?
#414 has been gaining weight, fast. I almost don’t recognize him when I answer the door—but there’s the tee shirt, horrendously damp and clinging to his man-breasts.
Says, by way of greeting: Don’t you dare say I’m lucky! Don’t you dare say you wish you could not smell the city on a day like this.
What I smell is him: a wet-dog, perspiration-on-old-perspiration smell, and such an assault of garlic that I think this must be a test. (It’s not.)
He tells me the craving for sweets is indescribable, and insurmountable, and—you wouldn’t happen to have any of those little marshmallow ducks or perhaps a jar of funfetti frosting, hard caramels even would do, and what kind of nonsense is this that you have not a single can of pop in your fridge?
I offer a pear, and #414 rattles off half a dozen things he would rather eat, including cellophane and wallpaper. He settles on a glass of mojito mixer that pours like syrup. It’s my roommate’s, but she’ll forgive us. It’s almost cute how excited he is about my Frigidaire’s crushed ice dispenser—until he starts crunching the ice pellets like Cracker Jacks.
We find a website that sells novelty tees, including his. I order him five more in a larger size, in light of his gynecomastia. Shipped to my place because I know he doesn’t remember his zip code.
He says this Tex-Mex foodstuff has become like a need. It’s all about the texture:
Or maybe it not. Maybe it’s all about the girl at the window:
Eighteen or so, works the lunch hour street food roundup—every day, and he knows because he’s there every day. She doesn’t smell like fry oil, doesn’t smell like overcooked beans. She smells like Yes. Like OK. Like Have a Nice Day.
I point out that the cravings are probably related to monosodium glutamate.
Says: Would you deny a dead man his deadly vices?
You are not dying.
Says: I’m about as alive as your little camcorder there. I’ve got one sense on it; it’s got 24 gigs on me.
We find the Crunchito Queen parked between the pretzel cart and the Mr. Softie, outside a kiddie pool even I can tell contains the wrong ratio of urine to chlorine.
The vendor-girl is squat, Caucasian, and more like 25 years old. Her face is distinctly unremarkable. She looks sunburnt, bored, maybe stoned. Heat acne blooms across her forehead under her bandana. And really, she does smell like kitchen grease.
For a moment, I think this must not be the girl—but then she raises an arm to shade her eyes and says: “You again!”
#414 points sheepishly at the words decorating his chest. The too oft repeated to be funny anymore joke. Says: I mail-ordered it from I-can’t-remember-where: isn’t that funny?
She has a generous, womanly laugh–and pit stains.
“What can I get you?” she says.
Nothing for me.
His order, she knows. She recites it for him and even remembers the ghost pepper sauce. Before calling the order back to the short-order cook, she gives what must be the standard disclaimer. Eye-shriveling! Paint-stripping! Breaks-the-Scoville-Chart hot! Hotter than electric shock! You’re sure you’re sure?
She hands over his foil-wrapped parcel. Says: “Good luck!”
He stuffs bills into her tip jar and thanks her by her name:
which is also the name of a flower. Her name:
which is graciously pinned to her bosom: